Thursday, October 23, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part XI)

Recently, I am working with our national Provincial Public Information Officer (PPIO), Tahir, to organise an event for the people of Panjao. Tahir is a famous traditional singer in Bamyan, which is why I recruited him for the position so that he could attract the people with his musical talent. He is some sort of our local electoral ambassador, if you like.

(I like Tahir very much. He has this baby face that has the ability to brighten up everyone's day just with a smile. He has a kind heart as well and when something made him sad, he had this expression where you just knew he really cared and felt affected by it.)

We wanted to organize a musical concert with electoral theme in it. It’s a fun way of educating people and also to foster unity among them. I just thought that the Afghans have been suffering for years and it’s time to rejoice and have some light and easy entertainment. No major event with all the boring speeches but just uplifting traditional music with meaningful messages.

I went to talk to the principal of this high school to allow us to use the school compound for the concert. We also wanted some of his female teachers and students to come up with some drama, skit, etc.

The principal is a Haji and an elderly man. We presented him with our programme and as soon as he saw musical concert, he started telling me that the women should not be allowed to sit in the concert and asked to leave the event when the concert starts. I was startled because I thought the Hazaras are more liberal compared to the Tajiks and Pashtos.

I asked him why and he told me that the people believe that the Taliban was a result of women participating in musical concert in Afghanistan. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My initial reaction was to break into a guffaw because of the ridiculous statement he made. But I knew that if I start to show signs of hilarity in what he said which, to him appeared to be a very grave issue, I would only make matter worse.

So, with as serious a face as I could, I told him that the Taliban came because certain groups of people used religion to gain power and control over others. It happens in other parts of the world as well and it’s not because of women enjoying music. Then he went on about how uneducated the people are and they would not understand or accept this.

I told him that we were not trying to organize a rock or pop concert. The songs contain messages regarding the election, etc. and because I’m working for the UN which promotes equality between men and women, I cannot organize an event which discriminates  women.

Then I tried to convince him by saying that the Islamic State of Afghanistan Constitution protects women’s rights as well. I told him that if the people of Afghanistan want to progress and develop, they would have to acknowledge the role and rights of women in society of which the women make up 60 per cent of the population. I asked him to put aside the stereotype people have here but what did he think about it himself?

He kept quiet. Then he said, by allowing the women to vote is a big step in acknowledging their rights. The people need to take each step at a time. Point taken and I respected that argument.

There were two female teachers in the room and I turned to them and asked them what they thought about it. The women started getting excited and I didn’t know what they said. Then my Language Assistant translated that the women said they should be allowed to sit in the concert and they want to enjoy the music as well. I thought to myself…oh-oh…these men are going to go around and poison the people’s mind that I’m the devil that brings bad influence to their women.

I left the meeting promising the principal that I would not organize an event which might create controversy or commotion in the community because that would defeat the whole purpose. But also, I would not organize an event which discriminate women on unreasonable grounds and the Taliban excuse just isn’t good enough. We would either have a concert with both men and women or we don’t have a concert at all. But I would discuss this with other people to find out their opinions.

When I got back to report this to Raffaele, the Provincial Field Coordinator (PFC) for Panjao, and he thought I was being paranoid for nothing. Maybe I was but at the same time, a lot of these European or Western people tend to be very “insensitive” to the local culture and thought that liberation is all about the bullet-approach – just shoot. But what if you end up shooting yourself in the foot?

He kept insisting that the people have to start somewhere and now is the time. But how do we know whether now is truly the time? I could not answer that question in absolute certainty.

Then I thought to myself, am I turning into Mahathir Mohammad? Once he said that human rights should suit the temperament of a country or something to that extent. I just don’t want to end up being one of those Westerner who pushes his/her ideas around and thinking that his/her idea is the right one.

So anyway, we came up with a brilliant idea of putting the burden on the District Governor. Tahir and Jaffar, Raffaele’s Language Assistant, went to see him and presented to him what Haji Yunoos (the principal) had told us. The District Governor was absolutely mad when he heard this and started cursing who the hell is Haji Yunoos to decide what is best for the people. He said that it is perfectly all right to have a concert with the women in it.

