The Blog

BBC Pashto after 30 years of Afghan War

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11th, 2001, it bears remembering that by then the Afghan war had been running continuously for over 20 years

"This is London," intoned the baritone voice crackling over the radio on a sweltering August day in Afghanistan. With a savage war raging in the mountains between tens of thousands of foreign soldiers and a rag-tag army of guerrillas striking out in night-time raids, here was something new: impartial news and information in the Pashto language spoken by tens of millions of people in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.

It was, not, however, today's conflict between foreign troops and guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan that greeted this ground-breaking programme. It was thirty Augusts ago, in the summer of 1981, that BBC World Service began broadcasting in Pashto. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan a year and a half earlier, and the country was by then engaged in a full-fledged war between 85,000 Soviet troops and the Mujahidin resistance that had formed to try to expel the foreign soldiers and the pro-Soviet client regime they had installed in Kabul.

In the three decades since then, the people of Afghanistan have known a few constants, among them uninterrupted war and deprivation - as well as the BBC broadcasting daily in their main languages to help them make sense of what is going on around them.

From its modest beginnings of 15 minutes a day on shortwave, the BBC's Pashto programme is now part of a 24-hour-a-day integrated stream of BBC radio just for the people of Afghanistan across a network of FM stations, AM transmissions, as well as shortwave - today a multilingual offer in Pashto, Dari, Uzbek, and even English at night. Its round-the-clock mix of news bulletins, analysis, features, debates, discussions, call-in shows, entertainment, and humanitarian programming has held pride of place on the Afghan media scene for 30 years.

The millions of listeners in Afghanistan and the frontier region of Pakistan, across the full spectrum of society, credit the BBC Pashto programme with an extraordinary influence on their lives.

The ground-breaking radio soap opera, "New Home, New Life", easily the most popular radio programme in Afghanistan for over a decade, recounts the twists and turns in the lives of a cast of characters in two villages through all the tumultuous changes of the past few years - while reaching the largely non-literate Afghan population to convey educational messages on a broad range of topics, from land mine awareness to gender issues.

The website was first on the scene in the Pashto language on the internet, in fact having to contract with a Peshawar-based typographer to create web versions of letters found only in the Pashto alphabet. In an emerging Pashto-language cyberspace dominated by political and religious advocacy websites, many quite extreme, has come to play a pre-eminent role with its impartial reporting of events and its in-depth coverage of life in one of the most dangerous parts of the world.

Countless words for modern concepts - the words for 'email' and 'homepage', to name but a few - were coined by BBC Pashto broadcasters drawing on existing word roots to create a modern vocabulary, and are now in everyday use by Pashto speakers.

The Soviet invasion, occupation, and the ensuing decades of war have left a ravaged Afghanistan today facing all manner of horrors. According to the World Health Organization, a child born in Afghanistan has a life expectancy of 40 years. One in four Afghan babies will die before its fifth birthday; the survivors have only a 30 percent chance of ever learning how to read. Afghanistan is relentlessly buffeted by some of nature's harshest challenges, including unending famine, drought, earthquakes, locusts and an extraordinary host of diseases. Afghans face an ever-present threat from epidemics and outbreaks of polio, tuberculosis, typhoid, malaria and other diseases easily prevented or curbed in normal circumstances, but hardly in a country that has been so completely laid waste.

And of course we all know of the human-made threats that abound: stepping on one of the ten million land mines hidden under the earth, or the ever-present danger of being caught up in a suicide attack or a bombing raid. For the BBC Pashto service, the daily life of a journalist is not easy, and three of the service's local reporters have been killed inside Afghanistan - the last in July.

Afghans have been extraordinarily loyal to the BBC, tuning in under the most extreme circumstances, be it the threat of arrest for listening to foreign radio during the Soviet occupation or tuning in on a shortwave radio in a cave while fighting rages in the mountains. Even as television takes an increasing share of the Afghan media market, BBC Pashto listeners tune in by the millions, at rates unimaginable in other international broadcasting environments. By the latest estimates, at least one in five adult Afghans tunes in to BBC Pashto.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11th, 2001, it bears remembering that by then the Afghan war had been running continuously for over 20 years - and has continued ever since. It is the everyday Afghan - tired, embattled, just wishing for his or her family the same as you or I - who has tuned in day in and day out to the BBC in his or her own language to get a better sense of the world from a familiar and trusted voice. As the war rages on, the work of BBC World Service in Afghanistan continues unabated as well.

Andres Ilves is Editor, Afghanistan Strategy for BBC Global News Languages