BAMYAN, PROVINCE, Afghanistan - “Bamyan Province is the safest province in Afghanistan,” Habiba Sarabi, the provincial governor of Bamyan Province, confidently stated.
Coalition forces rarely wear body-armor outside the wire and it is not uncommon to have a meal at one of the local markets in the bazaar. Women walk the streets freely, some without veils and people are outgoing and welcoming. Hard structures, statues and neatly laid stone walls dot the country-side. It is a far cry from the violence and unrest so prevalent in the other 33 provinces of Afghanistan.
The secret to its success can be attributed to the hard work of coalition forces and the Hazara people that make up the majority of its population.
“They know the importance of peace and they do not consider cruelty a good thing,” said Abdull Razaq, the provincial police chief of Bamyan Province.“They are the most peaceful and hard-working people and are not involved in any kind of trouble.”
Regardless, the people of Bamyan and more specifically the Hazaras, have suffered much in the past. A few miles from the city center lies the remains of Shahr-e-Gholghola, which roughly translates into “city of screams.” Visitors can still climb the winding trail that leads to a citadel at the top that was the city center of Bamyan before Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes burned it to the ground and slaughtered its inhabitants in 1221 A.D.
Blown-out tanks and artillery pieces can be found scattered around the open fields; grim reminders of the Soviet invasion in the 1980s that left Afghanistan in shambles.
After the Russians left, the Taliban took over and Bamyan again saw bloodshed and oppression.
“The Taliban government ordered the genocide of the Hazara people and did not accept their presence as human,” said Razaq. “That is the reason the Hazara people are longing for peace and consider the presence of the international community as good.”
Abdull expresses his fear that when coalition forces leave, the situation in Bamyan will worsen.
“If the Taliban comes back into power, the Hazara people will become victims again,” he added.
The treatment of the Hazaras can be attributed to their genetic inheritance that dates back to Genghis Khan. The Asiatic features can still be seen in the faces of Afghans in the markets and outlying countryside. The fact that they are Shia Muslims compared to the Sunni Taliban also makes them a target.
“They suffered a lot during the Taliban and now they want to live normally,” said Sarabi, the only female provincial governor in Afghanistan. “The people of Bamyan are the key to sustaining the peace. They are a very quiet people, but also very civilized. They accept and support the government policies in Afghanistan.”
That being said, the success of Bamyan cannot be attributed solely to the locals. The members of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team have worked tirelessly in the province since 2003. The 21st rotation of the PRT is shutting down operations and handing over their projects to the people of Bamyan. Security, development and education will now be in the Afghan’s hands.
“This late in the campaign, it is all about the Afghans,” said New Zealand Army Lt. Col. Sholto Stephens, the commanding officer for the military component of the PRT. “We’ve been very fortunate during our decade here in Bamyan Province. The local populace has always been trying to create a peaceful and stable environment and just go about their normal lives.”
The cooperation of the citizens of Bamyan Province has made the PRT’s job easier but not without its trials. Last year, the previous PRT lost five Soldiers to an insurgent attack. This may not seem like a lot compared with U.S. deaths in Afghanistan, but considering the small size of New Zealand’s military, it was a tragic loss.
The Kiwi Base, part of Forward Operating Base Bamyan, has served as a starting point for numerous projects that have helped the people of Bamyan improve their quality of life.
It is important to remember that the most peaceful province also is one of the poorest provinces.
“I knew that poverty in Bamyan was a big problem,” Sarabi said. “I found that part of it was a climate issue. It’s very cold and they can only harvest once a year instead of multiple times.”
To remedy these issues, the PRT trained the Afghans to build cool storage facilities to store their produce over the harsh winter. They also began constructing roads to connect the province to its neighbors.
Sarabi saw the need for transportation and travel to sustain her province.
“I put my priority on building roads,” she said. “Whenever someone would ask me what my priority was I would say ‘road, road and again, road!’”
The PRT was also able to assist the people of Bamyan with a number of other projects including schools, water sources, medical facilities and an orphanage. Even in its passing, Kiwi Base may contribute to Bamyan’s future as plans are now in motion to build a girl’s school on the property that once housed the PRT.
