Afghanistan: New Year Frenzy

Thousands of joyous Afghans cram into central Mazar to celebrate their New Year.

Afghanistan: New Year Frenzy

Thousands of joyous Afghans cram into central Mazar to celebrate their New Year.

Old warlords rubbed shoulders with the new political elite in the Northern Afghan capital of Mazar-e-Sharif this week as the holy Janda flag was raised in a main square for the first time in four years to celebrate Nawruz - the Afghan New Year.

Over 10,000 Afghans jostled for space in the square outside the Mosque of Saint Hazrat Ali on March 21 as the flag, the symbol of the coming of the New Year, was unfurled. Crowds scrambled onto the roofs of nearby buildings, and people perched on the branches of trees and hung from electricity pylons.

In the square, dozens of sick and handicapped people milled around, trying to touch the holy flag in the hope of being healed. One of them, a 16-year-old boy said to have been blind since birth, was reported to have regained his sight.

Hundreds of Afghans threw themselves at Mohamed Hussein, tearing at his clothing, in the hope that the blessing bestowed on him might pass onto them. The young man, his clothes in tatters, gazed bemused amid the throng.

For the residents of Mazar-e-Sharif, it was the first chance to celebrate Nawruz, a major festival throughout Central Asia, since 1998, when northern Afghanistan was seized by the Taleban. And after recent overthrow of the fundamentalists, it was a celebration filled with hope for a new life of peace.

"Under the Taleban, on the day of Nawruz, we all stayed at home and were afraid to go out into the street. According to them, it is not an Islamic festival," said local Mohammed Amin.

"But now we are celebrating the holiday as our fathers and our grandfathers did. We will visit our friends and relatives."

The new head of the provisional administration of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was a guest at the celebration. With him was the ex-president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who held out against the Taleban, and the Northern Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, now the deputy defence minister.

"Afghanistan has taken a step in the direction of peace, civilization and prosperity, and our nation will live in friendship and calm," Karzai told those who gathered in Mazar for Nawruz.

Karzai's administration announced that in honour of the festival, it would pardon 200-300 people arrested during the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan.

Dostum, a leader of the Northern Alliance in the fight against the fundamentalists, reminded revellers that thousands had given their lives in the name of freedom, in the struggle with al-Qaeda and the Taleban.

"Let us be grateful that we have been freed of terrorism and extremism. Our freedom was achieved through the joint efforts of people in every village, in every town," he said.

He said Afghanistan should not let slip the chance to establish a peace, as it had ten years ago. The general said the main aim of the new authorities was to establish security and protect citizens of all ethnic groups.

One of the government's first measures in the New Year would be to ban people from distributing weapons. "This is the time to collect up weapons, not hand them out," he said.

Afghans are pinning their hopes for the future of Afghanistan on the implementation of the Bonn agreements and the convening in June of this year of the Loya Jirga, a body made up of 21 Afghan elders, which will appoint a provisional government for 18 months.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR country director in Uzbekistan

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