By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 19, 2005
KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 18 -- Afghanistan's old parliament building, which has served as a battleground, a hideout and a prison, was a heap of rubble a year ago. Bullets and mines littered the floor, and its ceilings and most of the walls were missing.
On Monday, the building is scheduled to host Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Vice President Cheney as the 351 new members of parliament are sworn in as the country's first democratically elected legislature in more than three decades.
The yellow and red paint is fresh, the woodwork is meticulously carved, and state-of-the-art computer servers now occupy rooms that once housed prisoners of war. The exquisite reconstruction has given many people here hope that the country can move forward after incalculable death and destruction during a quarter-century of fighting.
But some of the people taking office Monday contributed to the dismemberment of the building and the country, a fact not lost on most Afghans.
"There was not a proper vetting process for the candidates," said Nader Nadery, who leads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "So a number of people with very bad human rights records have gotten into parliament."
One of the first issues the new parliament may have to confront is whether such human rights abusers will be brought to justice. Last week, Karzai's government approved the creation of a truth-and-reconciliation process aimed at holding war criminals accountable. The parliament could assist with that effort, but it also could set up roadblocks by giving amnesty to suspected offenders.
War veterans are perhaps the single largest bloc in the parliament, and among them are many of the commanders who are blamed for perpetuating internecine violence in Afghanistan for a dozen years after a successful, decade-long struggle to drive out the Soviet Union. Among them are Mohammed Fahim, a former defense minister; Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, a former Hazara commander; Abdul Salaam Rocketi, a former Taliban leader named for his skill at aiming rockets; and Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, a factional leader. They each have developed strong followings but have also angered opponents for their often brutal tactics.
Sayyaf in particular has been cited by human rights groups for allegedly targeting civilians, many of whom were ethnic Hazaras, during fighting in the early 1990s. Pounded by rocket attacks, Hazara neighborhoods in southwest Kabul were left more devastated than any others in the city.
Those neighborhoods remain badly damaged. But there are signs of rebirth: new businesses, a new high school and, as of Monday, the parliament.
The building last housed a freely elected legislature in the 1960s and early 1970s, a period remembered by many Afghans as peaceful and relatively prosperous. A coup in 1973 ended the country's experiment with democracy.
Abdul Latif Morad, general director of Banaee Construction, was given the task of rebuilding the structure last year. Morad said he had only a skeletal structure to work with. Rainwater and trash had collected on the floors, and it took three months just to clean the building out. After that, 1,600 Afghan workers toiled day and night for eight months to restore its original luster.
The building, which will serve as the parliament's home for four years until a new structure is completed, includes a white-columned portico, marble-floored dining rooms and crystal chandeliers. A 249-seat chamber for the lower house -- which is not much larger than the average Capitol Hill committee room -- has been outfitted with microphones, television cameras, a communications booth and a visitors gallery.
"We have proven that Afghanistan is the best in terms of destroying something quickly and in rebuilding something quickly," Morad said of the $3.5 million project, which was funded by the Afghan government and international donors.
Some major work continued last week. On the building's grounds, men wearing Kevlar vests, helmets and face shields carefully prodded the earth looking for unexploded ordinance.
There was also a reminder that violence may not be entirely part of the building's past. On Friday, a suicide bomber drove into a convoy of NATO vehicles just down the road, killing himself and wounding two civilians. A purported Taliban spokesman later said the building had been the bomber's intended target before he was diverted to attack the soldiers, who were not injured. As a result of that incident and others in recent months, security for the ceremony Monday was expected to be extraordinarily tight.
Malalai Joya, a member of parliament, said the cycle of violence in her country would not end until those who commit violence are punished, rather than being allowed to sit in the legislature. But she was not optimistic that this would happen anytime soon. "How can our people be hopeful that the parliament will arrange a way to put the war criminals of our country in international or national courts when some of the most famous criminals in the country are in parliament?" she asked.
But her fellow member of parliament, Mohammed Daoud Zazai, said that seeking justice through the courts now would be counterproductive. Zazai fought with Sayyaf's forces against the Soviets and is supporting Sayyaf's bid to lead the new parliament.
"Now is not a good time to do this. We have to fight the Taliban," he said. "If we bring one of our own members to justice and say he is a criminal, it will create more and more problems for this country."
Besides, Zazai said, there are other ways of resolving such issues. "Afghanistan's people always get their revenge," he said. "They do not need the help of the international community. When they get their chance, they will get their revenge."