Billions of afghanis go missing
By Behroz Khan / The News International (Pakistan) / October 1, 2005
PESHAWAR: Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sought President Pervez Musharraf’s help in unearthing the scam involving billions of afghanis, which went missing from containers during its transportation to Afghanistan via Pakistan.
"President Hamid Karzai has taken up the issue with President Musharraf during his telephonic contact on Thursday," a senior diplomat confided to The News. The scam came into the limelight following information provided to the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad and Afghanistan’s Consulate in Peshawar that tonnes of coins of two and five afghanis, part of the Afghan currency and manufactured in Germany, went missing on its way to Kabul.
Sources said that a team of Afghan diplomats serving at the Peshawar’s Consulate followed the two trailers that were carrying the coins from Karachi and were stopped at Torkham to check its weight.
"It was unbelievable to know that the containers were almost empty. Only nine tons out of 30 tonnes of coins were found in both the containers," a source closely monitoring the situation told The News. "This is going on since long and regrettably nobody has noticed the plunder of our national currency," a diplomat remarked.
The two trailers have been returned to Customs House, Peshawar, and given in the custody of Pakistan Customs officials. The Customs officials are tight lipped about the scandal. It was also learnt that a probe has been ordered by the Afghan government to find out whether or not some government officials either from Afghanistan or Pakistan are involved in the fraud, the sources said.
The coins after transportation through Pakistan are handed over to the Finance Ministry in Kabul, but surprisingly the concerned ministry has not made any complaint in this regard. "We suspect that the practice is going on since long because lots of coins have been imported from Germany but they are not seen in the local market," the source said.
However, it was learnt that officials of the Pakistan Customs department have confirmed to the Afghan authorities in writing that seals of the seized containers have been tampered before its delivery to Afghanistan.
The diplomatic sources said that the responsibility mainly lies with the concerned authorities of the Afghan Finance Ministry for not reporting the issue to the Kabul government. Locals said that breaking and changing the seals could be done with ease in Peshawar or elsewhere. Similar seals are available at Rs 20,000 a piece in Peshawar. That’s why all the items ranging from foodstuff to fuel and other items meant for the American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan are stolen from the containers and sold in Peshawar.
British troops set for wider role in lawless south Afghanistan
The Scotsman (UK) / October 1, 2005 DAVID STRINGER IN KABUL, AFGHANISTAN
THOUSANDS of British troops are likely to be deployed to fight terrorists and drug barons in the volatile south of Afghanistan next year, the Defence Secretary, John Reid, said yesterday on a whirlwind tour to the country.
He outlined hopes to send a "sizeable" number of soldiers into the Helmand region to help seek out al-Qaeda-linked fighters and take on powerful warlords behind the world's largest heroin market.
Mr Reid, who arrived in Afghanistan yesterday for his first-ever visit, said the force would be in addition to a commitment to take control of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in May.
It is not known how many additional troops would be sent, but as many as 4,000 soldiers could be committed to the plans - in addition to the current 900 troops.
The Defence Secretary, who will hold talks with the president, Hamid Karzai, and defence minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, to offer increased assistance, said he hoped to meet key objectives in Afghanistan over the coming year. Speaking in Kabul, he said: "One of the them is to develop ISAF's presence in the south of Afghanistan, to supplement and extend the presence in the north and the west.
"But if we are to do that I want to make sure it is of sufficient size to accomplish the task. It would be a sufficient number of soldiers, but would also need a degree of mobility."
He said the troops would be charged with counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency work.
The southern provinces account for the majority of the country's heroin production - with Helmand responsible for half of all opium yields.
Officials admit those areas are beyond the control of authorities in Kabul and suspect the region may harbour al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.
The United States - which is deployed in the south - has lost 51 soldiers this year, making it the bloodiest 12 months since the fall of the Taleban.
Mr Reid admitted that a drive into Helmand could mean British fatalities, but said he believed the British public were on his side because they understood that the terrorism that led to thousands of deaths flourished because the Taleban could infiltrate the empty state in Afghanistan.
TV show aims to be Afghan Oprah
By Soutik Biswas BBC News, Kabul Saturday, 1 October 2005
At the well-secured offices of the Tolo TV station in Kabul, presenter Farzana Samimi is getting ready for a new show called Banu - "woman" in the Dari language.
The 27-year-old veterinary science and psychology major turned TV presenter says the show is about problems faced by Afghan women - largely a taboo subject.
