Friday, October 30, 2009

Malalai Joya: 'A Woman Among Warlords'

'A Woman Among Warlords'Listen to the Story
Talk of the Nation

October 27, 2009 - NEAL CONAN, host:

Malalai Joya was born in a small mountain village in western Afghanistan. Three days later, a communist coup overthrew the government in Kabul. The Soviet Union invaded not long afterwards. War, she writes, is all we Afghans have known.

She lived as a refugee in Iran and Pakistan, ran an underground school for girls during the rule of the Taliban, and went on to become the youngest member of Afghanistan's parliament. She's a staunch advocate for women's rights in a country where such rights often exist only on paper. In her memoir, Joya writes about her family's struggle against Islamic fundamentalists, warlords and foreign occupation.

If you'd like to speak with her about her past and about her country's future, our telephone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today, Malalai joins us from NPR's bureau in New York. She tells her story in a book called "Woman Among Warlords." And Malalai Joya, nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. MALALAI JOYA (Author, "A Woman Among Warlords"): Thank you. Thanks for this interview.

CONAN: And you write that one of your early memories as a child was clinging to your mother's legs while a policeman ransacked your house searching for your father.

Ms. JOYA: Yes, it is true. As - when I was child, after four days that I born, Russia occupied Afghanistan and their puppets come in power. So the situation was very risky for freedom-loving fighters, especially democrats, the people of my country.

As my father was one of the democrat person who was a student of university, and when - and they were occupied my country together with other freedom-loving fighters. They start to fight against occupation. That's why they killed millions of Afghan, innocent Afghan and also thousand democrat in Afghanistan, and my father was one of those unfortunately. And he did struggle against and now he's alive.

CONAN: Yes. But he lost his leg. And there were many months after the incident in which he was injured when you didn't know whether was dead or alive.

Ms. JOYA: No. Never I know as (unintelligible) so you can read some stories that when I was a baby that he lost one of his legs and have to go or have to leave Afghanistan. He went to refugees - neighbor countries. So after four years, when I was four years old, I left Afghanistan. And for the first time, I met my father and my uncle.

The older brother of my father took care of our family as well. And she - he was very close to me. And they're crying to me and I called him always daddy, father. So, for me, it was difficult to accept that that's not my father. And that means that my uncle is not my father and my father is my father.

CONAN: There's a touching story you tell, after your family moves to the - Iran to be with your father who's in exile there in a refugee situation. And he overhears you, a small child, one day singing a silly song about my father only has one leg.

Ms. JOYA: Yeah, still my families remember. And a friend of my father also made jokes because first time that I accept that - I said, this is my father and I was singing that silly song that, as you said, with my salsa(ph) and then my father - I didn't know that he was listening to me - and then he recognized I was (unintelligible) just lost.

CONAN: Yes, because he understood at that moment you accepted him as your father.

Ms. JOYA: Yes.


Ms. JOYA: Yes.

CONAN: Then later, your family moves to Pakistan, to a refugee camp, first in Quetta and then up in - near Peshawar. And these are - well, million of Afghans were forced into refugee status during the struggle against the Soviet occupation and later during the civil war.

Ms. JOYA: Yeah.

CONAN: But this was where you first became exposed to the politics as you tried to go to school to get an education.

Ms. JOYA: Yeah. Like, as you said, like many Afghan, millions of Afghan, we also become refugee and because Iran was not - no school for a garrison -Afghan (unintelligible) in Pakistan (unintelligible). And on that time, a refugee (unintelligible) class in high school when I was, I thought to be a social activist. And in the morning I was a student of the school, in the evening I was a teacher for literacy courses.

So we belong to political situation. We are (unintelligible) generation. As I said, I was four-days-old baby that Russia occupied Afghanistan. Then criminal Mujahideen come in power, these warlords, this civil war from '92 to '96. Then Taliban, these fascist people come in power. Then back after 9/11 tragedy, these warlords, these criminal Mujahideen (unintelligible) democracy, they come in power.

