Report From Afghanistan by Sonali Kolhatkar

“. . . If the news media covers something [about Afghanistan], donations pour in. If they stop covering it, donations go down. . . . Our donations have plummeted. A lot of projects [are] closing down.” — Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director, Afghan Women’s Mission

On Friday May 27, 2005 at Pasadena City College (PCC), Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of Afghan Women’s Mission and host/co-producer of KPFK’s Uprising (see: http://www.Uprisingradio.org ), gave a slide show presentation about her recent trip to Afghanistan. She emphasized the abysmal conditions there despite the U.S.’s much-touted liberation of that country.

Here is a transcript:

The event is being held in a large presentation room on the PCC campus. The audience consists almost entirely of young adults (presumably college students). Kolhatkar is introduced by the event’s organizer, a young man named Matthew Tiffany.

MATTHEW TIFFANY: Here today is Sonali Kolhatkar, if anybody doesn’t know her, she hosts a show on KPFK called Uprising [on] Monday through Friday from 8am to 9am. She’s great at what she does.

My name’s Matthew, I’m the president of a club called SAPA, [which] stands for Students Active in Political Affairs that’s here on campus working to educate our student body and surrounding community about what’s happening in our world politically. [For more information about this group, write to: iinideas@yahoo.com.] We’re encouraging people to become a part of it. I hope that everybody here that’s not already involved gets encouraged to become involved and share whatever you learn. So I’d like everybody to give a warm welcome to Sonali KolhatKar.

[Applause]

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Hi everyone. I too thank you for staying on a Friday afternoon when it is tempting to go home. I know how that is.

Since we’re a small group, let me start by asking how many of you think that the United States’ mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished, which was to overthrow the Taliban and to establish a free and democratic state with a liberated population of women and men and education for all, etc., etc.? Anyone? Anyone?

[No one raises their hand]

I get a sense of where you may stand. A lot of us don’t really don’t know what’s happening in Afganistan these days because most of us don’t hear about it in our newspapers or on TV. Lately it’s been in the news a little bit more because of the allegations made by Newsweek magazine that attracted a lot of attention [and] provoked outrage in the Muslim world, particularly in Afghanistan, over the desecration of the Koran. Then the Pentagon came out and denied that the allegations were confirmed. They didn’t deny the truth of the allegations, they just denied that the allegations were confirmed. This, of course, was an interesting doublespeak that was taking place. Subsequently and even prior to these allegations, Human Rights Watch and other organizations had determined that indeed such abuse was documented from testamonies of detainees who had been released. And it’s not just the desecration of the Koran, it’s a desecration of humans and the sanctity of the Afghan people.

So I went to Afghanistan this [last] February hoping to understand whether the drop in media coverage of Afghanistan corresponded to a drop in newsworthy events [there]. Maybe everything was just fine, and the media had good reason to focus its attentions elsewhere. I had never been to the country, although I had been working on this issue for about five years, doing solidarity work with Afghan women. It was a very, very important trip for me to take. I’m going share with you some images from that trip because I think it’s important for us to see these countries that are so far away from us but who are impacted so deeply by our policies and by the destruction wielded by our tax dollars.

[A slide is projected onto a screen behind her: an aerial view of Kabul, an unassuming city that displays some evidence of modernization. Snowcapped mountains can be seen nearby.]

This is the city of Kabul, [Afghanistan’s] capitol, from the sky. It’s the focus of most attention from the media, aid money from non-governmental organizations, as well as peace keeping troops. Consequently, it’s the most known about city. It is also relatively safer than the rest of the country.

[The next slide is a map of Afghanistan with an arrow tracing Kolhatgar’s trip across the country.]

I want to give you a little sense of where I went and also show you Afghanistan on a map [in relation to other countries]. Basically it lays in Central Asia. We often hear about Afghanistan being in the middle east. It’s not in the middle east, it’s in Central Asia. It is part of the Muslim world, just north of Pakistan and just east of Iran and just west of China. To the north are the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, etc. What we did was we flew into Kabul and then flew to Herat, the city in the west part of Afghanistan, which is close to the border with Iran. It’s a well-known city that a few months before [our visit] was being ruled by a very fundamentalist Taliban-like warlord, Ismail Khan. We also decided that we needed to visit the provinces in Afghanistan because there’s a huge difference between cities in Afganistan and provinces. The majority of the Afghan people live in rural provincial areas that get very little media attention, so it’s very important for us to see that. Interestingly enough, we had to drive from Herat up to Kabul because our flight was cancelled. It gave us just the merest hint of the danger and oppression that Afghan people still live with today. The drive was very dangerous. We were told not to do it; we were told not to look like foreigners if we did do it. I had to wear a burqa to cover myself up. It was a very interesting experience for me. I had never done that before. I didn’t know if I would live through the ride.

[She shows a slide of a heavily-clad man sitting in a car. His blue eyes can be seen through wrappings]

This was my husband who went with me. He had grown his hair out and had to wrap himself up in an Afghan shawl. We were told that there would be armed bandits [and that] there would be snow on the road. We were very lucky because the only armed men we encountered were the Afghan National Army. I’ve never been so happy to see a military person in my life! [Laughs]

[The next slide is the remains of a structure: several columns surrounded by snow.]

