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Ex-Taliban exchange kalashnikovs for carpet looms

Noor ul-Ayn
Inside the heavily guarded walls of Kunduz prison, some 280 inmates participate in an innovative rehabilitation program aimed at providing the skills they need to avoid reverting to a life of crime and insurgency.
23.07.2014  |  Kunduz


These days, Omar’s life is more sedentary.  After a year and a half as an inmate of Kunduz city prison, he has exchanged his guerilla war gear for a thread and a vertical loom. Rather than combing through the province’s rugged landscape to avoid capture and stake out enemy strongholds, he combs and beats fabric in place with a brush-like tool and often pauses to admire his craftsmanship. Working as a carpet weaver enables him to achieve what years of jihad and indoctrination in Pakistan’s madrasahs could not: He finally earns enough money to feed his family back in Lala Maidan, which is what compelled him to join the Taliban in the first place.

Inside the heavily guarded walls of Kunduz prison, some 280 inmates participate in an innovative rehabilitation program aimed at providing the skills they need to avoid reverting to a life of crime and insurgency.  Twenty-five, including several former Taliban operatives like Omar have completed the training program since its inception seven months ago. Eight inmates, including four ex-Taliban, have since been released. 

The prisoners receive vocational training in carpet weaving, tailoring and furniture making. Many find a strong market for their products both outside and within the prison grounds. Stretching across six acres on Kunduz city’s Khayaban Street, the prison was built 70 years ago and recently reconstructed with the help of German government funds. Its 723 inmates sleep 15 to a cell, but few complain about the overcrowding. Equipped with a host of facilities including a library, volleyball court, medical clinic, butcher shop, shoe repairing shop and kebabi, this is one of the most modern and calm correctional institutions in the country. While foreign donors provided the initial financing, the training program now falls under the auspices of the Afghan government, cementing its permanence in the country’s nascent criminal justice system.

Unlike in other prisons, violent incidents are almost unheard of here, says head warden Shah Mir Amirpour. “Inmates are happy they are doing something. It makes their time less stressful. They are happy they can make some money here.”

On average, each participating inmate earns over three thousand Afghanis, though there are others who work for free just to pass the time.  A mostly-female group of prisoners makes clothes for the 900 inmates incarcerated in correctional facilities throughout Kunduz province, as well as civilian clients in the city. Among the vocations offered, furniture making is particularly popular. Often, the inmates produce items of a higher quality than those in the civilian market, according to Amirpour.

Ghulam Hazrat, of Nangarhar province, is serving a ten-year sentence for killing an Afghan police officer and engaging in armed insurgency against the Afghan government. After spending a year and a half in the Kunduz prison, he has discovered an affinity for furniture making and says he is happy now, knowing he has learned a marketable craft.

Another former Taliban operative, Hazrat Noor of Chahardara District, has been in the prison for two and a half years learning to weave carpets. Before joining the insurgency, he was a student at a madrasah in Pakistan for seven years. Away from home, everything seemed like a dream to him, he said. “When I graduated from the madrasah, it seemed foolish to try and make a better life for myself. Now, I’ve learned that more than anything else, one is responsible for himself and his family. Taking care of your family is essentially worshipping God.”

“Qari Naseem” who declined to provide his real name out of fear of retribution by the Taliban, was captured on the battlefield five years ago while fighting against Afghan and international forces. The court sentenced him to four years in prison for shooting and mildly injuring a police officer.

As he approaches the end of his sentence, he says he regrets his crimes, and has apologized to the police officer’s family. Before he joined the Taliban, he had lost his bit of farmland and was unemployed and in debt, struggling to feed his children.

Qari Naseem has changed over his four years in Kunduz prison, warden Amirpour says. In addition to becoming a carpenter, he helped six illiterate inmates learn how to read and write. Qari Naseem says he no longer worries about unemployment. His one remaining fear is that the Taliban will torture him if he refuses to rejoin them.

Once a Talib, always a Talib

The inmates’ families also worry about what will happen to their ex-Taliban sons once they leave the prison. Nezamuddin, father of carpet weaving apprentice Qari Omar, recalls how his son stopped listening to him after returning from his studies in Pakistan, and soon left the family altogether for the mountains of Lala Maidan. Despite Omar’s assurances, Nezamuddin still doubts his son will listen to him once he is out of the prison, and fears Omar will once again join the Taliban.

“Some joined the Taliban because they could not afford to buy hashish. Others joined after being brainwashed for five to ten years in Pakistani madrasas,” Nezamuddin says. “Those who joined the Taliban for money will be able to leave them, but it will be very difficult to transform those who had been brainwashed for ten years.”

Maulawi Noor-ul-Huda Maulawizada Karimi, an Islamic scholar in Kunduz province, voiced similar concerns. After years of being indoctrinated and killing innocent people, many ex-Taliban combatants have trouble distinguishing right from wrong, he said. “Those who returned from Pakistan are now Taliban. No matter how long you will keep them in prison, they will still be Taliban.”