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"WW III? No thanks...!" On-Line Library

What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

The Taliban's bravest opponents

An underground resistance of Afghan women risks torture and execution to 
alert the world to the regime's atrocities. One freedom fighter tells 
Salon her story.

By Janelle Brown

Oct. 2, 2001 - The film footage is wobbly and blurry but stunning: A 
soccer stadium in Afghanistan is packed with people, but there is no match
today. Instead, a pickup truck drives into the stadium with three women, 
shrouded in burqas, cowering in the back.

Armed men in turbans force a woman from the truck, and make her kneel at 
the penalty line on the field. Confused and unable to see, the woman tries
to look behind just as a rifle is pointed against the back of her head. 
With no fanfare whatsoever, she is shot dead. The shaky video camera 
captures the cheering crowd as people rise to their feet, hoping to get a 
better view of the corpse on the ground. The blue folds of the burqa begin
to stain red with blood.

This public execution is some of the most shocking film ever seen on 
television; it is perhaps the best document that the West has of 
atrocities committed by the Taliban. It is just one part of an astonishing
hour-long documentary called "Behind the Veil," currently in heavy rotation
on CNN. Filmed by the half-Afghan BBC reporter Saira Shah, who traveled 
undercover to Afghanistan last year, "Behind the Veil" neatly captures the
horror of life under the Taliban - the public executions for infractions 
as minor as prostitution or adultery, the brutality of fundamentalist 
police, the slaughter of civilians unlucky enough to live on the front 
line of the civil war with the Northern Alliance.

In documenting life under the Taliban, Shah went into the homes of the 
Afghan people and onto the battlefields, cleverly evading the Department 
of Vice and Virtue, which would have thrown her in jail for filming 
illegally (all unsanctioned filming is forbidden). She visited territory 
occupied by the Northern Alliance, and visited a village where the Taliban
had brutally murdered dozens of civilians just weeks earlier - a local 
wedding photographer had filmed the scene as villagers buried rotting 
bodies that had been scalped and mutilated. There, Shah also interviewed 
three teenage girls whose mother had been shot dead by the Taliban. They 
were so traumatized by the atrocities that the Taliban subsequently 
inflicted upon them that two of them would no longer speak.

But some of the most heartstopping footage in "Behind the Veil," including
film of the execution of the women in the soccer stadium, was captured not 
by Shah but by an Afghani underground organization which assisted her in 
her work. Indeed, Shah's documentary would not have been possible were it 
not for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), 
an underground organization whose members risk their lives every day in 
attempts to undermine the Taliban and publicize its brutality.

RAWA was originally founded in 1977 as an Afghan feminist group focused on
women's rights, but its mandate broadened when fundamentalists rose to 
power. Determined to expose the frightening abuses of the Taliban, women 
in the group began to hide video cameras under their burqa, and document 
the executions and public floggings which take place every day under the 
Taliban. They also smuggle female journalists like Shaila Shah and Eve 
Ensler, writer/director of the "The Vagina Monologues, into the country, 
in hopes of bringing attention to their cause. In defiance of the 
Taliban's law forbidding education for women, RAWA also runs clandestine 
home-based schools for girls; for women, who are forbidden to work, RAWA 
teaches handicrafts and sells them online. In the refugee camps in 
Pakistan, RAWA also provides medical assistance, housing and education for
impoverished and terrified fugitives of Taliban rule.

RAWA, the most prominent Afghan-run organization to oppose the Taliban, 
has become one of the fundamentalists' greatest enemies. Perhaps the most 
infuriating aspect of the group - and a surprising key to its 
effectiveness - is that it consists entirely of women, nearly 2,000 in 
Afghanistan and Pakistan, who use the cover of their burqas and the 
seeming powerlessness of their status to strategic advantage.

By traveling with RAWA, Shah got a first-hand view of what it's like to be
a woman living under the Taliban, and she was invited into RAWA's secret 
schools and illegal meetings. She also got access to its library of video 
footage - which includes not just the film of the execution of the women,
but footage of the public hanging of three men in the same soccer stadium. 
(The soccer stadium was funded by international aid groups who wanted to 
raise the spirits of the Afghan people; instead, the Taliban is using it 
only for executions. One Taliban official told Shah that if the aid groups
felt that the stadium should be used for soccer, they should build the 
Taliban an extra stadium for executions.)

