| ||Poetry of Betrayal: Afghan Elections and Transitional Justice|
By Mujib Mashal
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As a presidential election looms in Afghanistan, dominated by figures with dark pasts, a poet’s intimate reflections on the country’s civil war makes me wonder: whatever happened to the question of transitional justice? Did the failed focus on perpetrators also undermine the “victim-centric” efforts?
These days, as the early winter chill begins to filter in, Kabul is consumed by election fever. Over dinner, on television, or across virtual conversations it’s all talk of candidates, coalitions and conspiracies. In the face of the unsatisfactory options for succession, there is also Karzai-nostalgia already – that the current Afghan president, having ruled for 12 years, will be missed for some of his qualities lacking in the pool of candidates.
Much of the conversation is focused on the tickets that have formed and on the fact that, ten years into Afghanistan’s new beginning founded on promotion of human rights, almost every one of the tickets has as its pillar a stained figure from the bloody Afghan civil war. It once again raises the question: whatever happened to the discourse of transitional justice?
In Afghanistan, the hope for alleged war criminals of more than three decades to be tried was long compromised as unrealistic. The initial set-up after the US invasion in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban distributed power among figures with controversial pasts. Human rights campaigners say transitional justice - and even restorative justice, where the focus is on the needs of the victim and not necessarily the punishment of the perpetrator – never became a priority. The indifference prevailed despite the fact that, in a national survey with a sampling of over 6000 Afghans in 2004 about 70% described themselves as victims of the abuses. Even the international community – particularly the US and representatives of the United Nations – did not show interest in any immediate process of justice. Instead they privately argued for letting time marginalize the controversial figures. The international community's lack of a clear agenda hugely impacted the work of human rights organizations on the ground, who are largely dependent on funding from donor nations. Hamid Karzai, without a clear power-base of his own to begin with and increasingly preoccupied with displaying his independence from the stigma of foreign presence, further embraced the strongmen to limit the trouble they could stir for him and his fragile government.
“At the political level, there was no clear will to deal with the past abuses – even it if was in a victim-centric way,” says Nader Nadery, a former human-rights commissioner.
The reality, ten years later, is that the time given to the figures also allowed them resources, which facilitated the consolidation of their power-bases – for many of them along ethnic lines - and sanitized their images, increasingly bringing them back to the mainstream fold. Foreign dignitaries were happy to appear in photo-ops with these figures, and president Karzai increasingly made them into his circle of elder advisers. The agenda of “gradual marginalization” was never a serious one - or if it was, it was never followed through. The only glimmer of hope, that too natural, has been the emergence of better-educated, more open-minded children of these strongmen. But they are still covered in the shadows of their fathers.
What is astounding, to me, is the silence of the victim-centric argument in public discussions. The process of remembering, archiving, and memorializing – so essential to a people struggling to leave behind a dark past - got nowhere. I can’t think of one national-scale memorial that has been built in the past decade to honor the victims. The excessive focus over launching formal processes aimed at perpetrators - and its subsequent crushing through legislation – has stripped the victims off their agency. Mobilization of victims was always going to be a difficult task – in Afghanistan there is no consensus over perpetrators as the abuser of one presents himself as the hero of another. But no one could take away a victim’s right to his/her story – that he was abused, tortured, that her loved one was killed. Without structures promoting the sharing of these narratives and without guarantee of safety for those who share, the power of the narratives of suffering has been lost; the potential of turning these stories into action – even at individual level – has been lost.
I recently picked up a copy of the late Afghan poet Qahar Asi’s book of reflections on the civil war. Reading his vivid accounts was a moment of personal realization: what he described seemed so distant.
In his early work, Asi was a Mujahideen [as the anti-communist fighters were called] sympathizer, signing their praises in his poetry. But once the Mujahideen took Kabul after the communist-backed regime fell and began looting and pillaging the city, Asi went to a state of profound disappointment, his writings suggest. His Dari book, “Beginning of an End: On the Margins of the Collapse of Kabul,” chronicles the final days of the communist-backed regime and the chaos of the Mujahiddeen takeover of the Afghan capital in 1992. There is a dark humor to his accounts – for instance, about the Mujahideen president’s bearded body-man who, before the president’s arrival at a ceremony, would roll on the couches and the ground to make sure no explosives were placed.
The most striking of the anecdotes is a personal one. Asi writes:
I was on a bus, headed to the city center. In one of the stops, a middle-aged woman who was crying and sending curses at the “Mujahideen” boarded the bus. I realized that she, too, had been inflicted some pain by the ghazis [a term of prestige for Muslim warriors] that she condemned them with such hatred.
As she wiped her tears, she saw me and, after a brief while, recognized me – that I was “Qahar Asi, the poet”. With a loud voice, she said: “All your life, you cried against the communists and badmouthed them. Now talk about these infidels!”
I was silent. I turned to face the window, but she would not stop. This time, she was bolder and more emotional: “Mr., I am talking to you. Mr. Qahar Asi! Say something about these thieves as well. They came to my home last night and took whatever I had.”
I remained silent. As if I wasn’t Asi, I just looked out the window. The man sitting next to me said: “The woman is talking to you.” I said: “Yes, let her say whatever she has to say.”
The entire bus was looking at me now. The woman continued: “Welcome! Welcome! Take it, the result of your ‘Welcomes!’” [“Welcome” was reference to a poem I had written welcoming the Mujahiddeen to Kabul where I had repeated the phrase “Welcome” several times. I recited the poem on Television one of the first nights the Mujahideen entered Kabul.]
Last month marked the 19th anniversary of Asi's death. Soon after he wrote the book of reflections, he was killed by a rocket in front of his home. The times and the men that he describes in his book may seem so distant - the conversation about those days, even away from the models of justice seeking, has faded. But if the outpouring of emotions over a list of victims of communist abuses from 1978-1979 is an indication, the victims' families never forget.
A couple years ago, the brother of a victim from western Afghanistan came to the human rights commission with documents about his brother's alleged killer who was in a position of power in the new government.
"I burn every time I see my brother's killer on television," he said.