Baztab News

Battle At An Afghan Jail Holding Islamic State Prisoners

1 Day Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

At least 29 people were killed and more than 50 others injured in a battle at a prison holding Islamic State militants in Afghanistan, after a deadly attack by gunmen. In addition, the authorities said 10 insurgents were killed. Some prisoners escaped, although a number were recaptured.

Afghan Family That Lost Three Sons Says Nothing Is More Precious Than Peace

1 Day Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

MARAWARA, Afghanistan --- Maryam, an Afghan grandmother, is surrounded by her eight orphaned grandchildren inside their modest house in a remote village in eastern Afghanistan. As Muslims across the world celebrated the Eid al-Adha festival this past weekend, the 48-year-old spent most of her time visiting the graves of her three sons and trying to console their children. Maryam’s sons were killed in a suicide attack in Asadabad, capital of eastern Nangarhar Province, more than four years ago. Her only surviving son was also injured in the attack. Wearing a blue all-enveloping veil, Maryam told Radio Free Afghanistan she thought she would die of the agony from first learning about the killing of her three sons. “It was a day from hell. I began hearing screams and felt if the sky was falling and the ground beneath my feet was slipping away,” she recalled of how she felt on the morning of February 27, 2016 – the day her three sons were killed. That day began like any other for her four sons. Ihsanullah, Habibdullah, Roohullah, and Muhammad Jaffar left their house together as they often did. The three elder brothers made a living selling fritters, fries, and soups out of a makeshift shop on a busy square near government offices in nearby Asadabad while Jaffar attended a local school. But a suicide bomber riding a motorbike attempted to target the entrance of the governor’s compound, and the three elder brothers were killed in the blast, which killed other 16 Afghan civilians and injured 40 more. Jaffar survived the blast, but it crippled his right hand. The bomber struck before he could say goodbye to his elder brother as they were busy preparing food for the day. “This tragedy has taught me that peace is the most precious gift,” Maryam said. “I now pray that other Afghans families must not experience the misery, suffering, and agony we are enduring.” Her husband, Muhammad Azim, 52, says the tragedy has forced him to return to hard labor to feed his family. “I am old and weak and have no skills, business or another stable source of income,” he said. “I have no choice but to accept my fate.” Azim’s house stands atop a gray, rocky hill in Kunar’s rural district of Marawara. His three sons are buried across from his front yard. Across Afghanistan, graveyards are regularly filled with the victims of the seemingly endless war that began after a bloody communist coup in April 1978. In most Kunar graveyards Afghan soldiers, Taliban fighters, and their civilian victims are buried next to one another. Some are even members of the same extended families. Maryam’s family now hopes the Afghan government and the Taliban can find a way to make peace. Beginning on July 31, the two sides engaged in a three-day cease-fire to mark Eid al-Adha. It is not yet clear whether they will extend the armistice. The two sides are also expected to engage in peace negotiations stipulated in an initial peace agreement between the Taliban and the United States, which was signed in February. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has documented some 3,458 civilian casualties during the first half of the current year. These include 1,282 killed and 2,176 injured. While the figures represent a drop in overall violence compared with the previous years, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission says that on average 16 civilians have been killed or wounded daily across Afghanistan during the first six months of 2020. Such high levels of violence make Afghanistan one of the deadliest conflict zones in the world. Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Marawara, Afghanistan.