"Behind the Veil" was filmed long before the attacks of Sept. 11, and, 
according to RAWA members, the situation in Afghanistan has since become 
more dire. Because the borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan have 
closed, the Afghani people are now trapped in their own country - 
enduring the oppressive rule of the Taliban while waiting for U.S. bombs 
to drop from sky. RAWA, meanwhile, says it is running out of money and 
can't afford to educate, feed and treat the millions of refugees massed 
along the border. The Pakistani police, which are sympathetic to the 
Taliban, regularly target RAWA members; and since communication with 
Afghanistan has been cut off, the RAWA members in Pakistan know little 
about what is happening to their members across the border.

In a telephone interview from Islamabad, a 26-year-old member of RAWA, 
identified only as "Fatima," spoke about RAWA's work in Pakistan and 
Afghanistan, its position on war and the Northern Alliance, and its
"uncompromising attitude" toward fundamentalism. A seven-year veteran of 
the group's dangerous brand of activism, Fatima is a member of the RAWA 
political committee that has been trying to rally both Afghan women and 
the international media to its agenda.

What is your life story, and what do you do for RAWA?

I'm from Kabul. I started to work with RAWA when I was 19 years old. There
has been war in our country for more than 23 years; my generation was born 
with war, we've experienced just crimes, just blackness, just sorrow in 
our country. We never saw happiness or democracy. I lived in shock, 
because every day there were tragic stories in my neighborhood around me.

When I was young I decided to do something about this. A lot of young 
girls commit suicide because they are helpless and hopeless. But some, 
like me, choose the way of struggle. We accept that we want to serve our 
people - that this is the best way to bring justice to our country.

When I was 20 years old, I left Afghanistan; my job for RAWA was to come 
here to Pakistan and work in the refugee camps. I had to cross the border 
often and go back into Afghanistan to organize women for demonstrations; 
and to bring RAWA's publications into Afghanistan. We would go secretly 
and without documents - no one asks you for them because you are a woman.
I wear the burqa then, because this is the only visa required for women to 
enter Afghanistan for women. When I cross the border, no one can know that
I am in RAWA.

Why do you use the pseudonym "Fatima"?

We all use different names all the time, because we have a lot of security
problems. Our leader Meena and her bodyguards were assassinated in Pakistan
in 1987 by the Islamic fundamentalists and the KGB. Our members are always 
attacked and injured - we receive death threats by e-mail and letters and
telephone, telling us to stop what we are doing or they will kill us. So we
are working clandestinely in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan we are 

Have you ever been personally attacked by the Taliban?

I was flogged three times in the streets, for stupid reasons. They will 
flog women that don't have the veil on, or aren't with their male relative,
or are talking to a male shopkeeper, or are out on the streets during 
the evening. There are always people sobbing in the streets because they 
are being beaten. This is normal.

In Pakistan in 1999, I was injured at a RAWA demonstration. Pakistan is 
one of the countries that officially recognizes the Taliban government; so
when we take our anti-Taliban slogans into the streets, they try to stop us.
During the demonstration, we were fighting - we wanted to go in front 
of the United Nations building; but the Pakistani police wanted to stop us.
During the fighting, they beat me and broke my hand.

What has been RAWA's most crucial activity in Afghanistan?

We teach hundreds of women and children in the underground schools in 
Afghanistan. For children, we teach mathematics, physics, chemistry, 
Persian, science, social studies, and the history of Afghanistan; also, 
the geography of the world. For women, we just teach them two main 
subjects - mathematics and Persian. When our women go to the shops, they 
don't know how to pay the shopkeeper and get change, because they haven't 
had an education.

We also bring in video cameras to expose the crimes of the Taliban. It's 
risky work. We filmed the execution of the women that you saw in "Behind 
the Veil." Also, we've filmed hangings in Kabul and several other cities, 
taken pictures of Afghans who have had their hands cut off for stealing, 
or their necks cut. There are photos on our Web site.

