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1 The Untold War: Boys Abused by War and Captors (Los Angeles Times) 7/01
( A front line report on the manupulation, capture and rape of naive Pakistani teen recruits in Afghanistan)
2 Justice takes on a different meaning in Afghanistan 9/01
1 – The Untold War: Boys Abused by War and Captors
A front line report on the manupulation, capture and rape of naive Pakistani boy recruits in Afghanistan
Lahore, Pakistan – Faisal Rahman pushed through the streets, looking for his boys. It was just after sunup. The crowds in Lahore were already hot and unruly. His two sons, Bahram, 16, and Moona 12, worked at a tea cart, putting little white cups on little cracked saucers and serving boiling hot tea. But when he got there, Bahram was gone.
Faisal Rahman sat for a moment with Moona, a beautiful boy with huge brown eyes and sipped some tea. The old man spilled one mouthful at a time onto the saucer, where it would cool quickly so he could slurp from the little plate and savor the delicious coating on his tongue. It tasted like creamy candy. When he returned to the teacart in the afternoon, Bahram still had not come.
"I don’t know where he is", Moona said. Then, Faisal Rahman would remember later, he heard men talking excitedly in an alley. He moved closer and leaned against a tree to hear. The men were from his village. "The boys left today"," he heard a tall man. "They went to fight the infidels. They went with a mullah who took them to Afghanistan."
Someone else blew a kiss into the air "Congratulations", he said to the tall man. " Your son is now a Taliban! It was his fate, his kismet. Blessed that kismet." Faisal Rahman listened. He did not want to talk. Something inside him had broken, like the little saucer in his hand. For boys from a poor village, the mullah’s message was a call too spellbinding to ignore.
Faisal Rahman is from Gunbat Banda, a village near the Afghan border where mountaqin peaks cut white teeth into the sky and the hillsides are sown with wheat and rice. It is the northwest corner of Pakistan, and most of its people are Pushtuns, the dominant ethnic group in southern Afghanistan that brought the Taliban to power six years ago.
He left with his two sons and found work as a mosque watchman in the city of Lahore, 300 miles away. For the boys, this meant no school, no dreams, only countless cups of tea and the steady ticking of time. Sometimes, on long, empty afternoons, Faisal Rahman wouid take his boys to a juice bar and buy them cool banana shakes with what little money he had. Sometimes his sons would return to visit their mother. Just the other day, for instance, Bahram had asked if he could go.
Fine, Rahman recalls saying, but be back soon.
The day after he found out about the boys joining the Taliban, he stuffed a few things into a cloth sack and took the long bus ride home. His wife, Zarina, was waiting for him in their hut, made of rock and perched on the side of a hill. "Faisal, Faisal", she remembers telling him. "We tried to convince Bahram not to go. We told him he would get killed." She cried as if Bahram were already dead. He hugged her, but the pain was squeezing his chest too.
Faisal Rahman is 55 and has a white beard, exhausted blue eyes and a goiter that swell under his chin like a big angry muscle. He walked down the hill to where the elders meet. Mohammed Razzaq pressed his hand to Rahman’s heart, a Pushtun greeting. He told Faisal Rahman about the spellbinder. ‘"Faisal; they have left, God has sent our boys away. Yours too. We can only hope they return, inshallah," which means ‘God willing.’
A mullah, Sufi Mohammed, had recruited them in November to fight the invaders who came to Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks in the United States. He used loudpeakers riveted onto pickup trucks to blast his message. "Those who die fighting for God don’t die! Those who go on jihad live forever, in paradise!"
The boys weren’t madrasa students, primed for holy war. These were simple boys, farm boys, illiterate and poor. "They were unsatisfied with life", Razzaq said. About 500 went. Some brought knives. They declared that they were ready to die for their Pushtun brothers, the Taliban. Some were as young as 12.
Trapped and Under Siege
In the end, there would be no escape. They were taken in trucks to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, to the Sultan Razia girls school, whiih had been converted into an army barracks. It is in a very poor neighborhood, where women in muddy burkas peer from doorways and children play along the road in slime-green ditches. It was Nov. 8, and the Northern Alliance had finally broken through Taliban lines south of Mazar-i-Sharif. Nine thousand Northern Alliance soldiers, under a sky full of American jets, were advancing toward town, and the Taliban had gone into full retreat. By the next evening when the Northern Alliance troops entered Mazar-i-Sharif, all of the Taliban had escaped except 750 recruits, including the boys from Gunbat Banda.
