Archive for June 2006
BBC News / Monday, 26 June 2006
Opium production in Afghanistan could surge again this year and the demand for cocaine in Europe is higher than ever, a UN watchdog has concluded.
It says that efforts to stamp out opium growing in Afghanistan are being hampered by persistent lawlessness.
The UN Office of Drugs and Crime report says that Taleban insurgent attacks are helping drug gangs exploit insecurity.
But the report said opium production went down last year for the first time since the Taleban were toppled in 2001.
The report says there are now “state efforts” in place to destroy poppy cultivation, in addition to incentives for farmers to grow alternative crops.
“Worldwide efforts to reduce the threat posed by illicit drugs have effectively reversed a quarter-century-long rise in drug abuse that, if left unchecked, could have become a global pandemic,” the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said in a statement released along with the report.
“Afghanistan’s drug situation remains vulnerable to reversal because of mass poverty, lack of security and the fact that the authorities have inadequate control over its territory,” Mr Costa said.
The BBC’s Sarah Morris in Washington says that the UN report emphasised two weaknesses in efforts to control the spread of global drugs.
They are the demand for cocaine from Europe, and for cannabis worldwide.
The report said that too many professional, educated Europeans use cocaine and often deny their addiction.
And drug abuse by celebrities was often presented uncritically by the media which sent a confusing message for young people.
“A coherent, long-term strategy can reduce supply, demand and trafficking… if this does not happen, it will be because some nations fail to take the drug issue seriously and pursue inadequate policies,” Mr Costa said.
Police: 5 Afghan aid workers kidnapped
June 25, 2006
KABUL, Afghanistan – Five Afghan aid workers, including three employed by a Swedish aid agency, were abducted in eastern Afghanistan, a police official said Sunday.
The five — two doctors and an employee of the aid agency Swedish Committee for Afghanistan and two local government workers — were kidnapped on Thursday while driving in the province of Nuristan, said Ghalamullah Nuristani, the provincial deputy police chief.
Abdallah Fahim, a spokesman for the Public Health Ministry in Kabul, said that the five were still alive and that police and Afghan troops were looking for them.
“The elders and people of the area are cooperating,” Nuristani said. “They will help us win their freedom very soon.”
He did not give any details about the kidnappers or how he knew that the aid workers were still alive.
Shah Mahmoud, the acting director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, said he had no comment on the kidnappings.
The five had traveled to inaugurate a health clinic in a remote village and on the return trip were kidnapped in an area between two mountains, Nuristani said.
The driver, who was freed by the kidnappers, contacted police, Nuristani said. The driver is in custody for questioning but is not a suspect, he said.
“We request from the kidnappers to release them,” Fahim said. “They are not political or military people.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Declan Walsh, Chronicle Foreign Service
Sunday, June 25, 2006
(06-25) 04:00 PDT Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan — When Raazia Baloch, a mother of four with a 1,000-watt smile, was elected to Helmand’s provincial assembly in October, local authorities congratulated her with an unusual present — a Kalashnikov rifle.
“They said it was for my protection,” she said wryly. “But when I tried to fire it, the bullet was stuck inside. Even that was broken.”
Politics is a rough game in Afghanistan, where last year’s landmark elections produced a crop of budding democrats, retired warlords, drug smugglers and former Taliban fighters. For women, though, it is potentially fatal.
Last month, inside the new national assembly in Kabul, turbaned lawmakers hurled water bottles and bloody threats at Malalai Joya, a firebrand female deputy who criticized the country’s mujahedeen fighters. Now Joya says she stays in different safe houses every night and travels with three armed bodyguards.
The dangers are equally potent in Helmand province, 350 miles to the south. As 9,000 NATO troops deploy to the southern provinces amid the worst Taliban violence in years, courageous women — a small clutch of them — are leading their own campaign, armed with nothing but their voices.
