"I Don't Fear Death - I Fear Political Silence"

Article excerpt

The young man from the German Left Party is apologetic. "Malalai won't be able to meet you at 11. Her symbolic presence is needed on the boat," he explains. The boat turns out to be a small, two-storey river vessel decked out in peace flags and anti-war slogans. Bonn is once again playing host to an international conference on Afghanistan - ten years to the day since the first - and the nearest protesters have been able to come is a boat in the middle of the Rhine. I find Malalai Joya sipping herbal tea on the second deck. She looks tired. "I'm not tired. I am strong and fearless," she jokes.

The role of "symbolic presence" is not new to Joya. This slight, earnest-looking woman from Farah Province first came to international attention in 2003, when she stood up in Afghanistan's constitutional assembly to denounce the presence of "criminals" on its benches. In 2005, she became the country's youngest ever parliamentarian, only to be dismissed two years later for criticising the corruption of her colleagues. Despite repeated death threats, Joya has continued to speak out against what she calls Afghanistan's "corrupt, puppet-mafia regime". She is, she says, "surprised to be alive".

Like so many of the country's activists, Joya lives underground, moving from safe house to safe house, never staying in the same place for more than a few nights. Despite the peril of her situation, she has become a point of contact for women fleeing domestic violence, rape or forced marriage. "I try to help them," she says, "but it's a drop in the ocean." When Joya talks about the young women who seek her out, her voice softens and her eyes light up. It is, she Sctys, people, not ideology, who give her the strength to carry on. Ideology is suspect in Afghanistan. "They occupied my country under the banner of democracy, humanrights and women's rights," she explains. "They misuse the stories of the women in my country to justify their warmongering."

Sick man of Asia

The boat judders to a crawl. Through the windows, we can make out the white outline of the Hotel Petersberg, where the future of Afghanistan is being debated. "It's a conference of propaganda and lies," Joya says bitterly. "It's as though my country were a sick body, with everyone fighting over the pieces."

In December 2001, the hilltop hotel hosted the first international conference on Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai was installed as leader of an interim government and Germany's then chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, promised the country "peace and prosperity" after "all the years of war ... and humiliation". In the intervening decade, there have been many more conferences and Joya has repeatedly campaigned to be admitted as a delegate. …