Category Archives: Poverty

In rural Pakistan politics is still a violent, feudal, family business

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Support for the Pakistan People’s Party has been drastically reduced since it came out in the lead in the 2008 election. But the province of Sindh remains its stronghold. When I visited a rural constituency I found both the PPP and the PML-Q, which supported military ruler Pervez Musharraf, represented by political dynasties, relying on traditional loyalties from the poor to elect wealthy landowners. With corruption charges and a failure to tackle poverty along with ongoing politico-religious violence, the PPP in government proved a disappointment to many of its voters.

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Street traders in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Thatta 20.02.2008

Buses honk, motorised rickshaws putter and cars and lorries rattle through the centre of Thatta. Mechanics hammer and weld in small workshops. A shopkeeper struggles to open a metal shutter and start business for the day.

Modernity has brought its noise and its pollution to interior Sindh, the rural heartland of the Pakistan People’s Party, the PPP.

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Soomar prepares to sell milk in Thata Photo: Tony Cross

But Thatta has kept its traditions, too. Street-vendor Soomar stands in a side-road ladelling milk from large churns to small ones, ready to carry it around town on his skinny shoulders.

Another tradition here, as in much of Pakistan, is a fractious political scene. Monday’s election may have escaped the major bombings that were feared but about 20 people were killed throughout the country on the day.

One of them was Thatta’s assistant presiding officer. He was shot by a police officer. At least the crime doesn’t seem to have been politically motivated. The officer of the Islamic republic is reported to have been drunk.

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A donkey cart struggle through the traffic in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Another death, yesterday, was political. PPP workers who were celebrating victory in one of the Thatta seats clashed with supporters of the losers, the PML-Q. One PPP member was killed.

On the busy main road, a group of People’s Party supporters say the shoot-out was an unwarranted attack. In his party’s local headquarters, which are almost deserted today, Safraz Shah Shirazi, a former PML-Q National Assembly member, claims that the PPP men provoked the attack by noisily bursting into the homes of his party members.

He adds that he condemns the violence that has taken place during the election.

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Safraz Shah Shirazi Photo: Tony Cross

Shirazi didn’t stand this time but his brothers stood for the two Thatta National Assembly seats … one successfully, the other being the loser in the constituency where yesterday’s confrontation took place.

Three other Shirazis stood for the Provincial Assembly and the top district official, the nazim, is also a relation.

So another Pakistani tradition is alive and well in Thatta … a tendency for one or two families to dominate a district’s political life.

PPP activists here denounce this as “feudal”, although their party owes much of its influence in Sindh to the fact that PPP leaders, starting with the Bhuttos, own huge landed estates in the province.

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Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

In Thatta newly-elected Provincial Assembly member Abdul Jaleel Memon comes from a PPP dynasty.

“My grandfather was elected in 1970 – he was one of the founder-members of the party – and he was elected Provincial Assembly member from this same constituency which I have been elected,” he explains. “My father was elected from this constituency. This is our third generation in People’s Party and we are committed to this party.”

Jaleel’s home resembles a feudal court today, with dozens of local men come to pay their respects. In front of the house, cloth stretched from poles provides shade from the sun for visitors, guards and a couple of cars. Inside the main room is packed with congratulators, favour-seekers and ingratiators.

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Local people at the home of Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

Jaleel promises to tackle poverty with industrial development.

“The main problem in Thatta is employment,” he says and promises that his party will revive a project for a 5,000-megawatt power-plant, which he claims was planned by the Benazir Bhutto government but shelved by its successor.

To hear my radio report from Thatta in 2008 for RFI click here

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Sassi Paleejo Photo: Tony Cross

In her large house just outside town, another newly-elected Provincial Assembly member, Sassi Paleejo, is in her element. Brightly-dressed and weighed down by garlands of flowers, she, too, is holding to court to dozens of well-wishers. In between greeting visitors and an interview with a TV crew, she boisterously leads the crowd in chants of ‘Bhutto zinda hai!” and “People’s Party zindabad!”

Paleejo is quick to point out that not only is she the only woman to have been elected in Sindh, she’s the only woman to have run for either a provincial or a national seat, although others will be given reserved seats in both assemblies.

Her election campaign may have been helped by the Bhutto aura. She was a close friend and political collaborator of Benazir and, unsurprisingly, remains faithful to her memory. She predicts that the first act of the new government will be to ask the UN to investigate Benazir’s assassination, a demand which seems to have slipped national party leaders’ memories in the aftermath of the election.

She dismisses the idea that the Bhutto family’s dominance of the party is a weakness, especially after Benazir’s death, describing such dynasties as “kind of a norm in south Asia”, as with the Bandaranaike family in Sri Lanka or the Gandhis in India.

Paleejo believes that the PPP will be able to cohabit with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, despite their past rivalry, citing as not very convincing evidence, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, an anti-Musharraf front which broke up when the two parties fell out.

The new Provincial Assembly member could yet fall victim to the PML-Q’s penchant for the continuation of politics by judicial means. She’s facing terror charges, arising from the riots that exploded after Benazir’s assassination.

“They claim that, at a time, I attacked four to five police stations, that I stole their weapons, I was involved in so many different kinds of riots and attacks.”

No charges have been laid for the murder of PPP workers, she claims, “but right now Pakistan is the unique district where you will see that more than 120,000 cases have been registered against our people.”

Several candidates were charged in Thatta, seriously hampering their campaigns.

“Even during my election campaign, the first thing I used to do was I had to go to the Session Court for a hearing, then I had to rush to Anti-Terrorist Court … and then I had to come back to Thatta and run my election campaign.”

But “we believe democracy, we believe in Benazir Bhutto’s sacrifice, that’s why we won’t let our people down.”

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Makli cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

On our way back to Karachi we stopped at the Moghul-era Makli cemetery, parts of which have been restored.

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Sufi snake-charmer Photo: Tony Cross

There were Sufi pir snake-charmers there.

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An adventure with a snake

Yes, they made me hold the snake – it’s like having a muscle rap itself around your arm.

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Mongoose v snake Photo: Tony Cross

… before setting a mongoose on it and killing it (this wasn’t my idea!).

Before the election … the PPP campaigns near Islamabad

During the election campaign I saw the PPP campaigning in a rural constituency near Islamabad. Candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari insisted he had the voters’ interests at hear but it wasn’t easy to see what he had in common with them.

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Nayyar Hussein Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

Zia Masjid 12.02.2008

The village of Zia Masjid doesn’t seem especially bucolic. The motorway out of Islamabad roars right past it. Many of its buildings are brick and concrete structures, several storeys high.

Parliamentary candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari describes his constituency, which covers parts of Islamabad and some of the villages around it, as 80% rural and Zia Masjid as one of its suburban districts.

The main entrance from the major road is blocked by stones and a police officer with a rifle, part of the security for an open air meeting in support of Bukhari’s bid to be re-elected on behalf of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party, the PPP.

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The audience at Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

You can enter the village by a side road and drive along a ridge until you are overlooking a patch of dusty ground. Here an auditorium has been created by making a wall of blue-patterned cloth stretched on poles. On one side a huge banner bears the party’s colours, red, green and black, its symbol, an arrow, and giant pictures of Bukhari and Bhutto.

At first, there are only a few party activists and scruffy children, all male, many with skin complaints and snotty noses, dressed in ear-muffs and woolly hats against the relative cool of a February afternoon.

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Prayers open the meeting Photo: Tony Cross

As a young man tests the rackety sound system, without any evident effect on the distortion it visits on the voices and music it broadcasts, eager party members lead the kids in a warm-up chant. A tape of Benazir’s voice, hoarsely addressing a crowd before her assassination, echoes across the empty seats. There are no women present.

A crowd forms well before the arrival of the candidate. Mansour Ahmad, a tall, gaunt man who looks eerily like a Pakistani George Orwell dressed in a checkered scarf and double-breasted jacket over a shalwar kameez, fervently denounces Musharraf as an “unwanted and unnecessary person in our country” and predicts that his party will triumph in next week’s election.

An old, raggedly-dressed man raises the main concern of many voters, the rising price of basic foods and other essentials.

“We are citizens of Pakistan and we cannot find attar [the wheat-flour with which chapattis are made]. Everything is getting very expensive. So we get into debt … We have no money, we don’t run businesses, we don’t have any work. We can’t afford clothes, there’s no electricity, no gas. Everything is finished! Where should we go?”

When Bukhari finally emerges from a land-cruiser, he’s mobbed by boys and men alike.

The candidate glows under the blaze of attention, although he isn’t quite as freshly pink as his picture on the election posters, and handshakes his way through the crowd.

There are good many warm-up acts. Mansour Ahmad chairs the meeting and introduces the local imam who says a prayer. Then a succession of village orators take the stand. Their delivery is more than competent, a tribute to the survival of oral culture in Pakistan. It’s impossible to imagine a comparable number of good speakers in a European village or small town.

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Zia Masjid prepares for the PPP meeting Photo: Tony Cross

Bukhari is well-received when he speaks and he doesn’t fail to invoke the memory of Benazir. Like many Pakistani politicians, he’s a lawyer, so certainly considerably better-off than his audience. Seated in the landcruiser as he whizzes to his next engagement, I ask if he understands the problems of the poor people of Zia Masjid.

He seems slightly offended and a little flustered by the question.

“Yes, of course I do, sir,” he says. “Because I hail from a rural area and I understand the people’s problem.”

He adds that he was, in fact, born and brought up in the area that he represents.

“Most of the people they ask for the provision of the basic necessities, you know, provision of the gas, roads, schools, hospitals. These are the basic things which they lack in the area.”

He claims that the PPP started providing gas to smaller communities. “Since 1996 People’s Party’s out of power and not a single village has been provided gas by any succeeding government.”

There are no colleges in the area and he wants more colleges and schools “for girls and for boys, also” to combat illiteracy.

The PPP has been encouraged by opinion polls produced by two  right-wing American organizations, Terror Free Tomorrow, on whose board sits Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, and the International Republican Institute. They show the party winning 50% or more of the vote, with Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League-N, coming second and Musharraf’s allies, the Muslim League-Q trailing in third place.

Bukhari says that the party will be pluralistic in victory, seeking to form a coalition with all “democratic forces” even if it wins a majority of seats on its own. But that doesn’t include “the one that was under the umbrella of a uniform”, that is to say PML-Q.

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Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Islamabad Photo: Tony Cross

Back in the city, Bukhari rushes into another improvised meeting-place. Colourful materials form decorative walls for the next meeting, which this time is composed only of women.

To hear my radio report for RFI of Bukhari on the campaign trail click here

To read and listen to my reports of 2007-08 in Pakistan click here

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Crime, poverty, Baloch nationalism and politics in Karachi

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The Karachi slum of Lyari was exultant after the 2008 election that toppled military ruler Pervez Musharraf. Populated largely by migrants from the state of Balochistan, where a separatist rebellion has been going on for decades, it is notorious for its poverty and gangsterism, which has also seeped into the cities politics. On a brief visit I met some interesting individuals, whose political activism could have been linked to other interests.

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Containers in the port of Karachi Photo: Tony Cross

Karachi, 19.02.2008

Lyari is a traffic-choked slum near Karachi’s port. Piles of rubbish fester underfoot and flies settle on anything that doesn’t move. Blocked drains spill sewage into the street, leaving puddles of filth which will become breeding-grounds for disease-bearing mosquitoes.

But many people in Lyari are exultant today. Unofficial results show a humiliation for President Pervez Musharraf and his allies. The politicians have rushed to Islamabad, as the People’s Party tries to form a government.

The PPP has come out in front, although some of the sympathy generated by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination seems to have evaporated in the polling booths. The party doesn’t seem to have lived up to the most optimistic predictions, while Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N is believed to have done a bit better than expected, mostly in Punjab where it rules the roost again.

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Boys sells offal to feed the birds on a bridge overlooking Karachi’s port Photo: Tony Cross

 

Karachi is in the PPP’s strongest province, Sindh. But the giant city’s politics are complicated by the existence of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the MQM, whose vote-base is the mohajirs, Urdu-speaking immigrants who fled India at the time of partition.

There have been many other groups of immigrants since then, both from other Asian countries and from Pakistan’s poorer provinces.

Listen to my report from Karachi in 2008 for RFI

The biggest group in Lyari is from Balochistan province. In an empty shell of a building, which should probably be a shop, I meet Khuda Baksh and Mahmoud Yacub.

They’re Baloches and they worked for the PPP. Baksh is clearly somebody around here. He’s tall, walks with a swagger, wears flashy wrap-around sunglasses along with more traditional Pakistani clothes and speaks passable English.

I don’t know whether he unduly influenced voters but he certainly tries to influence my interviewees. After agreeing to translate, he leans over and whispers to them, apparently anxious that they may fail to mention to his party favourably.

He doesn’t have to put words in the mouth of Air Bibi, who lives up to the reputation of Baloch women for forthright assertiveness. Without waiting to be asked, she explodes into praise of Benazir –“Benazir is in our hearts! Benazir is our star! Benazir is our daughter!” and condemnation of Musharraf “He will be out, insha’allah!”, punctuated with “aah! aah!”, “upurroopurroopurra!” and finger-clicking.

Air Bibi finishes with a declaration of Baloch pride. Further down the street, Zahid, one of a group of young men who gather around me, mixes Baloch nationalism with resentment of the poverty around him.

“Look at this area! We are not having each and everything, especially Baloch nation. And also Punjabis are providing each and everything by the government.”

He gestures to the grimy buildings. “See our areas? Nothing has been providing our nation. We are jobless and everything. If PPP governs, it gives each and everything to Baloch nation.”

Baksh and Yacub are clearly annoyed that the MQM, which allied itself to the PML-Q in Sindh and at a national level, seems to have resisted the anti-Musharraf wave in this election and won about 20 seats.

In one of those they-say-we cheated-we say-they-cheated declarations, Baksh claims to have been swindled out of votes in his ballywick.

Karachi is a violent place and in this election the city was up to its previous bloody form. Party workers have passed from polemic to shoot-out on several occasions. Five activists have been killed, the latest being a PPP member killed in a gunfight with MQM supporters on Friday.

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A young couple enjoy the late afternoon Photo: Tony Cross

The PPP accuses the MQM of vote-rigging and kidnapping some of its workers. The MQM accuses the PPP of using “the mafia” to improve its chances of electoral success.

Elsewhere in the city, Karachi residents amuse themselves. On the bridge by the port, crowds buy lumps of lung from ragged boys and throw them to scavenger birds. The birds swoop and catch them in their claws, never letting a single morsel fall into the water below.

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Camel ride on Seaview Beach Photo: Tony Cross

On Seaview beach no-one swims. Here boys sell ice-cream and corn-on-the-cob and offer to take your photo. Families mount on camels and young men ride beautiful white and brown horses across the dark mud as night falls.

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Sunset approaches on Seaview Beach Photo: Tony Cross

Read and listen to my reports for RFI from Pakistan in 2007-08 here

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Lions, tigers and tight security as Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) builds on Punjab base

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Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, not to be accused with the breakaway PML-Q, had to wait until 2013 to profit from disillusion with the PPP and take over Pakistan’s government. But they were on the ascendant in the 2008 poll, especially in their power base of Punjab, the province that dominates the country in many ways. But they were worried about election fraud, as well any Pakistani politician may, since almost all of them have an intimate acquaintance with the phenomenon. A report I wrote up after a PML-N rally in 2008.

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Shahbaz Sharif (C in scarf) waits to address the Sheikhupura rally Photo: Tony Cross

Sheikhupura 16.02.2008

Sheikhupura is not far from the motorway between Lahore and Islamabad, which Nawaz Sharif reportedly feels is one of the three great achievements of his time as Prime Minister.

The other two are the “green tractors” scheme – cheap loans for farmers to buy tractors – and the yellow cab scheme – more cheap loans, this time for prospective taxi-drivers.

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Sheikhupura welcomes Shahbaz Photo: Tony Cross

The nation’s cabbies still remember this last measure and the chairman of the Pakistan Yellow Cab Federation, Najam-us-Saqib, along with several other taxi-drivers, accompanies the caravan that drives from Lahore to Sheikhapura for an election rally which will star, Nawaz’s brother, Shahbaz.

Shahbaz is president of the Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League N, and a former Chief Minister of Punjab province, which is the PML-N’s heartland and has 54% of the seats in the National Assembly. He wants his old job back.

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“No fear” – Police guard the platform Photo: Tony Cross

Security at the rally is as tight as at the PPP meeting in Faisalabad two days ago. The PML-N leaders are protected by the party’s own stewards, the Punjab police (wearing jackets bearing the slogan “No Fear” on the back) and the national police, all armed. As at the PPP rally, the podium is surrounded by an empty space fenced off from the audience, although the crowd shows no sign of evil intent towards Shahbaz or his comrades.

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Tiger, lion … any big cat will do to show your support for PML-N, sometimes they even bring the real thing on the back of a truck Photo: Tony Cross

Quite the contrary. Young men wear lion T-shirts to recall the party’s symbol, which is actually a tiger but any big cat seems to do so long as it’s sufficiently rugged. Older men brandish placards welcoming Shahbaz to their town and a small group of women, most of whom wear cover, file in to take specially designated seats. A portly gentleman in a flowing robe, orange turban and wooden necklace shouts slogans and goes into ecstasies when leaflets are dropped from above.

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“Do you have such zeal?” supporters show their enthusiasm for the PML-N Photo: Tony Cross

An enthusiastic local journalist asks how this compares to election rallies in Europe. “Do you have such zeal?”

The PML-N takes the firmest line on one of the key questions in the election campaign – Musharraf’s sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry and 60 judges who refused to take a new oath of office after the president declared a state of emergency.

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Women enter the reserved section of the PML-N rally Photo: Tony Cross

Nawaz Sharif has promised that they will be reinstated, although the party programme is a little vaguer, promising only “a coherent strategy” to get them their jobs back. The PPP’s programme makes no commitment at all on the question.

Last night, on the way back to Lahore from Gujrat, student Wasim Bhatt was among villagers letting off fireworks to welcome the PML-N candidate for their areas. He cited his belief that the party is “struggling for our judiciary” as the main reason why he supported it.

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A relatively restrained part of the crowd Photo: Tony Cross

At the rally, party member and housewife, Rafiyal, has the cost of living on her mind.

“Skyrocketing prices are disturbing now. At the time that Nawaz Sharif was prime minister I bought attar flower at only six rupees per kilo. Now it’s 40 rupees per kilo.”

When he speaks, Shahbaz Sharif seems to have difficulty complying with security needs. Hands flailing and jabbing in various directions, he seems desperate to escape from behind the bullet-proof glass that protects the rostrum. He must be one of those Pakistani politicians who, I’m told, are unhappy about the distance from their supporters imposed by the fear of bombs and assassination.

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Drummers give their hands a rest Photo: Tony Cross

The party seems seriously worried that fraud will rob them of seats. Shahbaz promises polling officials that the party will make their lives a misery if they give in to pressure to cheat.

Later PML-N press attaché, Khawaja Aamer Raza, says they have already uncovered several cases of trickery by the PML-Q, which split from the PML-N and supports Musharraf.

“PML-Q candidates have been supported by government funds and government machinery,” he claims. “And the establishment and the police and the other agencies, they are supporting openly and they are asking for the votes for the PML-Q.”

But he hopes that the “ratio of hatred” against Musharraf and his allies will save the day, by making it impossible to rig the vote sufficiently to give them victory.

For an audio report of the PML-N’s election campaign click here. and for my reports for RFI on the 2008 election click here.

