by David Jones – The Mirror
(July 1, 2003) — Jack Straw flew into Kabul yesterday for talks with Afghanistan’s interim president, Hamid Karzai. The Foreign Secretary was making his second visit to the country since the overthrow of the Taliban, and said that he believed life there was now better than it had been under the regime.
“Life for an overwhelming number of people in Afghanistan is completely different than it was before,” he insisted. “It’s no longer a pariah state. You’ve got girls in school, a dramatic change. You’ve got significant improvements in health care.”
But despite Jack Straw’s optimism we recently visited an orphanage and discovered life for ordinary Afghans is, in fact, becoming increasingly grim. If this is better, maybe someone could explain to this little boy how worse might feel.
While Jack Straw discusses the futures of thousands of children like him, 10-year-old Hamat Zia is left to splash about in a puddle, his worn shoes letting in the water, his future as fragile as the crumbling, bullet-scarred hovel he calls home.
This place, which houses 950 children in conditions worse than those of a Dickensian workhouse, is a shocking testimony to the suffering the west has inflicted upon millions of innocents.
One US Bomb: A Family Destroyed
Hamat’s story did not form part of Jack Straw’s briefing to journalists. Had it, one wonders if he could have insisted with such certainty that life in Afghanistan is better now than it was under the Taliban.
Hamat lost his entire family during a coalition bombing in 2001. His mother and father were both killed by a US missile. So were all six of his siblings.
As this was a Friday – Islam’s holy day – all his friends were spending the day with relatives or friends. At weekends, though, there is rarely anyone to collect Hamat, and through an interpreter he told me why.
Some time in the winter of 2001 – he can’t remember the date – his uncle Salim was to marry. And although the coalition forces were bombarding Kabul, he invited his entire family to a traditional wedding feast. After all, the US planes were targeting only Taliban bases and military installations.
Hamat was the only member of his family who didn’t attend the party. “I was training to become a mechanic, and my parents said I must work in another uncle’s garage and come along afterwards,” he told me when I visited the Allahuddin Orphanage recently. “But on the way home I was stopped by some boys who told me my uncle’s house had been struck by a missile. They said all my family had been killed. I ran for three miles without stopping to get to the house, and when I arrived I began searching for my family in the smoke and fallen stones.”
The first person he found was his 35-year-old mother, Fatima, he said, gazing at me almost defiantly. Only her head was visible, and she had lost a hand. A few feet away lay the body of his father, Shaffi, a 40-year-old bus driver. He was also partially buried but Hamat could see that one of his legs was missing.
Scattered around them were his three brothers and three sisters, aged between two and 16.
Numb with shock, he stumbled on through choking dust. Here was his uncle Samir, whose wedding robe was bloodied and torn. And over there, the pretty teenager who would have been his bride. Also dead were a favourite cousin, another uncle and a neighbour who babysat for him when he was small.
In all, 60 people were killed by a single American missile that day. Perhaps the homing mechanism was at fault – perhaps a pilot, whose identity will never be known, simply couldn’t shoot straight. Whatever the truth, every member of Hamat Zia’s family was wiped out – and he will never forgive.
“I hated the Taliban, but now I hate the Americans even more. I want to kill them when I grow up,” said Hamat chillingly. “One day, I want to gain revenge for my family.”
His words spell out the perversity of Bush and Blair’s War on Terror. Their avowed aim is to purge the world of terrorism, yet the very children for whom they are supposedly fighting are themselves being turned into future terrorists. In the Allahuddin Orphanage, I met 16 boys and girls who have been orphaned by US bombing but across Afghanistan there are hundreds, possibly thousands, more.
The Afghan Body Count Continues to Climb
The British and American public – and the media and politicians – may have grown bored with this benighted country, yet the US-inflicted casualties are still mounting steadily. According to one independent study, by a New Hampshire university, by last autumn the mission to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters had killed more than 3,100 innocent Afghan civilians.
