“I am fearful”: Local Afghan resident reflects on turmoil back home
“Our members are very upset and worried. We are all shocked at how quickly the Taliban came to power."
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Ahmad Rehimi—current president of the Burnaby-based Afghan Canadian Association of BC—says he knew the future of Afghanistan was uncertain, even in the relatively peaceful Kabul.
Now, watching from afar in 2021, he feels the same way.
The Cold War-era proxy war, fought directly by the Soviets with the Afghan government and indirectly by the Americans through their backing of the insurgent Mujahideen (both financially and in the form of providing weapons), killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans and displaced millions more.
“In other parts of the country there was fighting between the Mujahideen and the Russians,” Rehimi said.
“The Russians were bringing their culture to Afghanistan and they were against Islam, and of course most Afghans did not agree with this. So many Afghans left the country.”
Rehimi fled with his wife, travelling to India as a refugee. He worked as an interpreter with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, translating for many fellow Afghans, before arriving in Canada as a refugee in 1986. He gained permanent residency on his arrival.
The Soviets withdrew their troops from Afghanistan in 1989.
“We had hope”
In the civil war that continued between different factions of the Mujahideen for control of Kabul, a new power emerged: the Taliban. Created in 1994 from a resentment that the toppling of the Soviet-backed government hadn’t resulted in Islamic rule, the group quickly gained followers. They took Kabul in 1996, instilling an oppressive regime against women and the few pockets of non-Muslim communities that remained in the country.
Rehimi said in 2001, when the US invaded over the Taliban’s harbouring of Osama bin Laden after 9/11, he and others watching from Canada were optimistic about the future of their homeland.
“I was hopeful when the Taliban first were taken out of Afghanistan by the US, Canadian and other forces. Though there were many Afghan innocent lives lost, we had hope that there would be progress, and Afghanistan would be rebuilt and peaceful,” he said.
“As a Canadian, I was proud that Canada was supporting nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. In the last few years, we saw lots of progress.”
But SFU anthropology professor Parin Dossa, who has written about and researched the survival strategies of Afghan women, said the occupation brought about another 2 decades of violence and subjugation for Afghan citizens.
“I do not think that the term ‘danger’ captures the suffering and progressive disenfranchisement that people of Afghanistan have been subject to for the last 20 years of military occupation of the country by the United States and its allies,” she told the Beacon.
“When we view images of Afghan people from the comfort of our living rooms, we need to be aware of the long-standing violence brought about by [the] US and its allies. We need to move away from the saviour script that we went to Afghanistan for humanitarian reasons and to ‘liberate’ the women.”
2 decades on
20 years later, as the US prepared to leave Afghanistan, the Taliban has once again taken Kabul. Rehimi and members of the ACA are watching the situation with renewed fear.
“Our members are very upset and worried. We are all shocked at how quickly the Taliban came to power. The Taliban are not Afghan and we are all very much against them. We all had high hopes that Afghanistan would be again the country that we grew up in,” he said.
“Some people are not able to get in touch with their family. We are wanting to be able to bring them to Canada so they can be safe.”
Rehimi is, himself, worried about the safety of his own relatives. His brother and 2 sisters still live with their families in Kabul, and one of his nephews is a prominent doctor who has often appeared on TV.
“I am worried about him as he is a public figure. The Taliban target prominent educated people first when they are killing people,” Rehimi said.
“I am fearful that the Taliban will begin to kill those who do not agree with their extremist Islamic beliefs. They may kill those who are educated and believe in women’s rights—for example, there are reports that they are targeting women judges.”
The Taliban, for what it’s worth, has claimed that it will guarantee the rights of women “within the limits of Islam” in a press conference with national and foreign media. Under their previous rule, women under its version of Sharia law were forbidden from leaving their homes without wearing a burqa. Schooling was highly restricted for girls above the age of 10 and women were barred from many other aspects of public life.
Dossa said the Taliban have created their own interpretation of Sharia law as a justification for their military governance.
“For them to sustain their power, they need an ideology which for them is Sharia Law interpreted literally without understanding its historical context and evolving dynamism. Rigid interpretation of the Sharia law will not advance women’s rights,” Dossa said.
“As a political body, the Taliban may make some concessions being well aware that they are being watched by the international community.”
Dossa added Afghan women have done a lot of underground work to sustain their own rights and freedoms.
“I do not think that [the] Taliban will have absolute power to curb women. Resistance, determination and perseverance are the qualities that women of Afghanistan have put into practice for many years. They will continue to do [so], not overlooking struggles and hardships,” she said.
“Women of Afghanistan must not be exclusively viewed as victims.”
Indeed, a handful of brave Afghan women took to the streets in Kabul, wearing hijabs, to demand their rights be respected—holding signs and chanting just metres away from armed Taliban members.
Meanwhile, many women and girls have been asking foreign nations—including Canada—for immediate assistance in leaving Afghanistan.
20 girls between the ages of 12-18 who formed Afghanistan’s robotics team in 2018 are “literally begging” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who they met at a competition in Ottawa, to bring them here.
As VICE News reported, “Canada is in the midst of an election, which is largely preoccupying politicians.”
Both Rehimi and Dossa want the situation in Afghanistan to be part of the main conversation from candidates in the federal election, scheduled for Sept 20.
As for Canada’s commitment to accept 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan: neither feels the number is sufficient.
“Canada has an obligation to accept more refugees … because its troops occupied Afghanistan for 10 years. Canada, like other nations, is implicated in the chaos and violence we are witnessing today,” Dossa said.
Rehimi, meanwhile, said the ACA is willing to help new Afghan refugees settling in BC.
Right now, the ACA is looking for ways to raise funds to support those in Kabul who have been displaced. It’s also focusing on raising awareness of the situation in Afghanistan—last weekend, it held a rally downtown that Rehimi said garnered an attendance of 1,000 people.
If Canadians are looking for a way to help, he said they can donate to the ACA or to other organizations working in Afghanistan.
He said they should also get in touch with their local election candidates and incumbent MPs.
“To ask that Canada officially condemn the Taliban and those who support them, and to make sure Canada commits to accepting Afghan refugees and bringing them to Canada as soon as possible.”
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