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Indian Jesuits brace for fallout of US pullout in Afghanistan

Afghan women fear return of the Taliban, haunted by memories of their misogynist rule before 2001

Indian Jesuits brace for fallout of US pullout in Afghanistan

Photographers pay homage to Indian journalist Danish Siddiqui in front of his portrait at Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu on July 20 after the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer with Reuters news agency was killed covering fighting between Afghan security forces and the Taliban near a border crossing with Pakistan. (Photo: AFP)

Indian Jesuits in Afghanistan are not sure what is in store for them as the strife-torn nation slips into conflict as the United States winds down operations after almost 20 years of war.

“We will continue to accompany and give hope to the suffering people in whatever way is possible for us,” Father Jerome Sequeira, country head of the Jesuit mission in Afghanistan, told UCA News on July 19.

But with the Taliban making sweeping gains, fears of human rights and cultural abuses loom large.

Father Sequeira said “uncertainty and nervousness are very much palpable in the country” but we “are committed to our cause.”

The Jesuits came to Afghanistan in 2004 to join hands with the Afghans in rebuilding the war-ravaged nation through education.

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) stepped in to educate the youth, focusing on internally displaced persons (IDPs), returnees from neighboring countries and other vulnerable sections of the host society.

Media reports quoted unnamed mothers as saying the Taliban could forcibly take away their young girls and marry them off to Taliban fighters.

In collaboration with local staff, the Jesuits trained more than 300 budding young teachers and through them were educating more than 25,000 young boys and girls in four provinces.

Young girls were major beneficiaries of the Jesuit mission in a country still haunted by memories of the Taliban’s misogynist rule before it was toppled in 2001,

Now, with their likely return, mothers and daughters are worried again.

Media reports quoted unnamed mothers as saying the Taliban could forcibly take away their young girls and marry them off to Taliban fighters.

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In fact, some reports even referred to an order asking imams in Taliban-controlled areas to prepare a list of girls above the age of 15 and widows below 45 to be married off to fighters.

The return of the Taliban meant women can no longer even think of stepping out of their homes without being accompanied by a male member, independent observers said.

However, Taliban spokesperson Bismillahi Rehmani Raheem in a recent interview with magazine India Today brushed aside reports of women not getting proper treatment under its rule.

“We will give all the rights to the woman and people of Afghanistan that they deserve,” he said.

He also denied reports that the Taliban had imposed restrictions on the movement and employment of women, describing them as the handiwork of their “enemies” to defame them.

Besides education, Indian Jesuits have also been involved in livelihood interventions and providing durable solutions for a peaceful life in the war-ravaged country.

“We work in collaboration with local communities and government agencies helping victims of war and ethnic conflicts to live with dignity,” Father Sequeira said.

Our vision has been to reach out to the unreached and to take the road less traveled

It was never an easy task.

On June 2, 2014, suspected Taliban fighters abducted Father Alexis Prem Kumar, who was serving as the JRS director, while visiting a school in Herat province. The priest was released in February 2015.

The Jesuits’ links with Afghanistan goes back more than 400 years. In 1581, Mughal Emperor Akbar took along a Jesuit priest from Agra in northern India to Kabul.

A year later, in 1582, Jesuit Brother Bento de Goes stopped at Kabul on his way to China.

Neither of them stayed long. But the Indian Jesuits in present-day Afghanistan intend to stay even if US President Joe Biden may have set a deadline of Sept. 11 for his troops to fully withdraw from the country.

“Our vision has been to reach out to the unreached and to take the road less traveled,” Father Sequeira said.

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