Mission 7 – Kabul (Afghanistan)
Post-War Education Needs of Minority Communities
Since the formation of Khalsa Aid, it has ventured into may parts of the world where humanitarian assistance was needed. Its very first mission in 1999 was to provide food and shelter to the refugees on the Albanian/ Yugoslavia border where thousands of victims of the war in Yugoslavia were taking shelter. During the new millennium in 2000, Khalsa Aid was also providing assistance to the victims of the Cyclone that hit East India in the state of Orissa where it provided assistance to all the affected schools in starting their educational needs. In 2001 Khalsa Aid also went to Turkey to provide medical and water assistance to the victims of the earthquake that struck the north west of the country.
Khalsa Aid has ventured on their humanitarian aid mission once again, but this time the destination of their mission was a region of the world where very few brave people would dare to venture. Their mission was to Kabul in Afghanistan. Two Khalsa Aid volunteers ventured onto this mission including the current chairperson Amrik Singh from Hays in West London.
The Khalsa Aid mission to Afghanistan was planned well in advance over a year ago, but due to circumstances of regional instability they were always hindered in completing their mission in the past. The danger in Afghanistan is still very real as many westerners are still targets of the Al-Quieda in Kabul and the whole country is still widespread with warlords and tribal fighting.
Khalsa Aid’s prime mission into Afghanistan was to assess the situation of the minority communities that still resident within Kabul and identify what their immediate needs that Khalsa Aid was able to assist in the short term that would make the maximum impact over the long term future of these minority communities. These minority communities were namely the religious minority communities. For Khalsa Aid, their mission did not extend outside of Kabul due to limited resources and time.
On Khalsa Aid’s venture into Kabul they realised that very few Christian and hardly any Jewish communities were present in the area of Kabul, so this only left the Sikh and Hindu communities that still had any significant presence in Kabul.
During the hay-days of Afghanistan, it was suggested that in Kabul alone there was in the region of around 25,000 Sikh and Hindu families that resided in Kabul. However, the stories today is very different, in Kabul there still is a significant Sikh and Hindu community, but their numbers combined are around 500 families and even fewer outside of Kabul.
The tragedy that the Sikh and Hindu communities faced during the power grab and rule of Afghanistan by the Muja-Hudine and the Taliban was immense and brutal. Many of those who could afford to, managed to escape the fanatical hatred did so to neighbouring countries, India and many other western countries as refugees.
Those that were left behind in Afghanistan were those who were the poorest-of-the-poor. Were treated like slaves by their rulers and in many cases by their neighbours and were referred to as “Kafers” (non-believers). During these times, these minority communities were attacked and in some cases killed without remorse and without justice. There were many stories of Sikhs who had been killed only because they were Sikhs, or young girls being kidnapped molested and sold like slaves. In many respects these stories could have been repeats of history for the Hindu and Sikh communities like it was 400 years ago in India, during the rule of the Moguls.
In 1992, during the onslaught control of the Muj-Haddine in Kabul, many of the residences, businesses and places of worship for Sikhs and Hindus were targeted, damaged or occupied. Even today, many of these places are still in the same status, and those minority communities that are still alive or present in Afghanistan are still pleading for their properties to be restored, but to little avail. In many cases of illegal occupation there is very little evidence to justify true ownership of property as much of the documentation has either been lost, or over the years the properties have been bought and sold several times over, hence proving impossible to justify who is the rightful owner.
During the rule of the Taliban the minority communities were again targeted in similar ways to that of the Muj-Hadine. During the time of the Taliban, these minority communities were restrained from wearing clean cloths as they were “Kalfa” and hence were regarded as being dirty. Like wise these minority communities were also told not to wear any white cloths as the colour white was a pure colour. The only colour that these minority communities were allowed to wear was yellow, as this represented the colour of ‘urine’. Towards the end of the rule of the Taliban, they became more fanatical towards these minority communities and just like the Nazis did to the Jews, these minority communities were told to wear yellow markers, so that all could know that they were Kafers.
The Sikhs were more obvious targets due to their distinct appearance with turbans. Even during Khalsa Aid’s mission in Kabul they were on a number of occasion’s referred to as “Kalfers” and other derogative terms – but most surprising was that these references were coming more from young children than the adult population.
