Reflections on the nature of evil

 “The evil that men do lives after them the good is of interred wit their bones” –
William Shakespeare

Remembering Srebrenica, honouring the victims and survivors of the genocide.

 “My son’s name was Nermin and he was just one of over 8,000 men and boys who were massacred at Srebrenica. In the 22 years since he was murdered, all the authorities have been able to find of him are two of his bones, these bones were found in two separate mass graves, over 25 km apart.”

 A hushed audience listens to the testimony of Munira Subašić.[1] An indomitable woman driven by pain and desire for justice, she was one of several speakers marking Srebrenica Memorial Day on 11th July at London’s historic Guildhall.

Twenty-two years have passed since that shameful chapter in European history but Munira’s passion cuts through the decades like a blade. Everyone in the vast room is transported in time to the event of which Kofi Anan said, “Through error, misjudgement and an inability to recognise the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.”

In 1995 more than 8,000 Bosniaks – mainly Muslim men and boys – were massacred in the now infamous Balkan town. What is less well known is that as part of the same orchestrated genocide as many as 50,000 women in the region were raped or subjected to sexual violence.

As it had done after the Holocaust, the world hung its metaphorical head in shame and said ‘never again’.

Twenty years later, a mob of hate-crazed men stoned to death a 27-year-old woman in Kabul; a student with an impressive educational background in Sharia law. After refusing to purchase a taweez (a religious amulet with inscriptions from the Quran) from a male street vendor, she was accused of blasphemy. That lie provoked a storm of hatred that shocked the world. Farkhunda wasn’t just killed, she was obliterated; repeatedly stamped on, beaten, dragged through the streets and run over by a car. The clothes were torn from her body, which was hurled from a wall before being set alight. The video captured on camera phones is stomach churning.

Time, numbers and distance aside, the two events have something sinister in common. They were fuelled by such a chilling disregard for human life that descriptions of how they happened prompt disbelief.

Events in Srebrenica were being played out against the background of a conflict that featured nightly on national TV – the attack on Farkhunda Malekzada occurred in a public place and was witnessed by members of the public and police.

Reactions to this kind of violence are diverse: discomfort, shame, anger, pity – and in some cases denial. Farkhunda’s murder can perhaps be attributed to the ‘red mist’ that inspires mobs to act as a single beast, bereft of reason and intent on destruction. But the Srebrenica genocide was planned, calculated and deliberate. Both events were driven by a malevolence so strong that only annihilation would satisfy its perpetrators.

In the Middle Ages evil could be displaced. It was an entity. It had a face. Today religion, superstition and belief in the supernatural have been replaced by a conviction that we are not puppets of higher powers, but individuals with free will, in control of our own destinies.

The downside of this is that mankind then has to ‘own’ evil and take collective responsibility for its exercise. We become guilty by omission, inertia and inactivity.

Munira Subašić, President of the Mothers of Srebrenica, says: “Justice is not a privilege, it is a human right, and the 8,372 people who died at Srebrenica were human beings. Every year in July, people across the world remember them and they remember our loss, and we are truly grateful for that. But what I want to make clear is that for us, telling our stories and fighting for justice doesn’t end after July commemorations, this is the fight of our lives, and we will never stop fighting. As we women grow older, we feel the weight of responsibility on our shoulders to ensure that our stories, and the stories of our loved ones are heard and remembered, and that when we are gone, others will continue to fight for justice.”

‘Justice’ is a word used often by the rape victims of Srebrenica. “We don’t want vengeance,” they say, “we want justice.”

Some would argue that there is a fine line between the two but it’s a noble sentiment. The men who violated Bakira Hasečić and her daughter still walk freely but she meets their eyes with defiance these days. “When us survivors first started returning to Višegrad, we felt that we had to hide from these war criminals who had tried to destroy our lives, but now when I go to Višegrad, these war criminals hide from me. Now when I return to my Višegrad, I hold my head high, and I hope that one day all survivors will find their strength to do the same.”

