Faces of defiance: the women fearlessly standing up to the Taliban in Afghanistan

The West’s war in Afghanistan was supposed to liberate women from the Taliban’s brutal oppression. Sixteen years, $1 trillion and thousands of lives later, little has changed. Christina Lamb meets the fearless women risking violence and death on a daily basis writes Christina Lamb.

 The atmosphere is buzzing. Young men, women and children in their best, brightly coloured outfits clap and cheer, their faces swiped by pink and blue strobe lights. Dry ice rises from the stage, where the presenter in a claret jacket and bow tie struts and introduces the acts in between plugging fizzy drinks.

Afghanistan’s equivalent of Pop Idol is the country’s most popular programme, drawing 12m viewers — close to half the population. For the first time, a woman is in the final — an 18-year-old schoolgirl in a long brocade dress is up against a rapping barber in a New York Yankees baseball cap, leather jacket and sunglasses.

It’s a scene that would have been impossible 16 years ago — before the American-led invasion toppled the Taliban government — and looks to be the perfect example of a new, more liberal Afghanistan. But the recording is being held inside a bunker at the TV station compound, heavily protected by gun-toting guards and an armoured personnel carrier. The audience have arrived via a steel door, a police checkpoint and x-ray machines. The judges have to travel in bulletproof vehicles.

The West spent $1 trillion and sacrificed thousands of lives promising a bright new world for Afghan women. When the Taliban was beaten, boasted President George W Bush and Tony Blair, females would be free, whether to run for office or sing and dance in public without fear for their safety. Yet since Nato pulled out most of its forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the security situation has deteriorated once again, with a resurgent Taliban controlling much of the countryside. A record 1,662 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year, according to UN figures, and the number of women casualties rose by 23%. The situation is particularly bad in the capital, Kabul, where a car bomb killed another 31 people at the end of last month.

This is the 12th series of Afghan Star, and it wasn’t always like this. Past recordings were held in cavernous wedding halls around the country, attended by enormous crowds. That changed when the Taliban condemned the series for “obscenity and lewdness” and put Tolo TV, the commercial television station that makes the show, on their hit list. Seven Tolo employees were killed last year when their minibus was blown up by a suicide car bomber.

Sitting in the green room, Zulala Hashemi, the female finalist, believes it is worth the risk. “I used to watch it and dream of being on Afghan Star,” she says. “I never imagined I’d reach the final.”

To get there she has been singing every week for more than three months, as more than 1,000 contestants were whittled down to two. Now, she nervously twiddles the large orange plastic ring on her right hand as her mother, Mirman, touches up her elaborate make-up.

“I think for every three women in Afghanistan, two are supporting her and one is jealous,” says Mirman, who was widowed when Zulala was just three months old. To raise her six daughters and a son, Mirman wove carpets — the Taliban allows women to do little else — and is determined their lives should be different. But many of Zulala’s family, including her brother, are horrified. The family are from the conservative city of Jalalabad in east Afghanistan, where neighbouring districts are strongholds of the Taliban and Isis.

Each time mother and daughter leave the studio they put on burqas to avoid being recognised. “We cover our faces so people won’t disturb us,” says Zulala. They have also blocked correspondence to their phones, email and Facebook pages because they received so many threats.

The West made a lot of promises to Afghan women, but what they said meant nothing. Security-wise, things have got worse

“If you don’t protect yourself, the government won’t protect you,” says Mirman, who narrowly escaped being blown up when running unsuccessfully for the local council. “The West made a lot of promises to Afghan women, but what they said meant nothing. Security-wise, things have got worse.”

While Zulala has to hide her face to avoid abuse, her rival for the prize revels in being spotted. “People recognise me in the street and give me a thumbs up,” says Sayed Jamal Mubariz, 23. “It’s a great feeling.”

A barber from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, he started rapping two years ago under the name Scream of Freedom, after hearing Persian rap from neighbouring Iran. “I realised it was a way of revealing problems through songs,” he explains. “I sing when I am cutting hair. I rap about unemployment, the bad economy, lack of security …”

Eventually, after hours of singing, soft-drink adverts and a random reunion between the presenter and his father, who has been flown in, the two finalists step onto the stage for the announcement of the public phone vote. Dramatic music plays.

It isn’t a game-changing result. As fireworks fountains go off around the stage and confetti falls, Zulala is in tears. The prize is a motorbike and a trip to Kazakhstan, neither of which would have been much use to an Afghan woman anyway. Gallantly — after a nudge from the presenter — Mubariz hands over the golden star trophy to her, garnering more cheers.

“Afghanistan was not ready for a woman star,” Mirman shrugs. She and her daughter put on blue burqas so they are once more indistinguishable from most women outside.

If there is one place that most symbolises the challenges for Afghan women, it is in the centre of Kabul, about a mile from the presidential palace, on a traffic-clogged road that runs alongside the Kabul River. At one end is a blue-domed mosque and shrine to Shah-do Shamshira, the King of Two Swords, flocked with pigeons fed by families with paper cones of corn. On a platform overlooking the rubbish-filled riverbank stands a tall, grim monument topped by a clenched fist. The railings are hung with horrific pictures of women with faces scarred from acid attacks or burns from setting themselves alight — suicide attempts by self-immolation.

An old man passes pushing a wheelbarrow of songbirds in wooden cages, while a beggar on crutches with a withered leg holds out a tin and weaves between cars. Most people hurry past. Everyone knows something terrible happened here.

It is at this spot, at about lunchtime on March 19, 2015, that a 27-year-old trainee teacher called Farkhunda Malikzada was beaten to death by a mob. She was on her way to a Koran class when she saw a man selling pagan amulets at the shrine and complained to the custodian. He started shouting that she was burning the Koran and an angry crowd gathered.

Gruesome mobile-phone footage shows men repeatedly stamping on Farkhunda’s body and pummelling it with rocks as others rushed to join in, shouting, “Allahu akbar!” Police standing nearby did nothing until it was too late, despite her desperate cries. The mob then ran over her body with a Toyota hatchback, threw her corpse onto the riverbank and set it alight.

The murder is even more chilling for the fact that it was not carried out by Taliban from remote villages, but young urbanite Kabulis, who then posted the footage on YouTube.

Though the horror of what happened here on a busy street in broad daylight proves just how dangerous life still is for Afghan women, some hope was generated at Farkhunda’s funeral, where her coffin was carried by women in brave defiance of a long-held tradition.

One of those women was Rada Akbar, a freelance photographer. “When I read on Facebook what happened to Farkhunda, I felt they killed part of my body too,” she says. “It was beyond horrible. I messaged my friends, saying we needed to do something, and we went to her home. We hadn’t planned anything, but when we saw the coffin we all felt we didn’t want men to touch her body. So her father and brother said, ‘OK, this is your sister, you can carry her.’ ”

Farkhunda’s killing prompted demonstrations around Afghanistan and international outrage. Under pressure, the government quickly agreed a trial and for the first time allowed TV cameras in court. Kimberley Motley, an American lawyer who has long worked in Kabul, represented the victim’s family.

“It was the best trial I have seen in Afghanistan, with proper testimony and evidence,” Motley says. “Everyone seemed to be watching it. I was getting stopped in the street by Afghans with questions about the law.”

Of the 49 men standing trial, four received death sentences and eight were given 16-year sentences. Eleven police officers also received sentences for their failure to defend Farkhunda.

At the time, some described it as a defining moment in Afghan women’s rights. However, when it went to appeal last year, Motley says she was pressured to get off the case by the presidency, which also sought to coerce Farkhunda’s family. This time, the hearing was behind closed doors. The sentences were reduced and only 11 men remain in jail. “No one I know has set eyes on the legal decision,” Motley says.

Farkhunda’s family received so many threats that the police checkpoint outside their house was no longer enough. They had to flee the country.

“The government told us they couldn’t protect us and we should leave,” says her brother Mojeeb Rahman, speaking from Tajikistan. “It’s been very difficult for the family. We did nothing, we were the victims — yet we had to flee.

“My sister was kind, sweet and beautiful,” he adds. “I don’t know how anyone could do what they did. And why didn’t anyone help when she was crying, ‘Don’t hurt me’?”

Their mother, he says, has not recovered and seeing most of Farkhunda’s attackers released left her in despair. In fact, he says, the main culprits were never arrested, even though their faces were clearly identifiable in the footage of the attack.

Rada and her fellow female coffin bearers were also horrified to see the killers go free. “The fact that the mob was released made us scared,” she says. “Anything that happens to us women, the authorities do nothing.”

One Afghan woman trying to change that is Najla Raheel, the chairwoman of a panel of five lawyers who took over representing Farkhunda’s family from Motley.

A taxi drops me outside a half-built shopping centre and I assume I must have arrived at the wrong address. The only tenants on the first two floors are building suppliers and a tile merchant, but then on the third floor I find a small waiting room where a woman in black is crying quietly. Across the corridor, Najla sits at a dark wood desk, beside a cabinet of law books. There is a power cut, so the window is open for air and it is hard to hear because there is so much hammering from the street of metal workshops at the rear.

“I knew it was a very risky mission,” Najla says. “But when President Ghani asked the Bar Association for someone to defend this case, I thought if we don’t give the right punishment to the killers, then it will mean anyone can do the same or even worse.”

However, she admits: “It hasn’t gone as we wanted. Most people spent only two or three months in jail because they had influential people intervening. The government released them, saying they were innocent, but we don’t think so. And three others have never been to court who we think are the main people — the ones who stoned her, burnt her, crushed her with the car.”

I get calls from different numbers warning they will spray acid in my face if I don’t withdraw from the case. Here, everything is controlled by men

Najla has received so many threats, she has had to employ private bodyguards. “I get calls from different phone numbers warning they will spray acid in my face if I don’t withdraw from the case,” she explains. “I am lucky my husband supports me and says, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ ”

She has asked the government to reopen the case, but has little hope. “Here, everything is controlled by men.”

While we are talking, a woman in black and yellow comes into the office, crying. “Forced marriage,” Najla shrugs after she has gone. “Her husband is so old, he has daughters older than her and he beats her. She wants a divorce, but he won’t agree. I have two or three hundred case files, all women suffering violence,” she continues. “It makes me very depressed about Afghanistan.”

The lady from the waiting room comes in, her long black coat closed with a pearl clip. Her name is Laila and she wants to divorce her husband — a drug addict who beats her. “He uses heroin and alcohol and is very dangerous,” she explains.

When they first married, he had a good job in the computer department of the ministry of security, but absences caused by his addiction led to his dismissal. “He would demand money for drugs, then torture me if I didn’t give it to him.”

Ten months ago, he beat her so badly that she finally left him. However, he refuses to divorce her. “He says he loves me a lot,” she tells me. He took their two children of five and three. “I want my boys back,” she cries, showing me their pictures on her phone.

After I return home, I hear from Laila on WhatsApp. She got her divorce, but her ex-husband still refuses to let her see the children. “This is no country for women,” she messages.

Her cry for help is not unusual. Almost every day I get WhatsApp messages from desperate Afghan women I have met during my time reporting in the country, many of them prominent figures. “Christina, they will kill me. What should I do?” reads one from a female Afghan MP who says she is living in absolute fear from a governor who raped her. “A huge explosion happened under my car and I almost died.”

While western diplomats tweet smugly about the Afghan girls’ robotics team going to Washington, these messages reveal the daily reality for Afghan women.

Back in Kabul, I meet female journalists forced to live in shelters, including one who is covered in cigarette burns inflicted by her own brother who tried to stop her working. Others have fled, including Shakila Ebrahimkhil, a fearless reporter often first on the scene after suicide bombings. In 2012, she broke the story of Sahar Gul, a child bride who was locked up and tortured by her husband and in-laws after she refused to be forced into prostitution. Shakila’s work in highlighting the suffering of women in Afghanistan led to her receiving repeated death threats from militants. Last year, she fled to Germany.

She is not the only female role model to have been driven out. In 2013, Niloofar Rahmani, then aged 21, became the first woman to earn her wings in Afghanistan’s air force. The more she was feted internationally as a symbol of female empowerment, the more she drew criticism and threats at home — not just to her, but to her family, who have had to move house several times. Finally, just before Christmas while on a training course in America, she requested asylum. “There is a war against the female in Afghanistan,” she said.

In Jalalabad, the home town of the Afghan Star finalist Zulala Hashemi,I meet some female journalists who are determined to stick it out.

In the centre of town a heavily guarded entrance marks the driveway to the Shaiq Media Center, home to Sharq TV, a private television station. The blue-glass building has been attacked six times since 2009 — by grenade and Kalashnikov fire, a suicide bomb, rockets and RPGs, and a petrol bomb.

“All the attacks have happened on the same side, where the women’s radio is,” says the station’s owner, Shafiqullah Shaiq.

Aside from Sharq TV, the network runs Nargis Radio, the first radio station for women in eastern Afghanistan, run by his wife, Shahllah. It started in 2007 with a programme called Women in the Community. “We felt women in the city know their rights, but not those in rural areas where they are living under strict Pashtun traditions,” Shahllah explains.

They set up a hotline, which women could call with any problems. “Everyone said this isn’t possible,” Shahllah says. “After the first show, I got women calling to share their opinions and stories. It was like an empowerment programme. Women even started turning up at the radio station.”

Many had been beaten by their husbands. Some were victims of child marriage, where girls as young as nine are handed over to resolve tribal conflicts, an extremely common issue that is rarely discussed publicly. A law banning violence against women was introduced eight years ago, but it has yet to be granted parliamentary approval — 87% of women suffer domestic abuse and at least 60% of marriages in Afghanistan are said to be forced.

