By Emma Graham-Harrison
MULAYAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) – The cave Sakhi Allah now calls home was a potato store when he was a child, growing up in the lush river valley of Afghanistanâ€™s remote central highlands below his current front door.
Like most of the villagers of Mulayan, every time he steps out he looks down on the shattered remains of a life ripped apart by decades of civil war.
His home was sacked by the Taliban and years as a refugee have left him, and those neighbors who also straggled back, too poor to rebuild their homes.
Instead they moved into centuries-old caves that overlook the valley, probably hollowed out by Buddhist monks long before the valleyâ€™s conversion to Islam.
â€œLife is much more difficult than when we were young,â€ said the 27-year-old father of six, seated on a worn red carpet in the single unpainted cave where his family eat, sleep, cook and rest.
â€œWe have been back for four years, and I would prefer to live in a house, but we donâ€™t have any money.â€
A pipe takes fumes from the stove out through a hole in the mud front-wall. There is little decoration beyond a bunch of plastic flowers stuck on the wall and a small red plastic mirror, but Sakhi said his family are still better off than others.
â€œSome people donâ€™t even have a donkey to bring water up from the river.â€
With no money to rebuild the village, they have moved even the village mosque into a cave, now immaculately whitewashed with a newly reinforced roof.
â€œWe had no other space to set up a mosque,â€ said Haji Mehrabuddin, who consecrated the cave and presided for several years over its two rows of carpets and a rough-dug niche that points the way to Mecca for prayer.
The village is set in the fertile Bamiyan valley. It looks idyllic, tucked among snowy mountains, but has always been a dangerously tempting prize for regional rulers.
Just a few minutes away is the â€œcity of screams,â€ the stumpy remains of a vast citadel sacked by Ghengis Khan and a potent reminder of past disaster.
When it rains, the ceiling falls
Before they were driven from Kabul in 2001, the hardline Taliban treated the valleyâ€™s ethnic Hazara inhabitants brutally, in part for their adherence to the Shiâ€™ite branch of Islam which the Sunni Taliban despised.
When they finally took control of Bamiyan, the Taliban killed many of its inhabitants and razed homes and buildings like the bazaar. They then blew up two giant Buddha statues that had presided over the valley like guardians for hundreds of years.
Most of the 200 families in Mulayan village were killed or fled with the valleyâ€™s other inhabitants and never returned, residents say. Around 20 families who did straggle back had little option but to move into the caves.
Rebuilding a home would cost at least $1,000, and no one has that much money, said Asmat Allah, a pale 70-year-old with startling blue eyes who once had a 10-room home.
Now his family of 14 cram into two dugouts, scraping a living like other villagers from potato and wheat farming.
â€œWhen it rains, clumps of mud and stone fall from the ceiling, and it is very cold,â€ he said.
The cave dwellers of Bamiyan say they have seen no help in nearly eight years from the government of President Hamid Karzai, up for re-election in August.
Children attend a school 20 minutes walk away, and say they love their home but hope for a life beyond the fields.
â€œI want to be a doctor, to serve the people,â€ said 16-year-old Karim Allah, who saw some of the ravages of the Taliban before fleeing to Kabul.
But haunting those dreams is the fear a resurgent Taliban could defeat foreign troops backing the government in Kabul and return to the now peaceful valley.
â€œThe news makes me worried the Taliban could come back. I get sad looking at our old houses,â€ he said, staring across the valley at dusk.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)