The world press: Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan

Maclean's: When the Taliban fell, women were supposed to get a better deal. It hasn't happened.


Compiled by Laura McClure
July 4, 2003 12:40AM (UTC)

Canada, Samantha Nutt in Maclean's

Peshawar is a dusty, rundown border town in Pakistan comprised mainly of low-rise buildings and decrepit Afghan refugee camps. The sweltering heat and traffic congestion combine to produce a haze of pollution so thick that by mid-morning it's impossible to see the mountains and the famous Khyber Pass in the distance. During 23 years of war and brutal oppression at the hands of foreign invaders, warlords and the extremist Taliban regime, millions of Afghan refugees fled across the pass to Peshawar. More than two million have returned to their homeland since the U.S. overthrew the Taliban in 2001, but more than two million, fearing even greater poverty and political persecution at home, remain stranded in desolation.

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The refugees are resisting moves to coerce them back to Afghanistan ... Even though almost 17,000 American and European troops are attempting to bring order to Afghanistan, most of the women I meet in Peshawar are afraid to return ... They are so desperate to remain in Pakistan that Mheer, a woman who lost her husband and a son during the war against the Russians in the 1980s, sold her 15-year-old daughter for 10,000 rupees (US$170) to a person she describes as an "ugly old man with many wives."

As Mheer explains that she only sold her daughter to buy food for her remaining six children, other women in the group console her, but with a certain disdain -- selling a daughter to a man of questionable character is regarded as a heinous act. When Mheer is finished, I ask the women when they will go back to Afghanistan, particularly with the promise of freedom they would ostensibly now enjoy under President Hamid Karzai's government. "We will not go back," one woman insists while the others nod in agreement. "It is not safe"...

Even with the large number of foreign troops in Kabul, most women don't feel safe. And those outside the capital must contend with warlords and their militias, who are often as harsh as the Taliban were. In warlord-dominated areas such as Herat, 700 km west of Kabul, women are not even allowed to occupy the same office space as men or to go to public places unaccompanied -- a policy that is enforced by flogging. "When women are not allowed to leave the house to go to the doctor even when they are in labour," says Meena, "how can they participate in public consultations surrounding the new constitution?"

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United Kingdom,"Baghdad blogger" in the Guardian

Going down south to Basra is like going into another country ... [One] reason is the British presence in the south...

I went to the police station and got to meet some of the people who are calling themselves "the emergency brigade". How the British ever decided to let this "brigade" handle the security in that governorate is a mystery to me...

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I don't think the idea in itself is wrong. Local problems need local solutions, and if the Iraqis can govern themselves, and by all means we should, then let us do it. But the "coalition forces" also have to know who they are getting in bed with...

The south is very tribal. Killing someone, especially if he came from a powerful tribe, might start a chain of revenge killings unless the two tribes were to agree on some sort of compensation, i.e., blood money. So while we are sitting with some people in Amarah we hear the following story.

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During a wedding celebration, two young men fire celebratory shots into the air. A British patrol happens to be near by, they think they have a couple of Fedayeen shooting at them. Bang bang, the Iraqis are dead.

The British take the bodies to the hospital, and after conducting an investigation they find out they were not Fedayeen. A mistake has been made. So the next day two British officers, two Iraqi lawyers and a translator go to the hospital and ask how the locals deal with this sort of thing. The concept of "Fasil," or blood money, is explained to them. A couple of days later the word spreads that the British have paid 15 million Iraqi dinars in blood money to the families of the two Iraqi men. Further bloodshed was stopped. Perfect.

I am not discussing the moral correctness of blood money. This is the way things are done here, and if this money will stop any sort of revenge killings, then it is worth it. No, I only have one comment: being foreigners, they paid too much. Habibi, everything is bargainable here, and paying 15 million in blood money will ruin the blood money market -- it is way too much. You should improve your tribal connections and get someone to bargain for you.

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Egypt, Galal Nassar in Al-Ahram Weekly

It was nearing 3 p.m. and a blazing 49 Centigrade as Patrick Bourgeois, the International Red Cross Committee representative in Basra, and I set off from this port city for the Iraq-Iran border. The road was poorly paved and littered on both sides with the vestiges of years of war. Dozens of burned-out hulks of military vehicles lay strewn across the desolate area.

In spite of the protracted war that cost both sides billions of dollars, left several hundred thousand people dead, and wreaked untold destruction, the Iran-Iraq border hadn't shifted so much as a centimetre. Nonetheless, both sides effectively lost vast tracts of land which had become perilous fields of unexploded land-mines.

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The checkpoints faced each other across the border. On the Iranian side ... A large number of Iranian soldiers were there to protect the border crossing and alongside them stood passport control officials, customs officers and various other border-control personnel. Some of them were busy inspecting vehicles and their passengers, concentrating on those heading into Iran...