The saddest tragedy of the whole event was that when these minority communities asked for help they were told by the Afghanistan governments of the times to go and get help from India as they were Indians and not Afghanistani. The tragedy was that India likewise referred to these communities as Afganistani and not Indian. Even with a common regional culture and history that in many cases spanned over thousands of years of links with India, these minority communities were denied any assistance by the Indian Government.
After several meetings with Khasla Aid team and the Sikh and Hindu communities, these communities identified that they had several concerning issues that they needed help with. These Agenda issues were identified as follows:
1. Visa Difficulties – there were two main issues that the community were facing, thee were as follows:
a. By-Road Visa Difficulties – These minority communities were denied “By-Road” Visas by the Indian government, which prevented them from coming into India by road (even though Pakistan had granted these visas). This prevented these minority communities from coming to their religious and cultural homes of Punjab and India.
b. Visa Denial by India – A handful of individuals were listed on the Indian governments ‘black-list’ because most had previously come to India with their families and had overstayed their stay in India, and were being denied returning to their families who were still in India.
2. Rebuilding of the Gurdwaras and Mandars – both communities had their places of worship attacked and damaged (more so the Sikh Gurdwaras). Both communities wanted these places of worship to be restored to a condition where they could begin their worship. Although the Afghan government had made commitments to assist but no assistance has yet been provided.
3. Refugees Returning – many refugees that were returning to Afghanistan found that they received no support except the little that was provided by the UN Refugee Program (which was a bag of grain, US$100 and a plastic sheet for shelter) – These returning refugees found that their property and businesses had been occupied by others and were denied access and returning to their property (even through legal intervention).
4. Cremation of dead bodies – The most difficulty that both the Hindu and Sikh communities were facing was that they were still being denied by the Afghanistan citizens to cremate the bodies of their friends and family members how had died. Desperate measures were taken by both the communities to dispose of the bodies and this meant the dismembering of body parts and during the night cremating on the court-yard of the Gurdwara in Kabul over several days and during the night when no one could see the smoke.
5. Education – The minority communities were not given equal and fair education for their children and only the first four years of education was being provided to their children through the Afghanistan government.
6. Fair representation in Afghan Government – Although the constitution of the Afghan Government has recognised the minority communities and their role in future governments, they have not been represented or asked for their representation in any new Afghan governments and they want to have representation.
A request was made by the Afghanistan Hindu and Sikh community was that they would like to have a modern cremation machine which would allow them to cremate their deceased persons without smoke or smell and pollution.
Meetings with Agencies
A meeting was planned together with Khalsa Aid, the local Kabul Hindu Community Representative (Ram Saran) and the local Kabul Sikh community representative (Ravinder Singh) scheduled on Sunday the 30th May 2004 with the Indian Embassy (Mr J.K. Shriwaskt) for 10am and the British Emabassy (Rebecca Sagar) at 11am to discuss the above mentioned issues. When we arrived at the Indian Embassy, we were told that the person that we were to meet had not arrived. We waited until 10.45am and left to go to the British Embassy.
Khalsa Aid also met with the First Secretary Rebecca Sagar at the British Embassy in Kabul. In response to the above 7 points that we discussed with Rebecca, the response was as follows:
1 Rebecca informed that the British Government was not in a position to assist the community regarding the visa problems they had with the Indian government. The local Sikh community representatives asked about being issued British visas if needed, Rebecca informed us that the British Embassy in Kabul did not issue visas at the moment, so the easiest way that a visa could be issued was by the visa application being made at the British Embassy’s in Pakistan or in Dubai.
2 Rebecca was concerned about the damage that had been inflicted on the maunders and the Gurdwaras, but she informed us that there was a responsibility under the new Afghan constitution to rebuild damaged Mosques, Gurdwaras and Maunders. Also in addition to this Rebecca also informed us that there were small funds available to that they may be able to release to repair damaged Gurdwaras and Maunders – if we were interested in applying for these funds. Thee funds are allocated by the DfID but the responsibility of the local British Embassy (and not directly part of the DfID applied funds).
3 Rebecca informed us that if there was any cases of UK refugees returning who were facing these problems, and we could not confirm this. Rebecca asked if the Sikh and Hindu communities were facing any discrimination in Kabul and identify if this discrimination was a result of their religion or if it was due to them being refugees. We informed Rebecca that we will attempt to prepare a brief report of our findings at some point in the future.
