Residents of Kabul Protest Government’s Inaction on Behsud – UPDATES

July 23, 2008

Some updates about yesterday’s demonstrations here against government’s inaction on the Behsud conflict -now that the dust (of the demonstrations, not yet of the conflict itself) has somewhat settled:

Pictures of demonstration via BBC

Kot-i Sangi to Deh-Mazang

According to reports and eyewitness accounts, the demonstrations started in Dasht-e-Barchi area but it was only in Kot-i Sangi that the numbers really began to swell. People in a giant human wave in thousands joined the rally that stretched unbroken between Kot-i Sangi and Deh-Mazang, with the entire avenue clogged (one source put it at 300,000 strong.) In what is surely an unprecedented practice in Afghan public and political culture, the thousands-strong rally proceeded and concluded without incidents. One of the organizers told me that there were around 5,000 women in attendance in yesterday’s rally. An eyewitness recounted that women were leading the demonstrations. Besides the IDPs and former residents of Behsud/Behsood -who were present in the largest numbers- people originating from several other provinces also joined the rally. The constituency, however, is reported to have been primarily Hazara.

Halt at Deh-Mazang

By mid-morning the rally had arrived in Deh-Mazang on its way towards the center of the city and offices of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan -UNAMA. And then it stopped.
There are varying and conflict accounts of why the rally stopped. I will list all of the accounts that I have heard- many of which cannot be substantiated:

1. The president personally ordered the rally to be stopped, calling on all of the government’s security forces (including the ANA) to halt the progress of the march in Deh-Mazang. Based on yesterday’s presidential order calling on the Kochis to temporarily evacuate Behsud, and indications of compliance from the Kochis, the government had earlier asked for the rally to be cancelled, and when this was not done, it took measures to stop it before it reached the city center. Security and peace in the city was cited as one of the reasons for the rally to stop.

2. The leaders of the demonstrated struck a deal with the government and called off the demonstrations. Again unconfirmed, this is a variant on version # 1 above, albeit this one implies that the government offered some sort of deal or was able to persuasively sell its solution of temporary evacuation of Kuchis out of Behsud to the leaders of the rally. Other variations of this account go further and blame the demonstrations organizers and leaders as having been “bought off” and co-opted and thereafter calling upon the people to go home. The leaders spoke to the rally and invited them to stop the march, stating that should the government not keep its promises or continue its policy of inaction in Behsud, a bigger rally will be organized in the future and that will go onwards towards the city center to make its demands heard.

3. According to an unconfirmed report by ANSO (Afghan NGOs Security Office), when the demonstrators arrived at Deh-Mazang area and close to the Kabul Zoo, ‘violence’ and ‘armed demonstrators’ were reported. ANSO: “There are various unconfirmed incidents of violence being reported, including a report of armed demonstrators in the area of the Kabul Zoo. NGO should suspend all movement in the city.” I have not been able to corroborate reports of violence or armed demonstrators through any other sources and all of the media (TV, radio, print -including even the BBC Persian Webpage which has finally decided to break its implicit gag-rule over the matter) are unanimous on the non-occurence of any incidents in yesterday’s rally.

Besides the 3rd account which is unlikely in view of the media reporting of the event, it is likely that a combination of 1 and 2 was at play in halting the rally at Deh-Mazang -a carrot and stick approach, if you may.

(More to come on yesterday’s demonstrations.)

For now, here are links to pictures of the event and some reporting:

1. Exclusive pictures from the demonstrations

2. After Progress in Talks, Mohaqiq Ends Hunger Strike, Calls Protesters Back Amid Emotional Scenes


Residents of Kabul Protest Government’s Inaction on Behsud

July 22, 2008

Today thousands of residents of Kabul engaged in a peaceful demonstration to protest the Karzai government’s inaction on the conflict in Behsud.