Salima Sharifi was an 18-year-old schoolgirl when she started campaigning for the provincial elections last summer. Months later she won 2,114 votes — enough for the last of four reserved women’s seats and a place in history as Afghanistan’s youngest female politician. “I just wanted to make a difference,” said the bookish young woman, sipping tea in a carpeted room adorned with Persian poetry.
Her father, Muhammad Zahir, sat nearby. “I warned her it would be risky, but she just smiled,” he said.
That risk is very real in an explosive province where zealots torch schools and assassinate girls’ teachers. Sharifi has received several death threats, the most recent of which caused her family to move. Yet she remains undeterred. “Of course I am scared. But I am willing to make any sacrifice, even to die,” she said.
Like Sharifi, 33-year-old Baloch returned from exile in Iran after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. She was married at 12 and has four children. Her husband, a police officer, died in a bombing by Islamic rebels against the then-communist government.
She prizes education above all else. “The prophet says women should be educated. This is freedom,” she said.
But her liberal notions are tempered by local culture and gritty necessities — she sought her four brothers’ permission before standing for election, and her eldest daughter got married at the age of 11. “I was on my own, and I couldn’t afford to support her anymore,” she explained matter-of-factly.
Despite progress in areas such as education since 2001, life remains tough and sometimes bitterly short for Afghan women. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate is among the world’s highest. In remote provinces like Badakhshan in the north, 1 mother in 15 dies in childbirth.
The post-Taliban national constitution guarantees equal rights to men and women, although Islamic law holds greater weight. Women account for 68 of the 249 lawmakers in the lower house of the National Assembly, the Wolesi Jirga, elected in September through a quota guaranteeing 25 percent of seats to women. There are 17 women in the Meshrano Jirga, the upper house. Just one woman holds a Cabinet seat — in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Sharifi and Baloch are battling to improve the lot of southern women. Every morning the two friends don their burqas and pad through the dusty streets of Lashkar Gah to take their seats at the provincial council, or shura. But democracy has proved a bitter disappointment.
The four women on the shura say they have met with some resistance from the 11 male councilors — mostly bearded, conservative men who declare certain subjects “not women’s business.” But they say the far greater frustration is the shura’s utter impotence.
“We haven’t done much to help the people,” Sharifi said gloomily. The council has only fig-leaf authority that gets little respect from underpaid and often corrupt officials, she said.
Giving a typical example, Baloch said the council once ordered that a village near Goreshk be electrified. “But when we took a letter of authorization to the power ministry, the desk clerk tore it in two,” she said.
Extending the reach of the Kabul government was a central plank of the American mission to Helmand that ended in May. It is also at the core of a much larger 3,300-troop British mission that has since taken over. But for the province’s women, security is the most urgent priority.
Last month, an unknown gunman emptied his AK-47 into a van that was leaving Helmand province’s Women’s Ministry, which is a stone’s throw from the British base. The van driver died instantly, but the two female passengers survived. Fauzia Olome, the ministry head, believes she was the real target.
“It wasn’t necessarily the Taliban. It could be anyone opposed to the government,” she said. Her ministry, which runs Internet, embroidery and beautician classes for 170 women, was closed after the shooting incident. “Nobody dares come here anymore,” she said, raising her voice as a British Chinook helicopter lifted off next door.
Olome, who has one daughter, now married, is as stubborn as she is fearless. Her husband left Afghanistan 21 years ago for school in Russia, and never returned. She fled during the Taliban years after receiving threats because she was teaching girls. An admiring Western aid worker in Lashkar Gah describes her as “inspirational, presidential material — if only that were possible.”
Now Olome continues her work thanks to foreign support. But without proper security, such help rings hollow — both the deserted Women’s Ministry building and the bullet-pocked vehicle were bought with American money.
Olome’s family is pressuring her to quit her high-profile job. As ever, she refuses, but warns of a worsening situation. “I tell you, our enemies are winning,” she said.