Sometimes Shahllah and her reporters even went in disguise to the homes of abused women to help them. “One girl of 13, Gul Nagha, called me begging for help. She had been forced to marry a man and was being treated as a slave by his family. They would shout at her, burn her with iron rods and had ripped out all her hair. She said, ‘Within two or three days, I will be dead.’ I spoke to my husband and he said this is very dangerous. But how could I not help?”

She told the girl to make an excuse to leave the house, where she would be waiting outside in disguise. Shahllah and her most experienced reporter headed to the remote area and rescued the girl, then took her to the ministry of women’s affairs.

“We were terrified all the way back,” she says. “When the girl’s husband and mother-in-law found out, they tried to get the girl’s family jailed. But the girl told the women’s ministry everything and her mother came to back her story. Then I took her to hospital in Kabul and arranged for her to stay in a shelter. A couple of years later, someone called and said a beautiful girl has come to see you. It was her!”

In a country where most people are illiterate and electricity is rare, radio is still the most powerful medium. The Taliban and Isis both have radio stations in Nangarhar province, where Nargis Radio broadcasts. As the Taliban grew stronger in the region, they were not about to put up with a station promoting women’s rights and started issuing threats. Initially the Shaiqs paid little attention, but then came a rocket attack on the building.

A campaign of attacks followed. Warnings have been issued on Isis radio and the women receive lots of phone threats. “It’s not just Taliban and Isis,” says Shahllah. “Many men call and say you are misguided about women and must stop your radio.”

Last year, threats to kill them became so severe, the show was dropped. The station has continued, but 10 female reporters quit.

“Right now, I have only six girls because of the risk,” says Shahllah. “We asked the government for security, but they don’t help.”

Those who remain at the station insist they will not be frightened off. “Sometimes they drop warning letters at my house, saying you should leave your job,” says Nafisa Saher, 24, one of the presenters. “I told my family these are bad people who don’t want us to achieve anything. Otherwise, we would just stay at home and do nothing, like under Taliban times.”

Her colleague Sabah Gul, 47, nods vigorously. She is a law graduate and mother of three grown-up sons, whom she brought up after her husband was killed 24 years ago. She had always wanted to be a journalist, so when she heard about the station opening she rushed to join. “My sons beg me not to do this, they say our father was killed and we have only you,” she explains. “But I’m worried about the bad situation of women and want to give them awareness so they have a better future.”

All of them fear the situation for women is deteriorating. Though the war continues, Nato forces, which once numbered 140,000, are now down to 13,000, mostly in Kabul. Many aid workers have pulled out.

“Before, there was a lot of hope,” says Shahllah. “But today the life of an Afghan woman is like playing with fire.”

The dangers were brought home last August when her only daughter, Heena, was in a class at the American University in Kabul when Taliban gunmen stormed the campus killing 16, including eight students and two professors. When the university recently reopened, she insisted on returning. “The new generation of women won’t be defeated,” says Shahllah.

At Nargis Radio, they were cheering on Zulala in Afghan Star — and were devastated when she lost. “I think she can’t stay in Jalalabad,” says Sabah Gul. “They don’t accept female journalists here. How would they accept female singers?”

The Afghan women cycling for freedom

In a country that has gone through almost 40 years of war, it is rare to see happiness. It is also very rare to see female cyclists. For pure joy, nothing beats the smiles on the faces of Nasrine Nawa, Maryam Yusufi and Rukhsar Habibzai as they speed through the streets of Kabul. Men shout insults and “Go home!” But others shout “Bravo!”

“When I’m on the bike, I feel like I am flying,” says Rukhsar, 19, a medical student who has been cycling for three years. “People throw stones. But I want to show the world Afghan women have power and can do anything.”

Her family supports her — they gave her the shiny bike she is riding for her birthday. The others are using bikes that came from donations raised by Shannon Galpin, a cycling-mad American film-maker who was working in Afghanistan and astonished to come across an Afghan girls’ team. It was run by Abdul Sadiq Sadiqi, a 62-year-old teacher and cyclist, who founded the Afghan Cycling Federation. He first formed a girls’ team in the 1980s, but it ended when the Taliban took over in 1994. After they were ousted in 2001, he took his daughter riding with him and gradually other girls joined. Now they meet every Friday at his home in southern Kabul.

“Girls are free to ride bikes in practice,” he says. “It was hard at first. We had to persuade their families. Even now, some complain.”

Two of the girls, Mariam and Sadef, were deliberately knocked off their bikes by two men on a motorcycle. The others seem unfazed. Nasrine, 22, and Maryam, 21, are no strangers to threats as hosts on a TV show.

“Every day when I say goodbye to my mum, I don’t know if I will come back,” Nasrine shrugs.

The best girls compete overseas. At the Tour de Albiez in France last year, Afghan girls won silver and bronze. They used the chance to seek asylum and not come back.

Sadly, 30 years of reporting in Afghanistan has taught me there are no feelgood stories. Sadiqi was ousted from the federation by the boys’ team amid allegations he was running a visa racket and using the girls as his harem. He denies the accusations. “He is operating illegally,” said Galpin. “He refused to accept the results. He still has all the contacts and the women are beholden to him, it’s like Stockholm syndrome.”

Yet it’s hard to see Maryam and Nasrine cycle off and not feel cheered. “Without cycling I feel we Afghan women exist like a corpse,” says Maryam. “And we want to live!” 

The life-changing coding class

The Girls Can Code class in Kabul doesn’t seem promising to start with. The project has only 40 students across two schools, and on the day I visit, the teenage girls in jeans and bright headscarves are staring at blank screens. There has been a power cut and the man who has the key to the generator cannot be found. We all look at each other and the Steve Jobs quotes painted on the wall.

Then the girls swing into action — one of them has realised there is power in a building next door. Cables are dangled out of the window and the computers start to whirr.

Soon I am being shown the websites they have designed — one for a bakery, another to order pizza, a third to showcase tourist spots, in case the war ever ends.

“We always thought computing was for boys,” says Sophia Faizi, 16, who is wearing a red scarf and Union Jack sneakers in my honour. “Girls were supposed to be housewives or teachers. But girls can code! Now I want to be a computer scientist.”

“The biggest challenge for Afghan women is their families disapproving of them working outside, particularly in a mixed office,” says Zarmina Malalai, 45, from the Womanity Foundation, which runs the project. “But it’s also the worsening security. As the troops go, women are left unprotected. Learning to code means they can work from home.”

Over the next year, they are hoping to expand to eight classes in four schools. The classes run from 6am to 8am every morning, so the girls have to get up early, but they don’t seem to mind.