Pakistanis Take Livestock To 'Cow Wash' Ahead Of Eid

30 Jul 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

KARACHI, Pakistan, -- The days leading up to the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha are busy for Uzair Dawood, the owner of a motorcycle wash in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi - not for fixing vehicles, but washing cattle. Eid al-Adha falls on Saturday in the South Asian nation, and like Muslims across the world, Pakistanis purchase cattle to sacrifice on the occasion as a religious obligation. "It is very busy day just a day before Eid and we don't have time for a bike wash," Dawood told Reuters as he busied himself lathering a cow with soap before using the pressure hose to clean the animal. Sacrificial animals are treated with deference by Pakistanis, who often decorate the cattle they have purchased with colourful garlands. "We bring these animals here because we want them neat and clean because it is an animal for sacrifice and we are happy to see it happy," one customer, Osama Haider Ali, told Reuters. Dawood's shop is located in a densely populated district of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, and is one of many vehicle service stations with customers queuing up with animals. "Servicing" cattle is not as easy as motorcycles, says Dawood who charges 200 to 300 Pakistani rupees ($1.20 to $1.80) per wash, for which he uses shampoo, soap, brush and a hose. "A vehicles remains in its place ... but washing an animal is risky. It can hit you, it can kick you. It can break the rope". Eid al-Adha is observed by Muslims to commemorate their belief that prophet Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God, before God replaced his son with a ram to be sacrificed instead. Muslims who can afford it sacrifice cattle. But it can also be a camel, goat, sheep or ram, depending on the region. The coronavirus has cast a shadow over this Eid, with fears of another spike in infections prompting authorities to warn people to minimise movement, avoid cattle markets and refrain from public gatherings to witness the slaughter of sacrificial animals. Eid al-Fitr, marked in May, was followed by a spike in COVID-19 infections with new daily cases hitting up to 7,000 in June. Daily infections have fallen to around 1,100 in Pakistan over the last few days of July. Pakistan has recorded over 277,000 infections and close to 6,000 deaths from the disease. While cattle markets across the country have seen reduced footfall, a sizeable number of people are still going to them to choose an animal.

The Board Game Helping South Asian Girls Escape Arranged Marriage

30 Jul 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

(Thomson Reuters Foundation) When Nashra Balagamwala's Pakistani family started pressuring her into an arranged marriage, she decided to get creative to avoid the myriad of suitors being foisted upon her. Like many young women in South Asia, she was targeted by older women, nicknamed Rishta aunties, who wanted to pair her up with eligible men. "It truly started when I was 18, right as my sister got married. ... Literally, the day of the wedding, all the aunties started coming up to me and saying, 'You're next, you're next'," said Balagamwala, now 27 and living in New York City. "I'd wear the fake engagement rings, or whenever an auntie was looking I'd pour an extra helping of food on my plate," she said, as the matchmakers considered women who didn't watch their figure to be less desirable brides. Those real-life strategies inspired her to create the board game "Arranged!" where players take the role of teenage girls trying to escape an 'auntie', which features in Gamemaster, a documentary about aspiring game designers released this month. Arranged marriages, where a couple are matched by family members, are common in South Asia. While it is different from forced marriage, many young people face intense pressure to wed and start a family shortly after reaching adulthood. Wanting a different life, Balagamwala convinced her family to allow her to wait until she was 21. As she reached the deadline as a student at Rhode Island School of Design in the United States, she came up with the idea for the game. "When I was going back for the winter break, my parents had a boy lined up for me to meet," she said. "So to de-stress from that I started creating this list of all the crazy things I used to do, or that my cousins used to do, to try to discourage the Rishta aunties." In "Arranged!", the girls attempt to deter auntie by drawing cards with commands like getting a tattoo, wearing a sleeveless shirt, talking about pursuing a career, or being seen hugging a male friend. But cards like being able to make a perfectly round roti flat bread, or having a sister who is known to be very obedient to her in-laws, move auntie closer to a player. When the board game was released in 2017, it drew anger from some acquaintances in Pakistan, but the media attention also made Balagamwala an undesirable wife in the eyes of the aunties and convinced her family to stop pressing her to marry. "My dad essentially said, 'You wanted to not get married and now you've made sure you won't do that'," she said. She was contacted by dozens of young women, mostly in India, who said the game helped them to start conversations with their families and opened their eyes to the stress they felt. "I'm hoping that with the game someone else will be inspired to be like, 'No, I can break free too'," Balagamwala said in Gamemaster, which follows the lives of four game designers. One unexpected outcome was a deluge of marriage proposals on social media, but Balagamwala said her family have accepted that she will not marry anytime soon. "Now they're like, 'You do you, find your own guy," laughed Balagamwala, who is studying for a master's degree exploring the links between design and social justice at Harvard University. "There is still a little bit of that stress in their hearts and minds where they are like, 'Oh my God, she's 27 and there's no boy on the horizon' so I think that stresses them out." "It doesn't stress me out at all," she added.

