The Nowrouz Invasion
Monday, 17 March 2003
Tonight is even stranger than last night. In about three hours, President Bush is expected to appear on television and give President Saddam Hussein a few hours to pack up and go, otherwise he will do something that would force us in Kabul to stay indoors for forty-eight hours – as we have been advised by our security officers – to wait and see what happens. Of course no one seems to have any idea what might happen next – at least not in our part of the world.
Completely oblivious to such momentous developments, we held a gender discussion at the office this afternoon, attended by all twenty-five of us – nine men. We discussed gender inequality, its symptoms and causes and how it can be eliminated. In the end all of us were more enlightened about the pressures that are imposed on women because of motherhood, and there was agreement among all men that women should have the right to work outside the house. The organiser of the meeting, Ermie, did point out that increasingly women were seeking employment outside the home both because of the desire to be more active socially, and because it was becoming more difficult for one breadwinner to meet all the needs of a household.
It was a jolly event and brought all the staff together for the first time, so we got to learn more about each other, including the fact that except for four of us – two drivers and two cleaners – everybody else was in a way a newcomer to Kabul, either having come back from exile in Pakistan, or from abroad, like us ‘internationals’. This does put our quick agreement in a different perspective – accepting such a thought might be easier for ‘newcomers’. Only this morning on the radio, I heard a male journalist saying that 90 to 95 per cent of the top government officials did not really believe in women’s equality, in spite of the statements in support of women that have been made by almost everybody these past few weeks.
On the plus side, UNIFEM seems to be getting better known, and this might help the message of women’s equality spread further into the country. Today we had a visit from two Radio Azadi journalists who interviewed our colleagues and went away very happy. We have already had several visits or contacts with the BBC Persian/Pashto service who have covered UNIFEM’s activities in a weekly programme. They would like to make a series of programmes based on the ideas presented in the UNIFEM literature that we’ve sent to the media, including gender-sensitive budgeting and women’s participation in the economy.
Over the next couple of days, our team will be producing a plan for our activities for April and May. One idea that we have proposed is to set up a UNIFEM-Kabul website. Afghan women’s groups have set up some of the best looking sites I have seen and something like that for UNIFEM would be a great attraction. There is enough talent and interest in our own office to make this a feasible project.
Tuesday, 18 March 2003
We’re nearly 24 hours into the deadline. Appropriately, today was the most overcast I’ve seen in Kabul. It began quite foggy, with the exhaust fumes closer to the ground than ever before. The roads were unusually crowded – largely because the slightly limited vision slowed the traffic. At the office, one of the first things we did was to bid farewell to two colleagues who were going on leave – to Turkey and the Philippines.
In the afternoon, I took a walk round our compound with my Nepali colleague, one of the first UNIFEM staff members to arrive here last April. At that time, she told me, UNIFEM consisted of one room, one chair and one computer shared by two people. Nearly a year later, we’re about twenty-five, in a nice six-room house, with a kolah-farangui, a full set of office and reception furniture and some fifteen computers with internet connection. At this rate of growth, by next Nowrouz we should have offices in many parts of Afghanistan, reaching women in poor areas of the country, who should be the main recipients of support.
The UNDP compound, looking a lot tidier and cleaner than six weeks ago, was also a lot quieter than I had seen it. At lunchtime, Sahel-e-Sabz too was a lot quieter than usual, even though most tables were full. It was clearly the effect of the impending war on Iraq. Our Afghan colleagues do not talk about it often, except to say that if it were to happen, Afghanistan would suffer. By the end of the day, we had received a statement from a group called Rights and Democracy which said fighting was not the way to bring about democracy anywhere.
In spite of the low key public response, our security officials are concerned that an attack on Iraq would lead to violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have once again been advised to stay in our residences for 48 hours if war does break out. At our office, Thursday has been declared a day off anyway. With Friday included, we should be covered for the 48 hours, and by Saturday we should know where we stand.
Wednesday, 19 March 2003
Bright and pleasant, real spring weather. I’ve just stopped watching a Security Council session which seemed very much like a majlis-e khatm for the Council, although I still hope that in next few hours something – I don’t know what – will happen to avoid a war. In the absence of that ‘something’, we have gone into ‘protection’ mode, prepared for staying indoors for 48 hours starting tomorrow, which for our office is a day off, in preparation for Nowrouz.
Our 4x4 is parked in the courtyard of our house, just in case the city goes chaotic and we need to get out and head for the airport or somewhere. But our drivers who live much further away cannot make it to the guest house. The sight of one of us driving a Land Cruiser down the streets of Kabul must be very interesting – especially since the only place we know to drive to is the UNDP compound, to which we should also be able to walk, though not with the 15 kilo bags we are allowed to take along for evacuation to Tashkent.
But such thoughts were far from our minds for most of the day. With Nowrouz approaching, Kabul municipality has put up simple but touching banners greeting the New Year and describing its celebration as a sign of Afghanistan’s authentic culture. We had a great day at the office, with a big lunch brought over from Sahel-e Sabz – soup, big bowls of salad, mounds of rice and kebab, juicy barbecued chicken and large plates of firni (semolina), and lots of fruits.
