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Archive for September, 2007

September 27, 2007 – Times Online

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Legendary Nepalese warriors are the best troops to drive out the Taleban, say their commanders Photographs by Peter Nicholls
Catherine Philp in Upper Gereshk Valley

Lit by the fireworks of an artillery barrage, the Gurkhas crouched in the desert chill, waiting for the command to move. In silence they crept across a bridge slung over the canal into enemy territory. Dawn came and went without a sighting. And then the Taleban attacked.

Barely 12 hours into Operation Palk Wahel, or Sledgehammer Hit, the biggest British military offensive in Afghanistan since the spring, the Gurkhas had met their enemy. Rifle cracks filled the air, bullets pinging in the dust as rocket-propelled grenades skimmed overhead.

“Get down,” a commander screamed, and the men scurried to a ditch beside the poppy field, firing towards the trees where the Taleban were hiding. Overhead the eerie grunting of fighter jet cannon could be heard strafing the enemy.

It was the resistance that the Gurkhas had been expecting since they crept out from the desert under a fingernail moon and into the notorious “green zone”, the dense sliver of fertile land alongside the Helmand river that the Taleban have made their domain.

Pushed out by British troops from the towns of Gereshk and Sangin at either end of the valley, it was here that the Taleban retreated, taking refuge in the fortress-like mud compounds set in a maze of towering corn criss-crossed with streams and irrigation ditches.

“It is nothing like the rest of Helmand, it is more like the Normandy bocage,” Lieutenant-Colonel Jonny Bourne, the commanding officer of the Gurkhas, said, evoking the beautiful but treacherous terrain that Allied forces had to fight through after the 1944 Normandy landings. “The Taleban know that in the desert we can beat them every time. But in the green zone they have the upper hand.”

British troops have battled through the green zone several times in the past six months and driven the Taleban out, but each time that they have moved on, the Taleban have come back, wreaking vengeance on villagers who cooperated with the foreigners.

This time it is meant be different. Military commanders and civilians have planned the offensive together. The idea is to hold territory so that reconstruction can begin, wooing locals away from the Taleban.

“If you drive out the Taleban, you’ve got to endure,” said David Slinn, the civilian head of the provincial reconstruction team for Helmand. “There have been lessons learnt.”

So, on their first day on the Helmand front line, the Gurkhas crept across a metal footbridge into the Taleban stronghold. To the south soldiers from the Mercian Regiment, nearing the end of their tour, would move northwards to join them.

The Gurkhas, the legendary Nepalese warriors, were chosen for this role. No other regiment could be better suited, their commanding officer said, for this combination of ferocious fighting and winning of local hearts and minds. “The Gurkhas have a natural advantage here,” Colonel Bourne said. “They have an affinity with the people here. It’s in that interaction with the people where we want to make a real difference.”

Before that, however, would come the fighting. “They are the loveliest people in the world,” Colonel Bourne added. “But when the switch is flicked, it gets very nasty.”

Pinned down in the poppy field, the switch flicked. “Excuse me,” a Gurkha machinegunner whispered politely before squeezing past to take his position and blast towards the enemy.

Before battle Sergeant Tarjan Gurung, a smiling veteran of ten years with “Do or Die” stencilled on the back of his helmet, had explained the mood. “Everybody finds it quite exciting,” he said. “You’re going to face a real enemy who will stand and fight.”

As the battle raged, Captain Jit Bahadur appeared panting in the ditch. “Nobody here injured?” he asked. “That’s good luck. It is a very heavy ambush from the enemy.” Minutes before the ambush, C Company had stopped to rest from an all-night trek, ripping open rations for a quick lunch. “If they had attacked when we were resting, it would have been a disaster,” Captain Bahadur said.

The company commander was considering withdrawing. “The resistance is very heavy,” Captain Bahadur said, shaking his head. Everyone knew, though, that retreat was not an option.

In the village of Hyderabad the summer fighting had driven out the entire civilian population, leaving their homes to the Taleban, who used them for their defences. The Gurkhas found empty compound after empty compound, walls smashed from heavy bombing and littered with the old rations wrappers of troops that had gone before them. “I remember this place,” muttered Sergeant Don Jenkins, a Royal Marine who had taken part in an operation in July. “We lost Atherton here.”

In another compound they laid a bar mine to blast through the mud wall for fear of another ambush on the other side.

Captain David Stanhope looked anxious. He had come with the Gurkhas to assess what reconstruction could be done as soon as the fighting was over. In his rucksack he carried bundles of dollars ready to be doled out for quick-fix projects. “But there’s no one here,” he said. “I don’t know what we can do with no civilians.”

