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Archive for January 2006

Prison Seeks to Reclaim Lives

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A model facility in Herat offers vocational training to both male and female inmates.

By Ahmad Ehsan Sarwaryar and Maria Tamana in Herat (ARR No. 199, 20-Jan-06)
Institute for War & Peace Reporting

A group of about twelve women sit at four looms in a large, well-ventilated room, weaving the beautiful and colourful carpets for which Afghanistan is famous. The women seem cheerful, chatting among themselves as their fingers race through the intricate knots of the design.

There’s nothing to suggest that the women are anything but employees at a typical carpet factory. But in fact they are inmates of the main prison in the western city of Herat.

The prison is the only one of its type in the country, dedicated not merely to holding the men and women incarcerated there but to rehabilitating them as well.

Nooria, 33, is serving a three-and-a-half- year sentence for murdering her husband.

“Before I came to prison I didn’t know how to weave a carpet,” she said, her fingers nimbly combing the threads into place. “It is a good profession, one which will allow me to feed myself and my four children when I am released.”

Carpet-weaving also helps pass the time, said Nooria, and it gives her some income. Still, she grumbles at the small recompense she receives – only 10 per cent of the carpet’s selling price.

“That is very little, considering how much work I put into it,” she said.

The rest of the proceeds go towards buying equipment and raw materials to expand the vocational training project, said Major Sima, head of the women’s section at the prison.

“We can keep them busy and allow them to earn some money,” she said. And while 10 per cent may not seem like much to Nooria, it is twice as much as the men receive. According to Sima, women are given a greater share of the proceeds because prison officials want to encourage them to participate in the programme. In addition, women often have their children with them in prison and need extra money to care for them.

Herat prison houses 37 women along with their 28 children. The children, ranging in age from infant to seven years, attend classes outside the prison during the day and are brought back to their mothers by prison guards in the evenings.

Just 100 metres away is the much larger men’s section, with 700 prisoners. They are also given vocational training in baking, carpentry, carpet weaving, shoemaking, and tailoring. About 370 of the male inmates take advantage of the opportunity to learn a skill and make some money. The other 330 are in literacy training, English classes, or are being tutored in the Koran.

All the classes are taught by fellow-prisoners.

There is also a library in the prison which holds nearly 8,500 books. Prisoner Jalil Ahmad Faizan, who heads the library, boasts that his centre gets busier by the day. “Prisoners are reading more and more books, and it’s all because of the literacy courses,” he said.

Mohammad 33, who is serving a nine-year sentence for armed robbery, is learning to be a tinsmith. “I used to be a simple labourer, and now I can do all this,” he said, gesturing with his heavy hammer to the forge, sheets of metal and other equipment in the workshop.

But Mohammad also complains about what he earns – just five per cent of what his work sells for.

“The money I get paid is only enough for my expenses in prison. But when my wife and children come to visit, they get upset, because I have no money to give them,” he said.

Brigadier General Abdul Majid Sadeqi, the director of Herat jail, is proud of his prison. When he was first appointed governor right after the fall of the Taleban in 2001, conditions were much worse.

“Over the past four years we have built workshops, dug 12 wells, established a health clinic and refurbished prisoners’ cells, all with the proceeds from the prisoners’ work,” he said.

In just two years, added Sadeqi, the prison has generated about 400,000 afghanis (about 8,000 US dollars) by producing 32 carpets, 600 wood-burning heaters, wardrobes, chests and confectionary.

He has received little help from the outside, he explained, except for some clothing distributed by the International Committee of the Red Cross. “We could pay the prisoners more if the government or international organisations would help us,” he said.

Some of Sadeqi’s ideas for prison reform came from abroad.

“Last year I went with a number of high-ranking officials on a tour of prisons in Europe,” he said. “It really opened my eyes. I saw a lot of things that I put into practice here.

“When an Italian PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] group visited the prison, they were very encouraging. They said they’d seen a lot of prisons, but that what we have in Herat is an education centre.”

Despite the training, life in the prison is far from easy. Conditions can be rough, especially in the overcrowded men’s section. The 700 male inmates are crammed into 35 cells, with 20 men to a room.

Gul Ahmad is three years into a 12-year sentence for armed robbery. Sitting in a corner wearing his grey prison uniform, the bearded 26-year-old seems angry and depressed.

“There are 20 people in rooms built for five. There is not even enough oxygen to breathe. I just don’t know how I am going to get through the next nine years in here,” he said.

Sadeqi confirmed that space was an issue, and said he had asked the general directorate of Afghan prisons to build another cell-block inside the compound.

Still, he added, things are not so bad. “One PRT member told me jokingly that he wouldn’t mind being in jail in Herat,” Sadeqi said with a laugh.

Ahmad Ehsan Sarwaryar and Maria Tamana are freelance journalists in Herat.