“This class is a big experience in my life,” says Zuhra Akbari, 19, who has designed a website for the school. “The biggest problem in our country is we can’t work with men and they think women are nothing. Sometimes me and my friends say, ‘Why were we born in Afghanistan not USA?’ ”

She wants to study law, but her family refuses to let her. “They say no, because you can’t be a good woman if you’re a lawyer. That really hurts me.”

Before I leave I ask if any of them wear burqas. They all laugh in horror. “Hamdullah, no!” one of them says — “Thank God.”

Kabul’s first women’s restaurant

I have known Mary Akrami since she started one of the first women’s shelters in Kabul in 2002. She now operates three in different provinces.

“There have been improvements, such as four female ministers in the government and many girls graduating from university,” she says. “But the violence I see on a daily basis — girls as young as 12 fleeing abusive marriages — is worsening.”

Cuts in international funding have forced her to close one of the shelters. “The support of the international community impacts all Afghans, but especially women. When that reduces, women are hardest hit,” she says. “So we have to help ourselves.”

She teaches the girls in her shelter to cook and has set up a catering service as a way for them to earn a living. It has proved so successful that at the end of last year she opened Kabul’s first women-run restaurant, employing 20 girls from the 57 in her shelter.

The sign outside reads “Family restaurant”, and guards only allow families or women inside. “The idea is it’s a safe place for women to work and also a safe place for women to come on their own.”

It has not been easy. Aid agencies refused to support a for-profit restaurant. So her husband and a colleague invested. Takings just about cover expenses, but not the rent.

One man with his family can’t stop staring as waitresses scurry about, a novelty in Afghanistan, where waiting staff are all male.

“It’s made a huge difference to these women,” Akrami says. “They are so proud they have a job to go to, and, for the first time in their lives, bank accounts.”

Read Christina Lamb’s original article HERE.



Reflections on the nature of evil


“My son’s name was Nermin and he was just one of over 8,000 men and boys who were massacred at Srebrenica. In the 22 years since he was murdered, all the authorities have been able to find of him are two of his bones, these bones were found in two separate mass graves, over 25 km apart.”

By Glyn Strong

 A hushed audience listens to the testimony of Munira Subašić.[1] An indomitable woman driven by pain and desire for justice, she was one of several speakers marking Srebrenica Memorial Day on 11th July at London’s historic Guildhall. 

Twenty-two years have passed since that shameful chapter in European history but Munira’s passion cuts through the decades like a blade. Everyone in the vast room is transported in time to the event of which Kofi Anan said, “Through error, misjudgement and an inability to recognise the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.”

In 1995 more than 8,000 Bosniaks – mainly Muslim men and boys – were massacred in the now infamous Balkan town. What is less well known is that as part of the same orchestrated genocide as many as 50,000 women in the region were raped or subjected to sexual violence.

As it had done after the Holocaust, the world hung its metaphorical head in shame and said ‘never again’.

Twenty years later, a mob of hate-crazed men stoned to death a 27-year-old woman in Kabul; a student with an impressive educational background in Sharia law. After refusing to purchase a taweez (a religious amulet with inscriptions from the Quran) from a male street vendor, she was accused of blasphemy. That lie provoked a storm of hatred that shocked the world. Farkhunda wasn’t just killed, she was obliterated; repeatedly stamped on, beaten, dragged through the streets and run over by a car. The clothes were torn from her body, which was hurled from a wall before being set alight. The video captured on camera phones is stomach churning.

Time, numbers and distance aside, the two events have something sinister in common. They were fuelled by such a chilling disregard for human life that descriptions of how they happened prompt disbelief.

Events in Srebrenica were being played out against the background of a conflict that featured nightly on national TV – the attack on Farkhunda Malekzada occurred in a public place and was witnessed by members of the public and police.

Reactions to this kind of violence are diverse: discomfort, shame, anger, pity – and in some cases denial. Farkhunda’s murder can perhaps be attributed to the ‘red mist’ that inspires mobs to act as a single beast, bereft of reason and intent on destruction. But the Srebrenica genocide was planned, calculated and deliberate. Both events were driven by a malevolence so strong that only annihilation would satisfy its perpetrators.

In the Middle Ages evil could be displaced. It was an entity. It had a face. Today religion, superstition and belief in the supernatural have been replaced by a conviction that we are not puppets of higher powers, but individuals with free will, in control of our own destinies.

The downside of this is that mankind then has to ‘own’ evil and take collective responsibility for its exercise. We become guilty by omission, inertia and inactivity.

Munira Subašić, President of the Mothers of Srebrenica, says: “Justice is not a privilege, it is a human right, and the 8,372 people who died at Srebrenica were human beings. Every year in July, people across the world remember them and they remember our loss, and we are truly grateful for that. But what I want to make clear is that for us, telling our stories and fighting for justice doesn’t end after July commemorations, this is the fight of our lives, and we will never stop fighting. As we women grow older, we feel the weight of responsibility on our shoulders to ensure that our stories, and the stories of our loved ones are heard and remembered, and that when we are gone, others will continue to fight for justice.”

‘Justice’ is a word used often by the rape victims of Srebrenica. “We don’t want vengeance,” they say, “we want justice.”

Some would argue that there is a fine line between the two but it’s a noble sentiment. The men who violated Bakira Hasečić and her daughter still walk freely but she meets their eyes with defiance these days. “When us survivors first started returning to Višegrad, we felt that we had to hide from these war criminals who had tried to destroy our lives, but now when I go to Višegrad, these war criminals hide from me. Now when I return to my Višegrad, I hold my head high, and I hope that one day all survivors will find their strength to do the same.”

The men who murdered and abused Farkhunda for having the temerity to express an opinion about Islam, their shared faith, melted into the crowds after their frenzied orgy of destruction. Most of those who were arrested were later released. Her family’s pain is enduring; still gripped by grief they are paralysed by fear of reprisals if they protest.

It’s hard to imagine how anything good can come of such evil deeds, but one London-based Afghan woman and her friends are ensuring that it does. Rahela Siddiqi still recalls the day she heard what had happened to Farkhunda and the physical impact it had. “I felt evil like a bang that hit me, like my body was burning!”

She and her 11-year-old daughter Rasheel Barikzai were preparing for Nowruz, the period of preparation for Afghan New Year and traditionally a time of happiness. They were stunned. “We just asked ‘Why? Why? Why?’; I felt every stone as though it were dropped on my own head and body.”

Initially paralysed with horror they vowed to turn the senseless murder of a brave young woman into something positive and, with help from like-minded supporters, set up The Farkhunda Trust for Afghan women’s education.

Rahela says, “I did it because in my heart I wanted to keep Farkhunda alive in name and aim. I thought she should be remembered by generations as symbol of bravery and a defender of women’s rights in the worst possible environment for women. I wanted the world to be aware of this horror, of the devastating actions of this mob.”

Like Munira Subašić and Bakira Hasečić, Rahela and her friends determined to use their strength as women to do two things: to ensure that a great evil was never forgotten and to make something positive came from it.