On the Iraqi side of the border was a much larger two-storey structure, occupying a more spacious plot of ground. On approaching it, it appeared empty. There were no soldiers, no passport or customs officials, no one remotely connected to the process of checking who was leaving or entering the country...

I was dumbfounded that what had been one of the most important, tightly secured and difficult-to-pass border crossings had been so totally abandoned ... Only a few weeks earlier, crossing the checkpoint legally had been a major feat, while crossing the border illegally was to jeopardise one's life. Today, the Iraqi side is open and unguarded. During the short time I was there I saw dozens of cars and hundreds of people entering Iraq without anyone asking them where they were coming from or where they were headed. Many have taken this situation as indicative of the strong ties linking Iran to predominantly Shi'ite southern Iraq -- explaining in part U.S.-British anxiety over the area.

Germany, Frank Dohmen in Der Spiegel

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The rickety Antonov has been standing on the red-hot taxiway in the Emirate of Bahrain for almost 20 minutes. It is shortly after six a.m., and the temperature outside has just reached the 95 degree mark when relief comes in a radio message from the control tower: "The Americans have freed up a slot." Flight DMX 0111 has clearance for take-off...

The five Moldavians in their veteran flying machine that dates back to the nineteen-fifties are flying on assignment for the Deutsche Post (the German Postal Service). Specifically for its subsidiary DHL, operating worldwide, which has taken on this risky task of delivering the soldiers' mail.

Americans send off between 30 and 50 tons of mail every day to the soldiers in Iraq. The wave of support from the home front, says a U.S. Marine, is tremendous. Schoolchildren collect money in their classrooms to buy sunscreen creams and electric fans; with big promotional campaigns corporations donate blankets, shoes, or beverages, and of course relatives and friends write innumerable letters and postcards.

Yet these millions of letters, goods, and packages are not being processed by the U.S. Army itself, but rather by Deutsche Post's express and logistics subsidiary DHL -- in operations that are sometimes hazardous.

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Cities like Basra in southern Iraq are serviced by DHL truck convoys that drive the mail across the desert. Deliveries to northern Iraq are made by truck from Jordan. "So far," Toghill says, "we've been able to establish a direct air connection only to Baghdad." But even that doesn't resemble a normal flying operation. The old Antonovs keep requiring makeshift repairs. Even hard-boiled DHL professionals like Toghill hold their breath when the Moldavian crew calmly starts rewiring defective cockpit instruments with a Swiss Army pocketknife at an altitude of 42,000 feet.

Russia, Matt Bivens in the Moscow Times

If U.S. soldiers are interpreting their experience in Iraq in terms of our own myths and movies, the Iraqis are no doubt doing the same. And one storyline we are unwittingly playing into is the tale of the Russians and the Chechens.

It goes like this: A superpower of Christian invaders arrives to bomb and kill and occupy, but a plucky underdog band of Muslims stands up for its land, honor and women. The Muslim world is acquainted with this particular take on Chechnya thanks to, yes, movies -- videos of footage from the war zone -- which are circulated around the world to raise money and recruits for various projects, from the humanitarian to the terrorist.

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The Russians hit Chechnya in 1994 with "shock & awe" carpet-bombing, and with ground troops. Chechen guerrillas fought back, often in ways that drew Russian fire upon civilians -- which, of course, radicalized the civilian population ... There was initially some fine talk about making Russian-occupied territories into a shining democracy with rebuilt schools, pension payments, milk and honey. Instead, the schools provided cover for guerrillas, and Russian forces would return fire against both.

There are dozens of ways this tragedy can't be compared to the occupation of Iraq. And American anti-guerrilla campaigns aren't like Russian zachistki operations -- they aren't broodingly, systematically evil. But they are just as doomed and self-defeating.

Consider the events of June 9, when Americans searching for "pro-Saddam" fighters roared into the village of Thuluya with helicopter gunships and heavy armor, shouting in English, and with an "informer" -- a man with a burlap sack over his head -- to point out whom to arrest. In the process, one shy teenage boy was gut-shot twice and left to die, another holding a 7-month-old girl was shot in the arm and dropped the baby, and a mentally retarded 19-year-old struggled in terror because he feared he would be suffocated as soldiers duct-taped his mouth shut. By week's end, 50 Iraqi men were still being held in a secretive, makeshift detention center with "Welcome to Camp Black Knight" spray-painted over the entrance. And the informer with the bag over his head was marked for revenge-death.

Events like these are common in occupied Iraq. They are truly a lousy fit with the upbeat story line of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But they do support the "Christian invaders bomb and kill and occupy" storyline.

Hong Kong, Syed Saleem Shahzad in Asia Times

With the onset of summer, the heat of resistance is gaining momentum in the Afghan mountains and in the Iraqi deserts...