An interpreter (who declined to provide his name for security reasons) attached to the Kiwi PRT, has been working in Bamyan since 2009. He has seen the improvements and progress brought about by the PRT’s efforts.
“The PRT came in and asked what the people needed,” he said. “The road conditions are very good now; what used to take a day to travel now takes two hours max. Another issue they raised was schools, so they helped build schools in very remote areas.”
This interpretor has worked with coalition forces since 2004 and was an interpreter for American Special Forces in Kandahar. Three of his friends were beheaded by the Taliban and after working in multiple provinces and numerous close calls, he sought out Bamyan Province to get some peace and quiet.
“In Bamyan Province, it is all about the people,” he said. “They want peace; they are not looking for trouble. They are sick of wars and don’t want a war. They are stopping our convoys and asking for our help on their projects.”
He told a story about a school coalition forces were building in Kandahar. The village elders came in and took away the school supplies from the kids and spat in the faces of the American forces.
“Totally different people here (Bamyan),” he added. “They want education and peace.”
Looking into the future, it is hard to say if the tranquility in Bamyan will be permanent.
“My worry and my concern, not only for myself but also for the people of Bamyan is of the security of the other provinces,” said Sarabi. “Most of the insurgents are coming from there to the Bamyan border. This is a big problem for us.”
The Kiwi PRT has three security detachments that have worked countless hours training the Afghan Security Forces and Afghan National Police in tactics. Twenty Afghans recently graduated from the ANP academy run by the NZ PRT and will act as a quick reaction force to respond to threats in the province.
Razaq is pleased with the progress of his police and security forces but he knows that he needs more manpower.
“My request from the authorities is to increase the number of Bamyan ANP and also focus on their training and education after the international forces leave,” he said.
The importance of security is at the forefront in everyone’s minds, not only for their personal safety but also in preparation for tourists.
Bamyan has the potential to have a thriving tourism industry due to its natural beauty and historical landmarks including the remains of the two Buddha statues and the numerous freshwater lakes that dot the countryside. Bamyan even hosted Afghanistan’s first ski-competition last year.
“I am certain that Bamyan is the only peaceful province and tourism has been here in the past because there are a lot of historical places here,” Razaq said. “I am sure that international tourists will continue their travels here.”
With the withdrawal of coalition forces next year, the future of Bamyan is uncertain. With the support of the international community, this jewel in the middle of Afghanistan has risen above its darker past and become a beacon of hope for not only the natives of the province but for all of Afghanistan.
“The only thing I want for my country is that one day the whole people of Afghanistan will understand the value of their country,” the interpretor said.
BAMYAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Members of Kiwi Teams 1 and 2 attached to the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team, participate in a live-fire training exercise in Bamyan Province, Afghanistan, Feb. 28. KT 1 and 2 trained with multiple weapons systems during the exercise to familiarize team members with their equipment and test-fire their arsenal to ensure functionality.
BAMYAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Afghan National Police cadets conduct a react-to-contact drill at their graduation ceremony in Bamyan Province, Afghanistan, Feb. 25, 2013. The ANP were trained by the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team in a number of skills including infantry tactics, breaching and personnel searches. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christopher Bonebrake, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
BAMYAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Women in Afghanistan have suffered tremendously through the last few decades. The Taliban were especially harsh to them, but even without that heartless regime, the overall attitude towards women here remains disappointingly archaic. Domestic abuse is rampant, families still sell their daughters into marriage like livestock, and honor killings are still in the news.
It’s encouraging that the country has taken huge leaps forward in the decade since the U.S. overthrew the Taliban, with women making hard-won gains in basic rights, but the difficult truth is that Afghanistan is still one of the most inhospitable places in the world to be female.
Two ladies from the West are working to change that.
Razia Jan and Connie Duckworth are worlds apart, literally and metaphorically, but together they are spearheading one of the most unique, tenacious, and successful non-governmental organizations operating in Afghanistan.
