Recent reports from Afghanistan by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International are a discomforting reminder of the old French adage â€œplus Ã§a change â€¦.â€. Implying that â€œthe more apparent the change, the more it essentially remains the sameâ€, the maxim likely describes the post-Taliban sentiments of ordinary Afghans stricken with violence and misogyny in the countryâ€™s southeast.
According to HRW, the experience in the southeast is emblematic of what is happening throughout the country; soldiers, police and intelligence agents committing brutal theft, extortion, and kidnap, government authorities attacking rival politicians and journalists, and a rampant militia raping and abducting women and children. According to Amnesty, Afghanistan was left lawless in the wake of 23 years of war, but at the same time discrimination against the countryâ€™s women was traditionally embedded within both the formal and informal criminal justice systems.
HRW sees Afghanistan’s infamous warlords as the problem. Most are remnants of the late Ahmad Shah Masood’s United Front, a patchwork of the mujahideen or holy warrior factions which is today known as the Northern Alliance. Bankrolled by the US, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Masood’s forces overthrew the Soviet-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah in 1992, but introduced unprecedented terror to Afghanistan until ousted by the Taliban in 1996. In HRWâ€˜s words, â€œ.. past and current support for local forces by the U.S. government, along with support by Pakistani and Iranian government agencies, has done much to entrench the warlords responsible for the worst abusesâ€.
Pointing the finger at the US Administration of President George Bush, and to some extent at the country’s US-imposed President Hamid Karzai, HRW chides Washington for propelling the Northern Alliance back into power, and the Karzai-led Transitional Administration for failing to disenfranchise the warlords. Amnesty also sees the de facto rule of armed factions, together with ineffective governmental control outside of Kabul, as impediments to the countryâ€™s rule of law, but instead censures the international community for failing to provide political and financial support for Afghanistanâ€™s judicial reform process.
The overall impact of lawlessness is starkly obvious. Pre the US-led bombing of Afghanistan, President Bush, alongwith British and Australian Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Howard, promised Afghans, specifically citing the plight of the country’s women and girls, liberty. Peace and democracy were the promises reiterated at the 2002 loya jirga which constructed the current Kabul regime under Karzai’s leadership.
Today those promises remain a distant dream, as does the country’s reconstruction, and re-established justice. At the heart of the nightmare, troops and police loyal to Afghan political and military figures have taken over the country’s major cities and villages. Domestic intrusions, usually at night, see residents held hostage, terrorized, assaulted, and robbed. Not infrequently, women and girls are raped by the armed intruders. Outside their homes, Afghans face extortion at proliferating official and unofficial checkpoints. The rape of women, girls, and also boys, is common but seldom reported.
Amnesty documents the lock out of women by Afghanistanâ€˜s justice system. Even in serious cases of domestic assault, offences are not regarded as criminal by either the police or the courts. When it comes to rape, investigators are without forensic facilities. Victims are instead subjected to virginity tests, and risk counter prosecution for â€œunlawfulâ€ sexual activity. Complaints of forced and/or underage marriage, both crimes under Afghan national law, risk death, referred to as honour killing, at the hands of family.
With the October 2003 Constitutional loya jirga and the June 2004 national election looming, high-level officials in Kabul and warlord commanders in the south-east have harassed, threatened, arrested and beaten journalists, and human and women’s rights advocates, into silence. Those attempting to establish political parties and non-government organisations have met similar fates. The media too has been silenced; radio stations broadcast to most cities, but almost all are under the control of warlord/Northern Alliance-affiliated authorities.
One ex-journalist informed HRW that he had ceased trying to work in media: â€œI prefer working as a rickshaw driver rather than a journalist. Because here in my taxi, to some extent, I am by myself and independent. Journalists, however, have no securityâ€. This manâ€™s fears were borne out by the experience of the editor and deputy editor of the Kabul-based weekly Aftab (The Sun). Arrested on the orders of Afghanistanâ€™s chief justice, with the approval of Hamid Karzai, in June on charges of blasphemy, both were sentenced to death by August.
A supreme court judge has since informed Reporters Without Borders that the punishment handed down is â€œabove the law”. Aftab, the journal which contained the offending article “Holy Fascism”, has remained closed since June 11.
Women and girls interviewed by HRW admitted that life in 2003 was better than that under the Taliban. Regulations barring women and girls from studying, working and going outside without wearing a burqa or unaccompanied by a close male relative are gone. But while one million girls are enrolled in school, millions more are not. Many families told HRW that they declined to send their older girls to school, even where one was available, for fear that they might be attacked or kidnapped. Returning refugee families who felt it safe to send their girls to school in Pakistan or Iran said they were afraid to do the same in Afghanistan. Others told of government officials threatening to beat or kill women not wearing a burqa in Jalalabad and Laghman.
Some felt the orders to actively discourage girls from attending school came directly from Abdul Rabb al Rasul Sayyaf and Burhanuddin Rabbani, both former United Front leaders whose appalling persecution of women pre-dated the Taliban’s atrocities.
HRW reports that the fear prevailing in Afghanistan stems as much from past abuses committed by the Northern Alliance in the pre-Taliban days as it does from current abuses. As one woman explained â€œWe are afraid because we remember the pastâ€œ. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan issued the same message immediately after September 11 2001 â€œToday, the US sharpens the dagger of the Northern Alliance, a policy which plunges our people into immense fear of re-experiencing the dreadful happenings of the years of the Jihadis’ emirateâ€.
Almost two years on, the Taliban vanquished, 5,000-odd Afghan civilians dead as a result of the US-led invasion of 2001, Afghans clearly comprehend plus Ã§a change …….. Back in 1996,in response to the Northern Allianceâ€™s ousting of the Sovietâ€™s puppet regime, their prayer became â€œPlease God, take away your seven donkeys [the seven mujahideen factions], and give us back our cow [the obese Soviet-backed Mohammad Najibullah]”. In 2003, that prayer may well be revamped to read â€œPlease Mr President take away your remnant donkeys, and give us back our ignorant swine [the Taliban]â€!
[Dr Lynette Dumble is the international co-ordinator and director of the Global Sisterhood Network.]