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"YOUR LIFE IS OVER. IT'S TIME TO SEE YOU BURIED IN YOUR GRAVE." This was the warm welcome painted a few days ago on the home of a man who had run in the provincial elections to choose delegates for this month's loya jirga. He had dared to run against Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, a long-bearded, Saudi-backed fundamentalist and leader of the mujahedin who have been waging war to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan for decades. The man lost.

Sayyaf is an Islamic scholar, renowned for his eloquent oratory in Arabic and Persian. At the loya jirga, dressed in his long, white robes, he delivered an emotionally arousing speech ripe with verses from the Koran, in which he managed to proclaim the Afghan transitional government an Islamic one. Afghan- American delegates, intellectuals from across the country, and many Afghan women were alarmed by the ease with which Sayyaf and his fundamentalist ilk insinuated themselves back into the Afghan political scene. For though the U.N. rules required anyone interested in running as a delegate to the loya jirga to affirm that he had not taken part in human rights abuses, there sat Sayyaf and his fellow warlords in the front row under the U.N.'s white tent. And U.N. and Western diplomats had helped them get there, arguing that an accurate representation of the population includes warlords and fundamentalists and that their presence at the grand tribal council was indispensable to future peace. Maybe. But for many Afghans--and for most Kabulis--the men who helped demolish Kabul, slaughter its civilians, and disgrace its women in their pursuit of power don't evoke images of democratic representation; they evoke memories of misery and fear.

One of those Kabulis is Abdul Nasim, a 40-year-old delegate from Kabul's historic district who decided to take the West's invitation to democracy literally. After departing a Communist prison in 1988, he had gone to Pakistan with his wife and four children. In Pakistan he had two shoe-making factories and a shop making colorfully painted aluminum boxes. Six months ago a friend from prison, now chairman of the Kabul municipality, told him, "We need you," and convinced him to come home to work for the government as the political director of Kabul's security apparatus.

On the fourth day of the loya jirga, Nasim, in a blue blazer and a traditional salwar kameez shirt and pants, stood at the podium--just a few feet from the warlords and "fundis" (as internationals here call the fundamentalists)--and stunned his audience with his brave, dangerous words. For four days, speaker after speaker had begun with praises for the mujahedin and the martyrs of the Taliban war--Ahmad Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq (over whose memory Hamid Karzai teared up during his speech). Nasim said that yes, they must be praised. "But who," he asked, "is giving honors to Kabul, which suffered during those years, and who is giving honors to the women of Kabul, who've been deprived of their rights?" Invoking a verse from the Koran that says humanity is created "equal before God," Nasim added: "It doesn't matter if you were a Communist or mujahed."

Next he commented on the record of Karzai's Tajikdominated interim government in achieving national unity. "When one of our sisters comes to our office," he said, "they ask her, `Where are you from?' before knowing her qualifications. If a man applies for a job and he's from the South"--and therefore Pashtun--"they don't ask about his qualifications. He will get nothing. If this is national unity, we don't want this."

Then he touched the mullahs. Some of the rules of Islam, he said, are interpreted as saying that women have incomplete, weak minds. "But I was born in the bosom of a woman; and if she's weak-minded, I have no intelligence at all," he shouted. The 160 or so Afghan women in the audience rose up and clapped and hooted. The men were silent.

A few hours after his speech I saw Nasim outside the tent offering a few diplomatic words to a radio journalist. When I asked how I could find him, he glanced at the fierce-faced intelligence men openly videotaping, taking notes, and photographing dissenters of all breeds--including Nasim, who had spoken against Karzai's government. "You can't," he said. Then he quietly gave the location of his brother's box-making shop in Kabul and rushed off amidst bouquets of praise for his courage.

It wasn't long before Nasim encountered trouble. First came his old prison friend who'd coaxed him back from Pakistan to work in the government. Nasim says, "He told me, `You are directly against our policies, and you'll never get away with it.'" Then came the mullahs. "They said, `You're against sharia; you're like Salman Rushdie, an infidel.' And at lunchtime, the mullahs sued me. " Then came a U.N. official working for the loya jirga commission. "He took me and said, `We have information that Sayyaf's men are going to kidnap you.'" That night armed men came knocking at his home, twice. Nasim was already in hiding.

Nasim is not alone. His predicament resembles that of Dr. Sima Samar, the interim minister of women's affairs over the past year and a half, who was also declared Afghanistan's Salman Rushdie by the mullahs for an interview she gave in Canada, in which she allegedly criticized sharia. The night after the loya jirga, rumors sped through Kabul's streets and hotels that Samar had been assassinated. Another rumor suggested that a delegate's wife had been killed. (Everyone assumed it was Nasim's.) In fact, neither rumor was true. But Samar agreed under pressure to step down from her highly political post as women's minister to direct the new commission on human rights--a lower-profile position.

