The Globe and Mail, July 27, 2004

A populist hero emerges from under the rule of the gun

Special to The Globe and Mail

KABUL -- The most powerful warlords in the country call her a communist, and in Afghanistan that could be enough to seal a death warrant.

But Malalai Joya, a 25-year-old Afghan woman who runs an orphanage and health clinic, refuses to give up her crusade to rid the country of what she calls "warlords and criminals" involved in drug trafficking, land seizures and attacks on civilians.

"Our government can't recognize that we have people with dark backgrounds," she said in an interview in Kabul, where she has been in hiding since her home in the western province of Farah was ransacked.

"These people should be taken to court. The destruction of this country can speak for itself. The walls, the houses, the children, the people can recognize their enemies."

Ms. Joya has become a populist hero in a country where ordinary people live under the rule of the gun. She has audiences with President Hamid Karzai and his cabinet, speaks at rallies, inspires debates on radio talk shows, and even has a website dedicated to her called "Defend Malalai Joya!"

Armed with petitions and videotaped testimonies of Afghan citizens documenting human-rights abuses in Farah, she and a delegation of 50 tribal elders managed to persuade Mr. Karzai to dismiss the province's governor, a former Taliban commander. "I am so happy he is finally gone," she said.

Ms. Joya first came to public notice in January at the constitutional loya jirga (grand council), where as an elected delegate she gave a speech against the warlords. Influential mujahedeen leaders quickly labelled her a communist and an infidel. The United Nations gave her four armed bodyguards because it was feared she would be killed.

Since then, she has refused to keep quiet, even though her clinic and orphanage have been attacked and she receives daily death threats and warnings of suicide attacks against her family. The Karzai government has given her three AK-47 assault rifles for protection and a cousin now acts as her bodyguard.

"I have seen too many sorrows and I have no fear in my soul any more," she said. "But my relatives told me to come to Kabul because they were scared for my life. I'm sleeping in a different house every night and I have cars with blacked-out windows following me everywhere."

She said her family, including her father, a mujahedeen fighter who lost his leg during a battle with the Soviets in the late 1980s, supports her work.

Warlord commanders have been reluctant to give up their armies because of doubts about the long-term commitment of outside support, said Hafiz Mansoor, editor of the newspaper Mujahedeen's Message. "Americans could decide after their [November] elections that they don't want to commit soldiers and resources. We are not going to get support forever. Then who would defend the country if the Taliban came back?" he asked.

Ms. Joya has come to symbolize the country's bitter division between the mujahedeen, who feel unappreciated for defending their country against the Soviets, and the intelligentsia and professional army class who blame them for the destruction of the country.

The question of what to do with the militia commanders is one of the most critical issues Mr. Karzai faces in the run-up to the Oct. 9 presidential election. Last week, he moved three powerful commanders, including the northern leader Atta Mohammed, from their posts in a bid to consolidate his power. Yesterday, he dropped the country's most powerful warlord, Defence Minister Mohammed Fahim, from his election roster.

The UN, which is organizing a $165-million disarmament program, has said it cannot hold a vote free from intimidation unless 60 per cent of the 60,000 militiamen give up their guns before the election. So far, only 10 per cent -- 10,000 -- have been demobilized.

The program has become a farce because the international community is paying about $110-million a year for the commanders to maintain illegal armies. The deal was made after the fall of the Taliban to prevent a security vacuum as the Afghan national army, which Canada is helping build, was being established, said Peter Babbington, deputy country director for the disarmament program.

"We [have] been paying for the upkeep of ghost armies that should not exist," he said. "It is what I would call embezzlement. This money comes from the international community."

Ms. Joya warns that the international community and the government must act quickly before warlordism is institutionalized in a country struggling to establish a democracy. "These people will be in parliament and the country will revert back to bloodshed. Maybe it will be me they kill, but there will be others [whose] voices will be louder than mine."

[RAWA Homepage] [More reports from Afghanistan] [RAWA Photo Gallery]