Otago Daily Times (New Zealand), September 29, 2005

Afghani woman pleads for genuine democracy

"Afghanistan's fundamentalist warlords will turn on the west again if allowed to go unchecked", Amena Shams

By Tom McKinlay

Afghanistan's fundamentalist warlords will turn on the west again if allowed to go unchecked, Afghani woman Amena Shams said in Dunedin yesterday.

"You have the example of 9/11. The strong supported the Taleban from a military point of view, from a financial point of view and look what happened," the human rights worker said.

Ms Shams, who must go by an assumed name and cannot be photographed for fear of retribution,is on an Amnesty International-sponsored speaking tour through New Zealand and Australia, lifting the veil on the reality on the ground in her violence-ravaged country.

The recent elections in the country, while hailed in the west, had meant little in a country where warlords still made their own rules and government officials managed the world's largest opium trade, Ms Shams, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), said.

Meanwhile, Afghanis working for genuine democracy were being ignored by those in a position to help, despite their pleas.

"Unfortunately, from the United States we can't see any visible response or any visible change," she said.

A slideshow that ran with a talk given by Ms Shams at the University of Otago showed pictures, taken by RAWA members, of the public hangings and everyday violence that continues in Afghanistan.

Such violence remained unchanged since the Taleban was replaced by the fundamentalist warlords of the Northern Alliance, she said.

It was fundamentalism that had caused the country's misery.

In Dunedin yesterday, Ms Shams (24) looked for all the world like any other modern young student. But when she returns to Afghanistan she puts on the burka for the safety it affords, though that alone is no guarantee.

Warlords such as Ismail Khan, who ruled unchallenged in Herat province, continued to apply fundamentalist laws, restricting the freedoms of women, who were the victims of widespread rape and violence, she said.

"The risk of rape and sexual violence by members of armed factions and forced marriages, particularly of girl children, and incidents of violence in the family are still widespread."

The situation in his fiefdom had driven 75 women to burn themselves in one 25-day period.

There was a widespread desire for genuine democratic change but those promoting it were forced to observe a high level of self censorship in their publications, Ms Shams said.

"If something happens by a group with a warlord, they cannot name that warlord in their newspaper because they are afraid."

For that to change, the warlords had to be disarmed and the criminals among them brought to trial.

The international community also had to commit to doing what was best for Afghanistan, rather than pushing its own agendas.

"Each country, and the United States at the top, they have their own policy in Afghanistan. That's why they have created the situation in the country."

Longer term, change in Afghanistan would require a commitment to education.

"We think the best help at the moment is to educate the people of Afghanistan, the women, and to open a way to the new generation of Afghanistan to escape from the situation."

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