In Kabul, one of the first places we visited were the sites of the U.S. bombing. This was very important for me. I thought it was so important for me to witness the destruction wrought by our tax dollars in Afghanistan on the ground, what it looked like, and what were the places affected. This, of course, was done several years ago: the bombing began on October 7th, 2001. I liked to look at this scene as our tax dollars at work. It was very cold when we were there in February; it was snowing. This was near the airport in Kabul, but there were a lot of residential areas that had been bombed as well, like this house. [She shows a slide of an abandoned home]

These were people’s homes. Despite what the U.S. told us about precision bombing and smart bombing and compassionate bombing [smiles] or whatever they called it, somewhere between five to seven thousand Afghans–at least–lost their lives directly as a result of the bombing. That doesn’t even include the people who starved to death as a result of food aid being cut off because of the bombing. The bombing prevented aid agencies from taking food in during the winter months when communities in the mountainous regions were stranded. We’ll never know how many people died in that manner.

[Next slide: a three-story building that appears to be on the verge of collapse. Another slide shows the skeletal remains of what might have been an apartment building.]

I also visited areas in Kabul that looked like this. There are many, many buildings in Kabul that look like this. Over the years we’ve seen photographs of these buildings in our newspapers [presented] as results of Taliban destruction, but most of them are from the early ’90s, when U.S.-backed Mujahadeen fought one another in Kabul as soon as the Soviets had left. In that period, [between] 1992 and 1996, buildings were destroyed, and about 40,000 Afghans were killed in Kabul alone with U.S.-supplied weapons.

So the U.S. had supported these extremist factions in Afghanistan, who were fighting the jihad against the Soviet jihad. Although the jihad was very much a grassroots resistance, the U.S. chose to fund and fuel and arm only the most fundamentalist aspects of that movement, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who today is among the U.S.’s arch enemies. He has sworn to destroy the United States. But Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, through the CIA, got U.S. funding in the 1980s, and so did a number of these other Mujahadeen organizations. After the Soviets finally withdrew in the late ’80s, they replaced themselves with a puppet government. After that puppet government was overthrown, these U.S.-backed factions destroyed Kabul and many different parts of the country. This destruction is still there today for people to see. They rocket-shelled the city, fighting with one another for power. We’re seeing a similar scenario possibly emerging today. Many of the same figures, minus the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have emerged once more, have been reempowered, and have been given positions in the Afghan government. They could plunge the country into another war because they essentially want to be in charge. Some of them are saying to the U.S., “Thanks for toppling the Taliban, thanks for your bombs, but now leave so that we can be in charge.”

[New slide: election campaign posters showing a man astride a horse]

One of the men is Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord who was actually aligning himself with the Soviets at one point [and then] switched sides. He is famous for switching sides. These warlords are a very, very marginal part of Afghanistan’s population, a small group of extreme, radical men who have taken over the country. Sound familiar? [Laughter] So Abdu Rashid Dostum ran for president last year in Afghanistan’s first presidential elections. He is a man, who as many Afghans have told me, has his hands soaked in the blood of the Afghan people. These are his election campaign posters [which were] all across the city of Kabul. He considers himself a very heroic man.

How many of you have seen the documentary Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death? It became fairly well-known in Europe and was debuted on Democracy Now here in the United States (see: http://www.democracynow.org/afghanfilm.shtml ) and was shown around the country. It was [made] by Scottish journalist Jamie Doran and his Afghan colleague Najibullah Quraishi, and it documents the massacre of thousands of Taliban soldiers at the hands of Abdu Rashid Dostrum’s forces.

Death by container is a common means of mass murder for some of these warlords. They transported these Taliban in containers on trucks, stuffed them in like sardines, didn’t give them water or food, and thousands and thousands of them suffocated to death. Newsweek covered this extensively. The only question that Newsweek had was not Abdu Rashid Dostum’s connection to the crime but rather whether the U.S. soldiers were directly implicated or not, because U.S. soldiers were present. [The fact] that Dostum and his forces were guilty of this was not even in question. Well this man ran for president last year, and a few weeks after we left Afghanistan, he was appointed as the National Army Chief of Staff by President Hamid Karzai. So the people of Afghanistan live with this destruction every day, knowing that the men who participated in it over 10 years ago are now back in power in the government. Rather than being tried for war crimes, they are legitimized. Karzai justified this legitimization [by] saying he was nuetralizing the warlords or co-opting them. In October of last year, when the presidential election happened in Aghanistan, a lot of people came out and voted for Karzai, not necessarily because they thought that he was the best candidate they had or that they really looked up to him and thought he was going to save the country. I asked the Afghan people when I was there: “Why did you vote for Karzai? Do you think he has some connection to the U.S.?” And most Afghans said: “Oh yeah, he’s a U.S. puppet. We have no illusions about this.” And they said, “In your elections last year, did you vote for Kerry or Bush?” I said: ‘I can’t vote. I’m not a citizen yet, but my husband voted for Kerry, and most of my friends voted for Kerry.” “Well, is that because you liked Kerry or thought he was a perfect candidate?” I said, “No, in the United States we had this ‘anybody-but-Bush’ movement.” They said, “Yeah, we understand that because we had an ‘anybody-but-warlords’ approach to our election.”

Karzai, in his presidential campaign, in the interviews that he gave in all the press leading up to the elections, promised the people of Afghanistan that he would never compromise with warlords, he would never allow them power, and he would never work with them. He got elected with a 55% majority and a few months later began electing warlords to his cabinet. Ismail Khan, the then-governor of Herat, was made the Minister of Energy, and as I mentioned, Dostum was made the Army Chief of Staff. The Afghan people are extremely disillusioned and disappointed. I saw so much anger. All of the people that I talked to were uniformly upset that Karzai was breaking his promise to them. [New slide: a man in an office holding up a piece of paper saying, “A call for justice.”]

