Category Archives: War

At the martyrs’ cemetery – death and destruction in a Turkish military security zone in Kurd country

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On the day before Turkey’s 1 November election I and my colleagues visited a vast “security zone” where the Turkish army has been fighting PKK guerrillas since the end of recent peace talks … and for years before they started. We saw fields burnt by military operations, a cemetery whose mosque was destroyed by soldiers, met a young man who appeared to be a guerrilla and the mayor of a village accused of collaboration with the state.

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Faik Magar and his wife on their way to Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Dicle, 31 October 2015

I don’t really want to talk to the man on the donkey – I want to press on to the village where NGO activists in Diyarbakir are supposed to have arranged contacts for us – but it turns out he has plenty to say.

“Look around you!” he says, indicating a huge plane nestling between mountains. “You can see for yourselves. All the land you can see to your left and to your right has been burnt. That’s what they call a security zone! Everywhere you can see there were vines and all our vines have been burnt. Even the houses that were on this land.”

He’s called Faik and he’s on the way to Diyarbakir with his wife because she is ill. Although she’s the one who’s ill, he’s riding the donkey, we comment afterwards, although we ourselves neglected to ask her name.

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A house destroyed by firebombing at Arikli, Diyarbakir province Photo: Tony Cross

The fields around us are bare. A house nearby has been destroyed. This area several kilometres north of Diyrabakir city, has been declared a security zone by the Turkish army and in July helicopters firebombed the area, destroying crops and homes, as Faik points out.

Although he doesn’t volunteer the information straight away, the firebombing followed a battle with PKK fighters in the nearby mountains and, apparently, the guerrillas dig tunnels in which to shelter, as did the NLF during the Vietnam War.

As we talk a helicopter flies overhead. As experienced radio journalists, we point out microphones in the air to record the sound. Experienced as he is in life in a zone of interest to the Turkish military, Faik tells us not to, in case they think we’re pointing weapons at them.

We press on to our destination – Sise in Kurdish, Yolçati in Turkish – driving through fields and past the occasional building.

After a couple of wrong turns we find an isolated farmhouse. But where is Sise?

Ebru Ökmen, the French-language interpreter and fixeuse working with my colleague Nicolas Falez, phones our contacts. Turns out where there.

A man comes to greet us. He’s Zeynel, the farmer’s brother, and he’s on a visit from Izmit, where he has lived and worked since leaving the area many years ago. There was a lot more to Sise then, he tells us, but it emptied after the military launched air raids and military operations against the PKK in 1993.

So the area has long experience of combat. According to the rights activists who sent us here, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Turkish state to pay damages for the effects of its operations in the 90s.

“Only people have no other way to survive still live here,” Zeynel says.

Last night there were two drone strikes on the mountains, he tells us. “We weren’t frightened, we’re used to it.”

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Mohammed (L), Zeynel (R) and a bag of watermelons (C) Photo: Tony Cross

Zeynel’s brother; Mohammed, arrives, pushing a wheelbarrow full of watermelons – the local speciality – ready to be kept in the cellar for the winter.

Ten days ago the military bombed the mountains six times. Local people found the bodies of eight PKK fighters afterwards and took them to the “martyrs’ cemetery”, where local guerrillas are buried.

“Twenty-four hours after the aerial bombardment the army arrived by road and placed mines around the cemetery and set them off,” he says.

“They claimed their were munitions hidden under the graves but it’s not possible that there would be munitions hidden in a cemetery,” he goes on. “They did it because they {the people buried there] were PKK. If there were weapons or munitions hidden it would be in the mountains, not in a cemetery.”

The army has taken advantage of the PKK ceasefire to attack the area, says Mohammed. He advises us to visit the cemetery, saying that there could be fighters there.

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Pestil sucuk dries in the sun on Mohammed’s farm Photo: Tony Cross

Before we leave he shows us around the farm. Rows of what look like sausages are drying in the sun. It’s not pork but walnuts wrapped in dried grape pulp. The Turks call it pestil sucuk (fruit pulp sausage). I first came across it in Georgia, where it is called churchkhela. My interpreter, Tayfik, tells me that Armenian women often sell it in Diyarbakir, where it is more widely available than in Istanbul, so this is apparently a Persian-influenced or Caucasian recipe.

One of Mohammed’s sons is in Kobané, the Syrian town seized by Kurdish fighters from Isis, IS, Daesh or whatever you prefer to call it.

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The “martyrs’ cemetery” at Sise Photo: Tony Cross

The central part of the cemetery, where the graves are laid out in neat, white rows, is intact. But there is wreckage on three sides of it. A lorry has brought a portakabin that is being installed by a group of about 20 people.

They are relatives of the fighters buried here and the wreckage is where they were camped out to protect the site from the army, they tell us.

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The wreckage of shelters where relatives of the PKK fighters were staying at the cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

If we want to interview someone, we must wait for a “spokesman”.

He arrives a few minutes, later a short, quietly spoken but authoritative young man – he’s 22-years-old, he tells us later, adding that we can’t take his photograph and, at first, telling us not to record but relenting when we point out that this is for radio and that his voice will be dubbed by a translation.

He takes us through the graves to some more twisted masonry and metal – the ruins of the mosque, destroyed by the military who claimed it was an arms cache, he says.

A young woman joins us. She was present when the military arrived.

The relatives brandished the Koran and asked the troops how they could defile the cemetery if they were Muslims, the pair tell us. The soldiers responded by claiming that there were crosses on some of the graves and calling them Armenians, ie Christians.

“We were supposed to be offended but why should we be?” she asks.

Sensing that these two are more than just relatives of the deceased, I ask if the PKK ceasefire will continue after the election.

“That depends on the attitude of the AKP,” the young man replies. “If the AKP says it will continue to fight then obviously the PKK will defend itself. This is the policy of the presidential palace, not of the state. The people here are demanding peace. The mothers, whether they are the mothers of PKK fighters or soldiers, say that we must stop this war.”

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Place of death, Kobane – a grave in front of the ruins of the “martyrs’ cemetery” mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Some of the graves are freshly dug and awaiting headstones, presumably the fighters killed the other day are buried there. Others inform us that the place of death was Kobane.

To listen to my audio report from Sise for RFI click here.

