Esquire: Death on the Iranian Border

Life in Afghanistan is so hard, people have been fleeing to Iran in search of jobs. But in doing so, some are paying the ultimate price.

November 5, 2007

ISLAM QALA, Afghanistan — The people of Islam Qala, a border town where Iran meets Afghanistan, say a man was killed here last night. He was making a run for Iran a few miles up, and they shot him. He will not make the news; with all the dying in Afghanistan and the black cloud of nuclear rhetoric hanging over Iran, there is little concern left for a man trying to travel in between.

The mass deportations started in the spring, thousands of Afghans rounded up and trucked to the border. 100,000 people in the first two months. Families were separated, stories surfaced of legal immigrants having their papers torn up, of beatings, intimidation, and theft. And still, Afghans are desperate enough for jobs in Iran to try swimming upstream.

“Afghanistan is a bad country because we don’t have any money, you can’t do anything.” Esmatullah is the driver dispatched to take me from Herat to Iran. He’s finely groomed and neatly dressed in jeans and a blazer; he could be selling slacks at Saks 5th Avenue. But people invest in dress because to make money here you have to look like you have it, and despite the means suggested by his outfit, waiting at home for Esmatullah is a sick wife whose medication he cannot afford. He has a son as well, two-year-old Navid. “It means good times,” he says. Whether the boy’s name was divined before, after, or — my best guess — during conception, he won’t say.

And so we find ourselves in an old car with a cracked windshield and broken air conditioner, cruising westward through the desert, past the ruins of castles built centuries ago and refugee camps built within my lifetime. There is no human presence for as far as the limits of human vision — and the mountains miles away — allow us to see, only the empty, weather-beaten encampments whose color so resembles that of the terrain they seems to have risen from the earth in a single moment of terrestrial agitation.

Then there is a girl, not more than nine years old, wearing a red dress and walking alone in front of the walls. Her dress tugs at her as the wind tugs at it, pulling her forward faster than she’d like to go so that she has to lean back into the wind. So much life having already moved through these refugee camps, her presence appears purely spectral.

“You are lucky,” Esmatullah says. “You have a nice city. See my city, my country?” He lowers his head; squints. “In your country, people are free. Do you know what it means, ‘free?’ It means you don’t have to do some actions because the government says. We can’t have girlfriend, womens can’t go out without chadr, do you know what it is, chadr? Womens can’t wear any clothes that they want.”

In the eyes of the Afghans, Iran’s society is free, its infrastructure sophisticated (and intact), and its opportunities attractive. And that the people on this side are called Afghan rather than Iranian is only arbitrary; one of the many geopolitical residues of the Great Game. The borders were drawn with a typically colonial disregard for ethnic nuance and an eye instead toward creating a buffer state between the Brits and the Tsarists, so now rival tribes share a national identity, while a family finds itself separated in two different countries. Here, Sunni Tajiks of the same parentage reside on either side of chain-links and razor wire.

As you move further west along the road to Iran, the pretext of an Afghan national identity withers, and Iran’s industrial reach presents itself. We drive toward the border on an Iranian-built road; we are escorted by Iranian-built power lines. In the distance, orange dump trucks glide across the desert as if they belong there. Esmatullah says that they’re building a railroad, that although Iran is kicking Afghans out they want to keep selling to Afghanistan. “It is the person that is, how do you say? Two-faced.” Still, Esmatullah would be in Iran at a moment’s notice if he could. “I wanted to leave Afghanistan but I couldn’t. The situation was very bad for learning, for business, I couldn’t finish school. It’s like a dream for me every time that I go somewhere, where I can learn new language, computer programs, but it’s a wish. How many countries have you been to?”

As we near Iran and the border towns, sand spilled from the desert creeps across the road. A man stands on the asphalt with his hands on a shovel. He lifts a pile of sand, flicks his wrist and lets the wind do the rest, carrying the cloud of swirling dust over the road. A small boy holds out his hand for alms. They’re not part of any government road maintenance team, they’re just Afghans jobless here and unwanted elsewhere, serving as a makeshift municipality borne from Afghanistan’s signature brand of desperate entrepreneurialism. But no one stops to pay; the child is an unintimidating taxman. The boy and the man watch us drive by.

