A country doctor who transformed a generation

She could not have imagined that one day she would become a famous medical doctor and a renowned rights activist when in a sunny April day her father took her on rear rack of his Indian bicycle to enroll her in a primary school. “My father took me to the only girls’ school in Lashkar Gah. The school headmaster, Mahbobah Sufi, introduced me to a teacher who tested my reading and math abilities and registered me in second grade.”

In her early 70s, she looks highly spirited and receives visitors of young and old ages, males and females, who come from different provinces of the country to either pay homage or ask her for help. Her cell phone rings every now and then. “When you work with people you cannot turn off your cell phone,” she says.  

She has eye-witnessed three regime changes in her life time and has seen her country in peace and at war. Her story, though is too long to be summarized in this profile, offers us many—especially the young girls—a lesson about life, resistance and a constant struggle to create identity.                             

One of the eleven children, Ms. Sima Samar was born on February 03, 1957, in a tiny mountainous village in southern province of Ghazni. Her father was a government clerk. Sima was enrolled in a religious school where she was taught to learn Qaida Baghdadi, Koran, Panj Ganj, Sheikh Sadi’s famous poetry on morality. “My uncle who was a mullah taught me basic math and Koran,” she told me over a cup of tea and talk in her residence, which as compared to the houses of other high profile Afghan politicians, is loosely guarded. There is something mesmerizing about her lifestyle: with short haircut, she has the appearance of a kind nurse and the language of a reformist teacher who curses the cult of authoritarian mindset.          

In 1964—when the country, under pressure, was transformed into a constitutional monarchy — Ms. Sima, then six, was taken to Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, where her father was serving as finance officer at Helmand directorate.            

The seven-year Sima, who was born into a Shia Hazara family, soon realized that Lashkar Gah was different from her birth village, not only in respect of landscape and weather but language, folklore and costume. People including some of her school teachers were not very friendly with the Shias. In the first day, her teacher, Shafiqa, reproaches Sima for her devoted childhood love for Imam Ali, the first Imam of the Shias, and Prophet Mohammad’s fourth companion, Islam’s fourth caliph,  according to Sunni sect.

In 1960s, Afghanistan, under King Zahir Shah, was swiftly transforming. King’s Prime Minister, Sardar Daud Khan, who was king’s cousin and brother-in-law too, had taken new initiative to educate female population in urban areas and promote modern education in rural areas of the conservative Afghanistan where traditional clergies and feudal leaders were in power. Lashkar Gah, then a small booming city in the south, was open to newcomers with a co-education high school.  

In Lashkar Gah, political activities were not as flourishing as it were in the capital Kabul. Books and magazines were available in the city albeit not all types of books and magazines one wanted to read were found. “I was reading of any kind of book I could find to read. Mother by Maxim Gorky and The Miserable by Victor Hugo were famous among high school students,” she recalls. “There was a bookseller in the town who was renting a book out for two afghanis; we would rent book, read it, and then return it.”           

The young Sima, ambitious to get education, wanted to become a civil engineer. “Civil engineering interested me the most. In my eyes, a civil engineer, with helmet over his head, looked very powerful.”

With first grade, she graduated from high school in 1975 and left Lashkar Gah for Kandahar to take Kankor exam, university entry exam. “I loved to study civil engineering but my brother convinced me to study medical science,” she says.

It was a tough journey for a young woman in early 1970s to leave a province and come to Kabul for completion of higher education. “My father was hesitant to let me study medical science at Kabul Medical University.”

To convince her father, Sima Samar got engaged with Abdul Ghafor Sultani, a professor, who then was teaching at science department of Kabul Polytechnic Collage. “I was sure that my father would not let me live alone in Kabul even for purpose of study. He allowed me to pursue my education after I was engaged with Ghafor,” she recalls.     

The Afghan capital Kabul was divided across ideological lines by the time Ms. Sima Samar entered the city. Two years before Sima’s coming to Kabul, Sardar Daud Khan had ousted his cousin King Zahir Shah and had declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as the president of the Republic of Afghanistan. Political development was fast and life-changing. Three major political movements, openly opposing President Sardar Daud’s policies on social reform and economic development, were struggling to overthrow Sardar Daud. Peoples’ Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a Soviet-backed left party popular among urban population, was preaching Soviet-style of social reform and development. The Progressive Youth Organization (PYO), influenced by Chairman Moa Zedong’s ideas, was opposing both the Republic and the Moscow-backed PDPA. The third political movement—which was fighting against the state and the two leftist parties—was the Muslim Youth, a group inspired by ideology of Muslim Brotherhood.  

The political dynamism at home, however, was deeply influenced by political movements of the world. Vladimir Lenin, Moa Zedong and Sayyed Qutb were the enchanting ghosts who had occupied mind and body of the Afghan political activism.

In a politically divided Kabul, Sima chose to study medical science. Busy marriage life coupled with university studies made her tougher and stronger. “I was doing the household chores and my studies,” she recalls. Education, as now she says, was not only a matter of future profession for her; it was a sheer struggle to create her personal identity. “It was the very family institution where I felt being undervalued,” she says. With getting higher education, the young Sima wanted to prove two things: women can do every work and tribal notion about femininity is a socially constructed biased perception.