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Peoples Party trades on Benazir martyrdom to harvest votes from poor in Pakistan’s 2008 election

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Despite her assassination, Benazir Bhutto was to play a major role in Pakistan’s 2008 rally. Her recorded voice and her picture meant she was the star at election rallies addressed by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, a dodgy businessman converted into the guardian of the Bhutto martyr cult – a handy propaganda weapon for a party led by wealthy landowners but drawing most of its votes from the poor, some of whom call for socialist revolution. This is my account of a rally in the city of Faisalabad, written at the time.

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A young man brandishes a poster of Benazir and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at the rally in Faisalabad Photo: Tony Cross

Faisalabad 14.02.2008

The Benazir cult is at its height in Faisalabad, an industrial city in Punjab province where her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, has chosen to hold the last of his small number of election rallies.

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An exultant PPP supporter enters the rally at Faisalabad Photo: Tony Cross

The Benazir tape plays again and again. Her image is everywhere – on banners, on posters and on placards held by the faithful. Sometimes her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, gets into the picture, too. He was the party’s founder and its first martyr, when General Zia ul-Haq deposed him as prime minister and then had him hanged.

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Young PPP supporters Photo: Tony Cross

The martyrology appeals to Rayur Abbas, who, judging by his references to the battle of Kerbala and the death of Ali, is a Shia-Moslem and has the Shia admiration for sacrifice and solidarity with the oppressed.

“Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first prime minister in Pakistan who give the courage to the lowest persons of this country,” he says. “Before Zulfikar Ali Bhutto the lowest persons  could not talk with the rich persons, their owners where they do the work. He gave us the courage to speak against the rich persons which don’t give you the rights.”

The fact that the Bhuttos and many other PPP leaders are big landowners, often called “feudal” by their critics, doesn’t worry him.

“In the circumstances of Pakistan, the poor person cannot participate in the political system  because this is the old game of money … There is no doubt that the rich persons are leading us but the training of the Pakistan People’s Party is, if you cannot support the poor persons, you cannot live in our party.”

The Bhutto family is the only family in Pakistan to have sacrificed their lives for their convictions, he says.

“The others have not a single sacrifice – not a little scratch of the skin. But Benazir Bhutto – I salute her.”

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Female PPP activists organise the women’s seating at the Faisalabad rally Photo: Tony Cross

Under an increasingly hot sun, a crowd of thousands assembles. Many are clearly poor. There are representatives of the local tobacco-workers’ union which is supporting the PPP. Women file in through a separate entrance, where they are frisked by female cops and party workers. A large delegation of students chants “Benazir zindabad!” – “Long live Benazir!”

One of their leaders, Ali Hassan Bukhari, strikes a radical note, which seems inconsistent with the party’s record in government.

“We want a socialist revolution here in Pakistan,” he declares.” And every problem will be solved through revolution. No reformism, we don’t want any reformism. The need of the hour is a socialist revolution. That is the only solution, not only for the students but for all people of this country and, also, not only for this country but for the whole world.”

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Security at the entry to the rally Photo: Tony Cross

Zardari, whose nickname is “Mr Ten Per-cent” because of his reputation for corruption when his wife was prime minister, doesn’t seem to have this course of action in mind. Recently he told the newspapers that he was ready to form a coalition government of all parties, including Musharraf’s allies, the PML-Q.

Bukhari feels that is due to pressure from journalists.
“When our leader goes to a media person, his thinking is something else,” he says and adds that the real Zardari reveals himself when he speaks to the ordinary people.

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A young man dances as drummers warm up the crowd Photo: Tony Cross

After four hours of chanting and speeches, Zardari finally speaks.

He declares that democracy will be the best revenge for his wife’s death and hints that he may shift the balance of power away from Punjab, which is perceived as dominating the country’s politics and the military, declaring that equality between all the provinces is the best way to avoid animosity against Punjabis.

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The women’s section at the rally Photo: Tony Cross

The crowd pours into the street as soon as Zardari finishes. A car with two young men in it zig-zags through the traffic, playing a tape of Benazir at full volume with the windows down.

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The audience approves at the PPP Faisalabad rally Photo: Tony Cross

For audio reports on the PPP election campaign click here and on this rally click here.

For all my reports for RFI on the 2008 Pakistan election click here.

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Pakistan’s Islamist parties – a legacy of military dictators and Afghanistan’s wars

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In 2007 the rule of General Pervez Musharraf was drawing to an end. His seizure of power in 2001 had encountered little opposition but his failure to tackle corruption and poverty and his support for the US’s post 9/11 War on Terror, which gave birth to a dirty war in Pakistan itself, meant that he was unpopular and under political pressure in 2007. Now the man he kicked out, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistani Muslim League (PMLN) – not to be confused with Musharraf’s PMLQ – was coming back to Pakistan after living in exile as a guest of Saudi Arabia. I was sent to cover his return – which didn’t happen. But I was able to report on the state of the country ahead of Musharraf’s fall in 2008.

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Mounted police prevent journalists gaining access to Islamabad airport as Nawaz Sharif arrives, only to be sent back to Saudi Arabia Photo: Tony Cross

Sharif touched down, only to be sent back to Saudi, Musharraf quite rightly fearing the reception he would have received … and did when he finally returned in 2008. The press was prevented from covering his arrival, we sweated in the sun on the road leading to the airport, while TV showed footage of a visibly shaken Sharif being escorted back to his plane by police.

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Future prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (2nd L, front row) prepares to announce that Benazir Bhutto will return to Pakistan at a hastily organised press conference in Peshawar Photo: Tony Cross

In Peshawar the PPP proudly announced that their leader, Benazir Bhutto, would soon return. She did, to a rapturous reception, only to be assassinated as she campaigned against Musharraf.

Unfortunately, the account I wrote at the time has vanished into the guts of a computer, as have others on the Palestinian presidential election in 2005 and the Turkish presidential election in 2007, but I have managed to reconstitute this report on the religious parties’ alliance, the MMA, a minority but an influential one, thanks largely to the manoeuvring of various military rulers, the failures of Pakistan’s education system and the fallout from the Afghan wars. An account of the 2008 election campaign will follow.

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Waliat Khan, who makes rabobs – a traditional musical instrument – in Peshawar. His business survived despite a MMA ban on public musical performances Photo: Tony Cross

Peshawar, September 2007

Peshawar is capital of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), separated from Pakistan by the self-administering tribal areas, Pashtun country, like much of Afghanistan, and much affected by the Afghan war.

It has hosted millions of refugees since the Afghan Communist Party, the PDPA, took power in the 1970s and has continued to do so in the decades of war that have followed.

Since 2002 the province, and the city, have been run by an alliance of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, (MMA).

Shortly after taking over, the MMA passed a law which decreed a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law throughout the province.

Music for amusement was banned in public places, barbers forbidden to shave their customers, the two alcohol licences permitted to hotels frequented by non-Muslims were withdrawn, women were ordered to wear the burka and women’s bodies on hoardings covered up.

Musicians found ways round the law by simply moving to different places away from the authorities’ gaze, while bootleggers made it known that they would deliver booze to your door – cheaper, since they didn’t have to pay for licences.

But the law proved unpopular, as did the religious police set up to enforce it.

Anwar Kamal is a local leader of the Muslim League, PMLN, which is allied to the

MMA at national level and voted for sharia in the province.

Sitting in his comfortable home in a middle-class district of the city, he seems to regret the vote now.

“At the instructions of the present [provincial] government, you see, these people would come out on roads, stop your vehicle, pull out your cassette-player, break it there, pull out these billboards that would carry ladies’ photographs,” he says. “I’m not the one that disapproved of that but the common man also disapproved of that.”

Taking on music – a favourite amusement of all Pakistanis apart from the most puritanical of religious activists – appears to have cost the MMA and their religious police a lot of support.

The MMA claims to be more concerned about social justice than the Moslem League.

But in North West Frontier Province, and in Baloochistan, the other province where it is part of a governing coalition, it hasn’t got far in wiping out poverty.

Kamal argues that deprives it of the right to be too strict in introducing sharia.

“Islam says when somebody commits a theft crime you chop off his hand,” he concedes. “But there’s a precondition and that precondition is that you provide him an opportunity so that he can earn his own living. But if the government or the state fails to provide him that opportunity of earning, then you cannot punish him under Islamic law, that is chopping off his hand, you can put him in jail.”

Confronted by the federal government, which dubbed its actions “unconstitutional”, the provincial government has dissolved the religious police.

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Pupils at the Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa Photo: Tony Cross

Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa, south of Peshawar, is one of thousands of religious schools in Pakistan which take up the slack left by a resource-starved public education system.

It’s one of the biggest, with about 3,000 students, and one of the most radical.

Haqqania’s head, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, was a friend and admirer of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and sent students to fight for him.

Ul-Haq also leads a breakaway faction of the Jamaat-Ulema-Islam, the country’s second biggest Islamist party, which has split from the MMA.

“They did not go on the road that we had decided,” explains Syeed Yusuf Shah, who teaches at the madrassa and is the faction’s North-West Frontier Province general-secretary. “We made some contents but they did not even work one per cent on that contents. For example, one of them was that we will not help America. But we helped. So we showed to our nation that we would do this-this-this contents but we didn’t do even zero per cent for them. That’s why MMA is unsuccessful.”

The maulana makes no secret of his support for the Taliban fighting the current Afghan government and his contempt for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose cooperation with George Bush’s War on Terror has strengthened the religious parties, especially in NWFP, most of whose people are Pashtun like the majority of Afghans.

For a fuller report of my visit to Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa click here 

The violence of the Afghan conflict often spreads over the border.

But Pakistan hasn’t suffered the decades of civil war which brought the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.

The MMA mayor of Peshawar. Cahulam Ali, claims that gave the Taliban a mandate for sharia which his party didn’t have.

“Taliban government was supported by the people there,” he argues. “They were happy with that government. They obeyed Islamic rules but the Taliban did not impose their will on them. If you impose people here with the sharia bill in this area, people will oppose and people did oppose this bill. They say that at that time there was no gun, there was no fight between them – why do you impose us to do it?”

In areas where they haven’t won a majority, some hardline Islamists still try to enforce their views – trying to destroy statues of the Buddha in the Swat Valley, for example, threatening to kill barbers who shave of beards or bullying a woman who had acid thrown in her face not to go to an NGO because NGOs are supposedly agents of the infidel West.

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Barbed wire around the Lal Masjid after it was stormed Photo: Tony Cross

In Istanbul two brothers used the city’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) as a base to send madrassa students out to close down Chinese massage parlours, claiming they were really brothels, enforce bans on alcohol and other measures.

After several months the army stormed the mosque, resulting in as many as 400 people being killed and enraging the religious parties and alienating part of the population.

I visited Qazi Hussein Ahmed, the leader the largest party in the MMA, Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), in his home in Islamabad, where he was under house arrest for his opposition to Musharraf, whom he blamed for the bloodshed.

“Nobody can understand why did he resort to the use of force,” he told me. “We can disagree with the people of Lal Masjid … but there were so many ways in which they could have been controlled and they could have been evacuated. But they resorted to very inhuman killings, indiscriminate killings of the people.”

JeI opposed extrajudicial attempts to impose sharia, he said, but insisted that the Western mind has been “poisoned” against Islamic law.

“The objectives of sharia are not understood,” he argues. “The basic objective of sharia is that man should be related to the creator and he should be God-conscious and he should have the sense that he is accountable before God for all his acts and this makes him a responsible person. We want that the life, the property and the honour and also the mind of a citizen should be protected … this can be done through persuasion and through education and through training.”

Westerners think it is simply a question of “chopping off hands or chopping off legs” but these are these are a “final resort” if people are “bent on creating corruption in society”.

The MMA’s difference with the PMLN was that they wanted social justice and disagreed with liberal, free-market economics, Ahmed said.

At national level, the religious parties don’t have enough support to rule alone and the secular PPP accuses them of being inconsistent in their opposition to Musharraf.

The MMA is also accused of whipping up sectarianism, especially against the Shia-Muslim minority, despite the presence of Shia religious parties in its ranks.

In the massive port city of Karachi, Shia politician Abbas Qulemi told me that sectarian violence was high in areas where the MMA is high, including in Dera Ismail Khan, the constituency of MMA leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and in NWFP.

“They have miserably failed in controlling the situation there [in NWFP], particularly in the killings of Shias,” he said. “You see, lots of Talibans are there … When they go to Afghanistan they fight there, when they come back they kill the Shias and, more surprisingly, the Shias are being killed and their relatives are being arrested.”

Both the religious parties and the Muslim League gained influence under the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s and 80s. A strict Muslim himself, he built them up to counter the PPP, whose leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he had executed after toppling him from power, and he was a key figure in helping Islamist mujaheddin fight the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan.

The MMA still has support, especially as opposition to Musharraf grows, but they can only hope to be part of a coalition, probably with the Muslim League which is unlikely to go along with their wish to impose sharia law. But they still exercise considerable influence on Pakistani politics and everyday life.

For an audio report on Pakistan’s religious parties click here 

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Women, warlords, drug-runners and NGOs … eyewitness to Afghanistan’s 2005 legislative election in Kabul and Herat

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In 2005 I covered Afghanistan’s first post-invasion parliamentary election. Here’s my account, written at the time, of how women and independent candidates struggled to make their voices heard, despite quotas, in a contest dominated by warlords and ethnic-based politicians. In the eastern city of Herat the legacy of one of these ruthless operators lives on, despite his being kicked upstairs to central government. In Kabul a former minister claims a mafia of warlords, drug-runners and NGOs is running the country.

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A Kabul kebab restaurant Photo: Tony Cross

Kabul, 11 September 2005

At last, the freedom they were fighting for! Four years after the US and its allies toppled the Taliban, Kabul has traffic jams.

Our midday journey from the airport to a hotel in the centre of town is excruciating, as we crawl through streets packed with private cars, taxis and land-cruisers.

At the end of the war, there were comparatively few motor vehicles.

Just under a year ago, during the presidential election, there was more traffic but not this asphyxiating blockade of the city’s main arteries.

Now the smog has become thicker and the thrum of engines ticking over lasts from mid-morning to evening. Every Kabuli has been granted the democratic right to sit and curse the car in front and pump fumes into the city’s already dust-laden air, whether in his or her own car, in a taxi or in a minibus stuffed full of passengers.

Except for the beggars and hawkers, of course. Amputees, women clad in soiled and faded burkas and kids selling newspapers dodge between the cars and tap on the windows. Near the junction of Park Street and Chicken Street, where foreigners shop for rugs and antique furniture, a man dressed in rags stands in the middle of the traffic, bent under the weight of an apparently paralysed boy who is strapped to his back for the day. The man holds out his hand for alms from the oncoming motorists, as the boy lies on top of him, occasionally rolling his head from side to side, apparently oblivious to the passing traffic.

The Americans are rebuilding the road from the airport, so that visiting dignitaries have a smooth run to their main compound, which is on the way into the city.

The concrete and barbed wire fortifications around their buildings, and those around others that house foreign organisations or Afghan ministries, seem to have been reinforced, eating even further into the streets around them. It doesn’t look as if their occupants expect to leave any day soon.

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A trader makes and seels Karzai-style astrakhan hats in a Kabul market Photo: Tony Cross

The square in front of the defence ministry is cordoned off  by police … not just because a convoy of cars belonging to Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak was attacked yesterday – the attack missed the minister who was out of town at the time – but also because the square is occupied by several hundred former soldiers.

We have to negotiate a passage through a barricade of bikes before we can talk to the protestors. They are some of several thousand military officers, about a third of the officer corps, who have been thrown out of the army.

These men used to belong to the various militias which were integrated into the army as part of the process which is supposed to demilitarise the country.

Having noticed that army officers’ salaries are several times higher than those of the police, the government has decided to dispense with their services.

The men, who seem to represent all of Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups, sit quietly in the dust around a van with a loudspeaker and a man on its roof, addressing them.

He climbs down and comes to talk to us.

Abdel Hafiz was a colonel. He says that the redundant officers could do the work now being done by the more than 30,000 foreign troops in a far-from-pacified country.

“We have high-ranking officers who are experienced and don’t need training. So we don’t need international forces to come here and secure our country.”

There aren’t a lot of jobs about nor spare fertile land to be worked.

“We’ve been borrowing from our friends and from our relatives, so now we are not able to borrow again. Now we’re out of money and our economic condition is getting worse.”

A crowd of about 40 men gathers as we talk. They all claim to be ex-mujahedin, who have fought either the Russians or the Taliban or both.

But the label can cover a multitude of sins. They could well have been involved in the brutality and sectarian viciousness which characterised the conflict and that means that many civilians don’t trust them.

Brought into the army by the post-war Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme, which aimed to find places for former fighters in a peaceful Afghanistan, they’ve now been deintegrated with little training in anything other than warfare … thousands of experienced fighters at a loose end in a country already ravaged by war.

Behind the cordon of truncheon-wielding police in front of the entrance to the ministry stands a line of soldiers, guns at the ready for use against their former officers if need be.

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A girl plays by the water pump installed by residents of Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

Shah Shaheen is a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kabul. The houses sprawling up the hillside and the dirt road that winds between them are all the same dusty colour. A new water-pump stands in a gap in the buildings, rigid and shiny against the jagged outline of distant mountains. The local people have themselves paid for its installation and would like the government to compensate them for the cost and provide other basic services.

Behind the shabby walls, in a house built around a traditional courtyard, Ghutai Khawari sits on a raised piece of ground, flanked by local supporters, with a small audience sitting in the shade provided by a colourfully-patterned sheet stretched between tall roughly-cut poles.

Khawari is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament which is to be elected on Sunday along with provincial assemblies.

She’s a journalist and her level of education seems to impress her audience. In a country with 70-80% illiteracy, poor voters almost always say that they want an “educated person” to represent them.

Her audience is entirely masculine, unless you count a few little girls playing in the street outside.

The men seem to have left their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers at home but they insist that they’re ready to vote for a woman candidate.

Ali, a young man who is enthusiastically moving chairs and making people welcome, speaks to us in English.

“No, it’s not important, that, it is no problem. Islam says that women and men are equal.”

Ghawari tells her audience that it would be a sin to vote for candidates with blood on their hands, a reference to the many warlords who’ve found their way onto the ballot-papers.

Earlier she told us that ending ethnic enmity is her top priority, “especially among women, where they say ‘you’re a Pashtun, you’re a Tajik’ and so on, because we’re women, we’re human, we’re one.”

She accuses the authorities of paying lip-service to helping women but not taking action.

“The government and some NGOs say they will give rights to the people but they don’t pay any attention to the majority of women, who live in the villages, in the provinces.”

She cites as examples the lack of education for girls and poor health care, which, she says leads to 1,000 women dying in childbirth every year.

To her audience she also stresses that she is running a shoe-string campaign.

“You are my only resources,” she tells them.

At least 68 seats have been reserved for women in the 249-member Wolesi Jirga, with at least two in the provincial councils, which will have between nine and 29 members.

Women’s rights campaigners are encouraged by the fact that 328 women are standing for the Wolesi Jirga. Not so many have come forward for the provincial councils, however, where the weight of tradition may be heavier.

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The ruins of a shah’s tomb, Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

Almost all the women standing are independents. That means that, like Ghawari, they have little money, no experience and no established network.

The regional bigwigs and established politicians may have terrorised the area where they’re standing or pocketed fortunes through corrupt dealings but they have the advantage of being well-known and, through patronage, they can find support among the men of influence in the towns and villages.

Ghawari and other women candidates in Kabul say that they’ve faced no intimidation or pressure while campaigning. But, they warn, that may not be the case in the provinces, especially the rural areas.

There women risk being chased off the street if they appear in public. What’s more women can’t go into the mosque to address Friday prayers. Many, though not all, mullahs preach against female participation in public life and, even without that, tradition militates against them.