And we saw nothing in our life, just war and these violences. And I believe even children (unintelligible) Afghanistan through politics, even stones of Afghanistan (unintelligible) speak, that politics (unintelligible) like children of Palestine that always inspired me, that they fight against occupation, even children with the stone.

CONAN: And there is - you've described a lot of history in very quick terms there. But there is a chapter of your story that I think most people would find fascinating, and this is during the rule of the Taliban. Your family returns home to Western Afghanistan. And in fact you run an underground school to teach girls.

Ms. JOYA: Yes. I was activist of organization of promoting Afghan women capabilities called OPAC, even on that time it was not register. They had health and education activities for women and children, underground activities, especially in the period of Taliban in '98. I was famous in the camp (unintelligible) they were searching for activist and they contacted me.

And I like the idea and as a social activist because there was no education for girls and women, so that's why I moved with my family and my father, as democrat, and they will agree. And we moved to (unintelligible) and there also underground activist I was since after 2001 (unintelligible) but now when you compare my life with the dark period of Taliban as activist and now, on that time it was risky.

But now, even with (unintelligible) bodyguard it's not safe. There's many assassination attempts (unintelligible) changing the safe house to safe houses, many death threats receiving, not only me, many other democrat of my country, the social activists and political democrat activists.

CONAN: We'll get to the present day in just a moment. But I think listeners would be interested to hear. You were forced during the Taliban time to wear the burqa, a piece of clothing which you detest. Nevertheless, it made it possible for you to smuggle schoolbooks underneath it without being detected.

Ms. JOYA: Yeah, it is true. It was difficult (unintelligible) burqa, I had some funny memory in the meantime, not only sad but how my other friends, these colleagues of OPAC, and even my father was saying that among all women when I see you, I recognize who you are, because it was really difficult how to (unintelligible) and, but now…

CONAN: He said you walked like a penguin.

Ms. JOYA: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOYA: But now even with the burqa and bodyguard, as I said, it's not safe. And now this disgusting burqa, which for me, as always I'm saying, this is like symbol of oppression. And I'm sure for most of women of my country, and it's like (unintelligible) but now it gives life.

CONAN: Let me ask you a question. You describe the situation of your country over the past 30 years, and of course much suffering caused by the Soviet invasion and occupation and the long war then, as you mentioned it, the terrible civil war, which Americans know relatively little about that followed, and then the Taliban, which came to power, and then, of course, the war that has continued ever since September the 11th and the United States and NATO forces led, a war which you say, described as just another occupation.

Ms. JOYA: Yeah.

CONAN: And you described the terrible criminals, you say, the warlords and many of whom are in power now. Yet you also say in your book - and I wanted to ask you about this, it's a statement of great optimism: A longing for freedom beats in every Afghan's heart and we have eventually repelled every foreign occupier. After all of that, the fundamentalists, the warlords, the Taliban, do you believe that a longing for freedom beats in every Afghan heart?

Ms. JOYA: You know, in the mind and also in the hearts of my people, this criminal has already brought to the court, has been faced to the court. People do not support them. Karzai's corrupt mafia system is a good example how much (unintelligible) and this election is another example, non-democratic election. Millions of Afghan, they did not attend in the election.

And now that my (unintelligible) people, that the reason I'm not - I'm alive that - because of support of these poor people. And they wish that one day these criminals must be paying into the International Criminal Court. But they imposed on my people, that was the main reason of the wrong policy of US government and its allies, that they replace one terrorist like Taliban with another terrorist, these warlords, these criminals.

So that's why situation of Afghanistan goes to a disaster, especially for a woman. In most of provinces, it's like hell. First of all, they change my country to the center (unintelligible)…

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. And Pauline is with us. Pauline calling from East Hampton in New York.

PAULINE (Caller): Yes. Hi. I wanted to ask you - I just got a little bit of a hint of how you feel from your last statement. But I wanted to ask you how Afghans feel about the American occupation right now and the ratcheting up of -potential ratcheting up of the occupation.

