ISIS declares war on Hazara Shias of Afghanistan

 

ED hazara killings in Afg ii.jpg

Syed Zafar Mehdi 

It was Thursday night (shab e jumah) and Haji Ramazan Hussainzadeh was busy making last-minute preparations for the ceremony to mark the death anniversary of Hazrat Ali (as), the cousin of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and the fourth caliph of Muslims. Masjid Al-Zahra, a popular mosque in Shia-dominated Dasht e Barchi area of Kabul which Haji Ramazan founded, was packed with worshippers – young and old, men and women. Inside the mosque, a local cleric was reciting heart-rending eulogies, invoking the martyrdom of Hazrat Ali (as), who was assassinated in Masjid e Kufa (in present-day Iraq) while offering morning prayers on the same day in 40 AH.

Amid the hectic activity outside, a suicide bomber and gunmen forced their way inside the mosque compound after opening fire at police guarding the mosque. One detonated his explosives and the other fired on the crowd, killing four and injuring at least a dozen. Haji Ramazan was among those killed while giving instructions to the kitchen staff.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes at a time of deep political turmoil following the devastating truck bomb explosion in Kabul on May 31, which resulted in unprecedented civilian casualties.

The dangerous spiral of sectarian bloodletting in Afghanistan has assumed alarming proportions since the advent of ISIS, also known by their Arabic acronym Daesh. Their hatred for Shias has a historical background, dating back to the assassination of Hazrat Ali (as). ISIS ideologues take inspiration from those fanatics who carried out the murderous assault on Hazrat Ali in Kufa mosque. They praise the murderers of his son Imam Hussain (as) and deem the homicide of his followers as legitimate.

Attack on Al-Zahra Mosque is not the first incident of its kind. On the eve of Muharram 10 last year, a gunman wearing army fatigue opened indiscriminate fire at Shia mourners inside Ziyarat e Sakhi shrine in Kabul, leaving more than 18 dead and 54 injured. Victims included four women and two children. ISIS immediately claimed responsibility for the gruesome attack. The following day, in a show of extraordinary defiance, thousands of people marched through the streets of Kabul, remembering the martyrs of Karbala and the martyrs of Kabul.

The dangerous spiral of sectarian bloodletting in Afghanistan has assumed alarming proportions since the advent of ISIS, also known by their Arabic acronym Daesh

While the Ashura procession was underway in Kabul, people in the northern Balkh province were mourning their dead. At least 15 Shia mourners were killed in an IED explosion the same day. ISIS again claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on “heretics”. The attacks raised very few eyebrows since the fanatical nihilism of terror against Hazara Shias in Afghanistan has become routine and shockingly predictable.

Exactly 40 days later, on the day of Arbaeen, the terrorists struck again in Kabul. At least 27 people were killed and hundreds wounded after a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Baqir ul Uloom mosque on Darul Aman Road, a few blocks away from the residence of President Ashraf Ghani and the parliament house. President Ghani in a statement condemned the attack as “barbaric” and the United Nations described it as an “atrocity”.

Hazara Shias are among the few races whose origin remains shrouded in mystery. There are multiple theories about their origin. Some anthropologists trace their ancestry to Turko Mongols, while some believe they were originally Buddhists who lived in Hazarajat, the territory inhabited by Hazara people in the central highlands of Afghanistan, since the period of Kushan Dynasty 2000 years ago, before the arrival of Islam. During the period of Kushan Dynasty, Hazara-populated Bamyan was the hub of Buddhists, which is mentioned in the book The Hazaras by Hassan Poladi. Hazaras are predominantly Shias, although a small percentage subscribe to Sunni and Ismaili schools of thought.

Afghanistan has a grim history of ethnic violence, especially when it comes to targeted killing of Hazara Shias. In the late 1900s, brutal Pashtun ruler Abdul Rahman Khan had ordered extermination of all Shias in central Afghanistan, which led to the gory massacre of thousands of Hazara Shias. Their properties were confiscated and they were forced to flee their homes. For almost a century, Hazara Shias were incarcerated and sold as slaves to wealthy merchants. Their women and children were sexually abused. Many of them were forced to observe taqiyya (seclusion) and register as Tajiks or Uzbeks.

The attacks last year and again this year have brought back chilling memories of 1990s when the Taliban would raid houses, identify and kill Hazara Shias, mostly in northern provinces. “Hazaras are not Muslims, you can kill them,” Moulvi Mohammed Hanif, a Taliban commander, once told a gathering of Pashtun tribal elders in northern Afghanistan. Muharram commemorations were completely banned in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. While many Hazara Shias fled to Pakistan and Iran during 1990s, many stayed back to face the specter of unutterable horror. In one of the most barbaric episodes in recent history, thousands of Hazara Shias were systematically killed in northern Mazar e Sharif city in 1998, which author-analyst Ahmed Rashid describes as “genocidal in its ferocity”.

The attacks last year and again this year have brought back chilling memories of 1990s when the Taliban would raid houses, identify and kill Hazara Shias, mostly in northern provinces

After the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001, Hazara Shias – who account for up to 20 percent of Afghanistan’s 30 million population – emerged out of obscurity. However, they continue to walk the tightrope with the advent of many new armed groups in Afghanistan. Abductions, extortions and targeted killings by groups operating under the banner of ISIS have increased alarmingly over the past few years. In November 2015, seven Hazara Shias, including women and children, were abducted and killed mercilessly in the southern Zabul province. In June last year, 25 Hazara Shias were abducted by armed assailants in the northern Saripul province. Many such horrifying stories often go unreported.