Afghans Demand Permanent Cease-fire Ahead Of Peace Talks

30 Jul 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Afghans on July 29 welcomed a three-day ceasefire but called for it to be made permanent after the government and the Taliban said they would observe a truce that could kickstart peace talks as soon as next week. The foes this week announced a temporary stoppage in Afghanistan's war, only the third official pause in nearly 19 years. It is slated to start Friday and run for the duration of the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival. Ali, a Kabul shopkeeper who only gave one name, said three days was insufficient. "We want peace forever," he told AFP. "We have the right to live in peace like other countries, we want our country to develop. We are all -- old and young -- tired of this war." The Taliban -- who over the years have steadfastly dismissed government ceasefire calls and upped violence even after signing a deal with the United States -- announced they would lay down weapons after President Ashraf Ghani signaled progress in a contentious prisoner exchange. He said Kabul would "soon" finish the swap that will see Afghan authorities free 5,000 Taliban members while the insurgents release 1,000 government forces. Late on July 29, the Taliban said they would complete the release of government prisoners by Eid as a "goodwill gesture." "The other side should also complete the release process of all the 5,000 prisoners" so peace talks can begin, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen wrote on Twitter. The swap, detailed under a U.S.-Taliban deal signed in late February in Doha, is a crucial step to talks starting. Both Ghani and the Taliban have said negotiations could begin next week once the exchange is completed. 'Permanent Cease-fire' Ghani's spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told AFP that while Kabul would observe the cease-fire, he cautioned it did not go far enough. "The people of Afghanistan demand a lasting cease-fire and the start of direct talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan," Sediqqi said. Fawzia Koofi, a prominent women's rights campaigner and member of the government's negotiating team, wrote on Twitter she was "hoping for a lasting and permanent cease-fire." Top U.S. officials also hailed developments, including special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who arrived in Kabul on July 29 as part of a regional tour to push the peace process. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's spokesman for military operations, said insurgents must "refrain from carrying out any operation against the enemy during the three days and nights of Eid al-Adha so... our countrymen would spend the Eid with confidence and joy." The only other cease-fires in the long Afghan war came in June 2018 and May this year to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Those cease-fires prompted widespread relief across Afghanistan but were short-lived, with the insurgents returning to the fight straight afterward to resume near-daily attacks. High Death Toll The U.S.-Taliban deal stated that the militants and Kabul should start direct peace talks on March 10, following the prisoner swap. That date passed amid political disarray in Kabul and disagreements over the exchange, with Afghan authorities saying some released Taliban inmates were returning to the battlefield. Highlighting the toll on civilian and military forces in the months since the deal, Ghani said more than 3,500 Afghan troops had been killed. He said 775 civilians had also been killed and another 1,609 wounded since February. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has blamed the Taliban for the bulk of civilian casualties during the first half of 2020. Observers say the bloodshed highlights the Taliban's determination to push for broad control in Afghanistan, and underscores how little the United States can do to stop them. The U.S.-Taliban deal "was not designed to bring peace to Afghanistan but to facilitate a face-saving exit of U.S. forces and engagement from Afghanistan," said Nishank Motwani, deputy director at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit. "The Taliban fundamentally believe that victory is theirs."

