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Afghan Aid Worker Not Blind To Taliban Threats

Naimatullah Rekazai, director of Afghanistan Blind Migration, a nongovernmental organization, fears any day could be his last.
Naimatullah Rekazai, director of Afghanistan Blind Migration, a nongovernmental organization, fears any day could be his last.
Naimatullah Rekazai maintains a comfortable distance between himself and his twin son and daughter.

That's because the 37-year-old Rekazai, blinded by a mine explosion during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, doesn't plan on being around for long.

Rekazai is already living on borrowed time. It was in July that he received a letter from the Taliban threatening him with death if he did not stop his work providing women with job-skill training. The deadline given in the letter, August 21, has already passed, leaving Rekazai expecting a Taliban assassin at "anytime, any place."

"If I tell you the truth, I am under psychological pressure. In the past, I worked for eight hours but now working for two or three hours is difficult. Similarly, I get very little sleep at night," Rekazai says. "When my children talk to me, I feel saddened and I tell myself: 'You are going to die. You will be killed. Do not endear yourself to the children so much that they will feel your absence bitterly. They will suffer more.'"

The Taliban is well known for acting on its threats, and Rekazai is afraid every time he moves around his hometown, Mehtarlam. This small mountainous town serves as the capital of eastern Laghman Province and responsibility for its security was recently transferred to Afghan forces.

More And More Serious Threats

It's Rekazai's work for the Afghanistan Blind Migration, a nongovernmental organization that Rekazai has directed since its founding in 2002, that incurred the Taliban's wrath. This small NGO works to improve the lives of impoverished women and the disabled by providing training for carpet weaving, tailoring, and other skills. A U.S.-funded course that teaches women how to use computers is a particular point of pride.

Rekazai first received threats this spring. Unknown telephone callers initially requested that he shut down his projects. Soon the phone calls turned threatening, and he was warned that his life would be in danger if he failed to comply with the orders of local Taliban commanders.

The letter sent by Taliban militants to Naimatullah Rekazai, complete with official seal.
Rekazai initially dismissed the threats as an effort by jealous locals who merely wanted to shut down his organization. But on July 6 he received a letter complete with the stamp of the Taliban General Intelligence Directorate.

The handwritten Pashto-language document features the letterhead of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the formal name for the Afghan Taliban organization. It was apparently intended to dispel any doubts he may have had on the seriousness of the threat, and tells him to obey what he was told on the telephone. It gives him until August 21 to comply with the Taliban demands. "After that date, [consider] every moment the final moment of your life. It [death] can come anytime, any place."

Helping Women

Rekazai says that the Taliban accused him of being a U.S. agent who was helping the Central Intelligence Agency track their fighters. Such accusations continued despite his efforts to distance his organization from the local Provincial Reconstruction Team, a Western military/civilian body that funded some of his projects

He says that the Taliban's main aim is to stop him from helping and training women, because the Taliban considers the empowerment of women a threat to its political and social influence and ability to recruit new fighters.

Rekazai says that in the course of his conversations with the Taliban, the insurgents did offer to allow him to continue working, but only after agreeing to aid their jihad.

"They asked me to agree to transfer their war wounded or those who face threats to their safety in our vehicles. They told me that they would tell me where to take such people. They said, 'Your vehicles will not be searched, as everybody knows you in Laghman,'" he says. "I refused to do that. Then they asked me to agree to move their explosives and arms around. Again they said, 'Your cars will not be searched and you can easily move around.' But I refused that, too."

Rekazai is clearly popular with the people he helps. Middle-aged Zarghona, a mother of three, thanks him for providing her with training in weaving traditional Afghan carpets. She now heads a local association of 50 women carpet weavers.

"He is a very nice and kind man. He has helped hundreds of women like me to find employment," Zarghona says. "He recently told me about the threats he has received. He is being accused of helping women and prompting them to stray from the acceptable norms of behavior. We are very sad to see his troubles."

Can Afghan Security Be Trusted?

Rekazai, like many Afghans, has little trust in the ability of the Afghan authorities to protect him. He doesn't want to rely on assurances from Afghan officials. "They will tell you: 'Keep silent, we will arrest whoever is responsible for threatening you.' But most often people under threat are killed," he says.

Rekazai refuses to back down to the insurgents. Will it cost him his life?
As head of Laghman Province's Economy Ministry, Mohammad Agha Mobariz oversees the work of nongovernmental organizations. He says that Rekazai's organization has helped widows and disabled in the region and his work has won praise from locals, government officials, and foreign donors. Mobariz has advised Rekazai to consult Afghan security institutions for protection.

Rekazai, however, thinks that making his case to the public through the media will be more helpful than relying on Afghan security forces, who often fail to protect themselves from insurgent attacks.

Still, he thinks nowhere in Afghanistan is safe for him. He wants to continue his projects in Laghman but is considering relocating to another country to keep safe. Rekazai says that if he shuts down his organization, it will establish a precedent that extremists can copy throughout Afghanistan.

"If we cower before such pressures, our homeland will once again be in the hands of the terrorists," Rekazai says. "They will not allow our people to get education. They will exploit their ignorance and the whole world be anxious because of that."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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