I met this man by the name of Nader Nadery. He is a spokesperson for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

So we know what the Afghan people don’t want: they dont want warlords in power, they don’t want warlords to be members of government. What do they want? The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission is a government-funded agency that did a very systematic, methodological survey of the people of Afghanistan to ask them what were the main issues on their minds, and what did they want to have happen in their country. They went around the country and interviewed like every 20th person they met on the street, asking them the same set of questions; they had a series of town hall meetings and councils and helped preserve a person’s anonymity, so they would feel comfortable talking about what they wanted to say. And they put out this document called A Call For Justice, which is available on the web as a PDF document. You can check it yourself. It’s a very, very important document. What they found was that the majority of the people in Afghanistan consider themselves the victims of war crimes. Of this country entire country of about 25 million [people], 67% consider themselves victims of war crimes. Imagine the injustice that has happened in this country. When asked who they thought was responsible, they said local commandos, regional warlords, Mujahadeen factions, [and] members of the Northern Alliance. When asked what they wanted to happen, they said they want justice, some form of war crimes tribunals, [or] some prosecution. There wasn’t a clear consensus on exactly what form this should take, but they wanted justice, and they wanted these men brought to trial. They needed some kind of reconciliation or healing process [so they could] try to move on with their lives. I didn’t meet a single Afghan whose family member–mother, father, sister, brother, son, or daughter–was not in some way affected: killed or disappeared or injured or traumatized or raped or mutilated. Every person in Afghanistan has a story to tell or has themselves been the victim of war crimes. In order to deal with the presence of these warlords, the Afghan people are tolerating foreign forces in their country. Now that tide is slowly changing as stories of U.S. abuse and torture come out.

[New slide: a NATO truck driving on a street in Kabul amidst civilian cars. Many billboards can be seen nearby. See: http://www.afghanwomensmission.org/mediacenter/farah1/index.php?img=3 ]

This is a NATO truck. There are about five or six thousand NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. We don’t hear much about this, but they are doing the peacekeeping. It’s part of what’s called the International Security Assistance Forces or ISAF. I wanted to know what NATO was really doing. Up until last year they were restricted to Kabul because the U.S. didn’t want peacekeeping troops in the rest of the country. It would interfere with their hunting of al Qaeda and Taliban remnants. It was very convenient that they didn’t want peacekeeping troops there: the political and military vacuum allowed warlords to reestablish themselves and take over parts of the country.

So I wanted to know what NATO members were doing in Kabul. I thought there may be people patroling the streets with guns. I didn’t see that, all I saw was these trucks whizzing around very fast and very occasionally, and they looked frightened. I [also] saw lots of billboards that were sponsored by NATO; I saw a TV program sponsored by NATO; they have their own radio station; [and] they have newspapers that they put out, explaining to the Afghan people how they’re helping them. The conclusion I came to is that this is a propogandistic hearts-and-minds campaign. NATO is there to ensure that there is a happy, smiling, caring face on the foreign military in Afghanistan.

[Next slide: a caucasian female in camaflage attire, who appears to be in her forties.]

I interviewed this woman, who was the spokesperson for ISAF while I was there, Major Karen Tissot van Patot. She’s a Canadian woman. I asked her what she thought was happening in Afghanistan. Did she think that there was progress? She said: “Everything’s wonderful! We’ve made so much progress! It’s just so great!” I asked, “What exactly do NATO soldiers do?” She said, “Well, they just help out.” “Where do they help out? What are they doing?” “They help out where they’re needed.” I couldn’t get her to answer specifically what the NATO soldiers are doing.

The Afghan people and even Karzai had been begging for international peacekeeping troops to expand outside of Kabul for the last several years because security is a big problem. So when [the peacekeepers] were finally allowed to expand, they did so in terms of what are called Provincial Reconstruction Teams or PRTs. Groups of 10 or 15 of them will go and build a house or a well or a clinic or a school or pave a road. This is supposed to be the integration of military and humanitarian work. It’s meant to buy the hearts and minds–I don’t like to say WINNING the hearts and minds. I think it’s very clear that we’re trying to buy the hearts and minds–of the Afghan people. They’re very token projects that are more expensive than when done by aid agencies. These PRTs, as they’re called–or really I should call them Public Relations Teams–have resulted in the threatening and killing of aid workers, who are there to do bona fide aid work. Those who might be upset about the military presence in Afghanistan will see NATO building a well, then they’ll see an aid agency, say somebody from Doctors Without Borders, building a well. The NATO guys are heavily armed and not as easy a target. Someone upset about what NATO or the U.S. has been doing [will] target the humanitarian aid workers. [The aid workers] have now been associated with the military. Last year this resulted in the killing of tens of humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan. Doctors Without Borders left after 24 years of being there because several of their staff members were killed–and they had been there through the worst of the worst of times. So this is what NATO is doing in Afghanistan.

