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Afghan Orchestra Flourishes Despite Social Issues

Afghanistan and Pakistan have experienced years of terrorist attacks, including massive casualties on both sides of their long shared border.

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Afghanistan
Negin Khpolwak, leader of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, practices on a piano at Afghanistan's National Institute of Music, in Kabul, Afghanistan. VOA

The consequences of Afghanistan’s increasingly deadly war are weighing heaviest on the nation’s civilians, with women bearing the brunt of the violence. The Taliban banned music and girls education, and restricted outdoor activities of women when the group was controlling most of Afghanistan.

But violence and social pressures have not deterred members of the country’s nascent orchestra of mostly young girls from using music to “heal wounds” and promote women’s rights in the strictly conservative Muslim society.

The ensemble, known as Zohra, was founded in 2014 as part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, where suicide bombings lately have become routine.

Hope and music

Students and trainers are not losing hope and regularly come to the city’s only institute to rehearse and learn new lessons, says Ahmed Naser Sarmast, the director of ANIM and the founder of the orchestra. Zohra is the name of a music goddess in Persian literature, he explained.

The musicologist spoke to VOA while visiting neighboring Pakistan earlier this month with the young ensemble to perform in Islamabad as part of celebrations marking the 99th anniversary of Afghanistan’s Independence Day. Kabul’s embassy in Islamabad organized and arranged for the orchestra’s first visit to Pakistan.

Despite the many challenges in Afghanistan, Sarmast said, student enrollment has consistently grown and more parents are bringing their children to the institute to study music. Around 300 students are studying not only music at the institute but other subjects, including the Quran, he said.

Afghanistan
Members of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, attend a rehearsal at Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, in Kabul. VOA

Advances for women

Negin Khpolwak, the orchestra’s first woman conductor, says Afghanistan has made significant advances in terms of promoting women’s rights in the past 17 years. She says there is a need to sustain the momentum irrespective of rising violence.

“We need to stand up to protect those gains and we need to open the doors for other Afghan girls,” Khpolwak said when asked whether deadly attacks around the country are reversing the gains women have made.

But violence alone is not the only challenge for women and girls, especially those who want to study music, she said.

“When you are going in the street with your instrument to the school and they are saying bad words to you and if you are giving a concert in public they are telling the bad words to you. But we are not caring about it,” Khpolwak said.

Afghanistan
Ahmad Naser Sarmast, head of Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, speaks to members of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, in Kabul, Afghanistan. VOA

Ethnic groups help each other

Sarmast says that girls and boys in the orchestra come from different Afghan ethnic groups and they help each other when needed.

“It’s hope for the future,” he said.

Ethnic rivalries have been a hallmark of hostilities in Afghanistan and continue to pose a challenge to efforts promoting peace and stability.

“I strongly believe without arts and culture there cannot be security and we are using the soft power of music to make a small contribution to bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan and at the same time using this beautiful, if I can call it a beautiful weapon, to transform our community,” the director said.

Some of the members of the Afghan orchestra were born and brought up in refugee camps in Pakistan, which still hosts around 3 million registered and unregistered Afghan families displaced by years of war, poverty, persecution and drought.

Afghanistan
Members of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, bring instruments to a class before a rehearsal at Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, in Kabul, Afghanistan. VOA

“We are using the healing power of music to look after the wounds of the Afghan people as well as the Pakistani people. We are here with the message of peace, brotherhood and freedom,” Sarmast said.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have experienced years of terrorist attacks, including massive casualties on both sides of their long shared border. Bilateral relations are marred by mistrust and suspicion.

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The countries blame each other for supporting terrorist attacks. Afghans allege that sanctuaries in Pakistan have enabled Taliban insurgents to sustain and expand their violent acts inside Afghanistan. Pakistan rejects the charges.

The Islamist insurgency controls or is attempting to control nearly half of Afghanistan. (VOA)

Next Story

Soviet War in Afghanistan was No Less Than a ‘Hell’, Say Survivors

Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the memories are still fresh.

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Soviet War, Afghanistan
FILE - Tatyana Rybalchenko, who worked as a nurse during the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan between 1986 and 1988, holds a photo of her taken in June 1986 in Kabul, Afghanistan, during her interview in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 10, 2019. VOA

Sitting in her living room, 65-year-old Tatyana Rybalchenko goes through a stack of black-and-white photos from more than 30 years ago. In one of them, she is dressed in a nurse’s coat and smiles sheepishly at the camera; in another, she shares a laugh with soldiers on a road with a mountain ridge behind them.

The pictures don’t show the hardships that Rybalchenko and 20,000 Soviet women like her went through as civilian support staff during the Soviet Union’s 1979-1989 invasion of Afghanistan. Although they did not serve in combat roles, they still experienced the horrors of war.

As Russia on Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the memories are still fresh for the nurses, clerks and shopkeepers, predominantly young, single women who were thrust into the bloody conflict.