Like many of her contemporaries, Sima Samar, subscribed to leftist philosophy that was read and acclaimed in her circle of friends. She would frequently meet top PYO theoreticians who were distant relatives and close friends of her husband. But the couple, neither Sima nor Ghafor, never sought to get membership of any political organization at the time. Her youth intellectual development took shape under historical dynamics in a political environment which was influenced by Moa Zedong’s ideas on social reform and economic development.      

In April 27, 1978, Ms. Samar was a third year student at Kabul medical university when the leftist Afghan army generals, backed by PDPA, staged a bloody coup d’état that changed the trajectory of Afghanistan, and fate of the visionary young Sima forever. “I was in Wazir Akar Khan Hospital, doing my internship, all of sudden I heard fighter jets hovering on the sky. That evening as I returned to my home, radio BBC broadcasted that the Khalqis—a faction of PDPA—had overthrown Sardar Daud Khan” she recalls.

Under President Noor Mohammad Taraki, the new regime, audacious and dictatorial, initiated KGB style of eavesdropping to counter anti-government groups. Da Afghanistan da Gato da Satalo Adara (AGSA), the regime’s spy agency, acting as the right arm of the Khalq regime, arrested and killed over 5000 human beings: a murder on national scale.

In June 1979, in an afternoon, two men, introducing themselves as secret police, guided by a student of science department of Kabul Polytechnic College, came to door of the house where Sima and her husband were living.        

“We take Ustad for a short while and will bring him back soon,” said the student, Ms. Samar quotes as she recalls the scene after 40 years, today. “We had 1,200 afghanis at home, I took the money put it in Ghafor’s coat pocket and asked him to wear his coat. He wore it, left the house with them, and never came back,” she told me with a deep pain touching her throat.

The horror of the situation showed no mercy for Ms. Samar, as it did to thousands of Afghan victims, but nothing changed her decision. In spite of everything, as now four decades after that day, she tells her eyewitness account, a glimmer of commitment to human rights glitters in her eyes. Perhaps this is what that makes her a different human being; different from those who choose to fight back evil with evil behavior.

Dr. Sima Samar in scrubs checking up a baby patient

Ms. Sima is brave enough to speak her feeling about the loss of her husband. She, though now is a high profile woman in the country’s politics, does not try to hide the abject poverty she had to handle in the aftermath of her husband imprisonment by the brutal spy agency of the regime. With a-three-year old child on her shoulder, she had to undertake a range of responsibilities. “I was doing tailoring, Ghafor had borrowed a 12,000 loan from Teacher Box loan, and I had to repay it,” she says.

“The day they took Ghafor, I promised myself to stay strong and never give up.”

Every hour, every day, every week, and every month in the absence of her husband was like a hell. Every Friday she would go to Pol-e-Charkhi, the country notorious central jail, hoping to find her husband. Her account of going to Pol-e-Charkhi is a sad reflection of a young mother about a heinous crime committed by abominable Amin regime— a regime that stood to the level of brutality in which a government is capable. In Ms. Samar’s sad story, the difference between the perpetrator and the victim is marked by evil and good.

But the will to survive and fight back evil forces served as beckon of future in Ms. Samar’s life. Broken and tortured in the aftermath of the saddest episode of her life, she promises herself to fight for humanity. The disappearance of her husband puts her in a situation, out which she rises like the imaginary phoenix rising from its ashes. “The day they took Ghafor, I promised myself to stay strong and never give up.”

Ms. Samar during her visit in Sudan

In July 1982, Ms. Samar, having earned an MD degree in medical, returned to Sang-e-Masha, the capital of Jaghoori district. The district then was ruled by Shura-e Enqilab-e Etifaq-e Islami Afghanistan, Revolutionary Council for the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan, a military and political party, led by a Shia clergyman, Sayed Ali Behishti. The Shura had overthrown the communist government in Jaghoori and declared autonomy in Hazarajat.

“Following my graduation, I took my son and moved to Jaghoori, with a stethoscope and blood pressure monitor, and set up clinic in the castle of my father-in-law,” she recalls.   

Life was not easy for a young female doctor in a tribal remote district ruled by a group of devoted Shia mullahs, and a newly-emerged militia commanders. Her very presence in a deeply man-dominated society, however, was a manifestation instilling self-confidence and hope in minds and hearts of coming female generations. In Jaghoori what made Ms. Samar exceptional was not her profession; it was her self-fashioned style of talking, behaving and dressing that made her an exceptional lady doctor who believed that men and women should be treated equally. By a fortuitous combination of luck, intelligence and hard- work, she taught herself English. “A group of French doctors, funded by Doctors Without Borders, were working there [in Jaghoori], they would often come to me, or I would go to them, we were speaking English.”      

