Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Afghanistan bombs kill 58 in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif

Twin attacks apparently targeting Shia Muslims have killed at least 58 people in Afghanistan. In the deadliest incident, a suspected suicide bomb struck a shrine packed with worshippers in the capital, Kabul, killing at least 54.
Another blast hit the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif at about the same time, killing four people.
The attacks appear to be of a sectarian nature unprecedented in recent Afghan history, correspondents say.
They coincided with the Shia Muslim festival of Ashura - the most important day in the Shia calendar and marked with a public holiday in Afghanistan.
Ashura is the climax of Muharram, the month of mourning for the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.
The police have cordoned off all roads to the blast site in the medieval Murad Khani district where many Shias had gathered to commemorate Ashura at the Abu Fazal mosque.
Here, at an emergency surgical centre just 10 minutes from the site, people are gathered crying and wailing. I have heard women shouting: "My son is dead, my son is dead." I have seen people with charred clothing.
Security forces have been ferrying victims to waiting ambulances. There are many wounded too. Those who were there say there are a lot of casualties. People are gathering in front of the hospital and the police are on the streets around here controlling the traffic.
Children hit
The near-simultaneous explosions happened at about midday (07:30 GMT).
In Kabul, the bomb went off near a gathering of hundreds of Shias singing at the Abu Fazal shrine.
Fifty-four people were killed in the blast, said health ministry spokesman Norughli Kargar, while 150 were injured.
"It was very loud. My ears went deaf and I was blown three metres [yards]," Mustafa, who uses only one name, told Associated Press news agency.
"There was smoke and red blood on the floor of the shrine. There were people lying everywhere."

Amid the chaos straight after the blast, a young girl, dressed in a green shalwar kameez (traditional dress) smeared in blood, stood shrieking, surrounded by the crumpled, piled-up bodies of children, AFP reported.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke of the unprecedented nature of the attack, saying it was "the first time that, on such an important religious day in Afghanistan, terrorism of that horrible nature is taking place".
No-one had claimed to have carried out the attacks, said Mohammad Zahir, head of Kabul's criminal investigation department.
A Taliban statement said the group had not been behind either incident.
Police said they foiled another attack elsewhere in the capital.
The bomb which exploded near the main mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif was apparently strapped to a bicycle, and went off shortly after the Kabul blast.
Balkh province Deputy Police Chief Abdul Raouf Taj said the device exploded as a convoy of Shias, shouting in celebration of Ashura, passed by, AP reported.
At least 17 people were injured.
Elsewhere, police said at least three people were wounded by a motorcycle bomb in the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban's heartland - but it appears to have been unconnected to the other two attacks.
Mohammad Bakir Shaikzada, the top Shiite cleric in Kabul, said he could not remember a similar attack on such a scale.
"This is a crime against Muslims during the holy day of Ashura," he told AP.
"We Muslims will never forget these attacks. It is the enemy of the Muslims who are carrying them out," he said, though he would not speculate on who might be responsible.
There are tensions between Sunni and minority Shia Muslims in Afghanistan, but violence of the type seen in Pakistan or Iraq is rare, the BBC's Quentin Sommerville in Kabul says.
Over the past decade Shias in Afghanistan have celebrated their festivals more confidently, openly and on a bigger scale than ever before.
The attacks come a day after an international conference on Afghanistan's future was held, in the German city of Bonn.
Pakistan boycotted the conference, after a Nato attack killed 24 of its troops at a checkpoint near the Afghan border last month.
Afghan security officials held their breath during the conference, our correspondent says, fearing there might an attack in Kabul to divert attention.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has condemned the bomb attacks.
Are you in Kabul? Were you in the area? Did you witness anything? Send us your comments and experiences.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

US Soldiers Killing Civilians

Friday, April 1, 2011

Statement attributable to the Secretary-General

Statement attributable to the Secretary-General 
concerning the attack against the UNAMA compound in Mazar-i-Sharif

1 April 2011 - I condemn in the strongest terms the outrageous and cowardly attack against the United Nations office in Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan. Our reports are still preliminary, but it appears that three United Nations international staff as well as four international security officers were killed in the attack. My Special Representative, Staffan de Mistura, has travelled to Mazar-i-Sharif and is personally overseeing the investigation.

Those who lost their lives in today’s attack were dedicated to the cause of peace in Afghanistan and to a better life for all Afghans. These brave men and women were working in the best tradition of the United Nations and gave their lives in the service of humanity.

I express my sincere condolences to the families and colleagues of those who were lost and call on the Afghan Government to thoroughly investigate this incident and bring its perpetrators to justice.

