Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Behind the Veil:The untold Stories (1)

Rabia run breathlessly towards the outside yard to hide behind the fence near the gate of their house.

This fence was like a wall that separated the entrance gate to two; one way for women to enter the house and come directly to women’s room and the other directly to the luxurious men’s guest room occupied by men in Rabia’s family. The women of the family were only allowed to visit that guest room during two hours in morning to clean and organize the room for male guests. Rabia used to secretly watch TV in men’s guest room while her mom and aunts used to clean the room. There was only one TV in the whole family house. Rabia was only 10 years old and the youngest of 8 children. Her eldest sister had three children at the age of 21. Rabia and her single sisters all lived in a big house for years, since she remembers. She had five uncles and they all lived together with their wives and children in one house. However, the men’s and women’s portions of life were very different. Men used to live most of their lives in the men’s portion which was decorated effortlessly by the women of the family and served by the women of the family and women’s portions were one room for each of the uncle’s wives, a big hall and the whole women population lived in those five rooms.

Under the metal cage, Rabia started gathering her nerves to make a sense of the scene she had just seen in the backyard. It was her father right outside the kitchen, standing so close to Zarina and wiping her tears. Rabia did not believe that her father could be that kind to any woman, as she had seen him so cruel to his own wife. She had never seen him touching any woman in the family, even not his own grandchildren.

Zarina was in her 20s and used to live in this house since her only parent, mother had passed away. Although she was not the family’s child, she was treated just like the daughter of the family. She was the best cook and everyone loved the food she made.

But what was so strange about her father and Zarina that she had seen in the backyard. What was so different than the norm in her family and in her upbringing.

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Created by : Nematullah, 18. Bagrami, Afghanistan

Short Stories (Behind the Veil: The untold Stories )

From now on, We will be writing short stories reflecting the untold stories of our society. Some of them will be known and most unknown. Most of the time, we do not want the hidden realities on to our faces, but unless we do not face the truth, we will not be able to challenge the hypocracies of our lives.

These stories are created fictions of young girls and boys from various parts of the world but mainly in south-asian region.

These stories will be fiction, translated from local language but based on the seen and heard realities of life. Your views will be welcomed to make this a learning process for all of us.

BBC radio interview on re-integration plan

Panel discussion in BBC on London Conference, 28 January 2010

The Afghanistan Project: After the 2009 Presidential Elections

The Afghanistan Project in the coming five years:

Like many Afghans of my generation, I was born during a communist coup d'etat, spent my childhood against the background of an anti- Soviet Mujahidin struggle, and became an adult during a civil war which resulted in the rule of the Taliban. In al three eras the transition of political power in Kabul was accompanied by bloodshed. This is an experience that millions of Afghans share. Given this violent past our present democracy does represent a change for the better despite all its shortcomings. Afghans have learned over the last eight years that political leadership can no longer be gained by force. This is a reality that is hard to understand unless one has lived in Afghanistan, and has experienced the many violent changes of power first hand. Even until as recently as eight years ago, overthrowing the regime in Kabul by using violence was considered normal, if not natural. If in the short period of eight years, Afghanistan has learned to embark on two elections with people risking their lives to cast their votes this war is most certainly not a lost cause. Afghans have proven themselves as quick learners, easily adapting the global standards of civilized politics. Dismissing this success is not only unfair, but also amounts to making a mockery of those who cast their votes despite widespread threats.

As the government in Kabul is preparing for a new term, the international community’s 'warnings' have increased tension in the country. But at this moment, it’s essential for both sides to act responsibly and make joint efforts. It’s equally crucial for the international community to respect Afghans and bear in mind the country’s conditions when formulating their expectations of Afghanistan. The international community’s contradictory policies have confused Afghans. For example, the United States and its allies are fighting a war to save the world from terrorist attacks and are trying to strengthen the Afghan government to help protect its people. Afghans appreciate this cooperation but find it unsettling when the same international community threatens their government with withdrawing support or reducing the provision of resources to the country. The international media is quick to politicize such policy debates but it is the militants who ultimately take advantage of the growing mistrust between Kabul and its international allies. They win the propaganda war.

Similarly discouraging for the Afghan public is the United Nations’ recent decision to relocate 600 of its international staff because the move shows that despite its undeniable commitment to Afghanistan, the UN is nonetheless ready to pull out immediately if it feels that the safety of its staff is compromised. But the truth is that the whole of Afghanistan is presently under threat. The United Nations’ sudden pull out might not have a significant impact on development or reconstruction efforts but on the propaganda war front, the move can easily be interpreted as another victory for militants, not only in Afghanistan but also in its neighboring regions. Once again, the militants win the propaganda war.

