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Decades Later, Afghan Refugees Face Uncertain Homecoming

KABUL — Migration has left deep marks on the lives of Afghans, adding to a sense of national despair that is often and poignantly reflected in the country's folk songs. For decades, starting with the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, people have been forced to flee. Now, though, some of those who left are having to migrate yet again, this time back into Afghanistan. So far this year, a record 30,000 Afghan refugees in neighboring Pakistan have packed up and returned to their native land for good. Another 3 million may follow in the coming months due to mounting persecution and uncertainty surrounding the legal status of their stay. Earlier this year, Pakistan offered Afghan refugees a last-minute grace period of six months, but warned that after this, there will be no more residency extensions. Authorities there are also offering Afghans a financial incentive to leave, according to Nader Farhad, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “In the last month alone we saw a large number of refugees return because of the increased stipend and growing persecution in Pakistan," he says. "Each returning refugee is now paid $400, so a family of let's say five members can get up to $2,000." In the past, the refugees were only paid around $200 — hardly enough to even cover the transportation costs. A family of refugees from Afghanistan waits for their papers in Peshawar on June 23 — Photo: Christine Roehrs/DPA/ZUMA While thousands have now decided to return to Afghanistan, most have no idea what they will do next. Tila Mohammad, a father of four, spent 25 years as a refugee in Pakistan. He returned literally empty handed. "Look at my hands," he says. "With these bare hands, we are working in this open field to erect a mud house for the children to live in. Both governments [Afghanistan and Pakistan] promised us help. But we haven't gotten anything except the money given to us on arrival by the UNHCR." Mohammad's story is shared by almost everyone repatriated back to Afghanistan from Pakistan. Deprived of many basic facilities in Pakistan, they lived a life of compromise and sacrifice. Malik Sedique, an elderly Afghan who migrated to Pakistan during the 1980s, says it doesn’t look much different now. "We were called refugees throughout our stay in Pakistan. But now that we're back, people are saying the 'refugees' have returned," she says. "In all those years, many women become widows. Children became orphans. They should be welcomed back home warmly, but that's the case." Almost every returning family claims to have paid thousands of rupees to the Pakistani border forces for permission to carry wood, animals, trunks, utensils and other goods across the border. Many parts of modern-day Pakistan, including the whole of northwestern Khyber Pakthunwa, and many districts of southwestern Baluchistan were part of the greater Afghanistan before British rule over India. Photo: Shadi Khan Saif An overwhelming majority of the Afghan refugees are ethnic Pashtuns, meaning they share an ethnic lineage with their Pakistani hosts. Analyst Tahir Zaland believes the refugees bore the brunt of cold ties between the two countries that worsened after cross-border skirmishes last month. "Ultimately it is a good thing that these refugees return to their home country. But the government and aid agencies should create a better environment for them to integrate and overcome the early problems," he explains. The Afghan government has promised to provide land to each repatriated family. In Kabul, land has already been designated for the refugees in four areas, but the allocation process is slow and complicated. Still, some, like Dawlat Khan, a recently repatriated Afghan, are happy to be home. "Thank God it is our own country," he says. "One can die with honor in one's own land. In a foreign land even a prince isn't really a prince." ...

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In Afghanistan, Looking For Peace Through A Telescope

