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Drinking tea with the Taliban

11 November 2009 / 14:11:55  GRReporter
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They trusted her because she spoke to them in their language. They admired her because she quoted ancient Iranian poetry. Researcher Fotini Hritia has entered the military Afghani leaders circles and she has met with former mujahedeen and repented Taliban. She has heard stories of men, who have gotten their hands covered in blood, reports Ta Nea newspaper.

In 2004 Fotini Christia left for Afghanistan for the first time. She used to pay $500 per month in order to live in a UN building in Kabul. She left in order to make her Doctorate research – she wanted to see the changes of power balance in this region, which for many years has been in a state of ethnic conflict. Her experience in this field was acquired from a research done in Bosnia during the war and in Afghanistan for the second time she reaches the conclusion that coalitions change easily.

“There are no inhibitions. They can even make a coalition with groups, which before were killing them…they do not give weight to ideological differences,” says the Greek researcher. “Their goal is to be on the side of the stronger one. But they are always wary of whether their ally is too strong, because they can lose everything at the moment they are not needed anymore.”

From 2004 until now Mrs. Christia has been in Afghanistan many times and has gotten to know closely the mosaic of communities in this country. She has met 50 leaders of the tribes Pashtun, Khazars, Uzbeks and the Tajik. She has spoken to them and they have told her their stories, which are often connected with military crime.

Right now 31 year old Fotini Christia is an Assistant professor in Political Science in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was raised in Thessaloniki but has graduated both from Harvard University and Columbia University.

For her first visit in Afghanistan she prepares herself to the last detail – learns Farsi and the local dialect Dari in Harvard University and in the University of Tehran. There she learns by heart ancient Iranian poetry but she also needed luck when she left for Afghanistan, in order to meet all the tribe leaders she did.

“A friend of mine from Harvard is great-granddaughter of the Afghani shah Mohamed Zair. When I left for Afghanistan I went to see her and right at that moment many men were following her in order to marry her. In Afghanistan it is not allowed to be alone on a public place with a man, so my friend used to take me with her on her dates,” says Fotini Christia. “On every date I was gathering information about my research. For two weeks I had filled my notebook with notes and phone numbers.”

On the meetings with the tribe leaders Christia was dressing appropriately – wrapped cloth around her hair and long clothes, which covered every part of her body. The tribe leaders used to send a driver, who picked her up and drove her to them and Christia took the interviews alone. “When they meet someone, this person becomes a guest to them. They will make sure nothing happens to him/her. They have their own code of honor. But all meetings were done in the cities and not in secluded villages.”

For her research, it helped that she is a woman because they were not threatened by her. “They were happily speaking to me. And because I come from the West, they believed I was different than their women. I had a level of knowledge.”

Fotini Christia explains that programs for democratizing the country need to be developed. From 2007 to now she has been part of a team of consultants working on a randomized evaluation of local governing councils in rural Afghanistan, which is a World Bank. As part of this initiative economic aid is provided for developing the villages of the country. In order to receive this aid the villages must choose their own local councils, in which both men and women must be present, and then vote for how this money should be used. Mrs. Christia evaluates the results from this program and her role is to understand whether democratizing local communities in Afghanistan is really progressing. 

Tags: Tehran Afghanistan Harvard University Fotini Christia
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