One such deserted compound became home for the night. Running low on water, the troops filled bottles from a foul-smelling well, dropping purification tablets inside. Later an order came round to ignore the water and hope for a supply the next day – the risk that the Taleban might have poisoned the well was too high. Second Lieutenant Emile Simpson, 24, on his first day of operations, nursed a painful rib, probably broken, from what he believed was a bullet that glanced off his body armour.

Major Charlie Crowe, the commander of C Company, examined a map. By Day 3 the company needed to reach the “Witch’s Hat”, where the Taleban had turned a medical clinic into a fortress overlooking a lush marijuana field, digging deep defensive ditches around it. British troops had stormed the surrounding settlement, known as “Waterloo”, in April, freeing from the Taleban a local official scheduled for beheading the next day because of his ties to the Government. But the troops had not stayed, and the Taleban had returned, bringing punishment to those seen to cooperate with the foreigners and the Government.

A second dawn came and the company was moving through another bombed-out compound when it came under fire again. Gunfire erupted for several minutes until a cry came of “Stop, stop!” Their attackers, it turned out, were from the Afghan National Army, which, after one of its sentries was hit by gunfire, began firing immediately on a known Taleban position – the one the Gurkhas were now clearing.

A similar confusion a day earlier had thrown the second Gurkha company into a battle with the brigade reconnaissance force for ten minutes before both sides realised their mistake. That same night A Company had become lost for four hours on its way to a resupply point.

Two days in and the fatigue was showing – at least for the commanders and British officers, medics and specialists attached to the company. A third night would bring little more sleep. As the soldiers dozed, Major Crowe pleaded over the radio for his troops to be allowed a night’s sleep before the assault. He was overruled: the company must be in position by the time dawn came. “I think this is where the battle will really begin,” Captain Bahadur whispered.

This time, however, the Taleban had already fled. When the company arrived through the marijuana field at the Witch’s Hat, they found it deserted. The artillery barrage that lit their passage into the Helmand bocage three nights before had pounded the building almost to dust. The Gurkhas looked around, wondering at the desertion. If they were disappointed, they did not show it. “Seems they knew we were coming,” Major Crowe remarked.

On the other side of the canal Captain Stanhope was talking to a farmer who had returned to the village that morning. Naimatullah Agha Lala had left five months earlier because of the fighting and was living with other villages in the pacified town of Gereshk. He had returned to collect animal feed after hearing that British troops were retaking the area.

It was not the first time that he had seen the British here: a few months ago he had even been given a compensation form for the damage that the fighting had done to his house. “But then you went away and the Taleban came back. We are caught in the middle here. The Government thinks we have links to the Taleban and the Taleban think we are with the Government.”

Captain Stanhope handed him leaflets promising reconstruction. The farmer responded: “It’s not good to take this. If the Taleban see me with it, they will say we are cooperating.”

This time, Captain Stanhope said, the British would be staying. Mr Lala said he hoped so. “If you go from this place again, the Taleban will automatically come back again,” he said, looking doubtfully at his leaflet. “Can I throw this away now?”

Over the radio the commanders assessed the enemy withdrawal. The Taleban had either fled south to consolidate or retreated north towards their stronghold of Musa Qala. The next days would begin to tell.

The Taleban had suffered a bad summer, and the retreat suggested that they were struggling to replace their fighters, forcing them to sacrifice territory, instead. Perhaps they, like the civilians, did not believe that the British would stay this time either, and that if they bided their time they could soon be back.

“This is our chance now to show we are going to dominate, that we are not going to allow this place to fall back into Taleban hands,” Major Crowe said.
Fighters on familiar terrain

— The Hindu warrior saint Guru Gorakhnath named his disciple Bappa Rawal’s people “Gurkhas” in the 8th century and ordered them to liberate Afghanistan, then a Hindu-Buddhist nation, from the advancing Muslims.

— In 1879 Gurkha regiments served in the British Army during the Second Afghan War, clashing with Afghan tribesmen.

— Afghanistan gained its independence from Britain in 1919 after the war for independence in which Gurkha troops fought for the British. Nepal’s independence was recognised by the British four years later.

— Nepali and the Afghan language Dari belong to the Indo-Iranian family.

— Gurkhas, traditionally recruited from the lower foothills of the Annapurna mountains, are able to acclimatise quickly to high altitudes across much of Afghanistan.

— The Afghan climate swings between extremes. Winters are cold and snowy while summers are hot and dry. The climate of Nepal ranges from subzero temperatures in high-altitude regions to subtropical in the lowlands.

Sources: NOAA Satellite and Information Service ; explorenepal.com ; army.mod.uk ; khukurihouseonline.com

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Life is hellish for Afghan Sikhs

Source


Pratibha Chauhan
Tribune News Service

Kabul, September 27
Persecuted by an increasingly hostile local community, a few thousand hapless Sikhs left behind in Afghanistan, have now been forced to cremate their dead in the compounds of gurdwaras in this strife-torn city.

