A letter from Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf to Mr. Khatami, president of Iran, regarding the devastating consequences of expelling Afghani immigrants from Iran.
Dear Mr. Khatami
The Iranian people seem to have given up on their two-decade old Afghani guests and suddenly decided to disregard the human and political consequences of expelling them from Iran. During the past twenty years, approximately 30% of the people of Afghanistan have emigrated from their homeland due to hunger and the lack of basic safety. This means that the fate of a people struck by war and hunger has suddenly passed a stern verdict upon them. A verdict to leave, but only 30% of them have had the capability to comply with that verdict.
The Iranian people have hosted some 2.5 million refugees which constitutes about 40% of the total number of Afghani people who have been forced to flee their country but has extended a warm welcome of hospitality, for which the Iranian people are famed for around the world, to the hungry and war stricken people of Afghanistan. Now, and without the causes for the continued devastation of hunger and war to have diminished, the Iranian people have decided to expel them immediately. Such an action may only be interpreted as an act of desperation rather than thoughtful deliberation. Most importantly, under severe drought and famine, that requires more than ever, the attention and help of the international community, especially the neighbors.
We, the Iranian people, have forgotten that if we have become weary of hosting, our guests, the refugees from Afghanistan must also be desperately tired of living an uncertain life of aimless migration and would never have faced the humiliation if they could do anything to avoid it. I am pleading to you not as a film maker and not as a person, but as a witness on behalf of your proven compassionate conscience to take note of the reasons that have caused the streets of Harat to be paved with the dead bodies of those Afghani people who can no longer bear the devastation brought upon them.
Maybe the following statistics can bring to light, the catastrophe that has entangled the Afghani people;
1 In the past twenty years, the Afghani people have suffered 2.5 million deaths due to hunger and war. This is evidence to the fact that Afghanistan is an unsuitable living environment in which any person faces a ten percent chance of certain death or severe injury. Hence, for the past twenty years and without interruption, an Afghani person has died or been killed every five minutes.
2 There have been over 6.5 million Afghani refugees in the past 20 years which means that over 30 percent of the Afghani population were forced to leave their homeland. In statistical terms, one Afghani is forced to leave their country due to War and/or famine, every minute for the past twenty years.
3 The migration, as well as the death rate, has increased in the past few years due to the severe drought and according to recent United Nations statistics, Afghanistan will face a full-blown famine in the next year. According to the same statistics and forecasts, the Afghani famine in the next year, will be more severe and devastating that that of Africa 25 years go. However, the international community, so entangled in local matters of interest, that despite the availability of highly efficient mass media and information services, has completely disregarded this devastation. Today’s “global village” cannot even live up to the standards it set for itself when the international community responded to the African famine 25 years ago.
The destruction of the Buddha monuments have been more upsetting to the people of the world than the death of millions of Afghanis. If the international community has chosen to remain ignorant towards the fate of other peoples due to local and national issues of their own, we as Iranians cannot remain impartial to the devastation that has struck the Afghani people, a people that only 250 years ago, were part of Iran and if that geo-political separation had not have occurred, we would be speaking of the Afghani plight as part of our own.
4 The deported Afghani people are left with no other fate than to die in the famine unless, and in the case of the very few who chose to join the narcotics mafia in order to secure a chance of survival for their families or to enslave themselves to the causes of radical local sects that continue to fan the inferno of civil war. An inferno that will most certainly affect the people of Iran. The Iranian and Afghani people share a close and common cultural heritage. The distance between our people has been repeatedly traveled by the small feet of Afghani children, sometimes to us and sometimes away from us.
As the president of Iran, you have shown exceptional wisdom in deterring a senseless conflict between Iran and Afghanistan not too long ago. This wisdom is required again to find solutions to the causes of immigration among the Afghani people. Even if it happens that the people of Iran remain unable to deal with the situation and contribute to an amicable solution, we must remain patient to our guests at least until the end of the famine.