Non-governmental organizations, known as NGO’s, are plentiful here. They operate independently from any form of government, but are supported by the U.S.-led coalition. Usually run as non-profits that seek to improve the environment, human rights, or poverty levels, they have been thriving in Bamyan for years, where security is not the over-encompassing concern that it is in other provinces.
Turns out, there are people all over the world who are willing to give of themselves to make Afghanistan a better place, if given the chance. This is just one example of that.
Connie Duckworth was the first female sales and trading partner at Goldman Sachs, and co-head of its Chicago office. She retired in 2003 – or tried to. Shortly after she stepped down, the State Department invited her to join the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, a non-partisan effort to improve economic opportunity for women.
She travelled to Kabul with the council, and what she saw there changed her life.
“There were dozens of women and children living in this bombed-out building,” she said. “No windows, no heat, no electricity, no running water, no food, no furniture – trying to live through the winter. I looked at the children’s faces and thought, those could be my children. I literally went back on the plane and thought, I am doing something.”
What she did was start a grass-roots level NGO that she named Arzu Studio Hope. Inspired by the Dari word for “hope,” it employs women to weave traditional Afghan rugs while providing their families with education, health, and social opportunities.
“Rug weaving is a labor-intensive industry with work that can be done at home, producing a highly valued export product,” said Melissa Bertenthal, the Director of International Programs for Arzu Studio Hope. “Duckworth founded Arzu Studio Hope with one simple objective: to fairly employ as many Afghan women as possible doing something that is culturally acceptable.”
But Arzu Studio Hope isn’t simply a business enterprise. Duckworth recognized that the women in her programs would need much more than money to attain true liberty. They needed to feel self-worth, and confidence in themselves – and the key to that is education.
For that reason, more classrooms than production rooms were built at Arzu Studio Hope’s headquarters, and workers are required to attend literacy classes. Their children attend school there as well and, taking it one step further, Arzu Studio Hope insists that all women in the household attend school – not just the weaver.
The support the women receive is quite comprehensive. In addition to the schools, there is a laundry, showers, day care, a full kitchen, and a community garden where each woman gets a small plot to grow herbs and vegetables.
The fringe benefits of being accepted into the Arzu Studio Hope program would be almost overwhelming to a woman who, until then, had only known a life of subjection behind dirt walls.
The overall goal is to break the cycle of co-dependence and abuse and, through Duckworth’s business savvy, develop a reliable stream of earned income that will ultimately ensure sustainability for all Arzu Studio Hope programs without the need for outside funding. Arzu Studio Hope rugs sell very well, so chances for success look good.
“She has brought to Arzu everything she learned in her first career in business, from distribution, production and quality control, to branding and marketing,” said Bertenthal. “From a starting point in 2004 of only 30 weavers, Arzu now provides employment for over 1,300 Afghans – 95 percent of whom are women.”
Razia Jan is the kind of woman they make movies about. Born and raised in Afghanistan, she moved to the United States in the early 90’s with her husband. When he died suddenly, Jan was left with the prospect of raising their young son alone in an unfamiliar country.
“Our son was two, and I had no relatives there, but I managed to survive,” she said. “Not once do I remember asking anybody for help. I knew there was welfare and food stamps, but that was beyond my conscience to ask for.”
Instead, she built a successful tailoring business near Boston while her son grew up.
Then 9/11 changed the course of her life, aiming her trajectory straight back to her homeland.
“I saw it on television and it affected me terribly that innocent people died,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do – the only Afghan Muslim in a small town. Everybody wanted me to tell them who Osama Bin Laden was. I said to hell with him! I have no idea! I literally had no idea who he was.”
Jan had always volunteered at homeless shelters and recovery centers, so it was natural for her to get involved after 9/11. Using the resources she had at her fingertips, she began making ponchos and blankets and sending them to New York City fire fighters.
“She rallied her community to send over 400 homemade blankets to rescue workers at Ground Zero,” said Bertenthal. “Her efforts expanded to include sending care packages to our troops in Afghanistan and, through her involvement in the military’s Operation Shoefly, she coordinated the delivery of over 30,000 pairs of shoes to needy Afghan children.”
