Where the good die all too often
Tribune correspondent Kim Barker experiences firsthand Afghanistan’s lawless spiral of terror and corruption: Another person killed, like too many before, working to better his country
By Kim Barker | Tribune correspondent
September 12, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan — Mohammad Alim Hanif knew he would be killed, but he didn’t want to give up being a judge.
“My life is in danger, and no one will listen until a judge is killed,” Hanif told me in July as we sat in his office, talking about the difficulty of sentencing drug traffickers.
Maybe people will listen now. Last week, as Hanif drove to work, he was shot in the heart. He died at the hospital.
It was but one small tragedy I have seen that barely rated a mention in Afghanistan, let alone the rest of the world. But the slaying of Hanif, and the fact that it seemed to matter so little in this country where so much appears to be going wrong, tells a larger story about what is happening in Afghanistan, about who might be winning and the country’s direction almost seven years since U.S. troops helped drive out the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks.
As a journalist who has covered Pakistan and Afghanistan on and off for more than five years, I have known a number of people who have been killed, one by one: the men who said the right things, who stood up to militants, to corruption, to drug traffickers.
Some were not entirely clean—after almost three decades of fighting, it is tough to find someone without bloodstained hands — but all wanted their country to succeed.
Every time I arrive in Kabul, I hear the list of the dead. There was Abdul Hakim Taniwal, the scholar who came back from Australia to help rebuild his country. In March 2003, he was the governor of eastern Khost province and he invited me for a large dinner at his house, the first time I ate a meal sitting on cushions on the floor.
In September 2006, Taniwal, a gentle and hopeful man, was killed by a suicide bomber.
Mohammad Akram Khakrizwal, the head of security for southern Kandahar province when I met him in April 2003, told me that the Taliban wanted everyone to grow up illiterate and uneducated like them. He was fearless, built like a wrestler, and he later became police chief of Kabul.
In June 2005, while Khakrizwal was at a funeral for a prominent cleric killed by insurgents, a bomb ripped through the mosque, killing him and 19 others.
‘What have you done?’
I saw his brother a year later. Mohammed Akbar Khakrizwal was his tribe’s leader in Kandahar, and he laughed when he saw me wearing an all-encompassing burqa, which covered my face and body, my attempt at a disguise that would allow me to travel unnoticed.
“Oh, what have you done to yourself?” he asked, cracking up. “For 100 years, no one will recognize you like this. No one will touch you.”
In June, he was gunned down by men on motorcycles, used often by the Taliban.
And there were Mullah Naqib and Abdul Hakim Jan, two pro-government elders, and Habibullah Jan, a member of parliament from Kandahar who told me in June 2006 about a funeral for a pro-government cleric killed by the Taliban that only four people were brave enough to attend. All are gone now.
The list of the dead is long and telling, a bitter story of failure in this war-torn country. Some were killed by militants, some in old rivalries, but rarely is anyone arrested.
The bigger crime seems to be that the Afghan government cannot protect the men who are so clearly targets. If someone really wants to kill an official, it’s impossible to always prevent that. But it is possible to make it harder.
As head of appeals for the drugs court in Afghanistan, Hanif, in his 50s, was an obvious target, responsible for putting away drug traffickers, some of the most powerful people in Afghanistan, where the drug trade is estimated at more than $4 billion a year. Everyone with any influence reportedly has their hand in drugs—the Taliban, government officials, relatives of government officials.
‘We will kill you’
But unlike some judges, Hanif was honest. He refused bribes. And he put away the mostly small-time drug traffickers who ended up in his court, no matter the threat.
Hanif recently started receiving anonymous phone calls and text messages warning that people were watching him. “Soon, we will kill you,” one message said. Sitting in his office in July, Hanif looked frail and worried. Pending cases were stacked on a coffee table.
Yet Hanif did not have an armored car, like government ministers or powerful warlords. He did not have security guards or police protection or even a gun. He did not have a safe place to live.
“The government said, ‘We will give you armored vehicles,’ ” Hanif told me in July. “They said, ‘We will give you police to take care of your security.’ But they give us nothing. We can’t even go and pray in the mosque, because if people find out what we do, who we are, we will be in trouble.”
Somehow these people found Hanif. This story is an obituary for him, and for the Khakrizwals, for Taniwal and Habibullah Jan and Mullah Naqib—and, in some eyes, for Afghanistan. Because for Afghans, the constant parade of deaths makes them feel they are losing their country, one small tragedy at a time.
Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune