Whenever Rangina Hamidi returns to her hometown of Kandahar, she is filled with a deep dread. After the Taliban surrendered to the US forces in 2001, she convinced her father, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, to leave the comfort of the US to try and rebuild their homeland.
Even as friends and family were executed around them, she pleaded to her father to let them stay, to make a difference. And they did. Appointed mayor, Ghulam and his daughter, who started a local business employing widows, helped build schools, pave roads, and plant trees.
Then on a summer day in 2011, as Ghulam was meeting locals, he was killed by a suicide bomber, who had hid explosives in his turban. That was too much for Rangina. She joined the hundreds of Afghan expatriates that had returned, to only leave again.
But her departure only lasted a season. Despite believing the future for her country is bleak, Rangina came back to Kandahar, feeling a duty to the families her business, Kandahar Treasure, supports.
"What choice do I have," she says, "the cost of not coming back is simply too great."
To hear about the Taliban's decade-long strategy of assassinations, 101 East presenter, Steve Chao, met Mullah Toor Jan, once one of the most feared Taliban commanders in the region. They spoke in Kandahar's Central Stadium – the former site of Taliban executions.
"Whether he or she is an official or not, if they are useful to Afghanistan, they will be a target," says Toor Jan. "Violence also convinces the public not to be so eager to support the government."
Indeed, the armed group's campaign to win back its birthplace of Kandahar began just a few years after they surrendered in 2001. Their tactic – to take out the leadership appointed by Kabul, and NATO forces, has proved a deadly and effective strategy with hundreds of Afghan "intelligentsia" killed.
The list is long, from district governors, to intelligence chiefs, to translators, to members of Kandahar's religious scholars' council – all those who have supported the Kabul government and Western forces. Most notable of all, was the assassination of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's half-brother. Ahmed Wali Karzai was killed by one of his security guards inside his own house. His picture is found on billboards alongside other notable figures who have been assassinated.
But the group is not alone in being responsible for a tide of killings. In the murky and lawless world of Afghanistan's second largest city, the Americans have spent millions training and equipping Kandahar's police chief, General Abdul Raziq. Just 34 years old, he assumed the job after his predecessor was assassinated. But he has long been linked to the rampant drug trade, which supplies most of the world's heroin. And he has been accused of extrajudicial killings, torture and illegal imprisonment. But he denies all accusations. He has however been credited for keeping the Taliban from winning outright control of the city. Despite being known as a fierce warlord, he too was injured during an attack in 2012 - one of 21 assassination attempts on his life.
US and NATO forces have also attempted to fight back by targeting Taliban leaders. One of them, which coalition forces claimed they had killed, was Mullah Toor Jan.
This journey back to Kandahar is in many ways an emotional one for Steve Chao. Over the years of reporting there, many of those he has interviewed along with others who have become friends, have been killed.
There are those however, who believe there is hope. Kandahar's governor Tooryalai Wesa has survived nine assassination attempts. The last one, narrowly, when a visitor pulled a gun out of the bottom of his shoe inside the governor's compound.
Formerly a professor in Vancouver, Wesa has managed to not only stay alive, but also work on rebuilding the infrastructure of the city and try to bring some economic benefits. Known as a shrewd administrator, he has made some positive changes. But in a city where the rule of the gun supercedes the rule of law, his abilities to effect change is limited.
And local businessmen openly worry that post-2014, when NATO pulls out, the number of assassinations will skyrocket, leaving the city utterly leaderless and without hope. That is a bleak perspective, as even Wesa himself admits that whoever controls Kandahar, will ultimately control the country.
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|My journey back to Kandahar
By Steve Chao
The idea for this film came out of what was a very personal journey of mourning. In 2009, Jojo, a local producer, who I had worked with in Kandahar for years, was gunned down.
His murder came just days after I had just left the city, following one of my many reporting stints there. I will never forget the desperate and woeful phone call from one of Jojo's brothers, who had rushed to the morgue to identify him that day.
"Jojo … he is gone," he had said to me, his voice wavering, "I can't believe it, our Jojo is gone."
Jojo's death in many ways was a symbol of all that had gone, and was still going wrong in Kandahar. He was young, bright, and hard working. Many other international journalists who had sought his help over the years often joked that he "could be president of Afghanistan one day". With his blind ambition and faith in himself, Jojo would never dispute it. He believed anything was possible, in spite of the surging violence and attacks around him.
In the end, no amount of ambition could save him from two attackers on a motorcycle who sprayed the vehicle he was in with bullets.
More than a colleague, Jojo had become a friend. And there were so many others in Kandahar like him - people who we, as journalists, had gotten to know well, others who we had turned to for interviews – all killed in a span of a decade.
While the Taliban claimed responsibility for many of the murders, others were the result of power feuds between warring tribes and warlords, and/or unpaid debts over smuggling and drugs … but the one clear line coming out the deaths was that rather than rising above years of conflict, Kandahar was descending into further turmoil. That visionary leaders, many who had returned from asylum to rebuild their beloved city, have been systematically erased from the equation also troubles the central government in Kabul.
While there are no hard statistics, Afghan officials within the Interior ministry tell me they estimate that since 2001, more than 500 to 600 leaders in Kandahar have been assassinated. When counted, that adds up to more killings than anywhere else in the country combined. They include police chiefs, development workers, female politicians, tribal elders … Any expert who understands nation building will tell you the impact of such losses will be felt for generations.
What has led Kandahar to experience more deaths and more violence than most is complicated. It is the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban. There is also the strategic importance for the region. Its governor, Tooryalai Wesa, who has survived nine assassination attempts describes it well:
"The history and politics of Afghanistan have always been determined from Kandahar for the last several hundreds years, so that’s why insurgents and the international community are trying to show their presence here. When we have secured Kandahar, we will have secured Afghanistan."
Certainly NATO and the international community have devoted lives, along with billions of dollars to try and bring security and development to Kandahar. And all will admit that there have been successes – from the number of children now going to school, to paved roads, to the fact that most homes in the city now have access to the internet. But they also admit there have been many colossal failures. The inability to protect the leadership being one of them.
Perhaps depressed, or perhaps seeing very little hope in Kandahar, I stayed away from the city for a while, and decided to focus my reporting on other areas of Afghanistan instead.
Then in recent months, there was talk of some improvements, that perhaps in the darkest of days, people had had enough, and were uniting around their loss.
That led me to believe it was time to go back, to find those who have survived, to speak to those still grieving, and to see if there is a way forward for those who call this ancient city home.
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