4 Regarding the cremation problems, we were advised that we should contact the Afghan government in Kabul to discuss the difficulties that the communities were facing. In addition to this Rebecca also advised us to put an application for funds with the British Embassy in Kabul to assist in the purchase of a modern cremation machine, we were informed that the they may be able to provide funds in the region of £5k to £10k for this project.
5 Rebecca informed us that Education was a problem across the whole of Afghanistan and it would be difficult for them to do anything immediately in assisting us in this area. Again she asked if the community was being discriminated against due to their faith or general.
6 Regarding the fair representation of the minority communities in the Afghan government, Rebecca said that this was not an area that she would be able to help in.
The British government was prepared to assist in providing financial assistance in the repair of damaged Mandars and Gurdwaras, and the financing towards the purchase of the cremation machine. Overall the felling was positive between the Sikh and Hindu community members.
Khalsa Aid made three trips to the Indian Embassy in Kabul with the main representatives of both the Hindu and Sikh communities. We again returned to the Indian Embassy on the 30th May at 2pm and the reception informed us that only one representative could go and meet the J.K.Shiriwasto; hence, Bherminder went to meet him, where he informed of the 7 points that they would like to discuss with the Indian Embassy representatives.
Bherminder was informed that he would have to meet with the Ambassador who was not in the country; instead a meeting was arranged with the Ms Vijay Singh who was overall responsible for the affairs of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Bherminder met with this person, who then agreed for the other representatives to meet with her. During the following responses were given by Ms. Vijay Singh to the above 7 point agenda:
1 The Indian Government was not in a position to provide By-Road visas to the Afghani Hindu or Sikh communities as there was still a risk of terrorism.
2 The Indian government had black listed individuals due to them either over-staying their visit to India without extending their visas and were not obliged to provide any formal response to these individuals but was also not ruling out the possibility that these individuals would not be given visas in the future.
3 The Indian government informed us that they did not provide any assistance to any community or religious group and did not work with NGO’s. Due to these reasons, they were not in a position to assist in the rebuilding of any Maunders or Gurdwaras in Kabul. Khalsa Aid emphasised that the Hindu religion had a very long historic base in Afghanistan and India mainly considers itself as a Hindu country so it was assumed that they had some ethical links to this community. Also it was also mentioned by Khalsa Aid that the Sikh community was socially tied to India and it was natural for India to assist the plight of the Sikhs of Afghanistan. In response to this comment Ms Vijay Singh responded that the Sikh community in Kabul was once a very rich community and they could assist themselves for the future.
4 With relation to the problem that the two communities were facing in the cremation of their deceased people, the Indian government said that they could not provide any assistance e to any communities, religious groups or NGOs. Khalsa Aid then asked if in the event that a cremation machine was purchased from India then they would assist in having this machine exported duty free, to which the Indian government informed us that there was no duty on imports to Afghanistan.
5 We identified that the Education was a very great need for both the communities in Kabul and as India was providing teachers and doctors to the Afghan government it would be good if they could also provide assistance to the Sikh and Hindu communities to have a teacher that could teach English. In response to this Ms Vijay said that India was not there to be exploited and if Khasla Aid paid salaries to them according to UK rates then they would provide teachers.
6 We also asked if India could place any influence on the Afghan government to ensure that the minority communities could have fair representation in any new government. In response to this Ms Vijay informed us that they were not in a position to do this.
After our planned meeting came to a close, the Hindu representative informed the Indian Embassy representative that when Mr Jaswinder Singa (the former Foreign Minister – BJP) came to Afghanistan he had informed them that he would assist in getting the community a vehicle in which they could collect the dead bodies of their community, but nothing had come of this commitment -even though India had provided the Afghanistan government with 700 TATA busses, they could not give the community 1 vehicle. The Hindu representative also accused the Indian government of not recognising them as being part of the Indian community and informed that they always invites the Indian government to all religious events (i.e. Dawali, etc.), but the Indian government never invites they to their events (such as independence day raising of the flag). Ms Vijay said that this was not the case as they had not had any formal event of raising the flag and the event was very informal.
On the 1st of June at 3pm we met with the UNHR (Human Rights body) to discuss the same agenda points. We were met with Richard Bennett (Chief technical Advisor to Human Rights). We discussed all the seven points with him and we were assisted by Daya Singh from the Kabul Sikh community (no Hindu representative – due to short notice of the meeting). The response to the 7 agenda points was as follows:
1 Mr Bennett said that he will take this issue up with the Indian government as this was in violation with the UN Human Rights.