Nairobi/New York; 1 April 2011

UN staff killed during protest in northern Afghanistan

At least seven foreign UN workers have been killed after protesters stormed a UN compound in the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, officials say.

The compound was set alight as hundreds protested over the burning of the Koran in a US church last month. Several demonstrators were killed by guards.

Witnesses said the protest began peacefully but suddenly turned violent.

A local police spokesman told the BBC the city was now under control and a number of people had been arrested.

Dan McNorton, spokesman for the UN mission in Afghanistan, said: "Three international Unama (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) staff members were killed, and four international armed security guards were killed."

Initial reports said eight foreign UN workers had died.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt later confirmed that one of the dead was a Swede, 27-year-old UN worker Joakim Dungel.

The Norwegian defence ministry said another of those killed was Lt Col Siri Skare, a 53-year-old female pilot. The other foreign victims are believed to be a Romanian and four Nepalese guards.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described it as "an outrageous and cowardly attack".

Continue reading the main story

Bilal Sarwary
BBC News
Mazar-e Sharif is one of Afghanistan's largest cities - as well as one of its safest. Just last week, thousands peacefully celebrated the Persian new year.

The city is on a list of areas to be handed to full Afghan security control later this year. The attack on the UN compound raises serious questions about that plan.

A state of emergency has now been declared in the city, Afghan intelligence sources told the BBC. All roads in and out of Mazar have been blocked and cars are being checked. Special army and police units have been deployed to prevent further unrest.

The authorities are well aware of the dangers of protests spreading. In 2006, anger at cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper swept across Afghanistan. Dozens were killed or injured.

US President Barack Obama also condemned the attack "in the strongest possible terms", saying the work of the UN "is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan".

The top UN representative in Afghanistan, Staffan De Mistura, has flown to the area to handle the matter.

Weapons seized
Witnesses said a crowd of several hundred staged a protest outside the Blue Mosque in the city after Friday prayers.

The crowds moved to outside the UN compound, where a small group broke away.

Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for Balkh province, said the group seized weapons from the guards and opened fire before storming the building.

Local police spokesman Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai told the BBC the attackers had used guns and knives.

He also told reporters that two of the dead UN staff were beheaded.

However, police Gen Abdul Rafu Taj said that "according to the initial reports... none were beheaded". He said they were shot in the head.

A number of suspected attackers have been arrested.

Officials have declared an emergency in the city - major roads in and out have been blocked.

'Hunted down'
Kieran Dwyer, director of communications for the UN mission in Afghanistan, said the UN workers had been trapped inside the compound and "hunted down" in what was an "overwhelming situation".

"These are civilian people, unarmed, here to do human rights work, to work for peace in Afghanistan - they were not prepared for this situation," he told the BBC.

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Farhan Haq of the UN said the organisation was still trying to establish the circumstances on the ground
Mr Dwyer said it was too early to tell how the attack happened or why the UN was targeted, but that the organisation would now take extra security measures.

But he added: "The UN is here to stay. We're here to work with the people to help them achieve peace, and this sort of thing just highlights how important that is."

On 20 March, Pastor Wayne Sapp set light to a copy of the Koran at a church in Florida.

The burning took place under the supervision of Terry Jones, another US pastor who last year drew condemnation over his aborted plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Protests were held in several other Afghan cities on Friday - which demonstrators in Herat had called a "day of anger", Afghanistan's Noor TV channel reports.

The BBC's Paul Wood in Kabul says Mazar-e Sharif is known to be a relatively peaceful part of the country, but that the Florida incident will raise questions of whether the city will be able to make the transition from foreign to Afghan security control later this year.

Our correspondent says that in a deeply religiously conservative country such as Afghanistan, that act has the power to inflame passions in otherwise peaceful areas.

Mr Jones told the BBC he was not responsible for the actions of the protesters.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Kill Team, kill Haji

How U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan murdered innocent civilians and mutilated their corpses – and how their officers failed to stop them. Plus: An exclusive look at the war crime photos censored by the Pentagon.