Through time, she decided her life’s mission was to act as a force for women’s empowerment in her home country. She tried desperately to return to Afghanistan, but had to turn back at the Pakistan border out of fear for her life. She finally made it back in 2002, after the Taliban was deposed.
In 2008 she opened a school in Kabul, the Zabuli Education Center for Women and Girls.
That same year she met Duckworth through a mutual friend. It was immediately clear that she and the founder of Arzu Studio Hope were a perfect fit, and so she became the organization’s in-country director.
Jan is known for being a lion on behalf of the women Arzu Studio Hope takes in – especially those who are abused.
“In a very passive way I talk to the women and tell them they have rights,” she said. “God forbid if one of our women is abused, I face the men and tell them, you behave yourself, and if this happens again you’re going to jail for 15 years. I’ll put you there.”
It’s not the way men are used to being spoken to by women here, but Jan is fearless when it comes to protecting her girls.
“Men respect me because I’m not scared of them, first of all,” she said matter-of-factly.
“It’s heart-breaking,” she continued, her tone shifting quickly from defiance to sadness. “The women give birth to the children, do all the chores, and they get beaten from the day they are married. I want them to have some kind of dignity and self- respect. Unfortunately it will take a long time to break the cycle. It’s so hard to interfere in something like that because it is very, very personal.”
“I never say anything to put [the men] down. I know the culture, I know the limitations, and that it could backfire,” she explained. “But then I know that maybe it might help a little bit.”
“Razia Jan is an incredible woman whose dedication helping the people of Afghanistan is unmatched. She has long been a champion for the women of Afghanistan,” said Bertenthal. “The connections that Razia has made on the ground with the people, local government and other international organizations has enabled Arzu to effectively accomplish projects that would otherwise have been impossible to implement in these villages.”
After ten years, Jan remains a steadfast supporter of the U.S. mission.
“I’m Afghan, but I’m an American citizen,” she said. “I could give my life for you guys – I’m not talking politics. You [Americans] are putting your lives in your hands to serve a country that is so crazy. I’m with you 110 percent.”
Together with their respective crews in Afghanistan and the U.S., Jan and Duckworth marched forward and built a pastoral oasis of opportunity for women in the midst of war – proving that women can accomplish miracles for their sisters who are suffering.
A 30-minute drive over a cratered and washed-out dirt road west of the town of Bamyan takes you to the metal gates of the Arzu Studio Hope compound in Dragon Valley. Pulling into the courtyard one can’t help but be filled with a sense of wonder at the effort it took to build a place like this ... in a place like this.
The man-hours and energy to acquire and transport the materials alone would be astronomical.
“We had to figure out how to operate effectively in a gender-segregated, highly tribal society,” said Duckworth. “We had to work around the aftermath of war – returning refugees, no infrastructure, disrupted supply chains, and in the early days no banks, no internet, and limited mobile technology.”
On top of all that, Duckworth insisted on staffing the project with Afghans.
“[That] one decision complicated and slowed down our getting off the starting blocks. But like the tortoise and the hare, it has paid our biggest dividends. I now have a competent Afghan management team that always get the sniff test right. Arzu can fly below the radar-screen as locals, which means we can move around and operate, when traditional international development organizations get locked down.”
Stark sandstone cliff walls and a sandy riverbed corral the Arzu Studio Hope compound, contrasting sharply with the neatly painted cluster of modern stucco buildings that lie behind a ten-foot wall and round-the-clock security guards.
Inside it is peaceful. Women and children pitter-pat over smooth sidewalks from doorway to doorway, classrooms to craft rooms, and smile at visitors – something that is extremely rare for women to do in the villages outside.
The grounds are abuzz with a satisfied busyness. The classrooms are full of well-groomed and attentive children and, in one, middle-aged women who have just started the first grade. Their young teacher, Sakina, paces quietly between the rows of desks, happily quizzing her students.
“I have been teaching here for two months,” she said. “It makes me very happy that I’m helping these ladies.”