KABUL — When Yunos Bakhshi went to register his astronomy association with the Afghan Justice Ministry, an official there opened the palm of his hand and asked, "Can you read my fortune?" In Afghanistan, astronomy is often confused with astrology, because people there prefer to use the stars to predict the future rather than to understand the universe. But Bakhshi sees another use for the Afghan interest in astrology. "Observing the stars and the universe broadens our inner horizons, prompts questions and helps fight religious fanaticism,” he says. Could stargazing really bring a little peace to Afghanistan, a country ravaged by 36 years of war? That, in a nutshell, is Bakhshi's rather daring bet. The "star fanatic," a short, energetic and smiling man with a piercing gaze, is putting his hopes into practice in his new clubhouse, in one of Kabul's quieter districts. For now, he only has three telescopes — one donated by South Korea — a few books purchased in Iran, and, most importantly, a good Internet connection. Most Afghans discovered their first galaxies by downloading pictures from the NASA website, well before the arrival of the first telescope in the country. Walking a delicate line Bakhshi regularly visits schools with an inflatable tent tucked under his arm — for use as a makeshift planetarium — and some posters of his favorite stars. But in a country that follows Sharia law, prudence is necessary. There can be no questioning of God’s existence lest Bakhshi suffer the same fate as Galileo. As he is careful to point out, his book on the universe in no way seeks to replace the Koran. "I explain that the earth, on the universal scale, is no bigger than a grain of sand in the desert," he says. "That makes man's importance, and his certainties, relative. No one individual is better than another, so we might as well accept differences with humility." At the Marefat middle school, which was attacked by radical Muslims in 2008 for its liberal teachings, students discover another planet Earth, seen from space. "Now we know our address in the universe," says one student. “From up there, you feel connected to the whole world, and not just to Afghanistan at war," says another, awkwardly squeezed into his jacket-and-tie uniform. The boy's father warned him that observing the stars was blasphemous. "You cannot replace religion with astronomy," the teenager was told. But that didn't stop him from secretly reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, translated into Farsi. Yunos Bakhshi teaching astronomy — Photo: Facebook page Unlike most middle schools, Marefat chooses to teach astronomy despite the risk. "Astronomy allows us to better understand our place in the universe, and thus understand ourselves," the school's director, Hussein Saramad, explains. "We can't just sacrifice scientific knowledge to religious beliefs." The children ask Bakhshi where God is hidden in space, or how much a star weighs. Other questions are more delicate: A bearded teacher asks Bakhshi to show the line of fracture on the moon, which God is said to have split in two to prove his existence, according to the Koran. Uneasy, Bakhshi suggests that the teacher look closely at the moon, and notes that those who see the dividing line must certainly be blessed with greater faith than others. It's not a weapon Afghanistan's austere Religious Affairs Ministry, which regulates matters such as divorce, has no problem with astronomy. "When you read in the Koran, for example, that the air and atmosphere record every person's acts in anticipation of Judgment Day, don’t you think that this was foreshadowing written memory?" says Hujjatullah Najeeh, a mufti, or Islamic scholar. "Everything we discover in science has already been written in the Koran." Thus, the ministry lets astronomers go about their business. The same cannot always be said about other authorities. Bakhshi has had policemen armed with assault weapons barge into his house at night. In a country at war, the shadow of an astronomer moving around at night with a telescope — which can look an awful lot like a rocket launcher, with its red lights for reading the celestial map — is suspicious, to say the very least. And at every checkpoint they cross, astronomers have to explain to soldiers that a telescope is not a weapon. Some members of the military, nevertheless, forbid astronomers from viewing the stars, out of a conviction that telescopes allow one to see through walls into homes and stare at the women inside. For the same price as a few rocket launchers, telescopes and books could help fight the Taliban's ideology. But astronomy is largely overlooked by international aid groups. And so Bakhshi continues his quest alone, convinced that one day, he will succeed in "clearing the canon smoke from the Afghan sky and showing all Afghans the beauty and mysteries of the universe." ...

