Afghanistan, mars 2003

P.E.N.-delegation to Afghanistan, March 4th to March 22nd, 2003


The delegation consisted of two members: Elisabeth Eide , writer and associate professor of journalism, who has worked among Afghans in Peshawar and visited the country several times. Elisabeth Eide is also a member of the board of Norwegian PEN.  And Eugene Schoulgin, writer and Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, who has visited and stayed in Afghanistan several times.

The delegation also got eminent assistance from our interpreter Salahuddin Malik Asem, who followed us all through our stay, and soon became so familiar with PEN that he could give the listeners the whole PEN introduction by heart. The purpose of the delegation was to investigate the current situation for the writers in today’s post Taliban society and the possibilities for creating an Afghan PEN Centre in the future. To do this, our goal was to collect as much information as possible about the environment in which the writers live and work – as well as get acquainted with the poets and novelists, journalists and literary scholars.

The members of the delegation express their sincere gratitude to the Ministry of Foreign Affaires in Norway for their financial and moral support, which made this endeavour possible.


1.    The general situation
What about Kabul?
2.    Human rights/freedom of expression
3.    The Writers – and an Afghan P.E.N. Centre
The first meetings
A journalism professor
49 writers
Writers’ house in Kabul
Afghan P.E.N.
The aftermath

1.    The general situation

Needless to say, the visit took place in a very fragile situation for Afghanistan. The country is still at war. This war takes several shapes: The U.S. and some other countries together with the Afghan government, formally elected at the Loya Jirga last June, are waging a war against remnants of Al-Qaida (nobody knows the present whereabouts of Osama bin Laden) and the Taliban. This war has been enlarged to crush also other groups that oppose the U.S. presence in the country, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami. The U.S. presence might also have lead to a situation in which groups that were previously hostile to each other (like the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami) now treat each others as temporary allies of sorts. In addition, regional and local warlords (commanders) fight each other to gain control over certain areas.

It has been said of Hamid Karzai’s government that it controls only Kabul. This may be largely true, since only fragments of a national army (1700 persons) exist, and since groups intended to represent a national army in the provinces are rarely paid for their services, while it seems the warlords are in a better situation to hire armed men. In Kabul, the situation during our visit was relatively calm (it seems to have deteriorated to some extent in April), the same in Herat (controlled by Ismael Khan), while conflict areas seem to be in and around Khost (Paktia), Urozgan, Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif (Dostum vs. Atta Mohammad) and Kandahar. The border areas with Pakistan, close to the tribal areas of Pakistan, are areas of unrest, and areas where various groups opposing the present regime, maintain some strongholds.

A special source of unrest and discontent also seems to be what many people of Pashtun origin claim is a low priority given to humanitarian and other assistance in the Southern provinces with a predominantly Pashtun population. This may in its turn help the groups opposing the present government and the presence of U.S. and other Western military personnel.

What about Kabul?

The capital is badly in need of repair. Large parts of the city are still in ruins, including major official buildings, like the National Museum, The Archeological Museum and Kabul Theatre. Tens of thousands of people, among them many returning refugees, do not have proper lodging. Adding to this situation, is the fact that rental of houses is very expensive, due to the large number of international organisations present in the city.

People seem very concerned with security, and an important reason (in addition to traditional views) why a large proportion of women (appr. 70 per cent in Kabul, more than 90 in Herat) are still wearing their burqas, is, according to several sources, the fear of armed men. Several women have been abducted, raped and assaulted in other ways, and attacks on others who are known to oppose the warlords, also occur. The American presence is disliked by many, tolerated by others, who fear the situation would become even more unstable if they left at this time. Many say they would appreciate it if the Americans disarmed the warlords. This, however, does not happen. Many others say that they would prefer more UN forces (ISAF) and less of the American presence.

