October 20, 2001

A background paper for the MSF Event Afghanistan: Civilians at Risk by Sima Wali, President and CEO, Refugee Women in Development

A background paper for the MSF Event Afghanistan: Civilians at Risk by Sima Wali, President and CEO, Refugee Women in Development

Ever since my return from the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan where I listened to the voices of hundreds of increasingly desperate women and men, I have anguished over how to explain what I have learned—that despite the growing awareness of the total destruction the war in Afghanistan has caused—the true needs, wants and desires of the Afghan people are largely absent from campaigns waged on their behalf in the United States. Should this lack of understanding continue for much longer, the people who waged an unrelenting struggle against the forces of outside domination with the backing of the United States will soon fall to a far more pervasive and determined enemy.

As an Afghan activist who has worked for 20 years to bring about sustainable change in the living conditions of Afghan women and men, I still grieve for the Afghanistan that has been lost. But what disturbs me more is the new Afghanistan that is emerging to replace it. The failure of the West to influence events in Afghanistan is not due only to the growth of extremist Islam and tribalism. The failure of the West in Afghanistan is a direct result of the long standing inability of Western institutions to adjust to the realities of what needs to be done and to listen to the voices of the vast majority of Afghans who are willing and capable of ushering in democratic change.

This is a bias that permeates American thinking. It was to gain a fresh picture of this problem that I left the safety and security of the United States and embarked on a mission to Pakistan. And I tell this story so that you will know I carry with me the voices and the tears of the Afghan people in their desperate efforts to survive what has come to be seen as an American policy of abandonment.

The women of Afghanistan and their male escorts braved minefields and dangerous mountain passes to secretly meet with me in a dusty town across the border where Afghan refugees live in primitive conditions. Just as I arrived in Peshawar, many new arrivals had just crossed from Afghanistan—fleeing the recent drought and war conditions. During the two weeks I listened to the voices of the Afghan women who run schools, provide health services and conduct human rights activities while providing social services to war?affected Afghans inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traumatized by 21 years of war, they constantly spoke of severe poverty, suicide and the growing hopelessness that sees their dreams for a free Afghanistan swallowed by an army of Islamist mercenaries from all over the world armed and supplied by Pakistan.

During our September-October 2000 mission, my colleagues and I met with 45 civic organizations led by Afghan women and men representing the ethnic, gender, age and sectarian divides. Because I am an Afghan, they freely voiced their trust in me, speaking in their own language to tell me things they cannot easily divulge to others. They universally echoed one aspiration. "We are looking to you to amplify our voices which remain silenced to people in the free world."

I still hear their cries as they pleaded for me to "bear witness to our suffering," and "get those of our faith to help us solve our own problems." These Afghan women know they are now among the poorest of the world's poor, telling me "we are now a nation of female beggars." But most tragically of all they know "the world has forgotten us." "We fought to bring an end to communism with the help of the United States," they told me, "but it too has abandoned us."

The Afghans are hungry and traumatized, with no health services to care for them, no access to education to teach them skills or societal resources to assist them in gaining them, while they are forbidden from operating civic institutions. "We are a proud nation but our dignity has been trampled upon," they desperately told me over and over again.

These are the yet unheard voices of the grassroots community leaders who are rebuilding the shattered lives of traumatized women, men, elderly, handicapped, orphaned children and landmine victims ? against all odds. But if you presume that the work of these courageous women and men are supported by international relief agencies you are mistaken.

I found a massive deterioration in the situation of Afghans living in Pakistan from even two years ago. I was ardently sought out by ordinary Afghan citizens, the youth, community leaders as well as political leaders all beseeching me to witness the effect of misguided refugee policies and their callous disregard for human lives.

Human Rights Issues in Pakistan

Although some attention has been paid to the problems of Afghans in major cities inside Afghanistan, little attention is given to the estimated 2 million Afghan refugees, the majority of whom are women living in exile in Pakistan. These numbers are increasing daily due to drought, insecurity, lack of protection, and gender-based persecution. Although many Afghan-run community associations are based in Pakistan and extend their services to Afghans caught in the war zones inside Afghanistan, only a few groups have permits to function in Pakistan. The others, who are completely isolated from international donor agencies or the U.N. system are harassed and occasionally shut down.