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Scared And Jobless, Afghan Youth Turn To Human Smugglers

JALALABAD — It’s early morning in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan. Haroon Sarwari, 17, and Manzoor Ali, 18, are wearing their backpacks and walking quickly to get a taxi to reach Kabul on time. These close friends have laid out plans to travel to Europe illegally with the help of a smuggling agent. Haroon's cousins managed to get to Germany three months before, so his father, Sarwar Khan, supports the plan. "My father sold a few of his cows and borrowed some money from his friends to send me to Europe," the teenager explains. "He has already agreed with the agent on how much to pay." Sarwar Khan admits, nevertheless, that it's been a difficult decision. "Children are part of the body and soul, but I needed to do this. The security situation in the country is not good and there are no jobs," he says. "The agent told me that Haroon would reach Europe in about three months because the roads are very dangerous." Haroon and Manzoor are energetic, happy and anxious during the three-hour-long drive from Jalalabad to Kabul. They spend the entire time talking about what their life in Germany will be like. They say they will take any job, from washing dishes to cleaning toilets. At no point, though, do they talk about the hardships they might endure, or how risky the journey there will be. Later that afternoon, in the capital, hundreds of Afghans, mostly young people, are queuing for their electronic passports, testament to just how difficult conditions are in the war-torn, economically depressed nation. On the Jalalabad to Kabul highway — Photo: Peretz Partensky A survey in December 2015, conducted jointly by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA) and the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, or AREU, found that poverty, insecurity and unemployment are the main reasons driving Afghan youth to immigrate illegally. The Afghan government recently announced that 250,000 Afghans have been registered as refugees in developed countries. "One of the common points that we found in our research is that people who cross borders illegally face extremely difficult situations from both human trafficking agents and the police," says Dr. Sayed Mahdi Mosawi, a senior researcher with the AREU. "Police severely beat and punish illegal immigrants, even kill them in some cases." By some estimates there are only about 3 million jobs in Afghanistan for an eligible workforce of approximately 16 million. The AREU researcher says more jobs would encourage young Afghans to stay at home. In Kabul, finding an agent to arrange illegal passage is relatively easy. But the services aren't cheap. Agents charge between $5,000 and $12,000, depending on the routes and destination countries. Ramin Jan, an agent I met on a roadside in Jalalabad city, says England is the most expensive destination, with a going smuggler's rate of $12,000. Walking in Jalalabad — Photo: Peretz Partensky "We have a network of agents," Ramin, who is not yet 30, explains. "We take people from western Afghanistan to Iran and then to Turkey. Our main duty is to hand our people over to an agent in Turkey. That person is then responsible for the rest of the trip into the different European countries." Sharifa Omeri lost her son eight months ago when he tried to reach Europe by way of Iran and Turkey. He was shot dead while running from Iranian border police. Sharifa says that since then, time seems to have stopped. She also says that the journey wasn't worth the risk. "I wish I never allowed him to leave the country, that I had stopped him by force so I would not have lost him," she says. The Afghan government is trying to send the same message, and promises to crack down on smugglers. But unless it can provide more jobs, the government's warnings are likely to fall on deaf ears. ...

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ISIS Radio Tries To Lure Young Afghans To Jihad

