Tehelka.com (New Delhi) , May 2001
Memoirs from Peshawar: Afghan refugees' struggle continues
Travelling in Peshawar, Meena Nanji gives a first hand account of the trials and tribulations of the Afghan refugees settled there and records the courageous role of RAWA, a women's organisation in facing the challenges.
Peshawar (in Pakistan), a town near the border of Afghanistan, for centuries has been a centre for travellers and traders, smugglers and soldiers, a history inextricably linked with the Khyber Pass, the silk route, spice route, opium route, dating back from Buddhist, Mughal and Sikh times. The old city is a mosaic of bustling bazaars, crammed with people, objects, animals and stories of every kind imaginable. Buildings with intricately carved wooden doors and balconies line the narrow, winding streets and kebab stalls, spice shops and perfume sellers fill the air with intriguing scents.
I am buzzing through the streets in an auto rickshaw with a woman whose real name I do not know, she has no fixed address and cannot tell me where we are going. We stop at a butcher's shop, negotiate past huge shanks of raw meat hanging from hooks above the doorway. A few men, tall and rather fierce-looking, lurk near the entrance eyeing us suspiciously and then one tells us to sit down. An enormously fat man with a bushy beard and shifty eyes sits behind a large copper samovar from which he dishes out cups of 'kawa' or green tea for all of us. I sip my tea while things are whispered, glances exchanged, arrangements made.
We set off in another auto, this time accompanied by a man. As usual, I am not introduced to him. The less information exchanged, the better. More winding streets and another stop, this time at a tailor's, again the same process unfolds. They speak in about four different languages: Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Pashai, and there is no way I can understand a thing. The streets are so labyrinthine that I don't know where I am, but I am taken by the amazing sights, scents, atmosphere; all is mysterious, exotic, romantic and most of all dramatic. It could be the set of a James Bond flick. But it's not.
I had been in Peshawar only a few days. A few months ago I would never have believed it possible. I was in LA (where I've lived for the past 20 years) and had gone to a bookshop to hear a couple of representatives from an Afghan women's rights group called Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, (RAWA). They were on a speaking tour around the States, and I was so impressed by their presentation, and so appalled by the situation they described, that I went to talk to them afterwards. When they offered to show me around Pakistan and around the refugee camps, I jumped at the chance. That's how I found myself, a few months later, sitting in that little auto, armed with a mini DV camera and a vague plan for a documentary.
I must admit, that along with my excitement, I was also apprehensive about going to Pakistan on my own. The US State Department had issued a travel alert against Pakistan that read, "Unsafe for travel, especially not recommended for single women". I was afraid that my camera equipment might be confiscated at the airport, that I'd have to bribe the immigration officials and then be imprisoned for trying to, such were media reports about the country. The travel alert warned against going to the "tribal areas" where the Khyber Pass was located, saying it was dangerous and even the Pakistani government has got no jurisdiction there - it was controlled by bands of roving Pathan tribesmen. A spate of recent magazine articles had focused on Peshawar specifically, describing it as a hotbed for terrorism, drug smuggling, arms-trading and random violence; supposedly it was easier to buy a rocket launcher than a pair of socks in this town.
Many of these notions were soon dispelled. Arrival was easy, clean airport, polite staff, immigration officials all smiles, no hint of bribe expectation, camera equipment not even questioned. As far as reports of random violence, drugs, etc, they were there but no more than say, New York. Prevalence of guns - it's a lot easier to find one in America, and as for the dreaded tribal areas - they seemed far safer to me than many parts of Los Angeles. I don't want to trivialize the more sinister aspects of what is happening, but for the most part, media reports are overblown to say the least.
I found myself wearing two hats as a videomaker: one, I was completely taken with the "picturesqueness" of Peshawar; the air of mystery and romance associated it, and visually it was stunning. The other hat though, was more down-to-earth. The initial exoticness of clandestine meetings, use of pseudonyms, changes of address and escorts, held a sense of adventure for me, but I soon came to realize that RAWA was not in it for the glamour of it all; this was their real life. They had to take these precautions as they very justifiably feared for their lives. It was necessary, it was mundane, and living this way every day of their lives, it was really difficult.
