The young man from the German Left Party is apologetic. "Malalai won't be able to meet you at 11. Her symbolic presence is needed on the boat," he explains. The boat turns out to be a small, two-storey river vessel decked out in peace flags and anti-war slogans. Bonn is once again playing host to an international conference on Afghanistan - ten years to the day since the first - and the nearest protesters have been able to come is a boat in the middle of the Rhine. I find Malalai Joya sipping herbal tea on the second deck. She looks tired. "I'm not tired. I am strong and fearless," she jokes.
The role of "symbolic presence" is not new to Joya. This slight, earnest-looking woman from Farah Province first came to international attention in
2003, when she stood up in Afghanistan's constitutional assembly to denounce the presence of "criminals" on its benches. In 2005, she became
the country's youngest ever parliamentarian, only to be dismissed two years later for criticising the corruption of her colleagues. Despite repeated death threats, Joya has continued to speak out against what she calls Afghanistan's "corrupt, puppet-mafia regime". She is, she says, "surprised to be alive".
Like so many of the country's activists, Joya lives underground, moving from safe house to safe house, never staying in the same place for more than a few nights. Despite the peril of her situation, she has become a point of contact for women fleeing domestic violence, rape or forced marriage. "I try to help them," she says, “but it's a drop in the ocean." When Joya talks about the young women who seek her out, her voice softens and her eyes light up. It is, she says, people, not ideology, who give her the strength to carry on. Ideology is suspect in Afghanistan. "They occupied my country under the banner of democracy, human rights and women's rights," she explains. "They misuse the stories of the women in my country to justify their warmongering."
Sick man of Asia
The boat judders to a crawl. Through the windows, we can make out the white outline of the Hotel Petersberg, where the future of Afghanistan is being debated. "It's a conference of propaganda and lies," Joya says bitterly. “It's as though my country were a sick body, with everyone fighting over the pieces."
In December 2001, the hilltop hotel hosted the first international conference on Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai was installed as leader of an interim government and Germany's then chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, promised the country "peace and prosperity" after "all the years of war . . . and humiliation". In the intervening decade, there have been many more conferences and Joya has repeatedly campaigned to be admitted as a delegate. “Not this time," she says emphatically. "I wouldn't have gone to this conference even if they'd invited me."
The boat completes its turn and we start back the way we came. "When I look back at those ten years," she says, "the consequences were bloodshed and human rights violations. Now, they are going to start a new page of tragedy for my country."
Up on the hill, the discussion is about the 2014 deadline for international troop withdrawal. "They say they are leaving," she snorts derisively, "but they will continue to control Afghanistan through their puppets. Did you know that, in my country, we call Hamid Karzai the third Shah Shuja?" She giggles, then she is serious again. "Over here," she says, indicating the west with a slight shrug of her arm, “I keep hearing about civil war." We are interrupted by a stocky American woman who wants to know whether Joya has "a message for Veterans for Peace". She smiles and shakes the woman's hand. She is grateful for their support, she says.
The veteran moves off and our conversation resumes. "I keep hearing that if there's not an international presence in Afghanistan, then the country will fall into civil war," she says in frustration. "But there already is a civil war in Afghanistan. We used to have one enemy but, now, we have three: occupation, Taliban and warlords. At least if the troops leave, we will have one less problem to fight." "Who is 'we'?" I wonder. "The democratically minded people of our country," Joya says proudly. "There are many of us and many more in the younger generation. The young people give me so much hope. They have been inspired by the glorious revolutions in the Arab countries and they are organising demonstrations and uprisings."
“It will take time," she concedes. "Illiteracy and poverty make it difficult and fewer people have access to the internet. But, one day, I hope to see it in my country, too. The younger generation are brave and they don't have blood on their hands."
At 33, I realise, Joya already considers herself an old woman. In a country where the average life expectancy is 45, she probably is. "I don't fear death," she says. "I fear political silence."