I must insist to you that the deportation of the Afghani people means to send millions of helpless humans to die in a land of famine and war. This forced return will rapidly neutralize the positive affects of the world famous Persian hospitality that has been extended to our Afghani neighbors in the past twenty years and in the very near future, your compassionate soul will mourn the ill fated destiny of your Afghani neighbors.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s letter addressed to President Mohammad Khatami of Iran Project for eradicating illiteracy among Afghan refugee children in Iran
Necessity of the project:
Even before the Taliban regime, 95% of Afghan women and 80% of Afghan men did not attend school. Since seven years ago, when the Taliban first began taking power in Afghanistan, these statistics reached the rate of 100%. Among the 3.5 million Afghan refugees who went to Pakistan a few of them found the chance to attend the special Taliban schools. In these schools instead of teaching the Afghan children how to live a better life they taught them violence. Refugee children that generally entered the Taliban schools to be able to avoid hunger were sent back to Afghanistan after finishing school as the armed forces of the Taliban to whip Afghan men and women in the streets.
From the 2.5-3 million Afghan refugees who came to Iran because of drought, hunger, insecurity and the pressures of fundamentalism only 50,000 of them have managed to get their residence cards. These 50,000 Afghans generally live in camps but because of the lack of budget they are deprived of having schools even in the camps. Thus they still face the chronic illiteracy of Afghanistan. The more than 2.5 million Afghans now illegally living in Iran neither have the possibility to attend their own schools, nor are they allowed to go to Iranian schools. As a result we can say that Afghanistan is the only country on the face of the earth which does not have any schools. The only hopeful point is that 200,000 Afghan refugee children managed to study in Iranian schools during the past years. They were afforded this chance because of their parents’ residence permits.
If during the last 25 years the world powers had poured books on these people’s heads instead of bombs and planted wheat under their feet instead of mines, today we would not be witnessing 7.5 million refugees, 2.5 million dead, and the production and distribution of fundamentalism in the world. If in the near or distant future an anti-tribal or national government is to rule Afghanistan they would need literate people or at least semi-literate people, more than anything else, to be able to develop Afghanistan’s interests and support the expansion of the national government. How could people, who have been deprived from books and media, use the media and abundance of books without having a minimum of literacy? We have to remember that saving Afghanistan is not possible unless the Afghans are saved as well.
During the last 20 years among all the projects executed in Afghanistan most of them were schemes that brought damage rather than development. The development of Afghanistan, even as a future promise, has been forgotten in the contemporary world. The goal of the project (under discussion) is to eradicate illiteracy among a minimum of 500,000 Afghan refugee children in Iran. Their education is a necessity but they lack the needed permission and facilities. Yet with a minimum budget of USD 30.00 per Afghan child refugee, in the course of an intensive 10-month project, we can make them literate. Bringing literacy to Afghan refugee children in a 10-month period can be considered as a kind of vaccination against ignorance. This is especially significant under conditions wherein we can not send them back to a land that has become even more insecure after the Sep 11 incident and now that the numbers of refugees being hosted along the borders is increasing.
In the year of Dialogue among Civilizations the necessary preliminaries for dialogue between the people of Afghanistan and their neighbors and other countries should be provided, but how can those who are illiterate have appropriate tools for dialogue? Nowadays the fate of the Afghans and Iranians are closely tied to each other--what am I saying--nowadays the fate of the Afghan people is closely tied to human civilization. Afghanistan’s being forgotten equals the continuation of the destructive projects of the last two decades and would have no result other than threatening world peace.
If sooner or later the Afghan refugees return to their own land from now on, this mass of literate people would not talk with their previous teachers with the language of bullets. If they stay in Iran because of hunger and insecurity they would learn an appropriate language to use regarding their host. Each Afghan refugee child whom becomes educated in Iranian schools would act as a cultural and friendship ambassador between the two countries.
Experiencing this project:
Last year, when I was making the movie `Kandahar’ near the border, I encountered Afghan refugee girls and boys who were unfamiliar with images and ran away from the camera. When a few women were convinced to co-operate with our group they wanted `burqahs’ from us instead of wages. They were unwilling to send sick people to doctors whom were not from their tribal groups.
5,000 residents of the Niatak camp near the Afghanistan border had hands like a dry desert, cracked and bloody, because of a lack of water and improper hygiene. The cream we had in the first aid equipment was not sufficient to cure their hands and we had to buy a number of big Vaseline barrels. They were not even willing to take a bath in the public bath, which was made for them by the camp.
