"The Taliban Are Well Liked"
Japanese doctor's up-close observations contradict
October 18, 2001
Web posted at 03:20 p.m. Hong Kong time, 03:20 a.m.
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
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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