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Men transport a solar panel at Tepebasi Photo: Tony Cross

A few kilometres away is Tepebasi, a village that overlooks a ravine whose rocky sides lead down to a reservoir made from a dam on the river Tigris.

A couple of men transport a solar panel on a donkey – what Lenin would have called  combined and uneven development – and a man with a rifle stands outside the mayor’s house. He’s Mehmet Bozkurt, and the mayor, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt, is his brother. The rifle appears to be for hunting, although the mayor, who soon arrives and invites us to sit in the sun outside his home, might need some protection.

Tepebasi is the home of the candidate for the ruling AKP in this election. Since the 1990s it has had poor relations with some neighbouring villages, whose inhabitants accused its people of being “village guardians”, a militia funded by the government and viewed as collaborators by the PKK and its supporters.

In the 1990s the PKK attacked the village and kidnapped some villagers for ransom, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt tells us, as we eat figs and dried grape pulp from his garden and sip bitter Turkish tea.

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Tepebasi mayor Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt with one of his sons and his wife, whose name, again, I neglected to ask Photo: Tony Cross

The village receives government subsidies for the organic vines that produce the grape pulp but, despite the dam on its doorstep, sometimes suffers power cuts because the power goes to a nearby town first.

The mayor and his family are Zazas, a minority of a minority that speaks its own dialect of Kurdish. He has nine children – four boys and five girls – several but not all of them present as we speak, as is his wife, who hovers in the background as her husband speaks to us.

He won’t be voting AKP, he says. Not quite. It turns out that the AKP candidate’s uncle was squeezed out of the running and left the party to stand as an independent. He’ll be getting Mehmet Yasar’s vote, it appears.

Mehmet Yasar criticises both the government and the PKK for the breakdown of the ceasefire and presents a front of studied neutrality when discussing the conflict, citing a Kurdish proverb, “Keep your mouth shut in the day and the doors shut at night.”

To read my account for RFI of the visit to Sise and Tepbasi click here.

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The river Tigris in Dicle, Diyarbakir province, south-east Turkey Photo: Tony Cross

 

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Why did IS attack Paris?

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A woman pays tribute to victims at the Belle Equipe restaurant in Rue Charonne, 11th arrondissement Paris Photo: Tony Cross

The Islamic State (IS) armed group has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s bloody attacks in Beirut and Paris. Since I live in the Paris area, I’ll comment on the question many people are asking – why these attacks on the French capital?

  • The targets appear to have been chosen by people who knew Paris well. Two teams from “crusader” countries- France and Germany – were playing at the Stade de France, the statement said, and President François Hollande was present. The attackers did not manage to mix with the crowd, however, limiting deaths to the attackers and one bystander. “Hundreds of idolaters gathered in a festival of perversity” were at the Bataclan, according to the statement, and dozens paid the price.  The other targets were in areas full of bars and restaurants, where crowds were guaranteed and where the likely victims were guilty of the sin of enjoying life in ways not approved by fundamentalists of any stripe. The statement says there was an attack in the 18th arrondissement, which there wasn’t, so a member of the commando could still be at large. IS says that all its victims were “crusaders”, although it obviously can’t know their identities, whether they were customers of bars and restaurants, staff or passersby. Not does it know how many of the victims were Muslims, which some of them almost certainly were.
  • IS seems to be stepping up attacks abroad as it comes under pressure in Syria and Iraq, with the loss of Sinjar and air strikes on its positions. Shia were targeted in Beirut, presumably because of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and one reason for targeting France was probably its recent decision to join air strikes on IS in Syria (one shouldn’t forget that the French army has been fighting jihadists in Mali and the Sahel for some time now and has intervened in Muslim-Christian violence in the Central African Republic). French leaders’ statements about “acts of war” might imply that the country’s military involvement will become more intense, possibly with ground troops being sent in. That might not displease IS, which wants a confrontation with “Rome” at Dabiq, to fulfil an “end-times” prophecy.
  • France’s interpretation of secularism, as represented by Charlie Hebdo and the the public reation to this year’s massacre there, as well as by measures by successive government, particularly the banning of Islamic headscarves in schools, angers fundamentalists but also alienates many Muslims, who are not tempted by violence or even Salafi-style rigour.
  • France has the largest Muslim population in Europe – although we’re not allowed to know its exact size due to France’s interpretation of secularism. A tiny minority is tempted by violent fundamentalism, partly for religious reasons, partly because of the social exclusion they have experienced in France.  The government estimates that more than 500 are fighting in IS’s ranks and has boast s of almost certainly killing some of them in air strikes. Others can’t get there, partly because of a clampdown on people wishing to go by the French authorities, leaving them available to murder at home. Only eight suicide-attackers were needed to commit Friday night’s carnage. More attacks are entirely possible.
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A TV repoter outside the Bataclan, where there was the heaviest death toll on Friday night Photo: Tony Cross

Update 17.45 Paris time

I’ve just visited the scenes of three of the attacks.

Despite the declaration of a state of emergency, police and military presence seems fairly restrained. There were far more TV crews that security forces members outside the Bataclan, although the scene was heavily cordoned off.

There and in the rue de Charonne, people are arriving with flowers to lay at the scene or lighting candles. Since the government has banned all public gatherings, there will be no Charlie Hebdo-style demonstration, for the moment at least, and the mood doesn’t seem to be at quite such a pitch – more shock, less indignation.

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“Death to the illiterate barbarians” this handwritten poster declared Photo: Tony Cross

A couple of shops in rue de Charonne have hung up French flags – one also has a piece of paper bearing the #PrayforParis hashtag, a no doubt well-intentioned but curious choice given that a fair proportion of the victims and their families undoubtedly don’t believe in God while the attackers invoked his name to perpetrate their murders.

So a certain amount of nationalism. The crowd at the Stade de France apparently sang the Marseillaise – but what do we sing about when we sing the Marseillaise?

Someone has stuck a rose into bullet holes in the front of Sushi Maki restaurant, next to La Belle Equipe. And, since hate engenders hate, a piece of paper bears the legend “Death to the illiterate barbarians”.

