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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 June, 2005, 00:42 GMT 01:42 UK
In the shadow of the gun

By Kate Clark
BBC News, northern Afghanistan

Local residents in Mazar-e-Sharif
Locals say the human rights situation has improved
Afghanistan no longer has a United Nations special expert on human rights. The post was removed in April under what its last incumbent, Cherif Bassiouni, alleged was American pressure.

US officials said the human rights situation had improved in Afghanistan, but is that the case?

For farmers working in the fields just outside the ancient city of Balkh in northern Afghanistan, birthplace of the poet Rumi, there is general agreement that the human rights situation has improved.

"Thank goodness the world community came here, because Afghanistan was a house of thieves," said one old man.

"All the local commanders were always fighting over these lands.

"They were killing each other and other people, like wolves among sheep, eating the sheep, but thank God, it's better now."

'Illegal taxes'

The farmers said they had no real complaints against the commanders nowadays, except that the local police chief had allegedly taken a cut of their opium poppy harvest in return for allowing them to grow the crop.

Soldiers belonging to Ustad Atta Mohammad
Most soldiers owe allegiance to former commanders

"The police gathered the people together," said one farmer, "and told them that every house should pay 1kg of poppy paste."

The police chief, Mir Hamza, who is a middle-ranking commander from the Jamiat faction, which is headed locally by provincial governor Ustad Atta Mohammad, denied the accusations.

Sitting outside the police station, in the shade of tall trees, he said that neither he nor his men collected illegal taxes.

If other commanders still received money, he said, it was because people gave it to them voluntarily, because they saw them as elders in the community.

Former militia

In northern Afghanistan, as in much of the country, many of the provincial and district governors - as well police and intelligence officers - were commanders in the factions that allied themselves with the US in late 2001 to help topple the Taleban.

Human rights groups warned Washington at the time that many of its allies had been accused of war crimes but, militarily, the strategy was successful in defeating the Taleban.

They still have a few guns and they have influence on the people from previous times
Sayed Asghar, provincial police human rights chief

Since then, the policy - supported by the US, Britain and the United Nations - has been to overlook any past abuses and try to marginalise future violence by bringing factional leaders into politics and disarming militias.

The north is certainly more stable now.

Compared to former times, says the head of human rights for the provincial police force, Sayed Asghar, the situation is now "very nice".

Commanders can no longer abuse people directly, he says.

Murder and rape have largely disappeared, he adds, and even forced marriage by commanders is getting rarer.

"What they can do nowadays is use their government positions to cultivate poppy and traffic drugs," he says.

"They still have a few guns and they have influence on the people from previous times, and this causes a lot of problems, particularly over illegal land confiscation."

Disarmament and demobilisation - however imperfect - have helped, he says, along with the presence of international troops and a gradually reforming central government.

'Fair process'

Sayed Asghar also points out that the factions are now turning to politics.

Atta Mohammad
Ustad Atta Mohammad heads the Jamiat faction

Democracy has become an important way to get ahead in Afghanistan.

In the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, one of the independent candidates in September's parliamentary elections, Fawzia Warakzai, says the democratic process appears to be generally fair.

But, she says, already there are signs of candidates being bought up.

"Someone brought me a paper to sign, to accept their rules, committing me to them.

"But I am an independent, so I didn't sign," she says.

She does not want to name the group attempting to bribe her, but says it was difficult for an independent candidate to stand against a faction.

I'm sure that, when the time comes, they'll threaten us with who to vote for
Afghan voter

"The problem is that the people are influenced, directly or indirectly, by those who were armed in the past and want to use their power to find their way into parliament."

During the presidential elections, there were widespread accusations of intimidation and fraud on behalf of all the major candidates.

In Balkh, the farmers had their own allegations of intimidation.

They said they had been ordered to vote for Yunis Qanuni in the presidential elections, who is from the Jamiat faction and an ally of Governor Atta.

"In the secrecy of the ballot box, though, we voted for Hamid Karzai," said one man.

He agreed that the parliamentary ballot might be more tricky.

"The problem is that everything here is bad from the top down.

"I'm sure that, when the time comes, they'll threaten us with who to vote for - and maybe they won't let a nice guy be a candidate."


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