‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return

Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
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Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return
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Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return
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Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return
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Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return
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Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
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Updated 22 August 2021

‘US left with a bad name:’ Afghanistan’s last known Jew hails Taliban’s return

Zabulon Simintov. (Supplied)
  • As the caretaker of Kabul’s only synagogue, residing in its compound for decades, Simintov has witnessed a civil war, Soviet and US invasions of Afghanistan, the Taliban rule and the group’s return to power 20 years later

KABUL: All his bags were packed, and Zabulon Simintov was ready to go.
But since the Taliban’s stunning takeover of Kabul last week, Simintov, Afghanistan’s last known Jew, has had a change of heart and plans, saying he does not wish to leave anymore.
It’s a stark contrast from his narrative a few months ago when Simintov, in his late 50s, told Arab News he “had had enough,” explaining how he was fearful of the Taliban’s return to power as the insurgents made rapid territorial gains and US-led foreign troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan in early May.
However, after the Taliban’s bloodless siege of the Afghan capital on Sunday and the group’s pledge to form an “all-inclusive government” and not “seek revenge against enemies,” Simintov says he has chosen to stay in Afghanistan, his home for over five decades.
“A few days ago, an Afghan came from America with a plane ticket to take me (back to Israel). I said I won’t go even if the plane comes outside my home,” he told Arab News over the phone from his home in Kabul on Saturday.
“I need to protect the synagogue here. I see no threat from the Taliban side. The Taliban have come; they are welcome! There is no fear, no threat,” Simintov, a carpet and jewelry merchant, added.

The Taliban have sought to present a more moderate face since last week’s lightning offensive, but the group was infamous for its harsh and repressive policies when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, before being toppled by US-led forces and prompting many to formulate an exit plan.

On Friday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference that more than 18,000 people had been flown out of Afghanistan in the past few days.

But Simintov, who has served twice in the Afghan army, said he would not leave, despite his wife and two daughters moving to Israel in 1992.

As the caretaker of Kabul’s only synagogue, residing in its compound for decades, Simintov has witnessed a civil war, Soviet and US invasions of Afghanistan, the Taliban rule and the group’s return to power 20 years later.

The Kabul synagogue, established in 1966, is the only Jewish place of worship in the country after all Jews moved to Herat in western Afghanistan, which once hosted four synagogues.

Although information on the origins of Judaism in Afghanistan is scarce, it is believed that Jews came to the region about 2,000 years ago, living in relative peace and harmony in the Muslim-majority country until the mid 20th century.

Once a thriving community in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan Jews left for Israel and Western countries in the late 1940s after the creation of Israel and after the Soviet invasion in 1979.

Others fled during the subsequent civil war under the Mujahideen and after the Taliban’s first ascension to power in 1996.

Simintov, who was born in Herat and later moved to Kabul, describes the country’s monarchical period, which ended in 1973, as the “golden era” for Jews but also for Afghans at large.

“I have no other demand from the Taliban; I want no position for myself. But like other people, want security.”

And, perhaps, his copy of the Torah back.

Simintov said Khairullah Khairkhaw, the former interior minister under the Taliban regime, “had confiscated the Torah from his custody in Kabul.”

Khairkhaw, who was released from the Guantanamo Bay prison in 2014 by former US president Barack Obama, serves as the Taliban’s political leader in Qatar, where the group has its political office.

“I will find the contact person for him and get the Torah back,” Simintov said.

The Taliban’s co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Kabul on Saturday for talks with senior group leaders and politicians on forming a new government.

The government council, which was formed to fill a void left by President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country hours after the Taliban took over the presidential palace, includes former President Hamid Karzai, Gulbudin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hizb-e-Islami political and paramilitary group and Abdullah Abdullah, the old administration’s main peace envoy.

Simintov urged the Taliban “not to give any share to these former figures and militia leaders” who have been “behind the country’s destruction” and instead bring together “sound and professional individuals” from different ethnic groups and minorities.

“These leaders have given their test in the past, have plundered Afghanistan and looted billions ... Their presence will damage the Taliban’s credibility,” Simintov said.

Despite his hostility toward the Taliban in the past, he admits to Kabul and other areas “being safer under their rule,” blaming US leaders for “invading” Afghanistan and “creating destruction and carnage.”

“The US is leaving a bad name in history by invading here. The Taliban is back, why did it spend so much money, kill so many people and now leave this way? US citizens should not vote for (President Joe) Biden and (former President Donald Trump); both of them are totally mad,” he said.

“Let’s see what comes next.”