As Intra-Afghan Talks Loom, Taliban Hark To 1990s Regime

29 Jul 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Talks between the Afghan government and the hard-line Islamist Taliban movement finally appear to be on the horizon after the two sides announced a brief cease-fire during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha this week. But it is unclear whether they can overcome the immediate problems of reconciling differences over prisoner releases, extending the cease-fire, and resentment over relentless violence since the Taliban signed an initial peace agreement with the United States in February. The agreement outlined a roadmap in which American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan in return for Taliban guarantees. The Taliban and supporters of the current Afghan political system, formally called the Islamic Republic, are expected to decide on a shared future political system before the U.S. withdrawal is complete next year. The Afghan government and Taliban have reportedly reached an agreement over the release of hundreds of Taliban prisoners as U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad toured the region in an apparent bid to revive the stalled Afghan peace process. The Taliban have freed some 800 Afghan soldiers in return for the release of 4,000 Taliban fighters by the government. But there is no sign that the Taliban are ready to relinquish their push to recreate the Islamic Emirate, the formal name of their 1990s regime that attracted Afghan opposition and international condemnation for harsh implementation of what the movement called Islamic Shari’a law. The Afghan government, civil society, and leaders and factions supporting the republican system also want to preserve the gains of the past two decades, which saw a new pluralistic Afghan political system take hold despite Taliban violence, corruption, declining international aid, and continued interference by Afghanistan’s neighbors. Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman in Qatar, said the group is now ready to move ahead with the peace process, offering a timeline that could get the ball rolling on talks. “The Islamic Emirate is ready to release all remaining prisoners of the other side before the eve of Eid al-Adha provided they release our prisoners as per our list already delivered to them,” he wrote on July 23. “Intra-Afghan negotiations will begin immediately after Eid.” On July 28 Zabihullah Mujahid, another Taliban spokesman, announced a three-day cease-fire during Eid al-Adha, which begins on July 31. He wrote on Twitter that “in order for our people to spend the three days of Eid in confidence and happiness, all fighters are instructed not to carry out any operations during this period.” Taliban leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, however, was vague about exactly what his movement will offer Kabul and what they will demand, indicating instead that the movement still sees itself as absolved of any commitments or responsibilities. “Domestic parties should immediately remove all obstacles obstructing intra-Afghan dialogue and give priority to the greater interests of our homeland over division of smaller interests,” he said in a July 28 statement issued on the Taliban website, “so that the Afghans may jointly eliminate all internal and potential causes of war and conflict, restore peace to our homeland and reach an understanding among themselves over future Islamic government.” The recent announcements have stirred mixed feelings among Afghans as they hope for peace but question the Taliban’s ability to keep their promises. Under Ashraf Ghani’s presidency, the Afghan government has emphasized the preservation of republican values and the achievements of the past 19 years in the fields of democracy, human rights, and women’s rights — repeatedly stating that these issues are all part of the government’s “red line” of non-negotiable values. "If the Taliban continue fighting, the Afghan peace process will face serious challenges," Ghani said earlier this month. "Unfortunately, the current level of violence is higher compared to last year." The Afghan leader said that some 3,560 Afghan soldiers have been killed and 6,781 wounded in Taliban attacks since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal in February. On July 28, Ghani urged the Taliban to agree to a "permanent and comprehensive cease-fire" during impending peace talks. But Mullah Fazel, a former top Taliban military commander and current senior negotiator, indicated in March that re-establishing the Islamic Emirate remains a top priority. “The amir or leader of [a future government] will be ours. There will be an Islamic Emirate, and there will be a system based on Shari’a [Islamic law],” he told Taliban fighters and supporters in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan, which has served as a Taliban sanctuary after they were routed from Afghanistan in late 2001. Fazel maintains that the new Islamic Emirate will be more inclusive. “Unlike in the past, not all [officials] will come from among the ulema or the Taliban,” he said. “The Taliban or the Islamic Emirate will never become part of the Kabul government, but we can grant them [some individuals] a ministry or some other post.” Khairullah Shinwari, a political activist who has met and talked with Taliban leaders recently, says the Taliban are willing to cooperate with the Afghan government. “They will accept any political system agreed upon in the negotiations between the Afghans as long as it does not conflict with the religious and traditional values of Afghans,” he said. The question, however, is whether any middle ground between the two sides can be found. Ali Yavar Adeli, an expert at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, says an agreement can only come from a sustained discourse built upon the foundation of achievements and progress. “We need to continue these talks because our values have not been easily achieved,” he said. “The key issue is to preserve the achievements that go back to the fundamental rights of people, and to continue to bring about peace, a basic desire for all Afghan people,” said Aminullah Habibi, another Kabul-based analyst. Those fundamental rights include women's rights, a large topic of concern for those who don't wish to re-imagine life under Taliban rule.  Azra Asghari, a Germany-based women’s rights activist, doubts the Taliban have changed their views concerning women. “I don’t think the Taliban are paying attention to social activities and women's rights,” she said. “The Taliban determine women’s rights based on outdated traditions, which is not acceptable in this new age.” In the runup to the long-awaited talks, many questions remain unanswered. On one side of the negotiating table, supporters of the Islamic Republic appear ready to reach an agreed settlement and participate in talks if it means being one step closer to peace in the country. But whether the Taliban are prepared to end their violent campaign and compromise on their political ideals remains to be seen.      

