Dec 30, 2010

Afghanistan - The People’s December Review

In the first person voice of Abdulai, a fifteen year old Afghan boy whose father was killed by the Taliban:

“The place where I live is the worst place on earth in which to be born . Good thing my mother survived her pregnancies . But my father -- he didn’t survive the war. Isn’t it strange that there is a graveyard marked out especially for children in my small remote mountain village? A quarter of all children do not live beyond five years of age and they are buried there; we already have to find new space because the graveyard is filled. As 42 percent of Afghans live in poverty , my family could not afford a proper grave for my father for five years. My father would have understood our predicament: in a land with the worst food risk in the world , we make do with whatever food and clean water we can get. Since we don’t have electricity , we are grateful for diesel lamps. And most importantly, my father would have understood that we still struggle to stay away from the killings.

Since War World II, wars have killed mainly civilians and this war in Afghanistan is no exception. In fact, we now have nowhere to turn and nowhere to hide . We face night raids , computerized aerial bombings and the armed players who neither recognize our language nor our faces.

Many of our families and friends have sought refuge in far-away places . What can our people do? Wait to die of sickness or violence? Be pawns in the warlords’ games? I made hand-sewn leather cell-phone peace pouches for our ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in Kandahar and I know that before the NATO commander had launched the current offensive there, 94% of Kandaharis said they wanted peace talks , not war. But the US led coalition went ahead and launched its deadly military operation. They proved their utterly un-democratic, unimaginative addiction to an unchanging military solution.

Karzai said that more than 42 percent of children in Afghanistan still have no access to schooling : at least, that’s not as fatal as the three children killed daily in the conflict last year . If you don’t grasp how the Afghan state is the third most corrupt in the world , come take our school exams to experience the rampant bribery and cheating this war encourages. Like other war-torn countries, the influx of weapons and un-accounted monetary aid fosters corruption, fuelling deceit at all levels of our society.

Drugs made from poppies grown in our country are everywhere, with more than a million drug addicts in country . Perhaps, being doped is better than putting up with our sheer lack of work and recourse to government services or justice. Last year, estimates are that we Afghans had to pay $2.49 billion dollars in bribes to our own government officials , which is equivalent to 23% of our country’s GDP.

But heck it….we don’t even want your money! Two billion of which you spend on the military weekly and the remaining dirty trickle cannot even be accounted for by your Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) .

My mother and sister say to you that you can forget about promoting ‘women’s rights’ with your uniformed pride. Last year, there were 2300 suicides related to depression among women and girls . And don’t ever claim that a military strategy can stop them from taking their lives. Neither the US-NATO coalition nor our warlords can, with their violence, stop the desperation of our people. In fact, like the people caught in the Helmand operation that was declared a success, the women of Afghanistan want you, with full responsibility, to transition out as soon as possible .

President Obama, please completely rethink the ‘progress’ you declared in the December review . To Ms. Hillary Clinton and Mr Robert Gates, we’re sorry for your dismissal of world public opinion . Now, get ready for its flood!
This People’s December Review sought to speak from the ‘hearts and minds’ of ordinary Afghan people,commoners who share the same pain experienced by the impoverished and unheard masses everywhere.

It is a reflection of life as it really is for the people of Afghanistan.

The world should listen.

The people of the world should be listening to one another, because governments are not.

President Obama declared in his administration's December Review that there was ‘significant progress’ for America’s goals in Afghanistan.

He claimed to be ‘on track.’

But, Abdulai’s People’s December Review shows how far off-track Obama is from the people’s concerns and how U.S. foreign policy gives no alternative options for any citizen.

There ARE alternative options and views, a small number of which we’ve listed below, starting off with Prof. Noam Chomsky’s views expressed in the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers’ recent conversation with him.

In the bigger scheme of history, for too long now, the strategies for resolving global conflicts have been built predominantly around military force.

Soul-force must be given a chance.

Excerpts of interview with Prof Noam Chomsky
In a conversation with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers on the 17th of December 2010 for The People’s December Review.

On Obama’s claims of ‘significant progress’
…it’s worth noting that a few days ago the International Commission of the Red Cross released a report which is extremely unusual for them, -they rarely do it,- in which they said that the situation on the ground has deteriorated radically. They gave particulars and said it’s now far worse than it’s been in the past. They’re actually working there and have experience. Plainly that’s not consistent with the picture of progress.

On self-determination by the people
I know for me at least and the people I work with in the antiwar movement the goal for Afghanistan would be for Afghans themselves to take over the planning, the determination of what will happen ,so that there won’t be a review conference in Washington where they have their own goals, --the welfare of the people of Afghanistan is not high among them,-- but rather the decisions will be made by people like you and others in Afghanistan who have the fate of your country and your lives at heart and people of the US here should support your efforts in whatever way we can.

….But there is extensive study that demonstrates that there is a very wide gap between the decisions of the government and the will of the population. That’s true on domestic issues. It’s true on international issues, and it reflects the fact that though the U.S. is an unusually free country by comparative standards, it’s only in a very limited way a functioning democracy.

Power does not lie in the hands of the population except in a very limited way and popular opinion does not determine policy. And that’s in fact one of the reasons why there’s such hysteria over the leaks of government documents. Anyone who has studied secret documents for many years, as I have, knows one of their main purposes is to protect the government from the population, not security, but just keeping the public controlled and obedient. That’s a battle that has to be constantly fought in the more free societies as well to try to overcome this dysfunctional element of formal democracy which keeps it from functioning properly. Popular movements have in the past and should in this case too integrate themselves with those of other countries and form a common force, often against their own governments.

On reparations
Afghanistan has a very dramatic, important history of independence, but for the last thirty years it has simply been a plaything of the great powers which have virtually destroyed it. All of them. All of the ones who were involved owe Afghanistan not aid but reparations. Apology and reparations. That includes Russia, of course, and certainly the United States and it also includes Pakistan. Aid sounds like something we give out of our good nature or good will. Reparation means what we are responsible for providing because of the extreme damage we have caused. And yes, that‘s a very important demand. It should be made here and should be made in Afghanistan.

On the question of U.S. intentions in Afghanistan: eventual withdrawal or permanent presence?
At this point, I think it’s not unlikely that even just for domestic, political reasons, the U.S. will try to find a way to withdraw most of its forces and try to portray it as some kind a victory. That’s for domestic reasons.
But, I don’t think that’s what should concern us. We’re not concerned with making officials in Washington look good to their associates.
We should be concerned with what matters for the people of Afghanistan. And that’s of course for you and others like you to decide. Success, I would understand as meaning success in achieving your aims, not Washington’s aims.

On what Afghan and international peace activists should focus on
What Afghans should focus on is finding ways to join together to formulate their own ideas and plans as to the course of policy, internal to Afghanistan, and their demands on other countries that are engaged in Afghanistan. That means primarily the US but also others that are involved.

