A Haven For Women by Ayesha Hasan

Originally published here 

 Two little girls were sitting on a crochet table cloth spread under a tree in the garden. A woman was sitting on a green wooden bench nearby, multitasking as she talked on a cell phone and kept an eye on the girls simultaneously. Sitting some 50 meters away from them, I could hear the woman titter. The person on the other end of the phone was probably cracking jokes. The sound of her laughter put an inadvertent smile on my face.

During my two-week stay in Kabul, she was the first woman I had seen laugh openly in a public place. She spoke fluent Dari and threw her head back in the air every time she laughed. She ran her fingers through her hair once in a while. She was wearing a white shirt, a navy blue skirt and black boots and looked gorgeous. Her blue shuttle-cock burqa lay next to her on the bench. It was imprecisely folded causing air to trap inside the georgette apparel making it look like big blue polythene bag floating in water.

Not all women in Afghanistan wear burqas anymore unless it is demanded of them by their families. This applies specifically to Pashtuns, but covering the head is mandatory in all circumstances by women from all ethnicities. This woman hadn’t done either, and why not? Because she was inside the Bagh-e-Zanana (women’s garden) in the centre of the Afghan capital.

Bagh-e-Zanana, officially known as the Shaharara Garden, is one place in Kabul, where women can be themselves without abiding by the socio-cultural requirements of the ‘man’s world’ outside. Designated exclusively for women, men are not allowed to enter this garden. I am certain a lot of men do, but only in their dreams. After all, it’s the only place in the city that accommodates a large number of women and girls seven days a week.

The garden houses a computer and English language training institute, run by the American Embassy, a shopping area for women and children and numerous tailoring houses – all run by women. Even the security guards are women and so are the shopkeepers and sales staff. The garden also has a day care centre for the children of women who work at the garden or somewhere else. And of course, there is a beautiful lush green garden spread over several thousands square feet.

The garden is open throughout the week, but Fridays are particularly fun days. Women arrange picnics, music and dance. They dress in colourful clothes and bring their children, too. It’s the day they wait for six days a week and do all their shopping on this day.

Women in Afghanistan do not usually wear bright colours. Excessive use of browns, blacks, whites and navy blue speak volume of a life they had been forced into. I noticed the first thing women did as they stepped onto the garden premises was to take off their burqas or overcoats and reveal themselves as shinning pearls that just emerged from their shells.

For Afghan women, there is nothing as pleasing as the freedom to dress and roam around without the fear or insecurity that they might be watched by men. One thing that caught my attention was a big poster with colourful images and legible instructions in Dari educating women about reporting domestic violence to the police. The four illustrations told a story of a woman who reported abuse by her husband to the police. He was put behind the bars after a court trial.

I was still looking at the poster, when I over heard some women talking about the “Friday’s party” at the garden. I followed them to a tailoring shop, where I was instantly recognised as a Pakistani woman. Was it because of the red shirt I was wearing?

The shop was run by three friendly Pashtun women. One of them could speak Urdu for she had spent 11 years in Pakistan as a refugee when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. To make them more comfortable, I replied in Pashto. I hadn’t even finished my first sentence and there was a comfortable chair for me followed by a cup of tea with assorted biscuits from a shop a block away.

More women poured in – they had heard about a Pakistani-Pashtun woman visiting the garden. Some shared their experiences in Pakistan, others answered my questions about business in the garden. Each shop was about 100 square feet and rented for 3,000 Afghanis (some 50 Euros) a month, so they often preferred sharing shops.

One of the shopkeepers was Shpogmai Rana, whose name meant moonlight. She said she was in her 50s. Her wrinkled face, which made her look 20 years older, told stories of the desolation, violence and torment it had seen. She was happy to see a woman travel independently to work. She wanted a Pakistani bride for her son, and asked me to help her find one – a responsibility I accepted wholeheartedly.  

Pashtu music was played and we danced as if we had never done before. No one cared where her shawl went or how loud the music was. They ensured that I finished the biscuits before I left. The last one was stuffed into my mouth with an amiable smile as I moved my shoulders back and forth to the music and my dancing partners. Women carried on with their routine duties in other parts of the garden, oblivious of the little ‘Friday party’ going on in one shop on a Thursday.       