We make a hole in the burqa and film through it. That's why the quality of
our films is very bad; it's very difficult. No one has ever been caught 
doing it; but execution is the only punishment if you get caught, 
especially if the Taliban knew we were RAWA.

What are you doing in the refugee camps in Pakistan?

We have schools for girls in the fugitive camps; but in some we have 
problems because of the influence of the fundamentalists. We have 
handicraft projects for women; we run chicken farms, a jam-making business
and carpet weaving projects. We also have mobile medical teams that go in 
to the camps one or two days a week to give free medicine. We had a 
hospital called Malalai, but it closed because of our financial problems; 
one of our very urgent projects is to reopen it.

What are your feelings about the attack on America?

We are so sorry for the victims of this terrorist attack. We want to 
shower them with deep solidarity. We can understand their sorrow because 
we also suffered this terrorism for more than 23 years. We were already 
victims of this tragedy

On the other hand, unfortunately, we warned the United States government 
about this many, many times; as well as the other countries that are 
supporting and creating the fundamentalist parties. They helped create 
these terrorists during the Cold War; they supported Osama bin Laden
[during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan]. Fundamentalism is equal
to terrorism; it's equal to crime. We said, this germ won't just be in 
Afghanistan, it will spread out all over the world.

Today we can see this with our own eyes. We warned them but they never 
listened to our cry, to our voice.

How is the crisis in America affecting your work at RAWA?

Thousands of families are escaping from Afghanistan, leaving everything 
behind because they are afraid of war. Thousands of others that are living
in Afghanistan don't have the possibility to immigrate here; and now, even 
the borders are closed. That means that our people have to burn in the 
flame of war and all the doors are closed.

In fugitive camps it's really hard to work, especially hard because 
millions of fugitives have just arrived. They are in shock, and have 
nothing but themselves and the clothes on their back. I met a family 
yesterday that wanted help from RAWA, they cried and said they walked 
through the mountains because the border was closed. Their child fell down
the mountain and died, but they couldn't stop because they had to escape.

Our people escape from Afghanistan because of the fear of killing and rape
and torture, but they will die in the refugee camps because of lack of food,
jobs and healthcare. Even here the situation is not good. We are in a 
crisis in the camps; thousands have contacted us for help and we don't 
know how to help them. At every moment they want their children to be in 
our orphanages or our schools; they want a house, medicine - they need 
everything, and we have no money.

Also we are so worried about our members inside Afghanistan, about their 

Are you concerned about a war with the United States?

We are condemning an attack of the U.S. on Afghanistan, because it won't 
be the Taliban but our people who will be the victims. The United States 
should decry these terrorist groups in Afghanistan; but not through an 
attack. Maybe through commando attacks, though. We do want the United 
Nations to be more active - their rule is very important in this moment.

We also want to convey a message to the American people that there's a 
difference between the people of Afghanistan and the criminal government 
of Afghanistan. There is a river of blood between them.

Do you support the Northern Alliance?

We condemn the cooperation of the United States with the Northern Alliance.
This is another nightmare for our people - the Northern Alliance are 
the second Taliban.

The Northern Alliance are hypocrites: They say they are for democracy and 
human rights, but we can't forget the black experience we had with them. 
Seventy-year-old grandmothers were raped during their rule, thousands of 
girls were raped, thousands were killed and tortured. They are the first 
government that started this tragedy in Afghanistan.

What government do you support, then?

We are ready to support the former king. It doesn't mean that the king is 
a very ideal person for us. But in comparison to the fundamentalist 
parties, we prefer him. The only condition we have for the king is that he
must not cooperate with the Northern Alliance.

What does RAWA need right now?

We are in a very bad financial condition. We need anything we can get - 
for our mobile team, for medicine, for our schools. Maybe $1 is nothing 
for them, but for us it means a lot. To run our struggle with empty hands 
is impossible for us.

Do you want to go back to Afghanistan?

I miss Afghanistan very much, it's my country. I love my city and my 
country a lot. I am a fugitive here. Whenever there is peace in 
Afghanistan we will never go to another country - we will go back to 
rebuild Afghanistan and experience good days, I hope.



For further resources, including a link to the RAWA website, see the
link list at the end of this library...