For these Hazara Shias, terrorism and discrimination represents a dangerous cocktail. In July last year, thousands of them took out a march in Kabul to express their anger and resentment over government’s decision to move a power transmission line out of Bamiyan, the only Hazara-dominated province in Afghanistan. A deadly explosion ripped through the peaceful rally, killing at least 85 people and wounding 400 others. The attack was one of the deadliest in Kabul and deadlier than the bombing of Abul Fazl Mosque in Murad Khane in 2011, which left 70 dead. Following the carnage, thousands of Hazaras launched an online campaign under the hashtag #Justice4Hazaras to commemorate those killed in the attack and to demand justice, equality and equal representation for Hazaras.

ISIS has reportedly claimed that they attack Hazara Shias because of their involvement in the Syria war. “Unless they (the Hazara Shias) stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran, we will definitely continue such attacks,” a top ISIS commander told Reuters last year. Hundreds of Hazara Shias from Afghanistan are fighting in Syria as part of the Liwa Fatemiyoon force. However, the more plausible reason behind the unrelenting attacks on Hazara Shias is the fact that their religious beliefs clash with the radical Islamism propounded by ISIS ideologues.

In February 2013, a group of activists and poets had written a letter to then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, asking him to take necessary measures to ensure safety and security of Hazara Shias. “Even in their homeland, Afghanistan, Hazaras are not safe. Every year, they are attacked by Afghan Kuchis who are backed by the Taliban and the Afghan government. Hazara roads are blocked by the Taliban gunmen. Hazara cars are halted and passengers are killed,” read the letter. Maryam Jafri, writing in a UN Dispatch in April 2015, said Afghans need to embrace their national identity as a multi-ethnic society if they want to survive and thrive. “They need to stand up against sectarian and ethnic division. This is not only for the good of ethnic minorities like Hazaras, but for the whole of society,” she stated.

Rohullah Yakubi, a fellow at UK-based Human Security Center, believes there are two reasons for the horror unleashed by ISIS on the long-persecuted Hazara community in Afghanistan. “First, ISIS refers to the Shiites as the Rafidah (the rejecters) and views them as heretics worthy of death. Hence, Hazaras are legitimate targets. Second, ISIS seeks to ignite sectarian violence in the country,” he wrote last year, adding that the attacks have failed to push Hazaras towards sectarianism but have deepened the community’s alienation from the Afghan government.

After the latest attack, a Hazara Shia friend said he feels insecure and hopeless. “Even a place like mosque is not safe for us anymore, they don’t even respect the sanctity of God’s abode,” he said. That sums up the tragedy of Hazara Shias in Afghanistan.

(First published in Huffington Post)

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Why I feel at home in Afghanistan

At Home in Afghanistan

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Working in strife-torn Afghanistan is nothing short of a thrilling, awe-inspiring adventure. It’s like walking on the razor’s edge, groping in the dark, and dealing with myriad glorious and inglorious uncertainties of life.

For many khaarijee (read: foreign) journalists coming to this beleaguered country is tantamount to imperiling life and safety. For me, though, it felt like a homecoming. As Miguel Syjuco writes in ‘Ilustrado’, the ruckus of homecoming is brutally enjoyable.

In October 2013, when the biting chill of winter was beginning to set in, I touched down in Kabul. A small step, I must confess, felt like a giant leap. A fleet of U.S. army choppers quite ominously greeted me at the highly-fortified Kabul airport. It was not unsettling or astonishing. It was a feeling of déjà vu. Indian army choppers at the Srinagar airport is a familiar sight.

Before leaving for Kabul, I was repeatedly warned of dire consequences by some doomsayers and scaremongers. I refused to fret or fume. For someone who has grown up in the Kashmir of 1990s, there is no scope for fear. We have seen the worst.

While most foreign journalists feel out of place in Kabul for different reasons, I feel at home. Kabul and Kashmir are similar in many peculiar ways.

We, the people of Kashmir, have lived through decades of conflict. We have harrowing childhood memories. We have suffered long enough and sacrificed too much. And yet we have stood firm and resisted all the overt and covert attempts to break our resolve.

Nothing can more compellingly illustrate the unflinching spirit of people than their determination to resist. Afghanistan, like Kashmir, mostly conjures up the macabre images of death and destruction. The war-weary people of Afghanistan, like the people of Kashmir, have been suffering for more than three decades. Both are occupied by foreign forces and both want freedom from occupation.

While most foreign journalists feel out of place in Kabul for different reasons, I feel at home. Kabul and Kashmir are similar in many peculiar ways. Security situation never improves; spring weather is always unpredictable; municipality workers never show up; public transport is always crowded; loudspeakers go ballistic on Ramadan nights, and weddings are always big and fat.

Travelling to remote Taliban-infested provinces can be risky for foreigners but I have always managed to pass off as a local, which makes me, in the words of my Afghan friends, “both an insider and outsider”. The one thing that strikes you most is the extraordinary hospitality accorded by people in provinces. Despite living a life of penury, they know how to make guests feel special, even complete strangers.

Travelling to remote Taliban-infested provinces can be risky for foreigners but I have somehow always managed to pass off as a local

I vividly remember my first trip out of Kabul to eastern Kunar province in January last year, exactly eight years after the ‘Operation Red Wings’ in which three U.S. Navy SEALs were killed by Taliban insurgents and one managed to survive.

I went to a sleepy, forlorn village tucked inside the mountains of Kunarto to look for the family who helped the American soldier, the only survivor of that deadly military operation. After running helter-skelter for hours, wearing local dress to avoid unwanted attention, I finally managed to track the family. They opened the door and treated me like an honorable guest.

Gulab, head of the family, risked his own life to save the American soldier from Taliban because of an age-old tradition of hospitality and protection among Afghans. “That man had asked help from a Pashtun family so we had to protect him even if he was our enemy,” Gulab told me. His words were impactful and moving.

At his insistence, I spent the night in their modest one-storey home and was accorded wonderful hospitality. From a complete stranger, I suddenly became a part of their family.

