Archive for August 2007
BBC News / Friday, 31 August 2007
Afghan refugees in Pakistan’s largest camp have been given another six months to relocate, local media reports say.
The Jalozai camp, near Peshawar city, was planned for closure on Friday but the refugees have been given an unofficial extension, say journalists.
The UN refugee agency earlier appealed to Pakistan to postpone the closure, warning that “tens of thousands” of Afghans were being pressured to leave.
Pakistan’s government has not yet commented on the reports.
But it has said that the “voluntary repatriation” of the refugees will continue and that the camp in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) must be closed.
Local journalists say the refugees will have to re-locate to three designated camps in six months.
Till a few months ago, there were 109,000 refugees in Jalozai. Of these, 20,000 have left for Afghanistan and some have moved to other camps.
But most of the remaining are reluctant to leave.
The Pakistani government says that some of the camps – mostly inhabited by people who have fled decades of fighting in Afghanistan – have been used as a safe haven by Taleban and al-Qaeda militants.
But the UN said that refugees in Jalozai had been given a “very short deadline” to leave, and that it would be “impossible to manage a safe, voluntary and sustainable repatriation operation”.
The agency has warned that camp closures late in the year result in “secondary internal displacement” with returnee families living in inadequate and makeshift shelters over the winter.
The UN says that the closure of Jalozai should be suspended until 2008 to permit a more “dignified and controlled conclusion to the process”.
Correspondents say many refugees do not want to return because they do not have land, shelter or jobs in Afghanistan.
Some have lived all their lives in Pakistan.
By Simon Gardner
Friday, August 31, 2007
KABUL (Reuters) – Nineteen newly-freed South Korean hostages headed home on Friday after a six-week kidnap drama in Afghanistan following a deal with Taliban insurgents critics fear could spur more abductions.
The South Korean Christian volunteers, part of a group of 23 missionaries kidnapped in southeast Afghanistan in mid-July, arrived in Dubai on a chartered United Nations plane from Kabul, airport and security officials in Dubai said.
They are expected to spend the night in the Gulf Arab city before leaving on Saturday for Seoul.
The Taliban killed two male hostages, while two women released earlier as a goodwill gesture have already flown home. The insurgents however have vowed to abduct more foreigners.
Some of the released hostages told a small pool of South Korean media in Kabul on Friday they lived in constant fear for their lives and were split up into small groups and shuttled around the Afghan countryside to avoid detection.
One Taliban member would tend to a farm by day and then grab a rifle and stand guard over hostages at night.
“At the beginning I had writing supplies so I kept a diary, but the Taliban kept searching us and took them away,” Seo Myung-hwa, 27, was quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency as saying.
“Fortunately I was wearing white trousers, so I rolled them up and started writing on July 24.” Another freed hostage apologized to South Korea’s government and people for causing trouble.
Foreign media was barred from talking to the hostages in line with South Korean government policy.
The last batch of hostages released to the Red Cross outside Ghazni town late on Thursday looked pale, the women covering their faces with scarves. However, Afghan officials said they were in good health.
The kidnapping was the largest in the resurgent Taliban campaign against foreign forces since U.S.-led troops ousted the Islamists from power in 2001.
The Taliban decided to free the hostages after Seoul agreed to pull all its nationals out of the central Asian country.
Some Afghan officials say South Korea also agreed to pay a ransom during negotiations with the Taliban, which one foreign diplomat said started out as a demand for $20 million, an allegation the Korean government has denied.
Critics say negotiating with the Taliban sets a dangerous precedent and could spur more abductions.
In Washington, the United States welcomed the release of the hostages but strongly condemned the Taliban for taking them in the first place.
“We hope that this firmly brings to a conclusion this incident and that there will not be similar ones that occur in the future,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
In New York overnight, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “deeply concerned for the safety and welfare of the other nationals who are being held against their will in Afghanistan,” including a German and four Afghans, a spokeswoman said.
Taliban fighters seized two German aid workers and five Afghan colleagues in a separate incident in mid-July in Wardak province, southwest of the capital Kabul. They killed one German. One Afghan escaped.
“To those Taliban who were responsible for this crime, I say shame on you,” Tom Koenigs, Ban’s special representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement. “What honor is there in kidnapping and mistreating women, and so many of them?”
South Korea had already decided before the crisis to pull its 200 engineers and medical staff out of Afghanistan by the end of this year. Since the hostages were taken, it has banned its nationals from traveling there.
The freed hostages are expected to face a cool reception at home. Some South Koreans say the group are partly to blame after they ignored their government’s own advice not to travel to areas where the Taliban are active.
