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Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - Afghanistan: A sense of foreboding

Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - Afghanistan: A sense of foreboding
Refugees (106, IV - 1996)

1 December 1996
Following the Taliban Islamic militia take over of Kabul on 27 September, life has improved in a city used to bombardments and intense criminal activity. But all this has occurred at a high cost. The human rights of Kabulis, never accorded great respect, continue to be violated.

Following the Taliban Islamic militia take over of Kabul on 27 September, life has improved in a city used to bombardments and intense criminal activity. But all this has occurred at a high cost. The human rights of Kabulis, never accorded great respect, continue to be violated.

By Steven Wolfson

Masooda Aminullah invites me to sit down and sends one of her young sons to fetch tea. She lives with her husband and their five children (and, occasionally, her brother) in a fourth-floor, two-room flat in Kabul. The Soviet-built apartment blocks are pockmarked with evidence of past shelling and street fighting, their facades stained with soot from the chimneys of makeshift stoves. Most of the surrounding trees have long since been cut for fuel wood.

Despite the bleak, dusty surroundings, with rubble heaped in piles here and there, children continue to play in the courtyards. Their laughter can be heard through the plastic sheet that has replaced Masooda's windows. We sit on the floor: there is no furniture.

Masooda and her husband Ghulam are teachers. Originally from Kabul, they returned to the city one year ago from exile in Pakistan. Their return, they hoped, would mark the end of a cycle of displacement which has driven them from their home on three occasions. Their first departure occurred in July 1992, when aerial bombardment forced the family to flee to the safety of Ghulam's father's house in Karte Seh, a suburb of Kabul. Masooda considers herself lucky: four days later, the family home was destroyed. In January 1994, as factional fighting for control of Kabul spread, the family was obliged to move to Jalalabad, where they took up residence in Sar Shahi camp, a sprawling centre for internally displaced Afghans, mostly from Kabul, which at one time sheltered 120,000 people. Life proved increasingly difficult there, as competition for resources mounted. In January 1995, the family again moved on, this time to Peshawar in Pakistan. There they took up residence with Masooda's brother.

Seven-year-old Wahid arrives with the tea. He carefully pours four glasses for the visitors and offers each of us sweets, under Masooda's approving gaze. She pauses to ensure that we have all we need before continuing her story. "Life in Pakistan was very difficult," she says. "Because we were not in the camps, we had no assistance. We had no identity cards, and the police would harass us. My brother was arrested and beaten after a bombing in Peshawar. Afghans were blamed. Ghulam decided that we should return to Kabul. We thought we might find jobs, or at least be able to send the children to school. Ghulam is teaching now, but his pay is very little. It doesn't even pay the rent. We get by selling small things, but it is very hard." Inexplicably, she smiles.

That brief moment of courtesy and hope took place in early September, and I wonder if Masooda can smile now. On 27 September 1996, the Taliban Islamic militia took control of Kabul. Little resistance was offered by retreating government forces. Outbreaks of violence did occur, however, as the Taliban implemented their particularly extreme version of Islamic law. Women and girls bore the brunt of new restrictions, including a ban on their employment and education. Women were ordered to remain at home, or wear the tent-like burqa in public. Kabul University was closed and the entire staff of the High Court was suspended, from judges to cleaners. Men were given 45 days to grow beards.

Many who dared show defiance to the Taliban were arrested, beaten and detained, including some local staff working for aid agencies and media organizations. International assistance stalled, as women staff members of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations were forced to remain at home. Without their expertise, vital needs assessment surveys, programme design, implementation and monitoring cannot take place. At the time of writing, Kabul is eerily calm, but there is a sense of foreboding, of anticipation of something unspecified but ominous. Kabulis are nervous and quiet. Unused to the conservative orthodoxy of the Taliban, yet unsure what to do, they simply wait.

