Kabul, Afghanistan, november 2005

Rapport fra Norsk PEN´s besøk i Kabul 8.11 til 18.11.2005

Delegasjonens medlemmer: Elisabeth Eide og Eugene Schoulgin

Formålene med reisen var, slik de ble formulert i søknaden:

–    Å undersøke hvordan driften av PEN forfatternes Hus i Kabul fungerer etter omleggingen av Afghansk PENs ledelse, å arbeide med organisasjonsprinsipper og strukturer i Afghansk PEN, vurdere gjeldende personalsituasjon og evt. nyansettelser av kvalifisert personale i huset.
–    Å vurdere mulige samarbeidspartnere i forhold til Forfatternes hus, deriblant Human Rights House Foundation.
–    Å få i gang den forlagsvirksomheten som ble planlagt under vårt besøk i desember 2004, det vil si å følge opp initiativer fra fransk og norsk side i den anledning.
–    Å følge opp initiativ om et tidsskrift fra Afghansk PEN, i samarbeid med Centre Culturel Francais.
–    Å drøfte Afghansk PENs forhold til andre organisasjoner.
–    Å planlegge for framtiden. Budsjett, fundraising etc.
–    I tillegg kom følgende: Å initiere støttetiltak for å få frigitt redaktøren Mohaqeq Nasab som etter International PENs vurdering fikk to års fengsel i strid med gjeldende afghansk lov .

PEN-huset og dets struktur

Vi hadde innledende møter med Afghansk PENs nye ledelse samme dag vi ankom Kabul. Tidligere i høst hadde styret besluttet å ansette PEN-medlemmet og en av Afghansk PENs grunnleggere, lyrikeren Waheed Warasta som daglig leder. Waheed Warasta har erfaring fra organisasjonen “Open Media Fund for Afghanistan (OMFA)”, og vi kjenner ham som en pålitelig og initiativrik mann. I tillegg har man ansatt litteraturhistorikeren Mohamed Salahi på halvtid som organisator av de daglige aktiviteten i huset. Da Warasta er tadjik (dari-skriver) og Salahi er pasthun mener vi denne kombinasjonen er gunstig, de etniske konstellasjonene i landet tatt i betraktning.

I forkant av vårt besøk denne gang hadde en annen av Afghansk PENs initiativtakere satirikeren og forfatteren dr. Samay Hamed ankommet Kabul. Dr. Hamed er store deler av året bosatt i Danmark. Møtene med ham og de to daglige lederne av huset utfalt til alle parters store tilfredstillelse, og vi fikk fra første stund fornemmelsen av at Afghansk PEN og Forfatterhuset nå virkelig har fått vind i seilene. Aktivitetene i huset, og antallet forfattere og journalister som benyttet det, både til litterære sammenkomster, kulturpolitiske manifestasjoner og overlegninger, framsto som langt mer hyppige og dynamiske enn før, og Afghansk PEN har blitt en faktor å regne med i mediebildet, i opinionen og i landets sivile samfunn som helhet (se avsnittet om redaktøren Mohaqeq Nasab).

Vi brukte mye tid på huset med de to ansatte for å gå gjennom jobbavtaler og arbeidsdeling. Mens Warasta nå kan fungere for fullt i hel stilling, vil Salehi inntil videre fungere på deltid, siden han har sine forskerforpliktelser å ivareta. Vi har også arbeidet med budsjett for de kommende årene.

Med den noe mer stabile banksituasjonen følger at vi i framtiden kan overføre midler direkte til Afghansk PENs egen konto. Dette forenkler forbindelsene mellom oss i Norge og våre forfattere i Kabul.

Samarbeid med andre organisasjoner

Under besøket vårt hadde vi et møte med Malek Sitez fra Det danske menneskerettighetshuset, med spesialansvar for Afghanistan. Han er selv afghaner, og møtte oss sammen med før nevnte Samay Hamed. Med et visst tilskudd fra Danmark koordinerer de over 40 afghanske organisasjoner som arbeider med menneskerettigheter. Midlene de har til rådighet er begrensede, men de bruker dem på kurs i menneskerettigheter og på nettverksbygging. I nettverket er flere organisasjoner med og for kvinner. De arbeider spesielt sammen med den afghanske uavhengige menneskerettighetskommisjonen AIHRC, ledet av Sima Samar. De uttrykte også stor respekt for Afghansk PEN, som er en av de vel 40.

