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'Kept In A Cage' -- Citizens Of Herat Describe Life Under Ismail Khan

Ismail Khan
Ismail Khan
HERAT, Afghanistan -- Shortly before he was due to attend the Loya Jirga national assembly last June, Alhaj Mohammad Rafiq Shahir says he was arrested, thrown in jail, and beaten for two days for criticizing the provincial government of Herat, led by Governor Ismail Khan.

Shahir, the director of a "shura," or local council of professionals, in the western Afghan city, was ultimately released and allowed to attend the Loya Jirga, but he wouldn't comment further on his detention. Despite what he called "cold relations" with the provincial government, he is still willing to speak his mind about what he sees as abuses of power by Ismail Khan.

"From our point of view, the provincial government, especially Ismail Khan himself, should refer to the people and consult them. It is not a good thing that he has power all to himself. All of us are thinking of a bright future and a better life for Afghanistan, but the problem is that Ismail Khan makes decisions by himself," Shahir said.

An RFE/RL correspondent recently spent four days in Herat and discovered an orderly city that has been rebuilt following the devastation incurred during Soviet bombing in 1979. Traffic lights work. Tall pines, their needles powdered with dust, line paved streets. A new library is being built in the city center. Parks are plentiful, and many public buildings appear to have fresh coats of paint.

But beneath the tidy facades, Herat is governed by a climate of fear and fundamentalism. Nearly all the city's women are covered in burqas. Wedding parties have been banned in hotels and restaurants for fear of men and women mixing. Some 100 young women in the province are reported to have set themselves on fire this year in an effort to escape arranged marriages. Public criticism of the provincial government is virtually nonexistent. There is no independent press and no freedom to hold public meetings.

Political Repression, Torture

The correspondent's visit to the city came shortly after the release of a major report by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch presenting evidence and witness testimony alleging political repression, arbitrary arrests, and torture in the province -- some said to be ordered by Ismail Khan himself against minority Pashtuns.

Stocky, white-bearded Ismail Khan -- an ethnic Tajik -- commands a militia of some 25,000 soldiers that is considered to be one of the best-trained and -equipped private armies in Afghanistan.

Zama Coursen-Neff is one of the co-authors of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. She recently explained to RFE/RL why the organization decided to focus almost exclusively on Ismail Khan.

"Human Rights Watch has also done research about human rights violations in the north and in the south [of Afghanistan], but we picked Herat for [this study for] a number of reasons. One reason is that some of the security issues that are such a problem in the north and in the south are not present in Herat. We picked Herat, in part, because Ismail Khan has brought more security to the region but at the same time has demonstrated what happens when you put power in the hands of a warlord.

"Since he gained control of that area, he has been incredibly repressive to the people that live under his control. In some ways, it's a bit of a prediction of what can happen to other parts of Afghanistan. In other ways, it's a good place to look at because it is considered one of the worst areas in Afghanistan for women's human rights and because there is such a range of repressions of civil and political rights in Herat," Coursen-Neff said.

'Come And See'

A spokesman for Ismail Khan, Nasir Ahmad Alawi, told The Associated Press after the report was released earlier this month that the provincial government respects human rights. "We invite anybody to come and see for themselves," Alawi said.

RFE/RL made numerous attempts to interview Ismail Khan for this story, with no success. Alawi told our correspondent that he would grant RFE/RL an interview, but only if his comments were not broadcast in Dari or Pashto, the two major languages of Afghanistan. RFE/RL refused.

Shahir said his council is obliged to tell not only the provincial government but also the international community about abuses of human rights it witnesses in Herat. He said he himself gave testimony to Human Rights Watch for its report, and he complimented the organization on its findings.

"If we consider some cases regarding violations of human rights, not only we will mention it to the provincial government, but also we want to reflect it further [to the international community] in order to pave the ground for human rights to be implemented here. And, of course, Human Rights Watch is an independent organization which came to Herat and did many interviews with people and has written about some issues in its report. And it mentioned the problems I've had and [also] the [Herat] Professional Shura. We think it has done an independent study," Shahir said.

Shahir said the atmosphere in Herat is such that he could not speak further about the HRW report for fear of repercussions.

Ismail Khan is reported to be angry about the HRW report. In a speech on 12 November, he referred to Afghans working for human rights groups as "spies" under foreign pay, and said ominously: "We believe that those who provided the allegations in the report on human rights are among us. And I can simply take that brother's hand and stand him in front of your eyes."

The 15th-century minarets in Herat
In the same speech, he also urged those in attendance to take immediate action, as part of a "jihad," or holy struggle, against any wrongdoers or opponents of Sharia Islamic law. "[Some] immoral people are trying to lead our society toward immorality. There is no need to take [these people] to the police station or to the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. Why don't you [yourself] prevent some of our brothers and sisters from committing actions which are against our religion, our country, and Sharia [law] in some of the shops or in other parts of the city," Ismail Khan said.

'Very Worrying'

In an interview with RFE/RL on November 14, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called Ismail Khan's comments "very worrying" and said he did not understand his motivations for saying such things.

"Haroon" is an educated man who lives in Herat. He agreed to speak to RFE/RL only on the condition that neither his real name nor his profession be mentioned and that the interview be conducted in seclusion.

