Hold up, boy!
Massood Qiam, noted Afghan investigative journalist now living in exile, comments on the Taliban’s growing power
Friday 29 May 2009, by
All the versions of this article: [English] [فارسى]
On a warm summer day back in 2000, I was strolling down a Kabul street with my brother when I heard a voice from behind say, ‘Hold up boy.’ I turned around and saw a Taliban religious policeman holding a whip; his violent eyes fixed on us. My heart hammered inside my chest.
He stepped closer and without moving his lips started lashing me and my brother with his leather whip. Pedestrians stared but walked briskly by. The Talib told us with contempt, ”you have grown your hair to attract women.” We were taken to a car with Arabic scripts painted on its doors. There they clipped our hair quickly and sloppily, then drove us away.
In just a few hours, the Taliban had swept up a large number of boys and men for the crime of trimming their beards, growing long hair, and not wearing a head covering. They gathered us together in a local prison across from what was once known as the Kabul Zoo. Criminals like me and my brother were held there for several days.
In downtown Kabul there is a pedestrian underground passage. I was very young when I came across an interesting but unusual scene. Two religious police stood at the entrance, picking men out and taking them to a corner. I wondered why the religious police would just pick a few and body search them hidden from the public eye. I walked over to a man who had just been let go.
“What’s going on here?” I asked. The man grimaced, his eyes full of hatred and humiliation, answered: “They put a string inside my trousers to see if I had shaved my pubic hair.” The Ministry of Fighting Vice and Promoting Virtue says that the sunna commands the removal of pubic hair. This apparently is their idea of good hygiene, which is promoted by Islam.
In Kabul I occasionally came across such scenes. I once witnessed the beating of a woman by the Taliban. She had passed out, lying unconscious and in shock on the street. Such was daily life under the Taliban regime but we, but as Kabul citizens, were spared by the Taliban compared to those in rural areas. We listened on forbidden radios to news from the BBC of the slaughter of innocent people in the central regions.
Then along came 9/11. Although a tragedy resulting in the loss of thousands of innocent people, it was a sad blessing for Afghans, who had lost millions of loved ones through senseless violence and were living under the thumbs of one of the worst regimes in human history.
A month after the strikes against the U.S., the Taliban were removed from power. I and millions of my compatriots discussed the mysterious concept of democracy, the governance system promised by America. We didn’t have the faintest idea of what it could be; some were saying it is equality of women and men, others said it was election of a government based on peoples’ votes. Others said democracy is reconstruction, work, and welfare. Another said it was freedom of speech and thought.
I was starting to learn that democracy could bring freedom of thought when I began working for a local private radio station which had just begun broadcasting. From 2003 to 2006 were the best years for free speech, and gradually I became a famous face in Afghan media.
Photo by Fardin Waezi
The 06:30 Report
In 2004, I started a program on Tolo-TV, the most popular television station in Afghanistan. It later played a big role in Afghanistan’s socio-political environment. I was only 22 years old, but was selected to conduct serious interviews with high ranking government officials. In an interview with President Karzai that lasted for over an hour I remember him in tears at the end. I interviewed many key regional and international leaders too. The 06:30 Report analyzed important matters like administrative corruption, the economic mafia, regional squabbles, and drug trafficking. It was the first television program in Afghanistan with investigative journalism at its heart.
After 2006 the program began facing censorship from regressive political figures, and finally in 2008 it was shut down. With it went down the drain all the hopes and ideas that the newly established democracy had created in my head. I have come to realize that all the efforts I undertook under the label of free expression were not the fruit of Bush’s present of democracy. They were, in fact, the outcome of the bravery and dynamism created by the hope and rumors of change in the young people in Afghanistan; nothing more than that. Greater powers than us were at work, determined that real change would not come to Afghanistan.
George Bush, in his last speech as US president said ‘Afghanistan has undergone a change from being a country where Taliban and al-Qaeda would stone women to death in public to a democratic country which fights against terrorism.’ This picture of Afghanistan is true to some extent, but on-the-ground realities have been superficially analyzed. Perhaps I am not being whipped for having a short beard or long hair, but my country is far from achieving real security; which is the supposed aim of U.S. and other foreign forces in Afghanistan.
The U.S. in its fight against terrorism eradicated the Taliban, but it seems to me that this war has made the Taliban more determined and stronger. It has also strengthened its ties with similar hard-line factions. The Taliban, instead of stoning women or accosting men in public, are beheading a large number of men, women, and children on the roadsides in their areas of control, accusing them of espionage or working for foreigners.
I realized just two years after their collapse in 2001, that the Taliban had entered a new phase; that of reinforcing itself. Since 2003, the war has raged wilder. Now that the Taliban have reached Kabul’s gates, I can hear their voices from behind me, just like when they shouted at me on that hot summer day with my brother in 2000. ‘Hold up, boy!’