One Taliban commander radio to another: "What should we do about the newcomers in the school? They’re trapped," remembers Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostun, one of the Northern Alliance leaders. The other commander radioed back: "Forget about them." Bahram, the boy who had worked at the teacart, later would recall that. he and the others were jammed together in classrooms on the first floor. About 9 p.m., the sky cracked open with gunfire. Red tracer bullets arced toward the moon. The walls groaned from heavy explosions.
Many of the boys cheered. They yelled that the Taliban were attacking American planes. Some crouched under the windows and pointed their rifle barrels outward. But one boy looked terrified, Bahram recalled. He said,: "No, those weren’t bullets. It’s the people in the city, celebrating. He told us it was the end." At dawn, the boys saw that the school had been surrounded by more than 400 Northern Alliance soldiers. All night, they had not heard a word from any of their Taliban commanders. The boys called a shura, a meeting. One proposed a Hudaibiya Pact," a treaty similar to one in the Koran in which Muhammad makes peace with the Quraysh tribe in Mecca.
But a man with a white beard didn’t like this, Bahram said. He asked the boy if he really was on a jihad. "He pulled out a knife, and his eyes got big, and he said he would slit the boy’s throat right there and wash the floors with his blood. The boy stopped talking." When the recruits refused to surrender the Northern Alliance began hammering the school with .50-caliber machine guns. The recruits shot back. Several bystanders were cut down in the cross-fire, which went on for hours. Inside the battered school, some of the boys scrawled on the walls the words of their mullah: "Die for Pakistan" and "Never Surrender".
At mid-afternoon; American military advisors approved the school for a bombing run. "We had determined the school was an appropriate target," said Army Col. Rick Thomas of the U.S. Central Command. "Our philosophy has been surrender or die." At 3:30 p.m., an F/A-18 jet dropped a 1,000-pound bomb on the west end of the school, Thomas said, and three minutes later another bomb fell. The roof crashed down. Black smoke boiled up. Burning boys ran out screaming. Some had pieces of twisted metal sticking out of their chests. "May God never show us such things again," said Amin Mohammed, a neighbor, who later helped round up at least 200 of the boys. Some were bleeding to death. Bahram ran outside and hid in a pile of sticks. An hour later, the Northern Alliance troops captured him.
I Did It to Save Her Life
Winter came to Gunbat Banda, outside and in the hearts of its people. The elders made a list of all the boys who had gone to Afghanistan. By now, weeks had passed, the rivers had iced over, and none had returned. Bahram’s mother thought that she was going blind. "The crying, the crying, it’s killing my eyes," she told her husband during one of his visits.
Faisal Rahman had to do something. So one night, he wrapped himself in the thickest shawl he could find and set out with two other fathers. In the freezing cold, they hiked to a border checkpoint on the banks of the Swat River. From there, he would recount, they thought that they could cross a bridge and catch a ride up the Karakoram Highway into Afghanistan They wanted to see their sons
But a soldier at the checkpoint would not lift the gate. Instead, he leveled an assault rifle at Faisal Rahman’s hollow chest. No one was going into Afghanistan. "It is their fate," Abdul Sharif Khan, one of the fathers, said of their sons. "No," Rahman replied, "God would not approve." Two of the fathers returned to Gunbat Banda, their backs bent, along the snow-dusted banks of the river. But Rahman went straight to Lahore. There he sent a letter. He is illiterate, so a card wallah wrote it for a few rupees. Dear Zarina, it began. I have just returned from Jalalabad and seen our son. He is good He is healthy. He has enough food…
"I did it," Rahman said, "to save her life."
Finding a Survivor
Too often horror begets more horror. By now, it was early spring in Mazar-i-Sharif, and I had been assigned to write about the battle at the girls school, one of the bloodiest confrontations of the war in Afghanistan. I had spoken to Northern Alliance commanders, U.S. commanders and residents who had witnessed the siege and the bombing. One piece of information was missing. Nobody knew what had become of the young Taliban recruits from Pakistan. I tried a prison in Sheberghan, two hours east. It was a medieval fortress with huge, mud walls and long, frightening hallways, where men thrust their arms through bars and shook dirty plastic buckets. "Aab, aab," they moaned, "Water, water." The place smelled of sweat, urine and rotting flesh. Some of the captives picked crawling lice out of their hair and flicked them through the bars. But none of the prisoners were from the girls school.