I was offered lunch but it was time to go. As I stepped out, Shpogmai Rana called my name. I turned my head towards her and found her eyes full of tears. She asked me to pray for her and Afghan women. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she said, “Last night, I saw myself running bare-footed on a dark potholed road under a moonless sky. A talib was chasing me with a baton in his hand. He was shouting my name and calling me a sinner for stepping outside my house. My burqa was lost somewhere.”

Author: Ayesha Hasan
Editor: Grahame Lucas

 

 

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The Buddhas of Aynak: The Afghan Cultural Site That the World Does Not Care About

by Malik Achakzai

Originally published at policymic.com

One of Afghanistan’s biggest archaeological treasures may soon be turned to dust as a Chinese mining company which has bought the site turns it into a sprawling, billion-dollar copper mine.

The Buddhas of Aynak, situated in a desert region 20 minutes southwest of Kabul, is an archaeological site containing ancient Buddhist artifacts dated over 2,500 years old. It also holds rich mineral deposits, especially copper. Formerly an ancient Buddhist monastery complex, the historical center has more than 150 Buddha statues. It is of immense worldwide importance and is one of Afghanistan’s richest historical sites.

The site also has a violent and troubled history. A common rumor is that Al-Qaeda planned the 2001 September 11 attack from a camp in Aynak. The area is also a major transit route for insurgents coming from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

Archaeologists have found a number of artifacts dating backing over a millennium on the site, even unearthing manuscripts that may provide evidence regarding the presence of Alexander the Great’s troops in the area.

The Buddhist ruins are scheduled to be destroyed at the end of December 2012. In November 2007, a 30-year lease was granted for the copper mine to the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) for $3 billion, making it the biggest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history.

The Afghan Mining Ministry estimates that the mine holds some six million tons of copper. The mine is expected to be worth tens of billions of dollars, and to generate jobs and economic activity for the country but all of this critically threatens the site’s archaeological remains, which are now being hurriedly excavated by private organizations.

Brent Huffman, a volunteer working to preserve this archaeological site, has produced a documentary about the Buddhas of Aynak, and is busy collecting donations to boost the excavation work. In an interview with Huffman, I asked about the history and the status of the excavation of the Aynak.

 

Malik Achakzai: Could you discuss the historical importance of the Buddhas of Aynak?

Brent Huffman: Mes Aynak, or “little copper well” is a vast ancient Buddhist city 400,000 square meters in size. There are over 400 hundred life-size or larger Buddha statues, a circular monastic complex and dozens of temple (stupa) structures. 

More is being discovered daily, including hundreds of ancient manuscripts hidden inside many of the stupas. 

Archaeologists are only beginning to find remnants of an older 5,000-year-old Bronze Age site beneath the Buddhist level including an ancient copper smelter.

M.A: How important is this site for Afghanistan and the world?

B.H: This site is extremely important to not only Afghanistan but to the entire world. The incredible discoveries at Mes Aynak will redefine the history of Buddhism and Asia. Mes Aynak represents a major hub on the Silk Road where pilgrims and traders would exchange ideas and influence each other. People at Mes Aynak also mined for copper themselves using ancient mining techniques.

M.A: How long will this process of excavation go on, and how many organizations are taking part in it?

B.H: Excavation is set to end Dec. 25th, and the site is set to be destroyed by the Chinese mining company unless we do something to stop it. This should be a 30-year excavation job, but it has been a sporadic three-year rushed rescue archaeology job so far. DAFA, the Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Mines are all involved.

M.A: What’s the stance of Afghan Government and the Chinese Company to preserve this important Buddha’s heritage?

B.H: The Ministry of Culture is attempting to save all small artifacts and move them to the National Museum in Kabul. All the bigger relics, statues, structures, temples, etc. are too fragile to be moved and will be destroyed after Dec. 25th.

M.A: UNESCO and other international organizations for culture and heritage — have they played any role pressuring the Chinese company and Afghan government to extend the period of excavation?