Munira said to her captive audience at the Guildhall, “I did not come here today just to speak about what happened at Srebrenica, I came here today because I want to make a call to action. To everyone who sees our injustice and feels our pain, I hope you will join us in fighting for truth, justice and a better future.”

A ‘better future’ for an Afghan girl denied access to education is something Rahela is already delivering. The sum of £1,530 (including feed of £700) buys one year’s university education, and with education comes power.

“I felt that preventing violence against women should become our top responsibility” said Rahela. “I hoped that through our joint efforts we could make a difference; we could increase the number of brave women like Farkhunda and ensure that such evil acts would not be allowed again.”

Its seems that throughout history events occur that make us examine our collective humanity and shiver with shame at their enormity. Does evil exist? Rahela thinks so. “I think evil is everywhere where there are people of malevolent and immoral nature, harming God’s creatures and humanity in particular. Good human beings have a duty to stay their

[1] The event was organised in the UK by the charity Remembering Srebrenica http://www.srebrenica.org.uk/.

 Read original article in The Courant HERE.

The British mother who helped Afghanistan become a cricket nation


Nasir Jamal, beneath thick streaks of sun cream, has the expression of someone who can’t believe his luck. “The 23-year-old from Logar in Afghanistan is fresh from bowling googlies (his specialty) in the nets at Lord’s the day before he is due to play here in front of thousands. (The Telegraph, 23 July 2017)

It will be both his and Afghanistan’s first time playing at the home of cricket, and it comes less than a month since the side was granted full Test status by the International Cricket Council (ICC), an honour reserved for only for the greatest teams.

Jamal’s journey here is all the more impressive given that he was given his first cricket bat just six years ago, aged 17, at a cricket camp organised by Afghan Connection, a developmental charity founded by British mother-of-four, Sarah Fane, from her Berkshire kitchen table in 2002.

“I am so happy,” says Jamal, looking exactly that. “I started playing cricket through these camps. Now I am here. I am so proud.”


Since Fane’s charity began investing in cricket in 2008, it has brought the sport to 22 provinces and built 100 pitches for use by more than 100,000 young Afghans. At the camp Jamal attended near Kabul, as well as a bat, he was presented with shoes and a shirt. “I would sleep with my bat,” he laughs. “I would get up in the night to play in my room.”

Now, while he represents his country for its inaugural match at Lord’s, his nephews and younger brothers are using the same slab of willow to see if they can beat a similar path to fame and fortune.

This extraordinary team has come from the refugee camps to the world stageSarah Fane

Jamal’s story is representative of what is happening all over the country, and Afghanistan’s recent rise through the world rankings in a phenomenon the likes of which the history of the sport has never seen.

The national team, born in refugee camps in Pakistan, learnt using sticks for bats and tennis balls covered in gaffer tape. They hit balls hard and high and bowled fast. Fearlessness marked them out; they had nothing to lose. The first national trials were held in 2003 and when, the following year, Afghanistan was invited to its first international tournament many players didn’t even own passports. 

Now, despite decades of war, threats from Taliban insurgency and Isil-backed militants – the security threat means it is too dangerous to play their home matches in Afghanistan – the side has reached the ICC’s top 10 for one-day internationals and Twenty20. In 2015, they qualified for the World Cup, beating Scotland by a wicket (Jamal was 52 not out) and dropping commentator’s jaws with their flair and panache in the process. This year, they have beaten the West Indies and triumphed against Zimbabwe. On Wednesday, they will play South Africa, who are first in the ODI rankings.

It is perhaps apt that growth of the world’s most polite sport in the harshest of conditions can be attributed, in some part, to British intervention. Fane’s mission has always been to spread grassroots access through training camps, equipment and running tournaments.

“Playing team sports, and against each other, brings different ethnic groups together,” she explains. “It is the one thing that really unifies the country. It also teaches kids they can’t just storm off the pitch – they have to learn the rules of cricket. They have to play together.”

The rise of cricket has brought so much joy. It has given kids their childhood back.Sarah Fane

She first visited the country while working as a warzone doctor in stints between 1987 and 2001, and was struck by the population’s “resilience and determination”. Staying with Mujahideen to organise clinics for refugee women and children, she eventually returned to the Berkshire Downs to have four children of her own.

Now her charity’s tagline is “Getting kids to pick up bats instead of guns”, and it is a message that’s ringing through.

“There are a lot of problems in Afghanistan,” affirms Jamal, “but a lot of children are now joining games and spend their days playing cricket and doing good things.”

Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) has partnered with Afghan Connection, and its president Matthew Fleming has visited Kabul and Jalalabad to explain the spirit of the game and help build pitches.

On dusty patches of ground bordered by desolate mountains, crowds of up to 12,000 have been known to gather at the cricket camps intended for 50 boys, and local governors have diverted funds to cricket development in their area as a result. In many places, girls are being taught, foregoing burkas to better wield a bat. “The impact has been beyond our wildest dreams,” says Fleming.


“When I travelled in Afghan in 2001, there was very little cricket,” says Fane. “There was no hope. All many children in had known was conflict and damage. The rise of cricket has brought so much joy. Joy is the one word I would use. It has given kids their childhood back. It has given them heroes to cheer, happy news and a game that they can all go out and play.”

It’s true the Afghan national team’s fans are euphoric; swamping stadiums, dancing on pitches and turning up with flowers and music. At the Lord’s match last week, they turned up more than two hours before play was due to start with an ebullience that flummoxed the stewards.

The idea for cricket as a path to peace came from Fane’s son, Alex, then 14, who had read about the struggling national team in 2007.

He wrote to former England cricketer and Kent Captain Fleming, who was more than happy to bring the MCC on board. In 2008, Fane delivered donated kit to the National Academy in Kabul. “That was just a dust field at the time,” she recalls. “I somehow took out three great big bags stuffed full of shirts, wickets, balls and bats. They were absolutely thrilled to receive it. They were in the World Cricket League Division 5 and generally hadn’t had much support.”

Out of the pits, with no real proper help, this extraordinary team has come from the refugee camps to the world stage

In the years since, players coached through the camps have gone on to play U16 and U19 for national sides.

At one camp former Afghan captain, Raees Ahmadzai, who was coaching, couldn’t hit any balls bowled by one particular boy. “He said: ‘You’ve got to come to the National Academy tomorrow – your life is changed,” says Fane.

Fane’s initial vision for Afghan Connection was to work with schools in remote areas to provide villages with equipment, school buildings and teacher training for both boys and girls. Her resolve, through this and the cricket, has always been to lift a forgotten, backward nation out from the slump it has grown accustomed to. Without education, it’s her belief that there can be no chance for peace, security and prosperity.

Afghan Conncetion also provides equipment for schools, trains teachers and builds classrooms for boys and girls to learn in

But why the compulsion to stay behind to help when everyone else – British military included – has left? 

