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March 29, 2002
An interview with RAWA's Sahar Saba.
he American media and the Pentagon have trumpeted the collapse of the Taliban
and the liberation of Afghanistan, but for the Afghan people, conditions
have not changed. Indeed, they may be getting worse.
The Afghan refugee and humanitarian crisis continues: Billions have been promised
in foreign aid, but little of it has reached Afghanistan. An official from the
U.N. Population Fund says the relief effort, to succeed, must be conducted on
an unprecedented scale. It is larger than Kosovo, he says. In
Kosovo, there were 1.5 million people, and in Afghanistan there are 20 million.
In a country that has one doctor for every 50,000 people, the overall mortality
rate has doubled since August.
International peacekeeping troops, stationed in Kabul, have been able to maintain
a measure of security in the citys streets. But outside Kabul, there are
no peacekeeping forces, and regional warlords still rule. Infighting between
rival warlords and vicious attacks on civilians have continued throughout the
U.S. bombing campaign. In short, Afghanistan is on the verge of civil war.
Whats more, the Interim Authoritythe provisional government agreed
upon in Bonn, Germany last Decemberis packed with warlords from the Northern
Alliance, who ruled the country with impunity before the Taliban. During their
rule, a number of these same Northern Alliance leaders perpetrated crimes so
atrocious that some say they make Bosnia look like a sideshow.
In contrast to all of this, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan,
or RAWA, continues to fight for secular democracy in Afghanistan, as it has
since its founding in 1977. In the face of massive repression from the Northern
Alliance and the Taliban after it, RAWA has operated secretly, under threat
of death, to support full freedoms and rights for Afghan women. Today, RAWA
still runs income-generating projects for women, schools for children and mobile
health care units, both within Afghanistan and in the refugee camps at the Afghan-Pakistan
RAWA is one of the only groups vocally condemning the Interim Authority. To
them it represents no improvement over the Taliban. The past crimes perpetrated
by Northern Alliance members that RAWA describes are hard to hear, let alone
comprehend: Raping entire familiesmothers, daughters and sonsbefore
killing them and looting their possessions. Driving six-inch nails through the
skulls of ethnic minorities. Broiling those same minorities alive in metal canisters.
The gang rape of children. One of RAWAs current campaigns is to bring
these war criminalsmany of whom are now considered U.S alliesto
justice in an international court.
The lives of RAWA members are still in danger, and they still work in secret,
under assumed names. Sahar Saba, a RAWA representative, has traveled to many
countries in the past several years to speak on behalf of Afghan women. Saba
was born in Kabul; in 1979, her family fled Afghanistan to the refugee camps
in Pakistan to escape the Soviet invasion. Once in Pakistan, they moved again
to give her an education at one of RAWAs underground schools. Now in her
mid-twenties, Saba serves on RAWAs foreign affairs committee.
In These Times spoke with Saba during her visit to Chicago in March.
The press hasnt told us very much about the activities of the interim
government or the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan. Can you describe the current
Especially in the West, the image is that everything is fine, or is going to
be fine. We hope, we wish that it was so, but it is not: The reality is different,
especially for women. Resolving these problems will take years and years.
People think that everything changed after the Taliban collapsed.
thousands and thousands of women are still under a lot of pressure from the
government, from those who are ruling Afghanistan. Most of those who are now
in the government, they are responsible for violating the very basic rights
of women. So its really not surprising for Afghan women that this new
government, especially the people in the Northern Alliance, still dont
give them those basic rights.
Most importantly, there is no guarantee of security for women. Even if they
say that women can go out, they would not, because who can guarantee if she
goes out what will happen? This is the biggest problem, not only in Kabul, but
in all parts of Afghanistan. And they continue the fighting, these warlords,
to get more power. And the U.S. bombs are still falling, which is another big
concern for Afghan womenbecause they are again the victims. They have
lost their family members, they have lost their homes, they have lost whatever
it is they have.
