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Zarifa Ghafari, One Of Afghanistan’s First Female Mayors: ‘Sometimes You Don’t Have To Die Carrying A Gun: You Simply Leave The House’

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Zarifa Ghafari, one of the first female mayors in Afghanistan, in Kabul last March.
Zarifa Ghafari, one of the first female mayors in Afghanistan, in Kabul last March.Thibault Lefébure

Zarifa Ghafari arrives hurriedly and out of breath at the Kabul hotel where she has asked for the interview to take place. The director of a Netflix documentary about her, In Her Hands, follows behind. To her left is the writer who will help her to turn her experiences into an autobiography, Zarifa: A Woman’s Battle in a Man’s World. Now, both projects have already been announced, because the interview took place last March, a little over six months after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan.

It is the first time that Ghafari, 30, one of the first female mayors in Afghanistan, has returned to her country following the traumatic events of the summer of 2021, when the Taliban launched their offensive, causing tens of thousands to flee. Ghafari and her family managed to escape via Turkey to Germany. Her return, far from being viewed just as an achievement, has sparked controversy on social media. Some critical commentators accuse her of downplaying the seriousness of the situation in Afghanistan by deciding to go back, and even of whitewashing the Taliban.

She denies these claims. Over the past few years, Ghafari’s work has not been smiled upon by the fundamentalists. She served as mayor in Maidan Shahr, a small city around 30 miles to the southwest of Kabul and capital of the Maidan Wardak province. It was 2018 and she was 26 years old. Despite the many obstacles placed in her way, including protests and death threats, she remained in the post until she was promoted, a few months before the Taliban took Kabul, to a position in the Afghan Defense Ministry.

Her father, a veteran special forces commander under the previous government, was assassinated in 2020. The Taliban were widely suspected of involvement. Despite threats and harassment, Ghafari says she remains committed to her country and accepts the risks. As such, she wants to split her time between Europe, where her family still live, and Afghanistan, where the day before the interview she inaugurated a donor-funded center where women receive free education and workshops in handicrafts and tailoring, among other activities. Her long-term goal is for these centers to be set up in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

Question. How did you start out in politics and manage to become a mayor in a country like Afghanistan?

Answer. I always wanted to work with, among and for people. Starting out in governmental work and taking on responsibilities was not an attempt to enter into politics. But ever since I was a child, I wanted to do something important. That’s why I joined the Afghan Youth Parliament after gaining a Master’s degree in Economics in India. I set up a radio station with the person who is now my life partner and later started an organization, and from there I applied to join a program to become a mayor.

Q. How do you remember your time in office?

A. It was really incredible. In three years, I grew at a pace that helped me not only to develop my career, but also to learn about my own society, my country and what my people wanted. I have always wanted to do so many things for other places, although I wasn’t able to because I was stuck within the context of the city. When I left my post, four months before the fall of Kabul, I hoped that another woman would succeed me.

Q. Being a female mayor of a conservative city must have been very challenging.

A. When I was mayor, any little problem within the city became a huge disaster for everybody, and I was subjected to a lot of attacks, on social media and at events… “The mayor doesn’t work; she isn’t up to the job.” Now everything is a huge disaster and nobody is saying anything. That leads me to believe that I was criticized simply because I was a woman.

Q. You also faced threats from the Taliban.

A. Yes, I have been attacked three times and my father was assassinated – by the Taliban, according to information we received from the government at the time. I had to face a lot of things as the mayor of a very conservative Afghan city. Firstly, to foster trust between the people and myself. Secondly, dealing with the extremist ideologies of those who, when talking to women, were only thinking about cooking and babies. Speaking to them and giving them orders was extremely problematic. The insecurity caused by the Taliban, having a mafia inside the city, with a group of very corrupt local governors within the office, gave me a lot of headaches.

Q. The biggest of those came in August, 2021. What was your experience of the fall of Kabul?

A. On 15 August at 11.30am I was still in my office, here in Kabul, at the Defense Ministry. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I finally came to terms with it in the middle of the night, when Al Jazeera broadcast live footage from inside the presidential palace. It wasn’t because of the change of government, because it doesn’t matter to me who is the king or what government is in place. It was a matter of my rights, my work, my struggles. I saw a big change coming, that would affect my life and the life of my father. My sisters wouldn’t be able to enjoy a free life, I wouldn’t be able to walk the streets like a normal citizen. That was the moment when I broke down and cried. I didn’t sleep at all that night.