(This post may come out of the blue for many readers abroad who are used to hearing about the Taliban and the conflict in the South of Afghanistan. I promise another post in the near future about the conflict between the settled people of Behsud in Central Afghanistan and the nomads that has been going on for the past many weeks.)

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(I did not attend the demonstrations, but know many people who did, and hope to update with more accurate information as I speak to them. This initial post is based on anecdotal information, and what I have heard on the television -which, save for two TV channels out of 10: Farda TV and Ariana TV- has been surprisingly little.)

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Photo of todays demonstration via Quqnoos.com

Photo of today's demonstration via Quqnoos.com

The Demonstration

The march started around 7:00 a.m. Tuesday morning in Dasht-e-Barchi area of West of Kabul and proceeded towards the city center and the offices of the UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan -UNAMA. Several news agencies have put the number of demonstrators at “thousands”. By mid-day, Farda TV reported that the demonstrations were over and no incidents had taken place. Farda TV also aired footage of the demonstrations showing people in thousands marching in large thoroughfares of the city, advancing towards the center of the city.

Footage also showed police in riot gear standing around, and in some cases lining up on the main streets at a distance from the demonstrators, blocking their advance. Faced with the riot police, some among the demonstrators encouraged those at the head of the demonstrations to sit down and not advance any further, avoiding contact with the riot police and keeping a distance of 15 meters or so.

It was hard to read many of the placards and banners held up by demonstrators on TV screen. Those that I could read included:
“We oppose ethnic conflict and those who support/encourage it”
“The government should stand with defenseless civilians of Behsud”
“We want Justice”

White City

All expatriates and UN employees were told to stay put, with the UN offices announcing a “white city” -an oxymoronish term that says no UN vehicles (which are all white) are to be seen on the roads. Many embassies also followed suit, with employees in some cases working from home. Government offices, however, were open and working, along with most of the Afghan NGOs.

Suicide Bomb

Around 6:30 a.m. a suicide bomb went off near the Babur Gardens in Guzar-gah area which is close to the Deh-Mazang roundabout and the road that leads to the ruins of Darul Aman palace. All indications are that the incident was unrelated to the demonstrations, though it does ensure that the demonstrations are not the headline of the day, as no one was hurt or injured in the demonstrations, while the suicide attack took the life of the bomber and injured five three people. (By early afternoon the BBC English site for South Asia had reported the suicide bomb but had yet to do a story about the demonstrations -same with BBC Persian site). Tolo TV and Ariana TV reported that the bomb exploded when the attacker on foot was spotted by the police and he set off the bomb. At the time of the explosion the demonstrators had yet to reach the Deh-Mazang roundabout, and their advance was not interrupted by the incident.

Presidential Order

President Karzai reportedly signed an executive order yesterday to the effect that the Kochi nomads temporarily pull out of the Behsud area. I do not know yet whether the Kochi nomads have complied or not (see update 1 below). The order came after a full-scale armed conflict -with light and heavy weaponry in use- has been raging on in Behsud area for the past several weeks. Waves of IDPs -I have heard in hundreds- have descended on West Kabul and Dasht-e-Barchi area. (I will try to visit the area in the near future to conduct some first-person interviews with the IDPs and hear their stories.)

Following the order, a spokesperson for the Directorate of National Security came on TV this morning to announce that there was no more any reasons for the demonstrations to go on and that it should be cancelled. He also stated that the responsibility for any incidents that may interrupt the city’s calm and security will be borne by the organizers of the demonstrations.

Fact-finding Commission

Earlier the government had appointed a fact-finding commission to gather information and suggest workable solutions to the problem. The commission followed at least one previous such commission with the same mandate. Little is known about the results of the recent commission’s work, and there seems to be a consensus that it was a failure as it has not resulted in a peaceable solution to the conflict. A similar commission was appointed last year around the same time when the Kochi nomads entered settled areas inhabited by people of Behsud/Behsood. At the time last year UNAMA issued a statement and a bulleted list of solutions that both sides found unsatisfactory and one-sided.

