Former mujahideen trade in weapons for bees!

14 Feb 2010

Former mujahideen trade in weapons for bees!

QARABAGH - Barely an hour away from the bustle of Kabul and the miasma of Afghan politics, change is taking place, albeit slowly, in Qarabagh, the second largest district of Kabul province.

At a time when political reconciliation with anti-government forces as a feasible solution to the problem of insecurity and war has become a buzz phrase among government officials, diplomats and ubiquitous media pundits, a small group of former mujahideen are leading by example and are being integrated into society.

These 50 men have laid down their weapons, for good they say, and have decided instead to embrace the sweeter alternative of peace, literally, through a vocational training pilot programme in beekeeping that will equip them with enough skills and resources to produce honey and earn a livelihood.

“This is a three-month project on beekeeping that costs about US$ 50,000. After giving the students theoretical and practical training, we will then provide each of them with four boxes of bees as well as the tools required to extract honey from the bees,” says Wahid Ummah Amani from the UNDP-supported Afghanistan’s New Beginnings Programme (ANBP), which is jointly conducting six other livelihood projects under the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Group (DIAG) plan, along with the Afghan government.

Today in the final days of this project, every chair is filled in a cramped mud hut that serves its purpose as a classroom. A chalk board hangs haphazardly from an otherwise bare wall, primers on beekeeping are stacked on a small stool, and a sea of winter boots line the wooden doorway giving company to the snow that has fallen overnight.

Sitting in the front row among other barefooted pupils, Abdul Hadi intently watches a volunteer brush bees off a frame. Hadi, 40 – who looks older, partly due to his greying beard and deep, tired eyes – relinquished his weapons a year ago and decided to start a new life.

“I was sick of war and fighting. I wanted to do something different,” he says in Dari. “My family is very happy about this new project—it will earn me some money. Some people in my village, too, want to learn from me when I become an expert.”

In the rough-and-tumble days of the 1990s, Hadi was a mujahideen commander who led 10 fighters in the civil war that ensued long after the Soviets left Afghanistan.

Now, the lugubrious battlefield has been replaced by a modest classroom; his family has taken primacy over the fighters he commanded; and the grit and the ferocity that once allowed him to negotiate the hostile terrain and the extreme conditions of the Hindu Kush and survive the country’s bloodiest battles has left him frayed and sober.

Shah Mahmoud, the project trainer, also noticed a change in attitude among his students. “They are excited. They have been coming here from different villages and attending classes regularly. Some attend classes even if they’re sick,” he exclaims with pride, as his students listen on.

Mahmoud estimates within six months the newly-trained apiarists will be able to collect 150 kilos of honey and earn anything between US$ 1,500 to US$ 3,000 in the local market or through a yet-to-be set up cooperative society that will purchase surplus produce.

“Will you be happy with your new jobs?” he asks the class.

“Yes!” they collectively scream back—from the youngest, a 14-year-old boy to the oldest student in his late 40s.

For some, however, this DIAG programme has come as an urgent blessing. Noor ul Haq, another former mujahideen who took up arms during the Rabbani regime, wounded his leg and chest in a fierce gun battle and decided to enrol in this programme after remaining unemployed for many years.

“This is the only way I can support my family of 10. I’m injured. Who will give me work?” he asks grimly.

Here, in Qarabagh, away from the politics of Kabul, change is taking place slowly. Some have renewed hope, but everybody has a story.

By Aditya Mehta, UNAMA