Other women are busy in the kitchen washing vegetables from the community garden, preparing lunch for the day. Still another room is full of concrete sinks where a group of ladies are washing clothes and chit-chatting.
In the loom room, several young women are weaving a beautiful modern blue and white rug with intricate diamond patterns – a special order from a customer overseas.
“I like the work,” said one of the girls, Zara. “I’ve been doing it for two years. It’s not tedious – it’s my job. The first thing I bought with my first pay check was gold!”
“I bought clothes!” smiled the girl sitting next to her.
A feeling of safety and comfort permeates the air, and it’s easy to see that what Jan, Duckworth and their teams have built here is not just a school, or a factory, but a sanctuary that, hopefully, will serve as one of many solid bases the women of Afghanistan will launch from to win their long race for equality.
BAMYAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Bamyan Governor Dr. Habiba Sarabi is the first female provincial governor in the history of Afghanistan, an amazing accomplishment in a country where women still struggle for basic human rights that seem elemental to the Western world. She rose to her position through sheer guts, and has held it now for seven years with a single-minded determination to slice through barriers at every step.
Speaking from a patio overlooking the stunning Bamyan river valley, she is petite but gives off a confident presence. She wears a smart black dress suit with a sky blue headscarf that accentuates her dark brown hair and kindly, bespectacled face. Gentle and confident, she speaks clearly and calmly like the polished public figure that she is.
“I grew up in Kabul,” she explained. “I studied at Kabul University. I was teaching at a medical institute when the Taliban occupied Kabul, and it became very tough [to do my work] after that.”
With a doctorate in hematology, Sarabi was used to seeing human blood. However, it was the blood being shed in the streets that eventually drove her from her home. She fled to Pakistan with her children, but never severed her ties to Afghanistan.
During the years of Taliban control, Sarabi would sneak back and forth by foot, over the unmerciful mountainous border region between Pakistan and Kabul, risking her life to oversee the more than 20 literacy programs she had started, and visiting her husband who stayed behind to keep watch over their home.
Outside the border, she began acting as a spokesperson for the plight of women in her home country, and teaching women’s rights classes in refugee camps.
“In Pakistan I worked in the Afghan Institute of Learning, to teach teachers,” she said. “We made our own organization called the Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan. I would travel around to explain the situation of women in Afghanistan.”
The attacks on the U.S. in 2001 and the following launch of Operation Enduring Freedom provided her the opportunity to return to her home country and help her beloved women there seize a chance for a new start.
“I was in Pakistan when 9/11 happened, and returned immediately to Kabul [after the Taliban were routed by American forces] because I wanted to open schools.”
In 2004 she was appointed Minister of Women’s Affairs, a position created by the post-Taliban government.
“The experience I had as the Minister of Women’s Affairs was a first,” she said. “Gender was a new issue in Afghanistan. Before that nobody was talking about it, so it was a challenge for me to convince people to work on gender policy with me.”
In 2005 President Hamid Karzai appointed her the governor of Bamyan Province, a uniquely beautiful area positioned around the western tail of the Hindu Kush Mountains. Full of small potato and wheat farms, it used to be part of the Silk Road route from China to Europe, and is packed with priceless archaeological sites like the famous standing “Buddha’s of Bamyan” statues that were destroyed by the Taliban. The province is also the home to the Band-e-Amir National Park, one of only two national parks in the country.
The appointment elevated her to a level no woman had achieved in the history of the country, and it attracted plenty of grumbling in the government halls that, until 2001, had been walked exclusively by men.
“It’s difficult for women to be in decision-making positions here,” she said. “We have to prove ourselves.”
She is doing her best to inspire other Afghan women to do just that.
“I think she is a very brave woman,” said Razia Jan, the director of Arzu Studio Hope, a non-profit organization that provides education, employment, and health services to Bamyan women, and who has worked with Sarabi on several empowerment projects for women in the area. “It’s a very difficult office, especially being a woman. She really has to have a lot of guts to keep doing it.”