Afghans should formulate those goals and policies jointly with people in the rest of the world, in particular in the United States that work to support those plans, so the activists in the United States should be and to an extent are waiting to hear from people of Afghanistan. What do you want us to do?

A Sample of Alternative December Reviews

"So what's my option?" the president asked his war cabinet, seeking alternatives...
You have essentially given me one option. ...It's unacceptable.”
Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward

“Why not talks?”
“Why not reconciliation?”
“Why not non-violence?”

1. World Public Opinion Polls

International public opinion is largely opposed to the war in Afghanistan

The latest ABC polls show that 60 % of Americans think that the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.

An earlier ABC/Washington Post Poll showed that Afghans have turned more negative in their assessment of the presence and performance of U.S. and NATO forces
Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates tried to belittle this significant public opinion. Read how they dismissed public opinion and democracy.

2. Letter from Afghan Experts to Barack Obama
Read how these Afghan Experts call Obama's strategy unsustainable

3. National Intelligence Estimates NIE
Read how 2 new NIE reports cast doubts on the Afghan war progress

4. Other Studies/Reports
A New Way Forward: Rethinking US Strategy in Afghanistan published by Washington-based Afghan Study Group

"Strategic Survey 2010" released by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies

Both studies above conclude that "a Taliban takeover is unlikely even if Washington reduces its military commitment" in Afghanistan, in good measure because the conditions that allowed the first Taliban takeover in the 1990s no longer exist and can't easily be repeated. As important, "there [are] no significant Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, and the risk of a new 'safe haven' there under more 'friendly' Taliban rule is overstated.”

Afghan Women Speak by David Cortright of Kroc Institute which expresses Afghan women’s recommendations to the US and NATO governments for a responsible withdrawal.

Sep 24, 2010

The New Vision to Bamyan

A lot of people are visiting Bamyan in every year; the photographers are looking to Bamyan as traveler, some is looking for the journey & the afghan photographs are looking for the best shoot for international audience.
So keep looking to Basir Seerat's Photography from around Afghanistan, because Basir is looking for the best who never see it before.
Also look it to the photos of BAMYAN.

Sep 7, 2010

How Are the Suiciding Taliban Trained?

Islamic Fundamentalism is not a mere political question to be addressed by politicians or political powers. Watching this film, one can go deep into the core of the problem. What is the solution and who is the source to answer it? ...

To Watch the film, follow this link:

Republic of Silence

Aug 21, 2010

Democracy Photo Challenge Finalists

Democracy is voting for who you want as your president

My photo has made it to the final round of the Democracy Photo Challenge! My photo is now included in the finalist album on Picasa where users can vote ("like") their favorite photo

Jun 27, 2010

Overture to Taliban Jolts Afghan Minorities

Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

A political settlement could end the war, but power sharing may also risk igniting ethnic strife in major cities like Mazar-i-Sharif.

Source: NYT

KABUL, Afghanistan — The drive by President Hamid Karzai to strike a deal with Taliban leaders and their Pakistani backers is causing deep unease in Afghanistan’s minority communities, who fought the Taliban the longest and suffered the most during their rule.

The leaders of the country’s Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities, which make up close to half of Afghanistan’s population, are vowing to resist — and if necessary, fight — any deal that involves bringing members of the Taliban insurgency into a power-sharing arrangement with the government.

Alienated by discussions between President Karzai and the Pakistani military and intelligence officials, minority leaders are taking their first steps toward organizing against what they fear is Mr. Karzai’s long-held desire to restore the dominance of ethnic Pashtuns, who ruled the country for generations.

The dispute is breaking along lines nearly identical to those that formed during the final years of the Afghan civil war, which began after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989 and ended only with the American invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks. More than 100,000 Afghans died, mostly civilians; the Taliban, during their five-year reign in the capital, Kabul, carried out several large-scale massacres of Hazara civilians.

“Karzai is giving Afghanistan back to the Taliban, and he is opening up the old schisms,” said Rehman Oghly, an Uzbek member of Parliament and once a member of an anti-Taliban militia. “If he wants to bring in the Taliban, and they begin to use force, then we will go back to civil war and Afghanistan will be split.”

The deepening estrangement of Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun communities presents a paradox for the Americans and their NATO partners. American commanders have concluded that only a political settlement can end the war. But in helping Mr. Karzai to make a deal, they risk reigniting Afghanistan’s ethnic strife.

Talks between Mr. Karzai and the Pakistani leaders have been unfolding here and in Islamabad for several weeks, with some discussions involving bestowing legitimacy on Taliban insurgents.

The leaders of these minority communities say that President Karzai appears determined to hand Taliban leaders a share of power — and Pakistan a large degree of influence inside the country. The Americans, desperate to end their involvement here, are helping Mr. Karzai along and shunning the Afghan opposition, they say.

Mr. Oghly said he was disillusioned with the Americans and their NATO allies, who he says appear to be urging Mr. Karzai along. “We are losing faith in our foreign friends,” he said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was worried about “the Tajik-Pashtun divide that has been so strong.” American and NATO leaders, he said, are trying to stifle any return to ethnic violence.

“It has the potential to really tear this country apart,” Admiral Mullen said in an interview. “That’s not what we are going to permit.”

Afghanistan’s minorities — especially the ethnic Tajiks — have always been the most reliable American allies, and made up the bulk of the anti-Taliban army that the Americans aided following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

The situation is complicated by the politics of the Afghan Army, the centerpiece of American-led efforts to enable the Afghan military to one day take over. The ethnic mix of the Afghan Army is roughly proportional to the population, and the units in the field are mixed themselves. But non-Pashtuns are widely believed to do the bulk of the fighting.

There are growing indications of ethnic fissures inside the army. President Karzai recently decided to remove Bismullah Khan, the chief of staff of the Afghan Army, and make him the interior minister instead. Mr. Khan is an ethnic Tajik, and a former senior leader of the Northern Alliance, the force that fought the Taliban in the years before Sept. 11. Whom Mr. Karzai decides to put in Mr. Khan’s place will be closely watched.

One recent source of tension was the resignation of Armullah Saleh, the head of Afghan intelligence service and an ethnic Tajik. Mr. Saleh, widely regarded as one of the most competent aides, resigned after Mr. Karzai said he no longer had faith that he could do the job.

Along with Mr. Khan, the army chief of staff, Mr. Saleh was a former aide to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary commander who fought both the Soviet Union and the Taliban. Since leaving the government, Mr. Saleh has started what appears to be the beginning of a political campaign.

