Fiddling While It Burns

Hope for a Broken Nation

Andrew Riddle

Nabi Atiq (centre) - bread and pepsi with the young shepherds

Nabi Atiq is an eternal optimist. He has lived his life in the shadow of war and the brutality of religious extremism, but has never given up hope for a better future for his country or his people.

Privation has marked him. He is small, and two months after arriving in Australia, still skeletally thin, so that the shape of his skull is clearly visible in his face. His severe features, however, are overwhelmed by his fiercely intelligent eyes, and the soft-spoken conviction in his voice.

Nabi was born to a Hazara family in 1976 in Ghazni province, midway between the capital, Kabul, and what was to become the spiritual home of the Taliban, Kandahar.

Nabi was only three when the Red Army entered Afghanistan. What he remembers from the decade-long conflict, however, is not the struggle against the Soviets that has been so romanticised by the West, but the in-fighting of the Afghan factions.

“What I remember mostly is what the jihadi parties did to the people,” says Nabi, “and that is a major experience for my whole life. I remember fighting, I remember war, I remember killing among these jihadi parties. Without facing any Russian soldiers, they were fighting with each other.”

After Nabi’s father died, his eldest brother, a decade and a half his senior, was the man of the family. His brother was a secular liberal, which was anathema to the Iranian-backed mujahideen (or holy warriors) of the region.

“For the jihadi parties there was no difference between the pro-Russian government and the secular elements,” says Nabi. “The words they would use were atheist, infidel.”

This made the family natural victims. “We were facing a lot of intimidation, a lot of threats,” says Nabi.

“I remember the jihadi parties looted our house, took away all the property that we had. My brother had a shop, a simple shop in the local market, and they confiscated all the things in the shop, because in their opinion, we were infidels.”

THE VERDANT CAMPUS of the University of Wollongong is a world away from all that. Sitting on a wood bench next to the building where Nabi studies in preparation for starting a degree in management and politics next year, birds chirp manically around us. As he relives his childhood, Nabi’s eyes are distant.

His story might seem irrelevant to such a secure and affluent nation, yet the campus is festooned with fliers about his home country. Stop the War! No War Research at UOW! Young men and women plot their next campaign to withdraw Australian troops from Nabi’s homeland, and demand Australia pay reparations. They are around the age Nabi was when the Taliban seemed like a new hope for Afghanistan.

IT WAS A national weariness with the thuggery and chaos of the squabbling factions that gave the country to the Taliban. “Like many other Afghans, we were tired of the civil war, the fighting. Everyone was happy that the Taliban would bring peace with their white flag,” says Nabi.

The Taliban arose from the vast refugee camps just across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, made up of lost boys and orphans. Funded by Pakistan’s intelligence services and trained in extremist Wahhabi madrassas, they swept through the country, demanding surrender, and brooking no resistance. At first they were considered unifiers.

“But, many I remember, including my brother and other friends and colleagues were arguing that, no, something else was behind this white flag. Because madrassa students had a different perspective, a different ideology, and they would stick to that ideology, and that didn’t necessarily mean peace for the country.

“That was 1994, when they began from Kandahar.” By 1996, the Taliban had taken Kabul, and they eventually ruled all but a small northern corner of the country.

“That was a black part of Afghanistan’s history, that no Afghan would like to experience again. Everybody had to keep a long beard, put a turban on – or at least a cap,” Nabi says.

“Many schools had to run two simultaneous curriculums at the same time. They had to change some subjects, they had to add some religious subjects in their curriculum, but at the same time they could not avoid teaching science subjects, and many of those subjects, according to the Taliban, are un-Islamic.”

Nabi remembers that classes would assign a student to keep a look-out, in case the Taliban arrived for an inspection. “Suddenly everything would go under the desk, the books for the so-called un-Islamic subjects, and we would start studying religious subjects.”

Despite the risks, girls continued to be educated, at home and in secret, with classes shifted regularly to avoid discovery. The Taliban paid spies and informants for information on such forbidden activity, so no one could feel safe.

