One of Afghanistan's leading human-rights advocates is running out of places to hide. Targeted for assassination, he has special connections to New Zealand and is appealing to Jacinda Ardern for help. by Clare de Lore.
One night in December last year, 37-year-old Wadood Pedram received a chilling call at his home in Kabul. The caller gave a brief but clear warning in Pashto before abruptly hanging up.
Pedram, human-rights campaigner and head teacher at Shokoh High School, a co-ed for Hazara children built and funded by the New Zealand-linked Lapis Lazuli charity, was left in no doubt that the Taliban would hunt him down and kill him.
Pedram is one of the Taliban's top targets for assassination. His name appears on a hit list, seen by the Listener, alongside the names of 97 others, some of whom have already been assassinated.
The Taliban are now estimated to control at least 50 per cent of Afghanistan and are gaining ground, mostly in the provinces. Emboldened by the imminent final pullout of US troops, they are increasingly attacking the major cities, too. Many border crossings and some main routes are now under Taliban control.
It is estimated 250,000 people have left the provinces for the uncertain safety of the cities. The American- and Nato-trained Afghan Army faces desertions, and those Afghan soldiers who remain may find themselves rendered impotent and unable to move as the Taliban takes control of fuel routes and petrol supplies from Pakistan.
After 20 years, trillions of dollars spent, an estimated 100,000 civilian deaths and more than 2000 US servicemen and women dying, the administration of President Joe Biden has confirmed a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan on September 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. Those atrocities led to the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
The country's Hazara minority – 9 per cent of its population and its poorest people – has long been marginalised and persecuted. Ongoing conflict routinely claims the lives of hundreds of Afghans each month, but the Hazaras are the only group targeted specifically because of their ethnicity.
In 2020, a maternity hospital in the west Kabul area, home mostly to Hazaras, was attacked by gunmen: 24 people including mothers and their newborn babies died. Earlier this year, a school in the same neighbourhood was bombed: 60 Hazara schoolgirls were among the 100 killed in that attack.
Pedram, executive director of the Human Rights and Eradication of Violence Organisation, has been gathering evidence of crimes such as these for years. He says at least 1200 Hazara have been killed since 2015, and thousands more injured.
He and other human-rights activists have submitted more than one million victim statements to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. They hope the Taliban will one day have to answer for their crimes.
Civilian casualties in May and June this year rose to their highest since the United Nations began recording the numbers in 2009. More than 1600 civilian deaths were recorded in the first six months of this year, a 47 per cent increase on the same period last year.
The UN says anti-government forces were responsible for 65 per cent of the deaths; nearly a third of the casualties were children.
Since December, Pedram, his wife and their two young sons have been in hiding, moving from one safe house to the next. He spoke to the Listener from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where they are in relative safety. "I am very happy that my family is in a secure place and can go out walking without fear," he says.
But the family's short-term visas will soon expire, and unless they can find another safe haven, they will have to return to Afghanistan. What would that mean?
"If the Taliban have the chance, they will kill me. They think I'm against their values because I promote women's rights and education rights for all children in Afghanistan.
"And, also, because, as a human-rights activist, I went two times to the ICC to file documents on their human-rights violations in Afghanistan. I asked the court to start an investigation because the Taliban have committed war crimes."
He alleges the Taliban have committed genocide of the Hazara. "It is not just the Taliban. Some other groups as well, some warlords with power.
"The Taliban know me well, also because I am running a co-educational school – they are against that. In Kabul, I'm not able to go out to buy our shopping. We just ask our friends to bring us food. Sometimes, for urgent work, I ask my friends to bring an armoured car so I can go out."
The school is dedicated to the education of Hazara children. The charity that funds it has written to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern asking her to consider allowing Pedram "time out" in New Zealand.
"If she provided a chance for me and my family [to spend time in New Zealand], we can continue our education. And I can carry on to promote education for women in Afghanistan, for girls to study. I will go back to my country when it is better to continue to promote human rights and education."
Seeking safe haven
Naomi Brons-Harper is in no doubt that the Taliban will take whatever chance arises to kill her friend.