There's a lot of reporting here that tries to tell us that the Afghans want the Americans in to protect them from the Taliban. Can you give us a little more insight into that?

Ms. JOYA: Yes, why not? You know, my people, now they're sandwiched between two powerful enemies. From the sky, this occupation forces bombing and killing innocents of our lands under the name of Taliban, most of them women and children. In the ground, these warlords in Taliban is now negotiating with each other, continue to their fascism. For example, these occupation forces as they did the bombing in (unintelligible) Province, maybe you hear through media. And one day more than 150 civilians has been killed, even they used white phosphorus and cluster bomb.

I think democracy never come by white phosphorus or cluster bomb or by war. Also, on 9th of September they did bombing in Kunduz Province, this month, recently, and 200 civilians has been killed.

After all of these crimes, White House says apologize and Karzai's puppet, corrupt mafia system says thank you. No, my people are fed up. They don't want to listen anymore thank you and apologize. Even they're bombing our wedding parties, what they did in Jalalabad and also Nuristan, that day by day, civilians are the victims. You can go and see Professor (unintelligible) and these troops themselves are the victim of the wrong policy of their government as they send them for bad cause for war.

I said condolences and I say condolence to those family who lost their sons, but they must raise their voice against this wrong policy. But now Obama want to surge more troops in Afghanistan, which will bring…

CONAN: Excuse…

Ms. JOYA: Yeah?

CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off. And Pauline, thank you very much for the call. But we just have a minute left, and I wanted to ask you if US forces did withdraw, which you want them to do, why would we think for a moment that it would not either be the Taliban or the warlords still in control in Afghanistan?

Ms. JOYA: When these occupation forces stop bombing and killing civilians and their government do not support warlord in Taliban, then - as I said, now we are fighting two enemies, against occupation and these warlords and Taliban.

With the withdrawal of one enemy, it's much easier to fight against one enemy instead of two. If really Obama honest for my people first, in this occupation, they are saying civil war will happen, but today (unintelligible) civil war. We do not have security - poverty, corruption. It's increasing rapidly in Afghanistan, the situation of woman is getting disaster.

Obama, first of all, must say apologize to my people and bring this criminal Bush to the International Criminal Court. (Unintelligible) power in Afghanistan. Now they are negotiating with Taliban (unintelligible) these terrorists as a moderate, while (unintelligible).

Obama must support democratic minded people of my country while we have a lot. There are many risks for them. Educationally support my people and also (unintelligible) the U.N. must stop neighbor countries like Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan that support Taliban and these warlords. So as long as these occupation forces be in Afghanistan, the worse civil war will be.

CONAN: Malalai Joya, we thank you for your time today and good luck with the book.

I should note you said some facts about the bombing in Kunduz, which are disputed by the U.S. government about the use of white phosphorus and cluster bombs. But anyway, these are in dispute.

Anyway, thank you very much for being with us today.

Ms. JOYA: Thank you. At the end, I want to say that democracy never come by war. Please raise your voice, great democrat American people, first of all, against the war crime of your government. And I want to say they will destroy all of the flowers, but they never can stop this pain. No history except occupation and no nation can donate liberation to another nation.

CONAN: Her book is called "A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice." She joined us from our bureau in New York.


Book Excerpt:
Dust in the Eyes of the World

I come from a land of tragedy called Afghanistan.

My life has taken some unusual turns, but in many ways my story is the story of a generation. For the thirty years I have been alive, my country has suffered from the constant scourge of war. Most Afghans my age and younger have only known bloodshed, displacement, and occupation. When I was a baby in my mother's arms, the Soviet Union invaded my country. When I was four years old, my family and I were forced to live as refugees in Iran and then Pakistan. Millions of Afghans were killed or exiled, like my family, during the battle-torn 1980s. When the Russians finally left and their puppet regime was overthrown, we faced a vicious civil war between fundamentalist warlords, followed by the rule of the depraved and medieval Taliban.

