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Archive for September, 2005

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By GRAEME SMITH

Thursday, September 22, 2005 Page A21

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — It’s been four decades since Noorolhaq Olomi was a young Afghan army officer, secretly giving Communist books to his troops.

In the years since, Mr. Olomi has played several roles in Afghanistan’s turbulent history: political prisoner, asylum seeker, and highest-ranking official in southern Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

Now, like many other former Communists returning to the political stage in Afghanistan, Mr. Olomi has taken another important part in the country’s development. He leads the National United Party, perhaps the only major political party that spans tribes, regions and religions in a country still divided by ancient factions.

Part of his party’s appeal, he says, is Afghans’ nostalgia for the years after the Soviet invasion in 1979.

“The happiness people had during those days, it makes them vote for me,” said Mr. Olomi, 64, in an interview at his heavily guarded compound in Kandahar.

Observers say it’s ironic that Afghans would vote for the same Communists they drove out of the country during eight years of bitter warfare. But the violence and repression that followed the Soviets’ departure makes the years under Moscow’s thumb seem tolerable by comparison, observers say.

There’s also hope that Mr. Olomi’s party represents a new breed of Afghan political movement, based on ideas rather than identity.

“Olomi’s party doesn’t have its basis in any tribe or armed group, which is very unusual,” said Hayatullah Rafiqui, general manager of the National Democratic Institute’s Kandahar office.

Final results of the election won’t be available for weeks, but the National United Party is widely expected to gain a small foothold in the new parliament. A few other former Communists, not associated with Mr. Olomi’s party, are also considered likely to win.

These include Kabir Ranjbar, a lawyer and former adviser to the Communist president Mohammad Najibullah; and Mohammad Qasim Ehsas, a former deputy minister of commerce.

All of them were members of a group called Parcham, or Flag, named after a leftist newspaper. The Parchamis emerged in the 1960s after King Zahir Shah experimented with creating a legislature.

The King’s liberalization program mirrored some aspects of the current situation: After years without a chance to vote, Afghans were allowed to choose among a polarized list of candidates, ranging from extreme leftists to fundamental Islamists. The elections of the 1960s, like this week’s vote, also happened soon after women were allowed to remove their veils and appear in public.

Some of the issues were also similar, Mr. Olomi said: Like today, Afghans needed water, electricity and paved roads.

“We wanted progress, and that’s still what we want,” he said.

With membership mostly among urban intellectuals, Parcham aimed to moderate the influence of Islam on daily life.

“It was written in our party rules that we must respect Islam,” Mr. Olomi said. “The fundamentalists wanted more. They wanted us to obey Islam. At the time, like now, to be labelled a non-Muslim was very dangerous.”

Parchamis helped stage a coup in 1973, only to be overthrown by a more radical Communist group, People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, in 1978. Mr. Olomi was lucky; the PDPA only threw him in jail, while executing many.

He was freed during the Soviet invasion, and his Communist credentials earned him plum jobs in the occupation administration. He served as military and civilian governor of Afghanistan’s southern regions from 1987 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Despite the constant fighting against the U.S.-backed mujahedeen, Mr. Olomi describes those years as a time of progress. Women were given jobs as construction workers, bus conductors, factory labourers. Some even became government ministers and military generals, he said.

Not everybody remembers the occupation so fondly. Hakim, 45, who like many Afghans has only one name, said the Russians destroyed his house, and forced him to flee to Pakistan as a refugee. He was planning to visit his ruined house this week for the first time in 20 years, and thinking about moving back to the country now that it’s more peaceful.

“They [Communists] will only come back and cause problems again,” Hakim said.

Like many of the Communist leaders, Mr. Olomi was driven into exile in the early 1990s. Two of his brothers were killed by the mujahedeen. But when he returned from the Netherlands in 2001, the party he formed included former mujahedeen. Mr. Olomi also included about 25 per cent women at the senior level, along with representation from Afghanistan’s minority Hindu community.

“Brothers kill brothers; we have no unity in Afghanistan,” Mr. Olomi said. “If we have unity, we will have law, democracy, and peace.”

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S. Mudassir Ali Shah

KABUL, September 17 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Around 12.5 million registered Afghan voters are poised go to parliamentary polls tomorrow (Sunday) to elect a 249-member Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament) and 34 provincial councils – a significant event marking the culmination of the Bonn Agreement.

The first post-Taliban elections – coming amid widespread security fears – have also triggered a wave of optimism about the future of a fractured post-conflict country, facing a whole host of complex challenges like widespread poverty, booming drug commerce and sharp ethnic divisions.

Even on the eve of the landmark legislative elections, the first in more than three decades, a number of questions hang over the make-up of the national assembly and the provincial councils and their precise functions and powers remain unanswered.

