Reports of abuses by US, Afghan forces undermine security: UN expert
KABUL (AFP) - A United Nations human rights official says he has received reports of torture and other abuses by US-led and Afghan forces which undermine the country's security and stability.
Cherif Bassiouni, the UN's independent expert on human rights in Afghanistan, said in a new report that he had received reports that US-led forces and Afghan security agencies "act above and beyond the reach of the law by engaging in arbitrary arrests and detentions" and torturing their detainees.
"The independent expert has received reports of serious violations by the coalition forces from victims, AIHRC (Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission), NGOs and others," he said in a report on human rights in Afghanistan published on the Internet this week.
The UN expert said it was difficult to confirm many of the allegations, but a number of incidents had been publicly reported.
He denounced reports "of sexual abuse, beatings, torture and use of force resulting in death" by the 18,000-strong US-led coalition forces.
"When these forces directly engage in practices that violate... international human rights and international humanitarian law, they undermine the national project of establishing a legal basis for the use of force," he said.
While Afghan officials had cooperated with the UN and AIHRC, neither UN nor commission officials had been granted access to US detention facilities where at least eight people have died in custody since 2001, the report said.
International non-governmental agencies estimated that "over 1,000 individuals have been detained, often after being arrested with excessive or indiscriminate force," by coalition forces in Afghanistan, it added.
While the US military has made efforts to improve troop conduct, an internal Pentagon investigation of detentions in Afghanistan remains classified, unlike similar abuses in Iraq, it said.
Human rights abuses have also been committed by unregulated foreign private security contractors and poorly-paid, inadequately trained police linked with local factional commanders.
"There are multiple security institutions managed by the National Security Directorate, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defence, which function in an uncoordinated manner, lack central control," or formal accountability, the report noted.
Bassiouni also pointed to rampant human rights violations, including abuse of women and children and land seizures, by regional warlords who are estimated to command about 80,000 illegally armed men and who are tightly linked with the country's booming drugs trade.
"If corruption continues to intensify, as is likely with the growing power of drug traffickers and organised crime, it will become virtually impossible to establish and sustain a meaningful commitment to the rule of law in Afghanistan," the report said.
US-based Human Rights Watch on Wednesday said the UN should strengthen its monitoring of human rights in Afghanistan as the situation in the country remains "perilous."
It said there were "indications" that the US delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva has opposed continued monitoring by Bassiouni, who last year criticized the United States for its policies of holding detainees in Afghanistan without legal protection.
CIA said to have wrongly held German suspect
April 22, 2005 2:35 AM via Swissinfo
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - CIA operatives held a German citizen in a prison in Afghanistan for six weeks even after determining he was not an Osama bin Laden associate and despite an order from then-U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, NBC News reported on Thursday.
Authorities in Germany have been investigating complaints by Khaled el-Masri, a Lebanese-born German who says he was abducted in Macedonia on New Year's Eve in 2003 and flown to Afghanistan.
Masri said he was beaten and injected with drugs by interrogators, who suspected he had ties to bin Laden's al Qaeda network. He was released in May 2004 in Albania.
NBC said he had been picked up because his name matched someone trained in bin Laden's camps and his German passport was thought to be fake.
The network, citing unnamed senior U.S. officials, said CIA officers concluded Masri was the wrong man after his passport proved legitimate. The network said then-CIA Director George Tenet had been alerted to the error.
But Masri was held at a CIA-run prison dubbed the Salt Pit for another six weeks "while officials debated how to handle the mistake," NBC said.
It said the matter reached Rice, now secretary of state and then President George W. Bush's chief national security adviser. She ordered Masri's immediate release, twice, before he was finally let go, the report said.
A CIA representative had no comment. The CIA's inspector general is investigating, NBC quoted intelligence sources as saying.
In January, Munich prosecutor Martin Hofmann told Reuters state prosecutors were investigating unnamed parties on suspicion of abduction of Masri, then 41.
German officials had verified the details of Masri's journey up to the Macedonian border, where he was taken off a tourist bus, Hofmann said. He said they were working with overseas counterparts to establish what happened next.
Task force clashes with insurgents near Salerno
April 21, 2005 Combined Forces Command - Afghanistan Coalition Press Information Center (Public Affairs)
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – More than a dozen insurgents were killed late Tuesday night as Coalition helicopters, aircraft and artillery responded to a rocket attack at Forward Operating Base Salerno.
“It was a combined-arms effort,” said U.S. Army Maj. J.R. Mendoza, Task Force Thunder’s brigade fire support officer. “We were able to see the launching point of the rockets and we brought everything we had to bear on it.”
Mendoza explained that the base was postured to respond to just such an attack.
“They shot at us with rockets and we were responded with artillery, fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft,” Mendoza said.
U.S. Air Force A-10s and an AC-130H expended two 500-pound bombs, 10 rockets, 565 30mm rounds, 8 105mm rounds and seven 40mm rounds.