Northern Alliance commanders had different explantions. One said all the boys were killed instantly in the bombing. Another said a few survived but died of their wounds. A jailer spoke of a "road accident" that claimed 43 prisoners’ lives. Finally, a young Northern Alliance commander, Sayed Zahir, said some of the Pakistani recruits were alive. They were being held as slaves, he said. "I know where one is."
Zahir and three of his men drove to a cinder-block house with a blue metal gate at the edge of Mazar-i-Sharif, in a place called Dasht-i-Shardian, which means ‘the desert of happy people’. At first, soldiers would not let us see their prisoner. They said he was too frightened. Then they said their commander was out of town and would be angry. Nonsense, Zahir replied. He glanced at his men, standing behind him with guns. The soldiers brought out a boy.
That was how I met Bahram. They sat him in the middle of a bald little room with concrete walls and a smoking stove that put out a thin circle of heat. He looked horrible. He had on a filthy shalwar kameez, worn and ghost-thin. His arms were criss-crossed with cuts. His big, dark eyes were glassy. His hands shook. He kept wiping away tears.
Where was he from? How had he been captured? How old was he? He saw I was an American. "Don’t hurt", he cried. "Don’t hurt!" Gently, I told him that I was going to Pakistan. He stopped staring at the floor and began to speak of Faisal Rahman, his father who swept the floors of a mosque in Lahore; Zarina his mother; Moona his younger brother, and how they had worked together at the teacart. He spoke of his journey over the mountains into Afghanistan and of the other boys and of the girls school—all in broken breathless sentences. Finally, he spoke of the bombing. And the fire.
The soldiers said it was time to go. I took his picture. He seemed sad. Before he disappeared down a frosty hallway, he looked at me and said, "I have never seen such days as these."
Not Our Problem
There was no help. A man at the Red Cross in Mazar-i-Sharif listened closely. When he heard about the puffy cuts on Bahramis arms, he closed his eye’s. "There’s little we can do," he said. "The Red Cross has to be careful not to alienate itself from the factions we work with." A United Nations human rights officer said the same. So did an American soldier at a post the Army keeps in Mazar-i-Sharif, mostly for humanitarian projects like fixing generators and passing out soccer balls. He said, "Sounds bad, But not our problem."
A Northern Alliance security official said he too was helpless. "It’s wrong what they’re doing," Shajaudin said, as he lighted a clove cigarette. He said Bahram was being held in a private jail by a local commander. We can ask him to release the boy, but we can’t make him, because that could cause trouble." Shajaudin said at least 1,500 prisoners, mostly boys, were being held in private jails. Could it be that Bahram was being sexually abused? "It is a custom," Shajaudin declared, blowing a ring of sweet-smelling smoke around his head. "With boys that age before they have hair on the faces, these things happen."
A Game of Horror
It was hopeless. "Allah, Allah, Allah," Faisal Rahman prayed, when he saw the picture of his boy. At the mosque in Lahore, he told me about the morning that Bahram disappeared and about finding out why. Then he reached into a pocket and pulled out a 5-inch square of notebook paper, worn and very soft. It was a ransom demand. A newly released prisoner named Jimshade had brought it in January. The note listed numbers to call and people to ask for. There was a figure at the bottom: 125,000 rupees, about $2,100. "Sometimes," Rahman said, "I wish Bahram had been martyred."
We went from Lahore to a village near Gunbat Bandar, where Jimshade said he too was a follower of the mullah Sufi Mohammed. He said he had gone to the girls school and was captured. He spent six weeks as a slave before his family bought his freedom for the equivalent of $1,100. The soldiers do things to you," he said, "that make you want to kill yourself. They have this game—they think they are so clever for thinking it all up—they call keel," which means nail. They start with the youngest prisoners and ask them their age," he continued. "If a boy says 13, they send 13 soldiers to him. If he says 16, the boy gets 16." The soldiers take turns raping the boys, Jimshade said. They take them to an underground room and hold the boys down, and the whole house fills with screaming, and the soldiers yell louder than the screaming, like they are mad or crazy or have turned into wild animals. Keel. Keel."
"Sometimes," he said, his voice shrinking, "I still hear them." Faisal Rahman, a watchman living under a blanket on the roof of a mosque with a bar of yellow soap and a little jug of water, has been trying to save 10 rupees a day to free his son. At that rate, it would take him 34 years.
Clinging to Hope
The elders would say it was a sign from God. In early April, planting season, I finally reached Gunbat Banda. The chunk-chunk-chunk of spades driving into the dirt rang across the hills. Bahram’s mother, Zarina, small, thin and once beautiful, was sitting outside her rock hut. There was very little inside, but from somewhere she produced a silver pitcher and placed it on a simple white cloth. "Here," she said. She looked at the picture. "Bahram! Bahram! Bahram!" she cried.