One of the things that I also wanted to do while I was in Kabul was to find out what happened to those refugees. Before September 11, Afghanistan had the second-largest refugee population in the world, second only to Palestinians. We were told by Colin Powell [and] by Bush that millions of refugees were returning to their country. They used this to show that Afghanistan was now safe enough for refugees to return, not mentioning that in Pakistan, many refugee camps were forcibly shut down by the Pakistani government, and people forcibly repatriated. I wanted to know what happened to them, even those who [returned] voluntarily. What we found was that Kabul has essentially been turned into a squatter’s camp. There were hundreds of thousands of Afghans who came back to find their homes destroyed by warlords who had taken over. [They] came back to find no place to go, nothing to eat, no training, no employment, and essentially no services whatsoever.

[New slide: an Afghan woman with five children around her (see: http://www.afghanwomensmission.org/mediacenter/farah1/index.php?img=9 )]

I met this woman, Anor Gul, a 30-year-old woman, [and] a mother of five. She broke down and cried about four times during my interview with her. I asked her why she was so sad, and she said, “Nobody has a life as bad as I do.” And I asked her whether life was better in Pakistan, where she was a refugee. She said: “I’m really happy to be back in my country, but at least in Pakistan the U.N. would give us some supplies, they would give us some training, they would give us a tarp to cover our roof when it was leaking [during] rain. Here we have nothing.” She essentially lives in a container.

[New slide: flimsy structures of corrugated metal and scraps surrounded by trash. The scene is reminiscent of the appalling living conditions in Haiti. (See: http://www.afghanwomensmission.org/mediacenter/farah1/index.php?img=7 )]

This is what a lot of Kabul’s streets look like: squatter’s camps that have been created by the refugee populations, who have nowhere to go. And the media failed to cover what happened to these refugees when they came back into the country. When it was convenient to show their return as justifying the U.S.’s military operation, there was plenty of media attention put onto it.

I want to tell you a little bit about RAWA, the group that I work with. RAWA stands for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. [It’s] a group of incredible, inspiring women who have been working in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan since 1977. Their fight is not only for women’s rights but for the sovereignty of their country. There are about 2,000 active members across the nation. They organize political demonstrations, publish political magazines, and document human rights abuses. They also have humanitarian projects like literacy courses, orphanages, schools, income-generation projects where they teach women in schools, [and] they have rehabilitation programs for prostitutes. They do the most incredible work. They’re a very, very grassroots, women-led organization.

[Next slide: several women working with colorful material]

While we were in Afghanistan, we visited this one project where a group of young girls and women learned how to sew and embroider in classes that are paid for by RAWA. These women are basically taught the skills to do embroidery and to do tailoring, and then they get to sell these clothes in markets and keep the money that they earn from them. These are projects that allow older women–particularly those who don’t know how to read or write–to have some means of sustaining themselves. I was really heartened when I saw this class. I thought, “At least these women who go to classes like this may be able to make it.” I asked them, “How good is the business, are you able to make money?” They said, “After this class is over, we’re not sure what we’re going to do, because even though we have the skills now, there are no places for us to go and sell our things.” The majority of tailors in Kabul are men, and there are no employment opportunities for women. In fact, there have been very few statistics on how many women have returned to work since the fall of the Taliban. We’ve heard Bush tell us that women have returned to work. The only statistic I could find was in the Sunday Herald of Scottland because only the foreign press seems to be interested in covering Afghanistan. Two to three percent of women have returned to work since the fall of the Taliban. That’s nothing! That’s noise! That’s negligable! So this is the situation, and our media doesn’t cover this.

I spoke to independent journalists while I was in Afghanistan. This is Noorani who is the publisher of a newspaper called Rozgaran (“News of the Day”). He was actually afraid to meet us in his office because he’s been threatened many times. He has documented warlord abuse and the crimes of the warlords and casts a critical eye on the government. He is upholding the philosophy of journalism, which is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. He is doing his job, one of many, many journalists in Afghanistan. Because now, at least on paper, freedom of the press is law of the land. It’s in the constitution. This is something that we hear a lot being made of in the media. What we’re not hearing is that people like Noorani, who are speaking out and are actually reporting the truth, are being threatened time and again because he’s critiquing the warlords. He’s being threatened by the central government; he’s gotten two warnings already and has been investigated 11 times. If he gets a third warning, he will be forced to shut down his newspaper.

I interviewed Gulalai Habibi, a woman journalist, an incredible woman who edits Shafaq newspaper, and she is a history professor. She has faced the same persecution as Noorani. For speaking out about the U.S.-backed warlords, her life has been threatened. he said, “I just keep doing it because if I don’t, who will?”

[New slide: a beautiful mosque, a stark contrast to the images of Kabul. It seems like a different country]

We went to Herat, as I said, which is in the western part of the country. [It’s] a very, very beautiful city and certainly much more advanced than Kabul in that they have electricity and water 24 hours a day. This is one of the very beautiful mosques. I’m reminded of India. Really gorgeous mosques covered with mosaic tiles, absolutely breathtaking and stunning. It’s such an absolutely amazingly beautiful country. I can’t even describe it to you.