Three times a week for the past month, Ms Samimi has teamed up with a Kabul-based psychiatrist, Mohammed Yasin Babrak, to talk about the "psychological and social problems" of women.
Today's subject is about the common fears that women usually have, says Ms Samimi, who thought up the programme.
In a poky blue-walled studio, the presenter and doctor sit on beige leather seats across a wooden table.
A ceramic tea pot and three cups on the table complete the minimalist setting.
Ms Samimi begins by asking Dr Babrak about the fears women usually have.
The discussion drags a little - a long talkathon on phobias.
But even this is quite revolutionary in war-ravaged Afghanistan, where women are still struggling to make their voices heard, four years after the demise of the Taleban.
Banu aspires to become an Oprah Winfrey clone, where women can sit around a table or phone in to discuss their problems.
"Most Afghan women cannot pour their hearts out to anyone when they have a problem. We hope to make this programme their pulpit, so to speak," says Ms Samimi.
The daughter of an engineer father who now lives with her homemaker mother in Turkey, Ms Samimi believes Afghan women are among the worst off in the world.
"They have not got their rights in family and society. Even if she wants to change her hairstyle, she has to get her husband's permission. They have no control over their destiny. Obviously, they suffer many problems, including mental ones," she says.
Ms Samimi was luckier than most Afghan women - she chose a calling in television after training to be a psychologist. Her siblings have been lucky too - one sister is a doctor, the other painter, and the third is studying economics.
She says she thought up the show after watching the plight of women go from bad to worse over the war-ravaged years in Afghanistan.
Scars of war
Dr Babrak came in handy to answer questions - the Pakistan-trained psychiatrist sees some 40 women patients at his Kabul chamber every week.
The nearly three-decade-long civil war impacted on women most in Afghanistan.
In Kabul alone, 30,000 were left as widows and the only earning members of their family, according to one estimate.
During the civil war, women were killed, raped and abused by the various warlord-led militias.
"Most of the women who come to me don't know what is going wrong with them. Most of them suffer from forgetfulness, mood swings, schizophrenia," says Dr Babrak.
He talks to them and sometimes prescribes pills. But long-term psychotherapy for women patients is still impossible.
"This is a traditional country. There is no concept of a shrink's couch here," says Dr Babrak.
So Banu is one way of telling women how they may be able to cope with their problems without visiting a doctor.
The afternoon show seemed to have struck a chord already - women have begun writing in about their problems, and calling in after watching the programme.
Ms Samimi is already a star in the making for her women viewers and has stopped going to markets as "people bother me".
She confesses she feels "scared sometimes" hosting a show for women - a former presenter for Tolo TV, who used to work for a popular youth music show, was shot dead by unknown gunmen in Kabul in May.
"My husband really does not want me to do this programme because of security fears. But I still manage because I want to do something for women," she says.
Only time will tell whether Banu picks up and becomes a talking point in Afghanistan, but for the moment the plucky presenter and good doctor will soldier on.
Self-Immolation Seen as Only Escape
Family problems and desperate circumstances lead many young women to burn themselves to death.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada and Abdul Baseer Saeed (ARR No. 190, 30-Sep-05)
Five months after being married at age 12, Lila poured petrol over herself and set herself ablaze. She whispered from her hospital bed that she had wanted to kill herself because her 17-year-old husband constantly beat her.
"My husband hates me and is always beating me. I ran to my mother's place but my brother forced me to go back to my husband's home," she said. With burns covering 35 per cent of her body, she tried to remain immobile as she spoke.
Her 45-year-old mother, who asked not to be named, said she could not prevent her daughter being sent back to the young but violent husband. But she tearfully told IWPR, "I will never again allow any of my daughters to be married under-age."
According to the new constitution, the legal age for marriage is 16 for women and 18 for men. But the law is frequently ignored and there are reports that 57 per cent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls under 16.
Lila was just one of three teenagers being treated for burns after setting themselves fire, when IWPR visited the overcrowded Howzawi Hospital in the western city of Herat on one day in September.
Her marriage had been contracted when she was only six, as part of an exchange arrangement that allowed her older brother to marry a girl even though he could not afford the bride price demanded by her father. As part of the deal, Lila had to marry the girl's younger brother.
It was her elder brother who forced her to return to her abusive husband.
