Interview with Sheesha Media
A window in the Darkness
Sheesha Media: Hello viewers of Sheesha Media.
Our guest on this episode of the Sheesha Media podcast is Nader Yama. Throughout our conversation, we will have the opportunity to learn more about Mr. Yama and his work and life. From my perspective, he represents a paradoxical circle in Afghanistan’s political system and has a captivating and inspiring story for a new generation of Afghans within the country and outside.
Nader Yama previously served as deputy minister and acting minister for the Independent Directorate of Local Governance known as IDLG, mandated to improve good governance and support local entities with policy reform, technical capacity and help local governors to effectively facilitate security and stability as well as governance and development in the provinces and districts across the country. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, due to a tradition of centralizing power and, recently, reliance on ethnic politics, the authorities had become increasingly totalitarian and centralized, distancing themselves from the people in the periphery. The local bodies were caught in the middle, facing pressure from both sides; the irresponsible centralized government as well as local demands.
In our conversations with Mr. Yama, we want to unlock this paradox. Meanwhile, on the other hand, the story of Mr. Yama is the story of the New Generation of Afghanistan. This generation, with suffering and sorrows raised up and found their way to lead the development process in the country and enable hope, victory and succession . Here we would like to hear from Mr Nader Yama himself.
Sheesha Media: Thank you for joining us, Mr. Yama. Through our sincere and friendly conversation, we would like to share our new insights, views and experiences of the new generation in Afghanistan with our audience.
You don’t seem very old, but you have got your hair greyer. Can you tell us what these gray hairs represent and carry out? Are you old enough to have gray hair, or do you believe it symbolizes something more profound that we should look for in each strand?
Nader Yama: Thank you for having me on your show. I appreciate the invitation. Each of us has a story to tell, and the impact of our lives on those around us, especially in a country close to our hearts, is of great significance. Having a platform to share these experiences and stories is crucial and valuable. Telling our stories is necessary, and I am grateful for this opportunity to share my side of the story that is part of the larger and unified story of the new generation of Afghans.
Each of us has something to share with the audience. We all have a story to tell about ourselves and to others to understand our past, our struggles, our mistakes, and our successes. These stories can be precious for future generations who may find themselves facing similar challenges. They can learn from our experiences and be guided by our insights, developing a vision and a sense of purpose. By holding onto this vision and acting on it, they can positively impact the community and be agents of change and hope. Once again, I am grateful for this opportunity to share my story and to make this wish come true.
Most of my family and friends have asked me why I don’t dye my hair. To be honest, I have faced this question often. I desire to appear younger by coloring my hair, but at the same time, I feel that the white strands of hair carry a significance, suffering and wisdom that makes me choose to keep them as they are. Each strand and the overall image it creates holds a deeper meaning for me, keeps me inspired, hopeful and empowered.
On the one hand, these white hairs can be frustrating, as I am at an age where my hair should not reflect the difficulties I have faced. But on the other hand, they remind me of my experiences and motivate me to stay committed. The white hair adds meaning to my life and drives me forward. That’s why I have not yet decided to dye my hair, as it holds a special significance.
Sheesha Media: Could you please share your date of birth so we can better understand the relationship between your age and the white color of your hair?
Nader Yama: Thanks. I was born in 1978. Unfortunately, Our country faced many challenges and difficulties during war and hardship.
Sheesha Media: Could you tell us about your family background? Where were you born, and who are your parents?
Nader Yama: I was born in Kabul. My heritage is from two neighborhoods, Chahardehi from my mother’s side and Chahar Asiyab from my father’s side. Unfortunately, my mother did not know much about our ancestry, and I did not know much about my true heritage. Sadly, my father was martyred during the revolution, along with many others who were dear to us. My mother faced the challenge of raising us alone and had to move in with her mother to avoid marrying my step-uncle. We also had to be moved to an orphanage due to the risk and danger.
In the Pashtun culture of Afghanistan, when a woman loses her husband, she must marry her brother-in-law (Ivar) or another family relative. It is mainly a must thing, if she has a brother-in-law who is single. However, my mother didn’t like this traditional practice. As a result, she felt compelled to send us to the Watan Orphanage as it was the only place she thought we might be safe.
Sheesha Media: When you refer to “we”, who are you referring to? Do you have other siblings, or were you the only one?
Nader Yama: With me, we are four siblings, two sisters, and two brothers, from my biological parents.
Sheesha Media: Can you tell us what happened to your father?
Nader Yama: My father was in the military doing public work in the military sector. During that time, people were arrested and exterminated based on false and accurate information. My mother didn’t know why my father didn’t return, even as the days and months went by.
Sheesha Media: Where did your father work, and what was his job? Also, can you explain how he disappeared?
Nader Yama: My father worked in a military base in Dehmzang in Kabul. He was an employee in the army. One day, he went to work but never returned. We don’t know what happened to him, but he hasn’t returned. Some people think he might have been helping the Mujahideen and that the government arrested and assassinated him.
Our family, specifically the Alikhel tribe to which we belong, is part of the larger tribe called “Ahmadzai”. The majority of the Ahmadzai tribe was with the Mujahideen in Pakistan. My step-uncles were among them. They were all on the same side. Some people believe that my father’s disappearance may have been due to this. However, my father was a very dedicated person. He was a shef and also cooked for the military camp. He was always helping the poor, the most in need and helpless families. He was a passionate, simple, and eccentric man.
Sheesha Media: Was your mother educated?
Nader Yama: My mother did receive some education and completed her schooling to a certain extent, but she didn’t finish it. She’s from Kabul – Charadehi in Kabul.
Sheesha Media: What was your mother’s name?
Nadir Yama: Nafisa.
Sheesha Media: Did she study in Chahar Asiyab or Chahardehi?
Nadir Yama: She studied in Charadehi, specifically in Deh Dana. Charadehi has a subarea called Deh Dana, which is near Chelsetun. My mother was born, grew up, went to school, got married, and eventually, after my father’s death, she returned to her mother. She had to return because she was young and faced social and traditional pressures and problems. Due to such stigmas, she was forced to remarry and start a new family. I am grateful that my mother made the right choice, built a new life and additional children.
Sheesha Media: Is your mother still alive?
Nader Yama: Yes, she is still alive. I have a younger brother and an addition of six lovely sisters.
Sheesha Media: Can you tell us about your experience at Watan Orphanage? Watan Orphanage took care of many orphaned children who were in Kabul at that time. What is your impression of Watan Orphanage? What do you recall about when you arrived at the orphanage and your time there? How were you treated? Can you describe the education system there?
Nader Yama: I have two different perspectives of Watan Orphanage – one is the image of hardship and sorrow and being separated from my family. I had an older sibling and a younger sister, and going to the orphanage was challenging for all of us, my younger sister and I were only three to four years in age. Even though we have been able to see her, it was difficult for us to be away from our mother. Every time the parents visited, the children at the orphanage twinkled with happiness. Some had families, and some had relatives who came to visit them. I remember waiting eagerly to see my mother. My older sister told me I used to stand at the orphanage gate all day long with the hope to be able to see my mother. Sometimes she would come, but most of the time, she couldn’t due to the risk of being discovered by our paternal family and losing us. It was a challenging situation for my mother, but she had no choice.
Sheesha Media: Did your paternal relatives know about your presence at the Watan orphanage?
Nader Yama: No, they didn’t have any information. The reason for being in the orphanage was to protect us from them and the harm they may case, therefore, my mother decision was thought but it was a right and smart choice. After I tried to learn about my tribe and connected with my relatives and people from my tribe, I realized that there were many vulnerabilities and issues within my family, and I did not want to continue those relationships.
Sheesha Media: Does it mean that your paternal relatives did not know you were in the Watan Orphanage?
Nader Yama: No, they did not. We were in foster care to enjoy protection from harm, and in retrospect, I realized that my mother’s decision was a wise and practical decision and solution.
Sheesha Media: Did your father’s relatives not try to find your mother and bring her back to the family? In our ethnic and tribal traditions, gathering all the family’s children is an essential custom. Did they not try to locate either your mother or you, the children?
Nader Yama: They did try initially, but they intended to bring my mother back to the family and have her marry one of my father’s relatives. They were pushing in that direction. Additionally, they believed that we were with my mother, not in foster care, so they aimed to take us and force my mother to return and marry my step-uncle.
Additionally, the security situation in the country was poor at the time, and some of our relatives were either with the Mujahideen or residing outside the country. Thus, it was difficult for them to be present in Kabul and search for us with ease and peace of mind, as they were afraid.
Sheesha Media: Can you tell me about the atmosphere at the orphanage? How were the officials and caregivers treating you?
Nader Yama: The orphanage was like a school or center that provided us with more resources than many schools in Kabul. At the time, some families brought their children to orphanages due to poverty and hunger or quality of education and care were provided. It means that the presence of children in orphanages was not only due to a lack of guardians but also poverty. Nevertheless, the Watan Orphanage was an excellent educational institution.
Sheesha Media: Approximately how many children were there in the orphanage?
Nadir Yama: There were many children. I was in the orphanage near Dar al-Aman, across from the Russian embassy. Over 200 children lived there. However, another orphanage on the Afshar side housed older teenagers, and their number might have been greater than ours. We sometimes went there for classes and returned to our orphanage later in the day.
Sheesha Media: What was the age range of the children in the Watan Orphanage near the Soviet embassy?
Nader Yama: The children were between the ages of four to five up to twelve years old. Once they reached a certain age, they were transferred to the Afshar Orphanage.
