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Dishonouring Afghanistan's civilian dead
June 24, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan, Jun 24, 2012/ Troy Media/ – As the sun rose in Kabul Friday, the Spogmai Hotel, straddling the mint-coloured waters of Lake Qargha, was under siege by insurgents laden in explosive vests.
At least 20 people were confirmed dead, 15 of them civilians. Hotel guests were reportedly jumping from the windows into the lake to escape. Others were held hostage all night, as the bullets sprayed from 11:30 p.m. last night, until past mid-day today.
There was an even heavier police presence than usual in Kabul itself, its streets eerily empty for a city normally battling a severe traffic problem. It’s Friday, the Taliban’s favoured day for blowing up places like grocery stores and hotels.
On weekdays, they busy themselves with attacking military facilities, police stations, embassies, government ministries and ISAF convoys. But they know that, on weekends, there will be maximum casualties as ordinary people are out and about running errands.
The Taliban’s spokesperson swiftly issued a statement, proudly claiming responsibility for the attack on the Spogmai Hotel. He claimed that the hotel was full of foreigners, drinking alcohol.
I know of no foreigner who has ever frequented the hotel. Indeed, one witness, Maihan Saeedi, told the BBC that the hotel was full of civilians, including women and children. All of the 20 confirmed dead are Afghans.
Similarly, when the Taliban staged a spectacular attack on the iconic Intercontinental Hotel last year, they bragged of having killed ’50 foreigners’. But the hotel was full of Afghans celebrating a wedding party, and others eating in the hotel’s restaurants. Few foreigners stay in the Intercon these days. Even the Taliban’s attack on the Serena Hotel in 2008, where most guests are foreign, killed three foreigners, but five Afghans.
And on another Friday last year, gunmen wearing suicide vests stormed a popular supermarket in the city centre. Back then too, the same Taliban spokesperson swaggered on about dead foreigners: “We claim responsibility for the attack, and it was carried out at a time when foreigners were shopping.”
It’s the same grocery store where I and many other foreigners do our grocery shopping. But, again, the majority of those killed were Afghan civilians. In that attack, one entire family was killed: acclaimed human rights lawyer Hamida Baraki, her husband, and their four children, the youngest, age 2. A friend of mine watched from across the street as one body after another was carried out of the supermarket.
In December, more than 70 were killed in a suicide bombing at a religious ceremony, every one of them Afghan. Massoud Hossaini became Afghanistan’s first Pulitzer Prize winner, for capturing the searing image of 12-year-old Tarana Akbari screaming as she stood amidst the dead and injured. Of her 17 family members with her that day, seven were now dead, including her little brother.
At the rate that the Taliban take out innocents here, human life may appear to be awfully cheap in Afghanistan. But despite living with inordinate amounts of it, Afghans are no more immune to tragedy than you or I, despite the mythologizing of Afghans as a hardened, bloodthirsty, warrior-like people. Though you rarely read their names in the English press, every loss causes the same unspeakable pain to a family as you’d imagine you’d feel if your son or daughter, husband or wife were taken from you in a senselessly violent end. The losses are frequent, but they never become easier.
The Taliban’s systematic and deliberate targeting of civilians is their core tactic. It’s therefore mystifying why some western analysts persist in claiming that the Taliban are becoming more ‘moderate’.
In early 2011, British newspapers began publishing headlines claiming that the Taliban were now ready to accept girls going to school. It turned out, however, that all of the stories originated from one story published by the Times Educational Supplement, which was based only on statements made by Afghan Education Minister Farooq Wardak. There has never been any confirmation from the Taliban itself of a policy change. Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Nick Kristoff argued that the Taliban were likely to let some girls in some areas go to religious seminary schools, and this was a good compromise for ‘peace’ with the Taliban. Even if this were true, as someone who has been managing teacher education programs in Afghanistan for several years, I can assure you that the quality of such an education would be akin to having no education at all.
Meanwhile, two European analysts, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, published a compilation of Taliban ‘poetry’ which they claim ‘allow the reader to appreciate . . . the Taliban as human beings’ and ‘prompt us to rethink our assumptions about (the) movement’. Yet the poems are a dull repetition of violent themes: the glory of blowing oneself up, martyrdom, expelling the occupying forces, being a jihadist, having ‘extreme zeal’.
The reality is that there is not a shred of evidence the Taliban have moderated in any way. They have next to no popular support among Afghans, and certainly women have never formed any of their constituents. Indeed, there is a pulsing rage towards the Taliban among ordinary people here, and it’s not difficult to see why, when they are forever slaughtering civilians.
So why do so many westerners, far removed from the impact of Taliban apologism, spin such fiction about an enlightened Taliban?
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking. We seek to excuse ourselves (or our governments) out of an untidy foreign intervention that forces us too often to face the pain and suffering of others, if only through the safe distance of our television sets.
But ignoring the hard facts is a dishonor to the many killed at the hands of the Taliban. These are no poetic freedom fighters, nor are they a ‘movement’. The Taliban are the antithesis of humanity.
Lauryn Oates is a Canadian aid worker managing education projects in Afghanistan. She is projects director at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.
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