Life for Afghans now: interview with a young mental health activist (Part 2)

Newscoop: I cannot even begin to imagine what it is like to have to live under these circumstances for such a long period of time. I read a 2019 article by Human Rights Watch where it was estimated that more than half of the Afghan population has been affected by mental health issues due to this exposure to trauma and conflict for decades. To have this uncertainty in your daily life of course impacts your mental health. Especially when it comes to vulnerable groups, such as children. Save the Children recently warned that more than 30 million children in Afghanistan are in desperate need of lifesaving aid, according to new UN figures. In this context, could you elaborate on your fears and hopes for the future of Afghanistan?

Noor: This is quite an interesting question. To be honest, I don’t want to put the blame on the Taliban for this issue. At this point, I fully agree that the former government bears the responsibility for turning the country into misery. My experiences have never been all smiles with the government. They often focused on sticking to the old and traditional bureaucracy and extremely slow and complex administrative systems. The perspectives of the beneficiaries were never taken into consideration to improve outcomes, and the government turned a deaf ear to people’s needs. It’s fascinating and yet embarrassing to learn about the crimes our own parliamentarians committed while they represented citizens. 

I’ll reference Abdul Rashid Dostum and his supporters as an example, and I will tell you the story of Nahid. Nahid was a young maid who occasionally washed carpets and rugs of her house in the backyard. On one occasion, she drew the attention of Dostum’s supporters who later at night came to her house to forcibly use her as a sex slave. Nahid asked her grandmother “I can’t bear this shame. Should I jump from the roof and suicide”? Her grandmother said yes, and so her life ended up there. Young, healthy, and gone forever. On Dostum’s demand, his supporters pursued girls they were attracted to in schools and public areas. One girl hid herself under the bathtub while Dostum’s supporters approached her brother and killed him. They later found the girl and she was never seen again. 

Similarly, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, another warlord, didn’t put any lesser effort to destroy the country and people for his benefit. He fired rockets against Persian-speaking tribes, which form the second biggest population in Afghanistan, and aimed to reinforce Pashtuns (the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan) only. Such practices instilled an old and dilapidated mindset of sheltering girls inside the house because it’s too dangerous for them to go outside. It created a disparity between the ethnicities and generated implicit biases, making one citizen go against another only because they speak different languages. No valid reason at all. 

The role of neighbouring countries Iran and Pakistan is laughable in this war. They happily promote colonialism and watch the catastrophes they fund from a distant place – because if Afghanistan is peaceful, who will buy the residues and the low-quality food that Pakistan sells? And if our water resources are properly managed, who will water the agricultural sites of Iran? Obviously, we are the victims, and our decision-makers share the benefit with neighbouring countries. Afghanistan enjoys a geopolitical location with rich mineral sources. It possesses the qualities that are necessary for a developed nation. It’s a young country with breathtaking nature and energetic citizens, making it suitable as a tourist destination and a commercial centre. However, what we lack is honesty, inclusion, and the right hands to handle the resources. 

With the approach of the Taliban, the future is yet to be seen. They have made some contributions to stabilize electricity, bring administrative changes, decrease the crime rate and punish criminals, and stop doubling the bills on market trades and electricity. Surprisingly, the former government tripled the electricity bills on people, most of which were consumed on buying properties for themselves. However, this was stopped during the Taliban reign. They have also prohibited their military force from checking people’s phones or houses without their permission. That is a good step towards supporting personal autonomy. 

These are some silver linings for a hopeful tomorrow in Afghanistan, but the future is totally unpredictable and we have to wait on what their plans are in terms of democracy, women’s rights, inclusive government, supporting marginalised populations, and other social and environmental factors. Often we hear news that they are discriminating women. They are discriminating marginalised populations. And unfortunately, the rights of people with a disability and other ethnic minorities have not been paid attention to for years. It’s not just a matter of Taliban themselves, but it’s a matter of decades that have blindfolded people in the government itself to focus on what Afghans’ rights are and to cater to their needs. But now, as I said, the future is yet to be seen. What we have observed so far are some forms of discrimination, because girls and women were deprived from their rights to get the education they need or to work. Democracy and an intersectional approach are yet to be seen and discussed. 

Newscoop:  Thank you very much for providing this thorough overview. Once again, I think it’s so interesting to have an insider’s perspective. To me the bottom line is always that those who suffered were the citizens. No matter who was in power or which forces were involved, internally or externally, they were following their own interests. 

Now, the abrupt withdrawal of foreign troops last year has been widely criticised after the extensive involvement of foreign governments in Afghanistan the past decades.  What role and responsibility  would you assign to the U. S. but also NATO members that were involved in Afghanistan during the last decades and shaped the country?