And there’s also intimidation by warlords and the Taliban.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) reports that the husband of one female candidate in Baghlan province was jailed for two days without charge and later sacked from his job because he helped her campaign.

One woman election worker has been killed during the campaign. Other women report death threats and accusations that they are “American spies”.

Little wonder then that 51 women withdrew their candidacies for unspecified reasons before the campaign started.

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Herat seen from a taxi Photo: Tony Cross

No-one can escape evidence of the election in Herat. Candidates’ photographs and slogan-bearing banners hang from string stretched between the pine-trees which line the streets, so that the city looks as if it’s celebrating a particularly popular festival.

Posters are plastered all over any available wall-space – on the concrete and metal umbrellas erected at crossroads to provide traffic-police with shade and on what looks like a peace monument, a structure topped with a globe and four doves which stands at one of the main road junctions.

And they’re contributing to the deterioration of the city’s historic legacy.

Enthusiastic campaigners have fly-posted their candidates’ images onto centuries-old minarets, which have survived earthquake and war but are now threatened by vibrations from a nearby road – and by electoral politics.

The long road to Herat from the airport is lined by trees almost all the way, encouraging fantasies of entering at the head of a trader’s caravan or a conquering army.

You pass through villages with traditional mud-caked buildings, past a park crowded with painted, concrete benches but no people to sit on them and over a bridge which looks down on a broad river-bed, where motorists wash their vehicles in the narrow strip of river that the sun has so far failed to evaporate.

Herat’s a relief after Kabul. Its wide, tree-lined streets are relatively clean and uncongested. There’s less dust and more visible history, most noticeably the huge and beautiful mosque in the city centre.

My translator, Hoshang, is bowled over by the city’s cleanliness and its exotic Persian atmosphere. When we see a man smoking a shisha pipe in a restaurant, he asks me what the strange object is, never having seen one in Kabul or in Peshawar, the two cities he has lived in.

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Interior courtyard of Herat’s historic mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Clearly the governor who built the present seat of local government in the mid-20th century, didn’t want the home of secular power to be completely dwarfed by the mosque. It’s a rambling complex of brick-clad buildings, about as tall as the mosque and pleasant enough to look at, even if it can’t compete with the mosque’s tile-clad walls, which were decorated by craftsmen skilled in a 600-year-old art form.

It’s easy to gain access to high officials. Sitting in the corner of a large room, as a handful of officials administer the citizens who have come to petition him, deputy governor Mir Abdul Khalq, “call me Haj Mir because no-one in Herat will recognise me if you give me the full name”, offers cups of green tea and chats affably. But he says it would be better if I interview Governor Mohammed Khair Khuwa.

Unfortunately, the governor is in Kabul today, so we will have to come back tomorrow.

Haj Mir is a grey-bearded, wrinkled, smiling man, who chats freely about Herat. It is probably Afghanistan’s richest city and he boasts of its public buildings and housing.

I ask if supporters of Ismail Khan, who preceded Khuwa as governoror, still have much influence.

“Oh yes,” says Haj Mir. “I myself am a supporter of Ismail Khan and was with him for seven years during the war.”

This takes me aback since I’d understood that it had taken quite a power struggle for President Hamid Karzai, who was finally elected last year, to dislodge Khan from running the city last year.

Ismail Khan became governor of Herat province in 2001, after fighting the Russian occupation, being jailed by the Taliban and escaping to take control of Herat as the ultra-fundamentalist régime was bombed out of office.

During his governorship, there were many complaints about his warlord ways – a heavy hand with potential opposition and harsh treatment of women in the province.

Last year, there was heavy fighting between Khan’s fighters and those of a rival warlord, Amanullah Khan, a Pashtun. Kabul declared its support for Ismail but, shortly after the fighting ended, Karzai offered the victorious governor the post of minister of power and water – a poisoned promotion which dislodged him for his power-base.

Not everyone was glad to see him go. Riots followed his removal and Khuwa, a Hazara who arrived in town with guards from his own ethnic group, was obliged to take the oath of office in front of a picture of his predecessor.

Khan left behind a mixed reputation. He dealt with critics and suspected enemies in summary fashion – the head of the officially-backed human rights commission told us that, at the official opening of the organisation’s office in the city with national government ministers in attendance, a journalist was beaten up and dragged off to jail. Just so everyone knew who was boss, as it were.

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The entrance to the courtyard of the Jamja Masjid (Friday Mosque) in Herat Photo: Tony Cross

But the ex-governor is still respected for making Herat one of the best-run cities in the country. He paid for public works and efficient administration by collecting the handsome revenue from customs duties on the frontiers with neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan ¼ and refusing to pass any of the money on to Kabul.

Maybe it was that which inspired Karzai to conclude that the governor had to go, rather than the stories of armed tribal fighters doing as they wished on the city’s streets or women found alone with men being arrested and examined for signs of recent sexual intercourse.

But, once the rioting was over, the transition seems to have been relatively smooth.

Haj Mir seems to be working with his ex-boss’s successor and is happy to suggest that we interview the new head of security, Ayub Salangy, another out-of-towner who arrived two months ago accompanied by guards from his home province.

Of course, sending round a journalist may be the Haji’s idea of a practical joke; it turns out that Salangy is home sick today. But he agrees to see us.

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Herat’s Jama Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

Delivered at Salangy’s house by a military vehicle, we find him in his garden, meeting leaders of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, one of the PRTs, the foreign military units that carry out aid projects, leading to complaints that they have made NGOs targets of possible guerrilla attacks.

We are shown into the house and wait in a living room so generously furnished that there is a TV at either end of the room.

On a table sits a photo mounted on curved glass with blue and gold edges. It shows the lieutenant-general embracing President Karzai as he arrives for a visit to Herat.

Salangy’s assistant assures us that the commander is a good friend of the president and gives us an outline of his employer’s career, which mostly consists of Karzai begging him to go to a number of troublesome provinces, with varying degrees of success. Salangy did serve in possibly the toughest posting, Kandahar, the Taliban’s stronghold at the time that they took power and still the scene of rebel activity, including a recent attempt to shoot down the president’s airplane.

When he finally meets us, Salangy doesn’t seem too ill. But he undoubtedly has a robust constitution. He’s a buffalo in a shalwar kameez; tall and broad, his hand swallows mine when we shake. Unusually for an Afghan, he is clean-shaven and his hair is cut short, adding to the youthful appearance of his face. It’s a surprising fact here that the men who have probably seen the most combat are the men with the most laugh-lines on their faces.

At some point in his career the lieutenant-general has picked up the art which the French call langue de bois. He studiously avoids giving any interesting answers to my questions: everything will go fine on election day; there are no serious security problems in the province; recent kidnappings and violence were in neighbouring provinces and not on his turf.

When I ask if he’s worried about the way the Americans have used the PRTs, he gently makes a fool of me by explaining that the people he was talking to were Italians, since they have taken over that work in Herat and the west of the country.

Asked if he sees himself as Karzai’s man in Herat, Salangy replies that he’s happy to represent the president and central government here.

But the question seems to have touched a sensitive spot. When I stop recording, the commander declares that, if I’ll permit it, it is his turn to pose a question.

“Who told you I was Karzai’s man?” he asks.

Hoping that the answer will not prove compromising for anyone involved, I tell him that his secretary told me that they were friends.

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A group of trainee police officers pose for a photo while visiting Herat’s famous mosque

Before leaving Herat, we take up Haj Mir’s suggestion and try to see the governor. It’s a long and fruitless process which entails visits to his offices, his home and, just before we leave, the recently-built governor’s mansion in the foothills of the mountains that overlook the city.

Persian script dug into the sides declares jihad the salvation of the faithful and what looks like a kilometre of steps lead up to a self-important dome perched on a rock. One gets the impression that this building is part of Ismail Khan’s legacy.

We’re already late for the rendezvous and, after an inconclusive argument with guards and our taxi-driver about whether we will have to walk up all those steps to the mansion in the baking heat, we conclude that there won’t be time for an interview if we’re to catch the plane to Kabul. As we race towards the airport, a phone-call reveals that the governor hasn’t actually left his home.

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A young boy at work in a Herat workshop Photo: Tony Cross

Both in Herat and Kabul, voters face a huge and confusing choice of candidates.

Ballot papers the size of broadsheet newspapers carry the names, pictures and symbols of hundreds of candidates for the Wolesi Jirga or the provincial councils; in Kabul’s case 390 for the national body and 216 for the provincial one.

Some 70-80% of voters are illiterate and, it being over 30 years since the last such elections, most of the population haven’t taken part in this sort of exercise before.

Of course, there was last year’s presidential election but that was a much simpler affair since only one post was up for grabs. The difference may not have sunk in to the popular consciousness – some punters have apparently told journalists that they intend to vote for Karzai this time round.

The process would have been even more complicated if the original plan to elect district councils at the same time had gone ahead. That vote was postponed. Not to spare the unfortunate electorate the struggle with a third enormous ballot paper. It’s just that the districts don’t really exist yet. Their boundaries haven’t been drawn and their populations have yet to be determined.

On the street most people seem keen to vote but no-one has much idea how to do it. Most Kabulis seem not to have chosen their candidate. In Herat more people seem to have made their choice for both the national and provincial assemblies.

In the cities, at least, no prejudice is expressed against women candidates. Several men declare that they are ready to vote for a woman and some say that they’ve already decided to do so.

Karzai apparently intervened personally to prevent party symbols being printed on the ballot papers, although an accompanying sheet does list the parties and their candidates. This is justified by arguing that it is political groups that have brought the country to its present condition. Karzai himself, of course, has no party although he does have a network of allies. His behind-the-scenes style of politics will probably be best suited by an atomised parliament, in which he can play off individuals or groups against each other.

The ban, along with a first-past-the-post voting system, favours a personality contest and undermines the possibility of a future development of parties formed on the basis of political platforms.

It strengthens candidates who are already well-known – religious leaders, ethnic or regional bosses and warlords, none of whom can be absolved from blame for Afghanistan’s woes.

But their notoriety may backfire, in some cases at least. Soraya Daqiqi, a woman candidate in Herat, says that village elders have told her that it’s time to give a woman a chance. “After all, look at what men have done for us – Timur Lang, Janghis Khan, and that German leader, Hitler.”

Other independent candidates also believe that they may benefit from an anti-warlord backlash.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks in the last few months and say that they will disrupt the election, although they say that they won’t attack voters.

Most of the violence has been clashes between their fighters and foreign or Afghan soldiers and it has mainly taken place in the south and east, where they still operate quite freely.

But seven candidates have been killed and there has been other election-related violence.

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Nomadic kuchis, who have reserved seats and special polling stations adapted to their way of life Photo: Tony Cross

And there’s concern about the number of former commanders, many of whom have been involved in atrocities, who are on the ballot papers. Only 11 candidates were disqualified for being militia leaders before the campaign began, while human rights campaigners claim that in many areas at least half of those standing are warlords.

The internationally-staffed Election Complaints Commission says that only those who have been convicted of crimes can be excluded, which seems reasonable until you remember how difficult it is for victims to obtain justice here.

Of course, there is no clear demarcation between the terms “warlord” and “mujahed” and many violent killers have been invaluable allies to Karzai and the US.

Analysts at the International Crisis Group claims that deals were struck with some commanders, allowing them to remain on the ballot papers in return for promises to collaborate with the official disarmament process.

Nevertheless, there are no reports of candidates actually bumping off their rivals.

That may be a sign of patience, rather than of born-again pacifism. A clause in the election law has become known as the “assassination clause”. It declares that after the poll, if an assembly member dies, the runner-up takes his or her place, giving rise to fears that some frustrated candidates may revert to their old habits to achieve the victory that the electoral process failed to deliver.

The electoral law is remarkably tolerant of practices which the Asian observers of Anfrel, who know a thing or two about money politics, claim “may be regarded as vote-buying in other countries”.

They describe electoral cards being bought from voters in some provinces and mullahs being offered money in return for their endorsement (one of them boasts that his backing would mean at least 5,000 votes for the lucky bidder).

Rich candidates are able to spend large sums on fleets of vehicles, election workers and other resources, while poorer candidates struggle to raise funds.

The Afghan semi-official observers’ organisation, Fefa, says it’s disappointed that a ban on handing out gifts is only valid on election day.

The Afghan fondness for a feast may indeed prove useful in courting the floating voter. Fefa says that one candidate, who owns a hotel, has been giving free lunches and dinners “almost every day” and has hosted one lunch with music and dancing for about 5,000 people.

Uzbek warlord General Abdel Rashid Dostum proved even more generous. He invited notables in Sherbergan province to a party “in honour of his father” which lasted for three days.

One candidate told Anfrel that he was worried about what the candidates will do to recoup their outlay. “Maybe robbery or drug-trafficking. They need to get the money that they spent back.”

The Election Commission says that it can’t ban such practices because they are part of the Afghan tradition of hospitality.

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Ramazan Bashardost (C) with supporters in a Kabul park Photo: Tony Cross

 strange noise disturbs the peace of Kabul’s Shah-e-Naw Park. It’s the horribly distorted sound of a television rigged up among the trees.

Nearby is a tent, which has been occupied by Ramazan Bashardost every day since he resigned from the post of minister of planning and launched a clean-government campaign.

Bashardost is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga and this is two days before polling day, well within the 48-hour period within which election campaigning has been banned, but he says that the video of him currently playing to a small audience is of a speech he made before the start of campaigning and so not in breach of election law.

Bashardost resigned in a row over the 2,355 NGOs which have mushroomed in Afghanistan in the war’s aftermath. The 2001 Tokyo reconstruction conference allotted them a third of foreign aid. But Bashardost compiled a list of 1,935 that he wanted to close, saying that many of them were fake, some operating for profit and not the benefit of Afghans, others just inefficient and nearly all spending most of the donors’ money on their staff salaries and operating costs rather than on the people they were supposed to help.

“About 70% of their budgets are used for administration or logistics or for a luxurious life,” Bashardost tells me. “There is NGOism in Afghanistan, like a Communist system. It is very strange that the Afghan poor people don’t have access to the directors of NGOs. I think it is more easy to meet Mr Karzai.”

When he was a minister he would send people to meet NGO chiefs.

“They returned to my office and say ‘Mr Minister, when the bodyguard is happy he took my paper and when the bodyguard is not happy he said very bad things to me and I couldn’t see the director’.”

Now he says that Afghanistan is run by a new nomenklatura of NGO bosses, UN and US officials, international military chiefs, Afghan warlords and government ministers.

“It is a very dangerous situation because $12 billion has arrived in Afghanistan since two years and the Afghan people believe that there is not reconstruction. I think that some people say ‘My life is now more bad than three years ago’. This nomenkaltura shares the money between its members and we’re losing the chance to show a good cooperation between Western countries and a Muslim country.”

Although he was educated abroad and speaks English and French, Bashardost mistrusts returned exiles as much as he mistrusts warlords, claiming that many have only returned for business opportunities and that those who are standing for the Wolesi Jirga are motivated by commercial, rather than political, interest.

Bashardost believes the multi-national mafia is also complicit in the drugs trade.

Since the US-led invasion, Afghanistan has returned to the top of the world league of opium-poppy growers, providing most of the heroin sold in Europe and much of Asia.

The ex-minister says that only one per-cent of the profits go to Afghan farmers and that local and international officials are involved in it.

“The new parliament may be a narco-parliament,” he says and slams Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and President Karzai for saying top officials, including six governors, were involved in drug trafficking but refusing to name them, let alone take action against them.

Few candidates speak as freely or directly as Bashardost. Those with dubious pasts – or presents – use portentous declarations to avoid addressing embarrassing subjects. And, in a country in which guns rather than discussion have decided political issues for so many years, new candidates lack any experience of real political debate. When faced with a microphone, most either launch into long autobiographies, give accounts of their educational qualifications or make vague statements about ending the violence and rooting out corruption in exactly the same terms that their rivals use.

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Voters in Shah Shaheen Photo: Tony Cross

18 September, election day. At the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which is a polling station for the day, voters are encouraged to do their civic duty by music broadcast from tinny loudspeakers and banners bearing inspirational messages such as “Let’s join together to participate in the parliamentary election which is a legislative organ and one of the three pillars of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”.

But the official enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have rubbed off onto the electorate. At 8.10am, just over two hours since the polls opened, there are few voters here, an astonishing contrast to the long queues to vote in the presidential election.

Inside the building a young election official says that it’s early yet, there’s still time, and assures us that voters have had no difficulty with the complicated voting procedure.

As he speaks, a man in a voting booth behind him is turning his ballot paper this way and that with a mystified air. He calls to an official to come and explain what he should do.

Outside two young men tell us that they have voted for Bashardost because they believe he is honest, while others won’t name their choice.

When we leave the building, SUVs have blocked off the street and armed guards stand outside the polling station. US ambassador Ronald Neumann is here.

He declares the day a triumph.

“Four years ago they were killing women with stones in the sports stadium and today women are running their separate polling places here next door to the men’s polling places.”

What does the ambassador think of the presence of alleged warlords on the ballot papers?

“I think people get to actually vote, so if they don’t want to vote for a warlord they don’t have to, they can vote for somebody else.”

So, even if a candidate has blood on his hands, he should be allowed to stand?

The tone becomes slightly less affable.

“No, I don’t think that’s a correct statement. I think what you need to understand is that this is the first time that they’ve tried to run a process by rules. And it’s a country where you don’t have full evidence, so sometimes you don’t get the result that you would ideally like, just as sometimes, in your country or mine, somebody may go free in a trial where you think they should have been convicted.”

Neumann gives the impression that, so far as he’s concerned, there have been exhaustive legal efforts to find war-criminals and that they are now over.

“The fact is that they did run a process by rules … and that’s a big, important step in the transition to building a rule-based system of law.”

More voters turn out as the day goes on but there are nowhere near last year’s number.

At Shah Shaheen nobody will tell us who their choice was, although one man says that he’s voted for a woman and a man, while the women, all clad in blue burkas, huddle in a short line at the side of the polling station.

The women at Fourth Makoryan, a middle-class district, are more assertive. Many of the polling officers and voters are elegantly dressed, some wearing smart trouser suits with headscarves.

One, who’s enjoying the sun after casting her ballot, proudly declares that she has voted for a woman candidate.

“We all want to vote for women because women are the ones who care for women,” she says.

But she’s not sure how much things will change for women after the election.

“Maybe yes, maybe no. In Kabul the women vote but in some other provinces some of them don’t vote. I hope that they all vote and the women win.”

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Traditional Afghan buildings in Dehyaya Photo: Tony Cross

In Dehyaya, a village outside Kabul, we don’t see any women. To get there we have to turn off the fine new road that the American military have built to get to their base at Bagram airfield and on to a track across the dusty plain that lies between ranges of Afghanistan’s cruelly beautiful mountains.

The stones crunch under the weight of our four-wheel drive and the dust gets everywhere – into the car, into our hair, into our nostrils.

We follow the track round a bend and find the beginning of the village.

It’s made up of traditional Afghan dwellings; huge compounds hidden behind walls several hundred metres long.

They’re covered in dried mud, made out of desert dirt, and they look as if they have grown out of this unworldly, grey-brown landscape.

As a scorching sun burns the last drops of moisture from the land, we look down a long, straight street, flanked by long, straight mud walls, heading towards a distant perspective point.

There’s not a soul to be seen; it’s like High Noon – only with more dust.

Who knows how people scratch a living out of this arid landscape but the village seems to be large, even if you take into account the size of the compounds.

One thing’s for sure, land can’t be very expensive round here.

Down the street and around a bend, we come across a petrol station.

