Interview with Afghan activist Shazia Shekib
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to talk with Shazia Shekib (an alias), a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. She was in the US to speak at the Veterans for Peace National Convention and share her on-the-ground perspective on the war in Afghanistan. We talked about RAWA’s take on the US strategy for Afghanistan, and the debate in the US about how to best serve women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Tell me about what RAWA does and how it was founded.
RAWA stands for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. It was founded in 1977 by Meena, the leader, and two other intellectual women, in the time when Russia was in Afghanistan. Their aim was for freedom, democracy, social justice and secular values. Because of the worse situation during that time, Meena decided to leave Afghanistan and they based in Pakistan, Quetta province. She started schools and hospitals, a refugee camp for Afghan refugees, women and children. And then after 10 years of the foundation, she was assassinated by the KGB of Russia and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Hezb-e Islami. Then her followers followed her way and up until now they are struggling for a free and democratic Afghanistan. Still they have activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, most of the provinces of Afghanistan. We have schools and health care centers, orphanages, and projects for women, for widows, generating projects. And we have also political activities. We have our own web page, we have tours around the world, speaking tours about the real situation in Afghanistan. And also we have a magazine, Women’s Message, we distribute in all of Afghanistan, to give a message to all the people of Afghanistan.
How did you get involved in the organization?
I was three years old when my family left Afghanistan and we based in Pakistan, in the refugee camp, which was a RAWA camp. My mother became a teacher in RAWA school. She became a member of RAWA and then I grew up to become a RAWA member. After sixteen I joined RAWA because I thought through RAWA, through this organization, women’s organization, we can struggle for our country, which is all the time having wars, and different groups against women, and through this organization I thought I can struggle for our country, for a free country.
There’s been a lot of talk in the Obama administration about a new strategy for Afghanistan, that what they’re doing is a significant shift from the Bush administration’s approach. What is your take on the Obama administration’s approach? Are there aspects you support? What are the ones you oppose?
RAWA thinks that there is no difference between the policy of Bush and Obama because they both follow the same warmongering policy. The new strategy for Obama to send another more than 20,000 troops to Afghanistan, we think this is bad news for the Afghan people because the troops who are in Afghanistan, for eight years they couldn’t bring peace and security, and instead they increase the number of sufferings and bombings and killing ordinary people. They are committing crimes as the warlords and the Taliban are doing, and we think that they are not there to secure us. They are giving us more suffering, and they have made their puppet regime, and they want control over Afghanistan. They have made bases for themselves, and they have their own interest for Afghanistan. They never care about Afghan people. We think that they should leave Afghanistan. This is occupation, and they can’t bring peace and security because occupation is never liberation, and because no country can give all these values to another country as a gift. The past wars have proved that always they have been failed in their mission, like in Iraq and Vietnam, they were failed, and the situation of Pakistan and Afghanistan is the same as other countries. We think that they should leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.
What do you think about some of the development and aid aspects, and the “civilian surge” the Obama administration is talking about?
In the past eight years and also now, billions and billions of dollars have been given to Afghanistan, and they have invested in the military, and 80% of the aid is going back to the contractors, these big NGOs. Most of the money which is going toward the military is wasted, and ordinary lives are being wasted, the money is wasted, and some few local things and private things are being built in Afghanistan. We never see any construction or reconstruction work because it’s all wasted and it goes to the pockets of the warlords who are in power in Afghanistan, and even Hilary Clinton and Obama are talking about corruption in Afghanistan, and they’re not going to the right place.
There’s some debate within progressive circles and among women’s rights groups about Afghanistan. There are some people who care about women’s rights in Afghanistan and believe that the US military needs to stay to protect women and make sure the Taliban doesn’t come into power. What do you say to people who make that argument?