We decided to make behaviorial changes in a group of them through an experimental plan. We asked help from the Literacy Movement of Iran. Although the Literacy Movement was not legally prohibited from educating the refugees in the camp that had residency cards, they had no special budget for teaching the Afghans and had not sent anyone for educating them.
Five teachers were recruited for a five-month period from the budget of the movie `Kandahar’ so that each of them would teach a class of 20 students four hours a day which came to a total of 100 Afghan girls and boys. They taught reading and writing in Persian, individual and family hygiene, how to get along with others, the value of the non-existence of violence and studied why Afghanistan has reached the state it is in now.
After a few months, I went back to Niatak to see the result of the classes and I was astonished by what I saw. Children whom did not speak any other language but Pashtoo until last year, despite living in Iran for years, had learnt Persian during this five-month course and could read and write Persian and speak to us in Persian. They no longer ran away from our camera. The creams and Vaseline that we brought for them were left untouched this time because although they were still in the previous condition they had learnt about hygiene and their general conditions reflected the difference.
More interesting is that they had studied their behavior during the last year and they said they ran away from us and didn’t go to public baths because they had known nothing, couldn’t speak Persian and exhibited violent behavior.
The cost of bringing literacy to 100 Afghan girls and boys including teachers’ wages, stationery expenses, toothbrushes and toothpaste, prizes for the best students in each class and renting class space totaled 1,200,000 tomans, which means the cost for every Afghan refugee child was 12,000 tomans!
If this budget is compared to the extravagant amounts spent by cultural counselorships for teaching Persian in other countries and if this budget is compared to the costs for hosting useless seminars for expanding and reviving the Persian language, the value of each would become evident. If the 12,000 tomans is compared to the USD 2m the Americans spend firing each cruise missile towards Afghanistan the result would show. With the price of each cruise missile some 130,000 Afghan refugee children could learn how to read and write in five months.
Recently I was informed that last year UNICEF had executed a project in Iran consisting of 396 classes. It was similar to ours but of higher quality and executed with the help of an international organization named `DEFD’. The classes were set up outside the refugee camps and were intended for illiterate Iranians. According to an agreement between UNICEF and the Literacy Movement of Iran, Afghan refugee children who did not have residence permits were given permission to attend the classes as observers. This was the pretext for getting around the prohibitive regulation.
I visited these schools which were organized in three border provinces in the far reaches of Iran, along with UNICEF and my camera. The result was amazing. The Literacy Movement executed the project and UNICEF was the supervisor. Along with the general books of the Movement a special educational fascicle was designed by UNICEF for the Afghans, which taught them living skills, child-to-child education, hygiene education, individual decision methods, group consulting and the necessity of the rule of law for living in a healthy society.
I saw a class in a mosque in a poor neighborhood of the city Zahedan, which was set up for 10 Iranian students by the Literacy Movement. Some 20 Afghan refugee children were studying in this class as observers. Four meters away about 100 Afghan children were listening to what the teacher said. I asked the teacher the reason for the way the students were sitting. The reply was that the original legal class was for the 10 Iranian students. The 20 Afghan students study as observers along with them because they do not have legal permission to attend and do not get a report card. The 100 students sitting four meters distant were even more observant than these 20 students I was told.
In Paris I proposed to UNESCO that if the cultural ambassadors of the world approve this project the first elementary class could be executed in Iran during a five-month course for 500,000 Afghans refugee children, at an expense equal to USD 15.00 per head. If an amount equal to USD 30.00 is put aside for each refugee child it is possible to teach the Afghan children in Iran up to the third elementary class level in a 10-month crash program. This would eradicate illiteracy among half a million Afghan refugee children in Iran.
The executor would be the Literacy Movement. The Movement could implement this project easily through its teachers during the second shift. The advantage of this project is that all the USD 30.00 would be spent on each person without any extra expenses. This it is quite different from the projects that spend USD 100.00 in management costs and supervisory expenses in order to provide USD 10.00 in services to a needy person.