Early last year, after six hard months soldiering in Afghanistan, a group of American infantrymen reached a momentous decision: It was finally time to kill a haji. Among the men of Bravo Company, the notion of killing an Afghan civilian had been the subject of countless conversations, during lunchtime chats and late-night bull sessions. For weeks, they had weighed the ethics of bagging "savages" and debated the probability of getting caught. Some of them agonized over the idea; others were gung-ho from the start. But not long after the New Year, as winter descended on the arid plains of Kandahar Province, they agreed to stop talking and actually pull the trigger. Bravo Company had been stationed in the area since summer, struggling, with little success, to root out the Taliban and establish an American presence in one of the most violent and lawless regions of the country. On the morning of January 15th, the company's 3rd Platoon – part of the 5th Stryker Brigade, based out of Tacoma, Washington – left the mini-metropolis of tents and trailers at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in a convoy of armored Stryker troop carriers. The massive, eight-wheeled trucks surged across wide, vacant stretches of desert, until they came to La Mohammad Kalay, an isolated farming village tucked away behind a few poppy fields. to provide perimeter security, the soldiers parked the Strykers at the outskirts of the settlement, which was nothing more than a warren of mud-and-straw compounds. Then they set out on foot. Local villagers were suspected of supporting the Taliban, providing a safe haven for strikes against U.S. troops. But as the soldiers of 3rd Platoon walked through the alleys of La Mohammad Kalay, they saw no armed fighters, no evidence of enemy positions. Instead, they were greeted by a frustratingly familiar sight: destitute Afghan farmers living without electricity or running water; bearded men with poor teeth in tattered traditional clothes; young kids eager for candy and money. It was impossible to tell which, if any, of the villagers were sympathetic to the Taliban. The insurgents, for their part, preferred to stay hidden from American troops, striking from a distance with IEDs. While the officers of 3rd Platoon peeled off to talk to a village elder inside a compound, two soldiers walked away from the unit until they reached the far edge of the village. There, in a nearby poppy field, they began looking for someone to kill. "The general consensus was, if we are going to do something that fucking crazy, no one wanted anybody around to witness it," one of the men later told Army investigators. The poppy plants were still low to the ground at that time of year. The two soldiers, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock and Pfc. Andrew Holmes, saw a young farmer who was working by himself among the spiky shoots. Off in the distance, a few other soldiers stood sentry. But the farmer was the only Afghan in sight. With no one around to witness, the timing was right. And just like that, they picked him for execution. He was a smooth-faced kid, about 15 years old. Not much younger than they were: Morlock was 21, Holmes was 19. His name, they would later learn, was Gul Mudin, a common name in Afghanistan. He was wearing a little cap and a Western-style green jacket. He held nothing in his hand that could be interpreted as a weapon, not even a shovel. The expression on his face was welcoming. "He was not a threat," Morlock later confessed.