Inevitably the numbers are now significantly higher. During my visit, earlier this year, at least 16 villagers allegedly suffered life-threatening injuries in US raids near the southern border with Pakistan.
Then there are the unexploded American cluster bombs [that] litter the hills and valleys like bright yellow soup-cans, and could almost have been designed specially to attract the attention of curious children.
At the Kabul Emergency Hospital, new victims arrived almost every day. “The lucky ones lose only one of their feet,” said a senior member of staff. “But if they are unlucky they have both legs blown off.”
With commendable adherence to principle, the hospital refuses to accept money from the US, Britain or any nation [that] unleashes bombs with one hand and doles out aid with the other. It relies on private donations, largely from Italians.
In the far northern suburbs of Kabul, 500 yards from the ruins of Taliban Base Number 315, two ramshackle, boarded-up sandstone houses mark the site where yet one more wrongly-aimed missile landed.
It fell in early November, shortly before the Taliban fled, at around 7.30am, just as men were leaving for work and children were going to school. In all, nine people were killed here, including four brothers and sisters aged from three to 13.
“About a month after our terrible loss some American or British servicemen did come here briefly,” said 53-year-old Massoud Gul, whose wife Fahrida, 40, was crushed by falling masonry. “They promised to return and rebuild our homes, but we never saw them again.”
The Victims Still Await a US Apology
Back across the city, at the Allahuddin Orphanage, the children are still waiting for the Americans to explain and apologise. Their feelings were expressed with eloquent simplicity by a beautiful 14-year-old girl named Razia (like many Afghans, she has no surname) whose father, a chef, was cut down by a US shell as he was making his way to the home of his sick sister.
Technically, Razia is not an orphan but that hardly lessens her suffering. Deprived of her husband’s meagre salary, her mother is now too poor to care for her, and stays with her older daughter and son-in-law. She only sees Razia on Fridays, when she walks eight miles to collect her from the orphanage.
The young girl is remarkably free from bitterness. Unlike Hamat, she understands the cruel imprecision of warfare, and would like to change his opinion of the Americans – if only she were permitted to talk to boys in the new, supposedly more liberal Afghanistan, where burkas and chauvinism remain the norm.
“My father was a kind, decent, gentle man,” she said. “He didn’t deserve to die. But nobody meant to kill him. They were trying to give us our freedom and they made a mistake. What I would like is for them to come here and address us. It wouldn’t bring back our mothers and fathers, but it would make us feel that we aren’t forgotten.”
Razia smiled and added without irony: “But they are very important men. I suppose they have other things to do.”
The director of Afghanistan’s orphanages, which provide the most rudimentary shelter for just 35,000 of the estimated one million children who have lost one or both parents during two decades of brutality, is less charitable.
Abdul Habib Samim shows me around the unsanitary, foul-smelling premises, where there is insufficient fuel to run the generator for more than two hours a day, where rice is the staple, and greasy meat and fresh fruit are available just twice a week. Where there is no car to ferry the sick to hospital, where scabies is endemic and showers are available only on Mondays for boys and Tuesdays for girls.
“I am ashamed because I am failing our children,” the former Northern Alliance soldier says angrily. “When we defeated the Taliban, I thought life for my children would be better, but it is not. We need a minimum £3 a day per child to give them decent accommodation, education and food. We have perhaps 75p. We were promised aid, but we get almost none.
“The US ambassador did visit us once. He brought some sweets and toys, and that must have made him feel better, but it didn’t help us much. We get so many western visitors like that. They always make sure they are filmed when they come here – it creates a good impression in their own countries.”
The orphans of Allahuddin deserve better. One missile costs £750,000. If we donated the price of just one, it would pay for a new orphanage with brand new facilities.
If that is too much to ask, then perhaps we might provide some of the children with a western education, giving them the chance to fulfil their ambitions to build the new Afghanistan, by becoming doctors, teachers and leaders of industry. Even the Soviets did that during their years of occupation.
Meanwhile, someone might act upon Razia’s humble suggestion, and simply say sorry.
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