Sheesha Media: Were the subjects you studied similar to those taught in Afghan schools under the Ministry of Education or were they different?
Nader Yama: They were the same subjects taught in public schools across the country. However, as we were in an orphanage, we had additional educational programs such as sports and storytelling after the regular lessons. We also engaged in some self-led activities like learning practical social skills. The Afshar Orphanage, which had more resources, had more extra-curricular and vocational programs. Overall, we watched TV. Compared to children outside the orphanage, we had more opportunities to interact with our peers in a safer and violence-free environment.
The Tashkent School
Sheesha Media: Were you at the same orphanage in Dar al-Aman throughout your stay at the orphanage, or were you transferred to the one in Afshar?
Nader Yama: I stayed at the Dar al-Aman Orphanage throughout my time there. If you recall, there was a ten-year program offered by the former Soviet Union which provided scholarships to children and students from schools. I went to Russia – Uzbekistan with my older brother and sister through that scholarship. Me and my sister studied in Tashkent – Uzbekistan, and my brother completed his schooling in Kazakhstan. My younger sister remained in the orphanage as she was very young at that time.
When my younger sister was left alone at the orphanage, my grandmother on my mother’s side took her to her shelter. Naturally, we were unaware of this situation. Upon my return from Tashkent, I inquired about my sister’s whereabouts and learned that she was no longer at the orphanage.
I spent my idyllic childhood in Tashkent. Of course, it was initially challenging. I had previously lived in an orphanage in Afghanistan and always hoped to see my mother. However, even that hope vanished from me when I was taken to Tashkent- Uzbekistan. At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was the right choice, but in retrospect, it was for the best. I had the opportunity to attend a school that emphasized humanity and ethics and taught me to become a good and responsible citizen. Everything I have today can be traced back to that school and its teachers in Tashkent, and I will always be grateful for their impact on my life.
Sheesha Media: What subjects did you study in Tashkent – Uzbekistan?
Nader Yama: It was interesting that when I returned to Afghanistan, I couldn’t often mention that I had studied in the Soviet Union, especially after the victory of the Mujahideen and the Islamic State. Their perception and image of Russia were antagonistic and could have been detrimental to me. However, in Tashkent, I learned the basics of religion, such as prayer (Namaz) and recitation of the Holy Quran. The idea that children were taken to Russia and turned away from religion and Islam was wrong. We were taught the fundamentals of faith and trained as human beings to assist others, not cause harm, to be honest and trustworthy, and to show kindness and compassion to all.
In Tashkent, we comprehensively studied Dari and Pashto, which were part of our curriculum. All other subjects were taught in the Russian language. The language of science subjects such as geometry, physics, mathematics, and our everyday social interactions was Russian language. At that time, schools in the Soviet Union had students from various regions and parts of Russia and the Soviet Union republics. They offered different programs, such as a school for physics, sports, Russian language, literature, etc. They identified children’s talents and interests early on and placed them in specialized schools based on their abilities and passions.
When a child attends these schools, their talent develops, and they enjoy opportunities for a bright future. I started in a school for the Russian language, literature, and mathematics, but then I discovered that I had a talent for sports such as running and playing football. That’s why I shifted to a sports school. Sport has been crucial to me ever since – for my physical well-being and because they kept me from engaging in inappropriate or corrupt activities during the war. I was also able to help others by teaching sport – mainly playing football.
Sheesha Media: At what age did you go to Tashkent?
Nader Yama: I was five years old when I went to Tashkent.
Sheesha Media: So you were just a little child then?
Nader Yama: Yes, I was a young child when I left.
Sheesha Media: So you only spent a short time at the Watan Orphanage before going to the Soviet Union?
Nader Yama: It’s possible that I was at the Watan Orphanage for no more than two to three years before I went to Tashkent. I remember that in the first year in Tashkent, we only focused on language learning since we were too young to start school. But a year later, we were ready to attend school, and I was the youngest student in my class. I also performed well academically and in my social activities, consistently ranking first in my class.
Sheesha Media: Do you have an estimate of the number of Afghan students in Tashkent and other Central Asian countries?
Nader Yama: At my sports school in Tashkent, there were approximately 100 Afghan students. Similarly, there were around 50 to 100 Afghan students of different ages in other schools throughout Tashkent and other Central Asian countries. I was between the ages of five and thirteen when I was there.
Sheesha Media: When you were in Tashkent, you likely attended secondary school. Around this time, the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, and the Democratic Party’s regime fell. Did you remain in Tashkent to continue your education, or did you leave?
Nader Yama: Unfortunately, before the fall of the regime, I had come to Afghanistan for a vacation. Afghan students faced many difficulties in Tashkent and other Russian states. I had come to Afghanistan for three months to accompany my younger sister and take her with us to Tashkent – Uzbekistan. It was primarily due to the request of my older brother and sister. At the time, I was unaware that these three months would turn into thirty years that I would have to stay in Afghanistan. When the regime collapsed, I was unable to leave the country. After thirty years, I reunited with my younger sister and her family. With the help of my older sister, who is working with the European Union and helped my younger sister and his family to be accepted as refugees in Ireland.
Sheesha Media: What grade were you in when you returned to Kabul from Tashkent?
Nader Yama: I was in 8th grade when I returned to Kabul. I faced many challenges, but I was able to move forward in life. My brother worked hard to earn enough money to help fund the school fees and support our sister to accompany us to Tashkent. Despite his young age, he was very responsible. When he was very yong, I remember that he would save his pocket money each month and give it to our mother so that we could buy flour and oil. He has been living in Ukraine for 35 years now. During the recent war in Ukraine, we could evacuate him from Ukraine to Germany. I even got him a visa to Canada, but he eventually returned to Ukraine. I asked him why he went back, and he replied that the people of Ukraine had taken care of him, providing him with a good life. He felt it was time for him to repay the favor and stand by the country’s people during these difficult times. So, that’s why he returned to Ukraine to serve the community who became his family and community during the last 35 years he lived in there.
Educational Programs In Tashkent
Sheesha Media: While studying in Tashkent, did you have a chance to go on educational tours to other Central Asian countries or Moscow?
Nader Yama: Yes, every summer, we participated in a program called “Summer Camp”, which took us to various parts of Russia. The program aimed to familiarize us with nature, local lifestyles, meet other children, practice leadership, be empowered, and learn how to cooperate and support others around you. They would organize these trips so we would visit different locations every few weeks within the three-month summer period.
One summer, around ten or twelve Afghan students, including myself, decided to forgo the summer program and asked to be sent back to Afghanistan instead. However, once we arrived in Afghanistan, the regime fell, and it became impossible for us to renew our residency documents or secure a return flight. I was stuck in the country as the situation worsened, and the system collapsed a month later.
Sheesha Media: Who covered the costs of your stay and education in Tashkent?
Nader Yama: The Soviet Union paid for our expenses as part of a ten-year scholarship program. The plan was for us to complete secondary school, then attend college for three years to gain familiarity with our chosen field of study, followed by university.
Sheesha Media: Was it similar to a pre-university program?
Nader Yama: Yes, it was almost like a pre-university program. During these three years, students would complete their high school education and get introduced to their chosen field of specialization.
Sheesha Media: Looking back, what is one particularly impactful memory you have from your travels to countries in Central Asia and others? After thirty or thirty-two years, do the lessons you learned from those scientific trips and tours stay with you?
Nader Yama: The orphanage or school where we studied greatly impacted my character, personality and perspective. There, I learned the importance of prioritizing others before myself and being part of a larger community. Those lessons have stayed with me even after all these years.
During our lessons and training, we had a unique experience. We would go to the city and market to practice good ethics. For instance, we got instructions to earn 10 points by seeking out someone in need and offering assistance, such as helping them cross the road or helping them carry their groceries. Additionally, we were encouraged to find dirty areas and clean them or to give up our seats in public transportation to someone who needed them more.
We learned that priority is given to children, elders, or women with responsibilities when accessing services and amenities. Additionally, even if two individuals are chatting and not necessarily of a different age, they have the right to sit as we must respect social bonds and connection.
Sheesha Media: Was the atmosphere in your school in Tashkent representative of all schools in the educational system, or was it unique to your school?
Nader Yama: The atmosphere was similar across all schools. We sometimes visited other schools or interacted with students from other schools, and the educational method in the former Soviet Union schools was the same. I have seen that this is also the case in Western schools. I had the opportunity to visit the Marafet School in Barchi, Kabul, and learned about its programs. Schools should promote humanity, compassion and knowledge, much like the school where I received my education. It was a second home to me, filled with nurturing and support. Unfortunately, adverse events occur in schools today, both in my home country and here in the West. I attribute this to living in a different time, changes in society and its values.
In Tashkent, I recall that women from the nearby houses would come to the school to talk to us and alleviate our homesickness every Friday. They brought us jam and other treats they had made at home. This generous and kind act was a constant occurrence, and they never stopped visiting us.
Our teachers, particularly those who taught us during the night shifts, were incredibly kind and approachable. They worked into two categories: day teachers and night teachers. Each had different responsibilities, including sports coaching, homework assistance, teaching, and supervision. They were responsible and dedicated individuals who worked to instill positive values, such as affection, kindness, and social responsibility, in us. Their goal was to help us lead healthy lives and positively impact society through good behavior.
As I mentioned earlier, the night teachers were exceptionally kind and made us feel like we were part of a family. They treated us with compassion and care, much like parents would. However, we received a well-rounded education that emphasized hands-on learning. We were responsible for household chores, such as washing clothes, assisting in the kitchen, farming, and carpentry. This approach helped us become active members of the community.
