Nov 1, 2008

World - Afghanistan;Not my grandfather's country (G.Read)

Fatima Ayub

A suicide bomber attacked the Ministry of Information and Culture today. The building, decrepit though still in use after Afghanistan's many wars, was blown apart.

It was just another security incident in Afghanistan's downward spiral, except that my grandfather, 35 years ago, served as head of this ministry, shortly before Afghanistan fell prey to revolutions, occupation and endless war. The contrast between Afghanistan then - progressing, optimistic - and Afghanistan today - violent, besieged, uncertain - could not be sharper, or more disheartening.

Once upon a time, Afghanistan was on the cusp of change. A spell of reform before Mohammad Daoud Shah's 1973 coup seemed to promise a new and better future. But it was merely a last breath of air before an unrelenting choke hold of war and violence.

My grandfather, an outspoken journalist and proponent of political freedoms, was taken prisoner for two years at Kabul's infamous Pul-e-Charkhi prison during the upheavals following the 1978 Communist coup.

Lucky to be released with his life under a surprise political amnesty, my grandfather fled. The rest of my family - parents, aunts, uncles - trickled out over the months and years following the 1979 Soviet invasion. Using forged documents and passports, hiring traffickers, my parents followed my grandfather to Pakistan, then to Germany, and finally to the United States.

From Soviet occupation, Afghanistan plunged into civil war, snuffing out the flickering hopes my grandfather had for returning to work in Afghanistan.

In my childhood, Afghanistan was only an idea, a place "over there," with war and orphans and mujahedin. It was no place I ever intended to visit, and it carried an indefinable mythical quality. Thousands of Afghans in the diaspora were desperate to visit their homeland after the fall of the Taliban in 2001; my parents were not among them. Friends of mine went and came back; some spent several years working under the new transitional government or with international agencies.

Precious few Afghans from the diaspora come to Afghanistan anymore now that the original allure has faded into the ever-thickening mists of war.

I never "returned" to Afghanistan, as I had never left. I simply came. Traveling to Afghanistan in 2007 for the first time as a researcher for a human rights organization, I came with no sense of national pride or longing for the land of my ancestors, but merely the same sense of curious wonderment that endured from childhood.

Though I came with no expectation, I could not and cannot easily process the realities of life in Afghanistan. Crushing poverty, growing violence, inept governance and the corresponding collapse of hope suggest a grim future for the average person in Afghanistan today.

The general consensus, after seven years of a haphazard nation-building process, is that the country is now more violent and conflicted than before the fall of the Taliban. Kabul, formerly a safe haven, is now rocked by violence that was inconceivable four years ago.

That the insurgency, once limited to the Afghan-Pakistani border, has literally infiltrated the halls of government is explosive in more ways than one. Last year, much of the debate in the international community was whether Afghanistan had reached a turning point. They should not have to look any further for an answer. Afghanistan has again turned a corner, but it has not been for better.

No doubt, in the last seven years, Afghanistan has seen a number of luminaries, thinkers and activists dedicated to meaningful, lasting development and political progress - not simply for the benefit of their own ethnic group or region, but for every citizen of the nation. They are and will remain in the minority.

The international community in Afghanistan still fails to acknowledge its first critical missteps, as early as 2001 and 2002. Supporting a heavily centralized government in Kabul, failing to encourage the growth of legitimate government at the local level and drawing former paramilitary leaders - many of whom are accused of widespread human rights abuses - to posts of power , the international advisors in Afghanistan undermined themselves from the outset.

No one, goes the constant refrain among Afghans, wants to live in a country ruled by thieves, murderers and criminals. In no small part, this reckless insurgency owes its survival to the corrupt and inefficient apparatus that is the Afghan government.

Tonight, almost exactly eight years to the day of my grandfather's passing, I stand disconsolately in front of the Ministry of Information and Culture, its windows shattered and dark, its entrance blown open. Thirty-five years after my grandfather walked through the halls of this very building, I try to resurrect his vision and his pains for his country. I find only death and dust.

Fatima Ayub is a researcher on human rights in Afghanistan. Her grandfather, Sabahuddin Kushkaki, served as minister of information and culture in 1972-1973 under Prime Minister Musa Shafiq.

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