Is the present government simply functioning as marionettes of the Americans? This may be a simpified way of interpreting the situation. The government contains both personalities with blood on their hands – and persons with a good standing in Afghan society. Four of them are American citizens. The process leading to its formation was partly one of democracy (compared to the creation of most Afghan government in the past), in which people were elected from their local communities to join the Loya Jirga, partly one of nepotism and behind-the-curtain work of the U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Anders Fänge, director of the Swedish Committe for Afghanistan (with long experience from Afghanistan), says that this government has probably more legitimacy than any previous Afghan government.

At the same time, in the capital many people seem to enjoy a relative freedom unheard of during Taliban. Boys and girls go to schools and universities, kites are again flying, music is played, and a large number (appr. 120 – 150) of newspapers and magazines are now published, some of them with international assistance. On the International Women’s Day 8th of March, we witnessed the inauguration of a Women’s radio station, presided over by the Minister of Women’s Affairs, and the Deputy Minister for Information and Culture. In charge was Jamila Mujahid, the newscaster who came back to Kabul TV-studio to announce that Taliban had evacuated the city in November 2001.

The psychological factor is important. As one Afghan writer, Dr. Samay Hamed (exiled in Denmark for three years during Taliban rule) says: “We are not in a position to choose between black and white, we can only choose between black and grey, and prefer grey. The actions of the transitional government will show whether it will og from grey to white or not.”

The alternative to a certain, contingent optimism, is so much worse. During the rule of Taliban – and the previous governments, many intellectuals have felt lost, undervalued, which has led to a loss of self confidence (EE visited Afghanistan several times also during the Taliban rule, and can compare). The country has been ruled by Soviets and their allies, by commanders and by mullahs, leaving little space for intellectuals, many of whom have been imprisoned, executed or exiled. Afghanistan is probably the country in the world suffering most heavily from brain drain during the past twenty-five years.


The delegation spent four days in Herat. There, the situation differs from Kabul. The city was probably less damaged from the war, and the standard of repair is high. On the other hand, there is by no means the same degree of freedom. Almost all women wear their burqas, and Human Rights Watch have reported several abuses of women, among them threats to the ones working for foreign agencies.

Some independent media sprung up after the fall of Taliban, but with a few rare exceptions (like a literary magazine) they seem to have died again. Only official radio, TV and newspaper(s) exist. The dean at the Faculty of Literature, Language and Journalism, is in favour of a more free situation, but seemed to realise that this would have to happen step by (small) step, if at all. On the other hand, at the university both girls and boys study, as could be observed from our visit.

The governor, Ismael Khan, presiding over a literary event commemorating the martyrs from the fight against the Soviets in 1980 (reportedly more than 2000 were killed at one occasion), expressed his disdain for the international press. He said the only people who did not like him in his area (several provinces bordering Herat included, more or less), were the sons and daughters of the communists he had executed. Ismael Khan is a perfect example of regionalism, as he amasses his funds from the border trade with Iran, and does not contribute to the coffers of the central government. This leaves him in a position where he is wealthy enough to support his own army – and does not care too much about the national endeavours. He is not the only one in that position, there are other sources of income, for example through the (now increasing again) cultivation of poppy.

2. Human rights/freedom of expression

The human rights situation may be looked at from several angles:

–    Abuses by Afghan leaders presently in power, be they national and/or regional:

–    Worst seems here to be the warlord in and around Mazar-i-Sharif, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Before September 11th, he was in Turkey, but he was brought back to life by the ‘coalition’. He has one of the worst human rights records in the country, more recently from his treatment of more than 3000 Taliban prisoners of war, who were killed in containers and buried in Dasht-e- Leila in Shebergan area. His list is long.

–    Warlords and their soldiers (including the defense minister’s people) commit other abuses – against women – who are being abducted, raped and killed. The Afghan Human Rights Commission, headed by Dr. Sima Samar (former minister of women’s affair, lost that position during the Loya Jirga for being too outspoken confronting the warlords), has more than 700 complaints under investigation. The activists from this commission are frequently met with threats and abuses when working in the field (for example by commanders in the Shamoli area), and need full international support for their extremely important work. In spite of their difficult situation, the commission has opened several regional offices in Afghanistan, the latest in Mazar-i-Sharif.