San Francisco Chronicle
Declan Walsh, Chronicle Foreign Service
Saturday, June 17, 2006
(06-17) 04:00 PDT Kabul, Afghanistan — A United Nations report that has been kept under wraps for 18 months accuses leading Afghan politicians and officials of orchestrating widespread human rights abuses, including massacres, torture and rape.
The 220-page report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights details atrocities committed over 23 years of conflict by communist, mujahedeen (“holy warriors”), Soviet and Taliban fighters.
In Kabul, U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique said the report had been presented to the Afghan government, which has yet to give a green light for publication. “We need to ensure it is published at an appropriate time,” said Siddique, adding that it may be released next month.
Although it originally was scheduled for release in January 2005, the United Nations has repeatedly delayed its publication for fear of identifying former warlords now in positions of power, according to several human rights activists involved in the report.
Responding to the assertions, Jawad Ludin, chief of staff to President Hamid Karzai, said that the report had been discussed “a long time ago” and that he was unaware the United Nations was waiting for the president’s authorization.
Based on mostly press accounts and testimony by human rights groups, the report contains little new information, but it offers the first comprehensive survey of wartime abuses committed during Afghanistan’s various conflicts between 1978 and 2001. The study carries the imprimatur of the United Nations, which human rights activists hope will increase pressure for a complete recounting of past abuses and possibly pave the way for prosecutions.
Those named in the report include:
— Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a former commander of mujahedeen fighters combatting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, who now heads a pro-Karzai faction in parliament. In 1993, a former Sayyaf lieutenant told one of the report’s authors that before a massacre of Shiite civilians in west Kabul, Sayyaf ordered his officers: “Don’t leave anyone alive — kill all of them.”
— Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1993, is currently Karzai’s military chief of staff. His forces captured hundreds of Taliban fighters after they fled U.S. aerial bombing in 2001. At least 200 subsequently died inside overcrowded containers and were buried in mass graves. A full investigation into the incident has never taken place, the U.N. report says.
— Syed Muhammad Gulabzoi, a member of parliament from the southern Khost province, had been the interior minister under a puppet regime during Soviet occupation. According to the report, he oversaw an Afghan intelligence service notorious for torturing and killing civilians.
Taliban war crimes are also highlighted. A Taliban commander who participated in the massacre of 240 civilians in northern Afghanistan in 1997 described how the fundamentalist movement’s executioners stood 3 feet from their victims to ensure they didn’t miss. “Soon their beards were covered in blood.”
The report also focuses on Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a mujahedeen commander whose forces fired thousands of rockets on Kabul in the 1990s, “reportedly killing tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom were civilians.” Hekmatyar now is battling U.S. forces in southeastern Afghanistan as a renegade warlord allied with the Taliban.
But for many Afghans, perhaps the most difficult revelation involves abuses allegedly committed by forces loyal to Ahmed Shah Massood, Afghanistan’s national hero and the head of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban. He was killed on Sept. 9, 2001, by two suspected al Qaeda assassins posing as journalists who had planted explosives inside a camera. The report details how his forces indiscriminately bombed Kabul during battles in the early 1990s, killing hundreds of civilians.
The importance of accountability for past crimes has been underscored in recent weeks, when an argument about the role of the warlords with questionable pasts erupted among Kabul’s overseas diplomatic missions.
Three European diplomats said they were angered that days after riots rocked Kabul last month, Karzai appointed 13 former commanders with alleged links to drug smuggling, organized crime or illegal militias to senior police positions across the country. The diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the presidency had inserted the 13 names at the last minute to a list of 86 new officers that had been selected by a board of U.S., German and Afghan officials.
The selection process is part of a program to professionalize the notoriously corrupt police force, which is receiving $1.2 billion in U.S. aid this year.
“This is not acceptable to us. If we let people who have committed human rights abuses and economic crimes slip through, Afghans are going to start asking what we are doing here,” said a Western official.