So, Raffaele and I thought, if the District Governor has said so – then if something happens, we’re just going to say that the District Governor gave the green light. Not our problem at all. So it really makes me wonder whether Haji Yunoos is a pro-Taliban man himself. We’ll see, as the concert is due on 13 May.

Back to how I ended up in Panjao. Initially, I was meant to stay in Bamyan to be the Regional Civic Education Coordinator instead of a Provincial Civic Education Officer. This would be a de facto “promotion” kind of thing without any increment of allowance or official elevation of status. But it does mean bigger responsibilities and challenges.

There were just Phillip and I and one of us had to stay at the regional level. We were still waiting for 2 other international civic education officers to cover the whole of Central Highlands (which has 4 Provinces). Hari left it to us to decide who would stay.

Neither Phillip nor I wanted to stay in Bamyan. Phillip wanted to escape the extra responsibility while I just want to get out of Bamyan after being there for 6 months although acknowledging the fact that the condition would be worse in the Province. I’ve heard and seen the hardship of people in the Province.

Raffaele used to go on a road mission to Panjao to assess registration sites and to talk to the people before he was permanently deployed to Panjao. After 10 days, he would come back looking completely exhausted, dirty and extremely thin and malnourished. My heart would literal ache seeing that. But I wanted to broaden my knowledge and understanding of Central Highlands. I’ve heard so much about the Provinces and wanted to see it for myself.

Anyway, the civic education headquarters in Kabul recommended me to stay in Bamyan and I got pressured into staying. At the same time, I had a different or should I say idealistic understanding of my role as the coordinator. I thought I would be able to travel to all 4 provinces doing monitoring and support for the civic education staffs. That thought appealed to me and I decided to stay in Bamyan. Phillip was sent to Ghazni province.

So my first task was to support Panjao team knowing that our 2 new international staffs would not arrive until end of April and middle of May. I worked on the operational plan for civic education with Raffaele and established good working relationship with the Panjao national civic educators. All these took place in Bamyan prior to the deployment.

We worked until 4:30am one night and came out with a well-organised plan for both the national Field Coordinators and Civic Educators. I was very pleased with it. On the day of their deployment, I stood at the gate waving the team off. They moved in a convoy of 10 grey Russian jeeps.

As each jeep moved out from the gate, I bid them farewell and knew each and everyone of them by their names and which area they were going. By the 4th jeep, my eyes were brimming with tears. Luckily I had my sunglasses on. I did not know I was going to be that emotional but at that time, I felt sad not being able to go along with them after working with them so intensely for the past few weeks.

After they left, I went to my office and tried to gather my emotion together. But as soon as I stepped inside, Homa, started bawling. That sight just turned on the tap of my soul. We both just hugged each other and cried. I guess what had made me sad was the fact that I would never know how they were doing in the field and what sort of problems they would be facing.

The jeeps have no radio communications and they all do not have any Thurayas (satellite phones). National staffs are not bound by security regulations. They are not covered by insurance and hence are able to travel without all the mandatory installation of communication gadgets. Raffaele could not go with them either because the office and accommodation in Panjao were not MOSS (minimum operational security standard) compliant yet. But he had to send the national staffs out because time was running out.

Raffaele was constantly filled with guilt for sending his team out without all the communication tools in place and we hated Kabul for forcing us to start operation without providing us with the proper support or resources.

UNAMA is completely fucked up here and it is violating all human rights standards. You might think that, “Hey, it’s a war zone here and who cares about human rights?” Well, I do and in view that everything has been less than ideal here, we just have to learn to cope with it, whether we like it or not. A lesson, which I have finally learned after so many years.

So, we didn’t hear from the team until a week after when Raffaele was finally deployed to Panjao. I stayed behind and was quite miserable. By that time, we had received another international civic education officer, G (withholding real name) from Nepal. be continued in Part XII....

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