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A Tale of Two Afghanistans

Hamida Ghafour on rebuilding rights, roles and roads in her homeland.

By Sarah Weigum 24 May 2007 |

Sarah Weigum is on staff of The Tyee.

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Ghafour wants 'gutless' governments to step up.
  • The Sleeping Buddha: The Story of Afghanistan through the Eyes of One Family
  • Hamida Ghafour
  • McArthur and Company (2007)

Hamida Ghafour was born in Afghanistan, but grew up in Toronto after her family fled the country in 1981. It wasn't until she was in her mid-20s -- after two decades of war on Afghan soil -- that she felt the urge to return. In 2003, she did. And she can't believe what she saw.

For Ghafour, Afghanistan existed mainly in the memories and photos passed down by family members who lived in pre-Soviet Afghanistan. When she retuned a few years ago, the Taliban had been officially ousted, but the country was in shambles. Women had to cover their heads on the street, and NATO forces were far from defeating radical insurgents and opium traffickers.

In the Afghanistan of her childhood men and women mingled freely, girls went to school and women worked in offices. Now, she doesn't just want her homeland back, she wants that version back.

In an interview with The Tyee, Ghafour spoke frankly against "gutless" western governments, the rise of "imported extremism" in Afghanistan, what to do about Muslim extremists, and the need for more troops to combat the Taliban.

On why she wants to go back

"Afghanistan is now open to the world and when you're growing up here to Afghani parents and you hear so much about it, you kind of want to go and see the country for yourself and see what actually remains.

"There are hundreds of [retuned Afghans] in the country. A lot of them have set up charities, or work for the government of Afghanistan, a lot of them are doctors and teachers.

"A lot of Afghans who have grown up in the West and go back don't live as Afghans do. To do your job you have to live in houses that have some measure of security. You're sort of in between the local Afghans and the western ex-pats. I saw the resentment that Afghans had towards the things that westerns have and they don't. Afghans have very little. They don't have clean water; they don't live in safe cities; they live in houses where the walls are still collapsing. They don't see any evidence of the nation building and the billions of dollars that are being spent and they are resentful."

On lipstick in Afghanistan

"My parents grew up in Kabul in the 1960s and 1970s, so they remember Afghanistan when it was peaceful and fairly stable. They remember girls going to school and women working in offices. They met at Kabul University and they saw outside ideas coming in. They remember young men and women coming and going and mingling together. The contrast between their experience and what I saw was completely different. There is very little evidence of that life from the '60s and '70s left. It's very sad how much Kabul has been ruined. It's difficult for women to walk outside and difficult for children to go to school.

"Afghan women are very fashionable. They love dressing up, putting on make-up and going to parties. Underneath their burqa the women are very feminine. But a burqa is something that women have to wear in Kabul, they don't have a choice. They don't feel safe on the streets. If the borders are secure and the insurgents are put down, I think we will see a return to the live and let live attitude, but for the moment that's not possible."

On wasted aid

"The joke in Kabul is that when the Russians occupied they at least built things. They built roads and some hospitals. Now there is nothing to show. You still see sewage on the streets. The Afghans need basic necessities, they need food, they need housing and they see these things as much more important than some of the ideas the West is bringing in."

On helping angry young Muslims

"Some [young western Muslims] are angry because they haven't been given the proper opportunity for education. But a lot of these kids who have been radicalized and are angry are very well educated. A lot of them have been brainwashed by radical imams who come to the mosque. They use the name of Islam to tell them that Afghanistan is under attack and they must go there and fight and they believe them because they don't know any better.

"We need to help Afghans have a chance to stand on their feet. We need to give kids the right opportunities to education and give parents the tools to keep them from being radicalized. We need to keep an eye on radical preachers. It is overwhelming but it is the responsibility of our governments, of the Muslim community and the parents themselves. We live in a time when governments are pretty gutless and nobody wants to make the hard decisions."

