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Afghan woman activist brings peace message to Japan

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At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, she saw a number of items burned in the atomic bomb blast on Aug. 6, 1945.

SETSUKO TACHIKAWA, The Asahi Shimbun, November 16, 2011

Malalai Joya visits the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima Malalai Joya, a human rights activist from Afghanistan, visits the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima's Naka Ward, Hiroshima Prefecture. (Setsuko Tachikawa)

Human rights activist Malalai Joya, a former Afghanistan lawmaker, brought her message of achieving peace and democracy without military intervention by foreign powers to sympathetic audiences in Hiroshima and Okinawa.

During her first visit to Japan, the 33-year-old former lawmaker tried to promote understanding of the stark reality facing her war-torn country. In 2001, U.S. forces started a bombing campaign --which Japan supported--targeting the al-Qaida terrorist group.

On Oct. 18, Joya visited the Heiwa-no-Ishiji (the Cornerstone of Peace) site, where the ashes of 240,000 victims of the Battle of Okinawa in the waning days of World War II are buried.

She also toured the Himeyuri Peace Museum, where she read eyewitness accounts of war victims and saw U.S. Kadena Air Base, the largest U.S. Air Force base in East Asia, an eloquent testament to Okinawa's tragic history.

Okinawa, an island chain that was sacrificed to protect the nation's mainland during the war, remained under U.S. control until 1972 and is still troubled by crimes related to U.S. military personnel.

"Okinawa's experiences are very much like what Afghanistan has gone through due to the presence of U.S. forces and the British Army," Joya said. "I hope such similar experiences will form the basis for connecting Okinawa and my home country."

Nobuyuki Nishioka, a part-time lecturer at Okinawa International University, said Joya's visit was an educational one for both sides.

The southwest Asian country, after the Taliban was ousted in 2001, remains on politically shaky ground although bolstered by the presence of U.S. and British troops.

"I became fully aware of the dire situation facing Afghanistan--they have to take the risk of losing their lives even when joining anti-government demonstrations--and I think Joya also came to fully understand the tragedy Okinawan people have long suffered," Nishioka said.

Before her tour of Okinawa, Joya visited Hiroshima on Oct. 15. At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, she saw a number of items burned in the atomic bomb blast on Aug. 6, 1945.

"Tens of thousands of innocent people were killed in the bomb in Hiroshima," she said. "This is just the same as what we have experienced in Afghanistan, at which my heart aches tremendously."

At an Oct. 16 lecture in Hiroshima's Naka Ward, Joya presented photographs of Afghani women who have been raped and the damage caused by repeated failures by U.S. forces to accurately bomb targets.

"Our country did not change a bit either under the control of foreign powers or under the reign of the Taliban," the activist said. "For women, there is no legal protection in Afghanistan."

Joya was invited to Japan by a Japanese citizens' advocate group, which assists activities by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a leading women's human rights group in Afghanistan.

"We need to face squarely the current situation of Afghanistan as our own problem because we have supported policies by the United States on this issue," said Yoshiko Kiryu, 62, a group member from Osaka Prefecture's Higashi-Osaka. "We want to make further efforts to voice our opinions on the way Japan supports Afghanistan."

Born in western Afghanistan, Joya was educated at a refugee camp in Pakistan during her early childhood, while her home country was under the control of the former Soviet Union (1979-1989). After returning home, she engaged in underground activities to provide education to women and operate an orphanage.

The human rights activist started attracting global attention in 2003, two years after the U.S. and British air forces started bombing the country following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That year, Joya participated in the Loya Jirga (the Grand Assembly of Afghanistan) as a representative of her home province.

In her speech at the assembly, where decisions were being made on the country's new constitution, she blasted former military executives who led the army during the country's civil war for controlling the assembly, an accusation that put her life in danger.

In 2005, Joya was elected to the country's national parliament, where she continued to hammer the military faction-led government, resulting in her parliament membership being suspended.

She goes by the name "Joya" and does not use her real one out of fear for her family's safety and also is forced to keep changing her place of residence within the capital city of Kabul to stay ahead of her enemies.

For her courage and her efforts, Time magazine chose Joya as among the world's 100 most influential people last year.

On her recent trip to Japan, the activist demanded that all foreign armies in Afghanistan leave her country, while requesting support from the international community to provide education to Afghans.

"The U.S and British armies in Afghanistan have strengthened domestic military factions and have spawned a number of new 'Osama bin Ladens' in our country," Joya said. "No one else but Afghans themselves can provide freedom to our nation and extricate themselves from the deplorable situation."