BOOK REVIEW Destination Afghanistan? Write a will ... Facing the Taliban by Anoja Wijeyesekera
Reviewed by Thalif Deen
When Anoja Wijeyesekera, an aid worker with the UN children's agency UNICEF, received her new assignment in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan back in 1997, her appointment letter arrived with a "survival manual" and chilling instructions: write your last will before leaving home. "It was an exercise that helped me to mentally prepare myself for Afghanistan," she told IPS during a recent visit to New York to launch her just-released book titled Facing the Taliban.
The book details her memorable experiences in a country where "women were reduced to objects of lust". It not only savages some of the hardcore Islamic fundamentalists but also lambastes
the United States for indiscriminate bombings that killed many civilians.
A former UNICEF representative in Bhutan, the Sri Lankan national headed an all-male office in Jalalabad, located in what the UN calls a "hardship non-family duty station", where she "came close to making enemies of the Taliban and getting jailed or shot by them".
She recounts meeting Taliban mullahs who were "absolute tough nuts", and recalls stories of women covered from head to toe in a country "where animals had greater freedom than these women".
She speaks of one minister with four wives; of a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice; and the tragic story of 85,000 or so Afghan children under the age of five who died of dehydration resulting from diarrhea.
After serving four years as resident project officer in an ultra-conservative patriarchal society, where Taliban officials initially refused to have face-to-face meetings or even shake hands with her, Wijeyesekera says, even so, that by the time she left Afghanistan in 2001 there was a dramatic change in girls' education.
The Taliban, which subjugated women by depriving them of formal education, did not object to UNICEF's strong support for home-schooling. As a result, Wijeyesekera said, the number of girls in home-schools rose from about 10,000 to over 65,000 during 1997-2001.
Although they could have disrupted home-schooling, she said, the Taliban did not (perhaps because they wanted an education for their own children).
UNICEF also successfully launched a campaign to vaccinate some 4.5 million children against polio under the watchful eyes of the Taliban.
She said the mainstream media worldwide had failed to make the clear distinction between the relatively moderate Taliban in Afghanistan and its more vicious offshoot in Pakistan (which was responsible for the 2012 shooting of the 16-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai for promoting girls' education).
According to the United States, the government of President Hamid Karzai - which took over after the ouster of the Taliban government following the US-led invasion in 2001 - continued reinforcing the education of children.
Speaking before the General Assembly last week, US Ambassador Rosemary Dicarlo told delegates there were marked improvements in livelihoods in Afghanistan over the past 12 years.
"Today, nearly eight million children are in school, more than a third of them girls. In 2001, life expectancy had been 42 years; today it is 62, and rising," she said.
Dicarlo, who is US deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, said 60% of Afghans were now within an hour of basic health services, and while there had been virtually no cell phones in 2001, now there are 18 million.
But Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, a New York-based advocacy organization, said she did not see any radical improvement in the treatment of women in Afghanistan. She told IPS that President Karzai "has been nothing if not two-faced about the situation of women in his country".
"He made one forward move when he signed the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, but he has since turned a blind eye to its non-implementation," said Naderi, who was born in Kabul and raised in New York.
She said Karzai has tried to hijack the many shelters run by non-governmental organizations and deliver them to the Ministry of Women's Affairs, whose minister, probably under Karzai's orders, immediately proposed to return all women in shelters to men who came to claim them ("a death sentence").
He also endorsed the calamitous Ulema Councils' recent code of conduct, which radically curtails the gains women have made in securing freedom of movement and makes them the official property of men, she said. And Karzai's Ministry of Justice recently proposed reviving the law that sentences men and women convicted of adultery to death by stoning, said Naderi.
"A huge outcry caused the ministry to back away from this sadistic plan, but the intention tells us that Taliban-style tactics are just around the corner," she warned.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the administration of president George W Bush not only invaded Afghanistan but also continued a barrage of air attacks in its desperate hunt for Osama bin Laden, described as the brains behind the terrorist bombings.
UNICEF's Wijeyesekera told IPS: "By simply bombing people out of existence, I don't think you can solve any problem. What was needed was a long-term approach. You kill a hundred, another hundred will join the Taliban."
She was told by Bush's Afghan staff that several US drone attacks were directed at wedding convoys because of the customary celebratory firings in the air (which was probably mistaken for enemy fire).
The New York Times said last month the United States had spent over 43 billion dollars in weaponry and military training of Afghan forces since 2001. But Wijeyesekera said she saw no evidence of any expenditure on reconstruction, rehabilitation, recovery and development during her four-year stay in Afghanistan. She also said there was no attempt to cultivate some of the more liberal elements in the Taliban who were more receptive to the outside world.
"The Taliban was [mistakenly] perceived as a homogeneous organization, but it was not," she said.
When the centuries-old Bambiyan Buddha statues were destroyed in March 2001, one Taliban officials, who knew she was a Buddhist, apologized to her.
She was also critical of some of the sanctions imposed by the Security Council because they undermined the humanitarian mandate of UN agencies.
As she flew out of Kabul in 2001, she wrote, "I thought of my four years in Afghanistan, a country I came to love and a people I had grown to respect and admire, a people whose future was hanging on the cusp of uncertainty. My heart went out for them. I felt so guilty to leave them behind."
Facing the Taliban by Anoja Wijeyesekera. Sri Lanka, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2013. ISBN: 978-9556651959. US$29; 376 pages.