Dossier 17: Kabul, ban on women working, the cold, the misery and trading in human remains

Publication Author: 
Zaki Chihab
Date: 
September 1997
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The seizure of power by the Taliban has reduced the Afghan capital to a ghost city. Half of the men are out of work, the women find themselves forbidden from the work place. To top it all, winter is particularly trying. In order to feed themselves, children have been resorting to desecrating cemeteries and selling human remains to dealers.

A row of vehicles on the highway from Kabul, in the foothills of mount Mahi Barre, stuck due to the freezing cold and massive snowfall: this is the image of the painful living conditions that the Afghan population has been enduring since the invasion of the country by the Russians seventeen years ago. The Afghans are known for their tremendous strength of character but this time around, the present situation of their country seems to have visibly affected them. The stricken expression on the faces of those whom we questioned on the topic of children who desecrate cemeteries on the northern part of the capital, on the look out for bones, seems to witness this fact. They collect bones in order to sell them to dealers, who then transport these to Peshawar(in Pakistan). Over there, these human remains are sold as animal bones and used in the manufacture of certain products.

According to the teacher from Kabul who was accompanying me, these bones are used for the manufacture of salad oil, soap, food for poultry or even for making buttons for clothes. Traders have veered towards this activity after giving up collecting scrap iron and various other ores. After they took over Kabul on 27th September 1996, the Taliban had in fact forbidden them from making these exports to Pakistan. "There’s nothing else to do. We need money to feed our children", says a dealer, who refuses to be photographed by my guide, who has been following me around like a shadow during my stay in Kabul.

According to Haroun Chawli, degree holder from the university of Kabul who works for a humanitarian organization, "the people who live near the cemeteries in the northern part of the capital and the cemetery of the Martyrs in the centre of town are quite used to seeing children slip into these at the crack of dawn", as soon as the curfew imposed upon the capital from 9 p.m to 5 a.m is lifted. "Obviously, the Taliban seem to be unaware of this, even though they might have already heard about it, he adds. Those who indulge in the trade of human remains act as if they were collecting bones of dogs, horses, cows or sheep, and not of human beings." He attributes this phenomenon to the deterioration in the economic situation, the high cost of living-last year, inflation had escalated to more than 400%-and to unemployment, which has affected almost half of the population.

Women no longer have the right to go to university

Living conditions have further worsened with the ban imposed upon working of women, with the exception of doctors and nurses, who must now wear the chador. "The cemetery children are the products of a generation without work, without food and without hope", confides Haroun Chawli to us. Life in Kabul is boring for some, difficult and tiresome for others. According to a Kabul resident, the absence of public places such as cafés and cinema halls, and the icy cold weather are responsible for confining people to their homes. Perched at a height of more than 1 800 meters amidst mountains, the Afghan capital had however been, during other times, a veritable crossroads for trade in the region. Today, at nightfall, Kabul resembles a ghost city.

Anouar Matouniar, the manager of the Intercontinental hotel, where I was to spend the night, receives me warmly upon my arrival, but he hesitates for a long time before admitting to me that there is no electricity any more after 9 p.m. Electricity supply is still irregular due to damage of generators and the network which supply electricity to the capital. The entire area surrounding the hotel is plunged in darkness. He gives me a few candles in case of need and promises to fetch me a bucket of hot water the minute I felt the need for it. He even goes as far as to proffer his apologies for the present situation, he who has been witness to all the recent upheavals and wars that his country has had to face ever since the coup d’état engineered by Mohammad Daoud against the regime of king Mohammad Zaher Chah, in 1972. However, Anouar’s voice reveals a certain amount of satisfaction when he says,"as we have an Islamic government, there are no missile attacks any more, like in the past. Only air raids from time to time. We receive our salaries regularly, even though they are not very high: they do not exceed a few dollars a month. Life is very expensive, the poor were not able to feed their children without the help of humanitarian organizations." At present, Kabul does not lodge any diplomats other than two Pakistani and two Iranian officials. The embassies of Sudan and France have been closed down, and walking down the city, we noticed that many others had done the same. Dhalimi Ali, university student in Kabul, is impatient for the university that has been closed for the winters, to reopen and for the return of students. Taliban have forbidden school and university to girls. Of the 7 000 students registered in the university of Kabul, 3 000 are women, as per Dhalimi, who is temporarily employed in the administrative department of the university.

At the head office of the international committee of the Red Cross, Jean-Luc Paladini gives a detailed account of the activities of this humanitarian organization in Afghanistan. He puts the number of Afghan families benefiting from the help of the Red Cross at 36 000. Twenty-five Afghan women had to discontinue work at the committee following the decision of the Taliban. They were working as secretaries, translators and even as cleaning ladies. Other humanitarian organizations of the United Nations had been more adversely affected by this decision as they had had more women workers on their ranks. However, this official feels that the bitter cold and the snow accounted for the main difficulties faced by the residents of Kabul. Fuel prices are very high, inflation is escalating, whereas the salary of a government official is no more than 4 dollars a month. This is just about enough to buy 7 kilos of rice...

Source: Translated into English and reproduced from ‘Kaboul, l’interdiction du travial des femmes, le froid, la misère et le commerce d’ossements humains’, Courrier International, No.332, 15-19 March 1997. [Reprinted from Al Wasat, London]

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