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Webfiles: "The Taliban Are Well Liked"
A Japanese doctor's up-close observations contradict overseas reports
By MUTSUKO MURAKAMI

Thursday, October 18, 2001
Web posted at 03:20 p.m. Hong Kong time, 03:20 a.m. GMT


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.

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