B.H: No, UNESCO has not played any role so far. There have been several international groups (ARCH, Global Witness, the Smithsonian, the Thai embassy, and my own campaign) putting pressure on MCC and the Afghan government.

M.A: Is the security of The Buddhas of Aynak satisfactory, have you or other organization felt any threat, because Taliban and other militant organizations view them as un-Islamic?

B.H: The security at Mes Aynak is very poor. Rockets have been fired at both the MCC mine and the archaeology site and anti-personnel land mines have been placed on the road at night. These attacks are all over money, not Buddhism.  

Six villages in Logar province have to be leveled to make way for this enormous open-pit style copper mine. These villagers are angry about the way this process played out – either they were never compensated for their loss or the compensation was very low. They have been partnering with the Taliban to attack the MCC mine and the archaeology site.  

The copper mine will also cause terrible environmental devastation, poisoning the land and water permanently.

Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Understanding our neighbor!

Islamabad/Kabul: Why do we feel the need to understand our neighbor? We can’t choose our neighbors, can we? No, I don’t think so. What we can do is, to have good relationship with our next-door neighbors and live happily ever after. *Fairytale style

Can you tell, who is a Pakistani and who is an Afghan? Ayesha and Farkhonda.

Who wants to live in a place where one is always suspicious about the role of his/her neighbor. Oh, my neighbor blocks my water pipe. My neighbor is planning to bomb my house. My neighbor is stinky. Who wants to live a life like that? Stop ranting about your neighbor Pakistan and Afghanistan! Stop it! Life is not a Hollywood film and we are not James Bond. You can’t air lift your country and take it somewhere else and choose your neighbors.

Let’s have the courage and give voice to your complaints and tell your neighbors, how you feel about them. You don’t have to hide it from them that you don’t like them. You never know, how pissed they are at you. It is possible that you are annoying them more than they annoy you. Come to think of it, everything is possible.

Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist said that to understand ‘others’ we have to understand them with ‘others’ point of view not our own point of view. We have to leave our pre-conceived notions, myth, stereotypes and biases and understand others with an open heart and mind, without judging them for what they are and most importantly, what they are not.

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We are very happy that we achieved this goal. The 22 journalists from both side of the Durand Line are the living example of what we achieved in two-phase project, FES-Af-Pak Journalists Exchange Program: Understanding the Neighbor.  They will make the world understand the Af-Pak relation with their new understanding. They are ready to challenge the decades old established narratives about their neighbors- the narratives that are missing in the public sphere. I am very happy while writing this that these journos are no more neighbors, they happily call each other friends now. Mission accomplished!

Kabul Rocks! We will come again:)

Author: Annie Zaman

FES Af-Pak Fellow Receives Human Rights Award in Berlin

Congratulations to FES Af-Pak Journalism Fellow Safdar Dawar for receiving the Human Rights Award of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Berlin on 31st October 2012. He received the award on behalf of the Tribal Union of Journalists. This is the first time a Pakistani organization has received the award.

Detailed press release below:

German foundation gives its highest award to Pakistani Tribal Union of Journalists

Press Release

Berlin: The German Foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftungor FES gives its highest human rights award to the tribal union of journalist or TUJ, FATA. This award is recognition of the work done by the journalists in FATA. TUJ has worked for 20 years to consolidate media freedom and freedom of expression in the region. It represents around 250 journalists in the FATA, working for local, national and international print and electronic media. It was founded in 1987 by a group of local journalists.

The award ceremony started with the public panel discussion on the topic of “reporters within borders: Pakistani journalists for truth in conflict”. The speakers were renowned Pakistani journalist RahimullahYousafzai, andthe investigative journalists Ulrich Tilgner. Ulrich covered the Gulf war 1 and Gulf war 2. These journalists talked about the difficulties faced by the local reporters on the ground. Ulrich said, ‘German TV channels are not interested in sending its reporters to Afghanistan or Pakistan to do reports. What they do is, work with the local journalists. ”Yousafzaisaid, the work done by the local reporters is neither recognized not well paid. ‘The local reporters on the ground in FATA risk their lives and get the report for the foreign journalists’ working from their comfortable offices in London, New York or Paris. ‘ He further said the journalists sitting abroad have very pointed questions that at times risks the lives of the local reporters.

