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Part II : Field Report 2003
From Sarajevo to Kabul: a post-war situation

Life seems to be dominated by the simultaneous exactions of war lords and their minions on a background of tribal tradition and expectation. Add to this your typical corrupt post-war situation, the which I have watched for years in Sarajevo. In Kabul, money pour in through the large NGOs which gradually will become the main employers of the city, draining all the educated people away from poorly paid jobs in schools.
Nazima, the former architect and teacher in the RAWA school in Rawalpindi is candid about it: “I’m going to carry on working here, perfect my English and take a computer course and then I’ll get a job with one of those NGOs in Kabul”. Needless to say, the Afghan intelligenzia who has made it in the West has no intention of returning and why blame them. And just like in Sarajevo, job preference is for those who stayed within Afghanistan,refugees from abroad being perceived as suspicious and even cowards for having fled the situation. One needs amazing motivation and idealism to return to a violent country bereft of any kind of health, education and social services.
Think of Israel in 1948, founded one year after Pakistan, also on a religion-based constitution. Those Holocaust survivors hardly came to a land of milk and honey (not to mention all the rest) but somehow were motivated by a common ideal which helped them face and indeed overcome every hardship.
Whatever one may think of the current political situation in Israel, the comparison is instructive. In Afghanistan today, there is no common ideal,it’s a case of everyone for himself, just like in Pakistan. In fact there is no ideal whatsoever, which goes a long way in explaining how sectarian religion has overtaken any form of thinking, against a background of the wildest capitalist free- for–all and the most staggering corruption.
As the poppy culture has once more been allowed, experts (of which there are many in the region) estimate that the 2003 harvest should be a bonanza. And the going rate is 40 000rs (circa $780) (!) a kilo of the refined stuff,albeit often adulterated with plaster: there are laboratories all over the tribal border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Business is business,whilst Bush prefers to hunt for the ever evanescent Osama (whose posters are no longer on sale in Peshawar or anywhere else, by the way).
And meantime, RAWA attempts to infuse a kind of coherence and future building in the midst of all this anarchy.

With years of different brands of violent oppression from Russian to Jehadi to Taliban,the idea of a united civil society has hardly had time to develop – indeed I wonder how any notion of nation building can evolve when tribal differences are capitalized upon by warlords. I am certainly the last person on this earth to recommend any form of nationalism, but a minimum form of patriotic feeling, in the sense of people uniting with a common constructive goal for the country they live in would certainly help bring about positive global social policies. I mean, how to you build national, social and educational standards-and implement them- without believing that everyone in the country in which you live and (theoretically) pay taxes has the same basic rights. Despite all the official rhetoric, with the exception of private laments, no such policy can be found in this part of the world.
A taxi driver told me: “In Pakistan, people do not love their country” He pointed to a grass mound at the centre of a roundabout: “If you told the drivers here: you get ten rupees each time you go and drive into that and demolish it, every body would drive straight in, even in the whole roundabout is destroyed ”. The self-same taxi driver then proceeded to tell me the astonishing story of his son’s marriage to a girl from Virginia whom he’s met on Internet and who was now happily living in Pindi with the whole family… There is such potential in this country and so much of it goes to waste.

Of tribes and Talebs

In the meantime, tribal considerations rule. In Pakistan and Afghanistan,the first thing people, educated or not, do when they meet, be it on a PIA aeroplane, decrepit bus or street corner is to name the tribe they are from:“Salaam Aleikum, Pashtu – Aha, Hazar/Tadjik/Pundjabi etc etc.” From there on you move on to politics/the weather what have you.
And these tribal connections mean border-crossing sympathies, especially anywhere where Afghanistan and Pakistan meet, because the borders themselves are completely artificial and were established in an arbitrary manner by the British- viz. the Duran line dating from 1893.
Thus Pasthuns in Afghanistan (which are the largest ethnic group,representing 40% of the population) are naturally linked to those Pathans (name given to them by Pakistanis) in the Pakistani Peshawar area known as the North Western Frontier Province (NWFR): arranged marriages (as is the norm in the region) make sure that century-old alliances are maintained,even though kinsfolk living in a refugee camp are perceived as having lower status than those living in sometimes even more miserable surroundings in slums. These complex matrimonial strategies entail not infrequent age-disproportionate marriages: it is not unusual to hear about a ten year old being married off to a man three or four (or five or six) times her senior in families that are not necessarily the most destitute: I have heard of such cases in the poorest families but also the richest. Such practises are really linked to the degree of adherence to fundamentalist religious ethics and simultaneous rejection of values perceived as Western and therefore Infidel. And these are on the up even if the US think they’ve bombed the Taliban out of existence in Kabul.
The NWFR has recently taken over by the most reactionary religious zealots who have put orthodox Sharia (Muslim law as definbed by the Coran) on the agenda and neighbouring Baluchistan is next. On the road to Peshawar where bus drivers seemingly stoned out of their mind on hashish or sometimes heroin (according to local sources) run brightly painted clapped-out buses at break-neck speed, you can see the large madrassas (religious schools) who helped create the Taliban movement. And they’re flourishing: busloads of
Talebs, draped in their ‘patu’brown shawl), with flourishing beards and massive turbans zoom up and down the battered highway. (One night, yours truly found herself accidentally in one such bus …which had ‘SadamBus’painted on its side …) The local Pashtun intelligenzia certainly feel threatened by the sprouting of Fundamentalist)-friendly local governments and ambiance in dominant Pashtun areas, but they are an alarmed minority.
The result is that in these border regions any attempts at civil society have taken a blow: women, Western clothes, any kind of Western culture (with the notable exception of Internet clubs) have just about disappeared from the street. All you see are beards, male head-gear of every description,with a very occasional burqa-veiled woman in tow.
Tribal laws dominate in rural areas, all the more in refugee camps. In one of them, I was told about thieves who broke into a compound and shot a girl who screamed upon their arrival. Caught by the neighbours, the men were beaten up till they admitted which of them had killed the girl. The translator later told me what the otherwise friendly and hospitable informant had asked him to omit from the translation: the killer’s family was asked to “replace” the murdered girl by a young female from their own set… and no punishment was deemed necessary for the murderer.

