Students Protesters Demand Inquiry

Students are calling for an international inquiry into the violent suppression of their protests over conditions at Kabul University.

Students Protesters Demand Inquiry

Students are calling for an international inquiry into the violent suppression of their protests over conditions at Kabul University.

They asked for food at the end of a long day of fasting, electricity so that they could study and the right to protest over both.

But when Kabul University students voiced their demands earlier this week several were killed and dozens injured when police and soldiers opened fire and beat them with clubs and rifles.

Injured students interviewed by IWPR said police beat them after they had been felled by gunfire. According to the Cooperation Center for Afghanistan, a local humanitarian NGO, at least seven were killed, but other independent sources say the figure may have been higher.

Estimates of the number dead or injured were difficult to obtain because officials did not allow anyone but police into the hospitals. A doctor at the Red Cross Hospital in Kabul near the university, where some of the injured were taken, said he was told by interior ministry staff not to allow visitors to see the most seriously injured patients.

Interior and defense ministry officials sought to downplay the violence on Monday and Tuesday, saying only two were killed, and blamed students for creating the chaos by throwing rocks and damaging cars. They claimed the demonstrations were politically motivated.

But several dozen eyewitnesses told IWPR that the protests were a spontaneous reaction to living conditions in student dorms, and that the police shootings were unjustified.

President Hamed Karzai said those killed in the clashes were "martyred" and ordered a commission of the ministries of higher education, interior, justice, and national security to find and punish those responsible - on both sides. He promised the living conditions would be improved.

An IWPR reporter attended a meeting Thursday between students and General Afzal Aman, deputy chief of the Kabul garrison, during which the former vowed to continue demonstrating until their demands were met.

The demands are: those who shot the protesters should be found and brought to justice; sufficient food and electricity as well as glass for broken windows should be provided for the dorms; officials should stop calling students al-Qaeda or Taleban and recognise that the demonstrations were not for political reasons.

In addition, they said student delegates should be allowed to meet and discuss problems with high-ranking officials; intelligence officers should leave the university and police numbers should be reduced so that there is enough food for undergraduates; and officials in the ministry of higher education and Kabul University who are not addressing their needs should be replaced.

In response, Aman told the students not to talk to journalists about their problems but to speak to the minister of higher education instead.

In an interview with IWPR after the meeting, the general tried to blame al-Qaeda and "foreign sources" for the demonstrations, but when pressed he acknowledged that the main cause was the students' problems.

Minister for Higher Education Shareef Fayez told IWPR on Thursday that the shootings were wrong and that the protesters' complaints about living conditions are legitimate.

"We are asking for assistance from the government and international community because at the moment we have too many problems," he said. "We need generators for electricity... [but] the other problems are not so big, they were not problems that warranted protests."

Afghanistan's schools and universities suffer chronic problems, with underpaid and overworked teachers, crowded classrooms, dorms in poor condition, and a lack of electricity, textbooks and other supplies.

In addition, few of the low-ranking police in Afghanistan have training in civil law enforcement, particularly crowd control and civil disobedience actions. Many of them are illiterate or have no education beyond primary school.

Fayez acknowledged, "The police were supposed to use tear gas or water on the [demonstrators]. They were not supposed to shoot them."

But he said the students - who he described as a disgrace - have not been keeping their dorms clean, had broken windows and burned blankets, and that "these are the kind of things that used to be done by the Taleban. Chanting anti-government slogans supporting al-Qaeda, not informing the ministry about the demonstration and staging it on the anniversary of the day the Taleban collapsed - these things prove this was a political issue".

General Fatah Khan, a Kabul-based interior ministry official, told IWPR he was struck unconscious when he got out of his car at the demonstrations Monday night and had to have six stitches. He said 15 other police officers were injured, most of them seriously.

The general went on to say that though the students had caused a lot of damage, he was sad that some had been killed or injured.

The protests began Monday at about 6pm local time after the university canteen ran out of food, as had happened repeatedly the previous week, leaving several hundred students hungry at the end of a day of Ramadan fasting that begins at dawn.

