"People have guns. Please take them away. They will kill people. They will rob people."
These words, from a woman in Faizabad, Afghanistan, echo the feelings and fears of many Afghan citizens today. Even in the wake of the Taliban's collapse and on the eve of the first free national elections in years, people remain gravely concerned about the scourge of violence throughout Afghanistan.
According to a recent survey of Afghan citizens, their country remains an unstable place where the threat of violence reigns, warlords govern daily life and basic rights are denied by those who wield guns.
A coalition of humanitarian organizations, including Mercy Corps, conducted surveys of citizens throughout Afghanistan during June-July, 2004. This coalition, the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium, conducted over 750 interviews with Afghan farmers, teachers, housewives, shopkeepers and other professions - people from all walks of life. The resulting report, "Take the Guns Away" reveals tragedy, challenges and determination across Afghanistan.
The themes reflected in the surveys were consistent: while Afghan citizens have high expectations for the future of their country, they continue to fear warlords, random violence, drug trafficking and human rights abuse.
Afghans are optimistic, but cautious
"There is no difference between the forces of the Taliban and the muhajideen and all the others who carry guns. Only the faces and the clothes have changed."
Hopes for better days ahead are largely pinned to a newly-elected government. According to many interviewees, a new government is needed to establish basic services and improve the security situation throughout the country.
Even as they expressed optimism about an emerging democracy and opportunities to take a stake in Afghanistan's future, Afghan citizens also called for continued involvement from the international community - especially in terms of political support and provision of basic resources.
According to the survey:
- 65% of respondents said disarmament is the most important step towards improved security in Afghanistan.
- 88% wanted the government to do more to reduce the powers of warlords in Afghanistan.
- 83% of Afghans felt international forces should oversee the removal of weapons and 59% called for both international and Afghan forces to provide security.
- Only 14% of those interviewed had received any voter education and many had limited knowledge about the new political process.
Although participation in the October 9 national elections is near the top of many Afghan citizens' minds, there are difficult obstacles to making their voices heard. Many people have concerns that gunmen may interfere with the process.
In certain parts of the country, less than half of those surveyed felt they would be able to vote for the candidate they favored. Of those who felt this way, nearly nine out of ten thought that warlords would pressure them to vote a certain way.
Women still feeling oppressed
Gender inequality still plays a huge role in everyday life, including the ability to vote. Of the 110 interviewees who had not registered to vote, over two-thirds were women. When asked why they hadn't registered, the most frequent answer was that they had “no permission” to do so.
"Women are in a bad situation here. Mothers are afraid," a woman in Faizabad said. "They are worried about their daughters - that the armed men will do something to the girls."
How Mercy Corps is helping
As Afghanistan continues to emerge from years of oppression, violence and hopelessness, Mercy Corps is helping Afghan families and communities confront their daily challenges.
Mercy Corps has worked in Afghanistan since 1986. In 2003, the agency assisted two million Afghans and 500,000 Afghan refugees with programs to help rehabilitate lives and livelihoods after decades of conflict and political instability.
"Take the Guns Away" sheds some much-needed light on both obstacles and opportunities in Afghanistan. By continuing vital humanitarian aid and helping Afghan communities achieve steps toward democracy and reconcilation, Mercy Corps is helping war-weary citizens take their country back.
To download "Take the Guns Away", please click here.