Wed, Dec 24, 2003 - Page 9 News List

A young Afghan dares to mention the unmentionable-justice

Angry mujahedeen vowed to kill the plucky social worker for calling the country's self-styled holy warriors criminals who had destroyed their country

By Amy Waldman and Carlotta Gall  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Kabul, Afghanistan

Malalai Joya pushed her black head scarf forward to cover her hair fully, then opened her mouth.

Out poured a torrent of words, in a voice rising with emotion. Why, she asked the delegates assembled here on Dec. 17 to ratify a new constitution for Afghanistan, were her countrymen and women tolerating the presence of the "criminals" who had destroyed the country?

"They should be brought to national and international justice," she said. "If our people forgive them, history will not."

It took a moment for the 502 delegates to absorb the import of her words. When they did, the result was bedlam: Shouts of "Death to Communism!" and a rush by some toward the stage, and toward the diminutive Joya as well.

All of 25, Joya, a social worker from Farah Province, in the southwest, had crossed several lines at once. She had spoken her mind as few Afghan women dare to do. More important, as many interpreted her words, she had spoken against the mujahedeen, or holy warriors, who fought and humbled the Soviet Union. They are a sacrosanct constituency in this country, and a powerful political force in this assembly.

Many Afghans, however, now call those commanders warlords, blaming them for the destruction of Kabul in a vicious civil war that began in 1992 after the fall of the Communist government and ended only when the Taliban conquered the country in 1996 and imposed their harsh brand of Islamic law.

But few dare say "warlord" aloud.

Joya's experience helps explain why. The assembly chairman, Sebaghatullah Mojeddidi, himself a former mujahedeen leader, called for security officers and tried to throw her out. He was persuaded not to, but he then asked her to apologize to the gathering. She refused. He finally accepted the apologies of others on her behalf.

"My sister, you did an astounding thing," Mojeddidi said. "You have upset everybody here."

At a news conference later, he said: "In fact we wanted to take her out for the good of herself. Who can stand against mujahedeen to defend her? They've stood against big powers. You know mujahedeen when they get angry at these things. They don't care about anyone."

Two hours after she spoke, an ashen-faced Joya was in the UN tent at the assembly, escorted by two women, members of the security force. She later returned to the assembly but was closely watched to ensure her safety. Amnesty International issued a press release saying that some people present when she spoke had been heard vowing to kill her.

After a similar assembly last year, a man who had complained about jihadis, the most religiously conservative mujahedeen, was so seriously threatened that he and his family were granted political asylum in the West.

By accident or intent, Joya had stepped directly on the fault line of a power struggle that has already emerged in the first few days of this gathering.

On one side are the country's American-backed interim president, Hamid Karzai, and his allies, who support a draft constitution that ensures a strong presidency, in part to check the power of the warlords.

On the other side are the jihadis. Many favor a parliamentary system that would limit the power of Karzai and give greater weight to Islam than the current draft does. They are suspicious of Western involvement in the country's political affairs.

While Karzai's faction, backed by the international community, may ultimately have the edge, his opponents have repeatedly showed their strength.

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