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Liberated areas, military repression and Kurdish politics in Diyarbakir before Turkey’s 2015 election

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Diyarbakir is the largest city in Kurdish-majority south-east Turkey. The region has seen the PKK’s guerrilla war and successive governments’ harshly repressive responses. I first visited the city during the 2007 presidential election and talked to political and rights activists who still had vivid memories of the dirty war, as well as the era when the Kurdish language and culture suffered severe discrimination. I returned in 2014, when a peace process was under way and the city seemed to be becoming a better place to live. Some of the improvements have lasted but this year the city has seen military repression of liberated zones and shootouts between police and the Islamic State armed group.

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Hasan Pasa Hani, Diyarbakir, a former caravanserai that now houses restaurants and coffee shops Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir, 28 October 2015

My work in Diyarbakir gets off to a slow start. I get up at 4.30am to catch the flight from Istanbul, only to find that it has been put back an hour and the airline hadn’t bothered to tell me. My SMS to my fixer, Tayfun, fails to go through, so he has been waiting for an hour when I arrive … not a good start

We land at Diyarbakir’s spanking new airport, which isn’t actually quite ready yet. No problems on the runway but when we go to hire a car they can’t give me a receipt because there is no electricity to run their printer.

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The café in Diyarbakir’s market area where I met Abdullah Demirbas and Kevin Miller Photo: Tony Cross

Once we start work we wait for ages in a charming courtyard café for Tayfun’s contact in the left-wing, pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to turn up. He is supposed to introduce me to the former mayor of this part of Diyarbakir, the historic centre, and that means even more waiting.

The café is playing distinctly unturkish music, accordions feature in some tracks, meaning that if I record an interview here listeners are liable to suspect I conducted it in Paris and am only pretending to be in south-east Turkey.

After chatting for a while it finally occurs that our contact would actually make quite a good interviewee.

He is a Kurdish-American who has a Turkish name but prefers to be known as Kevin Miller. He has served in the US military and is to stand for Congress, the first Kurd to do so, but has come to Turkey for the election and its aftermath.

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Kevin Miller with collaborators at the former Armenian house he is restoring Photo: Tony Cross

Kevin takes us to see a former Armenian house in the old city that he is restoring in order to establish a research institute. Concrete has been chipped off Diyarbakir’s dark basalt and lighter stone with Armenian inscriptions and traditional wood interiors are being constructed, although recent rainfall has done some damage.

Then we take a walk through Sur, Diyarbakir’s old city.

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A street in Sur where Kurdish youths dug trenches and erected barricades Photo: Tony Cross

A streak of rubble scars a narrow street that joins another one that is similarly disfigured.

This is where young Kurds dug trenches and erected barricades to keep police and other representatives of the Turkish state out of a two-kilometre-square “liberated area”, arming themselves with what weapons they could lay their hands on.

A Kurdish assembly was organised and sat in a historic building nearby.

Graffitied on the walls are the initials “PKK” for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party guerrilla movement that has been fighting first for a Kurdish state and later for autonomy since 1978 but also “YDG-H”, for the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement, which a PKK leader recently admitted has escaped PKK control.

The YDG-H seems to have taken seriously a change in the line of the PKK and its Syrian allies, the YKD, that has meant renouncing Maoist-influenced centralism and encouraging bottom-up “administrative autonomy” in defiance of the state, establishing self-administer areas as the Syrian Kurds have done in the region, known to the Kurds as Rojava, that they have liberated from the Islamic State armed group and Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The Turkish government responded forcefully.

Ten days ago it sent 4,500 special forces into Sur, deploying snipers and heavy weapons in the narrow streets and declaring a 24-hour curfew.

In five days of fighting 15 people are reported to have been killed and one wounded and dozens arrested.

The building where the assembly met is now a charred ruin, despite its Unesco-protected status.

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The former seat of the Kurdish autonomous area’s assembly after the military offensive Photo: Tony Cross

To read my account of my visit to Sur for RFI click here.

The government has used similar tactics, including the use of snipers who are alleged to have targeted civilians to enforce curfews, in the towns of Cizre, where 22 were killed, 21 of them civilians, and Silvan, parts of which are now reported to be in ruins.

We do finally get to meet the former mayor.

Abdullah Demirbas has been arrested three times, twice this year and once in 2009, and is late for the interview because he had to report to the police station.

He was in jail for eight months in 2009 and was finally released on health grounds. He spent two months in prison pending trial for “financing the PKK” earlier this year and was released after he suffered a stroke and a campaign for his release won the support of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

But he doesn’t know the reason for the latest one because it was declared a state secret.

About 1,000 HDP members and 18 mayors belonging to its municipal wing, the BDP, have been arrested in the government crackdown that followed the end of the peace process with the PKK.

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Former mayor of central Diyarbakir, Abdullah Demirbas Photo: Tony Cross

“The 7 June election result was a disaster for the government,” he comments. “They didn’t get what they wanted. Of course, there was a price to pay and the people have paid the price. It was the breaking of the ceasefire and the restarting of the military operation.”

Demirbas accuses the government of cheating when it agreed to join US-led airstrikes on IS because it also launched air strikes on PKK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Anyway, Erdogan and his friends have aided and supported IS in the past, he says, and are terrified that the areas liberated by Kurdish fighters in Syria will inspire Turkey’s Kurds to emulate them.

“In Rojava the Syrian Kurdish people making democratic autonomy by themselves is not something that is wanted by this regime,” he says. “Because they don’t want this, everyone knows this regime is supporting [Al Qaeda affiliate] Al Nusra and IS. Many people are coming through Turkey from Europe and the rest of the world, everyone knows that they are joining this group. Despite the decision that they were going to bomb and make operations against IS with coalition forces, Turkey has attacked the PKK but not attacked IS.”

To read more of my interview with Abdullah Demirbas on RFI’s website, click here.

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Eyse Gokkan of the HDP-aligned women’s group KJA Photo: Tony Cross

Earlier we drove out of the city centre to meet two HDP activists, Cüneyt Aslam, a youth leader, and Eyse Gokkan, of the women’s group, KJA.

They, too, accused the government of complicity with IS, Gokkan stressing that the Islamists – from the AKP to Boko Haram in Nigeria – share an anti-women agenda.

“There are documents showing that the Daesh terror organisation is being supported by the Turkish government, that weapons are being sent to this organisation by the government,” saidAslan, referring to IS by the Arab acronym Daesh. “The government is making an environment for this group to expand and kill us.”