Planting Trees, Burning Candles

by Steve Clemens In the morning we walked in groups of five for about 30-45 minutes through our area of Kabul en route to our morning activity. I awoke at 4 AM to use the bathroom and when the call to prayer was broadcast from the nearby mosque about 40 minutes later, I knew it was time to get up because the dogs on the street also joined the chorus. The city is fairly dirty (what does one expect in one of the poorest countries in the world which is at war with the world’s largest military machines?) and the traffic has no street lights or road striping so the cars switch invisible lanes as the pedestrians dodge and move between them. Vendors crowd the sidewalk selling fruit, live chickens, freshly butchered meat, nuts, beans, and a multitude of other items. We travel in groups of 4 or 5 – always escorted by one of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers. I know I shouldn’t have favorites - they are all so wonderful and helpful – but I can’t help but respond most to 13 year-old Gholami, the youngest and smallest of the 8 who have joined us for several days. We walk in small groups so we blend in a little more than if we all walk together. About half of the International Peace Delegation is staying at a hotel, others of us are sleeping on the floor in the office building of a non-profit organization that has joined with AYPV in inviting us. After walking down two main streets, we branch off into what seems to be a side street which more resembles an alley with an open sewer/gutter on one side. As cars or trucks pass us they blow their horns so we can step aside. Vans come by with other delegates from the hotel and we are offered rides but Simon and I prefer to walk with several of the boys, enjoying the sunshine and “fresh air”. Actually, the air is often quite polluted with fumes from older, untuned vehicles. We walk purposefully and deliberately so as to not draw undue attention, despite our pale complexions. (Simon, from Australia, is fairer-skinned than me.) Since most of the others arrived before us, we missed part of the presentation at the private school which was our destination. Lena, the teacher who addressed our group at the school, was a young woman who described the school and answered our questions. We had “one cup of tea” (we could have had more if we wished – even 3 Cups of Tea) but were told what Afghanistan needs is not more money to build schools but rather to have teachers properly trained. Having school buildings does no good without trained teachers. And teachers have to be paid a wage they can live with. The public school teachers are not paid enough and often have class sizes of 50-70 students – an impossible situation to help students learn at the grade school level. This private school had 20-25 students per class and it appeared to me at the recess time that the predominance was girls at this school. When asked about whether the US military is needed for security, both the school’s principal and the teacher quickly said they wanted the US troops to leave. Lena added that “we need to make peace by ourselves” – it is not something that can be imposed from the outside. She continued, “Instead of waging war [here], the US could concentrate on education instead”, using the incredible amounts of money to train teachers. The AYPV had picked this school for the tree-planting opportunity as a way to symbolically celebrate the New Year which would begin two days hence on the first day of Spring. Afghans are about to begin Year 1390 – their calendar, like that it many other Muslim-dominated nations, is dated from the time of their Prophet Mohammad. Students at the school drew or painted pictures of trees as an art project to celebrate the tree-planting event in their schoolyard. Before we moved to the schoolyard to plant the trees, Hakim and the AYPV boys recited a poem they wrote the night before, “We Need a Different Tree” – a moving statement of choosing peace over war. It lamented how “power and privilege oppress the people – it is perfected in war. … Why would an Afghan mother want a tree that kills? … War is not a tree we want to plant – so, if we wish to live without war, we need to plant a different tree.” Then 55 trees, almond, poplar, plum, apricot, and apple, were placed in the already-dug holes provided. A local man pruned them after they were planted and watered. As we finished, the children were let out of the classrooms for recess/exercise and they were enamored at the visitors to their school; some loved posing for photos, other avoided our cameras. The school principal announced that the garden/schoolyard would be re-named “The Friendship Garden.” The van ride back to our office space –like all rides in the Kabul traffic – was another adventure. Just when you think the driver will hit a bike rider or pedestrian, scrape an on-coming car or one that you are passing, the brakes are applied or the steering wheel turned to prevent the accident. Any insurance agency would have to be crazy to cover someone for collision –although I don’t seem much beyond very close calls. It makes rush hour in the Twin Cities look positively relaxing. Next on the day’s list (after a light lunch) was to drive to the Emergency Medical Hospital for civilian war casualties operated by an Italian NGO to donate our blood. (Ironically, I was told in Minneapolis before I left that I will not be able to donate platelets for a full year if I travel to Afghanistan due to threat of malaria – even though the threat doesn’t arrive until May, long after I’ve left.) My group had some difficulty getting a taxi to the hospital so we missed most of the tour and discovered that they only needed O negative blood that day. Two of us met that requirement but Kathy, who was one of the two, was asked to wait a couple of weeks since she gave at that hospital only several weeks before. She will donate again before she returns to Chicago in a couple of weeks. Returning to the office, we had a convoy of 5 huge armored tan vehicles of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) pass us. Even though there were no US markings, it is clear to everyone who is in sight that these behemoths are the dinosaurs of the crumbling American empire – unfortunately still very deadly in its decline. Later in the afternoon, we walked to the 3rd Eye Photojournalism Center, the host organization for the candlelight vigil in remembrance of the victims of war. A stunning gallery of wonderful photos taken from all over Afghanistan graced the walls of the four rooms and a table with candles encircling a banner reading “For the War’s Victims” in both English and Dari. After a few moving talks and the reading of the names of the 7 boys who were killed earlier this month in one of the northern provinces, the AYPV boys lit candles and passed them to all of us and we observed 2 minutes of silence in memory of all of war’s victims. Many of us felt tears welling up knowing that two of the boys present had lost their father to the Taliban several years ago. I am amazed at their courage and commitment. At dinner afterward, I had a great conversation with Zahra, yesterday’s moving speaker from the Open Society, deeply moved by this 23 year old women who refuses to wear the veil except when she is outdoors. She has many questions for me – why I came here, what do I think about Afghanistan, what other Americans think about the war, … . I’m sure we will have several more conversations before our week’s end. Having gotten up before dawn, I was very grateful for the air mattress and sleeping bag at 9 PM. I am so grateful for so many friends who have supported me/us on this pilgrimage/journey for peace.

