One woman's words defy might of Afghan warlords

Daily Telegraph (UK), July 14, 2004
By Hamida Ghafour

The most powerful warlords in the country call her a communist and in Afghanistan that is enough to seal a death warrant.

But Malalai Joya, 25, who runs an orphanage and health clinic, refuses to give up her crusade to rid the country of what she calls "warlords and criminals" involved in drug trafficking, land seizures, rape, and looting of houses.

"Our government can't recognise that we have people with dark backgrounds," she said in Kabul where she has been in hiding after her home in the western province of Farah was ransacked by soldiers.

"These people should be taken to court. The destruction of this country can speak for itself. The walls, the houses, the children, the people can recognise their enemies."

Miss Joya has become feted as a heroine in a country where ordinary people live under the rule of the gun. She speaks at rallies, inspires debates on radio talk shows and even has a website dedicated to her called "Defend Malalai Joya!". Her fame has gained her audiences with President Hamid Karzai and his cabinet.

This week, armed with petitions and video testimony of ordinary Afghans documenting human rights abuses in her province, she and a delegation of 50 tribal elders managed to persuade Mr Karzai to dismiss the governor of Farah, a former Taliban commander. "I am so happy he is finally gone," she said.

Miss Joya became famous during the constitutional loya jirga last January when, as an elected delegate, she gave a speech in front of the gathering of tribal elders against the warlords. Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an influential mujahideen leader, called her a communist and infidel.

The United Nations gave her four armed bodyguards because it was feared she would be killed. She has refused to keep quiet even though her clinic and orphanage have been attacked, and she receives daily death threats and warnings of suicide attacks against her family.

"I have seen too many sorrows and I have no fear in my soul anymore," she said. "My relatives told me to come to Kabul because they were scared for my life.

"I'm sleeping in a different house every night and I have cars with blacked out windows following me everywhere."

Mr Karzai is facing his own showdown with the nine most powerful commanders.

Between them, they control approximately 60,000 soldiers and he has said they present a greater threat to Afghanistan's security than the Taliban insurgents.

Yesterday Mr Karzai ordered the nine to report to Kabul and threatened to punish them if they refused to give up their private armies.

Among the commanders summoned to Kabul are Ismael Khan, who is also the governor of the western province of Herat, Mohammad Atta, the Armani-wearing northern leader, and the whisky-loving Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Commanders have been reluctant to give up their armies because of doubts about the long-term commitment of the outside world, said Hafiz Mansoor, editor of the newspaper Mujahideen's Message. "America could decide after their elections that they don't want to commit soldiers and resources. We are not going to get support forever. Then who would defend the country if the Taliban came back?" he asked.

In any case, Mr Karzai's threats are empty. His national army has only 10,000 soldiers and officers and the Americans are unwilling to back him for fear of sparking a civil war, said a senior United Nations official.

"They are not willing to rock the boat because they don't want Afghanistan in the news before the American elections," said the official. By the time of the Afghan presidential election on Oct 9, 60 per cent of the militia groups have to be disarmed as part of a 97 million UN programme. So far, only 18 per cent have given up their guns.

The programme has become such a farce that as the UN tries to disarm military units, senior figures in the defence ministry who have their own armies order the commanders to re-recruit men and weapons.

"If the government is not tough on these people maybe they will lose their credibility," said Miss Joya.

"Those people will be in parliament and the country will revert to bloodshed. Maybe it will be me they kill, but there will be others whose voices will be louder than mine."

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