–    An editor of a Kabul newspaper Farda (Tomorrow) was arrested and put to jail for almost a week for publishing a political cartoon.  The president himself ordered his release as he came back to Kabul from abroad (December 2002).

–    An independent magazine in Baghlan province (North-West of Kabul), Telayah, that in its first issue focused on the need of the local authorities to preserve the cultural heritage from being looted and/or destroyed, was closed down by the same authorities. The situation only improved after people from The Association for the Defence of the Afghan Writers’ Rights intervened.

·    Abuses committed by organisations and networks hostile to the present government, the US and their allies:

–    Several reports tell of attacks on girl schools as symbols of present government policy. Also, threats have been issued in the form of ‘night letters’ to people working with foreign NGOs – or with the present government.

–    Other reports tell of killing of Western aid workers – and – latest – an Italian tourist travelling from Kandahar to Kabul.

–    Other innocent people have also been killed or injured in several incidents of shooting, of bombs placed in crowded areas, and some suicide attacks

–    Abuses of which the Americans (and/or their allies) themselves are responsible. When we were in Kabul, the report came about two prisoners in Bagram having been killed by torture in December last year. In addition, at times their bombardments are indiscriminate, killing local innocent people, as happened last week before Easter, when 11 persons of one family died from such a bomb in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The government has complained after such events, to little avail.

In spite of all these negative reports, what creates some optimism, is that organisations working with human rights now can work with a certain (if fragile) degree of freedom. In addition to the national human rights commission, there is CCA and the Organisation for the protection of Writers’ rights and numerous other initiatives working with human rights issues and peace.

3. The Writers

The first meetings: Three writers

From contacts among Afghan writers in exile (for example Atiq Rahimi, Paris), and from acquaintances inside the country as well as western diplomats and NGOs we obtained some names of persons we were advised to approach.

The first one to receive us was the young poet Khalida Froagh, who worked for the newly founded organisation to protect the rights of writers, as well as for the above mentioned CCA. She had published five collections of poetry in Peshawar, and was also editor of a women’s magazine, Sadaf. She was of the opinion that some freedom of expression existed in the country for the moment being, but that writers, with their experiences from the last 25 years, were careful with what they wrote. To her it was natural that a certain amount of self-censorship was practised, and besides, the material situation for the writers – as for most members of the Afghan society – was such that the overwhelming goal was to survive physically.

Professionally, the situation was poor. With a few exceptions, writers and poets had to pay for the publication of their works, and they rarely got any money from these publications, only some copies of the books, which they were supposed to sell or distribute themselves. For natural reasons the themes for most writers were heavily influenced by the dark and brutal destiny of the Afghan people through the last decades, she said, but many poets would  prefer to turn their back to all the suffering and write about love and beauty. «Poetry is for me something that comes to me, nothing I seek to find», she added.

We told her about the purpose of our visit to the country, and what PEN was all about. She listened carefully and promised to get back to us by cell phone as soon as she had investigated the possibility to gather some writers for a meeting. After less than two hours a colleague of hers, Dr. Samay Hamed, contacted us telling us that they had the intention of gathering about 50 poets and writers who wanted to meet with us three days later. He spoke on behalf of the Association for the Defence of the Afghan Writers Rights, and this association later organised the meeting.
The same evening, we dined with veteran writer Habibullah Rafi (a central person in the organisation for the protection of Afghan Writer’s rights, and also working in the Ministry of Culture and Information)  – and the novelist Razak Mahmoon (working for Radio Free Europe), both well-known writers. Especially Rafi became another door opener. Rafi, a man in his mid fifties, regarded as one of the leading novelists living inside Afghanistan today, is a charismatic and energetic character. One of his statements is the best proof of this: «This country is damaged, but the heart is still beating. In a few days, Nowroz (Afghan New Year, 21st of March) is coming. Then the flowers wake up, the air is refreshed, as the situation in this country. It simply has to revive. Those who tell you that the Afghans will always be divided in different tribes which fight each other, are wrong. The wars have always been imposed on us from abroad. Even in the patterns of our carpets you will see that the flowers are bound together, as our peoples must be.He was of the opinion that this moment is Afghanistan’s last chance to get up on its feet. If they failed again, the country would fall down into total anarchy for an unknown amount of time. «Whatever you say about this administration, they may be marionettes for the US or not, this is the best chance we have had for a very, very long time. Today we have to work, work and work, on all fields, education, writing, publishing, fighting for the women’s rights.  Most writers are double and triple intellectuals today, we have to be, we have no time to get tired, we may rest later. What the writers do is of great importance. The university asks us for texts they can use. Even at the university we have to rebuild from the ground. The Talibans did not leave anything behind them. We, the writers have to be the glue and the liniment, the heralds and the guardians of this country now! The bombing has to stop, more civilians have been killed here than on September 11th, the Americans should leave as soon as possible, and the ISAF forces have to be strengthened.» Hew also mentioned the lack of literature for children and young people. Rafi was very enthusiastic about the possibility to create an Afghan PEN.

