Listen to this article
Rachel Morarjee is the FT’s Kabul correspondent. She has returned from a one-week trip to Kandahar and has written an online journal available only on FT.com about a sharp rise in violent insurgence in southern Afghanistan five years after the Taliban was forced out of power. This is the fifth and last entry.
On my last morning in Kandahar a suicide bomb went off, a reminder that the city was not safe and a prelude to the fighting which flared up outside the city after I left.
Despite the violence, I was struck by the hospitality and warmth of the people in southern Afghanistan. So few foreigners now travel there that people are always anxious to talk and have an outsider hear their side of the story. They also want to tell you that their city is not all bombs and gunshots. They take you for coffee, invite you to lunch, or for a picnic to watch the children play under the mulberry trees.
Against all the odds, there are still courageous Afghans who are committed to making Kandahar a better place. From Colonel Mohammed Hussain, a police chief who bravely described on the record how disgusted he was with government corruption, to Rangina Hamidi who, a year after I first met her, is still trying to beat logistics and find markets for the exquisite embroidery made by Kandahari women.
Another example is Malalai Kakar, Kandahar’s most senior policewoman, who juggles bringing up six children with chasing criminals.
Having joined the police force before the Taliban came to power, she went back to her position in 2001 when women were allowed to hold jobs again, and clearly isn’t intimidated by anyone. The police chief had told her that she couldn’t give interviews but she proceeded to spend a morning with me under his nose, waving at him as he walked past the interview room.
“He was only joking,” she said when I asked her if there was a problem talking to journalists.
She has also refused to be cowed by the militants. Despite repeated death threats, she told me that she had decided to die in her uniform. “Even the people who wrote the threat letters said I was a very brave woman, and they didn’t want to kill me. They said I should stay at home,” she said, adding that she had no intention of doing so.
During our interview, three women walked into her office to report a case of domestic abuse, something Malalai deals with almost on a daily basis. The justice system had improved, she added, and more people were getting sentences for such cases than four years ago.
Majida, a 45-year-old woman, had brought her 19-year-old daughter Shigoofa — covered in bruises where her husband had beaten her — to the police station. Despite her fear of revenge attacks, Majida was hopeful her son-in-law would be punished.
“After all, cruelty has to end,” she told me from under her burqa.
Women like Malalai are working tirelessly to ensure that it does.
I was taken to the Kandahar jail where I spent an afternoon with 20 children who were serving sentences along with their mothers. Many of the women were jailed for so-called moral crimes, often when they tried to escape abusive marriages.
The jail is a sorry place to grow up and the children have no access to education, but repeated appeals to the Canadian troops for help have met with no response. One soldier told me the troops were reluctant to be seen helping those considered to be criminals. But Malalai and others have been pressing on regardless, trying to find ways to raise money for the children growing up within the prison walls.
The children behind bars in Kandahar are not the only ones who face an uncertain and difficult future. Across southern Afghanistan, the government is losing the confidence of the people, the Taliban are torching schools and clinics, and the police are often as big a threat as the militants robbing and threatening ordinary Afghans.
Later this year, NATO troops will deploy up to 3,000 British troops in Helmand and over 1,000 Dutch troops in neighbouring Uruzgan to support the Canadians. They will have to move fast to tackle these problems. Otherwise, for another generation of Afghan children, the prospects will remain bleak.