Majestic hillocks of Kabul, shimmering lakes of Panjshir, hustle and bustle of Jalalabad, Blue Mosque of Mazar e Sharif, Buddhas of Bamyan, saffron fields of Herat, historic monuments of Balkh – there is much more to this country than war and violence

Afghanistan, like Kashmir, is also a breathtakingly beautiful country. Majestic hillocks of Kabul, shimmering lakes of Panjshir, hustle and bustle of Jalalabad, Blue Mosque of Mazar e Sharif, Buddhas of Bamyan, saffron fields of Herat, historic monuments of Balkh – there is much more to this country than war and violence. But, quite interestingly, Afghanshave huge admiration for the beauty of Kashmir, which is illustrated by a famous Pashtu proverb: ‘harcha ta khpalwatan Kashmir de’ (for everyone, their country is like Kashmir).

There is some inherent bond between Afghanistan and Kashmir, not simply because Afghans have ruled over us but because there are many things that unite us. A jolly taxi driver in Kabul once told me that he so desperately wants Kashmir to be part of Afghanistan “because both are torn by conflict and both are occupied by khwarijees”. He used the choicest of expletives for India and Pakistan, accusing them of proxy war in Afghanistan. And to my pleasant surprise, he knew Kashmir politics better than many of our commentators, and even offered to mediate ‘peace talks’ between various factions of Hurriyat.

The two action-packed years I have spent in this country have been truly enriching. Waking up every morning to write about suicide attacks, IED explosions, drone strikes, armed clashes and kidnappings is a daunting task. And most of the time, we happen to be in the line of fire ourselves, working under dangerous, life-threatening conditions. According to a local media watchdog body, 2014 was the deadliest year for journalists in Afghanistan.

In March last year, I lost a friend and guide, a courageous journalist who was killed along with his wife and two small children in a hotel attack, a day before Navroz, Afghan New Year. Following the tragic incident, journalists in Kabul announced the boycott of Taliban coverage. Less than a week later, a Swedish journalist was shot dead by unknown assailants just a few blocks from my home.

It is always heartening to see young children playing in dilapidated grounds but unfortunately even these playfields can be dangerous in Afghanistan

In such a stressful environment, it is important to not lose sanity. A game of cricket at Darul Aman ground, boating in Qargah Lake, horse-riding on Nadir Hill, mountain-climbing in Paghman and fishing at Sarobi helps in some ways.

It is always heartening to see young children playing in dilapidated grounds but unfortunately even these playfields can be dangerous in Afghanistan, as we saw in eastern Paktika province last November. More than 60 people were killed in a powerful suicide attack during a volleyball match. As expected, no group claimed responsibility for the attack.

Life is a perennial struggle in this country that continues to be a flammable tinderbox. It explodes anytime and consumes anyone. But, the spirit of life refuses to die. Long Live Afghanistan. Long Live Kashmir.

(First published in GK magazine Kashmir Ink)

Responding to existing and emerging healthcare challenges in Afghanistan


Syed Zafar Mehdi

The Afghan government, with the help of its international partners, has made indefatigable efforts to create a functional healthcare system in Afghanistan but there are still many hurdles to cross and many critical tasks to accomplish

The decades of war and turbulence have taken a heavy toll on life in Afghanistan. It has also quite severely affected the capacity of concerned agencies to respond to critical public healthcare challenges.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations public health arm, Afghanistan’s health status is one of the worst in the world with some of the health indicators three to five-fold higher than in neighboring countries.

While the local and international healthcare experts, equipped with skills and machinery, have played an instrumental role in setting up healthcare infrastructure after 2001, there are still many hurdles to cross and many critical tasks to accomplish.

Even though there are about 2170 healthcare centers across the country, the quality healthcare service is lacking, forcing a large majority of Afghans to fly abroad, mostly to India and Pakistan, for medical treatment.

Oxfam, a global aid and charity organization, in its 2013 annual report stated that 25 percent population in Afghanistan still has no access to healthcare services. Ministry of Public Health earlier this year said one in every ten children in Afghanistan loses his or her life before reaching the age of five.

The public healthcare challenges in Afghanistan manifest itself in multiple ways. The lack of healthcare infrastructure, shortage of skilled healthcare professionals, lack of robust government policy, sub-standard drugs in the market, precarious security environment are some of the major hurdles.

While lot of money has gone into establishing tertiary care hospitals across Afghanistan, the standard and robust healthcare infrastructure is still missing in many parts of the country

The former president, Hamid Karzai, who accompanied his wife to India for medical purpose earlier this year, was often criticized for not paying enough attention to healthcare sector in Afghanistan.

His predecessor, Ashraf Ghani has looked comparatively proactive in the early part of his tenure. His wife, Rula Ghani, has publicly expressed concern over the abysmal quality of maternal healthcare system and shortage of female healthcare professionals in Afghanistan.

Healthcare challenges and the response of government
In a post-conflict country, the challenges of creating a functional healthcare system are always massive. Over the past 13 years, the Afghan government, with the help of its international partners, has made indefatigable efforts to rebuild the healthcare system that was lying in ruins following the years of war. While lot of progress has been made, many challenges continue to persist.

According to observers and medical practitioners, health status has improved considerably over the past 13 years, but lot more needs to be done. “We have come a long way in past 13 years in terms of healthcare infrastructure and service delivery,” says Dr. Musa Wardak, orthopedic surgeon at Shinozada Hospital in Kabul. “But there are still many loopholes that need to be plugged and the onus lies on all stakeholders, including the government and private sector.”

While lot of money has gone into establishing tertiary care hospitals across Afghanistan, the standard and robust healthcare infrastructure is still missing in many parts of the country. Consequently, a large majority of population living in provinces still have no access to quality healthcare services.