I 2004 var nettverket etablert, med en viss støtte fra DANIDA.
Arbeidsoppgavene er:
– informasjon
– radioprogram om menneskerettigheter, ukentlig
– «capacity building» i forhold til nye medlemsorganisasjoner
– rene utdanningsprogrammer

Vi orienterte om Human Rights House foundation (HRH) i Oslo, og de syntes et samarbeid hørtes ut til å være en veldig god idé. Nettverket trenger mer penger, kanskje på sikt også hus. Vi har foreslått at HRH inviterer Samay Hamed og Malek Sitez til et møte i Oslo om ikke så altfor lenge.

Forlagsvirksomhet

Under vårt besøk høsten 2004 kom ideen om opprettelse av et PEN-forlag, et foretak vi har fått støtte til bl.a. fra Norsk Kulturråd. Vår tanke var da å danne forlaget i samarbeide med Centre Culturel Francais, representert i Kabul ved dets leder Daniel Massat-Bourrat, en mann med mangeårig erfaring etter langt opphold i landet.. Etter inngående sonderinger denne gang har vi besluttet å forandre noe på konstruksjonen. I stedet for å legge ned store summer på trykkeri og distribusjonsnett, samt lanseringen av et nytt forlag med alt det innebærer av administrative og finansielle byrder, har vi besluttet å gå inn i et samarbeidsprosjekt – i første rekke over et prøveår – med det eksisterende forlaget Maiwand.  Maiwand er et etablert forlag med god anseelse blant forfatterne, selv om heller ikke de har hatt økonomi til å kunne tilgodese sine forfattere økonomisk etter de prinsipper vi finner akseptable.

Avtalen mellom Afghansk PEN, oss og dem ser ut som følger: De påtar seg, mot avtalt godtgjørelse, å trykke og distribuere en serie bøker som vil bli hetende «The PEN Writers House Books» (selvfølgelig vil forlagets navn bli på dari og pasthu). Våre midler vil da dekke utgivelse og distribusjon, men I første rekke forse forfatterne med royalty. Afghansk PEN vil via en underkomité vurdere hvilke titler som skal trykkes. Redaksjonskomiteen vil bestå av forfattere fra ulike befolkningsgrupper, pluss et rådgivende styre der også vi vil ha en plass, sammen med afghanske forfattere i eksil og Centre Culturel Francais. Dette er en prøveordning som vil bli evaluert før utgangen av 2006. Vi ser det imidlertid som essensielt at utgivelsene nå kommer i gang, og regner med at den første boken fra «The PEN Writers House» vil foreligge en gang i løpet av  januar neste år.

En ung lyrikers død: Nadia Anjuman

En tid før vår ankomst til Kabul fikk vi melding om den unge kvinnelige lyrikeren Nadia Anjumans tragiske død. Den 25 år gamle, men allerede anerkjente dikteren i Herat ble høyst sannsynlig drept av sin mann. Årsakene til drapet er ennå ikke klarlagt, men meget tyder på at vi her står overfor en familietragedie med sterke røtter i et patriarkalsk mønster, der den yngre kvinnen oppfattes som tjener under ikke bare sin mann men også sin svigermor (som ofte er den som utpeker sine sønners blivende ektefeller).  Dette konservative mønsteret har også Afghansk PEN uttalt seg kraftfullt mot, eller som en av våre medlemmer uttrykte det: Det er en tragedie at den eneste muligheten en kvinnelig dikter har for å bli berømt er å bøte med livet. Afghansk PEN arrangerte på kort varsel en minnestund for henne i Kabul, i forfatterhuset. En samling av Nadia Anjumans dikt vil antakelig bli den første boken The PEN Writers House utgir.

Andre aktiviteter

Som ledd i våre bestrebelser på å engasjere andre land i vårt prosjekt, og dermed lette den finansielle byrden noe, har vi anmodet den kanadiske ambassaden om bidrag. Canada har nå bevilget US $ 5000 som velkommen grunnstein til et bibliotek i huset. Videre har Centre Culturel Francais skutt til penger for å starte et litterært PEN magasin. Kvelden før avreise inviterte vi venner i Afghansk PEN til en middag. Over femti deltok, og Norge var også representert ved fung. ambassadør Carsten Carlsen, som holdt en fin, oppmuntrende tale til forsamlingen. Blant gjestene var de fleste kjente forfattere i Kabul, blant dem to nyvalgte kvinnelige parlaments-medlemmer!

