Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Good news from Afghanistan 

If there is one place where good news in the media is harder to come by than Iraq, it's Afghanistan. For all the fashionable talk about Iraq distracting the Bush Administration from the war on terror, it's largely been the media who have ignored Afghanistan except for the occasional story about another skirmish with the Taliban remnants or the explosion in opium cultivation.

For the start, you can read CBS's Tom Fenton and his reactions from travels around Afghanistan:

"You know the old saying: No news is good news. But in the news business, it is just the opposite: Good news is no news - which is why you have been hearing so little from Afghanistan recently.

"Iraq has been grabbing the headlines. Even the most confirmed optimist would find it hard to see a ray of light there today. But there is a growing body of evidence that things are beginning to improve in Afghanistan. To see why, you need to travel around Afghanistan a bit. That's something the media find hard to do in Iraq now - many news crews rarely venture out of their hotels in Baghdad."
Not letting the media off the hook, we also need to understand the good news limitations in the Afghani context. An isolated, poor, largely rural country with harsh landscapes and limited natural resources, Afghanistan has been for the past quarter of a century cursed with constant violence and oppression. Good news from Afghanistan will not in any foreseeable future mean mushrooming shopping malls and health care clinics in every village. But for the people who have suffered so much, relative peace and an absence of theocracy are a good start.

Still, here are some recent stories from Afghanistan that you might have missed:

DEMOCRACY: Democratic elections are still set to take place in the second half of the year. Says President Hamid Karzai: ""Having promised the Afghan people elections in the month of September and having had this remarkable success with the registration of voters we must go and we should go for elections in September."

Furthermore, "This fall's parliamentary and presidential elections will be the first time women have ever voted or even registered to vote in Afghanistan." Read the whole article on the challenges of registering women to vote in this very conservative society. There is also this help for Afghanistan's fledgling justice system: "A New Hampshire lawyer will share his experiences working as the head of the state's public defender program with lawyers in Afghanistan. On Friday, Michael Skibbie leaves to spend two months in Afghanistan to train six lawyers."

Last but not least, the pride in national armed forces:

"To cheers and applause, hundreds of troops from Afghanistan's fledgling national army took up positions on Thursday in the capital of a remote province overrun by a renegade commander a week ago. The green-bereted soldiers [were] sent to the central province of Ghor from neighboring Herat to reassert central government authority."
SOCIETY: Memo to radical feminists: is this why you were opposing the fascist American invasion of Afghanistan?

"Twenty-year-old Rosia knows she is fortunate. Just a few short years ago, the scene of her working outside her home, would have been unthinkable. She said, 'I feel like a new women. I have tasted freedom, and now I know what it means to be free.' Free from the tyranny of the Taliban. 'Sewing has changed my life. It may not seem like a big deal to women in other parts of the world. But it is for me. I am learning a skill that I can use to earn some money. Women were never allowed to work under the Taliban.'

"But that is slowly changing in the new Afghanistan. Some women are returning to work, others are back in school. Girls now make up a third of the four million-plus children in school. At Kabul University, women are freely mingling with men in public. Some are choosing not to wear the black or blue burqa. Instead, many are wearing long shawls called a chador."
Fortunately other feminists do get it:

"Visionary educator Sakena Yacoobi and the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) have been selected by an international panel of experts to receive the 2004 Women's Rights Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation. Professor Yacoobi is President of AIL, which she founded and leads and which serves more than 350,000 Afghan women and children annually."
Children are returning to normal life, too:

"Some 2,200 child soldiers have been demobilized under a programme to reintegrate the young combatants back into Afghan society, the UN Children's Fund said Thursday. The programme began in February and is working in eight provinces, helping boys aged 14 to 18 who once fought or worked as porters and cooks for private militia armies. According to the UN Children's Fund, or UNICEF, which coordinates the rehabilitation effort, there are about 8,000 former child soldiers in Afghanistan, a country recovering after a quarter century of war. Many of them left their units informally during the past year. The programme aims to demobilize about 5,000 young soldiers across northern and central Afghanistan by the year's end. They are offered education and skills training to help them take up a peaceful life in their communities."
And read about this inspirational group of five:

"They have no money. They are in a foreign land whose language they do not speak. They rely on a Greek woman who has brought them to this town on the Aegean Sea island of Lesvos. Their destination is the Athens Games.