JALALABAD — It's a cold evening in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province. At night, young people here gather around the fire to discuss their daily lives. But over recent months, their meetings have increasingly included listening to broadcasts on an FM radio channel that went live in August. Supporters here of ISIS, also known as Daesh, have launched a radio station called Sadaye Khilafat, which means "Voice of the Caliphate." In the station's promotional ad, listeners can hear the sound of galloping horses, a strategic approach intended to conjure an image of the Prophet Muhammad, who used horses during war. The daily three-hour broadcasts include anti-government propaganda, invitations to join ISIS in Syria and interviews with ISIS fighters. Saad Emarati is a guest on today's program about the heroes of ISIS. Once an active Taliban militant, he has since declared support for ISIS and urges young listeners during the broadcast to join him. "I ask all people who are not linked with ISIS to get connected soon and follow Abu-Bakar Al Baghdadi as a leader of Muslims," he says. "I especially invite religious people to join ISIS. People do not have any real reason to delay." Voice of the Caliphate has been compared to Pakistan's Mulah radio, a station the Taliban used to broadcast its messages in 2007 and 2008. Aerial view of Jalalabad, Afghanistan — Photo: Bryan Battaglia The audience Naveed-ur-Rahman, 22, has been unemployed for the last seven months and has been a regular listener of Voice of the Caliphate since the station first began broadcasting. But he says he's not convinced of the message. "I know the main purpose is to recruit young people like me who are jobless and don't have any source of income, but I don't think any sensible young man will join Daesh," he says. "They want to use the name of Islam, but I don't think it will work anymore to deceive Afghans." By contrast, 25-year-old Hazrat (not his real name) says he is pleased that ISIS has its own space on the airwaves. "Media plays a vital role in wars now, so it's good that Daesh has a radio channel," he says. "I don't want to say if I am an ISIS supporter or not, but I like the radio channel because it gives Daesh an opportunity to share their version of the story. I wait all day long to hear the program." In Afghanistan, radio is a major source of news and entertainment for people in cities and villages, and there are around 170 radio stations across the country. But earlier this month, Afghan government officials claimed that a U.S. drone strike destroyed the station, killing 29 militants and five radio station employees. Though ISIS has strongly rejected the claims, Naveed-ur-Rahman says he has been unable to listen to the station for several weeks. He has switched instead to Pashto music — a welcome change, says his mother Gul Bibi. "My son used to listen to the Daesh programs, but there has not been a program on for more than two weeks now," she says. "The militants want to spread their fear through that station, but ISIS fighters should know that they can't rule by force." ...

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Maternal Mortality: Midwives To The Rescue In Afghanistan

JALALABAD — Shah Zaman, 11, spends his days carting people's luggage to earn a few cents. His mother died during his birth and soon after, his father remarried. "I wish my mother had been taken to the hospital," he says. Shah lives in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, where war and internal conflicts have weakened the local economy and health system. Like in so many parts of the country, health facilities lack trained staff. In more remote areas, health facilities can also be hours away, making it difficult for pregnant women to reach them in time. This, in a country where women give birth to an average of six children, and where one in 11 women dies in pregnancy or childbirth, according to a 2012 report from Save the Children. The government is working hard to address the issue by training midwives — more than 4,000 since the fall of the Taliban in 2002. Saliha, a midwife in the Kama district hospital in eastern Nangarhar province, thinks the initiative has helped, but says maternal mortality is still far too high. Blaming both the lack of female health providers in her area, and bad roads, she decided she would step in. "It was my dream to be a doctor," she recalls. Unable to afford medical school, she completed a two-year midwifery course. " A newborn baby at a Kandahar hospital — Photo: Staff Sgt. Arthur Hamilton Saliha says that because patients can show up at any moment, health facilities keep midwives on call 24 hours per day. "Our services have helped reduce the maternal mortality rate," she says. A survey by the Afghan Ministry of Health and its partners suggests that the maternal mortality has indeed dropped steeply: from 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2002 to 327 deaths per 100,0000 live births in 2010. Medical practitioners say women in rural areas have started to trust the local health services, and rather than give birth at home, as they did in the past, are traveling to hospitals to deliver their babies. Aasiya is Saliha’s colleague at the hospital, where she has been working for the past eight years. "Pregnant women used to give birth in their homes," she explains. "They have a false perception about deliveries in health facilities." The women have also organized health education and awareness sessions to encourage locals to take advantage of the new care available. Nazia recently traveled to the hospital with her sister, who is having her first baby. "We are very grateful to the staff who provided us with great support, and for free," she said. "This is vital for poor people like us who can’t afford it otherwise.". ...

