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Kabulpress.org enjoys huge input from Dari and Farsi speakers around the world, but the English pages have lagged a bit. To address this, we are beginning a series of interviews with English speakers who reside in Afghanistan.
Most Americans and other English speakers do not have access to eyewitness accounts of events in Afghanistan. They get breaking news reports from big media that focus on bombings and violence— and not the realities behind the headlines. This series aims to generate discussion and help reveal effective solutions in Afghanistan’s search for justice, freedom of expression, and human rights.
The first interview is with Rosemary Stasek.
Rosemary is a Californian who has lived most of the past six years in Kabul. She zips through the streets in her little Corolla, avoiding SUV convoys that elbow their way through Kabul traffic—calling them “bullet magnets.” She usually refuses to wear a head scarf or stop at the questionable “official checkpoints” that dot Kabul’s streets, and declares that for its size, Kabul is one of the safest cities in the world.
As founder and chair of the non-profit organization, A Little Help, Rosemary is passionately involved with improving conditions for women in Afghanistan through government and NGO project management, fund-raising, and consulting services for other organizations. Her projects have channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars to successful programs in women’s prisons, maternity hospitals, and girls’ education. Rosemary lives in a small house in downtown Kabul, and has a good feel for the pulse of life there. Her astute commentary on Afghan government agencies, the UN, and the American military and aid presence are compelling and compassionate, and reflect the thoughts of her many Afghan friends and colleagues.
Photo: Rosemary with graduates of a police women’s emergency obstetrics course.
This is the first in a three-part series of interviews with Rosemary that will discuss both problems and possible solutions . Her responses have been slightly edited.
Tell us about the condition of the basic infrastructure like roads, electricity, trash collection, water:
Things have maybe improved a little over the past few years. In some areas things are better, some areas are worse. Some days are better than others. I don’t think electricity has become worse, but for some it’s better. I get three to four hours a day at my house, three or four days a week. It was never much to start with.
Traffic is horrible. There is a huge amount of traffic on streets that just can’t handle it. It’s as bad as its ever been, which is bad. I don’t think there has been much improvement in the past two years.
The city has gotten more crowded and more dirty, with more people up living in the hillsides with no electricity and no water. There has been almost no improvement to public infrastructure. You go around the city, and there are shiny new buildings and high-rises, that sort of thing, but those are very isolated improvements which only show a greater contrast with what’s average in the city.
There are some NGOs that have organized trash collection. Now you see dumpsters throughout the city. But the problem of trash around the city is huge because of all the new people. What happens is even when the garbage goes in the dumpster, it’s just taken right back out so animals can eat through it, and people can scavenge through it. So you have a few work crews collecting garbage and cleaning out the sewer gutters, but then it just gets pulled out again. And the city is so crowded that they just keep everything at bay, not really cleaning the city in a really modern sense.
There are new public toilets all over town, put in by an NGO. They are the composting kind. They look clean and nifty, but I can’t say I’ve ever used one, and they’re a big improvement over empty lots, especially for women. It costs just a few pennies to use them, and they seem to be a pretty sustainable idea.
How are conditions with schools?
In Kabul, it’s different from rest of country. Schools are up and operating, but there are lots of private schools. The Kabul public schools are so bad, everyone wants to send their kids to private schools. But they are so expensive. I went into one yesterday that was about 20 bucks a month, which for the average Afghan is enormous. They are “international model schools”, and they’re springing up all over the place. And there is definitely a market for that. In Kabul the public schools have books. By and large the education system is functional in Kabul.
Outside, it’s a mess, depending on the area. In the west a little less so, in the south it’s really marginal, almost nonexistent in terms of facilities and in terms of girls attending school. The Taliban and various insurgents, whatever their motivation, have really started targeting school buildings, so over a couple of years, close to 500 schools have been damaged or destroyed.
We have drive-by shootings of principals and students. The girls’ schools are being targeted. Schools are easy targets, because they are seen as undefended symbols of the government. So if you want to attack the government, attack a school. It’s so much harder to attack a roadside checkpoint or a governor’s complex.
Girls’ schools are practically non-existent in the south, and in the Taliban areas, and schools for boys are marginal there as well right now. Every family is different, and priorities are different for education, depending on whether it’s for boys or girls, and it varies by region. In the Hazara area, of the central highlands, there’s tremendous support for girls education. But on the other hand, they don’t have any resources, and they don’t have the schools and teachers they need.
The resources aren’t going in because it’s a relatively peaceful area. The irony is that the safest areas tend to get the least attention and least amount of aid. There is this huge amount of aid focused on the drug producing areas, the Taliban dominant areas. In the north there is certainly a focus on education, and good support for girls’education. In the south, there are families who want to educate their girls, but the Taliban are putting up night letters saying that if you send your girls to school we’re going to kill them, and we’re going to burn down the schools. So even families who want to educate their girls, are afraid to send them.
There are areas in the hills where there are no schools. Kids have to carry water up the hills all day long. The community wants schools, but have no money for books, pencils, paper. What is the situation there?
There are schools available for those children, but they are far away. There is no transportation, and it would take a very long walk to get there. And the family may need the kids to haul water because it may be the only way to get water. It’s a survival thing. Teacher shortage is an issue too. You can only put up so many buildings, then you run out of teachers.
We hear complaints about the courts and judicial system.
There is absolutely zero sense that the judicial system is even remotely something that you could count on. The government judicial system doesn’t exist, in many places outside of Kabul. Disputes are settled through tribal shuras, which are never in the best interest of women. In most rural places, disputes are settled by exchanging women to write a wrong, and the women have nothing to say about it.
There is no sense of justice. It’s all a matter of who is going to pay the judge the most to buy the verdict. Even in Kabul people don’t put any of their faith in the judicial system at this point.
Government officials are held in pretty low regard.
What about the police?
They are the lowest of the lowest of who is held in esteem in this culture at this time. The Afghan National Police (ANP) are beyond incompetent, corrupt, vicious, incapable. Pick a bad adjective and it describes the ANP. Their purpose appears to be only to shake people down for whatever bribe they can get. A vast number are illiterate. They are poorly trained, their equipment is subpar, and whatever equipment they can get they turn around and sell.
The running joke is that they can’t shoot you because they have already sold their ammunition for cigarettes. Their big thing is to stop people at checkpoints to see what they can get from them. The Afghan man who drives my female staff has been stopped several times. I drive myself, and I don’t stop, I just run them over, so I don’t have that problem, but our driver gets stopped all the time and he has to pay a couple bucks here, a couple there. It’s a ridiculous amount just to pass through a checkpoint, especially considering how little Afghans make. They’re just seen as the lowest of the low, and they are among the biggest factors that are eroding the credibility of the Afghan government right now.
Photo: Bombed US Embassy convoy, March 2008
There’s now another layer, the guys in the green outfits from the National Security Directorate (NDS), and they’re even scarier. They wear the patches and ride around in their new Ford Rangers. They answer to no one really except the president, not that the ANP answers to anybody either, except to their chief who wants a cut of whatever they manage to take in that day.
Is it true you can buy fake police uniforms for $5 in the bazaar?
Every incident you hear of they say, “yeah they were wearing ANP uniforms.” But finding the uniforms in the bazaar? Sure, they’re available in the grey market, but mostly it’s just an excuse by the Ministry of Interior, which is supposed to control the ANP. They say, oh yes people are making fake uniforms, which is their way of pushing it off when the ANP does something, but 90% of the time they really were the ANP.