Roses among the ashes

Audrey McLaughlin Special to the News In February, I had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Kabul, Afghanistan, working with the nation's women members of Parliament and political parties.

In February, I had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Kabul, Afghanistan, working with the nation’s women members of Parliament and political parties.

I had not been there before, but had followed the situation: violent suicide bombings, the deaths of military and civilians, the debates about whether, in fact, there was any progress – and I confess to having been totally confused.

I knew the history relatively well, although the complexities of tribalism, invasions over centuries and the last 30 years of war made me cautious about ever assuming I could really understand that country.

I was in one small corner of the country, albeit the capital, where Parliament is based and where President Hamid Karzai governs. One could see, even though we were not able to walk about and drove around in armoured cars and only with security clearance, that Kabul must have been very beautiful.

Surrounded by the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains, the Kabul River running through the centre, a zoo and parks; it is easy to see what it once was.

What remains has been blighted by war. Seeing bombed out buildings and ruined infrastructure is common, though occasional hotels and shopping centres seem relatively new and construction seems to be taking place everywhere.

Rising proudly above this was a working Ferris wheel. And everywhere you can see small stands selling food, whole sheep, clothing and various products.

Trudging through six inches of snow, which quickly became rivers of meltwater, workers strove to build roads and buildings.

There were never-ending traffics jams and traffic lights lay on the ground, so it was a free for all with the odd beleaguered traffic police attempting to bring some semblance of organization to chaos.

On less-travelled streets, large villas, called “poppy houses,” were surrounded by fences and guarded by many men with guns.

On several occasions we were able to go to a restaurant, with enticing names such as Le Bistro and Red Hot Sizzler.

However, none of them had a sign advertising its delights. You had to find them through some vague network, and they were usually surrounded by a corrugated fence, identical to every other building. At the entrance, a guard would politely ask us whether we had guns and then usher us to the entrance to the restaurant.

I stayed in one of many compounds, two large houses, one where six staff lived and the other an office and training centre surrounded by high fences and guards.

My housemates were from the United States, Indonesia, India, Slovenia and Britain.

We each had a large room and cooked our own food.

It was comfortable and much better than some of the other accommodations I have had in similar conflict countries.

Our training was on site with excellent translation services.

Of the 249 members of the lower house of Parliament, 69 are women, the result of a quota, although some women had won their seats through majority votes. While the election had been, and continues to be controversial, these women were indeed roses, as were many of the other Afghanis and members of the international community I met.

Despite the travel restrictions, we did spend an evening with an Afghan couple. Both were born in Kabul, and she had lived in the US for several years. He had been a senior mujahedeen (fighter against the Soviets). It was an evening of excellent food and an even more excellent history lesson.

As always ,the most impressive part of what is happening is the people who are shaping the new history of Afghanistan.

An art show featuring works by women from the Kabul Art Institute was hosted by the Canadian Embassy.

There, I meet a brigadier general in the Canadian military and a woman who was an engineer who took pride in her role helping to rebuild the country.

During a lunch at a small restaurant, we met the owner – an elegant woman from France. She and her husband run the cafe, but also train hundreds of young Afghan women and men to cook, bake and manage a business.

Then there was the visit to the Circus School, funded by the Danish. There, the boys were learning acrobatics while the girls, ranging from five to 12, were juggling and eager to perform for the visitors as they prepared for their big public show in the summer.

I didn’t get to visit Skatistan, a skateboarding program started by an Australia to give young people an opportunity for fun, but apparently it is very popular.

A Canadian working for the United Nations talked about the program that he runs, a training program for young Afghans. Another Canadian, and former Yukoner, Andy Tamas is working on a project for improving civil administration.

Another impressive Canadian is working on a United Nations project to negotiate free transportation routes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which would be a major contribution to economic development. She has been in Kabul for four years and sees some progress on economic issues.

Canada funds a number of community development projects and government support initiatives, which include the program in which I was involved.

Canadian ambassador William Crosbie spoke to our group.

I have been asked if the women with whom I worked were serious about their role, and indeed they are.

Here are just a few of the stories of these brave women who, too often, risk their lives to serve their country.

Jamila is a second-term MP who was forced into a marriage when she was nine years old. Forced marriages are of great concern to the participants. A forced marriage is when young girls are given away to repay a debt or to settle a tribal dispute. Honour killings also continue, and all of the women at the workshop were dedicated to ending this practice. Jamila had presented a bill in the Parliament to raise the age of marriage, but had not been successful and vowed to attempt again with the support of the other women.

Amina, attractive in her pink scarf, is also dedicated to improving the situation for women and girls.

During the campaign, she had dressed as a man for security and, accompanied by her husband, visited the villages in her constituency.

She had managed to take videos of some of the practices that affected women and girls and is committed to continuing to travel to the villages to try to change these traditional practices. “We are now in the 21st century,” she said. “Those times are past and our girls deserve a proper education and a dignified life.”

Habiba is a rather formidable looking woman in her 50s, she identified her priority as dealing with drug addiction, which is endemic in both youth and adults.

She is also committed to ensuring the Afghan military are trained and professional. Not surprising, as she herself is a general and an MP. During the visit of the Canadian ambassador, she grilled him for a commitment that Canada would support this training.

Life for women MPs is difficult, security concerns are foremost and, for women, security is a double challenge.

There is the constant concern of suicide bombers and random attacks on both people and infrastructure. But also, as women, there is the issue of personal security in the more traditional communities, that may not accept that a woman can work with men or be seen publicly.

Some have also experienced religious attacks. Malalai Joya, the youngest member of Parliament in the previous mandate, criticized her fellow MPs as warlords and anti women, later a fundamentalist mob came to her residence threatening her.

I have been asked if this trip made me hopeful about Afghanistan. Of course, I was in one city for a short time and cannot make any predictions.

But on personal level, having met such impressive Afghanis and people from the international community, I can see that we must have hope.

On my last day, Crosbie invited me to a lunch with several Afghan MPs, and NGO leaders.

They agreed this Parliament was less conservative than the last one, although there are concerns about Karzai, not the least of which is his apparent lack of commitment to equality for women.

During the lunch, the ambassador left briefly and I was sure that some incident had occurred. In fact, two suicide bombers had entered a hotel and shopping centre and it was unclear if people were still being held hostage or been killed.

The embassy had offered to drive me to the airport and, insisting that we wear the bulletproof vests, we left, not certain whether the airline would be functioning as the crew of the airline stayed in the hotel which had been attacked.

Apparently they had left shortly before the attack.

In such a short time, I am not qualified to say whether Canada’s role in Afghanistan can make a difference, but I do know that, beyond the violence, there are many Canadians working with Afghans, and they are making a real difference as are many Afghan citizens who are dedicated to a secure future.

Audrey McLaughlin is a former Yukon MP and leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada.