'We are the true victims of terrorism'

Print edition : December 08, 2001

Interview with Sahar Saba, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

"No words, pictures or poems can describe the despair, pain and destruction of my country that has been ruled by fundamentalists for the last 10 years," said Sahar Saba, the young representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), in her address to the inaugural session of the national conference of the All India Democratic Women's Association.

Founded in 1977, RAWA is the only independent, anti-fundamentalist women's organisation working amongst Afghan women. The members of RAWA, spread in Afghanistan and in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, work in great secrecy as they are the prime targets of fundamentalist groups. Some 21 years ago, when she was seven, 28-year old Sahar came with her family to Quetta in Pakistan from Afghanistan. She studied in an "underground boarding school" run by RAWA ("we could not play outside, talk loudly, or let the neighbourhood know that ours was a school"). After high school she became a teacher, while working for RAWA. "Even now," she said "women in camps have no rights to health care and education. The world community has forgotten them." Later, RAWA asked her to move to Peshawar where she is now a spokesperson on their Foreign Affairs Committee. Excerpts from an interview with Parvathi Menon in Visakhapatnam.

What sort of post-Taliban political arrangement would RAWA like to see emerge in Afghanistan?

Ideally, we want to see a government based on democratic values. Unfortunately, there seems to be no such alternative emerging. From a more realistic point of view, what RAWA is asking for is that the former King, Mohammad Zahir Shah, be asked to lead a transitional government. He can unite different ethnic groups and the people will support him. His people are at least not criminals like the Northern Alliance warlords.

The international community must play a role in Afghanistan through the United Nations. The U.N., if honest, can play a peacekeeping role and help in the formation of a broad-based government that will give representation to all communities and women. We have demanded that all groups be disarmed. You cannot vote with a gun held against you.

Do you see this happening?

No, we don't. We have little hope of anything substantive coming out of the Bonn meeting under the aegis of the U.N. If RAWA does participate, it will only be to expose to the world what is happening there. We met the U.N. Special Envoy and told him that they must stop foreign interference. The U.S. and its allies are keeping the Northern Alliance alive. Some 70 per cent of Afghanistan was destroyed by the Northern Alliance in its time, and once in power it will be worse than the Taliban. However, it appears likely that the Northern Alliance will for the present make an alliance with the former King and the tribal chiefs. We believe there will be an uprising as people cannot go on living in this way. They need support. They are tired of 20 years of war, poverty and oppression.

What about the war and its impact? Can a fair political solution be found as long as the bombings continue? Has the war created any sympathy for the Taliban and the terrorist groups?

Afghanistan was a forgotten tragedy till September 11. Till then no one realised that we were the true victims of terrorism. The U.S.-led action in Afghanistan will not wipe out terrorism, and this is no solution to the problem. It is the Afghan people who are paying the price. The bombings have not created sympathy for the Taliban or Osama, but if there is prolonged intervention then the people will see this as an invasion. In making it a West vs Islam war, the U.S. is actually helping the fundamentalist groups. War and fundamentalism have destroyed our country economically, socially, psychologically. Our people are dying every day. Under the Taliban regime unspeakable atrocities were committed on our women. In one year, in the province of Farah in western Afghanistan 32 women committed suicide because death was preferable to life under the Taliban regime.

RAWA is documenting the human rights abuses and the impact of this war. We are helping women and their families shift to safer places. Thousands of people face starvation in winter, and despite Pakistan sealing its borders, thousands of refugees have come in with literally nothing. There is so little we can do in the face of this huge humanitarian crisis. We are trying to provide some food and health care in the 20 refugee camps where we have a presence.

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