[Another slide: a woman on a sidewalk in a burqa]

What was interesting, however, was when we went to Herat, we found that a lot of women were still covering themselves up. I want to spend a few minutes [discussing] the issue of the Afghan burqa. This was an image that we saw a lot after 9-11. The media used and exploited it to portray Afghan as convenient victims for the U.S. crusade. I think it’s very important to point out that the oppression of Afghan women was simplified. The complexities of of all their oppressions–lack of health care, education, and employment; and sexual violence–were summed up in one visual image because it was very stark and striking. And we saw this image over and over again of women in a burqa. What it did was it set Afghan women up for one and only one responsibility: to repeal the laws on forced veiling, and lo and behold Afghan women are going to be free. This is what we’ve heard over and over again. After the fall of the Taliban, the newspaper cameras rushed to Kabul. In fact, the Christian Science Monitor reported that some of them even paid Afghan women to take their veils off so they could be photographed. “UNVEILED” and “LIBERATED” were the words used on the covers Business Week and Newsweek when the Taliban fell. “We’ve freed Afghan women. Now they can walk around uncovered, and that’s it, our job’s done. Our promise to them has been fulfilled.” [That’s] a very, very simplistic measure of women’s freedom because several years later, Afghan women still don’t have enough food to eat; still don’t have employment; still don’t have education; still don’t have the freedom to move around; still don’t, in many cases, have the freedom to be on TV or radio. Even if you use this very simplistic measure of Afghan women’s freedom, the majority of women in Afghanistan dress like this today. Outside Kabul, in Herat, 90% of women dress like this. If you go to Kabul, it looks like this:

[Next slide: several women with their faces exposed] Kabul, as I said, is a focus of a lot of media attention, but it’s only a small part of the country of Afghanistan. Women wear head scarves in Kabul and seem, on a superficial level, as if they’re able to move fairly freely. Now I didn’t see any women able to drive cars, and certainly very few women have many employment opportunities as well. But in the rest of Afghanistan, women still look like this:

[Slide: a woman wearing a burqa]

But even if the media did not have a nuanced approached to Afghanistan and Afghan women’s freedom, you would wonder whether they would cover the fact that most Afghan women still wear the burqa. Now it’s [no longer] part of the law that Afghan women have to cover themselves, but under Ismail Khan’s rule in Herat, it was enforced. If women were walking around uncovered, they would be beaten by police, who were there to ensure that they met certain standards of virtue. There were chastity checks that were done at random, where would be hauled off to the hospital if they were caught walking on the street with a strange man to see if they were still virgins. This was only a year ago. Ismail Khan was visited by Donald Rumsfeld recently, who said of Khan that he was a very appealing man and a wise man.This is the legacy of these U.S.-backed warlords in Afghanistan.

We went to the Farah Province, which is a rural area of Afghanistan, just south of Herat, absolutely beautiful, very, very desolate, in the middle of nowhere it seemed. RAWA members joked to us that Farah was at the end world, but it was a very, very beautiful place. When we were there, we met many, many ordinary women and men, some of whom were in literacy courses with RAWA. One of them who I met was Mariam.

Mariam told me her story: she lost her husband because he was disappeared by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s forces 12 years ago. She was accompanying me everywhere while I was in Farah. This is a very strong woman, and she broke down and cried during my interview with her. I think it’s important for us to look at this image as well and realize that this too is our tax dollars at work. Her life and her trauma was directly a result of the literally billions of dollars that were fueled into the extremist factions in Afghanistan, particularly Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, famous for throwing acid in the faces of women who refused to wear veils.

We visited Daanesh primary school in Farah, which is one of the very few schools for girls in Afghanistan. [It’s] funded by donors who are ordinary Americans and who really supported RAWA. Daanesh is a Dari word for “knowledge.” It was an incredible sight to see all of these young girls being educated. Bush tells us over and over again: “Five million Afghan girls are now going to school, isn’t it wonderful? We brought them education.” Outside of the main cities in Afghanistan, there are hardly any schools, and this school is the only one in the entire area for girls. We met with the fathers and mothers of the girls who go to this school, who said, “We are so grateful to RAWA for having a place for our girls to be educated, to have training.” In these schools they were learning history and geography and Islamic studies and math and Dari and Pashto. Whereas most schools that do exist in the provincial regions are still studying a very narrow syllabus of only Islamic studies, very similar to what it was like for just boys under the Taliban. The U.N. Developments Program did a recent study in Afghanistan where they found that Afghanistan had the “worst education system in world.” This is a direct quote from the U.N. DP Report, which you can find online. Meanwhile, RAWA continues to do whatever they can to fund these sorts of organizations. It was such a joy to see that there are efforts in Afghanistan, that despite all the overwhelming odds stacked against them, are able to do this sort of work, with a little financial help from people like you and [other] Americans.

[New slide: a bookshelf spans the width of a room, but there are only about six books in it.] And I visited their library. They’re so desperate for funds, they don’t have enough money for books.

[Slide: a canal in the middle of a desert (see: http://www.afghanwomensmission.org/mediacenter/farah1/index.php?img=20 )]

We went to visit Farah Canal in Farah Province as well. These are men who represent the surrounding villages, elderly tribal chieftans. They came to greet us, and we were so honored to meet these men. They said to us, “If it weren’t for RAWA, we would have been fighting each other like we were several years ago.” [One of them] explained to me that most of the villages in the area make their living through farming, they grow their own crops. There’s one river that runs [nearby], and every year they would fight over the water resources. It was really difficult to get adequate water and have it equitably distributed. So what RAWA did was they built a canal that would distribute water and funnel it off to the various villages so that each one could get water. I remember this project [happening] several years ago. We helped raise the money for it, and they would send us photographs of the ground being broken. It was so incredible for us to visit this canal. These men told us that today, because of the canal, the families are living in harmony with one another. Thirty-five thousand Afghans are being fed by the crops that are being watered by this canal. It was such an incredible thing to witness.