“I did get a lot of opposition when I was appointed,” said Sarabi. “Warlords and extremists all wanted to say something negative against me. I faced a lot of difficulties and challenges but I stood up, and didn’t put up with any of that. I was strong enough to fight them.”
The governor is proud of her accomplishments in the seven years she’s been in office.
“People are shifting from the classic ways of farming to modern ways,” she said. “The main product in Bamyan is potatoes, but due to bad roads and lack of storage they couldn’t sell for a good price. Now we have more than 1,000 potato storage units and good roads.”
“We have 76 health facilities, one provincial hospital and three district hospitals,” she continued. “We’ve had more than 80 midwives trained here this year, and with their support the infant mortality rate has been reduced.”
“We have women in the police force – I encourage women to go into policing and give them special protection. Also, I give women special protection to open shops in the market.”
Another thing she speaks with great pride about is Bamyan’s school system, and the students that are attending those schools.
“We have 125,000 students going to school, and out of that 45 percent are girls,” she said. “That means we have the highest number of girls going to school [out of all the Afghan provinces] and it’s a great achievement for me, and women everywhere.”
“Lots of things have changed here,” she continued. “The first thing I can assure you is that Bamyan has good governance now. I have built trust between the community and the local government. The security we provide here is supported by the community.”
She also makes a point of noting that she still faces plenty of opposition in Bamyan, but that it’s the healthy kind, and that she actually welcomes it.
“Civil society is very strong and active in Bamyan. People demonstrate, and do peaceful protests and this is also a sign of good governance,” she explained proudly. “They have freedom of speech without facing any violence.”
U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed, and no republic can survive.” In that respect the citizens of Bamyan are firmly committed to the success of their government.
“I wish the governor would expand her health services to the outer districts,” said Fatima Razia, a student of agriculture at Bamyan University. “I would suggest she send more help to the remote areas. We need to transfer services from the population centers, since only 30 percent of the population lives in the Bamyan valley.”
“Governor Sarabi has been governor for a long time,” said a nurse at the Shah Foladi Comprehensive Health Clinic, a free clinic in the Dragon Valley, also named Fatima. “I’m not quite satisfied with the job she’s done. If you compare Bamyan with the other provinces, it’s one of the most poor. We don’t get the money and construction projects the other provinces do.”
Sarabi’s ability to support free speech is perhaps the thing that best exemplifies how healthy the system in Bamyan is, and it’s a liberty she herself uses to great effect.
“She’s very frank and very honest,” sad Jan. “It makes a difference, instead of shutting up and not saying anything. If she sees something she does not like she will tell you. She is very precise, very strong.”
Sarabi has plans for Bamyan to be a tourist mecca one day, with international travellers landing on the soon-to-be-paved airfield, ready to enjoy the incredible scenery and the many historic treasures in the area.
“Bamyan has big potential for tourism,” she said. “And we are working on ecotourism. Bamyan is on the list of World Heritage Sites. All together it’s a unique cultural view.”
Sarabi enthusiastically continues on about her dreams of a circuit of hiking trails around the province, and even ski resorts. The only thing stopping them, she explains, is a present lack of electricity, but of course she has plans to remedy that too.
Sarabi is very conscious of her place as an inspirational figure to the women of Afghanistan, and does her best to crack glass ceilings so other women can push through.
“Sometimes, yes, it is difficult to be a role model,” she said. “But [most of the time] it is enjoyable.”
“She is really brave,” said Nikbakht Karimi, a 20-year-old student and announcer at Radio Bamyan, a radio station supported by the Bamyan Provincial Reconstruction Team. “That is why she’s the governor. In the past 20 years, women never had opportunities here, but now women here can get an education, get a position, and serve the country. Governor Sarabi is a success, and every woman here can be like her if they work hard.”
“Dr. Sarabi is an excellent person,” said Parwina, 18, an orphan who lives at the Samar Orphanage just outside the town of Bamyan while finishing high school. After graduating, she will attend college to become a lawyer. “She is helping the women of Bamyan. Other women and girls should follow her way. She is an example. She lets us know we can be great.”
“I have hope,” said Sarabi. “Women here are very strong and getting stronger every day.”
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