Razak Mahmoon, being younger than Rafi, had still spent eight years of his life in Poul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul during the time of the Soviets. His experiences have now been published in a book called Suicide. He seemed content with the present situation: «We are out of the dark ages, now our future looks more promising. It is obvious to everyone who brought this government, but we feel free now. I am happy that P.E.N. now focusses on Afghanistan, although it is late. Afghan writers have been put under a lot of pressure. We are crippled when it comes to publishing, and the attention from abroad has been minimal.» He also wished for the mass media to pay more attention to the works of the writers; at present, maybe one short storey per week is broadcast; much more should be done!

It should be mentioned that the above mentioned writers are not of the same ethnic origin; This did not seem to bother any of them in their cooperation and conversation.

A journalism professor

Before the stipulated meeting with the fifty writers we also met with others, like the rector and the leader of the women’s board at Kabul University, as well as with writer and journalist Kazem Ahang. The latter is a dean at the faculty for journalism – and a writer. He has written 22  books, among which the history of the Afghan Press is one of the most important, another one is on press ethics. He was one of the few intellectuals who spent nearly the entire Taliban period inside Afghanistan, and he gave us a lively description of what life was like for an intellectual who had to hide during these five years. Now he wanted to educate as many journalists as possible. «We want Afghan journalists to write about Afghan matters, not foreigners», he said, and the eager crowd of young students, both men and women (a good proportion of the total number), around him proved that it was nothing wrong with the apsirations of the upcoming generation.

Information meeting: 49 writers

We were both rather excited when we arrived at the restaurant where the meeting should take place. The organisers had really prepared for a numerous amount of participants, and in the end they proved right: 49 people showed up. Writers from 16 (a photojournalist from Kabul Weekly) up to the age of grey, and among them eight women. Representatives from all the larger minority groups in the country except the Turkmens (not because they were not welcome, just because they could not find any in Kabul for the moment being) were present.

We explained our reasons for wanting to meet them, informed them about P.E.N. and what PEN represents, and asked them whether they were interested in opening up a PEN Centre in the country.

The gathering was both lively and long lasting. A lot of questions were raised, about who were allowed to be members – that seemed as an important issue – about finances of course – about what we did for the opposition writers in Iran – about how we communicated – about how they were supposed to conduct their own PEN etc. We told them that tolerance in many ways was the key word in PEN; and openness, curiosity towards other writers in other parts of the world. That PEN could provide a window to the outside world for writers. We also stated once again the importance of letting all writers in, regardless of faith, ethnic background, political views, age and, last but not least, sex. It seemed like everybody present were very satisfied with what they heard, and the discussion became most friendly, though at times loud. The women present, writers and editors of women’s magazine (including Jamila Mujahid, the leader of the Afghan Women’s radio, initiated on March 8th, 2003) played a very active part in the discussion. Some writers seemed to harbour scepticism towards journalists being represented to a large scale in P.E.N., a question to be followed up in the future.