Nabi draws a long breath. “That was the darkest part of my memory of the country – not only for me, but for every Afghan.”

Which brings us to September 11.

IN THE AFGHANISTAN of 2001, all music was banned, all imagery, all sport except for cricket. Television was also banned, although residents of Kabul often had secret sets they would bring out at night with the windows closed.

The Taliban had received significant international attention for its shocking mistreatment of women, including denying them all education and health services, and administering both corporal and capital punishment for ‘moral’ crimes ranging from adultery to appearing in public without a husband. Human rights organisations issued reports, and the world wrung its hands, but did nothing. The attacks of the eleventh of September changed all that.

Soon, the Afghans were awaiting the arrival of American forces. “We couldn’t believe it – it was like a miracle for us. Almost all the Afghans had lost hope. No one was hearing the Afghans,” Nabi says.

“You could see smiles, you could see love, people laughing, Afghans with happy faces. There were a lot of expectations after 9/11. Like millions of Afghans I was expecting a different scenario, a different picture of Afghanistan.”

Nabi’s brother had arrived in Australia, and with his help, the family finally had the chance at a new life. Shortly after the American invasion in October, they went to Pakistan to travel on to Australia.

Nabi, however, could not bring himself to leave.

“I returned – with hope,” he says, with a hint of a wistful sigh.

In the new post-Taliban Afghanistan, Nabi worked closely with civil society institutions, and ran an educational institution in Kabul. Girls went to school, learned English, did computer classes. “Everybody was busy,” he says.

“Many friends, including my brother… They were of the idea that things would not change as we expected. I had my own argument. Later it was proved that I was not…” Here he pauses. “Correct.”

Nabi speaks at a democracy workshop for provincial council members

He can’t identify the exact turning point when things started to get worse. “Something, or many things, must have started going wrong from the very beginning.”

“Afghans are proud of the history they have fought, okay, that they have fought against the British troops, against the Russian troops, and they have defeated all, and despite all those facts, whether right or wrong, Afghans welcomed the international troops after nine-eleven. I don’t know if the international community really understood what it meant to be welcomed,” Nabi says, regret clear in his voice.

THE FIRST TIME I see Nabi, he is giving a public lecture. The activist organisation Resistance had arranged for him to address them about the war.

He patiently explains the complexities of Afghanistan, the ‘strategic depth’ policy of Pakistan that aimed to keep a friendly Islamist state at its back, or at least prevent a rival from arising. He explains how the wrong elements have been favoured inside Afghanistan, including extreme Islamists. He asks Australians not to think Afghans are not worth helping.

The Resistance president finishes the lecture with a postscript about how the best thing that can be done for Afghanistan is for foreign troops to be withdrawn immediately. Nabi’s face remains expressionless. The international community is not listening to him, yet again.

WHEN THE FOREIGN troops largely abandoned Afghanistan for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, things did not immediately go downhill. Nabi recalls that the Washington-based NGO he started working for in 2005, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), had a regional office in Kandahar as late as 2006. Even Western employees walked home safely at night.

By 2005, however, the Taliban were clearly resurgent. NATO troops were returning, but without the resolve or purpose of 2001. Over a period of years, the countryside was gradually overrun, and even Kabul was regularly threatened. The NDI closed their Kandahar office in 2007.

“There were a lot of opportunities that could have been used in the favour of the Afghan people. Afghans as common people, they have never been put in the loop. Nobody asks the common Afghan what they think, what they need, what they want,” says Nabi.

So what does Nabi think can be done for the future of Afghanistan?

“The first thing is: a pull-out in this situation is dangerous. Extremely dangerous. I can’t imagine what the situation would be in Afghanistan after a pull-out of international troops,” says Nabi.

“Will it be better than something in the late ‘90s? Of course not. Would it be better than the early ‘90s, with these jihadi parties before the Taliban came? They were fighting with each other – the same thing would happen.” He mentions seeing smiles on the faces of the Taliban in Pakistan when President Obama announced the US would begin to withdraw from the country in 2011.

Nabi believes a large part of Afghanistan’s problem is that the international community has empowered the wrong people.

