Kabul Days (4)


Hossein Shahidi
by Hossein Shahidi

PARTS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38

Monday, 24 February 2003

Work is getting more and more serious. Today, and for the rest of week, we’ll be trying to get the media in Kabul interested in the Women’s Day celebrations. About 170 journals are said to be published in Kabul. Over the past two days, we have bought copies of around 70 of them.

A major breakthrough today was the installation of some new software on our computers, but we still do not have Persian or Pashto programmes. And a humbling experience was a meeting with a man from Jalalabad, the centre of much fighting over the past many years. He had produced a flyer for his charity educational institute, very much like the one we’re trying to produce for UNIFEM, in excellent quality. If we cannot produce something at least as good, I shall be very embarrassed. My vanity aside, it is great that Afghans have such skills and talents, in spite of everything they’ve been through.

There was then a meeting at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, with decisions emerging slowly from the midst of long discussions which, to the uninitiated, may have appeared pointless. A few days ago there was a problem with the Minister of Women’s Affairs appearing to face obstacles in getting her budget request through. Today we heard that she had given a long presentation to the Minister of Finance, Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. This is a very important sign, and she is also due to present her case to the whole cabinet.

I spent the rest of the day editing some leaflets about the importance of including women’s rights in the budget analysis and how trade relations could be organised to give women an equal chance in the economy. In the evening, I went through the 70 or so newspapers that we have bought. Some are of very good quality - print, paper, content. But many are two- or four-page leaflets obviously struggling with their budget. This means the material is not of very high quality, the paper cannot be published regularly, and copies remain unsold for months.

It is in such conditions that we have to try to advance women’s rights through the media. But if it had not been like this, what would I and other foreigners be doing here, at monthly salaries more than most Afghans earn in a year, with four-by-fours taking us around the town, our comfortable guest houses and, in lucky cases like us, wonderful cooks?

Tuesday, 25 February 2003

I don’t know what kind of weather you’re having, but here in Kabul, it seems to be getting drier, if Monday was anything to go by. The problem is that without the rain, the diesel fumes form a blanket over Kabul. Still, this is small discomfort considering all the difficulties the people of Afghanistan still continue to suffer from. Some forecasts say still more rain and snow is on the way.

The day went smoothly. First there was a fruitful discussion of – yes - the 8 March events, at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. I spent the rest of the day editing leaflets on gender – which broadly means the social relationship between men and women; gender training, or making people aware of the raw deal that women get; and gender mainstreaming, which means getting people other than women’s rights activists and academics to take a critical look at the relations between men and women and try to bring about true equality.

In the morning, I had a visitor, an Afghan gentleman with about twenty years of publishing experience in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, who wants to translate UNIFEM’s report on the effects of war on women. It was the third male visitor I had had in two days volunteering to promote women’s rights. Every time I have to explain that much as their efforts are appreciated, they would really need to get women themselves involved. All three men have accepted the argument and I hope that in addition to advocacy, which we’re all supposed to do, they will really do something to empower women.

But the most exciting news was that the European TV journalists who’ve been training Afghan women have taken up our suggestion for their trainees to make a documentary on the week-long International Women’s Day celebrations. They themselves are also excited about this. This evening, we’re going to their office for the first screening of an hour-long documentary that the Afghan trainees have made. The trainers said that in the West, TV trainees usually shoot their first real pieces after six months of training. The Afghan women had done it after two months, and what I have already seen is very impressive. (For detailed accounts of the training and the film, see, Afghanistan Unveiled, 2003.)

Newswise, the day began with leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement at a meeting in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, expressing opposition to a US-British attack on Iraq. In the evening, the US and Britain were saying they were putting forward a UN resolution to allow them to do just that. But you know all about that, so I’ll spare you a rehash. As usual, let’s hope there won’t be a war.

But let me end with a happy, work-related, story. A few days after I had arrived, I went to an information strategy meeting where we were asked for ideas on how raise the UN’s profile as well as support for the Afghan government, backing from the aid donors, and the attention of the media. Having looked at the latest UN report for its activities in Afghanistan, I noticed that the photograph on the cover and several others inside the report, about one-third of all the pictures, were those of women or girls, but the report made no reference to anything having been done for them.

So I said the best way to achieve all four objectives would be for the UN to work for women and to report it clearly. I said women’s rights was a subject that would cut across political, religious and ethnic rights, and since women are one half the population, they would be encouraged to support the government.

Yesterday, when the latest report came in, I noticed that it had more than a page devoted to women, towards the end of the report, under the title ‘cross-cutting’ – though I am not claiming that the word was picked up from what I said. I myself would not have used it in such a report. Also, one-hundred per cent of the images on the cover were those of women. Well, alright, there was only one picture, but it was significant that it was a woman’s picture. Hopefully the next edition will have more information about women, nearer the front cover.

Wednesday, 26 February 2003

Today I’ll tell you only stories. One sad, and the other one with both sad and happy faces.