Mohaqeq Nasab

Kort tid før vår ankomst ble vi klar over fengslingen av Mohaqeq Nasab, redaktør av tidsskriftet Zan (kvinne). Nasab ble fengslet i oktober på initiativ fra afghansk høyesterett.  Nasab er en skriftlærd shia-leder med utdannelse fra universitetet i Qom, Ayatollah Khomeinys hjemby. I årgangens nr. 7 skriver han at det ikke er belegg i Koranen for steining av kvinner ved utroskap, og at det ikke bør være straffbart å vende seg om fra islam. Det falt en del av det konservative miljøet i Høyesterett tungt for brystet, og de forlangte ham brakt for retten. I første rettsinstans ble han dømt til to års fengsel. Men en rekke ledere for Kabuls mullaer har ivret for en langt hardere straff. Andre kilder mener at saken er mer politisk enn knyttet til religion, og at striden står mellom afghanske shiaer som støtter seg på det iranske regimet – og andre shiaer som er mer kritiske.

Dette er en sak der ytringsfriheten i Afghanistan blir satt på prøve. Skal det være tillatt med en åpen og fri meningsutveksling om hva Islam innebærer, eller skal noen tolkninger ha tyrannisk forrang? En av lederne i AIHRC – den afghanske uavhengige menneskerettighetskommisjonen, Nader Naderi, sier utfallet av saken blir et vannskille for Afghanistan og at rettssaken foregikk på feil grunnlag.   Om en journalist blir dømt med grunnlag i en konservativ fortolkning av islam, så betyr det et tilbakeslag for ytringsfriheten. Den afghanske grunnloven garanterer en slik frihet, og regjeringen må forsvare denne.

Noen uker før vi ankom, hadde Afghansk PEN tatt initiativ til et åpnet møte for forfattere, journalister og andre skribenter, for å drøfte saken. Til møtet i forfatterhuset kom rundt 200 mennesker, noe som igjen demonstrerer slagkraften i Afghansk PEN. Mens vi var i landet, kom en henstilling fra flere ulema-er (som representerte noen tusen mullaer) på kulturministerens bord, et dokument som i realiteten var en fatwa, og altså ba om dødsstraff for Nasab. Kulturministeren har klokt nok latt denne ligge og ikke gått offentlig ut med den, for å unngå å øke temperaturen, og det var vårt klare inntrykk, etter samtale med viseministeren, at departementet (med støtte hos presidenten) ønsket å frigi Nasab. Problemet var knyttet til Høyesteretts uavhengige status.

Under vårt opphold innkalte Afghansk PEN til pressekonferanse, der de og vi, sammen med lederen for det uavhengige journalistforbundet i Afghanistan, la fram vårt syn på fengslingen. En rekke medier var til stede, både TV, radio og aviser. To dager i forveien hadde vi besøkt Nasab i fengselet (varetekt, i Kabul-guvernørens arrest, sammen med 400 andre), der vi fikk samtale med ham under overoppsyn av Fengselsjefen, som virket positivt innstilt til sin fange. Vi arbeider videre med å skaffe ham en advokat, og reise penger til dette.

Konklusjon

Vi reiste hjem denne gang overbevist om at både Afghansk PEN og vårt forlagsprosjekt nå har kommet i skikkelig gjenge. De ytterst vanskelige forholdene våre forfattere arbeider under i et land med så mange og alvorlige problemer, gjør at deres arbeid og resultater ikke kan inngi annet enn dyp respekt. I løpet av de tre årene de har vært i virksomhet har Afghansk PEN (og Forfatternes Hus) klart å tiltrekke seg myndighetenes, massemedienes og den orienterte delen av befolkningens oppmerksomhet. De har blitt en frontorganisasjon for ytringsfrihet, samarbeid og forsoning, og man lytter til dem. Når Afghan PEN innkaller til pressekonferanse, kommer både internasjonale og afghanske medier i stort antall, og huset har allerede blitt et samlingspunkt.

