November Issue 2003
Courage Under Fire
On September 27, as they made their way to the mosque to offer their fajr prayers, the faithful were confronted by the unholy sight of the smouldering ruins of what was, until the day before, the local girls’ school.
The tented school was situated in Chahar Bolak, a village located 40 kilometres northwest of Mazar-e-Sharif, an important town in northern Afghanistan. As the villagers ventured to sift through the debris, they noticed a strategically placed note written in the local Darri language. It read, “We warn all NGOs to stop promoting unholy practices and leave our land, failing which they should be prepared for the consequences that ensue.”
According to an NGO worker familiar with the contents of the note, it also asked people to stop sending their daughters to school. The note stated, “The NGOs are a hoax. They are trying to introduce godless ways in the country in the name of charity work. Stop sending your daughters to their schools and make them concentrate on religion instead.” Additionally, the note reportedly admonished teachers about accepting female students.
While the note was unsigned and no one has claimed responsibility for the arson, there is a general belief that it was the handiwork of the Taliban, a hardcore component of which survived the allied onslaught and continues to propagate its fundamentalist ideology. During the hardline rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, girls were barred from attending school. Education was restricted to religious study and that too taught only by women teachers.
Women were also forced to cover themselves from top to toe, including their faces, according to the Taliban’s interpretation of ‘modesty’. Even a bare foot could engender harsh punishment. And those women who were caught violating the laws to a larger extent — or were perceived to be doing so — were publicly flogged and sometimes stoned to death. Although the Taliban were ousted from power in December 2001, and the Shariah is ostensibly no longer the law of the land, continuing agitation by proponents of the Taliban ideology and an ineffective government have not done much to ease the situation for women, many of whom are too terrified to shed their shuttlecocks and venture forth into the outside world.
The school in Chahar Bolak, a makeshift tented arrangement, began functioning April this year with the help of UNICEF. Some 50 girls were enrolled in the school and despite opposition in the community, regularly attended classes. However, the fire and threatening note put an end to that — parents are now unwilling to send their daughters to school.
“You have to live here to understand the fear this attack has generated,” says a local villager. According to him, with attacks by the Taliban getting increasingly frequent and brazen, most villagers are reluctant to defy them. Speculation is rife that the militants may once again come to power in Afghanistan.
With a shortage of buildings in the war-torn country, tents are commonly used as makeshift schools and classrooms. There are four million children studying in nearly 7,000 such schools and there has been a 30 per cent increase in girls’ enrolment since the fall of the Taliban. Incidents of arson such as that in Chahar Bolak may well reverse this trend. Nor is this an isolated case. According to UNICEF officials, there have been 18 cases across Afghanistan in which schools have been set ablaze and threats issued against parents who educate their daughters.
This is the new front the Taliban have opened in their guerrilla war. Not only have they stepped up attacks against the coalition forces in recent months, but they have also begun to repeatedly target aid workers in Afghanistan.
Among the approximately 400 people killed by Taliban guerillas in southern Afghanistan of late, are over a dozen unarmed aid workers. They had been working for international NGOs and charity organisations engaged in food distribution, road reconstruction, irrigation system repairs, water and sanitation systems rehabilitation, home schooling, and small economic activity development in Afghanistan.
On September 24, in Ghazni province southwest of Kabul, nine suspected Taliban militants waylaid a car carrying Afghans working for a Danish charity organisation, tied them up and shot dead four of them with AK-47 assorted rifles. The victims were headed home after their day’s work on a water supply project when they were ambushed. A fifth aid worker who was wounded was able to provide authorities with an account of the attack.
In a similar incident, which followed a rocket attack on the offices of the UNHCR in the eastern city of Asadabad, two armed men ambushed a vehicle of the Afghan Red Crescent society, a national NGO, near Andar district of Ghazni province. Two of their local staff were killed and four others wounded in the attack.
In yet another incident, two armed motorcyclists fired shots at the Save the Children Fund staff’s vehicle travelling from Shinirghan district. Four Afghan aid workers in the vehicle escaped unhurt. After Ricardo Munguia, an El Salvadorean worker of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, was shot and killed, the Red Cross suspended their operations in Afghanistan. Although it did subsequently resume work, the organisation restricted the movement of its expatriate staff in the southern Kandahar province.
“The recent upsurge of violence in the south directed against both the Afghan people and foreign aid workers including NGOs threatens economic reconstruction and the political process in Afghanistan,” admits US assistant secretary of state Winston Lord, who was visiting as co-chairman of the board of the relief organisation, International Rescue Committee.
Ravaged by more than two decades of civil war and a prolonged drought, Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries. With a desperate lack of basic social services, a virtually non-existent government infrastructure, widespread food shortages and the displacement of millions of people, Afghanistan faces enormous challenges in its efforts to rebuild.
