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Theatre of justice

A scene from AH5787, which is touring the country in pursuit of justice.


A group of women wearing burqas sits in a courtyard, looking at a man on stage who is crying out for justice, peace, revenge and reconciliation. He does not know what to do, which way to choose.

They are watching AH5787 – the title refers to an anonymous Afghan medical patient. Adapted from the Irish play AH6905 by Dave Duggan, it has been translated into Dari and Pashto and toured around Afghanistan by victims of human rights abuses.

The protagonist, Sardar, is waiting for a surgical operation to ‘cut’ the truth out of his body. Sardar is visited by seven ghosts of people who were killed during the past three decades of conflict. The ghosts will not leave him alone until their stories are heard and their suffering acknowledged. The audience is made up mainly of victims, gripped by the words of the ghosts and by Sardar’s response, their personal history chiming with that portrayed on stage.

There are millions of victims of human rights abuses from different ethnic groups and political affiliations across the country. Yet many of the worst perpetrators are currently sitting in positions of power (see left and below). The Afghan Government’s approval of an Action Plan for Transitional Justice (TJ) remains a theoretical exercise only. Following the publication of a controversial report by Human Rights Watch, Parliament approved the so-called Amnesty Bill which prevents prosecution for past war crimes. In December 2007 President Karzai admitted that he was unable to enforce accountability and that key perpetrators were entrenched in positions of power. 

After consultations with two major victims’ groups, the Human Rights Unit of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) launched a joint effort to find ways to deal with the pain of the past and the political unwillingness of the present. The result was a theatre project with two components. First, victims from different periods of conflict, ethnicity and background were brought together to share their stories, memories and suffering. Following the methodology of the Theatre of the Oppressed, the group developed five scenes which represented past and present abuses. The audience was made up of around 100 families of victims who engaged in a vigorous political debate about how to bring about change and find a common path towards achieving justice.

The second part resulted in AH5787, premièred in Kabul’s formerly grand Russian Cultural House, now shelter for many homeless and drug-addicted people. This too generated energetic discussions about the role of the Government and of the international community in bringing human rights abusers to justice.

The voices are now raised, but is anybody ready to listen?

Hadi Ogal works with the UN Human Rights Unit, focusing on freedom of expression and transitional justice.

Who’s who?

Abdul Rasul Sayyaf – In the early 1990s, this warlord ordered his fighters to kill thousands of ethnic Hazara civilians in Kabul. Now a leading MP, he played a key role in drafting the 2007 Amnesty Bill.

Vice-President Karim Khalilli – Human Rights Watch says that this warlord-turned-parliamentarian is among the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses and should be charged with war crimes.

Abdul Rashid Dostum – notorious for brutal human rights abuses, this former warlord heads the Islamic Movement, a mostly Uzbek militia group, and is currently chief of staff to the head of the Afghan Army.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – the former warlord and ex-Prime Minister is, according to the UN, now supporting the Taliban. He heads the hardline Islamic Society and is accused of war crimes and human rights abuses.

Ismael Khan – the powerful ex-Governor of Herat province is accused of human rights abuses. Now Minister for Water and Energy, he is expected to challenge Karzai in the 2009 elections.

Marshall Mohammed Qasim Fahim – former Defence Minister and senior Northern Alliance commander, accused by the UN of illegal land grabs.

Mohammad Muhaqiq – this warlord turned parliamentarian heads the Islamic Unity faction, a Shi’ite militia group.

Mullah Mohammed Omar – the Taliban leader is believed to be in hiding in the tribal areas on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Malalai Joya a female legislator who has spoken out against warlords in Parliament and been subjected to numerous attacks and death threats as a result (see Action page 21).

New Internationalist issue 417 magazine cover This article is from the November 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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