Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day. As with International Women’s Day last month, not everyone around here feels like celebrating. This morning I met a young journalist whose exposes on corruption in Ghor province have seen him arrested and jailed twice in the past year and led to a death threat from a prominent local commander.
I asked around about his writing and was told that his expose on the education sector in Ghor alleged up to 280 million afghanis (about $5.5 million) has been misappropriated from the education budget for the province. In one of the poorest provinces in Afghanistan. In our interview he gave me the names of allegedly corrupt officials and told me that he has visited schools all over Ghor with hundreds of pupils officially on the roll where he found no students, no teachers and no books.
At one high school in Dowlaina district, he says, instead of more than 800 registered (and therefore funded) pupils, he found only four in attendance. And no teachers.
Local experts in the education sector corroborate his allegations, although they are shocked that he has been bold enough to make them in the local newspaper, and to implicate by name several powerful local officials.
He is also responsible for a video I’ve heard about on YouTube showing a local warlord carrying out an extrajudicial execution, and another showing a local commander lashing two women who tried to run away from their violent homes.
He has been warned that one of the officials named in his report has put out a contract on his life, asking a local warlord to have him killed. Given the videos, it seems likely that the local warlord would be amenable to the request.
I asked him what kind of precautions he was taking for his own safety. He said:
I’m a journalist. What can I do? My only options are to leave the province or to stop writing the truth. I don’t want to do either. I have no armed men, no weapons to defend myself. I just have to continue.
Given that the spread of education and improved freedom of the press have been touted as two of the achievements of the Afghan government and the international community over the past decade, it made for a disheartening morning.
In fact, all my interviews this morning were disheartening. After yesterday’s hopeful visits to Ghor’s newest vocational training centre, and a tour of the new sports ground and girl’s gymnasium, I was starting to think that maybe things were a little better in Ghor after all.
The Governor had even assured me that developments were not only limited to the provincial centre. If I had been able to travel out to the districts, he said, I would have seen that there were developments there too. This morning I heard the opposite. The Chair of the Provincial Council told me that nothing has happened in the districts. The district judges and prosecutors of six districts, he said, have abandoned their posts and are based in the provincial centre.
Unfortunately, I can’t visit the districts. Not with security as tense as it is this week. So I’ll have to assume that the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes.
When I first came to Afghanistan I used to get frustrated that people lied to me. Now I see it a little differently. I’m sure that some people lie, for a wide variety of reasons – to make their own efforts seem more important or effective, to attract more funding and support for their province or project, or to protect someone (maybe me). But I think most people tell me the truth as they see it, and that there are a lot of different ways to see things.
Has the situation in Ghor improved or deteriorated in the four years since I left? The answer depends on who you ask. For the women in the new vocational training courses I visited yesterday, or the girls playing volleyball in the new indoor gymnasium, things have probably improved. For the young journalist I spoke to this morning, things have probably deteriorated. For many people, little has changed.
There is one thing everyone agrees on: the need for better security. Health, education, roads and electricity all come second to security. The question I’m left with is how security can be improved when the same warlords who ruled this province by fear and by gun four years ago remain strong.
The PRT in Ghor is in the process of transitioning security provision for the province to local security forces. When I left Ghor in 2007 there was no Afghan National Army (ANA) presence here. Now there is one company based in Chagcharan, and the Lithuanian PRT is in the process of preparing and equipping a larger ANA so that – in the near future – an entire battalion of 800 soldiers can be based here.
Will that help people in Ghor feel safer?
It’s hard to say. Again it depends who you ask.
Last night I had to refuse an invitation to an Afghan friend’s home. He invited me out of kindness and deeply felt hospitality. But he was terrified and I could hear it in his instructions to me to cover myself like an Afghan woman and to be sure no-one saw me when I arrived.
His fear was that someone might see that there was an international at his home, think that I was staying there overnight and come at night to find me. As much as he wanted to host me, he was afraid for his own family, his four young children and his pregnant wife. I turned down his invitation, explaining that I didn’t think it was safe. He was obviously relieved. Sad, but relieved.
Will the new ANA battalion make a difference to people who fear their neighbours will spread the word that they are associating with foreigners? Maybe. Although I’m not sure how.
As for me, last night I felt scared. I was painfully aware of the large hill behind our compound and of the unguarded back gate. I wished that I were not alone in this house and lay in bed trying not to think about the fact that only one of the four men who attacked BRAC the night before had been arrested.
I wished that I had made better friends with Fat Boy, the dog, so that I could have had him in my room with me. Instead I took comfort in the knowledge that he was in the compound, and that he is quick to bark at anyone who approaches the back gate.
I’ve been thinking about suggesting that the young journalist I met today consider getting himself a big dog.