Freedom versus mutilation

The harsh reality of Afghan "democracy"

Reviewing the papers on Nick Ferrari's breakfast show on LBC radio this morning, I was stopped in my tracks by the front page of the Independent. Kim Sengupta's piece is headlined "Mutilatated - for voting in defiance of the Taliban", and the shocking image accompanying the story is the bandaged and bloodied face of an Afghan farmer, Lal Mohammed. Mohammed, a Hazara Shia from the southern province of Uruzgan, had his nose and ears slashed off by Taliban fighters while on his way to vote in the recent presidential elections.

Sengupta writes:

What happened to the 40-year-old farmer is the savage and hidden side of the election in a country experiencing a bloody war. This chilling account is the first from a victim of retribution taken by insurgents on someone who had defied their order to boycott the polls. And it helps to explain why so many people throughout the country were simply too afraid to vote.

The Independent listened to Mr Mohammed's terrifying tale in a house where he has taken refuge and is being guarded by friends. To add to the misery he has suffered, he has not received any serious medical treatment for three days because one of the main hospitals in the Afghan capital - where he had arrived after an arduous three-day journey - declared it had no room to keep him due to chronic overcrowding.

Is this what our troops are fighting and dying for? This story coincides with news of the 208th British military death in this war, killed in Helmand over the weekend. In recent days, it has also emerged that "just 150 Afghan voters dared to go to the ballot box in the area of Helmand province where British soldiers sacrificed their lives to secure a safe election day". This is depressing, and shameful.

Then there is the matter of fraud. I do find it ironic that our politicians and press reacted with fury to the Iranian presidential elections in June, rightly condemning the alleged vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing across the Islamic Republic, but have remained so silent on similar behaviour in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The Independent reports:

...allegations of major fraud at the polls have more than doubled in the past two days to stand at 550, and these may affect the final outcome.

Results so far, with votes counted from 35 per cent of polling stations, show President Hamid Karzai leading with 46.2 per cent, and his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, with 31.4 per cent.

However videos showing possible fraud have been posted on the internet, and Mr Abdullah and other opposition candidates have lodged complaints about what they say was widespread cheating. These complaints, and the low turnout in the south because of Taliban threats of violence, have dealt severe blows to the credibility of the voting process.

Adding to the sense of disorganisation here have been large-scale discrepancies in the voting returns coming in from across the country. Helmand province, the centre of British operations, has returned just one ballot box so far.

Mr Karzai's chief rival, Mr Abdullah, has stated: "My concern is about massive fraud - state-crafted, state-engineered fraud - which has taken place throughout the country. This kind of thing isn't tolerated in other democratic elections, so why should it be tolerated in Afghanistan?"

Abdullah asks a good question. The simple answer is that the British and American governments are willing this presidential election to be a success no matter what. How else to explain to the voters the ever-growing numbers of coalition soldiers returning home in bodybags? How else to justify an increasingly unjustifable "mission"?

On a final note: the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, has said that he believes the presidential elections would offer more Afghans "a stake in their own emerging democracy". Here is Lal Mohammed's response in today's Independent:

"Poor people suffer in this country. I do not know whether the elections will change that. I do not think I will try to vote again, I am now very frightened."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war