It’s deserted, too, but there are signs of election activity – candidates’ posters have been pasted on its walls and on the sign at its entrance.

The largest is one of Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.

He’s a notorious militia leader, whom human-rights campaigners have demanded be taken off the ballot paper, because of his alleged brutality during the war.

In the days of the fight against Russian occupation, Sayyaf was a friend of Osama ben Laden and mixed with the hard-line Islamists who received US funding for their anti-Communist jihad.

But, despite his dubious past, he has stayed in the running.

His position can’t have been hindered by the fact that he has recently acted as an adviser to Karzai, doing his best to keep Afghanistan’s legal system true to his severe interpretation of Islam.

A bit further down the street, and at last there are signs of life.

A small crowd of men and boys has gathered in front of the school, where voting is taking place.

As we go into the building, Hoshang suggests that maybe we shouldn’t stay too long.

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Dehyaya from the mountain Photo: Tony Cross

“Taliban fire rockets at Kabul from these mountains.”

Inside, however, all is running smoothly, if not very busily, and the polling officers say that there have been no threats or intimidation.

One of the voters is a former mujahed. He won’t name the person he voted for but says that “he is my friend from the jihad time”. But, like all ordinary voters what he wants most is peace – “No more fighting in my country”.

To get back to Kabul, we’re told to go over the mountain.

As we climb the slope, we can at last see some patches of green in the village, hidden behind some of those long walls.

When our wheels get stuck in the dirt half way up the slope, I wonder if I should duck down in the back if men with guns appear or whether they’ll see me anyway. But they don’t appear and, when the car climbs over the peak, we see an inscription dug into the hillside.

I ask if this is another call to jihad, like the ones we saw outside Herat.

Hoshang squints at the writing. “No,” he replies, “it says ‘carwash’.”

And there, just below it, is a huge car lot, the vehicles glistening in the sun, and, beyond it, the grubby bustle of Kabul.

On our return, we hear that three rocket-propelled grenades were fired from the mountains during the morning.

Two failed to explode. One of them hit a UN compound and injured one person, although not seriously.

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A photographer shows off his antique camera in Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

 

Turnout is low throughout the country. Officials claim about 50%, some sceptics put it as low as 35% and claim that there were no votes at all in some parts of the south, where the Taliban are active.

The electoral commission says that seven polling stations never opened at all, apparently because the security services were too scared to protect them. Security worries led to a temporary disruption of the vote in many other places and there are already allegations of fraud.

Apparently anticipating a wave of enthusiasm throughout the land, the electoral commission made a last-minute decision to bring forward the start of the vote an hour. Unfortunately, the decision didn’t get through to all voting officials, some of whom arrived, bleary-eyed, at 7.00am or later, to find impatient voters waiting for them or to hear that some had already given up.

Piqued, perhaps, by criticism of the small number of candidates banned from standing, officials took another 28 off the ballot paper during the week before the vote. Human rights groups weren’t mollified, claiming that they weren’t the roughly 150 warlords and thugs that they had in mind.

And, unfortunately, the list of these late removals was either not posted up at many voting centres or put in a position which hardly anyone saw. Even where it was visible it was meaningless to the illiterate majority of voters.

To add to the confusion, two candidates were put back onto the ballot, one because he had been confused with someone else of the same name.

Now the votes have to be gathered in, using donkeys and helicopters to bring them down from the most remote mountain villages. Definitive results are not expected for at least a month and the absence of debate and clearly defined political camps makes it difficult to guess what the Wolesi Jirga will look like.

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A Kabul street Photo: Tony Cross

Robert Kluyver, a fluent Dari-speaker and former UN worker who has set up the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society and also represents George Soros’s Open Society Institute, believes there are three main reasons for the low turnout. Many candidates were unknown and discouraging political parties added to confusion about what they might stand for, many hopes that were raised by last year’s presidential election have already been disappointed and in some areas, especially the cities, there’s suspicion that the results were rigged in advance.

“While a lot of candidates were ex-fighters, either mujahedin or Communists, I think that there will be a strong presence of civil society.”

But he believes that the parliament will be weak.

“With this low voter-turnout they will lack the political legitimacy they need. This parliament doesn’t have any clearly defined functions. Thirdly, the parliamentarians won’t have any experience in conducting parliamentary affairs and I think that there will be a strong tendency for the parliament to be bogged down in local issues, for example about schools and hospitals in particular districts, because that’s very much how the candidates now see themselves, representing the interests of their local community.”

He believes that, although most Afghans are sick of religious interference in politics, there will be a bloc of representatives who will push a hard-line position on issues such as sharia law.

And what of the question that voter after voter raised during the campaign – the warlords’ hold on the country?

Saman Zia-Zarifi is the deputy director of Human Rights Watch. Being of Iranian origin, he can speak Dari and has come to observe the election along with a team from the high profile US-based group.

He says that most voters had to choose between unknown candidates and notorious ones.

Zia-Zarifi is bitterly critical of the election complaints commission’s failure to strike “warlords, former military commanders and human-rights abusers” from the ballot.

“It created a certain amount of confusion and even questions about the political nature of this process,” he says and concludes. “It remains to be seen if the Afghan electors have achieved what the electoral commission failed to do.”

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The Greek debacle and the education of Yanis Varoufakis

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Yanis Varoufakis Photo: Public domain/Yanis Varoufakis Subversive interview 2013 cropped.jpg

I don’t want to sound patronising here, Yanis Varoufakis certainly has more academic qualifications than me and could undoubtedly teach me a thing or two about economics, but it does seem that his time as a minister has been an education for him in politics, the nature and art of negotiation and the ruthlessness of the establishment.

Understandably, Varoufakis seems to be in a sour mood after his experience of negotiating with the EU, the IMF and Wolfgang Schäuble. He voted against the austerity package accepted by Alexis Tsipras and is now merrily spilling the beans about an alleged Syriza Plan B for handling being squeezed out of the eurozone, the unpleasant odours that haunt the corridors of power and Schäuble’s apparent intention to make Grexit a reality.

His efforts to explain to EU leaders that their own policies are damaging the EU and capitalism itself appear not to have been appreciated, as he told the New Statesman:

“ … there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on, to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply.”

But why did he imagine it would be any other way?

Forgive me for saying so, Professor, but you were naïve. These people already know the arguments and have decided that they are of no use to them.

Some – Schäuble, Tusk – appear to be ideologically committed to austerity, perhaps due to a sentimental attachment to the idea of the lower orders suffering or perhaps because of their political, personal or family histories.

Others have built careers in the service of an establishment that is becoming increasingly addicted to short-term financial returns, big dividends, not paying taxes and slashing waste, ie what’s left of the welfare state.

They don’t want to listen to the opposing case and explaining that case was not relevant to negotiation over Greece’s debt.

In the long run, austerity means that the EU, and eventually capitalism, will eat itself.

But – and for anyone who’s read previous relevant posts on my blog may find I sound a bit Johnny One Note here – the restraints on their short-termism have gone. These were essentially a powerful labour movement and, even more importantly in my view, a competing social system in the form of the Soviet bloc. They no longer exist, so the capitalist class no longer accepts that the state disciplines its need for higher and higher returns in the briefest delays possible.

Negotiation is not about persuading your opponents of the correctness of your case, it’s about convincing them that they have something to lose by not accepting your demands or at least reaching compromise.

That’s why I was amazed when the Syriza leaders declared that they would not leave the eurozone or accept loans from Russia.

Whether you intend to do it or not, why rule out a course of action that could frighten some of the people on the opposite side of the table (although not Schäuble in the first case, apparently)?

Equally puzzling was the Syriza leadership’s acceptance of France’s “help” in drawing up its final proposals (after Varoufakis’s resignation).

The French government and the civil servants it deployed to look over the Greeks’ shoulders may not want a Grexit but they have enthusiastically applied austerity policies and seem to have had a major role in drafting a swingeing package for Greece.

While the negotiations were going on, someone suggested to me that Schäuble was playing hard cop to allow Angela Merkel to look like the soft cop. Not a good comparison. Angela was quite hard enough. Wolfgang was more like the cop applies electrodes to your genitals.

The French Socialist leaders were the soft cops, with President François Hollande apparently on the phone to the Greeks and the Germans continuously in the run-up to the last deal and, in the end, they managed to thrust their package down the Greeks’ throats.

Oh well! At least the Syriza leaders showed that politicians don’t have to wear ties.

Ties are the sartorial descendants of a scrap of material that knights used to wear to stop their breastplates rubbing against their necks. Whether the big swinging dicks in the boardrooms and ministries like it or not, we don’t wear armour any more, so ties are pointless.

That’s a tiny victory, I suppose.

I’m off to Greece this week. So more on the blog later.

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Turkey presidential election 2014 – Erdogan’s victory showed signs of troubles to come

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Given the exciting outcome of Turkey’s parliamentary election, I’m taking my accounts of assignments out of sequence and publishing this from last year’s presidential election. Erdogan won with a satisfactory majority but Selahattin Demirtas’s HDP – the left-wing, pro-Kurdish party that has upset the parliamentary apple-cart in 2015 – was already doing well. And there were signs of trouble ahead for the AKP, as  RFI’s perspicacious French service correspondent Jérôme Bastion pointed out to me.

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One of Istanbul’s pasajes Photo: Tony Cross

I had forgotten how East-meets-West Istanbul is – the pasajes, the domed mosques, the shots bars, the mackerel sandwiches, the beautiful women, some wearing cover, others wearing very little, parading along Istiklal, the travel posters, reproduced Persian miniatures, bibelots and ageing furniture in my determinedly quaint hotel.

And sophisticated, basking in its history but modern in its own way. Istanbul is unlike anywhere else in the world that I know and totally different to the rest of Turkey.

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The former headquarters of a French ottoman-era company Photo: Tony Cross

In the August heat families stroll along the sides of the Bosphorus, the banks not much higher than the sea, as oil tankers head for the Black Sea. Men fish off the bridges joining historic and modern Istanbul. A boy scarcely in his teens plays a hand drum incredibly fast in a passage cutting through a modern office building.

And banners, posters and bunting urge Turks to vote for Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the presidential election, first round on Sunday.

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Leeches on sale near the bird market Photo: Tony Cross

Erdogan, prime minister for the past 11 years, leader of the Islamic, conservative, pro-business Justice and Development Party (AKP) started his rise to the top as mayor of Istanbul and hopes to be elected and reelected as president, staying in power until 2024, the year after the centenary of the modern Turkish republic.

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The Erdogan campaign office in Kasmipasa Photo: Tony Cross

He can’t bear the thought of taking a political back seat, which the presidency should be, being largely ceremonial according to the constitution, so he also hopes to make the position more powerful and remotely control the AKP, despite the constitution’s requirement that he resign from his party if he wins the election.

All of which gives rise to suspicions of megalomania, suspicions that are confirmed by his fondness for megaprojects, including the stadium recently built in Kasmipasa, the district in which he was born.

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The Recep Tayyip Erdogan stadium, Istanbul

The Recep Tayyip Erdogan Stadium. sits on the side of the hill heading down to the Golden Horn from Pera, the touristy, Istanbuli bourgeois heart of the modern city, on streets that become more like the rest of Turkey as you approach the sea.

On narrow streets men sit drinking tea or Turkish coffee, playing board games and chatting, following the occasional woman who passes by with their eyes, regardless of how well covere she is.

The men all say they support the native son.

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Men sip tea as women walk by in Kasmipasa Photo: Tony Cross

“I will vote for Erdogan because we are from the same place and he’s made good jobs and he has brought Turkey growth,” explains Tolga, a new technology worker.

He points to the infrastructure projects – roads, metros, tramways and airports that have been realised under AKP rule.

Erdogan’s opponents accuse him of an Islamist agenda of undermining Turkey’s secular constitution, of authoritarianism and of corruption.

But Turkey has experienced over five per cent growth every year since 2002, so jobs have been created for working-class people, social services have improved and the middle class has seen its living standards rise.

At the AKP’s local campaign office, housewife Rukiye, her hair tightly wrapped in a dark scarf, speaks up for her candidate.

“He is with the poor people and he keeps his word,” she declares.

The party doesn’t have to do much campaigning around here, she says, “Five-year-olds show love for Recep Tayyep Erdogan.”

The AKP organised a massive rally for Erdogan in Istanbul at the weekend and claims, perhaps a little boldly, that over a million people attended it.

Rukiye dismisses alleged proof of corruption on leaked tapes that appear to show Erdogan, his family and allies trying to cover up dodgy dealings.

“It’s all lies,” she exclaims with some vigour. “They say it is a montage – they cut them and edited them. All I can say is it’s all rubbish.”

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An Erdogan supporter in the Kasmipasa campaign HQ Photo: Tony Cross

Most Turks are patriotic to the point of paranoia and Erdogan’s backers claim that, as prime minister, he has put the country on the world’s diplomatic map, declaring support for the Palestinians – although continuing to trade with Israel – backing revolt against Bashar al-Assad in Syria and proposing a model of democratic Islamism for the Muslim world.

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“For our country a powerful leader means a powerful country,” Erdogan-voter Hakan Photo: Tony Cross

 

“He is leading Turkey very well and in the last 12 years the international view of Turkey has changed and we’re so grateful to our prime minister,” says Hakan, an self-employed man sipping tea by the Golden Horn. “For our country a powerful leader means a powerful country.”

Turkey is a politically polarised country and Erdogan supporters are as fervent as his opponents.

If the opinion polls are to be believed, they’re likely to win him the presidential election.

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Mustapha Kuleili Photo: Tony Cross

 

“It’s a weird situation to be in Taksim right now,” says Mustafa Kuleli, as he looks at the square from the terrace of Starbucks. “You walk into the park or you walk into Taksim Square and you remember. That was a turning point for journalists, and also all citizens, everybody agrees that was a historical moment to be here, to feel that solidarity facing the police, water-cannon, teargas … everything.”

Kuleli is the general secretary of one of Turkey’s journalists’ trade union, elected after he took part in last year’s Gezi Park protests.

They started as a campaign to stop the construction of a mosque and a shopping mall, disguised as an Ottoman-era barracks, on one of central Istanbul’s few green spaces and blossomed into massive anti-Erdogan protests and clashes with the police.

Those heady days are over now and politics is being played out in the electoral arena with Istanbul festooned with banners for the three candidates – Erdogan, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and Selahattin Demirtas, but mostly for Erdogan.

Despite the millions who opposed him on the streets last year, opinion polls show the outgoing prime minister has widespread support and could even win the election on the first round.

So were the protests a waste of time?

“Personally I didn’t tie Gezi Park and daily politics,” says Kuleli. “I think it’s more than that. I think it’s like May ‘68 movement in France. After ’68 a right-wing party gained more votes. But that movement affected 40 years everywhere … all over Europe.”

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Ender Imrek Photo: Tony Cross

Sitting in a neat office up several flights of stairs, Ender Imrek, a socialist activist who is being prosecuted for his leading role in the protests, explains how the force of the law descended on him an his fellow miscreants.

“The police entered our homes by force,” he recalls. “We were kept at the police station for four days and they mistreated us. They took our hard disks and our notes and our writings.”

He and four codefendants are accused of masterminding the protests across the whole country.

“I said that I would be very proud to have organised them but millions were on the street and it would be discourteous to them to say something like that,” is Imrek’s reply. “The court wanted to jail us but there was a huge public protest so they didn’t do that. But on 21 November our case will go to trial.”

His Labour Party is supporting Selhettin Demirtas of the left-wing Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) for president – in a “democratic bloc” against what they see as Erdogan’s growing authoritarian tendencies.

“Erdogan wants to declare his dictatorship in this election and he wants everything to continue as it was in the past,” he says. “We don’t want that, we want democracy and we don’t want things to go as they have in the past.”

Erdogan’s supporters don’t seem too worried about his tough reaction to the protests.

Cernil is a driver working in Austria who is back in Turkey during the election.

Sitting with his wife on Gezi Park, only partially paved over thanks to the protests, he says it was right to break up the protests. 

“Yes, it was a little harsh but who cares?” he asks. “They had gone on for too long so they needed to be punished and, if you look at Europe, if there are any protests the police will intervene.”

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Istanbul residents in Gezi Park on a sunny morning Photo: Tony Cross

There is a mixed crowd on Gezi Park on a sunny weekday morning.

A Kurdish labourer brandishing a beer can says he saw police stop campaigners put up posters for Demirtas, who is a Yazidi Kurd himself, and another Kurd also declares his support for the left-winger, explaining that he has encountered discrimination during his 30 years living in Istanbul.

There’s also concern about sectarian divisions in Turkey – both between Kurds and Turks and between majority Sunni Muslims and the Alevi minority, many of whom joined anti-Erdogan rallies.

Whose fault that is changes according to your political and religious affiliation.

“I was not on the side of Erdogan, I used to vote for left-wing parties,” says Ismir, a Sunni textile worker. “But it turned into something sectarian. Alevis started to make a lot of noise and they started to insult us, the Sunnis. That’s why I didn’t like the protests.”

But Feda, just back from studying in the Netherlands, supports the secularist Ihsenoglu and blames Erdogan.

“Rather than supporting the population in Turkey, he is trying to divide them in terms of their religion, their nationality,” she says.

If elected president, Erdogan will “get all the power and do whatever he wants according to his beliefs”, she thinks.

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The caravanserail in Diyarbkakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir is a very different city.

The temperature is higher – “38° today, we start to complain when it gets into the 40s,” says my fixer Hasan, passed on to me by the amiably roguish-looking Samet, who was in turn recommended by local journalist Yimlaz Akinci – but the heat is a dry heat, so you’re not drenched in sweat all the time as you are in Istanbul.

The historic town walls are in ark stone and extremely solid, evidence of centuries of conflict, and the street-life is unmitigatedly Middle Eastern, unless you count a superabundance of mobile phone shops as agencies of Western influence.

A tea seller in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Tea sellers, some in traditional baggy trousers and colourful waistcoats, patrol the pavement, as do fruit sellers, bread sellers and shoeshine men, there’s a caravanserail and a bazaar, complete with courtyard for meeting, chatting and sipping çai.

Diyarbakir is the biggest town in the majority-Kurdish south-east and a bastion of Demritas’s HDP, which was the Peace an Democracy Party (BDP) when I was last here in 2007.

The BDP was a lot keener to cooperate with journalists back then, it seems – or maybe we prepared our visit better – and a first visit to their headquarters in a modern building in a residential district out of the centre of town leas only to a vague promise to fin us someone to interview tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I struggle unsuccessfully to use the wifi in my hotel, we visit the Human Rights Association, where Demirtas started his career and discuss the Kurdish question with a local lawyer.

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A jeweller in the Diyarbakir bazaar Photo: Tony Cross

Slightly perturbed by our unannounced arrival, Abdusselam Incebren, the assistant secretary of the Diyarbakir Human Rights Association, reproaches us gently but agrees to talk about the organisation’s work.

Formed in the 1980s, following the establishment of a human rights association in Ankara, the organisation has had its work cut out ever since, especially during the state’s attempts to destroy the Kurdish Worker’ Party (PKK) guerrilla movement, which led to the abuses and atrocities associated with such dirty wars.

“The worst time was in the early 1990s,” he recalls. “Why? Because many people were killed, many people were tortured, many people they left home and just didn’t come back. So we are still investigating what happened to these people.”

That was under a secularist government, committed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s vision of a monolithic Turkish nation, a project that the Kurds have always disrupted.

“If you compare today to the past you cannot say that we have those problems,” Incebren points out.

That’s because of one of the many ironies of Turkish politics – the right-wing, Islamic AKP has proved more open to making concessions to Kurdish national sentiment than the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the social-democratic party that is the largest group in the secularist camp.