The students also had endured frequent electricity cuts in the evenings, making it difficult to study as the end of the term approaches and leaving them unable to cook food for the pre-dawn Ramadan meal.

Those in the thick of the demonstrations said they had vainly complained about conditions to officials at the university and the ministry of higher education.

When the canteen food ran out Monday night, students are reported to have poured out of the dining hall, protesting about conditions. About 1,000 of the more than 3,000 demonstrators then decided to march as a group into central Kabul to buy food and to complain to officials.

Along the way, they informed police at the university and at the Ghazi High School post about what they were doing, and officers there allowed them to proceed, several students said. But a little over 2km down the road from the dorms, at Dehmazang Square, police summoned more officers as well as soldiers from the defence ministry to break up the demonstration. The police and troops reportedly began beating students with rifle butts and clubs.

The protesters threw stones in response, and police then opened fire with their rifles, eyewitnesses said. Officers continued to beat students who were lying on the ground injured, according to these accounts.

Medical student Mohammed Nabi said the order to fire was given by a local commander, and the shooting only stopped when the chief of Kabul police Baseer Salangi arrived. "If Salangi hadn't come here, we all would have been killed," he said.

He and two other undergraduates said police were also stealing watches and money from the students they were beating or arresting.

The next morning, the students again decided to march into town, this time demanding that police hand over the bodies of their dead colleagues and account for those who were injured or went missing. Students from the nearby Polytechnic Institute joined in this protest; the demonstrators at this point totaled more than 2,000.

When the protesters marched toward the ministry of higher education, police arrested some and fired water cannons at the others. They then threw stones at the fire brigade cars, and the police again opened fire. As the fleeing demonstrators tried to scramble over a mud wall, it collapsed, temporarily burying several of them.

More than 100 demonstrators, possibly as many as 300, were reportedly arrested Tuesday. One of the detained students, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR that he was imprisoned in police headquarters. "I was beaten very hard by police," he said. "They warned me not to tell anything to journalists and not to arrange any meetings."

Naqibullah, one of the protesters, showed an IWPR reporter a bullet wound to his ear and bruises from beatings. He estimated that at least nine students had been killed; he said he knew two of the dead personally.

Some government officials claimed the protests were prompted by al-Qaeda and Taleban activists to mark the anniversary of the fall of the student militia, November 13. They said some demonstrators were chanting slogans praising Osama Bin Laden and condemning America.

But the students said their action was primarily aimed at officials at the university and the higher education ministry. They admitted that a few of the protesters might have chanted pro-Taleban slogans, but claimed they were ignored by the majority of them. Some suggested the former may have been intelligence ministry agents.

"We will never accept that it was a political demonstration or that we did it because of provocation by someone else," said Abdul Rahman, an agriculture student. "We have food and electricity problems and we demonstrated just because of that.

"During the Taleban times they would call the students [who protested] non-Muslims. And they would not solve any of our problems. Now that it is democracy they call us supporters of al-Qaeda."

The violent reaction to the demonstrations left the undergraduates angry, many expressing doubts over the country's future.

A fourth-year medical student, Mohammad Daud, said, "After this demonstration, people know there is no democracy in Afghanistan."

"We thought that Karzai was working for democracy," said Hanif, an engineering student. He and others appealed to the ISAF to investigate the incident.

Some said ISAF officers, who were patrolling near the university Monday night and who observed the demonstrations on Tuesday, could testify that the shooting was unprovoked. A spokesman for the international force Major Mike Edwards said it is investigating the events and monitoring the situation.

Karzai had told students at Kabul University last month that they should spend their time studying instead of demonstrating.

A student who had not taken part in the protests said intelligence ministry agents were asking questions about him and looking for him. With tears in his eyes, he said, "I am a poor man. My father died two years ago, and I have to bring up a family. I'm not a member of al-Qaeda and wasn't even among the demonstrators. What should I do?"

Rahimullah Samander is an IWPR trainee reporter. Kabul-based independent journalists, Danish Karokhel, Mohammed Naseem Shafaq and Habibul Rehman Ibrahimi, also contributed to this report.

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