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Trump And Torture, Reflections Of A Good Soldier

The terrorists attacks in Brussels last week provided instant fodder for the U.S. presidential campaign. Republican front-runner Donald Trump had already boasted last month that he would order the U.S. military to "target the families of terrorists," also pledging to reinstitute waterboarding and "a whole lot more" as a tactic to extract information from terrorists. With 35 innocent people dead in the Belgian capital, Trump wasted no time in doubling down on his support for torture, declaring in an interview that he would have used waterboarding to extract information from Salah Abdeslam, the suspect in November's Paris terror attacks who'd been arrested just four days before the Brussels attack. "Frankly, waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if we change the laws or have the laws, waterboarding would be fine," Trump said. "We work within laws. They don't work within laws. They have no laws. The waterboarding would be fine and if they could expand the laws I would do a lot more than waterboarding." Perhaps the most notable response to Trump's virulent pledges have come from Michael Hayden, the retired Air Force general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. "If he [Trump] were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act," Hayden said during an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. "You're required not to follow an unlawful order. That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict." Gen. Michael Hayden when he ran the CIA There's only one problem with that statement: Soldiers almost always follow orders. I know because I was a soldier once, a good soldier. I did as I was told. When I enlisted at the age of 17, I was a high school dropout with few prospects other than the military. In 2005, at the height of the Iraq War, the Army was more than willing to give me a job fighting overseas. I knew nothing about international law or human rights. The moment you enlist, you swear an oath to "obey the officers appointed over you." During basic training, the obligation to follow orders is physically and mentally drilled into you. No military tolerates dissent among its ranks. That's how armies have functioned for thousands of years. It's how they must function. Without discipline, an army becomes a rabble, easily defeated by a well-organized enemy. When I failed to follow orders, it inevitably led to physical suffering or public humiliation. An example of a minor infraction was when I neglected to get a haircut. My platoon had been in the field all week training, and I was frankly exhausted. But my platoon leader said, "I won't have any fucking Elvises in my platoon. Get it trimmed." With every intention to get a haircut, I headed back to my barracks. Once I arrived, my roommate offered me a cold beer, and I happily accepted. One led to another, and then another. Before I knew it, the barbershop had closed for the day. I could've had a fellow soldier cut my hair in the barracks, but I decided to forgo it and enjoy the rest of my night. I could always get a haircut the next day. Next morning's formation proved otherwise. I was dealt a quick and severe punishment by a dog-faced sergeant via "corrective training," which is a euphemism for punishment. Throughout the day I was forced to perform various physical exercises meant to degrade me, such as crawling on all fours everywhere I went. To add insult to injury, the sergeant also shaved my head with a razor. Exhausted, humiliated and bald, I swore never to disobey another order. I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. I arrested countless military-age males with no little or no cause. I happily turned over those prisoners to Iraqi and Afghan Army or police units, whom I knew routinely tortured and even executed their prisoners. It wouldn't be a surprise if some of the "high-value targets" I assisted in capturing are now in Guantanamo, where they perpetually languish, without charge. I abused my authority, ransacking homes as I "searched" for contraband in Iraqi and Afghan houses. Scandal of U.S. military torture in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison — Source: Wikimedia Commons My fellow soldiers and I are not sociopaths, and you wouldn't even consider us bad guys if you met us. We were just following orders. We're programmed from the first day of basic training that if a superior instructs you to jump, your only response will be, "how high?" So, when that same platoon leader who told me to get a haircut told me to "tear this fucking house apart!" I did. I was a good soldier, they said. Follow orders — get rewarded. Disobey — be punished. Worse than punishment, you'll be seen as weak. Speak out, and they'll call you snitch. A more severe infraction, such as abandoning your guard post in Iraq, could warrant death by a military court martial. §890 of Article 6 (link) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) states: "Any person subject to this chapter who — (2) willfully disobeys a lawful command of his superior commissioned officer; shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct…" The operative word in the section is "lawful." As long as what your superiors tell you to do is lawful, you are legally bound to follow orders. Your life may even depend on it. Therefore, General Hayden is correct: Service members are not required to obey "unlawful" orders. The problem is they almost always do. I'm thankful I was never ordered to torture a prisoner, because I would have done as I was told. If the military followed the illegal orders of one bad president, we would follow the orders of another. That's what good soldiers do. *The author is a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Robert Christy is a pseudonym. This is Worldcrunch's international collection of essays, which includes pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any other language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris that we call home. Send ideas and suggestions to info@worldcrunch.com. ...