Noor: I would really like to thank them for what they did, but I don’t want to rely on them for improving our country’s condition, because it’s our country. No one is going to care for me or for the citizens, except for me and myself. And I think they did a really good job by funding various different social sectors. But it is not their responsibility to build our nation. It is our responsibility, and we should aim to be capable enough to stabilise our country rather than asking for aid from other people. As I said, we are rich in minerals. We have a good geopolitical location, and we have all those aspects that are necessary for developed nations. So why not use it? We have everything but we don’t have the courage to do it. We don’t have the people and the right hands to do it. Most often I think we shouldn’t just rely on other countries. 

Although they did really turn their back and left Afghanistan in misery. But I don’t blame them for everything. I think the problem is with the people themselves. It’s with us as Afghans, because we lack that sense of patronage to our country. Instead of thinking about improving the conditions that we are living in, we’re always and consistently seeking help from other people. This might be necessary up to an extent but this isn’t something we should rely on in the long-term. And at this point, the US, NATO and others from the international community helped Afghanistan during the most pressing times, and they relatively conducted the aid that they should have. But using those funds – I think we didn’t do what we should have done in this decade, right? So, I think there’s no reason for foreign troops to stay any longer because they are funding and donating money, but it’s not getting used. It’s just going into the pockets of policymakers and decision-makers themselves. So, what’s the purpose of staying, and what’s the purpose of funding when the very own decision-makers themselves aren’t responsibly looking after implementing the plans? 

So, I really don’t want to put all the blame on the US. But I think the Afghan government officials and the policymakers themselves were very much responsible for the catastrophe that took place, including the president who left Afghanistan in such a horrible condition, with no agreement, with no negotiations and literally nothing, leaving the country doing nothing. It’s just like giving the key of a house to someone without knowing what to do, right? And obviously it’s not just the U.S. or the international community, but it’s the Afghans themselves. I won’t say that I’m not putting any blame on them. But I think the majority of the responsibility should be borne by the government itself, rather than relying on the international community.

On the other hand, U.S. soldiers also did some mischievous things. I have seen the behaviour of various soldiers with children and with people who were massacred. And the catastrophe that took place at the Hamid Karzai International Airport. I saw how viciously U.S. soldiers were behaving with people. Some were killed, some were injured, and there were also consistent bomb attacks. So, I won’t say that there isn’t any blame to pose on them. But at the same time, I think the Afghan government bears more responsibility than any other organ for perpetuating these conditions in the first place. 

Newscoop: Thank you, you provide a very important perspective. You touched on a crucial point about the need to build leadership within the country to shape the future of the country.

Noor: Just to add to that point, I think Bangladesh is a good example for this. They are getting donations from the international community and they are empowering their own workforce and governments. They are enhancing the capacity to lead themselves rather than relying on other people, because no one is going to care about you if you’re not attentive. If you don’t take care of yourself, right? In the same way, Pakistan and other low to middle income countries are all receiving donations, but they are not fully relying on the international community. Unfortunately, this was something which was very emphasised in Afghanistan. And that’s what led to perpetuating such a big catastrophe as well. 

Newscoop: Thank you, Noor.  One of the reasons I wanted to do the interview now was because I felt it was important to keep drawing attention to the situation in Afghanistan. In your view, what can everyday citizens do — those who might read this interview and want to help or do something to support the Afghan people at this time?

Noor: I definitely agree that the attention is fading, and the Afghan diaspora and the international community need to pay attention to this matter, especially with the winter exacerbating the living conditions. There are a lot of opportunities for people to get involved in supporting education, mental health, alleviating poverty, and generally driving for social good. They can raise funds or provide online support in their own areas of expertise. 

As we know, a lot of girls and women have been deprived of their rights to education. Even with the smallest donation we can employ teachers to teach them inside the house. Another example would be to use the knowledge they already have to provide healthcare or mental health assistance using telehealth. In small research I conducted, I found a majority of children and youth at schools were depressed because of domestic violence and poverty that have a direct effect on each other. With increased poverty there is increased domestic violence as well. But in the current scenario, hunger, health, and poverty are major issues that need resources and attention in a variety of forms. 

Most of the population rely on agriculture as an income-generating activity, so donating seeds or training them in agricultural technology would be another option. To me it comes in a variety of different things: it comes with advocacy, just as you are doing. It comes with donations; it comes with providing knowledge that you have in your own area of expertise. The sky is the limit, but these are some suggestions that I speculate might be best suitable. And most importantly, the continuity of attention should never stop. I live inside the country and I hear the stories. I resonate with them and I know how difficult it is for any human being to live under such difficult conditions. And although these donations help a lot of people, there is a need for a systematic and foundational change within the country, the government and the administrative systems, in order to stabilise the country in the long-term.