(Additional by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Jack Kim in Seoul and Evelyn Leopold at the United Nations and Dina al-Wakeel in Dubai)
BBC News / Thursday, 30 August 2007
Pakistan is closing its large Jalozai camp, which has housed thousands of Afghan refugees for nearly three decades. Many refugees returning home from Pakistan and Iran have had a very difficult time, especially those who are poor.
But there are brighter spots, too – found for example at a settlement for returned ethnic Turkmen families about 20 minutes’ drive from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, as the BBC’s Charles Haviland discovered on a recent visit to Balkh province.
Under a canopy between two squat houses, men in checked turbans sit on mats, in vigorous conversation with visiting officers from the UN refugee agency.
These are the baking plains of northern Afghanistan which stretch for hundreds of miles into the interior of Central Asia. Outside the shade, the surroundings look bleached white. On the edge of it, boys and girls hover, fascinated. Some of the men hold children – women are nowhere to be seen.
This is a “shura”, a gathering like a traditional village council. But this shura is new: men who years ago fled to Pakistan from different villages in this region, now brought together in this settlement for returned refugees.
Village, tribal and religious leaders tell the visitors about the latest needs.
At the moment the 100-odd families here share just one pump which gives salty water. The government brings them a big tankerful each week, but it’s not enough. They say lack of water is stopping families moving here, and even those who have bought plots of government land here for $180 are deterred.
They would like a clinic and a school.
They would appreciate financial help to back up their trades like carpet-weaving, welding and carpentry.
Visiting UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) programme officer Alex Mundt can give some reassurance.
“They will soon be prospecting for fresh water, and they are reasonably sure of finding it,” he said.
So enthusiastic is the UN that it now wants to set up a system of small loans for carpet-weavers.
A new village is being born here.
There are 53 houses built of mud and brick in the traditional style with much of the material supplied by the UNHCR. Each has a small, neat toilet house.
Several dozen other families who did not qualify for UNHCR help are in any case building their own houses, some of which are going up as we visit. One man who works at a nearby industrial park has hired other returned refugees as builders.
At one end of the settlement a mosque is being built. A man returns home with his herd of sheep and a donkey, while the sound of cars sweeps across the barren soil from the nearby highway.
Father-of-three Khodai Berdy showed me around the house he and his family took six months to build.
Like the others here, they came back to Afghanistan three or four years ago. They couldn’t return to their home village, not far away, because someone else had taken his land.
But Khodai’s situation has now eased. His was one of the families that received UNHCR help, and they built it with their own hands.
“At first when we came here, at least three people in this place got ill because of the heat, and died,” he says. “Now we’ve built this house. It’s very good. It’s resistant to water and the rays of the sun. We feel very good now – the only problem is water.”
Khodai is relieved not to be living in a tent any more, or having to stay with relatives.
One of his two main rooms is devoted to carpet-making – a trade he pursues alongside keeping a small shop.
Nearby, Doord Bibi works with her grand-daughters. She, too, is making carpets – it is a craft traditional to the Turkmen ethnic community from which they come.
A tiny, spirited widow of 70, Doord has none of the shyness many Afghan women have.
The work is fiddly and she says her eyes and hands have suffered. But she’s been weaving carpets since her teens and is positive.
“I get designs from traders and businessmen,” she says. “Those are what I weave. The work is very good – we get good earnings for it.”
What’s clear is that there is a spirit of self-help here. That heartens the UNHCR’s Alex Mundt, who would like to see the place diversifying.
“The government here in Balkh had a real interest in regenerating the carpet weaving industry here,” he says.
“We would like to take advantage of that interest and actually start to build out, so that you don’t have 1,000 carpet-weaving families but you have landless families who have other skills to contribute.
“So maybe some teachers will come here, some health workers, so you’d form a real community, just as you find in any village.”
At the settlement’s single pump, children laugh and play as men pump the water in the evening light.
This community keenly hopes to find a deep source of fresh water nearby. Providing that happens, with plenty of land to expand, the several dozen families here anticipate an influx of new neighbours – and the emergence of a new and viable settlement of people who, whatever their difficulties, are glad to be home again.
“I lived in Pakistan 15 years,” says Doord Bibi. “I came back four years ago. And I love it here because it is my home country.”
KANDAHAR, 30 August 2007 (IRIN) – Less than a month after three deminers were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan, the Mine Detection Dog Centre (MDC) has announced it will not resume demining activities in the volatile Kandahar and Helmand provinces unless security is guaranteed.