Even as ... sensitive, pro-U.S. moves [in Pakistan] were taking place (coinciding with Musharraf's visit to Washington to meet President George W. Bush), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Mohammed Aziz Khan, came out with an extraordinary comment at a public gathering, "America is the number one enemy of the Muslim world and is conspiring against Muslim nations all over the world." He also mentioned that politics should not be done in "uniform", a clear reference to Musharraf's position as Chief of the Army Staff, opposition to which has become a rallying point in anti-government quarters. Aziz Khan also stressed that even with a solution to the Kashmir dispute, India and Pakistan could never be friends.

It is not improbable, given Pakistan's history, that Aziz is laying the ground work for a body of people to force the government to do an about-turn in its support for the United States should the resistance movement in Afghanistan take off into a truly large-scale struggle.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia plays the same double game. It cannot separate itself from its tough Islamic ideology as this underpins the ruling House of Saud. But at the same time, on the diplomatic front, the country cannot afford to totally alienate the U.S. and Britain, on whom it has relied for many years, even though hardliners now want a clear anti-U.S. policy.

The result is that the authorities are turning a blind eye to volunteers crossing over the border into Iraq to join the anti-U.S. forces there, while at the same time they are cracking down on terror cells that are active in Saudi Arabia.

How long the Saudi authorities can keep on walking this tightrope is questionable: much could depend on events in Iraq; just as factions in Pakistan are waiting on events in Afghanistan to bubble over.

Nigeria, Tunde Obadina in the Vanguard

Whilst donors have been quick to respond to calls for resources for war-battered Iraq, they continue to be slow to react to pleas in relation to Africa. Iraq received the $270 million in food pledges it needed within five days of a United Nations appeal. By early June foreign donors had pledged $1.1 billion towards Iraq's reconstruction and were likely to offer more under U.S. pressure. However, it still seems unlikely that the roughly $1 billion required to feed around 40 million people requiring emergency food aid across drought-affected East and Southern Africa and in Cote D'Ivoire in 2003 will be received. The difference in western perspective can also be seen in the speed with which President George Bush's administration called on Iraq's foreign creditors to cancel its debts estimated to total between $60 billion and $130 billion. This apparent radical stance is a stark contrast to the U.S.' usual reluctance to support debt forgiveness for struggling Third World nations...

Gone are the days when development aid was a welfare entitlement given to all manner of post-colonial governments by guilt-ridden western leaders. After more than 40 years of post-independence misrule, the west is far more confident in insisting that Africa's poverty is due to its peoples' mismanagement of their resources and that the only remedy is internal modernisation.

African nationalists and western anti-poverty activists may shout 'cultural imperialism' and insist that rich-nation governments give aid unconditionally. But this is unlikely to happen.

The failure of June's Evian summit of G-8 nations to produce a rescue plan for Africa was only partly due to the rift between the U.S. and France over the war in Iraq. It also reflected a reluctance to pump money into governments that lack the capacity to develop their societies. African leaders that attend rich-nation summits to push the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), with its promises of good governance in exchange for increased development aid, are probably wasting their time. African governments will need to demonstrate commitment to political and economic reform to receive substantially increased development aid from the west. Meanwhile any rise in assistance to Africa is likely to be limited to humanitarian aid to help keep its people alive in the face of the ravages of Aids, famine and other calamities.

India, Prem Shankar Jha in Outlook India

One has to read news reports from Iraq very, very closely to get an idea of what's happening, attacks being one of the increasingly organised resistance tools against the occupation. Those which are reported are only a fraction of the true number taking place. Minor attacks, in which there are no casualties, are not being reported at all. One of the major news agencies reported at the beginning of June that there were up to 25 attacks a day. Iraqis have not turned over their weapons to the Americans as they were required to do. By the deadline of June 15, less than a thousand pistols, revolvers, Kalashnikovs and machine guns had been handed over in a country where there are an estimated half a million weapons still in private hands.

It is doubtful whether many responsible Americans still believe that they are perceived in Iraq as liberators. But the pattern of events in Iraq is one that we are familiar with for we have faced it in Punjab, Kashmir and earlier in Nagaland and Mizoram...

If Indian troops enter Iraq, Iraqis must see, and believe, that they are doing so to restore self-rule and not to perpetuate oppression. New Delhi must require, as a prerequisite for its participation, that the Americans announce a clear time-table -- a 'roadmap' -- for the restoration of self-rule to Iraq. This time-table cannot be of five years or more as a delegation from the U.S. Congress said the other day.

Democracy cannot be imposed upon Iraq from above, as Mr. Paul Bremer seems to be trying to do. It must be built up from below. The first step must be the holding of local elections within, at most, six months. The framing of a constitution and the holding of general elections under it can be left to the elected representatives. That is the technique India followed in Punjab, Nagaland and Mizoram, and most recently, in Kashmir. It is the only one that will work in Iraq.


Compiled by Laura McClure

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