domenica , 28 Novembre 2021

Terror and resistance in the Afghan autumn: an interview with Liza Schuster and Reza Hussaini

by VALENTINA MARCONI and STEFANO VISENTIN

Italian

Few days ago, the dead bodies of four young women were found in the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan. Frozan Safi, a 29-year-old activist and economics lecturer, who took part to the recent protests against Taliban rule, is among them, while the other three women have not been identified yet. The horrific news of the brutal murder of these four women comes at a time when, after an intense media focus on Afghanistan during August, the situation in the country is now rarely making the headlines. At the beginning of September, an interim government was established, that includes only Taliban leaders, and – as was to be expected – no women or representatives of ethnic and religious minorities, who are suffering a new wave of persecutions and attacks. Meanwhile, in recent weeks, the process of evacuating those who risked their lives for collaborating with the previous government has resumed, albeit very slowly, as if the EU and the US forgot their lofty promises. After twenty years of Western rule in the country, what is left are the ruins of an administration systematically based on corruption and collusion with warlords. Women, who in the last twenty years have not been obliged anymore to wear the infamous burqas but had to fight against poverty and patriarchy daily, today pay the price for their courage in reclaiming their freedom.We spoke about this “everyday” violence, heightened by a rampant economic crisis and the infighting between the Taliban and Isis, in an interview with Liza Schuster, a sociologist who has conducted research in Afghanistan over the last ten years, and Reza Hussaini, a doctoral student studying Afghan migration, who both were in Kabul when the Taliban took over the city. Their stories shed light, among other things, on the political relevance of the freedom of movement practised by Afghan men and women, which, on the one hand, allows states such as Turkey to use migrants as a bargaining chip against the EU, but, on the other, disrupts European aspirations to exercise a firm control on the movements of migrants. And while many try to leave the country in search of a better and different life, Liza and Reza spoke also of forms of resistance that women and the Hazara minority are practising, within a regime that weaponizes sexual and ethnic hierarchies to impose its control on society: a resistance that, taking advantage of the minimal spaces that opened up during the Western occupation, tries to build an autonomous path, without waiting for help from those whose only problem is now to keep Afghans away from the EU borders.

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As you were in Kabul during the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, could you describe what was the situation on the ground from your vantage point?

Liza Schuster: I was staying with Reza and his family, and we were sitting and discussing buying guns in the marketplace (They laugh) to defend ourselves from the roof of the apartment. Reza was saying that it would be useful to have a foreign woman because this way the press would pay attention, as nobody would care if it was just Afghans defending themselves. At night we heard people shouting Allahu Akbar from the roofs, in defiance of the Taliban, and it was very moving. It was Thursday and we knew that the Taliban were getting closer.

Reza Hussaini: During the previous week, Taliban conquests had advanced swiftly and then suddenly they took control of the major big cities, and everyone got scared. Several thousand people fled to Kabul from the rest of the country because they thought the capital would be the last place to fall. That was a warning that things were moving fast.

Liza Schuster: On Friday morning, the company I worked for called and said that I needed to come in because all the team except me had been staying in an armed compound near the airport. After saying goodbye to friends and colleagues, I went in on Saturday and on Wednesday I was flown out on a French military aircraft. But for Reza it was very different…

Reza Hussaini: When we felt that the Taliban were getting closer, we thought about different options. First, to have guns to defend ourselves but as most of us are academics, it did not seem feasible. Second, how to get out of the country. In the last days, friends were coming and sitting with Liza asking for advice. Suddenly, I connected with one of my friends in Poland and she said that she could help my family to get out. On Wednesday we received a call very early in the morning to come to the airport. On our way there, I saw Taliban checkpoints and I hesitated; I thought that they would check my documents and question me. And then, we thought, ‘ok, this is the risk, let’s take it’, and we got a taxi. Close to the airport, there was a very big crowd, thousands of people, and there was a Taliban checkpoint. I saw a Taliban firing to push people back and my daughter was very scared; it was the first time she heard gunfire at such close range. So, I said to the family ‘it’s not possible to go to the airport, let’s go back’. We left, but then we received a call from friends, saying ‘this could be your last chance to get out of Afghanistan, try to come’; we packed again, just small backpacks and went to the airport, and we stayed there for one night because the Taliban checkpoint was not letting us cross… there was still a big crowd, and it was very scary, but finally we made it. From there, the Polish army brought us to Uzbekistan, then to Georgia, and then finally to Poland.

International media have described the speed to which the Taliban regained power as unexpected. To what extent would you agree with that?

Liza Schuster: I went to Afghanistan in July and the situation was more unstable than before. Since Trump made the announcement and Biden said they would stick to it, everyone thought the government would fall by September. When the Taliban started taking the provinces, we first imagined that they were not enough numerically to take a province and hold it. We thought they were going into towns, frightening people and moving on, and that this would give the army the opportunity to take the territory back. But end of July – beginning of August, the Taliban were taking and holding the provinces and we were wondering: where are all these people coming from? Where are these new Taliban fighters from? And the answer was from Pakistan. They had been recruiting young, unemployed Pakistani Pashtun in Pakistan and bringing them across the border. And it seems that there were also some other foreign Taliban. We heard that some fighters spoke Arabic for example and possibly from Uzbekistan. So, yes, in the last days the speed of the takeover was surprising, but the American and the Western governments’ assessment – that the government would last three months – were crazily optimistic, insanely optimistic…already in Spring many parts of Afghanistan were under Taliban control.