We pass them at eighty miles per hour and we’d be going faster if we weren’t into the wind. The road is good, a rarity for this country, and we have it to ourselves. Then there is a car with Iranian plates brushing by us on the right, two wheels catching the sand and sending the car swerving; it fishtails for fifty meters, and then regains control and jets off, out of sight in an instant. A ripple of action on a piece of land devoid of life, through which people pass on their way somewhere else but seldom stay. “Maybe he is afraid of Afghanistan,” Esmatullah says with a smile. “He is an a rush to get home.” A few moments later, a border police pickup truck passes on the left.

For those conspiratorially inclined, Iran presents plenty of fodder. There was the shipment of hi-tech roadside bombs from Iran intercepted in Afghanistan last month, booty that had Western pundits wondering rhetorically how Tehran could possibly not know about weapons moving under their noses.

There is poetry in the accusations. Iran using Afghanistan to fight America the same way America once used Afghanistan to fight the Soviets — as a remote playing field where the enemy’s blood can be let by your weapons in someone else’s hands. And there is the curious pattern here; it is mostly men being deported through Islam Qala. Iran’s border with Afghanistan extends to Nimroz and Farah provinces, border crossings near no airport and accessible by no safe road. It’s nearly impossible for any journalist to get there to document soldiers pushing people from busses, and, whether by coincidence or not, those are the places where the women and children are let off.

The impact of a sudden surge of unskilled workers and resource — draining refugees on an already unstable country is predictable. There are no jobs for them. They can sweep sand from the road and watch people drive by. They can also join the insurgency, or fund it by farming poppy. It’s the West with its shoulder against the wall trying to keep the whole thing from toppling over, so we hear that all of it — the bombs, the mass deportations — are part of hot potato concocted by Iran to keep the international community distracted from its nuclear ambitions. Iran meanwhile asks why they should have to drain their subsidized health care and compound their own job shortage to accommodate Afghans, especially given that Western countries have effectively closed their doors to Afghan refugees. The government of Afghanistan maintains that their relations with Iran are amiable. From here, it looks like Iran has deflected the economic impacts of American-imposed sanctions onto one of America’s own clients.

There are a number of checkpoints as we near Iran. Soldiers open the trunk, they look through our things, Esmatullah shows them my ISAF press credentials, we move on. At one stop Esmatullah talks congenially to one of the officers, who lets us pass without a search. “It’s about security, to make sure there’s no bomb, but he’s my friend.”

When we reach the gates of the border, it is late afternoon, and it is quiet. Men walk into Afghanistan through the fenced-in corridor that connects the two countries, accompanied by porters carrying their bags who, for having been born on this side, will never see the other. There is an “Afghan Duty Free Shop.” Parked nearby is a bus that has “Tourism Germany,” written on the side. The guards swap out, carrying their dented teapots with them. We get out of the car, walk around, take pictures. Someone says 160 people were deported yesterday, but there is little happening now. We talk to some people, and then we turn around and head back to Herat.

On the way back, the sun is setting. The Herati sunset is Mother Nature’s muse to Persian poets, its charm inspiring greats like Jami, the last great lyricist in classical Persian. And everything on the way between Islam Qala and Herat is oriented toward Persia. The Iranian-built road; the Iranian-built power lines; the domed huts built for centuries with chimneys tilted westward to catch the wind from Iran for cooling; the makeshift antennas jerry-rigged to the roofs to grab Iranian television channels.

As we drive on with the sun fading behind us, cars begin pulling over. Their occupants climb out, lay their prayer rugs down on the side of road, and begin their bows toward Mecca. Which here in Afghanistan, is also toward Iran.