The men who murdered and abused Farkhunda for having the temerity to express an opinion about Islam, their shared faith, melted into the crowds after their frenzied orgy of destruction. Most of those who were arrested were later released. Her family’s pain is enduring; still gripped by grief they are paralysed by fear of reprisals if they protest.

It’s hard to imagine how anything good can come of such evil deeds, but one London-based Afghan woman and her friends are ensuring that it does. Rahela Siddiqi still recalls the day she heard what had happened to Farkhunda and the physical impact it had. “I felt evil like a bang that hit me, like my body was burning!”

She and her 11-year-old daughter Rasheel Barikzai were preparing for Nowruz, the period of preparation for Afghan New Year and traditionally a time of happiness. They were stunned. “We just asked ‘Why? Why? Why?’; I felt every stone as though it were dropped on my own head and body.”

Initially paralysed with horror they vowed to turn the senseless murder of a brave young woman into something positive and, with help from like-minded supporters, set up The Farkhunda Trust for Afghan women’s education.

Rahela says, “I did it because in my heart I wanted to keep Farkhunda alive in name and aim. I thought she should be remembered by generations as symbol of bravery and a defender of women’s rights in the worst possible environment for women. I wanted the world to be aware of this horror, of the devastating actions of this mob.”

Like Munira Subašić and Bakira Hasečić, Rahela and her friends determined to use their strength as women to do two things: to ensure that a great evil was never forgotten and to make something positive came from it.

Munira Subašić speaking at a “Remembering Srebrenica” event at the Guildhall this July. 

Munira said to her captive audience at the Guildhall, “I did not come here today just to speak about what happened at Srebrenica, I came here today because I want to make a call to action. To everyone who sees our injustice and feels our pain, I hope you will join us in fighting for truth, justice and a better future.”

A ‘better future’ for an Afghan girl denied access to education is something Rahela is already delivering. The sum of £1,530 (including feed of £700) buys one year’s university education, and with education comes power.

“I felt that preventing violence against women should become our top responsibility” said Rahela. “I hoped that through our joint efforts we could make a difference; we could increase the number of brave women like Farkhunda and ensure that such evil acts would not be allowed again.”

Its seems that throughout history events occur that make us examine our collective humanity and shiver with shame at their enormity. Does evil exist? Rahela thinks so. “I think evil is everywhere where there are people of malevolent and immoral nature, harming God’s creatures and humanity in particular. Good human beings have a duty to stay their hands.”


Afghanistan’s First Lady backs battle against silent killer

Taraki 1 New

Dr Zarghuna Taraki, University College Hospital, London. Pictures © Glyn Strong.

A killer disease has united two women living 3,500 miles apart. One is a sufferer, the other a surgeon. Until recently they were strangers, but a London-based networking group brought them together in the wake of a campaign that has now attracted the support of Afghanistan’s First Lady writes Glyn Strong (UK Progressive).

When a Kabul mob turned on a devout young woman and publicly beat her to death, the world was shocked; Farkhunda’s murder in March was frenzied, brutal and barbaric. Yet every year hundreds of Afghan women are killed by a stealthy, silent killer that attracts no international protest.

It is breast cancer, a disease that goes undetected and largely untreated in a country where routine screening is impossible and timely treatment, rare. Those lucky enough to be diagnosed while there is still hope have to go abroad to get specialist treatment.

Shinkai Karokhail, was one of them. The 53-year-old mother of four had to leave her home in Kabul, pay for treatment, undergo a double mastectomy and aggressive chemo/radiotherapy to save her life. She is still recovering, but Shinkai knows she is ‘one of the lucky ones’.

She is also an MP and one of the very few Afghan women willing to talk openly about this taboo subject.

“Even friends and educated people don’t want me to mention it, but I think now it is time to speak out and take steps to raise awareness and fight against cancer.”

