среда, 4 июня 2008 г.

Finally, a hopeful story emerges out of Afghanistan

In every niche of Afghanistan, there are horror stories.

Even in relatively tranquil regions, such as this one in the north, occasional flashes of violence - unspeakably ruthless, without any semblance of tactical purpose - remind that the insurgency remains vigorous and scattered, probing far beyond its throbbing core in the southern provinces.

A top Taliban commander was arrested by Afghan National Police here last month, a rare triumph for that benighted organization. But in the previous month, a teacher who had just finished condemning suicide bombings as un-Islamic, speaking at a public gathering, was ambushed and killed on his way home. Shortly afterwards, unknown gunmen attacked an open-air school for 700 students, setting tents alight and slicing off the ears of a watchman.

Of course, in Kunduz brutality is no stranger, although the bad memories have been diminishing.

This is where the repressive and loathed and foreign Taliban movement died, at least in northern Afghanistan, in a plateau town surrounded by plump brown hills pocketed with craters.

In late 2001, the last of the Taliban fighting forces was besieged in Kunduz by National Alliance troops. A ceasefire was negotiated and thousands were taken captive, sent mostly to prisons run by the notorious Uzbek warlord, Gen. Rashid Dostum. Hundreds died of suffocation while being transported in sealed freight containers.

Many more, mainly non-Afghan Taliban - from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Chechnya - were incarcerated in a Dostum prison in Shibarghan, two provinces distant. When they rose up against their guards, the U.S. launched an air strike that killed at least 300, some dying with their hands still tied behind their backs. It was a singularly damning event for the coalition campaign, sickening to the world.

But there's little sympathy for those victims here, even among the minority population of ethnic Pashtuns.

"They were murderers and they occupied us, just as the Soviets did before them," says Abdul Zaman, a Tajik, chopping off a lamb's head and securing the carcass to a hook in his meat stall. "Why should we pity them? They had no pity for us. Their ways were not our ways."

Kunduz city has bounced back as a farming and marketing hub, bright and lively with high-stepping horses - the area is famous for its quality of horse breeding - bedecked in jangles and scarlet pompons. Unemployment is distressingly high, however, with young men sitting idly outside the job centre.

It was here that the Germans opened NATO's first Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2004. UNICEF and the World Health Organization have offices in town and non-governmental agencies operate a myriad of services. Last week, a three-day workshop was held on "Human Rights and Support of Disabled Persons." There's a legal aid office, too.

The Star, unable to find a habitable guest house, threw itself on the mercy of UNICEF and was kindly provided with the entire fourth floor staff dorm of their building.

Downstairs, Dr. Abdul Nazar Ahmadi is proud to talk about the success of one particular project - polio eradication.

It was actually the mujahideen, back in the late 1980s, who first began advocating and enabling polio vaccination for children in the regions they held. In 1988, there were 350,000 documented cases of polio in Afghanistan; by 2006, under programs established by the central government through the auspices of the UN and the WHO, that number had been slashed to 1,956.

But Afghanistan remains one of four countries where crippling polio is still endemic. There was a huge outbreak in 1997 and again in 2006. Six cases have been found so far this year, though none in the north, where eradication has been declared complete.

"For every single case, that means up to a thousand have been exposed to the virus and have it in their system," says Ahmadi, who is in charge of the regional polio office. "It's like the iceberg phenomenon. We only see the tip of it."

Of the six cases this year, two are in Helmand, the rest in Herat, Kandahar and Farah.

"With the security situation in the south, accessibility for vaccination is very difficult," says Ahmadi.

"We need to vaccinate them at least three times over three years to completely control the disease. But in some conflict areas, the Taliban have shot at our volunteers or they have intimidated tribal elders so we can't go into villages."

A Taliban spokesperson has denied this, insisting volunteers have been guaranteed secure access to immunize children. They lie.

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