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In Northwestern Afghanistan to survive, ‘We Sold Our Property to Buy Weapons and Attack’

The situation appears no better in northwestern Afghanistan, it just doesn't get reported, which makes Myrady's trips all the more important

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An Afghan security police walks at the destroyed house after an operation in Asad Khil near the site of a U.S. bombing in the Achin district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. VOA
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Afghanistan, May 26, 2017: For more than three years now, Qishloq Ovozi and the Majlis podcast have been following events in northern Afghanistan, in the provinces that border Central Asia, while the situation there went from concerning to unstable.

This reporting benefited greatly from the work and dedication of one person, Shamerdanguly Myrady, one of our correspondents in Afghanistan.

At significant personal risk, he has been making trips to northwest Afghanistan, his native area, to report on events as the situation there deteriorated. He just went again.

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Myrady spent a week in Balkh, Jowzjan, and Sari Pul provinces at the start of May, and this is some of what he reported to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk.

Myrady said there were many armed groups operating in northwestern Afghanistan — “just in the Shortepa district, there are at least 10 [different] groups.”

Shortepa is in the northwest corner of Balkh Province and it borders Uzbekistan. The people of Shortepa, an area with a mainly ethnic Turkmen population, told Myrady the Taliban and militants from the Islamic State extremist group were operating in the district. Locals also said some of the militants were from north of the border, from Central Asia.

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Myrady met a man in Shortepa who called himself “commander” Abdul Menan, the leader of one of the local “uprising” militias. Speaking about the militants, Menan said, “Just in our area they killed at least 27 men and two women.”

Menan said that despite appeals to the authorities, no help had arrived. “No other choice remained to us,” he said, “other than selling our property — carpets, cows — to buy weapons and attack” the militants.

Myrady said that in conversations with people around the three provinces it became clear local militias were being formed in many areas.

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The 209th Corps, or Shaheen Corps, is responsible for northern Afghanistan. The 209th is stretched thin and that is the reason militant groups have been able to bring so many districts in northern Afghanistan at least partially under their control.

Some people told Myrady the attack on the Shaheen Corps base in Mazar-e Sharif on April 22 that left more than 130 soldiers dead shattered the confidence of many people that government forces could protect them.

This has led to an increase of paramilitary formations in the area, such as Menan’s group. Myrady said that based on what people told him, it seems paramilitary groups such as the Arbaky are now doing most of the fighting in districts away from the provincial capitals.

The lack of government control has other consequences. Myrady said there was more opium poppy cultivation in northwest Afghanistan than any time he could remember.

May 20, 2017: According to a 2016 UN report, Badghis Province, which borders Turkmenistan, is the second-largest producer of opium poppies among Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Badghis is west of Jowzjan and Balkh.

People Myrady encountered told stories of vehicles being stopped by Taliban fighters and some people being taken away, of insurgents that locals described as “Daesh” or IS militants beheading locals.

There were also tales about the Taliban collecting money from villagers for electricity supplied by Turkmenistan, or simply collecting “zakat,” or taxes, from locals.

Myrady said it appeared small bazaars selling weapons and narcotics are operating in some districts of northwestern Afghanistan where militants are in control, including districts on the border with Turkmenistan.

Myrady’s reporting sheds some small light on the dire situation in northwestern Afghanistan. Recent reports on fighting in northern Afghanistan came from battlefields in Kunduz and Badakhshan provinces, in northeastern Afghanistan, along the border with Tajikistan.

The situation appears no better in northwestern Afghanistan, it just doesn’t get reported, which makes Myrady’s trips all the more important. (RFE/RL)

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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.

Also Read: OrchKids- Bringing Jot to Underprivileged Kids Through Music

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)