Court TV, Sep. 27, 2001
Risking death to expose the Taliban
By Matt Bean
RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, has used its Web site to expose the atrocities of the Taliban regime
Visitors to www.rawa.org, be warned: "This Web site contains photos and links to video footage that some users may find disturbing ... Our Apology: This is the reality of life for the people of Afghanistan."
Since 1977, members of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) have risked death to expose that reality, and more recently have begun doing so online. When the Taliban took power in 1996, members of RAWA, a Pakistan-based group of more than 2,000 Afghan women, began working in secret to document and publicize through the Internet the cruel treatment of women and the people of Afghanistan.
"The Web site has changed so much about what RAWA does," said Sonali Kolhatkar, vice president of the Afghan Women's Mission, a nonprofit group formed to support RAWA from the U.S. "Before, they never had a way to reach the rest of the world. But since RAWA put their Web site out in 1997, [Afghans] have gotten so much attention. Individuals have just been pouring in the support."
With no freedom of the press in Afghanistan, RAWA's efforts have provided the world with some of the only accounts of Taliban atrocities.
The site's contents, obtained through hidden cameras and eyewitness accounts, are painfully vivid. In one image, a Taliban fighter, a teenager, brandishes the severed right hand and left foot of a highway robber punished in that way for his crime. Another shows a woman, covered by the mandatory head-to-toe shroud, a burqa, being beaten for removing part of the garb in public. Many more show men hung from cranes or trees, with onlookers gathered around.
Capturing the abuses and executions surreptitiously is a must for RAWA members, because they do so under threat of death. In 1987, RAWA's founder was assassinated, sending the group underground. Since then, numerous members have been killed or injured during peaceful protests. But the most ominous reminder of their grave task is a 1996 fatwah levied against the group by the ruling Taliban, which threatens any member captured with instant execution.
The group's forthright methods, spearheaded by the Web site, make RAWA unique, says Amelia Wu, who oversees funding for a number of Afghan women's groups as senior program officer for Asia at the Global Fund for Women. "They are the most politically active and vocal of all the Afghan women's groups," she said. "Very few groups are working to actually change the political situation."
But while much of the content on RAWA's site is political, designed to expose the swift, and often brutal, forms of justice carried out against violators of the Taliban's cryptic code of laws, the organization has other goals.
"That's only one component of what they do," says Wu. "The majority of their work is in supporting and empowering Afghan women to lead their daily lives and survive."
The site showcases some of these efforts, including running clandestine schools for women and children in Afghanistan (educating women is illegal under the Taliban), boosting health resources in Pakistan's Afghan refugee camps, opening a number of orphanages, and a recent campaign to reopen a hospital in Malawai, Afghanistan, for women and children.
And now, with the U.S. military focused on the Afghanistan-based ruling Taliban as possible targets for retaliation in the September 11 terrorist attacks, RAWA's role has begun to shift.
The group stays out of touch for reasons of security, appearing rarely in the U.S., and then only under pseudonyms, but a statement on its Web site shows it has already considered the impact of the terrorist acts.
"While we once again announce our solidarity and deep sorrow with the people of the US, we also believe that attacking Afghanistan and killing its most ruined and destitute people will not in any way decrease the grief of the American people," it says. "We sincerely hope that the great American people could DIFFERENTIATE between the people of Afghanistan and a handful of fundamentalist terrorists."
RAWA's many activism fronts will also become more difficult, say those close to the group, because of the clogged Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Kolhatkar says that, since the terrorist attacks, it has become increasingly difficult for RAWA leaders to keep tabs on their members. The clandestine teaching operations, which depended on teachers from Pakistan stealing across the border to hidden schools, are likely to have been halted as well, said Wu.
But despite the increased turmoil and risk of death, the members of RAWA will stay true to their task, says Kolhatkar.
"That's the amazing thing about these women," she says. "They know these are the things they are going to have to deal with when they join RAWA. But they either do nothing, and watch their country disintegrate, or they join in the struggle and risk their lives."