Afghanistan’s circus gives children fun with a future
Flinging sparkling clubs into the air, the girls showed off their juggling skills as the boys executed dazzling acrobatics and climbed into a four-storey human pyramid.
Afghanistan’s Mobile Mini Circus for Children would have been heretical under the Taliban, when music was banned by the Islamic fundamentalist movement and girls were forbidden from performing in public and going to school.
But today the circus, founded by Danish dance instructor David Mason to teach cooperation and creativity to children scarred by years of war, is one of few projects expanding despite a drop in international aid to Afghanistan.
"Left on the street, kids turn to bad things, becoming suicide bombers or street thugs," said Murtaza Nowrozi, an 18-year-old juggler from the western province of Herat. "It’s better for them to go to school and join programs like this."
Nowrozi found out about the circus at school but many of the members are orphans or from refugee camps. The most talented children have been on tour to Denmark, Germany, Italy and Japan, and some have stayed on with the project to become teachers.
Mason started the circus with his own money and got the first donation of $1,000 in 2002, the year after U.S-led forces invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban.
Despite the dangers, the project has grown so popular that it now runs centers in seven provinces and has about 300 regular students. With dozens of donors and workshops to raise money, the budget is close to $500,000 and its tours of 25 of the country’s 34 provinces have reached nearly 3 million people.
The brightly painted circus “funtainers” - shipping containers converted into practice and performance areas - are hard to miss, but the shows are tailored to regional customs.
In eastern parts of the country, girls do not perform. In the ultra-conservative south, performances run without music. Passages from the Koran, the central religious text of Islam, are always recited at the start.
"We are doing things in a very Afghan and Islamic way," said Mason, noting that all of the circus staff, children and customs are native to the country. "We are not trying to come up with new ideas unfamiliar to Afghans."
Mason refuses to be dispirited by the prospect of a Taliban revival. He is confident the circus will thrive despite the deterioration in security conditions accompanying the withdrawal of foreign troops from various areas as they prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
"It’s just a matter of mutual understanding and accepting each other," Mason said.
That message also applies to the National Circus Festival run by the project each year to bring together circus children from different provinces and ethnic groups to encourage them to work together and become friends.
"What we do at the social circus is, for example, making the pyramid," said Mason. "You have 10 people that have to, with all their bones and muscles, understand themselves and the others."
The festival, including a juggling championship, was held in and around Kabul in mid-August. On the last day, the winners of a photography competition were invited on stage to show poster-sized images of their work.
All turned out to be girls, including Shazia, 13, from the northern Panjshir Valley.
"When they first gave me a camera, I felt very intimidated. I was a poor Afghan girl who had never held a camera before so I was terrified my pictures would be bad," said Shazia, who like many Afghans has only one name. "Now I’m so happy I won, I feel like I can succeed at many things I haven’t tried before." [x]
'Flying Scarfs,' Air Force captains' nonprofit, empowers widowed Afghan women by selling their scarves
In a major breakthrough, the Taliban and the U.S. announced Tuesday that they will hold talks on finding a political solution to ending nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan as the Islamic militant movement opened an office in Qatar.
American officials with the Obama administration said the office in the Qatari capital of Doha was the first step toward the ultimate U.S.-Afghan goal of a full Taliban renouncement of links with al-Qaida. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, said U.S. representatives will begin formal meetings with the Taliban at the office in a few days.
(MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan volunteers distribute balloons for the ‘We Believe In Balloons’ campaign
The public art project organised by Yazmany Arboleda, in which 10,000 biodegradable pink ‘peace’ balloons were handed out in Kabul on May 28, 2013 to bring some fun and creativity to the city.
Photo Maassoud Hossaini
Afghan President Visits Qatar To Discuss Peace
Afghanistan’s president landed in Qatar Sunday to discuss his country’s stalled peace process and the possible opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state, officials said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said President Hamid Karzai will not hold any talks with Taliban representatives now in Qatar.
He will meet with Qatari officials on the sidelines of an annual conference on relations between the United States and the Muslim world.
"As we have already said, any official negotiations regarding peace with the Taliban can take place only between the high-ranking Taliban representatives and the High Peace Council of Afghanistan," Mosazai told reporters.
Japan buys $30m road maintenance equipment for Afghanistan
The government of Japan will purchase 106 road construction equipment worth $30 million, in a bid to help Afghanistan maintain its main highways.
Afghan public works ministry will receive the equipments which will also include snow clearing machines which will help Afghanistan to reopen crucial
highways including Bamyan-Daikundi highway, Ghazni-Ghor highway which are usually closed due to heavy snowfalls during winter time.
