We have heard a lot from distinguished and courageous Canadian foreign correspondents about what the situation is like on the ground in Afghanistan: the suicide bombers, how Canadian soldiers are being targetted by IEDs, about dangerous patrols in forward bases, and the inevitable convoy down Toronto’s Highway 401 when another Canadian is killed on the line of duty there. And all of this reporting has made a big impression on me, and on many Canadian readers.
But I have my own sources: a first hand first person view of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. From a former student of mine, an Afghan-Canadian journalist, who’s been working in Kabul for several years for the largest independent newspaper in that country.
Ahmad Zia isn’t your typical journalist: born in Afghanistan, he started as a trained lawyer, and speaks five languages.
But he fled Afghanistan about ten years ago when the Taliban came to power, and wound up moving with his family to Toronto, where he drove a cab at night so he could take a broadcasting degree at Seneca College during the day.
The plan was so he could return to Afghanistan and help his native country tell their stories better.
I was one of his teachers.
After graduation, he decided to return alone to Kabul, leaving his wife and two children safely in Toronto, and try to work in the rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts of nation building. He’s since worked as a communications advisor to various Karzai government ministries, and for several western NGOs, all the while helping his brother Faheem Dashti run Kabul Weekly.
He spends most of the year working abroad, and returns to Toronto twice or three times a year to recharge, see his family, and vent.
That’s when I get my first person account of life in Kabul.
He describes the city matter of factly: crowded streets, no traffic lights, and a suicide bomber today who blew up 20 people at the Ministry of Justice, right beside where he works.
When Zia first went back to Kabul he was full of optimism: lots of foreign NGOs and international donors were pouring money and effort into Afghanistan after 2001, the Taliban was out of power, and the future seemed brighter.
Afghan president Karzai may not have liked what the staff at his brother’s newspaper, Kabul Weekly wrote about — exposing government corruption and NGO scandals — but Karzai has allowed the paper to continue to operate, although under dire financial problems.
It had to shut down for a while in 2007. UNESCO and others helped it get back in print.
When the U.S. recently offered money to help keep the paper alive, Zia says there would have been strings attached: censorship. So they refused. Instead, Zia and his brother and others do what they need to do: sometimes paying the journalists and other staff first, while they themselves go without a salary.
Kabul Weekly has the largest circulation in the country for an independent newspaper. Last year Zia helped develop the paper’s new online news website. It’s in English, and Dari as well.
Zia had always intended to move his family back to Afghanistan as soon as he could: but by last summer, after the failed assassination attempt against President Karzai, he still felt it was too dangerous to risk it. He still does. In fact, he told me if Karzai wins the next election, he will probably admit defeat, and leave.
Because he says the current government hasn’t improved the lives of his countrymen, not even after nearly 8 years, and $18 billion spent by Canada alone on its military mission in Afghanistan, and billions from other sources on schools and development projects and army building. And the countless lives lost. People have no jobs, he says. That’s why he says most of the “insurgents” are mainly the unemployed and others , including crooks, who have no other way to make a living. The average salary for an Afghani is $50 while Karzai’s advisors get $10,000. Outside Kabul, he claims the government runs a big poppy growing operation.
But what is hardest to live with, he said this week on his latest visit, was what he perceives as the lack of a clear and sensible vision for how to nation build. He sees it as a failure of the Afghan government, and of the international community.
A new leader get elected in the coming ballot in August.
He senses the Karzai regime already knows its days are numbered, although he thinks the current president will do anything to stay in power. Just recently, he says he tried to run a story in the paper about current officials making plans to feather their nests as much as possible before being voted out of office. After hearing a report that someone has already looted one of Karzai’s two armoured cars from the palace, Zia asked for an interview. He says officials denied the story, but also refused them access to the palace to take photos to prove the vehicle wasn’t indeed missing.
One final note:
Zia is currently the head of an international foundation trying to build a public library in Kabul. It’s to honour a man known as the Afghan Lion, a popular anti-taliban commander and Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood, who was assassinated two days before September 11th 2001, by Al Queda terrorists posing as reporters.
He says the government has graciously granted them some land for the project: supporters from Germany and Japan are also on board. But they need to fundraise in earnest to get the library built. Anyone interested in this project here in Canada? You can contact me and I’ll put you in touch with Ahmad.