The greatest concern, according to the diplomats, is the newly appointed Kabul police chief, Amanullah Guzar, who has also been linked to land theft and extortion in his home territory on the Shomali plains north of Kabul. Speaking last week at Kabul police headquarters, Guzar staunchly defended his reputation. “President Karzai appointed me, and he knows all about my past. Let anyone with allegations bring them to court,” he said.
Ludin, Karzai’s chief of staff, said the added names were needed to ensure ethnic balance and greater representation of former mujahedeen fighters.
“The list included only one Uzbek and very few Hazaras,” said Ludin. “There was also a feeling candidates with jihadi backgrounds were missing,” he said.
Another Afghan government official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann approved the appointment of Guzar.
“Keeping mujahedeen commanders out in the cold is not a good strategy because it turns them into anti-state elements. You have to include them,” he said.
Meanwhile, Patricia Gossman, a human rights activist who co-authored the report with Barnett Rubin, a member of the New York think tank Council on Foreign Relations, said she is bewildered by the delay in publishing her work. “It sends the wrong signals,” she said. “This is something Afghans wanted to see, and it’s really disappointing we couldn’t live up to that.”
The Boston Globe | By Declan Walsh, Globe Correspondent | June 16, 2006
KABUL, Afghanistan — A sensitive UN report that has been shelved for the past 18 months accuses leading Afghan politicians and officials of orchestrating massacres, torture, mass rape, and other war crimes in the country over 23 years of conflict.
The 220-page draft report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights details atrocities allegedly committed by communist, mujahideen, and Taliban fighters. The UN has repeatedly delayed publication of the report, which was commissioned by the world body and was originally scheduled for release in January 2005.
Human rights activists involved in producing it allege that the international body has been worried about identifying former warlords who are now in positions of power and who could upset Afghanistan’s fragile political balance. Among those identified in the report are an ethnic Uzbek warlord whom President Hamid Karzai appointed as an adviser and several former mujahideen commanders — linked to the deaths of thousands of civilians — who were elected last fall to the country’s new parliament.
“The UN has been intimidated. It is afraid to rock the boat because of these guys,” said Saman Zia-Zarifi of Human Rights Watch, who served on a committee that oversaw the report. “But the boat is taking on water, and they are going to pull it down.”
A UN spokesman in Kabul, Aleem Siddique, said the report had been presented to the Afghan government and was awaiting a “green light” for publication from Karzai.
Jawed Ludin, Karzai’s chief of staff, said the report had been received “a long time ago” but added that he was unaware that the UN was awaiting the president’s authorization before releasing it.
Much of the information in the report is not new, but it offers the first comprehensive survey of wartime atrocities during Afghanistan’s various conflicts between 1978 and 2001. The report, based on testimony collected by human rights groups and press accounts, carries the imprimatur of the United Nations, which activists say makes it an important source as rights groups seek justice for past crimes in Afghanistan.
The report, a draft copy of which was provided to the Globe by a Western diplomat, includes allegations about the activities of some of the most prominent personalities of Afghanistan’s past and present.
One is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a commander in the mujahideen struggle against Soviet occupation of the 1980s who became embroiled in factional fighting after the Soviets withdrew in the 1990s. The UN report quotes a former Sayyaf commander who testified that before a massacre of Shi’ite civilians in west Kabul in February 1993, Sayyaf told his officers “Don’t leave anyone alive — kill all of them.”
The report states that at least several hundred civilians, most of them ethnic Hazaras, were rounded up and executed. According to the report, “One eyewitness reported . . . he had seen an elderly Shi’a man nailed to a tree and then shot in the head.”
Sayyaf was elected to the new parliament in 2004 and now leads a pro-Karzai faction there.
The report states that the forces of ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum captured hundreds of Taliban fighters as they fled US bombing in 2001. At least 200 subsequently died in overcrowded containers and were buried in mass graves. A full investigation has never taken place, the report says.