"This is the first Afghan Olympic team since the 1996 Atlanta Games, and the first to include women. The athletes are doing everything possible on a meager budget to perform respectably for the Aug. 13-29 games.

" 'The winning and losing is not important for me,' said Friba Razayee, 18, who will compete in judo. 'The world is preparing four years for the Olympic Games. We are preparing three months ... but we will try our best"."
Staying with sports news, the Kabul Golf Club is open for business:

"The fairways were once minefields. Drought has dried up the water hazards. And the greens, made of oily sand, are called 'browns.' Augusta National it's not.

"Nonetheless, even duffers draw fawning galleries at the Kabul Golf Club, which reopened this spring as Afghanistan's only course after being shuttered for more than two decades because of war and political violence.

"Unfamiliar with the sport, many Afghans crowd around as foreigners tee off at the first hole, a 371-yard par 4 that skirts a bombed-out military barrack."
Among them, maybe Afghanistan's very own future Tiger Woods.

DEVELOPMENT: Not in itself good news, as the process tends to create its own problems, but Afghanistan is starting to undergo rapid urbanisation:

"Although largely a rural nation, Afghanistan's urban development is now proceeding faster than ever with reconstruction and rehabilitation well under way. It is estimated that by the year 2045 the country's urban population will have surpassed that living in rural areas, which currently accounts for 80 percent of the total.

"The rapid rise in the urban population, along with the return of refugees from Iran, Pakistan and other countries, is a major concern for both the Afghan government and international organisations. Since the fall of the Taliban regime the population of Kabul city has risen from 700,000 to three million."
Meanwhile, the World Bank is providing a long-term loan of $105 million to assist in developing Afghanistan's electricity network. The private arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corp is also investing $7 million with the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development "to help restore and expand the Kabul Hotel."

Qatar, meanwhile, will construct "10,000 housing units in Afghanistan to rehabilitate war-driven refugees returning home, aside from constructing a central police headquarters building in Kabul, two building blocks at Kabul international airport and several health centres across the country." Qatar has already spent $40 million to help the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

This contribution from Pakistan: "Former Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz has said the government will start construction work on industrial estate project in Jalalabad city of Afghanistan with the cost of on billion dollars." The trade between the two countries currently stands at $500 million a year and is expected to double by the end of next year. And two Iranian banking institutions are planning to open the first Iranian bank in Afghanistan, in addition to British, Dutch and Pakistani banks already working there.

Speaking of infrastructure, Pakistan is planning to build a railway link to Afghanistan, extending from Chaman in Pakistan to Kandahar. And then there is this road project:

"The only time any previous Afghan government paid attention to the villagers of Khanan was to conscript its men or loot its homes. The current construction of a 10-kilometre road at a cost of $25,000 (U.S.) is the first help of any sort that residents can remember coming from Kabul. The road is part of Afghanistan's most ambitious reconstruction project, a plan to distribute $700-million worth of assistance to all of its 35,000 villages."
Meanwhile, economic ties are slowly being built: "Australia's Trade Commission says it is working with a small group of companies that are keen to develop exports links into Afghanistan. Austrade's director for south Asia and South-East Asia David Twine says there is still very little trade between Australia and the war-torn country. Mr Twine told an export seminar in Darwin today most of the businesses will focus on the development of facilities and infrastructure." And Afghanistan might acquire soon its very own venture capital fund, "as a former McKinsey & Co. manager tries to raise $50 million as the south Asian country emerges from more than two decades of conflict."

"The Afghanistan Renewal Fund will invest in fledgling construction, food, textiles and furniture manufacturing companies, according to a document for potential backers. The Asian Development Bank said it may commit $12.5 million and CDC Group Plc, a government-owned U.K. company, may put in $5 million."
Read also this story about Neelab Kanishka who fled Afghanistan with her family in 1989 when she was only 11, is returning to her homeland as the representative of a Salt Lake City-based Internet business Overstock.com, which will become one of Afghanistan's largest employers. Kanishka is in charge of Overstock's Woodstock division, selling hand-made goods.

"These days, Worldstock employs more than 1,500 Afghan artisans among a worldwide network of craft workers. It's an accomplishment that Overstock's CEO, Patrick Byrne, attributes to both an upswing in online retail spending and reliable demand for inexpensive handmade rugs."
You can read more about Overstock in Afghanistan here.

