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Human Rights Watch Diary: Afghanistan elections

Human Rights Watch Diary: Afghanistan elections

Today I found myself face to face with Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf , one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords, and he was complaining about Human Rights Watch.

Sayyaf was one of the leading mujahideen commanders in the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the leader of one of Afghanistan's meanest militias during the ruinous civil war that followed the Soviets' withdrawal. Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses by his forces in the mid-1990s, and yet more abuses by his forces after his return to prominence after the fall of the Taliban. We have repeatedly called for Sayyaf to be investigated and prosecuted for his actions, along with other mujahideen, communist, and Taliban human rights abusers who have plagued this country.

Sayyaf was holding a campaign rally near Kabul in support of his bid for parliament. Candidates can be disqualified for maintaining links to armed factions can be disqualified. So I went to the rally to monitor whether repeated allegations that Sayyaf continued to field a sizable militia were correct. The short answer is: yes, indeed.

Sayyaf held the rally at a new mosque he's building in his home district of Paghman, a lovely, mountainous area west of Kabul. The most prominent feature on the mosque-dwarfing even the lone minaret-was a giant campaign poster of Sayyaf, resplendent in his grey-white bushy beard, bearing the legend "Your Mujahid Brother." And directly atop the poster was a machine-gun emplacement manned by a pair of gentlemen in camouflage pants who did not appear to be members of the Afghan National Army or Police.

Also notable among the 1,500 or so Sayyaf supporters were a significant number of fans sporting Kalashnikovs, along with a pickup truck bristling with gun barrels. I, for one, did not know you could fit 15 heavily armed men on the back of a pickup.

After his speech, which focused on the role of Islam in Afghanistan's future government, Sayyaf left the mosque and held an impromptu press conference. I found myself in the scrum of reporters, amazed to be about three feet from a man whom I had previously mostly heard about from the quivering mouths of victims traumatized by his forces.

Just as I was thinking about that, I heard a foreign reporter ask Sayyaf what he thought of claims by Human Rights Watch that he was a war criminal and major human rights abuser. My hair stood on end, my blood ran cold, my sweat beaded on my already sweaty forehead, and I only barely fought the urge to duck to the ground. All because I was dying to hear his response-although I really did not want to die just to hear it.

Well, the answer just about floored me. Here's how Reuters reported the Sayyaf's response: "If there was some proof that I had committed some crimes, then I will be responsible for that, but I am sure that we have worked for the freedom of the country. We have struggled against crimes and didn't commit crimes. These are only the claims of those who are against us and against the freedom of this country."

Sayyaf said he supported the punishment of criminals, but investigations would need to be done impartially. "We want a pure and clear and sincere investigation," he said. "We want the facts to be uncovered. We want the facts to be well-known to the nation."

So there you have it: Sayyaf has now publicly stated his support for an accountability process. This is a major development, one that I believe is due at least in part to Human Rights Watch's reporting and advocacy, in particular our report on atrocities in Kabul during the civil war in 1992-93. We now see various Afghan military figures criticizing one another's human rights records and calling for an accountability process. Which is exactly what we want.

On the other hand, our fear is that once Sayyaf is elected to parliament-which looks like a sure bet-he and other implicated warlord types will push for some kind of immunity from prosecution for themselves-even as they pursue their former enemies.

The Afghan government and election authorities had the chance to sideline figures with links to armed factions from the elections, but they didn't use it. Now, we all have to wait to see how these figures behave once elected.

Kabul, September 13, 2005

Everyone in Kabul is talking about one parliamentary candidate – “the woman in yellow.’ Nobody knows what her views are on access to education or on land reform. But she is undoubtedly one of the best known parliamentary candidates in Kabul. Amongst the door, and downright glowering, campaign photos plastered on every conceivable surface, her picture stands out for her obvious youth, her sweet smile, and her bright yellow veil which artistically frames, but does not quite cover, her hair. Frankly, her campaign picture looks more like the cover of a glossy magazine, or an advertisement for a demure Bollywood movie, than a political poster. It is now being sold on the streets for up to $5.

The entire country, right now, is awash in posters. There are nearly 5,800 candidates running for parliamentary and provincial council and they have all put posters up. And billboards. And the campaign business cards that candidates hand out like candy. Some potential voters collect the cards the way young boys collect baseball cards.

In a country where the vast majority of voters are illiterate and political parties are not allowed to campaign, the candidates´ photos are the primary means of communicating with voters. These campaign devices have to convey enough information to allow voters to remember and vote for candidates on election day. That´s no easy task for voters, considering that in some places, the ballots (one each for the parliamentary and provincial races) can run up to seven pages. It would be hard even if voters could read the name of their favorite candidate—most can´t.