Other prominent Afghans have begun to organize along mostly ethnic lines. Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister and presidential candidate, has been hosting gatherings at his farm outside Kabul. In an interview, he said he was preparing to announce the formation of what would amount to an opposition party. Mr. Abdullah, who is of Pashtun and Tajik heritage, said his movement would include Afghans from all the major communities. But his source of power has historically been Afghanistan’s Tajik community.

Mr. Abdullah said he disagreed with the thrust of Mr. Karzai’s policy of engagement with the Taliban and Pakistan. It would be impossible to share power with Taliban leaders, Mr. Abdullah said, because of their support for terrorism and the draconian brand of Islam they would try to impose on everyone else.

“We bring the Taliban into the government — we give them one or two provinces,” Mr. Abdullah said. “If that is what they think, it is not going to happen that way. Anybody thinking in that direction, they are lost. Absolutely lost.”

The trouble, Mr. Abdullah said, is that the Taliban, once given a slice of power, would not be satisfied. “They will take advantage of this,” he said of a political settlement, “and then they will continue.”

The prerequisite for any deal with the Taliban, Afghan and American officials have said repeatedly, is that insurgents renounce their support of terrorists (including Al Qaeda), and that they promise to support the Afghan Constitution.

Beyond that, though, Mr. Karzai’s goals vis-à-vis the Taliban are difficult to discern. Recently he has told senior Afghan officials that he no longer believes that the Americans and NATO can prevail in Afghanistan and that they will probably leave soon. That fact may make Mr. Karzai more inclined to make a deal with both Pakistan and the Taliban.

As for the Pakistanis, their motives are even more opaque. For years, Pakistani leaders have denied supporting the Taliban, but evidence suggests that they continue to do so. In recent talks, the Pakistanis have offered Mr. Karzai a sort of strategic partnership — and one that involves giving at least one the most brutal Taliban groups, the Haqqani network, a measure of legitimacy in Afghanistan.

Two powerful Pakistani officials — Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief of staff; and Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, — are set to arrive Monday for talks with Mr. Karzai.

Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun leaders are watching these discussions unfold with growing alarm so far they have taken few concrete steps to resist them.

But no one here doubts that any of these groups, with their bloody histories of fighting the Taliban, could arm themselves quickly if they wished.

“Karzai has begun the ethnic war,” said Mohammed Mohaqeq, a Hazara leader and a former ally of the president. “The future is very dark.”

May 3, 2010

Malalai Joya in The 2010 TIME 100

To be a woman growing up in Afghanistan under the Taliban and to survive is in itself a major feat. To be so lucky as to become literate in a place where girls are shrouded and denied even fresh air is close to a miracle. To start underground schools and educate girls under the noses of turbaned, self-appointed defenders of virtue and forbidders of vice is truly extraordinary.

But to get a seat in parliament and refuse to be silent in the face of the Taliban and warlord zealots shows true fiber. When Malalai Joya did this, her opponents responded in the usual way: expulsion from parliament, warnings, intimidation and attempts to cut her life short. She has survived all of it.

Malalai, 31, is a leader. I hope in time she comes to see the U.S. and NATO forces in her country as her allies. She must use her notoriety, her demonstrated wit and her resilience to get the troops on her side instead of out of her country. The road to freedom is long and arduous and needs


Apr 7, 2010

Guli Souri

To see the best photos of people of Afghanistan, Visit Basir Seearat

Mar 31, 2010

Burkas behind bars: Afghan women in prison

From RT

Most Afghan women are illiterate, face poverty, have limited access to healthcare, and subjected to continued and widespread violence. As if this is not enough, they are often arbitrarily imprisoned for “moral crimes”

Under the Penal Code of 1976, which is still in force, women can be punished for offences defined as “moral crimes”. These are mainly adultery and running away from home, often both combined.

The majority of female prisoners at Badam Bagh Central Prison for Women Offenders in Kabul are being held for violating social, behavioral, and religious norms.

When the taxi driver attempts to drop my Afghan interpreter and me off at Badam Bagh, the prison guards wave us off repeatedly, shouting that we are not allowed to stop at the entrance. With the increase of suicide bombings in Kabul they are terrified of explosions and view everybody with suspicion passing the prison.

Read more

After shouting out our identifications and reasons for visiting the prison through the open taxi window, we are eventually allowed to get out at the prison gate.

The prison guard who reads my prison admission letter is illiterate and holds it upside down, pretending to understand the writing. “You look OK,” he says, and gives us directions how to find the commander who is in charge of Badam Bagh.

The commander keeps a list of all the prisoners under a plate of glass on his desk. When asked what crimes they’ve committed, he tells me that he is very busy and that I should go and speak to the women themselves. Although some of the prisoners admit to crimes of murder, drug trafficking and attempted suicide bombings, many of the women I interview tell me they have been falsely accused of crimes by male members of their families.

Afghan prisoner in Badam Bagh Central Prison for Women Offenders in  Kabul. The majority of female prisoners in this prison are being held  for violating social, behavioral, and religious norms (Photo by by  Lizette Potgieter)
Click to enlarge

The wardens’ observation room, where I conduct my interviews, is crowded with upwards of twenty-five women, talking, weeping, and laughing. They range from late teens to late fifties, some heavily made up in tight-fitting tops and pants, others in traditional Afghan dress, with white or black lace-bordered pantaloons peeping from under long, full skirts. The young girls are unveiled; the older women, especially those from tribal areas, bear dark blue tattoos on their faces and deep orange henna on their fingernails, toes, and feet.

Zarmina, a petite twenty-six-year-old, is nervous and shy. She stares at her tattooed hands and twists her ring. The tattoos are the names of her six children, living with her mother-in-law in Ghazni, in central Afghanistan.

“I was very small when my mother died. When I was thirteen, my father sold me to a forty-five-year-old man. I was exchanged for his daughter, who was married to my brother. My husband was an opium addict. I told my father I wanted a divorce, but he didn’t care about me. My husband brought another woman into the house and had sex with her. He told me I should do the same. ‘Find a man and have sex with him,’ he said. I was with my husband for twelve years. He beat me and often attacked me with a knife. Look at my scars.”

Toward the end of their marriage, the couple moved to Iran, where Zarmina’s husband contracted HIV/AIDS. When they returned to Afghanistan, he at last agreed to a divorce. “I thought my life would change, but it got worse.”

The vast  majority of women and girls in Afghanistan have little knowledge about  their constitutional rights, no access to justice, and no power to  change their lives (Photo by by Lizette Potgieter)
Click to enlarge

“I went to live with my brother in Kabul, but he beat me all the time because I was divorced. I then left for Mazar-i-Sharif to be trained as a police officer. I wanted a job. My sister followed me to Mazar and tried to convince me to return to my brother’s house. She threatened me, saying: If you refuse, I will report you to the police and tell them that you tried to kidnap me.”