Den planlagte forfatterforeningen er lagt på is, og initiativtakeren til denne, Rahnaward Zaryiab, slutter fullt opp om Afghansk PEN. Som en av de mest kjente forfatterne har han sagt ja til å bidra på konsulentbasis til forleggeriet. I tilegg har Afghansk PEN begynt å utvide sin virksomhet til andre byer i landet, som Herat og Mazar-i-Sharif, og forfattere i disse byene har begynt å slutte seg til sine kollegaer i Kabul.

Vi må heller ikke glemme den betydningen dr. Samay Hamed har hatt for den senere tidens positive utvikling. Med sin energi, sin oppfinsomhet og store kontaktnett, har han i aller høyeste grad vært en viktig motor i å øke Afghansk PENs og husets innflytelse og omdømme.

Igjen er vi våre norske støttespillere stor takk skyldig for den finansielle hjelp og den positivitet vi har mottatt. Vi mener de midler som er stilt till vår disposisjon har vært den direkte årsaken til at de tiltak som nå gjøres I det afghanske kulturmiljøet har blitt så framgangsrikt. Den takknemmelighet vi kjenner deles også til fulle av våre afghanske forfatterkollegaer.

Med vennlig hilsen

Eugene Schoulgin                                                                           Elisabeth Eide

Afghanistan, oktober 2003

Rapport fra Norsk PENs Afghanistan-delegasjon

 

Reise nr. to: 20/9 til 8/10 – 2003

Som sist  besto delegasjonen av forfatterne Elisabeth Eide og Eugene Schoulgin (for mer bakgrunnsstoff, se også vår rapport «P.E.N. delegation to Afghanistan» fra våren 2003). Denne gangen var begrunnelsen for reisen å finne ut om de initiativene vi tok sammen med våre afghanske forfattervenner var fulgt opp, samt å assistere ved leie og åpning av et forfatterhus i Kabul. Dette huset kunne vi nå finansiere gjennom den støtten vi hadde fått via Norsk Kulturråd, Den Norske Forfatterforening, Norsk faglitterær forfatter- og oversetterforening, samt en privat donator.

Vi vil takke Utenriksdepartementet for den fornyede tillit som ble vist oss ved å stille til vår disposisjon de nødvendige midler for å gjennomføre prosjektet. Grunnen til at vår rapport kommer først nå, mer enn to måneder etter hjemkomst, vil vi få komme tilbake til ved rapportens slutt.

Situasjonen i Kabul sammenliknet med for et halvår siden virket nokså uforandret. Muligens var det noe fler ISAF soldater og koalisjonsstyrker å se i gatene, men hverdagslivet lot ikke til å ha blitt nevneverdig påvirket av de stigende urolighetene i landet. Rapportene om økt aktivitet fra lommer av talibantilhengere og andre motstandere av amerikansk nærvær, særlig i landets sydøstlige trakter samt i Ghazniområdet innga uro, men få mente det ville utvikle seg til mer enn separate terrorangrep. Nord, i Balkh provinsen, med Mazar-i-Sharif som hovedstad, fortsatte enhetene til  krigsherrene Dostam og Ata Muhammed å bekjempe hverandre. Reisende langs hovedveien mellom Mazar og Shiberghan ble iblant beskutt og pikeskoler i distriktet satt i brann. Det samme har skjedd i Ghazni.  Disse overfallene ble kanskje dirigert av krigsherrene, kanskje var det lokale fundamentalistgrupper som ville skremme utlendinger og tendenser til et nytt kvinnesyn på dør.

Vi kunne også konstatere en større oppgitthet blant afghanerne i synet på amerikanerne og deres koalisjonspartnere. Få mente koalisjonen var interessert i annet enn sine egne interesser, og at bistanden ofte ikke nådde lenger enn til de makthavendes lommer.

Det bør også tillegges at vi ankom bare dager etter at statsråd Hilde Frafjord-Johnson hadde forlatt landet. Hennes besøk og løfter om å oppgradere Afghanistan som en viktig mottaker av bistand fra Norge var registrert med betydelig tilfredshet.

Afghansk P.E.N.

Allerede dagen etter vår ankomst var det preliminære styret til et framtidig P.E.N. samlet til møte. Ni av styremedlemmene var til stede, og engasjementet var ikke til å ta feil av. Vi ble da kjent med at de hadde utsett et hus de mente var tjenlig som forfattersenter, og ville at vi, dagen derpå, skulle være med og besiktige huset.

