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Asiaweek: 'The Taliban Are Well Liked'
By Mutsuko Murakami
18/10/2001 9:50 pm Thu
Thursday, October 18, 2001
Webfiles: "The Taliban Are Well Liked"
A Japanese doctor's up-close observations contradict
By MUTSUKO MURAKAMI
Japanese doctor Tetsu Nakamura works with leprosy patients and
refugees in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's a job that keeps him in
touch with the raw reality of life in that troubled country. And he says
that from what he has seen, the Taliban are being wrongly portrayed
internationally. "There's something wrong with the media reports," he
says. "This talk of the Taliban being vicious and disliked doesn't fit
with reality." Nakamura says the fundamentalists have wide support
from the population, particularly in rural areas."Otherwise, how can
they rule 95% of the country with only 15,000 soldiers?"
Villagers around Nakamura's Peshawar base hospital and 10 clinics
in both northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan were pleased
to see peace established under Taliban rule, he says. The Pushtun
people, who make up two-thirds of the Afghan population, can
accept strict Muslim codes because they have lived by them all their
lives, he says. Women are not deprived of education or jobs, as far
as he can see. In fact, half the local doctors at his clinics are women.
So why are the people of the capital, Kabul, reportedly hoping to see
the Taliban overthrown? "The Taliban may act differently there," he
told me when we met recently in Tokyo. "They're obliged to fix the
corrupt urban life. The people most vocal in criticizing the Taliban are
upper-class Afghans who have been deprived of their privileges."
Nakamura's words reminded me of news footage I have seen several
times since the attacks on New York and Washington. Shot by French
journalists in Afghanistan, it showed Afghan women speaking
critically of the Taliban. Significantly, they are dressed in shiny
silk-like costumes, with large rings on their fingers.
Nakamura, 55, says the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance are not the
freedom fighters some journalists describe them as. Villagers are
frightened of them because they are more violent and cruel than the
Taliban, he says. They execute innocent people in horrific ways,
though not in public as the Taliban do as a warning to others.
Nakamura works for Peshawar - kai Medical Services, a Japanese
aid agency based in Fukuoka City that has been operating in the
Peshawar district for 17 years. He first visited the area as an alpinist
when he was still a medical school student in Fukuoka. Shocked by
the lack of medical care in the area, particularly for leprosy patients,
he volunteered to work at a local hospital in l984. He says: "I spent
most of my time not in straight medical work but in trying to understand
my patients, their lifestyles and values -- what makes them weep or
what matters most for them. "Luckily, I can eat anything and sleep
anywhere," he grins.
Nakamura has seen foreigners visiting Afghanistan and returning
home to criticize the Muslim culture -- from a Western perspective.
These people may be "heroes or heroines in London or New York,"
he says, "but they contribute nothing to the welfare of Afghans." As
for suggestions the Taliban have cut the country off from the world,
Nakamura says the Afghans are perhaps better informed than the
Japanese, as they listen daily to BBC radio in their own language.
The doctor's greatest concern is the fate of millions of starving
refugees in and around Afghanistan. Over one million of them are
suffering from hunger, he says, while up to 40% are bordering on
starvation. He thinks 10% could die during the winter. Nakamura and
his staff stopped focusing exclusively on leprosy in the l980s as they
had so many refugees to deal with, many suffering from malaria,
diarrhea, infections and fever. Severe draught in recent years created
hundreds of thousands of refugees. And now the American bombing
and the fear of an invasion has brought more. His aid agency helps to
dig wells not only to provide water but also for irrigation for farms, so
that the refugees can return to their villages.
Back home in Japan temporarily and thinking of his base area in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Nakamura says: "It's all like a mirage far off in the desert." He fondly recalls the red-brown soil of Afghanistan fields, the villagers sharing their joy about water from newly dug wells, and the friendly faces of Taliban soldiers helping villagers. "I have one simple question," he says. "What are the big powers trying to defend by attacking this ailing, tiny country?" It's a good question.