“These rocket attacks are, by their nature, indiscriminate. They attack not only our forces but innocent civilians as well. This seems to be the norm with insurgent rocket attacks,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert Cornejo, Combined Joint Task Force-76’s fires chief. “Our fires, by contrast, are precision-oriented fires and are only launched after precautions are taken to prevent collateral damage.”
The base came under attack from an initial volley of four rockets Tuesday night. No one was injured and no equipment was damaged as a result. Initial reports indicated that the insurgents intended a second volley but Task Force Thunder’s counterattack prevented it.
Two Senior Taliban Surrender to Afghan Government
April 21, 2005
KABUL (Reuters) - Two senior members of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime surrendered to the government on Thursday under an amnesty offer, a provincial governor said.
The officials -- Mullah Mohammad Naseem, the former Taliban governor of Zabul province, and Haji Mohammad Akhtar, former police chief of Farah province -- surrendered following month-long talks, the governor of Helmand province said.
"They've joined the government's national reconciliation program," the governor, Mullah Sher Mohammad, told Reuters.
The Taliban have been waging an insurgency since being overthrown by U.S.-led forces in late 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. cities.
The government is seeking to coax rank-and-file Taliban to give up their fight but the amnesty offer does not include 150 of the movement's senior leaders, accused of militant violence or of having links with al Qaeda.
Fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and his die-hard supporters have shunned the talks and vowed to keep on fighting Karzai's government and foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Negotiations on the pair's surrender were brokered by officials in Helmand province, from where they both come, said the governor.
Akhtar was until recently involved in attacks on government and U.S.-led forces, said another official, who declined to be identified. The commanders' fighters are believed to be either on the run or still involved in the insurgency.
Another Taliban commander in Helmand, Abdul Wahid Baghrani, surrendered this month.
Guerrilla activity has picked up after a winter lull but activity is down on past years, fueling speculation the Taliban may be struggling to find recruits and resources.
In another sign of problems for Afghanistan's insurgents, U.S. forces blasted rebel positions with bombs, rockets and artillery, killing at least 12 insurgents, after rockets were fired at a U.S. base in southeastern Afghanistan.
Helicopters, aircraft and artillery were used to respond to the four rockets fired without effect at the Salerno base in Khost province on Tuesday night, the U.S. military said in a statement.
"We were able to see the launching point of the rockets and we brought everything we had to bear on it," U.S. army Major J.R. Mendoza said in the statement.
"They shot at us with rockets and we responded with artillery, fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft," he said.
The military said two 500-pound bombs, 10 rockets, and hundreds of rounds and shells were fired at the rebels, killing more than a dozen.
The clash was one of the bloodiest in recent months in Afghanistan, where more than 18,000 U.S.-led troops are pursuing Taliban and al Qaeda militants.
Senate OKs $81B for Iraq, Afghanistan
Thu Apr 21,11:24 PM ET By LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved $81 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a spending bill that would push the total cost of combat and reconstruction past $300 billion.
Both the Senate and House versions of the measure would give President Bush much of the money he requested. But the bills differ over what portion should go to military operations.
Bush urged a quick resolution of the differences and passage of a bill "that focuses taxpayer dollars on providing the tools our troops and diplomats need now."
The Pentagon says it needs the money by the first week of May, so Senate and House negotiators are expected to act quickly to send the president a final bill.
Other issues to be resolved in the competing versions include immigration changes, a U.S. embassy in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, military death benefits and the fate of an aircraft carrier.
"I'm confident we will be able to come back with a product, in the form of a conference report, which the Senate can support," said Sen. Thad Cochran (news, bio, voting record), R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
He said the bill gives strong support to troops in the fight against terrorism and provides needed dollars for the State Department.
Overall, the Senate version would cost $81.3 billion, compared with the $81.4 billion the House approved and the $81.9 billion that Bush requested.
Congress has passed four similar emergency spending measures for the wars since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This one would put the overall cost of combat and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as Pentagon operations against terrorists worldwide — past $300 billion.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says lawmakers previously approved $228 billion. The latest money is to last through Sept. 30, the end of the current budget year. Pentagon officials have said they will have to ask for more money for 2006.
In both the House and Senate, lawmakers struggled to give troops whatever they needed and pay only for projects deemed urgent. Congress was leaving other items to be dealt with in the regular budget for the new budget year starting Oct. 1. In doing so, they were sending a message to the White House that it cannot expect a rubber stamp from Congress on its emergency war-spending requests.
Still, as Bush requested, the bulk of the money — about $75 billion — would go to the Pentagon. The Army and the Marine Corps, the two service branches doing most of the fighting, would get the most.
The House bill would add money to the president's request for defense expenses; the Senate's would not. The Senate version would restore some money the House cut for foreign aid and State Department programs.