Virus Fears Force Animal Sellers Online For Muslim Festival

28 Jul 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Prancing in front of a camera with its blond mane blowing in the wind, "007" is one of thousands of goats being sold online as Muslims prepare for a key religious festival shaken this year by the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of goats, sheep, and cattle are slaughtered annually at Eid al-Adha -- the festival of sacrifice -- one of two major holy days observed by Muslims across the world, including some 600 million in South Asia. The pandemic has, however, badly hit India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, which have shut or heavily restricted major markets, while fears about catching the virus are keeping customers away ahead of the main festival on August 1. "We were traumatised by the loss of two of my uncles to COVID-19 and didn't want to sacrifice an animal," Saddid Hossain told AFP in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. "But we have to stay within our religious tradition, so we'd rather buy from an online cow seller." Faced with deserted markets, livestock breeders and traders have turned to websites, apps, and social media to showcase their animals. Fahad Zariwala promotes goats such as "007" from farms across India on his YouTube channel, which has more than 800,000 followers. "I shoot a slow-motion video with beautiful music, and I make them (goats) popular," said Zariwala, who is based in Mumbai. "They have a personality and are ... mostly named after Bollywood movies and trending characters in Bollywood." Zariwala has seen a huge increase in viewers from Australia, Britain, the United States, and the Middle East, which all have large South Asian diasporas. One farm he promotes runs video beauty contests to tempt potential customers who might buy the goats for their families in India, where there are 200 million Muslims. PashuBajaar, which sells thousands of goats for Indian farmers, said online sales had jumped from a few dozen last year to more than 2,500 in the past three months. "We've even received online orders for thousands for next year," chief executive Sanjeev Kumar told AFP. The animals are delivered to buyers in open-air vehicles, which can carry 10 to 15 of them. In Muslim-majority Pakistan, home to 215 million people, dozens of apps and websites have sprung up. Buyers can select an animal and have it delivered to their doorstep, slaughtered, or donated to a charity. Qurbani App chief executive Muhammad Ali Chaudhry said "orders have gone through the roof." Islamabad goat farmer Muhammad Naeem, meanwhile, said his digital transactions had jumped from 20 percent of sales to almost half. But the rise in online sales has been accompanied by plunging prices. Mumbai seller Walid Dawood Jat, who sold six goats online during India's lockdown, said they fetched just half their usual prices. "We used to sell goats at 500-600 rupees ($6.70-$8.00) per kilo," he said, adding the price had fallen by half. "Buyers haggle with us. They say they don't have money, their income is down." At Dhaka's biggest cattle market, livestock sales are down from 400,000 a week in previous years to 30,000. "Last year many people came. We were very busy," said trader Kalu Bepari -- who traveled 245 kilometers (150 miles) to the bazaar with 13 bulls but has only sold two "for a very cheap price." "This year there is barely anyone due to coronavirus fears. Nobody even asks the price," he said.

Afghan Women Robotics Team Makes COVID-19 Ventilators

24 Jul 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

An all-female group of robotics students in the Afghan city of Herat has developed a prototype ventilator for COVID-19 patients based on a design by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Afghan Robotics Team hopes to get approval from the authorities to produce the machines.