On how "jihad" became a dirty word

"When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in '79 there was a general popular resistance -- it was a national cause. Unfortunately, at the time, America, Britain and the West, which was opposed to Communism, and a lot of the Muslim countries decided that the only way to fight Communism was to arm radical groups. Radical Islam doesn't have a history in Afghanistan, but suddenly in the '80s, the West started arming radical groups. It turned a popular resistance against a foreign power into a religious resistance with suicide bombers.

"Over the past 30 years, the policies of the West and Saudi have been geared to supporting radical groups. We're seeing suicide bombing in Afghanistan today. People need to remember that in the days of the Soviets, Afghans didn't kill themselves and didn't attack Soviets with suicide bombs. Afghans are shocked that suicide bombs are happening in their country. They remember that they fought against the Soviets, but they never blew themselves up. This is a kind of imported extremism.

"It's called blow back. In the '80s you tell radical groups to go and fight but when it comes back to haunt you, you have to look at the policies."

On stopping the Taliban

"Afghans are afraid of the Taliban but they feel they don't have a choice to stand up against the Taliban. You see the insurgency become stronger day by day and it's almost as if the West has allowed it to happen. Villages are patrolled during the day by NATO, but the Taliban comes at night with their motorcycles and threaten to kill the Afghans if they don't cooperate.

"The insurgency is in the south, and the south borders Pakistan, it's not a coincidence. This border needs to be secured so that the Taliban stop coming over the border and blowing themselves up. Many of the Taliban leaders are in Pakistan. Unless Canada and NATO put pressure on Pakistan to stop hiding insurgents and shut down training camps, you're not going to see any kind of peace in southern Afghanistan."

On whether Afghanistan can be rebuilt

"Afghans support western troops being in their country in general. Before [western leaders] make the decisions, before they say 'We must leave Afghanistan,' they need to be informed of the facts. If they can correct their mistakes then I think Afghanistan will succeed. If the West abandons Afghanistan again, then you're not going to see Afghanistan rebuilt. I'd like to think that the West will learn from its mistakes. It's not inevitable that Afghanistan will fail, but the right decisions need to be made. Whatever decisions are made by Canada, by Britain in the next few years will determine the future of Afghanistan. Afghanistan doesn't have any control over its destiny, it's too weak, it's been shattered by years of fighting. It's up to us to help them in the long term."

On the mistakes made by western governments

"NATO bombs innocent civilians when they get bad intelligence on Taliban hide-outs. When innocent people die, the Afghans are angry. The biggest mistake is that not enough soldiers were sent to the South and East of Afghanistan from the beginning. That is a basic, basic mistake that has been made over the last five years.

"It always goes back to the security question. The Afghans don't see any development in the south, so they're turning against their own government. But they don't see any development, because there is no security. Of course if you leave one third of the country insecure there are going to be bad groups coming in. The Taliban regroups, there is drug trafficking, opium is grown.

"If you look at Kosovo in the '90s, there were thousands of troops there. There's only a fraction of that number in Afghanistan.

"When the Taliban was overthrown, there should have been a lot more soldiers in the country. Right now there are 30,000 NATO soldiers but one estimate says there should be 80,000. Right now it seems that the West is more concerned with quick fixes. Nobody seems to have the courage to send more soldiers to Afghanistan."

On getting beyond the stories of Canadian soldiers dying

It's disappointing in some ways. The story is not just in Kandahar, it's also in Kabul. Compared to Africa it gets a lot of coverage, but it's difficult for reporters because the issues are so complex; you can't get a full view by just going in to Afghanistan for a few weeks.

"The big American papers have more resources. But television is a different medium. It's hard to give a full picture when you only have two minutes to sum it up. You need to get beyond Kandahar and beyond the daily fights between NATO soldiers and the insurgents, beyond the stories about Canadian soldiers dying in Afghanistan. Those stories are important, but these things are not happening in isolation. Kandahar is not in isolation, it is directly connected to the events in rest of the country."