After the podium discussion, a short documentary ‘Theater of conflict: reporting from FATA was shown. The documentary highlighted the problems faced by the families of the journalists who were killed in the line of duty. There were interviews of the killed journalists families and colleagues.  The documentary also highlighted and explained the FCR or Frontier Crimes Regulations to the German audience.

The laudatory speech was given by Johannes Pflug, member of the German parliament, deputy chair of the task force Afghanistan-Pakistan of the SPD parliamentary group. He applauded the efforts of TUJ, ‘I appreciate the efforts of the tribal journalists who live in constant fear and many of them had to leave their homes in FATA due to threats but they are brave and still continue to work about FATA.’ He congratulated SafdarDawar for receiving the award.  Johannes Pflug said, ‘Safdar and his colleagues face many problems due to the FCR that restricts the rights to freedom of expressions and abuse human rights in FATA. It makes FATA the black box of information in the world. There is not a single local newspapers or TV channel in FATA because the FCR restrict the locals to have it. ‘

The President of the FES, Peter Struck, presented the award to the President of TUJ SafdarDawar. SafdarDawar received the award and remembered the 12 journalists colleagues they have lost their lives the line of duty. He pointed out that no political reforms are possible without the media reforms in FATA.  “The lack of a strong Press in FATA leads to the lack of communication, misunderstanding and the wild spread of rumors. For the reconstruction of the social fabric of the otherwise egalitarian society in the tribal areas, the development of media is very important.” He thanked the organization like internews, intermedia, FES, Mediothek, RFL who gives the tribal journalists regular trainings.

TUJ has lost 12 journalists until today. The last tribal journalist assassinated was Mukharram Khan Atif. He was killed in a mosque in January this year. The journalists killed so far don’t get any compensation from the organisations they work for.

The Human Rights Award, presented for the first time in 1994, dates back to the legacy of Karl and Ida Feist from Hamburg. The couple stipulated in their will that their fortune be administered by the fund, which is to present a Human Rights Award once a year. Karl and Ida Feist actively supported the labour movement for many years. Their own bitter experiences with war and destruction led them to advocate peace and non-violence.According to the donators, the Human Rights Award should be awarded to individuals or organisations that rendered outstanding services for human rights in the different parts of the world.

 

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For more info: www.tuj.com.pk

http://www.fes-pakistan.org

http://www.fes.de/themen/menschenrechtspreis/en/mrp2012.php

 

 

Kabul abuzz with activities but Afghans uncertain about future by Delawar Jan

KABUL: Afghanistan’s capital Kabul calmly sits among barren mountains, with unexpected but delightful peace in its streets. Tranquility of the Yaftali Street in Share-Naw would allow one to hear warbles of birds, droning of passenger planes and sounds of hammers from an under-construction building. Fear of violence scarcely exists.

Kabul hardly appears to be the capital of a country where around 50 countries led by the US have been fighting the battle-hardened Taliban for the last 12 years. Life seems to be in full swing in the city as bazaars are abuzz with business activities and roads occupied by vehicles that are crazily driven to the surprise of many. Traffic jams give an idea of rush on the roads.

Construction of multistory commercial buildings on almost every street and elegant townships on the outskirts of the city indicates boom in construction sector. People attend offices and businesses without fear of violence. Even people of other countries, including Pakistan, are finding Kabul as destination for job.

Another event that substantiates the impression that life has returned to normalcy in Kabul is a football match. Under the surveillance balloon that oversees movements in the city, a football stadium erupts in cheers as spectators support their respective teams in the much-hyped and televised Afghanistan Premier League, launched recently.

However, military helicopters clattering over the city and presence of heavy military assets at the airport provide the signs of war in Kabul. Police check-posts at almost every square, blocked roads and embarrassing body search at all important sites reinforce the feeling of being in a war-struck country.

Despite some of the positive signs, Afghans predict a bleak future of the country. The US and its allies have failed to quell Taliban resistance in Afghanistan which unsettles people in Kabul. They fear Taliban could menace the hard-won but fragile peace in the city as foreign combat forces are preparing to leave the country in 2014. The people have no, or little, confidence in the Afghan National Army and police to withstand ferocious Taliban attacks.