Q. You decided to pack up and run.

A. I left the country to provide my family with a safe haven. We managed to get to the airport with help from the Turkish Embassy. It was difficult, I wore a black hijab to hide my face. From there we went to Islamabad and from there to Turkey. I arrived in Germany on August 22 with my whole family. After the death of my father, I was responsible for them as I am the eldest. My mother was three years old when she lost her father, and she had just lost her husband. I didn’t want them to pay for my decisions.

Q. You are back in Afghanistan now for the first time since the Taliban regained power. What are your feelings?

A. I admit there are a lot of problems. But other things lend you the power of self-resilience. I have seen girls walking through the door of Kabul University and that has given me a huge shot of energy, it has been the best medicine for all this pain. At the same time, I have seen women begging for food on the street. If they could go to an office, any type of office, and work, maybe they would have enough to eat, at least once a day.

I have seen women begging for food on the street. If they could work maybe they would have enough to eat

Q. High school students have not been able to resume classes. Could that also happen at the universities?

A. We’ll see what happens. For now, this vision of women going to university has given me strength to resist. People – especially outside of Afghanistan – talk of armed resistance, of war… but I think resistance through education works better. Sometimes you don’t have to die carrying a gun: you simply get ready and leave the house. Like me, who has risked everything. It’s not easy. I came back, I’m here and so far, nothing has happened to me. But of course, I see a lot of problems and difficulties, and I am going to talk about them. Like yesterday: in an interview on a national television channel, I was asked about women’s rights. I urged the Taliban leaders to release all female prisoners. No one dares to do that. It doesn’t bother me; I am prepared to risk everything because I believe I am doing the right thing. That is how we must resist.

Q. Did you have to come to some agreement to guarantee your safety in order to return to Afghanistan?

A. I don’t need to come to agreements with anybody to return to my own home. I’ve already told everybody, in all of the interviews I’ve done since I’ve been here, that if anyone is able to prove that I have made some kind of arrangement with the Taliban, I’m ready to pay whatever they want. But I don’t need to do that: this is my country. Of course, the Taliban know that I’m here; I went through immigration control at Kabul Airport when I arrived.

Q. There has been some criticism on social media about your return to Afghanistan.

A. There are a lot of rumors surrounding me, especially from those who are not in Afghanistan. People think I earn a lot of money from donations and that’s why I’ve come back, maybe to give it to the Taliban. But a lot of women believe in what I am doing. What I have been saying over the past few days in Afghanistan is the same thing I have been saying since I left the country, before the previous government fell.

Q. Access to EL PAÍS is blocked in Afghanistan because of international sanctions against the Taliban. Is there a message you’d like to send to the international community, foreign governments or NGOs?

A. I’d like the international community to pay attention. I share the pain of the Ukrainian people; I feel hurt for Ukraine and its people. But at the same time, the same crisis is taking place in my country. We need aid to be delivered to people on the ground, especially to those women who don’t have anyone to look out for them.

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American Mountaineer Hilaree Nelson Found Dead After Fall From Nepal’s Mount Manaslu

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The body of American mountaineer Hilaree Nelson has been found by rescuers in the the Nepalese Himalayas. The alpine skier had been missing since Monday after falling from Nepal’s Mount Manaslu (8,163 meters), the eighth-highest mountain in the world. She had reached the top of the mountain with her partner, Jim Morrison, but fell while making her descent. Shangri-La Nepal Trek, the organizers of the expedition, announced Wednesday morning that her body had been found by rescue workers.

Weather conditions prevented helicopters from flying over the area on Monday, and the following day, they found no trace of the mountaineer. The search resumed on Wednesday, this time with Morrison on board, reported Jiban Ghimire of the Shangri-La Nepal Trek. Nelson is “the most prolific ski mountaineer of her generation,” according to outdoor recreation company The North Face, who has sponsored her since 1999. The same day of her disappearance, an avalanche on Mount Manaslu killed a Nepalese mountaineer and injured 12 others.

Shortly after reaching the summit, Nelson and her partner James Morrison put on their skis and began their descent. The two were aiming to follow the footsteps of Adrian Ballinger who, in 2011, became the first to make a ski descent of Manasul from its summit. The time was 11.30am. Under an hour a later, a witness claimed to have seen Nelson fall to the bottom of a 25-meter-deep crevasse.

Morrison reached base camp after the incident and called for help. The North Face issued a brief statement on Monday confirming the disappearance of Nelson and that a search effort was underway. Nelson began her career in alpine skiing and left the discipline for mountaineering. She and Morrison were the first to make a ski descent of Lhotse (8,516 m) in 2018.

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Pedro Azagra: ‘The Energy Transition Is Unstoppable’

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Pedro Azagra has been Avangrid’s CEO since June. While he’s new to the position, he knows the company well: he’s been on the board of directors of the Spanish parent company, Ibedrola – which controls 81.5% of Avangrid – for many years.