What is daily life like for women in Afghanistan now?
The daily life for Afghan women has not really changed. This is true of the
restrictions the Taliban imposed on womenit has not been announced by
the government officially that those restrictions are no longer there.
But the conditions of life for most Afghan women are the same. The economic
problemsthey dont have work, they dont have jobs. Widows,
for example, are trying very hard to survive. ...
The medical problems and the health problems are still there. We dont
have many doctors, because from 1990 to now there was no proper education. Then,
even if we had doctors, we dont have the proper equipment. At this moment,
there are many, women and children especially, who are sufferingor even
diesimply because there is no proper health system in Afghanistan, and
they cannot afford to see a doctor or come to Pakistan to see a doctor.
And the war is still going on. The fighting is still going on. The warlords
are there on the streets. They have guns. If you raise your voice in protest,
if you ask for your rights, if you ask, why dont I have the right to have
work, or I want something to feed my children or my family, and the rulers dont
like it, they can do anything.
This is the interim government?
Yes, this is the interim government. This is what RAWA is trying hard to make
the world understand.
From the beginning, when they were talking about
the formation of this government, there were a lot of doubts, a lot of criticismnot
only from RAWA, but from a large number of women and from other people, people
who were never given the chance to be heard. The most important reason for all
this criticism was the involvement of criminals who only deserve to be brought
to an international court of law for what they have done, and dont deserve
to rule Afghanistan again.
Youre speaking of members of the Northern Alliance?
The Northern Alliance destroyed everything. I always say that for the Taliban,
there was nothing left really to destroyjust to impose those harsh and
inhuman restrictions on women. Everything was destroyed during the Northern
Alliances time. That was the reason that RAWA opposed them, will always
oppose them and will never compromise with them.
They are responsible for the atrocities, for the crimes, for the destruction
of Afghanistan. They not only destroyed us physicallywe may forget about
the 50,000 people killed during their infighting from 1992 to 1996but
they destroyed our future. An entire generation of Afghan children didnt
have access to education, to health care, to entertainmentthey are a generation
of war, of destruction, of atrocities. And I consider myself one of them.
So how can we trust those leaders, those criminals? They were the first to
call democracy infidel, the first to violate womens rights. They banned
women from going out. They were the first to impose the imposition of wearing
the veil, the burka. We cannot forgetmaybe the West can, but we cannot.
That is the reason the Northern Alliance is for us a bunch of rapists, looters
and criminals that only should be brought to justice. And this is the time.
This is the time to bring them to justice.
RAWA recently signed a protocol with the government of the Basque region
in Spain to prosecute Northern Alliance war criminals, presumably because that
government could bring cases before international courts of law. Can you talk
Spain is one of the countries where we have many very great supporters, and
they have welcomed RAWA. So when we raised this issue, they were very interested
It was the first time in history that we were offered such
help and support. From the beginning, one of the things RAWA wanted to emphasize
was the trial of these warlords and criminals. Especially the leaders
Leaders who are now a part of the interim government?
Some of them, yes. Theres Gen. Rashid Dustom [deputy defense minister
of the Interim Authority] and Gen. Mohammed Fahim [defense minister] and Ismail
Khan [former governor of Herat] and Abdul Karim Khalili [leader of the Hazaras,
a primarily Shiite minority] and Abdullah Abdullah [minister of foreign affairs].
How was it that war criminals were allowed in the government?
We dont think that the governments or the U.N. dont know what they
have done in Afghanistan. This is in fact a question for us: Why the U.N. or
U.S. or other Western countries, especially those involved in forming this new
government, were so blind to the crimes, to the atrocities of the Northern Alliance?
Dont Afghan people at least deserve to live in peace, with security and
stability? We know that this is not possible with these warlords, who just know
the language of guns. And if there is no pressure on them, we will see the same
situation will be repeated.
