By Michael Stittle
As Afghan police scrambled to the scene of a bomb blast Tuesday that killed five lawmakers and dozens of children, Malalai Joya, haunted by death threats and assassination attempts in Afghanistan, sat on the other side of the world, clutching a cup of tea with her eyes cast downward.
"This is not the first suicide bomb in Afghanistan and it will not be the last," she warned. "The problem is that the victims are always innocent victims -- especially children."
She was seated in a cafeteria at the University of Toronto, dressed in a thick black coat and white scarf, far removed from the burqa she's forced to wear in Afghanistan to protect her identity and her life.
Joya, 29, came to Canada this week to speak about the two issues that have put her life in jeopardy: the plight of women in Afghanistan and the role of the warlords in President Hamid Karzai's government.
In 2005, Joya was the youngest person to win a seat in the Afghan parliament's lower house, the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People).
Her foes in parliament belong to the Northern Alliance, a faction of warlords and ethnic groups who have historically fought against the Taliban. She criticizes the warlords for being no better than their rivals -- "a photocopy," she says -- and claims they committed atrocities after the former Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1992.
Until 1996, the ensuing power vacuum sparked infighting amongst the warlords at the cost of thousands of lives. In Kabul alone, she said, the bloodshed killed 65,000 people. Her own father, a doctor, was injured in the fighting and lost part of his leg.
"The Northern Alliance fundamentalists are mentally similar to the Taliban, but superficially they have changed to suit their power by talking about democracy and the 9/11 tragedy," Joya told CTV.ca.
"Today, they control Afghanistan. Some of them are ministers, governors, commanders or ambassadors. They control Afghanistan and our people are like hostages. The Taliban make use of the situation and become powerful. And also countries like Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Uzbekistan make use of the situation, by either supporting the Taliban or the Northern Alliance. This is the reason why the situation becomes worse day by day."
Earlier this year she bluntly told a journalist that the Afghan parliament was worse than a barn, "because at least donkeys and cows are somewhat useful."
Footage of the interview was played before her fellow MPs. On May 21, they angrily voted her out under Article 70 of the Afghan parliament's Rules and Regulations. The rule, apparently under revision at the time, states that lawmakers must not publicly criticize one another.
Joya is suspended from parliament until after the current session ends in 2010. The country's supreme court is reviewing the decision, but in the meantime, she continues to speak out against her enemies in the lower house.
"Day by day, my life has become more risky, because I don't compromise with them and I expose their mask of democracy," she said.
She claimed that demonstrations to overturn her suspension, many led by journalists in the country, were quashed by the Northern Alliance.
The best way to remove them from power, she said, is to end the U.S.-led combat operations in Afghanistan, which are protecting the current government.
"The international community will not succeed in Afghanistan, because the U.S. and its allies attacked Afghanistan under the name of liberating the country and the Afghan women, but they fought against the Taliban by supporting another bunch of terrorists," she said.
'Our people are the victims'
Joya described the situation as two giants fighting -- with the Afghan people trapped in the middle. More than 5,700 Afghans have died this year alone, according to an estimate by The Associated Press. It's the worst death toll since the Taliban were removed from power.
"On one side we have the Northern Alliance, who are pro-U.S. terrorists, and on the other side the Taliban, who are anti-U.S. terrorists. Our people are the victims," she said.
Joya has pleaded with Canada to follow a different path in Afghanistan, one that does not emphasize combat operations. She wants Ottawa to give financial help and security to democratic parties that are unable to promote themselves.
"The main message of our people for the Canadian government is this: if you really want to help the Afghan people, please act independently," she said. "Do not follow the policies of the U.S., which are the wrong policies. Please support democratic-minded people and parties. They are able to fight against fundamentalism and they are the future of Afghanistan."
Women still the big issue for Joya
On Tuesday evening, she spoke at a conference called "Women and War in Afghanistan," organized by Toronto members of the Stop the War Coalition. She sat at a table beside New Democrat MP Peggy Nash, with a bright yellow banner on the wall behind them that declared in red: "END THE OCCUPATION."
The room was about the size of a tennis court and organizers ran out of seats. A dozen young Afghan-Canadians sat on the floor next to three or four television cameras.
Joya told the audience that the situation for women in Afghanistan has yet to improve. Their life expectancy is just 45. And in the first six months of 2007, she said 250 women committed suicide.
She read out a list of the dead, sketching out how some took their lives. An 18-year-old girl hung herself because she was forced to marry a 60-year-old man.
"They see suicide as the only way to get rid of their misery," she told the crowd.
Joya read aloud an article from The New York Times dated from 1959. It was a profile of Afghanistan and described women freely leaving their homes to go to work, living independent lives from their husbands. It was written during the last period of stability in the country, when Mohammed Zahir Shah ruled as king from 1933 to 1973.
Now, Joya told the audience, most women are forced into arranged marriages, they have little access to education and almost no hope to improve their lives.
When it was time for questions from the audience, a woman asked what would happen if Canadian troops leave. Who would monitor and protect the money she had donated to schools for Afghan girls, the woman asked, calling them "my children." A man in the front interrupted her, shouting: "They are not your children, they are Afghani children!"
It was unclear whether Joya completely understood the question and a translator stepped in to help. Joya nodded her head, took the microphone and stood up. But she repeated what she had said earlier: Afghan women are no better off now than when the Taliban were removed from power, and both the Taliban and warlords must be brought to justice if there is any chance for lasting change.
It's a message Joya will continue to voice when she returns to Afghanistan, even at the cost of her life.
"If we have a democratic government, and if we have security, food and water, our people will rebuild their country," she said.
The debate was over. Joya may not get another chance to visit Canada. The majority of MPs in the Afghan parliament have asked the interior ministry to restrict her movements outside the country, and she may never be able to leave again