Update 1

– According to Pajhwok news, following the presidential order of yesterday Kochis have began evacuating villages in the Behsud area. (link)

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Related News

1. Huge protests in Kabul by Hazara community

2. Returning Nomads to their Home

3. (Video) Behsoud people claim being attacked by Kuchis


The Case of Perwiz Kambakhsh and Afghanistan’s Ongoing Culture Wars

January 30, 2008

There has been another very disturbing development in the case of Parwiz Kambakhsh, the young Afghan student of journalism who has been sentenced to death by a primary court in Northern Afghanistan for the crime of propagating “blasphemous” literature: the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament has just delcared its decision to uphold the death sentence. The case will continue on its way through the labyrinth of more courts and legislative bodies, until one of these days it finally finds itself on the president’s desk. Most likely, every court along the way will try their best not to be seen as the one that finally overturned the decision, and hence somehow supported Kambakhsh’s anti-Islamic stance.

By now the justice system here has become myopically focused on the vitriolic content of the distributed literature that was written years ago by an Iranian dissident writer and was put on the internet -it was not even written by Kambakhsh, who is himself a student and an aspiring journalist. Apparently other considerations, such as the very constitutionality of the decision to even try somebody for their opinion is out the window. Afghanistan’s constitution, which was really a craft of compromise when it was agreed upon, makes half-hearted nods both to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and at the same time to a vague and amorphouse category of Islamic principles and values. Now, one of these would have Perwiz Kambakhsh killed, and the other would respect his right to free thought and expression. And this is not even the first of it -soon after the constitution was ratified two journalists were dragged to the courts on similarly drummed up charges of blaspheming and insulting Islam -and it is bound to be not the last of them; unless of course journalists learn their lessons and define their own boundaries of what is allowed and what not, i.e. self-censorship. (Then it will be the turn for bloggers who have been rash enough to abandon anonymity in an environment like this. Maybe some people are already talking about learning them computer heads a good lesson as well -there is already the internet link in Kambakhsh’s case.)

But really, the equivocality of the constitution and the daily barrage on the media and the journalists is symptomatic of a more fundamental fact of the Afghan society: there is an ongoing culture war in Afghanistan. This is the same non-ending culture war that first reached tipping point in 1912 and became a warm war (the spark then was the lovely Queen Suraya’s bare arms in a western dress, and pictures of young Afghan girls in skirts and hats studying abroad in Turkey.) The same ongoing culture war has influenced the course of Afghan political history over the last century. Kambakhsh and other journalists are all victims of this war. In reality, everyone, including those who vye for his blood, know deep down that his transgressions are not grave enough to warrant the death penalty. But what these people also know is that there is more at stake than merely the neck of one or two young journalist (especially that they do not enjoy the same immunities that many other journalists in Afghanistan do, i.e. back-up of their embassies, etc.) So in effect these people are telling the likes of Perwiz Kambakhsh:
“Sorry pal, we know it is a bit extreme to put the hangman’s noose around your neck (figure of speech, in actuality we would prefer for you to be stoned to death) for this – distributing stuff that you did not write and may not even fully endorse, or even understand. You did not even publish it, and it is not proven that you held secret group meetings to proselytize and discuss it. And we are not particularly opposed to Will Durant -whose book is a key incriminating evidence in your case- either. But times are tough and we are in a war. Your death is a small price to be paid for what this will teach others. Next thing and we might even allow the elected MP Malalay Joya back into the parliament, and allow Tolo TV to air Shakira concerts. Now that would be a slippery slope we cannot allow this nation to go down, wouldn’t it? So we hope you will try to understand. And if you don’t, well, too bad.”

