By Peter Graff
GARMSIR, Afghanistan, July 7 (Reuters) - The DJs of Radio Garmsir in Afghanistan’s lower Helmand River valley knew their station had touched a nerve when the letters started pouring in.
First a few, then more, and pretty soon 20 to 30 letters per day, hand delivered to a box outside the NATO base where they broadcast deep into Taliban territory from a desk in a tiny bunker.
Most are requests for songs. Some are complaints — about police driving too fast through the bazaar, about the continuing failure of mobile phone companies to bring reception to the valley.
A few are love poems from wistful girls asking if the DJs will run away with them.
"They really like us now. They don’t know who we are, but they really like us," said DJ Shamshad, who is actually called Arif Wahdat and comes from Kabul.
The radio station is funded by the British-led provincial reconstruction team in Helmand, Afghanistan’s most violent province and a Taliban heartland that produces the bulk of the country’s opium crop.
It has served as the only form of media in a vast, densely populated valley of irrigated fields, where there is no electricity, newspapers, mail, internet or phone service, and where Taliban fighters have defied NATO troops for years.
The Westerners behind the project say they hope it will break open an information vacuum that helps the guerrillas keep the population from accepting the authority of the government.
Radio Garmsir replaced a station set up by NATO-led troops, which used to play taped security announcements. That first station was, by common agreement, not very exciting.
But now, two live DJs, Shamshad and Ashuqullah, read out the news, play the latest records flown in from Kabul, and even award thermos flask prizes to the listener who writes the best letter.
Last week, when thousands of U.S. Marines swooped into the valley in an effort to seize it from Taliban fighters, the DJs read out reports on Operation Strike of the Sword from the British Broadcasting Company.
The station also plays learning programmes sent by the Education Ministry in Kabul.
"It’s good, especially for the children. We play educational messages: How to look after your school equipment, why you should go to school, stories about the university in Kabul," said Shamshad.
But letter after letter shows what listeners are aching to hear most is music, banned as un-Islamic by the Taliban.
Saydar Mohammad from Paykianu village wants to hear a tune by Aminullah Ulfat, a Pashtun singer. DJ Shamshad cues the song up on his laptop and reads the request out through the microphone in a quiet, easy-going vice.
At first the requests were mainly for traditional Afghan Pashtu music. But increasingly, younger listeners are asking for Indian and Iranian pop tunes, as well as newer Pashtun hits recorded in Pakistan.
Although the two DJs rarely venture off the base, Shamshad, who is in his 20s and has a Beatles-style haircut, says he was once recognised by his voice while helping translate for some U.S. Marines by the base’s gate.
"Somebody shouted: ‘Hey, that voice. You’re Shamshad! How’s it going, Shamshad!" he said.
DJ Ashuqullah has had dozens of love letters from a girl who hopes that he will carry her away.
"You are the lover in my dreams, the lover in my thoughts," reads one, decorated with colourful drawings of flowers and a picture of the two of them holding hands.
The portraits of him are only guesses since no one in the valley knows what he looks like.
Lately, the Taliban have set up their own radio station in the valley, broadcasting from a secret location further south. But it doesn’t play music, and the DJs of radio Garmsir just don’t see it as competition.
"People like ours better," said Shamshad. "They like the music."