“Unless you’ve been to Afghanistan, you can never completely understand,” is her answer. “It’s the people. They are extraordinary in that they have had so much thrown at them. The thing I love most about the cricket is that it shows the world out of nowhere, out of the pits, with no real proper help, this extraordinary team has come from the refugee camps to the world stage. It is so symbolic of Afghanistan and that’s why I love it. Everyone can see that spirit.”

For more information, or to donate, go to afghanconnection.org

Read original article in The Telegraph  HERE.


Afghanistan’s Mission to the United Nations Has a Serious Sexism Problem


This week, Mohammad Yama Aini, an Afghan diplomat with the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations physically assaulted his wife resulting in her admission to emergency care in Queens, New York.
He couldn’t be charged because of diplomatic immunity.This is not the first time an Afghan diplomat has committed violence against a woman. It is also not the first time a diplomat has gotten away with brutal physical violence with overwhelming evidence against them, because of their job.
Last year, Joachim Haubrichs, a German diplomat, was called back to his homeland after punching his wife and emotionally and physically abusing her. In both cases the hands of local law enforcement were tied due to the diplomatic status of the abusers.
Afghan government’s reaction to this unacceptable crime has been swift, but we must remember that swift doesn’t always equate justice in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan (MoFA) announced that they have called Aini back to Afghanistan and he will face investigation and legal repercussions. The nature of those repercussions have not been discussed and as of today, Tuesday, July 25, 2017, COB time, Aini is still listed as a staff member on the Mission’s website. All this has happened while Afghanistan is nominated to become a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
What is probably more worrisome is that no details have been given about the fate of Aini’s abused wife, Muzhgan Aini, and whether she will have to return to Afghanistan and continue living with him. Throughout this process, her voice has been completely missing from the conversation- sidelined and ignored as they government rushes to fix their own “PR disaster.” Efforts by Free Women Writers, advocates, and Afghans in the diaspora to get an answer from the Mission have gone unanswered. Instead of condemning this act of violence by one of their employees in the harshest terms, they have remained silent.
To make sure MoFA and the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations follow up and justice is served, here are some things you can do. Tweet at the Mission (@AfghanMissionUN), MoFA (@mfa_afghanistan), and the Permanent Representative Mr. Mahmoud Saikal (@MahmoudSaikal) or (if you are in the United States) call the Mission at 212–972 1212 and demand answers.
This case of gender-based violence by a diplomate working for the Afghanistan mission is in itself a serious matter that must be addressed. The violent abuser must be fired and held accountable under the Elimination of Violence against Women Act and governmental figures, including Mr. Saikal who have remained silent thus far, have to condemn it publicly and show the world that Afghanistan will not tolerate this behaviour.
The mission also must go a step further to be worthy of the Human Rights Council- or a half-decent organization. Currently, there is only one woman employee in this organiwation and she holds the position of second secretary. The remaining eleven staff members and all the counsellors are men. Rest assured that this is not due to a lack of qualified women to take on this position, rather it is caused by a lack of regard for meaningful representation of women.
The women of Afghanistan- and the country as a whole- deserve better representation than this. Victims and survivors of gender-based violence deserve better than the Mission’s silence.
Read original HERE



Women for Peace and Participation – Afghanistan Programme Report

Afghan girls robotic team finally granted US visas.

Donald Trump has been praised for allowing an Afghan all-girl robotics team to enter the US, despite twice denying them visas.  The six-person group will enter a ball-sorting robot in a three-day international robotics competition.

Donald Trump has been praised for allowing an all-girl robotics team from Afghanistan to enter the US, despite his travel ban making it difficult for them to receive visas. 

The six-girl team and their chaperone from Herat, Afghanistan, had two visa applications refused before a last-minute intervention by the US President allowed them to travel.

Mr Trump’s personal intervention in the girls’ case using a rare “parole” mechanism to sidestep the visa system ended a dramatic saga in which the team twice travelled from their home in western Afghanistan through largely Taliban-controlled territory to Kabul, only for their applications to be denied on both occasions.

The team will enter their ball-sorting robot in a three-day international robotics competition in Washington DC that starts on Sunday. 

Afghan Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib said: “Seventeen years ago, this would not have been possible at all. They represent our aspirations and resilience despite having been brought up in a perpetual conflict. These girls will be proving to the world and the nation that nothing will prevent us from being an equal and active member of the international community.”

Mr Trump’s counsel Kellyanne Conway also praised the decision, saying: “Thank you, @POTUS, for helping these girls. Others talk (and talk and talk). You act.”

But others accused the White House of having the “audacity” to take credit for helping the girls despite their visas being rejected twice before by US officials. 

Pollster Matt McDermott wrote on Twitter: “The audacity: White House wants credit for intervening to help girls that had difficulty entering country because of Trump’s own Muslim Ban!”

Another user said: “Trump is like the boy in court for murdering his parents who asks the judge for mercy because he’s an orphan.”

Afghanistan isn’t included in Mr Trump’s temporary travel ban, but critics have said the ban is emblematic of a broader effort to put a chill on Muslims entering the US.

But Mr Mohib said that based on discussions with US officials, it appears the girls were rebuffed due to concerns they would not return to Afghanistan. 

Competing against entrants from more than 150 countries, the girls will present a robot they devised that can recognise blue and orange and sort balls into correct locations.

Read Lucy Pasha’s original article HERE.

Afghan police provide shelter for domestic crime victims

Afghan women police officers have been contributing to bring peace to the lives of women and children who have made victim of domestic and other crimes in Family Response Units (FRUs).

“The FRU, as part of the Afghanistan National Police, deal with women and children of domestic violence … the FRUs offer a safe place for women to report abuse in hopes that it will change their lives and those of their children for a better future,” Resolute Support Senior Gender Advisor Australian Army Col. Bronwyn Wheeler said.

The NATO Resolute Support (RS) mission have planned to build Family Rehabilitation Units (FRU) in some Police Districts (PD) of capital Kabul for violence hit women and children.

Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser, commanding general for Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan, and Lt. Gen. Janan Barekzai, first deputy minister of interior, visited PD 17 Family Response Unit’s temporary location, where women police officers have been trying to bring peace to the lives of women and children who are victims of domestic and other crimes.

“We help enable the Ministry of Interior efforts by providing the necessary funds and expertise when required. Our Afghan partners designated these two areas in Kabul as areas in particular need of services to help Afghan women and children. Any time we can provide assistance to those in need, it provides a special satisfaction,” Kaiser said.

The FRUs supported victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, child marriage and other issues. Police officers at the FRU, many of whom are women, investigate these crimes and provide support to women and children who turn to them for help.