The hut was filled with dark eyes watching—aunts, uncles, cousins. "They all ask me where he went," Bahram’s mother said. "I told him, you don’t have any money. You’ve never put a gun in your hands. Your father is not here. But he wouldn’t listen." Village elders came. They brought little pieces of paper with a name on each. Find my son, please, they asked. There are a hundred Rahmans here, Mohammed Razzaq said. "They aren’t terrorists. They are uneducated children who listened to a mullah give them the concept of heaven and hell. He deceived them under the name of Islam."
While the elders were shaking their heads, Faisal Rahman pulled out a picture of Bahram. It was in a silver frame and, covered with cracked glass. He carried it everywhere in his sack but usually kept it hidden. The elders admired it in silence. "You are trying hard, Faisal," Razzaq said finally. But all this has been written by God." Faisal Rahman put the picture back into his sack. He hugged Razzaq. As he walked away, he spun his hand up and pointed toward the sky, as if to say, heaven knows what will happen and heaven is on my side. Inshallah.
On November 19, 2001 Sufi Mohammed, the mullah who had recruited Bahram and the other boys from Gunbat Banda, was arrested by the Pakistani authorities along with 29 of his followers, near the Afghan border. He was sent to prison for seven years for carrying lethal arms and entering Pakistan illegally. Bahram remains in captivity.
2 – Justice takes on a different meaning in Afghanistan
by Sam Handlin, CourtTV, September 28, 2001
Banishment or public execution. These are the two punishments being considered for eight humanitarian aid workers on trial in Afghanistan for allegedly preaching Christianity. Experts say such judgments are commonplace in Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban enforce their power with a judicial system that bears little likeness to the legal structures of Muslim states in the Middle East, much less to Western practices. "It is not mainstream Islamic law or courts and it doesn’t seem to jive [sic] with anything we know," said Padideh Ala’i, associate law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. "I’m not qualified to read their minds and I don’t know anyone who is at this point."
The country has no codified statutes. Instead, its religious leaders – known as mullahs – produce occasional edicts on which activity is criminal and which punishments should be levied for infractions. For the crime of proselytizing, Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Muhammed Omar has given contradictory instructions; once he said offenders should be deported, and once he demanded their execution. When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, the leaders promised to produce a constitution that would spell out how sharia law – legal and cultural practices set out in the Koran – would be enforced. But the Taliban never wrote a constitution, and experts say the judicial system that has emerged is based more on tribal culture than Islamic practices, and enforced more for political than religious reasons.
"It’s kind of a folk culture interpretation of sharia law. It has as much grounding in cultural practices of a tribal society as in a religious approach," says Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska. Azizah al-Hibri, professor of Islamic law at the University of Richmond, Va., notes that every country in the Islamic world has a judicial system that reflects both native culture and religious dictates. "But the Taliban are caught in the culture of a day and age which is different from the modern world," she says.
In criminal proceedings, this usually amounts to a group of officials serving as prosecutor, judge and jury. They weigh the evidence on a largely ad hoc basis and proscribe [sic] punishments based on edicts from the Taliban mullahs. "This is rule by man rather than rule by law. The judicial system comes down to a group of elders and clergy making decisions," says Gouttierre. "And a lot of these people don’t have any schooling. There’s a lot of interpretive law based on personal judgments."
The system of punishment relies heavily on the doctrine of "an eye for an eye." The hands of thieves are cut off. Murderers are usually executed, with the kin of their victims dictating the means of punishment and sometimes even carrying out the sentence themselves. For crimes in which the punishment is not so clear, the Taliban’s mullahs convene to consider the proper sentence. "We have a dilemma on this," the Taliban announced in one edict concerning the case of two men found to be homosexuals. "The difficulty is this: One group of scholars believes you should take these people to the top of the highest building in the city, and hurl them to their deaths. [The other group] believes in a different approach. They recommend you dig a pit near a wall somewhere, put these people in it, then topple the wall so that they are buried alive."
These punishments are almost always public spectacles. Executions are often carried out in town squares, or, in the case of large cities, in sports stadiums. Laws in Afghanistan are enforced by the Taliban’s Ministry of Virtue and Vice, whose agents patrol the cities carrying whips and automatic rifles, looking for violators and making sure that people attend prayers at their mosques.
Experts say these draconian tactics serve to ensure law and order as much as to inculcate morality in the populace. Throughout their history, the Taliban have been fighting a civil war with a group of rebels called the Northern Alliance. With the risk of instability always present, the Taliban have tried to ensure their own survival by curtailing the possibility of civil unrest. "The judicial system is a tool of the regime, because they have a political agenda. They say that the law informs their program. I think their program informs the law," says al-Hibri. Afghans have no freedom of speech, press, assembly or association. There is no constitution, although leaders promised to enact one after seizing power. Instead, the Taliban’s mullahs have steadily produced edicts curbing freedoms. These restrictions address a wide assortment of activities.
It is illegal to possess photographs or a television. Nonreligious music is strictly prohibited, as is dancing. Kite flying was banned in one edict, because of its "useless consequences such as betting, death of children and their deprivation from education." But the harshest of all these prohibitions concern Afghan women. They are deprived of schooling and instructed to make themselves as invisible as possible by covering their faces and remaining indoors.
"Women, you should not step outside your residence," the mullahs ordered in another edict. "If you go outside the house you should not be like women who used to go with fashionable clothes wearing much cosmetics." All these restrictions combine with the country’s nearly nonexistent economy, experts say, to reinforce the sustainability of the Taliban’s legal system. With little social activity to speak of, and even less economic infrastructure, there is less need for a system of law that can regulate them.
"Afghanistan is no longer a country with a developed economy or social life," notes Tayeb El-Hibri, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts. "It doesn’t have the type of complexity that other Middle Eastern countries have regarding reconciling business or lifestyle practices with religion."
3 – Taliban Gay Torture Rumors May Incite Violence
Rainbow Network, September 26, 2001
Rumours are circulating in the media of the Taliban’s use of torture against gay men, as Muslim and religious groups warn against inflammatory reporting following the attacks in the US. The New York Post has said that the Taliban routinely kills gay men by lining them up against a wall which is felled to crush them. The paper reported that bulldozers then run over the victims. The paper went on to say that Taliban leaders rejected other execution methods involving pushing victims off cliffs or tall buildings.
The story refers to an incident that occurred over three years ago. The International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission reported in 1998 that five men were crushed by walls having been convicted of sodomy by the Taliban Sharia courts. The Taliban-controlled radio Voice of Sharia said that two men were "put under a wall" in Heratt. The killings were authorised by His Eminence Amirol Momenin. Lesbian and gay Muslim group Al-Fatiha has expressed concern against misleading news stories. In a statement, it said: "While lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Muslims mourn the tragic loss that the United States felt two weeks ago, we are alarmed at the increasingly negative rhetoric in the LGBT press and media that further perpetuates violence and discrimination against the Muslim community and other religious and ethnic minorities."
The group went on to cite the recent dramatic rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the US following the attacks in New York and Washington. It believes these events are partly due to incitement by the media. The Religion Newswriters Association has urged news agencies to reject articles that "associate an entire religion with the action of a few". The group issued a resolution asking reporters to "avoid stereotypes and be aware of the complexity of religious traditions and to use care in attempting to describe the motives of terrorists.
4 – Bombing Afghanistan: Breeding More Terror? Interview with lesbian Pakistani.
by Tim Kingston, San Francisco Frontiers, November 15, 2001
"Afghanistanism" used to be political shorthand for an issue so insignificant, unimportant and far away that it could safely be ignored. That attitude has come back to haunt the United States in a particularly horrible fashion. No longer can what goes on in Afghanistan or other less known areas of the world be ignored. Surina Khan, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) is in a unique position to comment on the ramifications of both the United States war on the people of Afghanistan and the Taliban’s own assaults on those same people. Khan was born 34 years ago in Pakistan to wealthy parents who eventually fled the country as a result of political instability and possible threats to their lives.
Growing up with her family in Connecticut, Khan at first tried to fit in and assimilate by abandoning her Pakistani heritage, a process that accelerated when she came out and rejected both her family and her culture as homophobic. But through the long roundabout process of coming out, she found herself both politically radicalized and drawn back to her familial and cultural roots, eventually reconciling with both. She began working with the South Asian queer community in the U.S., a decision that eventually led to her current IGLHRC position.
SF Frontiers recently spoke with Khan about her take on the war–as a queer, an immigrant and a progressive. Khan told us, "I came out when I was 21 and at that point was fairly conservative in my outlook, because I was raised in a conservative family that actively campaigned for George Bush senior. Through the process of coming out and dealing with my own internalized homophobia, I became more political and started on a path to be a progressive activist, and that took some time."