During my visit to Pakistan, many Afghan educators bitterly complained that they were being harassed by Pakistani police. They are forbidden the proper registration documents and thus denied the status to enable them to serve their communities.

Even in those few cases where they are allowed, they must contend with host country bureaucracy. And where can these Afghans take their grievances? Nowhere. The majority of Afghans living in exile in Pakistan are termed "de facto" refugees and are not granted official status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a UN entity mandated with refugee care and protection.

The majority of Afghans who have sought asylum feel that the Pakistani town, Peshawar, is a microcosm of life under the Taliban where refugees told me they regularly experience human rights abuses. "Our children are forced into child labor," the teachers told me, complaining that "children fall asleep in classes" after coming to school tired from their jobs. Forced to study in a foreign language (Urdu) outside the Northwest Frontier Province with no standard curriculum, Afghan children are gradually becoming indoctrinated to an alien culture.

Beyond the Gender Divide

Since the advent of the Taliban and ensuing gender-restraining edicts against women, much attention in the West has been focused on what has come to be known as "gender-apartheid." Although American feminists and the media have rightly focused on the situation of Afghan women, no attention has been paid to the supportive role of their Afghan men. These Afghan women-led community-based groups lack training, information, permits, fax machines, telephones, paid staff and computers to conduct their services. But most important of all, Afghan women lack mobility.

Afghan men have stepped in to provide women-specific education, agricultural training, and serve as intermediaries in the market place. Afghan women I interviewed repeatedly requested that their men be supported in order to advance the cause of Afghan women and not be classified as part of the problem. I was heartened to witness the passionate defense of Afghan women's leadership and empowerment by Afghan men from various ethnicities. However, in the West this vital contribution is missed.

Western Solutions That Create More Problems (Two Examples)

  1. Creating schools for Afghan Girls in Pakistan

    In an attempt to alleviate the harsh effects of Taliban edicts barring female education, the U.S. government has designated funds for the education of Afghan girls. But these good intentions have created yet another problem. While educating Afghan girls, these programs keep boys out. This misguided approach has led many Afghan families to resort to the only recourse available to them - sending their boys to the Pakistani seminaries - the very seminaries where the Taliban are schooled. One male educator passionately defended schooling for young boys as well as girls by saying, "If keeping girls from education it is tantamount to cutting off one arm, keeping boys from education cuts off the other. We need both arms to function."

  2. Repatriation

    While it is evident that conditions inside Afghanistan are far from conducive to the return of Afghan refugees in "safety and dignity," the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. government are funding a massive program to expedite the "voluntary" return of Afghans from neighboring Iran and Pakistan. I was told over and over again by horrified eye witnesses of the gaunt faces and hopelessness of the returnees forcibly repatriated from Iran. But despite the UNHCR's full knowledge of the barren conditions in the war zones, the process pushes ahead.

Sustainable Responses For The Future

A major shift in policy is the only solution to the dire problems of the roughly estimated 24 million Afghan people, of which according to the latest CIA estimates l2 million are women. But in order for that to happen, the West must listen to the voices of the vast majority of Afghans who are willing and capable of ushering in democratic change.

Though vitally important, emergency aid neglects the development of community-based civic leadership, ignoring the very people necessary to rebuild society. Innovative approaches such as empowering Afghan civic leaders from across the ethnic, sectarian and gender divides are necessary precursors to developing a tolerant, civil and democratic Afghan society.

Afghans want to be linked with democratic-minded and civic institutions in the free world. But they need technical assistance and access to information technology in order to implement exchange programs with the West. Rapid and long-term development projects aimed at strengthening Afghan community?based institutions through direct financial aid are priorities consistently identified by the Afghan people.

Afghan Mythology

In those weeks I was in the field I had scant time to process the overwhelming responsibility entrusted to me. But now, although I am humbled by the authority given to me by my people, I feel personally empowered to project their voice. I carry with me their pain and suffering. Yet I also represent their triumph.

For over 200 years Afghanistan has been the object of Western Myth, a land little understood but romanticized from Europe and America. That myth was played upon following the Soviet invasion as the role of "Fiercely Religious Freedom Fighters" won hearts and minds to the Afghan cause. During those terrible years Afghans built many myths about the West as well, believing that once our country was freed from the tyranny and slavery of an invading nation we, as men and women could rebuild our land and share in a great freedom by building on the foundation of democracy. The time to begin that rebuilding is now.

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