The Senate bill also would provide $592 million to build a U.S. embassy in Baghdad. The House bill does not fund the construction of a fortified diplomatic compound.
The Senate added a requirement that the Pentagon report every three months to Congress on how many Iraqi security forces are trained and how many U.S. troops are needed.
The Senate also put in requirement that the Pentagon keep the Navy's fleet of 12 aircraft carriers intact. The Pentagon had proposed scrapping one carrier to save money.
The Senate version would increase a one-time benefit for the families of soldiers killed to $100,000 from $12,000, regardless of whether the deaths occurred in combat, and increase life insurance as well. The House version limits the extra money to survivors of those killed in combat-related duty.
One of the most contentious issues facing congressional negotiators is whether to include an immigration overhaul in the final bill. The Senate decided to take up immigration later.
Afghan police retreat under fire from suspected drug smugglers near Tajik border
April 21, 2005 Associated Press
Police retreated from a village in a heartland of Afghanistan's drug industry after coming under fire by militiamen accused of trafficking opium into neighboring Tajikistan, an official said Thursday.
About 150 police pulled back overnight from Chergan Shahr, a village in Badakhshan province 320 kilometers (200 miles) northwest of the capital, Kabul, mayor Mohammed Nabi Bayan told The Associated Press.
No casualties were reported.
Officials have appealed in vain for gunmen holed up in the hills surrounding the area to surrender their weapons under a government plan to dismantle Afghanistan's illegal militias and clamp down on its narcotics business, the world's largest.
Bayan said police faced 250 militiamen armed with assault rifles and machine guns and that they had pulled back to Ab Ganda, another village in Shahr-e-Buzurg district, after spending two days under sporadic fire.
Civilians had also fled the fighting, he said.
He said officials in Kabul had yet to authorize the police to return fire or send reinforcements.
Afghan Army gets Training in Field Sanitation
April 20, 2005 Combined Forces Command - Afghanistan Coalition Press Information Center (Public Affairs)
By Sgt. 1st Class Mack Davis Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan Public Affairs
GHAZNI, Afghanistan – On a hot and exhausting day, there’s nothing better than a cool drink of water. For soldiers of the Afghan National Army, water is not only nice, it’s a necessity. But in a difficult environment such as that found here, understanding and applying appropriate field sanitation measures can mean the difference between helping or hurting a unit’s combat effectiveness.
On April 14, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Terrill Jones, the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan’s food service adviser to the ANA, conducted a comprehensive field-sanitation training class for the 2nd Kandak (Battalion), 1st Brigade of the 203rd Corps, located in the country’s Ghazni Province.
Jones, an Oklahoma Army National Guardsman, said, “Although this type of training is essential at every location where the ANA is based, Ghazni was selected first due to severe flooding that occurred here when a dam recently burst. The flooding contaminated most of the drinking water.”
Because drinking the right quantity and quality of water is essential and personal hygiene is necessary to control the spread of disease, Jones’ class focused on disease-control measures, including food preparation, personal hygiene, vector control and water purification.
“We are happy to receive this training on water purifying and personal hygiene to help prevent bacterial spread. In the future, we will be better able to protect our soldiers,” said Lt. Col. Mahmmood Kamal, the kandak’s executive officer.
According to U.S. medical personnel assigned to Afghanistan, 3 to 4 percent of the deaths that occur in this country are due to kidney failure associated with an inadequate quantity or quality of drinking water. Many communicable diseases, including diarrhea and cholera, can result from water-borne organisms.
During water-purification training, the ANA soldiers learned to sterilize water using the chlorination method. Chlorine is effective for killing most dangerous bacteria and viruses.
The training was of obvious importance to Command Sgt. Major Roidar Huosan, the kandak’s senior noncommissioned officer. “It is my duty to enforce these new safety procedures. The soldiers need this training to protect themselves,” Huosan said. “These soldiers are like my family, and I will do everything to protect them.”
Jones provided the kandak leadership with posters and fliers on personal hygiene to display around their base.
“These were the soldiers who helped the people of Ghazni during the floods,” said Huosan, describing the troops who participated in the day’s training. “They provided security for the 2,000 shops that were destroyed, they provided rescue for people trapped in the water that could not swim, and they escorted the people to hospitals and got them to safe places.
“It was another chance for the Afghan National Army to make the people of our country happy to have the ANA. It is our job to keep the soldiers safe so that they can continue to provide peace and security for the Afghan people.”
Female Governor Sets Out Agenda
IWPR 04/20/2005 By Suheila Muhseni
Habiba Sorabi hopes to show that women are equally capable of governing and reviving the country's shattered economy. Kabul - As the new governor of Bamian province in central Afghanistan, Habiba Sorabi has a clear idea of what she hopes to accomplish.