November 6, 2007 at 8:04 pm Leave a comment

AFP: Herat poet Nadia Anjuman remembered two years on

November 6, 2007

KABUL (AFP) — Two years ago police discovered the battered body of Nadia Anjuman, a young Afghan poet already known in literary circles for her poignant poems about the misery of being a woman in Afghanistan.
Police arrested her husband on charges of beating her to death in their home in the western city of Herat; he confessed to the assault but not to murder. Today the case is classified by the courts as “suicide.”
The death of the 25-year-old thrust her work into the spotlight and today her poems — written in the Dari language, which is close to Persian — have been translated into several languages.
They speak of the pain of Afghan women, trapped in a conservative culture torn apart by nearly three decades of war that were followed by the 1996-2001 rule of the extremist Taliban — known for their harsh treatment of women.
An extract from “Useless”, for example, reads: “Happy the day when I will break the cage/When I will leave this solitude and sing with abandon/I am not a weak tree that sways with every breeze/I am an Afghan girl and it is right that I always cry.”
Anjuman’s work evokes “a great sorrow directly linked to her status as a woman and an Afghan,” says Leili Anvar, a literature expert who has translated some of her poems into French.
Under the Taliban, girls could not go to school, women were barred from working and confined largely to their homes.
The removal of the fundamentalist regime has seen few improvements to the lives of most Afghan women, who suffer abuse and discrimination.
Women still chose to end their lives through self-immolation, including in Herat, an ancient city of two million people and known for its art, culture and literature.
Anjuman “was becoming a great Persian poet”, the head of the respected Herat Literary Circle, Ahmad Said Haqiqi, said at the time of her death on November 4, 2005.
Anvar, who has dedicated several pages of an upcoming anthology of Afghan poetry to Anjuman, agrees. “When one considers her age, the extreme maturity of her work is astonishing,” she says.
Anjuman “showed a great mastery of Persian free verse and of the music of language,” she told AFP.
One of the late poet’s professors at the University of Herat, Mohammad Daud Munir, says her work showed a “deep and comprehensive thought.”
“Her absence has left a gap in the literary community of Herat,” he said.
Anjuman’s first collection, “Gul-e-dodi” (“Dark Red Flower”), came out a few months before she died and while she was a university student.
The Herat Literary Circle has since released a second collection of 80 poems and her work is regularly published, Munir says.
Abroad, beside the publication due in France, Anjuman’s work has also been translated into English and Italian.
The memory of the young woman is fresh among those who were close to her.
Her best friend, Nahid Baqi, who studied with her at university, is bitter.
“Everyone wants to forget,” she told AFP. “There was pressure on the authorities to conclude that it was a suicide.”
Anjuman’s husband, Farid Ahmad Majeednia, who is the head of the Herat University library, says she has written only about the Taliban period and before she was married.
“All of her poems are a narration of sorrow and sadness which is a result of being imprisoned behind home walls,” says Majeednia, who is raising the couple’s young daughter.
“Now almost two years later, my hands and legs still tremble when I think of her death and her absence,” he says.
“After Nadia’s death lots of things have ended for me.”

November 6, 2007 at 7:58 pm Leave a comment

AFP: Afghan troops and ISAF repulse Taliban from Khak-i Safid district

HERAT, Afghanistan, Nov 5, 2007 (AFP) – Taliban extremists briefly captured a third district in western Afghanistan early Monday but were driven out by Afghan forces and their international allies, officials said.

Taliban fighters in about 40 vehicles stormed into Khaki Safed district in the province of Farah around 1:30 am and took the administration headquarters, police and government officials said.

“Government authorities, police and the governor made a tactical withdrawal of the district administration centre,” said General Ekramuddin Yawar, police commander for western Afghanistan.

“Later Afghan police, army and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) went back to the district and retook control at 3:30 am,” he told AFP.

Farah province, which borders Iran, had its Gulistan and Bakwa districts seized by Taliban rebels last week after intense fighting.

Yawar said the rebels had fired some rockets at the district administration building, which was slightly damaged, but there were no casualties to the government forces.

The Farah government spokesman, Mamnoon Rashidi, said it took 90 minutes for troops to take back Khaki Safed.