Gambian President Barrow wins re-election; opposition cries foul

Gambia's president-elect Adama Barrow waves to his supporters after he gives a victory speech in Banjul, Gambia December 5, 2021. Picture taken December 5, 2021. (REUTERS)
Gambia's president-elect Adama Barrow waves to his supporters after he gives a victory speech in Banjul, Gambia December 5, 2021. Picture taken December 5, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 7 sec ago

Gambian President Barrow wins re-election; opposition cries foul

Gambia's president-elect Adama Barrow waves to his supporters after he gives a victory speech in Banjul, Gambia December 5, 2021. Picture taken December 5, 2021. (REUTERS)

BANJUL: Gambian President Adama Barrow has comfortably won re-election, the electoral commission said on Sunday, though he may face a legal challenge from opposition candidates who rejected the results because of unspecified irregularities.
The vote was the first in 27 years without disgraced former President Yahya Jammeh, who was forced into exile in Equatorial Guinea after refusing to accept defeat to Barrow in 2016.
Jammeh’s despotic 22-year rule over the small West African nation of 2.5 million people, which began with a 1994 coup, was characterised by killings and torture of political opponents.
Saturday’s peaceful election was seen by many as a victory for democracy that helped draw a line under that troublesome period.
Once cowed by Jammeh’s omnipresent secret police, crowds of people hit the streets of Banjul on Sunday night to celebrate, or drove around in their cars, honking horns. Hundreds gathered in a park opposite the presidential palace to listen to Barrow speak.
“Democracy has taken its course,” Barrow told the cheering crowd after the results were announced. “I have been the lucky person to be chosen by you. I’ll use all the resources to make Gambia a better place for all.”
Barrow’s first term provided a welcome change for many to Jammeh’s brutal tenure. But progress was hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic, which damaged an economy that relies heavily on tourism, as well as exports of peanuts and fish.
In the run-up to the election, Jammeh had tried to persuade supporters to vote for an opposition coalition in telephoned speeches that were relayed to campaign rallies.
But he failed to dent Barrow’s following. The president received around 53 percent of Saturday’s vote, far outstripping his nearest rival, political veteran Ousainou Darboe, who won about 28 percent.
As results came in on Sunday, representatives from all opposition parties signed off on nearly all the tally sheets read to the election commission.
But later in the day, Darboe and two other candidates, Mama Kandeh and Essa Mbye Faal, said they would not accept the results because the results took longer than expected and because of problems at polling stations.
They did not provide specifics or evidence of wrongdoing.
“We are concerned that there had been an inordinate delay in the announcement of results,” their statement said. “A number of issues have been raised by our party agents and representatives at the polling stations.”
The statement did not say what they would do now, only stating that “all actions are on the table.”


Clashes erupt at Brussels protest against Covid rules

Police use water canons to disperse demonstrators during a demonstration against Belgian government's measures to curb the spread of the Covid-19 and mandatory vaccination in Brussels on December 5, 2021. (AFP)
Police use water canons to disperse demonstrators during a demonstration against Belgian government's measures to curb the spread of the Covid-19 and mandatory vaccination in Brussels on December 5, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 27 min 47 sec ago

Clashes erupt at Brussels protest against Covid rules

Police use water canons to disperse demonstrators during a demonstration against Belgian government's measures to curb the spread of the Covid-19 and mandatory vaccination in Brussels on December 5, 2021. (AFP)
  • The demonstrators oppose compulsory health measures — such as masks, lockdowns and vaccine passes — and some share conspiracy theories

