Monday, July 27, 2009

Letter from Kabul - 1995

27 April 1995

After 16 years of war, including five years of bloody civil war, Kabul is peaceful. The fighting ceased on 21 March as Government forces drove the Taliban faction out of rocket range of Kabul. How long this peace will last is unclear, but the government in Kabul is looking very strong at the moment. During the last three weeks it has sunk in to Kabulis that there is peace. Countless number of shops have opened, a daily newspaper has started, music, onced banned, is now heard in restaurants. Women from wealthier families have cast aside their drab clothing and bright pink, red, yellow and blue clothes are starting to be seen.

It is strange for me having only known Kabul under siege to feel peace and calm. Over 30,000 people have been killed in Kabul and countless others wounded and maimed for life. But such is their resilience, Kabulis are rebuilding bombed homes and putting their shattered lives together. There are still about 400,000 people who need assistance and in response, 15 NGO's (non-governmental organisations) have got together and formed the Kabul Emergency programme and have a
coordinated strategy to feed, restore water supply, improve sewage and rubbish collection etc. Although we (the ICRC and Federation) have not joined because we have to remain neutral and impartial because of our mandates, we work closely with them. It is a very difficult time nation wide for the Red Cross, Red Crescent movement, because we must strive to work with all factions and not be seen to be giving a disproportionate amount to one factional area in comparison to the others.

Between 11 and 17 April I went to Badakhshan, the remote north-eastern province of Afghanistan which includes the Wakhan corridor where the Pamir mountains join the Hindu Kush. Our main reason was to give assistance to the village of Qarluk which was engulfed by a huge landslide late last month. Over 350 people were killed out of the approx. 750 people living in the village. All the women in the village were killed except three and most of the children. It happened at 11 am so most of the men were out ploughing in the fields.

Due to an ecological disaster facing the whole of Badakhshan, caused by overgrazing by cattle, sheep, goats, deforestation, ploughing and planting on steep mountain slopes etc, many villages are threatened by landslides. We encouraged a number of people to evacuate and rebuild in safer places.

We also visited other districts in Badakhshan. The general situation of the 1 million or so people living here is appalling. The province borders Russian Tajikistan and there is regular conflict on the border. Russian jets have been bombing villages inside
Badakhshan killing many innocent civilians. They do this saying that Afghanistan is harbouring Tajik rebel fighters. When I was in Faisabad jets Russian jets flew overhead and bombed a village 6 km away killing 6 people and seriously wounding many others. The following day Russian jets bombed neighbouring Taloquan killing over 100 innocent people. When I visited the district capital of Baharak I saw many houses flattened by Russian bombs and grieving families who had recently lost family members. In the hills behind Baharak, frightened women and children shelter in caves at night to shelter from the Russian aerial bombing. In the northern districts of Darwaz and Shegnan, famine is affecting large numbers of people. Traditional foods such as wheat is in short supply and starving people roam the country-side scavenging the land for wild flowers, tree bark, wild honey which keeps them alive. To replace the wheatflour which is the staple, people are grinding mulberries and making a flour from it. Many women and children have died of starvation and malnutrition is rife. To get news from Darwaz, 13 men from the district came to Kabul. It took them 15 days to fight there way over snow-bound passes to reach Faizabad the capital of Badakshan. It took them a further month to get to Kabul to break the news. The region is so remote and impossible to drive there from Kabul.
We had to wait over a week to get suitable weather to fly. Once there we travelled on mountains tracks for some of the way by Jeep and then walked and rode horses. We have mounted a major relief operation to assist the people of
Badakhshan. We flew in 700kg of medical supplies plus food and key items. I am also awaiting a charter plane from Iran with further relief supplies. In addition, I have sent a very urgent report to Geneva imploring them to inform the international community; governments and NGO's etc.

However, despite the tragedy unfolding, one can't but help notice the incredible beauty of the high mountains of the region. We were in the region north of the Hindu Kush and travelled through the Kohi Xaja Muhammad (range) which goes up to 5000m. As we crossed the high passes the massive bulk of the Hindu Kush was closeby to the south. Huge hanging glaciers spill from the high summits and the jumble of rock, ice and glaciers give this part of the Hindu Kush shape and form unique to the Greater Himalayan chain. Kush.

For the first week of April I was in Nangahar and Laghman provinces in the east of Afghanistan where we have ARCS branches. I think I wrote a little about that in my last letter.

