The radio running on optimism

Patrick Cockburn meets the broadcaster who is determined to keep fellow Afghans informed
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The Independent Online

A year ago, Mohammed Ezedyar Alam abandoned the radio station that he was running in northern Afghanistan and fled for his life, when the town from which he was broadcasting was captured by the Taliban. Now, Mr Alam, a gaunt 38-year-old with a slightly harassed manner, is back on the air after starting a new station called the Voice of Peace. Its name reflects Mr Alam's aspirations for the future rather than current reality. Its broadcasts are almost entirely devoted to war, and, to his embarrassment, the station is temporarily housed inside a military barracks in the village of Jabal Saraj.

There is no doubt that in Afghanistan, radio is king as a source of information. There are no newspapers or television. People are desperately eager for information. They feel, rightly, that the next few weeks will determine their future and the future of Afghanistan.

In the dusty streets of the villages held by the opposition, there is usually at least one man with his ear pressed to a radio. A silent crowd often collects around him, listening intently to the news. The most popular stations are the BBC, Voice of America and German radio, all broadcasting in Dari, a language akin to Iranian, as well as Radio Iran.

Mr Alam, working with a staff of 15, has been on the air for just a week, but already local people speak highly of his broadcasts, which go out for one and a half hours twice a day. "I think that the best news is on Voice of Peace," said a soldier in camouflage uniform who was buying a radio in a small shop.

The day we spoke, the main news on the radio was about the opposition advance on Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city of northern Afghanistan. Mr Alam, who knows the city well, drew us a small map indicating the main lines of advance by General Rashid Dostum and his deputy, Ata Mohammed. He said: "Our other items were about the bombardment of Kabul, 150 Taliban defecting, and [former Afghan] King Zahir."

Mr Alam's career as a radio journalist has required some rapid changes of location. Last year, he was chased out of the north-eastern town of Taleqon when the Taliban took it. A little earlier, they had briefly taken Charikar, north of Kabul, where Mr Alam was previously based, and had destroyed all his station's equipment before they withdrew.

For the moment, the range of Voice of Peace is limited, but Mr Alam hopes that, by putting a new antenna on a nearby mountain top, he will soon be able to broadcast to Kabul. US bombers have destroyed Radio Shariat, the main Afghan station, and only a few provincial Taliban radios are still operating.

Mr Alam's radio has also just broadcast a fascinating scoop. It reports that in retaliation for the US and British air strikes, the Taliban have banned the teaching of English in Afghanistan, and ordered all English language schools be closed. Those who continue to teach English will be severely punished.

Despite the Taliban's suspicion of educational establishments in general, there has been a keen appetite to learn English, even in small villages, among Afghan students who believe that knowledge of the language is necessary for emigration. Small private schools have flourished.

The Taliban's action against English is in keeping with its tradition of banning cultural phenomena of which it disapproves. When it captured Kabul in 1996, it immediately prohibited television, video, satellite TV and music, along with all games including football and even kite-flying – a favourite pastime in Afghanistan. Some Taliban militants even strangled songbirds, often kept as pets, deeming them to be a distraction from religion.

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