For some of these people, it is even a win-win situation whether Kambakhsh dies or lives. If he dies, well, lesson learnt, victory achieved, Islam saved, and journalists harnessed for good. If he lives, it will likely be the president who pardons him- the sentence will likely be upheld in a landslide vote in the lower house, and the supreme court’s only concern would be whether the sentence is harsh enough. Unless and until his legal advisors find a loophole (and one that is acceptible to the clergy too) on the grounds of which they can send the case back down, the president is facing a serious headache. He is damned if he signs off on the death sentence of a young journalist, and he is damned if he does not. In Afghanistan we call that being sandwiched between the two stones of a mill – or a rock and a hard place.


This is Farshid

January 22, 2008

When I sat to write this last night, just home from a quick trip to the bazaar, I was not ‎planning to put it on Safrang. Its form and content are out of step with Safrang –self-serious, ‎presumptuous political bliggity bloggery, pseudo-intellectual scholarship, and polemical pamphleteering. I wanted to put it ‎on my other blog –more heart and hedonism stuff. Now that I am done with it, I think I ‎will put it here, a belated second episode in the series: ‎
From Afghanistan with Love.

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Farshid

Meet Farshid. ‎

Farshid is nine years old. Maybe ten, or even eight –hard to tell anyone’s age here. He is ‎in the second grade. Of course schools in Kabul are out in the winter, so Farshid spends ‎most of his time outdoors, working. ‎

Farshid is cold –Very cold. Right now, he is standing near a fish-seller’s stall –keeping ‎warm in the heat of the gas stove. The water in the stream in front of the shop is frozen ‎solid. Last night they announced the highest and lowest temperatures for Kabul on the ‎TV. The lowest would be -10 ºC tonight. Weathermen being liars everywhere, I feel it is well ‎past that already.‎

Farshid’s voice shakes when he answers me. His little body, wrapped in old and torn ‎layers scavenged from Lilami shakes alongside. I get the impression that speaking is a ‎labor –it is too cold, and any amount of energy and warm breathe is precious. The boy ‎next to him in earmuffs and a hoodie does most of the talking. ‎

This boy tells me: “Farshid has been told to come home tonight with a hundred ‎Afghanis” –two dollars. How much has Farshid worked so far? “30 Afghanis.” It is ‎‎6:00pm now –already dark. And did I say it was cold? ‎

How did Farshid earn this money, and how is he planning to make another 70? Farshid ‎produces a dirty rag from his right pocket, and the boy next to him supplies the words: ‎‎“Motar Safi Mikona.” The word choice is important –he did not say “washing” cars, or ‎‎“Motar Mishoya” –but only cleaning them. It is cold, and soon as the water touches the ‎body of the car, it freezes. Farshid’s clients do not like frozen water on their windshields. ‎It creates distortions and aberrations in the glass and one cannot see the road ahead ‎clearly. Farshid, of course, would be glad to wash the cars should his clients please –for ‎him, it is part of the job. No matter what little games the water and the cold will play with ‎his tiny, chapped hands. ‎

What does Farshid want to become when he finishes school bakhair? I regret having ‎asked the question the moment it leaves my lips. This is a cruel question. There is no ‎finishing school, and there is no bakhair. The dignified, no-nonsense look in Farshid’s ‎eyes answers me, and it is telling me: “You may delude yourself pal, but I am not going ‎to. I am more worried about finishing the day’s work and going home –bakhair.” ‎

I think to myself: come on, it isn’t my fault I asked a senseless question. This little boy is ‎making me uncomfortable. I regret having come to this fish stall today. I like my ‎secluded life and do not even have to be in these situations. My appetite is gone. I hate ‎the cold. I am ashamed of my coat. I am ashamed of my car. I am ashamed of my fancy ‎camera –and the fact that I have brought it out with me. What was I thinking? I am ‎uncomfortable and ashamed and cannot bear the silence that somehow has developed and ‎become unbearably awkward and inconvenient for me over the past five minutes I have ‎been listening to Farshid’s story. I am speaking just to kill time, to engage him, to fill the ‎air -until my fish is done and I get the hell out of here. ‎