Which brings me back to the auto-ride described above. All those arrangements, the stops, the changes of autos, etc, were not to score drugs or arms, but just to visit an orphanage, one of several in Pakistan run by RAWA. It houses about 30 Afghan children all of whom have lost either one or both parents in the fighting. The children receive not only shelter but also clothing, food and as good an education as one can hope for under dire circumstances.
'Leila' is one of the leaders of RAWA. She is in her forties, confident, highly articulate and passionate about her beliefs. She uses a pseudonym as after the assassination of RAWA's founder, it was decided that RAWA members should try and keep their identities as anonymous as possible. Leila joined RAWA 18 years ago.
Leila says, "RAWA was started in 1977 by "Meena", a committed feminist as well as a health worker and poet. Even at that time, she knew that women had few rights in Afghanistan and started this organization to campaign for them. They used to publish a magazine called Payam-e-Zan (Message of Women, which is published even today), which I used to read while I was a student at Kabul University. I became very interested in what they had to say and I liked their way of struggle. When the Soviets invaded, I moved to Pakistan and I came to know of Meena's whereabouts. I contacted her and was able to spend some time with her. Later I became a member of RAWA."
At this time RAWA's work took on a new significance. Many women joined in the Mujahideen (freedom) movement and RAWA opened schools, hostels and hospitals for the Afghan freedom fighters. Ten years after founding the organization, Meena was assassinated by agents of KHAD (Afghanistan branch of KGB) with the help of the Islamic Party of Hekmatyar. (Her confessed killers are still in prison in Pakistan). Even in death, Meena remains the primary influence and inspiration for women to carry on RAWA'S work.
Leila talks briefly about a recent trip she made to Afghanistan. Having not been there for several years, she was appalled by what she found. Leila recounts, " The Kabul I saw was totally different from the Kabul I knew before. I could hardly recognize any of the places. They are all totally destroyed. There used to be hospitals, offices and other buildings. Dar-ul-aman Palace is completely ruined. One can hardly believe that there used to be a palace in that place. There is not a single plant or any greenery in the city. It has turned into a desert. At the time of mass-killings (between 1992-96) everyone had heard that Kabul was flooded with blood, and it must have been true. I didn't see anything un-destroyed. Not a single building is untouched."
Those conditions, she says, have caused her to redouble her commitment to and efforts for RAWA's struggle. She emphasizes that RAWA's work is even greater now under the brutal regime of the Taliban, who are denying people, women especially, of basic human rights. "The people are in a terrible state. Even the men do not support the Taliban. The men suffer as well. They are severely beaten if they have no beard or if it is too short. If they do not close their shops to pray five times a day, they may be imprisoned. They are fed up with the Taliban and their version of Islam. This is not Islam. Islam clearly states 'there can be no compulsion in religion'.
In five years the Taliban has done nothing for the people. There is no infrastructure, no services, no schools and few job opportunities. The economic crisis obviously has given rise to theft. The Taliban has brought about such conditions and now they amputate the hands of those committing theft or hang them in public. People almost prefer the time when there were clashes between different groups; a bullet would come and bring death quickly without having to stand any miseries. Now life is very harsh.
For women life is unbearable and many women have taken their own lives. We cannot go out, to hospitals, to doctors, no women doctors are allowed to work. All children, boys and girls are illiterate, and sit at home with no education and nothing to eat. A woman, for example, who has no one to take care of her, has to work by herself, but she hasn't got the right to work. What should she eat then? There is no other way for her except to turn towards beggary or sell her children. I have seen with my own eyes women selling their children. A girl is given away for five thousand Afghans, the local currency, and a boy for two thousand. They say 'I have nothing to give to my children, not even a bite of bread to overcome their hunger. It is far better to sell them rather than let them die of hunger. And at least I will have a few thousand cash to live with.' This is the situation of our people."
Now, RAWA has many active members within Pakistan and Afghanistan. With very limited resources they manage to provide a broad range of services in their aim to educate women. They run schools for girls that go up to grade 12. They run mobile health clinics, have nurse-training courses, and literacy courses for women who missed out on early education. They also promote self-generating income projects, such as providing chickens to women so that they can sell eggs in the market. Handicrafts, sewing, embroidery, carpet weaving are also encouraged. RAWA also gives help and support to prostitutes, recognizing that thousands of women, mostly war-widows, have been forced into prostitution, as working is banned and begging cannot feed their children.
All these services are provided at great risk to the members' personal safety, especially in Afghanistan. Leila says, "Our security problems stop us from having large scale activities inside Afghanistan and we must work in great secrecy and under very strict conditions. We don't work in a known place and the houses change constantly. Literacy courses, handicrafts, all these are held in secret. The women must come to the houses one by one and not in a group. Children's courses are also held in secrecy." The Taliban and other Jehadi parties have issued decrees for the death of any RAWA member by stoning, equating them with prostitutes. Under such harsh conditions it is not surprising that they are the only Afghan women's group working within Afghanistan itself.
RAWA's emphasis on education is central. "People need to be educated, they need to be made aware of their condition, that they don't have to live like this", says Leila. She ontinues "The Talibs and Jehadis (Islamists) don't know anything about the history and culture of Afghanistan and don't care about its future. They say 'don't learn English, don't be educated, and if you want to be educated go to madrassas and obtain religious education only'. They are actually against knowledge, science, education and development. They don't allow any outside sources of information to reach people in Afghanistan, no radio, no television. People are denied information because the Taliban want them to stay ignorant, so that they can be controlled."
Because of their political beliefs, RAWA cannot qualify as an NGO, and so funding is difficult to come by in spite of the humanitarian work they do. They rely on private donations from individuals for their funding, and on income from magazine sales, handicrafts and are working on other self-generating income projects. Apparently the word 'revolutionary' in RAWA is problematic for a lot of people who decry it as too 'radical', 'extreme', 'militant'. Leila is baffled by this response. " We have to be radical because we are facing such an extreme situation", she says earnestly.
"Revolutionary", she continues, "means bringing a big change in the society and this is what we want to do especially with the status of women. We want a secular, democratic government, with freedom of thought, speech and religion for everybody, which too is revolutionary. People think that to be revolutionary one must use guns, bombs, that it must involve bloodshed. This is not so with us. Our struggle is a political one and we are using pens not guns. We want our voices to be heard, and although we did take arms against the Russians, (and many women were martyred, imprisoned) we are not using them now. Our pens will work like guns against this brutal regime. We are radical in standing by our belief that all the Jehadi parties are fundamentalists with a distorted interpretation of Islam, that they have all committed heinous atrocities against their own people, and therefore should not be included in any future government for Afghanistan. We are the only women's group to come out and say this unequivocally."
Recently RAWA has begun a new project, that of video documentation. In November 1999, a woman in Kabul was sentenced to death for allegedly killing her husband. All the women of Kabul were summoned to watch the execution, which took place in a large sports stadium in the centre of the city. A RAWA member smuggled in a video camera under her burqa and managed to record the entire proceedings. Since then other punishments have been recorded: amputations, a hanging, death by throat slitting. No news company will buy or air these footages however, and RAWA is wondering how best to show the world what is happening in their country. There are no easy answers.
RAWA is also having an impact on world opinion. With the launch of their website, they have reached millions of people around the world, gaining tremendous support, some of which translates monetarily. "If people contribute one dollar, it helps, because that dollar can put a girl in school for a month", says Leila. "Every little bit helps."
About the future Leila says, "Our struggle is a long one. We struggle because we want to see a proper democratic national government in our country and to see that people have the opportunity to live a prosperous and free life. The situation seems so bleak that many people have almost no hope left, but we will continue to struggle and work hard until we achieve our aims. Nothing is impossible in this world. It might be difficult, but not impossible. All you need is to have courage and persistence. We don't expect to accomplish our task in the near future but we are sure that these conditions are not going to remain forever; they will change. People will stand against the fundamentalists and when they are gone and freedom, peace and secular democracy established,then our future will be bright. The future of the whole of Afghanistan will be bright. This is what I am working for."