Protest camps bring Kabul to a standstill
KABUL // It is a busy working day yet Afghanistan’s capital is almost at a standstill. Nine days ago frustrated Afghans took to the streets, after a lorry stuffed with explosives blew up in the diplomatic district of Kabul.
More than 150 people were killed and 650 injured — the highest number of casualties in any attack since the fall of the Taliban.
For the citizens of Kabul, it was a tipping point. Hundreds took to the streets in protest — and they stayed there, setting up tented camps at major traffic junctions in six areas of the capital.
Their grievances are about the lack of security which puts their lives in jeopardy every day. They are demanding the resignations of president Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the two heads of state of the National Unity Government (NUG) of Afghanistan.
But what they want even more is the removal of the heads of security.
“We are facing increasing threats to our security by the day; we are dying in large numbers. So whatever the security organs of the government are doing is clearly not working,” said Haroon Motaref, whom the protesters have chosen as their representative to the government.
The first response of Kabul police a week ago was to shoot live rounds at the demonstration, killing at least six civilians. If they intended that to be the end of it, they were mistaken.
“By shooting at us the government was treating us like enemies. Don’t we have enough enemies already?” said Qumas, 28, one of the protesters at what is now referred to as the “central camp”, in the Sharenaw area of central Kabul. “The Taliban kill us every day; ISIL have also started to kill us and now our own government is shooting at us.”
The attacks have not stopped. A triple suicide bombing killed 18 people at the funeral of a protester on June 3. A magnetic bomb targeted a police vehicle in western Kabul on Thursday. The city is on edge, with many streets blocked to the public. Shops and businesses are quiet as people are moving around less.
Saturday was declared a national day of mourning. Afghan flags flew at half mast in honour of the victims of all the recent bomb attacks.
The protest camps have been organised by a mix of civil society organisations, activists, students and ordinary concerned civilians. The tents are equipped with chairs, carpets and lighting — all of which the protesters were paying for themselves, Mr Motaref said. Protesters occupy the tents in shifts, with about 25-30 people present at a time, although the number rises to several hundred in the evenings.
The escalating protests, which are backed by Jamiat-e-Islami, the political opposition in Afghanistan, have plunged the government into crisis. Dr Abdullah has consulted with several national leaders, including former president Hamdi Karzai, and parliamentarians, and appears sympathetic to the protesters, partly because of his own connections to the opposition.
Nonetheless, the government says some of their demands are out of the question.
“There is no space for discussion of resignations of the president and the chief executive. Despite all oppositions, they were elected and represent the will of the Afghans,” said Javid Faisal, deputy spokesman for the chief executive.
However, he conceded that reforms in the security sector were needed, but they could only come about after a detailed investigation of the bombings as well as of the incident involving the killing of demonstrators.
“We can’t simply blame one person for the attacks. We need to identify where we failed before we take action,” he said.
The protests have also been opposed by Jamiat-e-Islami’s rival political group Hizb-e-Islami, led by the former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose forces killed thousands of people in attacks on the capital during the civil war in the early 1990s.
Mr Hekmatyar on Saturday warned those occupying the tents in Kabul to end the “chaos” or else “citizens” would take action.
The protesters, however, refuse to budge and insist on bringing all their demands to the discussion table.
“The situation in Kabul is worse than ever before and government doesn’t feel accountable for the deaths of our civilian lives,” said Dr Simi Yusuefi, 34, who works at the Jhamoriyat Hospital and joined the protest after witnessing the carnage from the lorry bombing on May 31. “The emergency ward at our hospital was filled with dead and injured Afghans,” she said. “I couldn’t stand to see the extent of the pain and misery being inflicted on our people.”
Dr Yusuefi said she and other doctors at the hospital come to the central camp for a few hours every day to show support and solidarity.
Asked if she feared another attack or the forced removal of the protesters, she said, “I’m not afraid of the government forces. I am here to put pressure on the government to replace the incompetent security officials who have failed to protect us over and again.”
Other protesters nodded in agreement. “We are not safe even in our homes anymore, so then it is better to die in the streets fighting for our rights,” said Qumas.
Updated: June 10, 2017 04:00 AM