Dostum, who ran unsuccessfully in the 1993 presidential election, was appointed military chief of staff under Karzai last year.
Sayed Muhammad Gulabzoi was minister of the interior during the puppet communist regime of the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. According to the report, he oversaw the Afghan intelligence service notorious for torturing and killing civilians. Gulabzoi is now a member of parliament for the southern province of Khost.
The UN report alleges Taliban war crimes as well. A Taliban commander who participated in the massacre of 240 civilians in northern Afghanistan in 1997 described how Taliban executioners stood one meter from their victims to save bullets. Soon their beards were covered in blood, he said.
The report also touches on notorious fighters who have not joined the new government, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a mujahideen commander who battled the Soviets and then other Afghans in the ensuing civil war. Forces loyal to Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister, fired thousands of rockets on Kabul in the 1990s, “reportedly killing tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom were civilians,” the report says.
Hekmatyar is now fighting US forces in southeastern Afghanistan, where a surge in violence in the past month prompted US-led forces to launch a large-scale offensive yesterday.
But for Afghans, one of the most difficult sections of the report details atrocities allegedly committed by forces loyal to Ahmed Shah Masood, Afghanistan’s national hero, during the battle for Kabul in the early 1990s. It accuses his troops of indiscriminately shelling civilians and of torturing prisoners.
Masood, who commanded Northern Alliance fighters who eventually helped to oust the Taliban, was assassinated by suspected Al Qaeda operatives on Sept. 9, 2001.
Patricia Gossman, a human rights activist based in Amman, Jordan, who coauthored the report with New York University academic Barnett R. Rubin, said it was “not a bill of indictment,” but rather a “truth-telling” exercise designed to help Afghans decide how to confront their past. “It is a beginning and not an end point,” she said.
Gossman said that delays in publishing the report “send the wrong signals. This is something Afghans wanted to see.”
The importance of accountability for past crimes has been underscored in recent weeks.
Several European diplomats representing three different missions in Kabul said they were angered that days after riots rocked Kabul last month, Karzai appointed 13 former commanders with alleged links to drug smuggling, organized crime, or illegal militias to senior police positions across the country. The diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the president had added the 13 names at the last minute to a list of 86 new officers selected by a board of US, German, and Afghan officials.
The most controversial appointment was that of the new Kabul police chief, Amanullah Guzar, who Western diplomats believe is linked to land theft and extortion in his home territory on the Shomali plains north of Kabul.
Speaking recently at police headquarters, Guzar staunchly defended his reputation. “President Karzai appointed me and he knows all about my past. Let anyone with allegations bring them to court,” he said.
Ludin, Karzai’s chief of staff, said the government made the additional appointments to ensure ethnic balance and greater representation of former jihadi groups.
The dispute is indicative of the dilemma facing the Karzai government: how to balance the demands of international donors who seek accountability for past crimes and merit-based appointments for government jobs with the ethnic or political demands of powerful interest groups such as the former mujahideen fighters.
Allentown Morning Call, PA (USA) / June 16, 2006
”The result of these decades of destruction is that everything in the country has suffered — its physical infrastructure, its human resources, and its legal system.”
This one of an occasional series of articles by former Lehigh County Judge Thomas A. Wallitsch about helping Afghanistan establish a judicial system. The articles will run on Fridays.
In many of the judges’ offices in Afghanistan, the Koran and a whip are predominantly displayed; a copy of the country’s new constitution usually sits close by. That symbolizes so well the dichotomy between the Western-style secular laws recently passed and the Islamic laws which have governed this country since its inception.
Shortly after I arrived here as senior judicial adviser to USAID’s Afghanistan Rule of Law Project, the case of Abdul Rehman hit the newspapers around the world. As a convert to Christianity, Mr. Rehman faced a sentence of death for apostasy, in his case, renouncing Islam. The case was was dismissed on a technicality, but it focused the world’s attention on the challenges for the justice system in Afghanistan.