So when we were criticizing this, we were told it was because, you know, the
Northern Alliance is active in Afghanistan. It is there, so we dont have
any option. I think this is just an excuse. The Northern Alliance wants to deceive
people. Maybe in the West, but in Afghanistan they cannot do that. Of course,
we had many other options. Even if we didnt have any other alternative,
this was not the solutionto replace one group or regime, a handful of
criminals, with others.
When the Taliban were in power, and they were ruling more than 95 percent of
Afghanistan, we remember that in Washington they were inviting the Taliban to
the negotiating table. We asked: How can you invite the Taliban, the most misogynistic
regime? They said: Because the Taliban are there, they are ruling 95 percent
in Afghanistan, and we cannot exclude them. Thats what happened to the
Taliban. Where are they now?
It is the same thing with the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance is just
another form of Taliban. Theyre just the same. Someone said that the only
difference may be in the size of their beards. But the mentality is the same.
The power they have is just with the guns they have. And the guns are coming
from where? Everyone knows. They are the guns of the United States, Iran, Russia,
France and many other countries.
RAWA supported the former king, Zahir Shah?
Yes, we did support him, and we are still supporting him. But that doesnt
mean RAWA is supporting monarchy. It is just because of a lack of strong democratic
It is so unfortunate, because we wish that there was a
strong movement, a strong alternative for both women and men in Afghanistan.
But its not there.
RAWA strongly favors democracy and a secular government in Afghanistan.
Right now we are probably the only organization of women in Afghanistan that
strongly supports democracy and secularism. Democracy because we believe that
its the only cure. Its the opposite of fundamentalism. And if democracy
is established in Afghanistan, then there will be no place for fundamentalism
in any form. Many think that democracy in Afghanistan is a big question. But
for us, its not. We believe if organizations like RAWA are there, its
possible. Its just a basic thing we needlike food, like air.
As for secularism, RAWA has been condemned as being anti-Islam, anti-religion,
supporting the West, being Westernized and all that. But its really not
surprising for us because we know our society, we know the enemies that we face
and how they misuse religion.
We have seen in the last 23 years how important
it isin order to bring democracy, peace, security in Afghanistanto
have a government based on secular values. If we dont have a secular government
in Afghanistan, then religion will always be a tool to use against people. Especially
But I must say, of course, its not just talking about bringing democracy
or a secular government or womens rights or freedomwe know, because
we are there, how difficult a task it is. We have to make sacrifices. We even
have to give our lives for this cause, in order to make it possible for the
next generation. This is the responsibility that we feel.
Many other Afghan women, even living here or in other European countries, simply
choose not to share that responsibility. They just want to refrain from these
important issues, and sometimes give the examples of culture, of traditions,
of religion, saying that we must see that theres cultural sensitivity.
But we cannot respect a culture that is so backward, in so many ways against
women and their rights. In Afghanistan, this is a tradition, this is the culture,
to buy or sell a girlshould we respect this only because it is our culture?
Or wear the burka because it is our tradition? But its not a good tradition.
Women must have the right to choose whether they want to wear it or not.
It must take an incredible amount of courage to do what members of RAWA
do. How do your members stay strong?
There are many reasons to be strong. When people are looking to you as a hope,
and women are looking to you as a hopeif you lose hope, then what will
they do? Many times people say that, you know, we are brave and we have done
a lot. But I believe that living in that country, in that society, we have to
be brave, and this is what all RAWA members think. The bravery comes from the
conditions, the circumstances that we are living in, the challenges that we
Many times, perhaps, if you look at the problems, at all the challenges, at
all the destruction and the crimes and the atrocities, sometimes it leads you
to lose hope.
For RAWA members, the most important thing that keeps them
so strong is the responsibility they feel toward their country and people and
themselves, their families.
We wish there were hundreds of organizations like RAWA so we could share this
responsibility. But right now unfortunately, as a group, we are alone. Many
feel that people in Afghanistan dont like RAWA, but its mainly those
who cannot tolerate RAWA because they know that RAWA is, in fact, a light, a
hope for Afghan people.
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