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Hamid Kharzai (file photo)
An internationally backed project considered vital to the success of Afghanistan's post-Taliban transition is "DDR," the "disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration" into civilian life of factional militia fighters across the country. RFE/RL's Laura Winter visited one DDR center in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad to see how the program is being implemented ahead of nationwide elections scheduled for September.
Jalalabad, 16 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A young Afghan militia man, Gul Azab, enters the barracks slowly as he approaches Musleh, a turbaned 70-year-old tribal elder sitting at a table piled high with files.
Musleh begins slowly, asking the soldier for personal information before moving on to deeper questions about Gul Azab's village to confirm his identity. This is the first step in returning Gul Azab to civilian life.
The young soldier said it was because his father was a commander that two years ago he took up a gun and joined the Afghan Militia Forces. He says he is now ready for a change.
"Everyone became poor from the gun, from the military, because there is no law," Gul Azab says. "Everyone wants to work. No one really wants to be in the military. Even I want to leave the military."
While this scene appears simple on its face, it is more complicated in reality. Gul Azab's unit is officially under control of the Defense Ministry, but it is actually under the command of Hazrat Ali, considered the strongest power broker in Jalalabad and four provinces in eastern Afghanistan.
Disarming the men serving under Hazrat Ali and others, like Herat Governor Ismail Khan in the west and Mohammad Atta in the north, is widely regarded as the key to Afghanistan's success. Coalition forces, the United Nations, and the Afghan government are forcing these warlords to submit to a program called Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration.
The program's acronym, DDR, is on the lips of many of the local soldiers here. Samantha Perera, the United Nations' regional DDR manager in Jalalabad, says the soldiers and the press misunderstand just what those letters represent.
"A lot of people here know this word called 'DDR.' It's not an acronym for them. It's a word, you know. For us it's an acronym. But for Afghans, it's a word -- DDR -- just like [any other word]. And so it is my challenge to actually go to people and tell them what is DDR. For them DDR is that somebody will come and take your weapons," Perera says. "So I have to keep telling them, keep stressing it's not about weapons. It's about jobs. It's about a new life. You know, I mean this country has so many weapons, I don't think this turning in of new weapons is going to make such a big difference. You know, but this is a chance for you, you know, to start a new life."
Nangrahar Province Governor Haji Din Mohammad says the transition for Hazrat Ali and his men will be difficult, but not impossible. He said the main challenge will not be to convince Hazrat Ali and his fighters that disarming is the way forward, but rather to make sure the young men under their command can find enough work to keep them in civilian clothes.
"It will be a problem for this. If it is a problem, then it belongs to the government or belongs to the DDR program, how to make it comfortable for them to change their life, and how they can be satisfied with the new situation, to make them busy or [provide] some other interesting work," says Din Mohammad.
Behind the blue gates of Perera's DDR compound, located across the street from the militia unit's main building, is a series of buildings designed to take a militia soldier, step by step, into civilian life. Before a soldier can enter the compound, he must hand over a serviceable firearm to a Mobile Disarmament Unit, usually deployed inside the militia's barracks. If the gun doesn't work, the militia soldier will be barred from entering the program.
"So [the militia member] comes to the gate, somebody will specifically check that day pass and he will walk in,” Perera says. “And there is a path he will follow to go to this building called [the] briefing room, where he actually will take an oath, witnessed by [officials]. He will swear to be, you know, a peaceful man, a civilian, not take up arms again and come back to civilian life, basically."
The soldier also receives a medal of honor and a certificate of gratitude signed by Chairman Karzai, before moving on to the next building.
Inside the "demobilization" room, 12 caseworkers interview former soldiers, recording their answers on computer. The caseworkers will then discuss with each of these men the employment options open to them.
If they are willing and fit, some may be able to join the Afghan National Army or the National Police. If they choose to remain out of uniform, they can opt to be a farmer, a skilled craftsman, a small business owner, or a mine-clearer.
"And then he'll go to the other end of the compound where he will get his food allowance,” says Perera. “It's part of the package. He gets a big sack of wheat, some beans and oil, it's supposed to be good for about a month, donated by the [World Food Program]. And then he is also given as a symbol, he is given a 'shalwar chamise,' civilian clothing."
Gul Azab, newly married with a 6-month-old daughter, says he is ready to try a new life: "Basically, I can work as work as a driver, but I can work as a farmer too. And also maybe I can manage a small business."