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League Of Their Own: Women’​s Soccer Gains Ground In Afghanistan

KABUL — Inside the Afghan capital’s soccer federation stadium, dozens of Afghan women, some of them recently returned from a training camp in Japan, are practicing their skills. "From 2006 up to now, the Afghan women’s national soccer team has conducted several different trips abroad, for training and matches," says Zohra Mihree, chief of the Afghan women’s soccer committee. "The team participated in SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) tournaments in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Our team came in third place in 2014." Currently, more than 100 women soccer players are training in different clubs around Afghanistan, up from just a handful a few years ago. Rahima, 18, has been playing for two years now. She always dreamed of joining the national team — and now she is actually doing it. "When I saw other soccer players on TV I hoped I could be like them one day," she says. "Then I found out Afghanistan had a women's soccer team and was looking for recruits, so I joined. I hope one day I can be the best female soccer player in Afghanistan." Going against the grain In a conservative country like Afghanistan, it is not easy for women to play soccer. Many female players have stories of being criticized and even threatened for daring to play a sport. "When I started playing soccer in 2007 I faced lots of social difficulties. Even when I traveled for training or matches abroad my family kept my travel secret from our relatives," says University student Khatol Dawer, 23, a former player and now trainer. "Sometimes I also received phone calls, people threatening me, saying that if I continued playing they would target me with an explosion and kill me." Girls soccer team in Afghanistan Oct. 31 2012 — Photo: msnsam/Afghanart But Asadullah, a male player in the local league Kabul, is very supportive of women players like Khatol. "I am very happy to hear about these women who are interested in doing sport, especially soccer," he says. "I don’t agree that women should only be at home, doing housework. Women playing sport is happening not just in Afghanistan, but also other Islamic countries. It is very good that women here have the chance as well." Officials from the Afghan women's soccer federation say that despite the problems, they have made huge strides in the past three years. "Fortunately women’s enthusiasm for soccer has really increased," says Shayista Sidiqee, head of the women's soccer referee association. "Before we could hardly find a woman to recruit to the team. Due to social problems and threats most of the women and girls were not willing to join us. But now they come on their own." Creating opportunities Other barriers remain. Most female players, for example, stop playing once they get married — with some exceptions. Player Massoma Muhammadi worked to convince her husband, who eventually came around to the idea. "When I got engaged my spouse knew that I was a soccer player," she recalls. "He told me I could keep playing up to the point that we got married. Then after our marriage, when he found out how much I love playing soccer, I convinced him, and he let me continue." Marina Aslamzada, the captain of the Afghan national women's team, says she is working hard to promote the sport across the country. A key step is to open soccer clubs for women in provinces all over Afghanistan. "We have clubs for those who want to join us. And when they learn skills, then they can play in the women's soccer league," she says. "From that league we select the best players for the national team." ...

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Drug Rehab Comes To War-Torn, Opium-Rich Afghanistan

