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Archive for December, 2001

The Day After

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Himmat Singh Gill

THE giant Russian aircraft, IL 76, with India’s special envoy to Afghanistan Satinder Lamba, a few diplomats and a team of Indian journalists on board, could only take off around noon on a cold December morning because of the heavy fog that hung over New Delhi. Also on board was Qanooni, the newly appointed Afghan Interior minister, who had flown in from Bern to New Delhi a few days earlier to hold talks with Indian leaders. He was now flying back to his country to take over his new assignment. Flying at over 30,000 feet, the high-voltage Indian diplomatic mission headed for the Bagram airport, an hour’s drive from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

As we lumbered into Bagram after a somewhat heavy landing, and headed by road for Kabul, tremendous destruction and devastation stared us in the face. Village after village, hamlet after hamlet, stood lonely and forlorn. They had been heavily bombed and not a soul was in sight. Vineyards and apple orchards, lush at one time, now lay in ruins, and the freezing wind blowing in through the glass-splintered windows of the odd house that still stood intact, relayed its own depressing message. In the distance the snowy Hindu Kush mountains seemed to be the only unchanged and consistent relic of a great and glorious past that now lay in rubble and ruin because of a vicious war. It was apparent that even after the fighting stopped in the Tora Bora mountains, it would take years of labour and reconstructive surgery on the part of the world to bring this strife-ridden and history-pocked land to smile once again.

Signs of massive destruction were littered all over. T-62 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, burnt-out hulks of trucks and oil carriers lay in every corner of the dusty and barren plains. Heavy machine guns mounted on roof tops and sandy heights proclaimed that a war had just passed by. After some time, it was actually a relief getting into Kabul. But it was not the Kabul that I had left 19 years back when I was a Military Attache here.

Gone were the boulevards and the flowering trees that once stood sentinel by the roadsides. Also gone were the long-booted, skirt- wearing and bobbed-hair girls on their way to the Kabul University and schools, and the aroma of the dumba freshly cooked over a slow charcoal fire in Share Nau and its suburbs. One hardly saw any cars on the roads, and the few buses we passed by seemed to be only half full. The markets, in the modest quarters of the city, were, of course, getting back to normal, and men and women had begun to move about their daily business of living again. The affluent localities like Wazer Akbar Khan, where we once lived next to the house of Frontier Gandhi — Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan — were all there with no damage of any kind.

The embassies were padlocked, but the flags still flew over them. India’s embassy was being spruced up for its reopening scheduled to coincide with the inauguration of the new Afghan government of the Northern Alliance, now called the United Front, on December 22. India would be the first nation to open its embassy and this speaks of the astute legwork and foresight of the Vajpayee diplomatic team led by Jaswant Singh. His mark seems to be everywhere. He has already scored a double diplomatic coup with Qanooni and Abdullah Abdullah having already visited India in the last few weeks. In fact, Abdullah Abdullah travelled back with us to New Delhi. While the British, the French or the Americans are nowhere in sight in Kabul as yet, it stands to India’s sure-footed diplomatic initiative that we find ourselves in the driver’s seat in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Indians — Hindus and Sikhs, numbering about 450 today — met us at the Kabul Hotel in midtown and they could not have been happier. At one time they had been ordered to wear yellow robes for identification by the Taliban and did not know what the future would bring them. The Taliban, they told me, (and I recognised some friends I had known 20 years ago like Kartar Singh, Ravinder and Avtar Singh), had forbidden them to live as neighbours of Afghan Hindus and had put restrictions on their daily offerings of prayers and ardas at the local gurdwaras. But they told me that even in these troubled times, they did meet up with the sangat at the Karte Parwan gurdwara though the practice of the langar had perforce to be held on a limited scale. The fact that the Asa Mai temple also remained open speaks volumes for the resilience of the Afghan Hindu community. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has already announced that the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs will form part of the Grand Loya Jirga that will be held next spring, and will eventually be eligible to become full-fledged members of the Afghan government. Today, there are about 210 Sikh families in Jalalabad, about 400 in Khost, an approximate 15 families in Kandahar and about 80 Sikh families in Herat.

A few impressions of today’s Kabul will live with me. Portraits of Ahmed Shah Masood, the Lion of Panjshir, who was assassinated some time ago, adorn the Foreign Ministry building and nearly every street corner. Rabbani’s portraits are also there, but in diminishing numbers as the days go by. The common man, inspite of the 20-odd years of strife and hardship, still has time to smile and offer the little that he owns. Though the famous Hamidi store today stands closed, the day is not far when its doors will open to foreign merchandise. The Kabul police is back on traffic duty, and one finds policemen swinging their arms as wildly as before while guiding traffic. Yes, the uniforms are a lot more dirty and a lot more frayed. Yet, the signs of a new awakening are all there.