Speaking from London, Brons-Harper, born in New Zealand and raised in Afghanistan and the UK, says New Zealand connections are behind the creation and success of the Lapis Lazuli school. Those connections might now save Pedram's life.
Shokoh School was the vision of Brons-Harper's father, Kiwi ophthalmologist Howard Harper, who lived and worked in central Asia for 40 years until his death in 2011. He travelled throughout central Asia as a young man before studying medicine.
In addition to his specialist training at London's Moorfields Eye Hospital, Harper studied Islamic law and learnt local languages. He met and married Monika, a Holocaust survivor and eye nurse, who wholeheartedly embraced his plan to restore sight to people in central Asia, where he had found an unusually high level of blindness.
The couple performed thousands of cataract operations throughout the vast region, earning the respect and protection of local people. They established Kabul's first eye clinic, the Noor Eye Hospital, and, in addition to the school, their legacy includes self-sustaining eye clinics in several countries.
Brons-Harper, the eldest of their three children, was born in New Zealand during a short respite visit by the couple. She and her sisters grew up in Kabul, leaving only to pursue secondary-school education in the UK.
When their father died, Brons-Harper, a London-based fashion designer, took on responsibility for the Lapis Lazuli charity, completing construction of the school. The building of a second school has been temporarily halted by security concerns.
Funding for the school, which has 620 students aged 5-18, mostly arose from a Kea (Kiwi Expats Abroad) Awards dinner in Auckland in 2011, where Howard Harper – virtually unknown in his native country – was named supreme winner.
Kea founder Sir Stephen Tindall pledged $50,000 towards the school and urged others to donate. Running costs are funded by donations and profits from Brons-Harper's King's Cross, London, charity shop, Pop Up 38.
Brons-Harper knows Afghanistan well and, until the past two years, travelled there every year. Her extensive connections and street smarts enabled her to move relatively freely. She wore a burkha in high-risk areas and adjusted her footwear and gait to better blend in with locals, quite a feat for the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Westerner. Her father enjoyed a kind of protection based on affection and respect from locals for his medical work.
"I know that without my father's credibility as a New Zealander and my being able to stand on his shoulders, we would not have the really good relationships we enjoy in Afghanistan," Brons-Harper says. "New Zealand has a good name."
That close relationship is behind her continued efforts to find a safe place for Pedram to live, study and work until Afghanistan is back on track. "Wadood calls me sister and I call him my brother. I speak to him every other day. He shouldn't have to live like this.
"He has exposed himself to danger by reporting to The Hague on war crimes. He is tired and just needs time for his family to recover, be safe, continue their studies and eventually go back to the land they love."
Despite the immediate threat to Pedram, and to women and girls in Afghanistan, Brons-Harper believes there will, over time, be significant pushback against the Taliban.
"The Afghan people have had a taste of something different. Until recently, you would go into government offices and see women working, girls going to school and to university, and we have had female teachers at our school, as well as men. And because of education, there was a good feeling.
"You can't change that feeling. Even though the Taliban are back now, it's not going to stop what most people want and that is progress and opportunities and peace."
Condemned to their past
"It is often tempting to ask, 'Can we win or not?' and thereby weigh the merits of helping the Afghans. But perhaps there's a more important question to ask: 'Who are we if we do nothing to avert brutality?'"
It's nearly 10 years since Brigadier Chris Parsons posed that question in his eulogy at the funeral of his friend Corporal Douglas Grant. The 41-year-old New Zealand SAS soldier died of injuries sustained while responding to a Taliban attack on the British Council compound in Kabul on August 19, 2012. Twelve people died in the dawn attack, including Grant.
Parsons, who was SAS commanding officer at the time of the attack, did two major tours in Afghanistan and was "in and out often" at other times. He closely follows developments there. Asked what the past 20 years have been for, given the resurgence of the Taliban, he offers a professional and family perspective.
"I still feel we can hold our heads up. My brother was in the Provincial Reconstruction Team a couple of times, and then I was deployed. From a family perspective, we sought to protect the underdog, to extend the rule of law and build resilience. We tried to give people a chance at peace by providing time, space and security.
"And what we were seeing was kids going to school – girls in particular, in their thousands – roads being made, communications networks being built, new ideas coming in. It was always a challenge, but it was taking effect and generational change was happening. But for now, at least, it seems they are condemned to their past."