Nevertheless, Zarmina refused to return to Kabul. Her brother had her arrested on charges of kidnapping. She was imprisoned in Mazar-i-Sharif, where she spent a few weeks, before attending a court hearing in Kabul, where a male judge chose to believe her brother and sent her to Badam Bagh.

“I’ve tried to commit suicide three times: once when I was a child and twice while I was married. Every day I pray to Allah to let me die. A few days ago, I pushed a burning cigarette into my upper lip to kill the pain I feel in my heart. No one has come to visit me here. My brother threatens to kill me when I’m released. I don’t have a future.”

In jail, Zarmina is safe from her brother, and there are a few women’s shelters where she can be taken in secret to stay a few months while attempts are made to reconcile her with her family and/or find her a job. She has met only once with a defense lawyer during her ten-week stay in jail. She says the lawyer has no information on her, “doesn’t care, and isn’t helping me.”

The prisoners listening to Zarmina’s story all shake their heads in sympathy. “We are being kept here for no reason at all,” one says.

Shahpari  was sent to prison, she says, because “the rapists said bad things  about me to the police.” (Photo by by Lizette Potgieter)
Click to enlarge

Shahpari, a thirty-year-old tribal woman from northern Afghanistan, is soft spoken with thick black kohl lining the lids of her light-green eyes. She clutches her seventh child, a month-old baby born in her cell.

“I was twelve when I was married to a forty-year-old man. Six months ago I was kidnapped by two of my male relatives during the night at gunpoint. I was pregnant. They brought me to Kabul, where I was raped repeatedly for four to six days. The men told me they were going to sell me. I managed to escape and immediately reported them to the police in Kabul,” she recounts.

Shahpari was sent to prison, she says, because “the rapists said bad things about me to the police.” She originally received a sentence of one-and-a-half years, but for reasons she does not know, the term was increased another six months. A Supreme Court judge disregarded her plea for release.

“My husband has told me that when I’m free I can come back home, but he will not accept me as his wife, because I’ve been raped. ‘I will keep you to take care of my children,’ he said.”

Afghan  prisoners seek advice from a defense lawyer. Female defense lawyers have  little clout in court (Photo by by Lizette Potgieter)
Click to enlarge

Many international and Afghan NGOs strive to defend Afghan women’s rights, but they have little power and no legal staff. Medica mondiale Afghanistan provides lawyers in order to ensure the women get a fair trial. There are few female defense lawyers in Afghanistan, no public defense pool of lawyers as in the United States. At Badam Bagh – where free legal aid is provided by medica mondiale Afghanistan and the Afghan NGO Da Qanoun Goshtunky – prisoners complained of the slackness of the legal system and that female defense lawyers have little clout in court. Husbands are said to bribe judges to put or retain their women in prison.

Neither Afghan women nor men have access to lawyers at the police station during their first interrogation and may wait in detention for months before arraignment. Some never get a hearing. Time limits for detentions are rarely applied. The Supreme Court in Kabul, which covers the whole country, is responsible for thousands of cases referred from the secondary courts of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces, many of which offer no access to free legal counsel whatsoever. When time limits expire, detainees are not released, as provided by legislation.

The Family Court in Kabul is the only one in Afghanistan with a small number of female judges. Rahima Razai is the Head Judge of the Family Court. She is assisted by two senior female judges and one male judge. It was extremely difficult for me to set up an appointment with Judge Razai, who fears for her life and therefore did not want to reveal personal information. Judges have been killed outside their homes by suicide bombers or fundamentalists or family members angered by convictions.

Afghan  prison warden, Badam Bagh Central Prison for Women Offenders, Kabul  (Photo by by Lizette Potgieter)
Click to enlarge

“My job is very difficult,” she says. “I have to deal with complex family problems, corruption, and traditional culture.”

Judge Razai is not so much concerned with discrimination against Afghan women working in the current judicial system as she is worried about those who are imprisoned for so-called “immoral acts” and those who remain in prison while others can afford to bribe criminal justice agencies are released.

“Many women who have been raped are beaten, rejected, and put in jail,” Razai says. “Those who pay the bribes are released. Illiterate women with no power, connections, or independent means suffer particularly.”

“Only two basic points will solve the current situation in Afghanistan where women to a great extent are still regarded as ‘commodities’,” concludes Judge Razai. “Teach the men about human and women’s rights at the mosques; and teach boys and girls at school that they are equal.”

The vast majority of women and girls in Afghanistan have little knowledge about their constitutional rights, no access to justice, and no power to change their lives. Every small change and every bit of progress should be considered a major victory in a country governed by war, violence, corruption and ancient traditions.

Lizette Potgieter for RT from Kabul, Afghanistan

Mar 21, 2010

Marefat Celebrates the Success of its Students

37 girls and 23 boys are among the awarded students of Marefat High School. This is the fifth round of Marefat graduated students since 2002 when the school started its operation in Kabul from a bombed-out 4-rooms building in Poli Khosh, Dashti Barchi with a total number of 35 students. The school got accreditation in 2006.

37 girls and 23 boys are among the awarded students of Marefat High School. This is the fifth round of Marefat graduated students since 2002 when the school started its operation in Kabul from a bombed-out 4-rooms building in Poli Khosh, Dashti Barchi with a total number of 35 students. The school got accreditation in 2006.

Marefat High School is a tax-exempt entity registered as a non-prophet community sponsored institution in the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Finance. The total number of students for the academic year of 2010 is around 2500, 42% girls and 58% boys. The school is led by a board of trustees comprised of 33 members from different strata of the community.

According to the officials, this year the capacity for the higher education system of the country is around 20%. Marefat students have gained nearly 95% successes in all their fifth round of graduations.

Mar 15, 2010

Worldview: Grassroots Afghan education

We all know the importance of educating girls (and boys, too) in poor Muslim countries.

So it is exciting to come across a successful educational model developed by an unusual Afghan educator to teach poor minority children. And it's a model with a special link to Philadelphia.

Kabul's Marefat School, the brainchild of Aziz Royesh, was built by the residents of a minority slum and teaches not only educational basics but principles of civic responsibility and humanistic values. I have visited the school and was bowled over by what it has accomplished.

But equally fascinating: Last week, the National Constitution Center brought Royesh and a gaggle of Afghan boys in suits and girls in headscarves to Philly, where the Marefat School has been paired with Constitution High School, a predominantly minority charter school. The link with the Marefat School was made by a young Philadelphian, Jeffrey Stern, who spent two years in Kabul and now manages international projects for the Constitution Center.

Students of both schools are putting together an exhibit of photos about the meaning of freedom to minority groups. It will be shown the second week in May at the Constitution Center and later at the National Museum in Kabul. "Our school should be regarded as a branch of the Constitution Center," says Royesh. And the Marefat School should be regarded as a model for how Americans can help Afghans get the education they need.