The Marco Polo restaurant, once the meeting point for diplomats, alongwith the Intercontinental Hotel will reopen next year. We carried a large number of film cassettes on our flight into Bagram, as cinema halls are back in business. Small shops with large chunks of meat hung on hooks, resound with the sound of music and song, and the quacks of chicken, as they are carried away to the cooking pot, fill the air. Yes, life is fast returning to normal.

Where does India stand in the ‘big game’ now being played in the diplomatic field? It seems that India has played its cards well, and Indo-Afghan ties will reach a new high in the coming months. India had during 1979-80 openly sided with the invading Soviet forces and the common Afghans had lost faith in our commitment to them. India has, by its early moves, brought in strategic depth for itself in Afghanistan and neutralised the Taliban and other terrorist groups infiltrating from this country into J&K. The US interest in this region, no doubt, will always remain, but now it could be India that could hold influence in South Asia. India’s growing presence in Afghanistan will also result in neutralising China in the strategic north eastern Wakhan region of the country and diminish its role and relevance in relation to the Commonwealth of Independent States that straddle the Amu Darya river

As the shadows lengthen on the wind-swept, dusty runway at Bagram, it is time to return home. But in the comfort of a long coat and the warm interior of the IL 76 aircraft, one’s mind cannot help but race back to the thousands of destitute Afghans who are cold and hungry. Their faces remain fixed in the mind as the aircraft makes a soft touchdown in Delhi. The Afghan winter has just begun…

The writer was a part of the Indian delegation which went to Kabul on December 12.

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Thursday, Dec 20, 2001 – PTI

ASMAL WATT (Kabul), DEC. 19. “Taliban or no Taliban we have nothing
to fear in Afghanistan. Nobody can touch the temple of goddess
Durga,” says 60-year-old Uttam Chand, a pujari in the Asmal Watt
temple built a century ago by the Hindu community on the outskirts of
the capital city.

Though he calls himself a pujari, he could be mistaken for an Afghan.
He wears salwar-kameez, sports a beard and wears a Muslim “topi”.
But he proudly shows his sacred thread and the additional
identification, the “kada”, which the Taliban made all the Hindus to
wear.

Contrary to earlier reports that Hindus were being made to wear a
yellow badge, none of the Hindus said they were ever forced to sport
the piece of cloth supposed to identify them as non-Muslims.

Did they ever earn the wrath of the Taliban? Just ask another pujari,
35-year-old Ranjit Lal, who shifted to the temple from Khost to Asmal
Watt two years ago. “The Taliban were bad people as they tried to
force their ideology on us,” he said. “We are born here and consider
ourselves to be Afghans. The only objection of the Taliban was that we
were professing another religion,” he said but added “be it the
Taliban or anyone else in power in Afghanistan, we would not be
cowered into accepting another religion”.

Among those who visited the temple on Tuesday with their families were
Mr. Bhagwan Das, Mr. Radhey Shyam, and Mr. Khushhal Singh. The ladies
wore “bindis” and were dressed in salwar-kameez. “There was fear in
the air during the time of the Taliban but the fighters never
misbehaved with us even when we went out without veils,” says Mr.
Khushhal’s wife, Ms. Rampyari.

“When a Taliban soldier used to ask about our identity, we used to
show either the “kada” or the sacred thread and they never used to
ask any further question,” Mr. Khushhal said.

The Hindus, not the Sikhs, are mainly concentrated in Khost, Kandahar
and Jalalabad apart from being at Karte Parwan in Kabul. And they have
a complaint against the Sikh community in Afghanistan. “The Sikhs
accept our daughters as their daughters- in-law but do not let our
sons marry their daughters,” says Ms. Rampyari adding “we have a
real problem finding a match for our daughters. We have to tell our
relatives in India, Pakistan and other countries to find a match for
our daughters,” she said. There is another temple near Asmal Watt in
the name of Dargah-e-Sharif Piratnath. The Hindu families numbering
around 50 in the whole of Afghanistan throng these two temples at
Kabul on two festivals – Holi and Ramnavami. But the festivities are
guarded and do not spill over into the streets like in India. The
Taliban is watching, eh! – PTI

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Rupali Ghosh with Gajinder Singh.

