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‘Sometimes I have to pick up a gun’: the female Afghan governor resisting the Taliban | Afghanistan

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It is early morning in Charkint, in the northern Balkh province of Afghanistan, but a meeting with the governor is already well under way to urgently assess the safety of the 30,000 people she represents. Salima Mazari has been in the job for just over three years, and for her, fighting the Taliban is nothing new, but since July she has been meeting with the commanders of her security forces every day as the Islamist militants’ attacks across the country increase.

As one of only three female district governors in Afghanistan, Mazari has attracted attention simply by being a woman in charge. What sets the 40-year-old apart, particularly amid the recent wave of Taliban violence, is her hands-on military leadership. “Sometimes I’m in the office in Charkint, and other times I have to pick up a gun and join the battle,” she says.

Her job means not only managing the day-to-day bureaucracy, but also organising military operations. “If we don’t fight now against the extremist ideologies and the groups that force them on us, we will lose our chance to defeat them. They will succeed. They will brainwash society into accepting their agenda,” she warns.

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What is the Women report Afghanistan series?

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As provinces and cities fall under Taliban control across Afghanistan, women’s voices are already being silenced. For this special series, the Guardian’s Rights and freedom project has partnered with Rukhshana Media, a collective of female journalists across Afghanistan, to bring their stories of how the escalating crisis is affecting the lives of women and girls to a global audience.

Afghan journalists, especially women, face a dire situation. Dozens have been injured and killed in militant attacks. As the Taliban have advanced, many have lost their jobs or been forced into hiding. Female journalists face a double peril: attacked for their journalism and persecuted for their gender.

All of the reporting in this series will be carried out by Afghan women, with support from the editors on the Rights and freedom project.

These are the stories that Afghan women want to tell about what is happening to their country at this critical moment.

Thank you for your feedback.

Mazari was born in Iran in 1980, after her family fled the Soviet war in Afghanistan. After graduating from university in Tehran, she held different roles at universities and the International Organization for Migration, before deciding to head to the country her parents left decades ago. “The most painful thing about being a refugee is the lack of sense of your country,” she says. “No place is your country.”

In 2018, she learned there was an opening for the position of district governor of Charkint, “my ancestral homeland”, as Mazari describes it. Encouraged by colleagues and family members, she applied for the post.

With her experience and qualifications, she was among the leading candidates. Her determination to work for the people of her district ensured that she was soon appointed. “Initially, I was worried that as a female governor I might be discriminated against, but the people surprised me,” she says. “The day I was officially received in Charkint as the district governor, I was overwhelmed by the support.”

Few women step out of their house here without a full hijab or a burqa, or a male guardian. To assume the role of district governor was no simple feat, and she soon found herself leading battles she had not expected.

Salima Mazari, fourth from left, with her security detail near the frontline of the battle against the Taliban in Charkint district.
Salima Mazari with her security detail near the frontline. Repeated requests to Kabul for military supplies have gone unanswered, she says. Photograph: Farshad Usyan/AFP/Getty

“We lack basic facilities such as access to healthcare. To manage security, we should have at least seven police ranger cars, two Humvees equipped with light and heavy weaponry. However, we have far fewer resources, even though we’ve requested them from the central government many times. My pleas have gone unheard,” she says.

Based on data provided by the Afghan district governance office, Charkint once had a population of more than 200,000 people, but war and the resulting poverty have displaced huge numbers of people. Mazari feels it is considered a second-grade district, and her task is made harder as she fights corruption within the Afghan bureaucracy.

Two years ago, Mazari established a security commission that recruits Afghans into local militias to defend the district. “I invite people from all parts of the district to my office and seek their opinion on improving the situation of Charkint. This has made residents of Charkint more invested and involved, and restores their faith in the government authority,” she says.

Her leadership style has served her well so far as renewed Taliban violence sweeps the country. “We’ve faced Taliban attacks longer than the recent surge in violence and we’ve managed to keep them out of Charkint,” she says, with evident pride. Mazari has stationed her troops on the outskirts of Charkint in the hope that militants will be unable to breach their defences.

Charkint is the only district in Afghanistan under the security management of a woman that no terrorist group has managed to occupy before. But Mazari is aware that the situation is worsening rapidly and is worried for her people. In the last week, the Taliban have taken a series of northern provinces and capitals, and fighting has raged across Balkh province.

Last year, Mazari successfully negotiated the surrender of more than 100 Taliban fighters in her region. But such negotiations are not always a success, she says.

Salima Mazari watches the fighting in Charkint. The Taliban have made sweeping gains across the northern provinces in recent weeks.
Salima Mazari watches the fighting in Charkint. The Taliban have made sweeping gains across the northern provinces in recent weeks. Photograph: Farshad Usyan/AFP/Getty

“On multiple occasions, we sent a committee on behalf of our people to negotiate with the Taliban. We’ve had over 10 meetings to ask them to protect the lives, harvest and properties of the people. Our people are farmers and they depend on their harvest for sustenance in the winter months. But they rejected the request of people for an agreement every time,” she says.