What makes the Marefat story so exceptional is that it was built by poor Afghans who wanted better education for their children using small contributions and sweat equity. The inspiration came from Royesh, a compact man with a neat beard who was forced to abandon his own formal education when he fled the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He educated himself and began setting up schools in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. continued on...

Mar 13, 2010

Afghan, Phila. students in joint photo project

By Elisa Lala
Inquirer Staff Writer

Fatema Jafari, 15, of Afghanistan, had never walked around the streets of Philadelphia before this week, but she feels as though she has.

She has spent hours looking into the eyes of the street vendor selling hot dogs to passersby, stared mesmerized at the mirrorlike Comcast building overlooking the city skyline, and seen American families eating birthday cake, dancing in street parades, and riding bikes.

Jafari has experienced Philadelphia through photographs.

She is one of 10 Afghan high school students participating in an international photography project in collaboration with 11 students from Constitution High School in Center City.

When they started the project in July, none of the students had any formal training in photography. Some had never even held a camera, but all 21 wanted very much to share images of their lives with students from the other country.

The two groups have spent the last eight months capturing their respective cultures and sharing them on a blog.

Yesterday, they came together in a back room of the National Constitution Center. Acting as curators, they thumbed through more than 400 photos scattered on three tables. They selected a dozen or so to be displayed on the walls of the center in an exhibition to open May 14 titled "We the People: Afghanistan, America, and the Minority Imprint." Continue reading...

Feb 26, 2010

Mother While Pray

My mother I love you and I need you, even tough
I love you and I need you, even tough
Your presence and your loves are always there
You are my jail cell and ten-ton door
That keeps me from just being who I am
And so I pound the walls and go to war
Ramming all the rules that I can ram
Yet though I mast rebel, all the while
I know your love’s the ground on witch I stand
I wait upon the flash of your pound smile, my mother
And twist inside at every reprimand
I’m sorry for the times I’ve caused you pain
After these brief storms, love will remain
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Feb 21, 2010

Was Taliban leader's capture really a good thing?

From CNN

As coalition forces and insurgents battle each other in Marjah, some NATO and Afghan officials are talking about integration and reconciliation. CNN's Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour spoke with Taliban expert and journalist Ahmed Rashid, who's written many books on the subject, including the best-selling "Taliban." They discuss how Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar's capture could be a Catch-22, the likelihood of Taliban reconciliation and if there have already been secret meetings between the Taliban and Afghan government to discuss this.

Watch an excerpt from the interview
Related: U.N. envoy: Reconciliatory efforts needed in Afghanistan

Related: Afghan offensive likely first of many

Q: Are there any ongoing contacts with the Taliban?
A: There are. All the major international humanitarian agencies had had indirect contacts with the Taliban, not on a political basis, but basically protect their humanitarian activities, for example, protecting the school and health programs that they are running. The U.N. has been in the same position. For example, the U.N. had a very good polio inoculation campaign across the country in Taliban areas, as well. Now, that couldn't have been carried out unless there had been some kind of contact with the Taliban to give access to the nurses and doctors who went into carry this out. So that's the first reason.

I think the second reason is that the U.N. has been very deeply worried by the attack on its offices and one of its guest houses in Kabul a few weeks ago.

Q: Why did that happen? Because it's really one of the first times that's happened.
A: I think the assumption is that it was the main Taliban grouping based in Pakistan and was that some of the allies of Taliban who are more closely linked to al Qaeda, and was that done to, in fact, sabotage the relationship between the United Nations and any ongoing talks that might be held.

Q: First and foremost, it's all very nice that the U.N. talks on humanitarian issues and their polio vaccine, but that's not exactly what everybody's getting their hopes up, in terms of a political channel to bring the Taliban in. Is there any political channel of any credibility that's happening right now? [The U.N. special representative to Afghanistan] Kai Eide says no.
A: I think there is a channel that has been opened, and everybody acknowledges that that channel has to be carried out by President Karzai and the Afghan government. And all the others - you know, the Americans, U.N., everybody else should be - should help that channel, but they have to be for the time being bystanders.

Q: So how far is it? How far is it along?
A: There have been talks - there were talks much earlier in the spring of last year in Saudi Arabia, but there have been talks this winter again in Saudi Arabia. And, in fact, several of the Taliban leaders have been in Saudi Arabia meeting with the Saudis and also meeting with representatives of the Afghan government.

Q: But in terms of who do they represent, do they represent Mullah Omar? Are they real, credible Taliban who can actually deliver something?
A: The fact is that Mullah Baradar - this No. 2 who was arrested in Pakistan - was in Saudi Arabia for hajj just a few months ago. And all the reports are that he certainly did have talks, and there was a dialogue going on with the Saudis, with members of the Kabul government, and that is one of the main venues.

Q: So why now then? Why his arrest right now, if he's one of the main interlocutors?
A: I think there are many levels of problems here. The first thing is that I think the Pakistanis obviously have been under huge pressure to arrest active members of the Afghan Taliban who've been living in Pakistan for years and years.

Now, the Pakistan's ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence, could have arrested these people at any time. The question is, why did they choose to arrest them at this time? And I think one of the reasons is that the ISI wants to send a very firm message to the Taliban and to the Americans, also, that if there's going to be any talks or dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban, Pakistan will have to be the main broker or mediator.

Q: So this is a shot across the bow then?
A: In a way, it's a help across the bow, because you've arrested Taliban leaders, but certainly it's sending a very strong message by the ISI and the military in Pakistan to all of NATO and the Americans that, you know, don't go into talks without telling us because we are the key players here.

Q: So Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has praised this. He's met with the Pakistani prime minister. He's called it a significant move. Is it a significant move in the right direction? Yes, they've got this top man off the battlefield, but does it hurt in the other direction, in terms of political reintegration?

A: I think, in the long term, it will hurt. Why? Because Mullah Baradar is a very serious No. 2 of the Taliban. He's very close to Mullah Omar. He would not have gone to Saudi Arabia and met these people, frankly, without permission of Mullah Omar. I think this is a Taliban joint effort. Mullah Baradar is not some rogue element who's talking on his own or he's not a moderate Taliban who's talking on his own.

So I think the Americans, of course, are faced with this dilemma that they want to encourage this amongst the Pakistanis, but the problem now is that, if Mullah Baradar was going to be the main negotiator, he is now tainted, he is now arrested. He will now be seen by many of the Taliban and even by members of the Afghan government as an envoy for Pakistan rather than an envoy from his own movement, because this is a man who's been arrested and been interrogated.

Even if the Pakistanis want to use him now as a mediator and they set him free, you've tainted him.