Were ‘foreigners’ the vanguard or they made up the greatest part of the Taliban forces?

Liza Schuster: No…Most of the Taliban are from Afghanistan, but they were not enough to take and hold the whole country. And so they relied on a big number, not more than half, but a big number of people from abroad.

Reza Hussaini: The Taliban have centers in Pakistan called madrasas, religious schools that support them, collecting money and encouraging people to go for Jihad in Afghanistan.

Liza Schuster: We heard that they had been told, ‘if you go to Afghanistan and fight with us, you can have land and you can have women’, so there were lots of these fighters who were not Afghan. But the Taliban have very strong roots in Afghanistan and in lots of rural areas they did have support. The other factor was the massive corruption within the Afghan institutions as there was a lot of nepotism even in the army, and you could get to be very senior – commandant, general, Minister of Defense because you were somebody’s brother or cousin and the same with other senior positions. 

[Reza had to leave]

How would you assess the US institution-building efforts in Afghanistan since 2001 and their relations with the Afghan ruling class?

Liza Schuster: In 2015/2016 a very good friend of mine who at the time was working on a

U.S. Justice Sector Support program inside the Ministry for Justice was saying, ‘the foreigners should go, and they should stop sending money. It is all going into the pockets of warlords, of corrupt elites, and it’s destroying us. It’s eating us from the inside. Leave us and we will find a way to survive’. After twenty years of institution-building efforts, more than half of the country remains below the poverty level, there is severe malnutrition, there are women who don’t have access to health clinics and children who are not going to school. Even if they go to school, the quality of the education is very poor. For example, the only decent university inside Afghanistan was the American University in Afghanistan, but if you got your degree from the American University in Afghanistan, it was barely recognized outside the country. So, all these institutions – the army, the police, the government itself, local governments, the health system – none of this functioned well. None of them. And now that the Americans have pulled out, nothing is left.

So, projects on the emancipation of women were just part of a media campaign, concentrated in few neighbourhoods?

Liza Schuster: It’s important not to underestimate the amazing courage of many women who took huge risks all around the country. I mean, Reza’s sister was a policewoman and she’s stuck in Kabul. She was trained by the Italian Guardia di Finanza. People like her were incredibly brave, but the problem is everybody has left, and she and other policewomen, women soldiers, women government officials and activists are left hiding at home, unable to provide for their families, terrified they will be killed. So, the West did encourage a class of women activists who have been incredibly brave and courageous and who really believed the language of rights and believed the West’s promises that they would continue to support them. But now they are gone, and these people are left alone, their lives at risk, unable to feed themselves or their families, unable to go out of the house. 

What sectors/ groups of the Afghan population are likely to be impacted the most by the Taliban regaining power?

Liza Schuster: As we can see from the different attacks that are happening, the Hazara, which are the population most likely to be Shia Muslim, are suffering large scale, direct attacks; explosions have taken place in Kunduz and Kandahar, and we’ve seen high numbers of fatalities. So the Hazara are being attacked because they are Shia and also because they’re Hazara and because they were one of those groups that believed the [Western] rhetoric and that really took advantage of whatever educational opportunities there were. But all through those twenty years there were other parts of society, other ethnic groups, that were saying, ‘Who do you think you are? Wait until we get back to power and we will put you back in your place’. Women who have worked with the government and women who have been active in the various women rights’ groups are at risk. There is a big network of women peace activists who were arguing that they should have been part of the peace negotiations but of course they weren’t, except as token women. All of these people are going to be extremely vulnerable. I also have former colleagues who were working for the government who not only are at risk because they are former government officials, but because they are Hazara and Shia. And so you have lots of people who are at risk for multiple reasons.

Right now, many Afghan citizens want to leave as they do not feel safe in the country. Do you think that their movement will be facilitated? What ordeals are they likely to face in order to reach a safe place, either in Europe or in the neighbouring countries?

Liza Schuster: Since 2015 the European Union has been saying to the Afghan government to take back whoever is deported and stop irregular migration. This summer, I was in the Ministry for Refugees, and we were working on a comprehensive migration policy which was largely designed under the sponsorship of the European Union. Suddenly, within 48 hours from the fall of the government, the EU made a swift U-turn, saying that they are going to judge the Taliban by how willing they are to allow Afghans to leave. It’s interesting that some of the voices arguing for the evacuation of certain groups of Afghans – especially interpreters who worked with the military – are conservative voices. I think that might be because of close links between those conservatives and the army. But the government fell on August 15, and we are now in October, so more than two months have passed, and in the last few days, around 40 people have been taken out by the British authorities, so maybe they are restarting some evacuations. The numbers are small now – the Taliban is making is hard for people to leave, but visas are not being issued. But what happens if the Taliban decide they don’t want to waste bullets killing people who they don’t like, and instead they allow them to just leave? What happens if Iran and Pakistan decide to open the borders and let people transit because they are fellow Muslims and they want to be nice to their brothers? What happens if Afghans could easily come to Europe? How long would European governments continue to say that Taliban should be allowing people to leave freely?