“Security situation in the country is poor even the US is in charge of it. Kabul is not Afghanistan. Other provinces have been in grip of violence,” said Abdul Karim Sadiqi, who hails from Kabul. “In my understanding, the situation in Afghanistan will further deteriorate after the US withdrawal,” he added.

Omar Gul, who hails from Maidan Wardag, is also worried about the post-2014 Afghanistan. “I am afraid Afghanistan will see scenes from the past after the foreign forces pull out. Afghan National Army is not capable to hold control over the country which worries me that civil war could again start. And of course peace in Kabul will also be menaced by violence,” he said.

A report of the International Crisis Group last week said the country is plagued by factionalism and is not ready to assume responsibility for security. “There is a real risk that the regime in Kabul could collapse upon NATO’s withdrawal in 2014,” Candace Rondeaux, the ICG’s senior Afghanistan analyst was quoted as saying.

Analysts in Afghanistan predict that 2014 will cause uncertainty in the country as Afghan leaders lack vision for the future. Mujib Mashal, a leading Afghan journalist, said Afghanistan had over 300,000 police and army combined which was enough but the quality was lacking. “About our security forces, the big question is that whether they can sustain, whether they can fight on the ground without the air support from the Americans and coalition forces and whether they can do [operations] on their own,” he said.

He said the Afghan leadership had no clear vision about the country and felt Kabul would not be prepared to take over charge in 2014. “One day we are telling the security forces to kill the Taliban, they are the enemy. The next day we are saying they are our friends, our brothers,” he said. “So soldiers on the ground are confused. You don’t know how clear my mission is. Is this guy my enemy or my brother, my friend,” he added.

Muahammad Sarwar Ahmadzai, who works on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Regional Study Centre of Afghanistan, agrees that security situation would deteriorate but shrugged off concern of civil war as misplaced.  “We had [security] problems before and will continue to have them in future, though we understand they will increase after the US withdrawal. But concerns about a civil war are groundless,” he argued.

Nato and Afghanistan government reject such predictions and assert the Afghan army and police are being trained well and would better fight Taliban than the international troops as they were familiar with the terrain and people.

“Fundamentally, Nato is confident that the army and police in Afghanistan will be capable of doing the job [of undertaking the security responsibilities] after 2014 because we see them growing everyday now in their skills and experience,” said Dominic Medley, a spokesman for the Nato in Afghanistan.

He said the Afghan army had demonstrated skills in major attacks in Kabul where they led the operation to finish the attackers. He added that it was leading major operations around the country which gave alliance members the confidence that they were capable of fighting the Taliban.

He said the international community had invested billions of dollars and so much effort for a shared goal which was a peaceful, secure, prosperous [and] stable Afghanistan. “Why would we make all our effort to be in vain just to let Afghanistan collapse,” he wondered. The Nato spokesman said the alliance would continue the training, advising and assistance of the Afghan security forces.

“Afghanistan has come a long way  over the past 10 years in terms of establishing democracy, in terms of strengthening economic institutions, police and army, in terms of the vast gains we have made in education, in healthcare, in infrastructure development [and] building our economy,” said Janan Mosazai, Afghanistan Foreign Ministry spokesman. “Afghanistan is never going to go back to 1990s,” he added.

Concern about economy is also widespread. “Our economy is right now totally dependent on donor money and international aid. There has been no vision laid out for the economic sustainability after 2014,” Mujib Mashal said.

“If we compare this year with last year, I would say that the business has dropped by 60 per cent,” said Omar Gul, who has invested 30,000 dollars in garment business.

Nato spokesman, however, said the international community had pledged up to 16 billion dollars for Afghanistan and the country could also tap its resources. “So you wouldn’t expect some kind of massive economic collapse,” he hoped.