“We donated four re-locatable buildings for each site, and MOI-FD managed the connections and refurbishment of the buildings. The total cost of the project was 5-million Afghanis,” said Army Lt. Col. Aaron Gorges, deputy branch chief, CSTC-A Combined Joint Engineers.

The FRU has waiting areas, office space, medical and interview areas, and shower and bathroom facilities, offering a safe place for women to stay after reporting crimes.

Prior to temporary facilities, the PD-17 FRU operated in the same office with the Afghan criminal investigation department, making it impossible for police FRU to interview victims in private.

“The hope is that when fully established, these centers can serve as models to export to other cities in need, such as Jalalabad, Herat, Kandahar and others … ,” Kaiser said.

Plans are underway to build permanent FRUs throughout Kabul at PD-4, 8, 12, and 17. PD-17’s permanent FRU will be co-located with the new PD-17 police station. Resolute Support has constructed 41 FRUs and 93 Women’s Participation Program facilities across Afghanistan. 

See original  post with full  links HERE.

Marefat School – A beacon of hope for students


Frances  D‘Souza reports back on her visit to Marefat to help launch officially its spectacular new auditorium. 

In 1994 Marefat High School started its first educational programs with the name of “Afshar Elementary School” in Rawalpindi Pakistan and continued its works till 1997 under this name. In 1997 the name of school was changed to Marefat High School through a proposal suggested by Hafizullah Abram & Najibullah Soroush, and authorized by Dr. Anwar Yosoufi & Azizullah Royesh. In 1998 the school received a membership of “The Education Committee for Afghans” located in Islam Abad, Pakistan. In spring 2002 Marefat High School preserved one of its branches in Rawalpindi, shifted all other programs to Kabul, Afghanistan and started its educational activities in a small building located in Pol e Khusk, Dasht e Barchi. In winter 2002 the school was shifted to another building in Naqash Station and in spring 2003 the new branch of that was opened in a building in Qala e Nazir.

In winter 2003 Marefat High School started the programs in its own new building located in Gulestan e Marefat in Kabul, 13th Provincial District. All the educational and rehabilitation programs of the school, from 1st grade to 12th grade, were centered in this building.

The new building of Marefat High School is located in an area with 2500 square meter wide which has all the adequate educational and training facilities and equipment. Therefore the school directs a wide variety of programs available not only for serving its educational and rehabilitation purpose but also for capacity building, civic and cultural programs which in return provides the school with high social reputation and recognition. In 2005 Marefat High School received its accreditation letter from Afghanistan Ministry of Education under the rules of private and non-governmental schools. In 2006 all the school credits were transferred to the Marefat High School Social Counsel and later on this counsel was registered with the legal identity of a non-profit organization in the Afghanistan Ministries of Finance, Education and Justice.

Till 2012 almost 100% of Marefat High School eight graduate classes got admissions into the country universities. It was in 2011 that based on Ministry of Education’s evaluation, Marefat High School got the first position among all the private schools in Kabul city. Also in the Public Universities General Examination of 2011 & 2012 Marefat High School graduates achieved the highest level of success for entering the public universities in the country.

Till 2012 more than 82 students of Marefat High School won scholarships from Ministry of Higher Education for pursuing undergraduate programs as well as for attending short term and long term training programs. Marefat High School graduates are currently students of different universities in USA, Bangladesh, Turkey, Pakistan, Mongolia, South Korea, Malaysia and Russia.

In 2012 Marefat high School Social Council was transferred to Marefat Civil Capacity Building Organization (MCCBO) and all the credits were transferred to this non-governmental and non-profit organization. In addition to the educational and rehabilitation programs in Marefat High School, Academic Advising Program for Scholarships, Marefat Alumni Association, Marefat English Language Program, Women and Adult Literacy program, Radio Station, Monthly Educational Magazine, Music department, Art Gallery, Film Making, Photography and Library departments are also active in the MCCBO where many students and professionals are employed. (Read more HERE).


Women excluded again from Afghanistan’s peace talks

Participation by women even more urgent in light of recent attacks in Kabul

Read original article by Heather Barr  HERE.



War: The real cancer of mankind

 June 5th marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. On June 14th Palestinians in Gaza will have been in lockdown for 10 years, a period punctuated by three punishing military offensives. It’s 16 years since British troops were deployed to Afghanistan, and three since they officially left a still dangerous and unstable country writes GLYN STRONG

Palestinians and Afghans have been so frequently linked to violence, conflict and aid appeals that they have lost their identity as people with ‘normal’ needs; needs like education, freedom of movement, food, shelter and healthcare. 

Pain can shrink a universe. To someone struggling with cancer the fact that their nation is in political turmoil or their leader about to be toppled is almost an irrelevance.

But only ‘almost’, because war and the tectonic plates of political repositioning have a direct effect on every aspect of family life – and at the heart of every family is a woman.  

‘Brexit’ may have prompted families in the UK to speculate about how leaving the EU might impact on health spending, but no Western woman expects to face a future in which breast cancer treatment is either unavailable or punishingly hard to access.

Towards the end of 2016 I joined a low profile, self-funded ‘tour’ for individuals who wanted to see for themselves how citizens of the Jewish State and their neighbours in the Palestinian Territories co-existed. During that visit news reached the party that Donald J Trump had won the American election and iconic singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen had died. Cohen’s legacy was a poignant valedictory album prophetically called ‘You want it darker’. For those living in the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’ that darkness had been gathering for a long time. For some it began 70 years ago and on May 15th the Nakba was commemorated – i.e. the ‘catastrophe’ that resulted in more than 750,000 Palestinians being dispossessed when the State of Israel was formed.

Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the USA provoked shockwaves of horror and international condemnation. Yet Israel has been building walls for years, not to staunch a flow of economic migrants, but to keep Palestinians out of their own country. Behind the walls are roads that Palestinians can’t use and settlements that they can’t live in.

 Nearly 4,000km east of Jerusalem, the residents of Kabul also face barriers. Maybe not the kind that physically criss-cross the West Bank or restrict access in and out of Gaza, but they are equally impenetrable.

 American journalist Sidney J Harris described war as ‘the cancer of mankind’ – a malignant and destructive force that changes the conventions of life. Nowhere is that more evident than in these two countries.



Erez crossing – Gaza © Glyn Strong Palestine

Palestine and Afghanistan are not unique; visit any failed state, war or post-conflict zone and you will find disruption. Good infrastructure, freedom of movement, communication networks and a degree of wealth are pre-requisites of any ‘healthy’ society and the first to suffer in times of war.

 The Erez crossing from Gaza to Israel is a bleak, soulless place. Intimidating to all travellers it represents a singular obstacle to those seeking medical treatment. It is accessible only to Israeli-issued permit holders, primarily medical and other humanitarian cases, aid workers and merchants. Many of those who pass through the long corridors of concrete and wire that deliver them to the scrutiny of security checkpoints need vital treatment for cancer. According to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Access Report for March 2017, 45% of patients seeking to leave Gaza for healthcare had their appeals for permits denied or delayed.