Again, just to kill time, I ask Farshid another senseless question. (And what, beg tell, ‎would be a more sensible question? Does he like the snow? His thoughts on the recent Serena bombing? Does he prefer Arsenal or ‎Man United? Grape soda or plain old Coke? Those marks around his eyes –what ‎precisely are those? Is global warming on his list of concerns for the world? Or, as many ‎Khareji in Kabul would itch to ask (just before engaging in their self-soothing “random ‎act of kindness” stuff procured via two crisp dollar bills) –does Farshid like kite-flying, ‎kite-running –the whole kite enterprise? His views on the progress of the mission in ‎Afghanistan? What about his opinions on the foreign troops’ presence in his country? Did ‎Farshid eat today?) ‎

Instead, my question is: where does he live? It’s a common enough question in a society ‎where identity is closely interwoven with geography. The boy standing next to Farshid ‎seems to have fallen comfortably into his spokesperson’s role, because he again ‎volunteers the answer. He is himself mildly intrigued at the interest this naïve stranger ‎has taken in Farshid, but then so many naïve and disgustingly sympathetic Afghans and ‎Kharejis do the same, so, no big deal. He answers: “Darul Aman.” “Which part?” I ‎press on. I know the area well -its a good 15 minutes drive from here. I work near it, and I have gone there several times to ‎photograph the ruins of the palace nearby.‎
‎ ‎
This time Farshid takes a jab, just so briefly: “Qasr.”
He lives in the palace! ‎

But for the circumstances I would have been amused by the absurdity. Farshid and his ‎family –his mother, his brother Jamshid, and I don’t know how many other people- live ‎in that dilapidated structure facing the ruins of the grand old palace. The one with red and ‎blue curtains for windowpanes and with a façade pockmarked with bullet holes. I would ‎love to ask more senseless questions. My voyeurism is not quenched yet –this poverty, ‎this misery is so obscene I cannot peel my eyes away. It is so pungent, so delicious, so ‎real life, so real time. I am already thinking out a blog post in my head. And I feel my ‎heart tightening, giving me that familiar old urge to cry, and at the same time, that other familiar old urge ‎to harden and to resist the first urge. ‎
What do they burn for heating fuel? I did not take a shower today because it was too cold, ‎when did Farshid wash last? He did not mention his father, what about him? And please ‎oh please: let it be Chelsea FC. ‎

But my fish is done. The man spices it generously, wraps it in an Urdu language ‎newspaper, counts the money with his oily hands, and apologizes for having taken too long. He ‎sees me lingering, glances at Farshid, coughs into his fist, and says: “yea farshid’s mum ‎hussaid he cant cumhome ‘nless he earns hisself a hundredAfghanis tonight.” ‎
Meanwhile, Farshid continues to shiver, and is silently taking all of this in –being ‎reminded of his duty, his looming deadline. The man goes on: “boy gohome boy you ‎won’tmake it to midnight in thiscold boy justgohome boy youwill freezetodeath boy did I ‎giveyourchange sir?”‎
‎ ‎
Farshid starts crossing the road reluctantly and I drive away with the uncomfortable ‎feeling that the man’s grave and hurried premonition might come true one of these dreary ‎cold nights. And no, you did not give me my change. I was waiting for it to give some money to Farshid to go home for the night. I look around, but Farshid is gone, and across the street in front of the shops with their iron shutters closed for the night and their lights out, children of Farshid’s age and height are playing with marbles. Gods of winter and cold and snow, show some mercy on the street children ‎of Kabul.‎


A Woman Among Warlords

September 8, 2007

It is not everyday that I get emails addressed “Dear Editor,” imploring me to use my large readership to spread the word about a new film. So when I got an email from WMM about Eva Mulvad’s film “The Enemies of Happiness,” and thought about the possible royalties that could flow from rendering similar services for studios and publishing houses, I decided to do this post.