As we drive past one estate, I noticed Turkish flags draped on the sides of several blocks of flats, a bit of a surprise here.

These estates are occupied by police officers and their families, Miller explained.

More on my visit to Diyarbakir during Turkey’s October-November general election campaign to follow.

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Peace and authoritarian Erdogan – issues in Istanbul in Turkey’s 2015 autumn election

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Everyone was surprised by the result of Turkey’s second election this year, including, I suppose, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won an absolute majority. Erdogan’s gamble of stoking security fears by reigniting the war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) seems to have paid off and was ably assisted by Isis, IS, Daesh or whatever you want to call the gang that bombed two pro-peace rallies and apparently has cells planning more mayhem currently in the country. Just to prove that I, too, was surprised, here’s my account of my reporting assignment, which ended two days’ after polling day. I’ve already posted reports on RFI English and will include links to them.

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CHP supporters hand out leaflets in Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Istanbul 25 October 2015.

It appears that the president in his wisdom has decreed that Turkey’s clocks will go back one week later than Europe’s this year, leading to Turkish Airlines announcing the wrong time on arrival, my personal mobile and my work mobile giving different times and me being late for my first appointment.

A concerned Onur Öymen rings to ask if I’m having difficulty finding the address while I’m time over a Turkish coffee.

I arrive flustered but the former ambassador and MP for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) greets me charmingly.

He’s old-school CHP – while some party members admit it has alienated religious voters with its enthusiasm for Kemalist secularism and has watered down is hardline nationalism, leading apparently to a rapprochement of its youth wing with the pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP), he supports the government ending peace negotiations with the PKK, blaming the guerrillas for firing first.

If the election results in no party with an absolute majority, as looks likely, Öymen would like to see and AKP-CHP coalition but admits that the AKP is more likely to want the right-wing secular nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

“I believe that it is politically possible because, to tell the truth, what’s in common between AKP and MHP is much more visible than what’s in common between MHP and the CHP,” he says.

The MHP, whose members wished CHP campaigners good luck when I first met them both during the 2007 presidential campaign, seems now strongly attracted by Erdogan’s authoritarian turn, which has seen legal and physical attacks on opposition media, AKP links to mafia bosses connected to coup-plotters of the shadowy “deep state” and, of course, repression and a new military offensive against alleged and real supporters of the PKK.

After 7 June’s inconclusive election the MHP refused to join an AKP-led coalition, citing the then-still-extant peace process and Erdogan’s plans for constitutional changes as the reason. It objected to his plan to shift decisive power to the presidency and, perhaps more vehemently, proposals that would have left former AKP ministers off the hook in corruption investigations launched by magistrates, whom Erdogan accuses of being agents of his former ally Fethullah Gülen.

Now the peace talks are off and maybe the MHP could be reconciled with a string presidency, if it goes hand in hand with a clampdown on Kurdish nationalism and the left. In a move that can only have delighted Erdogan, its paramilitary wing, the fascistic Grey Wolves, attacked HDP premises during the election campaign.

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Koray Caliskan in his office at Bogazici University Photo: Tony Cross

The last time I met Koray Caliskan was outside the CHP headquarters on the night of the 2014 presidential election campaign. This time I meet him in his office at Bogazici University, a beautiful campus overlooking the Bosphorus that was once the American University of Istanbul.

He is dismayed by Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and supportive of the CHP’s shift to the left.

The MHP is right-wing but will probably not be tempted to support the AKP he says.

“They want rule of law in this country, they want checks and balances to be structured again and they want democracy to work. So there are three forces for democratisation, CHP, MHP and HDP, and the only political party that blocks this is Ak Party. The main division is between democracy and authoritarianism in the country right now.”

Caliskan has had his own brushes with authoritarianism and has three legal cases opened against him for “supporting terrorism” and “libelling the president”.

“In our penal law there is a clause that specifies one to four years for anyone who insults the president, which doesn’t exist in any democratic society.

When Angela Merkel was due to visit Turkey during the election campaign he and other academics published an open letter appealing to her not endorse Erdogan’s rule and giving 10 examples of government actions that, they said,  breach the European Union’s conditions for membership.

That earned him a disciplinary hearing in front of the higher education committee, whose president, he says, is an Erdogan appointee, for “libelling the president” but his university refused to open an investigation into the case.

Most of the students sunning themselves on the campus, several of them petting some of Istanbul’s thousands of stray cats, are too young to vote and don’t expect much change after the election.

Yaran would like to see a coalition but thinks the vote is a “waste of paper”.

“I don’t think there will be much change but the military operations against the PKK and also the other important news, like blasts in Ankara, will really affect the percentages but I don’t think there will be a single winner to govern,” says Volkan, a young man who expresses himself very clearly in English.

He would like to see the AKP win and rule alone, although he is unhappy that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu allows Erdogan to go beyond his mandate and dominate the country’s politics.

Özgur also expects no big changes but clearly dislikes the AKP.

“From a realistic point of view I’d like to see a working government to be established, wo that this turmoil after the elections will end we could have a ministry that can function,” she says. “Hopefully that will bring an end to all the social turmoil in Turkey right now, so that all these bombings and stuff would end.”

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AKP campaigners in Besikitas, Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

On my way back to the city centre from Bogazici I come across members of the CHP, the MHP and the AKP campaigning at a busy crossroads in Besiktas district.

The one English-speaker on the AKP stall, where voters can pick up a free sandwich, will not be interviewed without permission, there are no English-speakers on MHP stall but two members of the CHP are ready to speak, the head of the party’s youth wing in Besiktas, through an interpreter, and the vice-president, who turns up later and speaks English himself.

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CHP activist Seçkin Aybar Photo: Tony Cross

“The CHP is the only party with a lot of support that defends social democracy,” says Seçkin Aybar, the youth wing president.

With rousing music non-sectarianly attracting attention to all three parties’s activists, he and his vice-president Ugur Demirckan both slam Erdogan’s authoritarianism.

“The AKP mustn’t rule Turkey,” says Aybar. “Since the 7 June elections 600 people have been killed and there could be more in the next few days … AKP is trying to create a one-party system in Turkey, which can be very bad for secularism.”

“Now there is no jurisdiction,” says Demirckan. “There is no real police … It’s more like hunger for power.”