2 Mr Bennett said that he will take this issue up with the Indian government as this was in violation with the UN Human Rights.
3 With regards to the refuges that were retutrning, Mr Bennet said that any refuges that had left Afghanistan over 2 years ago were very likely to find it difficult or almost impossible to get their property back as there were no records which could prove that much of the occupied properties belonged to the rightful owners. However the UN was prepared to take up cases on behalf of individuals if they came forward. In addition to thisMr Bennett was also prepared to set up a formal meeting between the Indipendent Afghan Human Rights Commission and the Sikh/Hindu communities to discuss these issues (as Mr Bennett was an advisor to the group).
4 With regards to the damage to the Gurdwaras and Maundars, Mr Bennett said that this was a common situation with Mosques in the country also and there was little assistance that they could provide to the community, unless the community was being denied right to worship freely.
5 Mr Bennet informed us that Education was a particular problem across the whole of the country and if the community felt that they were particularly being discriminated then he may be able to assist. Md Daya Singh did say that they wee not being given equal facilities to other school in Kabul, so Mr Bennett agreed to come and visit the school and meet with the Hindu and Sikh communities.
6 Regarding fair representation, Mr Bennet said that it was not possible to him to assist in this matter, but the only way the community could get this fair representation would be to stand in elections and take part in politics of the country.
Mr Bennett was very responsive and requested that he be allowed to take these issues to the UN on the communities behalf. In principle we agreed to this and also gave the contact details of the local Kabul Sikh and Hindu representatives in order to ensure they were in agreement with our decision.
Mr Bennett also asked that the Sikh and Hindu communities should have their representative to work as an employee in the Independent Afghan Human Rights Committee and he would support their application in this body as an advisor to the group.
The assistance that Khalsa Aid provide to the Kabul Sikh and Hindu communities was as follows:
A. Purchase of educational facilities which included stationary and schooling material for a complete year of operation. This also included school bags and material for 150 children. The cost of this was a total of US$500.
B. Purchase of three Pentium III computers, HP Printer and Networking – one of these computers was also fitted with internet connectivity and a combo drive CD drive (CD Read/Write and DVD). The total cost of this was US$1,500.
C. Khalsa Aid also provided reading books for all the years, which amounted to a total cost of US$250.
D. Although the four teachers what were available at the school were funded by the Afghan government, the headmaster of the school was financed by donations by the Gurdwara, which amounted to US$100 per month – Khalsa Aid provided an addition top-up to this existing payment by another US$80 per month for a complete year, which amounted to a total of US$960 for the year.
E. Khalsa Aid also provided funds to the school to employee another two more teachers for a year. Each teacher receiving a salary of US$120 per month. For two teachers the cost amounted to a total of US$2,880.
F. Khalsa Aid also provided funds to the Kabul Sikh Gurdwara committee towards the building fund, which totalled US$1,300.
G. Khalsa Aid also provided funds to the Kabul Hindu Maunder committee towards the building fund, which totalled US$1,300.
Stationary + School Bags US$ 500
3 X Pentium III Computers US$ 1,500
Reading material for school US$ 250
Headmaster salary top-up (US$80pm for year) US$ 960
2 X Teachers salary for year (US$120pm for year) US$ 2,880
Gurdwara Building Fund US$ 1,300
Maunder Building Fund US$ 1,300
Daya Singh (Payment for assistance) US$ 100
Total US$ 8,700
Hotel US$ 350
Taxi & Food US$ 161
Airport Tax US$ 20
Total US$ 531
The total monies that was directly spent on the mission totalled US$ 9,231.
In addition to these monies spent directly on the mission, the Khalsa Aid team also had personal expenses that they incurred. Some of these expenses still need to be claimed and are identified as follows:
Purchase of Video tapes for mission UK£ ?
Purchase of Sony memory stick for mission UK£ ?
Afghan Visas (for 2 people) UK£ 60
Phone Bills UK£ ?
Throughout all of our missions, we have been supported by the public so much that we are truly grateful to God for blessing us with the opportunity to extend the resources of the community into relief efforts to assist these individuals. We hope that the sangat will continue to support Khalsa Aid so that we can live up to the ideals of the “Seva” or “Selfless Service” tradition.