SF Frontiers: How did growing up in Pakistan and the United States affect your understanding of the current situation?
Surina Khan: Having grown up in two cultures, I have a deep understanding of what it is like for people in different countries. We in the U.S. live in a country that is very isolationist. Perhaps that has to do with the size of the U.S., but it is really important to understand people’s experiences outside of the U.S. I have lived outside of this country, and that has really informed my perspective.
Frontiers: How does that inform your view of the war?
Khan: When I woke up Sept. 11 and turned on the TV, I was completely shocked and could not believe what I was seeing. But I had a friend staying with me from Sri Lanka. I was wondering what to do. Should I close the office here? She said, "Close the office? No. A building has been bombed: go to work." That gave me perspective on what other people are used to living with. What happened in New York is horrible, horrific; we have all been affected. And yet we should realize that this is the kind of danger that people around the world live with on a daily basis. What we need to do is be reflective and ask, "Why are people so resentful about the U.S.? What is it about our foreign policy that is creating this hostility?" That is the kind of question we need to ask. Of course, I know the initial reaction is to want to … want revenge. But revenge will not provide a solution or justice; it will exacerbate the problem. It expands the potential for more violence.
Frontiers: How so?
Khan: Because that is not dealing with the root causes of resentment that people have for the U.S. We are bombing the poorest country in the world. Even if we were successful in wiping out all of the Taliban, there is still another generation of young people who are growing up. We are not wiping them out. By contributing to that resentment, we are just doing the Taliban’s work. We are perpetuating a continuous cycle of violence.
Frontiers: Is this a case of blowback – the law of unintended consequences – in the area of U.S. foreign policy?
Khan: By setting up Osama bin Laden and building the caves that he is hiding in, if the term is blowback, we are in the middle of experiencing it. The U.S. supported the rise of fundamentalism. It literally trained Osama Bin Laden when it was in U.S. interests to oppose the Soviet Union and communism without taking into consideration how it might affect the U.S. in the future. Now that it is in U.S. interests to oppose something they created, we are going in and bombing the shit out of the country. You would think they would know exactly where those targets are since they built them! I am also really deeply concerned about food drops. They are being dropped in areas that are mined. People are very hungry. I would like to know how many people have died from the food drops.
Frontiers: What is happening in Pakistan? Do you think there will be a coup?
Khan: I really don’t know. I can only speak from what I read and hear from my family there. I do think the possibility exists for a civil war or coup. There is enormous discontent in the population and among people in [the] military. The demonstrations against the war have only consisted of a few thousand people in a country of 140 million people, but it is a poor country where the first priority is feeding yourself and family – thus many do not go to a demonstration. There is an enormous amount of discontent about the way Musharraf is handling the situation in terms of partnering with the U.S. He has been clear he wants the bombing to be quick and to stop. He is in a bad position right now. I am not a person who generally says a military government is a good thing, but in this case his political position is more moderate than previous government’s [that] encouraged the rise of fundamentalism. It is a tricky situation where the military government is more moderate on issues that related to the human rights of women. That is not to say it is a good record, but it is better than the previous government.
Frontiers: What is the situation for South Asians and queers in general in that area?
Khan: The situation is not good. In Pakistan there is no visible LGBT movement, certainly not in Afghanistan. This whole war is bad for people who identify as anything other than heterosexual in Pakistan and Afghanistan for a number of reasons. It strengthens elements of nationalism that promote particular views of what is good and bad. In the U.S. that view would be white, Christian, heterosexual male and his subservient wife and children as being the only thing that is acceptable. In Egypt there are 52 men in prison who are being tortured and beaten for being gay. Egypt is the second largest economic recipient of U.S. aid [after Israel]. The U.S. used that economic relationship to get Egypt to join [the] war against terror, but did they use that to say you should stop violating the rights of these men? This whole war is serving to strengthen fundamentalist movements. If you draw a parallel between the Taliban, which is extremely Right Wing, and the Right-Wing movement in the U.S., there is a similarity. They are both opposed to the right of people to sexually identify and express themselves.
Frontiers: What do you do think of the recently passed USA Patriot Act?
Khan: I think it is horrible. It is a further violation of human rights we should have access to and enjoy. People are rightly fearful. We are worried about our safety and that of those close to us. But again, that immediate response needs to include longer-term thinking. Just rounding people up based on appearance or immigration status is wrong. It is … blatant racism. When it was McVeigh who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma, did we go out and start profiling Right Wing Christian white men?