To read my article on the CHP’s campaign on RFI’s website, click here.

The next day I take to the streets for more voxpops, this time in Osmanbey district.

AKP supporters seem happy with the government’s handling of the economy and have no fears of a slide to Islamisation.

“He doesn’t force me to wear headscarves, for example,” says Zuleyha, a middle-aged woman who runs a lighting business. “Everything is OK for me. No problems.”

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Abdullah and Herdem, a Kurd and a Zaza, in Osmanbey, Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Herdem and Abdullah do have a problem with Erdogan and the AKP, however, and she, in particular, is keen to make it heard, dragging him to the microphone.

Herdem is a Zaza, a group that speaks a dialect of Kurdish, while he is a Kurd, and they pose for a picture flashing V for victory signs, having expressed their intention for the HDP, for “democracy, peace and humanity”.

“If the AKP rules again by itself nobody will be able to do anything,” says Herdem.

“We’re stalled and we don’t know why the international remains silent about what’s happening in the eastern part of the country,” Abdullah says. “I have seven family members who have joined the guerrillas. Eighteen have been murdered, we don’t know what’s become of them. I have a wound in my leg because in that region we get hurt. My mother was injured during the fighting in the 90s. But still I call for peace.”

Nihot, a middle-aged businessman, also wants peace.

He supports the CHP and believes the HDP are just PKK representatives in parliament but, reflecting war-weariness among much of the population, as well as the change in his party’s attitude to the Kurdish question, he wants peace talks to be revived.

“I believe that lots of PKK militants want to come to Turkey and live in peace,” he says. “So we want peace and we can do it by negotiation. I believe that.”

To read and hear my interviews with voters in Osmanbey for RFI click here.

 

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Kidnapped, tortured, sold to the Americans … Pakistan’s missing persons, casualties of the war on terror

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I visited Pakistan in 2007 as then-president Pervez Musharraf’s military regime was about to fall, locked in conflict with the main political parties and with the formerly compliant legal apparatus, in particular with Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry, whose judgements irritated Musharraf so much that he had him removed at one point.

One key point of friction between the president and the courts was “missing persons”, civilians who had vanished thanks to the attentions of the secret services, who kept them in secret jails or sold them to the US for a bounty, ensuring a regular supply of detainees for the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, regardless of whether they were guilty or not.

On a sweltering day in Peshawar I met a former Guantanamo detainee hiding from the police and the secret services and in Rawalpindi I met the wife of a man who had disappeared and a lawyer fighting his case and those of several others. Their testimony was both moving and shocking.

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Pakistani lawyers protest against the removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who ordered security forces to produce missing peresons Photo: Tony Cross

You can only meet Badr Dost by appointment, since he is trying to avoid the attentions of the Pakistani security forces.

We meet him at the family home in the back streets of the city of Peshawar. But only after one of his nephews has checked that we haven’t brought unwanted company and summoned him from his hiding place.

Dost has been taking this sort of precaution since his brother, Muslim, was arrested a year ago.

Badr believes that the police would have taken him, too, if his nephews hadn’t warned him of Muslim’s arrest.

The family heard nothing from or about Muslim for eight months and the authorities denied that they were holding him.

An appeal to a Peshawar court finally forced police to admit that he was in jail in one of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal agencies and bring him to Peshawar’s main prison.

They say that Muslim, an Afghan who has lived in Pakistan for 30 years, has broken an obscure law about residency in the country.

That was not the first time that he had been arrested.

After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Badr and Muslim, who don’t hide their Islamist sympathies, criticised the US-led operation.

Pakistani security forces picked them up and handed them over to US forces, who held them in two bases in Afghanistan, before flying them to the US’s detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

After a year, the brothers were told that the Americans had nothing against them.

But, along with other inmates in the same situation, they were kept for another year and a half before being sent home.

His account of his detention confirms the widespread reports of abuse and torture there.

“They were kicking us with their soldiers’ boots and hitting us with their fists,” he says. “We were beaten and we were kept up awake for a long time. They were not allowing us to sleep and we were kept in isolation.”

Inmates were held in extreme temperatures, he claims, and pornography was stuck on the walls of some religious prisoners’ cells as a form of “mental torture”. Dost believes that the guards went out of their way to offend the prisoners’ religious feelings.

“The American soldiers, the MPs, they were searching us every day,” he says. “They were searching the holy book as if we are hiding something inside, but that was not true because they have searched many, many times. They were desecrating the holy book. They were touching it, they were throwing it on the ground, they were stepping on it, they were tearing it to pieces and putting it in drums of shit in front of us.”

He says that the abuse of the Koran only ended after the inmates staged a hunger strike.

On their return, the brothers published a book, The Broken Shackles of Guantanamo.

If they were expecting an apology or compensation for wrongful detention, loss of business and disruption to their family life – they were to be disappointed.

The book appeared on 3 September. Muslim was arrested – again – on the 20th.

“After eight months he was produced in the tribal area and then he was brought to central jail of Peshawar,” he says. “So right now we are suing his case in Supreme Court and hopefully he will be released. But still there are head and hands who want to black him and want to put him in jail for a long time.”

The “head and hands” Badr Dost fears are elements in the Pakistani state apparatus, who, as well as carrying on a dirty war against armed Islamists, when it suits them, carry on a lucrative trade with the Americans, who pay money for supposed “terrorists”, who will be transferred to jails in Afghanistan or Guantanamo.

Most feared of all are military intelligence, the ISI.

“It was a business,” he comments. “And they have announced if the local authorities are arresting any terrorists, so they will be awarded [for] a common man 5,000 [rupees] and a wanted man maybe millions. So even Americans were telling us that they have paid a lot to Pakistani authorities for arresting us.”

For a longer version of my interview with Badr Dost click here.

“When your dearest thing, the most precious thing in the world, is taken away, what is there left in life for me?” asks Amina Janjua, sitting in a dowdy office in Rawalpindi, the military garrison town that is practically a suburb of Islamabad – or perhaps it’s vice versa.

The last time she saw her husband, Masood, he was getting on a bus to Peshawar from their home-town, Rawalpindi.

He and the friend who was with him, Faisal Fawaz, never arrived at their destination.

