Female governor leads resistance, recruits locals to join fight against Taliban

By Salaam Times and AFP

Salima Mazari, a female district governor in male-dominated Afghanistan, is on a mission -- recruiting men to fight the Taliban. Life has changed little in many areas the insurgents have captured, but in Charkint -- the ruggedly remote district of mountains and valleys that Mazari governs, about an hour south of Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh province -- the stakes are higher. [Farshad Usyan/AFPTV/AFP]

BALKH -- Salima Mazari sits nonchalantly in the front seat of a pickup truck as it cruises through a rural district of northern Afghanistan while a popular local song is heard through a loudspeaker stuck on top of the vehicle.

Mazari, a female district governor in male-dominated Afghanistan politics, is on a mission -- recruiting men to fight the Taliban.

"Homeland... I sacrifice my life for you," the song goes -- and, these days, she is asking her constituents to do just that.

The Taliban have seized most of north, south and west Afghanistan since May, when US and NATO forces started withdrawing from the country.


This photograph taken July 14 shows Salima Mazari, a female district governor, looking on from a hill while accompanied by security personnel near the frontlines of war with the Taliban in Balkh province. [Farshad Usyan/AFP]


Charkint district governor Salima Mazari (2nd on left) is shown July 14 in the district with her security personnel. Mazari is on a mission to recruit men to fight the Taliban. [Farshad Usyan/AFP]

News of horrors committed by the Taliban across the country is spreading, to include tales of reprisals against former government workers, summary executions, beheadings and kidnappings girls for forced marriages.

Balkh province's Charkint, where Mazari governs, is a ruggedly remote district of mountains and valleys about an hour south of Mazar-e-Sharif, and the stakes are even higher there.

"The Taliban are exactly the ones who trample human rights," she said.

Under the Taliban's rule, women and girls were denied education and employment, but even after the militants' downfall in 2001, attitudes have changed very slowly.

"Socially, people were not ready to accept a female leader," Mazari said.

Hundreds take up arms

Mazari is also a member of the Hazara community -- most of whom are Shia Muslims, whom the Sunni Taliban consider a heretical sect.

They have been regularly targeted by the Taliban and "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) fighters, including in an attack on a school in Kabul that killed more than 80 girls in May.

Last October, an ISIS suicide bomber blew himself up at an education centre in a Hazara neighbourhood in Kabul, killing at least 24 Afghans.

Half the district Mazari governs is already under Taliban control, so she devotes considerable time recruiting fighters to defend the portion still in government hands.

Hundreds of locals -- including farmers, shepherds and labourers -- have joined her cause, at enormous cost.

"Our people didn't have guns, but they went and sold their cows, sheep, and even their land, to buy weapons," Mazari said.

"They are on the frontline every day and night without getting any kind of credit or salary."

The only reason the Taliban hae not taken over the district is local resistance, district police chief Sayed Nazir said.

"Our achievements are due to our people's support," he said, still smarting from a leg wound he got while fighting the Taliban.

In the face of a surge in Taliban attacks in recent weeks, thousands of Afghans throughout the country have taken up arms and pledged to fight militants alongside security forces.

Among them are more than 500 women in Firoz Koh, the capital of Ghor province, who on July 4 declared their readiness to go to the frontlines and support the Afghan security forces.

Life under Taliban left bad taste

Mazari has so far recruited some 600 locals to supplement the conventional security forces in her district -- including Sayed Munawar, 53, who took up arms after 20 years of farming.

"We used to be craftsmen and workers until they attacked our villages," he told AFP at an outpost manned by the police and local volunteers.

"They took over a nearby village and stole carpets and goods... we were forced to buy weapons and ammunition."

Faiz Mohammad, 21, is another volunteer. He is putting his political science studies on hold to fight the Taliban.

He had not seen combat up close until three months ago but since then has fought in three battles.

"The heaviest fight was a few nights ago when we had to repel seven attacks," he said, dressed in civvies and listening to mournful Hazara music on a cell phone.

In Charkint, villagers still have bad memories of life under the Taliban before the United States toppled the hardline Islamist regime in 2001.

And Mazari knows if they return, they would never tolerate a woman in a leadership position.

"Women would be banned from educational opportunities, and our youth would be deprived of employment," she said, leading a meeting with militia commanders at her office, preparing for the next fight.

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