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Afghanistan's bravest woman brings her message to UK

Five assassination attempts have failed to silence a woman determined to defend Afghans from warlords, drug lords and the Taliban

Glyn Strong
Thursday 23 July 2009 00:00 BST

It is a year since I last saw Malalai Joya. She was at Stansted airport preparing to return to Afghanistan: a tiny figure clutching a large holdall and a gold-coloured trophy. It was the Anna Politkovskaya Award for human rights campaigning and Ms Joya was the second recipient. Some might say the trophy brings with it a curse. It was created in memory of the Russian journalist gunned down outside her Moscow apartment in 2006. The first recipient, Natalya Estimerova, was murdered last week in the Chechen capital. As Ms Estimerova passed on the trophy to her in 2008, her message was blunt: "Malalai, be brave."

Having survived five assassination attempts, if there is one thing the Afghan woman is, it is brave. Her story is inextricably linked to the recent history of her country. Through her own determination she has become part of its legend; first as a teacher in the refugee camps of Pakistan, then as an activist covertly running schools for girls in Herat during the Taliban years. Politicised beyond her years she was elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005 as its youngest member.

Today she lands in Britain. She has a new book to promote, Raising My Voice, but she is also here to deliver an unequivocal – and uncomfortable – message that Nato troops are not wanted in her country. "Afghans are more than just a handful of warlords, Taliban, drug lords and lackeys," she says. "I have a country full of people who know what I know and believe what I believe; that we Afghans can govern ourselves without foreign interference."

From her first controversial speech in the National Assembly in 2003, at the age of 23, to the day she was suspended from parliament for allegedly insulting other MPs, Ms Joya has never been one to mince her words. Her message is unlikely to be well received by Gordon Brown or Barack Obama.

When I first met her in Kabul two years ago, the rendezvous followed several changes of vehicle as well as body, camera and baggage searches. Her life had already been threatened so burqas and bodyguards were de rigeur for even the shortest journey.

We were together one day when news broke that three British soldiers had been killed in Helmand. Ms Joya didn't want Nato troops in her country, but she expressed sorrow for the parents and families who, like so many Afghans, had lost loved ones. Grief, the universal leveller, was something she has always understood. As the "Wootton Bassett effect" reminds Britons of how much the war in Afghanistan is costing in human terms, she says: "There can never be lasting peace if the lives of Afghans are not valued as much as the lives of Western soldiers. Every death is a tragedy, but too often the Afghan victims of this war are merely nameless 'collateral damage' reported in the media as having been killed by 'mistake'."

The Ministry of Defence publishes a rolling toll of service casualties – a grim reminder of the daily cost of the war. A man who has earned Ms Joya's heartfelt gratitude for trying to honour Afghanistan's anonymous dead in the same way is Professor Marc Herold who has established a memorial website for her countrymen. It makes sobering reading. "Civilian killings are entering into thousands whereas the Taliban death toll might not even reach hundreds,"Ms Joya says.

As the British media goes into overdrive about helicopter numbers, boots on the ground and exit strategies, she cuts to the quick. Her assessment of the past seven years is seen in purely human terms. "Along with the terror from the sky, there is terror in the ground. The fields and roadsides of Afghanistan are still riddled with unexploded landmines from as far back as the Soviet occupation – like the kind that cost my father his leg."

She kept diaries throughout her adolescence but she was initially resistant to the idea of writing a book. A quiet, self-effacing character, she dedicates her biography to women and children, the invisible casualties of conflict and oppression to whom she has given a voice in recent years: "The Bashiras, Rahellas, Bibi Guls, Pukhtanas and all my oppressed people whose sighs, tears and sorrows nobody sees."

Ms Joya is sceptical of the surge in the south of her country. "Helmand is not the whole of Afghanistan. Even if they annihilate Taliban there, they should not call it a success because Taliban are logistically and militarily stabilised in hundreds of other parts of Afghanistan ... and growing stronger as each day dawns."

She has often been accused of identifying problems but not offering solutions (the assumption being that if US and British troops pulled out, Afghanistan would descend into chaos, a bloody free-for-all). But she is unrelenting: "The current situation is already quite catastrophic, it cannot get any worse. The Taliban have taken over many districts and are nourished as each hour mounts."

"But it is the responsibility of our own people to fight for their rights, to achieve values like democracy and women's rights, human rights in our country. It's a prolonged struggle, it's a risky struggle full of hardships and challenges, but I trust in my people."

One of the most widely-cited advantages of Nato's intervention has been improved conditions for Afghan women. Ms Joya disagrees. "Just as the US air strikes have not brought security to Afghans, nor has the occupation brought security to Afghan women. The reality is quite the opposite. The now infamous 'Family Law' is but the tip of the iceberg of the women's rights catastrophe in our occupied country. The whole system, and especially the judiciary, is infected with the virus of fundamentalism and so, in Afghanistan, men who commit crimes against women do so with impunity."

Ms Joya is now 31 and married; she has the hopes and dreams of any young woman but her commitment to her cause is absolute. A deeply compassionate individual, she is as ruthless in her condemnation of Western "whitewash" as she is of the unpunished "war criminals" who sit in the Afghan parliament. "It is a shame that so much of Afghanistan's reality has been kept veiled by a Western media consensus in support of the 'good war'," she says.

Next month's elections offer little hope of change, she believes, and will be tainted by vote-rigging. "It is clear that the future president is already chosen in Washington. As in the proverb of our people 'Same donkey but with a new saddle!'"

So is she not tempted to return to politics, or even contest the presidency, as many have urged her to? Her answer is suitably gnomic. "I love my people and of course, if they wish, I will do that but let's see what's in the future."

In her own words: 'I'm not afraid of an early death'

"I am forced to live like a fugitive in my own country. A trusted uncle heads my detail of bodyguards and we move to different houses every night to stay a step ahead of my enemies. To hide my identity, I travel under the cover of the burqa, which to me is a symbol of 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. But today I don't feel safe under it, 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 know that because I refuse to compromise my opposition to the warlords and fundamentalists... then I may join... the long list of Afghans who have died for freedom. But you cannot compromise the truth. And I am not afraid of an early death if it advances the course of justice."

This is an extract from Malalai Joya's book Raising My Voice

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