Amina is convinced that secret policemen from the Inter-Securities Agency (ISI) spirited them off to a secret jail on suspicion of Islamist tendencies, taking their long beards as signs of fundamentalist tendencies.

Amina insists that Masood had nothing to do with politics.

“I don’t want to live any more,” she says. “It’s just for my husband’s sake that I’m fighting and this is the hope that is keeping me alive. I’m going to get him back.”

Her suspicions were confirmed when a released prisoner said that he had seen Masood during his period of detention.

Amina and her three children have fought hard to locate Masood and get him released.

They camped out in front of the Supreme Court and contacted other families in the same situation.

They claim to have discovered ISI “safe houses”, dotted around the country, with families living on the ground floor, while prisoners are tortured in the cellar.

“I have come to know that there are safe houses in every nook and corner of this city,” she explains. “Every street is having a safe house, where apparently there is a house, normal, and a family living but underneath there is a secret house where these persons are kept and being tortured. For years now.”

For an audio report on Pakistan’s missing persons click here.

Over 400 cases are now going through the courts, 100 of them fought by Amina’s lawyer, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqi.

Siddiqi, who is a member of the Islamic party Jamaat-i-Islami, recently won the release of Hafez Abdul Basit, who had vanished for three and a half years, detained because he has associated with someone linked to the 2003 attempts on Pervez Musharraf’s life.

“His beard was shaved off, third-degree methods were used on him,” he says. “Threats were also extended to him that ‘we will bring your sister, your mother and all your favourite members of your family, who will be raped in front of you – just listen to the voices from the neighbouring room, that we have already brought so many ladies in this connection’.”

For one month Basit was not allowed to sit, still less sleep, before being confined to a tiny, sordid cell, Siddiqi claims.

The police only admitted knowing his whereabouts after Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry told the deputy inspector general of the CID that he would be jailed himself if he didn’t produce Basit within 24 hours.

The impunity with which Pakistan’s secret services operate has its origins in the country’s violent history and overspill from the Afghan war.

Many of the armed Islamists who would like to assassinate Musharraf were trained by the ISI to fight in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

But its latest manifestations are intimately linked to the US’s “war on terror”, which has led to bounties paid for prisoners, political support for Musharraf and a ten-billion dollar subsidy to the country since 9-11.

For my reports for RFI on Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 click here.

For some of my reporting from Afghanistan for RFI click here and here.

For Afghanistan in 2001 on this blog here and in 2005 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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Hamid Gul, the spy who went into the cold

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Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s ISI military intelligence died on Sunday. I met him at his home in Rawalpindi in 2007 and found a man who was bitter about having been declared an enemy by the West for his links to the Taliban and other Islamists after being hailed as a hero for sending many of the same people to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. History can be so cruel! I’ll post a fuller account of this visit to Pakistan on my blog at a later date.

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Hamid Gul, resplendent in his medals Source: Wikipedia

 

Rawalpindi, September 2007

There is evidence of the military almost everywhere in this city next-door to Islamabad, which is home to the military and secret service headquarters.

Serving and retired officers are housed in cantts, short for cantonments, and retired General Hamid Gul lives in a spacious and well-protected house in one of them.

Gul was head of the secret services, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) in the 1980s. In collaboration with US and other agencies, he armed and trained the mojahedin who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. During his time as ISI chief there was an rise in jihadi activity in Indian-ruled Kashmir.

But in September 2007, as politicians and lawyers face off against President and Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf, he says that it is time for the military to get out of Pakistan’s politics.

“This new-found freedom of the press and the judiciary, I think this is a gift to Pakistan,” he says. “This is going to lead to the empowerment of people. Now the military has got to go back to barracks.”

He is scathing about Musharraf’s allies. Today’s MPs are not independent, he says, “they’re under the shadow of the army”. But he hopes that “free and fair” elections will correct this state of affairs.

Gul is brutally frank in his criticism of Musharraf, whom he believes is on the brink of introducing martial law. “That’s the only option left to him. If he’s so greedy for power – and Americans are patting him on the back to go on and do it.”

“I’m quite amazed, really,” he says of Musharraf’s determination to cling on to both of his jobs. “It was my job twice to profile him because I was once his instructor in the staff college and second time he was my subordinate, when he was a major-general. He served under me and I wrote reports on him. And good reports, too.”

Back then Gul found the president-to-be pleasant and flexible. “I think it is fear that is driving him towards this and an unnecessary encouragement from the Americans.”

But the general, who has plenty of experience of Americans, believes they may be rethinking their strategy. “They’re very clever, they keep their intentions hidden,” he says.

Most analysts think that Washington is pushing Musharraf to reach agreement with Benazir Bhutto, who is apparently seen as secular and Western-friendly. Gul thinks they may plump for Nawaz Sharif, who, he says, has emerged as “almost unmitigated number-one political figure in the country”.

Gul is not against mixing religion and politics. Pakistan was born as a political-religious entity, he says. “They cannot be separated. In India and Pakistan, that is the lesson of history. If they [the religious parties] come to power, as long as they accept electoral politics, then there is no problem.”

The general advises the US to rethink its international strategy, especially its military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“There is no light at the end of the tunnel that they will succeed,” he says. “Tell me, are they succeeding? If they are not succeeding, then they must change direction.”

The Taliban, who imposed a distinctly unsecular regime on Afghanistan, came out of madrassas and refugee camps in Pakistan, enjoying the patronage of the ISI. While criticising the Taliban’s dispensation of summary justice, Gul says they did some “very good things”, introducing “peace” and “justice” after the chaos of the civil war between themojahedin factions he had himself backed.

But, he says, that was all after his retirement, and he was only responsible for the mojahedin, whom everybody, apart from the Russians, loved back then.

“The Americans, and let me tell you, French, German and all the free world which was afraid of the red menace,” he says. “They were all helping us. If it was culpable and was a crime, then we were all together in that crime.”

There’s no mistaking Gul’s bitterness, as he points to a lump of the Berlin Wall presented to him by the German government “with deepest respect to one who helped deliver the first blow”. Now, says retired General Hamid Gul, the US and the European countries with whom he used to work won’t give him a visa.

