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Bullets for the Buddha
While Hunger, Deaths Stalk Afghans
Jawid Laiq

IN the past three years, scorching droughts and intensely cold winters have ravaged Afghanistan. During the past two months, hundreds of Afghan children have frozen to death in Herat with night temperatures reaching minus 20 degrees Celsius. Drought has destroyed food crops and famine is about to strike the population.

The Taliban officials and their chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar, appear to despise the Afghan people and ignore their plight. These fundamentalists continue to acquire artillery, tanks and ammunition through the clandestine, international arms market but have made no attempt to import food, blankets and tents. At this moment of calamity, the United States and Russia, who were mainly instrumental in turning Afghanistan into a seething cauldron of armed factions, have pushed through yet another UN resolution further isolating Afghanistan. As in Iraq, where 10 years of sanctions have fortified Saddam Hussein and his trigger-happy henchmen and increased the suffering of the Iraqi people, so in Afghanistan where the Taliban strut about while the people starve.

In isolated rage, Mullah Omar has commanded his restless bands of followers to use their artillery and tanks to devastate the exquisite labour of years of divine love by the ancient forebears of the Afghan people who had carved the tallest standing Buddhas out of the sandstone cliffs at Bamiyan. Two of the aesthetic marvels of the world have been turned into dust. Public outrage here and abroad is absolutely justified. It ought to be directed at Mullah Omar and his prime creators - Leonid Brezhnev, Ronald Reagan and Zia-ul-Haq - and not against an entire people who have not sinned but have suffered at the hands of a series of ever worsening tyrannies for the last 23 years.

A pluralist, tolerant and fun-loving society has been forcibly enveloped in a dark, dismal shroud by the weird and barbaric decrees of the Taliban. Till 1992, when the Marxist regime in Kabul was ousted by a mixed bunch of opposition groups, the folk traditions of Afghan society were prevalent. Music, singing and dancing were segments embedded in the Afghan mosaic. Afghans celebrated their national feast days, and especially weddings, by public dancing in which both men and women participated, though taking care not to touch each other. The performance of the national dance, the attan, had long been a feature of Afghan life. In Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, Hindus and Sikhs, most of whom had become Afghan nationals, lived in complete harmony with Afghan Muslims. Even now, many Afghans speak a basic version of Hindi picked up from Hindi films and lyrics which are currently banned by the Taliban.

A semblance of the pluralist colour and variety of pre-Taliban Afghan life can be witnessed every year on March 21 in Delhi's Lodi Gardens where hundreds of Afghan refugee families gather to celebrate the secular spring festival of Navroz. The young in mini-skirts and jeans, the grandmothers in black chadors, aquiline-featured Pashtuns as well as Uzbeks, picnic together by the shade of the monuments built by their ancestors. The refugees are remnants of the tolerant society which persisted in Afghanistan till the early 1990s. Many of the refugees in Delhi are those who fled from the wild ferocity of the Taliban who finally subjugated Kabul in September 1996. They have joined earlier streams of hapless refugees who had fled from Afghanistan during the communist regime from April 1978 to April 1992 and during the terrible internecine bloodletting between various Afghan political factions and ethnic groups between 1992 and 1996. In Delhi, the refugees have faced sporadic incidents of assault and harassment, especially during the Kargil conflict and whenever terrorist violence has escalated in Kashmir. These unfortunate incidents have been documented in Abandoned and Betrayed, a report published by the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre. The victims of the Taliban have been equated with the allies of the Taliban by some of Delhi's angered inhabitants.

The Taliban are the brutalised products of the past 23 years of violence which began with a coup in Kabul in April 1978 by a small group of junior, Marxist-inclined army officers inspired by friends in the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The party grasped the coup as a shortcut to instant revolution to be effected from the top. Drastic land reforms, social change and women's emancipation were sought to be implemented overnight without political groundwork. The attempts at forced reform met popular resistance from disparate groups of liberals, nationalists and Islamists. The unexpected resistance led to bloody infighting between the PDPA's Parcham and Khalq factions. Nur Mohammad Taraki, the first president of the Revolutionary Council, was killed and replaced by Hafizullah Amin, who in turn was killed and replaced by the Soviet-backed Babrak Karmal.

The Soviet invasion united temporarily the factions of the Afghan resistance and ignited a dormant and fierce Afghan nationalism. At least one million Afghans and some 20,000 Soviet soldiers died in the war against Soviet occupation which was intensified by a mindless flood of arms supplies to the resistance by Ronald Reagan's administration. The CIA and the Pakistani military establishment under Zia-ul-Haq directed the bulk of these arms to the Islamist groups within the resistance. Most of the fighting against the Soviet army was done by non-Islamist groups who brought the superpower to a stalemate. According to Artyom Borovik, the renowned Russian chronicler of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan who was killed in a mysterious air crash last year, Mikhail Gorbachov's policy of glasnost or opening up of Soviet society proclaimed in 1987 grew out of the Afghan stalemate. In 1988, Gorbachov started the process of disengagement which led to the last Soviet contingent withdrawing from Afghanistan on February 15, 1989.

The Afghan resistance soon fell into disarray. A vestige of the Marxist regime lasted in Kabul under Mohammad Najibullah till April 1992 when it was overthrown by a ragtag bunch of fighters who attacked each other and terrorised the civil population indiscriminately. Benazir Bhutto's interior minister, Nasirullah Babar, and the ISI initially trained and armed the Taliban in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. In 1994, the Taliban were sent to restore order in Afghanistan by the Pakistani military. By 1998, they controlled 90 per cent of Afghanistan. The Taliban are now way beyond the control of the Pakistani army or anyone else.

(The writer is a former research officer on Afghanistan, Amnesty International, London.)


In Brief

* The Taliban is pursuing its own agenda while the Afghan people starve

* A pluralist society has been straitjacketed by the Taliban

* The Taliban is now way beyond the control of those who created it


Updated: 9-3-2001

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