HUMANITARIAN AID: Read about this fantastic grass-roots efforts in Michigan:

"For Khris Nedam and her Northville sixth-graders, it was a daunting project: Change the fortunes of a poor, drought-ridden village in Afghanistan.

"Six years later, the fruits of their fund raising cause Nedam to smile broadly. The Wonkhai village in Afghanistan has a new school, health clinic, orphanage and community well.

"Near the new, deeper well, villagers planted 1,500 fruit and nut trees to help Wonkhai weather famine brought on by droughts.

"All the projects were paid for by the Kids 4 Afghan Kids program begun by Nedam and her sixth-grade class at the Northville School District's Meads Mill Middle School."
And Camilla Barry, teacher from Marin County, California, is returning to Afghanistan for a second stint in Kabul and Ghanzi.

" 'It was successful beyond my wildest dreams,' said Barry, who finances her trips out of her own pocket and with private donations. She'll be paying her airfare herself, but the schools will provide her with food and housing. Her classes last year, taught with the help of a translator, were so popular that her classrooms were often packed with children."
Meanwhile, nine-year-old Djamshid Djan Popal is flying with his father to Ottawa, Canada, to undergo a life-saving surgery on his defective heart. The boy's trip is sponsored by Saddique Khan, a 41-year old father of four, who works at the Royal Bank of Canada. "My immediate thought was what can I do for this kid. I wanted to help this boy. I was thinking about the pain of his parents. It goes right to the heart," says Khan about his reaction after reading Djamshid's story in a newspaper.

Read also about Dr. Mostafa Vaziri, a health and nutrition consultant with the UN World Food Program, who's fighting malnutrition and vitamin deficiency in remote parts of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Japan's Eco Block Support, "[a] nonprofit organization helping mentally handicapped people become financially independent by manufacturing and selling mosaic slabs is to export the technology to Afghanistan to assist physically handicapped people there."

And the Coalition troops are continuing to provide aid, in addition to their military tasks:

"Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment recently conducted combat and presence patrols, air assault operations, cordon and searches in the Mizan district of Afghanistan. During Operation Blue Candle, conducted from May 23-31, they also offered humanitarian aid to citizens of numerous communities. Because of the 'Cacti Battalion,' as the 2-35 is known, Mizan now has a doctor, a school and a light at the end of the tunnel."
And Oklahoma's 45th infantry, which organised collections back home to give Afghani children school supplies and deliver gifts to Kabul's orphans. Read also about Prashant Shah

"a Vadodara (Gujarat)-born Lance Corporal with the US Marines, has been decorated with a medal for using his 'extraordinary linguistic skills' to establish a communication link between American troops and Afghan locals. Shah, who serves with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, speaks not two or three but six languages - English, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Urdu and Pashto. His efforts have earned him the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal."
CULTURE: National treasure, known as "the Bactrian gold - 20,600 pieces of gold jewelry, funeral ornaments and personal belongings from 2,000-year-old burial mounds" emerged into the light of day and is now being catalogued with the assistance of the National Geographic Society.

"Under the Russians it was barely glimpsed. The Afghan Communists allowed only peeks. Through the years of civil war and Taliban rule, its existence was kept secret by a handful of unassuming museum and bank workers, even as other priceless pieces of Afghanistan's cultural history were destroyed...

"For years the gold was feared stolen, lost or melted down by the different forces that seized power over more than 20 years of war...

"Last month Afghan and foreign museum experts broke open the six safes inside the vault for the first time in more than 20 years and began compiling a computerized inventory of the gold for the Kabul Museum."
From high-brow antique to less so modern:

"Afghanistan's first private television station went on air on Sunday in Kabul, some two years after the fall of the Taliban regime which arrested and punished those caught watching TV.

"Afghan TV is funded by an Afghan businessman and will have 18 hours of programming a day. Afghanistan has only ever had one state TV channel which broadcasts for a few hours in the evening, but under the Taliban there were no television stations and it was forbidden to listen to music or watch satellite broadcasts."
Thanks for visiting. Until next time.

But in the meantime, if you want to do something good, remember about the Operation Shoe Fly.


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