People who are not inside Afghanistan and who are talking these things from very far away, they can’t see what’s really going in Afghanistan. People who are living in Afghanistan like I am living inside Afghanistan, I can tell you the real situation, what’s going on. From 2001 up until now there is no positive change for women. There are crimes against women, as it was during the Taliban. The rapes of women of 75 years old, children of 3 years old and 4 years old. Self-immolation among women has increased and acid attacks, kidnaps, shooting and poisoning of teachers and girls on the way because there is no security, has increased. There is danger from Taliban side, they are increased in different areas, and the warlords who are in power, they have commanders, they have the support of the US and Karzai with them and they are committing crimes. Eight years is enough for a country, for a superpower to prove you can do something or you can’t, with the power that you have, with the money that you have, and with the military that you have. But after almost eight years we still have a catastrophic situation. So the people who are claiming that military is there to secure, they should hear from Afghans, the ordinary Afghans that say the truth and they are living, they should not hear to the media here who never say the truth about Afghanistan.
Is there a fear amongst women that the Taliban will take over if the US leaves?
Many people have these questions, that if troops will leave Afghanistan, what will be the situation. We can tell them that in Afghanistan, if they are leaving, they should also stop supporting these warlords, these Taliban, they should stop empowering them. The neighboring countries should stop interfering in Afghanistan, they should not support these different warlord groups and Taliban and empowering them, if they will stop, they will not get that support to continue their fight. They will be disarmed and gradually they will lose power. In a country where there is war, where there are problems, they in the country themselves know how to deal with that. Because western European countries, they had wars, they had their local problems, they struggled for their own. They achieved all these values, and they should leave these countries, Afghanistan, other countries, they will solve their own problems, if not now, maybe for future generations. They will give sacrifices, they will fight–the democratic groups, the individuals we have, but they don’t have that support from any country, they don’t get that support. If they are supported, they will build up their own countries. Military and wars, occupation and invasion, they never have a solution for a country. They always have been failed and this time in Afghanistan they are also failed.
So RAWA would like to see all the US troops out as soon as possible?
Yes, sure, if they are leaving they should also stop supporting these different groups. And if the international community is really honest for Afghanistan, they should support the democratic groups, they should support the individuals who really want to do something for Afghanistan. But they never get that support. Because they need a justification to be in Afghanistan they rely on extremist groups, they rely on these warlords, the Taliban.
Is there anything you think the US can do specifically to support and put resources toward reconstruction and development that’s being led by Afghans?
The things that they are saying is reconstruction is reconstructing bases, they are making bases for themselves, to stay there in Afghanistan, to serve their interest they have for Afghanistan. We have construction, private things are being built by warlords that they have money. There is no making of schools and hospitals. Women are dying during childbirth, thousands of women are dying during childbirth because of no access to healthcare. Very less percentage of women are going to attend schools. In the big cities there are a few, but if you go outside in the district, in the villages, far away from the centers, you will not find women going to school, children going to school because of very poor access to education. People in Afghanistan don’t have electricity, pure water. They need these, and during these eight years millions of dollars were wasted in military, in wars, in weapons, chemicals that they are using. Pennies of it go to Afghan people, which is nothing. Eighty percent of it goes back to the military and goes back to the contractors of the big NGOS.
What are the kinds of things that groups like RAWA do to address some of those issues—getting people in school and access to healthcare?
There are individuals, there are a few organizations, like have a very good group like Afghanistan Solidarity Party, they are really great people, individual democratic organizations. They are doing projects for people, for women and children. RAWA has schools for girls and for widows we have projects. For orphans we have hundreds of orphans in our orphanages. We are giving them education and food and shelter. We have hospitals and clinics where there is no governmental healthcare and we are trying to do our best because we also have no support from the government. We have individual supporters in different countries, and we need the support of different groups, but unfortunately the government and the big NGOs never support the democratic organizations in Afghanistan.
A lot of the work we do involves talking to members of Congress and their staff. Many members of Congress have concerns about the current approach in Afghanistan, but at this point they are not actively challenging the Obama administration. Do you have any thoughts about what would you like to see Congress here doing?