Kabul Wars: Chaos and Devastation
Sheesha Media: Upon returning to Kabul after experiencing a nurturing and educational environment, you encountered a significant shift in the political landscape with the downfall of Dr. Najibullah’s regime (president of the time 1987-1992) and the arrival of the Mujahideen. The entire system and structures collapsed, leading to civil war in Kabul. As a young person in puberty with high aspirations for growth and development, this period must have been challenging for you.
Can you share your experience and the new, challenging emotions you faced during the civil-war in Kabul? The contrast between the compassionate and loving atmosphere you experienced in school in Tashkent – Uzbekistan and the confusion and chaos of the war must have been striking.
Nader Yama: Yes, it was quite a contrast. When I realized that I could no longer attend school in Tashkent and the situation in Kabul worsened, I quickly learned to take care of myself, my sister, and my mother’s family. My education in Tashkent played a role in my ability to adapt.
Some of my friends and loved ones were in Mazar-e-Sharif and offered to help me return to Tashkent. Although I was young, I recognized that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. When my friends proposed that I leave, I declined the offer. It was better for me to stay with my sister and family. Leaving the country didn’t cross my mind much. I was more concerned about the state of the nation and the difficulties we faced, and I believed the situation could become even more complicated.
At that time, I firmly believed I had to stay with my family and help them through the difficulties. My education in Tashkent taught me to be resilient in facing problems and finding solutions. So, instead of running away from the challenges, I chose to stay and try to make a difference in the difficult situation. The water shortage, lack of infrastructure, and ongoing conflict were just some of the issues we had to deal with. But my training at Tashkent school helped me to stay calm and focused and to find ways to overcome these challenges.
Sheesha Media: When you returned to Afghanistan, did you live with your mother, or were you in a different residence? How did you manage your daily expenses, such as food and shelter?
Nader Yama: My mother’s family was also affected as her husband worked in the military division and was part of Dr. Najibullah’s government. When he lost his job, they couldn’t leave the country as they feared being trapped and risking their lives. At the time, my mother was a teacher at a school.
Sheesha Media: Where was your family’s home located, and where did you reside in Kabul?
Nader Yama: Our family lived in the Makrorian area. Everything collapsed when the war broke out, including schools and other structures. Initially, there was abundance, but later on, the population faced severe economic difficulties. As a child, I realized that I had to contribute to improving our lives, so I became my family’s primary source of income. I sold water in the Kabul market, carrying a container filled with ice water on my shoulder (Bangi – a timber with two side metal hooks to carry two buckets of water).
Sheesha Media: Did you revisit Watan Orphanage in Afshar?
Nader Yama: No, I did not. After I returned, I stayed with my mother’s family. During my three-month break, I visited the orphanage only to retrieve some documents and information, then came back. I planned to return to the orphanage before being transferred to the airport, but everything fell apart. I realized that I needed to take control of my own life, as I was almost 13 years old with nothing in my hands. So, I chose to work hard like many other children then and started selling ice water in the Kabul market.
Sheesha Media: Can you explain what you mean by selling water? Where did you get the water from?
Nader Yama: I would obtain water from a government facility and buy some ice packs to keep it cold. I would then take the water to vendors in the market and Mandawi and sell a glass of water for a few rupees. It was my job. I had learned to be honest and kind, and my good relationships with people and the quality of the water I provided helped me earn more than other children selling water.
I was truthful with people and informed them that the water was pure and where I obtained it. Bangi was always with me. I would return and get more cold water whenever the water became warm. I understood that when someone is thirsty and in need of water, they would appreciate drinking cold water more. Many vendors were eager for me to arrive and provide them with water. They knew that I bring clean and refreshing cold water.
Sheesha Media: You had to stop your education because you stopped attending school.
Nader Yama: Yes, that’s correct. I stopped going to school, but once my situation improved, I resumed my studies with the support of my family. I decided to take an exam to obtain a formal academic certificate.
Sheesha Media: Do you mean to pass the placement test after the Taliban regime collapsed?
Nader Yama: No, I took the exam before the fall of the Taliban regime. I took exams starting from 6th grade until I received a secondary school certificate. I didn’t have any documents from Russia with me, so I went back to school for the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades.
Sheesha Media: During the time of the Mujahideen?
Nader Yama: Yes, during the Mujahideen era.
Sheesha Media: In Makrorian specifically?
Nader Yama: Yes, in Makrorian. I studied at Esteghlal School, later renamed Abdul Hadi Dawi School. I completed my 12th grade in a different school in Kabul – New City district and received a high school certificate.
Sheesha Media: Did you remain in Kabul throughout the war or leave the city?
Nader Yama: Yes, I stayed in Kabul throughout the entire war and during the period of difficulty until September 11th and after that.
Sheesha Media: What are your personal experiences of the war? Can you share some firsthand memories that vividly depict the horrors of the civil war?
Nader Yama: I have a lot of experiences to share. I lived in old Makrorian which was on the front line of the war at different times. The battle between the various factions began on the 11th of Jade (December) in 1372/1994 in Makrorian 3 and old Makrorian. After that, we had to move to the western part of Kabul city. As a child, when my father was alive, we lived in Karte Sakhi – the west part of the city. During the civil war, Kabul was the front line between different factions. Life was tough, and we lost many friends and loved ones. A bullet wounded one of my sisters during the war.
Sheesha Media: By naming the country’s West, you mean the West of Kabul?
Nader Yama: Yes, in the western part of Kabul. Throughout the wartimes, I lived in war-affected areas close to the front lines, making escape impossible. Hunger and the fear of being taken to dig trenches were constant in my life. When our family couldn’t afford to buy flour, the Red Cross would distribute it. I recall that I would collect the flour dust that fell on the ground and bring it home to cook, even though it mixed with sand and dirt. We ate it anyway.
These were challenging times, but I never lost hope and kept striving. I believed a brighter tomorrow might be possible, and I needed to be ready for that day.
During those trying times, books became my solace and closest companion. I couldn’t afford to socialize with other kids and go out for fun, as it was expensive and required me to buy snacks which I couldn’t. In the evenings, the older men in the neighborhood would gather to discuss various topics like politics, war, hardship, and work. I had two options, either stay at home and read books or, when I got bored, join the group of elders and stay with them until nightfall before returning home.
I was known for being helpful to those around me. For instance, I would assist families who lacked the means to bring water to their homes by carrying it for them. These actions helped shape my character. I would bring grocery to others and help those in need, making me be more of a child to the community than of my family. My behavior and values earned me the love and respect of local elders, who would feel incomplete without my presence in their company and circle.
Sheesha Media: What were the typical topics discussed in this group? What was the level of the conversations held?
Nader Yama: Initially, I didn’t comprehend most of what they spoke about. It was mainly about political issues that I was unfamiliar with. But over time, I realized I was gaining valuable life lessons from the group. The members were mindful of me as the youngest person and would explain things if I didn’t understand. For instance, they frequently emphasized the importance of education and leanring or asked about what book I had read that day. A famous Professor Masoud, a professor at the Faculty of Economics, was one of the older members in the circle. The group viewed me as their child, and everyone in the community was considered a part of one big family, with each child belonging to the entire block and every senior person was parent to all in the Makrorian.
Makrorians: An Island of Diversity in a Sea of Hatred
Sheesha Media: You mentioned the positive atmosphere in terms of relationships among the residents of Makrorian, which was known for bringing together people from diverse backgrounds in a shared space. The Makrorians created a harmonious environment where its inhabitants had a strong sense of unity, regardless of language, culture, religion, or social class. This was a commendable initiative.
During a difficult period, the time of war, how did you recall this aspect of Makrorian? Kabul was plagued by hatred and violence fueled by various factors, but in Makrorian, you experienced a peaceful atmosphere. Did you see the community facing these challenges collectively despite their positive relationships with one another?
Nader Yama: That was the case. I later became aware of ethnic prejudice, but it was not present among the Makrorians in our block or in the other blocks I knew. People tried to support each other during the war and established a family-like structure and bond in the area. They were well acquainted and had a sense of obligation and selflessness. Teaching sports to kids and being active in the society allowed me to understand adults and young people better. There was a strong sense of connection, commitment, and empathy towards one another and a sense of responsibility in finding solutions to problems. The elders and those who lived through the war and hardships made me feel like the war did not exist and I should put it behind me.
During the war, people faced grave challenges, such as lack of electricity, poverty, and hunger and insecurity. However, in Makrorian, everyone tried to be mindful of each other’s struggles and offer help. I recall during the 11th Jade (December) 1372/1994 war when we were in old Makrorian and had to stay in a basement for a while. The young people among us came together and figured out how to provide food for everyone. Each family contributed what they could, such as flour or oil, and we pooled all resources. There was no advantage for one family over another; if there was something to be shared, it was for all, and if not, it was not available to anyone. This is how these families could survive until the ceasefire and escape safely. Some families left the area after the truce, but I stayed because I felt part of a big family and kept helping those in need and left behind.
After the ceasefire, when families were leaving Makrorian, I accompanied each one of them. I was not afraid of the dangers and potential for death because I felt it was my responsibility to do so. I always helped people carry thier staff and belongings. We were often protected only by God and had nothing left to lose.