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Written by afghandevnews

January 20, 2006 at 6:51 pm

Posted in Education

Curbing Afghanistan’s Herbalists

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The government is looking at regulating a form of medical care that relies on age-old natural remedies.

By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif (ARR No. 199, 20-Jan-06)
Institute for War & Peace Reporting

He’s certainly not your typical doctor. Seated in the square near the shrine of Hazrat Ali, the major landmark in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Gulab is surrounded by several plastic bags, containing a bewildering array of powders and tablets and bottles filled with mysterious liquids.

As he’s done for nearly 10 years, Gulab advertises his services by shouting through a megaphone as about a dozen people surround him, “Medicine for stomach aches, medicine for kidney stones, for palsy, for worms, rheumatism, constipation and other diseases,” he chanted. “Money-back guarantee.”

Gulab told IWPR that he treats about 50 patients a day. He doesn’t actually examine his customers but relies instead on their descriptions of their ailments.

“My medicines work. You can tell by all the people around me,” he said. “If it were not effective, no one would come.”

Gulab has no formal medical training but he insists that his 10 years experience in providing herbal remedies is more than a match for any physician’s schooling.

He goes into the mountains four times a year to collect plants he thinks will be useful. He then makes them into medicines and uses them for treatment, although he concedes he’s unfamiliar with the chemical properties of his potions.

Gulab also shuns modern drug-making techniques. “These herbs are the basis of all treatments,” he said. “But when they are mixed by machine to produce modern medicine, they lose their effectiveness.”

The customers certainly appear to believe in him and his medicines. They also seem to appreciate the fact that his fees are far less than those charged by a regular physician.

Sajeda, a resident of the Chaharbolak district of Mazar-e-Sharif, clutched some packets containing remedies she had bought from Gulab.

“This medicine is for worms, and it cost only 60 US cents. If I went to a clinic, the doctor’s fee alone would be one dollar,” she said. “I don’t think I have ever taken my children to a doctor,” she added. “These herbs have cured all their sicknesses. And even if the herbs don’t help, at least they don’t hurt.”

Afghanistan’s health ministry is becoming increasingly interested in herbal remedies, and is seeking to regulate the industry.

Abdullah Fahim, an advisor to the health ministry, says the government, working with the World Health Organisation, is determined to look into the use of herbal medicine.

“Herbal treatments exist in almost all countries: India, Iran, Pakistan and Europe. But here it is used most often in folk medicine, not scientifically. We want to make this treatment more official,” he said.

The health ministry also wants to establish a training programme for those involved in herbal medicine.

“We need time so that we can send herbalists to be educated in countries which are more advanced in this field,” he said.

Sayed Ibrahim Kamel, head of drug quality control at the health ministry, said that those who dispense herbal medicines often lack the formal training needed to ensure effectiveness.

“The field of herbal treatment in Afghanistan now belongs to illiterates who have gained their knowledge through practice or from their fathers,” he said. “We have to educate herbalists.”

The idea appeals to Deedar Singh, who runs a shop in Mazar-e-Sharif selling herbal remedies. He said he has more than 100 types of medicines in his cupboards and the shop has been in his family for generations.

“I started working with my father and grandfather as soon as I was able to walk,” he said. “I am a professional with a lot of experience. The government should pass a law so that those who are not professionals are not authorised to work.”

Singh is convinced that herbs are the key to health. “This treatment is many times more effective than modern medicine,” he insisted. “If the government would help us to make contact with experts in India, we could develop this method rapidly, and there would be no need for modern, overpriced treatment.”

The medical community in Afghanistan, however, remains unimpressed by the work of these traditional herbalists.

“We are so sorry that the people are still going to illiterate and ignorant healers,” said Kanishka Omid, a specialist in internal medicine in Mazar-e-Sharif. “I know that herbal treatment can be effective, but these roadside ‘doctors’ prescribe one type of medicine for thousands of diseases. Not only does this not cure the patient, it can cause more trouble in the future.”

Shamsuddin, an herbalist with his own shop, bristles at the words.

“This is just a plot to take away our market,” he said. “We have more customers than those doctors who practice modern medicine. They want to drive us out of business.”

Outside the Hazrat Ali shrine, Gulab is not very concerned about what the government thinks of his medicines. In fact, he thinks that any formal recognition might be harmful.

“Herbal medicine will lose its quality if it becomes official,” he said.

Mohammad Hassan, 51, buying some medicines from Gulab, is a fan of herbal healing.

“I had stomach problems for five years. I took many medicines but they didn’t help,” he said. “Now I am taking herbs and my stomach problem has decreased. I have finally understood that this folk medicine is much better than modern treatment.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is a staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif. Abdul Baseer Saeed contributed to this report.

Written by afghandevnews

January 20, 2006 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Health