All is not well, fiery Afghan politician says

In talk at City College, outspoken lawmaker says warlords and drug lords are killing her country.

The Sacramento Bee, April 18, 2007
By Stephen Magagnini - Bee Staff Writer

Malalai Joya in Sacramento City College
Malalai Joya, at 28 the youngest member of the Afghan legislature, argues vociferously for human rights. As a result, she has been the target of four assassination attempts, she says.
Sacramento Bee/José Luis Villegas

Malalai Joya brought her struggle for justice and democracy in her native Afghanistan to Sacramento City College on Tuesday.

The 28-year-old firebrand -- 5 feet tall and the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament -- earned a standing ovation from about 100 students and drew some tears after she tore into warlords, drug lords and corrupt officials she called a virus killing her country.

In the five years since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan brought down the repressive Taliban government aligned with al-Qaida, "I'm sorry to tell you Afghanistan is still chained to the fetters of the fundamentalist warlords, like an unconscious body taking its last breath," Joya said during an afternoon talk.

The incendiary in a charcoal suit said the U.S. government "pushed us from the frying pan into the fire and selected its friends from among the most dirty and infamous criminals of the Northern Alliance, sworn enemies of democracy and human rights, as evil and cruel as the Taliban."

Little of the $16 billion in U.S. aid that has flowed into Afghanistan since 2002 has made it past corrupt officials and nonprofit groups, Joya said.

"Seven hundred children and 50 to 70 women die daily because of lack of health services," she said. "Half the people live in poverty, and life expectancy is less than 45 years."

Joya is one of 68 women in the 248-member Parliament. She claims many legislators are puppets of warlords and drug kingpins who have pushed Afghanistan's opium production to record highs.

Melody Ermachild of Berkeley, an expert on Afghan women, introduced Joya, noting, "The Afghanis are not ready for her, but ready or not, here she comes."

Joya's activism flowered in refugee camps in western Afghanistan, where, as an eighth-grader, she began teaching women to read and write.

When she was elected in 2003, poor women in her native province of Farah "gifted me with their wedding rings and their tears, and their husbands gave me pieces of land and asked me to please build schools, a hospital and a clinic."

In Afghanistan, those who try to hold rapists and corrupt officials accountable often pay with their lives, including two journalists who were recently beheaded, Joya said.

The compact woman with the big voice is known worldwide.

"She's a very good girl, she's smart and she talks the truth," said Ghulam Atebar, a respected Sacramento Afghan leader.

She was treated like a rock star by most Afghani students at Sacramento City College.

Shamsia Usufy, 18, said she was inspired to go back to Afghanistan to follow in Joya's footsteps, "but that would be a hard act to follow."

Joya's outspoken human rights campaign "is really radical," said history professor Holly Piscopo, adviser to the campus Peace and Justice Coalition, which brought Joya to Sacramento. Coalition President Hakeem Naim hopes to raise money for Joya's women's clinic and school -- and for her six bodyguards.

Joya said she's been the target of four assassination attempts. Last year, gunmen shot up her Kabul office.

Her friend Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission of Los Angeles, said: "Every year I meet her I'm afraid it's the last time. She's hated by the warlords in power, and she's loved by the majority of her people."

Joya is also delivering a message most Americans don't want to hear, Kolhatkar said.

"She's here to raise our awareness because Americans have this totally wrong impression that everything in Afghanistan is OK."

On Tuesday the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C., chose not to rebut Joya.

"In a democratic society she's entitled to say what she wants, but we aren't going to comment directly," said spokesman Joshua Gross.

Not all the Sacramento City College students agreed with Joya.

"I agree with U.S. policy in Afghanistan," said 21-year-old Ahmad Jawad. "We have peace and our economy is growing and this is due to America. During the Taliban I didn't have my own identity, and now I have my identity back, due to America."

History professor Riad Bahhur said Joya is "sometimes accused of not being Muslim enough" by some Afghani Americans.

Because she's the main voice of dissent and Afghan reporters are afraid to quote her, Bahhur said, "these trips abroad are really important for her to get her message out."

Joya said her opponents may be counting the days to her death, but "what matters is whether my living or dying has any effect on others."