Deputy public works minister, Ahmadshah Wahid said the equipment will include Grader, Loader, Excavator, Dump Trucks and 6 sow clearing machinery. Japan
also purchased 8 equipment for Afghanistan last year which proved to resolve major issues of Afghan public works ministry.
The equipment will be transferred to Bamyan, Daikundi, Ghazni and Ghor provinces of Afghanistan.
Japan International Cooperation Agency representative, Noori Shaida said the equipments will be taken to sensitive regions in order to help with the road maintenance projects, and maintain those highways which plays a key role in social and economic affairs of Afghan people.
Japan’s assistance will also play a key role in resolving the issues of Salang Tunnel, where dozens of people die each year due to heavy snow fall and major road accidents.
The government of Japan has invested over $4 billion in the reconstruction projects including highway and school construction since 2001.
Australia to withdraw most troops from Afghanistan by year-end
Australia will withdraw most troops from Afghanistan’s south at the end of this year and shut down a major base for NATO-led forces, handing security to Afghan soldiers and police, Defense Minister Stephen Smith (pictured above) said on Tuesday.
Western and Afghan commanders, Smith said, had agreed that the major multinational coalition base at Tarin Kowt and its NATO airbase in Uruzgan province would close at the end of 2013.
Most foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 under a planned security transition from foreign forces to Afghans.
"It is a necessary and logical and natural consequence of transition being effective," Smith said.
"The effect of that closure will be that Australia will no longer have a permanent presence in Uruzgan province, and the majority of Australian defense force personnel will return."
Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan and Emomali Rakhmon of Tajikistan inked the preliminary agreement Wednesday in the Turkmen capital.
The 400-kilometer (250-mile) railroad would link landlocked Afghanistan to a regional transport network, increasing the country’s export potential. It would link the Afghan town of Akina-Andhoi, about 650 kilometers (400 miles) northwest of Kabul to Atamyrat in Turkmenistan and Pyandzh in Tajikistan.
The construction of the new railway is set to start in July in Turkmenistan. Turkmen workers will also build the Afghan segment of the railway.
Obama, Karzai accelerate end of U.S. combat role in Afghanistan
President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed on Friday to speed up the handover of combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, raising the prospect of an accelerated U.S. withdrawal from the country and underscoring Obama’s determination to wind down a long, unpopular war.
Signaling a narrowing of differences, Karzai appeared to give ground in talks at the White House on U.S. demands for immunity from prosecution for any American troops who stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, a concession that could allow Obama to keep at least a small residual force there.
Both leaders also threw their support behind tentative Afghan reconciliation efforts with Taliban insurgents, endorsing the establishment of a Taliban political office in Qatar in hopes of bringing insurgents to inter-Afghan talks.
Outwardly, at least, the meeting appeared to be something of a success for both men, who need to show their vastly different publics they are making progress in their goals for Afghanistan. There were no signs of the friction that has frequently marked Obama’s relations with Karzai.
Karzai’s visit came amid stepped-up deliberations in Washington over the size and scope of the U.S. military role in Afghanistan once the NATO-led combat mission concludes at the end of 2014.
"By the end of next year, 2014, the transition will be complete," Obama said at a news conference with Karzai standing at his side. "Afghans will have full responsibility for their security, and this war will come to a responsible end."
Qatar aims to see a peace process in Afghanistan by the time NATO combat operations end in 2014, Qatar’s prime minister said on Tuesday as the Afghan Taliban movement prepared to open an office in the Qatari capital.
With the focus in Afghanistan shifting from a military push by NATO troops to potential talks on a peaceful settlement, U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai said last week they supported the opening of a Taliban office in Doha.
The planned office is one of a series of gestures, including the possible transfer to Qatar of Taliban detainees from the U.S. military’s Guantanamo Bay prison, aimed at injecting momentum into the tentative reconciliation efforts.
Qatar, a long-time Gulf Arab peace broker in Afghanistan’s war, said preparations were under way to open the Taliban’s office as soon as possible to facilitate talks.
"The U.S. and others will withdraw in 2014, and I think it’s an important core ideal that at least there is a political process in place, to have stability," Qatari premier Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told a news conference with his Libyan counterpart in Doha.
"Our aim is to help our Afghan brothers and find a solution accepted by all, or most, parties," he added.
A senior European diplomat told Reuters last week that several Taliban representatives were already on the ground in Doha but a formal office had not yet been opened.