She wants to build roads, open schools and supply electricity to residents of the province, located about 200 kilometres west of Kabul. She also hopes to lure visitors to this poor, war-ravaged region, despite the fact that its most famous tourist attractions – two huge, 1,600-year-old stone Buddhas – were destroyed by the Taleban in 2001.
Sorabi has already gone a long way toward accomplishing one of her primary goals – raising the status of women in society – simply by being appointed the first female governor in the country in March.
"There is no difference between men and women in handling their jobs," she told IWPR during a recent interview in her apartment in Kabul. "I'm happy that the word 'woman' doesn't have any negative connotations about talent or ability."
Trained as a pharmacist, Sorabi, 48, was a lecturer at the Institute for Secondary Medical Education in Kabul until the Taleban took power in 1996. Fleeing the country, she taught refugees in Pakistan and took up the cause of telling the world about the plight of women and children under the Islamic militia.
When she returned to Afghanistan, she was appointed minister of women's affairs by President Hamed Karzai in 2002 and held that post until late last year.
Women have made strides in Afghan society since the defeat of Taleban in 2001, she said. But much remains to be done, particularly in the area of education and in alleviating the hardships of village life. As a minister, she helped establish women's employment centres in 14 provinces, she noted.
Karzai appointed her as governor of Bamian last month. Several factors may be working in her favour as governor here. As an ethnic Hazara, she will run a province where this group is in the majority. Hazaras are generally regarded as more tolerant of women than most other ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
In addition, she has the support of influential Hazaras such as Ghulam Hasan Naseri, a member of the political committee of Hezb-e-Wahdat – the dominant party in this region - who called her appointment a step forward for Afghan democracy.
Still, Sorabi, who is married and has three children, acknowledged that her job might remain dangerous until security is restored to Afghanistan. Protest demonstrations followed her appointment to succeed local leader Mohammad Rahim Aliyar.
"We have to make sacrifices to serve the people and the nation," she said. "I'm not afraid of anything in that regard." Some think it's a good sign that the country has its first women governor.
Noor Amirz, a Kabul blacksmith, saw the appointment as a sign that the country was becoming safer. "Work is the same whether you're a man or a woman," he said. "In fact, those men that believe women aren't capable of accomplishing great things don't really know Islam or the world." Suheila Muhseni is an IWPR staff writer in Kabul.
AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN: UNHCR to close more camps in Pakistan
21 Apr 2005 12:46:12 GMT
ISLAMABAD, 21 April (IRIN) - The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is planning to close some of the camps housing Afghan refugees in parts of Pakistan's two western provinces of Balochistan and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which border Afghanistan.
"The exact schedule has yet to be finalised. However, the [refugee] camps located in the western tribal region along NWFP and also those in Chagai district of Balochistan would be closed or consolidated in the next two months," Jack Redden, a UNHCR spokesman told IRIN in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
At present, the UN refugee agency administers about 130 refugee camps, home to over a million Afghans across the South Asian nation. The refugees are provided with free education, medical care, water and sanitation at the camps.
"The Afghans will be given the option of relocating to other camps [within Pakistan] or voluntary repatriation back to Afghanistan availing UNHCR's assistance package," Redden said.
In a similar move in 2004, the agency closed 12 new camps in NWFP and Balochistan set to temporarily house refugees fleeing the war that unseated the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan in late 2001.
More than 39,000 out of 65,000 refugees listed in new camps in NWFP returned, while 43,000 from a total of 127,000 Afghans repatriated from Balochistan, under the additional voluntary repatriation assistance package of the UNHCR while the rest moved to old camps.
The UN refugee agency's voluntary repatriation programme from Pakistan operates under a special tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and will run until March 2006.
Nearly 2.3 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan since 2002 under UNHCR's voluntary repatriation assistance programme. The agency estimated a further 400,000 would return this year, the agency spokesman said.
Meanwhile, a UNHCR-sponsored Afghan Return Commission Working Group (RCWG) delegation is currently visiting Pakistan to update the refugee community about the situation in their homeland and removing other concerns they might have about returning.
The nine-member RCWG team, composed of delegates from five northern provinces of Afghanistan; Balkh, Sar-I-Pul, Jowzjan, Samangan and Faryab, has been visiting refugees across all four provinces of Pakistan.
New rail, road links between Pakistan, Afghanistan in Offing
Pakistan Times Wire Service
ISLAMABAD: The bilateral trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan will touch US $ one billion mark this year and will be further enhanced by opening new rail and road links, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said on Thursday.
He was speaking at a ceremony to hand over first batch of 35 brand-new Hino-Pak buses and 20,000 school bags to Afghanistan's Minister for Public Works, Sohrab Ali Safri here at Pakistan Sports Complex.
"Pakistan and Afghanistan have already forged a model relationship and we will further contribute in the reconstruction of our neighbouring country as we strongly believe that a stable and progressing Afghanistan is in our interest," he said.