The shortage of skilled healthcare workforce makes the matters worse. “We lack latest procedures and support facilities here and doctors don’t always have the requisite skills to deal with emergency medical cases,” says Dr. Shapoor Musa, a Kabul-based doctor.

A large majority of Afghan patients fly to India for advanced medical treatment. “Patients from Afghanistan who have come here have achieved good results and are now referring their friends and relatives too,” says Dr. Yash Gulati, senior consultant at Apollo Hospital, New Delhi.

In early 2002, soon after the establishment of an interim government, the Ministry of Public Health announced the Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS) to ensure basic healthcare services reach to majority of population in Afghanistan.

The scheme has been instrumental in the delivery of basic healthcare services, especially in provinces, but many challenges persist. “It was a good step to ensure basic healthcare services are provided to citizens, but we still have not done enough to provide primary healthcare services,” says Dr. Parvez Meeri, who works at Nasir Khusrao Balkhi Hospital in Kabul.

The main challenges in rebuilding healthcare system in Afghanistan, according to Dr. Ruhullah Rasik, doctor at Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul, include lack of infrastructure, abysmal security, economic problems, lack of access to healthcare facilities, lack of coordination between government officials and healthcare providers, shortage of skilled healthcare professionals, especially female doctors and mid-wives.

“It is important to address these concerns to have healthcare system that is at par with other countries in the region,” he says.

Impact of war on healthcare
The security situation in Afghanistan continues to be dangerously volatile. The armed insurgents, even 13 years after the intervention of international community, refuse to retreat or surrender. This insecurity, according to observers, is the biggest impediment in delivery of healthcare services.

Landmines pose biggest threat to women who have to reach hospital or children who have to go to school. They also damage roads, like in Kandahar province, making it difficult for ambulances to reach the remote areas. Every month, hundreds of expecting mothers and other critical patients succumb before reaching hospitals.

Afghanistan has earned the dubious distinction as the country with most landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEC), which make it difficult for health workers to reach far-flung provinces. Many local and foreign health workers have been the victims of landmines and IEDs and many of them have been kidnapped by armed insurgents for ransom. “It is unfortunate that even doctors have been at the receiving end,” says Dr. Fazal Ahmad Nawabi, Kabul-based medical consultant.

Afghanistan has earned the dubious distinction as the country with most landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEC), which make it difficult for health workers to reach far-flung provinces

According to officials in the Ministry of Public Health, the cases of polio have alarmingly shot up in recent months following the draconian ban on anti-polio vaccination drive by armed insurgents in a number of provinces.

In restive southern Helmand province, local insurgents announced a ban on anti-polio vaccination campaign in March this year, leaving many polio-affected children at high risk. Many fresh cases of polio have been reported from this province.

After Helmand, according to reports, insurgents also banned the anti-polio vaccination drive in eastern Nangarhar province recently, apparently in protest against government-imposed ban on motorbikes in some parts of the province. Dr. Moqadas Meraj, Deputy Director of Nangarhar Civil Hospital, says the insurgents have made their demands clear.

“Taliban have asked the government to lift the ban on motorcycles but the governor of Nangarhar province has turned down the demand,” she said. According to Dr. Meraj, about 30,000 children have been deprived of anti-polio vaccination drops because of the ban.

Healthcare professionals, especially those affiliated with foreign NGOs, have often been targeted across the country. In April this year, an American doctor and his two friends were killed by an armed insurgent masquerading as a security officer at Kabul-based Cure International Hospital, which is operated by a U.S.-based charity organization.

“The attack was a grim reminder that even foreign doctors who save precious lives are not safe in this country,” says Dr. Munir Samim, Kabul-based medical practitioner.

Maternal and child healthcare
Addressing a gathering of female health workers in Kabul recently, organized by Afghan Society of Obstetrician and Gynecologists (AFSOG), First Lady Rula Ghani expressed concern over the abysmal quality of child and maternal healthcare system in Afghanistan, and emphasized on increasing the number of female health service providers.

According to a report by Save The Children, an international children’s charity organization, at least 3,000 newborn babies die daily within 24 hours of birth in Afghanistan. The report states that 1 in 34 babies die within 24 hours of birth daily and main reasons are premature birth, prolonged labor during pregnancy, infections and high blood pressure.

Medical experts say the newborn babies lack proper care after birth in Afghanistan, which exposes them to medical bugs. “Newborn babies need proper care and attention which is lacking here,” says Dr. Samim. “We have a children’s hospital in Kabul, but when you compare the facilities there with hospitals in neighboring countries, it is not good enough.”

Maternal mortality rate, which was once the highest in the world, has significantly improved in recent years.  According to the State of Afghanistan’s Midwifery 2014 report released recently by the Ministry of Public Health and the Afghan Midwifery Association, there has been remarkable progress in improving the quality of maternal and reproductive health services in Afghanistan.

However, only 23 percent of the needs for maternal and reproductive health services are currently met in Afghanistan. According to the report, a four-fold increase in investment in midwifery is required over the next 15 years to meet 60 percent of the needs for maternal and reproductive health services.

According to Ministry of Public Health, in 2002, there were only 467 midwives in the country. Today, there are almost 4,600 midwives working in Afghanistan who have played key role in bringing down the maternal mortality rate from 1,600 to 327.

According to the United Nations, the estimated number of people living with HIV in Afghanistan is around 5000 but only 30 percent of them have been tested

“There is a need to increase the number and efficiency of educated professional midwives and improve recruitment policies, career pathways and retention policies,” says Dr. Annette Sachs Robertson, UNFPA Representative for Afghanistan.

Ahmad Jan Naeem, acting Minister of Public Health, says lack of security is a major problem for female doctors in provinces. “We have provided them additional facilities and increased their salaries, but the problem of security is a big challenge,” he says.