“Bakwa and Gulistan are in Taliban hands now. The forces are getting ready to retake control of those districts as well,” he said.

The Taliban, in government between 1996 and 2001, have previously overrun several districts in remote parts of Afghanistan but have been easily ejected with the help of the international forces on which the country relies.

They have, however, held the district of Musa Qala, close to Gulistan, since February and the area is considered a Taliban base.

President Hamid Karzai said at the weekend that the capture of remote districts was a result of the weaknesses of his own security forces.

The head of the Farah provincial council, Abdul Kader Daqiq, said his province had warned Kabul that the security forces were not capable of withstanding the Taliban.

“There are not enough police in these places and the army is not doing anything,” he said. “There is an emergency situation in Farah and the government should be careful.”

Farah is a strategic province in Afghanistan because of its border with Iran, across which opium and weapons are smuggled. A key road linking southern and western Afghanistan also runs through the province.

November 5, 2007 at 7:20 pm Leave a comment

Reuters: Taliban capture third district in Farah

By Sharifuddin Sharafiyar
Monday, November 5, 2007; 4:59 AM

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Taliban insurgents have captured a third district in western Afghanistan, local officials said on Monday, defying Western assertions the rebels are unable to mount large military offensives.

The hardline Islamist Taliban relaunched their insurgency two years ago to topple the pro-Western Afghan government and eject the 50,000 foreign troops, expanding their operations further from the mainly Pashtun south where they are strongest.

Western forces say the Taliban’s greater reliance this year on suicide and roadside bombs is a result of heavy battlefield casualties they and Afghan troops have inflicted on the rebels and the insurgents’ inability to hold ground.

But in the last week, the Taliban have captured three districts in the western province of Farah, bordering Iran, forcing lightly armed Afghan police to flee and defying Afghan and foreign forces to retake the lost ground.

First, Taliban rebels captured the Farah district of Gulistan a week ago, then on Wednesday took nearby Bakwa. On Sunday, the insurgents seized Khak-e Sefid without a fight.

“Khake-e Sefid district fell into Taliban hands yesterday without any resistance from Afghan forces,” Qadir Daqiq, a Farah provincial council member told Reuters. A provincial official who declined to be named also confirmed the report.

Taliban forces had been building up around Khak-e Sefid for some days, a Western security analyst said. The rebels in Farah have been receiving arms through a Taliban leader based close to the Iranian border, he said on condition of anonymity.

“There are many Iranians and Pakistanis fighting among the Afghan Taliban,” Farah provincial police chief Abdulrahman Sarjang told Reuters.


Afghan and Western officials have often said the Taliban’s ranks are reinforced with foreign fighters, but have said they have no proof of any assistance at an official level.

Poor morale among Afghan police meant that up to 38 officers had defected to the Taliban in the last week in Farah, the security analyst said, and those that remained were unwilling or unable to put up much of a fight.

“As soon as the Taliban attacked in numbers they did their best to make a tactical withdrawal — they basically got out of there as quick as they could,” he said. “Their motivation is not there to fight.”

Local residents have complained that NATO-led troops, under Italian command in western Afghanistan, have not helped Afghan forces to retake the districts.

“The residents are complaining that foreign forces do not assist Afghan troops to retake the districts,” Maolavi Yahya, district chief of neighboring Delaram told Reuters. “They have been complaining for a week now.”

As fighting in Afghanistan drags on, frustration is growing among ordinary Afghans that their government and its Western backers have not provided security six years after Afghan and U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 for not handing over al Qaeda leaders in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

NATO commanders admit they have a limited window in which to defeat the Taliban and provide much-needed development before the Afghan public turns against their presence and public opinion in the West, frustrated by growing casualties, calls for the troops to be withdrawn, handing victory to the insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Jon Hemming in Kabul)

November 5, 2007 at 7:07 pm Leave a comment

IRIN: Tehran expels 8,000 Afghans

HERAT, 5 November 2007 (IRIN) – The government of Afghanistan has called on Iran to stop deporting thousands of Afghan citizens without work permits or refugee status, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told IRIN on 5 November.