In 2016, the average rate of permits granted was just 64%.

 At the Qulandia crossing, between the West Bank and Israel, women seeking radiotherapy also have to wait – often standing in the heat and dust for hours feeling sick, frightened and anxious. Currently this critical treatment is only available to them at Jerusalem’s Augusta Victoria Hospital.

 Mainstream news outlets focus on the kinetic aspects of Israel’s relationship with its Palestinian neighbours. The morality of bombs, air strikes, blockades and the inevitable ‘collateral damage’ is a subject that exercises Middle East pundits with Pavlovian regularity. The 2016 Haifa blaze was global news, but deaths due to more prosaic causes are not so well profiled.

 Oslo Accords notwithstanding, neighbouring Israeli and Palestinian communities live in parallel universes. Divided physically by intimidating concrete walls and forced to use different roads, their daily experiences of life couldn’t be more different. Those living in Gaza have faced virtual lockdown since 2007 when Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade on the strip; many inhabitants regard it as an open prison. Their counterparts in the West Bank have more mobility, but their movements are curtailed by checkpoints, random ID inspections and much-disputed seizures of land, property and water sources. There is no airport in Palestine (the West Bank, or Gaza).

 As for the ‘mutual dignity’ promised by the 1993 Oslo agreement, it is hard to imagine anything less dignified than the sight of human beings queuing like cattle at checkpoints manned by unsmiling young guards whose ‘security’ role frequently causes sick women to miss hospital appointments or go home in despair.

 Often separated from their West Bank neighbours by just a few kilometres Israeli women are almost twice as likely to survive breast cancer as their Palestinian counterparts. Medical Aid for Palestine

(MAP), one of the charities contributing to the support of a not-for-profit Cancer Centre in Ramallah and a West Bank university, has tried to remedy this. The charity supports the Dunya Centre (to the tune of £88,000 per annum) and has invested in Bethlehem University so that it can offer a Higher Diploma course for nurses in Oncology and Palliative Care. A spokesman said, “Our initial £121,000 covers the first two cohorts (1.5 academic years), with another £152,000 pledged to cover a further three cohorts subject to a positive evaluation.”

The Dunya Centre is a beacon of hope in this depressing scenario. Founded in 2011 it is the only place in the West Bank that offers Palestinian women (and men) the comprehensive early diagnostic technology for breast cancer that can save invasive surgery and, in many cases, lives.

 After qualifying as a doctor in Moscow its Director, Dr. Nufuz Maslamani, returned to Palestine to practice. She too has to negotiate the Qulandia crossing daily to get to work, but is upbeat about what the clinic is achieving. “Every woman who comes here is given a breast examination. We teach her how to do self-examination. If she does this each month she can detect 70% of the changes that indicate breast cancer. We work to international protocols, if a woman is more than 40 we start with a mammogram and then after that, ultrasound but if the woman is less than 40 we start with ultrasound and a physical exam.”

 The Dunya Centre offers clinical examination, mammography, breast ultrasound and PAP/cervical smear tests. It has a cytology lab and is able to conduct a variety of investigations. “Six of our patients have been men,” says Dr. Maslamani.

While we speak a member of staff brings in some hair ‘donated’ by a supporter. It will be used to make one of the wigs that the centre makes available to women who have lost their hair as a result of treatment. The clinic also offers psychological support for cancer patients and their families and uses its ‘Survivors Group’ as a force multiplier to reach members of the community fearful or mistrustful of its services.

 One Israeli hospital employee has a unique overview but is understandably unwilling to be named. “Certain kinds of treatment are just not available in the West Bank; they don’t have a child dialysis facility for example and they (children) have to travel many kilometres to get their treatment three times a week.

 “In Gaza however, things are terrible. If they need a blood transfusion for example, it can be done, but certain blood types need to be processed to get rid of antibodies. Well, that facility does not exist in Gaza. You can do the transfusion but you are probably killing the patient.”

 Afghanistan’s cancer sufferers are not separated from treatment by such visible barriers but by lack of money, and accessible facilities. Like their Palestinian counterparts their situation is a legacy of conflict.

 Afghan breast cancer surgeon Dr. Zarghuna Taraki, whose UK patients at University College Hospital London have access to excellent treatment, said, “Cancer is a dark area in Afghanistan – not only breast cancer but all cancer – there is certainly no comprehensive awareness campaign. I was talking to some ladies back home and they asked me questions such as ‘Is it possible that a breast can develop a disease?’

 “Most women in Afghanistan look to other women, their friends and families, for information. In the villages especially I don’t think they have any knowledge about the meaning of breast lumps or breast cancer – so they die without ever knowing the reason. This is very sad but it also makes it harder to learn how widespread breast cancer is when causes of death are unknown.”

 The WHO estimates that nearly 20,000 cases of cancers are diagnosed in Afghanistan each year. Breast cancer is the most common, accounting for approximately 15% of all cases. It is the leading cause of death in women.

Of course, Palestinians and Afghans are not the only people denied the healthcare that we in the UK take for granted – every country where ‘the cancer of mankind’ has left its mark can point to families destroyed by un-necessary deaths.

 But it’s not all bad news. Just as the Dunya Clinic brings hope to Palestinian women, so too does the embryonic Cancer Department in Kabul.

 In November 2014 when the then MP Dr. Shinkai Karokhail, now Afghan Ambassador to Ottawa, returned home after spending almost a year overseas being treated for breast cancer that was misdiagnosed in Afghanistan, she and HE The First Lady, Mrs. Rula Ghani, began advocating for improvement and better cancer prevention and control in their country. They brought together the nation’s cancer professionals under one umbrella – the Afghanistan Cancer Foundation (ACF).

 In addition to cancer awareness campaigns, ACF convinced the Ministry of Public Health and the only medical oncologist in the country to set up an outpatient department (OPD) followed by the opening of a 23-bed Inpatient Department (IPD) in Jumhuriat Hospital. Between August 2015 and April 2017, more than 9,500 patients were provided with cancer diagnosis and treatment services there.

 Still finding its feet the Cancer Department, affiliated with the National Cancer Control Program, is desperate for support as its coordinator at the Ministry of Public Health, Dr. Maihan Abdullah  explains: “Support and advocacy for cancer prevention and control here is badly needed. With each passing day the number of patients visiting the Cancer Department is increasing. Patients coming from rural areas have to wait for days to be admitted. The most urgent need is infrastructure/buildings that could accommodate the increasing demand for cancer care services. The second most important need is for the establishment of a pathology unit for which we need human and financial resources. The third most important need is for radiotherapy.”

He knows that political and financial support is crucial, but equally vital is expertise. “We need to recruit non-Afghan experts but many are reluctant to come to Afghanistan without the support of their governments.”

*Reproduced by kind permission of The Courant.