In his first interview since taking over, he highlights how Avangrid – based in Orange, Connecticut – is firmly committed to the transition to renewable energy. He considers this shift “unstoppable.”

“We’re very proud to be part of the energy transition in the United States. Of course, there are people who make a lot of money from [fossil fuels] and are trying to delay the transition, but it doesn’t matter. We’re going to continue moving forward: there’s no turning back. We need the support of politicians in granting permits and ensuring a stable and predictable framework. The whole world needs this,” explains Azagra.

Azagra spoke to EL PAÍS in the New York Stock Exchange building, where, last week, he presented the company’s plans to analysts and investors. The CEO emphasized that the wind is blowing in the direction of renewables with the American Congress passing the Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.

“These laws are going to generate a wave of investment in renewables. When you have financing of 350 or 360 billion dollars and they allow you to sell tax credits on the market, that will boost investments, which were already very strong. We have a 10-year-long framework that gives us a lot of peace of mind. Even during the presidency of Donald Trump, we didn’t stop developing renewables in the United States. We’re going in the right direction. Do we want to go faster? Yes. Do we still have our opponents, like the gas companies? Yes, we’ve always had opponents, but we’re still on track.”

In Maine, for example – where Avangrid is promoting a line to transport hydroelectric power from Canada to Massachusetts – another power company has opposed the project because it has gas interests in that area. “It’s a [natural] competitive reaction,” he shrugs.

Azagra explains that some banks are ceasing the financing of companies that own coal plants and do not have credible plans for closure. Shareholders are increasingly demanding ESG (environmental, social and corporate) values.

“In the United States the change that has occurred in renewables is dramatic. Coal is practically becoming history; a new plant has not been built in almost a decade and closures are accelerating. That was unthinkable seven or eight years ago, unthinkable,” Azagra explains.

Avangrid’s power transmission networks.
Avangrid’s power transmission networks.

When asked how regulatory changes have impacted Avangrid, Azagra replies that the impact has been positive. “There are a series of measures now in place that we think will increase our earnings by at least $50 million annually. Then, there’s the impact on tax returns, which we also believe will be positive. The IRS takes time to analyze all the factors and it will also be necessary to look at everything on a project-by-project basis, but what has already been approved looks good.”

The bulk of Avangrid’s investment for the coming years will focus on transmission and distribution networks, rather than on renewable energy generation – but this will still contribute to the green transition.

“Investment in networks goes hand-in-hand with the deployment of renewables. Generation, transport and distribution must go together. On the one hand, some networks are already 60, 80 or 100 years old and need to be updated; on the other hand, consumption is rising in places where green energy generation isn’t available. We’ll be investing more than $14.6 billion by 2025… it’s almost like setting up a new network the size of the one we already had in place.”

In his presentation to analysts and investors, Azagra brought up the possibility of selling about $2 billion worth of shares. “I’ve been part of this company (Iberdola) for 20 years… we want to do so many things and we don’t always have the financial capacity for everything we have on the table. We’re always looking for partners to participate in our projects.”

Recently, Iberdrola announced an agreement with Energy Infrastructure Partners (EIP) for the sale of 49% of its Wikinger Offshore Windfarm – in German waters of the Baltic Sea — for 700 million euros. In the United States, it has a 50% stake with Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP) in the 800-megawatt (MW) Vineyard Wind 1 Offshore Wind Farm, 15 miles off the coast of Massachusetts.

The CEO of Iberdrola’s US subsidiary points out where investors can go: “We already have a partner in Vineyard Wind 1, but we can incorporate partners in other offshore wind projects. In solar energy, attractive prices are being paid right now, so we can bring in partners. The money we raise [from the offering] will all be reinvested.” Avangrid currently owns 100% of Commonwealth Wind (1,200 MW in Massachusetts), Park City Wind (804 MW in Connecticut) and Kitty Hawk Wind (2,500 MW off the coast of North Carolina).

Avangrid's Gala Solar photovoltaic power plant, outside Prineville, Oregon.
Avangrid’s Gala Solar photovoltaic power plant, outside Prineville, Oregon.

Two of Avangrid’s largest projects are now paralyzed and pending court decisions. In Maine, the company recently won a major legal victory, with the state Supreme Court overturning a referendum opposing the project if the company can show that it has already broken ground.

“We can show that we have already invested $500 million,” Azagra replied when asked about this ruling. In any case, the project is also awaiting another decision from the state Supreme Court regarding a lease of the land through which the company’s hydroelectric power line passes through.

