The tragedy of Afghanistan. Is there a way forward?
by Anoja Wijesekera
The desperate scenes at Kabul airport of Afghans trying to flee and the image of the US Airforce flight taxi-ing down the runway while people were trying to board it, and hundreds running alongside, is an image that will be etched in our minds forever.
The tragedy of Afghanistan is that the same saga of desperation and suffering has been repeatedly endured by ordinary Afghans who have been at the receiving end of war, throughout their lives. They have suffered death, loss of limbs, loss of breadwinners, loss of livelihoods, the destruction of their homes, the trauma of displacement, the horrors of seeing their loved ones killed before their very eyes, squalor, pain, hunger and cold, for over four decades.
At a human level, the Afghans feel betrayed by the Western Alliance and the US. This is not the first time but the second. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, there was no overt resistance from the West. However, the Afghan warlords and their supporters who provided some resistance were armed and funded by the CIA, via the ISI of Pakistan, in order to defeat the Russians. The Afghans paid a heavy price; an estimated two million died another two million lost their limbs and approximately 800,000 women became widows. The entire infrastructure of the country was destroyed.
Once the Russians left, the US turned its back on Afghanistan and paid no heed to help in the reconstruction and development of that battered land. This was the first experience of betrayal and it was also at that time, that Osama Bin Laden who was an ally of the US and a part of the Mujahideen, became its sworn enemy.
The second episode took place after 9/11. In order to get at Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan. Although Osama Bin Laden had already left Afghanistan, many bombs were dropped, followed by drone attacks. Large numbers of civilians including women and children were killed as a result, throughout this 20-year period. Now in August 2021, with no proper system in place to ensure peace and stability, the US forces simply left. Even General David Petraeus, former Commander of the US forces in Afghanistan and former Director of the CIA, expressed his shock when interviewed on TV. For the Afghans, in their hour of need, the sudden and inexplicable departure of their President, Ashraf Ghani, is an even greater disappointment that they find hard to bear.
It is difficult to think that President Ghani left because he wanted to save his own skin. It is possible that this was part of a hasty deal worked out with the Taliban that went hand in hand with the sudden withdrawal of American troops. By paving the way for the Taliban to enter Kabul unhindered, and with no resistance offered by the Afghan army, a blood bath was averted. The destruction of the infrastructure and livelihoods in Kabul was also prevented. In turn, it is possible that the Taliban agreed to all the concessions that they announced during their press conference in Kabul, on 17.8.21.
The Taliban spokesman declared that an amnesty has been granted to all those who opposed them and that all citizens should remain in Afghanistan and help in re-building the country. They announced that all would be safe and that they forgive those who fought against them, and in turn that they should be forgiven. The Taliban stated that women would be allowed education and the right to work, as per the dictates of Sharia Law. It was also announced that no one will be allowed to use Afghanistan to attack other countries and that opium cultivation and its trading would be stopped. There was an indication that an inclusive government would be formed, but under their command.
The inevitable takeover of the country by the Taliban should come as no surprise to anyone, as it was evident right from the start. There is a popular Taliban saying “You have the watches, we have the time. We were born here and will die here. We are not going anywhere”.
A look at the map of Afghanistan, showing the areas under Taliban control indicates clearly how the Taliban gradually and surely increased the areas under their control over these 20 years. The take over of Kabul on August 16, 2021, was just the last lap of the race and was a parting gift offered on a platter by the US, when it hurriedly withdrew its troops out of Bagram airport, with no apparent handover and no declared plan for governance.
The Western misadventure is but a repetition of the history of Afghanistan. No foreign invader has ever been able to hold Afghanistan for long or maintain governments of their liking for any length of time. In the 13th Century the mighty army of Genghis Khan was massacred by the Afghans. In the 19th century, in the heyday of the Empire, the British sent a garrison to Kabul and each and every soldier except one, was slaughtered. In the 20th Century, the USSR invaded Afghanistan and were defeated in no uncertain terms, despite their weaponry and might.
