A woman's fight with the Taliban

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Chekeba Hachemi is the woman founder and head of the Paris-based Afghanistan Libre group, which seeks through active field work to help build a new Afghanistan, free of the Taliban's repressive policies towards women. Mohammad Bashir reports.

Chekeba Hachemi fears that mounting civilian casualties from the US bombing raids could shatter her dream.

Hachemi's Afghanistan Libre group was working in areas controlled by the Afghan opposition in the Panjshir Valley, bringing basic education and work for women - both outlawed by the ruling Taliban.

She detests the Taliban and their extreme interpretation of Islamic law, but is afraid that the steady stream of civilian deaths from the daily US military raids could be playing into their hands.

"Refugees come from Kabul with stories of serious civilian losses. If this continues, the people's way of thinking will change against the Americans," she says.

She warns that if more news of civilian casualties seeped into the Panjshir, public opinion in the estimated 10 percent of Afghanistan held by the opposition Northern Alliance could turn against the United States.

"People thought the capture of Kabul was imminent," she says. "That has not yet happened and some were unhappy the American planes were not hitting the Taliban frontline positions more frequently, rather than Afghan cities," adds Hachemi.

Hachemi set up Afghanistan Libre in 1996 with a plan to rebuild two schools in the Afghan capital, but once the Taliban seized the capital in 1997 Hachemi began to concentrate her work on the opposition areas.

Women have been denied basic rights under the Taliban. They have been banned from education and work outside the health sector.

Their lot is not much better in the areas held by the opposition, where local rural traditions have severely limited freedoms, but Hachemi feels she is making progress.

She has made six hazardous trips to the remote villages in the opposition stronghold of the Panjshir valley, and its surrounding areas north of Kabul, to oversee her group's projects for women and orphans.

The group has opened a women's association in Gulbahar region which holds literacy classes and runs handicraft programmes for some 800 rural women.

"Their products can be sold locally and can be exported to France too," she says, adding that slain opposition commander Ahmad Shah Masood had taken a keen interest in the project before his assassination last month.

Her group has also opened an orphanage, a girls school and a small power-generating unit to electrify 400 houses in the Panjshir.

"Right now, the construction of the biggest girls' school in the Panjshir is in progress. Called Malalai lycee, it will open next March enrolling up to 1,000 local girls," she proudly exclaims.

However, just how far the project succeeds will likely depend on the progress of the war on the Taliban, which the United States has vowed to topple because of its support for alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

An economics expert, Hachemi says she has not given up hope of returning to live in Afghanistan, despite a 16-year exile in Paris.

"I always wanted to go back to Afghanistan one day and wanted to be a physician which, I thought, was the best way I could serve my people," Hachemi explains.

She believes she is the first Afghan woman to head a Western-based aid group running projects inside Afghanistan, and says her work has served as a model for Afghans living in Europe.

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