“Afghanistan is particularly vulnerable to any mass deportation during winter,” said Sultan Ahmad Baheen, a spokesman for the ministry, adding that the country lacked the capacity to integrate a large number of deportees.

In April and May this year, Iranian authorities deported thousands of Afghans – a move that caused a humanitarian problem for ill-prepared Afghanistan.

Iran slowed down the expulsions after the government of President Hamid Karzai, the UN and several other international organisations criticised the move and called for a more gradual deportation process.

However, Afghan officials in western Herat province, bordering Iran, say the deportations have restarted in the past 10 days, with at least 500 Afghans being sent home daily.

“Since 23 October, about 8,000 people have been deported from Iran to Herat province,” said Shamsuddin Hamid, director of the provincial department of refugee and returnee affairs.

The Iranian embassy in Kabul declined to comment on the issue.

Vulnerable deportees

Most deportees are young, single men who migrated to Iran mostly in search of employment and economic opportunities, aid agencies say.

Provincial officials, however, are concerned that hundreds of women, children and elderly people have also been evicted.

“There are deported women whose husbands still remain in Iran,” Hamid told IRIN. “There are also deported men whose children and wives are left in Iran,” he added.

UN agencies have helped Afghan authorities set up two transition centres in Nemroz and Herat provinces where deportees receive assistance and shelter for up to 48 hours. Some also receive help to reach their final destinations inside the country, according to the UN.

Refugees and “illegal migrants”

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says there are more than 900,000 registered Afghan refugees in Iran. The government has given assurances it will not force Afghan refugees to return home, UNHCR has confirmed.

However, the large numbers of Afghans who do not have refugee status and are considered illegal are not protected by UNHCR.

Since 2002, about four million Afghans – three million from Pakistan and about 850,000 from Iran – have been repatriated to Afghanistan with UN help, according to UNHCR.

Meanwhile, at least 35 people, allegedly with valid refugee identity cards, have also been deported to Herat in the past 10 days, provincial officials said.

Salvatore Lombardo, head of UNHCR mission in Afghanistan, said the organisation was verifying these reports.

Iran has reportedly ordered all foreigners, including thousands of Afghan refugees, to leave Sistan and Baluchestan province.

November 5, 2007 at 7:03 pm Leave a comment

IRIN: Women workers exposed to health risks in Herat factories

HERAT, 30 October 2007 (IRIN) – The Safi fur and wool factory, in Herat city, western Afghanistan, has more than 350 female and 300 male workers who earn only 300 Afghanis (US$6) for their 48-hour, six-day week. The factory produces coats, jackets, hats and other garments for the European and North American markets. There are more than 1,500 women working in four such factories in Herat city.

The air in the Safi processing plant is full of dust from dirty furs, which workers tear to pieces with their bare hands.

Jamila (not hear real name) has worked in the factory for more than a year and recently experienced an unrelenting pain in her chest. “First, I was coughing and now I feel a terrible pain in my chest,” the 32-year-old said.

“Doctors and medicine are expensive,” she said. The modes amount she earns helps to supplement the family income to help feed her four children.

Less than 2m away from where Jamila is working, her baby has fallen asleep on a thin piece of straw. Jamila brings her youngest son to the factory every day, because there is nobody to look after him at home.

Health risks

Workers have to separate fur from goats’ hair and weave sheep’s wool without protective gloves or masks.

Ahmad Zia Rahmani, a lung and chest diseases specialist at the Herat city hospital, says workers in fur and wool factories are vulnerable to virulent microbes, which harm the respiratory system and cause chest infections.

“Sheep’s wool and goats’ hair usually contain harmful bacteria which can easily be transferred to a human via close contact and inhalation,” Rahmani said.

Mothers who regularly breastfeed their babies and consume food at the factory can also transfer dangerous microbes to their children if they do not wash their hands with antibacterial soap, Rahmani added.

In the past year, at least seven female workers died due to respiratory and chest diseases, workers and factory officials said.