“To the meaning of this intervention, the international community must seriously think about the fight against corruption,” he says.

“Part of what went wrong was the international community’s dependence on the Northern Alliance. Because you must understand, that was not a true alliance, and has never been. It was a combination of many conflicting interests which had come together under pressure, when they found themselves cornered by the Taliban.”

“I don’t know why they always go out of their way to keep some of the Afghan partners happy, to see smiles on Karzai’s face. See, the Afghan people are being balanced against a specific number of people. Nobody cares what the Afghan people think about corruption, fraud during the election – everbody says ‘oh, Karzai and his team should not be unhappy.’”

Nabi is also angry at the presence of Islamist elements in the US-backed government. Hezbe Wahdat, or the Unity Party, serves prominently in the Afghan party, and is made up of the Shi’a Islamist militias that tormented his youth and forced his brother to leave the country. Both vice-presidents (the Afghan system has two) are infamous warlords. The current Minister for the Economy, Arghandiwal, is a member of Hizb-i Islami, the party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Taliban-aligned warlord.

“If we talk about Taliban, I would say the Taliban are already within the system,” Nabi says.

“Don’t we have human rights violators within the system? Don’t we have the people who deny the basic human rights to the Afghan nation? Don’t we have the ones who destroyed this country, who are responsible for the death of thousands of Afghans?”

He is also sceptical about the current negotiations with the Taliban.

“Like all other Afghans I am tired of war, fighting. But – it never means that we support this sort of negotiation, a negotiation from a losing point. A negotiation with the idea that, let’s let these people deal with the situation, let’s get out of this country as soon as possible,” he says. “What will be the situation of women after negotiations with the Taliban?”

Despite all his disappointments and criticisms, Nabi points to successes in Afghanistan.

“Today we talk about more than twenty television channels in Afghanistan. We talk about more than 600 printed weeklies, daily, and all those hundred radio channels.” He mentions the millions of Afghan children go to school today who could not have under the Taliban.

“There is still room. There is still a chance for success – it can happen.”

ON THE FIRST of February, 2008, Nabi’s car was fired upon outside his house in Kabul. He had previously been threatened by Islamic extremists.

Despite the assassination attempt occuring in the immediate vicinity of a police station, the Afghan police were not interested, instead questioning Nabi about his beliefs. For the sake of his wife and two children, after working for Afghanistan all his life, Nabi finally decided to leave the country. After twenty-six months in Pakistan, he finally receives a visa as a permanent refugee.

In Australia, the family are safe. His sons, eight and five, are going to school; his wife is attending TAFE. They have enough money, although Nabi feels guilty about living on government allowances and is looking for work. Finally the decades of danger and disappointment seem to be behind them.

And yet Nabi wants to return. “Personally, I still think I should be back there. Not because I don’t like Australia; it’s a lovely country, a great place. But Afghanistan is a place where I should be.”

“The only thing I think is, let me just have a break; focus on study, for a couple of years, a few years, see what the situation brings for us back home. I’m not afraid for my personal life,” he says.

“I feel responsibility for my wife, my two kids – let me just find a safe place for them. Then, I can go back.”

“I am not better than those millions of Afghans. I still remember those dusty streets. I believe the Afghan people should not be left alone, and I also should not abandon them.”



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Asher Wolf, Andrew Riddle. Andrew Riddle said: Everyone who thinks it's somehow cowardly for Afghans to seek asylum here,please read this profile of Nabi Atiq #qanda […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Hope for a Broken Nation « Fiddling While It Burns -- — 01/11/2010 @ 10:16 pm

  2. Brilliant, Andrew. Great profile – and this sentence is just gold:

    “It was a national weariness with the thuggery and chaos of the squabbling factions that gave the country to the Taliban.”

    Comment by the referral — 01/11/2010 @ 11:12 pm

  3. So glad to hear that. I actually wanted to get your opinion before I posted it, but thought it might be a bit much to ask you to be my personal editor 😉

    Comment by andrewriddle — 01/11/2010 @ 11:16 pm

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