Friday, September 19, 2008

Human Afterall versus Humanity for All

Working in a male-dominated world (front row, second from left) -
Panjao province, Central Highland, Afghanistan

As I sat in front of my laptop in a room of about 18sqm, staring into a white door with assorted jackets and coats hanging on a clothes rack, nothing came into my mind. I sat there for a few minutes staring into empty space just wondering what the hell am I doing in this place.

The sense of altruism in my heart seems to vanish bit by bit. There is nowhere for me to go and nothing for me to do in this room of about 18sqm. Just the feeling of utter frustration seeping into my soul.

This is the 17th month I have been in Afghanistan. A country where nothing seems to be normal, the way we understand it. A country where you cannot seem to define its inhabitants of about 23 millions. A country where you get in and the next thing you know, you want to get out as quickly as you can but somehow there is still something holding you back. What is it? Is it the sense of obligation as a fellow human being? Or is it because we keep telling ourselves that we can do better?

Things just seem to be getting harder each day. I find myself to be confined in the space of a room; either in my office or in my temporary accommodation. It is easier to engage in any kind of immoral acts within the confine of one’s private space than to go for an innocent stroll out in the open. What an irony, isn’t it? The fact that I could not walk to the nearest grocery store because I want to buy milk frustrates the hell out of me.

The many unheard stories revealed to me as a human rights officer came to haunt me most of the time, leaving me feeling devastated, hopeless and angry.

Zuhal*, a young Afghan woman was married for 8 years. During those 8 years, her husband escaped to Iran in search of a better life while leaving her behind with his family. Eight years have passed and the war against the Taliban is now a dark history. For many, it is a time to rejoice and the time to rebuild a country, which has been destroyed by not just foreign invasion but also by its own people. The bottom line is, it seems to be a hopeful time for a better future.

But not for Zuhal. Being caught by her father-in-law with her neighbour in a room at night, she was sentenced to death by a local religious figure. She was not even alone with her neighbour while she was caught. Her sentence was even supported by her own flesh and blood. She was hung to death while her alleged “partner in crime” survived with 100 lashes of the durra.

I often asked myself while reading this case over and over again, who the hell is this man to have such power over one person’s life? Someone once told me, you are a nobody unless someone makes you a somebody. So, my thought is that this man has such power simply because the people give him the power to pronounce the death sentence. Unless the Afghans start to wake up and think about the values of human being, many people will rise up like this man and continue to wantonly assert their power over innocent people like Zuhal. I am calling her innocent because after all, one of the principles of the rule of law is the presumption of innocent until proven guilty.

In Zuhal’s case, she was never arrested and charged for a crime under normal criminal procedures. She was simply judged guilty even by her own family, who had allegedly carried her outside the house, placed her on a table, tied a noose around her neck and left her to die by hanging. Zuhal’s own mother confessed that she had killed her out of shame and disgrace.

A 12 year-old girl and her alleged rapist were arrested recently and charged for the crime of adultery. The girl claimed that she was drugged and raped by the man. While in detention, her father persistently seeks for her release. Having seen the case of Zuhal, the UNAMA officer handling the case advised not to allow her to be released for fear that she would be killed by her own family due to shame and dishonour. There are not enough qualified lawyers in Afghanistan to defend her. At such a time, I feel completely hopeless and I feel a dark cloud hanging over the women in Afghanistan. I don’t know what else to do for them.

I believe in the freedom of religion. Yes, I do. I believe that everyone has the right to practice his or her own religion. But what I truly abhor with the deepest kind of anger in my heart is how certain people seem to manipulate any forms of religion to the suffering of others. What I truly regret with the deepest kind of disappointment and pity in my heart is how certain people seem to just believe blindly of what they perceived to be the sacred teachings of a religion without searching for the truth.

In essence, I believe that all religion teaches the same values of justice, compassion and peace. I really do. But when 12 innocent civilians’ lives were taken away during a riot as a result of the people’s anger and retaliation towards the American’s alleged desecration of the Qur’an in Guantanamo Bay, I begin to question the purpose and even more the source of such outrage. President Karzai upon finding out the looting and burning down of private and governmental properties, including a public library, condemned the act by stating that while these people were being angry at the desecration of the Qur’an, two hundred more Qur’an were burnt down in the library.

What really is the purpose of believing in a religion when human lives are not valued, for isn’t the basis of all religion boils down to human values? Am I missing something here because I don’t seem to understand?

I mentioned in the beginning that I am living in a temporary accommodation. This is the second time when I find myself being stuck in what I call perjury. Perjury simply because I have nowhere to go. I can’t seem to leave and yet I can’t seem to stay. I was asked to move from my first private accommodation because the rest of my housemates were requested to move to a safer area by their new employer. I could not stay because I could not afford to pay for a house, which was previously shared by seven of us. The rent in Kabul could easily compete with the rent of a modest apartment in New York. For the rent that I was paying, I could easily rent a 2-storey bungalow in Malaysia.

Being a United Nations volunteer, I could either rely on six other volunteers to share the cost of a reasonably comfortable house or I could choose to squeeze with three other volunteers in a room for the rent of USD300 per month. I ended up choosing to pay USD800 per month for a one-bed room flat in an area called Shar-E-Naw in Kabul. The rent of course has a repercussion on my humble volunteer’s allowance but I had chose to forgo my savings in order to have a comfortable place to live; just like my other colleagues who are earning at least thrice as much as I do simply because they are not volunteers but instead valued bona fide UN permanent mission appointees.