Emerging healthcare challenges
While existing healthcare challenges persist, some new and potentially dangerous health challenges have emerged of late. On December 1, which marks the World AIDS Day, Ministry of Public Health announced that the cases of HIV in Afghanistan have shot up by 10 percent.

According to Ministry officials, a total of 1694 cases have been registered by the government monitoring systems, but the actual number is likely to be higher.

Mr. Naeem says the outbreak of HIV is primarily due to lack of awareness about HIV virus, use and abuse of drugs, poverty, illiteracy and growing number of immigrants coming from Iran. “Ministry of Public Health has set up many prevention centers, consultancy centers and curative centers to check the outbreak of HIV in the country,” he said.

According to the United Nations, the estimated number of people living with HIV in Afghanistan is around 5000 but only 30 percent of them have been tested. Urmila Chanam, a public health professional and gender rights activist, believes the rise in HIV cases could be due to low number of people going for testing, which makes early detection impossible.

“It is high time that the accurate estimates of the most-at-risk-populations are etched out at the earliest so that policies, interventions, planning and implementation could be executed at quick speed to arrest the spread of HIV in Afghanistan,” says Ms. Chanam. “It would be a good strategy to adopt the rapid scale up model adopted by countries like India to boost its coverage of HIV response from 8 provinces at present to all the 34.”

Another emerging health challenge is the rising number of polio cases in some provinces. According to Ministry of Public Health, fresh polio cases have been reported following the ban on anti-polio vaccination drive by Taliban insurgents in some provinces like Helmand, Nangarhar and Khost.

Some polio cases have also been identified among refugees from northern Waziristan who have settled in Khost province. According to Public Health Department officials in Khost province, the refugee children have not been administered polio vaccination and that makes them more prone to this disease.

The battle for eradication of polio in Afghanistan – one of the only three countries besides Pakistan and Nigeria on World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of countries – continues. According to WHO, both Nigeria and Afghanistan present grim cases as the number of cases creep up. In February this time, Kabul recorded its first polio case in last 13 years.

Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) recently dropped another bombshell. According to ARCS, heart diseases in Afghan children have alarmingly increased of late. A country-wide study conducted by ARCS showed most cases of heart disease in young children coming from eastern Nangarhar province and the most commonplace disease is holes in the heart, which according to medical practitioners is a congenital heart defect.

“ARCS assessment shows the disease has assumed alarming proportions, especially in Nangarhar province, and most of the patients have no access to medical care,” said Sarma Afzali, media officer in ARCS. According to her, most of the families cannot afford the treatment, and they do not pay much attention to daughters who suffer from these ailments.

Future of healthcare system 
Healthcare system in Afghanistan has seen significant improvement over the past 13 years, but to establish a functional and robust healthcare system, it is important to pay attention to primary healthcare needs of people, believe experts.

At a time when international community is getting ready to pull out of Afghanistan, there are speculations that the country will be abandoned and the healthcare industry will collapse.

“If anyone is of the impression that the health industry will collapse post 2014, following the drawdown of international forces, they are mistaken,” says Dr. Abdul Habib Azizi, who works at Helmand Military Hospital. “The gains of past 13 years are irreversible.”

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

Remains of the day: Bamiyan valley, Afghanistan

The niche in the Bamiyan cliffs where one of the Buddha statues stood. Photo: iStockphoto

The niche in the Bamiyan cliffs where one of the Buddha statues stood. 

Syed Zafar Mehdi

The Buddhas may be gone forever, but the valley remains a treasure trove of history and heritage in a strife-torn country

Bamiyan valley, which sits in the lap of the towering Hindu Kush mountains, about 180km north-west of Kabul, is among the most breathtakingly beautiful areas in Afghanistan. It is also considered one of the most peaceful regions in the war-ridden country. Its history dates back more than 2,000 years, and its archaeological heritage is a confluence of Persian, Turkish, Greek and Chinese cultures.

In 2003, Unesco listed the “cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan valley” on its World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger, two years after the Taliban had blown up the sixth century Buddha sculptures that were Bamiyan’s biggest attraction. And in June, it was officially declared the first ever “Saarc capital of culture”, for the year 2015-16—Saarc stands for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. A series of cultural and sports events have been planned throughout the year; all the Saarc countries are taking part.

I travelled to Bamiyan at the invitation of the provincial government, to join the celebrations following the announcement of its new-found status. There are two roads one can take from Kabul; both are fraught with danger. One goes through the Taliban-infested Ghorband valley in the central Parwan province, considered an insurgency corridor owing to the heavy presence of militia groups. The other road passes through the Maidan Shahr district of Wardak province, crosses the 3,700m high Hajigak Pass, heading across the Koh-i-Baba mountains, and descending into the Bamiyan valley.

A 10km stretch of Maidan Shahr is considered a Taliban stronghold, and the roads have been damaged by landmines. Being kidnapped is a possibility, as is being blown up by freshly planted mines. But it is the quicker route, and also the more scenic, so I take it.

I am a khariji here, a foreigner, and have to don Afghan garb for my safety. And stay silent. I do as told and settle in. Soon enough, all thought of danger dissipates as our ride winds through the landscape, hugging towering mountains and past lush fields, scattered villages and rolling farmland. It has been raining, which makes everything that much more beautiful. We stop for chai in Maidan Shahr and in Jalrez, the former district predominantly Sunni Pashtun and the latter Shiite Hazara, but both equally warm and helpful to visitors.

When I arrive in Bamiyan the first thing I want to see, obviously, are the niches where the Buddhas were. I was in boarding school in Aligarh when the two imposing Buddha statues, Salsal (55m) and Shamama (38m), were razed to the ground by the Taliban in 2001. It made headlines and broke many hearts, including mine. Standing near the niches of the destroyed statues, I can only think of how resilient they had been through history—many invading armies had vandalized the statues, including the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s—only to be felled by the Taliban.

Local Muslims tell me stories about how—before the Taliban, before even the Soviet invasion—they used to routinely host foreigners, mostly Buddhist pilgrims, from across the world. Monasteries and mosques in the valley, an elderly man tells me, represented a cultural diversity and religious tolerance that had no parallel anywhere in the world.

In a bid to woo tourists and promote Bamiyan’s cultural heritage, Unesco and the Afghan government recently teamed up to establish the Bamiyan Cultural Centre, near the Buddha niches. The centre will house ancient artefacts, including the Buddha sculptures discovered by archaeologists over the years.

One of the Band-e-Amir lakes. Photo: Naimat Rawan

One of the Band-e-Amir lakes. Photo: Naimat Rawan

While the ruins of the Buddha statues and the caves that form an assembly of erstwhile Buddhist monasteries are the prime attraction in Bamiyan, there are other wonders too. Band-e-Amir, a collection of six sapphire-blue lakes, is a stunning sight. The six lakes are separated by travertine walls that form natural dams. Local lore has it that Band-e-Amir was created by Hazrat Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, during the reign of an infidel king, Barbar. The king was so impressed that he converted to Islam. A revered shrine of Hazrat Ali today stands a few hundred metres from the site.

Band-e-Amir was declared Afghanistan’s first national park in 2009. Nizamuddin, a local resident and self-proclaimed Bollywood buff, who goes by one name, informs me that some of the scenes in the 1975 Bollywood film Dharmatma, starring Feroz Khan and Hema Malini, were shot at Band-e-Amir.

Just a 20-minute leisurely walk away from Bamiyan valley is Shahr-e-Gholghola (the city of screams), which was conquered by the Mongol troops of Genghis Khan in 1221. The Shahr-e-Gholghola fort offers a panoramic view of the valley, right up to Kakrak valley in the east. The 2 hours I spend there, sitting and watching the breathtaking landscape as a cool breeze blows gently, feel like years of meditation. I feel rejuvenated.

The Kakrak valley is one of the three most sacred sites for Buddhists in the region, after the Bamiyan and Shah Foladi valleys. More than 100 caves and niches are cut into the surrounding cliffs. In 2001, when the standing Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban, a sitting Buddha in the Kakrak valley too was wiped out, though this did not make the headlines. You can still feel the spirit of the Buddha resonate in the valleys.

Almost 9km from the Bamiyan valley is the ancient city of Shahr-e-Zohak, named after a legendary character in Persian poet Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnameh. The imposing fortress of Shahr-e-Zohak, at the confluence of the Bamiyan and Kalu rivers, dates back to the sixth century. It provides a spectacular view of the nearby Hajigak valley, which contains the largest iron-ore deposits in Afghanistan.

Bamiyan city by night. Photo: Naimat Rawan

Bamiyan city by night. Photo: Naimat Rawan

East of the Bamiyan valley is the shrine of Syed Hazrat Yakhsuz, which sees a tremendous rush of devotees on festive occasions such as Nowruz (New Year), Shab-e-Qadr (the special night of prayers during Ramzan) and both Eids. I see many women draped in blue veils praying at the shrine.

People in Bamiyan are deeply conservative, but the radical ideology of the Taliban has no takers here. Unlike other central provinces, Taliban insurgents have failed to gain a foothold in this province.

A trip to Bamiyan is incomplete without a visit to the Shah Foladi valley, known for its towering peaks—particularly the 5,050m-high Shah Foladi peak—glaciers, flora and fauna. The peak was recently declared a “protected area” by the National Environmental Protection Agency of Afghanistan.

On my last day in Bamiyan, I spend the afternoon at a kebab shop in the main market of Bamiyan. The shopkeeper, a friendly man, speaks about his insufficient earnings and three unemployed sons. We discuss Bollywood, cricket and Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

Isis, he tells me, wants to turn Afghanistan into another Iraq or Syria. “But they will not succeed here,” he says. “We are famous for mehman-nawazi (hospitality), but we also know how to kick out unwanted guests.”

Bamiyan has immense potential for tourism, and efforts are being made to project it as a world-class destination. As the authorities move to protect and conserve heritage sites, new hotels and markets are coming up. If the security situation improves, especially along the highway, all routes will lead to Bamiyan in the next few years.

TRIP PLANNER

Go

Kabul is connected by flights to Indian metros via Delhi. Bamiyan is a 180km drive from the Afghan capital. Detailed route options are available at Cultbamyan.af/how-to-get-there.

Stay

The Shahi Hotel (+93-794228090) is the expensive choice, while the Naseeb Hotel (+93-744437555) is a value-for-money option.

Eat

There are plenty of kebab shops around Band-e-Amir; the restaurant at Naseeb Hotel is also a good place to get a meal.

SAFETY ADVISORY

The security situation in Afghanistan continues to be volatile. Most recently, on 7 August, three suicide bombings rocked Kabul, killing at least 42 people and injuring 313. This was followed by another car bomb attack at Kabul airport on 10 August that left at least seven civilians dead and 18 injured.

The alarming escalation in militant violence makes travelling to Afghanistan dangerous. However, Bamiyan itself is relatively safe. If you decide to visit, abide by the rules and recommendations of the local tour operators.

(First published in HT’s Mint Lounge)

Bagh e Babur: First Mughal’s final resting place


Syed Zafar Mehdi

The first Mughal emperor who ruled Kabul for many years and built ten gardens in the city had expressed a wish to be buried in one of them, which is famous today as Bagh e Babur

Bagh e Babur (Babur’s garden), the final resting place of the first Mughal emperor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, is one of the prime attractions in Kabul, located on the high slopes of Kuh-e-Sher Darwaza, southwest of the old city. Born in Ferghana in present-day Uzbekistan, where he is considered a national hero, Babur made inroads into this landlocked country in 1504 through Hindu Kush Mountains and captured Kabul, at a time when there was a wave of rebellion against the ruling Arghun dynasty from local populace and they were forced to retreat to Kandahar. Martin Ewans in Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics writes that Babur took advantage of the situation and established his new kingdom and ruled over it until 1526.