Mazari’s growing reputation as a strong woman standing against Taliban brutality has put her life at risk. She has survived several ambushes by the Taliban, as well as mines planted by the militants to target her. “But I am not afraid,” she says. “I believe in the rule of law in Afghanistan.”

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Brexit: British Embassy launches survey on key issues affecting UK nationals in Spain | Brexit | International

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The British Embassy in Madrid has launched a survey aimed at finding out how UK nationals in Spain have been affected by key issues, in particular, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, a process commonly known as Brexit.

The poll is for Britons who are full-time residents in Spain (not those with second homes) and are covered by the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, i.e. they were officially registered in the country before December 31, 2020, when the so-called Transition Period came to an end.

Questions in the survey address issues such as access to healthcare and the uptake of the TIE residency cards, which were introduced as a replacement for green residency cards (either the credit-card size or the A4 sheet version, officially known as the Certificado de Registro de Ciudadano de la Unión).

As we approach a year since the end of the Transition Period, we really want to hear from you about the key issues…

Posted by Brits in Spain on Friday, September 17, 2021

The aim of the poll is to gather vital information on the experience of UK nationals living in Spain that will help the British Embassy provide feedback to Spanish authorities. The survey takes around 10 minutes to complete, and all answers are confidential.

Have you heard our Spanish news podcast ¿Qué? Each week we try to explain the curious, the under-reported and sometimes simply bizarre news stories that are often in the headlines in Spain.



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‘The challenge for us now is drought, not war’: livelihoods of millions of Afghans at risk | Global development

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The war in Afghanistan might be over but farmers in Kandahar’s Arghandab valley face a new enemy: drought.

It has hardly rained for two years, a drought so severe that some farmers are questioning how much longer they can live off the land.

Mohammed Rahim, 30, grew up working on a farm along with his father and grandfather in the Arghandab district of Afghanistan’s southern province. Famous for its fruit and vegetables, the area is known as the bread basket of Kandahar.

Like most in the valley, Rahim’s family relies solely on farming. “The fighting has just stopped. Peace has returned,” Rahim says. “But now we face another war: drought.

“Now we have to dig deep to pump water out of the land. It has been two years, there has been little rain and we have a drought here. I don’t know if our coming generations can rely on farming the way our ancestors used to do.”

Pir Mohammed, 60, has been a farmer for more than four decades. “Not long ago, there were water channels flowing into the farm and we were providing the remaining water to other farmers,” says Mohammed. “Before, the water was running after us, flowing everywhere – but now we are running after water.”

The water used to come free from the river but now the daily diesel cost for the water pump is at least 2,500 Afghani (£21).

“We don’t make any profit. We are in loss, rather. Instead, we are using our savings. But we don’t have any other option as we do it for survival,” says Mohammed. “However, the scarcity of water has affected the quality of crops as well.”

About 70% of Afghans live in rural areas and are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of drought.

Last week, Rein Paulsen, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Office of Emergencies and Resilience, said severe drought was affecting 7.3 million people in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces.

He warned: “If agriculture collapses further, it will drive up malnutrition, increase displacement and worsen the humanitarian situation.”

Arghandab has been a favourite destination for farming because of the abundance of water and fertile lands. Neikh Mohammed, 40, left the Dand district of Kandahar to work in Arghandab in 2005. When he arrived he was amazed to see the greenery and pomegranate farms.

A dam affected by drought in Kandahar.
A dried up dam in Kandahar. A majority of Afghans are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of drought, as they live in rural areas. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

“It used to rain a lot here and we could not cross the river and come into our farms. We had a life with abundant water. But the past is another country now,” he says.

According to a report by the UN mission in Afghanistan, many local farmers were caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces. The Taliban carried out attacks from thick foliage on the farms, which provided a hiding place, ideal for an ambush.

“For the past 20 years, we did not have peace and could not work after dark in our farms. But now we can stay as long as we want without any fear,” says Neikh Mohammed. “Now the challenge is not just restoring peace but the drought and escalating cost of essential commodities.”

Farmers say they want support from international aid agencies and assistance from the new government headed by the Taliban to help them survive.

Pir Mohammed says: “The real challenge for us now is drought, not war. We need food, water, dams and infrastructure in our country. The world should invest in us and save us.”

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[Ticker] US to lift Covid travel-ban on EU tourists

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Fully vaccinated travellers from the EU and the UK will be let back into the US from “early November” onward, the White House said on Monday, ending an 18-month ban and prompting airline firms’ shares to climb. “This new international travel system follows the science to keep Americans … safe,” a US spokesman said. The EU recently recommended increased restrictions on US visitors, amid anger at lack of US reciprocity.

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