All of the foreign-funded NGOs and aid agencies in Afghanistan have come [there]; have set up shop; and have said: “We are going to tell you how to rebuild your country. This is what you need; I know, I have a degree from Yale in Development, etc., etc., etc.” And the Afghan people are saying: “No, we know how to rebuild our country. We have the expertise, we have the knowledge. We simply need the financial resources; we don’t need your advice.” But, of course, what’s happened is that the majority of the aid money that’s come into Afghanistan has been very badly spent. Karzai himself has complained about this. And the people of Farah were complaining [because] the foreign NGOs built a thousand wells. They said, “You guys need wells.” Well the water table dropped, so now there are a thousand dry wells in Farah Province, and all the money has been spent. It’s very important for us to understand that the Afghan people are perfectly capable of figuring out how to rebuild their country if only given the chance, if only given the financial resources, if only freed of the warlords that we have have backed and imposed on them. It was such a proud moment for us to pose here. These elderly men who came to us said, “We support RAWA because they built this for us.”

We also visited Hamoon Health Center, run by a young woman named Malalai Joya, who I want to tell you about in a little bit. Hamoon Health Center has room for three doctors, but only one doctor actually works there now because they can’t afford more. Every day 200-300 women come and wait outside the clinic for health care. It’s the only free clinic in the area. There are two other clinics, but you have to pay for them, and most of the women and children who come here have no money. So Hamoon Health Care Center is completely overcrowded and overstretched.

Health care is one of the biggest disasters in Afghanistan. Maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world. They were among the highest in the world before the fall of the Taliban, they’re still the highest in the world, and the U.N. DP Report that I mentioned says that the highest ever recorded rates of maternal mortality have been found in Afghanistan. In Badakhan Province, one in every 15 women dies during childbirth. So we’ve heard about health care being improved in Afghanistan, but the media didn’t tell us that all it’s very superficial, it’s all very token. These women are desperately struggling to try to get the most basic of health care. And Hamoon Health Center is completely short on funds. [Slide: Kolhatkar interviewing Malalai Joya in her office]

We visited Malalai Joya, and I want us to end with talking about her. [See: http://www.afghanwomensmission.org/mediacenter/farah1/index.php?img=23 ] She is really an incredible woman, really one of my heroes in Afghanistan. We only hear about the men, right? We hear about either the U.S. puppets or the fundamentalists or the warlords. We don’t hear about the ordinary heroes in Afghanistan, who are bravely resisting despite all the risks to their lives. So I want to leave you with a story of Malalai Joya.

She was elected by the Farah Province as representative for the Constitutional Loya Jirga, that took place last year. [That was] the place where Afghanistan’s new constitution was drafted. She was 24 years old when she was there. She was elected by her province. For people who think that ordinary Afghans harbor misogynist feelings against women, that’s really not true. They are very happy to have women as their representatives, especially when those women are brave enough to denounce warlords. And that’s exactly what Malalai Joya did. We had an hour with her in her office, and she told us a story of how she went to the Consitutional Loya Jirga, where the warlords were seated in the front rows, even though they were technically disqualified from the process. They were there dominating the process, demanding that Islamic law be part of the constitution, demanding certain privileges for themselves. Malalai Joya begged to have two minutes at the mike, and she was finally given the microphone. She started saying: “These are the men who have destroyed our country, who are sitting right here in the front rows. They ought to be tried in a war crimes court, and we should not trust those who have already been tested.” She initially got enormous applause from people in the back rows, who supported what she was saying. When she spoke out, she spoke for the people of Afghanistan. She was rushed and charged at by the warlords. She had to be surrounded by women who were trying to protect her, and the U.N. had to issue her bodyguards. Her mike had to be cut, and she was bustled out of there. They hurled insults at her: they called her a prostitute, an infidel, a communist, and whatever. In Afghanistan “communist” is considered a bad word because of the Soviet invasion. The Soviets came in promising freedom from fundamentalism through communism. So for that reason, it’s considered a bad word.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote an op ed in the Washington Post saying: “Oh, it was amazing to see democracy in action in Afghanistan! We saw these people debating each other and doing compromise. And this one woman spoke out and actually denounced these warlords! The fact that she could do that is just so wonderful!” Well, what he didn’t mention and what the media failed to cover was that she faced death threats from that moment on–which continue today–her office was ransacked, her house was ransacked and looted, and she has to travel under a burqa in disguise for fear of her life and has six armed bodyguards with her everywhere she goes.

Today she is 26 years old. Because of her brave stand in Afghanistan, she has received the support and the love and affection of the majority of Afghan people. Thousands of Afghans travelled hundreds of miles to visit her and pay her homage. Meanwhile, the warlords, this small group of extremist men, have decided that she’s a threat to them. So she gets daily death threats. I had an hour-long interview with her, and to me she is really the hero of Afghanistan, one of the ordinary Afghan people who stood up and spoke the truth.

We want to bring Malalai Joya to the United States to talk about what’s really happening in Afghanistan. Instead of me standing here and telling you what I saw in Afghanistan, you should be hearing about it from a woman like Malalai Joya. A group called Global Voices for Justice (see: http://www.globalvoicesforjustice.com ) made a CD of the interview that I did with her and donated several hundred to us. We are giving these away for a $10 donation, which will go toward the cost of bringing her to the United States. We’ve raised $400 so far; we need $1,500 for a ticket and other expenses.