BRUSSELS: Belgian police fired water cannon and used tear gas Sunday to disperse protesters opposed to compulsory health measures against the coronavirus pandemic.
Around 8,000 people marched through Brussels toward the headquarters of the European Union, chanting “Freedom!” and letting off fireworks.
The crowd was smaller than the 35,000 vaccine and lockdown skeptics who marched last month, and police were better prepared.
Protesters were blocked from reaching the roundabout outside the EU headquarters by a barbed wire barricade and a line of riot officers.
As two drones and a helicopter circled overhead, they threw fireworks and beer cans. Police responded with water cannon and tear gas.
As the crowd dispersed into smaller groups around the European quarter, there were more clashes and some set fire to barricades of rubbish.
Police said two of their officers and four protesters had been hospitalized, and 20 people had been arrested.
Several European countries have seen demonstrations in recent weeks as governments respond to a surge in covid cases with tighter restrictions.
In Brussels, the organizers hoped to match the November 21 demo, in which police seemed caught off guard and there were violent clashes.
The demonstrators oppose compulsory health measures — such as masks, lockdowns and vaccine passes — and some share conspiracy theories.
Banners on Sunday compared the stigmatization of the non-vaccinated to the treatment of Jews forced to wear yellow stars in Nazi Germany.
“Covid = Organized Genocide,” said one sign. “The QR code is a Swastika,” declared another, referring to the EU Covid safe digital certificate.
Parents — some of whom brought small children to the protest — chanted their belief that the vaccine would make their toddlers sick.
Off duty firefighters in uniform, marched at the head of the protest as it wound its way through the city, to demand the right to refuse vaccination.
The measures imposed to fight Covid in Belgium were decided by the country’ own national and regional governments, but the European Union has also attracted the skeptics’ anger.
On Wednesday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that in her view it was time to “think about mandatory vaccination,” a suggestion that was denounced by speakers at the protest.
On Friday, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo announced a series of measures to tighten sanitary rules, bringing school Christmas holidays forward and asking children aged six and over to wear masks.
Belgium, with a population of 11 million, has recorded an average of more than 17,800 daily infections with Covid-19 over the past seven days, as well as 44 deaths.
Around 800 people with severe forms of the disease are in intensive care in hospitals across the country, leading to overcrowding and the postponement of treatment for many other conditions.
 


Pakistani wildlife team cradles green turtles babies from beach to sea

Pakistani wildlife team cradles green turtles babies from beach to sea
Updated 06 December 2021

Pakistani wildlife team cradles green turtles babies from beach to sea

Pakistani wildlife team cradles green turtles babies from beach to sea
  • Green turtles seen on Karachi beaches jumped to 15,000 last year from 8,000-8,500 in 2019, Sindh Wildlife says

KARACHI: A female turtle lumbers across the beach in Pakistan's bustling port city of Karachi late at night, looking for a place to lay her eggs.
Waiting for her, staff from Sindh Wildlife watch quietly as the green turtle buries a hundred or more eggs in the sand before heading back out into the Arabian Sea.
Because of to COVID-19 and movement restrictions, beaches around the world have more sparsely inhabited by humans since last year. Sea turtles have taken the opportunity to return to their birthplaces in large numbers, reclaiming the now less-polluted, serene beaches to lay their eggs during the main September-November breeding season.
Green turtles seen on Karachi beaches jumped to 15,000 last year from 8,000-8,500 in 2019, Sindh Wildlife says. Lockdowns ended by the start of this year's season, but conservation experts still expect a large number of the endangered animals to visit.
Among the largest sea turtles and the only herbivores, adult green turtles can weigh more than 90 kg (200 pounds).
They nest in more than 80 countries and live in tropical and subtropical coastal areas of more than 140. Conservation group Sea Turtle Conservancy says there are 85,000 to 90,000 nesting females worldwide.
The weather in Karachi can be conducive to egg-laying as late as January, and wildlife officials will keep up their vigil until then.
"The turtles have still had an ample egg-laying opportunity during this period. In this season, too, we have had a large number of turtles coming here. The result is that within a period of three months, we have nested around 6,000 eggs so far," said Ashfaq Ali Memon, who is in charge of Sindh Wildlife's Marine Turtle Unit.
As soon as the mother turtle leaves, staff hurry to dig out the eggs and move them to a three-foot (1-metre) deep pit in a hatchery until the babies hatch, 40-45 days later. The hatchlings are taken to the beach immediately and released into the sea.
The Sindh turtle unit has released 860,000 turtle babies into the Arabian Sea since being set up in 1970. Memon said 900 have been released so far this season.
Conservationists say that in the past, sea turtle populations were threatened by demand for their fat, meat and eggs, but in recent years loss of habitat due to pollution and land reclamation have also taken their toll.


Putin hopes WHO soon approves Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine

Putin hopes WHO soon approves Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine
Updated 06 December 2021

Putin hopes WHO soon approves Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine

Putin hopes WHO soon approves Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday voiced hope for a quick approval of the country’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine by the World Health Organization, saying the move is essential to expand its global supplies.
Speaking during a video call with Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Putin said receiving the WHO’s vetting is necessary to spread the Russian vaccine more broadly around the world, including free supplies.
“We intend to expand such assistance,” Putin said.
The Russian leader also argued that WHO’s approval should open the door for Russians and others who have had the Sputnik V vaccine to travel more freely around the world. He said about 200 million people worldwide have received Sputnik V.
Putin was vaccinated with Sputnik V in the spring, and last month he received a booster shot of Sputnik Light, the one-dose version. He also said he took an experimental nasal version of Sputnik V days after receiving his booster shot, adding that he was feeling fine and felt no side effects.
The Gamaleya Institute that developed Sputnik V has said the vaccine should be efficient against the omicron variant of COVID-19, but announced that it will immediately start working on adapting it to counter the new variant.
Russia was the first country in the world to authorize a coronavirus vaccine, launching Sputnik V in August 2020, and has plentiful supplies. But uptake has been slow, blamed in part on conflicting signals from Russian authorities.
Russia in recent months has faced its deadliest and largest surge of coronavirus cases, with infections and deaths climbing to all-time highs and only slowing in the last few weeks. Russia has Europe’s highest confirmed pandemic death toll at over 281,000, according to the government’s coronavirus task force. But a report released Friday by the state statistics agency Rosstat, which uses broader criteria, put the the overall number of virus-linked deaths between April 2020 and October 2021 to over 537,000 — almost twice the official toll.
Putin, who despite a surge in infections in Russia has repeatedly argued that vaccinations should remain voluntary, emphasized Sunday that Russian authorities have been tried to use “persuasion and not pressure” and worked to dispel “prejudices and myths driving the aversion to vaccination.”
Russia’s quick approval of Sputnik V drew criticism abroad, because at the time it had only been tested on a few dozen people. But a study published in British medical journal The Lancet in February showed the Sputnik V is 91 percent effective and appears to prevent inoculated individuals from becoming severely ill with COVID-19.
Russia has actively promoted Sputnik V around the world but faced bottlenecks in shipping the amounts it promised. Countries in Latin America have complained about delays in getting the second Sputnik V shot.
The World Health Organization has been reviewing data about Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine as part of the approval process. Such approval could pave the way for its inclusion into the COVAX program that is shipping COVID-19 vaccines to scores of countries around the world based on need.


In Pakistan’s Khaplu Valley, autumn foliage becomes ‘blessing’ fuel for winter survival

In Pakistan’s Khaplu Valley, autumn foliage becomes ‘blessing’ fuel for winter survival
Updated 06 December 2021

In Pakistan’s Khaplu Valley, autumn foliage becomes ‘blessing’ fuel for winter survival

In Pakistan’s Khaplu Valley, autumn foliage becomes ‘blessing’ fuel for winter survival

KHAPLU GILGIT, Pakistan: When autumn arrives in the Khaplu Valley with its foliage of vibrant reds, yellows and copper browns, families welcome it as a “blessing” — not for the colorful spectacle but for the fuel the falling leaves will serve as when burnt come winter, helping locals survive the harsh weather in Pakistan’s mountainous north.

The valley in the northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan, surrounded by some of Pakistan’s highest peaks and glaciers, is home to over 24,000 people who remain largely cut off from the rest of the country in the winter months, when temperatures can fall below minus 20 degrees Celsius.

In the absence of reliable gas or electricity sources, residents have had to find alternative means of heating their homes. One option is burning the colorful leaves that fall in autumn, which locals call “gold” and diligently collect between late November and early December to use as burning fuel in the winter ahead.

“We don’t waste dried leaves because they are the main source of heating for us,” Mohammed Jaffar, a 68-year-old resident of Garbong village, told Arab News.

Jaffar, a member of the village’s welfare committee, which is responsible for leaf collection and distribution, said the dried leaves were “the biggest blessing.”

FASTFACTS

•Villagers collect dry leaves between late November and early December to use as fuel during freezing winters.

•In the absence of reliable gas or electricity sources, people have found alternative means to heat their homes. 

The collection and distribution of dried leaves among Garbong’s 130 households take almost a week. Each household nominates a woman representative and does not receive leaves if it fails to do so. The same practice is observed in all other villages in Khaplu valley.

Mohammed Ali, who summons residents using a mosque loudspeaker every morning during the week to collect their share of leaves from the nearby Stronpi village, said leaf collection rules and exact dates were established years ago to avoid conflict.

“Fifteen years ago, women would fight each other for dried leaves,” he said. “Now, the committee monitors all the affairs of the village, from the mosque to working in the fields and personal disputes as well as dried leaf collection.”

Once distributed among village households, the leaves are burnt in the open air. When they stop giving off smoke, they are brought into the kitchen in a metal pot, placed under a special square table and covered with a blanket or quilt.

“Family members nestle around the table with the burnt leaves placed under it,” Stronpi resident Sajid Ali said.

Fatima, a village elder who only gave her first name, said there was a special room in her basement to store the leaves during winter. 

“Without dried leaves, how could we spend the winter days?” she said. “It’s only seasonal dried leaves, but for us, it is like gold.”