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Archive for January 2007

Circus comes to Afghan schoolchildren

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January 28, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — In a fantastical little school in Kabul, girls and boys leave behind their impoverished, war-torn world and enter a utopia where they laugh and sing, and learn how to juggle and ride unicycles.

More than 100 children mix regular schooling with art and acrobatics at the Mobile Mini Circus for Children, set up by a Danish performance artist to bring fun and color to the lives of youngsters more used to poverty and violence.

“Nothing negative should come here. We try to cut off the misery,” said David Mason, 42, who moved to Kabul and founded the school in June 2002, just months after the fall of the Taliban. “The circus makes children enjoy life. It shocks them, moves them and makes them see how life can be.”

The school’s bright-colored buildings are a contrast to the drab, brown mudbrick of the Afghan capital, where menacing armored convoys travel the streets, and women and children often beg to survive.

Visitors with guns — including foreign soldiers and Afghans with armed bodyguards — are strictly forbidden, as are their donations. The circus school, which provides free classes, survives on money raised from its performances and donations from 15 countries.

Seventeen Afghan teachers give instruction in subjects like math, English and religion as well as theater, painting and circus tricks. There are about 120 permanent students, ages 4 to 13, but the number swells to 350 when state schools close for winter holiday.

One schoolroom — a circular glass greenhouse — is filled with a gaggle of girls, juggling tennis balls and bowling pins. In another room, boys stand on their hands and do acrobatic flips. Children sing to the accompaniment of teachers playing the harmonium and tabla drums.

Habeda, an 11-year-old girl, walks 3 miles from her home to attend the school with one of her three brothers. Although adult female performers still cause something of a stir in this conservative Islamic nation, she dreams of becoming a singer one day.

“I am learning music. I went to Germany, Denmark and Japan. I sang Afghan and Japanese songs there and everybody was clapping for me. I was very happy,” she said. “I want to show to the world the real face of Afghanistan. We have songs, we have theater, we have circus and we have Afghan national dance.”

Guest circus performers from France, Japan, Germany and the United States have held special workshops, and about 10 of the most talented students join the school’s circus, which has performed for tens of thousands of people during two-month tours of Japan and Europe.

“When a 7-year-old boy is on stage, and 2,000 people are clapping for him, it gives him what war and misery cannot take away from him,” Mason said.

In 2005, the school sent troupes of about a dozen boys and girls to spend two months in Germany and two months in Denmark, performing acrobatics, theater, music and Afghan national dance for children in schools and at cultural shows. Last year, a troupe toured Japan.

“I went to Japan and I performed acrobatics and theater for children,” said Mohammed Ansar, 8. “There were 5,000 children looking at me. I was surprised and happy. I want to go to as many countries as I can and show them what I have learned.”

Mohammed is learning acrobatics, acting and drawing.

“My father always tells me to learn more and more and be a good student of your school,” he said. “I want to participate in circus and make other children happy by doing acrobatic activities and showing them good theater.”

The school’s teachers and children also put on circus shows and do educational theater around Afghanistan, teaching other kids about land-mine awareness, malaria prevention and even the importance of brushing their teeth.

Afghanistan has a long tradition of theatrical storytelling, but the circus is an imported art form, previously seen only in visiting troupes from Russia and Tajikistan.

The fun side of learning also is new for most children in Afghanistan, where schooling is often by rote and more than half the country’s 12 million youngsters still don’t attend school, according to the aid group Oxfam.

That’s still a lot better than Taliban times when girls were forbidden from going to school at all, and children were banned from playing with marbles and kites. Even music was off limits.

Before coming to Kabul, Mason was traveling the world, teaching salsa and tango. After the Sept. 11 attacks led to a U.S. offensive against the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida camps, he changed his mission to help the underprivileged children of Afghanistan.

“For us, medicine is jumping and laughter, and education is balancing and juggling,” Mason said, smiling in his warm sunlit, bright yellow office.

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Written by afghandevnews

January 30, 2007 at 5:33 pm

Posted in Culture and Arts

Afghanistan Workers Union demands insurance

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Xinhua / January 29, 2007

Afghanistan Workers Union on Sunday called upon government and parliament to ensure their rights in the country’s constitution.

“We want to have enough salary, health insurance, life insurance, good pension and anything envisaged in the International Labor Law,” Mohammad Qasim Ahsas said at a gathering attended by more than 100 worker representatives.

Objecting the current law on work and workers, Ahsas said that the current rule on working class is biased and prepared in the absence of labors representatives.

He also called on the Wolesi Jirga or the Lower House of Afghanistan parliament not to pass the bill without consulting the workers.

Ahsas put the number of his union’s members at more than 200, 000 across the war-ravaged country saying representatives of three syndicates were attending today’s gathering.

“With 200,000 members, the National Union of Afghanistan Workers is the biggest labors syndicate in Afghanistan,” he told Xinhua.

Three more workers unions are also active in the country, he added but declined to give their names.

Afghanistan’s constitution allows social and political groups to have activities in the post-Taliban nation.

Speaking at the conference, a former Planning Minister and lawmaker Mohammad Ramazan Bashardost backed the workers demand and urged them to stage peaceful procession until the government meets their demand.

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January 30, 2007 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Development

AFGHANISTAN: Gul, 45: “I am still homeless”

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

KABUL, 29 Jan 2007 (IRIN/PLUSNEWS) – “We returned from neighbouring Pakistan in June 2002, after hearing that living conditions had improved and the government was providing proper shelter and plots of land for returnees, but unfortunately nothing has happened yet.

“We are still coping with our sixth winter in this one small room along with my nine children [two daughters and seven sons]. My husband [Towfan Jan], who was a labourer for Kabul municipality, died of a severe illness due to the cold weather in 2004.

“The room we are currently living in was originally a shop in a privately owned market. Last week, the owner of the market told us to evacuate it before March 2007. Now I don’t know what to do. where should I go with my small children?

“It is not only me. There are about 300 people, mainly returnees, who are living in such harsh conditions in these shops. We need urgent assistance … not more empty promises from the government.

“I not only need land for myself but I need construction materials too in order to build a house because we can’t afford them.

“My oldest son, who is 15, and two others are working in the city. Every day they are carrying people’s goods on their handcarts and earn 60 and sometimes 70 Afghanis [per day, almost US$1.50 ] which doesn’t meet our daily expenses.

“They [the children] can’t study at school because they have to work every day for our survival. I need 14kg of coal to heat our room, but I can’t afford this, because it costs 240 Afghanis [almost $5].

“I am very afraid my children will die due to the cold winter as I have only a few blankets for them.

“The government is giving land to those who have money or power and ignore the real poor and needy people.

“I will refuse to leave this place in March if I don’t get another place to live.” sm/sz/at/mw

[ENDS]

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January 30, 2007 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Refugees

Afghan reliance on opium is decreasing: U.S.

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By Louis Charbonneau
Tue Jan 30, 6:56 AM ET

BERLIN (Reuters) – Afghanistan may be the world’s number one producer of opium poppy, the key ingredient for heroin, but the importance it plays in the Afghan economy is shrinking, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday.

The United Nations estimated late last year that opium production had risen by as much as 50 percent in 2006 to supply over 90 percent of the world’s heroin.

“About a third of the economy was based on opium last year … but it’s going down,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for south and central Asian affairs Richard Boucher told reporters.

He gave no details about the speed of the decline.

He said such a trend proved there was more economic growth outside the business of opium poppy cultivation. However, he said more efforts were needed to develop economic alternatives to the opium poppy in Afghanistan.

Boucher and other U.S. government and military officials are in Berlin to meet allies about Afghan reconstruction.

Afghanistan’s Western allies say the drugs industry is a major factor fuelling a revival of the Taliban-led insurgency that made 2006 the bloodiest year since the hardline Islamist group was forced from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

General Karl Eikenberry, commander of the Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan, acknowledged that 2006 was the most violent year yet but was optimistic about prospects for 2007.

“It’s clear that the extremists, the Taliban … look at time as working against them,” he said. However, he added a warning: “There will be more violence.”

More than 4,000 people, including about 170 foreign soldiers, died in fighting in Afghanistan last year, a year that saw a dramatic jump in suicide bombings as the Taliban and other militants copy tactics from insurgents in Iraq.

Afghan officials have complained that not enough money and resources are being spent on reconstruction and development. Allied officials complain insurgency is hindering projects.

Washington last week announced $10.6 billion in new spending in Afghanistan for security and reconstruction and extended tours of duty which effectively increases its troop deployment by 2,500.

SPRING OFFENSIVE

Eikenberry said the U.S. military and its allies were preparing themselves for pre-emptive spring strikes against the Taliban, who he said traditionally launched their offensives in the spring once weather conditions were acceptable.

He added that NATO was in discussion with Germany about the use of half a dozen Tornado reconnaissance jets to be used to gather intelligence in the less stable parts of Afghanistan.

The German government is expected to decide next week on whether to send the Tornados to Afghanistan. The decision to consider sending Tornados came after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government resisted pressure to redeploy combat troops from the relatively stable north to the more dangerous south.

U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann denied that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had offered peace talks with a resurgent Taliban during comments he made in Kabul on Monday.

Karzai’s comments were misconstrued, Neumann said, adding that the Afghan leader was only referring to the reconciliation program aimed at rehabilitating willing Taliban fighters.

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January 30, 2007 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Drugs

US optimistic as Afghan reconstruction conference opens

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by Guy Jackson
Tue Jan 30, 7:02 AM ET

BERLIN (AFP) – A two-day international conference on the reconstruction of Afghanistan was to start in the wake of significant aid pledges from the United States and the European Union.

The meeting of international donors starting Tuesday, hosted by Germany as the current G8 president, is designed to build on a conference in London last year when the international community launched a five-year plan, or “compact” to coordinate financial and military support to Afghanistan.

Twelve months on, many regions are still ravaged by violence and the influence of the Western-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai extends into few provinces of the country.

The conference comes after Washington last week said it planned to spend an additional 10.6 billion dollars in Afghanistan over two years and keep more than 3,000 US troops there for an additional four months.

The EU followed that with a confirmation on Monday that it would contribute 600 million euros (777 million dollars) over the next four years, with special efforts being made to bolster the judiciary in order to fight corruption.

US officials said ahead of the conference they were optimistic that 2007 would be a “turning point” for the strife-torn country more than five years after a US-led coalition invaded the country and toppled the extremist Taliban government.

Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs, told journalists in Berlin: “I think we look at this year and say that we are better set than last year.”

The Afghan army and police was in better shape than last year, he said, but formidable problems remained in coordinating the military and civilian efforts.

Looking further ahead, Boucher said, “We want to see a more capable Afghan government, one capable of providing education, justice and safety and a government that has its reach throughout the country.”

The outgoing commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, admitted that the country was bracing for renewed insurgent attacks when the weather warmed up in the spring, especially in the south of the country.

But the general said NATO forces “have a much stronger presence in southern Afghanistan than they did before.”

“And the strength of the Afghan national forces compared with one year ago is significant.”

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, who was to attend the conference, denied on Monday that a military offensive to counter the insurgency would hamper reconstruction efforts.

“We believe that we need to stabilize the situation before terrorist groups can re-form,” he said.

“Yet on the other hand we have to continue our efforts for the rural populations, especially in the south.”

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January 30, 2007 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Aid

Rights Group Says Afghan Government Failing On Security

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Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

January 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) — Human Rights Watch says more than 1,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2006, and says the statistics show the Afghan government has not met its obligations to provide security.

In a press release today, the New York-based group said the Afghan government has failed to meet the security and development goals laid out in the Afghanistan Compact, an international agreement signed in London one year ago.

“Kabul and its international backers have made little progress in providing basic needs like security, food, electricity, water, and health care,” the group’s statement says.

Human Rights Watch called on the United States, the EU, and other donors to provide greater economic and military assistance to protect Afghans’ human rights.

Afghan and international delegates are due to meet in Berlin today and tomorrow to assess progress on the Afghanistan compact.

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January 30, 2007 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Human Rights

Afghan civilian deaths criticised

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BBC News / Tuesday, 30 January 2007

More than 1,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2006, according to a report released by the international monitoring group, Human Rights Watch.

It says that the majority of the dead were killed by the Taleban or other anti-government forces.

It says more than 4,400 Afghans died in “conflict-related violence”, twice as many as in 2005 and more than any year since the Taleban were ousted in 2001.

Meanwhile, a conference on Afghan reconstruction has begun in Germany.

The HRW report says that UN figures show that the conflict also displaced around 15,000 families – around 80,000 people – in southern Afghanistan.

“The international security effort in Afghanistan has been hobbled by insufficient resources and the failure to effectively address the security concerns of the Afghan population,” the report said.

“Taking into account Afghanistan’s population and size, the 40,000 Nato and US-led coalition forces in the country are a small fraction of the security forces deployed in other recent post-conflict areas like the Balkans and East Timor.

“Many are limited by national laws to safe areas in Afghanistan or cannot act to protect ordinary Afghans adequately.”

The report says that one year after pledging to improve human rights and basic security, the Afghan government and the international community have not fulfilled their objective.

“Kabul and its international backers have made little progress in providing basic needs like security, food, electricity, water and health care,” HRW’s Asia Research Director Sam Zarifi said.

He said that tens of thousands of Afghans do not feel safe enough to lead normal lives.

“Life is so dangerous that many Afghans are unable to go to school, get health care, or take goods to market,” he said.

Suicide bombings

Earlier this month, Nato officials said their biggest mistake in Afghanistan in 2006 was killing innocent civilians, and that efforts are underway to reduce the number.

In the latest violence, police say a suicide bomber drove into a bus carrying Afghan soldiers in the city of Herat, injuring at least five people.

Three soldiers and two civilians are reported to be among the injured.

Meanwhile a two-day international conference on the reconstruction of the country has begun in Germany following significant aid pledges from the US and the European Union (EU).

The meeting of international donors – hosted by Germany as the current G8 president – is being held as a follow-up to a conference in London last year when the international community launched a five-year plan, or “compact” to coordinate financial and military support.

But correspondents say that one year later, many regions of the country are still ravaged by violence, and President Karzai remains unable to enforce his authority in many areas.

Last week the US said that it planned to spend an additional $10.6bn in Afghanistan over two years and keep more than 3,000 US troops there for an additional four months.

The EU followed that by promising to contribute $777m over the next four years, with special efforts to strengthen the judiciary and fight corruption.

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January 30, 2007 at 5:30 pm

Posted in Human Rights