Sheesha Media: You are painting a vivid picture of the environment in Makrorian, especially during the war. The war in Kabul was marked by widespread hatred and violence from all sides, with political, ethnic, religious, and linguistic factions vying for power. It was a city on fire. But the Makrorian community you describe seems to be an island immune to all this violence and hatred. Despite the ongoing war in Kabul, there was no evidence of these polarizing forces. Was the situation the same, or did you see that the blind hatred based on race, ethnicity, religion, and political beliefs that had divided everyone in Kabul also infiltrated the Makrorian community, with people speaking and considering themselves part of this or that faction?
Nader Yama: Living in Makrorian at that time provided the feeling of belonging, regardless of one’s place of origin or ethnicity. Being a part of the community meant being a part of Makrorian, which had a strong identity that connected individuals to the area. As a small child and teenager, I experienced this sense of unity firsthand. Even during the war and under Taliban rule, I remained among the Makrorians. Despite the challenges that arose, the old population structure shifted, with some senior residents leaving and new ones arriving, but the culture of Makrorian persisted to some degree. The spirit of community and mutual support remained largely unchanged.
Sheesha Media: Did you observe instances during the war where someone from Makrorian identified another group as an enemy or declared affiliation of individuals based on their group membership?
Nader Yama: No, never. After the 11th Jade (December) war of 1372/1994, when the situation improved, I became close with everyone in our community. As I grew older, our relationships grew more assertive. I don’t recall any instances where a member of our community, at least among those I knew well, was influenced by external forces to harm others for the reasons you mentioned.
Reading books during the war
Sheesha Media: You mentioned that you studied at home during the war. Where did you obtain the books for your studies?
Nader Yama: I started selling water and gradually got hired with the assistance of a friend who worked in the government. Initially, I was employed in the Department of Education, followed by a move to the Ministry of Education and I was accessing the ministry’s library.
I had a close friend named Shoaib, whose father worked for the Red Cross. He was highly gifted and well-read, often lending me books. He was one of the people who immensely supported me and even enrolled me in an English course. I hope that wherever he is, he is at peace and content. We spent much of our time together reading the captivating books he provided, including works by Parviz Ghazi Saeed and books about espionage. We even stayed up late into the night finishing a book in a single night.
Sheesha Media: For instance, the books of Amir Ashiri.
Nader Yama: Yes, we read police and criminal books and would pass them on to someone else after staying up all night to finish them. There were instances when there was a power outage, so we would gather under a neighbor’s streetlamp to continue reading. These books eventually led me to discover Dale Carnegie’s works, which profoundly impacted my life. From the Art of Public Speaking to Making Friends and the Keys to Success, I felt that these books connected with me and the education I had encountered in the Soviet Union.
I would put into practice everything I learned from these books the following day. They aided me in finding solutions to the problems I encountered daily and helped me improve my social relationships. I recall visiting the Red Cross and meeting with an old friend from my teenage years named Barry Salam. The person at the counter told me I was not allowed to enter, but when I saw his elegant handwriting, I complimented him, saying it was beautiful. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to see Barry Salam again.
The person approached me and asked whom I was there to see. I greeted them again, and they said I could go in and they would call my friend right away.
Having a positive outlook and recognizing beauty, offering help, or providing a thoughtful conversation that brings hope, energy, and gratitude expands your social circle. I feel invigorated by these actions, becoming addicted to this source of motivation and positive energy. I believed I could transform my environment, all because of the influence of those books.
The Arrival of the Taliban in Kabul
Sheesha Media: Did you witness the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul for the first time?
Nader Yama: Yes.
Sheesha Media: Could you describe the memorable image you have of the end of the civil wars and the Mujahideen era, the arrival of the Taliban, and the changes you remember in Kabul?
Nader Yama: During the Mujahideen period, despite the numerous challenges, I had some basic amenities. However, the arrival of the Taliban ended all of that. I could no longer sit and socialize with my friends, and we faced trouble wherever we went. I used to play football and coach about 150 children in the old Makrorian, but this, too, was taken away from me. I could no longer join that group or contribute to it. Access to books was also restricted, and there was a mentality that we should not wear clean clothes. We were limited in every aspect – thinking, society, and freedom. Simply put, I felt like I was suffocating, and my primary concern was keeping myself and my family safe.
Sheesha Media: Did you witness the Taliban’s violence against women, children, and men in the bazaar and alleyways?
Nader Yama: Yes, I witnessed it countless times. As someone who had learned that kindness and compassion are fundamental human values and that it’s my responsibility to embody and promote them, I found it extremely challenging to endure these conditions during the Taliban era. Mainly when I saw a Talib member mistreating a woman or beating her. It disturbed me and felt like a knife in my heart, causing me great pain.
Sheesha Media: Did you personally witness the Taliban’s violence, particularly against women?
Nader Yama: Yes, I did on many occasions. I saw them cutting the hair of young people, including my own, with violence and insults. They often subjected us to mental torture under the guise of being young. Everywhere you went, you saw horrific scenes. They restricted all kinds of freedom, and we could not do anything about the violence we witnessed. Being a social person, it was a challenging time for me, and I can say that it killed my spirit, thoughts, and emotions.
Sheesha Media: In those years, you witnessed the 9/11 incident and the fall of the Taliban, marking the beginning of a new era, after which you took advantage of the opportunities and made a significant impact as one of the first members of the new generation. How do you remember the last days of the Taliban and the early days of transformation in Afghanistan, and what has stayed with you forever?
Nader Yama: I would like to highlight two points before that. It is crucial because we are once again witnessing the same circumstances as the first period of the Taliban regime came to power in 1995, and younger generations are facing similar challenges. Today’s youth face an even more difficult situation than we did back then. Those days, we had limited access to information and knowledge, and it was easier to bear the situation as we had lost less. However, today’s youth have lost everything. A younger generation who studied, worked, and strived every day post 9/11, are now treated like strangers in their own country, which is truly frustrating and unbearable.
Although I faced numerous challenges, I refused to be defeated by the situation and recognized that every difficulty presents an opportunity. With the assistance of a friend, who had connections with the Taliban and was responsible for security at the “Lamea Shahid” school in Old Makrorian, I could spend time with the students daily. This helped me regain some sense of normalcy and allowed me to share stories of hope and resilience classes with the students.
Sheesha Media: Who was this friend of yours?
Nader Yama: My friend’s name was Abdullah.
Sheesha Media: Did Abdullah work with the Taliban during that period?
Nader Yama: Yes, he was affiliated with the Taliban and previously with Jamiat fraction.
Sheesha Media: Where was the group you claim provided security located?
Nader Yama: I didn’t know the location of the group. However, the person in charge was responsible for maintaining the school’s security. Usually, one or two Taliban members were stationed at each government facility to ensure safety. My friend spoke with the Taliban, and I was somehow granted permission to spend time with the school students and have conversations with them. I would share stories with the students at school, as no books or written materials were available.
Sheesha Media: Were only boys enrolled in the school during that time?
Nader Yama: Correct, only boys were attending the school. I engaged the students in conversations about their opinions and aspirations, intending to provide them with a mental escape from the challenging circumstances and societal restrictions they faced.
Sheesha Media: Of the children you worked with, do you have any information on their current whereabouts or what they are doing now? Can you give us a general idea of their future?
Nader Yama: I have lost touch with many of them. After the recent collapse of the country last year. I knew some of the children I taught soccer to in school. They were very young at the time but have since grown up and changed, recognized me and I had occasionally seen them. In some of the organizations where I worked, I assisted them in finding employment. However, unfortunately, I have lost touch with them lately and do not know where they are and what they are doing currently.
Sheesha Media: You mentioned your experiences during the final years of the Taliban rule. What is your perception of those last days? What do you recall, especially after everything changed?
Nader Yama: I believe that if the September 11th, 2001 incident had not occurred, there would have been a possibility for change from within. People suffered greatly from numerous problems, and the situation was explosive, with the potential for a societal uprising against the regime. Poverty, suffering, and hunger were prevalent, particularly among the youth. Despite the restrictions, I observed that they were starting to communicate openly and connect more than before. Additionally, I heard from those who were familiar with the situation or had ideological disagreements with the Taliban that there were significant internal issues within the Taliban faction. In my opinion, change was necessary, as the society did not support the Taliban’s ideology, evidenced by the existence of clandestine home schools.
At the time, I was working with “UN-Habitat,” aimed to develop communities, build infrastructure and empower people. Our approach with Taliban in relation to our working objectives was not in a way that we promote democracy, but rather empowering the people so that they themselves address their community challenges.
My job involved traveling throughout Afghanistan. We established social development councils and provided funding with seed-funding to initiate small-scale income-generating projects, to make income to use to address their community needs and challenges. We engaged with youth to empower them to address social issues and positively impact society through employment. Our initiatives had the potential to improve their ability to seize opportunities significantly.
It is noteworthy that the situation in northern Afghanistan was more favorable, and as we moved northwards, the impact of our projects increased. The central, northern, and northwestern regions experienced a more significant impact from these programs on the transformation of the youth and society. Regrettably, the southern and southeastern areas posed more challenges due to more significant social problems and restrictions.
Sheesha Media: Does this conversation refer to your work with the IDLG or during the Taliban regime?
Nader Yama: No, this discussion pertains to my time working with theUN-Habitat during the Taliban period.
Sheesha Media: So, during the Taliban regime, could you work with local councils and interact with local committees?
