ALONG HIGHWAY 1, Afghanistan – The Bomb Crater Stop ‘N’ Go isn’t the real name of this shop along a deserted stretch of highway in rural Afghanistan. But that’s what it is: a small shed selling fuel and snacks to passing travelers, right next to a scar in the earth where road and sand meet after an explosion sometime in the last 20 years of the country’s violent history.
Hafiz Qadim, the 32-year-old shopkeeper, occasional gas attendant and snack machine, has no formal name for his business venture. It lies like a lone beacon of essential amenities among the sand dunes, rock outcroppings and occasional grape fields on the border of southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar and Zabul provinces, where the surrounding mountains slice through the sky like the backs of sleeping dinosaurs. .
It’s the only store for miles.
“I opened this shop after Kabul fell,” explained Mr. Qadim, gesturing to his new steel roller door and the mud bricks that looked as if they were still drying in the sun.
That was in August, when the capital was taken by the Taliban and their control of the country was strengthened.
Although Mr. Qadim is the sole owner, the crater is de facto its silent partner: its size requires cars, trucks and buses to slow down enough so that their drivers and passengers can see what’s for sale through their stained windows. Some continue, but many take the chance to pause for a refuel or a selection of rainbow-colored energy drinks, bottles of shampoo, pair of black loafers, assorted biscuits, canned food, chips or soda.
The odd combination—Mr. Qadim’s shop and this auspicious, outsized pit—are physical manifestations of both the very long war in Afghanistan and its end.
There is now peace, or at least a version of it that includes the threat posed by the Islamic State and the fledgling resistance forces against the Taliban. The highway is quiet enough for new shops like Mr. Qadim’s and for farmlands that can be shoveled all the way to the edge of the highway without fear of being shot or shot at.
But at what cost, this opportunity for trade that hasn’t been there for decades?
mr. Qadim knows the answer because he is surrounded by the price he and so many others have paid. He is reminded of it every day when he comes to work early in the morning and walks the highway to his house every evening. Half a mile to the south — where afternoon sun rays cut through the looted fortifications — lies the abandoned hilltop police post where a gun battle killed three members of his family.
Thirteen years ago, when Mr. Qadim was still a teenager, Western-backed Afghan government and Taliban forces fought bitterly for the road next to his shop. His mother, father and one of his sisters were killed in one of those firefights at the police station.
Reporting from Afghanistan
“About 200 people who lived along this road were tortured during the war,” said Mr. Qadim bitter.
Shortly afterwards, he left his childhood home, one of the millions of internally displaced persons from the long war who had been displaced by the violence in the countryside and forced to the safer cities. The province of Zabul, where Mr. Qadim lives, was once one of the most violent in the entire conflict.
From there, he built a life in Kabul, also staying in the cities of Kandahar and Herat, bastions of security as war ebb and flow across the country.
He eventually became a truck driver for seven years, transporting livestock, fruit and timber countless times on the same highway he now works on: the 300-mile stretch of road, once considered the most dangerous in the country, connecting the two largest. . cities, Kandahar and Kabul.
Others are also finding new work along the way, as road accidents pose a greater risk than getting caught in a crossfire.
A few miles north of the store, Nur Ahmad, 18, and other grape farmers plant their crops on the edge of the highway, once too dangerous for any agriculture.
Planting against a busy road is not ideal, but in Afghanistan there is only so much arable land. Every square foot counts, especially as the country is hit by one of its worst droughts in decades, which has left many fields parched and their wells dry.
“I didn’t have a job, so I came here,” Mr. Ahmad said, hammering his shovel into the earth between sentences.
Half a day’s drive from the young grape farmer, between snow-capped mountains and the potato fields of Wardak Province, Wahdat, 12, and his younger brother scoured the ruins of another old military outpost along the same highway. Their family of five is reeling from the year’s poor crop. More than half of the Afghan population currently does not eat enough, according to the World Food Programme.
“We’re hungry,” Wahdat said.
With dirty hands and the shovel almost bigger than his, he’d set out that day to peel the metal mesh off a few remaining barricades near the outpost to build a coop for his family’s eight chickens.
Wahdat doesn’t remember when the outpost he was tearing down was built, who occupied it, or when it was abandoned. He just knew that at some point in his short life he was told not to go near it. And now he could.
Memories of violence and war are all along the highway: shelled buildings, destroyed bridges, the twisted hulls of vehicles, and the abandoned remains of those outposts that had provoked hours of gunfights and retaliatory attacks. But by far the most common signs that war has been raging here for years are the bomb craters.
Some are deep. Some are shallow. Some you can drive through and others you have to drive into traffic or even into a ditch to avoid. They snap axles and pop tires. Sometimes kids try to fill them with dirt, earning donations from passing drivers, only to get the dirt out and repeat the money prank plan the next day.
The Bomb Crater Stop ‘N’ Go relies on the adjacent crater as much as a shop elsewhere in the world needs convenient parking or inflatable advertising.
“I can build a shop anywhere on this land,” Mr. Qadim said, pointing to the vast highway in both directions. “But if it’s close to this plot,” he said, pointing to the hole, “it’s good.”
A moped stopped, roaring to music (strongly discouraged by the Taliban), and the driver refunded him for a few gallons of fuel he had recently taken.
Mr. Qadim can’t remember when the bomb went off that made his hole in the road. Or rather, bombs: in this place, next to a diver, several explosions took place.
Divers and roadside bombs went hand in hand during the war as the shallow trenches and drainage pipes made it easier for the Taliban to hide the explosives there. And the nearby outpost only increased the attractiveness of this target.
But now the diver was just a diver, the bomb crater just a pit, and unlike so many of his compatriots struggling with an economic crisis, Mr. Qadim was making more money than he had in his entire life: about $100 a month.
Thanks to that mile marker of violence, the Bomb Crater Stop N’ Go has found a niche in the middle of nowhere: some gasoline, some provisions, and maybe a few bars of soap for those traveling along a road that slowly came back to life.
“I don’t know what the future will be,” said Mr. Qadim. “But I’m happy.”