Not that there isn’t still a heavy and sometimes heavy-handed police and military presence in the south-east.

“It’s not like it was in ‘95-‘96 or up to 2000, people are not lost, tortured,” Incebren goes on. “But one thing we do see is on the streets and in meetings the police abuse their power and that’s a kind of torture.

“With the peace process, if you compare AKP with before there is an improvement in human rights. But if they don’t kill, they don’t torture, they’re still putting people in jail today. The techniques have changed.”

Incebren and his fellow rights workers have fond memories of Demirtas.

“People will never forget him. He was really very good. In the Human Rights Assocation he showed how to be human, how to develop the organisation. We want to take that further. He did a great job, really.”

Edip Yigit Photo: Tony Cross

Edip Yigit is defending several Kurdish activists arrested in 2009 and the ensuing years.

They are being released now because of parliament has finally got around to passing a law banning detention without charge for more than five years.

Although they were members of the PKK’s political wing, he says they posed no threat to security.

Öcalan has declared a truce and, as disciplined cadres, they toe the party line.

“These people had clean records,” he says, sipping çai in a café in the caravanserail. “In court they could find no crime to charge with them.”

The cases are a late example of the dirty war against the PKK even as the PKK government is negotiating with Öcalan.

“Today there is a peace process between the Turkish state and Kurds and, so, to me, this was a big mistake,” comments Yigit.

He blames the arrests on “parallel structures” in the Turkish state, a phrase often used to describe followers of Erdogan’s former ally Fehtullah Gülen, whom he is now purging after a breach that led, among other things, to the corruption scandal.

Kurds welcome the peace process but remain suspicious of the Turkish state’s intentions, notably because of the heavy military presence throughout the country, especially in the south-east, leading them to suspect that the army remains ready to start a new anti-PKK offensive.

The AKP’s openness to negotiations is usually attributed to several factors – pressure on human rights from the European Union, which the government was trying to join, a less firm commitment to Kemalist nationalism and Öcalan’s capture putting the government in a strong bargaining position.

But the narrative in the south-east, which Yigit appears to agree with, is that Öcalan took the initiative.

Kurds who intend to vote for Demirtas sum up their aspirations in a call for “democracy”, by which they tend to mean equal treatment by the state and an end to discrimination.

They are deeply suspicious of Ankara-based parties.

“In the past even the Kurdish language was forbidden, because of one word you could be put in jail for 20 years.” recalls Kasri, a labourer hanging around in Dyarbakir’s bazaar. “Not only this, they killed people, they tortured people for many years, so how can I believe these parties are democratic?”

He’s happy about the peace process but wants it to bring change.

“For about one year nobody is dying. It means a lot that people can sleep, people can be happy, people can work. But one thing, we want democracy – for everyone, not only for Kurds or Turks, for everyone who lives in Turkey.”

The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, now practically independent as local peshmerga and Syrian Kurd fighters fight the Islamic State (ex-Isis) armed fundamentalists and the Iraqi state loses ground to the south, might be expected to strengthen Turkey’s Kurds.

But that would be to discount the Kurds’ long history of internecine squabbles.

The regional government President Massoud Barzani, who is reported to have been acting as a facilitator in contacts between the PKK and the Turkish government, has proved an inconstant ally to the PKK and seems to regard Öcalan as a rival rather than a comrade.

Economic considerations may also undermine his status as an honest broker. Iraqi Kurdistan is now more than solvent thanks to exports of oil to Israel that must pass through Turkey.

Little wonder then that Barzani has promised Erdogan to “play a pacifying role in eastern Turkey and […] help the Turkish Kurds to take their place within the Turkish nation” and that Turkey has granted legal recognition to a new Turkish branch of Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP-T).

“Today the Turkish state understands that it cannot challenge the Iraqi state and so they had to accept these people any more,” comments Yigit. “On the other hand, it was very good for Turkey to have trade with these people and get a warm relationship with them. Why? Because of petrol.”

Even with Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government security forces reportedly trying to prevent fighters opposed to the peace process passing into Turkish territory, there have been sporadic clashes between the Turkish military and armed groups of unclear affiliation, undermining confidence in the peace process in the eyes of some Kurds and even elements in the Turkish general staff.

Erdogan has not hesitated to use divisive rhetoric during the election campaign, pointing out that Demirtas is from the Yazidi minority as well as lashing out at Alevis, Armenians and Jews, indicating that change of tack on the Kurdish question is possible if he is elected president.

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Inside HDP headquaters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

A Kurdish channel is broadcasting live interviews with Syrian Kurd fighters battling the Islamic State (ex-Isis) in northern Iraq as we wait to speak to an HDP official at the party’s Diyarbakir headquarters.

They think the peshmerga are a bunch of sissies, according to Hasan, who admires the fight they have put up against the Sunni fundamentalists, who are currently driving Yazidi and other minorities out of the area they control.

It is the election campaign that is on the mind of Meral Damis Bestas, a brisk, trouser-suited woman who, strangely, introduces herself as the wife of HDP president Mesut Danis Bestas.

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Meral Damis Bestas Photo: Tony Cross

It’s going well and not just in the south-east, she claims.

“Mr Demritas has already extended his support in Turkey,” she says, “In all of Turkey, wherever he goes, people are giving a lot of sympathy to him because he says new things. He is not saying what people said before. He is guaranteeing no discrimination between people.”

In the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, Demirtas has garnered the support of the hard-left parties who mobilized against Erdogan, boosting his chances of winning votes outside the BDP/HDP’s traditional Kurdish base.

But, despite that and the HDP’s long-standing left-wing credentials, his campaign seems to have focused on fighting discrimination  – not just  against Kurds but against Alevis, Armenians, women and even, unprecedentedly for Turkey I believe, gays – rather than wider issues of social and economic justice.

“The HDP is left-wing but that does not mean that it rejects other ideas,” is Bestas’s answer when I raise this question. “It’s open to everyone, from any ideology, it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that there are a lot of laws in Turkey that hamper human rights. Beside this there is poverty, in some parts of Turkey people are living in poverty and others they are rich. This is not social justice. Other parties come from a nationalist perspective but Demritas is a man of the people.”

The party does not hide its sympathy for the PKK – posters calling for Öcalan’s release decorate their HQ’s the walls – rather presenting itself as an essential go-between in the pace process.

“I can tell you that we are the guarantors of this peace process,” says Bestas. “Because if there was no Mr Öcalan or HDP fighting for this peace process it wouldn’t work on its own.”

Erdogan is dragging out the process, she claims.

“He wants to make it longer all the time but we are struggling against him.”

She accuses the outgoing prime minister of abusing his position to help his election campaign, a charge that is echoed by OSCE observers.

“It is not an equal race. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a lot of advantages,” Bestas says. “There is no fairness in this country. We can only work with our people because we can’t spend millions on our campaign. For Mr Tayyip Erdogan every state organisation, every mayor is working for him. Fifteen or 16 TV channels are supporting him and they are reporting his every word, every speech. So how can we be equal?”

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Javed, a fervent Demirtas supporter Photo: Tony Cross

Seated in his carpet shop in the Diyarbakir bazaar, Javed, is a fervent Demirtas supporter because he believes he stands for real democracy.

“Turkish people, Kurdish people, every people working together, working in one country. Before many people in Diyarbakir … Turkish people, Kurdish people, Arabic people also, working together. Democracy like this.”

But one thing Javed will never do is vote for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who are supporting Ihsanoglu. 

“Second round I’m giving to Erdogan.”

“Why?”

“I am not giving to CHP other parties with Ihsanoglu.”

Although some street traders and a civil servant tell us they will vote Erdogan in the first round, Demirtas’s campaign has plenty of support in Diyarbakir and he  hopes to pass the 10% bar, a performance that, if repeated in a general election, would mean the HDP could have an official group in parliament.

But that won’t put him in the second round, if there is one, and many Kurdish voters are likely to vote Erdogan, if faced with a choice between him and Ihsanoglu.

“This is not our policy,” the HDP’s Bestas, told me. “The AKP is not supporting our principles, so we are completely separate. We will not call on people to vote Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the second round.”

But that doesn’t deter many Kurds – Cengiz Aculca, whom I met in Istanbul, for example.

Aculca, a Kurdish building worker who has lived in Istanbul for 30 years, is going to vote for Selhettin Demirtas but, if there is a second round and Demirtas is eliminated, he will transfer his vote to Erdogan.

The CHP and its enemy-turned-ally, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are beyond the pale, so far as he is concerned.

“They dealt us a great blow during the ‘80s and the ‘90s, especially in the south-eastern part of Turkey,” he says. “Lots of things happened there, so I don’t support them.”

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“With my last drop of blood I will support Mr Demirtas,” Bayram, who says he was forced to leave Bersim because of his politics

On the city’s main street we run into Bayram.

“I will speak Kurdish,” he announces determinedly and launches into a paean for Demirtas

“With my last drop of blood I will support Mr Demirtas,” he declares. “And Kurds who do not vote for him, they are dishonest because, whether he wins or not, Demirtas is against discrimination, against any people living in Turkey – Armenians, Jewish, Christians and any ethnic group.”

Bayram’s views do not come as a huge surprise since Bayram, a balding but impressively moustached middle-aged man, sports a T-shirt decorated with several portraits – among them those of Öcalan and Che Geuvara – an arm band with the PKK’s symbol and what look like effigies of bullets and an Abdullah Ölan watch.

It appears he was just as open about his political affiliations when he lived in Mersin, a Turkish-majority town on the Mediterranean, where they did not go down to well in certain quarters.

First, he says, he was visited by CHP members who told him in no uncertain terms to get out of town.

Then he was visited by a group of toughs, who knocked him about about and smashed the Öcalan watches he had been selling on the streets, and delivered the same message.

Finally, a message to the same effect came from the mayor and he fled to Diyarbakir.

Lunch in the caravanserail in Diyarbakir

Hasan and I take lunch in the caravanserail at a stand bearing the name Kamer.

It is run by the women’s rights group that I visited last time in Diyarbakir and provides an income to women who cook at home and come here to sell it. Very good food it is, too.

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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and friends, commemorated on Taksim Square Photo: Tony Cross

The management of the Marmara Hotel were “very good” during the Gezi Park protests, Binnaz Toprak assures me as we make our way to the first floor lobby for our interview, I having vetoed the Kitchenette café, where we met, on the grounds of noise.

The hotel opened its groud floor to protesters who had been teargassed or manhandled by the police, she recalls, as the guests, presumably watched the show from their luxury suites.

It’s calm now, apart from the occasional raised voice of an excited client, and the guests loiter in the lobby – many of them Gulf Arab women in niqab or their husbands, some whom are wearing hairnets following hair transplant operations that are apparently not available at home.

Looking out onto Taksim Square and Gezi Park, Toprak, a former academic and CHP MP, is disarmingly frank about the chances of the candidate her party is backing in Turkey’s presidential election, Ekmeleddine Ihsanoglu.

“Unfortunately all polls show that he doesn’t have too much of a chance,” she admits.

It shouldn’t be that way, according to Toprak.

“Normally his chances should be high because the other major candidate, the Prime Minister Erdogan has been using hate speech against people with different identities, he has been screaming on the [TV] screen for the last I don’t know how many years, he scolds people, there is this tension in the country, whereas Ihsanoglu is this quiet man, who is a gentleman, who won’t even answer him.”

But being a gentleman doesn’t seem to be paying off.

The latest poll shows Ihsanoglu at 34%, with Erdogan 57% and left-wing Kurd Selhattin Demirtas 9.0%.

Toprak says Erdogan is primarily responsible for the intense political polarisation in the country today, although she admits that her own camp has contributed to the bitter tone of polemics that turn to vitriol on social media.

“We have been divided into two or even three groups of people – the Kurds, the secularists and the Islamists – and the more he polarises, the more he consolidates his own supporters,” she complains, adding the she fears that “it could come to a civil war between these groups”.

She is not alone in her fear of the future. There’s widespread fear of the secret services snooping on conversations, several cases of phone-tapping have been exposed their, journalists fear for their jobs after Erdogan has picked out colleagues for public criticism – indeed, some have already been fired, allegedly due to government pressure. Several people have mentioned to me or to colleagues that they are thinking of leaving the country of Erdogan wins.

The secular camp has supported military coups to prevent Islamist-led governments in the past but Toprak hopes those days are over, praising Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) for forcing the military out of politics.

The CHP, often described as a social-democratic party, has formed an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) behind Isanoglu in this election, a pro-secular bloc that has come together over recent years despite the fact that the MHP is a hard-right party, whose members used to fight in the streets with left-wingers a few decades ago.

It’s just an electoral alliance, Toprak insists, saying that for her the CHP is still a left-wing party.

In 2007, when I accompanied CHP members campaigning for support in Istanbul, I was shocked by the Kemalist dogmatism of its members.

That seems to have changed, if Toprak is anything to go by, although it is difficult imagining this amiable woman ever having been anything other than polite and reasonable.

The secularists may have been too doctrinaire in their defence of Atatürk’s legacy, she admits, looking back on their insistence on banning women wearing head cover in education and public service and regarding religious conservatives as vulgar provincials.

“Maybe it was too radical, the understanding of the party in the past but I think that the party has come to an understanding where it’s willing to accept people who want to live and Islamic way of life, let them live that way of life. Nobody should interfere with the others’ choices.”

That doesn’t mean dropping the fight for women’s rights, however, particularly in the light of AKP leaders’ statements on the matter that lead feminists to fear the worst.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç aroused equal amounts of concern and derision recently when he said that women should not laugh in public, prompting a flood of selfies of immodestly happy females.

Erdogan has expressed shock at the state of dress at Istambuli women, said that women should have three or five children and threatened to criminalise caesarean sections and abortion.

Other party thinkers have said that pregnant women should no go out in public and that it is natural for men to have a number of wives.

“The women’s issue is an important issue,” comments Toprak. “Because I think it’s at the gist of the Islamist project anywhere in the world.

“What’s going to be different if the Islamist come to power? They adjust themselves to new technologies, modernity, buildings, roads, new phones and the modern economy. What would radically change is gender relations and the position of women.”

But don’t the polls show that the majority of the country agree with this conservative religious agenda?

“Yes, they do.”

So what will the CHP do about it?

Again that disarming frankness.

“I have no idea. Despite all that has happened his [Erdogan’s] supporters still support him.”

Polling day in Istanbul

Voting is brisk at polling stations in Sisli, a middle-class area that is a stronghold of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), shortly after polls open at 8.00am.

Most voters ready to speak to the media have cast their ballot for Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the independent supported by the CHP, citing his honesty and his academic qualifications as reasons for backing him.

But not many are enthusiastic.

Ihsanoglu was secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation until he decided to stand and some secularists find him a strange choice for their party to support.

“His past is more Islamic thoughts and I am not the right for that thinking,” comments Canzu, a finance worker, adding that she doubts he would stand up for the secular values of  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

In Eyüp, a more socially mixed and politically divided area, Ihsanoglou voter Sacettin, a jeweller, found Ihsanoglu’s campaign lacklustre but blames the CHP and MHP.

“I think that the parties that support him should have been campaigning and it seemed as if he was alone,” he comments.

But he has turned out to vote anyway, afraid that Erdogan’s election would mean “fascism and dictatorship”.

Protective of their right to a secret ballot or discouraged by the men hovering and listening to people talking to the media, many voters decline to comment.

But a number are far from shy of saying that they had voted for Erdogan.

“It’s obvious, we have a leader and we vote for him,” says public employee Erdal. “We love him and so I voted for him.”

“He is a world leader, he cares for Muslims,” declares Mustafa a recent graduate, who seems on very friendly terms with the hoverers.

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Okmeydani Photo: Tony Cross

The run-down Okmeydani neighbourhood is home to members of Turkey’s minorities – Kurds, members of the Alevi sect, recent immigrants from central Asia and Africa.

Here the police are more aggressive, chasing me and my companions, Ugur and Ilyas, off the premises of one school where voting is taking place.

Ihsanoglu has supporters among the Alevi, who feel that Erdogan has stirred up Sunni Muslims against them, while many Kurds back left-winger Selhettin Demirtas.

Some of the Alevi accuse Derirtas of being prejudiced against them, an accusation that Ugur says comes from the Ihsanoglu camp.

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HDP campaigners in Okmeydani, Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

His party, the HDP, has a stall manned by volunteers, mostly young although housewife Maryam must be twice the age of her coworkers.

“I am here for peacs the interview is taking place, demanding the identity papers of all the activists and telling them they must pack up their stall.

“The police said they were Kurdish too,” HDP member Aytan says afterwards. “They were talking the Kurdish language with us. They sell their honour in working for the state. We have advice for such people, ‘Police sell simit (cakes) and live honourably.’ ”

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Ekmeleddin Mehmet Ihsanoglu arrives at his Istanbul HQ after polls have closed Photo: Ugur Demir

On the outside chance that we might snatch an interview with the only candidate who speaks good English, we wait for the result outside the Ihsanoglu headquarters, where a gaggle of cameras point at a podium from which the candidate is expected to address the media.

It’s a long wait, during which I meet Koray Caliskan, a professor I enjoyed interviewing in 2007 and who I am surprised to learn is now moving in CHP circles, given how critical of the dogmatism of the Kemalists on questions such as the headscarf back then.

His clothes seem to have taken a step up the career ladder, too, but he’s still very friendly.

When Ihsanoglu finally arrives there’s a scrum in which I almost lose my mike but his only message, affably delivered, is that it’s too soon to comment.

Despite biscuits and sandwiches provided for the press, we eventually give up.

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Victor – a pro-Eedogan banner in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

 Erdogan has won. With 52% of the votes, compared to Isahnoglu’s 38.3% and Demirtas’s 9.7%.

After learning of his victory he went to pray in the Eyüp Sultan mosque, built after the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, and the place where the Ottoman sultans were crowned.

He then flew to Ankara to meet his ecstatic fans,

“I will not be the president of only those who voted for me, I will be the president of 77 million,” he told them from the balcony of AKP headquarters.

But his idea of uniting the country seems to involve the opposition falling in line behind his agenda.

He called on them to “review their policies” to make them compatible with his “new Turkey” ideal.

“Those who accuse us of one-man rule … should please question themselves sincerely,” he said, an appeal that is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Erdogan can have two terms as president, meaning that he could remain at the head of the country until 2024, allowing him to preside over the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1913.

He hopes to strengthen the presidency and is likely to succeed in that task, having purged much of the state apparatus of opponents afer falling out with US-based cleric Fehtullah Gülen, whose supporters appear to have been behind the leaks of evidence of corruption in his family and entourage.

And soon, as president, he will appoint new members of the constitutional council, further consolidating his power.

That election is likely to be brought forward, meaning another no-holds-barred election campign.

The largest opposition parties, the CHP and the MHP have suffered a severe blow in failing to force Erdogan to go to a second round.

Their morale was low ahead of the election result but may have received a small boost from the fact that opinion poll predictions of an Erdogan win of 58% or more proved excessive.

Demirtas’s vote was higher than the HDP has ever won under any of its previous names.

Meanwhile, Turkey must find a new prime minister and the AKP a new leader, since the constitution stipulates that the president must not be a member of a political party.

Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davurtoglu is tipped as the most likely new premier, although Transport Minister Binali Yildriim’s hat is also in the ring.

Outgoing president Abdullah Gül can now return to party politics but there is speculation that economist Numan Kirtulmus, not currently an MP, may be brought in to head the party.

The AKP being a coalition of religious conservatives, business interests and political right-wingers and not immune to personal rivalries, divisions may appear in its ranks.