Outside the ward, in a bed in the second floor corridor, 17-year-old Fatima moaned quietly in agony from her burns. A year earlier, she too had been the "bride price" in a swap for the girl her brother wanted to marry.
From the first few months of her marriage, she was constantly beaten by her husband who, she said, was in love with someone else. "I burned myself so that I could relax for ever," she said, before crying out suddenly, "My stomach is burning."
Her long, disheveled black hair frames a face painted over with a dark blue solution to ease the pain. Burns cover almost 40 per cent of her body, according to a doctor.
"I did this because I had no other alternative," she told IWPR.
Herat has one of the highest incidences of self-immolation in Afghanistan, and many doctors here think it is a common method of suicide here because of the influence of practices in nearby Iran.
Dr Mohammad Hamyon Azizi, who heads the burns unit in the hospital, said around 400 people in the province - mostly young women - had attempted suicide by setting themselves on fire since 2002. Some 60 per cent had died.
Many of the patients come from families who had spent time in Iran as refugees, he said.
"There are many factors why they try to kill themselves - low levels of education, desperate economic conditions, compulsory marriages, and from watching films and then comparing them with their own living conditions in Afghanistan."
Sima Shir Mohammadi, head of the provincial women's affairs department, pointed to forced marriages as another cause of teenage girls setting themselves on fire.
But there were other reasons as well. "In one family, a 14-year-old girl just wanted to wear a short-sleeve dress at a wedding party and also dress like that at home. Her family would not let her, so she set herself on fire," said Shir Mohammadi.
"Frustration in teenage marriages, where the husband can't meet the wishes of a young wife, low levels of education, and forced marriages which are a form of oppression by parents, leave some girls seeing self-immolation as the only answer."
There are no precise figures nationally on how many girls kill themselves this way, partly because many families see it as a source of shame and try to hide the reason for the burns, attributing them to cooking accidents. Suicide is also frowned upon for religious reasons.
Judge Ghulam Nabi Hakak, chairman of the human rights commission for western Afghanistan, said they had tried to counter the increase in self-immolation cases.
"We set up some workshops for men and women in towns and districts and promoted women's rights from the point of view of Islam, with the help of some mullahs in the mosques. We also published a book called ‘Why self-immolation?’ and held several academic seminars," he said.
Shir Mohammadi said her women’s affairs office had also tried to use the media and had asked preachers to speak out against forcing teenagers into marriage, but more needed to be done.
The department had produced a report on the problems faced by women and their reasons for self-immolation, and this had gone to the ministry for women's affairs. "I am waiting for a reply," she said.
Fouzia Amini, an official at the ministry, said she was unaware of the report and claimed that the number of women setting themselves of fire had "decreased from the past". However, she added that nationwide there were reports of 57 cases of self- immolation within the same number of days, "We have obtained these numbers from the internet, and they are accurate." She refused to comment further.
It was not possible to speak with the minister, Massouda Jalal, who was quoted in the Kabul newspaper Outlook in August as saying that 700 women had tried to burn themselves to death in 2004.
Sajia Behgam, an official with the German aid agency Medica Mondiale, said her organisation’s figures showed around 500 cases of self-immolation and other forms of suicide each year in Afghanistan - but she said most cases were concealed by the families because of the shame involved. Around half the known cases involved women setting fire to themselves, and between 60 and 70 per cent of them died. The other half involved women killing themselves by other methods.
In Kabul's Istiqlal hospital – the main burns treatment centre - director Sayed Hassan Kamel said 40 per cent of the hospital was dedicated to burn victims. In August they had received 558 such casualties, of which five per cent - 28 patients - were women who had attempted suicide by setting themselves on fire.
One such case was an 18-year-old girl, Zarsanga, from Maidan Wardak province, who was admitted in late September.
Her grandmother said the girl had complained earlier about being oppressed by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law – another common cause of misery for young wives.
"When I came home, Zarsanga was badly burnt, about 50 per cent, so I brought her to the hospital," said the grandmother, who did not want to be named.
Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada and Abdul Baseer Saeed are IWPR staff reporters in Kabul.
A Home for Parliament
With votes still being counted to decide who will sit in the new parliament, there is still no building for it to meet in.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Amanullah Nasrat in Kabul (ARR No. 190, 30-Sep-05)
As would-be parliamentarians await the results from the September 18 election, some 700 workmen are racing to complete a building in which members will debate and exercise their new powers.
