Theatre of the Oppressed

AHRDO: human rights in Afghanistan: young Afghans take up an idea which originated in Brazil.

Victims of war find space to tell their own story and work up. Photo: AHRDO 

Bisharat, Zaman and Fatima grew up in Pakistan as refugees from their war-torn country. Fortunately for them, they were not educated in one of the Qur'an schools which the Taliban still use to recruit their next generation. When the three returned to Afghanistan, they found work with international NGOs. Their chosen work proved a bitter disappointment. Their desire to bring the good fortune of those who escaped into work for people who had no such luck proved vain. Daily work was a matter of mindless routine, the NGO's programmes mechanically followed rules set by donors far away from Afghanistan's cities and villages which did not meet the needs of their inhabitants.

Bisharat, Zaman and Fatima were not satisfied with this. Encouraged by four like-minded friends, they quit their jobs and formed the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation (AHRDO). Politically, they aimed their work at the people who are least important in Afghanistan – war invalids and war widows. They came furthest from NGO activities with their bold decision to reach out to these very people through theatre, which for the mujahedeen and the Taliban was the pit of ultimate depravity. They were drawing on the idea of director Augusto Boal, who created the tradition of the 'teatro do oprimido', the theatre of the oppressed, in Brazil in the 1960s. Their first piece was performed just a year later. Rather than actors, the heroes and heroines were the victims themselves – women who had lost their husbands, men who had been brutally tortured under the Soviet occupation, the mujahedeen or the Taliban. 'The Theatre of the Oppressed is the place where I can tell the world that they couldn't take away my voice," says Dr Sharif. He was first arrested in the 1970s as a left-wing student demonstrating against the pro-Soviet government; later, he was jailed by the mujahedeen, and then by the Taliban. He is a doctor because he managed to complete his medical training despite this – but he was never able to practice as a doctor. Today, he is by far the oldest member of AHRDO. The team has now assisted with almost 200 performances, accompanied by a number of workshops dealing with the subject matter of the pieces – stories of untold suffering, but also stories of courage which only the desperate can find.

Today, AHRDO has over 30 employees, and has an office in Mazar-e-Sharif as well as Kabul, while the activists also regularly visit Herat, Jalalabad, Parwan and Bamyan. In all these locations, AHRDO has worked closely with self-help organisations of war victims which describe themselves as 'shura', following the Islamic tradition. Plays are supplemented by literacy courses and daily practice in mutual help. AHRDO has associated itself with Afghan NGOs for which 'transitional justice' is not just a routine term in billing for promotional funds, but rather a constantly renewed commitment, which in the current state of affairs can still be at risk to life and limb. (TS)

In 2012 medico provided support totalling € 28,344 for the work of AHRDO, including not only the eyewitness and reconciliation project but also a conference on the peace process.


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