Originally published in The News International

 

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Kabul Eats: L’Atmosphere by Sundus Rasheed

Originally published at YummyMummyAndMe
Kabul, like Karachi, has only one kind of nightlife – a foodie kind of nightlife. But it can be a little bit more risqué/fun that Karachi. While Karachi asks you to bring your own, Kabul serves its own.  Kabul has a decent variety of cuisines being served across the city. Thai, Chinese, Indian, Croatian, Middle Eastern and many more. The next few blog entries will showcase some of Kabul’s best eateries. Here’s the first in my ‘Kabul Eats’ series.
 If you look up any travel guide to Kabul, you are bound to come across the name L’Atmosphere – a French restaurant/bar catering mainly to the expat community but locals are served too (there are places where locals are denied entry. Colonial much?). L’Atmosphere has three dining areas – an outdoor area, the bar/pub area with sofas and bar stools and a more formal dining area with tables and chairs.
It is located in the Qalla-e-Fatullah area, about 10 minutes away from the central district of Shar Nau. Don’t let the road to L’Atmo intimidate you – it is under construction and basically a mess right now (think Shireen Jinnah colony or Sohrab Goth 10 years ago). However, no road is too hard for a taxi to get to. Security is a bit more relaxed here – the guards will check your bags and ask a couple of ‘friendly’ questions but cameras are allowed and you will not be asked for identification.
We opted to sit in the bar area which was by far the most popular part of the restaurant – occupied mostly by American and European expats. The menu is surprisingly extensive – with crepes, pizzas, pastas, salads, soups, steaks and desserts. Alcohol is not ‘on the menu’ but it is available – beer, whiskey, rum, vodka and wine.
When dining in Kabul, place your order quickly. The food takes a while to arrive, about 20-25 minutes for the soups and salads and even. We ordered a bunch of starters – fried camembert with cherry jam, chicken salad and French onion soup.
The chicken salad was loaded with a spicy chicken chunks on a bed of ice-berg lettuce, cucumbers and onion and no dressing. Luckily, the chicken was not over-cooked and the vegetables were fresh and crunchy so you don’t really miss out on flavor.
The French onion soup was perfect for the cold Kabul evening. I would have liked a more bodied soup though.
The fried Camembert was a quick reminder that we were in fact still in Kabul. No complaints about the cheese but the sweet, bottled cherry jam gave it all away. The hot cheese on bread still works though.
The Nordic  crepes were STUFFED with lots and lots of salmon – a real treat in a landlocked Afghanistan. The crepe itself was light and soft. My company could not wait until I took a picture, hence, half a crepe only in the picture.
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Pizza has got to be the world’s favorite comfort food. No matter where you come from and where you are eating, pizza is bound to make you feel at home. L’Atmosphere has a range of pizzas – easily categorized by the toppings/meat on them – chicken, beef, cheese and so on. We ordered the chicken. The pizza was fairly large – to be easily shared between two as a main.
After a really ambitious ‘Western meal’ we ended our indulgence with a chocolate crepe and ice-cream.
The entire meal along with drinks  (including alcoholic ones) cost about  $150 for the four of us. Remember, expat dining in Kabul is expensive as it is limited and exclusive. L’Atmosphere is where the well-heeled expats come to play so you know what to expect.
And a very big thank you to Kabul’s finest violin teacher – my friend William Harvey for taking me to L’Atmo (because real expats call it L’Atmo)
AND the biggest thank you of all to the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Pakistan and Afghanistan for letting me bring Kabul that much closer to Karachi – as part of the Af-Pak Journalism Fellowship Exchange Program – Understanding the Neighbour.

Kabul youth determined to exorcise old ghosts

By Robin Fernendez

KABUL: Kabul is bursting with life and quite unlike the capital of a country that has seen internecine fighting for the better part of more than three decades. Its thoroughfares and streets, though narrow and potholed, are clogged with traffic; its shops and bazaars replete with goods, most of them from Pakistan and Iran.

Construction is booming in this city of more than five million and property prices are staggeringly high, sometimes rivaling Tokyo and New York.  The city is seeing an uptick in vertical growth, with hundreds of tall apartment buildings and office complexes sprouting out every few months. Cell phone service giant MTN is building an 88-storey building in the heart of the capital, which will soon dwarf the Soviet-built telecommunications office towers by 60-odd floors.