There is a saying that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. The US did not learn from what happened to the Russians or from their own experience in Vietnam. At a time when the TV footage is showing the desperation of the Afghans, the efforts made by the US government to justify their hasty departure and declare to the world that their mission in Afghanistan was a success rings hollow and indicates a cynical disregard for the horrific ground situation. Subsequently the US announced that it would help Afghans who worked for them, to seek refuge in the US.
Now, as things evolve, whatever working arrangements are agreed with the previous administration and other stakeholders, the reality is that the Taliban is back in power and seem to be determined to recreate their “Emirate”, characterised by the strict imposition of Sharia Law. The Taliban has declared repeatedly that they would allow female education this time round, indicating a softening of their stance. However, the news from the areas under their control, indicate that their rhetoric is at variance with the ground realities in some places. When questioned on this, the Taliban spokesman said that all such incidents would be investigated.
I served with UNICEF in Afghanistan, in the years 1997 to 2001, both in Jalalabad and Kabul and am therefore very familiar with the draconian regulations of the Taliban.
The Taliban brand of Sharia Law imposed during their time in office, which was from 1996 to 2001, was particularly geared towards the ruthless limitation of women’s freedom and rights. Women were debarred from working and girls’ education was banned. Women were restricted to domestic work in their own compounds. When going out, they were forced to wear a “burka” that covered them from head to foot. At the time I was there, they passed the Maharam Edict, which dictated that women could not walk alone on the streets. A woman had to be accompanied by a “Maharam” meaning husband, brother or son or a very close male relative.
Failure to do so resulted in getting beaten on the roadside. The Beard Law, meant that all men had to grow beards. Men were prohibited from even trimming their beards. Both men and women were beaten in public if they flouted these regulations. Even some of our own staff members were flogged in public for trimming their beards. The Taliban brand of justice was meted out on the streets, by their vice squads, who beat you first and asked questions later.
Music was prohibited. All musical instruments were destroyed. Music playing in vehicles was banned. TV, films, entertainment, gatherings of men and women together were prohibited.
Under the Taliban regime, at the time, people had to pray five times a day regardless of any consideration. At prayer time people had to stop whatever they were doing and turn towards Mecca and go down on their knees or be beaten even on the road-side. The penalty for theft was the amputation of limbs and the punishment for adultery was stoning to death. The football stadium in Kabul was an arena where these horrific acts were performed in front of an audience. There was no judicial system and no due process. An accusation was regarded as sufficient evidence of having committed a crime.
Games including card games and board games were prohibited. Iconography, art, photographs and images were destroyed. Priceless artefacts in the Kabul Museum were smashed to smithereens and we are all too aware of what happened to the Bamiyan Buddha statues, which were priceless treasures and a wonder of the ancient world.
When I first went to Afghanistan in 1997, as the UNICEF Resident Project Officer in Jalalabad, the Taliban refused to look at me, as I happened to belong to the female gender. At meetings, which were all male events, they would look away from me with an expression of total disgust and would keep their heads turned away from me, when speaking to me. They clearly indicated that meeting with a woman was abhorrent to them. One Mullah even went to the extent of covering his own face when he had to pass by me. I found this utterly amusing and did not let it bother me.
After a couple of months of this icy reception, which I considered to be a farcical comedy, they gradually thawed and even shook my hand and became friendly. The Mayor of Jalalabad, who earlier covered his face, became particularly friendly and had many conversations with me, in English, declaring that he did not oppose girls’ education. I learned that he was educated to degree level. I said to my staff that I thought that perhaps the Taliban thought that I had turned into a man! As time passed, many Taliban officials and heads of departments, said that they regarded me as a sister.
After the closure of girls’ schools when female teachers lost their jobs, Home Schools were started by them in their own compounds, which UNICEF supported. As the Home Schools progressed, and grew by the day, I began to think that perhaps even the Taliban sent their daughters to those schools.