Shinkai did more than talk; she initiated a breast cancer awareness campaign, picked-up and implemented by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health: “We founded a ‘Let’s Fight Against Cancer’ group to advocate for a cancer centre, and I invited the First Lady  (Mrs. Rula Ghani) to lend her voice and support.”

Three and a half thousand miles away, another Afghan woman is fighting breast cancer, but in a very different way. Dr Zarghuna Taraki specialises in treating the disease at University College Hospital, in London although, like Shinkai, she was born in Kabul. The parliamentarian and the clinician have never met and live very different lives – but they are both Afghan women, both mothers and both passionately committed to tackling a disease that is needlessly killing thousands of people in their country

Zarghuna, whose UK patients have access to excellent treatment, said, “Cancer is a dark area in Afghanistan – not only breast cancer but all cancer – there is certainly no comprehensive awareness campaign. I was talking to some ladies back home and they asked me questions such as ‘Is it possible that a breast can develop a disease?’

“Most women in Afghanistan look to other women, their friends and families, for information. In the villages especially I don’t think they have any knowledge about the meaning of breast lumps or breast cancer –  so they die without ever knowing the reason.  This is very sad but it also makes it harder to learn how widespread breast cancer is when causes of death are unknown.”

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide – it accounts for about 12% percent of all new cancers and 25% of all cancers in women.”

(The former Head of Kabul’s Malalai Hospital, Dr Nasrin Oriakhil  (now Minister for Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled) was once quoted as saying, “There are no precise statistics for breast cancer in Afghanistan; however, we know that there are many patients. Just looking at our hospital, five of our employees have breast cancer and they do not have access to proper treatment.”)

We are sitting in a London café, not far from Warren Street tube station, doing what women the world over do – drink coffee, chatter and share cakes. Zarghuna, who speaks four languages, is telling me about her own struggle simply to practice as a breast cancer physician.

“It’s difficult to say why I became a doctor but I know that I really do want to help people, especially as, for women in Afghanistan you know, it’s not easy for them . . . but I never imagined that I would end up in the UK working as a doctor.

“My childhood was very colourful!  I grew up in a big family – five brothers and a sister. My family was always supportive of me studying and my mother and father always told me that education was vital. Three of my cousins are doctors. We lived in Kabul but went on holiday to villages so I experienced city and rural life.  Unfortunately the situation in Afghanistan got worse . . . so it was not such a hard thing for me to leave.”

Zarghuna qualified as a doctor in Moscow, returning home to work as an obstetrician/gynaecologist.

“But once again the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated and I fled the country. I came to the UK in 1998 with my small family, consisting of my husband and 18-month-old daughter.”

With only a few words of English and their old life gone Zarghuna and her husband had to pick up the pieces and start over.  He had been a lawyer. She had been a doctor. It was a low point, but she recalls her husband’s words with a smile: “He said to me you still ARE a doctor!”

dr zarghuna taraki 2Working as a driver to support the family, her husband insisted that she fight to practice medicine again.

“I went to college to learn basic English, then intermediate, followed by high-level English for academic purposes. It was hard, because around this time I also had my second child.”

With the tenacity and courage of so many Afghan women Zarghuna passed her English exams and went on, once more, to qualify as a doctor, working her way up through a variety of clinical attachments, learning about health priorities and rising expectations about cancer treatment.

Clearly a compassionate and highly intelligent woman, Zarghuna cares deeply about her British patients, but part of her is always in Afghanistan, where things are very different, as Dr Karokhail discovered.

“I have tremendous respect for Shinkai Karokhail and what she has done,” says Zarghuna, “because it is not easy to speak about these things publicly there.”

When NATO formally ended its commitment to Afghanistan, after 13 years of conflict, the country that had dominated Western news channels for over a decade, slowly slipped off the international radar. “Our Afghan partners can and will take the fight from here,” said Commander ISAF, General John F Campbell at the departure ceremony. He was referring to insurgency and drugs, but in fact there were many other battles to be fought, against a background of shattered infrastructure and political uncertainty.