After the tragic day of September 11, 2001, many in Afghanistan thought that, with the ensuing overthrow of the Taliban, they might finally see some light, some justice and progress. But it was not to be. The Afghan people have been betrayed once again by those who are claiming to help them. More than seven years after the U.S. invasion, we are still faced with foreign occupation and a U.S.-backed government filled with warlords who are just like the Taliban. Instead of putting these ruthless murderers on trial for war crimes, the United States and its allies placed them in positions of power, where they continue to terrorize ordinary Afghans.

You may be shocked to hear this, because the truth about Afghanistan has been hidden behind a smoke screen of words and images carefully crafted by the United States and its NATO allies and repeated without question by the Western media.

You may have been led to believe that once the Taliban was driven from power, justice returned to my country. Afghan women like me, voting and running for office, have been held up as proof that the U.S. military has brought democracy and women's rights to Afghanistan.

But it is all a lie, dust in the eyes of the world.

I am the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament, but I have been banished from my seat and threatened with death because I speak the truth about the warlords and criminals in the puppet government of Hamid Karzai. I have already survived at least five assassination attempts and uncounted plots against me. Because of this, I am forced to live like a fugitive within my own country. A trusted uncle heads my detail of bodyguards, and we move to different houses almost every night to stay a step ahead of my enemies.

 To hide my identity, I must travel under the cover of the heavy cloth burqa, which to me is a symbol of women's oppression, like a shroud for the living. Even during the dark days of the Taliban I could at least go outside under the burqa to teach girls in secret classes. But today I don't feel safe under my burqa, even with armed guards to escort me. My visitors are searched for weapons, and even the flowers at my wedding had to be checked for bombs. I cannot tell you my family's name, or the name of my husband, because it would place them in terrible danger. And for this reason, I have changed several other names in this book.

I call myself Joya — an alias I adopted during the time of the Taliban when I worked as an underground activist. The name Joya has great significance in my country. Sarwar Joya was an Afghan writer, poet, and constitutionalist who struggled against injustice during the early twentieth century. He spent nearly twenty-four years of his life in jails and was finally killed because he would not compromise his democratic principles.

I know that because I refuse to compromise my opposition to the warlords and fundamentalists or soften my speeches denouncing them, I, too, may join Joya on the long list Afghans who have died for freedom. But you cannot compromise the truth. And I am not afraid of an early death if it would advance the cause of justice. Even the grave cannot silence my voice, because there are others who would carry on after me.

The sad fact is that in Afghanistan, killing a woman is like killing a bird. The United States has tried to justify its occupation with rhetoric about "liberating" Afghan women, but we remain caged in our country, without access to justice and still ruled by women-hating criminals. Fundamentalists still preach that "a woman should be in her house or in the grave." In most places it is still not safe for a woman to appear in public uncovered, or to walk on the street without a male relative. Girls are still sold into marriage. Rape goes unpunished every day.

For both men and women in Afghanistan, our lives are short and often wracked by violence, loss, and anguish. The life expectancy here is less than forty-five years — an age that in the West is called "middle age." We live in desperate poverty. A staggering 70 percent of Afghans survive on less than two dollars per day. And it is estimated that more than half of Afghan men and 80 percent of women are illiterate. In the past few years, hundreds of women have committed self-immolation — literally burned themselves to death — to escape their miseries.

This is the history I have lived through, and this is the tragic situation today that I am working with many others to change. I am no better than any of my suffering people. Fate and history have made me in some ways a "voice of the voiceless," the many thousands and millions of Afghans who have endured decades of war and injustice.

For years, my supporters have urged me to write a book about my life. I have always resisted because I do not feel comfortable writing about myself. I feel that my story, on its own, is not important. But finally my friends persuaded me to go ahead with this book as a way to talk about the plight of the Afghan people from the perspective of a member of my country's war generation. I agreed to use my personal experiences as a way to tell the political history of Afghanistan, focusing on the past three decades of oppressive misrule. The story of the dangerous campaign I ran to represent the poor people of my province, the physical and verbal attacks I endured as a member of Parliament, and the devious, illegal plot to banish me from my elected post — all of it illuminates the corruption and injustice that prevents Afghanistan from becoming a true democracy. In this way it is not just my story, but the story of my struggling people.