It was evident that some of the educated Taliban knew the value of education. Most of their foot soldiers however have only been to a Madrassa [Islamic school], where the curriculum consists of memorising the Quran, studying Arabic and learning the art of guerrilla warfare. However, the educated Taliban realise that it is important to address economic, social, health and educational issues, in addition to implementing their draconian version of Sharia Law.
Since I had to work with the Taliban government on a daily basis, I thought to myself that the Taliban are after all human beings and I decided even before I took up my assignment, that I will simply deal with them as one human being to another. Therefore, I accorded them the due respect they were entitled to on account of the office they held and regarded them as fellow citizens of the world. I followed the dictum that one has to give respect to get respect. This formula was effective and very soon they cooperated with me and my colleagues on all the programmes UNICEF had to implement, including our efforts to promote maternal and child health, and the inclusion of women in some of the activities.
However, each activity which involved the participation of women, was implemented with due consideration and in a very low-key manner. I was guided by my Afghan colleagues who knew exactly how to approach this problem. The Taliban departmental heads also gave tacit approval for the participation of women in our programmes, as the women had to be paid through a government department, as per UN regulations.
Towards the end of my tenure, when the Bamiyan Buddha statues were blown up, and I was devastated, one senior Taliban minister apologised to me, as he knew that I was a Buddhist. He said to me that many people in the Taliban government opposed this action, implying that the Bamiyan Buddhas were a part of their own heritage, which they respected. The Afghans reported that the Buddha statues were not destroyed by the Taliban, but by the Al Qaeda, who were Arabs. They cried and said to me, “the Taliban has destroyed our future and now they have destroyed our past, we have nothing left”.
In the present context, following the fall of Kabul, the only hope for the future is that the Taliban will take a more enlightened approach and modify their agenda. This will be important for them, in gaining international recognition and much-needed aid.
In my opinion it would be a mistake on the part of the international community to impose sanctions as that would only hurt the poor and vulnerable. To regard the Taliban regime as a pariah state would also not be fruitful as that will only make them even more adamant in pursing inhuman practices. It is only through engagement and genuine dialogue that the international community will be able to help Afghanistan and influence the Taliban to be more responsible and mature in their approach.
At the time of writing this article, following the press conference and interview given by their spokesman in Kabul, all indications are that the Taliban have indeed changed and matured and wish to form an inclusive government and have softened their stance on the rights of women. The spokesman repeated that everything will be done within the bounds of Sharia Law. I hope that since they were last in power, which was 20 years ago, that they have gained greater wisdom in their interpretation of Sharia Law.
It is imperative upon the international community to now step up on their humanitarian assistance and ensure that starvation, destitution and a colossal human tragedy is averted and that the displaced are assisted to return to their homes. Already more than 50% of Afghans are in need of food aid, on account of the severe drought that has hit the country. Childhood malnutrition has increased and Covid is on the rise. UNCEF, WFP and the other UN humanitarian agencies are in place and are working round the clock.
The UN Secretary General has already made an appeal to donor countries to increase their assistance. The US and its allies who spent billions in weaponry and military hardware, need to now genuinely engage with the Taliban and help in developing and funding a workable plan for the development of Afghanistan, with the participation of the UN agencies, so that a sincere attempt is made at long last, to improve the lives of all Afghans. This is the best safeguard against the country descending once again into civil war and becoming a breeding ground for terrorism.
On reflection, the famous saying that “In wars there are no winners, there are only losers” is indeed true. The Taliban has lost thousands of fighters: no statistics are available. There would be hundreds with severe wounds and injuries. In fact, some of the Taliban leaders during the time I was there had serious war injuries and suffered from the resulting disabilities. On the side of the Western Alliance, large numbers of soldiers have died and some are left with lifelong injuries and disabilities and are suffering every day.
Many American and British soldiers who served in Afghanistan experienced severe forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders [PTSD], that led to a number of suicides, after their return home. The BBC quoted in a Panorama programme that in 2012, more British soldiers took their own lives after their return from combat duty in Afghanistan, than the number killed on the battle field. These suicides were caused by PTSD and depression. Taliban soldiers who are the poorest of the poor, too have suffered enormously. What support is there for them? Do we even know how many of them were killed or injured?