Rybalchenko enlisted on a whim. In 1986, she was 33, working in a dead-end nursing job in Kyiv, the capital of Soviet Ukraine, and was going through a breakup. One day, she joined a colleague who went to a military recruitment office. The recruiter turned to Rybalchenko and asked if she would like to work abroad — in Afghanistan.

She recalls that she was fed up with her life in Kyiv, “so I told him: ‘I’d go anywhere, even to hell!’ And this is where he sent me.”

Family and friends tried to talk her out of it, telling her that Afghanistan is where “the bodies are coming from.” But it was too late: She had signed the contract.

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FILE – In this undated photo, medics and nurses work to treat a casualty in a military hospital in Afghanistan. VOA

At least 15,000 Soviet troops were killed in the fighting that began as an effort to prop up a communist ally and soon became a grinding campaign against a U.S.-backed insurgency. Moscow sent more than 600,000 to a war that traumatized many young men and women and fed a popular discontent that became one factor leading to the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Rybalchenko, who worked as a nurse at a military hospital in Gardez, was stunned by the many casualties — men missing limbs or riddled with shrapnel. But there was so much work that she found herself shutting off her emotions.

“At the end, I did not feel anything anymore. I was like a stone,” Rybalchenko said, shedding her normally perky persona.

Friendships helped, and she befriended a young reconnaissance officer, Vladimir Vshivtsev.

He once confided to her that he was not afraid of losing a limb, but he would not be able to live with an injury to his eyes. She recalled him saying “if I lose eyesight, I’ll do everything to put an end to it.”

In November 1987, the hospital was inundated with casualties from a Soviet offensive to open the road between Gardez and the stronghold of Khost, near the Pakistani border.

One of the wounded was Vshivtsev, and Rybalchenko saw him being wheeled into the ward with bandages wrapped around his head. She unwrapped the dressing and gasped when she saw the gaping wound on his face: “The eyes were not there.”

Afghanistan, Fintech
Vladimir Vshivtsev, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, right, and Gen. Col. Boris Gromov, former Commander of the 40th Army in Afghanistan, greet each other during a meeting at the upper chamber of Russian parliament in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

She persuaded her superior to let her accompany him to a bigger hospital in Kabul as part of a suicide watch. She stayed friends with Vshivtsev, and he later became a leading activist in the Russian Society for the Blind. Decades later, he briefly served in the Russian parliament.

Raising awareness

Alla Smolina was 30 when she joined the Soviet military prosecutor’s office in Jalalabad near the Pakistani border in 1985. It wasn’t until 20 years later that Smolina started having nightmares about the war.

“The shelling, running away from bullets and mines whizzing above me — I was literally scared of my own pillow,” she said.

She put her memories on paper and contacted other women who were there, telling the stories of those who endured the hardships of war but who are largely absent from the male-dominated narratives.

She is trying to raise awareness of the role the Soviet women played in Afghanistan, believing they have been unfairly portrayed or not even mentioned in fiction and nonfiction written mostly by men.

The deaths of Soviet women who held civilian jobs in Afghanistan are not part of the official toll, and Smolina has written about 56 women who lost their lives. Some died when a plane was shot down by the Afghan mujahedeen, one was killed when a drunken soldier threw a grenade into her room, and one woman was slain after being raped by a soldier.

In an era when the concept of sexual harassment was largely unfamiliar in the Soviet Union, the women in the war in Afghanistan — usually young and unmarried — often started a relationship to avoid unwanted attention from other soldiers.

“Because if a woman has someone, the whole brigade won’t harass you like a pack of wolves,” Rybalchenko said. “Sometimes it was reciprocal, sometimes there was no choice.”

She said she found boyfriends to “protect” her.

Denied war benefits

While the war grew unpopular at home, Soviet troops and support staff in Afghanistan mostly focused on survival rather than politics. While Afghans largely saw Moscow’s involvement as a hostile foreign intervention, the Soviets thought they were doing the right thing.

“We really believed that we were helping the oppressed Afghan nation, especially because we saw with our own eyes all the kindergartens and schools that the Soviet people were building there,” Smolina said.

After Rybalchenko came home, she could hardly get out of bed for the first three months, one of thousands with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

When she asked officials about benefits for veterans and other personnel in Afghanistan, she faced hostility and insults. She said one told her: “How do I know what you were actually up to over there?”

In 2006, Russian lawmakers decided that civilians who worked in Afghanistan were not entitled to war benefits. Women have campaigned unsuccessfully to reinstate them.

Rybalchenko eventually got an apartment from the government, worked in physiotherapy and now lives in retirement in Moscow, where her passion for interior decorating is reflected by the exotic bamboo-forest wallpaper in her home.

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Smolina, who lives in Sweden, is wary of disclosing all the details about her own Afghan experiences after facing a backlash from other veterans about her publications.

“Our society is not ready yet to hear the truth. There is still a lingering effect from the harsh Soviet past,” she said. “In Soviet society, you were not supposed to speak out.” (VOA)