“All parties to the conflict, including the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, should ensure that our deminers are not deliberately targeted,” Mohammad Shohab Hakimi, the director of MDC, said in Kabul on 29 August.
According to Hakimi, 80 percent of MDC’s demining activities have been suspended in Kandahar and Helmand provinces as a result of security concerns.
MDC says it now has a limited presence in the provincial city of Kandahar, where it raises public awareness of landmine issues.
Mine clearance agencies operating in Afghanistan say there are no particular security measures in place to protect their staff from hazards.
“Deminers are neutral and work solely according to humanitarian principles,” Haider Reza, the head of the UN Mine Action Center for Afghanistan (UNMACA), told IRIN.
Deminers’ impartiality breached
Deminers’ impartiality, however, has repeatedly been breached in Afghanistan’s “diminishing humanitarian space”. In the last 12 months alone, 19 mine clearers have been killed in Afghanistan, UNMACA said.
Demining organisations also suffered material losses of US$500,000 in two separate attacks on their offices in Kandahar Province in 2007.
For MDC it is still unclear who murdered its staff in Kandahar’s Panjwai District on 5 August.
“Whoever might have killed our deminers, we call both on the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban to bring them to justice,” Hakimi said.
Officials in Kandahar Province, however, blame Taliban insurgents for the killing of deminers and other humanitarian aid workers.
“We will spare no effort in bringing the Taliban criminals who killed MDC’s mine clearers to trial,” said Saeed Aqa Saqib, Kandahar’s top police officer. No Taliban representative was available to clarify the insurgents’ position on deminers.
Over 50 Afghans killed or injured every month
The news about the suspension of MDC’s demining operations in Kandahar Province has sparked concerns among rural communities where anti-personnel mines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) affect peoples’ daily lives.
Since the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Army in 1979 hundreds of thousands of mines have been planted throughout the country. The UN demining programme says people in over 2,020 communities across Afghanistan still face the threat of landmines and UXOs.
Haji Agha Lalai, an elder in Panjwai District, said people in his village were finding it increasingly risky to travel within their locality. “Some people are even not cultivating their land because of landmine risks,” Lalai told IRIN.
In the last 18 years over 150,000 Afghans have been killed or disabled by anti-personnel landmines, according to demining organisations. Mine action agencies say every month landmines kill or injure over 50 Afghans.
“As long as mines exist in our country we will continue to see people losing parts of their body simply by treading on a landmine,” said Dost Mohammad Arghistani, head of Kandahar’s department for disabled and martyrs affairs.
Demining agencies have promised to clear Afghanistan of all landmines by 2013. However, reports from conflict-affected areas in southern Afghanistan indicate that Taliban insurgents and their associates have recently planted new landmines.
Wed. Aug. 29 2007 10:39 PM ET
There is little evidence that Canadian aid in Afghanistan is helping those who desperately need it, including malnourished children in Kandahar’s hospital, according to a report by The Senlis Council.
The international policy think tank was invited to Afghanistan this month by the Canadian International Development Agency, to see first-hand how Ottawa was directing its funds.
But Senlis president Norine MacDonald, also a Canadian lawyer, said it was difficult to trace spending as outlined by the agency.
The Council visited the Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, but found little evidence Canadian aid money had been used as CIDA claimed.
The group found no trace of the Maternal Waiting Home project, listed by CIDA as one of the agency’s projects.
Meanwhile, the ward for starving children “not only still exists but is horribly over-crowded,” according to the report. The group found 28 children sharing eight beds in one of the ward’s rooms.
The lack of beds was compounded by a shortage of basic medical equipment, while the staff were “repeatedly asking for more equipment, more training, and more assistance.”
The hospital also has no air-conditioning, heating or ventilation.
“The suffering of the Afghan people in Kandahar not only neglects our humanitarian obligations to our allies in Kandahar, it creates a climate that fuels the insurgency and undermines the already dangerous work of Canada’s military in this hostile war zone,” the report says.
However, Senlis did say that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has put a pharmacy in the hospital, which gives free medicine to patients.
The ICRC has also paid for a surgeon to develop a triage system for incoming patients, and will fund an obstetrician to help train staff.
Outside the hospital, Senlis members travelled to the construction site of a new bridge funded by CIDA. But workers told the group they had no accident or medical insurance, and footage of the visit appears to show children working on the bridge.
Senlis also raised concerns about the distribution of food to starving people in Kandahar.
According to CIDA, the agency has given out thousands of tons of food, but Senlis said it was “not able to obtain information on any specific food distribution points so as to validate this claim.”
Canada’s new development minister, Bev Oda, called the findings overly simplistic. But in an interview with CTV News, she didn’t dismiss the report.