Hear ye! Hear all ye left-leaning American voters with loose purse strings and heart strings:
The National Broadcast Premiere of “A Woman Among Warlords” based on “Enemies of Happiness: The True Story of A Young Woman Fighting for Changes in Afghanistan” will be aired on PBS at 9PM on September 11th.
For more information, visit WMM website.

On a housekeeping matter, this first ad will be done on a pro bono basis, because I recall having praised Ms. Joya as “a fearless voice” earlier on this blog. Potential advertisers may contact the sales and advertisement division of Safrang. Also, a review of the film is forthcoming on Afghanistanica.

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While it has become fashionable among respectable and otherwise self-restrained bloggers -Farsi and English alike- who do not usually make it their business to approve or disapprove of other people’s behavior to write admonishingly of Malalai Joya, I am not hesitant to put myself down as one of her admirers. Mind you, I take this stance without necessarily approving of her methods, or those of her handlers. All the same, as I have said before, what she is doing now -regardless of her methods, and perhaps because of them- is “cathartic for our national soul.” I thought so before the French Elle Magazine got ahold of Ms. Joya, and before she was airbrushed and pampered and made presentable into the rather good-looking and chic freedom fighter that she is now, and I still think so.

joya farah


Serendipituous Quotes

March 13, 2007

At the same time as I was reading Afghanistanica’s latest post where the blogger suggests “if you are a journalist, maybe you should quit writing that Afghans are being angered over a ‘forced imposition’ of women’s rights,” I was listening to a report on PRI’s The World on National Public Radio about women in Afghanistan and how some are “concerned what progress might do to Afghanistan’s culture.”

Perfect.


8th March and the State of Afghan Women

March 9, 2007

On the eve of another International Women’s Day the lot of Afghan women has not improved considerably since the fall of the Taliban. That is the unanimous verdict from the UN, AIHRC (Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission) and a number of other organizations and reports in the media. Domestic violence, forced marriages, lack of access to health services (and of lesser immediate concern, to education) remain alarmingly high.

According to AIHRC, only in the south-western province of Farah (home to Malalai Joya – vocal woman parliamentarian) self-burning has increased by a whopping 80% over the course of the past year. Other provinces in the same zone have also seen significant rise in self-burning by women victims of domestic violence and forced marriages.

The extreme phenomenon of “burning brides” -as once reported in the West, with flagrant romantic and orientalist overtones- is immensely tragic and existentially fascinating in equal measures; and while we hope the practice itself and the circumstances that lead to it come to an end, it calls for a serious cross-cutting psychological-anthropological-philosophical treatment in the future.

Even with the stigma that is associated with breaching family confidence and reporting abuse, AIHRC documented 1650 cases of violence against women in 2006. The commission also reported 120 cases of death by suicide (self-burning and OD’ing on painkillers) for 2006. No less shocking, IRIN reports that every 30 minutes an Afghan woman dies during childbirth, and the average life expectancy for Afghan women is 44 years. According to UNIFEM (UN Dev. Fund for Women), about 90% of Afghan women are illiterate. (more)

All of this however does not mean that revolutions of a cosmetic nature are not taking place. Afghan women are among the most talked-about women in the world today (right up there with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears), and the focus of a global circle of bleeding-heart sympathy that translates to photo-ops, quick-fix projects, conferences, and start-up non-profits. Yesterday, two Kabul newspapers’ editorials duly blasted these as mere talk and repetitious stage shows that do very little to tangibly change the status of women of Afghanistan. (The dailies are Wisa and Anis – at least once of which primarily targets a women readership)

To mark the occassion the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice awarded “International Women of Courage” awards to a group of women from around the world that included two women from Afghanistan; the Canadian Governor-General made a surprise visit to Afghanistan; UNDP announced a $10 million grant to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs over the next two years; and Afghanistan’s Supreme Court and the aid group Medica Mondiale announced a joint initiative to register marriages in an effort to cut down on forced marriages. Pojhwak news also reported the opening of a small hospital in Kabul for women narcotics addicts.

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[See related post on Safrang: The Abominable Everywomen]