Pakistan had pledged to donate 100 buses, besides 300,000 school bags to Afghanistan. The remaining 65 buses and school bags will be given away by September. These donations will be in addition to 200 trucks presented to Afghanistan last year.
"Our donations will certainly ease the problem of transportation in Afghanistan to a great extent and will provide relief to commuters," said the Prime Minister who also got aboard a bus alongwith the Afghan Minister and other dignitaries.
"The school bags are symbolic of efforts to promote education in that country, which is necessary for development and reconstruction of our neighbour," he remarked.
He said that the two countries enjoyed deep historical, cultural and ethnic relations and have a long border. Pakistan is also giving refuge to three million Afghans, he added.
"Pakistan was among the first countries, as part of a global effort, to provide aid to its neighbour in its hour of need", the prime minister said. "Though, we are not an aid-giving country, the President of Pakistan pledged US $ 100 million for the reconstruction of Afghanistan with projects worth US $ 44 million already executed from this amount", he said.
Shaukat said about 50,000 Pakistani personnel were engaged in development projects in Afghanistan and expressed confidence that Pakistani entrepreneurs would further contribute towards investment in that country. "Given continued improvement in security and stability in the region, we expect this part of the globe to become hub of economic activities in the near future," the prime minister said.
He said the governments of the two countries had already concluded agreements in the areas of information, broadcasting, culture, and tourism including plying of bus services en routes Peshawar-Torkham-Jalalabad and Kandhar-Quetta during the recent visit of President Hamid Karzai. Construction of Torkham-Jalalabad Road by Frontier Works Organization will further boost bilateral trade and provide a trade transit for Central Asian Republics, benefiting both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"We are also actively considering Turkemanistan-Afghanistan- Pakistan gas pipeline as one of the options to support increased level of trade and passenger traffic," he said. Besides, he said, Chaman-Spinboldak rail project would also be completed by December next year while there were also plans to raise the number of border points between the two countries to 10 from current four.
The Afghanistan Minister for Public Works, Sohrab Ali Safri, said that Pakistan was the gateway for Afghanistan and likewise his country was the highway for Pakistan to Central Asian Republics.
He said Pak-Afghan trade should be increased further even from the mark of one billion dollar. "We are grateful to Pakistan for contributing generously towards reconstruction of Afghanistan".
"We have close relations with Pakistan", he said. "Nearly 50,000 Pakistanis are working in different projects in Afghanistan while there were a million-plus Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan".
Afghan teenager wins memoir contest
(AP) 22 April 2005 Khaleej Times
NEW YORK - An Afghan girl whose father and two sisters were killed in a 1998 bombing attack in Kabul will have her memoir published after winning a contest co-sponsored by “Good Morning America” and Simon & Schuster.
Farah Ahmedi’s “The Story of My Life” was released Friday with a first printing of more than 175,000 copies. Ahmedi, whose victory was announced on “Good Morning America,” was to appear Friday night on ABC-TV’s “20-20” and then go on a 10-city tour.
Now 17 and a resident of Carol Streams, Illinois, Ahmedi will also receive $10,000 (Ð7,658). She and her mother fled Afghanistan for Pakistan, where they lived in dire conditions. They were admitted to the United States in 2002.
The contest was launched last fall on “Good Morning America,” with contestants asked to submit 600-word essays about their lives. A panel of judges that included authors Mary Karr and Mary Higgins Clark narrowed nearly 6,000 submissions down to three finalists, “based on quality and persuasiveness of the entrant’s story and overall potential of this life story for both on-air and book appeal.”
The finalists’ stories were aired last month on “Good Morning America,” with the winner decided by viewer e-mails.
Ahmedi’s book is 250 pages long and was written by Tamim Ansary, author of “West of Kabul, East of New York.” Manuscripts for the other finalists, Betty Ferguson and Mercedes Florencia Brudnicki, also were prepared, but no decision has been made on whether they will be published.
Ferguson is a resident of Erie, Pennsylvania, who came to forgive the killer of her daughter. Brudnicki, from Roselle Park, New Jersey, has a brother who was trying to get out of Cuba.
Kabul's New Sensation
Time Magazine 04/19/2005 - Tim McGirk
The Taliban banned music in Afghanistan, but a 13-year-old with an exquisitely pure and melancholy voice is leading a revival
KABUL - It's midnight, long past bedtime for most children. But in a poor, war-ravaged neighborhood of Kabul, more than 300 men are gathered at a wedding party to listen to the singing of Mirwais Najrabi, a pale, chestnut-haired 13-year-old. He performs in an open courtyard, under the night sky, to an audience that has endured so much suffering and grief over years of oppression, war and mayhem. Yet for this brief, transcendent moment, their burden is lifted by the exquisite purity of the boy's voice.