Frontiers: What do you say to those who oppose the war, saying it is unpatriotic?
Khan: I think that when people say we are all in this together – yes, we are. But you have to think about "being together" as going beyond the borders of the U.S. Only through a strategy based on respecting other people from other nations will we truly achieve peace. From a strategic perspective, what we are trying to do is create a world where we all feel safe. I don’t believe that responding with more violence is getting us to that goal. I do believe that these people should be brought to justice. But there are other mechanisms in place. The International Criminal Court that the U.S. has opposed could be a tool for bringing people who commit acts of war to justice.
Frontiers: Was this an act of war or a criminal act?
Khan: It is a criminal act and should be treated as such.
Frontiers: There are people who argue that looking for explanations of why Sept. 11 happened is the same as justifying the acts. They argue such efforts remove responsibility from the perpetrators and put it on the United States.
Khan: If we don’t ask ourselves why, we will never get to the bottom of the very real problem. The responsible thing to do is to look inward and ask why it happened. That is not to say the terrorists’ act was justified. Their act was completely unjustifiable. But we don’t walk around thinking about the next attack. People I talk to don’t want to get to a place where bombs are just bombs. We don’t want bombs to become commonplace in our lives. The goal is freedom from violence. Will responding with more violence get us there? Or would we be better off asking … what we could have done to contribute to this violence? When there is conflict, I believe that one person is never entirely to blame, or one nation is ever entirely to blame. There is a climate of violence we have all contributed to. We have to respond in a way that is responsible and will make sure this does not happen again. I fear with continuing bombing we are not ensuring this will not happen again. We are continuing this tragedy. More people are dying, and how does that stop this from happening again?
5 – New Afghan rulers better for gays?
by Lou Chibbaro Jr., Washington Blade, December 21, 2001
Washington – The interim government scheduled to take office in Afghanistan on Dec. 22 will discontinue executions of people charged with sodomy and will likely adopt a more tolerant policy on human rights for gays, according to a spokesperson for the Northern Alliance, the Afghan military faction that fought against the Taliban. Haron Amin, who appears frequently on U.S. television news programs on behalf of the Northern Alliance, said Dec. 18 that leaders of Afghanistan’s newly installed interim government are outraged over human rights abuses by the Taliban regime and will embrace the principles of human rights. "This issue [of anti-gay persecution] would have to be brought up in a court," he said. "The Taliban killed people for all kinds of reasons, not just sexual orientation."
The international human rights group Amnesty International has documented cases where Taliban authorities executed men charged with sodomy by using military tanks to topple cement walls on top of them, crushing them to death. Amin said he could not predict how the new interim government would address specific human rights issues, such as anti-gay persecution, but said he was certain the government-sponsored abuses of women and minorities under the Taliban government would be discontinued. "The new administration will be much more tolerant," he said. Amin’s comments came as the Northern Alliance – in coordination with the U.S. bombing campaign – ousted the Taliban from power. The bombing was part of the U.S.-led war against terrorism that began after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Several leading Afghan political factions, including Northern Alliance members, reached an agreement to form a post-Taliban, interim government following a series of meetings last month in Bonn, Germany. The factions selected Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun tribal leader with strong ties to the West, as the interim government’s prime minister. Karzai is scheduled to take office Saturday, Dec. 22.
New leader more moderate?
Daniel Brumberg, a professor of government at Georgetown University’s school of international relations, said Karzai is known as a moderate who holds "secularist" views on the subject of religion and government. Brumberg said that while Afghanistan’s conservative, Islamic traditions would make it unlikely that Karzai would openly embrace gay rights, he said the changing conditions brought about by the ouster of the Taliban will enable Karzai to at least put an end to draconian practices such as summary executions of gays. "This will be a power-sharing government, so there may be a lessening of Islamic fundamentalism," Brumberg said. "But it won’t be a secularist state any time soon."
Since the United States began its war against terrorism in late September, gay rights advocates have expressed concern that many of the Arab and Islamic countries that signed on as coalition partners in the war routinely treat gays as criminals. For example, some coalition partners, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, have laws that call for the death penalty for sodomy, similar to the laws adopted by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Gay rights organizations, including the International Lesbian & Gay Human Rights Commission, said they recognize the need for the United States to align itself with Islamic and Arab nations in the war against terrorism. But they said the United States and other Western allies should use their relationship with Arab and Islamic countries to persuade those governments to improve conditions for gays.