In Sang-e-Masha, except a small number of her close friends and colleagues, the rest—in particular those in power— and the ruling local government were not comfortable to tolerate her presence in social arena. “I was not afraid of anyone, wearing a shalwar kameez which is typical of man and a small chador on head.”

In 1980s, the status of women in tribal Jaghoori was largely characterized by social relationship and norms. Women, no matter who she was, was treated as an object to serve the dignity and formality of the tribe and family. Her male friends would frequently come to her house for a cup of tea and chat. “One day, my father-in-law, [who was a dignitary], excused himself to ask me if I was meeting with men,” Ms. Samar recalls, “yes baba, they are my friends, I replied” she says.

It was in Jaghoori where Ms. Samar made a credible reputation on which she developed her future career and a new identity: a progressive lady doctor and a social worker who hates injustice and loves humanity.       

In November 1984 Ms. Samar left Afghanistan for Quetta, Pakistan. “It was a personal decision, there was not any proper school in Jaghoori, and I wanted to enroll my son in a school,” she said.

In mid 1980s Quetta was center of Afghan exiles who were escaping persecution by the Karmal regime and mujahedeen groups. Many famous Afghan activists had taken refuge in the city. There were small number of publications, printed by right and left wings of Afghan exiles, preaching resistance against the Kabul regime, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.     

“In 1985 I worked in Mission Hospital in Quetta but resigned my job and founded a hospital, Malalai Roghtona.”

Living in Quetta marked a new episode in Ms. Samar’s career. In 1989, she founded Shuhada Organization, a Norway-funded NGO providing health and education services for Afghan refugees in Quetta, and running schools in central Afghanistan. She worked as medical doctor and chaired the organization until December 22, 2001. From November 1984 until October 2001, Ms. Samar’s tireless efforts in exile did one thing: it changed the face of central Afghanistan. Thousands of girls and boys graduated out of dozens of high schools, run by Shuhada Organization in a country where state had failed and a group of ragtag extremist militias had taken control over lives of people.       

Sima Samar, checking up a female patient somewhere in Quetta, Pakistan

“On October 07, 2001, I was in Germany, invited by a women rights organization to share my thoughts on situation, when the American forces launched attacks on the Taliban group.”

A glimmer of hope began to shine. Taliban atrocities finally come to end as US forces, under command by Bush administration, kicked off hunting Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters and leaders. The US intervention in Afghanistan marked a new chapter in Sima’s life and career, as it did change life courses of millions of Afghans in exile and at home.

“The next week, I returned to Pakistan and went Islamabad to meet UN envoy,” she says, “and told him that this time, the government should not be formed without women.”            

As the Taliban regime collapsed, Ms. Samar, then 44, appeared, this time a woman on the lead. She served as deputy chair of the head of interim administration and minister for women affairs. The irony of her political career, however, unfolded against her dreams and wishes. She had to work with a handful of mujahedeen, most of whom had blood in their hands and had served as key commanders and masterminds of bloody civil war of 1990s.

Afghan politics, best known for its tricky games, traditionally has been shaped, formulated and played by a bunch of tribesmen, with women having no role in it. In post-Taliban era, women presence and participation in politics, though might not have been as influential as it should have been, changed the face of the country in mainstream western media. Ms. Samar, hated by most hardline mujahedeen, faced up to death threats to prove that she would never surrender.

Sima Samar, then deputy chair of Interim Government, Kabul, Afghanistan

“After I raised human rights issues to cabinet agenda, a number of strongmen, who were holding key security and intelligence agencies, put efforts to assassinate me.” “President Karzai said I cannot guarantee your security,” she recalls as quoting, “I will not go anywhere, this is my country, I replied Mr. Karzai as he offered me ambassadorial post in my favorite country.”  

“I will not go anywhere, this is my country. ”  

In June 2002, she founded Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in a country, where key government organizations were run by those who had turned Kabul into rubbles. Amid conflict, nepotism and culture of impunity, the country’s human rights commission though fell short to bring human rights abusers and war criminals to justice, it has been serving as a scarecrow that warns Afghan strongmen to harness their arbitrary behaviors.                         

Acclaimed by many international rights organizations for her life time rights activism, Ms. Sima Samar was appointed as the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Situation of Human Rights for Sudan in August 2005.  

On the verge of a peace deal with the Taliban, Ms. Samar believes that war is not a solution to the Afghan conflict. Appointed as state minister for human rights, she says peace deal with the Taliban—a group that has committed many documented war crimes and crime against humanity—should be signed on certain conditions.

Ms. Samar’s long influential rein on NGO and her presence in politics might rise criticism as some of her critics dare to formulate but her work for a better country and her struggle for an educated nation are what that make her dear in the hearts and minds of her fellow compatriots.

She will be remembered for her legacy.   

With her simple words, Sima gives new hope to new generation who are struggling to make their own identities. Her life, though filled by many sad and perhaps untold episodes, offers a new perspective: self-confidence is a key element of self-development. “Resistance”, she believes, “is the faith of every human who is fighting for a better world”– an optimistic statement by a woman who has seen kings in thrones and soldiers in blood.                           


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