With his jaunty, Bollywood-style haircut and white embroidered tunic, Mirwais looks as though he would warble like a pretty songbird, but his singing is forceful and worldly, as if he has already seen it all. And he has. Tonight, he croons folksongs of impossible love, betrayal and heroism that flow from the depths of Afghanistan's tragic history. Under a nebula of hashish smoke, two men leap up to dance, circling each other like angry cobras. They turn aggressive and are pulled apart—even the boy's mesmerizing song cannot keep Afghans from fighting for long. When performances get wild, says Mirwais, he tells himself: "I must not be scared, never."
Boy vocalists, long a part of Afghan tradition, were silenced from 1996-2001 by the puritanical Taliban regime, which regarded song as un-Islamic, and had many musicians arrested and beaten. Now, three years after the Taliban defeat, singers are wandering back from exile in Europe and the U.S. to a tumultuous welcome, and Kabul's virtuosos have unearthed the instruments they buried in their gardens. Songs blast from Kabul shops, and more than a dozen radio stations flourish around the country. Mirwais, one of the first to sing in public after the Taliban's ouster, is at the vanguard of this revival. Despite his youth, he recognizes the enormity of the change. In the old days, he says, "If the Taliban caught me, they would have shaved my head. And only Allah knows what other punishments I would have faced."
Young artists like Mirwais have several advantages over their veteran rivals. The cascading clarity of their voices blends harmoniously with the Afghan rabab, an ancient, 19-stringed instrument that is a cross between a sitar and a mandolin. And because he is still a boy, Mirwais is allowed at weddings to sing for both men and women, whose parties are strictly segregated. This will last until Mirwais turns 15 and is considered a man, no longer to be trusted around unveiled women.
Among the boy singers, Mirwais is tops, though he has a 14-year-old rival, Wali Fateh Ali Khan, a favorite of former King Zahir Shah. But among the common folk, Mirwais is considered the best. He and his three-piece band—a tabla drummer and rabab and harmonium players—were booked every night during the three-month wedding season prior to the holy month of Ramadan, when the partying stops. His crowning achievement came last September, when he won a famous singing contest at Kabul's Park Cinema. That day, Mirwais appeared in an immaculate white suit, handling the audience with the insouciance of a mite-sized Sinatra. His performance blew the other contestants off the stage.
As yet, though, Mirwais' stardom has not brought him riches. At one Kabul bazaar, music sellers offer 57 different tapes of his performances, all pirated. At a recent wedding, an Afghan thrust a boom box into the singer's face, unabashedly recording him for future sales. Copyright laws, like road safety and gun control, have not yet gained much traction in Afghanistan.
The soulful melancholy in Mirwais' voice is the product of hard times. He may be only 13, but he has already suffered greatly, and this, he says, may have helped him capture the anguish that many Afghans have endured in the last 25 years of scorching battle and exile. "I sing what I feel," he says with a child's simplicity. His father was a famous musician who died when Mirwais was only 5 years old. The family had the misfortune of living in the Char-Deh neighborhood of Kabul on the front line between two warring commanders; as mortars and rockets exploded around them, Mirwais and his brothers risked their lives every day just to draw water from a communal well.
When the Taliban seized power, one of their first edicts was to ban music. They ransacked the Afghan Radio and Television station, decorating nearby trees and rosebushes with streamers of ripped-out audiotape. (Brave technicians, however, sealed thousands of Afghan records and tapes behind a false wall at the studio, which the Taliban never found.) "We were afraid that the Taliban would kill us," recalls Mirwais' older brother Nur-ul-Haq, a tabla player who says dozens of artists were beaten in public by Taliban zealots. So the family buried their musical instruments under a chicken coop in the garden. Another brother left to sell flowers in Iran, while Nur-ul-Haq hawked carpets in Pakistan. Mirwais, who was just 5 years old when the Taliban took over, stayed in Kabul with his mother.
As a toddler, Mirwais showed no interest in music. It wasn't until he was 6, a year after his father's death, that anyone even heard him sing. According to Nur-ul-Haq, Mirwais had never hummed or whistled until the day when he climbed a pomegranate tree in the garden and sang to his mother. His voice was a revelation. She immediately apprenticed him to a music teacher, Ustaad Amin Jan Mazari, who listened to him and took him on for free. In the South Asian tradition of gurus and disciples, Mirwais lived with his teacher "like a son," recalls Mazari. He did household chores and spent hours each day practicing the broad range of vocal scales found in classical Afghan music. Mirwais came to revere his master. Today, when they meet, the boy's face glows, and he bows to touch his teacher's feet. "He has good talent," says Mazari, "and, by the kindness of Allah, when Mirwais is 40 years old or so, with practice, he will become great."
Lasting that long as a singer may be a challenge. Already, Mirwais works punishing hours, often singing until 3 a.m. and then rising late to ride his bicycle—whose handlebars have sprouted a bouquet of artificial flowers—to a dirt-floor schoolhouse that has no doors or windows to ward off the icy winter winds. Mirwais sits there with other drably uniformed boys, a bright kid with a sad smile. The schoolyard is full of toughs, and he knows better than to show off his one luxury, a new cell phone in which he's stored dozens of jangling tunes.