Former Medical Director of Kabul’s CURE International Hospital, Dr Jacqui Sinclair, left Afghanistan with her husband Eric in 2008 but remained in contact with colleagues. She welcomed the news that initiatives were afoot to tackle breast cancer adding, “It’s hard for Afghan women to qualify as doctors and they are almost exclusively working as paediatricians or in obstetrics/gynaecology. As it is not ‘appropriate’ for women to see male doctors, and there are no female breast surgeons, the situation is very depressing.”

After  ISAF troops left, many NGO and charity workers followed. Foreign doctors who brought expertise increasingly became targets and several known to the Sinclairs were attacked and killed after they left.

Currently there are no public information campaigns about self-examination, or the screening programmes that would enable early detection and less invasive surgery; nor are there dedicated treatment facilities where the psychological and physical aspects of breast cancer treatment can be delivered side by side.

Afghanistan is a vast, landlocked country – extremely poor and heavily dependent on foreign aid. Its savage beauty may be breathtaking, but without a safe, effective transport network to traverse its challenging terrain, communities are isolated in every sense of the word. For women, denied the socio-economic freedoms of men, it is worse. Solutions that would work in more developed countries are irrelevant in Afghanistan where access and security challenges obviate even the deployment of mobile screening units.

But for a woman suffering from breast cancer, what happens on the global stage is an irrelevance. Her world shrinks to one circumscribed by diagnosis, prognosis and fear. The outlook for sufferers is bleak as Shinkai, despite her education, status and tenacity, discovered.

Conscious that she was an age group that elsewhere warranted routine breast screening she went to India for a mammogram. “We (in Afghanistan) have no such facility or system to take care of our health. In the beginning I was told that there was ‘some calcification’ but a later ultrasound result showed that all was normal.”

Still Shinkai had a feeling that something was amiss. “I felt I had the beginning of a cancer and a few months later I suddenly found that my left breast had changed in size a lot. I went to a doctor and, after a very unprofessional examination; she told me that nothing was wrong. ‘You are absolutely fine’ she said. I tried to convince her that I was sick but she refused to accept it.”

Pressed about the change in breast size Shinkai’s doctor said it was due to breast-feeding – 13 years earlier!

“Three months later, I went to the US and while there my nipple started bleeding. My friend, who is doctor, sent me for mammogram and ultrasound.”

On 8th October 2013, in the USA, she was diagnosed with aggressive, Stage 3 breast cancer and too ill, according to the American doctors, to go back to India for treatment.

For Shinkai the news that she was out of options was a heavy blow.  “I felt like all patients, especially women, but the most depressing part was when I was told they had to remove both my breasts. It is difficult for a women to lose part of her body.”

Sadly, that wasn’t all she’d had to contend with. “The worst part was when the hospital refused to do my test because of the fee. I had to get money from family and friends. It was difficult to get money from Afghanistan. With help from the Afghan Embassy and an NGO this was eventually resolved.

“One of the women’s organisations which has an office in the US called Women for Afghan Women helped me to get money through their account. Everyone sent me a financial contribution toward my treatments – family, friends, members of civil society and government.

“Chemotherapy was the worst. Each stage was very painful but when I was passing through difficult times I thought of cancer patients in Afghanistan, especially those who had no money to pay for treatment and just had to wait to die. When I thought about them, I really understood how lucky I was.”

So what, realistically, can happen? And how quickly?

Soon after the London-based Afghan Women’s Support Forum started its social media activity about breast cancer the CEO of Alem Health, Mr Aschkan Abdul-Malek, got in touch. He wrote, “Our company provides high quality diagnoses for mammograms in Afghanistan through a network of over 400 US, EU, and India-based radiologists. There are plenty of facilities that perform mammograms in Kabul, but awareness on the part of patients is limited, and healthcare spending on screening and preventative care is quite low in general. The breast cancer cases we do see are all Stage 3 or Stage 4, whereas we’d like to diagnose things much earlier.”