According to CARE, an international aid agency involved in relief work in Afghanistan since 1961, nearly five million people in Afghanistan depend on international food aid for their survival, a number expected to swell to 7.5 million — almost one-third of the population — in the wake of the Afghan war. “The dismal conditions prior to September 11 had already forced many to leave the country for crowded refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan,” says a report by the agency. With no end in sight to their travails, yet more Afghans are fleeing their homes. As many as 1.5 million are expected to cross into neighbouring countries, while those unable to leave are seeking shelter wherever they can within Afghanistan. “The survival of the Afghan people both inside and outside their country is now largely in the hands of others,” the CARE report contends.
Nevertheless, the Taliban fighters’ intention is clearly to prevent this urgently needed humanitarian assistance and reconstruction work from proceeding smoothly — and their deadly tactics are bearing fruit. Most organisations have either pulled out their non-Afghan staff from the country or have suspended work altogether.
NGO personnel contend that working conditions in Afghanistan at present are far more difficult than those in other conflict zones such as in Africa. According to one of them, in other conflict areas they can work across political boundaries by establishing some contact with rebel groups to enlist their support for carrying out aid work in areas under rebel control. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, they maintain, with most of the Taliban leadership killed, arrested or on the run, they have no channels of communication with the militants. “As a result, it’s become next to impossible for aid agencies to work freely in the country’s troubled southern regions,” says an aid worker.
For their part, the Taliban want nothing to do with the aid workers, denouncing them as US spies. A Taliban militant in Pakistan’s tribal areas justifies this suspicion by saying, “The East India Company was allowed to work in the subcontinent, but look what it did: it served as an agent of the British as they proceeded to enslave the entire region.” According to him, the aid agencies offer minor jobs to the locals, appointing them as drivers and peons while they themselves work to further US interests under the guise of aid work. “At the most they will offer alcohol to the locals or let their wives dance with them, but their intention is to gather information for their masters and further enslave impoverished nations,” he says.
The aid agencies’ problems are compounded by the fact that the writ of Hamid Karzai’s government is virtually limited to Kabul. Beyond the capital, Afghanistan has lapsed once again into a chequerboard of fiefdoms where numerous warlords hold sway much as they did before the Taliban came to power. The lack of unity among them as well as the limited presence of US troops in southern Afghanistan allows the Taliban to carry out their attacks with relative ease here. Most of the 15,000 US troops presently deployed in Afghanistan are stationed either in Kabul or assigned the task of guarding the northern frontier. Given Afghanistan’s topography and the growing dimensions of the insurgency, their number is scarcely adequate.
The weakness of the central government also means that aid organisations are at the mercy of avaricious warlords. Many have to pay extortion money in order to be allowed to distribute aid. Reportedly, several warlords have even set up fake NGOs that claim to undertake onward distribution of edible goods obtained from international charity organisations. These precious food rations are then sold in the local markets, with the proceeds pocketed by the warlords. According to an aid worker, agencies who refuse to supply these fake ‘NGOs’ have their caravans looted.
A consortium of foreign charities and other groups have repeatedly asked the United Nations Security Council to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond Kabul to the rural provinces, where interference by local militias is rampant and violence by anti-government forces increasing steadily for the past six to eight months. There are presently 80 western NGOs engaged in aid and development work within Afghanistan.
According to observers, the Taliban militants are targeting aid workers in order to exploit ethnic rivalries between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns and, in the process, present themselves as the sole viable alternative to the largely non-Pashtun Afghan government and its US backers. Says Haji Lashkari Raisani, “They are well aware that if the international community is unable to deliver on its promises to carry out development work in Afghanistan, it will stoke resentment in the Pashtun areas and ultimately, the locals will turn against the international community and embrace the Taliban once again.” A tribal leader in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Raisani’s family had sought refuge for nearly four years in Afghanistan during General Zia’s rule.
Raisani’s assessment does not seem far off the mark. Many Afghans in the troubled areas have begun to express a sense of betrayal at the hands of the international community. As they see it, the Pashtu-speaking areas are being deliberately ignored in the efforts at rebuilding because the Northern Alliance, consisting of Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minorities is heading the government in Kabul.
Habibullah Khan, a villager who lives near Doman district in Kandahar province is one such disillusioned Afghan. “Everyone makes tall claims, no one delivers. Forget about changing the lot of the country, the international community have failed to even do ordinary things like digging small wells in villages.” As speculation grows that many villagers in southern Afghanistan have begun to work clandestinely for the Taliban militia, the road to rebuilding the country becomes more treacherous than ever.