Its Islamist predecessors have always relied on a strong leader, which is also much of Erdogan’s appeal, and broken up when the leader exits the scene.

So, despite a conclusive presidential election result, a return to the turbulent normal for Turkish politics is on the cards.

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Sunset over Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Victory is no sooner announced than crisis comes knocking for the AKP.

Erdogan, who must resign from the party to become president, makes no secret of his wish to keep a deciding influence on it and, apparently impressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrangement with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, wants replacement who will be very much under his shadow.

Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davurtoglu seems to fit the bill, although Transport Minister Binali Yildirim’s name has also come up.

Erdogan also wants to keep tight control of the party.

But, as Erdogan’s supporters were recovering from the victory party, Gül, who cofounded the AKP with Erdogan, announced that he would be rejoining the party when he quits the president’s job and there is little doubt that he would seek the party leadership.

Later in the day the party’s executive then announced that the special conference to choose a new party chief will be held the 27 August, the day before Erdogan is sworn in, meaning that Gül will still be barred from party membership, unless he resigns early and that may well be his next move.

Not everyone in the AKP is happy with Erdogan’s plans to run the party by remote control and Gül may be able to muster significant support for a leadership bid, which could even become a stepping stone to the premiership if he returns to parliament after the next election.

The former comrades-in-arms are believed to have had their differences over recent years.

When the government tried to ban the use of Facebook and Twitter during anti-Erdogan protests last year, he declared that he would continue to tweet.

The brewing crisis is not a good sign for a party that will soon have to fight a general election.

Nor does it bode well for Erdogan’s plan to strengthen the president’s powers.

To do that he must change the constitution, which would require votes in parliament than the AKP can currently muster even if it remains united.

He may hope that an early general election will bring more MPs, although his own election win was less convincing than some polls had predicted, a result that weakened his standing in the party.

If there’s also a revolt in the AKP that could mean electoral victory leads to political crisis, undermining Erdogan’s enormous ambition and even giving new heart to his depressed and demoralised opponents.

Read my reports of the 2014 election on RFI’s English-language website

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Looting, firefights, occupation … Eyewitness in Baghdad 2003 after Saddam

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Saddam  loyalists fought US troops at the foot of our hotel one night, local people pleaded for food, water and medicines Shia pilgrims turned out in their thousands in the holy city of Kerbala, this was the Iraq I saw in 2003. I wrote this account on my return to Europe, in Venice, where many residents had hung flags calling for “Pace” from their windows. 

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US soldiers on the road between Baghdad and Basra; Photo: Tony Cross

Baghdad, 11 April 2003

The motorway into Baghdad is littered with the of tanks, trucks, buses and artillery, some still in flames. Piles of spent cartridges lie on the tarmac, glistening in the sun like puddles.

Thirty kilometres outside the city, American soldiers told us that they had just arrived to set up a checkpoint and that there was fighting here during the night. A GI with a down homey accent told our convoy of several hundred journalists from around the world not to « haul ass » down this bit of road in case we were taken for the enemy or we ran over some of their men lying on the ground.

Indeed, the fighting seems to be continuing, even though Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party leadership have gone missing. We pull into the city to the sound of shots being fired almost continuously and our way to the city centre is blocked by American tanks.

Some of the shooting is said to be shopkeepers protecting their businesses from looters. Outside a smoking shopping-mall people make off with poor-quality consumer-goods. Ministries and other buildings associated with the state have already been hit. That includes hospitals, universities and schools.

But there is also military resistance to the US’s capture of Baghdad and it continues sporadically for some time, especially at night. Usually, it’s just the exchange of machine-gun fire. These clashes are often between the remnants of the Fedayeen of Saddam and other Iraqis. But sometimes someone attacks the Americans with rockets or mortars and they respond with artillery or send helicopters to bomb buildings which are left to smoke for several days, the fire brigade being one of the public services which is currently not operational.

I arrived in Kabul in similar circumstances in 2001. There was less fighting, less destruction and less chaos. The American military presence was much more discreet, with commanders from the Northern Alliance taking over the minstries within a couple of days.

Baghdad’s Palestine and Sheraton hotels are completely surrounded by US marines, who control the city to the east of the Tigris. The army controls the west side. Barbed wire closes off the hotels from the square where Saddam’s legs remain attached to a plinth, but at a right angle, like gun-barrels aiming at nothing, after being separated from the rest of his statue in front of the world’s TV cameras. On the riverside the marines have parked about a dozen tanks and other armoured vehicles.

The Sheraton is a den of thieves. You must wait all day to see if you can get a room and then pay a $100 bribe to move in. Electricity costs another $50, cleaning a few dollars more. The lifts hardly ever work. For a few days one of the women workers brings in rice and beans and makes evening meals. But she stops after a furious row with the manager in the lobby. It appears that the boss demanded a cut.

In the lobby human-shields mix with soldiers and journalists, sometimes stopping for an argument with representatives of either group. Mysterious Iraqis occupy some of the rooms and never come out. They’re widely believed to be former officials of the old régime.

Many journalists enter into the spirit of the occasion and check out without paying, passing the room-key on to friends or selling it to more casual acquaintances.

After a couple of nights on the sixteenth floor without electricity, I purchase the key to a room in the Palestine, where the lifts work and moral standards are higher.

A couple of days after that, armed Iraqis march into the room of our technician, Manu Pochez, while he’s working. He gives them money and they go away but we decide to evacuate the encampment and find a small hotel in a calm side-street, guarded by two youths with Kalashnikovs, of course.

There are demonstrations every day in the square in front of the hotel. People paste up figures of religious and political leaders or raise banners demanding help finding political prisoners or asking for information about Kuwaiti PoWs.

And there are daily protests against the Americans. They are never more than a few hundred-strong but they get angrier as time goes by and the population remains without many basic needs. The demonstrators’ principal demand is a government made up of Iraqis and chosen by Iraqis.

“In the government I want Iraqi, not American, not British,” one of them yells over the sound of his comrades’ chanting.

Does he think it’s good that Saddam has gone ?

“No. I need Saddam because I want to kill Saddam!”

Although anti-American sentiment here is far more vocal than in Kabul, it doesn’t seem to shake the faith of most of the marines.

Twenty-three-year-old Marine lance-corporal Fernando Ortiz, from Sacramento, California, says that he “strongly agrees” with George Bush.

“I think it’s a good thing that we came in here to liberate Iraq, » he adds. « I talked to a few Iraqis yesterday and some of them said that they didn’t really like us being here. But we liberated them, so I hope they appreciate it.”

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One of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, featuring a bust of the leader as Saladdin

Some do. Many, although not all, of the poorest Iraqis praise Bush for toppling Saddam. But those with a little bit of something, manual workers and professionals who can no longer do their jobs in the present anarchy, usually say that the Americans should go as soon as possible.

The chaos, the looting, the lack of water and electricity in most of the city mean that tempers get short. When a lorry-load of mineral water arrives for the Palestine and the Sheraton, there’s nearly a riot. The anti-American demonstrators almost pull the Iraqis on the back of the lorry onto the street. They throw sticks at them and call them traitors for giving the water to foreigners while their compatriots go thirsty.

There’s a widespread belief that the Americans encouraged the looting so as to justify a prolonged presence here. When the museum and library are sacked some claim that this is a Zionist-American plot to wipe out their history.

Iraqis seem more politically sophisticated than Afghans, whose politics tends to follow ethnic or tribal patterns, and who have never experienced a stable, centralised state.

Long experience has taught Iraqis never to believe anyone. They are enthusiastic proponents of the conspiracy theories that are so popular throughout the Middle East. It would be unfair to call this paranoia, given how much persecution they’ve suffered.

No-one believes that the US is here for liberty or any of the other fine sentiments that find their way into George Bush’s scripts. At an oil ministry maintenance depot, where about 200 technicians are milling around bemoaning the fact that their tools and other equipment have been stolen, both managers and workers assure us that Washington is here toget its hand on Iraq’s main natural resource. No-one has failed to notice that the Americans managed to protect the Oil Ministry from looting while letting everything else be ransacked.

The ministry was also spared the bombing. Its Saddamo-Stalinist-style building stands intact in a field of rubble, US tanks at its gates.

The American presence is much more visible than in Kabul. Here there was no Northern Alliance to front the seizure of the capital. The Alliance inspired distrust and even fear among many Afghans, but at least most of its leaders had been present in the country and fighting the Taliban.

A Kurdish-dominated offensive from northern Iraq seems to have been judged inadvisable or impractical, so the invasion came through the south from Kuwait and was entirely foreign.

Boys of 18-25-years-old, carrying their own weight in advanced military equipment stand in the shadows of tanks bristling with barrels and ammunition on every major street corner. Their attitudes to the local population vary from helpful to fearful. But none of them seem to speak Arabic and many make up for this disadvantage by raising their voices and getting annoyed. The liberators look very much like an army of occupation.

One Iraqi who is keen to praise president Bush is Ahmad Chalabi. He’s been away from the country since 1956, during which time his career has involved fleeing Jordan in the boot of a car in the wake of a banking scandal, being adopted by the American hard-right as the man most likely to overthrow Saddam and being the subject of disagreement between different agencies of the American state over his aptitude for the task.

His supporters have set up shop in the Iraqi Hunting Club, which was famously controlled by Saddam’s notorious son, Uday. It’s guarded by men in uniform who say that they belong to the “Free Iraqi Forces”.

Chalabi holds a press conference at the Hunting Club shortly after arriving in Baghdad. He avoids answering a question about who pays the FIF. But he is full of praise for the Americans – and for them alone.

“I do not think that the United Nations is either capable or has the credibility in Iraq to play a major role,” he says. “The moral imperative is on the side of the United States and the Iraqi people now will accept a leadership role for the United States in this process.”

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A telephone exchange destroyed by US bombs Photo: Tony Cross

Not all of them though. As Chalabi is speaking, a car displaying his picture is sprayed with bullets outside the club.

“Since you’ve occupied our country, why can’t you give us medicine and treat our injuries?”  an out-of-work civil servant wants to know. He’s among a crowd outside Baghdad  Town Hall, whose gates are locked and guarded by marines. He has a personal interest in his rhetorical question. His arm is paralysed. He claims that there are two American bullets in it and that he can’t find anyone to take them out. He swears that he was unarmed when the soldiers fired on him.

Small crowds form outside all public buildings in Baghdad. They’re reservoirs of extreme suffering in he generalised misery of the city. Outside the Town Hall, people demand water and electricity for their neighbourhoods, as they do on every street in the city. Others ask foreigners if they can use their satellite-phones so that they can tell relatives abroad that they’re still alive.

Outside the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a father seeks help to send his son abroad for a heart operation, another man brandishes an X-ray of a broken hip and says he can’t afford to have the necessary operation, a veteran of the war with Iran says that he needs an operation on his leg and that he has no money for medicine he needs.

“If I can’t take this medicine I could die. What can I do?”

I suggest that he go to a nearby hospital.

“What you say is of no use,” he tells me.

Nidal is a middle-aged woman who’s proud of the fact that she’s studying for her PhD. Her house was robbed and then burnt to the ground by looters. Now she’s sleeping in the street.

“Only this!” she cries in English, indicating the only possessions she has left – the T-shirt and trousers that she’s wearing.

“Under Saddam Hussein there was injustice,” a man in the crowd says. “But at least there was work, there were salaries, we could go home at night and sleep safely with our families. Now from six o’clock in the evening till the morning, no-one can leave their houses.”

America hasn’t delivered its promises the crowd agrees. They want a government of Iraqis, they say, but, when asked who would lead it, they have no candidates.

The Americans have destroyed the old state but seem not to have considered in advance what to put in its place.

They launch an appeal to professionals to present themselves at the Palestine hotel and a crowd of teachers, engineers and doctors forms. But where will they work and with what equipment ?

One day the soldiers make a dawn raid on several floors of the Palestine, obliging half-awake journalists to splay themselves on the floor while the GIs search for arms caches and potential terrrorists.

Later, a crowd of men in olive uniforms pushes its way through the lobby. They’re senior police officers here to discuss reconstituting the force. They slip down a side-passage towards a hidden lift but there are too many of them to fit into it. After several minutes, I leave them still arguing about who will get out and take the second ride to the conference room. It’s difficult to imagine that senior police officers were unaware of the abuses of Saddam’s régime but the occupying force seems to be ready to work with them.

If the Americans really did hope that chaos would justify a prolonged presence, they may have seriously miscalculated. A combination of popular initiative and religious authority is filling the void left by the destruction of the state.

Local people have improvised roadblocks from the detritus of war to slow down potential attackers. Armed militias man scruffy checkpoints and protect buildings that are important to local people.

At the entrance of the poverty-stricken Saddam City a nervous youth thrusts his Kalashnikov at our taxi-driver. We’ve hired a guide who comes from the area and he gets us through.

There are more boys with guns outside Al Qardisiya hospital. We’re introduced to Saeed Jalil Al-Hasseini, a religious student who has returned to his old home from the Shia moslem holy city of Najaf after the religious council there declared a fatwa against looting and sanctioned the establishment of militias.

He and other religious notables have taken over the management of the hospital. Al-Hasseini explains that there has been a lot of fighting between the militia and the remnants of the Fedayeen of Saddam, some of it inside the hospital itself. He says that they have captured several fedayeen and that they are “of different nationalities, mostly from Arab nations”.

Everyone blames the nightly gunfights on “Arab volunteers”, who came to fight for the old régime and now can’t get out of the country, just as the Afghans blamed “Arabs” for the fighting that continued after the fall of the Taliban. Many Iraqis just talk about “the Syrians”, since most of the foreigners have apparently come through that country.

A group of Malaysian journalists try to enter Saddam City in a Syrian car, in convoy with some Malaysian doctors. Militiamen fire on the car, killing the Syrian driver and wounding a doctor, a journalist and a guide.

The attackers apologise and take them to see a prisoner whom they ask them to film. He reads a declaration saying that he was number 16 in the fedayeen hierarchy and that he was paid handsomely to kill Shia and Americans. Then the captors produce a knife. The two cameramen refuse to carry on, fearing that they were about to record a summary execution.

Along the road from the hospital is a mosque. It’s a Sunna mosque, even though most of the area’s people are Shia. Kassem al-Moussawi, an affable teacher, is standing beside a table strewn with papers. There’s a bizarre collection of objects in the mosque’s courtyard – office chairs, desks, an industrial weighing machine … The Najaf fatwa instructed Shia to bring looted goods to the mosques so that they can be restored to public institutions.

Moussawi is supervising this process, starting with the hospitals. Some of the doctors are amazed at the quality of the equipment that they receive. Looted from clinics reserved for the old régime’s élite, it’s “returned” to medical facilities whose patients are poor.

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Thousands of Shia turn out for Friday prayers in the renamed Al-Sadr city Photo: Tony Cross

By the second Friday after the fall of Baghdad, Saddam City has changed its name. It’s unofficial, but nothing’s official at the moment, so who’s to stop the Shia inhabitants renaming it Al-Sadr City after a cleric and political leader who was killed by the former ruler?

Young men brandish guns and pictures of Al Sadr as they make their way down the litter-strewn streets to Friday prayers. We’re stopped by militiamen, but they’re noticeably more relaxed than at the beginning of the week and make an effort to be polite to visiting journalists.

A vast crowd has filled the wide main street in front of the area’s main mosque. Tens of thousands of Shia have come from Saddam City and surrounding areas and are sitting on the dusty ground waiting for prayers to begin.

When they respond to the imam, a wave of sound rolls over the mosque and the surrounding slums.

This is partly a celebration of the fact that the Shia can publicly practise all aspects of their faith after the limits that Saddam placed on it. The Shia have been kept out of positions of power throughout most of Iraq’s history, even though they’re the majority of the country’s population. Most of the poor are Shia.

All of which might have inspired them to vengeance and religious sectarianism. But, in Baghdad at least, they seem to reject the idea of confessional revenge. Slogans on mosque walls and banners call for unity of Sunna and Shia, and sometimes Christians. Leading clerics say that they don’t want a Shia monopoly of power.

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Ashura pilgrims in a Kerbala mosque Photo: Tony Cross

No doubt the Shia political movements that operated from exile in Iran have a positive view of the 1970s Iranian revolution but most people I speak to look blank when I ask what they think of it. In politics, at least, they seem to think of themselves as Iraqis first and it is their country, after all, which is home to the most important Shia holy cities.

The annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Kerbala turns into another celebration of new freedoms and old resentments.

Millions of Shi-a, men and women, make their way to the city on foot, beating their chests in rhythm, a few hitting their heads until the blood runs, in penance for the failure to prevent the martyrdom of the prophet Mohamed’s grandson, Hussein, in a struggle for the leadership of Islam.

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Women pilgrims in Kerbala Photo: Tony Cross

As the faithful march towards Kerbala, a long American military convoy heads the other way. There are no soldiers in the city, no police and virtually no guns. It’s a shock after Baghdad. But there seems to be perfect peace. Most pilgrims sleep in the street. They’re fed in communal kitchens set up by Kerbala’s residents.

Islamic discipline is strictly observed, meaning little crime but also a drastic dress-code for women, all of whom are entirely covered in black apart from their faces. A stray lock of hair brings sharp reproof, even for foreign non-believers.

Inside the gold-decorated mosques which house the shrines to Hossein and his uncle Abbas, people mourn relatives lost to Saddam’s repression. Others denounce Washington’s reported plan to stay here for several years.

And they explain why there are no buildings in the space between the two shrines. The narrow streets that used to be here were flattened in 1991. That was George Bush senior called on Iraqis to revolt and left the Shia to be massacred when they followed his advice. The military reportedly used chemical weapons on parts of the city.

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Pilgrims arrive in Kerbala Photo: Tony Cross

Back in Al-Sadr/Saddam City about a week after our first visit, Al Qardisiya hospital seems relatively calm.

Relatively. Dr Ali Handhal Aboud says that he’s going to take a rest because he’s carried out 153 operations on gunshot wounds over the last three days.

Aboud is the only surgeon to have stayed at his post throughout the bombing and subsequent chaos. Staff attendance was down to about 5%, due to lack of transport and fear of violence. Today, he says, about 90% of the staff are back at their posts.

Health-workers, like other public employees, now wonder who will run the services they work for. Dr Salafa, the only woman to come to work for several days, expresses the fervent hope that the ex-head of Baghdad’s health services will remain missing. For the old Ba’ath Party management, she says, obstruction was routine, even going beyond motives of personal enrichment.

At the oil maintenance depot, too, workers ask who will run their working lives from now on. Will competent professionals who fell foul of the Ba’ath become the new management ? Will they be able to choose their bosses, as one manager suggests?

It’s an echo of the wider question on everybody’s mind: Will Iraqis be able to choose their government and, if so, when?

There are a lot of unanswered questions in Iraq today.


26 May 2003 Update

Depressingly little seems to have changed since I left Iraq.

Saddam Hussein has still not been found. Indeed, being on Washington’s most-wanted list seem to be a guarantee of longevity, since the US also seems unable to track down Mullah Omar and Ossama bin Laden.

Nor have we been presented with any of the alleged weapons of mass destruction which provided the pretext for the invasion. The Americans haven’t even had the decency to fulfil prophesies that they would plant evidence of the régime’s capacity to wipe out its neighbours or attack the United States, although I suppose there’s still time for that.

Much of the population is reported to be still without drinkable water and electricity, including many parts of Baghdad, and crime and violence is still apparently widespread.

It’s true that Iraqis are contradicting themselves when they demand that the American-British force guarantee them decent living conditions, while at the same time telling them to get out of the country as soon as possible.