He claimed that the problem was compounded by poor standards of service delivered by local radiologists and technicians. “When we first go into a facility, the images being taken by the technicians are often of unacceptable quality for diagnostic use, but we know somewhere a radiologist or someone else has been reading them, so we work with the technicians to get their skills to a global standard so our radiologists can confidently diagnose.

“A mammogram costs about $30 US for a facility to take. We charge a little less, in addition to having an Indian, European, or American doctor read it, usually within three hours. We don’t charge for any of the IT infrastructure, we’re fully private sector and work with private sector hospitals, so unlike aid projects, our entire budget for a year is a fraction of the cost of a Land Cruiser!”

But is an internet-based service really of significant value? Afghanistan’s living standards are among the lowest in the world so paying for anything – diagnosis, treatment or aftercare – will put help beyond the reach of most women.

The good news is that in October 2014, something unprecedented happened; the country’s new First Lady, Mrs Rula Ghani, accepted Shinkai’s invitation to support the breast cancer campaign she had initiated.

In terms of credibility, that public commitment by the president’s wife was a game changer. Now, through the continuous efforts of Shinkai Karokhail and the First Lady’s Advisor on Health Affairs, Fawzia Alam, a variety of key players have started working together on cancer control. What was initially a loose alliance soon developed into the Afghanistan Cancer Control Coalition (ACCC).

Its co-ordinator, Dr Maihan Abdullah, said from Kabul, “The ACCC is an extraordinary alliance of organisations and individuals committed to working for cancer prevention and control. The political commitment alongside ACCC has given its members new hope in the fight against cancer. In a meeting with H.E. First Lady and the Health Minister, ACCC convinced the Minister to form a Technical Committee consisting of members from ACCC and the Ministry.

“It decided that a Cancer Centre was urgently needed and that efforts should be started as soon as possible for its establishment. ACCC members – a variety of public health specialist, midwives and surgeons  – vowed to provide their expertise voluntarily in the proposed facility and, in subsequent meetings, Dr. Zarghuna will participate from the UK, through Skype, to offer her recommendations.”


The Afghan Women’s Support Forum, a UK-based networking group is trying to focus attention on the issue. Its  eclectic membership, a loose alliance of individuals with an interest in Afghanistan and its women, was brought together by Baroness Fiona Hodgson.

Fiona, whose first visit to the country was nearly her last, escaped death by hiding in a wardrobe during the siege of the Intercontinental Hotel in 2011. But she has been back since and, like all members of AWSF, is conscious of how big a divide there is between what western women can expect when serious illness strikes and what happens in Afghanistan.

She said, “The group relies on its membership to provide intelligence about what issues are of most importance to Afghan women. We don’t want them to be forgotten. When Zarghuna told us about the lack of provision for identifying and treating breast cancer, and the human tragedies associated with that, it became a priority for us. I have several friends in the UK who have had breast cancer and it was further personalised for me because I know Shinkai, so this dreadful disease had a ‘human face’.”

First published in UK Progressive 7 June 2015.



11,000 mile taxi ride for Veterans charity

I’ve often thought I was  perhaps a tad borderline in the conformity stakes – but when I heard that three guys were taking an 11,000 mile cab ride to the capital of Mongolia I realised that  my eccentricities  were  strictly minor-league. Straight from university,  looking for adventure,  and accompanied only by a 16-year-old called Mildred who had nevertheless been round the block a few times,   adventurers Oliver, Olivier and Will  joined 400 other teams  leaving London on  Saturday, 19th July  to take part in the 2014 Mongol Rally. To be fair the 16-year-old is a London taxi – affectionately nicknamed Mildred – and purchased on eBay for less than £1000.