Forgive and forget: Victims plead for Afghan peace

Families gather at the graves of their relatives killed in local conflicts, adorned with their pictures, on the outskirts of Kabul on Monday. (AP)
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Updated 17 September 2020

Forgive and forget: Victims plead for Afghan peace

  • ‘Civilian voices should be heard’ in Doha talks, campaigners say

DHAKA: With anguish in his voice, Baz Mohammad Timoory recalls the night when 13 of his family members, including his mother, were killed in an air raid on the outskirts of Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province.

It has been a year and a half since the attack, but the 30-year-old laborer still does not know if the strike was conducted by the Afghan government or US-led troops stationed in the country.

“It’s not easy to see the deaths of your brother, nephews, nieces, mother and sisters,” he told Arab News from Kunduz, a lush agrarian province which lies 340 km north of Kabul. But with the government and Taliban negotiators holding talks in Doha to end decades of conflict in the war-ravaged country, Timoory said he is ready to “forgive and forget the past.”

He added: “I am not after taking revenge. I want the two sides to find a solution for bringing peace to Afghanistan.”

Timoory is not the only person who shares that sentiment.

According to a UN report released in February, 100,000 Afghans have died in the conflict since 2009.

The global body conceded that the number could be much higher if it included civilian deaths from previous conflicts.

“We want an end to the war in the country, so others live in security, harmony and no more children become orphans and mothers widows,” said Bashir Ahmad.

He is the eldest son of police officer Nasir Ahmad, who was killed in a Taliban attack three weeks ago, his family said.

The Ahmads are part of a group of victims and survivors who said they are ready to “forgive” the Taliban, provided they “choose the path of peace.”

Others have urged the “restoration of justice” and punishment for Taliban members.

“Victims of war warn that without a proper mechanism to address widespread past violations, in the best scenario, we will have a fragile peace. At worst, the conflict will resume after a brief pause,” said a statement by the group.

The statement, addressed to both sides in the Doha talks, was released in Kabul last week ahead of the negotiations which began on Saturday behind closed doors.

The talks are expected to be long and complicated as the two sides struggle to end the fighting and protect the rights of women and minorities. There are 42 negotiators from both teams, including five women on the Kabul government’s side, but there is no one representing the victims’ families.

When questioned on their exclusion from the talks, Fawzia Koofi, a female government negotiator, said: “It is not clear if the team will remain the same until the end of the talks or change. With time, there might be additions and changes.”

The long-awaited talks are based on an agreement signed between the US and the Taliban in February this year in Qatar, where the Taliban have had their political office since 2013.

Initially scheduled to take place on March 10, the intra-Afghan talks faced several rounds of delays, mainly due to a hold up in the release of about 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for government hostages held by the militant group.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was slow to release the remaining 320 Taliban prisoners who were accused of serious crimes by several countries, including France and Australia.

Meanwhile, there are accusations that government and US-led operations against the Taliban led to civilian deaths.

Human rights campaigners have called for civilian “voices to be heard” during the Qatar dialogue and said that the ongoing talks and the February accord fail to protect victims’ rights.

Lal Gul Lal, chief of Afghanistan’s Human Rights Organization, a body funded by donors, said: “About 600,000 civilians have been killed in the past 19 years.

“Failure to address past atrocities, killings and to restore justice has been one of the main reasons for the continuation of the crisis and failure of past peace deals in Afghanistan,” he said, in reference to the former Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 1980s. Subsequent peace deals were prepared, but soon fell apart.

“If we want justice, it is for the sake of peace; both are interdependent. The voices of victims should be heard,” he told Arab News.

In the 2001 Bonn deal, signed after the Taliban was removed from power, there was a push for transitional justice, but “due to foreign and domestic pressures and interests, it was never implemented in Afghanistan,” Lal said.

Sharzad Akbar, chairperson of the government-appointed Independent Human Rights Commission, said victims should be given a platform to address their grievances, and their “suffering should be acknowledged and humanitarian needs addressed during the talks.

“We recognize all civilian victims of conflict, from violence including suicide attacks, air strikes, night raids, roadside bombs and more. This is not only the requirement of international law and good practice, but also a duty of the negotiation teams and a right of victims in Islam,” she said.

Afghan mothers celebrate children’s ID move

Updated 19 September 2020

Afghan mothers celebrate children’s ID move

  • President Ghani’s amendment is an ‘important mark in history,’ activists say

KABUL: Women in Afghanistan have welcomed President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to sign an amendment that allows the name of a mother to be printed on childrens’ national identity cards.