These challenges stem, in large part, from the turbulent history of this land, especially the last 30 years during which the country has been governed by ”rule of the gun” rather than by rule of law. Afghanistan has a rich history going back thousands of years. In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani unified the Pashtun tribes and founded Afghanistan. The country served as a buffer between the British and Russian empires until it won its independence from British control in 1919. Afghanistan was a kingdom ruled by Zahir Shah until he was overthrown by his cousin, Mohammad Daoud, in 1973.
Being an egalitarian, Daoud declared Afghanistan a republic. Of course, he then declared himself president. He relied upon the support of leftists to consolidate his power but, later in his rule, he sought to remove them from power, prompting a communist coup, supported by the Soviet Union in 1978. A year and a half later, after a succession of coups and executions, the Soviet Army swept into Afghanistan to shore up the communist movement and installed a puppet leader acceptable to Moscow. As the Soviets attempted to solidify their control, groups of Afghan Islamic fighters, known as mujahedeen, fought them savagely; millions of Red Army soldiers and Afghans lost their lives.
After nearly 10 years, the Soviet army withdrew in 1992 and the mujahedeen swept into Kabul. However, they were unable to agree upon how to share power and a civil war occurred. About one-half of Kabul was leveled by the fighting between factions and tens of thousands died. By 1996, the Taliban, a hard-line Pakistani-sponsored movement, had seized Kabul and ended the civil war and anarchy. Areas of resistance, however, remained, including the Northern Alliance strongholds of the north.
The Taliban imposed its own brand of society on Afghanistan, including an extreme religious doctrine that left no room for dissent or secular thinking. Following 9/11, the United States began military action against the Taliban for sheltering Osama bin Laden, and within a short time, and with the help of the Northern Alliance, toppled this oppressive government. In late 2001, a conference held in Bonn, Germany, established a process for political reconstruction that included the adoption of a new constitution and a presidential election in 2004, and a National Assembly election in 2005.
The result of these decades of destruction is that everything in the country has suffered — its physical infrastructure, its human resources, and its legal system. There are 1,400 judges, more than 3,000 prosecutors, and thousands of court personnel throughout the country. However, these statistics belie a legal system that is barely functioning. Court management is archaic, to say the least. Most judicial decisions are made by judges with insufficient education and training. Written law is not applied, or even widely known, including by judges and lawyers.
Although there is a constitutional right to counsel in all criminal cases, there are very few defense lawyers, and corruption is so rampant that Afghans routinely forgo using the formal court setting in favor of an informal justice system. It is within this background that the task of building a rule of law in Afghanistan has begun.
Former Lehigh County Judge Thomas Wallitsch is a senior judicial adviser in the Afghanistan Rule of Law Project of the U.S. Agency for International Development. He is a partner in the local firm Tallman, Hudders & Sorrentino.
Blocked budgets in Kabul starve western city of the funding needed to keep architecture treasures standing.
Institute for War and Peace Reporting (UK)
By Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Afzali in Herat (ARR No. 219, 12-Jun-06)
The ornate blue tiles of Mullah-ye-Kalan, a Muslim shrine in the western province of Herat, are lit up by sunshine. But the only reason the light comes flooding in is that the roof of this historic building has fallen in.
Mullah-ye-Kalan is a 16th century “khanaqa”, a centre for the mystical Sufi strand of Islam, and is only one of three historic buildings in Ziaret Gah, 15 kilometres south of Herat. But the two 600-year-old mosques and the khanaqa have all suffered damage during the mujahedin war with the Soviet military in the Eighties, and the internecine strife between Afghan factions that followed.
In Ziarat Gah – a village whose very name means “place of pilgrimage” – people value the buildings for their religious as well as historical associations, and local residents have managed to carry out some repairs to the Gunbad mosque by themselves. But the walls of the other mosque, Chehel Setun, remain in a state of partial collapse, and officials at Herat region’s department for the preservation of historic monuments warn that the khanaqa will fall down altogether if nothing is done to repair it soon.