Parsons predicts two likely outcomes, neither good, but one of them disastrous for Afghanistan.
"At best, there will probably be a negotiated settlement and some sort of co-governance model between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. Things won't be great, but hopefully not terrible. At the other end of the spectrum, you'll get a repeat of what happened to the Najibullah government, a civil war and overthrow of the government."
Mohammad Najibullah was the country's president from 1987-92. After the Taliban captured Kabul, he was tortured and executed. It was, says Parsons, a brutal time. "He was strung up on a lamppost. And then the intellectuals and the women were killed or forced back into their homes. The bloodletting is probably happening now."
What then, in Parsons' opinion, is the moral obligation of New Zealand and other developed countries to men like Wadood Pedram?
"Had we still been there, we would, as we did in East Timor, want to bring him out of the country if he couldn't stay there. Potentially, as we've done with other Afghan refugees, let him fight the just fight from abroad where it is safe to do so."
In July 2011, the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was attacked by Taliban fighters, who went from room to room seeking out Westerners. One guest was Fiona Hodgson, a British human-rights activist. She hid in a cupboard with a friend for six hours, terrified.
Kiwi soldiers, including Corporal Grant and Steve Askin, rescued the pair. (Askin died in 2017 in a helicopter crash while fighting bush fires near Christchurch.)
Now a member of the House of Lords, Baroness Hodgson of Abinger, as she is formally known, has developed a firm friendship with Parsons. Until recently, she continued to visit Afghanistan, advocating for women's rights and helping Afghan women step into previously forbidden roles. She despairs at the grim news now emerging.
"The Taliban say a woman's place is in the house, or in a grave. I fear for the women who have had the courage to come forward. The more prominent they are – politicians, human-rights defenders – the greater the risk."
She says there is not a good international mechanism to extract those in jeopardy, but it is still possible to save lives, including Pedram's. "Right now, the situation is tipping so fast. We should provide safe houses and extract them to countries nearby. Thousands might die. It is a desperate situation."
Hodgson's recent representations to the UK Government have had little effect amid Covid, Brexit and foreign-ministry restructuring. But she feels a personal responsibility for Afghan human-rights advocates who believed the West had their backs.
"I have done a lot of work with the women over the years – it might have been better not to encourage them. But you can never have peace and security in a country if half the population is oppressed."
'We need peace'
Helen Clark fears for the women and girls of Afghanistan
In 2001, Prime Minister Helen Clark committed New Zealand soldiers to Afghanistan in the wake of the Twin Towers attacks and as part of the UN-sanctioned effort to hunt down al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, believed then to be hiding in Afghanistan.
What was intended as a one-year mission, focused mostly on reconstruction, became a two-decade commitment, costing New Zealand $300 million and the lives of 10 soldiers.
More than 3500 New Zealanders served in Afghanistan on six-month rotations as part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan Province. In 2014, after 13 years, most NZDF personnel withdrew, though six remained until earlier this year, working as trainers with the Afghanistan Army or at Nato headquarters in Kabul.
In 2003, Clark visited Kabul and the PRT team in Bamiyan. She visited twice more when head of the UN Development Programme.
On her last visit, in March 2019, Clark and her team went to a market in the main city of Badghis Province. Previously dependent on men to sell their products, women were making and selling clothes and food, and some provided hair and beauty services. Clark said at the time, "… this is a safe space – so it's women's empowerment".
Two and half years later, her optimism for Afghanistan, and especially its women, is all but gone. With the Taliban reimposing controls and using terror to enforce their codes, Clark says the fragile gains for women and girls will be rolled back.
"I see stories about places I went to in 2019. You would not make that trip now. It was highly insecure then, but it is worse now."
Clark ponders the moral obligation of the West, including New Zealand, to Afghanistan and people such as teacher Wadood Pedram.
"We have a small Afghan community here in New Zealand. Some may have family members who seek to come here. We can look to our refugee quota – we take 1000 refugees a year.
"I would hope authorities would look at priority cases. The tragedy is that the Hazara people have been there for centuries. They can't all leave – we need peace in Afghanistan."