Given this situation, I believe that reflection on and assessment of the current challenges and finding solutions for them should be a starting point for both the Afghan government and its international allies as they embark on another five years of partnership. A partnership that requires both parties to listen to each other, and look at issues from a realistic ground perspective. The international community needs to draw its lessons from the mistakes of the past eight years in three main areas, diplomacy, defense and development. In terms of diplomacy, the Afghan government should be listened to, understood and respected. Afghanistan needs to be understood in its own terms, by taking into consideration its geopolitical context, rather than from the simplified perspective of a place susceptible to accommodating terrorists and insurgents. The international community has been looking at Afghanistan from the perspective of its Pakistani neighbor without paying attention to the history of conflict between the two countries which renders Islamabad a hardly impartial advisor. But Afghans now can be hopeful on the defense front because the new US approach has re-evaluated the situation through General Crystal's much more realistic lens. The general's efforts to understand Afghanistan is key for adopting the right strategy in fighting terrorism and insurgency in the country and the border regions. However, the General should bear in mind that an increase in the number of troops alone is not enough to win this war. The recent attack on British soldiers by an Afghan police has revealed that there are problems in the Afghan police force that have so far been ignored. The incident might be isolated and not part of an organized pattern of resistance to the foreign forces, but it definitely has made Afghans think that were service in the police and army force compulsory (as it used to be in the past), we would have been in a better security situation now. This is because compulsory police service would mean that all Afghans would have a family member in the police and army force and hence feel a sense of ownership of the war. The Afghan army and police’s morale is low partly because Afghans feel that their lives are viewed as less valued than the lives of their Western counterparts. The fact that investigation into hundreds of civilian deaths rarely results in improvement of the situation has not helped either. People continue complaining that sporting a long beard, wearing a turban and being dressed in baggy shirts and trousers does not automatically qualify them as insurgents. But many cases of arrests on the basis of such misconception are still pending in Bagram airbase and even in Guantanamo Bay. Afghan journalists risk their lives to protect their international colleagues in many instances, but we hardly ever hear their stories. Why? All these examples question the very basic notion of our humanity. Are we Afghans regarded as lesser human beings?

Development aid is an equally controversial issue and one can hardly argue for its effectiveness be it as carried out through international NGOs, the government, or the UN. The UN mission in Afghanistan is supposed to be that of a coordinating body, overseeing the international aid that comes to Afghanistan through donor countries who each allocate aid as per their own country’s strategy. But so far, the UN mission has proven itself unable to pull together all strings of funding mechanisms for Afghanistan. Surveys conducted in Afghanistan show that only a fraction of the aid remains in Afghanistan as a large part of it is used to pay for the salaries of non-Afghan experts. Contracts usually go to international private companies and even the international coalition forces award their projects to such companies. I recently read a 136-page application form for a coalition forces project that aimed at building a facility in Afghanistan and it took me almost a whole week to understand the project’s requirements. This makes it hard to believe that development aid is there to promote Afghan resources and give Afghans a sense of ownership. Given the present crisis of development aid accountability, the UN’s warning the Afghan government to provide evidence of accountability in governance or else face a withdrawal of support can reasonably be viewed as unfair. The lack of local capacity is often simply an excuse for outsourcing development work. The UN should be a role model of accountability and effectiveness so that Afghans can learn from them. This, however, is not possible at the moment. So for example, millions of aid dollars were spent in developing the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) drafted by Afghan international expatriates but the strategy has not yet hit its basic indicators of 2008 (its first year of implementation). This is another example of aid ineffectiveness in the country. Many argue that the ANDS reads like a cut-paste version of Cambodia's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper.

The UN rightfully expects the Afghan government to remove 'war lords and power brokers' from the government but fails to offer an alternative. UNAMA's transitional justice initiative died before it got any momentum, allowing war lords and strongmen to remain in power. Some argue ,this had put President Karzai in a difficult position and he has been holding together warlords because sidelining them would lead to rebellion and ultimately a civil war. This is especially the case when the figures in question have strong tribal ties and wield regional power. Would the UN be willing to start working on a new transitional justice initiative together with Afghan government in line with global justice mechanisms in the next five years? The UN should understand that the president has no choice but to accommodate strongmen and warlords for the sake of stability especially in present circumstances when the international coalition is no longer sure about their involvement in this war.

Considering these lessons learned, the Afghan government does bear the brunt of responsibility and Afghans expect their new government to live up to their and the intentional community' expectations this term. Afghans have for many years been questioning the government’s corruption, the lack of justice and the inefficiency of aid provision on the streets of Kabul and elsewhere in the provinces but their voices usually do not make it to the international media. The demand for a better government and justice isn't the international community's expectation alone, Afghans share this sentiment. While there’s no doubt that Kabul and its international allies have had problems, this does not justify dismissing the undeniable achievements made in the past eight years. There’s still hope and the present problems are simply part of growing pains for both Kabul and its allies.

The forgotten Perspective: For London Conference

These days the news about Afghanistan actually starts and ends with the London Conference and its expected outcomes. Around 70 countries of the world, as allies of the Afghan war and mission are going to attend the Conference and seek new or maybe promote the old ways of dealing with the Afghanistan conflict. However, there is another perspective to this conflict. A perspective that is overlooked as it isn’t of any threat but provides opportunities and its gateway towards ending the Afghan conflict. That is the forgotten perspective of Human Rights, not the International Declaration of Human Rights, nor the United Nations Coventions but the rights of an Afghan, an ordinary Afghan man and woman who is also countering insurgency. The insurgency of increased radicalization, the insurgency of poverty and the insurgency of injustice.