Rising from the ruins of a building that was used by parliament in the last years of the reign of King Mohammad Zahir Shah, who was overthrown in 1973, the structure was badly damaged during the internecine conflict of the early Nineties.
Once repaired, it will still only be a temporary home for the parliament, until a new building – paid for by India – is completed.
Located on an acre of land, the interim parliament building lies three kilometres from the presidential palace and not far from the Darulaman Palace, which stands today an imposing skeletal ruin - mute testimony to the destruction caused by the 1992-96 civil war.
"Work has been going on for about a year on the [temporary] parliament, financed out of the government budget, and it has cost 2.5 million US dollars to date," said the deputy minister of housing and urban development, Sayed Sharif Hussaini.
He added that work was progressing quickly and that in the past 45 days, many rooms and other essentials, like parking area, mosque and printing office, had been finished. He said that 90 per cent of the construction was now completed.
The four-storey building has three different sections: one for the Wolesi Jirga or lower house of parliament, one for the Meshrano Jirga or upper house, and a third for administrative offices.
The frantic pace of work can be judged from the fact that 18 workmen are high up on scaffolding in the future Meshrano Jirga, painting the ceiling.
But some of the workforce are sceptical that the renovation will finish by the time the final election results are announced.
"There’s still lots of work left to do,” said one worker. “I don't think it will be finished within two months, either."
No date has yet been set by President Hamed Karzai for the first session of the new parliament.
"The new parliament's first meeting will be held in this building," Dr Azizullah Luddin, head of parliament’s interim secretariat, told IWPR. "The building… has historic value because it was used for parliamentary business during the reign of Mohammad Zahir Shah."
Luddin said there was a five million dollar budget to meet construction expenses, staff and delegates' salaries until the end of the year, and promised, "We will have the building ready between October 15 and early November."
Since the first session is expected to be a crowded gathering, with foreign and other guests in attendance, Hussaini said tents with a televised link to the main hall would be used to accommodate the overflow.
Meanwhile, work has already started on a brand-new building which will be located on a 38,000 square metre plot of land behind the Darulaman Palace.
Hussaini said he himself wrote the blueprint for the structure, which was then designed by Indian engineers. It will consist of three octagonal structures - one each for the Wolesi Jirga and the Meshrano Jirga, and one for offices. There will also be a mosque and a library.
The plans were presented to Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Kabul in August. Singh laid the foundation stone for the building, which is being paid for by his country. The construction work is expected to take three years.
Amanullah Nasrat is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.
Saving the Past for Future Generations
One year after the National Museum reopened, dedicated staff are bringing it back to life.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Wahidullah Amani in Kabul (ARR No. 190, 30-Sep-05)
In a sunlit spacious room, three men surrounded by trays bearing thousands of fragments of stone and ceramics are at hard work, painstakingly attempting to reassemble a smashed statue.
Two floors down, at the entrance to the National Museum of Afghanistan stands a second-century limestone statue thought to be of the Kushan-dynasty king Kanishka, found at Surkh Kotal in the north of the country.
Like the one now being pieced together upstairs, this too has been reconstructed after being smashed in early 2001 when the ruling Taleban embarked on an orgy of destruction, shattering images they felt were contrary to Islam.
"Our staff tried many ways to hide things from the Taleban," said museum director Omara Khan Massoudi.
"Within two or three months, they had destroyed some 2,500 objects," he went on, adding that staff were thankful that after destroying the offending artefacts, the Taleban left the broken bits, so that they could at least save these for posterity.
Even before the Taleban action, the museum had lost thousands of items from its rich collection, looted during the years of civil war that also left the building a roofless shell.
"We had more than 100,000 objects before the [1992-96] civil war, dating from pre-history to the 20th century," Massoudi told IWPR. "Seventy per cent of them were stolen, and only 30 per cent were left."
Among the items stolen were 40,000 coins. Much of the remainder would also have been taken, but for the foresight with which museum staff packed smaller and more precious items into boxes and moved them to the safety of the vault in the presidential palace in 1988. They lay there for 15 years.
This precious collection was the Bactrian Gold – a hoard of 21,000 pieces, mostly golden coins, bracelets, earrings, crowns, swords, belts, rings and anklets, that was excavated from six burial mounds in Jowzjan province in 1978.
The items dated back to the first century BC and the first century AD, said Massoudi.
