Local Reconstruction Effort Goes Awry
I was going from the centre of Kapisa province to my own district, Tagab, in a crowded taxi one day.
Passengers normally chat to each other in Afghanistan, mostly discussing the political situation and the government’s activities and deficiencies.
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Afghanistan: Local Reconstruction Effort Goes Awry
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When the vehicle crossed a bridge or a road, the passengers complained that although they had only been built two months ago they had already been destroyed.
The main targets for their criticism were projects run by the ministry for rural rehabilitation and development’s National Solidarity Programme, NSP.
People said that much of the funds were embezzled and the projects mishandled.
When I got to my village, I heard the same from the residents.
An old man told me “Son, only God can hear us. Others cannot hear us. Looting is going on here. When the ministry provides assistance or contracts to the people, they give them all to their relatives.
“Our rights are in the pockets of the powerful people these days.”
I discussed the problem with the IWPR office in Kabul, and they agreed that I should write a story, so I started working on it - with a lot of help from the local people, since Tagab is an area where media outlets are under a lot of pressure.
I felt in danger, worried that thugs would beat me up if I spoke out about corruption. Some locals even warned me to stop writing the report and get out of the area, but I was determined to continue.
I visited the Mirakhel high school where, despite the building having been completed only a year ago, the walls were already cracking. Its doors and windows were broken. The tribal elders and teachers said that as much as 150,000 US dollars had been spent on the project.
Then there was the dyke constructed in the Adayzai area, built to protect the people from floods - but it had started crumbling even before the flood season and the structure seemed about to collapse.
Even the road which leads to Tagab bazaar - repaired a short time ago – was full of potholes, making driving difficult.
When I raised the problems with one Kapisa official, he told me, “We cannot control areas where insecurity exists. If the people embezzle 80 per cent of the money of these projects, then at least they might spend 20 per cent on the projects.”
I was surprised by this, because if government officials accept 80 per cent fraud, what can be expected from the contractors?
The rural rehabilitation officials failed to give me proper information about the projects’ implementation for my report, ignoring my questions about the project funds.
When I tried to interview officials from the NSP, they said that they were busy in a seminar for the whole week and did not answer me.
And I received threats. When I was waiting in a government office one day, some individuals there told me, “What you are doing is not good. Others benefit their people and you spy on them. It can cause you harm.”
An official even told me, “Be careful. Stay away from such activities. Somebody might kill you. Watch out for yourself. Why do you interfere in other people’s work?”
When the report was published, the funds approved by the ministry for rural rehabilitation and development for the NSP office in Tagab district were frozen. But my problems continued. I received calls from different phone numbers for some 20 days.
They threatened me in various ways; some said they would kill me, others warned that they would set my house on fire. Some threaten to kill members of my family.
One message, which I still have on my mobile phone, read, “Instead of waging jihad against the government and the foreigners, you spy for them. You will be caught some day. We will execute you. Why don’t you do some other work instead of working as a reporter?”
My family was worried about me.
“Didn’t we tell you to quit this job?” relatives told me. “Now, people come and threaten us every day. Do not come back to the area.”
I was warned not to visit my village, and a family member told me, “Don’t come here. The contractors are very angry at you. What if they kill you?”
But not everyone was unhappy with the report. One senior official said to me, “Bravo! You have written a very good report. What you said in the report was true.”
When I did go back to my village, after a long time staying away, I forgot my troubles.
The people there, the ones who had been affected by the corruption, were delighted.
Each of them hugged me and admired my work. An elder of the village told me, “Bravo my son. You helped freeze the funds received by thieves and looters. Live bravely. No one can look at you with anger.”
I then realised what major achievements journalists are capable of and how much ordinary people welcome the truth.
IWPR does its utmost to minimise the risks its journalists face in researching stories. Safi was in close contact with IWPR’s Kabul office throughout the time he spent working on his report. Our Afghan editor advised him to communicate with government officials only via email if he felt threatened; to telephone him as soon as he felt any interviews got out of hand; and to avoid the Tagab area for two months after he received a number of threats from people involved in the allegedly mishandled projects.