Border Town - Detail


Are Afghan Lives Worth Less Than Ours?

Nov. 13, 2008
N.J. Lukanovich

Canadian journalist Melissa Fung was released on Nov. 8, after being kept hostage for a harrowing 4 weeks in an underground cave in Maidan Wardak, Afghanistan. This was definitely a good news story for Melissa Fung and her family and friends. But, no matter how ugly the ordeal, in comparison to female Afghan journalists who have been gunned down in their homes or on their way to work, she is one lucky girl.

After all, Melissa Fung, unlike her Afghan peers, chose to be in Afghanistan. It's a story that raises many questions. Whether or not the Canadian government and the Afghan government are telling the truth when they claim that there was no ransom or exchange of prisoners, is the first.

The suggestion that there are rumors of a payoff simply because she was released is disingenuous; the Pakistan Observer reported that according to their sources, two "dangerous" Taliban were released in exchange for her release. Certainly, there was a payoff of some kind, and it is also certain that there would be every attempt to cover it up. Concerns about the ramifications of rewarding kidnappers are valid, but whether or not these cover-ups are believed by those who carry out kidnapping is questionable.

We are told that hundreds of security personnel worked endlessly to rescue this journalist and that it was Afghan security forces from the National Security Directorate (NDS) that freed her. We're also told that tribal leaders negotiated her release. That in Afghanistan "shame" is a big deal, it's a culture of shame, and the Taliban and/or their hired criminal gangs are so highly sensitive to the concept of shame, that they felt compelled to free the poor girl. I even heard the phrase "because she is a woman, it would be too shameful to harm her."

Perhaps there was compensation of some kind for the tribal leaders, who then did who knows what, to convince the kidnappers to release her. In an interview with Melissa Fung on the CBC, she tells us that the kidnappers were part of a family for whom kidnapping is their business, and that the father was negotiating the ransom from Pakistan. And that the kidnapper in charge, the son of the chief, complained that he would make no money from her release. It's possible there were threats instead of a payoff. The details of what happened will doubtless remain a mystery.

The second thing that strikes me about this saga, is the ability of the media to keep Melissa Fung's kidnapping a secret for the duration, a month. If the media was willing to keep mum about her abduction, they would surely keep mum about a payoff. If there was a payoff of some kind, it's understandable. If someone I loved and cared about was held hostage I would be screaming to release a thousand Taliban for that one life. I don't even have a problem with the official silence about a payoff, but I do have a problem with the media bandying about the idea that Afghanistan is a culture in which attacking women is shameful. This is an insult to the memory of women who have been assasinated in Afghanistan and the multitude who live in fear for their lives, because they are perceived as bringing shame upon Islam.

Afghanistan is a culture in which women are considered to be shameful for attempting to live as equals to men. In Afghanistan, the intensely patriarchal and misogynist Taliban, Pashtun, and warlords of every stripe believe that a woman brings shame upon herself, and her family, if she doesn't behave according to their interpretation Islam, which in Afghanistan includes being veiled, silent, and surrounded by male relatives in public.

There is clearly little shame about punishing women or girls, considering that 15 girls were sprayed with acid on their way to school a mere few days after Melissa Fung's release. Three girls are being treated in hospital for serious conditions, and there is concern that one will lose her sight. According to the Telegraph (UK), the attackers ripped off their head scarves and sprayed their faces, but a few girls wearing burqas were left untouched. The attackers have achieved their goal; the mothers of these girls no longer want their daughters to go to school.

The third question I have after pondering this story about our Canadian journalist, is this: why is a Western life so much more valuable than an Afghan life? We rarely even hear about Afghan deaths, and if we do it's mentioned as an aside, and then on to something else that might attract the reader's/viewers attention. The media seems to have a mission to keep silent about the numbers of Afghan deaths. There was certainly no media blitz when Zakia Zaki and Farida Nekzad, two Afghan women journalists, were killed last year. We need to know about these deaths and attacks on women, so that we have a better picture of how much or little women's rights have progressed in Afghanistan.

How do we even know what's really going on when we aren't getting the full picture? Various news agencies show photographs of individual soldiers who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, but no individual photos of all the innocent civilians who have been blown to bits.

According to Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives, at least 1,000 - 1,300 civilians were killed in the aerial bombing campaign from October 7, 2001 - January 1, 2002. These estimates are based on Western press sources, heavy "reduction factors" were applied to Afghan government reports reducing their estimates by up to 75%. Carl Conetta also estimates that at least 3,200 more Afghans died of "starvation, exposure, associated illnesses, or injury sustained while in flight from war zones" during the same time period.

Civilians have been dying in droves each and every year since the beginning of the war. There are currently more deaths incured by insurgents than coalition forces, but the number of civilian deaths attributed to the war, also known as collateral damage, is higher than deaths by insurgents overall.

In 2007, 232 foreign soldiers were killed, while 1,980 civilians were killed. UNAMA - UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reports that 1,445 civilians were killed in the first eight months of 2008, which is a 39% increase from the same period in 2007.

We shouldn't wonder that many Afghans feel that they have been occupied, that they are caught in a war, and that the promises of better times are mere rhetoric, but for those who live in Kabul.