|'Kept in a cage' - life under Governor Ismail
By Grant Podelco
Shortly before he was due to attend the loya
jirga (grand council) last June, Alhaj Mohammad
Rafiq Shahir says that he was arrested, thrown in jail,
and beaten for two days for criticizing the provincial
government of Herat, led by Governor Ismail Khan.
Shahir, the director of a shura, or local
council of professionals, in the western Afghan city of
Herat, was ultimately released and allowed to attend the
loya jirga, but he wouldn't comment further on
his detention. Despite what he called "cold relations"
with the provincial government, he is still willing to
speak his mind about what he sees as abuses of power by
"From our point of view, the
provincial government, especially Ismail Khan himself,
should refer to the people and consult them. It is not a
good thing that he has power all to himself. All of us
are thinking of a bright future and a better life for
Afghanistan, but the problem is that Ismail Khan makes
decisions by himself," Shahir said.
correspondent recently spent four days in Herat and
discovered an orderly city that has been rebuilt
following the devastation incurred during Soviet bombing
in 1979. Traffic lights work. Tall pines, their needles
powdered with dust, line paved streets. A new library is
being built in the city center. Parks are plentiful, and
many public buildings appear to have fresh coats of
But beneath the tidy facades, Herat is
governed by a climate of fear and fundamentalism. Nearly
all the city's women are covered in all-enveloping
burqas. Wedding parties have been banned in
hotels and restaurants for fear of men and women mixing.
Some 100 young women in the province are reported to
have set themselves on fire this year in an effort to
escape arranged marriages. Public criticism of the
provincial government is virtually nonexistent. There is
no independent press and no freedom to hold public
The correspondent's visit to the city
came shortly after the release of a major report by the
US-based Human Rights Watch presenting evidence and
witness testimony alleging political repression,
arbitrary arrests and torture in the province - some
said to have been ordered by Ismail Khan himself against
Stocky, white-bearded Ismail
Khan - an ethnic Tajik - commands a militia of some
25,000 soldiers that is considered to be one of the best
trained and equipped private armies in Afghanistan.
Zama Coursen-Neff is one of the co-authors of
the Human Rights Watch report. She recently explained to
RFE/RL why the organization decided to focus almost
exclusively on Ismail Khan. "Human Rights Watch has also
done research about human rights violations in the north
and in the south [of Afghanistan], but we picked Herat
for [this study for] a number of reasons. One reason is
that some of the security issues that are such a problem
in the north and in the south are not present in Herat.
We picked Herat, in part, because Ismail Khan has
brought more security to the region, but at the same
time has demonstrated what happens when you put power in
the hands of a warlord.
"Since he gained control
of that area, he has been incredibly repressive to the
people that live under his control. In some ways, it's a
bit of a prediction of what can happen to other parts of
Afghanistan. In other ways, it's a good place to look at
because it is considered one of the worst areas in
Afghanistan for women's human rights and because there
is such a range of repressions of civil and political
rights in Herat," Coursen-Neff said.
for Ismail Khan, Nasir Ahmad Alawi, told the Associated
Press after the report was released earlier this month
that the provincial government respected human rights.
"We invite anybody to come and see for themselves,"
RFE/RL made numerous attempts to
interview Ismail Khan for this story, with no success.
Alawi told our correspondent that he would grant RFE/RL
an interview, but only if his comments were not
broadcast in Dari or Pashto, the two major languages of
Afghanistan. RFE/RL refused.
Shahir said that
his council was obliged to tell not only the provincial
government but also the international community about
abuses of human rights it witnessed in Herat. He said
that he himself gave testimony to Human Rights Watch for
its report, and he complimented the organization on its
findings. "If we consider some cases regarding
violations of human rights, not only will we mention it
to the provincial government, but also we want to
reflect it further [to the international community] in
order to pave the ground for human rights to be
implemented here. And, of course, Human Rights Watch is
an independent organization which came to Herat and did
many interviews with people and has written about some
issues in its report. And it mentioned the problems I've
had and [also] the [Herat] professional shura. We
think it has done an independent study," Shahir said.
Shahir said that the atmosphere in Herat was
such that he could not speak further about the HRW
report for fear of repercussions.
Ismail Khan is
reported to be angry about the HRW report. In a speech
on November 12, he referred to Afghans working for human
rights groups as "spies" under foreign pay, and said
ominously, "We believe that those who provided the
allegations in the report on human rights are among us.
And I can simply take that brother's hand and stand him
in front of your eyes."
In the same speech, he
also urged those in attendance to take immediate action,
as part of a jihad, or holy struggle, against any
wrongdoers or opponents of Sharia Islamic law. "[Some]
immoral people are trying to lead our society toward
immorality. There is no need to take [these people] to
the police station or to the Ministry of Vice and
Virtue. Why don't you [yourself] prevent some of our
brothers and sisters from committing actions which are
against our religion, our country, and Sharia [law] in
some of the shops or in other parts of the city," Ismail
In an interview with RFE/RL on
November 14, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called Ismail
Khan's comments "very worrying" and said that he did not
understand his motivations for saying such things.
"Haroon" is an educated man who lives in Herat.
He agreed to speak to RFE/RL only on the condition that
neither his real name nor his profession be mentioned
and that the interview be conducted in seclusion.
