The Sixth Finger
Tuesday, 8 July 2003
The two brave sisters are no more.
Here in Kabul, security has once again become an important issue. You probably remember the warning about the black Toyota Corolla carrying lots of explosives and four men wearing white hats who were going to blow up something or someone in Kabul. Well, not only have the car and its conspicuous occupants not been found, but now there is the threat of ‘two suspicious motorcycles with white petrol tanks adorned with a red stripe’, that are reported to be in Kabul.
Once again, we have been asked to report the sightings of such motorbikes. I did see a black motorbike with a red petrol tank, ridden by a man with gelled hair and wearing very stylish sunglasses. But I guess he was more interested in capturing girls’ hearts than blowing up any military base or UN building.
Another curious item speaks of non-Afghans having registered themselves with Al Qaeda as volunteers to conduct suicide attacks against foreign and native VIPs. Thank God I am not a VIP of any sort and therefore unlikely to be attacked by these volunteers. If they exist, that is, at least in the shape described in the warning.
Imagine young people (Chechnya shows they could also be women) from around the world going to an office complex made up of caves in the mountains of Afghanistan to ‘register for suicide operations’. I wonder how many documents they need to produce – photographs, photocopies of passports, certificate of semtex proficiency – and how many officials would need to sign their forms before they are given an explosive belt.
But by far the most interesting piece of information on the security notice is its date: 30 June. This means that over the past 8 days, while our security chief was on holiday, we knew nothing about the ‘suspicious motorcycles’ roaming around Kabul and ‘non-Afghans’ filling forms to blow themselves and others up. We could well have been eliminated. Maybe we have been and don’t know it.
The aftershocks of the Aftab newspaper article continue to be felt, with more newspapers criticizing Mr Mahdavi and his friend, but I will spare you the details. I will share with you a very pithy remark in Rasana, or medium, the newspaper of the newly established Free Union of Afghan Journalists, which is in fact controlled by the opposition organisation, Jam’iyat-e Eslami.
The paper says the government has not done anything to support freedom of expression; the country’s newspapers are almost totally confined to Kabul; no newspaper has the financial power to stand on its own feet; suspicions about the sources of funding have led to lack of public confidence in the press; the government has created more financial problems for the independent newspapers by limiting their access to advertising; and journalists’ suggestions for changes to the press law have not been taken up by the authorities.
With all these restrictions, says the editorial, the independent press in Afghanistan should be described ‘not as the Fourth Estate, but as the sixth finger’.
Wednesday, 9 July 2003
Leaving Kabul University’s Faculty of Journalism, we were approached by a woman in burqa’ asking for money. This was the second time I had seen someone begging on official premises. The first case was a few weeks ago, with a disabled child seated by the main door of the radio and television building.
I have said before how painful it is to see people begging and how much more painful to stop yourself from paying them when you’re riding in a white UN 4×4, because if you pay one person, there will be no stopping the flow. What makes the experience much more painful is that our drivers who earn a fraction of what we do end up paying the beggars a little money.
After coming across child beggars and not finding it acceptable to pay them, what I have been doing has been to buy many copies of the excellent children’s magazine Parvaz, or flight, produced at the Aina Center, and give it to the children instead of money. The children love it and I feel happy because it’s something they can use, and something I can continue to do without feeling bad about it.
Today, I did the same thing and gave a copy of Parvaz to the woman at the University. Before I had had time to wind up the car window, she was approached by a student who took the magazine away from her, though standing by her, and went through it. I was not quite sure what was happening, but our driver, Ehsan, said the woman had called the student over to ask him what the magazine was about. Ehsan explained that some people are very suspicious of the ‘white vehicles’ and think people like us go around trying to turn Afghans away from their religion.
Obviously some foreigners here do that. Some aid organizations are said to be fronts for church missions, proselytizing vigourously. Elsewhere in the region, I’m told, local people cannot enroll for computer and language classes without first converting to the religion that is being promoted as part of the package. Still, I very much doubt that a children’s magazine produced in Afghanistan is likely to be seen, by university students, as part of anyone’s missionary kit.
In the afternoon, on our way to the TV station, we found the road blocked by a group of armed Afghan policemen, but they did let us through after we said who we were. Along the street there were many more policemen guarding the Pakistani Embassy, something they should have done yesterday when the Embassy was attacked and ransacked by hundreds of Afghans protesting against Pakistani army operations along the two countries’ borders, inside Afghan territory.
The operation has been going on for about a week now and Pakistani troops and tanks are reported to have crossed some 40 kilometers into Afghanistan. There has inevitably been fighting, but it is not very clear with whom. Some reports say Afghan troops have fought the Pakistanis, but the incursion is more likely to have been an attack against the Taliban bases in the area. It started soon after Pakistan’s President Musharaf came back from his visit to the United States and it is unlikely to have been carried out without US approval.
What is not clear is whether the Afghan government knew about the operation. Judging by Mr Karzai’s statement, he did not. He made a very strong attack against various powers that had interfered in Afghanistan’s affairs and tried to shape its territory to their own wishes. He said any power who did know of Afghan valour, would find out about it on the battle field:
Gar nadaani gheyrat-e Afghaniyam
Chon beh meydaan aamadi midaaniyam
Mr Karzai’s attack was obviously most sharply aimed at Pakistan, whose north-western borders with Afghanistan are based on the Durand Line drawn by a British official of the same name in 1893. It is widely believed in Afghanistan that the line was meant to be valid for 100 years and that the expiry of its validity would have become an issue in 1993, had the communist party remained in power in Afghanistan.
Conveniently for Pakistan, perhaps, the Mojahedin overthrew Afghanistan’s communist government in 1992, and then fought each other for 4 years before being overthrown by the Taliban who were supported by Pakistan. The Durand Line dispute was shelved under the Taliban, but has been referred to frequently in the press in recent times, especially since Mr Karzai’s speech.
One other thing that happened after the speech was the attack on the Pakistani Embassy. In another speech, Mr Karzai blamed the attack on the embassy on enemies of Afghanistan, apparently completely oblivious to the impact of his own words on the Afghan people. This episode is very similar to another one a couple of months ago when Mr Karzai first praised the majority of the Taliban, probably in an effort to cause a split among them, but then had to attack all the Taliban only a few days later, after lots of people in Afghanistan made angry statements recalling what the Taliban had done to the country.
What makes the more recent turnaround more interesting is that one of the political groups that organized the anti-Pakistani demonstration was the Afghan Mellat [Nation] Party, led by my own friend, the Governor of Central Bank, Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi. Mr Ahadi was pictured in the papers today standing in the middle of a crowd of his party activists, looking rather plump and pleased with himself, in a suit and tie and with a bottle of mineral water in his hand. I wonder what Mr Karzai will think when he sees the picture of this particular ‘enemy of Afghanistan’.
Thursday, 10 July 2003
There was another anti-Pakistani demo in Kabul today, but at the time I was at the TV station and do not know exactly what happened. There cannot have been another attack on the Pakistani embassy because it is closed. This must make life difficult for hundreds of Afghan nationals who used to queue up outside the Embassy every day to get visas to visit their relatives. There was a sign on the wall saying no visa fee would be collected from Afghan nationals. When I mentioned this sign one day, one of our friends said coolly this was because they could collect a lot more from them at the border.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Mellat (Nation) Party, led by my friend the Central Bank Governor, has denounced the attack on the Pakistani Embassy and has said that its own demonstration was peaceful. This can be taken at face value, but there is still the point that a protest in which such high level officials take part is highly likely to attract many others with the same passion about the cause, but with much less restraint. Therefore, at least some of the responsibility for what happened could rest with President Karzai and my friend, the Governor of the Central Bank.
Today, at long last the English version of our 8 March film was completed. It’s a good short documentary. The written report on the celebrations will take a few more weeks to come out. By then, maybe the first bulletin of our women journalists’ conference will also be published. And soon after that, the report of our first training course for working journalists at Kabul University. It already looks like a very interesting event and should produce a considerable amount of teaching material.
Friday, 11 July 2003
A fairly quiet Friday, except for the installation of very efficient and very quiet Korean air-conditioners at our guest-house. Another development project has been underway at the office to split our single bathroom into two, more suitable for a workforce of twenty-five, most of them women. The workmen have done a very good job and when they’re finished – by Sunday, they say – we should be the proud users of two of the best bathrooms in the UNDP compound.
When we were designing the expansion about two months ago, there was a moment of heated debate as to whether the bathrooms should be designated as male and female, out of consideration for women’s greater concern with cleanliness. For once, a minority – the five men in our office – were about the secure an advantage over the majority, having a bathroom of their own. But when the implications became clear, the decision was reversed. Expediency – having greater access to the bathroom – won over the conviction that women are cleaner creatures than men.
During the day, another team of quick and quiet Afghan workers came to the office and in about an hour polished all our desks. This has been my experience all the time here – skilled people, determined to do a good job and doing it without a fuss. No wonder Afghan workers are so popular with employers in Iran – it’s not just that they pay them less than their Iranian counterparts, but they get a lot of work, and better work, out of them.
Soon after the fall of the Taliban and the beginning of Western involvement in Afghanistan, a joke started going round Iranian circles which said it was now the turn of Iranians to seek refuge and work in Afghanistan. The one literal case of this nature – that of Aftab newspaper’s editor, Mr Payam-Sistani – may not prove the point, but the presence of other Iranians here, myself included, does give substance to that anecdote. Some of us are in Afghanistan doing what we could not do as easily in Iran.
At lunchtime I met another Iranian who works for UNDP, part of a team supporting the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, and three more who have come here as a team to audit how the Afghan government spends the aid it receives. Two of the three auditors had come from Iran, but the third from Holland, where he had sought asylum five or six years ago when he visited the country as a member of Iran’s national fencing team. Several members of the team did so and the defection was a relatively big Iranian story at the time. I never imagined I’d meet one of the dissident swordsmen, but such is the magic of Kabul that I now have.