In 1505, writes VD Mahajan in History of Medieval India, Babur led his first expedition to India because of the insufficient income his new kingdom was generating, which he mentions in his memoirs Baburnama. “My desire for Hindustan had been constant. It was in the month of Shaban, the Sun being in Aquarius, that we rode out of Kabul for Hindustan”. He died on January 5 1530 in Agra, and as per his wish, his body was moved to Kabul and buried in Bagh e Babur.

Spread over 11 hectares, Bagh e Babur is the largest public green space in the city, which was decimated into rubble during war

The garden remained a revered site of pilgrimage for Babur’s successors. Jehangir, the fourth Mughal Emperor who ruled from 1605 until his death in 1627, visited the site in 1607 and constructed a prayer platform with headstone facing the grave of Babur. His son and fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan came on a visit in 1638 and ordered the construction of tombs and a mosque in the garden. Over the years, it became a famous historical site for tourists coming to Kabul.

Spread over 11 hectares, Bagh e Babur is the largest public green space in the city, which was decimated into rubble during the years of war. After the ouster of Taliban, the restoration work was done by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and UNCHS Habitat. They redeveloped the gardens and restored the buildings after conducting an archaeological survey.

The garden is covered by high walls and a beautiful caravanserai greets visitors at the entrance. From the caravanserai, the terraces and white marble watercourse give a magnificent look. Both sides of the ground are dotted by herbaceous beds and saplings, some of which have special mention in Babur’s memoir. From the top 14th terrace, overlooking the garden is Babur’s tomb. It was his favorite garden among the 10 gardens he built in Kabul city.

He was buried in Agra initially and was reburied in this garden a few years later. According to legend, he had expressed his wish to be buried under open sky, so his grave is open, encircled by a marble screen. On the headstone, the inscription reads “the tomb was erected for the light-garden of the God-forgiven angel king whose rest is in the garden of Heaven”. Babur’s grand-daughter, Ruqaiya Sultan Begum is also buried there.

The garden has seen a steady increase in number of visitors in recent years since the new management body under the Bagh e Babur Trust was formed, with support from Kabul Municipality, the Ministry of Information and Culture and AKTC. Kabul without Bagh e Babur will be incomplete, a desolation.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

Pamir – Life on the roof of the world

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

Meeting point of three majestic mountain ranges and three rivers, Pamir is both beautiful and brutal

Dizzying heights, snow-capped peaks, shimmering rivulets and hanging glaciers. Known as Bam-e-Dunya (roof of the world), Pamir is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. It is the point of convergence between three majestic mountain ranges – Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Pamir – and home to isolated, high-altitude, bewitched and arid land of Wakhan Corridor, inhabited by Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz nomads. The place has remained virtually unscathed by years of war and violence, owing to its remote location and inaccessibility.

The strip of Wakhan corrdior consists of two picturesque valleys tucked away in the mountains of Central Asia. It is also the meeting point of rivers flowing towards east and west, including the Amu River, the largest river in Central Asia. Not many travelers and explorers have ventured here because the treacherous terrains can prove dangerous. The corridor was born out of 19th century ‘Great Game’, when the British and Russian empires took on each other for influence in the region.

According to historians, the legendary Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan led his Mongol troops here while setting out to invade parts of Europe. His successor Tamerlane, whom the great Arab historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun called ‘peerless ruler of the world’, also ruled here.

The corridor was born out of 19th century ‘Great Game’, when the British and Russian empires took on each other for influence in the region.

In 1866, the first Russian expedition landed in Pamir, spearheaded by veteran explorer Fedchenko, who explored the Zaalaiyskiy Mountains and the glacier that was till recently considered the biggest in the world. The Russian expedition was followed by English and Swedish expeditions. With the passage of time, the place became prominent on the map but there are still many unexplored and unchartered peaks and valleys in Pamir.

While melodic paeans can be written about the incredible beauty of the place, but not everything is hunky dory here. Inhabitants are trapped in the grinding web of poverty. They live in yurts; tend to flock of sheep, goats and yaks. They eat whatever is cultivated in their small fields perched at almost 14,000 feet above sea level.  The winds are fast and furious, temperature can be too cold for comfort, and there is little vegetation.

It takes three days to reach the nearest road through rugged mountains and one more day to reach the nearest town with shops and medical clinic. This isolation from outside world has alarmingly reduced the average life expectancy of people living here.

These Kyrgyz nomads are always on the move with their flock of animals. They are all illiterate. Money for them is a luxury they cannot afford.  Sheep is the basic unit of currency for all their basic requirements. Many of them are also into opium cultivation. The easy availability of drugs has made them addicts over a period of time. They also trade opium to dealers from Badakhshan province in exchange of sheep.

Though there is no insurgency, violence or fighting like in other parts of country, life for these nomads is a constant struggle. They live on a razor’s edge but they seem to have become used to this life now.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

 

“Afghanistan’s natural resources have to be viewed as national strategic assets”

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

Omar Samad is a Senior Central Asia fellow at New America Foundation and Founder-President of Silkroad Consulting L.L.C. He was Afghanistan’s Ambassador to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009), and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004). He is currently Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah’s senior advisor.

Q. How do you see Afghan economy shaping up in the future?
A. There is no doubt that high dependence on foreign funding can have disadvantages as well. With reduced aid, Afghanistan might face serious short-term challenges in managing its fiscal and monetary affairs during this historic security and political transition period. All sectors of the economy have to adjust to a new reality, and I am not confident that the current out-going government has done enough to prepare the population for belt-tightening measures or pro-actively strategized for change that is already underway.