The reappearance of the Bactrian Gold in 2003 was near-miraculous, as many had assumed it must have been plundered from its hiding place.
The hoard is just part of the surviving collection that Massoudi’s staff are now working to conserve.
"Since the fall of the Taleban, we have cleaned and conserved 1,200 items, and repaired 80," he said.
Besides working on restoration or acting as curators for the few pieces on display, the 34 members of staff are carrying out a complete inventory of everything that remains, most of it in poor condition, and labelling it in Dari and English.
After extensive repair work on the grey stucco building, the museum was officially reopened last year, and it marks its first anniversary of renewed operations on September 29.
Massoudi sees that first year as a milestone on a long journey which will include painstaking restoration work, training, publicity, and helping open other museums in the Afghan provinces, "because people [outside Kabul] need to know about their heritage".
"We have many problems. We need better security and storage, we need to train staff in different fields, and we lack showcases for the exhibits," he said, adding that Japan and the Netherlands had promised to provide more showcases, Italian and Japanese experts had held workshops, and some staff were to go for training in Japan.
Only five showcases containing small items like bronze bracelets and figurines are on display in the building.
The museum also has a room devoted to an exhibition of Kafir culture from the eastern province of Nuristan, displaying antique wooden standing figures and an impressive horseman.
One imposing piece that visitors first note in the museum is an immense marble basin. Known as the “Buddha's begging bowl” because of a lotus blossom inscription carved on the underside, the basin was just too heavy for anyone to steal, according to Massoudi.
Security concerns are still evident. A guard searched IWPR reporters both entering and leaving the building.
Between 200 and 500 people visit the museum each week, with children getting free entrance, Afghan adults paying five afghanis (10 US cents) each and foreigners one dollar.
The director wants to see more schoolchildren visiting but appeared hesitant about seeking help from the education ministry, saying, "It has got its own problems – like no schools."
Massoudi, 56, a history and geography graduate of Kabul University, came to the museum in 1979 after four years of teaching and a period with the information and culture ministry.
"For people who [like to] study history, a museum is the best place," he said.
It is not only the past that Massoudi examines - he also has an eye on the future. He believes a museum should be in the heart of the city, not 10 kilometres away.
He is just as anxious to move away from the present location close to the Darulaman Palace, whose ruined shell and former role as the defence ministry make a stark reminder of the civil war. "Museums should be away from military facilities," he said.
Land has been promised for a new museum in central Kabul, but it has been subject to an ownership dispute. Massoudi is optimistic that this can be resolved in two or three months, and that a work on a new museum can then go ahead.
"It should be a huge building with all facilities," he said.
Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.
Tourists Trickle Back to Bamian
It may not be the first place that springs to mind for a vacation, but half a century after visitors started coming here, tourism in Bamian is slowly picking up.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada in Bamian (ARR No. 190, 30-Sep-05)
Forty-six years ago, the first recorded package group of European tourists arrived in Afghanistan on horseback. They opened up a trail that by 1974 was bringing 120,000 visitors into the country each year.
Income from tourism that year came to 35 million US dollars - a massive sum for those days - but things are much tougher now for the trade.
Since the last available official figures, nearly three decades of war, the fearsome reputation of the mujahedin, the fundamentalist Taleban and continuing conflict involving western troops have offered little to encourage tourists.
But now, tourists are starting to arrive in a slow trickle, and officials say they hope to encourage more, although no one is expecting the flow to turn into a flood any time soon.
Ironically, one action by the Taleban regime which generated worldwide outrage may have helped revive interest in Bamian.
In March 2001, the Taleban used tanks and explosives to destroy two colossal 2,000-year-old Buddhas. International efforts to save the statues and anger at the demolition generated immense publicity. Since then, the huge niches where the statues once stood have become a tourist attraction.
Bamian lies in the central highlands of Afghanistan, only 240 kilometres from Kabul. But the tortuous roads make it an eight-hour car trip, a problem which officials in the tourism ministry hope to address.
At present between 50 and 60 foreigners and 400 to 500 Afghans a month brave the route to visit the towering empty niches in the cliff face from where the Buddhas looked over the valley for centuries.
Bamian is regarded as one of Afghanistan’s safer regions, away from the Taleban insurgency in the south and southeast. Appearances can, however, be deceptive. Rocket attacks on part of the route are not unknown.