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Taranjeet Kaur doesn’t know how old she is, but her mother thinks she must be around 10 years old. She was born, says Jaan Kaur, her mother, soon after the Soviet-backed Najibullah government in Afghanistan was overthrown in 1992. “Those were days of great trouble,” recalls Jaan Kaur in her hesitant, broken Hindi. In the violence that followed, the family’s comfortable house in Hilmand, in eastern Afghanistan, became the target of an anti-Hindu attack. The casualty of that attack was her 13-year-old elder daughter Paranjeet. Almost a decade later, the only memory of that daughter is a discoloured photograph stuck on the cracked, yellow wall of her present home in Delhi’s Old Mahavir Nagar. Today, Jaan Kaur has more pressing worries – like the safety of her husband who, if he is still alive, should be somewhere in Kandahar.

The labyrinthine bylines of Old Mahavir Nagar are crowded with little incomplete families like Jaan Kaur’s. Most of the cubby-hole dwellings here are populated by Afghan Sikh women and children, who had been sent out of Afghanistan earlier with promises that the men would follow suit quickly, after winding up business in Kandahar and other Afghan towns which still have a small Sikh population. “Our people have been getting a raw deal in Afghanistan for a very long time now,” says Manohar Singh, president of Khalsa Diwan’s Afghan Hindu-Sikh Refugee Association that operates out of a busy building in Old Mahavir Nagar.

He talks about the many waves of migration of Sikhs from Afghanistan that preceded September 11: “Our people had moved to areas in Afghanistan’s North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan after Partition, but in 1978 when the Communists took over Kabul, several Sikhs fled Afghanistan; then, 1992 saw another wave of refugee migration following the killing of Najib; after the Taliban took over, many more Afghan Sikh families began to leave.” The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have triggered off another wave of panic migration among what remains of the Sikh community in Afghanistan, he adds.

According to a report on ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan, published by a coalition of human rights organistations under the International Campaign to End Genocide earlier this year in Washington D. C., Afghanistan had a population of over 50,000 Hindus and Sikhs before 1992. Over the years the number dropped to a few thousands (The Khalsa Diwan had put this figure at around 20,000). Under the oppressive Taliban regime, this number further declined. “Today there are just about 1,500 Sikhs in Afghanistan,” says Manohar Singh.

An Afghani Sikh woman, Rita, who managed to leave Afghanistan a few months ago along with her family, is now in Amritsar. She says she is happy to have reached the “land of our Gurus”, Rita describes the terror of living under the Taliban regime: “We had to wear a burqa to cover ourselves. We could not even keep our hands outside the burqa. Any woman not obeying the diktat of the Taliban would be severely punished. A woman’s hands were amputated simply because she took them out to receive some goods from a shopkeeper.” She said.

Given the persecution they faced under the Taliban regime, Sikhs in Afghanistan had begun the process of moving out for quite a while now. “The families have been applying for visas to Pakistan, and then, in Pakistan, there is a long waiting period again before the Indian home ministry clears their entry to India,” explains Manohar Singh.

The process of clearance is a long-drawn out one. Among other things these Sikh Afghans have to be verified first and only then will the approval come through. “On paper we are assured that the process will not take more than two months. In reality it can take up to two years,” he adds. As part of their function as a representative body, the Afghan Hindu-Sikh Refugee Association and the Khalsa Diwan have to liaise between the various authorities. “It is very difficult and we have to keep assuring families here that their husbands and other relatives in Afghanistan will reach India safely. But it is a long journey and no one is quite sure what the outcome will be,” feels Singh. And in the process, this small and once prosperous community has been reduced to living a life stripped bare of everything, including very basic human dignity.

Jaan Kaur invites you for a cup of tea to her home, not far from Khalsa Diwan. Her home, on the ground floor of a small building – one of many similar looking dwelling blocks that line either side of a little stretch of Old Mahavir Nagar – is a single room, approximately 10 feet by 10 feet. Two little stickers, one advertising Lakme deep pore cleansing milk and the other pushing the merits of Jet King tutorials are plastered on the fron door. Inside, two threadbare pieces of once brightly-patterned cloth are spread across the floor. A young girl, Tarnjeet, is lying on the ground. Her dark eyes stare blankly out of a face contorted in pain. “She’s sick… we don’t know what the trouble is and, anyway, with hardly any money maybe it is better we don’t know what is wrong with her,” says her mother. Another girl, Gurpreet Kaur, Taranjeet’s sister, is lying on a bed, the only piece of furniture in the room. “She is also unwell…,” mutters Jaan Kaur.