Nader Yema: Yes, I began my work in 1997 with an organization called Solidarity, a French NGO. Initially, the organization provided relief and winter aid. Later, it expanded to building small infrastructure projects and municipal services. After that, I joined the International Committee of Red Cross (IRCC) and traveled to various provinces, particularly to the north part of the country. At the IRCC, my role was to locate mine-affected areas by interviewing people impacted by mines and reporting it to the United Nations or demining organizations for clearance.
Concurrently, I wrote stories about land-mine victims, their incident and lives to raise awareness and decrease the number of land-mine victims. We encountered numerous heart-wrenching accounts of young people and children who were victims of war. For example, those who went to gather firewood out of necessity stumbled upon a mine. I recall speaking to a young man in Maidan Wardak province. He said that he did know that the area was mine-infested, but the poverty and hunger were so dire that he had to gather firewood to keep his family warm and fed. Sadly, he hit a mine with a scythe and was injured when it exploded.
Sheesha Media: Did you gather these stories yourself?
Nader Yama: Yes, I documented these stories, and the IRCC also published them. The IRCC aimed to raise awareness among the public about the dangers of mines so that families could be informed and other organizations could take action to clear the minefields.
The Hunger Belt
Sheesha Media: You mentioned previously working with the United Nations and being in the central and northern regions of Afghanistan. The Taliban had created an economic blockade in Hazarajat, and the United Nations had a program in these areas under the name “Hunger Belt.” Did you have the opportunity to visit central regions such as Bamyan, Daikundi, Ghor, Badghis, etc.?
Nader Yama: Yes, I recall. At the beginning of the Taliban’s rule, they demanded that institutions either leave the country or shift to the Kabul Polytechnic building. As a result, the “Solidarity” NGO, and other organizations, were closed as no one accepted the Taliban’s demands. However, my foreign colleagues and I decided not to be inactive and ultimately chose to open an office in Bamyan. I was appointed as the operational manager of this office and was there when the war broke out in Bamyan. I stayed in Bamyan with someone named Dr. Shakur used to work with WHO and two other colleagues of mine, and a foreign friend who was my boss dthe war and hardships, unable to leave as anywhere we went was too dangerous.
When the Taliban captured Bamyan, the poverty and hunger were severe, and many people suffered. We committed to stay and work in the area, as we were the only existing institution. As a result, other organizations also supported the site through us.
Sheesha Media: Are you referring to the Solidarity?
Nader Yama: Yes. I was discussing poverty and hunger. I, myself and two friends, one from Bamiyan and whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, visited Yakavalang, Panjaw, and Waras districts to survey the situation. The World Food Organization informed us of severe poverty and hunger in these areas. We brought some biscuits with us. To our shock, when we entered the villages, a child had already died from starvation. Many were forced to eat plants and grass. During our two-day and two-night stay in Baba Mountain, we had no food for ourselves, as we had distributed everything among the locals. We thought that maybe a single bite from us could save a child from death. Although the roads were treacherous, and there was a risk of falling, death, or attack from wild animals, we braved the harsh and freezing weather to carry out our mission.
Sheesha Media: There were reports of corruption at that time, where despite the dire living conditions of the people, false and fake statements were released claiming the UN aid reached the people, leading to the waste of assistance. On the other hand, organizations like the World Food Organization and UNOCHA constantly claimed that they were providing aid to the people. Did you witness such corruption in UN bodies that led to these sad events?
Nader Yama: No, I did not witness such corruption at the time. My role was to gather information. We were the only entity present in the area. Our responsibility was to survey the situation of the people, how many people were affected, and what could be done to help them.
At that time, we had limited resources and facilities. There were many places we couldn’t access due to difficulties in the terrain, winter weather, or lack of security along the way. However, after spending almost four months in Bamyan, the situation improved, and I had to leave. I am unaware of how much aid or assistance was provided to Bamyan after that.
In the Solidarity organization, our primary focus was on repairing the road between Bamyan and Kabul. Our objective was to provide wheat or funds to the villages along the road to fix and clear it so the traffic could flow smoothly.
I had to leave Bamyan due to an accident where my car overturned near Shashpool pass, and I was injured. I was taken to Islamabad – Pakistan for treatment and did not return to Bamyan.
September 11th, New Era, New Season
Sheesha Media: Were you present in Kabul during the Taliban’s fall?
Nader Yama: Yes, I was in Kabul during the fall of the Taliban. I went to Pakistan for a month and a half and then returned. There was an organization called “IOM” in Kabul, and I started working there. I taught the Persian language to foreigners.
Sheesha Media: Can you share your memories of when the Taliban fell? How did the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, which occurred shortly after the 9/11 incident, affect Kabul?
Nader Yama: Everything happened quickly after the Taliban fell. I was working at the UN-Habitat. Our director gathered everyone to inform us that something significant had happened and that the situation could change dramatically. Engineer Akram Salam, a dear friend and a person whom Afghanistan should be proud of, was the head of the UN-Habitat at that time and leading the capitial regional office. All the UN agencies were instructed to evacuate Afghanistan as the situation could worsen. Many of our colleagues decided to leave, but Engineer Akram Salam and several others chose to stay. I recall another organization called “Akbar,” which was responsible for coordinating international organizations, held a meeting and declared that everyone should leave Afghanistan as the situation was uncertain.
As a team, we decided to stay and requested resources from other organizations to continue our work. For instance, we asked the IRCC to provide us with vehicles. However, some organizations and individuals who were supposed to support the people during difficult times decided to leave instead.
We intended to use IRCC cars for assistance, as the cars carried the red cross symbols and signs on all sides. We hoped that the Red Cross logo would be recognized if there were air strikes and we would not be targeted. So, we resumed our efforts to aid families by providing them with whatever resources we could, from stove, coal, and food to everything else. We did this because we recognized that the people remaining in Kabul were ordinary citizens who mainly were attempting to evacuate due to fear of a strong foreign force retaliation against the Taliban.
Sheesha Media: Did people in Kabul predict that America would attack after September 11th?
Nader Yama: Yes, our boss and those we were in contact with predicted that. The news also stated that America might target the Taliban. People knew this conflict would not be limited to just one area and could escalate. They were frightened. Some fled the city, while others sold all their possessions, including what they didn’t have, to buy essentials and avoid starvation. Some sought refuge in areas far from military and government facilities, which they believed would be safer.
As a group of colleagues, we decided to remain in Kabul and offer assistance to those in need. Our Chief of Party, Samantha Reynold, based in Islamabad, Pakistan, was known for being a compassionate and benevolent individual. She was the founder of social development programs in Afghanistan. We informed her that we would not abandon the country and would stay to help. She went above and beyond to provide aid and support. Under challenging circumstances, we initiated food programs and distributed supplies to the people.
A few months later, the situation changed dramatically. The Taliban collapsed, and with the fall of Bagram, the United Nations began operating flights from there. During that time, we remained active and crucial in coordinating various initiatives.
IDLG; the experience of working with the government
September 11th, New Era, New Season
Sheesha Media: After the September 11,2001 incident, you were instrumental in bringing about changes within the government and the IDLG. Can you tell us how you became involved with the government? How did you join the government?
Nader Yama: Thank you for the question. After September 11, the government lacked capacity, and one of the organizations’ objectives, especially those under the United Nations, was to focus on building systems and enhancing capacities within the government. I worked with various parts of the system during this time, although the United Nations paid my salary.
I began working in the government in 2009. Previously, I was with the UN-Habitat and for a short while worked with the Afghanistan Humanity Right Commission. I entered the government as an expert and was tasked with facilitating the development of a good governance strategy as part of Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy and Plan. Although my background was in the private sector and my education was in business administration, nobody was taking the responsibility for the governance sector, which seemed a very complex sector, so I decided to take on the challenge. Through this experience, I gained a deeper understanding of the government sector, the systems, institutions’ role and relationship which sparked my interest in continuing to work in this field.
I started my career in a specific role at the Ministry of Finance and then moved on to work with the Ministry of Economy. I worked closely with the Minister of Economy to coordinate government internationally aided capacity-building in the government ministries. Gradually I familiarized myself with various government institutions and gained insight into the IDLG. When the implementation of Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy was proposed, I had a clear understanding of the process for its implementation; which institutions should be the overseeing body, who has to coordinate and provide the budget, and who is responsible for its implemintation.
Upon becoming familiar with local government, I became increasingly convinced that if the governing system is to change, it would be best to work within a structure that can effect change from the bottom-up. This was the motivation behind my interest and decision to join and work with the IDLG.
I believed this was a wise choice, as it would allow me to make a significant impact on the service delivery and help central ministries to do better at the local level. I began my work with the IDLG in 2010, funded by the United Nations. Initially, I was responsible for overseeing development programs in support of local governance. Later, I took on the role of facilitating the development of policies and strategies for the IDLG and managing a team of consultants as well. These responsibilities gave me a deeper understanding of local governance, the relationships between local and central government entities, and the challenges and complexities of the sector. To be more specific, working with the autonomous local government agencies gave me insight into the administration of government departments and agencies such as security institutions, the judiciary, and the ministries in charge of service delivery in the provinces and districts.
In my view, the IDLG is akin to the Office of Administrative Affairs – OAA in the presidential palace. However, despite its significant sway, it lacks the necessary resources to effectively provide support and manage local affairs. I believe that the implementation of Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy should have been the responsibility of the OAA, with the Ministry of Finance and Economy handling budgeting and coordination and sectoral ministries delivering services. As for the IDLG, it should facilitate the implementation of national government policies and programs at the local level or basically localizing the national policies and interventions. To maximize their impact, the local organizations should be empowered to lead service delivery and drive change within their communities. This is how I envisioned the role of IDLG vis a vis central government ministries and the state institutions functionality and the processes for effective representation, support and service delivery at the local level.