But I wonder if that’s as profound a contradiction as the claim to have made a country safe for democracy and then tell its people that they can’t choose to have an Islamic state or any other form of government unacceptable to the liberators.

This principle has already been applied in Basra, where the British bragged to the world’s news-media that they had set up a city counci and then promptly abolished it. The provincial council in Kirkuk, in the north, has also run into trouble.

The sacking of Jay Garner and his replacement by Paul Bremer seems to confirm the suspicion that the Bush adminstration had prepared no strategy for post-Saddam Iraq.

This is a trifle embarassing for those of us who suspected a master-plan to impose certain pliant politicians, partition the country and isolate its oil resources and then, perhaps, move on to invade neighbouring countries.

Everything seems to be decided empirically, which at least has the merit of being consistent with the philosophical and political traditions of the English-speaking world. But it must worry the people of Iraq, whose fate is being decided by an unpredictable president and an unpredictable government in a far-off land where they have few friends.

The US has, however, made sure that it has control of the oil and that its hegemony is clearly established in the Middle East, so the main aims of liberation have been accomplished. For now, at least.

This article was first published in Global Research

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Eyewitness: Afghanistan 2001 after the fall of the Taliban

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After waiting in the northern Pakistani town of Peshawar for a couple of weeks, I was part of a convoy of hundreds of journalists who crossed into Afghanistan as the Northern Alliance and the US toppled the Taliban.  We crossed countryside littered with the refuse of war and, on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul, were robbed at gunpoint in an isolated valley. Kabul itself was tense and under curfew as new masters took over under the watchful eye of the West. Here’s what I wrote on my return.
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The royal palace outside Kabul, in ruins after decades of war. Photo; Tony Cross

Torkham frontier post, 16 November 2001

It’s six nights after the Taliban quit Kabul. Pakistani border officials have taken a break in the middle of stamping the passports of hundreds of journalists who arrived in convoy this afternoon.

It’s ramadan and they must pray … and break their fast.

Darkness has descended and we buy our first, but by no means last, meal of kebab from a scruffy restaurant in the village that surrounds the post.

Finally the formalities are over and the convoy lines up in front of the huge black metal gate that closes the frontier.

Just as we’re about to leave, camera flashes go off a few hundred yards away. The Taliban have released the last journalist they’ve been holding, a Japanese who’s received little publicity in the West.

Thanks to our driver, Assad, who is always keen to be ahead of all other cars, we’ve actually paid a guard to let us be first out of Pakistan. Now we find ourselves at the head of a convoy about to enter a country at war. And I’m in the front passenger seat.

A week ago, Radio France Internationale’s Johanne Sutton was killed, along with two other journalists, when they were caught in fighting in northern Afghanistan.

The gate slides open. In front of us is a mojahed on the back of a pick-up truck, aiming a rocket-launcher straight at our windscreen. Around him are 20 or 30 others, armed with Kalishnikovs.

“Boom!” he says and laughs.

Fortunately, they’re on our side. They’re our guard, supplied by Jalalabad’s new security chief, Haji Zaman, whose representative in Peshawar, Engineer Mohammad Alim, has organised the convoy.

As we drive gingerly across the line, more mojaheddin appear, mostly young and apparently stoned.

There’s a long wait, as a TV crew transfer equipment from a lorry to buses and cars. Photographers snap the mojaheddin, journalists interview them. I file a report. Then we’re off along a well-maintained road (“The Taliban built this,” says our interpreter Kamal) past newly-built petrol stations whose pumps glisten in the headlights. They’re the last modern ones we see in Afghanistan and must have been built to service the powerful smuggling operations whose bosses backed the Taliban in the hope that the ultra-fundamentalist militias would impose some degree of unity on the country.

Jalalabad under new rulers

After the fall of Kabul and a couple of days of tension, four rival Pashtun warlords have just reached agreement to share power in Jalalabad.

The new governor is Haji Abdul Qadeer, the man who in 1996 handed the city over to the Taliban, allegedly in exchange for a bribe of as much as ten million dollars cash plus a guarantee that his assets and bank accounts in Pakistan wouldn’t be frozen. The deal was reportedly brokered by Islamabad and Saudi intellligence boss, Prince Turki al Faisal, now retired from his post after failing to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden.

In the warm Jalalabad night, some journalists are welcomed into the Governor’s palace. Others, including ourselves, go on to the only known hotel, which is already overbooked, thanks to a convoy which arrived two days ago, and which is raising the prices of its grubby rooms by the minute. We get a room, thanks to a Danish TV journalist, who’s moved to a better one but has been unsuccessful in her attempts to hand back the keys to the one she has vacated.

Jalalabad is a city stuffed with guns. Truckloads of mojaheddin circle the space in front of the Governor’s palace, piles of rocket-launchers and ammunition resting on the tailgates. Others walk around in the morning sunshine, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.

Inside the palace guards in Soviet-style uniforms and US-style trainers slouch at the doorways, making no effort to stop anyone enter.

A delegation of tribal elders have arrived to congratulate the new incumbent. Mohammed Dulah, from Chapathar village tells us that he used to be a commandant in Gulbuddin Hikmetyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. He’s calm but venomous when he pronounces the name of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who’s still officially recognised as President by most of the world and who has been making portentous declarations about the future of the country since the Northern Alliance took control of Kabul.

What right has Rabbani to promise elections in two years time? Dulah wants to know.

If Rabbani remains in power, the Northern Alliance will make the same mistakes as it did in the early 1990s, he says, referring to the period when mojaheddin factions waged a bloody internecine struggle for power, at vast cost to the population in terms of lives and living conditions. Dulah wants a leader who is “a true Muslim who will work for Afghanistan” and who’s chosen by the whole country.

And, now that the rest of the world is again discussing Afghanistan and US President George W Bush has declared war on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, what should foreigners do for the country?

“We want them to reconstruct our country and then go back to their own country.”

Engineer Mohammed Alim also wants the Americans to help reconstruct Afghanistan, although, when asked if that means paying for the process, he says, “Not necessarily.”

Alim, who organised the convoy from Peshawar, is a handsome man, with the classic Afghan aquiline features and thick, black beard, laughlines around his eyes and a smart Western jacket worn over his shalwar kameez.

He speaks fluent English, which helps in the new role that he has assumed of spokesperson for Jalalabad’s new Security Chief, Haji Zaman.

Earlier a rickshaw driver had told us that Afghans are sick of seeing armed men on the street.

“The Taliban were bad but at least there was security under their rule,” is a refrain that we’ll hear again and again from Afghans who remember the chaotic early 90s and fear that they will return.

Engineer Mohammed Alim smiles charmingly and reassures us that security is already improving.

“It will be controlled in one or two days. Yesterday was good, today is better and by tomorrow will be best.”

Robbed at gunpoint

The road from Jalalabad to Kabul must be one of the worst in the world. We had arranged to travel this gritty, bumpy wreck of a route with another car containing a Polish TV crew but, on one of the rare stretches of tarmac, they left us behind.

Now we are bumping slowly along a surface ravaged by two decades of war, listening to our driver, Assad, tell us how he fought the Russians from the mountains alongside the road.

I’m in the front passenger seat. Jean Piel, who works for RFI’s French service and other French-language news-media too numerous to mention, Médard Chablaoui, our sound engineer, and Kamal Nassar, our interpreter, are in the back.

There’s plenty of evidence of the war: bomb craters, twisted wrecks of military vehicles and checkpoints.

Five young men run out of one of these, waving their arms for us to stop. We do so. They seem very agitated and four of them are carrying Kalashnikovs.

As I open the car door, I hear the sound of a gun’s safety catch being taken off.

They wrench open the other car doors and pull us out of the car. Then, encouraging us with shouts and blows from their gun-butts, they drive us across the road. All except Assad, that is. They keep him by the car with a gun to his head.

We are taken into a shallow ravine, across rocks, over a stream.

When faced with probable death, you think at 1,000 knots a minute. Is this the real and definitive end ? You can’t kill me, I’ve got a mother who loves me! How can I have put my family in such a situation? Or are they taking us hostage ? I don’t think I could survive many Afghan winter nights in the mountains.

You realise that they’ve known nothing but war all their lives and that to them your death would be as banal as the change in the seasons. But you remain strangely calm. You don’t panic.

I can’t move as fast as the others, thanks to the after-effects of being run over on a Paris street a year ago. At one point I stumble on a rock. At first I think that I’m going to suffer the fate of the weak and be shot for my physical shortcomings. But the boy beside me, he can’t be more than 18-years-old, stretches out his hand and helps me up. In doing so, he finds my wallet and takes it. I reach out to him, thinking that I could say “Take the money but leave my papers,” but realise that I don’t have the language skills and that he has a Kalashnikov.

They take us well away from the road, behind a huge rock which completely conceals us from view. At that point we’re all sure that we’re going to die. Jean Piel tells me later that he will always remember my face, pale and drawn.

Then they frisk us. A boy frisks me and, when he finds nothing, I think that I’m going to be killed because the little bastard who’s already taken my money wants to keep it all for himself. I point at him. The frisking ends. We find ourselves up against the rocks that lead up into the mountain, the robbers between us and the way back to the road. The one with no gun is doing a shuttle between us and the road.

Through Kamal they tell us to stay here, that if we move they’ll kill us, and turn to run away. As they go, the one who appears to be the leader, turns, rubs his thumb and forefinger together and says : “Paise, Paise.” Money, money. Is this to sneer at us or to reassure us that we won’t be killed if we do what we’re told.

There’s silence once they’re gone. Then we start to discuss how long we’ll stay there, if we should resist if they come back to kill us.

After ten minutes, we hear Assad shouting from the road.

We run towards the car, me the slowest again. This time I don’t regret my slight disability, since I still half-fear that we will shot as we approach the road.

Once in the car, we start telling each other what we’ve lost, money, cameras, Méd’s mobile phone. Jean has suffered worst, they’ve taken his bag and it had his contacts-book in it.

Then we realise that we’re still alive.

Assad didn’t tell them that we were journalists; he told them that we were with an NGO. With amazing courage, if not foolhardiness, he said that he didn’t have the keys to the boot and so saved our clothes, some of our money and all our working material. Although he had the worst experience, he seems the least shaken up.

Assad flags down a carload of Afghans and asks them to stay with us on the road, which they do. We stop at the next checkpoint and the armed men there tell us that they’ll go after the robbers if we pay them. We decline the offer.

Further along the road, on a large bend, a pick-up truck full of men is parked, with one man standing beside it, like a vulture perched on a branch.

Once we’re past them, our Afghan friends pull up beside us and tells us that those were robbers, too.

We pull into a village and are mobbed by kids, some of whom throw stones at the car.

The two-and-a-half-hour drive into Kabul passes in a state of shock mixed with paranoia. Méd thinks the Afghans who are with us want to rob us. I thought that we would be killed at the checkpoint. Every figure at the roadside seems menacing.

Kamal seems particularly shaken by the experience. Later he tells us that this is the second armed robbery he’s been through. The last time the robbers opened fire, killing his friend and putting him in hospital with two bullets in the leg. Kamal is 22, the same age as the fighting.

Night falls as we climb up into the mountains that mark the border of Kabul province. The descending sun picks out the pock-marked surface of the rocks, throws long shadows from high peaks, fails to reach all the way into deep valleys. It’s a  landscape created by an angry god; a suitable backdrop for trauma.

Bad news in Kabul

The next day at the huge but shabby Intercontinental Hotel, I overhear people saying that four journalists have been killed.

I ask one of them, who’s with the BBC, about it. He says that the killing took place today on the Jalalabad-Kabul road. I tell the others. They’ve heard the same from French journalists.

It sounds strangely like a distorted account of our own experience. I stick my mike into a crowd and record a man, speaking English with a slight but unplaceable accent, saying,  “… he came towards us saying, ‘Go back to Jalalabad, the Taliban are shooting journalists’ … we decided to go further, towards Kabul. On the way to Kabul, three youngsters, around 20-25-years-old, wearing camouflage jackets, carrying Kalashnikovs, they stopped us, they pointed guns to our heads, they taked all our stuff, our cameras, our passports, they dragged my driver outside, they pushed another journalist outside of the car, they checked all of our pockets and everything, then they were pushing us …. ”

The four who were killed were Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, who worked for Reuters, Maria Grazia Cutuli, of Corriere della Sera, and Julio Fuentes, of El Mundo. They were beaten, stoned and shot at close range. It was at Sorubay, where we were robbed.

The gloomy reception area of the Pearl Continental is the place to pick up the latest rumours and, sometimes, a bit of the truth. The first journalists to arrive are staying here and the UN holds twice-daily press conferences, in an unsuitably laid-out room, in front of whose entrance stand three plastic buckets collecting the water that  leaks from the ceiling. At the hotel door a man in uniform gives the revolving door an encouraging push when foreigners enter but is less welcoming when it comes to his compatriots.

Yesterday evening we were met in the crowded carpark by France Inter journalist Fabienne Sintes who had left Jalalabad ahead of us. Her interpreter, Abdul, had found a house for us to rent.

Our temporary residence belongs to a doctor who’s fled to Germany, leaving an old man in charge. Like the houses around it, it is modern, spacious, with marble floors, the home of a typical Kabul bourgeois, although a litle down-at-heel after being uninhabited for so long. On our first night many of the windows were missing, thanks to an American bomb which fell in the next street. They’re replaced the next day but that, and the primitive heating we buy, only does a little to make the cold Kabul night more tolerable.

The first filmshow for seven years

The day, on the other hand, is sunny and the sunlight shines on a big crowd outside the Cinema Bakhtar in the centre of town. The morning show is already underway. It’s the first for seven years, cinema having been one of the sinful practices repressed by the Taliban’s religious police under the guidance of the Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The 700 places were quickly sold and the crowd is waiting for the next showing. Some will have to wait for the one after that.

Foreign journalists are allowed to queue-jump, although the theatre is so full that we can only catch a glimpse of the film, a tale of mojaheddin heroism in the struggle against the Russians. The term Commandan features prominently in the soundtrack.

Sound engineer Hasem Qarim explains, at length and in a roundabout Asian style, that he kept the spools hidden from the Taliban, that he managed to keep the studio open with a skeleton staff, that there had been censors before the Taliban and that he hopes there will be a democratic and broad-based government now so that there can be free media for people to explain their lives. He also wants to show foreign films “which will teach people how to live”.

Kamal seems puzzled when I ask him what the cinema’s name means.

“In the West cinemas’ names often mean something other just the name,” I explain.

“It’s just the cinema’s name,” he says … but later he adds, “It’s the old name for Afghanistan.”

There’s dust everywhere, lodging in your throat and making everyone cough. Kabul city centre is full of Soviet-style official buildings, a scruffy street-market, a corner whose railings are covered with traditional carpets for sale (a blur of maroon as you pass in a car), oily shops selling hardware, electrical goods or car and bike parts, the compounds of UN agencies. In one square  money-changers clutch huge wads of the nearly-valueless Afghani. A modest meal for three at the hotel costs over a million, waiters and shop-owners can count dozens of Afghani notes in seconds with a lightning counting technique which looks like a card-trick. All buildings of any importance have at least one armed guard. That includes the cinema.

As the fact that the Northern Alliance has won permanent control of the city sinks in to the Kabuli consciousness, pictures of Ahmed Shah Masood appear everywhere. A poster-sized one placed on an easel greets you as you enter Intercontinental’s dingy foyer, like a flash of colour pasted onto a black-and-white photo. Soon practically every vehicle in town has a picture of the commander praying tacked inside its windscreen or attached to its bonnet.

A fighter for women’s rights

Stay on the street for any length of time and you’re approached by a beggar, often a child in rags with skin darkened by dirt, malnutrition and the effect of living outdoors, or a woman, who is probably one of the thousands of widows left in charge of a family after her husband died in the fighting, or after stepping on a landmine, or just from hunger and poverty.

Under the Taliban she was forbidden to work. She was also ordered to wear the burqa which she still wears. It covers her whole body down to the calves which are covered by trousers; her face is covered by a lattice, a cloth version of  the screens over harem windows; all you can see of her is her hand, a claw protruding from a bundle of rags that says something in a language that you can’t understand. It’s relatively easy to refuse to give when you can’t see the beggar’s eyes.

Word gets round the press corps that there’s been a demonstration  of women to reject the burqa. Very few journalists knew it was taking place. Now everyone wants to find the woman who organised the rally.

Soralya Parlika is being interviewed by a televison crew when we arrive at her flat. We don’t have an appointment but we are ushered into a room to wait to see her. There’s a woman in attendance, who I believe is a servant, and an old man with a complicated turban, bright blue eyes and a white beard. He’s Soralya’s father, Mohammed Harif. He’s deaf and his face has the uncomprehending look of those who don’t hear the hubbub of everyday life.

As we wait, some American journalists arrive and join the queue.

The flat is not very spacious, in a building which is relatively modern but scruffy on a housing estate which resembles cheap municipal housing in Britain.

But this is, or at least was, housing for the privileged. Kamal tells us that the flats were built for civil servants and officers “under the Communists”.  As we approached, we had to drive round a huge hole in the road, the result of a US-British bombing raid. There’s a playground on the other side of the road.

Parlika eventually appears. She’s 57 but, unusually for Afghanistan, looks younger than her age. She wears a headscarf, but leaves her rather pale-complexioned face uncovered. Despite her welcoming smile, she gives the disconcerting impression of gazing anxiously at a spot just over her interlocutor’s shoulder. She’s the second or third Afghan woman I’ve seen who isn’t wearing the burqa.

Kabul’s new rulers had refused to allow the demonstrators to march through the streets, saying that they couldn’t guarantee their safety, an assertion which excites a certain amount of scepticism on Parlika’s part. Between 100 and 200 women turned up nevertheless and held a rally, where they lifted up their burqas, most of them baring their faces but keeping their hair covered.

Parlika insists that the rally was not about the burqa and that there was no obligation on participants to remove it. The real aim was to demand that women be allowed to play a role in post-Taliban Afghanistan: that they should be allowed to work and to be educated, and that they should be represented at meetings about the country’s future and in any new government.

Her own history goes back to the late 1970s, when, after studying economics at Kabul University, she started working for the women’s section of the Democratic Party of Afghanistan. That led to a one-and-a-half-year jail term under Hafizullah Amin (“a brutal man”), the second president from the Khalq Communist faction who was killed when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.

She went on to head the Afghan Red Crescent but gave that up in 1992 when the mojaheddin rolled into town. Liberation from Russian rule didn’t mean women’s liberation. During the ’70s women in Kabul, at least, had access to education, employment and, if they wanted, Western dress. But in 1992, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who at the time more or less controlled the capital, publicly recommended that Kabuli women wear the burqa. Parlika established an underground women’s movement.

I ask if women are rejecting an Afghan tradition when they reject the burqa. She concedes that some Afghan women have always worn it. “But women who were educated, women who were going to school, university and who were working, they didn’t wear burqas. It was only women whose husbands were fanatics or chose to do so voluntarily.”

So why do so many women continue to wear it now that they don’t have to?

She replies that many would feel unsafe without the burqa, that it’s warm and that, after years of being forbidden to work, they are poor and don’t want to expose their shabby clothes.

As yet, most of the women who are ready to work with Parlika are from what’s left of the educated middle class, the women who would fill the jobs that she’s demanding in education, healthcare and the administration of the country.

One of the Americans asks if she believes she could have accomplished as much as she has if she had been married.

Parlika talks generally about the condition of Afghan women.

The journalist insists and Parlika generalises again.

Someone suggests a different phrasing for the question and Parlika generalises again.

Try as they might, my colleagues can’t get a straight answer. Is the question too personal ? Is there something we’re not allowed to know? Or is it just easier to confront male prejudice in California than in Kabul ?