The Afghan national currency stands stronger against the US dollar than the Pakistani rupee, with one dollar roughly equal to 52 afghanis. Ludicrous as it may sound, Pakistanis in Afghanistan have to spend twice as much money on a product than they would in their own country.

The city hosts an army of guest workers, some 100,000 of them from Pakistan alone. This is hardly surprising because Kabul is really a “second Dubai” for many people, as Hamid Zazai of Mediothek prefers to call his beloved city. For guest workers in the region, the one advantage that Kabul has over Gulf Arab cities is that it does not charge them a sponsorship or even a resident permit fee. This is a specially neat arrangement for Pakistani workers, many of whom prefer to work without a holiday for up to three months at a stretch, because at those intervals they can cross the border with a heavy pay cheque in hand.

Like Pakistani medical professionals, construction workers from the country are much sought after.

“They work fast, are skilled and cause less trouble than their Afghan counterparts,” said Mohammad Sheikh Hamdam of the Afghan Anti-Corruption Network. “They are prepared to accept lower wages than our nationals,” he added. Hamdam believes he would have been able to construct a new house in Kabul six months earlier had he employed Pakistani labourers. Many other home builders in Afghanistan share this view.

Afghan officials are proud of the decade of development that their capital has seen, in particular, after the catastrophic rule of the Taliban.  They wince when the news media glosses over their country’s progress in several key areas and instead belittles their efforts towards reconstruction.

Civil society groups and a relatively free media are at the vanguard of this effort. Young Afghan men and women have banded together to form leadership and policymaking advisory councils that are already liaising and interacting with both the Karzai administration and the opposition groups. A member of the youth leadership group, Dr Fawad Farzad, points out that as direct stakeholders a number of youth have taken their place in government ministries and departments. “What we are trying to create is a second and third tier of leadership for the country,” explains Dr Fawad Farzad. “With five or ten years, you will see them firmly in control of Afghanistan.”

Sediq Sediqi, a spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry and himself a former youth leadership programme member, says his compatriots desire freedom and progress for the next Afghan generation. Sediqi says he and other Afghan youth are also determined to keep the Taliban out. “The Taliban cannot come back…we will never allow dark and barbaric forces to rule us again.”

Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2012.

Auf Wiedersehen Kabul!

Team Pakistan is back after spending ten exciting days in Kabul. Kabul is one of the youngest capital of the world. One looks around and see young parliamentarians, diplomats, journalists and lawyers. They have vision for post 2014. They are confident about themselves and their country. Pakistani fellows had an opportunity to meet these people and share their vision. We will have more reports on this page written by FES-Af-Pak fellows. Q. Zaman -FES-Pakistan.

Pakistani fellows at the Kabul Airport

After ban, no Pakistani papers getting through border: Envoy

by Ayesha Hasan and Taha Siddiqui
Originally published in The Express Tribune on 8th October 2012
KABUL: There is confusion on a reported ban on Pakistani newspapers’ entry into Afghanistan. Embassies in Kabul have not been getting newspapers since September 20, which is a cause for concern, said Pakistan Ambassador Muhammad Sadiq while talking to a delegation of Pakistani journalists on a 10-day visit to Afghanistan on Sunday.

But the Afghan authorities insist the ban is just on 15 Urdu dailies and not English papers.

The ambassador said he was not informed why the mainstream English media from Pakistan, including The Express Tribune, were being stopped by the border post.

“[The mainstream] English newspapers have no hate literature. This is a bit too much and really sad,” said Sadiq.

“We raised our concerns with the ministry of information and the foreign ministry in Afghanistan, but they said they were not aware of the ban on mainstream Pakistani English newspapers.”

He said some foreign magazines were also banned. The ban, he said, was not affecting the common reader. However, the foreign embassies in Afghanistan were not receiving any Pakistani newspapers, he added.

Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry spokesperson Sediq Sediqi has denied any ban on the mainstream Pakistani newspapers. “Only 15 Urdu newspapers that have low circulation in Pakistan have been banned for spreading hatred for the Afghan government and supporting the Taliban stance,” he said.

Adding on the issue, a senior official at the embassy said that the Afghan government often acted impulsively because it is a young democracy, and decisions such as the recent ban on the Pakistani newspapers reflected that.

