Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghans Put Tough Questions to Officials

Topics discussed in June events ranged from ongoing violence to environmental issues.

Nearly 1,000 people got a chance to confront local Afghan officials with tough questions during IWPR debates across nine provinces of the country last month.

For many of them, it was their first experience of engaging with officials in a public forum.

“I did not know what a debate was and why people gathered to talk about something,” said Hajji Sakhi, a resident of the Chahar Asyab district of Kabul province who was taking part for the first time. “After participating in this debate and realising how important it is, I will now make an effort to join any debate even if it’s in a faraway part of Kabul, because as well as learning a lot from the experience, I also feel more confident about speaking to government officials.”

Gulab Jan, another participant, added, “When government officials come to the debates, they answer all kinds of questions, but outside this forum government officials do not even speak respectfully to ordinary people, while actually answering questions is out of question. This is why I always take the opportunity to participate in debates and I ask the guests questions.”

Zemarai, a participant in the Baghlan debate, agreed that such events were an excellent way of holding government officials to account.

“Officials come under pressure in these debates and so they pay attention to their responsibilities. They are forced to address people’s problems,” he added.

Nilam, another participant, said, “The debates are extremely effective, and they would be even more effective if they were broadcast on television.”

In Parwan, Herat and Baghlan provinces, participants discussed how ongoing violence had impacted reconstruction efforts.

Habibullah Sarwarzada, a representative of the department of finance in Herat, said, “The intensity of the war and a lack of security means that several aid agencies suspended or decreased their financial support reconstruction projects. The lack of security has also affected the implementation of National Solidarity Programme (NSP) projects.”

The NSP is a flagship programme that helps fund local communities to run their own development projects.

Jahantab Taheri, a member of the Herat provincial council, added, “The people of Herat have been so discouraged by the ongoing violence that they are not only uninterested in major reconstruction work but also in even planting trees, because they have lost all hope that peace can be established.”

The ethical aspect of fighting during the month of Ramadan was the discussion topic in Daikundi, Ghor and Faryab provinces.

Damla Gul Ahmad Lutfi, a religious scholar, said, “Muslims must avoid all kinds of violence, even verbal violence, during the holy month of Ramadan. Islam prohibits war among Muslims at any time.”

Taking civilians hostage was discussed in Kabul, Badghis and Samangan provinces.

Maulavi Abdul Hadi, a member of the Samangan religious scholars’ council, said this practice was against Islamic values.

“Those who take hostages, abuse, kidnap, rob and kill people are subject to punishment both in this world and the world to come, according to the explicit provisions of Shariah [Islamic law],” he explained.

In an inter-provincial debate between Jawzjan and Herat conducted via Skype, participants talked about environmental activism.

Mir Maruf Hasib, head of Herat’s culture department, said that locals cooperated with the municipality to keep the city clean, helping to plant saplings and pick up rubbish.

“Despite the problems and shortcomings of the municipality, Herat is the cleanest and most beautiful of all the provincial capitals. The sole reason for that is the volunteer work done by residents and their mass participation in voluntary activities organised by Herat municipality,” he said.

“We appreciate such debates, because as well as learning about conditions in our own city, we learnt about the situation in Jawzjan city without even travelling there,” said Shayesta, a participant in Herat.

In a debate in which audiences in Ghor and Parwan provinces spoke via video-link, participants strongly disagreed about how well local officials were performing in efforts to bring about peace.

Sherzad, a tribal elder in Parwan, praised local efforts, adding, “The peace council works in together with tribal elders to ensure peace. We have worked with both the insurgents and villagers in various ways to ensure calm, with good results.”

In Ghor, however, the view was markedly different.

Provincial council member Sakhi Jawed said that all attempts to bring peace in the province had been futile.

“The peace committee has made efforts to reintegrate people... [but] it has failed to absorb those who could play a key role in bringing peace.”

Rahima, a participant, said the exchange of views had been very useful.

“This way, we can learn about other people in different provinces and we use each other’s experiences to help bring peace and solve problems,” she said.

This report is based on an ongoing series of debates conducted as part of the IWPR programme Afghan Reconciliation: Promoting Peace and Building Trust by Engaging Civil Society.

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