Q: Given that you say he's so close to Mullah Omar, are there red lines? How does one deal with the Taliban, if you want to bring them in from the cold? How do they deal with the women's issue? How do they deal with the al Qaeda issue?
A: There has to be a political formal process of dialogue. And certainly, one of the main demands - the major demands of the Americans - is that they have to show signs that they've broken with al Qaeda. Now, the mainstream Taliban, which is represented by Mullah Omar, could possibly do this.

Now, how will they actually demonstrate this? That's the problem. How do you prove that you've broken with al Qaeda? It's not good enough for me to say, "I've broken with al Qaeda." I have to prove it on the ground. And one way I can prove it on the ground is actually by going after al Qaeda.

So would the Taliban be willing to actually go after al Qaeda? Because they know where al Qaeda is more than anyone. But don't forget that there are other elements here amongst the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who are very close to al Qaeda, who would do their utmost to sabotage any kind of dialogue like this.

Q: Let's talk about U.S. strategy in Marjah right now. ... Give us an idea of where the concentrations of Taliban are.
A: The Taliban control most of the south and a lot of the east. They control some of the provinces. They have a very strong presence around Kabul, and I think that's where the next offensive, Western offensive will be. They are strong in the north. They have pockets in Kunduz in the north and in the west, in Herat, and other provinces in the west. So it's become now a countrywide movement.

Q: Can [coalition forces] win the support? Are they bringing better governance? And are they telegraphing that message well enough?
A: Well, it's going to be piece by piece. This whole Marjah offensive is all about bringing governance - as General McChrystal has said, government in a box - to what is a critical area. It is, first of all, the poppy area. It is the concentration of the Taliban. And it was also the supply route for logistics going into Pakistan, where a lot of their recruits and logistics come. If you can settle that area, win the confidence of the people, certainly that would be a big blow, but you will have to repeat this many times in the next year or 18 months all over the country, particularly in the south, but in the east, you have to clear these provinces around Kabul, you have to push the Taliban back.

Q: Will the U.S. and NATO forces win praise for what they did, which was so loudly telegraphed this, in order to get the civilians out of harm's way? Certainly some Afghan officials are already saying that the majority of people in that area are pleased at the fact that there was so much notice given.

A: This is a completely new and different strategy, and I think it's a very positive strategy, and I think it's been met with a lot of positive response by Karzai, by the government, and by the local people. There's enormous care being taken. The 12 civilians who were killed by this rocket attack - General McChrystal was quick to acknowledge that, to apologize for that, and then to take action against that. So I think this is a way to win hearts and minds.

Feb 10, 2010

Wonderful Afghanistan

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Afghanistan: Human rights must be guaranteed during Taleban talks

Human rights, including women’s rights, must not be traded away or compromised during any reconciliation talks with the Taleban in Afghanistan, Amnesty International said on the eve of a London conference set to discuss deteriorating security conditions in the country.Afghan President Hamid Karzai, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, other leaders and foreign ministers are to discuss security arrangements in Afghanistan for the next two years, including reconciliation programmes to reintegrate so-called moderate elements of Taleban."Any discussions with the Taleban must include clear commitments that they will respect and promote the rights of the Afghan people," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director.
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Boys After Snow

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حماسه ای درد و خنک یک سر به پایان میرسد

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Jan 31, 2010

Lessons from my mother: charity work

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Growing up, Christa D’Souza found her mum’s philanthropy more an irritation than inspiration, and embarked on a career at the frothier end of journalism. Yet this year she felt compelled to find out more about her mother’s remarkable work, on a life-changing trip to a school in Kabul

Christa D'Souza, left, and her mother Baroness D'Souza, third left

Christa D'Souza, left, and her mother Baroness D'Souza, third left

It’s a bit of a family joke. How my mother, Frances D’Souza, is always trying to save the world. You name the disenfranchised group, she’s campaigned on their behalf. You recall the earthquake and she’ll have been there to help. That do-gooderish gene, that compulsion to get involved, the Tigger-like verve for adventure? Not to mention the maddening lack of material greed, who knows where that came from. But one thing’s for sure, it’s not been passed on.

Or maybe it has, but after years of having her at the site of some disaster or travelling with the Mujahidin or off fighting the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, as opposed to sitting at home and looking after me, the gene may have gone into hibernation. Of course, I was happy for her when she was made a life peer in 2004 (when she became Baroness D’Souza of Wychwood) for her work in human rights, but have I ever thought of following in her footsteps? Forget it. Our worlds, they could not collide less.

Until now, that is. For here I am, sitting next to her, watching dawn break over the snow-peaked Hindu Kush. Along with a group of big, loud, heavily tattooed Texans, we are on a Kam Air flight to Kabul to visit a school she helped establish in 2002, soon after the Taleban were driven out.

It being a surprise visit, my mother has not yet told its head, Aziz Royesh, we are on our way. This is partly because she wants it to be the Ofsted-style inspection it would be if the school were in the West, and partly because, as Royesh told her in an e-mail three weeks ago (they only get three hours of electricity a day), the school was recently attacked by religious hardliners. So we have come out to offer our moral support in as low-key a manner as possible. It is unbeknown to Royesh, then, that the pair of us are lurching along the road from the airport to Dashti Barchi, the poor, predominantly Hazara-inhabited district in West Kabul where Marefat stands, far away from the central market and Chicken Street (where all the foreign aid workers congregate).

Sadly, we are minus the two encyclopaedias ordered from Amazon that didn’t arrive in time. We have in their stead, however, bag upon bag of Haribo, a couple of giant jars of Gold Blend and canisters of boiled sweets (which can be used instead of sugar in tea) from the duty-free shop in Dubai.

My mum had told me to put on a bit of make-up for the girls, make myself look as much the fashion magazine contributing editor as is possible under the circumstances. But I’m afraid I haven’t quite got it together. I’m too busy adjusting my Bamford headscarf, which keeps slipping off, and looking at the scene out of the window: the wide, gracious but deeply rutted roads; the market stalls heaving with watermelons and monster-sized pomegranates; the marmalade-haired, pale-eyed Nuristanis (supposedly descendants of Alexander the Great) and the blue burka-ed mothers carrying their children on their bellies, rather than on their sides (so as not, my mother is convinced, to accentuate their hips). Then there are the truckloads of young turbaned men toting bullet belts and casually cocked Kalashnikovs, peering dully at us through the car window.

This trip, it nearly didn’t happen. Having finally been persuaded by my other half that this was precisely the sort of thing I should be writing about (as opposed to the stuff I usually do: breast implants and wearing short skirts at 50), having informed my mother that we were, as they say, “goin’ in”, having got my ticket to Kabul and victoriously waved it in my other half’s face, there’s a setback. The office of Mark Malloch Brown, then a Foreign Office minister, e-mails my mother, advising her in no uncertain terms not to go. “Kidnapping by criminal gangs is still a very real danger,” it reads, “and we would advise you not to go unless you absolutely had to.” It goes on to say that, should we decide to fly out anyway, the embassy in Kabul will not be able to provide us with any security.