Instead, the elections here rely on a combination of helpful devices. Each candidate has a number, which may or may not be easier to remember than a name. Also, every candidate has been assigned a symbol. The symbols were selected to be devoid of any political association. The woman in yellow´s symbol is two bunnies—seriously. There are also three lions, a running stallion, two onions, a watermelon, thunderbolts, computer terminals, inkwells, and one luckless candidate got an eight-ball—which is likely to be totally incomprehensible to some Afghans. It couldn´t have been an easy task, finding thousands of innocuous, distinctive, memorable symbols.

While the symbols are meaningless, the candidates´ photos communicate volumes. Smiling is definitely out. It´s too western, too friendly, too jocular (hence the impact of the woman in yellow´s photo). For the men, it´s western versus traditional clothing, it´s not smiling versus scowling, and of course it´s quantity and coverage of facial hair. There are full-on bushy Stalin mustaches, trim little goatees, and flowing beards—indicating old fashioned lefties, western style technocrats, and conservative religious views respectively. Woman candidates convey some of the same information through the color, shape, and coverage of their veils or headscarves, which range from tight and dark to, well, yellow and flowing.

The woman in yellow has become the talk of the town among the foreign journalists, diplomats, and aid workers working in Kabul. But we, like many Afghans we speak with, have no idea of what she and most other political candidates stand for. We have to make do with rumors and suggestions. We heard a rumor last night that she had been threatened and forced to leave for France. As soon as we got over our shock we tried to get to the bottom of it (a false rumor apparently). Another rumor is that her candidacy is actually put forward by one of the major political armed factions. We are trying to get to the bottom of this rumor also. In this environment it is impossible for us to keep track of every individual candidate´s political affiliation or past record, so we like the afghan voting public have to rely on such crude iconography at times.

That a young woman is allowed to run for parliament in Afghanistan is remarkable progress, but that only goes so far. We still don´t know how the woman in yellow will fare as a member of parliament if she is elected, and how she will act on issues of basic human rights, education, land reform, health, and economic development. Given the electoral system set up for this election, the voters have virtually no opportunity to make up their mind about such important issues. Unfortunately the woman in yellow´s charm alone is not likely to satisfy the voters when this parliament begins its work. The Afghans who wade through lists of hundreds of candidates, looking for the assigned symbol of their preferred choice (“Is that melon or an apple? A video monitor or a Quonset hut?) will have done their job and they will expect results soon.

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Samangan, September 12, 2005

Charmain is standing in the midday sun and dust for about an hour in this Pashtun village in southern Samangan, a region in the high, dry plains of northern Afghanistan. She was waiting for me to finish interviews with a group of irate Pashtun grey-beards.

She had prematurely finished her interviews with a group of women shortly after a man had come in to tell them not to say anything that would cause trouble. Charmain had gathered this group of women (seven and counting) to discuss their views on the upcoming parliamentary and provincial elections. They told her they were registered to vote, they were prepared to vote—and they were going to vote exactly as they were told by their husbands and fathers.

There's only so much a couple of human rights researchers can do. You can develop a highly sophisticated research methodology, but you can't get around the finality of an order by a man to end an interview with women in Afghanistan.

In order to get a full picture of life in Afghanistan, particularly, say, in a hilltop village of Pashtuns, you need to interview men and women separately, which means you need a woman to interview the women. Charmain Mohamed, who usually covers Indonesia and East Timor for Human Rights Watch, is our woman in Afghanistan.

Charmain has worked on elections in East Timor and Indonesia before, and is something of an expert on electoral processes in dicey situations. She also is extremely comfortable with her hair covered in a veil and a "salaam alaikum" on her lips. She's been trying to figure out how well Afghan women are prepared for these elections.

The answer: as voters, their enthusiasm outstrips their understanding of electoral gamesmanship, but is constrained by tradition and religious norms; as candidates, their presence is a real symbol of the perseverance of Afghan women in the face of generations of social discrimination and the depredations of the Taliban.

As Charmain has found out in dozens of interviews across northern Afghanistan, women here understand the importance of the vote and the potential for change for their status in Afghan society. Social, religious, economic, and security constraints aside this election could mark a turning point for women´s human rights in Afghanistan. A quarter of the seats in the parliament are reserved for women, and women make up about 45 percent of those registered to vote.

While Charmain was left boiling in the sun, I was interviewing the women's husbands and fathers. This highly vocal—some would say loud—group wanted to make sure that I, and through me the world beyond, understood how sick they were of local militia commanders and how upset they were that some of these commanders were allowed to run for parliament.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the headman's house, with gallons of green tea only adding to the infernal heat, they kept poking me in the chest, on the arms, on the knees, and, by the end of the session, on the head to emphasize their disappointment about the continuing presence of former and current gunmen in the electoral list.

"We are sick of these warlords!" Poke. "They have ruined our lives for 25 years." Poke. "We may even vote for a woman, because the women's hands are free of blood, and they will not fight if they don't agree." Poke, poke.

It's a measure of their anger that they would consider voting for a female candidate, and a measure of how much potential there is for Afghan women, after years of male dominated war and blood shed.

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