This is a woman who for me really represents hope for Afghanistan. I’m not placing my hope in the U.S. doing “the right thing” in Afghanistan because that will never happen. The U.S. will never act in the interest of the Afghan people, the U.S. is acting in its and its interests alone. Any incidental freedoms that women or men might win are just that: incidental, and will be milked to their fullest by the PR machine.

[Another slide: Malalai Joya next to a sign]

I want to leave you with this image. I asked Malalai if she would pose in front of these words in her office. She told me that this is an old proverb in Dari that basically says, “If I arise, then you will arise, and we will all arise.”

Thank you very much. [Applause]

MATTHEW TIFFANY: If anybody has any questions, please feel free to ask.

QUESTION: Yes, what did you see of mines left over, and did you know if they were from the U.S. or from the Soviets?

KOLHATKAR: Afghanistan before 9/11 was one of the most heavily land mine-infested countries in the world. Then the United States, as part of its bombing campaign, dropped hundreds of cluster bombs, of which up to 50%, I believe, don’t detonate on impact. And these bomblets from the cluster bombs lay around, littering the countryside, and act like land mines. There has been a U.N. de-mining program in Afghanistan that was very, very poorly funded for many years to clear up the countryside. Of course, the U.S. refused to clean up its own mess and, in fact, even refused to tell exactly where it had dropped the cluster bombs to make it easier on the clearing program. The last I’ve heard was that they had gotten funding, and large swaths of provincial areas in the country had been cleared of mines. It’s still a problem: young children going out wandering in the fields looking for food routinely get their legs blown up or die as a result.

QUESTION: Did you see any factories for fake arms and legs? I heard that’s the biggest production that they have there.

KOLHATKAR: No, I didn’t see any prosthetics factories. I don’t think that’s the biggest production that they have there. I may be wrong, but I didn’t see that. Afghanistan doesn’t have too many natural resources that are very lucrative. They have some minerals that have been mined, they used to have amazing forests that were destroyed by the warlords. [They] basically cut down these beautiful sandalwood forests faster than they could replenish themselves to sell for their own benefit. [Afghans] also export raisins because they grow grapes there, but there’s really not much of an industry. If I had to think about what the biggest industry in Afghanistan could be that could help lift the country on its feet, even though I’m not someone who thinks that a capitalist society is the way to go, but given the lack of any other kind of model, I think Afghanistan perhaps could benefit from a tourism industry. It’s just a stunning country, and that’s one of the few natural resources they have, [despite] all of the awful things that go with tourism. I was racking my brains trying to think, “How could this country rebuild itself economically in a way that would empower different parts of it, and not just be a drug exporter, which is what it is right now?” In fact, the largest industry today is heroin. That is even bigger than the sort of legitimate economy.

QUESTION: Is heroin addiction a common problem?

KOLHATKAR: Heroin addiction is not as common in Afghanistan. They don’t want to actually do it themselves. They want to sell it and get the money. The market for heroin is here in the United States and in Europe. It’s a very shameful thing for Afghan people. They’re very ashamed that their country has the distinction of being the world’s number one heroin exporter. For them it’s against Islam, and it’s a very, very shameful thing. And yet the Taliban and more importantly the U.S.-backed warlords had established a drug economy. In fact, the CIA had allowed the warlords to establish a drug economy in the 1980s because drug money is a very convenient way to buy weapons. It’s not traceable. So trucks laden with raw opium would travel across the border to Pakistani labs and return into Afghanistan with weapons. [This was] in the 1980s. The Taliban did stop drug production briefly because of U.N. sanctions against it. There was a drought that year, so it was kind of convenient. [laughter] They stockpiled it, and the prices went up. Now, both Taliban remnants as well as U.S.-backed warlords and regional commanders are benefiting from the drug money. I bet that there will be a growing problem. In Pakistan there is a lot of heroin addiction.

QUESTION: I have a question about the U.N. Security Council. It seems like a really tough spot. It sounds like they’re doing some stuff, not as much as they could be, but just their presence there is making it more difficult on other aid groups.

KOLHATKAR: The U.N. was running the International Security Assistance Forces up until last year. NATO took over from the U.N. So now there actually aren’t U.N. peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan, it’s NATO forces.

This is an interesting aside: Afghanistan has given NATO a new mandate, a new reason to exist, a new lease on life. [Laughter] I’m serious. If you do a little bit of digging around, you’ll see this in the speeches of NATO spokespeople. When the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan, [NATO] realized that they needed to find a role for themselves in the so-called war on terror. This is something that the U.S. is very happy with. NATO gets to do the dirty of peacekeeping while the U.S. does the more important work of bombing and fighting and hunting for al Qaeda. NATO pays the bills, and NATO actually has a reason to keep existing. NATO, remember, was founded as a result of cold war tensions. After the Soviet Union fell, people were asking, “Do we really need NATO?” Then when it took part in the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, people were saying: “Oh, look! There’s actually a reason for NATO to do something!” But that was in Europe; this is the first time NATO has stepped out of Europe. They want a little piece of the Iraq pie, too, but the U.S. is saying, “Uh-uh, that’s ours.” They’ve allowed NATO to do a little training of Iraqi police. It is an indication that the U.S. was never really interested Afghanistan. It was really always interested in Iraq.