None of which worries my mother, who has recently visited Helmand and Kandahar, pops in and out of Kabul all the time, and doesn’t plan on using security anyway? But it does give her second thoughts about taking me. I am her daughter, after all, she rationalises, and she’d never forgive herself if anything happens to me. Which in turn gives me second thoughts about the whole idea. Am I being a bit mad? Is it fair on my children?

I then get a message from my mother saying she’s changed her mind, it would be fine to go. The FO is merely being cautious, what we are going to do is pop in, pop out and not bother with security because we’ll probably be safer without it. “Sorry, can’t talk now,” her breezy e-mail continues. “Crisis at House of Lords, see you at weekend. Love, Ma.”

I phone my colleague Jemima Khan, who tells me to call her friend Rory Stewart, the Old Etonian whose travels on foot across Afghanistan are chronicled in his book, The Places In Between. As it turns out, Stewart has visited Marefat, is a big champion of my mother, and is horrified to think I am passing up a chance to see Afghanistan and the place he’s nicknamed “the St Paul’s of Kabul”. Of course I must come out, everyone should come out – “It’s not Bogotá, after all” – and not only should I come out, my mother and I should stay at Turquoise Mountain, the artistic compound he has set up in a fort in the old part of Kabul.

Knowing I’m sleeping in a bed in a lovingly restored historic fort with a flushing loo, knowing we are probably safer with Rory’s driver Zia, in his dusty old Renault estate, than an armoured vehicle with UN emblazoned on the side, I feel relatively at ease here. I feel relatively inconspicuous, too: green eyes and reddish-brown hair are quite common.

We finally take a turning off the main road. At the end of a gouged-out dirt track looms the main school building, an extremely rudimentary, two-storey mud and daub block, protected, ever since the attack, by two sleepy security guards with Kalashnikovs. On the other side of an alleyway is the building where the girls’ classes are taught, as well as the cramped four-room compound where Aziz Royesh lives with 19 members of his family.

As we step across this alleyway, over a rivulet of sludge on top of which float empty Pepsi cans and boiled sweet wrappers, a gaggle of young male pupils, in dusty ties and jackets crowd round, all of them with the rosy cheeks and Asiatic eyes peculiar to the Hazara (supposedly inherited from Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes), and squint at us through the sun. These are the same Hazara people we read about in The Kite Runner, the minority Shia Muslim tribe who make up around 10 per cent of the estimated 27 million population (predominantly Sunni Muslim) of Afghanistan. The same people who were either beheaded or shot in their thousands in 1993 by Ahmed Shah Masood’s Sunni troops (the famed “Lion of Panjshir”); and the same people who were later so brutally targeted by the Taleban, with men, women and children randomly mowed down in the streets by gangs in white Datsuns, their bodies left to rot or be eaten by wild dogs.

As we make our way in through the fort-like entrance, hundreds more children, girls as well in their starched white hijabs, gather round us, and, as they create a narrow path for my mother and me to walk through into a sweltering courtyard, they shyly reach out to touch her and clap and shout out her name: “Ama [Auntie] Frances, Ama Frances.” Royesh, meanwhile, is waiting for us at the top of a rickety steel balcony. “I can’t beh-leeeeve it, I can’t beh-leeve this is happening,” he keeps squealing repeatedly, while squeezing her hand. The pride I suddenly feel for her, the admiration, after all these years of being so fastidiously uninterested and dismissive and cynical, is overwhelming. Please, oh please God, don’t let me cry.

Royesh, who learnt English in a Pakistani refugee camp, first met my mum when she was on a mission to Kabul for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, an independent public body sponsored by the Foreign Office.

She remembers how Marefat looked then: a bombed-out, roofless mud hut with a sheet across the middle of it to create “classrooms” – no textbooks, no blackboards, no desks, no electricity, no water, just 30 eager “students” aged from 7 to 35, all desperate for an education. One illiterate woman she met explained how she wanted to learn geometry so she could divide up her land for her grandchildren. Then there was the ten-year-old carpet-weaver who said that the reason he wanted to learn to read and write was because he wanted to become an “intellectual”.

It was Royesh himself, though, whose childhood heroes were Gandhi and Che Guevara, who was so passionate about bringing education to his people and teaching them the concepts of democracy, who impressed her the most. So after going back to London and getting bored with the way the Westminster Foundation kept faffing about, she decided to go it alone and back the school herself.

Slowly, with small tranches of money raised by Mum through the generosity of friends and foundations (and the odd, sometimes ill-attended clothes sale in her village hall in Chipping Norton), Marefat began to grow. Community elders donated land on which to build. Parents – though many were wary at first about the idea of their daughters being educated – helped build it, brick by brick. A local businessman donated a school bus. American agency USAID, prompted by my mother, donated a generator, which Royesh very gratefully accepted – but only on condition that the parents pay for the diesel. (He was adamant that Marefat, unlike many an NGO-supported project out here, be able to stand on its own two feet.)

Seven years and a piddling £60,000 later, Marefat has 95 qualified teachers and educates 3,150 students (44 per cent of them girls), the majority of whom go on to study medicine, economics, law and engineering at university. The child carpet-weaver sponsored by the Marefat Charity Box my mother set up is now a scholarship student at the American University of Afghanistan.

Humanism, philosophy and Christianity are taught, as well as interpretation of the Koran; reading lists include Hegel, Kant and Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness (one of Royesh’s favourites); and, perhaps most important of all, the students are encouraged to be politically aware, to know the meaning, as Royesh puts it, of “mobocracy”. (The week before we were there, for example, the children had put on a satirical play about candidates in the upcoming elections, one playing an ex-prisoner from Guantánamo Bay pushing for legislation for more sleep, another pushing for more hashish smoking, and so on.) This, in a country where, three years ago, a teacher was beheaded for educating women; in a country where, we are told, despite the Karzai government’s current claim that six million children are registered at school, many teachers (particularly in rural areas) are themselves poorly educated.

We have unwittingly arrived on Teacher’s Day (Teacher’s Day – imagine such a thing in some of the schools in the UK); a lot of glitter is scattered in gratitude on to the adults, and all the kids are on parade. Managing to resist the urge to crouch as a plane flies low overhead – I feel vulnerable in this courtyard – I follow my mother and Royesh to one of the first-floor classrooms.

“Oh, look,” she cries, having just been shyly handed a plastic-beaded mirror and a fake rose by one of the girls. “I recognise those.” She is pointing to three canvases hanging up, one of Einstein, one of Shakespeare and one of – can it really be? – Whoopi Goldberg. Royesh, speckled with glitter, clasps his hands in delight at the comment. These are done by Nasrifah, the same pupil who painted a portrait of my mother that Royesh proudly lugged all the way over from Kabul on his last visit. I remember seeing it propped up in her tiny House of Lords office and wondering where she was eventually going to put it, given that in the picture, she has bountiful “Let a thousand flowers bloom”-style hands outstretched to happy, smiling children.