"It is true that the Taliban have delivered a measure of security in Kabul," said UNHCR Chief of Mission in Afghanistan, Daniel Bellamy. "Now that they occupy the city, bombardment has more or less stopped, at least for the time being. Aerial attacks are much rarer than before. But that could change at any moment - the front line is not far from the city. Criminal activity has reduced, as the Taliban have established patrols throughout the city, and the threat of punishment is explicit. But all of these improvements have occurred at a high cost. The human rights of Kabulis, never accorded great respect, continue to be violated."

The Taliban emerged in early 1994 from religious schools (called madrassat) near Quetta, Pakistan, at a time when factional fighting and resulting lawlessness were at their height. Originally a small band of warriors from the majority Pashtoon tribe, their numbers swelled as they met with increasing success. Their takeover of the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, in April 1994, was welcomed by its citizens, who had long suffered under corrupt and brutal mujehadeen commanders. The Taliban (the name derives from the Arabic word for student) quickly established order in Kandahar, disarming all factions and the general population.

A Pashtoon city, Kandahar has accepted the Taliban's strict version of sharia (Islamic law), which is more or less consistent with local traditions. Today it is peaceful. But for the Taliban, sharia law means public executions after trials which pay scant attention to any notion of due process. It means the gruesome spectacle of the Minister of Health personally amputating the hands and feet of suspected thieves.

Subsequently, however, the Taliban swept through south-western Afghanistan, and arrived in Herat, close to the Iranian border, in September 1995. Here their reign has been less welcome. Most Herat residents are Tajik, and accustomed to a more liberal tradition. They particularly reject the Taliban prohibition on education for girls. As Dari speakers, they view the Pashto-speaking Taliban as an occupation force. Many Heratis have sent their families into exile in Iran, where they hope their girls can be educated, or at least avoid the harshness of the Taliban regime. Some women, former teachers, have organized secret schools in their homes. For many, the future does not look bright.

Save the Children (UK), an international non-governmental organization, suspended operations in Herat following the imposition of Taliban restrictions. "It's Catch-22," said Angela Kearney, Save the Children's programme manager for Afghanistan. "When we left, we knew we were leaving behind women and girls who desperately need our help. But how could we stay when we were prevented from having access to them?"

United Nations agencies were forced into the same difficult position. Following the lead of UNICEF, a middle course was adopted for the entire country. No new education projects will be initiated unless equal access for girls and boys is guaranteed. Resources slated for these projects will be redirected to locations where all children have equal access to education. These measures, admittedly, address only part of the problem. Agencies are still deprived of their women staff - a constraint imposed by the Taliban with explicit threats of violence against both employee and employer. With two thirds of the country under Taliban control by the end of 1996, including all of Afghanistan's major cities (except Mazar-i-Sharif, the northern stronghold of General Abdul Rashid Dostum) the opportunities for girls to be educated are remote. According to the 1996 Human Development Report, the overall literacy rate in Afghanistan is only 30 percent. The female literacy rate is a paltry 13.5 percent. It is a bad situation, getting worse.

Since the fall of the Communist government of the late President Najibullah in April 1992, almost four million Afghans have returned to their country. Another 2.4 million remain in exile, mostly in Iran and Pakistan. In response to the changes in the country in the last year, most Afghan refugees and some countries of asylum have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Voluntary repatriation has slowed considerably, with only 120,000 from Pakistan and a mere 8,000 from Iran by the end of the year. (The target figures for 1996 were 250,000 and 500,000, respectively). An annual repatriation rate which exceeds 100,000 would be considered a great success elsewhere; in the context of two million exiles, these figures seem slight.

Bellamy remains optimistic. "Our object," he says, "is sustainable return. Our programmes in Afghanistan have been fraught with difficulties since their inception. Yet the conditions for returning Afghans have visibly improved in almost every corner of the country. At present, we have more than 400 Quick Impact Projects, with a total value of more than $3,000,000. We also have five or six more substantial projects, each worth between $500,000 and $1,000,000. These cover every sector: water, health, sanitation, shelter, education, vocational training, irrigation, income generation, you name it. We will continue." He pauses for thought. "No," he says. "Change that. Put down 'we must continue'."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (1996)