The attempt to cremate a body last week in Kabul led to major tension between the Sikhs and the local community following which the last rites were performed under heavy security cover. The predominantly Muslim local community has become increasingly hostile to the ritual of cremation considering it as blasphemous.

The two Sikh MPs in the Afghanistan Parliament, Avtar Singh and Ravinder Singh, raised the issue with President Hamid Karzai. It remains to be seen whether the Karzai regime can give them some solace and reduce their misery.

Barely 4000, the Afghani Sikhs are at the crossroads of history. The locals label them as “kaafir” while in India, they are dubbed as “Kabuli”. This means they have been virtually disowned by both the countries as they live a life of hell in Afghanistan.

“Mr Karzai is extremely fond of Sikhs and Hindus and is very sensitive towards their problems but he cannot do much to stop the local animosity. The only option which, again, is not easy for us is to migrate to India,” says a tearful Amrik Singh, a quack selling herbal medicines, who has never been to India.

The Sikhs were a strong and thriving community of about one lakh prior to the turmoil following 9/11. They now live under constant fear.

Though the Sikhs consider Afghanistan as their ‘watan’, they no longer wish to stay here. With most of the affluent Sikhs and Hindus having migrated to India a few years back, the ones still here do not have the resources to migrate to India as they have no relatives or ties back home. In fact, none of them has ever travelled to India, leave aside Punjab.

“Each day is a living hell as we are humiliated. Our children are mocked at for wearing turbans,” says 60 year-old Raj Singh from Rozgan area. He says his family has already moved to Tilak Nagar in Delhi and the minute he is able to sell his property for a decent price, he will leave Afghanistan forever.

The Sikhs and Hindus are still present in sizeable numbers in the Kabul, Jalalabad, Gazni, Kandahar, Khost and Kundaz provinces of Afghanistan. In Kabul, they live mostly in Karta-e-Parwan, where they have a gurudwara.

“My children went to Delhi to attend a relative’s wedding but are simply not willing to come back. They say they will beg in India but will not return to Kabul,” says Amrik Singh.

The Sikhs say they teach their children only Gurmukhi at home. Since they are hated and scoffed at in school, most of them have left regular schools. “We sound exactly like Afghanis and can barely understand Hindi or Punjabi. We wear turbans and go to gurdwara daily to attend kirtan and langars,” says 35 year-old Mohar Singh.

Most of the Sikhs are petty shopkeepers and do not have resources to move to India to start life afresh in another country.

A majority of the Sikhs agree that the older Afghanis had love and affection for them and there was complete harmony. It is only recently that there is growing intolerance and fanaticism.

“I am pained at the plight of the Sikhs and Hindus and the deplorable condition they are living in. I have not been able to sleep since a six-month old girl was cremated in the compound of the gurdwara where I am staying,” says Dr Indira, a gynaecologist working in a reputed corporate hospital of Delhi. She came here for two days to trace her roots but has stayed back to comfort the pained community.

India ‘s Ambassador in Kabul, Rakesh Sood, says there is no question of going back to India as these Sikhs and Hindus have always been in Afghanistan. “India cannot extend them financial help or assist in migration simply because they share a common faith with us,” he remarks. He says there has been some problem over cremations but that can be resolved by giving them an alternative site.

It is the growing intolerance and economic consideration, which are probably making the locals so resentful of the Sikh and Hindu presence in Afghanistan. “One country says you are from the other nation and vice versa leaving us in the lurch”, says Raj Singh.

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GURPREET SINGH MEHAK
Friday, 21 September 2007

FATEHGARH SAHIB: Shiromani Gurdawara Parbhandak Committee(SGPC) has taken up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the case of Afghan Sikhs who are facing problems in war torn Afghanistan.

The plight of Afghan Sikhs was highlighted recently when they were prevented from cremating a dead person as per Sikh rituals. The Sikh community had cremated the dead following intervention by local office of United Nations and Afghan police.

SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar said on Friday that the he has taken up matter with the Prime Minister seeking his personal itnervention in providing security to Afghan Sikhs. He said that Sikhs were living in Afghanistan since centuries and are part of Afghan culture. He said that Sikh commuity in Afghanstan was very peaceful and helping in nation’s development. He said that Sikhs in Afghanistan had hisorical linkage with Sikh religion for having blessed by Sikh gurus.

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Special Correspondent – 09/19/07

NEW DELHI: Taking serious note of news reports about prevention of cremation of a Sikh in Afghanistan, Tarlochan Singh, MP and former chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities, has asked the Centre to take up the issue with the Afghan government.

In a letter to External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, he has asked the government to intervene and impress upon the Afghan authorities to respect the age-old religious freedom enjoyed by the Sikhs and allot small grounds near the gurdwaras as it was difficult for the Sikhs to go to a distant place because of security reasons.