“I can’t say whether they’re right or they’re wrong,” she said.
The Canadian government is giving more than $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan over the next 10 years for security, governance and rebuilding.
A CIDA official, speaking on background, told CP the agency has given $3 million to the ICRC for improvements to Mirwais Hospital, and has committed a further $10 million.
The same official added that more than 200,000 Afghans have received food aid since December, according to the World Food Program.
Carrie Vandewint, a policy adviser for World Vision Canada, said Senlis focused on isolated cases of extreme need, while ignoring success stories.
Senlis gets financial supported from 12 European foundations, and has made headlines in the past for its criticism of a U.S.-led push to destroy Afghanistan’s poppy crops to stop the country’s heroin trade. The group said a better solution would be to cultivate the flowers for medicinal-use morphine tablets.
That suggestion prompted reports Sensil was backed by the pharmaceutical industry, which the group has denied.
With a report by CTV’s Graham Richardson in Ottawa
Religious council bans lavish wedding parties in Balkh to prevent locals bankrupting themselves.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif (ARR No. 264, 28-Aug-07)
One of the first cultural icons to reappear in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taleban were Wedding Halls – usually gaudy glass palaces that serve as the venue for what is, arguably, the most important event in an Afghan’s life.
Weddings, and the attendant parties, form the backbone of the Afghan social scene. But the cost of the dinner, music, clothing and other accoutrements of the celebration have driven many a young man to desperation.
Now, the Ulema, or religious council, in the northern province of Balkh have come up with a solution: They have banned most the expensive festivities altogether, provoking hope and outrage in almost equal measure.
In mid-July, the Ulema Shura of Balkh issued a fatwa: except for one engagement party, they ruled, all celebrations should be held in the home, to cut down on expenses.
“It’s like the Taleban,” grumbled Jamshid, 24, a resident of Mazar-e-Sharif. “We have only one wedding in our life. It’s our dream, and people should be able to spend whatever they want. It’s not up to the government to ban it.”
But the Balkh government has supported the Ulema’s decision, and is taking steps to enforce it. Copies of the fatwa have been sent to all hotels, and nailed in a prominent place on their walls.
“This decision is for the good of society, and we support it,” said Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh. “People are giving parties like competitions, just trying to show that they can do it. But it disrupts the entire social system. People have lost their way, and we are trying to bring back a little order.”
This is not a Taleban-style attempt to prevent parties, he insisted.
“People can make a wedding for a few hundred dollars in their homes,” he said. “The current situation is a disaster. We’re just trying to prevent that.”
According to the Balkh authorities, two commissions have been formed to police the ban – one will promote public awareness of the measure, and the reasons for it; the other will monitor wedding halls to make sure the new rules are being observed.
“If anyone violates the ban, we will not say anything to them, but we will severely punish the hotel owners,” said the governor.
In Afghanistan, weddings are big business. In addition to paying the girl’s father a sum of money as a bride price, most Afghan grooms have to come up with 5,000-10,000 US dollars for a series of parties, inviting hundreds of friends and relatives to eat, dance, and celebrate the young couple’s good fortune. In a country where the average wage does not top 100 dollars per month, the cost of getting married has kept many a young man single well into his 30s.
“I have an income of 200 afghani (about four dollars) a day,” complained Mohammad Latif, a bicycle repairman in Mazar-e-Sharif. Now 35 years old, he has been engaged for six years, trying to save enough money for the necessary celebrations. “How am I supposed to find 10,000 dollars for a party? The Ulema did a good job. When I heard about it, I thought, ‘Now I can finally bring my wife home.’”
According to Mullah Mohammad Sadiq Sadiqatyar, pretentious parties are against the Muslim religion.
“Islam says that overspending is bad,” he told IWPR. “If you want to get married, it is enough to have one engagement party. Anything else is banned. These parties have caused disruption within the society. We see many men who are wifeless, and many girls without husbands. This is because a wedding party in a hotel will cost at least 5,000 dollars.”
Weddings have become a competition, he added. People who cannot afford the party have to borrow money, saddling themselves with debt they may be paying off for decades.
“It is our responsibility to make people aware of Islamic rules,” said Sadiqatyar. “It is also prohibited for male singers to perform at women’s parties. They should not be present to watch women dancing.”
In Afghanistan, the sexes are strictly divided during wedding celebrations. Men and women cannot dance together in public.
This is good news for the few female musicians in Balkh.
“It is time to given women some opportunities,” said Arizo, a female guitarist. “If girls are allowed to sing at women’s parties, it will be a motivating factor for women’s music. Many girls may become musicians. But if men continue to dominate the music scene, there will be little chance for us to do anything.”