Sheesha Media: You began your work with the IDLG during President Karzai’s term. Later you served as the head of the IDLG during President Ghani’s administration.
Nader Yama: To clarify, I was initially appointed as deputy minister for policy with IDLG, and became acting minister for the organization and took charge of the organization at a very challenging time.
Sheesha Media: Yes, during President Ghani’s time, you were in charge of the IDLG. I want to compare your experiences during your stints in the IDLG. Did you see that the top government officials truly believed that power would be transferred to the people through the local bodies, or was it more of a formality observed under the law or due to pressure from international institutions such as the United Nations? Did you witness any conflict between these two views?
Nader Yama: From a policy perspective, there were two viewpoints. During President Karzai’s term, the view was that we were publicly committed to local transformation and that we aimed to transfer decision-making authority and leadership to local administrations as much as possible. It was from the perspective of these institutions’ roles and responsibilities and the transfer of resources. However, in practice, as long as political interests were not disturbed, whether at the local or central level, there was no resistance to supporting reform interventions. The international community was pushing for more local autonomy. But the central government, as long as the initiatives would not weaken the central government’s political position and empower the local administration would not touch with politics in the center, they did not oppose, otherwise initiatives and interventions were not supported.
On the one hand, there was a program by the international community that emphasized the need for local bodies to have a prominent role in managing local affairs, as this was seen as the best way to bring resources directly or indirectly to the local organizations. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) were one of the parallel structures set up by the international community to provide services in provinces and districts. Local officials were often dependent on these teams for support delegitimizing the central state. The PRTs operated both at the provincial and district levels, where they were known as PRTs at provincial level and District Reconstruction Teams (DST) at the district level, respectively.
These institutions provided the most support to ensure that the provincial and district governors and officials were accountable and could handle local problems. You may recall that after 2010, there were many conflicts between President Karzai and the international community, with the latter claiming that resources were going directly to the localities, bypassing the central government and thereby reducing local dependence on the center and delegitimizing the central state.
Sheesha Media: Did the PRTs coordinate their development programs or aid with the IDLG at the local level?
Nader Yama: Some PRTs had coordination, and some did not. Many were not coordinated at all. For example, the IDLG was not responsible for the development sector where much of the work of PRTs was to improve service delivery at the local level. Some PRTs were connected with relevant ministries, while others were not. For example, the PRTs never communicated with the center. There was a PRT coordination committee in the IDLG where we dealt with more of policy level interventions and identity best practices, but never these best practices were shared among other PRTs. 42 NATO mission states had 42 ways of how they would support security, stability and development across the country, and most of the time they had issues of coordination, synergy or poor understanding of local context and system functionality.
In many instances, American companies even did not consult with the IDLG regarding the local government development projects. While working in the program and policy sector, I gradually worked to coordinate most of these programs so that the IDLG could have a leadership role in determining the priorities of the local governance. We wanted to become an effective partner to help connect the local priorities, available resources and set platforms to discuss challenges and coordinate joint efforts. Our position and expectation from international community was the alignment of their interventions with government priorities, cooperate and we facilitate on the government side and gradually transfer the capacity so that the government take the lead on deliver services to its population.
Sheesha Media: When you were responsible for appointing local bodies and becoming the supervisor, what were some of the major challenges faced by the IDLG in terms of structure and public perception? Specifically, what were some of the ideas held by authorities, especially in the presidential palace, that hindered the work of the IDLG?
Nader Yama: To better understand the challenges faced by the IDLG, it is important to examine its role. During President Ghani’s term, he claimed to have a clear plan for state reform including local entities. He claimed committed to improving the state of local administration and providing more opportunities for the middle level experts/ leaders in the government, such as myself, to lead such reforms. The middle management in the government was represented by young public servants that were professional, dedicated, honest and constructive in their thinking and approach. We had professional relationships and supported each other both for individual sector reform and that of the entire system reform in the government.
Personally, I believed that the IDLG could provide adequate and effective support to the governors and local entities, if it was let to focus on its prime function, provided with needed resources and let it manage local affairs without any hindrance and destruction by the central state or security council of the time. This way, we could focus on solving problems and improve the situation and do it in a cooperative way with other entities, and establish effective mutual working principles that would be beneficial not only to IDLG but also to others as well.
The role of the IDLG was to plan and execute government policies at the local level and to ensure that the president’s orders are implemented in the periphery. This could include implementing reforms in the governance area and strengthening local governors and their offices, facilitating the peace process, and ensuring local security, as well as coordinating service delivery efforts and ensuring effective discharge of the role of governor, district governor, mayor, or local councils. This is what I have been envisioning for IDLG.
On the other hand, it was also our responsibility to provide accurate information on the local affairs and situation to the center so that informed decisions could be made. During my time in the office, I established a system for exchanging data between the IDLG and the president’s office regarding the status of services, security, and political situation in the country. This way, the president would not only rely on the information his office was getting from the ministries. I also ensured that this flow of information was streamlined and continuous. The data collected needed to be analyzed and presented to entities at the different layers of the government; with the highly critical and important information racing the president office and attention, service delivery info was provided to ministries and managing grievances and requests pertaining to IDLG internally.
Sheesha Media: Did you do this?
Nader Yama: Yes, we did this.
Sheesha Media: What were the outcomes, and what was the real feedback like?
Nader Yama: The outcomes were two-fold. On the one hand, it brought us many challenges. When we disseminated information about service delivery status at the local level and conditions on the ground, it came across as if we were highlighting the shortcomings of the responsible government ministries. It was challenging to make others understand that we aimed to bring the issues to the relevant authorities’ attention so that they could address them and do better in their areas of focus and service delivery. That’s why I always stressed the importance of gathering information and sharing it with the concerned departments first so that the departments can take necessary actions before they are brought up at the cabinet level meetings.
Having a constructive role and coordinating with all was one of my core working principles and approach. However, the issue was that many ministries were reluctant to delegate authority and responsibility for project implementation to their local branches/ departments. There were several reasons for this. Power is often associated with having resources and decision-making authority. Our role was to support the ministries to effectively carry out their responsibilities by strengthening their local departments and helping them to take the lead for service delivery and provide them with policy guidance and technical support so that local entities are able to effectively carry on the mission and be in a strong position to respond to populace needs. We wanted local entities to be the face for service delivery and addressing local grievances and services to the public. This is how you improve the ligitimacy of the state and mobilize and obtain public support for the government.
Sheesha Media: Were the ministries inclined to share their resources? Did the Presidential Palace have a desire to distribute power and resources to local authorities? If so, the president could allocate budget and resources to the localities or delegate decision-making powers without hindrance.
Nader Yama: Three critical areas needed attention: first, the government as a whole needed to be committed to strengthening local administration and clarify its functions at all layers and levels of the government. Second, the whole of government (all layers of the government) had to come up with an inclusive and contextually appropriate policy for sub-national level – basically what role and functions their associated departments should assume, and finally we had to come up with the appropriate legislation, regulatory procedures as well as capacity enhancement plan to holistically support local leaders championing effective public service provision at the local level.
During the time of President Ghani, there was a general mindset to work on policy reform and strengthen local administration. However, the implementation of the policy was not just the responsibility of the IDLG. It also involved the ministries. The IDLG was tasked with formulating the overall policy and laws for government organizations at sub-national level. Based on that, the structure of local administration, their responsibilities, and the government’s policy towards local entities should have become clear to both central and local administration. This was a politically challenging issue that had not been properly addressed.
One of the significant errors during Mr. Ghani’s tenure was the excessive centralization of power within the center of government like OAA. My stance on the administration was that local governance policy should not just be the responsibility of local bodies, but rather the entire government must be involved in shaping this policy and committing to delegate authority to the local bodies. Unfortunately, this viewpoint was not widely held. From my observations, this perspective did not have many advocates. Although there was talk about implementing this policy, very little progress was made, in practice.
One example was when the president decided that 40% of the budget should be allocated to localities and instructed the ministries accordingly. While some of the funds were indeed transferred, there were no laws or regulations in place to facilitate the implementation of this reform. The local bodies lacked the guidance and capacity to effectively manage the funds. For instance, local procurement was required when receiving 40% of the budget, but there were no regulations, principles, or guidelines in place to govern this process.
At the time, I argued that we should prioritize transferring powers and responsibilities to the local entities rather than just resources. In the public reform language, it is the finance that follows function, not the way around. When you delegate authority, you need to do it through laws and regulations leading to further clarification on how the process and practice be in discharging such a responsibility and spending the budget and funding accordingly.
Worry and Fear; Leaving the IDLG
Sheesha Media: You worked in the IDLG from 2010 to 2016, despite initial challenges and difficulties. During Dr. Ghani’s term, despite having higher qualifications, you only stayed in the IDLG for a brief period of two years before leaving. Can you explain why?
Nader Yama: There were two reasons for my departure from the IDLG: Firstly, I had served in the government for a long time, and personal factors such as needing to spend more time with my children played a role. Secondly, working in the IDLG was demanding, and I often only had two to five hours of rest in 24 hours. I would be up all night talking to governors, and my official and personal time had become one. Ultimately, I felt there was limited potential for positive change within the IDLG and decided to leave.
When you hold a position of responsibility, you have more power to change policies. I had aspirations to reform the decision-making process. But the more I was given the opportunity to serve at high-ranking positions; in the cabinet and national security council, I became more concerned and worried about the kind of decisions that were made at those levels, the more disillusioned I became. I was increasingly impacted and concerned by what was happening.