The Sikhs also need facilities such as funeral vans at these places which the Indian embassy should provide out of the grants given to Afghanistan.

Mr. Singh said cremation was a major problem being faced by Hindus and Sikhs in most of the West Asian countries.

Mr. Singh said a large number of Sikhs migrated because of the largescale violence but a few thousands were still living in Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad.

The cremation of the dead had become a problem in these cities because the original cremation grounds had been occupied by unauthorised persons, the letter said. Some had even built houses on the lands.

“I understand that people living around there raise objections and they forcibly stop the people from performing cremation as per the Sikh rites,” Mr. Singh said.

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Tuesday, 18 September , 2007, 01:27 (Sify)

Kabul: More than 100 Afghan Sikhs, the country’s smallest religious group, marched through Kabul with a corpse on Monday to protest attempts by Muslim villagers to stop them from cremating the body.

Police later detained six of the Muslim villagers who had tried to prevent the cremation, a police officer said.

One of the Sikh protesters, Diah Singh Anjan, said dozens of villagers had issued threats as the cremation was being prepared at a temple in the south of the city.

“The villagers tried to stop us and threatened us with death,” he said.

This prompted about 100 men to march into the city centre, first to the presidential palace and then to the United Nations compound.

Police escorted them back to the temple, which is inside a walled compound. “The police came and detained six of them and we performed our ceremony,” Anjan said in front of the burning pyre.

“The villagers who have grabbed the land around us now say we can’t perform our ceremonies here. They say we should stop cremating our dead here,” Anjan added. Muslims bury their dead.

Afghanistan’s Sikh community, said to number several thousand people in major cities, have lived in overwhelmingly Islamic Afghanistan for generations.

During the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, they were forced to wear yellow arm bands to distinguish them from Muslims.

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By Jon Hemming

KABUL (Reuters) – Around 100 angry Afghan Sikhs carried a coffin to the United Nations headquarters in Kabul on Monday, accusing Muslims of stopping them cremating the dead man.

Shouting slogans and punching their fists into the air the turbanned men broke through a hastily assembled police barriers until they reached the gates of the U.N. mission.

The protesters said Muslims had beaten them as they tried to bury community elder Lachman Singh.

“Aren’t we human? Isn’t God created for us as well? If God is only for Muslims, go ahead and kill us all or hand us over to the U.N.,” Autaar Singh, parliament’s Sikh representative, told Reuters.

“We want our rights and freedom,” he said. “We weren’t even stopped performing our religious ceremonies by the Taliban.”

Numbering just a few hundred in Kabul and a few dozen elsewhere, Afghanistan’s dwindling Sikh community complains of widespread discrimination from the overwhelming Muslim majority.

The head of criminal investigations at Kabul police, Ali Shah Paktiawal, came to calm the demonstrators and after brief talks with Sikh representatives inside the U.N. compound, agreed to escort the protesters to the site of the funeral.

FUNERAL PYRE

Most Sikhs, along with the country’s handful of Hindus, came with the British from India in the 19th century. But after more than 30 years of war in Afghanistan, most have fled.

In 2001, the Taliban ordered Sikhs, Hindus and other religious minorities to wear yellow patches, ostensibly so they would not be arrested by the religious police for breaking Taliban laws on the length of beards and other issues.

The Sikhs said they had owned land in the Qalacha area of Kabul, in the shadows of the ancient Bala Hisar fortress, for more than 120 years, but waves of returning Afghan refugees had built on the land and were now stopping them performing religious rites.

Muslims regard the cremation of the dead as a sacrilege.

“We have owned this land for more than 120 years to perform our sacrements, but it is the first time we were stopped and beaten by the people,” said Autaar Singh.

“Even the Taliban did not oppress us as we are oppressed by the people and government right now.”

Having placed the coffin in the back of an estate car and squeezed into two buses, the Sikh protesters arrived at their temple escorted by several dozen armed police.

A small crowd of Muslim men looked on warily as the Sikhs carried the coffin, draped in a silver cloth, inside the temple compound where they built a funeral pyre.

Prayers were chanted as the body of the dead man was placed in the centre and covered with more wood and set alight.

Bemused Afghan police took pictures with their mobile phones.

Sikh leaders thanked the police.

“We are grateful to the authorities who helped us burn our dead on our land,” Autaar Singh said.

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Kabul Sikh cremation goes ahead

Source – BBC – 09/17/2007

A group of local Sikhs have been allowed to carry out a cremation in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The authorities intervened after Muslims in the Old City stopped Sikhs burning a body at their traditional cremation site in the Qalacha area.

Sikh mourners carried the body to the presidential palace and UN headquarters until the chief of police escorted them back and the cremation went ahead.

Muslims near the site had complained about the smell from funeral pyres.

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