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March 29, 2002
Left Behind
An interview with RAWA's Sahar Saba.

The 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 city’s 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.

What’s more, the Interim Authority—the provisional government agreed upon in Bonn, Germany last December—is 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 border.

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 families—mothers, daughters and sons—before 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 RAWA’s current campaigns is to bring these war criminals––many of whom are now considered U.S allies––to 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 RAWA’s underground schools. Now in her mid-twenties, Saba serves on RAWA’s foreign affairs committee.

In These Times spoke with Saba during her visit to Chicago in March.

The press hasn’t told us very much about the activities of the interim government or the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan. Can you describe the current conditions there?

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. … But 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 it’s really not surprising for Afghan women that this new government, especially the people in the Northern Alliance, still don’t 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 women—because 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 women—it 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 problems—they don’t have work, they don’t have jobs. Widows, for example, are trying very hard to survive. ...

The medical problems and the health problems are still there. We don’t have many doctors, because from 1990 to now there was no proper education. Then, even if we had doctors, we don’t have the proper equipment. At this moment, there are many, women and children especially, who are suffering—or even die—simply 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 don’t I have the right to have work, or I want something to feed my children or my family, and the rulers don’t 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 criticism—not 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 don’t deserve to rule Afghanistan again. …

You’re 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 destroy—just to impose those harsh and inhuman restrictions on women. Everything was destroyed during the Northern Alliance’s 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 physically—we may forget about the 50,000 people killed during their infighting from 1992 to 1996—but they destroyed our future. An entire generation of Afghan children didn’t have access to education, to health care, to entertainment—they 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 women’s rights. They banned women from going out. They were the first to impose the imposition of wearing the veil, the burka. We cannot forget—maybe 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 about that?

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 in helping. … 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. There’s 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 don’t think that the governments or the U.N. don’t 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? Don’t 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 don’t 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 didn’t have any other alternative, this was not the solution—to 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. That’s 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. They’re 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 doesn’t mean RAWA is supporting monarchy. It is just because of a lack of strong democratic alternatives. … It is so unfortunate, because we wish that there was a strong movement, a strong alternative for both women and men in Afghanistan. But it’s 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 it’s the only cure. It’s 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, it’s not. We believe if organizations like RAWA are there, it’s possible. It’s just a basic thing we need—like 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 it’s 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 is—in order to bring democracy, peace, security in Afghanistan—to have a government based on secular values. If we don’t have a secular government in Afghanistan, then religion will always be a tool to use against people. Especially against women.

But I must say, of course, it’s not just talking about bringing democracy or a secular government or women’s rights or freedom—we 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 there’s 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 girl—should we respect this only because it is our culture? Or wear the burka because it is our tradition? But it’s 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 hope—if 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 are facing.

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 don’t like RAWA, but it’s 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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