Toronto Star, September 22, 2007

Afghan women seek justice

Ending their silence, protesters demand that Kabul probe atrocities stemming from decades of conflict

Bruce Campion-Smith, Ottawa bureau chief

KABUL–Wira Darwishi's sad brown eyes betray decades of worry and questions.

More than 20 years ago, three members of her family – a brother, uncle and cousin – vanished. For years, Darwishi wondered silently about their fate.

But this Kabul woman and hundreds like her are silent no more.

Protest of victims in Kabul
"They have killed our husbands and sons and they deserve nothing but trial," said one demonstrator

In a remarkable move, Darwishi and some 100 other women of all ages demonstrated outside the United Nations office here last month, clutching pictures of loved ones – mostly husbands and sons – who have gone missing in Afghanistan's decades of conflict.

The mass graves being found around the country – three alone in the last two months – hint at the fate of many of them.

"Thousands of people in Afghanistan lost their loved ones," Darwishi said in an interview.

"During these years, they are just thinking that they will return back to their families and they cannot accept that they are killed," she said.

These are courageous women, taking on not only a government that seems unwilling to tackle the country's dark history, but also the very warlords accused of atrocities, some of whom now sit in parliament.

Darwishi has about 200 women in her fledgling victims' group but knows that the fear of reprisals is keeping many others silent.

"They know all over Kabul and all around Afghanistan there are these criminals," she said.

"If the international community supports us with this action, then I am sure there will be thousands of people around Afghanistan who will have their voice with us," she said through an interpreter.

As Afghanistan struggles with the present, it is also haunted by its past, a legacy of violent regimes dating back to 1978 that included communist rule and Soviet occupation, a bitter civil war and the religious crackdown under the Taliban.

In a 2005 report titled "Bloodstained Hands," Human Rights Watch said documenting serious atrocities committed in the 1980s and 1990s "will not fit within the covers of a book; it will fill bookshelves. The two-decade period was marked by widespread human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity."

Now victims of those atrocities are demanding answers. In the words of one United Nations official here, the demonstration by the women was "stunning."

"Success in `transitional justice' depends upon the ability of victims to demand justice. That was an amazing development – I think it's a great achievement," said Javier Leon-Diaz, a human rights officer with the United Nations assistance mission in Afghanistan.

It evoked memories of the Mothers of Srebrenica, who sought answers about the disappearance of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at the hands of Bosnian Serb forces, and Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who pressed to learn the fate of their children who vanished during the 1976-83 dictatorship in Argentina.

There's been no response from President Hamid Karzai's government to the demonstration. But it casts a spotlight on the growing push from Afghan residents to discover the fate of their loved ones.

And it's a search with a Canadian connection. Ottawa is providing money and much-appreciated staff expertise to the United Nations mission, which is spearheading "transitional justice" efforts, diplomatic lingo for the process to confront the violent past.

Noveed, 23, said it angers her to see alleged criminals sitting in parliament. "We wish that all the ones who did these crimes in Afghanistan should be jailed and judged," she said.
Toronto Star, Sep.22, 2007

But getting to the truth here won't be easy. For starters, while Karzai's government has formally adopted a plan to implement a transitional justice plan, which includes a vetting system meant to keep accused war criminals out of office, there's been little real progress.

"The Afghan government is not all to blame. I think there is not enough pressure put on the Afghan government and on President Karzai by the international community," said one foreign official who is active on the file.

"The attitude of the international community is that it is too soon, that vetting current office-holders or prosecution could destabilize the country and therefore shouldn't be pushed too hard."

The country lacks the sophisticated forensic capability needed to exhume mass graves. UN experts have done preliminary examinations of a few sites but a full excavation would require a formal invitation from Karzai's government, something that's not been forthcoming.

Add to that the fact that there's not one single regime accused of the atrocities but several, dating back to before the Soviet invasion in 1979. The victims of one era became the accused of the next. And now, human rights advocates say, some of those perpetrators sit in the Afghan parliament or serve in senior government positions.

International observers concede Afghanistan's rudimentary justice system just isn't up the task of fairly prosecuting accused war criminals.

"It is now widely recognized that there cannot be peace without justice," Leon-Diaz said in an interview at the UN compound in Kabul.

"That said, the current status of the judiciary in Afghanistan does not allow for domestic trials for war crimes or crimes against humanity. International fair trial standards cannot be observed at this stage," he said.

Still, Noveed, 23, said it angers her to see alleged criminals sitting in parliament.

"We wish that all the ones who did these crimes in Afghanistan should be jailed and judged," said Noveed, who doesn't have a last name.

"Whenever I see the faces of mujahideen criminals, I'm getting so angry and really so sad, not only me but there are many, many other families who have lost their beloveds during these regimes," she said in an interview.

Her aunt and uncle were the victims of a military raid on their house to steal their belongings. Her uncle tried to prevent the attack.

"They hit him too much and he died," she said.

Meanwhile, Darwishi's brother Ibrahim was seized along with two classmates in 1979 from Kabul's college. He was engaged and his fiancée waited 15 years before marrying someone else.

Her uncle, a retired military officer, was seized from his farm and kept in jail for six months before disappearing. His son, an air force technician, was taken too.

"These are the three lost ones. We have no information. It's been 27, 28 years," she said.

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