I find that most days while I am working I find something which shocks, saddens or makes me very happy. Today I went with Ahmed Gizo to the Kharte Se hospital in the west of Kabul. On arrival we visited the men's ward which had 80 patients packed in. About 35 of them have had legs blown off during the past week by land-mines. Most of them are in a lot of pain as they have to regularly soak the open stumps in plastic bags of iodine to prevent infection until the final operation is done and the healing takes place. As I was talking to one man who had both legs blown off above the knee just two days ago, a nurse dipped the raw stump which looks as if someone had just chopped his leg off with a meat cleaver exposing bone, muscle and flesh were raw - as his stump touched the iodine he let out a piercing scream and then cried like a baby for some time after wards. I have seen thousands of people of all ages with legs blown off in the last 18 month and I find myself getting very angry with the countries that produce these weapons of destruction, and the armies that use them. However my anger subsided later when I visited the Red Cross orthopeadic centre were artificial legs are made and fitted. My good friend Alberto from the Italian Red Cross runs the centre. He has been doing the job for five years and employs about 150 local staff who do brilliant work producing , limbs, wheelchairs and crutches. There are three other Red Cross orthopeadic centres in Afghanisatm.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who are the Taliban ?

Recent years have seen the re-emergence of the hardline Islamic Taliban movement as a fighting force in Afghanistan and a major threat to its government.

They are also threatening to destabilise Pakistan, where they control areas in the north-west and are blamed for a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks.

The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s in northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

A predominantly Pashtun movement, the Taliban came to prominence in Afghanistan in the autumn of 1994.

It is commonly believed that they first appeared in religious seminaries - mostly paid for by money from Saudi Arabia - which preached a hard line form of Sunni Islam.

The Taliban's promise - in Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan - was to restore peace and security and enforce their own austere version of Sharia, or Islamic law, once in power.

In both countries they introduced or supported Islamic punishments - such as public executions of convicted murderers and adulterers and amputations of those found guilty of theft.

Men were required to grow beards and women had to wear the all-covering burka.


The Taliban showed a similar disdain for television, music and cinema and disapproved of girls aged 10 and over from going to school.

The Taliban first came to prominence in Afghanistan in 1994
Pakistan has repeatedly denied that it is the architect of the Taliban enterprise.

But there is little doubt that many Afghans who initially joined the movement were educated in madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan.

Pakistan was also one of only three countries, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which recognised the Taliban when they were in power in Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until 2001.

It was also the last country to break diplomatic ties with the Taliban.

The attention of the world was drawn to the Taliban in Afghanistan following the attacks on the World Trade Centre in September 2001.

Mullah Omar's precise whereabouts are still unknown
The Taliban in Afghanistan was accused of providing a sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda movement who were blamed for the attacks.

Soon after 9/11 the Taliban were driven from power in Afghanistan by a US-led coalition, although their leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was not captured - and neither was Osama Bin Laden.

In recent years the Taliban have re-emerged in Afghanistan and grown far stronger in Pakistan, where observers say there is loose co-ordination between different Taliban factions and militant groups.

The main Pakistani faction is led by Baitullah Mehsud, whose Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is blamed for dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks.

Observers warn against over-stating the existence of one unified insurgency against the Pakistani state, however.

The Taliban in Afghanistan are still believed to be led by Mullah Omar, a village clergyman who lost his right eye fighting the occupying forces of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Afghans, weary of the mujahideen's excesses and infighting after the Soviets were driven out, generally welcomed the Taliban when they first appeared on the scene.

Emerged in Afghanistan in 1994
Mainly supported by ethnic Pashtuns
Toppled after US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001
Fugitive leader Mullah Omar wanted, whereabouts unknown
Their early popularity was largely due to their success in stamping out corruption, curbing lawlessness and making the roads and the areas under their control safe for commerce to flourish.

From south-western Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly extended their influence.

They captured the province of Herat, bordering Iran, in September 1995.

Exactly one year later, they captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, after overthrowing the regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his defence minister, Ahmed Shah Masood.

By 1998, they were in control of almost 90% of Afghanistan.

They were accused of various human rights and cultural abuses. One example was in 2001, when the Taliban went ahead with the destruction of the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues in central Afghanistan, despite international outrage.

US onslaught

On October 7, 2001, a US-led military coalition invaded Afghanistan and by the first week of December the Taliban regime had collapsed.

Mullah Omar and his comrades have evaded capture despite one of the largest manhunts in the world

Mullah Omar and most of the other senior Taliban leaders, along with Bin Laden and some of his senior al-Qaeda associates, survived the American onslaught.

Mullah Omar and most of his comrades have evaded capture despite one of the largest manhunts in the world and are believed to be guiding the resurgent Taliban.

Since then they have re-grouped in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, but are now under pressure in both countries, from the Pakistani army and Nato respectively.

But Mullah Omar and most of his comrades have evaded capture despite one of the largest manhunts in the world and violence in Afghanistan has returned to levels not seen since 2001.

Despite ever higher numbers of foreign troops, the Taliban have steadily extended their influence, rendering vast tracts of Afghanistan insecure.

Their retreat earlier this decade enabled them to limit their human and material losses and return with a vengeance.

Thanks to the BBC for this.