Although a law creating the new parliament has already been signed by President Hamid Karzai, some of the 5,772 candidates are still unclear about legislative powers of the Wolesi Jirga and provincial councils – a new concept in Afghanistan.

Up for grabs are 249 Wolesi Jirga seats and 420 provincial council berths. One redeeming feature of the polls is 68 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, which will have a five-year term, and on-forth of berths on provincial councils have been reserved for women. The nomadic Kuchis have been allocated 10 seats in the lower house of parliament.

Among the political heavyweights in the electoral battle are Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, Yunus Qanuni, Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, Mullah Khaksar, Mullah Rocketi, Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, Mustafa Kazmi and Eng. Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai.

Bringing a tad bit of spice to the electoral fray are educated women contestants such as Safia Siddiqui, Shukriya Barakzai, Malalai Shinwari, Surraya Parlika, Balqis Makez, Shinkai Karokhel and Maghfirat Samimi. A number of other females too look well poised for making it to the parliament.

Reserved for Hindus and Sikhs together is a solitary Wolesi Jirga seat being eyed by a Sikh Dalip Singh from Ghazni. “Many of us didn’t file nomination papers, because no one is willing to grant Hindus and Sikhs their due rights. As a result of continued indifference shown to the two minorities, they are disillusioned with Afghanistan’s political and governmental affairs,” says an urbane Hindu woman Anar Kali.

Hamayun Jarir, Ramzan Bashar Dost, Mustafa Kazmi, Kazi Amin Waqaad, Mirwais Yasini, Ustad Akbari, Syed Mohammad Ali Javed, Alami Balkhi, Bashir Qanit, Asadullah Walwalji and Dr. Fazl Mohammad Ibrahimi are seen as potential winners – though for different reasons.

A Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) break-up puts Kabul on the top with 33 Wolesi Jirga seats; Nuristan, Panjsher and Nimroz are at rock-bottom of the list with two seats each. Seat distribution has been done on the basis of population estimates, which are far from accurate.

Ballots featuring contender names, symbols, photographs and registration numbers constitute an inordinate demand on the intellect of the voters most of them illiterate and unfamiliar with exercising universal suffrage in an election contested by thousands. Thus the task of conscious voting will be pretty taxing for many of them within the stipulated time.

Dozens of who are generally referred to as “commander candidates” have been barred from the vote under what can at best be described as a flawed vetting procedure, but many warlords have managed to slip through the net. Their clearance provides genuine cause for hand-wringing, with many fearing war criminals could stage a political comeback.

A major worry is that Taliban insurgents may translate their warning to derail the democratic exercise into attacks on polling stations, candidates, voters and security personnel. For their part, the Afghan security establishment, US-led coalition and ISAF forces have assured tight security arrangements have been put in place to stop militants in their tracks.

Violence in the lead-up to the election has left at least seven candidates dead and several including a female aspirant from the remote Nuristan province injured. Also killed and wounded in a spate of pre-poll attacks were political activists and law-enforcement personnel.

With the minimum voting age 18, 12.5 million Afghans will start casting their votes at 6am and the process will come to a close at 4pm. However, there is a likelihood of the voting time being extended. Popular mood in Ghazni, Zabul and Kandahar is indicative of indifference to the much-hyped exercise

Separate ballots will be marked by voters in elections to parliament and provincial councils, having different member numbers – from nine to 29 depending on population. Each council will select a member to sit in a 102-member upper house of parliament called the Masharano Jirga.

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Jalalabad (Afghanistan) | September 16, 2005 8:25:05 AM IST

From celebrations of Sikh festivals to plying of India-made trucks, the streets of this city founded by Mughal emperor Akbar are witness to historical connections with India.

“During the Baisakhi festival, planes used to shower flowers on the procession,” said Rawel Singh, president of the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar in this capital of Nangarhar province.

That, however, was before the civil war of the 1980s that ravaged Afghanistan and forced a large number of Hindus and Sikhs to shift away.

“There was a mass exodus of Hindus and Sikhs during the civil war, reducing the local population of Hindus and Sikhs from over 18,000 to barely 600,” Singh said.

Singh, who runs a small chemist shop, said that Hindus and Sikhs here mostly deal in cloth and in allopathic and ayurvedic or traditional Indian medicines apart from general merchandise.

Singh and others have requested the Indian consulate here to issue visas, allowing them to travel by road to India via Pakistan. “Visas issued for air travel makes an India visit very expensive, because that requires one to first go to Kabul to catch the flights to Delhi,” Singh said.

While the number of people of Indian origin has dwindled in recent years, the other residents of the city hold India and Indians in high esteem and are appreciative of the developmental and humanitarian assistance from India.