KABUL — Here at Pol-e Sokhta, in a spot in western Kabul where hundreds of drug addicts gather each day, Afghan government workers have become a regular presence. The government workers have been given the mission to round up the city’s drug users and move them to a former NATO base, less than 10 kilometers away. The Afghan ministries of counter-narcotics, public health and economy have joined together in the initiative to provide treatment for drug addicts at the camp. Salamat Azimi, Minister of Counter Narcotics, says the state has the means to treat thousands of drug addicts, and will soon be opening another similar camp in eastern Afghanistan. "We wanted to provide services to those who are addicted to drugs and are living in a very bad situation,” Azimi said. At Camp Phoenix — Photo: Ghayor Waziri Gul Aqa, 35, has been using a cocktail of drugs, from morphine to opium, for about three years now. Burns are visible on his fingers from accidentally lighting his hands while smoking drugs. “I want to be treated so I can return to my old life,” Aqa says, “Nobody has offered to provide treatment before, so I am happy to go to this rehab center.” In the past few days alone, hundreds of drug users have been collected from the streets and moved to Camp Phoenix. From outside, the camp looks like a military base, but inside the rooms are modern and clean, and it’s here where Kabul’s addicts will be treated for the addiction, and some will be given job training in such fields as carpentry and house painting. Public Health Minister Ferozuddin Feroz says they plan to help as many users as possible. “Our aim is to start by finding the drug addicts who are homeless, abandoned by their relatives, and are living on the street,” he explains. “The campaign will continue over the coming days. Alongside treatment at the camp, they will be trained in different skills and professions to stimulate their minds and encourage to move away from drugs.” Thirty-year-old Habiballah is a former sergeant for the Afghan army, having served in the war-torn Helmand province. He started using drugs to cope with the pressure of fighting against the Taliban and facing their deadly ambushes. “During the fighting and insurgency I had to deal with a lot of mental stress, that’s why I started using drugs,” he says, “When I got addicted my relationship with my wife and daughters and other family members fell apart." Drug addicts waiting for treatment in Kabul, Afghanistan — Photo: Ahmad Massoud/ZUMA Facing resistance Habiballah was eventually forced to leave the army, and fell deeper into addiction. "I don’t know where my family is now. So far the treatment has been good, I feel happy and healthy and hope to get back to normal.” But back at Pol-e Sokhta, not all the drug users encountered are happy to be taken to Camp Phoenix. A number of addicts that live under a bridge in the western part of Kabul refuse to move. Relapsed drug user Mohammad Yasin became addicted to morphine while living as a refugee in Iran 12 years ago. “Once I was treated and stopped taking drugs, but when I became unemployed, I started (using) again,” says Yasin, “When I can’t find money to buy drugs, I take drugs from people who sell it and I then I sell it for them, so I get the drug for free. Sometime addicts also steal, from shops, houses and people, so they can find the money.” According to the government there are an estimated 3.5 million people addicted to drugs in Afghanistan, an opium-rich country and one of the biggest producers of narcotics in the world. Activists say the government’s campaign is a good way to help limit the production and smuggling of drugs across the country. It may also save some lives. ...

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Town Crier Juma Khan, Afghanistan’​s Low-Tech Newsman

BAMYAN — For decades town criers were responsible for delivering news and information. But in the digital age, the tradition has almost died out. There aren't many people like Juma Khan left. Khan has been personally delivering the news to the residents of Bamyan province since 1986. "I was a farmer when I was young, and living in Kabul," he says. "Sometimes I did some laboring, but then in 1986 I came to Bamyan province. The city was very old and the person who was working as the newsman here had just passed away." He explains that because he had a little bit of education and knew how to read and write, he took over as the next "newsman." In the 1940s and 1950s, "Jaar-chi," the equivalent of medieval Europe's town criers, were well known in Afghanistan, and Khan represents one of the very few who remain. He says he never thought about notoriety, but he soon become very well known in Bamyan, with his distinctive, clear voice. "When I started my job, the town crier was the only way to inform people about events," he says. In the beginning, he had to memorize his announcements, but now they are written down so that he can read them. Bamyan is a mountainous province in central Afghanistan. Though there has been a huge growth of media around the country, Bamyan is rarely covered in the news because it's so remote. Only one radio and national television staion broadcasts from here, but its coverage is limited. That means most people in the city, like shopkeeper Zahra Laali, get their news and public announcements from Khan, whose nickanme is "Landani," which means "the Londoner" in Persian. The name is a joking reference to his rivalry with BBC radio. Photo: Ghayor Waziri “It was more than 10 years ago that I came to Bamyan province and opened my shop here," she says. "Mostly I get information about events, news and commercials via Landani. I think he is doing a very important job, as radio and TV broadcasting is just for a few hours here and most people don't have access to them." When Landani walks through the city, most people emerge from their doorways to hear the latest news. "When I announce something, everyone pays attention to my voice," he says, "They want to know what's going to happen in the province." Khan receives between 6 and 10 items of news and advertisement each day, mostly from the public and the local government. Kazim, who works for the media department within the Bamyan municipality, takes his announcements to Khan because, he says, it's the most efficient way to disseminate the news. "Our announcement today is about a big campaign for city cleaning that we are going to start," he says. Khan enjoys his job, which pays him between $3 and $4 for each announcement, and says he will continue for as long as he is able. Bamyan has among the lowest levels of education in Afghanistan, and no one is Khan's family is literate enough to take over. "Sometimes I feel pain in my legs and waist, but I will do my job up to end of my life." ...