A few days after the loya jirga, when most of the delegates had packed up and gone back to their provinces, I went to the Old City hoping to find Nasim's brother's shop. There you can catch a glimpse of why so many Afghans hungered for the return of King Zahir Shah and the peaceable days he symbolized. The majestic buildings are destroyed; where about 100,000 people used to live only 1,500 to 2,000 remain, most without electricity or running water. Tucked inside an alleyway I found a box-making shop, where blackened-faced children laughed and hammered together aluminum trunks. A middle-aged man said that yes, it was the right shop; but no one would offer information about Nasim. His brother, they said, was out collecting money from his other shops. The next day I went back, and a note was waiting with the number of a U.N. officer.

That night I found Nasim sitting at the edge of a small canvas tent, where he's now sleeping, in the garden of the U.N.'s loya jirga office. The moon was full over the Kabuli hills, and despite his fear Nasim retained a sense of humor. After his speech, he said, Zalmay Khalilzad, the American special envoy, asked him how he had the courage to say such words. "I told Khalilzad, `You gave me this courage. I was in Peshawar, and you all said there are ISAF [international troops] in Kabul, the security is good, so come back; and you said at this loya jirga you can say what you want--it's free and independent.'"

Naive or not, Nasim had no idea his words would spark such a fury. But after the loya jirga ended, he was invited to the palace that serves as the seat of government--whether for intimidation or for assurance is unclear. There Nasim was confronted by General Mohammed Fahim, now the defense minister and vice president; Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, still the foreign minister; and Younis Qanooni--the wild card of the loya jirga and a favorite of Westerners--who shocked the loya jirga when he resigned as minister of interior and shocked everyone again when he protested his appointment as minister of education, prompting police loyal to him to block the new minister of interior from assuming office. Here's how Nasim recalled their words:

Karzai: My dear son, what problems do you have? What have you faced? Why didn't you come to the Afghans instead of the foreigners?

General Fahim (in threatening tones): Be thankful you're alive.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah: No, no; you did well. ["Dr. Abdullah encouraged me. Like a father to his son," recalled Nasim.] You told the truth, and you disclosed the hidden things and exposed it in front of our eyes. You did well, and we are satisfied that you informed us about the terrible situation of the people. It's reality. You did well my son.

Nasim also had an hour-and-a-half meeting with the new interior minister, Taj Mohammad Wardak, an elderly Pashtun from Paktia province. Nasim began to laugh recalling Wardak's words. When the U.N. officer accompanying Nasim asked Wardak to protect Nasim, "He [Wardak] said, `We are too weak. This isn't a private case. You have exposed many political figures, and therefore the clergy turned this into a religious case, that you're an infidel.' He [Wardak] said, `I'm not strong enough to do anything for you. ... Give me five or six months to establish a strong police force, then he [Nasim] should come back and I'll give him protection.'"

The people sitting with Nasim in the garden laughed. Confidence in Karzai and in his new Cabinet has drained from the Afghan streets. Many fear the worst. When Dostum, the Uzbek leader and sometime warlord from Mazar-e-Sharif, offered Nasim 20 bodyguards, a home, and a job, Nasim politely refused. Why? In the last few days there have been minor skirmishes in Mazar; and as Nasim put it, Dostum is also weak. His rival in Mazar, Atta Mohammed--a fundamentalist-- is aligned with Karzai's Cabinet and, particularly, with Fahim.

So ever since the speech Nasim has been under U.N. protection. Every day someone from the U.N. stops by to see him and to ask what he wants to do. "I told Jean Arnaud"--the deputy to Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.'s special representative--"'At the loya jirga you called me a champion and hero, but today you keep me in a tent.' Today they sent another representative who asked me the same question, and I told her, `This is the first case for you people who call yourself human rights protectors, and I wonder what you'll do if terror, kidnapping, assassination, and brutality happens all around Afghanistan? How can you give security to those who suffer these violations of human rights if you can't provide protection for one individual?'"

Nasim has sold his car and sent his wife and children back to Pakistan, though he hasn't told them why. Wardak warned him not to go with them. "He said [that] if the fundamentalist clergy discover I insulted sharia, my life won't be safe there either." When I asked him what his punishment would be, Nasim was silent for a moment. And then he said, "Death."

Curfew was nearing, and as I got up to leave, Nasim said, "I like my life. I don't want to be dead because we don't have freedom to speak. I don't want my children to be orphans. They need the love of their father. Are you going to do anything?" But there is no protective infrastructure in Afghanistan--no churches, human rights organizations, or embassies--and so he sleeps under the moon in the garden of the U.N. offices in Kabul.