First posted on RFI’s website: http://www1.rfi.fr/actuen/articles/101/article_320.asp

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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.

herat taxi
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.

mosque interior court
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.

mosque entry to courtyard
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.

mosque opp side
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.

trainee cops visit herat mosque
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.

herat child
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.

kuchis 2 camp
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.

kabul bashar dhost
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.

shah shaheen voting
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.”

dehyaya
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.

dehyaya from mountain
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.

shah shaheen phtographer
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.

kabul street
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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Iraq 2003: Families search for Saddam’s victims

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This piece was left out of my previous post on Iraq 2003. A strange and heartbreaking feature of the fall of Saddam Hussein was the hundreds of relatives of his victims who were searching for their loved ones, chasing any rumour that gave hope that they light be alive.

The former military barracks near Radwanir is now a field of rubble with just two buildings in a far corner of the compound left standing. There’s nothing left of the gardens which were apparently laid out so that Saddam Hussein and his family could relax under the required security conditions.

But there are people here. A small group of men and women stand in the midst of the devastation, some of them trying to dig into the concrete-strewn ground.

One of them, a sturdily-built middle-aged man with a care-worn face, explains that they are trying to find relatives and friends who disappeared under Saddam’s rule. Like most Iraqis, they believe that the régime built hidden prisons and they’re convinced that their loved ones are down there, waiting to be saved or waiting to die.

“No food, no water … how will they live?’ cries one, plaitively.

Another man insists that four months ago he brought food for his brother with the help of a friendly official and that he saw prisoners here.

A black-clad woman says that her two sons were taken away in 1982 and that she hasn’t seen them since. A weeping man says that Ba’ath party members took his two sons for questioning, promising that they would soon return. That was over 20 years ago.

Why were they taken?

“For religious reasons.”

Are you Shia ?

“Yes, Shia.”

We drive over to another crowd, gathered by one of the buildings that’s still standing. A notebook found on the floor lists the names of soldiers who were posted here. Men take us down a dark corridor with small cells off it. They’re just a few metres square, with no windows. There’s a round window at the end of the corridor behind a door, which hides a toilet and two more cells. A man taps some stone on the floor and an echo rings through the empty space beneath. But there are no voices.

“Please help us. Will you help us?” says one plaintively as we leave.

A few days later a crowd of several hundred fills an underpass in the city centre. Excited men swear that they have heard voicers, as did the searchers at Radwanir, and, also like them, they claim that some of the voices had Kuwaiti accents. Kuwait has sent a delegation to enquire about its citizens who went missing after the 1990 Iraqi invasion.

I fail to hear voices at the places where they’re supposed to have been head, although that could just be because of the surrounding animation

For all the evident emotion, few people seem to be actually digging or seeking help but after a while an ambulance and then a police car arrive.

At one point the crowd gets extremely excited and people claim that a prisoner has been found. An Indonesian TV crew say that they filmed a man crawling out of one of the tunnels. Later it becomes clear that he had just gone down to look for the alleged prisoners and that, once again, no-one has been freed.

The name of the underpass is Liberation Tunnel.

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Why the US will start a war with China (perhaps)

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La_bataille_de_Palikiao
The Battle of Palikiao (Baliqiao), 21 December 1860 during the Second Opium War (1856-1860), Emile Bayard

In my first post on this blog I predicted that the US will one day provoke a war with China in an attempt to maintain its global hegemony. The formulation was deliberately provocative and, of the three reasons to be pessimistic about the future that I outlined, it has provoked the most scepticism, both on Facebook and to my own, physical face, although not, unfortunately, in comments on the blog (hint, hint).

For the last couple of years I’ve asked my students at Paris 13 University to debate this question. It’s always difficult to find someone to support the proposition and at the end the vote against is overwhelming.

They put forward plenty of good arguments against. But I think there are also strong arguments for and perhaps a tendency to think that it won’t happen simply because we really don’t want it to.

Here’s the strongest argument for a decisive confrontation between the US and China:

GDP WOrld

The World Bank predicts that China will be the world economy’s top dog by 2050 … and that by a very long way.

Chinese growth has averaged 10% for the last 30 years and, although it’s slowing down, it will continue to outstrip the older-established industrial economies unless there is a sudden and dramatic reversal of fortunes.

The US is losing its economic hegemony of the planet and, although the Chinese leadership appears to have no aspirations to global political or military hegemony at the moment, I don’t see how Washington can keep hold of the latter if it ceases to have the former.

We’re witnessing the decline of an empire and that is never a peaceful process.

The US has reacted to the decline in its economic status in time-honoured fashion – competing with China economically with the creation of a free-trade partnership around the Pacific, recruiting “allies” that it hopes will be dependent on its support in the region and encircling China with military bases, some equipped with troops and boats, others with drones.

Here’s the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership – countries in dark green are already members, those in light green have expressed an interest, those in blue, according to the designers, are potential future members (China – really?).

TPP
Graphic: Public domain/ “TPP enlargement” by en:User:Japinderum, en:User:Phospheros, en:User:Orser67 – en:File:TPP enlargement.png (based on File:World map model.png). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TPP_enlargement.png#/media/File:TPP_enlargement.png

If all goes as planned, the US will have sewn up a trading partnership across what Washington now regards as the “centre of gravity” of world economic activity, an area that produces 60 per cent of the world’s GDP and represents half of world trade – “a posse to get China,” according to Sydney Morning Herald editor Peter Hartcher.

But, of course, Washington knows that it can’t prevent its new friends dallying with China economically – Taiwan thinks it’s the real Republic of China but that hasn’t stopped its capitalists taking the plane to the People’s Republic (PRC) for self-enrichment purposes. No more can US companies afford to renounce doing business with Beijing.

In 2011 on a visit to Australia Barack Obama announced a “pivot to Asia”.

It hasn’t quite gone as planned, what with the hoped-for disengagement from the Middle East and Afghanistan proving more difficult than Washington’s finest minds imagined.

Nevertheless, there has been a frantic diplomatic offensive, which has involved bringing Myanmar/Burma out of the cold, sucking up to India’s Narendra Modi and cultivating every country that has a territorial bone to pick with China, which just happens to be every one of its neighbours to the east and south.

Here are the principal points of friction in the South China Sea:

  • The Spratley Islands,which are rich fishing grounds and, probably,have significant oil and natural gas reserves, are claimed in part or entirely bythe PRC, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan, all of whom, apart from Brunei, have military forces on one or more of the otherwise uninhabited rocks;
  • The Paracelislands, more good fishing and probable oil and gas, are controlled by the PRC but claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan;
  • The Senkaku/Diaoyuislands, more rocks with fishing, oil and shipping lanes, controlled by Japan but claimed by the PRC and Taiwan; Things got nasty in 2012-13 when Japan bought three of the islands from a “private owner”, sparking demonstrations in China, and the PRC declared an east China Sea flight identification zone; A US-Japan security treaty obliges the US to intervene in case of threat to Japan’s sovereignty over the islands;
  • Japan – a lot of history here, as with the rest of east Asia, and a focus for Chinese nationalism, which sometimes threatens to escape Chinese Communist Party control; Right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is an aggressive nationalist who wants to renounce Japan’s post-war limits on its military role – he has increased defence spending, created a new national security council and beefed up alliances with neighbouring countries.
  • Taiwan, like the People’s Republic, claims the right to control the whole South China Sea; it a
  • lso claims to be the official government of all China, although that policy is the subject of much political controversy, while the PRC claims that Taiwan is part of its territory and 2,000 missiles pointed at the island. In 2011 the US agreed to a US$5 billion upgrade to Taiwan’s F-16 military airplanes.

No-one’s going to be short of a casus belli here.

Now it so happens that one-third of the world’s maritime trade and half its traffic in oil and gas takes place in the region and major petroleum and other mineral deposits are believed to lie beneath the seabed.

The US, through its navy and its allies hopes to have a stranglehold on virtually all of China’s oil supply through control of the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca,  one reason, perhaps, for Beijing’s relatively good record of investment in renewable energy  but also for its antsiness when it comes to islands near shipping lanes.

So, although the Chinese leadership may not aspire to world hegemony, it very definitely wants hegemony of east Asia, especially the South China Sea.

And the US definitely doesn’t want that, witness the map of US bases in the region, now featuring new, added US troops in Australia:

US bases s ch sea

Of course, there are plenty of US troops to the west of China, too, notably in Afghanistan – albeit in reduced numbers – and Kyrgyzstan.

However, as historian Alfred McCoy points out, China seems to be in the process of outmanoeuvring the US by extending its influence westwards, with an ambitious network of transport and pipelines. Gas and Oil pipelines will soon link China to the Caspian Sea, via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, to the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and thus to the Gulf via Myanmar and Pakistan, and to Siberia.

 

China transport pipelines
China-Central Asia Infrastructure (doesn’t include Sino-Myanmar pipeline) Source: Stratfor

According to McCoy, China, working with Russia with which it has created a bloc in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, is working on the domination of “Eurasia”, the land mass that strategists have for over a century regarded as key to world domination.

Now, the US may not have colonies but insofar as it imposes its will on the whole world it is an empire, the most powerful empire in history.

And the economic predictions show that that empire is now on the decline, for a loss of military and political hegemony must surely follow a loss of economic hegemony, even if the speed of that process is open to question.

In general empires don’t bow out peacefully.  After two world wars and a wave of colonial revolts, the European empires did give up without a confrontation with their successor, choosing, especially in the case of the UK, to tag onto Washington’s coattails.

But is there any likelihood of the US agreeing to go quietly? Despite not having a war on its own soil for well over a century, it is a militarised society with what is euphemistically called a “defence” budget reaching an enormous  $496 billion for 2015.

That feeds a vast military-industrial complex whose profits largely depend on a permanent war mentality, as do the jobs – 3.6 million, according to interested parties – in the sector.

“Led by Lockheed Martin, the biggest U.S. defense companies are trading at record prices as shareholders reap rewards from escalating military conflicts around the world,” reports the Portland Press Herald.

“As we ramp up our military muscle in the Mideast, there’s a sense that demand for military equipment and weaponry will likely rise,” says Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Chicago-based BMO Private Bank, who oversees $66 billion including Northrop Grumman and Boeing shares. “To the extent we can shift away from relying on troops and rely more heavily on equipment — that could present an opportunity.”

So much for the material interest. Then there’s ideology and national psychology.

Can any US leader – or even any mainstream American politician – renounce the manifest destiny doctrine? Yet accepting the rise of an equal or greater power means doing just that.

The Tea Party would look like – well, a tea party – compared to the reactionary movement that would be whipped up by shock-jocks, Fox News, the Republican right wing, in response to a president who proposed that the US accept playing second fiddle on the world stage.

And the Democrats are a thoroughly bourgeois party, as committed to the American ideology as the Republicans, while much of the labour movement seems easily recruited to the patriotic cause.

True, large parts of the US economy have everything to lose by upsetting China and the PRC holds about 8.0% of US government debt, not as much as some people seem to believe but still a healthy slice. But is US capital sufficiently united in its interests to drop its pretensions to world domination and rein in the populist right?

US_Public_Debt_proportions_March_2013
http://www.businessinsider.com/chart-us-trade-deficit-with-china-2013-4

Another persuasive argument against starting a war is the nuclear one. But the balance of terror nearly didn’t work during the Cuban missile crisis, can we be sure that it will when the US empire feels itself to be in terminal decline?

Cyberwarfare is also a growing threat to the US. Is that a new balance of terror? Perhaps, but, the way Washington has reacted to it so far, it could also be a casus belli.

Nor can we be sure that China’s ambitions will remain as modest as they are today. Already XI Jinping appears to be more aggressive about his country’s international role than his predecessors and the CCP’s legitimacy is now primarily nationalist. Rank-and-file nationalism could be a strong pressure on the country’s leadership in the event of a confrontation over territorial claims.

And a territorial claim, combined with a stiff dose of rhetoric about human rights and a little bit of imperial-minded racism, could easily provide a pretext for the US becoming involved in a military confrontation, perhaps limited at first but possibly spiralling out of control.

The real reasons for wars are rarely if ever openly declared – a pretext involving much moral indignation and national affront is usual and the US has particularly fine form in this field  – think of the USS Maine in Cuba, the Gulf of Tonkin incident and, as for Iraq, let’s not even go there.

So a scenario of Washington intervening on behalf of one of its clients and the PRC leadership being unable or unwilling to back down on nationalist grounds doesn’t seem so unrealistic to me

I wouldn’t bet the $1.2 trillion of US debt China holds against it.

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