And landmines remain an ever-present danger, although their presence is also a source of income for guides who charge 40 dollars an afternoon to shepherd tourists around them.
That bloodshed is not a recent phenomenon is evident in the name of one of the province's other attractions – the City of Screams or Shahr-e-Ghulghula whose inhabitants were reputedly massacred by Chingiz Khan’s Mongols.
Other sites include the 2,000-year-old ruins of the Red City, Shahr-e-Zuhak, seated high on a mountain promontory a mere 17 kilometres from Bamian – which means a bumpy road trip of over an hour.
Seventy kilometres to the northwest, the peaceful beauty of the cascading lakes at Band-e-Amir has seduced the few tourists prepared to make the trip.
French tourist, Michael Asser, 26, told IWPR that Band-e-Amir was one of the most beautiful spots he had ever visited – at the end of one of the worst roads.
“I had seen such a sight only in Bolivia. When I saw Band-e-Amir, I thought I was in Bolivia," he said. "I hope to die in a place like Band-e-Amir.”
But he added, “The roads are in very bad condition, and there are no transport facilities for tourists.”
Government officials say they are doing what they can. The information, culture and tourism ministry has asked the public works department to restore the road to Bamian and to build a restaurant and guesthouse at Band-e-Amir.
Other foreign tourists find the facilities in Bamian somewhat wanting. Asser's criticism of the roads - valid for most of the country - was echoed by others who also condemned the standard of hotel accommodation on offer in Bamian.
“There aren’t cars for tourists and there are no good facilities for tourists in the hotels,” said Robyn Langford, a British national who has lived in Afghanistan for eight years and who, along with eight colleagues, was visiting the Buddha niches.
The ministry acknowledges difficulties but points out that in the past six months, it has opened seven tourist centres across the country. It has also produced some guidebooks and brochures in English, German, French and Dari and hired staff for hotels in each of the seven centres.
Bamian has four hotels, three private and one government-run. Most tourists prefer to stay in the latter, which charges around 40 dollars a night including meals. Located on a hill opposite the Buddhas’ cliff-face, it has 28 twin-bed rooms and generator-powered electricity for part of the evening.
Commenting on the complaints from tourists, deputy hotel manager Haji Mohammad said, “We don’t have the authority to buy even a box of matches or a glass. We have to ask the relevant officials in Kabul for everything we need.”
Deputy minister Nasrullah Stanekzai refused to offer figures or detailed plans for how the government planned to revive the tourism industry, saying, "We cannot reveal our budget; we can only tell this to parliament."
But in general terms, he said, a new town was planned for Bamian, about five km away in the Mullah Ghulam desert, to keep the old town unspoiled.
Bamian city, the capital of a province with about 600,000 residents, has no mains electricity or municipal water system, paved roads or pavements. To get here from Kabul means either travelling in a crowded communal taxi, at about 600 afghanis a person (about 12 dollars) or hiring a private car for 4,000 afghanis (80 dollars) for up to six people to travel one-way.
During his visit, Asser criticised western media for portraying Afghanistan as a nation of violent terrorists.
"Now that I have come here, I see that all those things… are not true. Afghanistan is a nice country and its people are very friendly," he said.
He was speaking shortly before the bodies of two Japanese tourists were discovered in Kandahar province and a British lorry driver was kidnapped and killed. Meanwhile, fighting between police, troops and Taleban militants continues to claim lives on a daily basis.
Geoff Hann, who runs the British company Hinterland Travel, said security was improving but he hired local vehicles to travel around in, so as "to keep a low profile". In conflict areas like Kandahar, visits were "in and out", he added.
"Afghanistan has been off the map for a long time. I did not come here from 1980 to 2001 and there are still problems including food and the standard of sanitation," said Hann.
Both the British Foreign Office and the US Department of State advise against travel to Afghanistan. But some westerners still insist on making the trip.
"It makes it impossible to get insurance, but my tourists are willing to take the chance," said Hann, adding that his latest group of ten tourists – from Britain, Canada and Australia - had been given strict instructions on how to behave, how women should dress, and about not going out at night.
Ravina Pana, who had travelled from the US with her husband and children, had nothing but praise for Band-e-Amir, "I have never seen a scene as nice in any part of the world."
Pana was optimistic that facilities would improve.
“The hotel has warm water as well as electricity during [some] of the nights. There might have not been all these facilities last year and it will hopefully be much better next year,” she said.