The prospects are disheartening. But all this put apart, the Pashtuns keep up their tradition of hospitality and concern for anyone whom they receive in their home, be it a mud-hut in forlorn Baluchistan or the office of a local newspaper in down-town Peshawar. The people I met in the area all spontaneously poured tea, sweets, pistachios (inordinately expensive in the area) in the most friendly manner possible and invited me to stay over, even in a refugee camp known for its Taliban diehards and reportedly ransacked by the CIA on several occasions. So when choice guests like Mollah Omar,Bin-Laden and their pals turn up on the doorstep, can you imagine for one split second that someone would give them in ?
What seems likely in a mid-term process is that the Pashtuns and their numerous allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan may end up forming their own country. Goddess help us. Because amongst their allies are the previously Soviet Muslim republics (viz. immediate neighbours to the North,Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, not to mention nearby Chechenya) great specialists in recycling nuclear debris… Whether the rest of Pakistan will survive or else be engulfed in a more predatory India remains to be seen.

Having said all this, even if tribal traditions are the most rigorous amongst the Pashtuns, they are far from absent from other communities such as Tadjik Uzbek, Hazara, Brahui, Nuristani, Baluchi and others. What they all have in common, and this is the case everywhere on the subcontinent is their brutally repressive attitude to women. The best girls can expect,whatever social background they come from is to be married off to a young,tolerant, outward looking young male, preferably educated in non-religious school, if possible- dare I say it- in the West or Western schools in Pakistan. I am well aware of being politically most incorrect, decidedly anti postmodern in refusing to accept this system on its own terms. But this is how the West laxist intellectuals have helped fundamentalism in the Muslim world turn back the clock on any form of social progress, especially concerning women’s rights which have definitely been on the decline as a result. Post post-modernism could be about enforcing certain standards where the unacceptable is vigorously condemned, whatever colour or creed.


RAWA continues inexorably to work against the worst odds. Their courage is staggering, especially when one truly realizes what they are working against. They are the only ones to seek to separate politics from religion,a truly radical claim amidst all the ambient fanaticism. Rejected and indeed persecuted by every Afghan government from the Soviets onwards to the present one, they have continued to denounce the systematic inequality and the abuses to women and indeed the whole Afghan population. And each time,they have been proven right.
RAWA in their schools prohibit any mention of tribal origin: a revolutionary feat, to say the least. Their whole aim seems to be to extract a real nation from what could nowardays chiefly be viewed as some kind of geographic,tribal expression. Which is why they should be the partners of all foreign peace-makers attempting to help Afghanistan
It is not my aim to work on Afghan politics. However, being committed to positive humanitarian aid and promoting change, I can only recognize that the projects they have organized helping the civilian population are really efficient. And other aid agencies in Pakistan, whether they like RAWA’s more radical politics or not, have always admitted the same.
In previous reports, all on, I have described RAWA and their dedicated members.
I would like to add here is that their strength is their real knowledge of the needs of the present situation. What they take from the West for instance, is just what they need to improve matters locally; unlike many misguided projects from all over the world, they are not forcing foreign inapplicable standards to local situations.
I cannot repeat enough that education, comfort, culture even hygiene standards don’t mean the same on the subcontinent as in the West. For instance, it’s no use sending paper diapers or sophisticated gear to women in refugee camps who just would n’t know how to use them (something which was fine in Bosnia during the war) or complex electronics to illiterate rural populations which hardly have any electricity. There is such a thing as humanitarian colonialism.
However, responding to needs and building on them is important, which is why it is so important to have a partner locally who understands these needs and through whom one can channel aid. The speed at which change can be effected can only be evaluated by those concerned. For instance, RAWA’s literacy courses for women impart a degree of self-awareness and consciousness that do indeed empower the recipients, slowly but in a lasting manner. The future, they claim lies in education. But not just any education. The women,men and children who have benefitted from RAWA’s influence may definitely be the beginning of a solution not just for their own country, but by their example, for the rest of the subcontinent.

What future to humanitarian aid?

The first thing I do want to say is that humanitarian aid cannot replace government action, even if Third World countries have grown to depend on it.
When countries like Pakistan and India spend vast chunks (perhaps even the greatest part) of their budget on armament and practically nothing on education and health services (not to mention the billions that get lost through rampant corruption), foreign aid cannot and should not be expected to replace a political decision that belongs to the countries concerned.

The second thing I can add is that going around this region is enough to wither the energy of the most enthusiastic, diehard optimist. Indeed anywhere you look, you come upon the most desperate situations. Pakistanis and Afghanis alike are the victims of heartless politics (nationally and internationally caused) and the most demented bigotry.

The third thing I want to say is that you therefore have two options: looking away or telling yourself that you may not be able to save the world,but there are a few things you can do to help some people and therefore contribute to making the world a better place. For ourselves and those who will follow us.

I have chosen the latter option.

Carol Mann
January 26th 2003