For now, his greatest danger is not the playground bully but something far worse: the possibility of being kidnapped and sold to a local warlord who fancies young boys. In Afghanistan, where a premium is placed on women's honor and chastity, young boys are often considered fair game for sex. Indeed, according to Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author and expert on the Taliban's rise, the religious movement, with its strict emphasis on law and order, started in the early 1990s after a drunken commander picked up one of Mullah Mohammed Omar's young seminarians and performed a mock, public wedding with the youth. After the abused student staggered back to the madrasah, Omar swore revenge and his movement quickly swept away the criminal warlords.
A handsome, sweet-voiced boy like Mirwais is particularly vulnerable amid the lawlessness of today's Afghanistan, so his entourage of musicians and two older brothers quickly spirits him away after every singing engagement. Still, whatever dangers may exist, Mirwais and the musicians around him know they have much to be thankful for—not least that Afghanistan is finally rediscovering its love of music. Now, sighs teacher Mazari, "All we have to do is persuade Afghans to listen to something other than Bollywood songs. You can't escape them. They're everywhere." —With reporting by Muhib Habibi/Kabul
Bubbles of Kabul
The Guardian 04/20/2005
Blonde and giggly, Marla Ruzicka was at first easy to dismiss. Yet, single-handedly, the idealistic aid worker secured millions of dollars' worth of compensation from America for the victims of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After her death in a bomb attack in Baghdad last weekend, Rory Carroll mourns his friend
It was Christmas in Kabul and she walked into the Mustafa hotel looking like a rumpled doll. Blonde hair streaked out from a black headscarf and dust shrouded a beaten-up coat. She dumped her backpack on the floor and beamed around a lobby filled with the smell of tobacco and stewed mutton and the stares of Afghan guards and western reporters, all male. "Hi! I'm Marla!"
It was an exclamation more than a statement. This was indeed Marla, a 25-year-old Californian with no satellite phone, very little cash, a shoestring organisation and an impossible mission, but any anxieties she may have felt were concealed by a toothy grin. It was December 2001.
She had come, she said, to document civilian casualties of the recently concluded US-led campaign to oust the Taliban. She not only wanted to find them - difficult enough amid lawless chaos - she wanted Washington to compensate them, to take responsibility for mistakes in its post-September 11 offensive. It was easy, at first, to patronise and belittle, and many reporters did. She gushed and fawned and giggled. Everything seemed either cool or awesome. She complained about broken nails, wondered whether the market on Chicken Street sold conditioner and asked about parties. Planet Marla was located in a parallel, ditzy universe.
After rising at 4am one morning, the hotel dark and slumbering, I was taken aback to see Bubbles, as she had been nicknamed, waiting in the corridor. "Thanks for letting me come." I hadn't mentioned the trip, nor invited her, but she wedged between a colleague and me for the ride to Qalaye Niazi, a village recently attacked by American bombers on the grounds it harboured fugitive members of the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Pentagon had claimed a clean hit with no collateral damage, but amid the debris were bloodied children's shoes, the scalp of a woman with braided grey hair, and wedding decorations. Survivors said dozens of men, women and children had died. Marla wrote it all down, asked lots of questions and returned to Kabul silent and thoughtful.
Last Saturday, almost three and a half years later, a journey which started in the Afghan winter ended on a balmy spring afternoon in Baghdad. A suicide car bomber attacked a convoy of SUVs on the airport road. Marla Ruzicka and her colleague Faiz Al Salaam, 43, were separate from the convoy but their ordinary car took the force of the blast, killing them both.
She had summoned the foreign press corps to a party that night at the Hamra hotel and her failure to show was our first inkling that something was wrong. The next morning the deaths were confirmed. Marla suffered burns to 90% of her body. A medic who treated her at the scene reported her last words: "I'm alive."
Her friends, a global community since she befriended pretty much everyone she met, are stunned. There is a hush around the Hamra hotel, low-voiced huddles swapping Marla stories. The best is one that relates how she came to be taken seriously, touched countless lives and changed US policy.
Tributes have flowed. "Everyone who met Marla was struck by her incredible effervescence and commitment," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "She was courageous and relentless in pursuit of accurate information about civilians caught up in war."
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said it was Marla's idea to put a special fund in last year's foreign aid bill to compensate Iraqis whose businesses had been bombed by mistake. "Just from the force of her personality, we decided to take a chance on it." Leahy said $10m was added to the foreign aid bill last year and another $10m had been set aside for next year. A memorial will be held in Washington this week and the senator will pay tribute from the Senate floor. "I said to her father this morning: 'A lot of people spend their whole lives and do not begin to accomplish what she's done.'"