The financial question was, strangely enough, never a main issue. We assured them that IF they decided to apply for membership during the congress in Mexico in November, we would try to find means to cover the costs for a delegation to take part in the congress, as well as try to find help to cover the membership fees for the first years of consolidation. In the end they were to vote for a preliminary group who should work along the lines drawn by this assembly in order to come up with a solution of how to work practically. They voted for 15 members representing most of the ethnic groups, and the male majority also suggested and voted for four of the women, among them Khaleda Froagh.

In the end the Tajik writer and professor Abdul Quayyom Qaween stood up and said: «We have been waiting for you for so long, we only did not know it was you we were waiting for!»

Finally it is important to stress that both of us very clearly explained to them that everything was left to their own decisions, it should be their Centre functioning according to their needs. We were only there as advisorrs and facilitators if needed.
At the meeting we were also presented with gifts from some of the writers, including issues of the literary Magazine Afrand, edited by the writer Waheed Warasta. This magazine is the first to allocate some of its pages to English language translations of the works of Afghan writers, and is thereby representing a literary ‘window to the world’.

Writers’s house in Kabul

During this meeting the situation for the writers of course became a central issue. During the Taliban most structures serving the intellectuals had been destroyed. They had no place to stay, no library, no publishers, no functioning writers union except the organisation to protect writers.

The idea of creating a writers house in Kabul had been launched prior to our visit, by Atiq Rahimi. We discussed the functions of such a house, and that it should be open to all writers, also the old union, which we met with one of the last days – and to P.E.N.  It was agreed upon that there had to be an office, rooms for guests from the provinces, a library, a bookstore and perhaps a little restaurant. The delegation will try to raise funds for such a house, and we are happy to state that the attitudes of the Norwegian government (MFA) as well as the one of the Cultural Council of Norway and the Norwegian Writers Union have been most encouraging.

Afghan P.E.N.

During our stay in Herat, we also contacted the poet Muhammad Daoud Munir, who is also the dean of the faculty of literature, language and Journalism at Herat university. We told him about the plans in Kabul, encouraging him to get in touch with the writers there, as well as informing his writer friends in the western districts of Afghanistan

Then we were back in the capital and ready for the last meeting with the writers. This was convened at the office of the Internews Afghanistan. Internews promised the writers that they could use their office space for meetings freely. It was the day before Nowroz, and therefore not the most convenient of times, but all the same nine of the writers from the preliminary committee showed up. It became obvious from the start that the willingness and the positive attitude towards the idea of creating an Afghan PEN Centre had far from declined after the initial meeting. On the contrary, the only problem seemed to be whether the assembled writers were in the position to form a preliminary board or not, taking into consideration the ones who were not present.  Although this in our ears sounded most sympathetic, we were relieved when Khaleda Froagh made the obvious remark: «Let us not slow down the process with this question, we can easily be replaced later. Now we have to decide what to do practically while we have our guests present.»

They thereby discussed a distribution of tasks, and in a most professional and reassuring way. To start with they agreed upon finding a cheep meeting place and dates to consolidate the group.

The aftermath

The poet Partaw Naderi  (who has worked for BBC, and has spent three years in Poul-e-Charkhi) has become our contact person after our return home. We are in constant e-mail contact with him, and he has confirmed that what they decided to do is accomplished according to the plans drawn during our visit.

It is our belief that an Afghan P.E.N. Centre will be of great importance for the writers in a devastated society and a country which tries once again to survive in spite of all the miserable experiences, oppression and poverty. To support our colleagues in Afghanistan is indeed a task worthy of our organisation, and for us in our international community of writers an Afghan  PEN will be an opener to a rich, old world of poetry and prose as well as an amazingly lively litterature of today. To unite the Afghan writers abroad with the ones inside Afghanistan is also a task of great value for a writing community who has suffered severely from separatism for so many years.

To follow up the plans for a Writers’ house in Kabul – and to consolidate and improve our contacts with the P.E.N. chapter, we think there is a need for a second visit in the fall of 2003, well ahead of the Mexico conference.

April 25th 2003

Eugene Schoulgin                                           Elisabeth Eide