Los Angles Times, Oct.15, 2001
Training Camp of Another Kind
In Pakistan, defiant young Afghan women bent on reversing years of brutal oppression study and plan. To them, the conflict has no good guys.
By RONE TEMPEST
TIMES STAFF WRITERKHAIWA REFUGEE CAMP, Pakistan -- The sprawling refugee camps on the Pakistani-Afghan border have long been breeding grounds for male militants in Afghanistan--first for the moujahedeen fighters who battled the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and, more recently, for the fundamentalist Taliban.
But here in the dusty, abused terrain of Pakistan's northwestern frontier, the Khaiwa refugee camp is a uniquely feminist outpost.
Women in the Khaiwa camp shun the head-to-toe raiment known as a burka. Girls study science and Koranic scripture in a mud-walled school and dream of attending university. The camp's male physician, Dr. Qaeeum, vows that his infant daughter will be educated "from cradle to grave, until PhD." Khaiwa is a training ground for a different kind of fighter: intense young women bent on reversing the trend of female oppression that has helped hurtle Afghanistan into a new dark age.
For the female activists based here, there are no good guys among the factions battling for supremacy in their homeland--not in the notorious Taliban and not in the opposition Northern Alliance. They worry that in the international rush to bring down the Taliban, the United States and its allies will form partnerships with the Northern Alliance or with other groups that also have a history of brutally oppressing women.
"The devil is the brother of evil. The dog is the brother of the wolf," Khaiwa camp school Principal Abeda Mansoor said in her native Dari language. "We condemn both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance."
Mansoor, a former geography teacher in Afghanistan, is a 16-year member of the Revolutionary Assn. of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, a small but influential rights group that sends women on dangerous missions into Afghanistan to set up clandestine schools for girls and to use hidden cameras to document abuse of women. Under the Taliban's harsh version of Islam, girls cannot attend school and women are prohibited from working outside the home.
Displayed on the association's Web site at http://www.rawa.org, secretly taken photos and videos of public executions and floggings have played a major role in building international opposition to the Taliban. The recent critically acclaimed documentary "Beneath the Veil," by London-based filmmaker Saira Shah, was made with the help of RAWA workers who escorted Shah in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, the group operates hospitals, schools and orphanages in the camps where 2 million Afghan refugees live. But even here, their activities remain mostly secret. Taliban-style fundamentalism thrives in many of the camps. A recent RAWA human rights procession in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, was attacked by stick-wielding fundamentalist students.
But the Khaiwa camp, in the middle of a rutted quarry surrounded by smoking brick kilns, is an island of tolerance. It is small and exceptional, home to only 500 families. But it is a microcosm of what Afghanistan might resemble if it was freed of religious extremism and civil war.
Safora Wali, 30, manages the camp's small orphanage, home to 20 Afghan girls ages 6 to 19. A former student at Kabul University in the Afghan capital, Wali also teaches older women in the camp how to read.
"My oldest student is 45 years old," Wali said. "She's so happy now to be able to read letters from her relatives. She told me, 'I now know the pleasure of my eyes.' "
The Khaiwa camp was founded in the early 1980s by one of the more enlightened moujahedeen commanders, who believed in universal education. He allowed RAWA workers into the camp to teach and counsel the families. The camp eventually became known as an open-minded haven for the RAWA activists, who run the 450-student school and the orphanage.
Wali came to the camp last year from western Afghanistan after Taliban authorities found her distributing RAWA literature and she was forced to flee.
In Afghanistan, Khaiwa is known as a place to send girls who are threatened by either the religious restrictions of the Taliban or the sexual aggression of Afghan warlords.
Danish, 15, said she was sent here after her father was killed by agents of the former Communist government in Kabul. She said her mother still lives in Afghanistan but could no longer protect her.
Like the other girls in the four-room adobe orphanage, she wants to finish high school and reenter Afghanistan as a RAWA operative--teaching in underground home schools.
When asked by a reporter how many of them planned to go to work for RAWA, all but the youngest of the 20 girls raised their hands.
Women in Afghanistan have suffered a long history of repression punctuated by brief periods of progressive leadership.
Inspired by the reforms of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, self-styled King Amanullah lifted the veil of subjugation for a short period in the late 1920s. But women in Afghan cities probably enjoyed their greatest freedom during the Soviet-backed Communist regime that ruled in Kabul from 1979 to 1992.
RAWA was founded in the capital in 1977. But its founder, known by the single name Meena, opposed the Soviet occupation and joined resistance forces to fight against it. Considered an enemy by both the Communist regime and the fundamentalist moujahedeen, Meena was assassinated in a Quetta, Pakistan, refugee camp in 1987.
Sahar Saba, 28, who like many of the RAWA activists uses a pseudonym for protection, grew up in one of the Quetta camps and was educated in a RAWA school. Now she works as a spokeswoman for the group in Islamabad and travels abroad seeking foreign support.
Saba came to Pakistan when she was 7 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, she has spent much of her time working to make sure that the U.S. and its allies do not forget the cause of women's rights as they continue their campaign against the Taliban.
Besides providing a well-documented history of the Taliban's suppression of women,RAWA has recorded hundreds of cases of abuse by the Northern Alliance and non-Taliban warlords.
Saba and the other RAWA activists favor the return of Mohammad Zaher Shah, the former Afghan monarch who was deposed in 1973. Through the agency of the ex-king, she says, Afghanistan could have a new leadership tainted neither by the abuses of the warlords nor by the restrictions imposed on women by the Taliban.
When the Taliban swept into power in 1996, it capitalized on its claim to be a "protector of women." Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar gained fame by rescuing two girls who had been kidnapped by a warlord. According to Taliban lore, Omar killed the man and hanged his body from the barrel of a tank.
"The parties that were in power before the Taliban were in some ways worse," Saba acknowledged. "Many girls were raped. Many others committed suicide.
"When the Taliban came to power, women were safer," she added. "But they set the wheel of history back hundreds of years."