AFGHAN ADVENTURES  by Mary Quin (US WORNA (Women on the Road from
North America) organizer, Feminist Majority)

Note: What follows is a fascinating description of the Dushanbe meeting
and trip into Afghanistan--a letter written to family and friends on her
return and forwarded to Connie Borde and Ellie Schaffer.

Dear Ellie and Connie,
With only a day at home before heading off again I don't have time to
write as much as I'd like.  Instead, I'm forwarding to you the email
below which I sent to friends and family about the trip. ...  I feel
so mentally overloaded with all that happened last week I probably
need a few days to decompress and distill my thoughts into something
coherent.  Bottom line though, is that I really believe the Dushanbe
meeting, and the resulting Declaration, is the start of something very
important for women in Afghanistan - a catalyst to coordinate and
mobilize a worldwide effort.
Congratulations to both of you for its success.
Dear Family and Friends,

        For those of you who were a little concerned about my trip to
Tajikistan I'm sending this to reassure you that I made it safely back
[home] last night. Arriving in Russia on June 24th was a miracle in
itself given all the hassles with flight and visa arrangements over
the previous weeks.  I had half a day free to sightsee in Moscow
(visited Red Square and St Basil's Cathedral but did not have time to
get inside Kremlin or Lenin's tomb).  I met up in Moscow with two
American Afghan women, Maliha and Hassina.  We had all been in email
and phone communication with each other for the previous couple of
months.  On June 26th the three of us met the 40 or so other
participants in this "Women on the Road for Afghanistan" initiative
when we flew Tajikistan Airlines from Moscow to Dushanbe. 
        Basically the Dushanbe meeting involved a gathering of about
200 Afghan women to draft their "Declaration on the Essential Rights
of Afghan Women".  Of the 25-30 non-Afghans involved some were
journalists from France and Algeria, and the rest of us were women's
rights activists helping with process.  Everything took place in Dari,
the Afghan version of Iran's Farsi language, or in French.  I could
follow the French a bit but otherwise depended on someone translating
for me into English. 
        In spite of all the chaos the whole thing came together and,
at the end of two days, a two page document entitled "Declaration of
the Essential Rights of Afghan Women" was approved and typed up in
Dari, French and English.  One of my contributions was to translate
the French version into English and type it up for distribution. 
Fortunately I can read French much better than I can understand spoken
French.  I also contributed an extra phrase or two to the original
composition of the Declaration, which I felt had been overlooked.  The
Afghans agreed to the additions.  In essence the wording was based on
existing documents such as the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the
Beijing Platform for Action, with specifics modified to the Afghan
        As background, Afghan women already had their full human rights
guaranteed by the Afghan constitution in 1966.  The takeover of the
country in 1996 by the ultra conservative Taliban had eliminated the
freedom to exercise those rights.  Currently women in the 80% of
Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban cannot go to school, cannot work
and have no access to medical care (female doctors can't work and male
doctors can't treat women!).   A highlight of the meeting was a speech
by an extraordinary Algerian feminist and member of the Algerian
Parliament who has fought a similar anti-fundamentalist battle in her
own country.  Halida Massaoudi is a brilliant orator and attended the
Dushanbe meeting under tight security because of various death threats
against her.   Most of the Afghan women present are now refugees in
Tajikistan or from families which have emigrated to the USA and France
during the past twenty years.
        After the two day meeting, the opportunity was available for
nine of the 40 "Women on the Road" participants to travel by military
helicopter into Northern Afghanistan.  Our goal in going was to talk
to women there first-hand and to try to get Masood, the military leader
of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, to explicitly support the
Declaration. I suggested they should have him sign it.  Everyone agreed
that the Afghan women and the journalists who wanted to go should have
first priority.  That took up 8 places.  Because the organizers and
Afghans saw benefit to including an American, I got the ninth slot. 
        Now this was good news and bad news.  The two hour helicopter
flight from Dushanbe to Afghanistan's  Penshir Valley, Masood's
stronghold,  was on a pretty dilapidated, camouflage-painted Russian
machine, probably left over from the former Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan.  Nor did it help to know the Northern Alliance Afghans
were down to only two helicopters having had three of them crash,
killing a total of 25 passengers, over the last year or so.  In fact
I had been introduced to a young women in Dushanbe whose husband was
killed on the most recent crash two months ago.  Exactly when we
would be able to return was unclear too, since the renewed break-out
of the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance was predicted
to start any day.  I was told the plan was we would go in for just one
night and to take only a small daypack.  Knowing I might never have
another chance to see Afghanistan, and people were counting on me to
go, I decided to take the chance.  Actually I was more concerned about
being delayed getting back to [the] family reunion in Hawaii than about
the danger of the trip. 
        Off we went.  A huge yellow fuel tank occupied one quarter of
the interior of the helicopter, a single parachute, WWII vintage, hung
on a hook above the fuel tank, and the fold-down bench along the sides
had room for the nine of us, four other men, an Afghan couple with two
children, and a big stack of bags and crates on the floor in the middle.
The oriental rugs on the floor of the helicopter were a nice touch. We
stopped briefly to let the Afghan passengers off in the town of Taleqan
along the way.  The approach to Taleqan required flying low, below the
crest of a mountain ridge as Taliban forces were only 18 km away on the
other side of the ridge.  Ironically we were at risk from American-made
anti-aircraft missiles supplied to the now-Taliban by the USA for former
anti-Soviet purposes. 
        My apprehension faded as the plains of southern Tajikistan gave