Earlier, the ambassador also discussed bilateral trade relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The ambassador said that the Pakistan-funded development projects in the country have helped create a better image of the country in Afghanistan. He said that Pakistan’s annual trade with Afghanistan is around five billion dollars.

“There are more than 140 trade routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said. However, he added that the illegal cross-border movements, which he said, are detrimental to the trade and law  and order in both countries.

“Most Afghans move in and out without visa and it’s a failure of border control on both sides. It needs to be controlled,” he said.

Elaborating on the future of Afghanistan, the ambassador criticised Pakistan’s past policies of interfering in Afghan internal matters. “We do not really know what will happen after the pull out of International Security Assistance Force, but we are talking with all the stakeholders, especially people from the northern region who were ignored previously,” he said.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 8th, 2012.

Taliban jihad literature: What’s read in Afghanistan is printed in Pakistan

Originally Published in The Express Tribune: August 13, 2012

PESHAWAR: 

Outside Peshawar’s mosques, after Friday prayers, magazines with articles and pictures of attacks by the Afghan Taliban and violence carried out by Nato forces are distributed, most of the time for free. The magazines are usually accompanied by guidance on Shariah law. 

These magazines are available in a number of languages including Urdu, English, Farsi and Dari, reaching out to a wide-ranging audience. One such magazine in Urdu, called Nawaa-e-Afghan Jihad, published last month, has pictures of an attack in June on a hotel in Kabul.

Part of the caption below it reads:

“The Islamic Emirate’s “Fidayeen” attacked a hotel on 22nd June, 2012 in the Green Zone of Kabul killing 25 crusaders and 9 Afghan officials. Along with this, dozens of security personnel were also doomed to hell.”

Although in Pakistan such literature has gone under the radar due to a crackdown by law enforcement agencies, in Afghanistan, this material continues to flourish in provinces along the border including Kunar and Khost, according to locals from these areas.

Near the historic Qissa Khwaani Bazaar in Peshawar is a printing press market aptly called “Mohalla Jangi,” which means the “Neighbourhood of War”.  A narrow lane leads inside to around 2,000 printing presses, busy churning out paper printed with whatever has been ordered by the customer.

Ostensibly, the shops here print school books, government publications and promotion material for the development sector, the majority of which is distributed in Afghanistan. But behind closed doors, the industry here also caters to Afghan jihad literature.

Umer, who has run a business here for the last 15 years, says Taliban literature gets printed regularly from his market. “For those who take such orders, it’s just business. Times are bad and some printers need the money,” Umer adds.

Most of his clients are also from Afghanistan, but Umer claims he only takes orders from the development sector. “Those two buildings over there, they have printing presses in them,” says Umer, pointing to a building nearby that looks like a residential complex. “They have tried to hide what they are printing by not having the machines out in the open. But here at the market we all know some of the jihadi magazines originate from here,” he claims.

Just last month, one of the printers from this market was picked up by law enforcers on suspicion of printing Pro-Taliban material. Although he has returned, he refuses to meet with the press and has not come to the market since he was freed.

Another printer, Murad, says around four to five of the businessmen here take orders from the Afghan Taliban. “Peshawar is the first choice for anyone coming from Afghanistan. But now with police harassment of Afghans increasing in Peshawar, most head to Lahore, where the local police cannot distinguish between them and Pashtuns from Pakistan,” Murad adds.

Murad and Umer both know who are behind such literature, and even though they don’t like it, they don’t complain. “The Pashtun community is based on the system of revenge and if I complain against someone, their family may come after me or my family,” Umer confides.

Meanwhile, the union representative of the area, Niaz Ahmad, justifies the printing of such material. “Who are the Taliban? They are the defenders of Islam and they follow the true Islamic Shariah. What’s wrong with what they do?” Ahmad asks.

According to Muhammad Shafiq, a media consultant based in Peshawar who frequently visits Afghanistan, “People here in Pakistan and in Afghanistan already have a lot of anti-American sentiment. Such literature reinforces those beliefs and helps Taliban get recruits and funding.”

Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2012.