All this took a little time to prepare. Decorations were put on the ceiling, chairs and tables were cleared and desks put together to create a dining table, with a white table-cloth. A very young, and smart, translator who has just joined us and has a beautiful handwriting wrote Happy New Year and Happy Nowrouz on large sheets of paper that were put on the walls. And the reception room was turned into a real otaq paziraie. Music was put on, Nowrouz gifts were handed out, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.
In the afternoon, I and my colleagues Khalid and Halima went to visit Jamila Mujahid, the television presenter and magazine publisher I have written about. She had been sent home after the Taliban took over in 1996, but stayed in the country, as she had after the other Islamist groups, the Mojahedin, had captured Kabul in 1992. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she was called back to the TV station to announce the news that they had gone. A few months later she started her magazine, Malalai, named after an Afghan girl who had a leading role in a successful fight against the British in 1880.
During the five years under Taliban, Jamila Mujahid raised her four children, ran secret education classes and wrote reports for publication abroad, under pen names, but still very dangerous. Today, she is Afghanistan’s most famous journalist, without any of the pretence that might come with such a status. She’s well-spoken, but strong, frank and very courageous, an inspiration to anyone who meets her. She organised the Journalists’ Union’s celebration of the International Women’s Day two weeks ago, when a woman sang in public for the first time in ten years in Afghanistan. She was later criticised by some Moslem figures, but was able to persuade them that singing was not immoral.
We discussed a range of activities that could help Afghan women in general and women journalists in particular. She told us of her visits to parts of the country where she had not expected to find any literate women, only to end up in meetings with more than 100 educated women: teachers, writers, poets and journalists, all eager to have women’s media in their areas. Jamila and her friends have set up radio station in Kabul, Sada-ye Zan (Woman’s Voice), which broadcasts music by women – banned on Afghanistan radio and TV – and discussions about women’s conditions, But the radio cannot be heard in some parts of Kabul, let alone beyond the capital. So, the women broadcasters are now thinking of nationwide radio station.
Jamila also wants to persuade women beggars to sell newspapers – as some former child beggars are doing already – so they would learn about trade and perhaps later start their own businesses. Another idea she has is to make wife-beating illegal and have any man who beats her wife ‘without reason’ beaten up as punishment. I asked her what the ‘reason’ for beating the wife could be. ‘Having an affair,’ she said, or ‘stealing from the husband.’ She said the beating of the guilty man had to be administered by the state, in keeping with the principle of qiasas, or retribution. We did agree, however, that it would be best to find a different punishment which did not involve a second round of beating.
Thursday, 20 March 2003
Nowrouz begins in a few hours. Kabul Radio and Voice of America’s Dari programme have been playing music and poetry in praise of spring. Another sign of Nowouz was the dried fruits table – the Afghan equivalent of haft seen - that Agha Sarwar made for us at lunch time, and the Nowrouz presents he gave us.
So much for Nowrouz this year. But there’s more: American troops are moving towards Iraq, and have been fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in several parts of Afghanistan. So by Sizdeh Bedar, both countries may look quite different, great pity for both nations who have suffered from war and uncertainty for more than two decades.
The Afghans have a lot of sympathy for the Iraqi people, as one of our staff was telling me today, when we were sitting out in the garden under the very pleasant sunshine. He was ten when the war broke out in Afghanistan. His father was shot dead one day when he had left home to buy bread. His mother died a few years later, because of high blood sugar. My friend was not able to go to high school, but was able to find a job with the government, which he kept for six years under the communist regime and for a short while after the Mojahedin took over.
A while later, his family home was bombed out completely during the fighting among the Mojajedin factions. He and his four brothers, and their aunt’s family, took refuge in Pakistan, living in a tent for four years, on a ration of a few kilos of wheat – which they had to have turned into flour and use for baking – and some modest supplies. They were then given a hut, and he made a living by working as a builder. He got married and fathered a daughter about two and a half years ago, and came back to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.
He had heard that those returning to the country could go back to their old jobs, but his job had ended up with someone else because, he said, ‘you need a connection’ and he did not have any. He, his wife and their daughter live in a rented room, without electricity and have to bring in buckets of water from some distance away several times a day.
My friend is like many other Afghan refugees who have come back, only to find that they have nothing, not even the meager rations and supplies provided by international agencies while they were in refugee camps. Some have been even less fortunate than my friend, finding themselves forced to set up tents in public parks, from which they were evacuated by Kabul municipality recently as it prepared for Nowrouz.
Listening to any of these accounts is enough to turn you jegar khoon, or bleed your liver, as they say in Afghanistan. But what makes it all the more painful is the realisation that their suffering was imposed on them by forces much bigger than themselves; that thanks to their modesty and perseverance, many of their needs can be met without extravagant expenditure; and that much of the resources that should be spent on helping them are being spent on wars in their country, and elsewhere in the region – wars that will kill, maim and uproot many more people.
Not a very happy thought on which the end the year. Maybe next year will be better. Tomorrow, Friday, will be our second 24 hours indoors, waiting to see what happens. On Saturday, I hope to have a better idea of when, or maybe if, I can fly out.
Happy Nowruz to you all
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