Hann agreed, saying, "Despite the problems, more and more people are now thinking that you can come to Afghanistan."
Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.
Uninsured Drivers Add to Road Chaos
Motorists driving new cars are now supposed to be insured, but the system is barely working.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Salima Ghafari in Kabul (ARR No. 190, 30-Sep-05)
While officials at the Afghan finance ministry are busy trying to impose a nationwide car insurance system, the impact has yet to be seen on the 230,000 registered vehicles which battle it out on the chaotic streets of the capital Kabul.
Since there are no working traffic lights, and the police are apparently helpless to control the anarchy on the roads, accidents are common.
Most of the vehicles in Kabul - along with another quarter of a million vehicles around the rest of the country - are uninsured. Although insurance has been mandatory since 2002 on those brought into the country, only 75,800 actually have such coverage.
For the tens of thousands imported before the new rules came into force, it is left up to owners to decide whether insurance is worth the cost. So far, only 36 have taken out policies.
Drivers registering a vehicle for the first time must pay one-year’s insurance premium before they are issued with official documentation.
Drivers are supposed to keep up the payments after the first year – but few do so. And since motorists do not have to produce a new insurance card when they renew their road permit, many are left without cover either through ignorance of the rules or through choice.
With premiums at just 10 US dollars a year for most passenger vehicles, it’s not so much cost that leads drivers to stop paying as the sense that they are being cheated by the state-run Afghan National Insurance Company.
Khalid, a 20-year-old in the 11th grade at the Alam-e-Faizad School in Kabul, is one of the few people of his age to own his own car, a white Toyota Corolla.
"I bought the car two months ago and was given an insurance card via the traffic administration after I paid the compulsory ten dollar premium. Within two months, I had two accidents because of traffic in the city," he recalled. "When I went to the insurance company, they laughed at me and told me, 'we don’t have the money to pay you for the damage to your car'."
Sima, one of the rare women drivers in the capital, told IWPR she had a similar experience with the company, "I work for a foreign organisation and have a red estate car. I paid 14 dollars to insure my first car one year ago. But when it was involved in an accident and I referred the matter to the company, they gave me a negative response, in a very off-hand way."
The national insurance company counters by saying the problem is that most Afghans don’t understand how third-party-only cover works.
Sayed Mohammad Sapand, an official with the company, said the firm was simply following normal practice with third-party insurance by only paying compensation to those not responsible for the accident.
"We will pay for losses according to reports from traffic and district police on the scene. We pay out to the owner of the car which has been damaged by the fault of the other car, and not to those who have violated traffic rules," he said.
Taxi driver Nazir, who spoke to IWPR outside the insurance office where he had just been to complain, said he had been treated very badly. "They told me to go away or they would beat me up,” he said.
"Six month ago, I insured my car by paying ten dollars and I received a card. My car has been in three accidents since then and has been badly damaged."
The 22-year-old driver acknowledged that he had been involved in a few accidents and, like the others interviewed, declined to say whether he was at fault.
While drivers were quite open about how much they paid in insurance premiums, the insurance company appeared reluctant to disclose details of the grading system or how much it would pay out. But IWPR was told that premiums are determined by horsepower for cars, tonnage for trucks, and the number of seats for buses.
"If a car is stolen or lost, the company is obliged to pay an amount in line with its commitment to the car owner, provided the claim is supported by the traffic and district police," said Sapand.
Often, if an accident only involves property damage, motorists sort out the compensation between themselves. When injury or death is involved, police automatically arrest any uninjured drivers and the courts determine the penalties, regardless of whether there is insurance in place.
Under a tradition known as “nanawatai”, the family of a driver responsible for causing a death or injury can formally apologise and offer a sheep or calf to the victim's family. If they accept the compensation, they may plead with the court on behalf of the driver, which can result in a lower sentence.
At the finance ministry, Deputy Minister Abdul Razaq Samadi insists the vehicle insurance system will get better.
"Every day we are seeing changes to the insurance system, but it is not enough,” he said. “We are working on policies which will revive a nationwide insurance system, which will be a very important revenue source.”
Back on the city streets and perilous routes through Afghanistan's mountains, the reality remains that insurance counts for little, and pre-2002 cars remain outside the system. According to Abdul Shukoor Khair Khawah, head of the interior ministry's traffic department, "We still have no plans to insure the older vehicles."
Salima Ghafari is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.
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