Another project pending the approval of the courts is the purchase of PNM Resources – a New Mexico-based company which accounts for $6.5 billion of the investments planned by Avangrid. Regulators from Texas greenlighted the acquisition… but those from New Mexico rejected it, as they didn’t consider it to be in the best interests of energy consumers.

Azagra argues that “in any other state, [the purchase] would have been approved. We don’t agree with the arguments that were made… they have nothing to do with a merger case. We think that the law in New Mexico is not being complied with, so we have resorted to the Supreme Court. We are waiting for our hearing – which we hope will be soon – and a final decision from the court. Alternatively, the [regulatory] commission changes on January 1 and we can see what the alternatives are.”

Avangrid is not considering restarting the legal procedure, but depending on what the court rules, Azagra hopes that it may be possible to renegotiate or try to reach an agreement.

Avangrid Wind Farm in Ohio.
Avangrid Wind Farm in Ohio.Michael McPheeters

Avangrid currently has a market value of $17.5 billion. Its main shareholder, Iberdrola, puts up 81.5% of the capital. “We are proud to be part of the Iberdrola group… even though we are a listed company and are grateful for our many minority shareholders, we benefit tremendously from everything that Iberdrola offers us,” Azagra says.

The CEO sees the coming years with optimism. “We have a powerful team, very committed, with the desire to take on the future. We have to have zero failures in regulatory issues, zero failures in operations. Offshore projects need to be profitable – they’re doing very well so far. Now, there are supply problems, with increases in the price of steel and raw materials, so this slows us down a little. We want to help the energy transition, but we have to do it without losing money.”

“We will continue to be the first to do certain things… we also need to deliver, quarter after quarter, year after year. In the meantime, we’ll keep looking for new opportunities.”

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Greasy, But Satisfying: Three Mexican Street Foods Among The 50 Worst In The World

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As he hands a client a freshly made torta de chilaquiles (a bread roll stuffed with salsa-coated fried tortilla chips), Giovanni Aguilar says, affably: “The fact that Mexican food can be bad for you because it’s so greasy is nothing new, but the way it tastes, you just have to have it.” This is the food vendor’s response to a ranking published by the gastronomic website Taste Atlas, which placed three Mexican street foods among the worst in the world.

Tripe (ranked 17th) and torta cubana (a bread roll stuffed with many kinds of meat and seasonings, ranked 14th) achieved a more favorable position than the torta de tamal (a tamal inside a roll, ranked 13th), but the three dishes share the same score: 3.5 out of five stars. Nonetheless, they still remain almost one point above that which Taste Atlas considers to be the absolute worst: kuzu kelle, a Turkish dish prepared with baked sheep’s head.

In Mexico City, the ranking doesn’t appear to have affected business. Aguilar’s stand is small and located on Reforma Avenue. According to his calculations, he can sell up to 100 tortas de tamal a day, on top of all the bare tamales and the other kinds of tortas that he sells. “It’s quite a convenient dish; one is enough to keep you going all day long,” he says.

🇲🇽 #Chalupas are small corn tortillas fried in lard, and topped with a wide array of savory ingredients – red or green salsa, shredded pork, chicken or beef, chopped onion and sometimes even fresh cheese.https://t.co/DqRtsPe4VD

— TasteAtlas (@TasteAtlas) September 13, 2022

‘One is enough to keep you going all day’

Aguilar pays no attention to these kinds of rankings and claims that those who criticize these popular dishes don’t know what it is like to live in Mexico. “Habit has a lot to do with it; there are differences even among Mexicans from the south and those from the north, where the food is not as spicy. In the south, it’s nothing but pozole [a traditional soup made with corn and pork meat]. The advantage of Mexico City is that you can find it all.”

The stand is surrounded by customers and more keep arriving to place their orders. Aside from the tortas, other dishes like chilaquiles, fried tortillas covered in spicy salsa that can be complemented with a number of toppings like cream, cheese, chopped onion and meat, are proving popular. Aguilar says that people’s eating habits have changed a lot. “Nowadays, they order more sandwiches, more chilaquiles and less tortas de tamal, but when the cold season arrives… what you crave is a tamal.”

The tamal that Aguilar makes consists of corn flour, vegetable shortening and, depending on the type of tamal, either salt or sugar. It is a simple dish, which he considers to be a sort of steamed bread. Customers choose their own toppings: “Some want cream or salsa; everyone has their own preferences. You want beans? Go ahead, eat it all, don’t waste it, bro.”

The vendor serves a cup of coffee from an orange container as he reflects that, in the modern world, basically all food is unhealthy. “Long ago everything was better, everything was homemade. Nothing beats what you get at the farm, but it comes at a price,” he concludes as he hands a customer her change.

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