In May 2010, I was given the opportunity to accompany the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO), an NGO that promotes human rights through arts and culture, as its staff conducted participatory theater workshops as psycho-social therapy and organized civilian war victims to take an active role in shaping the national debate over the government’s intention to negotiate with some of the insurgent factions currently battling Afghan and international forces.
In January 2001, ten months before the United States and its United Front (Northern Alliance) allies overthrew the Taliban regime, foreign and Afghan Taliban fighters massacred at least 170 Yakawlang residents, and forced thousands into the mountains, where civilians died in sub-freezing temperatures. That spring, the Taliban burned Nayak to the ground. Nine years on, the physical structures are largely rebuilt, but the population is still reeling.
Yakawlang residents incurred the wrath of the Taliban because they belonged to Afghanistan’s Sayyid Shia community, a small ethnic and religious minority, had the misfortune to inhabit an area previously held by the Shia United Front militia Hezb-e Wahdat, and simply because, like other populations that did not fit the Taliban vision for Afghanistan, they were in the way.
Today, AHRDO’s workshop is to be held in the office of the Afghan Victims’ Social Association, the local organization that represents civilian war victims in Yakawlang. The association was founded in 2008 by women who lost family members during the Taliban occupation. On our way to the office, Bisharat tells me that the UN sponsored a participatory theatre program, and after a performance about confronting past atrocities at the community level, the women in the audience met to plan their own victims support group. In the two years since, the association has been kept afloat by its members and individual supporters in Kabul.
The association office is an earthen building with bare walls and frayed red carpets. I sit on the floor with Qudsia, the young director, and Burmona, the head of administration. The women tell me they have big plans. They want to sponsor a psycho-social assessment of the area, run vocational classes for widows, physical therapy for survivors with disabilities, and education programs for children who left or never started school because their parents were killed.
Qudsia and Burmona explain that they, too, are victims; both lost family members, and Qudsia’s father was among the men massacred in January 2001. We know our community and we know what it needs, but we lack the funds necessary to go forward, the women tell me. The remoteness of Yakawlang is another obstacle. “We are far from Kabul,” Qudsia laments, “We are far even from Bamiyan city.”
The association does not have a computer, and there is no internet access anywhere in Yakawlang. The staff conduct business entirely through prepaid mobile phones.
For now, with little support, the association can’t do much but provide space to outside organizations. Oxfam and other organizations involved in advocacy for aid reform have called on international donors to provide greater support to community-based organizations working at the local level to repair Afghanistan’s social fabric. But donor requirements remain insurmountable for most local NGOs, so organizations like Qudsia’s rarely receive any of the aid money flowing into their country.