way to the massively steep and bleak mountain ridges of Northen
Afghanistan. No wondered neither the Soviets nor the Taliban have
succeeded in penetrating this part of the country.  The mountain ridges
rise up to 13,000  feet, shear walls of barren rock.  In between are
river valleys, each an isolated green oasis occupied by several village
communities.  When we landed in the Penshir Valley I was stunned by how
beautiful it is.  The broad fast-flowing Penshir River looks like
something you would see in Montana or New Zealand. I wished I had my
fishing rod with me!   We were given unexpectedly comfortable
accomodations in the large home of Masood's extended family.  I knew
this wasn't the Hilton when I opened the closet in my room and found
it stashed with about twenty rifles.
        Masood's brother-in-law, Rashid, was our primary host.  The
first day we visited some of the villages in the valley, and three
refugee camps.  The southern end of this valley starts with a steep
narrow gorge about 80 miles North of Kabul and 30 miles north of the
frontline between Taliban and Northen Alliance controlled areas of the
country. The mountains enclosing the valley provide a natural fortress
against attack.  Most of the refugees have been there about a year
since their towns between the valley and Kabul were bombed out in last
summer's fighting.  We talked with refugee families, local teachers,
and the very few doctors.  The latter are Afghans and Europeans working
for international organizations like Red Cross or Doctors Without
Borders.  The schools consist of tents crammed with kids who sit on the
dirt  and have virtually no books or pens.  Refugees who are teachers
conduct classes a few hours each day in reading and writing Dari and in
basic maths.
        Needless to say, I didn't talk about women's rights, as we think
of it in the USA, with these women.  For refugees, who are faced with
another winter in tents in a valley that gets 5-6 feet of snow, who lack
food, medical care and education, who are pregnant every year, whose
children have lost hands and legs to landmines and shelling, the western
concept of women's rights, isn't of immediate relevance.  Their primary
issue is survival, the right to stay alive.  All of them asked me why
the world has forgotten them?  Why does no one help them?  Why can't
America stop Pakistan from continuing to fund the Taliban. The Taliban
are not Islam they told me.  Moslems would not treat other Moslems this
way - destroy our houses, burn the trees in our villages, and kill our
animals so we can't go back home.
        Hard to explain to these people that the news in the rest of
the world is full of stories like theirs - in Kosovo, in Sierra Leone,
in Indonesia, in Kashmir, in Congo. Millions of people displaced by
wars.  Hard to explain that most people in America haven't a clue
where Afghanistan is or why there's a twenty year war going on there. 
Hard to explain that while their situation is desperate, most of the
international aid to Afghanistan is going to the drought-striken south
where people are starting to starve to death.  The fertile Penshir
Valley with its surprisingly clean, snow-fed  river makes these
refugees better off than many. 
        During our second night the long-predicted summer fighting did
start-up about 50 miles to the south of where we were staying.  Next
day the rocky, narrow road through the valley was clogged with
out-bound trucks taking more soldiers and guns out towards the fighting
and a new wave of refugees swarming in, either on foot or packed
precariously onto in-bound trucks. They arrived with what they could
carry or with nothing at all. Our plans to visit a school with a the
wife of the Minister of Education were cancelled after we had travelled
about 30 miles since there was too much risk of the town with the
school, Kohistan, being shelled that day.  The main objective of the
seemed to be control of the airport at the nearby town of Bagran.  I
was travelling with three others and a driver in a Toyota pick-up
On our way back through the valley we picked up as many refugees as we
could fit in the back of the truck and dropped them off at the camps.
        We then visited a prison in the valley and talked with a group
of 15 Taliban prisoners of war, mostly Pakistanis and, to my surprise,
two Chinese (Moslem Uighurs of Western China).  The conversation was
limited not so much by language but the complete inability, or
unwillingness, of the prisoners to express any original thought.  All
they can reply to any question is that they are fighting to make the
whole world a true Islam state.  Women should be forced to stay home
and be completely covered in burqas for their own protection and
because it is required by Sharia, Islam law. Pointing out to them that
the greatest risk to women is men who think like them, and that the
Koran does not forbid women to go to school and to work, is met with
repeat recitations of the indoctrination these guys have received from
the fundamentalist schools and training camps in Pakistan. Of course
there are many Afghans in the Taliban also, but I suspect our hosts
only introduced us to foreign prisoners to emphasize their own party
line that the war is inflicted by Pakistan under the guise of a civil
war between Afghans. 
        It was a surreal experience meeting these Taliban face to face
in a hot cramped room with just one armed guard who was rather casually
leaning on his rifle.  I was checking out windows as potential escape
routes in case these prisoners decided to cause any trouble.  It seemed
to me they could have easily overpowered the guard and the eight women
and one man in our delegation had they chosen to.  Not that they would
have gotten far in trying to leave the prison, but the fact that they
might like to knock off a few infidel Afghan and foreign women in the
name of Allah crossed my mind.  
        On our fourth day, July 2nd,  we had, at last, the meeting
with Masood.  He had returned from the frontline during the night and
agreed to meet with our delegation.  He did sign the Declaration, adding
a caveat about these rights having to respect local traditions - the
politician's loophole. Masood is already a legend and hero to the
anti-Taliban Afghans, and it was easy to see why upon meeting him.  He
presented each of us with an Afghan rug.  I had the opportunity to ask
him a couple of questions in English which were translated to Dari for
me by Maliha.  Right after the meeting we were wisked off to the
helicopter landing site and flown out to Tajikistan.
  Have to get some follow-up work done on behalf of the
Love to all,

Copyright © Women on the road for Afghanistan 2001