Many books were written about Afghanistan after the 9/11 tragedy, but only a few of them offer a complete and realistic picture of the country's past. Most of them describe in depth the cruelties and injustices of the Taliban regime but usually ignore or try to hide one of the darkest periods of our history: the rule of the fundamentalist mujahideen between 1992 and 1996. I hope this book will draw attention to the atrocities committed by these warlords who now dominate the Karzai regime.

I also hope this book will correct the tremendous amount of misinformation being spread about Afghanistan. Afghans are sometimes represented in the media as a backward people, nothing more than terrorists, criminals, and henchmen. This false image is extremely dangerous for the future of both my country and the West. The truth is that Afghans are brave and freedom-loving people with a rich culture and a proud history. We are capable of defending our independence, governing ourselves, and determining our own future.
But Afghanistan has long been used as a deadly playground in the "Great Game" between superpowers, from the British Empire to the Soviet empire, and now the Americans and their allies. They have tried to rule Afghanistan by dividing it. They have given money and power to thugs and fundamentalists and warlords who have driven our people into terrible misery. We do not want to be misused and misrepresented to the world. We need security and a helping hand from friends around the world, but not this endless U.S.-led "war on terror," which is in fact a war against the Afghan people. The Afghan people are not terrorists; we are the victims of terrorism. Today the soil of Afghanistan is full of land mines, bullets, and bombs — when what we really need is an invasion of hospitals, clinics, and schools for boys and girls.

I was also reluctant to write this memoir because I'd always thought that books should first be written about the many democratic activists who have been martyred, the secret heroes and heroines of Afghanistan's history. I feel the same way about some of the awards that I have received from international human rights groups in recent years. The ones who came before me are more deserving. It is an honor to be recognized, but I only wish that all the love and support I have been shown could be given to the orphans and widows of Afghanistan. For me, the awards and honors belong to all my people, and each distinction I receive only adds to my sense of responsibility to our common struggle. For this reason, all of my earnings from this book will go toward supporting urgently needed humanitarian projects in Afghanistan aimed at changing lives for the better.

As I write these words, the situation in Afghanistan is getting progressively worse. And not just for women, but for all Afghans. We are caught between two enemies — the Taliban on one side and the U.S./ NATO forces and their warlord friends on the other. And the dark-minded forces in our country are gaining power with every allied air strike that kills civilians, with every corrupt government official who grows fat on bribes and thievery, and with every criminal who escapes justice.

During his election campaign, the new president of the United States, Barack Obama, spoke of sending tens of thousands more foreign troops to Afghanistan, but he did not speak out against the twin plagues of corruption and warlordism that are destroying my country. I know that Obama's election has brought great hopes to peace-loving people in the United States. But for Afghans, Obama's military buildup will only bring more suffering and death to innocent civilians, while it may not even weaken the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I hope that the lessons in this book will reach President Obama and his policy makers in Washington, and warn them that the people of Afghanistan reject their brutal occupation and their support of the warlords and drug lords.

In Afghanistan, democratic-minded people have been struggling for human and women's rights for decades. Our history proves that these values cannot be imposed by foreign troops. As I never tire of telling my audiences, no nation can donate liberation to another nation. These values must be fought for and won by the people themselves. They can only grow and flourish when they are planted by the people in their own soil and watered by their own blood and tears.

In Afghanistan, we have a saying that is very dear to my heart: The truth is like the sun: when it comes up nobody can block it out or hide it. I hope that this book and my story will, in a small way, help that sun to keep shining and inspire you, wherever you might be reading this, to work for peace, justice, and democracy.

From A Woman Among Warlords by Malalai Joya. Copyright 2009 by Malalai Joya. Excerpted by permission of the publisher.

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