If the respected president of Iran agrees with the Literacy Movement of Iran regarding this special project for the duration of one to two years, Iran could very soon have the honor of taking a useful step in eradicating one of the two basic difficulties of Afghanistan: hunger and illiteracy. If UNESCO allocates a budget equal to USD 7.5m for an urgent five-month project or USD 15m for executing a 10-month crash program for eradicating illiteracy among Afghan refugee children we would finish the problem.
In addition to UNESCO, other international organizations and foreign and domestic donors could supply the budget for this project. It would not impose any expenses on the government of Iran.
The Makhmalbaf Film House has agreed on its share with the Literacy Movement of Iran. It is to pay the expenses for educating 10,000 Afghan children in 500 classes consisting of 20 students per class for a two-year period. 150 of these classes will start in the current month in 12 camps of the country.
While I was traveling in other countries along with the movie Kandahar’ I saw many eager people that had seen the film who were willing to take a step, although small, in eradicating the illiteracy of the Afghans in Iran. They were constantly asking for an account number in this regard.
What I am asking of you as the respected president of Iran, is to issue permission for the Literacy Movement to execute this important undertaking. Under current conditions the duration for the course would be one or maximum two years. What I will ask from UNESCO is to approve the budget for this project for Afghan refugees in Iran. In addition, according to a letter sent to me by UNESCO, I have been fortunately informed of the eagerness of the Director General of UNESCO regarding co-operation for schooling and educating the Afghans. This project could potentially represent the founding of the Literacy Movement of Afghanistan in Exile, which could be continued in that country as soon as the Afghans return.
We should not forget that it has been years that the world has forgotten Afghanistan. Even now the only attention it is getting is bombardment and we should not forget that the best time for changing the fate of Afghanistan in a radical manner is now. Sooner or later the world media would forget the current trend of focusing on Afghanistan and go after other exciting news. When that happens, everything will be more difficult than today. Regarding Afghanistan it should be said “either now or never”.
The reply of the respectful President of Iran, Mr. Mohammad Khatami, to Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s letter regarding (The project of eradicating illiteracy of Vagrant Afghan children in Iran)
CC: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
The President’s Office
Dear Dr. Aref,
The Respectful First Secretary of the President
The respectful president has been informed of Mr. Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s report dated November 3rd, 2001 and its attachments regarding the project of eradicating illiteracy of vagrant Afghan children in Iran, and he has recommended as follows:
“ With thanks to our benevolent artist, Mr. Makhmalbaf, his project, which is an humanitarian project, deserves to be attended and to put effort for in technical aspects as well and each step which is taken for the deprived, innocent and of course honorable people of Afghan is proper, especially for the dear children, whom like any other human have the right to know, read and become aware, and the unkindness of the time has even deprived them from many basic affairs. It is necessary for the project to be studied immediately in the cultural commission of the government and by observing all aspects and in case of possibility and by using the nationwide facilities it should become practical and executed. Mr. Makhmalbaf himself could help in this regard.” Seyed Mohammad Khatami
November 14th, 2001
Iranian Government Sanctions Lifting Legal Education Ban for Afghan Children
Following Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s request to President Khatami for removing the legal education ban for Afghan children, the president’s approval and the immediate and preliminary referral of the sanction to the Cultural Commission of the Iranian government, eventually on Feb. 1st, 2002, the Cabinet ratified the following provisions based on Article (138) of the Constitution and Article (55) of 1988 Public Calculation Law.
1-The literacy of Afghan migrants who lack legal residential permits, further schooling of those Afghan children who hold legal residential card but had to displace due to their fathers’ employment are permissible.
2-The Ministry of Education and the Literacy Movement Organization (LMO) are obliged to put under coverage of their educational programs through getting use of vacant seats and cover the literacy volunteers among the vagrant Afghan under their literacy programs by using their existing vacant capacity and unused capacity both human and physical (such as existing available textbooks, teachers and out-of-school hours classes etc.).
3- In case of the request or agreement of the legal government of Afghanistan, the Literacy Movement Organization, in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is allowed to delegate teacher-training educators to Afghanistan in order to hold short term and undergraduate courses and to assist the development of textbooks and curriculum.