Going back to your question, it’s a very difficult situation. I asked people in Afghanistan, the few people I came in contact with, what their opinion is of foreign troops on their soil. I expected people to say: “We don’t want them! They should get out!” Because Afghanistan has a very proud history of anti-imperialism. They kicked out the Brits, they kicked out the Russians. I was really surprised: a lot of them said, “We prefer to have foreign troops temporarily because we’re more afraid of the warlords than of the foreign troops.” I said, “But aren’t you aware of what the U.S. has done and what NATO is doing?” They said, “Yes, we know that.” And one RAWA woman said to me, “We have a saying in Afghanistan, ‘When you have a sickness, you sometimes have to swallow a bitter medicine,’ and we consider the foreign troops as a bitter medicine and the warlords as a sickness.”

A lot of people are saying, “We’re tired of fighting.” That’s what I heard over and over again. “We’re sick and tired of fighting. We don’t want guns anymore.” People don’t want weapons in their country, they’re This was another thing that the survey A Call for Justice found: people don’t want weapons in their country. They’re tired of them, and they want a disarmament process. So the U.N. has a disarmament process, [but] it’s really badly funded. The U.N. could really participate in put a lot of effort into doing a thorough disarmament process, starting with the most powerful private militias rather than the ordinary people in villages who have guns just to protect themselves. That would be one very good way that the U.N. could participate in Afghanistan. In survey after survey after survey most of the Afghan people have said that they want the disarmament process to go forward.

QUESTION: What’s happening to men?

KOLHATKAR: Men have more opportunities than women, definitely, but by and large the economy is so bad that it’s hard even for men. It’s easier for men to get jobs, it’s easier for men to do labor and work on construction projects, it’s a little bit easier for men to have access to schools, but overall it’s not a desirable situation.

Now RAWA has a very interesting approach to education. Education, they feel, is a weapon for progress, and they have put a lot of emphasis on education in all of their projects. They believe that it’s important to educate both boys and girls. When we were in Afghanistan, we went to visit a boy’s orphanage, and it was so amazing to see these young kids who were learning about women’s rights in addition to all the other things that they do.

[She shows a slide of several boys smiling. Some are making faces at the camera.]

Every wall on the orphanage had a picture of Meena, the founder of RAWA. So these boys were learning about women’s rights and having wonderful woman role models to look up to. And I think that’s really where the hope lays. . . . At the same time, I should say that it is a misconception that Afghan men have misogynist strains. There are limits there, it’s a conservative society. I won’t deny that at all. Most men would be very upset if a woman walked around in a miniskirt, but that doesn’t mean that they dismiss women or that they want to hide all women or that they believe women shouldn’t be members of society.

QUESTION: Do you have any pictures of the young girls?

KOLHATKAR: Yes, I do. [She brings up a slide of girls laughing.] These were in the girl’s orphanage.

One of the things that you can do [if] you’re wondering how you can help, we have a media campaign at our website called “What the News Media Doesn’t Tell You About Afghanistan.” If you go to http://www.afghanwomensmission.org we have a sample letter that you can send to major media urging them to not only do more coverage of Afghanistan but to actually do critical coverage of Afghanistan. [Ask for more than] these superficial, token projects that put a good face on Bush’s so-called liberation, but actual critical coverage, what’s really happening in Afghanistan. [You can tell them:] “Get the news behind the claims. When Bush makes a claim about Afghanistan, investigate the reality and tell us what’s really happening. Don’t just report it uncritically.” So you can go to our website http://www.afghanwomensmission.org and actually send a letter there that will go to the New Yor Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.

QUESTION: I’m glad you brought that up. I was going to ask a similar question: have you had much success in getting this story out to major media?

KOLHATKAR: Yeah, on this project we’ve had hundreds of people send letters. It’s important not just to tell the media when they’re doing something wrong but when they’re doing something right. So when the New York Times did this amazing coverage of these two Afghan men who were killed in U.S. custody . . . in very graphic detail(1), coming out at a critical time. It was right after the Newsweek story. We wrote a very effusive letter to the New York Times thanking them for that coverage. So the media needs to know when they’re doing a good job as well as when they’re not doing a good job. Of course, usually they’re pandering to the White House, but once in a while, for whatever reasons, they will do some critical coverage. They have responded in a very small way, but they know that people want to know what’s happening in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Has 60 Minutes done anything about this?

KOLHATKAR: I have no idea, I don’t watch TV. [Laughter] Has anybody seen 60 Minutes? Thank you all so much for coming! [Applause]

MATTHEW TIFFANY: It’s been a pleasure and an honor to have her here. I strongly encourage everybody to check out everything she has over there at the table and make a donation if you can.

KOLHATKAR: Our donations have absolutely plummeted. We’re pulling in less than 10 times what we were per month because the media has just ignored us. A lot of projects [are] closing down.

TIFFANY: Is that really what directs people? What’s in the media?

KOLHATKAR: Jim and I looked at all the donations coming into Afghan Women’s Mission, and all of the news articles since 9-11 and plotted them. There was an exact correlation: if the news media covers something, donations pour in. If they stop covering it, donations go down. That’s why we have a media campaign! [Laughs]

Thank you all so much for coming! [Applause] —–

(1)Just recently the stories came out. It happened in late 2001 or early 2002 in the prison camps. The U.S. soldiers brutally tortured and killed two ordinary Afghan men who were minding their own business. At least one of them was very much an innocent man, just picked up because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. [The soldiers] beat him so badly that his legs would have had to be amputated if he even survived.

Transcribed by: Ross Plesset

Read original article here.

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