Friday, October 7

‘Harassed here too’: Afghan artists find no sanctuary in Pakistan | Pakistan

AJmal Haikalzada, 44, first became a refugee when his artist father left Afghanistan for Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s. In 2001, then a musician, he returned, singing and performing across the country of his birth after the US toppled the Taliban.

Two decades later, he fled once again as the Taliban took over Kabul.

Now in Peshawar, Pakistan, Haikalzada said that after the Taliban returned, musicians and artists were confined to their homes, musical institutions were closed and musicians hid their instruments. They had heard stories of the Taliban destroying musical instruments in Kabul.

But neighboring Pakistan has not provided the safety he hoped for. Last month, Haikalzada was arrested as a crackdown on Afghan refugees began.

“As Afghanistan was no longer a country for artists, I sold all my musical instruments to save my life. I thought we could perform music and preserve our art in Pakistan but we were wrong,” said Haikalzada.

“The police asked for my national identity card and upon seeing it, they arrested me as I am an unregistered refugee.” He was released two days later.

The same thing happened in May to Nadeem Shah, 24, one of four Afghan musicians arrested on suspicion of being in Pakistan illegally. “We are asked to provide proof of registration, which we do not possess,” he said.

“It becomes difficult to convince the police that we are artists who were forced to flee. No one leaves their home by choice – it was a matter for survival, because of which, we left a piece of ourselves back home. But here too, we are harassed.”

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Pakistan has been hosting at least 1.4 million registered refugees and more than 1.5 million unregistered refugees, without a legal status, since the 1980s. Hundreds and thousands of Afghans fled to Pakistan last year after the Taliban seized control of Kabul. They are requesting registered refugee status as the country is facing an economic crunch.

In the capital, Islamabad, more than 450 Afghan families have been living in makeshift houses and camped near the press club to demand registration or settlement in a third country. police have dispersed them using violenceprompting criticism from civil society groups.

Ustad Sanam Gul, centre, plays with Haikalzada and Nadeem Shah, far right. Photograph: Shah Meer Baloch/The Guardian

Pakistani organizations including Hunari Tolana, Hunar Kor and Mafkoora have been campaigning for the rights of more than 150 Afghan artists registered with them.

Hayat Roghani, the president of Mafkoora, said they have asked the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and Pakistani authorities to give proof of registration to Afghan artists. “We are just asking for PORs for Afghan artists who should be allowed to travel and perform in Pakistan,” he said.

Kainat Tufan, 22, a singer who has appeared on various TV channels in Afghanistan, wore a veil to hide her tattoos and disguised herself as a smuggler’s wife to cross into Pakistan.

“We spent a month in Kabul after the takeover, helpless, crying and hungry. Those who could flee did so immediately. I gave my Afghan passport and identity card to borrow $200 (£169) to travel to Pakistan via Spin Boldak,” she said.

“I had to flee because Afghanistan is no longer a land for women and there is no space for artists. There is even no space for females as a whole. It has become a male-dominated country. We, women, want our space back.”

The crackdown in Peshawar prompted a musical protest by Afghan and Pakistani artists in the city, who performed, chanted slogans and held placards, demanding the release of the arrested musicians.

Ustad Sanam Gul, 50, a renowned musician from Afghanistan who fled to Pakistan, was among them. Gul comes from a long line of musicians and had earned the title of you (teacher) from the state, with more than 60 students under his tutelage at his two academies in Kabul and Jalalabad.

After Kabul fell, he opened a petrol station, but it was destroyed by the Taliban, who told him he could not work since he had promoted music and played for the state.

Playing with his dholak, a small two-headed drum, Gul said: “My students and other musicians tried to convince the Taliban to allow us to continue work, but to no avail. A musical academy of a friend in Kabul was destroyed by the Taliban. For music and arts, Afghanistan has shut its doors.”

He said music not only connects hearts but nations: “Taliban should allow music and I also request Pakistani authorities to help us perform and connect with [the] masses, instead of harassing us and keeping us under surveillance.”

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