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Afghan Woman Fights Taliban, One Radio Program At A Time

KANDAHAR — The main bazaar in Kunduz looks deserted. It's because many have left the city or are staying indoors after the Taliban took control in October. A local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, says it's simply too dangerous to stay in Kunduz right now. "The Taliban has taken several people from their homes and killed them for no reason," he says. The Islamic terrorist group has also recently attacked three radio stations in Northern Kunduz, and militants have also threatened several prominent reporters. But in the conservative area of southern Kandahar — also the birthplace of Taliban leader Mullah Omar — Maryam Durani has founded a radio station for women called Mairman Radio. In the Pashto language, "Mairman" means "woman," and most of the station's programs focus on women's issues. In the four years that it has been on the air, the station has become very popular, says 28-year-old Durani. "Women call the station to share their problems, to seek guidance and ask our experts," she says. "The parents, especially the fathers, also ask us for guidance about how to create a better future for their daughters. So these are great achievements in a province where women can't go outside without wearing a burqa, an area where families don't allow women to work." Mairman Radio broadcasts cover topics for women such as education, women's rights and agriculture. It airs 13 hours of programs daily, and more than 800,000 listeners tune in every month, mostly women in Kandahar. But Durani admits that promoting women's rights in the second-largest city in Afghanistan isn't easy and that it has made her particularly unpopular with the Taliban. Being the voice of the voiceless is always dangerous. Undaunted "It's very difficult to be a station owner," she says. "I have survived different attacks. My family has received threats, and even my employees have received threats several times for the work we do." But the death threats sent via text message leave Durani undaunted. In fact, they have made her even more determined to keep running her independent radio station, which is partly funded by the United Nations. Durani receiving the 2012 International Women of Courage Award from Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton — Photo: U.S. Department of State "I have never been afraid of threats and never bothered about them," she says. "Instead, I have tried to convince my opponents of my work, and have been more than ever focused on my work, to enhance it instead of stopping or slowing down." And Durani’s hard work is being recognized. In 2012, she received the International Women of Courage Award, which is chosen by the U.S. Secretary of State. The same year she was included in Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people. Last month, Durani also took home the N-Peace Award for her work in building peace and transforming communities. Jina Popal, a 17-year-old student in Kandahar, has been a regular listener of Mairman Radio for several years. "I have realized the important and valuable role of women in the world," she says, adding that the station is "like a school for women in Kandahar." Hamida Muhammadi, a producer and anchor at the station for more than two years, says one of the biggest issues women here face is family resistance regarding the role of women. "Our parents and relatives have different opinions about women who have jobs, especially about those who work in media," she says. "Their attitudes have prevented many women from getting out of the house for a job in the media or any other place. People look down on working women in our area." Maryam Durani is also a provincial council member, a role that she uses to promote women's empowerment. She hopes one day to extend her radio shows to other provinces, but for now, the medium is an effective way to reach a mass audience. "It's very difficult to gather men and women in the same place at the same time for any activity or discussion in Kandahar," she says. "That's why I started the station, to convey a message to the maximum number of people at the same time." ...

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