Activists said on Saturday that it was a “significant” victory for women’s rights in the deeply conservative country.

Ghani made the decision on Thursday without securing parliamentary approval, despite his government saying earlier this month that the amendment would require a house endorsement before being signed into law.

However, speaking to Arab News on Saturday, Ghani’s chief spokesman Sediq Seddiqi said: “Since the Parliament is in recess (annual leave), the cabinet endorsed the amendment and the president signed it into law.”

Endorsing the president’s move, Breshna Rabi, a woman lawmaker from northern Balkh, about 450 km from Kabul, said that the bill did not need a “debate” because it was not a “controversial issue.”

She added: “This is great news and a victory for women in Afghanistan. Not only women, but men also support and welcome this decision both within and outside the parliament.”

Rabi was joined by independent actor Freshta Kazemi, who hailed the move as a “historic milestone” for the country.

“Including the Afghan mother’s name on the national ID is an important mark in Afghan history on the changing and emerging identity of the nascent Afghan democracy. It only makes sense that all our mothers’ identities are now honored on an institutional identity level,” she told Arab News.

While Ghani was praised across the country, several people said credit should also be given to a 28-year-old university student Laleh Osmany, who championed the cause by launching the #whereismyname social media campaign three years ago to fight Afghanistan’s “misogynistic” culture.

A crucial part of her campaign, Osmany said, was pressuring authorities to include the name of a mother next to the father on national IDs, especially for women who were divorced, had lost their husbands in war, or whose spouses were missing.

“They faced tough times sorting out legal issues such as the right to inheritance, guardianship or issuance of passports for themselves or their children in the absence of a father, ” Osmany, a graduate of Islamic law from Herat University, told Arab News.

After the hashtag went viral and she was armed with support from social media users both at home and abroad, Osmany says her efforts finally bore fruit when the Afghan government — after several days of deliberations with religious scholars — amended the census law and accepted the proposal earlier this month.

On Saturday, Osmany said she could not “contain her joy” after hearing of the president’s decision two days ago.

“There is no doubt that this victory is the result of a persistent campaign among campaigners and citizens, both men and women. The government also stood by citizens, and I express my gratitude to the president himself and his deputies for their support. I also thank everyone, men and women who supported our campaign and raised their voice, and congratulate all campaigners,” she told Arab News.

It is a rare win for women’s rights activists in the deeply conservative and male-dominated country, where taboos mean a women’s names are often missing from wedding invitations and even graves.

In public, young children and sometimes adult men often fight if someone mentions the name of their mother or sister — an act seen as an attempt to bring dishonor and shame to a family.

According to estimates shared by the Statistics and Information Authority, women make up 49 percent of the total Afghan population of 32.9 million.

While there are 68 women in the 250-member parliament, with several serving in the cabinet, many women have struggled to assert themselves as legal guardians of their children, both in government offices or when carrying out business transactions in the absence of a man.

Recognizing the historical significance of the move, Heather Barr, interim co-director of the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “Good news on women’s rights does not happen every day in Afghanistan.”

She added that the law is a “major victory” for Afghan women’s rights activists, who for several years have campaigned for both parents to be named. She said it would have a “domino effect” on their lives.

“The reform will have important consequences, making it easier for women to obtain an education, health care, passports and other documentation for their children. It will be especially significant for women who are widowed, divorced, separated or dealing with abusive parents,” she said.

Ghani’s signed the amendment amid intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, that aim to end more than 40 years of war and organize the departure of US-led troops from Afghanistan by next spring.

The Taliban banned women from education and jobs during its five-year rule, until it was toppled from power in late 2001. It has, however, pledged to uphold women’s rights as part of the peace process and negotiations.

Commenting on the campaign, Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander, said last week that “mentioning mothers’ names on IDs was a dishonor.”

Experts have said that, while the move may be an important first step to promote women’s rights in the country, “it isn’t enough.”

Wali Ullah Shaheen, a former journalist, said: “Women need education, training and more importantly security rather than mentioning their names on ID.”

The government has been under fire for failing to stop targeted killings of women activists and officials in controlled areas, including Kabul in recent months, with prominent actor Saba Sahar and a woman negotiator in the intra-Afghan talks, Fawzia Koofi, being the latest victims.

Osmany, too, said she faced challenges and “received threats from unknown people” requesting she abandon her campaign.

When asked about her plans for the future, Osmany said she will “take a break for now.”

She added: “This campaign made my hair to go white. Working honestly in Afghanistan is difficult.”