It is up to the world to now help Afghanistan, and not turn its back on it. The Afghans need maximum help and support to recover from this unspeakable tragedy. The Islamic countries in particular, that helped the Taliban to wage war, now need to come to their aid, to build peace. ‘Islam’ in Arabic means peace. Therefore, the Islamic world needs to exert influence on the Taliban and support them to evolve from ruthless fighters into a group of leaders, who can govern with compassion and wisdom and bring about long-lasting peace and stability to that beautiful country – Afghanistan.
[former UNICEF Resident Project Officer, Kabul from 1999 – 2001
and former UNICEF Resident Project Officer, Jalalabad from 1997 – 1999]
Children’s happiness with gardening
By Arjuna Hulugalle
On October 7th 2022, Homagama Subarathi Maha Vidyalaya in Godagama Homagama commenced their Home Garden Program, with the support of Nest, a Community based Mental Health organisation. The objective was to reduce the short fall of food in the diet of the children and to deal with malnutrition in the school population. Both the teachers dealing with Agriculture and Domestic Science have been involved in the initiative.
The outcome of the programme has many positive developments. Both the teaching staff and the children have shown great enthusiasm. Children’s happiness with gardening became evident. The students began to understand the importance of eating organic vegetables and the role of vitamins and minerals in their diet. Open air exercise which gardening brings with it has added to better health. The students have also realized that our country does not have to worry about hunger and malnourishment, if one uses available resources.
The first stage of the Subarathi Maha Vidyalaya program is to create a model garden in the school premises. Even classrooms are encouraged to be used for accommodating “grow bags” with various types of yams.The second stage of the programme is to make model gardens in the homes of 100 senior students with special interest in agriculture. The parents of the students are also drawn into this program.The third stage is for the 100 seniors to concentrate on the balance 2500 students and motivate them to set up model gardens in their homes.
The Model Home Garden in School
The School garden has a representative selection of vegetables but is concentrating on Dambala, Cabbage, Long beans of two varieties, Turnips, Occra and KankunA spice garden is being developed with three varieties of chillies, two varieties of kochchi, mint, celery and pepper.
Yams are being grown in “grow bags” inside cClass rooms. The varieties propagated are Kiri Ala and Bathala.Trees grown in the school premises are Delum, two varieties of Nelli and Murunga.
Model Home gardens of the selected 100 students
These are being trained for their tasks of developing their own model home gardens and also to motivate the other 2500 students of the school and set up Home Gardens in their own homes.Intensive training sessions have been conducted starting with Dr Lionel Weerkoon, a world renowned authority on home gardens and Dr Anuruddha Padeniya who spoke on the value of organic agriculture.
The students were given packets of seeds of bitter gourd, pumpkin, kankun, Occra, long beans, dambala, green chillies and beans. Those students who have space in their homes, were also given trees and plants to be planted in their own home gardens. The saplings included Murunga, Jack, Nelli, Del, Delum, Avocado, Orange and Divul.
The Role of the Parents and the past students
The Home Garden program is supported by the Parents and past students and soon will interact more with the community at large. Already, they have contributed towards a sprinkler system for the School Garden.In the long term the Home Garden program can grow into market gardening in the community.
Dance Epicure first Dinner Dance Theatre
A captivating evening of dinner and dance – Dance Epicure by ‘With My Feet’ brings UK champion dancers and the best of Sri Lankan talent to the same stage Dance Epicure, Sri Lanka’s very first Dinner Dance Theatre concept produced by With My Feet is all set to entertain and delight on the 2nd of April at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. The vision and brainchild of the legendary Naomi Rajaratnam, the uniquely curated evening of dance and gastronomy produced by the Colombo Dance Theatre will feature a roster of extraordinary international and local dancers paired with a night of culinary delight.