The fact that my life is worth USD500 less per month (UN permanent appointees receive USD500 more for their hazard pay per month) simply because I am a volunteer despite the fact that I am still working for the United Nations in the same mission area fills me with bitterness (I am human afterall). Well, why not? I am working under the same stressful environment as they are and why is it that they can afford to pay for a nice place to live while I can’t? A nice house to go home to after having endured a whole day of reading the security advisories on how to identify suicide bombers and bunker practices, the least I deserve is a place where I can be comfortable.

The recent bombing and killing of a UN staff in an internet cafĂ© and also the kidnapping of the Italian aid worker in Shar-E-Naw have prompted me to pack my bags and start my painful journey in search of a “safer” and yet affordable place to live. During this period, it is when I begin to feel the misery of being a volunteer and the loath towards those who aren’t. It is the time when I experience how I could be exploited by those who are already better off than I am. It is also the time when I respect those sex-workers on the street of Patpong more than a few of these so-called humanitarian workers who earn at least USD72, 000 per annum, but in fact couldn’t care less for the people they are supposed to be serving.

I used to work for the Presidential elections and hence still have a lot of concerns and passion for the electoral operation here. In the midst of all the preparation for the Parliamentary Election in September 2005, I was filled with a sense of fear. I chose not to renew my contract with the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), a body which is part the UN and part the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan, last year simply because of my intolerance towards the practices of nepotism and corruption within the electoral management in the region I was responsible for. Despite a long and carefully articulated letter to the headquarters backed with facts and cases, my effort to make a change in the system fell on deaf ears. The only response I received was, “You write beautifully!” which of course was an insult to me.

By then, I realized that nothing I did would ever change the system particularly when those who were in the position to make decisions did not seem to care much about the integrity of the process. (I guess when you can’t beat them, my position is not to join them.)

This year, things are different although not without fear. I am finally a human rights officer being assigned to the Political Rights Verification Campaign (PRVC), a joint United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission project. The project is aimed at verifying whether there is a conducive environment for a free and fair election in Afghanistan.

In a country where intimidations from local commanders, anti-governmental entities, pro-Taliban supporters and corrupted senior governmental officials are regular affairs, it is indeed a very difficult operation but no doubt a much needed one. From working for the election previously to assessing the credibility of the election, I was very much excited. It is my duty to collect information of those who violate the principles of non-intimidation, non-partiality and non-discrimination. Thankfully the people I am working with are true human rights defenders with great principles and true sense of integrity. So, my work is not really something I fear for.

My fear is this. Given the new electoral system and laws, each province is given a specific number of seats depending on the size of the population. According to the constitution and the electoral laws, women are required to fill at least 25% of the total seats, which of course is a huge step for a country like Afghanistan. I doubt that women actually fulfilled more than 10% of the parliamentary seats in already established democratic countries.

Due to the Single Non Transferable Vote (SNTV) electoral system, only independent candidates are allowed to contest in the elections and not political parties. The candidates can belong to a specific political parties but he or she is not allowed to contest under the political party’s name. With the recent completion of the candidate nomination period, the JEMB has registered more than 6,000 candidates. There is yet a candidate vetting process to be done in order to establish the final candidate list.

The only criteria for a candidate to be deemed ineligible is if he or she has been or is convicted of a crime by a competent court. The culture of impunity is well known in Afghanistan due to the weakness of the rule of law institutions. There are still many provincial courts in the country, which are not functioning at all due to the lack of qualified judges and prosecutors. Most judges are trained in the Sharia Law and have no in-dept knowledge of civil and criminal laws or procedures. In addition to that, the judiciary system is reputable for being corrupted. Having said all this, it is not difficult to deduce that the vetting process for electoral candidates will not provide any impact and on the extreme, means nothing at all.

It has been more than a week since the end of the candidate nomination period and a few hundreds candidates have somehow gave up on the contest even before it has begun. There are only two explanations for this. Firstly, some of the candidates must have been intimidated or threatened by stronger candidates backed by dominant political parties. There have been many unverified reports of intimidation and self-censorship all over the regions and although UNAMA lacks credible evidences to back these allegations, nobody who has stayed in Afghanistan long enough will dispute them.

Secondly, due to the specific number of allocated seats, the exercise of “pre-selection” of candidates has taken place in many places. It is not difficult to assume that in certain regions or provinces, the political race will run along the line of ethnic groups. For instance, in order to have “favoured” candidates win the election by default, it is logical to intimidate other candidates into withdrawing their nomination applications.

So, these are my fear. Sometimes I feel that my effort and time are wasted here. Many times I fear for the Afghans who truly want to see their children grow up in a peaceful country without intimidation or discrimination. With the recent bombing and killings of innocent Afghans in a mosque in Kandahar, my fear becomes magnified. If the Afghans do not start to pick themselves up, I doubt anybody else could. Those who truly want to make a change are often being killed or terrorized. How then, could things change? Am I deluded to believe that things will change for the better for these people?

Yes, these are the reasons why I have been asking myself what the hell am I doing here. So, what makes me think twice to stay? As Andrew Beckett, a character played by Tom Hanks in Philadelphia said, “What I love most about the law? I love most about the law is because not often but very occasionally, you are a part of justice being done.

So, what has kept me here despite being frustrated and disappointed, is that the little faith left in me says perhaps, just perhaps, I might be a part of justice being done in Afghanistan.

*The name has been changed to preserve the identity of the victim.


Written on 9 June 2005

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