Male musicians and hotel owners were uniformly glum about the fatwa.
“We had to go to Pakistan during Taleban times because music was banned,” said the head of one male band, who did not want to be named. “Now we might have to leave the country again. Since the fatwa, no one invites us to their parties any more. And even if we do get some work, they only pay us for the men’s party, we cannot play for the women. I have to make a living, for heaven’s sake.”
Bismillah, the owner of one wedding hall, was similarly upset.
“This is our peak season,” he complained. “Everyone wants to get married before Ramazan. But since this fatwa our business is down by 50 per cent, and I think it will just get worse. What kind of country is this?”
According to Bismillah, the government should ignore the Ulema’s decision.
“Otherwise the mullahs will just issue decisions on whatever they want,” he said.
Lawyer and politician Kabir Ranjbar welcomed the fatwa, with reservations.
“From my perspective, this is a good decision, and it is for the good of the people. Unofortunately, it is illegal,” he said
The fatwa violates Afghanistan’s constitution, and disrupts the normal legislative mechanism, he added.
“When the government wants to make a law, it has to propose it to the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House of Parliament),” he said. “Only after the legislature has approved it can the government implement the law.”
The Ulema’s decision was arbitrary, he added, and did not correspond to Afghanistan’s rule of law.
“The constitution guarantees freedom to Afghanistan’s citizens,” he said. “No one has the right to deprive people of these freedoms.”
But the Ulema is not overly concerned with the constitution. According to Sadiqatyar, they are answering to a Higher Power.
“The rules of God are above everything,” he said. “We respect the law. But the fatwa we issued is according to the dictates of God and the sayings of the Prophet. And this is higher than even the constitution.”
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif
By Breffni O’Rourke
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
August 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) — The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that the latest opium poppy crop in Afghanistan will yield an amazing 8,200 tons of opium — an increase of some 2,000 tons on the previous crop.
The country’s surging drug output appears not to be destined for the markets of Europe and North America, but instead for Afghanistan’s neighbors. Observers warn that the trend threatens to pull neighboring states into the vicious cycle of drug dependence.
Most of the illegal opiates comes from southern and eastern Afghanistan, particularly Helmand Province, where the Taliban militia insurgency is at its worst.
UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa notes that the Taliban has reversed its religious edict of July 2000, which banned poppy cultivation, and is now profiting from the drug trade.
Presenting the agency’s report on the Afghan drug industry, Costa said in Kabul on August 27 that “what used to be considered a sin is now being encouraged.”
“When there is violence, guerrillas, insurgency — all of that creates a climate of lawlessness. The rule of law breaks down and criminal activity — in the case of Afghanistan, opium cultivation…tends to flourish,” Costa said.
Drugs Destined For Central Asia
Afghanistan is now the source of some 95 percent of the opiates reaching the big world markets, meaning mainly North America and Europe.
But UNODC researcher Tomas Pietschmann told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that the rise in production has not been matched by a parallel increase in demand on the major world markets.
Pietschmann points out that the market for opiates in Western Europe is stable, or even declining, and is similarly stagnant in North America. So where is this massive new supply of opium going?
Experts don’t rule out that growers, distributors, and dealers are stockpiling some of the surplus for future sale. After all, opium can be stored for 20 or 30 years without losing its potency.
But that wouldn’t account for all the drug supplies. Pietschmann says Afghanistan’s neighbors may account for increasing consumption, partly because the large-scale transit of drugs across their territories has already brought increased levels of local addiction:
In Uzbekistan, Pietschmann says, about 0.8 percent of the population aged between 15 and 64 use opiates — about twice the global average, which is 0.4 percent. Kyrgyzstan’s level of opiate use is the same, and Kazakhstan’s stands at 1 percent.
Opiate usage is also seen to be rising in Iran and China, and lately there are indications that the same is true of India. But hardest-hit of all is Russia, where the UNODC estimates that up to 2 percent of the population uses opiates.
Pietschmann estimates that the real increase in consumption this year lies to the south, toward Pakistan and Iran. The increase is less dramatic “in the countries north of Afghanistan, simply because production has declined in northern Afghanistan,” he said.
Farid Tukhbatullin, head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, described the increased opiate production as “bad news” for everyone — particularly for Turkmenistan, because it has a very long border with Afghanistan.
In remarks to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Tukhbatullin noted that Turkmenistan is one of the transit states for Afghan drugs, both to the CIS countries and onward to Europe.
(RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service correspondent Farruh Yusupov and Guvanch Gervaev of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)