Ashraf, the gentleman who guards our house during the day is a man in his mid-forties, with a very gentle face, kind eyes and a very dignified appearance. But what struck me about him from the very first was the sad look on his face. Then there was the observation, whenever I saw him at home, that he would pace up and down the little garden of the house, which I have described before and looks like the gardens in many Tehran houses. The way he walks around the garden looks very much like what a prisoner would do.

In fact, Ashraf is a prisoner in this house, not having anything to do, especially since he is a car mechanic by trade and his skills are not being used. Yesterday, before leaving home, I had a short chat with him. He told me that he has six children, ages 4 to 17; and that he had stayed in Afghanistan throughout the past twenty-three years, not having had any relatives in any other country. He had learned to be a car mechanic working with his father, who had been the mechanic at the same UN compound where our office is now located, but which had been called something else in those days.

Ashraf had then started his own car repair shop in West Kabul, the area I have already written about, which was destroyed in the faction wars. One of his brothers had been killed in the fighting. His house had also been destroyed – not once, but three times - forcing them to change houses each time. His eldest child, a son, was in year eight at school, having had to quit school under the Taliban because of bullying by the children of the powerful commanders of the armed groups.

Ashraf has been working at the guest house for two months. I did not ask him how much he earns, but it cannot be more than a few hundred dollars per month – which by today’s Afghanistan standards might even be high. When I asked him about the best part that he could recall over the past twenty-three years, he said it had been the years when Dr Najib had been president. At that time, there had been some law and order and people had been able to make a living. It was the second time in a few days I was hearing this.

Dr Mohammad Najibullah, better known as Dr Najib, was the chief of intelligence of the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan’s People’s Democratic Party and became president shortly before the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Three years after the Soviets had left Afghanistan, Dr Najib was overthrown by the Mojajhedin who then fought amongst themselves for four years, until they were defeated by the Taliban. During the Mojahedin era, Dr Najib was a refugee in the UN compound. When the Taliban took over, they dragged him out and killed him, in a gruesome fashion.

[Dr Najib was killed alongside his brother, Shahpur Ahmadzai, and their bodies were hanged in public. For details, see ‘All aboard for a historical trip to Kabul's possible future’, The Daily Maverick, 9 October 2010. The abduction and killings were condemned by the United Nations General Assembly in resolution 51/108, ‘Situation of human rights in Afghanistan’, 12 December 1996’.]

Now, on to the sad but also happy story. In the evening we went to the Aina Center for the premiere of the TV documentary shot by the Afghan camerawomen who’ve been trained there. It was a moving account of the sufferings of the people of Afghanistan, especially the Hazaras of Bamyan. After many of them had been killed and their houses destroyed by the Taliban, they were forced to live in caves in the mountains where the two gigantic statues of Buddha used to stand, before they too were destroyed by the Taliban.

While there was international fury over the destruction of the statues, so far there has been very little, if any, coverage of the misery of the people of Bamyan. The Afghan camerawomen’s film, with direction and support from the European team, had produced a graphic report on the lives of the people who said they were surviving on onions and potatoes and would not see meat for months on end. One woman in the film rolled up her trouser to show there was no ‘meat’, or muscles, on her leg.

The camerawomen also travelled to several other devastated and poor areas with malnourished people, and to Badakhshan in the north, where some at least have become rich by growing the opium poppy. One interviewee said the poppy would make even a woman rich enough so she could buy a car, something she could not do by growing wheat.

The young camerawomen themselves were filmed crying while conducting the interviews. But the happy side of the event was their performance, telling the world what is happening in their land, and how much talent, courage, and perseverance Afghan women have. Two of the camerawomen are now going to Germany – their first trip outside Afghanistan. After the film, another young camerawoman said they were setting up an association to help the poor people of Bamyan.

The youngest member of the group spoke, eloquently, on behalf of all of them, describing their experience and praising their trainers. The European trainers themselves spoke highly of the camerawomen, their colleagues from Afghanistan, and of the founder of Aina, Reza Deghati.

Thursday, 27 February 2003

Another week is coming to an end, with our team seeming to get their act together for the women’s celebrations, meetings, workshops and exhibitions in the first two weeks of March. The preparations took almost all my time yesterday. In fact it took more than all my day, because I finished work at 1030pm, translating a document on ‘gender responsive budgeting’ from English into Persian.

I also edited a few English texts and had them translated into Persian and Pashto by a very kind and knowledgeable gentleman working in an office which is in charge of coordinating the aid that comes in to Afghanistan. Like all the people I have seen here, he is skilful, committed and very modest.

This afternoon I’m going to the BBC office to discuss radio journalism with their producers. They are in fact quite good and samples of their output that have been sent to me are very impressive, so I think we’ll have more of an exchange of views than teaching. On Friday, we’re planning to visit Bagh-e Zanana which is being revived by UNESCO. My colleagues also want to be involved and plant 1,000 trees there. I thought it would be useful to visit the park first to see if you can actually plant so many trees in that garden.


Recently by Hossein ShahidiCommentsDate
Welcome to Herat
Oct 13, 2012
Kabul Days (38)
Oct 13, 2012
Kabul Days (37)
Oct 05, 2012
more from Hossein Shahidi