Round the edges of the next classroom, a group of 5th-grade female students are lined up with white paper cones perched on top of their heads. On each cone is written one of the elements: hydrogen, copper, etc. On a rickety table in the centre are models of molecules made out of discarded Coke cans.

Resources for experiments, as science teacher Parwiz Abrahami, an Afghan expat from Seattle, tells us, are limited. There aren’t many frogs around to dissect, no proper labs equipped with Bunsen burners and goggles, but “we try to do stuff with what we can”. A med student on sabbatical who is only here after chancing upon my mum’s blog about Marefat last year, Abrahami goes on to explain how they have learnt to check each other’s blood types, and have performed experiments which have involved extracting DNA from a sheep and harnessing hydrogen gas. “Of course, in the States we’d have a balloon to catch it,” says Abrahami. “Here we had to cut off the finger of a rubber glove and tie it with a rubber band.”

This is all in stark contrast to the blue- domed madrassa, 15 minutes across town, whose students were involved in an attack on Marefat three weeks before our visit. Run by Ayatollah Mohseni, the cleric behind the controversial Shia Family Law (which appears to legalise marital rape and child marriage), and backed by the Iranians (to the eventual tune of perhaps $55 million – £34 million – suggest some sources), the Khatam-ul-Nabieen seminary and mosque provide free bed and board to students, as well as lessons in Mohseni’s fundamentalist credo. Marefat, Aziz Royesh explains, has been a thorn in Mohseni’s side for some time now. Through the Iranian-sponsored TV station Tamadun and the madrassa, Mohseni has been preaching against the school and even Royesh himself, for spreading Western propaganda and teaching “non-Islamic” subjects.

It all reached fever pitch after some of the female students from Marefat joined a peaceful gathering outside the madrassa protesting against Mohseni’s law. As reported in the Hazaristan Times in April, a mob of madrassa students some 50 to 60-strong descended on the school in the morning. They encouraged poor, illiterate locals, some of whom were relatives of the pupils, to join in, pelted the windows with stones and called for Royesh’s immediate execution, forcing him to lock all the doors and call the police. By the time they arrived two hours later, more pupils from other local madrassas had joined in, and the crowds only dispersed after the police fired shots into the air.

It is now noon, and Royesh has brought us to his family compound. With only an hour’s advance notice, a huge spread of caramelised Kabuli rice and mutton dahl, and sheets of naan bread to dip it in, has been prepared by the womenfolk and laid out for us on the carpeted floor. A few of the teachers have been invited, as have some of the male members of Royesh’s family. There are also five female students, including Royesh’s own daughter, Farida, 16, who, having graduated from Marefat at the age of 13, is now studying economics at Kabul University. Historically, Hazara women have always played a significant role within the community, entering politics and even, on occasion, fighting alongside the men in times of war. Today, however, even though Royesh is encouraging them to speak out and to ask Frances and me questions, they seem hesitant to speak up in front of the men.

It is only later, when Royesh takes my mother off to look at the new building her latest instalment of money has bought (a three-storey construction which will take just 25 days to put up), that I get a group of the women to myself, and they begin to open up. They tell me about the demonstration some of them participated in outside Mohseni’s madrassa, how members of their own community, spurred on by Mohseni’s Tamadun TV station, called them “dogs” and “slaves of Christians”.

One, an extraordinarily beautiful young woman called Adela, 21, who could neither read nor write when my mother first met her 7 years ago, yet is now thinking of taking a master’s degree, tells of the difficulties she had persuading her ultra-conservative family that it was right for her to join the protest, that women should be equal to men. Another, Baihana, a serious-looking girl with alabaster skin, ginger hair and a sprinkling of freckles across her upturned nose, explains how she wants to become a doctor. She does not want to practise abroad, however, intending to stay here to help her people.

All of them look quite baffled when I tell them how brave I think they are, and even more so when I tell them that, when I was their age, I rebelled like mad against Frances. “You rebelled against? feminism?” one shy but horrified girl of about 13 haltingly asks. Although they giggle like any other teenage girls when I bring up the subject of boys, and profess to be hooked on Harry Potter and the TV series 24, it is the concepts of “feminism” and “women’s liberation” that they are most interested in. “How do you combine being a Muslim, a woman and someone who is politically involved all at the same time?” asks another student, who lives 100 kilometres away in a rural community near Jalalabad.

That night, a group from Turquoise Mountain, including its American director, Shoshana Coburn, and its boyish, public school-educated head of security, John Elliot, takes us to a well-known French restaurant called L’Atmosphère. Situated in the “posh” part of Kabul, on a street lined with sprawling NGO villas protected by barbed wire, Latmo, as its loyal expat clientele call it, is guarded, as usual, by men wielding AK-47s. There are three stone “chambers” you must pass through, with passport and body searches in each one, before you emerge, as if in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, into a canopied garden terrace.

So this is where all the cool, single NGO workers (and there are many of them) hang out. This is the place that must remind seasoned war correspondents of the old days in the Sixties and Seventies, when Afghan women wore miniskirts and the pro-Western King Zahir Shah ruled. There’s even a swimming pool out the back where you can lounge around in a bikini while sipping a cocktail. What would Adela or Baihana think of this place? Or, indeed, the upper-school pupils we’d met earlier in the day, who prefaced each of their carefully constructed questions with “In the name of Allah...”?

How very far away it feels from Marefat, despite the fact that Dashti Barchi is only 25 minutes’ drive away.

Over chilled French rosé, and tartare de thon and foie gras, we talk about Royesh’s indomitable spirit and the fragile future of Marefat. We talk about the pupils’ most un-Western thirst for knowledge, and how fabulous it would be if we could get our own perfectly receptive, perfectly inquiring children to value knowledge even a tenth as much as the kids at Marefat. We talk, too, about the billions upon billions of aid poured into Afghanistan and how most of it, inevitably, ends up in the government’s pockets or in the Western bank accounts of ludicrously overpriced contractors. And of Royesh’s ambitious but wonderful plan to duplicate the Marefat model elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Back in London, life is as it was. I’m at my computer writing the definitive piece on – what is it this time, eyelashes? – and Frances is firefighting at the House of Lords. Except, of course, life is not the same as it was. I’ve been bitten, as it were, by the bug. I’m beginning to get it, at last, the need she has always had to get out of her comfort zone to feel alive. I am beginning to understand, too, that compulsion of hers to get involved, that dogged belief that every little bit really, really does indeed help. They say, don’t they, every daughter turns into her mother eventually. If this is so, well, then lucky old me.