New year, fearful past

At Persian New Year, Sahar Fahimi speaks to Afghans about the humanitarian crisis tearing through their country.

An Afghan man sells toys during the celebration for Afghan New Year (Newroz) in Kabul, Afghanistan March 20, 2016. Afghanistan uses the Persian calendar which runs from the vernal equinox. 
REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

It is said that wherever you are on Norooz – the beginning of the Persian New Year and the first day of spring – determines your fate for the 12 months ahead.

This year’s Norooz (literally ‘new day’) took place on 20 March. In Persian- or Kurdish-speaking areas and central Asian countries, it’s a chance to put your best foot toward into the new year. By wearing new clothes and ‘shaking’ the house clean (khana tekani) you usher in rebirth and renewal. But in Afghanistan, this year’s Norooz fell during desperate times – 95 per cent of the population does not have enough to eat. Parents have resorted to selling their kidneys to feed their children. Others, out of sheer desperation, are arranging forced early marriages for their infant daughters to find the money to eat.

For Ghulam Ali* who lives in Ghazni in the east of the country, this year’s Norooz takes him back 20 years: ‘Afghanistan may be a different country than it was when the Taliban last took power [between 1996 and 2001],’ he says. ‘But the Taliban have not changed. In my village the Taliban are celebrating by performing mock executions of mannequins in stores that were not dressed in hijab.’

Parents have resorted to selling their kidneys to feed their children 

He and his family stay at home most of the time in absence of clear guidance on what laws they will be living under. ‘Here, women can visit each other if they travel with a guardian (mahram) and girls can go to school until fourth grade,’ Ghulam Ali says. ‘I’ve heard from my family in other cities that girls in their area are not even allowed to go to school at all. But then again, we have arbitrary taxation that they don’t have – in preparation for Ramadan, we were made to give 200 to 400 Afghani ($2.20-$4.55) supposedly for zakat [almsgiving considered one of the pillars of Islam] when we know it’s going into the pocket of the Taliban commanders. Last harvest, they took half of the chickpeas I had managed to grow in the name of tax. Now that there is no currency left I’ve lost the only thing I was able to barter with.’

Neglected

Before the moment of spring equinox, this year at 8.03pm Kabul time, many families in Afghanistan still made their niyat – their aspirations for the new year. Safiullah*, who lives in Kunduz, told me that his niyat is that the international community will rise to meet the challenge that Afghans face. Decades of war and neglect, though, have left him cynical – in February US President Biden signed an Executive Order that freed $7.1 billion of Afghanistan’s frozen assets, including money belonging to ordinary Afghan citizens, only to allot half to families of 9/11 victims.

Safiullah told me: ‘Thousands of Afghans’ lives were lost in US military campaigns here – but no one has ever spoken about compensating us for our loss… I’m not saying that we should put money straight in the hands of the Taliban. But this is not how it should be used.’

In my village the Taliban are celebrating by performing mock executions of mannequins in stores that were not dressed in hijab

Furthermore, attempts made to curb the authority of the Taliban have only served to severely exacerbate the basic needs of families across the country. ‘This humanitarian crisis has fundamentally been caused and prolonged by sanctions imposed by the international community,’ says Kitty Chevallier, a humanitarian aid worker with Afghanaid and based in Kabul. ‘The humanitarian exemptions that have been passed are insufficient for the normal banking system to resume in Afghanistan. The continued economic decline and poor prospects for education, due to school closures and a shortage of teachers, will push families to migrate. With current options for leaving the country extremely limited, people will be forced to use dangerous and costly routes.’

But Maryam*, an activist monitoring the human rights situation in Afghanistan, is adamant that a short-term alleviation of the humanitarian crisis cannot take priority over a long-standing commitment to human rights. ‘They should be using human rights as a condition of releasing the funds.’

Maryam also rejects the international community’s recognition of the Taliban. When asked, she showed some cynicism surrounding the UN Secretary General’s praise for the Taliban’s announcement that schools would re-open on 22 March. ‘This time, the Taliban are playing smart on the international plane. But they are still the same. They may say one thing in Kabul but do another’, she says. ‘The Taliban is not a system. It is a series of loosely connected individuals who each have a different grip on different parts of the country.’

Erasure and discrimination

The new year itself has become a flashpoint in the struggle for Afghanistan to maintain its heterogeneous religious and cultural make-up. Norooz, a 3,000-year-old festival steeped in Zoroastrian heritage, was banned in Afghanistan under Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001, considered a pagan festival antithetical to their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

This year, local media sources reported that the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, reinstated by the Taliban after the fall of Kabul in August 2021, had banned Norooz celebrations and revoked the public holiday. But, on the day itself, the Taliban said that they would not suppress any celebrations.

There are fears that the controversy surrounding Norooz is a harbinger of widespread cultural erasure and ethnic discrimination to come. Maryam describes the primarily Pashto-speaking Taliban’s ideology as ‘exclusionary and explicitly pro-Pashtun’, and therefore likely to spill over into a return of past ethnic violence against Persian-speaking Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek populations. Local media sources have reported on the removal of Hazara judges from their posts, and the erasure of certain Persian words from official titles, such as the Persian word for ‘university’ from the University of Balkh.

This time, the Taliban are playing smart on the international plane. But they are still the same. They may say one thing in Kabul but do another

‘Even before the fall of Kabul, as a Hazara minister, I didn’t have the same authority as a Pashtun-speaker. It was a kind of unwritten law,’ explains Masooma Khawari, the first female Minister of Communications and Information Technology – now in exile. ‘You only have to look to Afghanistan’s past. Uruzgan, Helmand, Lashkargah – these were areas with thousands of Hazaras. Lashkargah is a Persian word; that shows the ancestry of Persian-speakers there. And yet, now there are close to none. The forcible displacement of Hazaras that is happening now is not new.’

Spring only exacerbates this threat of violence. As the snow melts that freezes over much of Afghanistan over winter, the traditional ‘fighting season’ begins. So, this Norooz, Safiullah and Ghulam Ali forwent the usual traditions of visiting elders and spending time in the mountains for fear of being attacked whilst celebrating.

It was not without some irony that we wished each other a happy new year, knowing well the superstitious quality that many assign to Norooz as a symbol of what’s to come. Without commitments to humanitarian aid and international cooperation surrounding sanctions, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan only stands to intensify.

*Names have been changed. 

This article is part of our From The Front series, featuring fresh perspectives on conflict, peace and environmental protection around the world. The series is funded by the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation and you can find out more about it here.