Vi orienterte dem om de formelle kriteriene vedr. støtte til et slikt hus, og om prosedyren i forhold til deltakelse på P.E.N.s årlige kongress i Mexico by.  Dessuten om at vi ville forsøke å reise penger for to delegater til kongressen, så deres senter kunne bli  formelt godtatt av International P.E.N. Videre at minst tjue av dem måtte underskrive P.E.N.s Charter, samt innlevere sine C.V. til sekretariatet i London. Vi diskuterte også bruken av det fremtidige huset; betydningen av å gjøre det til et åpent hus, tilgjengelig for ulike grupper av skrivende mennesker. På alle disse punktene var våre kontakter enige og beredvillige.

Bredden både politisk, aldersmessig, etnisk og kjønnsmessig blant forfatterne som representerer Afghansk P.E.N. var noe av det første som slo oss. På den ene siden fortattere som har sittet fengslet i kortere eller lengre perioder (opp til 9 år) under Sovjettiden eller under Taliban, på den andre forfattere som har støttet kommunistene under den Sovjetiske okupasjonen, ja til og med en som var høytstående dommer under sovjeterne. I dag er han juridisk rådgiver (i narkotikaspørsmål) for regjeringen. Da vi spurte noen av de nærværende om ikke dette bød på problemer, svarte de: Ingen som har engasjert seg i dette landet de siste 25 årene har rene hender, og dessuten er han en svært god forfatter. Med er også eldre menn som den i vest velkjente forfatteren Rahnaward Zaryiab og poeten Habibullah Rafi, og helt unge som den framstående dikteren Khalida Froagh og hennes poetforlovede Waheed Warasta, novelleforfatteren som nå blir oversatt til fransk, Khaled Nawissa, for ikke å snakke om søstrene Yusuf, Yaghana (21) og Raihana (19), som alene hadde forlatt sin flyktingfamilie i Mashhad i Iran for, som de sa, å delta i kulturlivet i hjembyen Kabul.  Man kom også stadig tilbake til betydningen av å engasjere forfattere fra samtlige folkegrupper i landet, samt ”misjonere” for P.E.N. blant forfattere bosatt i andre deler av Afghanistan.

Representativiteten ble også ventilert. Når det gjalt lederskap ville de ha oss til å bestemme. Det sa vi at vi ikke ville, men poengterte at det ville gjøre et godt inntrykk om afghansk P.E.N. også inkluderte kvinner i ledelsen. Etter vår avreise ble det bestemt at tadjikpoeten Partaw Naderi skulle være senterets første uformelle formann, og at den velrenommerte pashtudikteren Safia Siddiqi skulle være nestleder. Hun ble også valgt, sammen med Partaw Naderi, som senterets delegater til kongressen i Mexico.

Framtiden for Afghansk P.E.N. og Afghanistans forfattere mener vi vil bli lettere nå når de har fått sitt eget sted å være i og med forfatterhuset.

Forfatternes hus

Det huset forfatterne hadde funnet før vår ankomst virket utmerket, men det viste seg snart at verten stilte krav som ikke var akseptable. Til alt hell hadde Afghanistankomitéen (NAC) et hus de ville fraflytte fordi de ønsket å samle sitt mannskap under et gjestehus-tak. Dette huset var etter alles mening bedre: Større, billigere, og med en mer medgjørlig husvert.

Den opprinnelige ideen til et Forfatterhus i Kabul kom fra den afghanske forfatteren Atiq Rahimi, bosatt i Paris (hans roman Aske og jord kom på Aschehoug høsten 2001), og en institusjon ved navn ”France Culture”. Imidlertidd hadde ikke franskmennene greid å reise penger til formålet. Nå fikk vi god kontakt med deres representant i Kabul  Daniel Massat-Bourrat, og sammen med kulturattasjeen Eric Lavertu ved Frankrikes ambassade viste han stor iver etter å samarbeide med oss.