4.The amount of 10 billion Rials from the credit No. 503001 (concerning unexpected current costs) would be allocated to the Ministry of Education (Literacy Movement Organization) to be spent on education of educationally deprived Afghans especially women and children upon an agreement to be reached with the Management and Planning Organization.
Makhmalbaf Expresses Gratitude to President Khatami
Herein allow me to express my gratefulness to Your Excellency and the Cabinet for “abolishing the legal education ban on Afghan children and school dropouts who lack legal documents”.
With the lifting of the ban on Afghan education that chained their hands and feet of these children like a collar for years, very soon we would witness the blossoming of the children of one of the most oppressed nations on Earth. Upon their return home, they will take along the best souvenir, that is, the ability to read and write in Farsi.
I witnessed how the Afghan children cheered and how their parents shed tears of joy after this news was announced.
In addition, with the special credit granted to the Literacy Movement Organization (LMO) by your decree and the approval of the government board, about 2,000 literacy classes would open nationwide within the next month and about 50,000 Afghan children would find the opportunity to change their destiny through attending theses classes.
On the conditions wherein the global community has suddenly taken a firm decision to renovate Afghanistan after two decades of forgetfulness, no renovation would prove better than renovating the ruined cultural spirit of the Afghan.
Some Afghans said,” Within the last 20 years, we have been earning our livelihood and gained wisdom though our experience in Iran and we are appreciative for all theses. However, now following the lifting of the ban on Afghan education, the Afghan autonomous schools would no longer be shut down in Iran.” And some said, “ If only one desk could be allocated to us-the Afghan refugees -in each Iranian class, we would take responsibility for renovating our ruined country ourselves after returning to our homeland.”
As a messenger, I thank you on behalf of all the Afghan refuge children who went to study in classes through your endeavours and sent their greetings to you.
His Excellency Koufi Annan
UN Secretary General
You are managing the United Nations Organization at a time the international relations are defined based on opportunities and threats not on mutual philanthropic aspects and sympathy. In such a globe, the contemporary would surely have reacted to the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan only a few days later if the country had enjoyed oil resources like Kuwait. And since it was not the case, Afghanistan’s catastrophe was forgotten under the Burka of silence in the world media. Afghanistan remained in forgetfulness until the rich world was threatened by the impoverished one.
But it seems that the life of attention created by threat is shorter than the life of attention created by opportunities. Hence, the world, despite its promises to rescue Afghanistan, pays only 4.5 billion dollars in the next five years. Divided by the 20 million Afghan population, an amount of USD 225 would be allocated to each Afghan for renovation of Afghanistan in the next five years; that is USD 45 per annum or about USD 4 per month for each.
You as the one who manages United Nations Organization, teach Afghans how it is possible for someone who owns nothing to eat, to wear, to rebuild his destroyed house all over again, to cultivate his land of mines and change it into a wheat field and to build schools for his children in order to educate 95% of illiterate women and 80% of its men, who even before the Taliban rule were deprived from education only with USD 4 a month?
The rule of the Taliban resulted from the marriage of ignorance with poverty and Today’s Afghan government, though modern, needs to change ignorance and poverty to wealth and knowledge.
You could only extend the hope for the future which has been lost for 20 years in Afghanistan, when you, as the UN Secretary General, convince the Rich countries to respect and consider the minimum humanitarian needs everywhere in this global hierarchical system in order to prevent the outburst of the people in the impoverished countries against the rich ones.
However, apart from the official reports, let us-to criticize ourselves- confess that in our country having faced the inflation of a myriad of universities, 746,000 homeless Afghan children and young adults having sought asylum to us for years, are totally illiterate. Why don’t you, as the UN Secretary General, ask the government of Iran and Pakistan to allocate at least one chair in each school, high school and university class for education of Afghans in order to take a significant step in the human development of Afghanistan? And upon return, why don’t you ask the United States of America to spend only USD 1 on flourishing and renovation of Afghanistan more than what it spent in bombarding the country? It must not be forgotten that the Taliban are not only a political group but also a culture and changing a culture demands education and transformation of the economic principles both requiring the genuine help of the world.
At the end, I would like to present you 3 copies of the movies I made within the last fifteen years on Afghanistan and a book I wrote on this issue before the incident of September 11th.
Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.