Haroon noted Herat's parks, paved roads and
painted buildings, but said that it was all window
dressing, that the province's real problems were being
ignored. "It becomes clear that whatever Ismail Khan
does is only for his own interests. For example, when is
he going to build a park, it is only for his own
political interest, rather than the public interest. He
builds parks to show foreigners who come to Herat that
everything is OK and that reconstruction is going on.
[At the same time,] there are no oxygen tanks in the
hospital for the patients. Most of the hospital's
equipment is old, and patients die," Haroon said.
Ismail Khan, respected for leading a decade-long
guerrilla war against the Soviets after Moscow invaded
in 1979, is credited with bringing security and order to
Herat. But Haroon said that such stability is largely
symbolic. "The only thing accomplished by Ismail Khan is
that he has prevented [the actions of] some thieves by
using other thieves, so there is only symbolic security.
But what can one do with such security when there is no
mental and psychological peace? It clarifies that we are
deprived of the freedom of expressing our ideas. What
bigger cruelty can there be? It is true that they feed
us, but we are kept in a cage out of the reach of the
cat," Haroon said.
Haroon said that Afghans in
Herat did not enjoy the civil liberties enjoyed by
citizens in Kabul. Male teachers, he said, can't wear
neckties to class, female students are segregated and
are only taught by female teachers, and Islamic lessons
are now taught more frequently in school. He said that
the people of Herat were searching for an alternative.
"Since [Ismail Khan] doesn't have any rival in Herat,
there's not a person to replace him. If there really was
someone who could replace him or oppose him, I can say
that most of the people would support [that person]
because Ismail Khan has monopolized the government, and
no one is given the right [to do anything]," Haroon
"Karim" is a member of a fledgling
movement in Herat called the Democracy and Freedom
Council of Afghanistan. He also did not want his real
name or occupation mentioned because he said that he
feared for his life for speaking with RFE/RL.
Karim said that four democratic parties were
working in collaboration in Herat. He said that they
operated in secret because Ismail Khan did not tolerate
such activities. "[Ismail Khan] cannot tolerate any kind
of [open] discussion. As yet, we have not been able to
meet with him and to say that we are functioning as
democratic groups in this part of the country. We know
that there is not an open atmosphere [in Herat], and we
believe that if he is aware of such activity, then he
will definitely arrest whoever [is behind it] and act
violently. Not only does Ismail Khan not allow us to
work, but he also responds very sternly to such
democratic groups. We are living in a vacuum. It's
better to say that we are living in a sort of
stranglehold," Karim said.
Karim said that he
believed the people of Afghanistan wanted democracy for
their country and did not support what he called Ismail
Khan's policies of social, religious and ethnic
discrimination. He said Ismail Khan's actions were
preventing the central government in Kabul from
fulfilling its mandate. "The world and [the people of
Herat] know that this [area] of Afghanistan has become
an obstacle in the implementation of the policies of the
central government. And [the provincial government] does
not want strong steps to be taken in this regard. The
world has decided that Afghanistan should have peace and
democracy, which is the dominant system in the world.
But unfortunately, this part [of Afghanistan] is an
obstacle, and I think the world is trying to collect
such evidence from this region," Karim said.
Karim said that his movement also did not fully
support Karzai's current presidency, since Karzai was
appointed to his position, not democratically elected.
Democratic elections are scheduled to be held in
Afghanistan only in 2004.
The Tawhid School is a
primary school for some 1,000 boys and girls in Herat.
As the children played outside, the school's director,
Mahmoud, told RFE/RL about a recent dispute he had with
the provincial government.
Mahmoud said that he
was asked by local radio and television to create a
series of four educational programs. One of them was
called "Hour of Prayer." "Our school had a program, and
during this hour, all students of this school, including
girls, Shi'ites and Sunnis, would gather in a large room
and would pray together. We recorded around two to three
seconds of some parts of the prayer to show that Afghan
society was heading toward national unity. As soon as it
was broadcast, the directors of the TV station were very
angry, and from that night on, they decided to stop the
program. They said it is not [their] policy that
Shi'ites and Sunnis appear together on TV," Mahmoud
Mahmoud lamented the stifling atmosphere
that persists in Herat despite the fall of the Taliban
one year ago. "We suffered a lot during the six years of
the Taliban here in Herat. Once, we were even arrested
by them because we had taken boys and girls together on
an educational trip. We suffered a lot. And we hope that
today's society will be much different from the previous
one. It should be much more open. A wider range of
activities should be allowed in the new society. There
should not be any sort of discrimination, and the
authorities and officials who are going to work should
be clean of all sorts of discriminatory behavior,"
Despite the repressive society he
described in Herat, Karim said that he was optimistic
that positive change would come. It is, he said,
inevitable. "Knowing that Ismail Khan cannot resist the
decisions of the world, we can say that the situation
will change in Herat. And then we can spread democracy,
which is the desire of the people in an open society.
And [Ismail Khan's] people will not remain until
elections. They have to be removed - this obstacle has
to be removed - until the people are able to elect
whomever they want," Karim said.
month, Karzai dismissed some 20 civil and military
officials after accusing them of corruption, drug
trafficking and abuse of power. Without mentioning
names, Karzai told a seminar of Afghan judges that many
Afghan governors, commanders and security officials were
killing people, looting, fighting and causing problems
for women and children. "If they do not improve," Karzai
said, "then I will sack them."
Herat correspondent contributed to this report.)
Copyright (c) 2002, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted
with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC