The Sunday Times (UK), March 25, 2001

Afghan women wage secret war

Michael Sheridan, Peshawar, Pakistan

CONCEALED by a fold in the desert floor, the walled village rises out of a dusty hollow. Its armed Afghan sentries scrutinise visitors before the heavy iron gates are thrown open. The enemies of the Taliban do not intend to be taken by surprise as they go about their subversive underground work - education for girls.

First came an anonymous phone call, then at dawn a driver with a summons to the location 30 miles from Peshawar. "I am sorry for the precautions, but we have had so many threats," said Shahida, an Afghan woman activist, who gave only one name.

A male bodyguard, toting a fearsome automatic weapon, followed her as she walked around with her two-year-old son in her arms.

In exile behind these isolated mudbrick fortress walls, Shahida and her colleagues are keeping alive Afghan women's dreams of freedom. It is a world apart - not just from the Taliban's "Islamic emirate of Afghanistan" but from the refugee camps around Peshawar where fundamentalist gunmen hold sway and women wear the all-enveloping burqa.

Here, a roomful of cheerful schoolgirls, all in bright attire, feel no need to veil themselves when a male visitor appears. Village women walk in the streets clad modestly, most with headscarves, but none in the faceless shrouds prescribed by the Taliban.

"We have our network of schools and hospitals and other social services in Pakistan, and also our secret network of information from inside Afghanistan about the executions and repression of women by the Taliban," said Shahida.

Her group, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, was founded in pre-war Kabul when many Afghan women had professional careers and thought the future was full of liberal promise. Nowadays it helps widows, many of them qualified women reduced to begging by the ban on female work.

It runs clandestine schools, moving premises to stay a jump ahead of raids and beatings by the religious police. It operates orphanages for girls and provides family planning advice.

The women's bravery signifies bitter disenchantment among ordinary Afghans with the Taliban. In Kabul last week widespread disillusion was very evident - people flout the Taliban code whenever they can. Women were packing dried food in a makeshift warehouse, defying the ban on work. "We recently started employing women so they can make money," said one trader. "The widows are in the worst situation."

The Taliban's internationally condemned campaign of idol-smashing has pleased some people but dismayed others. "We have done the right thing," said Muhammad Najeeb, 26, who had helped destroy two Buddhas, 170ft and 120ft high, that had stood at Bamiyan for more than 1,000 years.

Ahmad Raza, 40, a villager from Bamiyan, said the attack was like an earthquake. "It was as though they were fighting the Buddha. But the Buddhas were bringing money for us because tourists would come. Nobody is happy."

Faqir Mohammed, 50, a teacher, said: "Afghan people think it is a national crime. People hate Pakistan, they feel it is responsible for everything."

Pakistan's military rulers continue to give diplomatic and covert military support to the Taliban. "National interest and security, pure and simple," said General Pervez Musharraf, the country's self-appointed chief executive, when asked last week to justify his policy.

Yet the Taliban's brand of intolerance has already brought insecurity to Pakistan. In border villages, pro-Taliban zealots have destroyed televisions, banned music cassettes and proclaimed what they claim is authentic Sharia law. America and other western nations are now warning Musharraf that it is time to clamp down on the ultra-extremists, before they threaten Pakistan itself.

To Shahida, there is a cruel irony in this: "The United States created these fundamentalist groups to use against the Russians, by giving them money, political support and weapons," she said. "They were nobodies who became famous and were seen as great heroes. Then when the Russians left, they showed their real faces - as criminals. Now even America can't accept them."

But in a destroyed country, there are no agreeable alternatives. Indications of a "spring offensive" by the northern warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud fill most Afghans with gloom. Shahida sees him as a hypocrite - "his men raping and killing civilians while he tells the West he wants democracy".

Diplomats say the key issue is the Taliban's hospitality to thousands of Islamic terrorists - especially the Saudi militant Osama Bin Laden, whose presence has brought UN sanctions. Yet he is reported to be close to his hosts and to be giving advice to Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader.

Diplomatic sources say Washington has explicitly warned Taliban leaders that they are deemed responsible for Bin Laden's acts and may be at risk when the next strike is launched against him. Once again, Afghanistan is set to be a battleground in somebody else's bigger war.


Interview of a RAWA activist with The Sunday Times Magazine, August 5, 2001

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