Huset ligger sentralt i Kabul, med en rekke andre NGO-er i nabolaget. Det har to etasjer, med til sammen åtte rom, hvorav ett som kan brukes som forsamlingslokale, de andre som kontorer og gjesterom for forfattere fra provinsen/utlandet. Planen er å innrede et bibliotek i huset, kanskje i framtiden også en bokhandel. I den store hagen er det plass for diverse evenementer. Et stort kjøkken gjør bevertning mulig. I tillegg er det planer på at France Culture skal leie seg inn for å åpne forleggervirksomhet med det for øyet å utgi nyskrevet afghansk litteratur og tilby forfatterne skikkelige vilkår. Huset har dessuten to bad.

Huset koster 1200 dollar i måneden, og vi kan få en langsiktig kontrakt uten øking i husleien. Tatt i betraktning hvor høye prisene er i Kabul nå, synes vi dette er en god avtale. Huset ble brukt til fest da vi inviterte afghanske forfattere, norske NGO-er, diplomater, franske kontakter og andre venner til en mottakelse to dager før vår avreise. Det fungerte utmerket med mer enn seksti mennesker til middag.

Som framgår av vedlagt kontrakt vil NAC være behjelpelig med å utstyre huset. Deres innkjøpsansvarlige Matiullah, med seksten års erfaring, vil stå til forfatternes disposisjon når møbler, tepper, armatur, kjøkkenutrustning m.m. skal kjøpes inn. Videre har NAC sagt seg villig til å være våre mellommenn når det gjelder overføring av penger og andre finansielle og praktiske problemer som våre muligens noe mer upraktiske forfattervenner trenger råd og hjelp med. Til gjengjeld har forfatterne sagt seg villig til å overta et par av NACs personale som blir tilovers når komitéen gir opp et av husene sine.

Vi ser det som en stor fordel at en norsk organisasjon som NAC har sagt seg villig til å være våre mellommenn på stedet i den fortløpende kontakten med Forfatterhuset.

Staben vil  bestå av tre chowkidarer (vakter som samtidig vil stå for matlaging og hagestell), en vaskehjelp og en kontorsjef. Dette har vi budjett til. De har også ymtet frampå om en deltidsstilling for en forfatter. Det er ingen dum idé. Dette vil vi følge opp. (se vedlagt budjett).

Virksomhetene i huset kan, foruten den daglige administrasjonen av forfatternes behov, også omfatte tidsskriftredigering og -utgivelse. Her håper vi på støtte fra andre nordiske forfatterforeninger og P.E.N. sentra vi har vært i kontakt med. Videre vil France Cultures nærvær ytterligere sikre daglig bruk av huset.

Mange av P.E.N. forfatterne er dessuten innviklet i kulturaktiviteter og ansatt i organisasjoner som bedriver kulturformidling, som Waheed Warasta som arbeider for ”Open Media Fund” (initiativtaker den kjente forfatter og journalist Ahmed Rashid), Habibullah Rafi (i redaksjonen av Afghanistans største tidsskrift: Killid (nøkkel) med 20 000 i opplag).  Alem Kohkan, Razak Mahmoon og Khaled Nawissa arbeider for Azadi Radio (Radio frihet). Rahnawar Zaryiab som er en av kulturministerens rådgivere, Safia Siddiqi som har en stilling som likestillingsrådgiver i Ministry of  Rural Department, for bare å nevne noen. De fleste er enten journalister eller redaktører i tillegg til sin forfattervirksomhet. Dette medvirker avgjort til å plassere huset sentralt i Kabuls kulturelle liv – og til å plassere våre kontakter sentralt i arbeidet for ytringsfriheten.

Reisen til Mazar-i-Sharif

Ved siden av arbeidet med å starte Forfatterhuset i Kabul, fikk vi også tid til en tredagers tur til Mazar-i-Sharif, Den nordlige Balkh provinsens hovedstad. Her hadde vi møter med forfattere, satirediktere og journalister og informerte dem om våre aktiviteter i Kabul. Navnene og adressene hadde vi fått via våre kontakter i hovedstaden. Vi fikk også muligheten til en lang samtale med unge studenter ved universitetet i byen; studenter (fire jenter og to gutter) som leste humaniora og ville bli journalister og forfattere. Vi kunne konstatere at kvinnenes forhold i nord var om mulig enda vanskeligere enn i Kabul. Mens det synlige tegnet burkhaen i september- oktober ble båret av rundt 80 prosent av Kabuls kvinnelige befolkning, så vi ikke en eneste kvinne i Mazar som ikke var tildekket. De kvinnelige studentene var frimodige og ivrige under våre samtaler, men idet de skulle forlate bygningen der vi traff dem, var det på med burkhaen.