Sheesha Media: What specifically frustrated or frightened you?
Nader Yama: I was often frustrated and concerned during meetings of the cabinet, the Security Council, or other government bodies. I approached these meetings as a citizen and felt a sense of responsibility to make my voice heard and have a significant impact. My role was to represent local officials and leadership and help these officials to be effective in their work, especially in areas such as security, the peace process, justice and the judicial system, and public services. Despite this responsibility, I could not effectively carry out my duties and bring about the necessary change. There was more political compromise associated with any decision made at high-level government levels that was affecting the situation on the ground and the situation worsened.
For instance, when I learned that a woman might face stoning, that security forces were abandoning their posts, that a health or education official was involved in corruption, or that a local government official was not fulfilling their duties effectively, I faced the task of establishing accountability structures for local officials. At the same time, I had to ensure that the cabinet made informed and rational decisions in these situations and be quick in addressing these critically important issues.
However, in these meetings, I often observed that personal political interests resulted in poor decision-making. It caused difficulties in implementation. For example, when district governors were appointed, the president conducted interviews himself and appointmenting governors. The intention was that the specified officials would have the necessary expertise, perspective, and plan for their localities. However, the administrative process was slow and political maneuvering behind the scenes caused implementation problems.
At times, the situation was beyond my control. For example, decisions were sometimes made without involving the IDLG and communicated directly to the local entities. One instance of this was the Security Council. I felt that the Security Council during President Ghani’s time had taken on more responsibilities than it should have. It intervened in security, development, service delivery, and other sectoral issues. In fact, 70% of my time was occupied and devoted to Security Council meetings and dealing with security issues rather than me focusing on improving local governance and facilitating service delivery. This took IDLG away from its core function and focused on local governance and improving service delivery. While security was certainly important, there were 100 unsafe districts that needed attention, and the rest of over 300 districts were not at high-security risk and required equal attention and support.
Sheesha Media: You talk about the period when Mr. Atmar was in charge of the Security Council.
Nader Yama: Yes, I was during Mr. Atmar’s tenure who was National Security Council Advisor.
Sheesha Media: You stated that one of the reasons for your departure from the IDLG was that you had been serving in those positions for an extended period and wanted to focus on your personal responsibilities and family. However, given your background of being focused on helping others, this explanation doesn’t seem like a strong enough reason.
Could you please elaborate more on the second point you mentioned: Where did you face challenges within the system that made you feel worried and even scared? Can you shed light on the specific experiences or issues that caused this concern and disappointment? In your view, was it the structure of the government that could not be reformed and was ineffective? Can you highlight the areas where you saw a gap, and at what point did you realize that the system could no longer be fixed and you could no longer make a difference?
Nader Yama: It is best to approach this issue from two perspectives: Firstly, I gained valuable insights and knowledge through my work in the IDLG, and secondly, I joined the IDLG as an individual with my own set of values and took on the responsibility of shaping policies, particularly when I became the head of the department. My first priority was to build and maintain a strong team that had the necessary experience and was dedicated to improving the structures and processes within the local organizations.
Regrettably, in my tenure serving in Mr. Ghani’s cabinet (2014-2015), most countries in the international community regressed and no longer maintained the previously available resources. My aim was not to divert all resources to local organizations but to instill the belief that this office, with its efficient structure and personnel and their expertise and experience and importantly the commitment and devotion they had on their work, could play a crucial role in enhancing local administration and bringing about positive changes in local communities.
We sought resources that would aid us, not exhaust us without any results. As previously mentioned, I emphasized the importance of providing information to the government. To achieve this, we gathered data from districts, municipalities, local councils, provinces, and villages. Through a structured system we established, the information would be collected, analyzed, and utilized to drive meaningful changes in those communities.
One positive aspect of this work was that everyone was connected and informed. By setting up a WhatsApp group, all the governors were kept abreast of the conditions in their respective provinces. The governor of a province would update the president and central government entities with their activities, surface challenges, travel to districts and address issues at local level. It was also a practice of leadership, accountable and fostering healthy competition among the governors for effective leadership and response to local needs.
Sheesha Media: What were some things that disappointed or concerned you regarding the current situation you mentioned?
Nader Yama: One of the significant issues was security. The local bodies were supposed to be involved in all security and development matters, they needed to coordinate everything, especially the measures to be taken after a military clearance operation and the actions required to bolster local governance and improve service delivery.
Unfortunately, coordination in security, operations, and decision-making for local change was inadequate. There was a lack of effective determination of officials, coordination between security forces, governance, and service delivery, and security needs were not met. One of the reasons for these problems was the political nature of decisions made at the center rather than addressing local realities. I attended security council meetings, but they often became politically charged and failed to address the specific security concerns of a particular area. While the president made firm decisions, yet along the way decisions were not being implemented as and how it was decided upon. Security, governance and development are not the responsibility of an individuals but of the system as a whole. During Mr. Karzai’s term, there was a well-coordinated cabinet, and the government’s performance was highly effective in providing services and implementing programs. However, this was disrupted during Mr. Ghani’s term, as the departments lost their authority, and decision-making was more centralized in the OAA and the president’s office.
During Karzai’s tenure, there were political strategies that could aid and improve the effectiveness of actions. For instance, democracy sometimes gets messy and is not always a smooth and consistent process. Sometimes, one may be entirely correct or wrong, but yet you have to compromise and continue with the engagement. It is not about who is wrong or who is right, but it is about maintaining the process to build understanding, keep engagement and achieve the result eventually.
During Mr. Ghani’s presidency, the political climate was influenced by additional factors. Despite our tireless efforts, the system lacked the necessary capabilities and resources. Our focus was intense, leading to resentment among the public. In a country where peace and tolerance are yet to be deeply ingrained, one’s actions can easily have a positive or negative impact, resulting in a gradual breakdown of the situation.
Comparison of Hamed Karzai and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai
Sheesha Media: You have reached a stage in your career where you are able to make comparisons between the two leaders you have both experienced. If you consider the authority, particularly the presidency, from the perspective of the IDLG, how would you compare the Karzai and Ghani eras as a whole? Can you mention three things that were better during the Karzai era and worse during the Ghani era or vice versa?
Nader Yama: During Mr. Ghani’s era, compared to Mr. Karzai’s era, I observed a more committed central system to change policies and bring reforms but lacking a strong and capable team. However, during Mr. Karzai’s time, there was a cohesive team in place, where the government and the ministries had the leadership to engage in discussions, make decisions, allocate resources and lead the change process. The implementation of policies and programs during Mr. Ghani’s time was imposed, rather than being a consultative and cooperative process. For example, during Mr. Karzai’s time, the leadership was primarily in the hands of the ministries, where they could be effective and productive. During Mr. Ghani’s era, the process of implementing policies and programs was highly centralized, and all officials were afraid to take the lead in their own affairs due to the fear of being removed from office if the president was upset. Thus, having an effective and constructive leader is crucial for a system that requires responsible and effective leadership and the team support.
Sheesha Media: If you are the head of the IDLG again and have the power and resources you need, what steps would you take to make the IDLG a more active and effective entity within the modern political system in Afghanistan?
Nader Yama: I believe that any established administration needs an institution to support the local administration. In a centralized system, there must be two critical departments at the higher level of the government to implement government policies and oversee the operations of both the center and local agencies. These departments are the OAA that we talked about at the beginning of this conversation, which acts as the right hand of the president, and the IDLG, which acts as the left hand of the president and helps implement orders, provide needed support to local entities and enable them to lead service delivery at local level.
Additionally, a balanced and deconcentrated system is necessary where the ministries can have tailored policies and plans for effective service delivery. The IDLG can competently lead its implementation while being held accountable. It requires a capable and practical Ministry of Finance to provide adequate support to ministries and local departments regarding procurement resources and regulations. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Finance was so politicized and became a humper to support reforms, than be out there to support ministries to achieve their targets. Both presidents failed to genuinely support reforms and the implementation of programs at the center and local levels.
It is essential to determine the responsibilities and resources required for local leaders to make decisions, which is a crucial aspect of policy. Another aspect of policy should be the representation of the people, where departments directly impacting service delivery, such as municipalities, the mayor should be elected. People should have a role in leading the delivery of services in their localities. At the same time, the social fabric should include structures that allow people to have a voice and influence. We must also establish frameworks to make sure that the center is responsible for providing adequate services and lead the change in the periphery.
It is crucial to align resources and capacity building with the framework of competencies and responsibilities and to establish clear principles, rules, regulations, and decision-making and accountability processes to implement these policies and reform programs effectively. It is a necessary condition for the successful implementation of these policies and reforms.
Based on these characteristics, people and local leaders should be empowered with the necessary resources to enhance their capacities. The roles and responsibilities of local officials, such as governors and district governors, should be clearly defined, particularly in the areas of security, justice and development. This can be achieved in the realm of governance, but further clarification is needed in security matters, particularly in the legal and judicial sectors.
Sheesha Media: If you chose Mr. Karzai and Ghani as potential collaborators in your local organization, who would you prefer to work with?
Nader Yama: In my view, the problem with Mr. Karzai was his lack of commitment to a clear vision for transforming and strengthening Afghanistan. As someone who prioritizes technical matters, it’s crucial that the system I work with is committed and has a clear vision and plan for transforming the community and the country.