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA) said it would send a delegation to Herat to assess and report on the situation of female workers in factories there, after IRIN approached the ministry for a comment.

“We will make sure appropriate measures are adopted to improve the situation of workers,” said Ghulam Gaus Bashiri, a deputy minister in the department.

According to Bashiri, a revised draft labour law has been submitted to the National Assembly for approval, which has “many benefits for female workers”, including maternity leave, equal wages for men and women and a light working regime for women during pregnancy.

No medical insurance

According to Afghanistan’s labour law, public and private employers should provide medical insurance to employees who work in hazardous environments.

However, there are too many hurdles – including poor law enforcement institutions, lack of awareness about women’s rights and conservative traditions – which constrict the law on paper with weak or no practical power.

Almost all workers in factories in Herat province have no written contract with their employers, particularly in the private sector. Workers and employers have only verbal agreements, which do not cover medical and hazard insurance.

In the past 12 months, seven women workers of the wool and fur factories in Herat have died due to respiratory diseases and chest infections, workers and Mohammad Ibrahim Ghafori, an official at the Safi factory, said.

Workers’ health problems have been compounded by their inability to afford medical checks and treatment.

There is no legal imperative for employers to offer assistance to their workers in need of medical treatment.

“We are not in a position to offer medical insurance or any financial assistance for health problems. We tell this to our workers before they start a job with us,” said Mohammad Ibrahim Ghafori, an official for the Safi wool and fur factory.

Some workers, meanwhile, acknowledged that they are exposed to health hazards in the factory but said lack of employment opportunities and economic needs force them to accept the risk.

November 4, 2007 at 9:04 pm Leave a comment

Ottawa Citizen on Humaira Habib of Radio Sahar

How media bolster still-fragile freedoms: Ousting the Taliban was just the beginning

Don Butler
The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Four years ago, Humaira Habib didn’t even know what a radio studio was. Today, she manages Afghanistan’s only women’s community radio station, Radio Sahar, reaching a potential audience of 700,000 in the city of Herat.

Along the way she’s had to overcome stiff resistance from authorities in Herat province, and even threats of imprisonment. She’s also witnessed the murder of female colleagues who dared become journalists.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, progress has been steady if slow. “Now we are really happy,” she said yesterday during a panel discussion on the media and democratic development sponsored by the International Development Research Centre.

“We can broadcast and produce any kinds of programs on our radio station.”

In a country in which most people are illiterate and access to electricity is far from universal, radio is the most accessible and popular mass medium.

Radio Sahar opened in 2003. At first, it was hard to find women willing to speak on the radio. “Now it’s easy, because they really like to talk about different issues,” said Ms. Habib, who became station manager in 2005.

Initially, the non-profit station broadcast just two hours a day. It now broadcasts 13 hours daily and produces more than 40 weekly programs. Of the 15 staff members, 11 are women, including all the top staff.

Radio Sahar remains an anomaly in Afghanistan, whose media are otherwise dominated by men. The station, says Ms. Habib, “is a symbol to all women that they can do things they weren’t allowed to do before.”

Another panelist, Mathatha Tsedu, editor of South Africa’s Daily Press, said press freedom has improved since the fall of apartheid, but not as much as outsiders might think.

Many laws restricting the free flow of information from the apartheid era have been retained, he said, even though they conflict with constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression.

As well, some of those who fought apartheid and who are now in government “became easily irritated when media criticized their work, insinuating that because they fought for freedom they should thus be trusted to protect it,” Mr. Tsedu said.

“As media professionals, we accept that freedom is never won, but forever defended.”

Mr. Tsedu said South African editors have launched a campaign called “Media Freedom is Your Freedom,” to help the public understand that “media freedom is their freedom to receive credible information that helps them make decisions about their lives.”

Mr. Tsedu said journalists’ mission must be to represent the powerless and the voiceless. If they fail to do so, “we sell out the ideals on which journalism is based.”

That role is especially important in a world of instant information, where the powerful and the wealthy are able to shape people’s perceptions by getting their views out first.

November 3, 2007 at 8:13 am 1 comment

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