THE AFGHAN WAR
AFGHAN ANGST HERE TO STAY?
Amantha Perera is horrified by the death and despair that his Afghan colleagues face every day
The violence is so systemic that it isn’t a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and ‘where’ in Afghanistan these days. It’s been almost 17 years since the US led coalition drove out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda but even in 2018, the torn country is no closer to stability or peace.
Indeed, the Taliban is making a strong comeback by taking over large areas and ISIS is also in the fray. The only difference between then and now seems to be that the Taliban and ISIS are in competition with each other.
The year began on an ominous note with Hotel Inter-Continental – one of two luxury hotels in the capital Kabul – coming under attack by Taliban gunmen. The siege ended with 40 people dead and scores injured.
Three days later, ISIS launched a suicide bomb attack on the regional office of Save the Children. In-between, a regional radio station was burnt to the ground. Two days after the Save the Children attack, a suicide bomber driving an ambulance filled with explosives killed over a hundred people and injured more than 250 others in Kabul.
While all this was happening, I was with a group of journalists from Afghanistan at a southern beach locale in Sri Lanka, training them on safety and trauma awareness. As information of the attacks came through on their mobile phones, the situation became surreal almost instantaneously.
On the one hand, we were looking out at a bright blue ocean. On the other, some journalists in the same room were trying desperately to find out if their friends working at the Inter-Continental were safe.
This tension is a reality in their part of the world. But despite Sri Lanka’s morbid past of suicide bombings and claymore mines in the city, I found it hard to make the connection. While they tried to explain the realities they faced every day, even the narrated terror of what they experienced seemed strangely muted in comparison to what was going on nearly 4,000 kilometres north of the equator.
Officials of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) confided in me that one of their most pressing and persistent fears is how safe their members of staff would be when they leave their editorial offices.
A recent AJSC report claims that “2017 was the bloodiest year for journalists and media workers in Afghanistan’s history.” It adds: “In 2017, not only violence against journalists increased significantly but the number of journalists killed and targeted attacks against the media also increased unprecedentedly.”
Of a total of 169 cases of violence and threats against the media, 20 involved the murders of journalists and media workers. The 2017 figures show a 67 percent increase compared to the number of incidents of violence against journalists and media workers in the previous year.
The AJSC’s assessment of violence against the media explains the sense of impunity and lawlessness that prevails in Afghanistan. The committee explains that three factors underline this situation: a perpetuation of past impunity, targeted attacks by terrorist groups against media organisations and workers in the present, and a sense of continuing insecurity and instability throughout the country.
“As in previous years, in 2017, more violence was committed by terrorist groups and individuals linked to the government, mostly high ranking government officials. However, terrorist groups bear more responsibility for the killing and wounding of journalists while threats, beatings and detentions can be attributed to the government officials,” it elaborates.
One trainee with whom I was related a harrowing tale, which illustrated the blurring of lines between perpetrators of violence.
A journalist from a regional province wrote about the governor who was also a warlord with his own army and tax system. This official was displeased with the journalist’s portrayal of him and his people, and summoned him to his office and threatened to drag him through streets behind a vehicle. This was no idle threat since the governor had done as much in the past.
In addition to the media, aid workers are also a prime target of violence. In 2016, there were at least 158 reported attacks on aid groups, which left 101 persons dead and 98 wounded while 89 were abducted.
The reasons for such lawlessness are legion. Afghanistan’s recent history has been altogether violent. Many of the AJSC trainees had never experienced even a semblance of peace or even a brief period of living without the fear of wanton violence. The international interventions following the 9/11 attacks have waned and the country is left to its own devices once more.
Domestic groups are vying for power with Taliban and ISIS at the helm, each more violent and extremist than the other in turn. Then there is external influence from the likes of China, Russia and the US, in addition to interference by neighbours across the border, such as Pakistan and Iran.
In such a scenario, ordinary Afghans are the worse off as they’re caught in the middle of a violent never-ending vortex of violence and misery, which many desire deeply to escape. They long for an opportunity to live like many others elsewhere in the world and would gaze at the gentle waves of the ocean – given the chance – as my colleagues did.
But when an ambulance is the latest vehicle for mass murder, chances of such serenity are slim.