Qatar, which hosts a number of Taliban officials, has played a central role in discreet discussions between U.S. officials and representatives of the shadowy militant group, which remains a formidable enemy in Afghanistan even as U.S. and NATO troops begin to withdraw.
Progress towards negotiations has not been smooth.
The Taliban announced a year ago that they would open a political office in Qatar, suggesting willingness to engage in talks that could bring them positions in the Afghan government or control over much of their historical southern heartland.
But in March they rowed back on the plan, citing what they said were inconsistencies in the U.S. negotiating position.
The reference to the office in the joint statement by Obama and Karzai suggested the idea had fresh momentum.
Meeting in Washington last week, the two leaders agreed to speed up a handover of combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, raising the prospect of an accelerated U.S. withdrawal from the country.
Karzai and U.S. officials have said repeatedly that any peace process must be Afghan-led. The Afghan president has been angered in the past when he felt excluded by foreign efforts to set up some kind of negotiations.
PICTURED ABOVE: Finance Minister Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal signed the USD 18.5mn contract with Hiroshi Takashi, Japan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, and the Head of the Asian Development Bank, Joji Tokeshi, in this Nov. 23 photo.
Japan donates equipment and money to Afghanistan
Yesterday, the government of Japan donated 8 snow-clearing machines to Afghanistan, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) said. According to a Pajhwok Afghan News (PAN) report, the machines are worth $1.6 million. The report added that 6 of the machines will be used to clear the Salang Pass of snow and the rest will be allocated to Afghanistan’s western province of Ghor.
Earlier this month, PAN reported that Japan will give Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Heath (MoPH) $13.5 million to help eradicate polio and prevent other epidemic diseases. According to the PAN report, the money will be paid in a year, and it will be spent through the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) for vaccination campaigns in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Minister of Public Heath, Dr. Suraya Dalil signed an agreement to the effect with Japan’s Ambassador Hiroshi Takahashi and Peter Croly, the UNICEF chief in Afghanistan.
Japan has been one of Afghanistan’s biggest contributors towards the reconstruction and development of the country.
PICTURED ABOVE: Montage of the future airport of Mazar-e Sharif after rehabilitation. [Source: Kocks Consult]
Northern Balkh province will inaugurate a number of large infrastructure projects in the near future including an international airport, local officials said this week.
The building of an international airport, a railway, and a 400-bed hospital in the provincial capital Mazar-e-Sharif are underway alongside a number of infrastructure projects funded mostly with money from international donors, the officials said.
The development of the current provincial airport into an international airport is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the north of Afghanistan with it almost 90 percent complete, deputy governor Muhammad Zahir Wahdat said.
The airport, being overseen by a Turkish company, is being funded with 40 million euros from Germany and 7 million euros from the United Arabic Emirates, he added.
Wahdat said that the projects could not be done without the international donations.
"We want to thank all those who even donate one pen or one notebook, but really we want to thank those who are making the infrastructure and creating sustainable jobs for us because this is the infrastructures which will lead Afghanistan to prosperity," he said.
He also pointed to the importance of the railway to be built in helping transport commercial goods for cheaper rates and improving connections to neighboring Central Asian markets – also a boost to economic prosperity.
"The Asian Development Bank and the Ministry of Public Works must consider three points while they are contracting: speed, quality and at the same time, a cheap price," Wahdat said.
The Asian Development Bank has also shown an interest in funding for the construction of a railway from Naiab Abad- Aqena and a railway from Tajikistan to Mazar-e-Sharif, he added.
Afghanistan has opened its first ever national park and is preparing for the day when tourists might visit to marvel at its spectacular scenery, archaeological treasures and wildlife.
The high mountain lakes of Band-e Amir draw thousands of local visitors every year but there’s been a sharp fall in numbers this year, as the threat along the road towards Bamiyan has risen.
The BBC’s Andrew North reports.
Last of 33,000 US surge troops leave Afghanistan
(Photo: Staff Sgt. Michael Behlin / AP)
Nearly two years after President Barack Obama ordered 33,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to tamp down the escalating Taliban violence, the last of those surge troops have left the country, U.S. officials said Thursday.
Afghan museum rebuilds with returned artifacts
Right down to the power cuts that frequently plunge its artifacts into shadow, the National Museum of Afghanistan is a symbol of the country’s decades of hardships. Its building was shelled, looted and caught fire during the 1990s civil war. Taliban extremists later smashed many centuries-old statues.
Now, the museum is slowly rebuilding, thanks to international efforts to return thousands of looted treasures — and to heroic Afghan staff members who hid its most priceless works during the war years and kept the secret for more than a decade.
(Read more HERE)