There is growing concern among Afghan civil society activists that the international community has lost interest in helping to promote democratic values, including human rights, in Afghanistan. It appears that support for human rights values in Afghanistan has been simply a political stance that has served its purpose at times of convenience and is now being disregarded. In the early years of the Afghan mission, popular rhetoric was all about the struggle to protect human rights, and to promote women's participation in the political sphere. Afghans were encouraged to work on building democratic institutions and value-based governance as viable alternatives to fighting terrorism and extremism. Since then, as Afghan activists and campaigners of women's and human rights we have worked hard to promote these values in our communities, often risking our lives in the process. We did so willingly because we believe that human rights are critical for a viable peaceful Afghan society. They are not a luxury of western societies but a necessity for a world at peace. The people of Afghanistan have come to understand this from their painful experience of the country’s wars which were not only the result of foreign occupation but also injustice and inequality in society. We also understand that like any other culture, our culture has room for positive change rooted in Afghans values of consultation and Islamic values of human equality. But in our struggle we were faced with backlash from some parts of our society who influenced by cultural identity politics regard human rights as a set of exclusively Western values with no relevance in Afghanistan. The fact that we had no option but to rely on financial support offered by Western democracies encouraged them to view us as a people who are paid to promote Western values in a traditional society.

But in spite of threats of violence and pressure to conform to traditional values, such was our commitment to the values of human and women’s rights that we made incredible achievements. We succeeded in enshrining human rights values within the government’s structure and conducted effective public policy campaigns with the financial support of the international community. Just as Taliban die for their goal of setting up a backward theocracy in the country, Afghan human rights have been equally ready to take great risk for their convictions. A number of Afghan agents of change lost their lives in their struggle for the protection and advocacy of women's rights and human rights in the country. From Safia Ama jan, the Director of Women's Affairs in Kandahar who fought for a women's right institution within the government structures in the conservative region of Kandahar, to Malalai Kakar, the most senior woman police office who protected women's rights and achieved a high rank in the most difficult region of the country, to our journalists who were killed for promoting the freedom of speech to our aid workers who lost their lives while bringing development to the local communities, the list of Afghans who fought and died for human rights is long. But the stories of these unsung heroes of human rights are often overshadowed by the exotic images of the Taliban, creating a distorted picture of the country. If the Taliban are Afghans fighting for a certain set of values, so are the country’s human rights activists. They are equally Afghan and equally courageous. But while the Taliban have been given much attention in the global media because they pose a direct threat to foreign troops, human rights activists have been largely ignored even though their presence in the country is equally important, if not vital. The fact is that if we don’t continue with our mission, in fifty years the average life expectancy in Afghanistan is likely to remain at 44, a disgrace in the globally interconnected world of the 21 century. This is not to mention the other consequences of keeping Afghanistan as it is which include an oppressive regime, a weak economy and as a result mass migration putting even more pressure on developed countries to accept political refugees and economic immigrant.

But the Taliban have hijacked the news and the country’s image, and support for Afghanistan has now shifted to the insurgency. While in the early years, the international community contributed towards stabilizing Afghanistan through democracy and development to enable us to fight the Taliban and eventually terrorism and al’Qaida, in more recent times attention has shifted from a humane approach to a more aggressive military response with the sole purpose of tackling Al-qaida and "finishing the job". By contrast to the early promises of commitment, present foreign policy debates assume as a matter of fact that the international community has no long term interest in Afghanistan but is there only to fight and dismantle Al-qaida structures and so protect their national security.

It’s obvious that human rights activism has been tremendously affected by the current lack of interest and the international community’s shift of focus away from the struggle for democracy. In the past, the International community supported civil society and human rights struggles even if it meant confronting the government of Afghanistan for human rights violations, even daring to call acts of the government 'abhorrent'. But this is no longer the case. The bulk of funding is now allocated to a military response and as a result, Afghan human rights activists and advocates are now under threat, more than ever before. Our movement is authentically Afghan but the fact remains that like the rest of the country, we rely on foreign support to carry on our struggle.

As Afghan civil society activists we believe that the only viable way to fight terrorism and extremism for good rather than to curb it temporarily by military means is to alleviate poverty and illiteracy and to promote a response and service delivery function within the Afghan government. This strategy would not only be less costly, but would also be sustainable and practical because it would empower Afghans through education and resources, helping them become a self-reliant nation no longer in need to international troops to defend the country against extremism. Given that the cost of one soldier fighting in Afghanistan can easily be as high as a million, the money would be better spent on creating support and infrastructure for an authentic Afghan civil society. Once again, it only remains a hope that the international community and donors will be able to look at this conflict from our own eyes.