Haroon noted Herat's parks, paved roads, and painted buildings, but said that it is all window dressing, that the province's real problems are being ignored.

"It becomes clear that whatever Ismail Khan does is only for his own interests. For example, when is he going to build a park, it is only for his own political interest, rather than the public interest. He builds parks to show foreigners who come to Herat that everything is OK and that reconstruction is going on. [At the same time,] there are no oxygen tanks in the hospital for the patients. Most of the hospital's equipment is old, and patients die," Haroon said.

Ismail Khan, respected for leading a decade-long guerrilla war against the Soviets after Moscow invaded in 1979, is credited with bringing security and order to Herat. But Haroon said such stability is largely symbolic.

"The only thing accomplished by Ismail Khan is that he has prevented [the actions of] some thieves by using other thieves, so there is only symbolic security. But what can one do with such security when there is no mental and psychological peace? It clarifies that we are deprived of the freedom of expressing our ideas. What bigger cruelty can there be? It is true that they feed us, but we are kept in a cage out of the reach of the cat," Haroon said.

Searching For An Alternative

Haroon said Afghans in Herat do not enjoy the civil liberties enjoyed by citizens in Kabul. Male teachers, he said, can't wear neckties to class, female students are segregated and are only taught by female teachers, and Islamic lessons are now taught more frequently in school. He said the people of Herat are searching for an alternative.

"Since [Ismail Khan] doesn't have any rival in Herat, there's not a person to replace him. If there really was someone who could replace him or oppose him, I can say that most of the people would support [that person] because Ismail Khan has monopolized the government, and no one is given the right [to do anything]," Haroon said.

"Karim" is a member of a fledgling movement in Herat called the Democracy and Freedom Council of Afghanistan. He also did not want his real name or occupation mentioned because he said he fears for his life for speaking with RFE/RL.

Karim said there are four democratic parties working in collaboration in Herat. He said they operate in secret because Ismail Khan does not tolerate such activities.

"[Ismail Khan] cannot tolerate any kind of [open] discussion. As yet, we have not been able to meet with him and to say that we are functioning as democratic groups in this part of the country. We know that there is not an open atmosphere [in Herat], and we believe that if he is aware of such activity, then he will definitely arrest whoever [is behind it] and act violently.

"Not only does Ismail Khan not allow us to work, but he also responds very sternly to such democratic groups. We are living in a vacuum. It's better to say that we are living in a sort of stranglehold," Karim said.

Karim said he believes the people of Afghanistan want democracy for their country and do not support what he called Ismail Khan's policies of social, religious, and ethnic discrimination. He said Ismail Khan's actions are preventing the central government in Kabul from fulfilling its mandate.

"The world and [the people of Herat] know that this [area] of Afghanistan has become an obstacle in the implementation of the policies of the central government. And [the provincial government] does not want strong steps to be taken in this regard. The world has decided that Afghanistan should have peace and democracy, which is the dominant system in the world. But unfortunately, this part [of Afghanistan] is an obstacle, and I think the world is trying to collect such evidence from this region," Karim said.

Karim said his movement also does not fully support Karzai's current presidency, since Karzai was appointed to his position, not democratically elected. Democratic elections are scheduled to be held in Afghanistan only in 2004.

Stifling Atmosphere

The Tawhid School is a primary school for some 1,000 boys and girls in Herat. As the children played outside, the school's director, Mahmoud, told RFE/RL about a recent dispute he had with the provincial government.

Mahmoud said he was asked by local radio and television to create a series of four educational programs. One of them was called "Hour of Prayer."

"Our school had a program, and during this hour, all students of this school, including girls, Shias, and Sunnis, would gather in a large room and would pray together. We recorded around two to three seconds of some parts of the prayer to show that Afghan society was heading toward national unity. As soon as it was broadcast, the directors of the TV station were very angry, and from that night on, they decided to stop the program. They said it is not [their] policy that Shias and Sunnis appear together on TV," Mahmoud said.

Mahmoud lamented the stifling atmosphere that persists in Herat despite the fall of the Taliban one year ago.

"We suffered a lot during the six years of the Taliban here in Herat. Once, we were even arrested by them because we had taken boys and girls together on an educational trip. We suffered a lot. And we hope that today's society will be much different from the previous one.

"It should be much more open. A wider range of activities should be allowed in the new society. There should not be any sort of discrimination, and the authorities and officials who are going to work should be clean of all sorts of discriminatory behavior," Mahmoud said.

Despite the repressive society he described in Herat, Karim said he is optimistic that positive change will come. It is, he said, inevitable. "Knowing that Ismail Khan cannot resist the decisions of the world, we can say that the situation will change in Herat. And then we can spread democracy, which is the desire of the people in an open society. And [Ismail Khan's] people will not remain until elections. They have to be removed -- this obstacle has to be removed -- until the people are able to elect whomever they want," Karim said.

Earlier this month, President Karzai dismissed some 20 civil and military officials after accusing them of corruption, drug trafficking, and abuse of power. Without mentioning names, Karzai told a seminar of Afghan judges that many Afghan governors, commanders, and security officials are killing people, looting, fighting, and causing problems for women and children.

"If they do not improve," Karzai said, "then I will sack them."

RFE/RL's Herat correspondent Ahmad Behzad contributed to this report
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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.