Tuesday. 29 July 2014

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My return to lawless country plagued with violence

KABUL: I had returned to Afghanistan for the first time since the age of four, having lived since then in Russia and England. When I landed at Kabul International Airport, there were no passport checks, and people just scrambled for their luggage at the baggage carousel.

On my journey from the airport to Kabul, the traffic slowed and police were everywhere. A building was riddled with bullet holes. Police were waving cars on in an attempt to discourage curious drivers from slowing down to stare. I later realised that I had witnessed the aftermath of a Taliban bomb attack.

A university student who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals said: “Kabulies [as people from Kabul are known] are used to hearing gunfire and being near a Taliban attack. They just get out of the area of the attack as quickly as possible because they fear a follow-up attack.”

The very area where I had been standing with my mother and fiancé was attacked by the Taliban with a suicide bomb just 10 minutes after we had left

Less than a month later, I was in a shopping centre in Kabul with my mother and fiancé when I noticed shoppers and staff crowding around television screens in the store. Just 15 minutes away from where I was standing, the US embassy was under Taliban attack.

I could see the embassy in flames, with black smoke pouring out, and surrounded by a rattle of gunfire.

As I left the centre, people running away from the area filled the streets. Frightened parents were clutching their children’s hands as they battled through the crowds. Children were crying and screaming. Street traders were fleeing with their goods loaded haphazardly onto handcarts. The roads were jammed solid with cars as panicking drivers evacuated the scene.

I later discovered that the very area where I had been standing with my mother and fiancé was attacked by the Taliban with a suicide bomb just 10 minutes after we had left. The police came under fire in two other areas of Kabul. Nine people were killed, and 23 wounded, in the attacks that day.

Afghanistan’s lack of a criminal-justice system makes the country a lawless state with a wide range of dangers for people – not only the prospect of being a victim in a bombing.

Women – who were banned from working, studying or moving freely during the Taliban rule of Afghanistan – feel even more exposed to sexual crimes since Western intervention in the country.

Natasha Latiff, founder of Femin Ijtihad, an organisation that campaigns for Muslim women’s rights, said: “Street harassment is prohibited by law. But there is one thing to have women’s rights protected by law, and another altogether to have it implemented in practice. Not all provisions protecting women’s rights have been accepted by society.”

In a fairground in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city north-east of Kabul, the rides have two long queues on each side: one for women and another for men. Each time the ride stops, the men clamber aboard and, afterwards, the women take their turn.

The segregation is enforced in an attempt to prevent women from being groped or harassed while waiting their turn on the rides. Even married couples have to obey the single-sex rule.

Afghan women enjoy the right to attend schools, enter politics and walk the streets without a male guardian. But many are fighting to achieve what they see as real women’s rights. According to the CIA World Factbook 2011, Afghanistan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world: 1,400 deaths per 100,000 live births. This compares with the UK equivalent figure of 12 deaths.

Medical treatment for women by male doctors remains taboo, and blocks to women’s education under the Taliban regime has severely restricted the numbers of female doctors and midwives.

Pari Akbar, co-founder of Hadia Volunteers Organisation, which helps Afghan women in shelters and prisons, said: “No amount of money from the West, or rules written in law books by the Afghan government, will bring women’s rights for us.

“Afghan women across the country need to stand up for our own rights, only then shall we be able to overturn the men from comfortable power and status. There is no other way.”

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