Regarding Mr. Ghani, I must acknowledge that despite his commitment to governance and transformation and his clear view on these matters, he had several weaknesses that led to dangerous division and fragmentation. For instance, his strictness and inability to build a competent and dedicated team, and support them in the reform process, caused significant problems during his governance. He tended to handle governance matters in a solitary manner, which exacerbated the state of confusion and fragmentation in the country. While his intentions may have been good in some instances, the outcomes were, unfortunately, adverse.
Mr. Ghani was not a capable leader. It would have been better if he focused on technical work and acted as a state reform consultant rather than a leader. Leadership carries a heavy burden and requires more than just a plan and vision – it also requires the ability to handle political situations, collaborate with colleagues and make compromises while setting clear boundaries. Furthermore, leadership requires making decisions as a team, establishing effective policies, and building a team capable of executing those policies. Unfortunately, in my view, Mr. Ghani was not an effective and influential leader.
To summarize, I believe that the country’s future leadership needs to combine both Mr. Karzai’s and Mr. Ghani’s qualities. Someone like Mr. Karzai, aware of the ethnic context and social situation of the localities, can understand local politics and distinguish between right and wrong, black and white, when necessary. At the same time, a leader like Mr. Ghani, who understands the technical and structural aspects of things, has a vision and plan, and is determined and committed to transformation, is also necessary. Finding such a leader with a single name would not be possible. Still, the structure, system, and team can work together to create this type of effective leadership, reducing vacuums, weaknesses, and inefficiencies. I see the potential for this kind of leadership in the country’s young leaders. Unfortunately, the country’s leaders have not created favorable conditions for this generational change to occur. While Mr. Ghani claimed to promote development, his actions harmed the young generation much more.
The roots of optimism
Sheesha Media: You have been through some tough times in your life. You are now around 43 or 44 years old. How optimistic are you about the future? Optimism doesn’t just mean spreading hope to others. As an expert who has seen and been through a lot, you know the realities and that your optimism is grounded.
Nader Yama: Thank you very much. My optimism is largely shaped by my life experiences. If I could remain hopeful during difficult times, such as the war and the Taliban era, despite the lack of resources and challenges, I am confident that the future will not be worse. We have seen regimes come and go throughout history. I believe that the current one will not last either. However, I am more hopeful now because most of Afghanistan’s population, over 70%, is under 30 years old. It means that over 20 million people in the country are young and dedicated, and many of them in big cities have the opportunity to become more aware and play a role. I see current social and economic problems as short-term and believe that people will either adapt and find solutions or transform. The current Taliban system is not sustainable.
The second issue is that the young generation in the country now has a much different level of capacity and ability compared to the first period of the Taliban regime. A large majority of the population is now literate. They have access to information and a broader worldview, and this gives me great hope that it will not only reject the current challenges but also become the driving force for change and transformation.
Sheesha Media: If the work conditions in Afghanistan improve and you can resume your role as a knowledgeable agent, would you consider returning to the country?
Nader Yama: Absolutely. I communicate with my loved ones who have left Afghanistan and those still there every day, and we discuss and exchange thoughts on this matter. I don’t use Facebook or other social media platforms, especially after the recent changes, because it frustrates me. But I am in touch with all my loved ones in Afghanistan or abroad, including those in America, Europe, Australia, or elsewhere. We are all eagerly awaiting such a day.
“Trust”; the basis of “Hope” and “Work”
Sheesha Media: The current generation of Afghans, especially those under age 30 that comprise more than 70% of the population, not only lack hope but also experience broken social bonds, such as the absence of trust as a fundamental value in society. This new generation differs from past generations, who would come together quickly and have faith in local and national levels. Rebuilding trust is challenging, and bringing people together without trust in organizations or new groups would be even more difficult.
Sheesha Media: To effectively fulfill your role as “Yama” and have a tangible presence to symbolize trust in society, what steps would you take to regain confidence in individuals and groups, institutions, and structures within the community? As someone who feels a sense of responsibility to contribute, what can you do to promote trust in yourself and society?
Nader Yama: The situation of my loved ones in Afghanistan and those abroad is similar. We are all struggling and feeling helpless in the current circumstances. Understandably, the environment prevents restoring our hope and being productive. However, I want to emphasize that we need to be patient. This is only a temporary situation. I experienced this during the first Taliban regime and the war. I felt like everything was lost. However, my confidence, positivity, and influence started when I began believing in myself and my role. I understand that trust is the foundation of hope, and hope is the foundation of action. We must keep this in mind.
Taking on roles on a daily basis can start from within our own family. I don’t want to prescribe to anyone, but my life has been positively impacted by changing my perspective and outlook. I’ve seen numerous problems, even in the Western world, that often go unnoticed. I’ve worked hard in the West to be able to study and play again. I’ve witnessed many people doing things that don’t align with their values, and I have also been one of these in the past. However, it’s been crucial for me to prioritize my family and my education and to be able to have a positive impact in my country when circumstances allow. I also enjoy helping those who come to the West and do not forget about their roots in Afghanistan. As a family, we prioritize education, and my children made us (my wife and me) become proud with their achievements, showing that they are responsible and compassionate individuals who can make a meaningful impact in the world.
Sheesha Media: Can you tell us more specifically about your role as someone who takes action to rebuild trust in society? What measures does “Yama” take to regain confidence and bring hope back to the community?
Nader Yema: I believe what I can do now is reach out to individuals who feel helpless. I think this is crucial. To do this, I maintain connections with various individuals in Afghanistan, whether in the government, outside of it, with institutions, or even those who may be unemployed. I listen to their stories and share my experiences and the lessons I have learned from others who have helped me.
The second point is that we should never think we are not productive and effective. I am connecting those who are disconnected. If my friends hold technical positions in government or are working in institutions, that is great. However, it is not enough. We must unite cohesively and constructively, whether inside or outside of Afghanistan and make a positive impact.
Sheesha Media: As a final question, let me summarize your personal and professional life. You approach situations with a strategic mindset and plan. Your work experience, whether at the United Nations or the IDLG, has been focused on identifying ways to improve conditions through strategic planning and implementation of development initiatives.
If you were to consider the current situation and plan for change, do you have a specific and documented plan in mind? For example, with clear milestones and timelines, such as reaching a goal within five months or a year. Have you thought about this and discussed it with your network of contacts to form a strategic plan?
Nader Yama: I haven’t developed a specific plan yet. Personally, I believe that trust and hope are vital factors to consider. My goal is to work towards building trust and hope in Afghanistan and among the Afghan diaspora particularly the younger generation of leaders recently and were engaged in the development process in Afghanistan post 9/11, 2001. It can be achieved through connecting these professionals, sharing and reflecting on the past experiences, raising awareness, unifying the vision and path forward, and importantly creating a positive and constructive atmosphere for working together. I believe there are still many opportunities to make progress and find a sense of purpose and direction.
The current era of the Taliban cannot be compared to their previous period. There are opportunities and some differences. Currently, everything is impacted somehow by the changes in the country. Schools, universities, and people, including women, all face challenges within the country. However, we can work out and still bring people together, and avoid aspects that would be sensitive to the Taliban. For instance, we used to develop communities, helping them mobilize local resources, launch income generation activity and address their local social and service delivery needs.
This approach still can be adopted and used as the enabler together communities and help them to engage and address their own issues. This encourages collective thinking and impact. I strive to create hope and belief through practical actions, especially if this work can ignite a spark in someone to drive change in their surroundings.
Another challenge is changing perspectives. For those inside the country or those outside, who lost hope, suffer with PTSD and are struggling with depression and mental health issues, it is essential to create a platform to engage them and revive the vision that Afghanistan will eventually change and we need to prepare ourselves for that day. We need to maintain a positive outlook that gives us hope. It is crucial to inspire people and encourage them to think positively, knowing that this situation, no matter how long it lasts, is not permanent and will eventually end.
I have never lost hope and strive to build a bright future, even during difficult times. The good days in my life were the result of the bad days, challenging times and uncomfortable situations I had experienced and lived through. Our people and youth should believe in their abilities and maintain a positive mindset. There is always a light after every dark period.
We must provide hope to the people and ourselves. We should think and discuss ways to achieve this. Whether through advocacy, supporting educational programs in homes, distance learning, connecting stakeholders in Afghanistan, or reinforcing existing programs of the United Nations and non-governmental organizations, we should launch and support effective and innovative initiatives.
At the same time, we must also pressure the international community, especially those in Canada, to recognize that this system is unacceptable. Those outside of Afghanistan should not rely on foreign support and should be able to return to their country, when it is appropriate, and promote hope and provoke youth engagement in the change process. We need to bring attention to these issues and work towards overcoming the daily challenges that contribute to mental health problems, build trust and confidence in young leaders and professionals.
Sheesha Media: Dear Yema, thank you for taking the time to share your life with us. I hope that these discussions serve as a starting point for bringing more of our loved ones together. When we share common views, we are more likely to take joint actions. There is perhaps no action more necessary, important, or urgent in Afghanistan than improving the lives of those who both deserve and are capable of creating a better future. Our generation, especially yours, who have administrative and political experience in the country, may be able to fulfill this expectation for society.
Nader Yama: Thank you very much for the opportunity. I believe this is an incredibly important, constructive, and effective solution. Continuing these discussions, reflection and activities motivates others to step up and join us and together we take steps to enable and empower the younger generation to assume the leadership to change in our beloved country Afghanistan.
Sheesha Media: Thank you, and have a good night.
Nader Yama: Thank you, have a good night as well. May God protect us all.