Vi mener at det blant alle de sterke kvinnene vi har truffet under våre opphold i landet råder en enstemmig entusiasme for vårt prosjekt også ut fra et kvinnefrigjøringsperspektiv.

P.E.N. kongressen i Ciudad de Mexico

Som nevnt innledningsvis er det en årsak til denne rapportens forsinkelse: Fra 20/11 til 30/11 pågikk International P.E.N.s årlige kongress, og et viktig mål for oss med reisen var å få Afghanistan representert på denne. I år sto ”The Americas” sentre som verter og stedet var Mexico by. Etter en rekke problemer fikk våre afghanske delegater Partaw Naderi og Safia Siddiqi visum, og takket være den mexikanske innenriksministerens egenhendige inngripen kunne de to få sine pass visautstyrt og stemplet på flyplassen ved ankomst. Afghansk P.E.N. ble ikke bare godkjent med akklamasjon som offisielt senter under kongressen. En rekke delegater gratulerte dem, og den russiske delegaten ba på vegne av sitt land om forlatelse for de lidelsene det hadde påført Afghanistan, hvorpå våre venner repliserte at det ikke var nødvendig, det er stater som fører krig, ikke forfattere!  Det er ikke for meget sagt at de ble kongressens midtpunkt, og ikke minst var Safia Siddiqi aktiv.  Afghansk P.E.N. planlegger nå en komité for fengslete forfattere og er blitt medlem av P.E.N. kvinnekomité.

Framtidige planer

Fra 31/3 til 4/4 neste år vil Afghansk P.E.N. stå som verter for en internasjonal PreForum samling som oppvarming for Forum 2004 i Barcelona (et omfattende internasjonalt kulturelt forum arrangert av byen Barcelona). Vi regner med å invitere en rekke internasjonalt kjente navn til Kabul, inklusive iranske forfattere og afghanske forfattere bosatt i utlandet, men med planer på å reise hjem. Dette vil bli det første og største litterære møtet i Afghanistans moderne historie, og et synlig tegn på at den kulturelle isolasjonen skal brytes. Videre er flere afghanske P.E.N.- forfattere invitert til å delta under Forum 2004 i Spania i mai.

Sammenfatning

Vi mener de to delegasjonsturene vi har gjennomført i år har bidratt til avgjort framgang. Våre målsettinger med reisene anser vi for mer enn oppfylte. I et utsatt og krigsherjet samfunn har vi gjort det mulig for Kabuls  poeter, forfattere og journalister å bli del av et globalt nettverk, og samtidig skaffe seg et fristed og et samlingspunkt med betydelige utviklingsmuligheter. Responsen vi har fått fortjener betegnelsen overveldende, og vi har all grunn til å tro at Afghansk P.E.N. vil la høre fra seg i årene som kommer på en for den demokratiske utviklingen i landet positiv måte.

Vi er også svært takknemlige for all den støtten vi har fått fra Norge, særlig fra Utenriksdepartementet, og dessuten all hjelp vi har mottatt fra Norges chargé d´affaires Bjørn Johannessen i Kabul, fra Norsk Kulturråd hvis bistand gjorde det mulig å åpne forfatterhuset, fra Den norske Afghanistankomitéen som med sin gjestfrihet og praktiske råd har sikret en nær kommunikasjon med våre afghanske forfattervenner, fra Den Norske Forfatterforening og våre kollegaer der, fra dens faglitterære søsterorganisasjon, samt fra styret i Norsk P.E.N.

Til alle dere som har gjort dette arbeidet mulig og banet veien for framgangene retter vi en stor og varm takk, samtidig som vi håper at det vi nå har bidratt til er tiltak av en type som gjør fortsatt støtte både mulig og attraktivt.

Oslo, 16. desember 2003

Eugene Schoulgin                                                           Elisabeth Eide

Norwegian P.E.N.-delegation to Afghanistan

Norwegian 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.

Contents:

1.    The general situation
What about Kabul?
Herat
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.

Herat
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

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.

Contents:

1.    The general situation
What about Kabul?
Herat
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.

Herat

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