Ayamuddin Ajmal, acting head of the department, said many other historical monuments across Herat region were under threat because his office was too strapped for cash to carry out renovations.
The preservation department used to receive an allocation from the customs revenue the province earns as Afghanistan’s main gateway to Iran. But this funding source had dried up, and Ajmal said the Afghan government should realise the consequences of this before it was too late.
“Our department used to get two per cent of the income of the Herat customs department, but they stopped giving us that amount last year,” he said.
Wali Shah Bahra, head of the provincial office of the information, culture and youth ministry whose remit includes historic buildings, said that apart from the three buildings in Ziarat Gah, there were several even older buildings in Herat province dating back 900 years to the Ghaznavid dynasty which are close to collapse.
“Although we have put these matters to the [central] information ministry and several other organisations, they have not paid any attention to these problems yet,” he said. “If the situation continues like this, many historical monuments will be destroyed.”
In Kabul, the deputy information, culture and youth minister Omar Sultan confirmed that funding was currently unavailable. “There is no money to spend on preserving historical monuments as the Afghan development and ordinary budget has still not passed by the parliament,” he told IWPR by telephone.
Sultan said his ministry, working with the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO, planned to repair 20 historical monuments across Afghanistan. UNESCO has already carried out some work to stabilise the most precariously leaning minaret in a group of five dating from the early 15th century. But with 200 historic buildings recorded in Herat province alone, there is much to be done.
Some Afghans feel a personal sense of responsibility to preserve the past in the face of what they regard as official neglect.
Abdul Salam Noori, a teacher at the Ustad Kamaluddin Behzad school in Herat, said it was the responsibility of both government and people to look after the old buildings that embody their identity as a nation.
As an example, Noori recalled how he notified the regional preservation department of the imminent collapse of the Bridge of Malan, which is many centuries old and still serves the practical purpose of connecting the Anjil and Guzra districts with Herat city.
“When I didn’t get any response from the department, I put the matter to a few journalists,” he said. “After a few days, some organisations took steps to prevent the bridge from falling down.” The organisations that Noori’s intervention helped bring to the bridge’s rescue were the United Nations Office for Project Services, the Afghan ministry of public Works and a local construction company called Huma.
Apart from general decay, Afghanistan’s heritage has suffered greatly from years of war, most but not all of it recent.
Cultural vandalism is nothing new for Herat. Bahauddin Baha, a local archaeologist and researcher on the region’s architectural heritage, recalled how the British army deliberately destroyed most of Herat’s finest mosque complex in 1885, to gain a tactical advantage against a Russian attack that never came.
The devastated buildings dated from the city’s cultural renaissance in the 15th century, when there was an unparalleled flowering of architecture and literature under a succession of Timurid rulers.
“These buildings were deliberately destroyed on the orders of the British who feared the Russians would use them as strongholds,” he said.
Of the nine giant minarets that survived the destruction in 1885, four have subsequently fallen down because of earthquakes and long-term neglect.
At the preservation department, Ajmal is still optimistic that one day, what is left of Herat’s heritage may provide for its own upkeep through tourist revenues.
“Before the civil wars, we used to make money from the historic monuments. Tourists would come to the province and the government earned money from them, income which covered the expenses of keeping up the monuments,” he said.
As well as the minarets, Ajmal said the top earners used to be Herat’s great Jami mosque, dating from 1200, the old town area, the Qala-e-Ikhtiaruddin citadel, and Guzargah-e-Sharif, site of the tomb of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, a famous Sufi thinker from the 11th century.
According to Ajmal, “If the way is opened for tourists to come to the province again, a major part of our problems with preserving the historical monuments will be solved.”
Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Afzali are IWPR contributors in Herat.