It is not difficult to reconcile Bubbles of Kabul with the human rights heroine whose face has filled newspapers and television screens during the past few days. Marla did not change. The lobbying grew more polished and sophisticated but she was as bubbly at the beginning as the end. What changed was that powerful people took notice.
She was born in Lakeport, near San Francisco, with her twin brother Mark the youngest of six children of Clifford and Nancy Ruzicka, middle-class Republicans. She was suspended for leading a school protest against the first Gulf war and as a student at Long Island University visited Cuba, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Israel, including Palestinian areas. Police carted her away when she whipped off a sarong with a protest slogan at a speech by George Bush, then governor of Texas.
On behalf of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based advocacy group that is run by Medea Benjamin, she visited Afghanistan in 2001 to document cases of wounded and bereaved civilians. The US government was not counting them and much of the media and other human rights groups balked at visiting remote, dangerous areas to interview survivors.
Some of us called it Marla's mad mission. After a break I returned to Kabul in April 2002 and found the wide-eyed wonder of December transformed into a networking queen who knew all the journalists, peacekeepers, aid workers and politicians. She had lured Bianca Jagger to the capital. Marla would totter around parties in heels and slinky dresses, vodka in hand, making introductions. The socialising bordered on the frenzied and sometimes ended with Marla slumped, but not before the room had been worked for anything useful for an unofficial survey which confirmed 824 dead.
The US embassy loathed Marla, not least for the day she assembled dozens of mostly Pashtun tribesmen, some bandaged and limping, in front of its walls to demand compensation. The stunt received wide coverage. Marla was becoming a media star, popping up on CNN and becoming the subject of a biography. Publicity for the cause, she said, relishing the attention.
Boyfriends came and went, but she often hinted at loneliness. In a recent online journal entry she wrote: "I am young, and new at this and developing ways to cope, but in honesty I have tried red wine a little too much for medicine, deprived myself of sleep and felt extremely inadequate." The furious energy never abated. Lobbying, travelling, kickboxing and partying were her therapy.
After Afghanistan she founded her own NGO, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (Civic), rented an office in Washington DC and forged ties with congressmen such as Leahy. When Donald Rumsfeld testified at a Senate hearing, she engaged him on his way out and quietly made her case, figuring it would be more effective than protesting.
She was in Baghdad for the March 2003 invasion and mobilised 150 volunteers to visit hospitals and attempt to make the first proper list of people killed or injured by US forces. Their total of more than 2,000 dead formed the basis for subsequent estimates which touched 20,000. For a time she stayed at the Guardian house before worsening security forced her and the correspondents into the Hamra hotel.
Counting became a means to gain attention and help for casualties who would otherwise be ignored. In an essay sent to Human Rights Watch shortly before she died, Marla wrote: "A number is important not only to quantify the cost of the war, but to me each number is also a story of someone whose hopes, dreams and potential will never be realised, and who left behind a family."
Some Iraqis were bemused by the blonde who would burst from a black ankle-length abaya, worn to disguise herself as a local, hugging and kissing their children, but she won the respect of families who were given the hope of financial and medical aid.
It would not have been possible without Faiz Al Salaam, a commercial pilot with Iraq Air who had become Marla's driver, fixer and translator. A witty, urbane man, he recently became a father and hinted at quitting his perilous sideline. Last June, Marla wrote about the airport road in her online journal: "The ride is not pleasant. Military convoys passing every moment. Faiz and I hold our breath."
The target of Saturday's attack appears to have been a convoy of civilian contractors who happened to be passing the couple when the bomber struck. Witnesses described the car of Faiz and Marla bursting into flames. A French national also died and six people were injured. Faiz's relatives identified Marla's body but have yet to retrieve his corpse, possibly because it was so badly damaged.
Friends had advised Marla against returning to Baghdad. But the 28-year-old said she needed to collect fresh stories for fundraising and so checked back into the Hamra last month, bearing cheese, chocolate and cigars for fellow guests. She knocked on the doors of the few people she did not know. "Hi! I'm Marla!" Helping the relatives of an infant whose parents were killed when their vehicle was hit by what was believed to be an American rocket became a particular passion. She praised individual US commanders for wanting to do the right thing but complained about bureaucratic obstacles.
Last Friday, Marla left a telephone message to her parents: "Mom and Dad, I love you. I'm OK." Her mother, Nancy, said they were worried but knew better than to tell their children to do anything. "We were supportive and just reminded her to be careful."
At a Marla-instigated gathering that same night, her last, she was in her element, taking people aside for chats, raving about the food and promising to quit smoking any minute. To my eyes she had not aged a day since Kabul but she batted away the remark. Something about the air in Baghdad dried the skin, she said, rubbing her temples. "Once I hit 30 I'm going to get old really quickly." The thought struck her as funny and she laughed.
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