“India has set up a TV station for Afghan TV in this city with modern studios and state-of-the-art facilities. It is connected to the national TV network via up-linking and down-linking arrangements made available through an INSAT satellite,” Indian Consul General A.K. Goswami told IANS.

An Indian mission is being set up here to provide medical aid to the population of Nangarhar province.

Trucks manufactured by Indian firms Tata Motors and Ashok Leyland and gifted by India have provided the much needed transport network in the valley. Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd (TCIL), a public sector firm, is setting up microwave links and the CDMA telephone network.

Indian connections, of course, are not new to the city. The city of Jalalabad (Abode of Splendour) on the bank of the Kabul river in Nangarhar bordering Pakistan was founded by Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar, who went on to be known simply as emperor Akbar, in 1560.

As a further proof of the religious diversity found in this region overlooked by the Khyber Pass, the city has two large gurdwaras that are known locally as dharamsalas.

One of the main chowks in the city is named Dharamsala Chowk. The inscription on the gurdwara gate shows that Guru Nanak visited the place in 1520 (898 Hijri) and stayed here for 450 days while returning from Makkah via Baghdad and Kandahar.

The Guru Singh Sabha runs a Khalsa school for the children of Sikhs and Hindus and also provides shelter to the returning refugee families.

Thanks to many upheavals that the city has witnessed since, many of the palaces built by the successive Kabul rulers have been destroyed.

However, the ornate and graceful Bagh-e-Shahi or King’s Garden, constructed by King Amir Abdur Rehman (1880-91) on the Kabul river, has survived and now serves as the provincial governor’s residence. To its west is the Bagh-e-Kawakab or Star Garden that houses government offices.

The palace in the heart of the city, called Seraj-ul-Emarot or Building of Lights built by King Habibullah around 1910, is badly in need of restoration.

The only remaining Mughal garden in Afghanistan, at Nimla in the valley, was laid out by emperor Jehangir in 1610. Legend has it that Noor Jehan, the beautiful and ambitious queen of Jehangir, personally supervised the planting of each tree at Nimla.

The seven rest houses in the garden are reminiscent of the Anglo-Indian architectural style.

(IANS)

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Afghan Hindus & Sikhs disillusioned with electoral process

KABUL, September 14 (Pajhwok Afghan News): For Hindus and Sikhs minorities together, a solitary Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament) seat has been reserved in Sunday’s elections, for which an active woman is in the run.

Dwelling in this capital city, a number of Hindus and Sikhs complain they avoided standing in the polls because the government gave the minorities a raw deal – treatment that tended to lower them in status and public esteem.

Robinder Singh, gazing at candidate posters plastered on a wall from his shop in the bustling Kabul Market, asked: “Knowing full well the government has done nothing for our wellbeing over the last three years, why should we jump into the electoral race?”

Speaking to Pajhwok Afghan News, a skeptical Singh believed nobody would heed the voice of their representatives even if they were catapulted to the Wolesi Jirga and provincial councils.

According to information provided by Anarkali, a Hindu-Sikh contender for the first post-Taliban ballot, some 3,500 members of the minority communities are currently living in Kabul, Ghazni, Nangarhar, Khost and Balkh provinces.

She explained the number of Hindus and Sikhs in the Central Asian country had been depleted by their mass exodus, triggered by decades of strife. The suave, urbane woman recalled about a hundred thousand Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan would often slam the Dr. Najibullah government for giving them short shrift.

“They didn’t file nomination papers for the elections, because no one is willing to grant them their due rights. As a result of the continued indifference shown to them, they are least interested in Afghanistan’s political and governmental affairs.”

Anarkali, who represented the two minorities at the constitutional and emergency Loya Jirgas, urged candidates to treat voters equally, regardless of religious, ethnic and linguistic considerations.

A resident of the Karta-e-Parwan neighbourhood, Narender Singh echoed the views of the urbane Hindu woman and Robinder Singh. They were not treated like Afghans, he grumbled, arguing the discrimination had left them disillusioned with the whole thing.

But Mohammad Ishaq Nasiri, a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs, is dismissive of the criticism from the minorities. “We have the same respect for Hindus and Sikhs as we show to other Afghans.”

He claimed, like the rest of the communities, they were invited to Afghanistan’s cultural and national festivals to promote national cohesion. “They can’t blame us for their failure to contest the vote,” remarked Nasiri, who reasoned the government would have ungrudgingly reached out to them if they had entered the race.

Nasiri pointed out the government had returned Hindus and Sikhs the lands and property wrested from them by gunmen during the civil war. Under the Afghan constitution and the electoral law, people of all faiths could contest the legislative elections – the first in 30 years.

 

Reported by Zubair Babakarkhel & translated by Mudassir Ali Shah

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