Ever since the US attack began on Afghanistan, there has been no news from Gulab Singh, Jaan Kaur’s husband. “Please write his name in your paper,” she says, “just in case someone who knows him reads it…. They might be able to help us trace him,” she adds. Jaan Kaur has two little sons also with her, though both are now out playing in the streets. “My six year-old son cries in his sleep… it is an old habit he has,” he says, “He watches TV nearby in someone’s house and whenever he hears about some fresh bombing in Afghanistan, he comes back and asks me if I’ve heard any news about his father’s death.

Gulab Singh had left his wife and two daughters in Delhi over a year ago. He had gone back to wind up business matters in Hilmand and Kandahar. The plan was that he would return to India soon. “We are still waiting for him. Now I don’t even know where he is,” she says. In Hilmand, Gulab Singh had a grocery shop. Like most others from his community he was a small businessman, and even after the Taliban took over, these small businesses were fairly stable, at least in the towns of Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Khost and Ghazni – areas where small pockets of Sikh families lived.

Nand Kaur is Jaan Kaur’s neighbour in Old Mahavir Nagar. Like Jaan Kaur, Nana Kaur speaks very little Hindi. Their primary language is Punjabi. In the absence of any eduction for girls in Afghanistan, both Jaan Kaur’s daughters are completely illiterate and understand no Hindi at all. Even after a year in India the girls have not begun any form of education. According to Jaan Kaur, “It is too late for them… now it is time to look for their husbands, not send them to school.”

Nand Kaur is waiting for news of her son, Talwar Singh. He left Kandahar soon after September 11 and is now holed up in Pakistan waiting for clearance. Nand Kaur is just back from a visit of the UNHCR office in Jorbagh. “Not that she will get much help from there,” feels Manohar Singh. According to the Khalsa Diwan, Sikh refugees are actually “nowhere” people in India. They are not top priority with the UN body because they are of Indian origin. “So the thinking there is that since they have reached India they can now fend for themselves,” he explains.

But actually these people are wretchedly poor, more so because the bread-winning male members are often still in Afghanistan and the women have no education or skills to speak of. The Khalsa Diwan runs a small school where classes include vocational training in sewing and a few crafts. The school also provides some elementary literacy training and a basic computer course. “But it is a drop in the ocean”, concedes Singh.

Only a handful of Sikh families have been able to come into India after the US attacks and even these include only those people who had already been issued a Pakistani visa before the attacks began. “Though my son had been issued a visa, he was still reluctant to leave Kandahar because we have a lot of land there and leaving all that behind to come to India and live like this was not an appealing idea,” explains Nand Kaur.

But then the WTC strikes happened and a numbing fear psychosis rippled through Afghanistan. “My son knew then that he just had to get out of there, and very quickly”. A number of people like Talwar Singh are now stranded in Pakistan.

At the moment, for Afghan Sikhs perhaps the only thing worse than being stuck in Pakistan is being stuck in Kabul or Kandahar. “The atmosphere is very tense. We have heard reports from our people there. They must be very discreet in their movements, and there is this constant fear of being harassed or being picked on just because they are Sikhs,” says Singh. Nanad Kaur fears for her son: “He must be careful… but that is not easy given that because of his pagri he’s going to stand out… I hope the military does not harass him. I go to the Khalsa Diwan everyday but there is no news.”

The apex Sikh body for religious affairs, the Amritsar-based Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) is working with the National Minorities Commission to bring these Sikhs safely out of Pakistan. According to SGPC secretary, G.S. Bachan, as many as 230 Sikhs have fled to Pakistan, after September 11 and are waiting for visas to enter India : “There are families in Peshawar, Panja Sahib Gurdwara [in Hasan Abdal some 45 km from Rawalpindi] and Lahore. I have specific information from the Indian High Commission in Islamabad that over 45 of them have been granted travel papers to enter India and are expected to cross over from Wagah either by the Samjhauta Express or on foot.”

Talwar Singh, like other fleeing Sikhs, left Kandahar by road. Nand Kaur doesn’t know the details of his journey but she knows that he reached the Chaman border post in Pakistan about a week later. “He is now in the Panja Sahib Gurdwara and will have to stay in Pakistan for sometime more,” she adds vaguely. All she knows is that he will probably have to remain in Pakistan for a long time. Nand Kaur also has a daughter. The girl is married to a land-owning family in Kandahar. “I don’t know how she is, if she is still alive or if her husband is OK. There has been no news. But then she is a girl, so this is her fate,” adds Nand Kaur.

And until Talwar Singh, Gulab Singh, and others like them arrive, the incomplete families of Old Mahavir Nagar will wait out their lives silently in their new cubby-hole homes. There is little else they can do.

 

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