The Intercontinental’s antique television can now show the broadcasts of Kabul Television. The pre-Taliban presenters, a man and a woman, have been brought out of their forced retirement. The woman wears a headscarf but, fortunately from a televisual point of view, no burqa. The content is principally news – there’s plenty of that – and landscapes with accompanying music.

The Kabulis want more than the two hours a day that Kabul TV offers, however. Satellite dishes knocked together from old tin-cans appear outside shops, their repeated logos adding an Andy Warhol touch to street-life.

Other vices that Kabulis can once again indulge in after a five-year ban are getting a shave, listening to music, flying a kite and keeping pigeons.

And girls can now go to school again. The Taliban ban was never fully effective. Soralya Parlika was among those who ran secret schools where girls could pick up some education.

Gul Mohammad Ahamdi is the president of Sorbach, an NGO which runs 95 schools in Kabul. They teach over 7,000 children one of the local languages, maths and the Koran.

Kulhana Chadi school, in a battered area of Kabul mainly populated by the Hazara ethnic group, isn’t easy to spot. It’s a mud building like the houses around it. You open the door, which has been cannibalised from a goods-container, and you enter an empty store-room. Steps at the back of the store-room lead up to a landing with three dusty rooms off it.

They’re the classrooms, all packed with girls who stand up and sing out a greeting in unison as you enter. The nine teachers are all women – scarves not burqas, a bit of make-up, even – the teaching techniques seem to entail a lot of reciting by rote. The girls sit on the floor, some have cheap notebooks, others slates. They won’t be learning computer skills any day soon.

Outside a woman in a burqa draws water from a well. Inside a teacher explains that classes have been operating for about a year. The building is provided by a relative of one of the teachers. The immorality that it sheltered  had to be concealed from the most zealous Taliban but some local commanders knew about the schools and tolerated them, if the area that they controlled was far enough away fom the religious police headquarters.

Ahamdi himself was often taken in for questioning. He says that he received many threats to his life under the Taliban. “I gave my son the name of the person he should contact if  one day I didn’t come home.”

And to what use will this education be put ? When asked, virtually all the girls say that they want to be doctors.

If war has scarred Kabul, leaving whole swathes of the city as rubble, it’s also marked many Kabulis for life. 97 per cent of Afghan children have lived through violence. Unicef officials say that the majority of under-16s have been traumatised by the war. 65 per cent have experienced the death of a close relative.

In every street you come across men and boys on crutches, or, the lucky ones, with artificial limbs. Their agility is remarkable, though never remarked on in a country where such an accomplishment is commonplace. Whole hospitals are devoted to trying to repair the damage done by left-over ordinance, especially the landmines that have been planted all over the country. Demining experts say that 735 square miles of land is dangerous.

And then the US and Britain launched a bombing campaign. In the formerly wealthy area of Wasir Aqbar Khan, UN demining expert, Ross Chamberlain, stands in front of a wreck of concrete and twisted metal and tells the assembled journalists, “We brought you here to show you a good example.”

Chamberlain says that the building that stood here was the headquarters of  a Taliban police commander. It suffered a direct hit, although nobody knows if  the principal target was home. A building next door was partially destroyed. A number of pro-Taliban Arab volunteers are reported to have been inside. They all died.

In a wry Australian accent, Chamberlain tells us to look behind us. A line of trees partially conceals the Indira Ghandi hospital. “So they had to be spot-on, if they were wrong there was going to be a big problem.”

But, he adds, there were more bad examples than good ones.

It seems that death discriminates against the poor. There’s no rubble at the second site we visit, just piles of dirt and dust, leaving a perfect view of the mountains that overlook the city. A bomb has obliterated the home of a family of ten, who were in it at the time. Only the mother survived and she stands on the site weeping and recounting her story to the microphones.

“The bomb was probably aimed at the military post on the hill,” says Petere Lesueur, who’s technical adviser to Afghan Ordinance Consultants which is working with the UN. “A possible last-minute malfunction of the guidance unit and it’s probable that that ‘s what happened.”

Ross Chamberlain estimates that 30 civilians have been killed in Kabul by US bombs, a non-combattant death-toll which he considers to be fairly low compared to other military campaigns. He’s found no evidence of the use of  cluster-bombs in the city, although these packages of death and injury have been used elsewhere in the country.

“But there’ve been lots of 500-lb bombs,” many of which have yet to explode.

The mines and bombs left behind by successive campaigns kill ten to 12 people every day.

What fighting?

Kabul’s electricity is cut off, causing the price of generators to soar as journalists comb the city for the power they need to file their stories and keep warm at night.

The current remains off for over 24 hours and it’s soon reported that this is no ordinary power-cut. It appears that a key power-station has been hit during heavy fighting between the Northern Alliance and tribal fighters at Sorubay after the Alliance sent 200 troops from Kabul to secure the road to Jalalabad. Roadblocks at the outskirts of Kabul prevent reporters visiting the scene.

Pashtun chiefs, who have have each taken control of their small parcel of territory, are defending their right to make the law on their own patch, especially against the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance.

The local chiefs’ power was curtailed under the Taliban to please the transport mafia, which objected to paying countless tolls as they travelled through the various fiefdoms along their way. Now, as we found out, robbers and other toll-collectors are reappearing. Ordinary Afghans fears of a return to lawlessness and faction fighting are being realised.

The following day, with power returned, I ask Northern Alliance spokesman Abdullah Abdullah whether the fighting has ended.

“What fighting?” he asks.

Check in your weapons at the door

One evening I go with Assad and Kamal to their favourite restaurant, which is a converted cinema. As we wash our hands by the entrance, a pick-up pulls up in the dark outside. About a dozen armed men in pakool hats and combat fatigues jump off it and lope past us into the restaurant.

Most of them leave their weapons at the door, as if they were checking in their hats and coats. The visitor can inspect a pretty array of arms, including a machine-gun with a bandolier of bullets ready to be fired. It looks strangely home-made, as if it had been cobbled together out of tin-cans like an African toy. Kamal says with distaste that this must be the party of “some commander”.

The evening meal starts early because it’s ramadan and the Afghans are desperate to break their fast. In any case, you can’t linger over your meal because curfew begins at 9 pm.

A television crew which has paid a security official to accompany them at night says that there are roadblocks, manned by nervous youths, at very regular intervals. The guide knows the password, which changes every night, and whispers it to whoever’s in charge of the road-block. There not always sure that the jumpy militiamen are ready to wait for this formality to be enacted.

Kamal and I walk down our street in the sunny Kabul afternoon. He stoops and picks up a small lump of blackened metal. “Mortars,” he says. Recognising ordnance is one of those handy skills that young Afghans have all managed to pick up.

We pass a group of men in khaki uniforms that look as if they’ve been left over from the Russian occupation. They’re police. We talk to the officer, a plump man squeezed into an undersized uniform decorated with colourful regalia.

He tells us to be careful at night; that there are still Taliban hidden in the city, or, to be precise, foreign volunteers whom the Taliban didn’t tell about the withdrawal. They woke up Tuesday morning to find themselves in a capital controlled by the enemy. The Northern Alliance reportedly shot some of them on the main street as soon as it arrived, but others have managed to find householders who hide them for money.

They try and sneak out of the city at night and there are sometimes shoot-outs with Northern Alliance fighters. Occasionally we hear a shot at night.

The next day, AFP reports that Kabul residents have spotted a group of American or British soldiers occupying a house in the city. They reportedly only go out at night, to hunt down Taliban or Al-Qaeda members.

When we unsuccessfully try and see Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunas Qanooni, we ask the advisers who receive us about this story.

There are no US or Bitish soldiers in Kabul, they say, but, when pressed, say that “American security experts from the Pentagon” are “collaborating with the Northern Alliance against terrorists here and throughout the country”. It would be “difficult to say whether they might be in Kabul”.

Are there any Taliban left in Kabul ? I ask.

No.

So why is there a curfew ?

“For reasons of security. We haven’t collected in all the arms yet. Besides, we’ve had a curfew here for the last 22 years.”

Why break the habit of a lifetime ?

A Taliban defector

Mollah Alhaj M Khaksar glances nervously over his shoulder at a Northern Alliance minder as he responds to our questions. He wears a black and yellow turban, a western suit-jacket over a traditional shalwar kameez, and a gold watch which can’t have come cheap. His bushy beard only partially conceals a chubby, boyish face. Bearded men in turbans sit around the walls, watching the interview, which is videoed for posterity, or maybe so that Kabul’s new masters have a record of what the mollah is saying.

At ten o’clock last night Abdullah Abdullah presented Khaksar, who was the Taliban’s deputy interior minister, to the press and announced that he has defected to the Northern Alliance.

Khaksar himself claims to have been in contact with the Alliance for two to three years, although he is vague as to whether those contacts were in a ministerial capacity or, as I think he would like us to believe, because he was an agent of Ahmed Shah Masood.

Before seeing the mollah, we were ushered through a garden decorated with spent Russian mortar-shells into one of Wasir Akbar Khan’s spacious modern houses, where we waited in the company of men who claimed to have been prisoners in Kandahar, where the Taliban are still holding out.

For the interview we had to cross the road to another house. While two Northern Alliance leading lights haven’t bothered to turn up for appointments with us, Khaksar is, so to speak, on tap, since his primary function is to be publicised.

He has appealed to other Taliban to come over to the Alliance and says that, in the time-honoured Afghan tradition, defectors should be offered places in a new government or, at least, at the forthcoming conference in Bonn on the country’s future.

Khaksar says that he split with the Taliban over their conduct of the war and calls for an end to the influence of foreigners on the country’s politics.

He is referring are the Arab fundamentalists, like Osama bin Laden, whose influence over the Taliban leadership and alleged arrogance in their dealings with local people has created massive resentment.

It also meant dissent in Taliban ranks. Some journalists have tried to find differences among “moderate” and “extremist” Taliban but the movement showed no signs of disunity when it came to mistreating  the Afghan people.

One could perhaps distinguish between those who opportunistically went along with Taliban policies in order to keep administrative jobs or positions of influence and those who sincerely wanted to impose their own interpretation of Islam on the country. But who is more morally reprehensible, someone who imposes the burqa, illiteracy for women, amputation for theft, stoning for adultery, execution for homosxuality and so on because he thinks that it will lead humanity to paradise, or someone who collaborates with these practises in order to stay out of  trouble? Is it worth making the distinction?

There is another division in the Taliban ranks.

It’s between those who back the foreign fundamentalists’ project of imposing Taliban-style rule on the whole Muslim world and those who are only concerned with what happens within the borders of Afghanistan.

Naturally, the latter view would appeal to pragmatists and careerists, but also to commanders who are realistic enough to know that they can’t beat the US’s military might and to those who believed that the Taliban could bring unity and stability to Afghanistan, a view which was apparently shared by Islamabad and Washington at one time.

My guess is that Khaksar falls into the pragmatic category, especially if he’s been secretly backing both horses for a couple of years. Today he plays on the hatred that much of the population has for the foreigners who came to pursue jihad in Afghanistan. Although they have come from all over the world, they are now all referred to as “the Arabs” and are loathed to such a degree that our sound engineer Méd, who’s of Moroccan origin, doesn’t dare let on that he speaks Arabic.

“These foreigners were the main reason that our country has been destroyed,” says Khaksar.

Khaksar doesn’t refer to Pakistan, whose secret services set the Taliban up in business, or to the CIA, which backed this policy and encouraged the arrival of the first foreign jihadis during the war against the Russians. Nor does he mention Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states whose wealthy citizens provide the finance for the Islamic NGOs which became more influential as the Taliban became increasingly isolated internationally.

In the light of his distaste for foreign influence here, I ask him if US influence over the Northern Alliance worries him, especially since Washington is currently bombing Afghanistan.

The US says that it only wants to wipe out the “terrorists” in Afghanistan, Khaksar replies.

“When the terrorists are finished, we will see what we will do.”

Rebuilding a shattered capital

The mayor of Kabul, Bahawi Mohaiuddin, tells us that bombings by “our American friends” have added to the accumulated rubble that he needs to clear up in order to reconstruct the capital.

We meet Mohaiuddin, a slim, genial man in his 40s who speaks slightly eccentric English, on the morning that he takes over the post.

“I haven’t even had time to resign from my old job with the ICRC,” he tells us.

Mohaiuddin was Deputy Mayor in the early 90s and left the post when the Taliban took power. He inherits a city in ruins.

The city’s power comes from areas which are not fully controlled by Kabul, as we all learnt during the power cut. Many of the poorer areas don’t have power or water.

Some of the poor areas don’t even have buildings. In the early 90s rival factions of what’s now the Northern Alliance fought it out for control of the capital.

Stand among the ruins in the Hazara area in the west of the city and people will point to the mountains on either side and say, “Gulbuddin Hikmetyar’s guns were on that side and Ahmed Shah Masood’s were on the other and the shells fell here.”

The figthing lasted from 1993 to 1995 when Hikmetyar allied himself with the Hazaras to try and seize control of the country. The revenge exacted by Masood’s men is said to have been brutal.

Warlords have also reduced an attempt at town-planning dating from the early 1990s to a distant memory.

The plan forecast a population of two million people. But over half the population has fled – the poor to refugee camps inside Afghanistan, or in Pakistan or Iran, the better-educated to Europe and the US. Meanwhile, they’ve been replaced by refugees from the fighting in the central Shomali plains. Mohaiuddin puts the present population at a million. Its transitory nature, added to the destruction of war, means overcrowding.

“In my own house only 35 per cent of the people who slept there last night actually lived there,” he says.

Kabul used to have a park. No more. Various commanders took a fancy to the area and built homes on it. The possession of guns ensured that there were no problems with planning permission, nor with the supply of water and elecrticity. Other people hired gunmen to be present during the city engineer’s visit.

“Now the muinicipality has the problem, how to destroy that. If we destroy it, that is a lot of money to waste. If we do not, we cannot do our plan.”

Despite the urgency of the tasks that he faces, Mohaiuddin has to run the city without money or trained personnel. The Taliban emptied the coffers when they left town. Many city employees hadn’t been paid for months before that.

Those that were left, that is. The madrassa graduates mistrusted anyone who had been through higher education. One by one, the city’s qualified personnel found themselves accused of being communists and driven out of the country because, like most of Afghanistan’s elite, they had received some of their training in Russia.

What do the Afghans expect of the future?

“The future depends on what the people do. But the point is now that there is a little bit of liberty for the people, before people couldn’t talk freely,” says Abdul Fatah, who has a stall in front of Kabul’s cinema. He writes official letters for the illiterate or semi-literate.

Although there’s guarded optimism, it’s difficult to find anyone who has much confidence in the Northern Alliance. Everyone looks back nervously at the infighting  and anarchy of the early 90s.

Sayjun, an unemployed Pashtun, says that he wants a multi-ethnic government. But would he have said that when the Pashtun-dominated Taliban were in power ?

Most people seem to hope that foreign pressure will keep their new leaders in order and that the Americans, when they’ve finished bombing them, will help reconstruct the country and then go away and leave them in peace.

It’s difficult to fthink of any occasion in Afghan or American history which justifies such optimism.

Hopes for peace, fears for the future

Mohammed Ahmed, a doctor whom we meet in the hotel car park in Jalalabad, seemed more independent-minded. He complained about the lack of equipment and medicines at the hospital where he works (“we don’t know how to help people”) and told us that he hasn’t been paid for four months.

“They [the country’s new rulers] came before and they did the same thing before. They will give us nothing … You will have a new king and he will do his thing and then you will have another.”

So who can bring peace for the people of Afghanistan ?

“I think that no-one can do that, just the people of Afghanistan … The British and the French and the Americans, they built their countries by themselves, no Afghan was there to work for them. The Afghans have to make their country by themselves. No-one will help you.”

A deserted prison

Kabul prison is several kilometres out of town, in country that is practically desert. You turn off the road to Jalalabad, pass through a mud village with shops housed in old goods-containers, the cast-offs of the transport mafia.

The car kicks up more and more dust and, as we cross a flat plain, Kamal shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

“This is the first time I’ve been here. This is where my father was killed,” he says.

He’s mentioned before that his father was executed “under the communists”, to be precise under the second Khalq President, Hafizullah Amin.

Now I venture to ask why he was killed.

“Because he had political ideas.”

What political ideas ?

“He was a Maoist.”

Kamal says that thousands of political prisoners have been buried in the ground over which we are driving. Sometimes so many were buried at the same time that bulldozers were used to dig the graves.

A bunch of armed men meet us at the prison. They’re the guards but they have no one to watch over now. The  gates are wide open. When the Taliban left town, they let all 12,000 prisoners go free.

“They were our own people. They lived where we live,” says the guard who shows us around, a man in his 30s with scruffy clothes and a friendly face.

Given the fact that many of the prisoners were political allies of Kabul’s new masters, the altruism may have been born of the instinct of self-preservation.

There are seven cell-blocks, all surrounded by a wall with gun-turrets looking out onto the dusty nothingness around the jail.

We go into one block. Rubbish is strewn all over the place, papers, broken desks and plastic gloves. There’s an exercise yard, with a small garden in the corner. Inside are the large cages into which the common law prisoners were packed.

Upstairs there’s a corridor with individual cells off it. Their occupants had decorated the cells with huge graffiti of sayings from the Koran or quotations from poets. On the pink-painted walls of one cell, there are idyllic tropical seascapes, an open Koran and a squadron of fighter-planes attacking a convoy of motor vehicles. This is the political prisoners’ wing.

Around the corner the bottom half of a leg is lying amid the rubbish. An artificial one. A landmine victim or wounded fighter was in such a hurry to leave that he left his artificial limb behind.

Through the windows we can see walls pocked with bullet-holes. They date from the factional fighting of the early 90s, when the rival militias came into the prison to fight. The guard says that this happened many times.

Two rooms are clean and painted white and bright, like a surgery.

“This was where they tortured people,” the guard explains. The tortures including beating people with metal-wighted cable and emasculating them by crushing their testicles.

Many thousands of people were executed here, says the guard, and many died under torture.

Was this just under the Taliban, or under all régimes ?

“It was the Taliban … We don’t see anything like this in the world before.”

Leaving via Bagram

Thanks to the US-British bombings, it’s not possible to leave via Kabul airport.

The UN agencies run flights from Bagram on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. They’re much in demand, despite the fact that insurance costs have put the price of a seat up to 2,000 dollars. God help the freelancers! Places are not available to Afghans, so Kamal and Assad have to drive back to Peshawar along the road on which we were robbed.

“Take the new road,” the ICRC officials told us. “The old one’s mined.”

There’s more dust, more desert along the route and walled homesteads without a sign of life. In the distance, there’s a larger town, whose mud buildings are difficult to distinguish from the countryside. The mountains brood at the side, dry and brown except for small patches of snow right at the top.

At one point the car veers off the road ahead of a bombed-out bridge going over a stream. We go down a twisted track to the side of the stream, where the shell of a tank lies half in the water as if it had been demobilised earlier this morning. The car goes under another broken-up bridge, across the stream and back onto the road.

There doesn’t seem to be much left of Bagram. An empty foxhole by the airport gate with an escape path leading back into what’s left of the village. We wait outside the locked airport gate and a  group of Western soldiers appears on the other side, a few metres away. They won’t answer when I ask who they are. A man from the BBC says that their Americans and that the Brits who were reportedly here have already left.

There are two small aircraft on the runway, waiting to take us out of Afghanistan. Our plane has to circle above the airport six times to gain the necessary height. It turns on its side and we see the wreckage of the airport itself, then the leathery sides of mountains lurch towards us, then away as we pull up and head for Islamabad.

For more on Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009, click here.
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