Do you think that neighboring countries will play a big role in containing? 

Liza Schuster: It’s difficult to say… now many Afghans are trying to get into Iran and Pakistan as well as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and not just because of fear of the Taliban and sometimes not even because of fear of the Taliban, but because there is no work, there is very little electricity and no foreign currency. This winter is going to be difficult. People are trying to cross the borders in order to survive, in order to try and find work so that their families can survive. I know that Pakistan is deporting. You can get into Pakistan if you pay bribes, but there are lots of checkpoints in Pakistan and the police too are harassing Afghans. And further afield, Turkey is sending very mixed messages: at one level it has a good relationship with Afghanistan, but on the other hand, Turkey has been building a wall between Turkey and Iran and they are massively deporting Afghans. Turkey is very pissed off with the European Union, which made lots of promises, and has this tap that it can turn on and off. They could let people go through into Greece, they can force them across the sea and across the Evros river, or they can drive them back to Iran. If you as an Afghan have enough money to buy a business or a house in Turkey you’ll be fine, but if you don’t and you’re in the streets then you’re very vulnerable and you are not a human being, you are just a tool to be used against either Iran or Europe. 

Do you think that the Taliban have really changed?

Liza Schuster: They played the European Union so cleverly in July and August in the beginning, but for those of us who were there it was clear that they had not changed. They have already made pronouncements about the fact that they are going to come back to cutting off hands, women are now not allowed out without a mahram[1], girls are not going to school.

The Taliban have not changed at all. They have become a little bit more technically clever, and they were clever in terms of public relations, they told the European Union what they wanted to hear in the beginning until they were in power, but they are now facing some very severe challenges as they are going to be very dependent on the international community for aid, especially this winter.

[Reza returns]

The international community needs the Taliban to pretend to do certain things so that they can get aid to the people of Afghanistan, because it’s going to be difficult to refuse to send aid to people who are freezing or starving. 

Reza Hussaini: They have not changed at all. A friend of a friend of mine who was trying to cross a Taliban checkpoint to come to the airport was told: ‘Now the world is watching us. Otherwise, I would just put a bullet in your head’, because he is a Hazara Shia, and the Taliban is not going to respect minorities rights at all. Right now, they are just compromising because the world is watching them. 

Liza Schuster: Another friend of ours was going to the airport with a male mahram and the Taliban stopped the car and told him to open his laptop so they could check the documents and then the Taliban put his hand on the man’s heart and said ‘your heart is beating very fast, are you afraid? Good, you should be’. There’s a lot of intimidation going on. 

Do you think that the Taliban rule will be able to silence all forms of internal dissent? What are the fronts on which conflict is most likely to emerge?

Reza Hussaini: I think resistance will take the shape of cultural resistance and civil disobedience. I mean, there is a generation especially women who grew up in the last twenty years and they are not accepting the limitations that Taliban are trying to impose on them and they continue to resist. There are minority groups – especially Hazara who got educated especially during these twenty years – who have media, newspapers; universities, they keep writing about what is happening in the country, about the Taliban, the limitations imposed on them, the inequality, the forced displacement, and discrimination. They resist against all of this. Three weeks ago, the Taliban took some of the journalists who were working with one of the well-known media platforms in Afghanistan and beat them up; they were Hazara people. They continue with this sort of resistance although we do not know what we’ll happen next

Liza Schuster: I guess the hope is that the Taliban themselves would fracture and that there will be internal fighting which might create a space for resistance but on the other hand it would lead to just more bloody civil war

Reza Hussaini: Yeah, especially with Daesh. In the past two weeks, two big explosions happened in the mosques which belong to Shia, one in Kunduz and one in Kandahar. The Taliban minimized what happened, saying that Daesh is not such a big movement in Afghanistan. Partly, this is because the explosions targeted Shia and therefore are not considered important, as their lives are disposable.

In the rural areas, Taliban had some support. What about the people working within the city? Are there forms of resistance in the workplaces?

Reza Hussaini: It has happened…you know, there were women who marched in front of the Taliban in Kabul recently, asking for the Taliban to respect their rights and let them go to back to employment and back to school. But the Taliban are not listening…

Liza Schuster: Unemployment is now high and so it’s difficult for people to organize. It’s very difficult to move around. We know many academics, but I don’t think they are thinking in terms of armed resistance. It’s more the kind of resistance that Reza is talking about in terms of speaking against and writing against. Also, the weather is getting cold there now, and people are thinking about where they can find food to feed the family and heat their homes. I mean, my feeling is that there will be resistance, but probably it will take months before people start to be able to think about it and organize. 

[1] Mahram is a close male relative such as brother, father, grandfather, uncle, husband, son or grandson.

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