The latest initiative by Naomi, the Colombo Dance Theatre comprises of a company of elite international and local dancers woven firmly together by masterful choreography and a great love for dance. Dance Epicure will not only be the Theatre’s inaugural performance, but also the first of its kind in Sri Lanka; where artfully choreographed dance segments will be performed between a four-course sit-down menu. The highly anticipated event will feature the likes of world-renowned dancers – namely five-time undefeated UK National Latin American Champions Gunnar Gunnarsson and Marika Doshoris, as well as the formidable Nauris Kalva and Manuja Hughes, Blackpool Open Smooth Champions – sharing the stage with the best Sri Lankan dancers from Naomi’s own dance company With My Feet.
Naomi’s desire to uplift dancers from far-flung rural areas in Sri Lanka by providing them with the opportunities and spotlight they deserve has always been encapsulated in her dance showcases. It is with this vision in mind that Dance Epicure will also feature a heart-warming performance by the children of the Warehouse Project; an urban community solution in partnership with the Sri Narada Foundation. Additionally, as with all of Naomi’s shows, part of the proceeds from the event’s ticket sales will go towards the Dev Siri Sevana Elders Home in Welisara.
Commenting on the upcoming event, Naomi Rajaratnam said, “I am so honoured that some of the UK’s leading dancers have chosen to collaborate with us, and I am equally thrilled to be able to showcase the best of our Sri Lankan talent on the same platform.”
“The concept of a Dinner Dance Theatre has been on my mind for the longest time and I couldn’t think of a better moment to finally turn this dream into a reality,” she added. “The calibre of these world-renowned dancers paired with the best of With My Feet dancers is the perfect opportunity to offer a something truly unique to our Sri Lankan audience.”
The principal partners of Dance Epicure are Standard Chartered Bank Priority, Maliban Biscuit Manufactories, John Keells Properties, Sri Lankan Airlines, Shangri-La Colombo, Wijeya Newspapers and Capital Maharaja Group.
Tickets for Dance Epicure go on sale on Saturday the 11 th of March 2023 and can be purchased online at https://withmyfeet.com/. With My Feet social media pages will soon be updated with where tickets can be purchased offline.
Francophonie 2023 – Performance by “Les Monsieur Monsieur”
The Embassy of Switzerland to Sri Lanka and the Maldives together with the International Organization of la Francophonie will be hosting a theatrical performance of French and Swiss songs across three key cities in Sri Lanka with the view of celebrating Francophonie 2023, the annual celebration of the French language and Francophonie cultures with “Les Monsieur Monsieur’, the famed duo Laurent BRUNETTI and Mario PACCHIOLI from the French-speaking Switzerland.
The inaugural performance will be held at the ‘Garden Nuga’, Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI), on Friday 24th March from 07.00pm onwards, followed by a performance in Jaffna on Sunday, 26th March at 07.00pm, and the final event at the University of Peradeniya, Kandy, on Tuesday, 28th March at 06.00pm. All these events are free and open to everyone on a first come first served basis.
The tour is comprised of original and popular songs, also referring to the great works of the French and the Swiss composers, creating and bringing back memories through their unique theatrical interpretation. The language barrier disappears, and the audience is propelled by the words, emotion and energy of the artists. The duo will also conduct master classes at selected University venues and for its students.
Laurent BRUNETTI was exposed to music and theatre from a young age marking his career path. Accompanied by a solo piano or a symphony orchestra, BRUNETTI brings to life the lyrics and melodies to a theatrical performance. With five albums to his credit, he also writes for other artists and is actively working to link theatrical art with musical performance.
Mario PACCHIOLI began his classical training as a pianist and opera singer at the age of 7. With a Golden record in Switzerland and four albums to his credit, it is at the Musicians Institute of Technology of Hollywood (Los Angeles) that PACCHIOLI developed his art, having also trained as a theatre actor in France. His latest musical creation “Remas” pays tribute to his mother tongue Romansh. PACCHIOLI is recognized for his symphonic work for orchestra, voice and choir. – ZC
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