Bonn accord will help
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International note that the so-called Bonn agreement, which established the framework for the interim government in Afghanistan, includes language calling for the establishment of an independent commission to monitor human rights and to investigate human rights violations. The agreement calls for the United Nations to assist the commission. "Amnesty International believes there is some good human rights language in the Bonn text that can be built upon in the future," said Alistair Hodgett, the group’s spokesperson. "References to human rights, social justice, international law, and the rule of law are particularly welcome."
Hodgett said that while the Bonn agreement is silent on the question of anti-gay persecution, he is hopeful that the agreement’s call for the establishment of an independent judiciary and the creation of a pluralistic democracy would lay the groundwork for curtailing persecution of minorities, including gays. The U.S. government also plans to cite the Bonn agreement as a means of encouraging the new Afghan government to respect the human rights of all groups, said Richard Boucher, a spokesperson for the State Department. In a press briefing on Dec. 14, Boucher said human rights "has been very much a part" of the U.S. effort to bring about change in Afghanistan. "After the horrible excesses of the Taliban and some of the others who have been in Afghanistan, I think Afghans themselves understand this to be a critical issue," Boucher said.
The human rights commission established under the Bonn agreement, Boucher said, calls on the new government to develop institutions to protect human rights. "And this remains an important goal of the United States," he said. Gay Muslims hopeful Faisal Alam, founder of the gay Islamic group Al Fatiha, said his group is monitoring the latest developments in Afghanistan and is cautiously optimistic that the climate for gays there will improve, at least somewhat. "We know the new government is likely to continue Islamic traditions," Alam said. "My feeling and my hope is the new government won’t kill gay people. But we are not likely to see gays supported." Alam said that while groups have formed over the years representing gays in a number of Islamic countries, he is unaware of the existence of any gay Afghan group.
The lack of such an organization, and the lack of any visible presence of a gay community in Afghanistan, means that those who favor improvements in the treatment of gays in Afghanistan must direct their attention "to our own governments," Alam said. "We should put pressure on the United States to take a stand on human rights for lesbians and gays in all countries, including Afghanistan," he said.
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which formed in the 1970s in opposition to the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, has called for a secularist government with a complete separation of church and state. Alam and Michael Heflin, director of Out Front, an Amnesty International project that monitors anti-gay persecution, said RAWA’s strong human rights positions and its outspoken efforts to end discrimination against women in Afghanistan make the group a potential ally for Afghan gays.
The group’s extensive writings on the Internet make no direct mention of gay rights. The group did not respond to an e-mail message seeking comment on gay issues. A Baltimore-based representative of RAWA, who is affiliated with the University of Maryland, did not return a call by press time.
Mixed record for Alliance
On its Web site, RAWA warns that the Northern Alliance and other Afghan military and political factions that have fought against the Taliban have themselves engaged in human rights violations against women and other minorities. "All of them have a [rifle] in one hand and the [Koran] in the other to kill, intimidate, detain and mutilate our people arbitrarily," an essay
on the RAWA Web site says.
The essay was especially critical of the Northern Alliance, saying its leadership was responsible, in part, for repressive policies against women prior to the Taliban takeover. Amin, the Northern Alliance spokesperson, said one or two of the seven factions that made up the Northern Alliance in the early 1990s engaged in human rights violations. He said the other factions condemned these abuses.
"Our policy has been to condemn, not condone, human rights violations," Amin said. "We support bringing to justice those who perpetrated human rights violations." Brumberg, the Georgetown University professor, said one of the Northern Alliance’s leaders, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was the recognized leader of Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover in 1997, is an Islamic fundamentalist who is believed to be responsible for some human rights abuses.
Brumberg noted that, with Rabbani’s allies playing a significant role in the new interim government, the issue of whether anti-gay persecution will end remains in question. "Most of the players come from factions and groups that don’t have a good record on human rights," Brumberg said. "So the best you can expect is that the new players will just ignore gay issues and will not continue with the excesses of the Taliban."
With Rabbani passed over for the post of prime minister in favor of Karzai, Brumberg said reports have surfaced that the interim government is considering appointing Rabbani as the head of a newly created Afghan Supreme Court. Such a court would be responsible, among other things, for hearing cases involving human rights abuses. To call for trials or investigations of past human rights violations, including the persecution of gays, "will open a can of worms for these new people coming to power," Brumberg said, because many of them have been involved in such violations.
"I can’t imagine in all of this there will be too much emphasis on gay rights," he said. "I can’t imagine there will be any emphasis on gay rights. But it’s possible that the new regime would at least curtail some of the abuses of gays and women that occurred in the past. That may be about all you could expect."