Finding hope in Afghanistan

In a country torn by thirty years of war, where the promise of peace continues to be broken, despair and resignation seem to be the norm for Afghan society. War – and its corollaries of social decay, poverty, corruption, and trauma – does not discriminate. Not a family in Afghanistan has been left unaffected by the death or disappearance of a loved one and the daily, traumatizing stress of living in an occupied war zone. Billions of aid intended for reconstruction has been siphoned off leaving little left over for meaningful, local development. Afghanistan is an unstable society wracked by corruption at nearly every level of government and a pervasive distrust of strangers and neighbors alike is the expectant result of such disintegration of social ties. But as the late Studs Terkel reminds us, “hope dies last.” And this is certainly true for the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, a small but growing group of young Afghans committed to a life of peace in the midst of so much violence. While cynicism and disbelief run deep across generations, the AYPVs have an alternative vision for their country embedded deep in their hearts – and they believe this hope for peace is already in the heart of every Afghan. Organized by the AYPVs, twenty-five international partners joined together with over fifty ordinary Afghans on Saturday to declare a commitment to an Afghanistan without war with fifty-five young saplings to mark the beginning of a new year in Afghanistan. The various apple, apricot, and almond trees were planted in a Kabul elementary and high school as a sign of hope and promise of peace. The previous day, the AYPVS along with members of the Open Society organized and participated in an inter-ethnic walk for an end to the war. As far as anyone can tell, this is the first public gathering calling for peace in Afghanistan that is not politically aligned or sponsored. The bright blue scarves of the AYPVs, their smiles and words of gratitude to the accompanying riot police, and banners denouncing warmongering is a considerable different message that most Kabulis are not used to seeing or hearing. The steadfast commitment to nonviolence of the AYPVs and their deep desire for peace offers a kind of hope that is unheard of in Afghanistan but it also offers a breath of fresh air. Slowly but surely the AYPVs and their partners – both Afghan and international – are growing into a sizable community with a peace-filled vision for Afghanistan. The planting of trees is a small gesture indeed and the challenges for ending the foreign occupation of Afghanistan, confronting corruption and human rights abuses (particularly of women), and promoting a culture of peace are many. But the planting of trees is a beginning and it may very well be the birth of a movement that transforms Afghanistan. Afghanistan War

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Afghanistan stifled freedom!

By Kelsey Meehan

Since October 2001, Afghanistan has been occupied by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This group, comprised of both NATO and non-NATO member nations, has been in action in an attempt to bring aid to the Afghan people and rid the country of Taliban and al Qaeda forces. Their main goal has been to bring freedom to Afghanistan and its citizens.

Yet, throughout these last seven years, freedom of speech and expression in Afghanistan has been repeatedly called into question by these occupying forces, including Canada.

The government, militant groups such as the Taliban and erupting conflicts between the two group’s opposing views of the constitution has created an extremely difficult environment within the country for the average citizen.

Currently there are two main factors from the constitution of Afghanistan that set in motion the entire discourse on freedom of expression. Firstly, the religion sections of the constitution, Articles’ 2 and 3, states that people are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rights ‘within the limits of the law’.

Article 34 of the constitution states that freedom of expression ‘shall be invaluable'. Every Afghan shall have the right to express thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations, as well as other means in accordance with provisions of this constitution. Every Afghan shall have the right to print and publish on subjects without prior submission to state authorities.

But Dastageer Sakhizai, workforce planning branch consultant for the government of Saskatchewan who moved to Canada from Afghanistan 10 years ago, knows first hand the struggle people in Afghanistan go through every day to make their voices heard.

“There is no mention of freedom of consciousness within the constitution,” said Sakhizai.

In fact, apostasy from Islam is punishable by death as stated by both the constitution and under the rule of Sharia law.

The second main force of opposition against freedom of speech and expression in the country is one that has received much attention across the globe—the Taliban.

When any coverage in the press appears about opposition parties in Afghanistan, traditionally the Taliban are not included in this group. Even as the largest opposition group in the country and across the region, the Taliban are seen traditionally as holding only military or militant power, not political. But Taliban are in fact included in the long list of official political parties in Afghanistan, and are therefore by all rights allowed to be a part of the countries political process.
“It’s like they [the Taliban] don’t exist. Now, ironically, the whole West is pushing for negotiations with Taliban,” said Sakhizai.

At this point the Taliban are gaining power in the country politically, to the point that other parties in positions of power are seeking their approval and ‘blessing’. And Taliban have been the most prominent force against freedom of speech and expression in the country, implementing a highly strict form of Sharia law.

Bloggers like Basir Seeratmust overcome the risks of punishment for expressing their views about their country and the world online.

“The state has formulated the rules in which freedom of expression has significantly been safeguarded,” said Seerat, a blogger and photojournalist from Kabul.

The blocking factor of freedom of expression over the years has merely been the ‘Sharia-oriented’ vision by some religious leaders.

The Sharia law, or Islamic religious law, follows the guidelines and teachings found in the Koran, and often comes into conflict with the constitution of Afghanistan—particularly the article pertaining to civil and human rights. While the constitution mandates that people can print or publish their opinions freely, the rule of Islamic law does not permit publishing any material that is deemed against Islam itself.

Seerat has experienced this contradiction first-hand as a photojournalist. He spent 10 days in Taliban captivity for his attempts at shooting a documentary on a female political candidate attempting to break though in a male-dominated culture.

The future of freedom of expression in Afghanistan will no doubt be filled with challenges and risks like the ones Seerat has experienced. As the Taliban continues to grow and evolve into a younger, tech-savvy and increasingly more violent political power, more voices will be silenced and snuffed out.