The donor community also bears responsibility to makes sure that aid reduction is neither blunt nor crippling as agreed to in various donor conferences.

Recessionary signs are already seen in some sectors, but if the country can experience a successful political transition and security can be maintained at current levels, then the transition will be much smoother and a positive Afghan public and international mood can avert a deeper recessionary scenario.

Q. Afghanistan boasts of astonishing resources endowment worth nearly $1 trillion USD, which includes coal, copper, lithium, gold, gemstones, natural gas and oil fields. Do you think the country has the potential to stand on its own?
A. Afghanistan’s natural resources, whether mineral or otherwise, are to be viewed as national strategic assets that require thoughtful and professional planning and management skills. But first, the country’s leadership needs to make use of its best minds to strategize as part of a long-term vision. The prioritization and sequencing of all related matters i.e.security, infrastructure, capacity building and rule of law, are necessary for the proper exploitation of resources.

Furthermore, these resources cannot be efficiently exploited without the proper investment and business framework that includes the transfer of new technologies and skills to the country, and aims to generate revenues and create jobs.

Afghanistan should at all cost avoid the errors of some countries where their mineral wealth became a curse.

Q. Afghanistan has two manufacturing giants as its neighbors – China and India – and both are captivated by its enormous natural resources. How should the new Afghanistan government engage with regional countries in general and these two countries in particular?
A. Both China and India already are productively engaged in Afghanistan. These relationships, and others within our region, can further expand as Afghanistan’s new elected government (once election results are finalized) outlines its policy priorities and desire to work with our friends near and afar on the basis of shared interests. Each side will be looking after its comparative advantage and seeking new opportunities in economic sectors that bind them. It is essential that we offer our populations new avenues for income generation and steer some away from radicalization, and illegal and criminal activities.

Q. Notwithstanding the massive inflow of funds, the Afghan government, backed by the international community, has not only failed in building a robust economy but also failed to address the problems of unemployment and poverty. What reasons do you attribute to it?
A. Since 2002, the Afghans and their international friends have had to fight a war, rebuild a state and institutions destroyed over three decades of conflict, revitalize the economy, rebuild human capacity and deal with numerous challenges. We are grateful for the foreign assistance, the sacrifices and the generosity. Indeed, more could have been done despite a four-fold increase in GDP, domestic revenues and job creation. The main culprits are: lack of vision and political will, weak governance, inability to stem high-level corruption, inability to effectively fight the narcotics business, an ineffective judicial and prosecutorial system, shoddy contracting methods, and to some extent, weak coordination with and within the donor community.

Q. Despite massive water resources, most of the country has no electricity and diesel-operated generators are extremely expensive. Do you think the Afghan government has not been able to conserve and manage water properly?
A. The Afghan government and donors failed to prioritize this sector until 2008. After 13 years, Afghans should not be relying so heavily on imported power. Granted, this is a high investment sector that requires large-scale infrastructure work, but alternative power generation techniques should have also been studied besides hydro – an abundant source of power in Afghanistan. Since hydro power and agriculture both benefit from efficient water management, there has been little work done in this sector. This is an area that requires special attention by a new government.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about the U.S. State Department project of ‘The New Silk Road’, which is aimed at facilitating Central Asia’s efforts to return to its historic role as the gateway between East and West?
A. It is a concept that was first introduced by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 at the UN in the presence of Afghan leaders. Clinton said “building a web of economic and transit connections across South and Central Asia with a central hub in Afghanistan would help the transitioning country to build a sustainable economy, in turn ensuring a more prosperous future for the region as a whole.”

The idea revolved around increasing regional trade to “open up new sources of raw material, energy and agriculture products for every nation in the region.” However, this concept has experienced some resistance from China. Our hope is that both ideas can find common ground and not be seen as part of a zero-sum game.

Q. Afghanistan is primarily an agricultural economy but agriculture gains in rural areas continue to face the wrath of illicit opium trade, which is illustrated by the rise of opium production in recent years. What is the way out?
A. It is unfortunate to see the fight against opiates in Afghanistan, estimated to have cost more than $7 billion, not produce desired results yet. Not only has criminality increased, but society and the economy have been impacted by this scourge. Afghanistan’s addict population has seen a dramatic increase over the years and even some political sectors are infested by the drug proceeds. We also know that without an external demand market, our supply capacity would be diminished. Also, the profit margins from this illicit business are to a large extent in non-Afghan hands as the trade beyond our borders is in mafia hands.

There is no quick and easy fix for this problem. It starts with political will and ends with poverty-alleviation, rural development, farmer support, educational programs and addiction combat measures.

Q. How would you rate President Karzai’s performance in economic development and what is the biggest challenge in front of the new government?
A. In my book, the Afghan government since 2002 gets a “C” grade for handling economic and development activities. On the other side of the coin, the international community receives the same grade for the manner in which they provided, oversaw and disbursed their funds. While Afghans are grateful and experienced relative increases in their living standards, poverty is still endemic, and they also realize that so much more could have been done with the extraordinary sums that were pledged, processed and finally spent on the ground. They realize that between 10-20% of all funds were actually disbursed inside the country, while large amounts were repatriated or paid as part of sub-contracting methods.

While some infrastructural work has been completed, it has not as part of a strategy that prioritized all aspects of development. While the private sector has grown, it remains fragile and uncertain. The trade balance is off as the country relies heavily on cheap imports.

A new government will face much harder conditions as it will inherit a sub-standard, corrupt establishment, will face foreign aid shrinkage and will need time to find its bearings. It will be critical to appoint effective and competent leadership at the helm of critical institutions and focus on priorities.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)