RAWA thinks that there are groups who really see we have a chance for peace, and I was especially invited for the [Veterans for Peace] convention here and we see that there are people who really speak for Afghan people. They have resisted and they are against the war in Afghanistan. The people of the US are the ones who can put pressure on their government to stop these wars in different countries. In the US here, people have too many problems. They are losing their jobs, they are losing their houses, they have a lot of their own problems. The government should solve their own problems instead of making wars, spending billions of billions of dollars on wars, and chemicals, and the weapons they are using. They should solve their own problems and the Congress and the people, democratic ones who are here, they can put pressure on their government to stop these wars, to pull out troops from Afghanistan and from Iraq and different countries. Everyone should deal with their own problems and they will struggle for themselves and Afghans will solve their own problems. They will fight as we did in the past. We had a great history. We fought the British two times and it was Afghans who struggled, but after the occupation of Russia, they built the different groups and they made Afghans fight each other, and they brought this hatred among people. They were the first, US and Russia and these different countries, were the first to bring conflict to Afghanistan.
What do you think groups like ours in the US that oppose the military presence in Afghanistan can do to support what you’re doing in Afghanistan?
These organizations who really have feelings for countries like Afghanistan, and I was really surprised to see that there are thousands of people here who really are resisting, who really are against policy of the government, and I think they are the people who can raise their voices, protest, and tell the media to stop these conflicts in the world. We can do something for peace and solidarity in this world, and they can put pressure on their government to stop all this and raise awareness about the real situation in different countries.
What is your vision for the future of Afghanistan? What do you think can help you get there?
I think that if the international community is really honest, if the international community really wants to help, they should support the democratic organizations and individuals, intellectuals who really want to do something for Afghanistan. They should support them, they should do anything they can help to reconstruct Afghanistan, to rebuild, to support health care, education. It’s the only way we think that can empower women because women are deprived of all these values and if they are empowered together with men, they can struggle for a free Afghanistan. Military is not for all these values they can’t do, and occupation is not the way to give Afghan women that liberation and that education and peace. They can’t do through military actions and wars. War is just destruction, war is just for killing ordinary people, civilians, and there is no solution again.
What do you think is the impact of the airstrikes and the raids that are happening on the public of Afghanistan? We’ve been arguing that the US should stop bombings and raids. What do you see as far as public opinion on the ground?
In the past eight years, thousands of civilians have been killed by the bombs that they are using, and the chemicals, the phosphorous, the different powerful chemicals that they are using. Civilians are being killed. This year on 5th May 2009, they bombed a village in Farah province, northwest Afghanistan, and they killed more than 150. It was a massacre, 12 people and 10 people were killed only from one family. It’s a massacre, and people, now all the people know what’s the real situation, and they are giving anti-US slogans, protests are going on, people are resisting. They are fed up with all these wars because they were hopeful in the beginning but now they are losing hope and they are against US policies and they are against US occupation in Afghanistan. We think that before people rise up and before they are driven away they should themselves leave Afghanistan to solve their own problems.
What do you most want Americans to know about the war in Afghanistan that you don’t think they already know?
Here the media says opposite things. They never say that civilians are being killed. They always say 2 or 3 Taliban killed. But they should think deeply that what’s really going on. They should hear the media that’s saying the true things. If you visit our website you will find a lot of—Amnesty International recently gave a very good report on Afghanistan, which was on a real basis. They can find true media and true things to hear about. They are the people who can stop all this by putting pressure on their government. They should know that almost 8 years passed, but still Afghanistan is producing most of the opium of the world. Ninety-two percent of the world’s opium is cultivated in Afghanistan. Taliban have increased in different countries, civilians are being killed by the bombings, the situation for women is worse as it was during Taliban. For a superpower it’s easy to stop all these things. It’s enough. They are failed in their mission in Afghanistan. It’s useless to send another troops, and their soldiers are being killed. Their money is being wasted, just for the benefit of US policy. It’s not for the benefit of Afghans.