CounterPunch, July 29, 2002
Inside Pakistan and Afghanistan with RAWA
by Anne Brodsky
I just returned from another 6 weeks with RAWA, five weeks in Pakistan and one amazing week in Afghanistan. RAWA's work is very busy and the need is still enormous--this includes some cities in Pakistan where refugees are actually flowing in not out. They are doing creative things such as working to help other established schools rather than taking the time to start their own. In one example an 8 year old Afghan high school in Peshawar thought it would have to close for lack of funds and losing students. RAWA started funding them and even made tuition free for the first time in the history of this school, and now not only can they pay their teachers, but they have more students than they did before and the demand is growing because students who could never afford to attend now can.
Their work in Afghanistan is keeping everyone quite busy as the need and possibility to help is actually expanding. Many, many women and girls are in their literacy and sewing classes, many who are either too old to attend the newly reopened schools for girls (there is an age limit for entering the lower grades, which many need to attend after 5 years without any education.) or whose families still will not let them attend schools for safety fears. The women and girls say that 5 years of Taliban rule only strengthened their resolve and commitment to education and also made their families realize the importance. Most of these women have never been in school before, but still are interested in joining and learning. Most classes have more demand that RAWA has teachers and funds.
About 80-90% of the women we saw in Kabul were in burqa still. In Jalalabad we saw no women without burqa. The interim government is starting to require "permission" for everything, as a veiled attempt to keep many things under control. Even visiting a public high school required special permission. As this trend increases it will make things very dangerous for RAWA. They have many enemies in the government with so many Northern Alliance and warlords in positions of control so continue to operate quite underground. There is no doubt that the need is great and their particular message of humanitarian as well as political change is a necessity, especially for the women.
Because we drove to Kabul from Pakistan, I was able to see a remarkable slice of the landscape and life. It is true that Afghanistan is an amazingly beautiful country. Even that small stretch, which took 10 hours across destroyed roads was incredibly diverse with blue green rivers, undulating valleys with fields of rounded stones, flat mesa plateaus, sandstone hills with natural caves, steep shale peaks turned sideways, jagged mountains and roads that zigzag through mountain switch backs. We drove through small villages where the influence of the Taliban was still very evident, and the men treated me and the RAWA member who accompanied me as if we had no right to be in public except for their curiosity. In the US the response to them would be a sarcastic "haven't you ever seen a woman before" or "you really should get out more". Here both of the statements, which played in my head, were fact, not sarcasm. To change the men in this town would be a revolution. In many other places Abdul Haq, Massood and Rabbani's pictures were everywhere but Karzai's was not.
Just for some perspective on life, our taxi drivers from Pakistan to Afghanistan were both former Taliban and former mujihadeen. They talked quite openly to the male supporter who was with us about their time with both groups and were probably Taliban for money and to further their private gains, but none the less it points out that former Taliban, both foot soldiers, middle managers, like these drivers, and the leadership, are still everywhere. Many people said that the only ones who couldn't identify the former Taliban in their midst were the foreigners who were employing them and giving them government positions. Everyone else knows but is too scared to say.
The reconstruction in Kabul is evident in some places, but it is like time stood still in others, where the 10 year old destruction is evident as if it happened yesterday. People live and run shops side by side with buildings riddled with bullet holes and shells of building destroyed by rocket attacks. Also saw the result of US bombings. The refugees are returning to difficult lives and many cannot find jobs and are living in tents and unprotected commercial buildings without windows or doors. They say that jobs are hard to come by, even for those willing to do hard manual labor as well as for those with higher education. Many jobs are reportedly going to Panshiris only and others are available only with bribes. Some from refugee camps in Pakistan say they had more help there and are starving here without any assistance. I talked to a number of refugees who had only returned because harassment from the Pakistani police in Islamabad in particular made them feel too unsafe in Pakistan. They are actually doing worse now in Kabul. Many think that there will be a wave of refugees back to Pakistan come winter when it is too cold to live in Kabul without shelter and jobs.
I was afforded a really unique view of life in Kabul because all of my meetings and interviews and the humanitarian projects I saw were in private homes in Kabul and surrounding villages/suburbs. Many of these were the equivalent of middle class homes, but in none did I see running water or indoor toilets. Even in the capital city people rely on wells and public pumps. Electricity in most parts of the city is available only every other night. In the outer villages, the electric lines were stolen 10 years ago and still these homes have no electricity, even as wall lamps and chandeliers remain in their homes. The library at the University of Kabul has virtually no electricity because all of the wiring was stolen by the various factions and Taliban. As in the older refugee camps, most people live in high walled enclosures with gardens and small farm yard animals, even in the city. Construction however is sturdier than in the older camps and here glass windows and screens gave a more permanent and comfortable environment. The one TV news broadcast I saw did have a woman broadcaster, but she never looked up from the page she was reading and the whole broadcast had a very amateur feel to it. There is so much to be reconstructed here.
The people are cautiously optimistic, but this seems only because of the presence of the peace keepers and the continued hope that the international community will follow through on it promises of aid and that someone will actually stop the warlords. The presence of NA soldiers in dark unmarked cars is ominous. There are other types of soldiers and police in various uniforms, many ill fitting. It is hard to judge who will have a weapon and who not. Often young boys with the NA had weapons and older more mature and responsible looking men in Afghan army uniforms were unarmed. I saw taped interviews of Loya Jirga attendees in which they too were expressing their concern about the needs for peace and security and controls on the warlords, who were too evident in the Loya Jirga process.
For more information on RAWA go to: http://www.rawa.org/
Anne Brodsky is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.