On independence day, Kosovo remembers painful past, imagines a brighter future

A Kosovo woman holds a picture of her son who went missing during the Kosovo war, during a ceremony on April 5, 2017 marking the 18th anniversary of the massacre in the village of Rezalle. (AFP)
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A Kosovo woman holds a picture of her son who went missing during the Kosovo war, during a ceremony on April 5, 2017 marking the 18th anniversary of the massacre in the village of Rezalle. (AFP)
Kosovo Albanian children hold pictures of relatives killed during the Kosovo war, as they mark the 15th anniversary of the massacre in the village of Izbica on March 28, 2014. (AFP file photo)
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Kosovo Albanian children hold pictures of relatives killed during the Kosovo war, as they mark the 15th anniversary of the massacre in the village of Izbica on March 28, 2014. (AFP file photo)
Kosovo Albanian children hold pictures of relatives killed during the Kosovo war, as they mark the 15th anniversary of the massacre in the village of Izbica on March 28, 2014. (AFP file photo)
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Kosovo Albanian children hold pictures of relatives killed during the Kosovo war, as they mark the 15th anniversary of the massacre in the village of Izbica on March 28, 2014. (AFP file photo)
Kosovo Security Force (KSF) cadets take part in cleaning the streets in Pristina on Sept. 15, 2018, during the International Clean-Up Day. (AFP file photo)
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Kosovo Security Force (KSF) cadets take part in cleaning the streets in Pristina on Sept. 15, 2018, during the International Clean-Up Day. (AFP file photo)
A memorial of victims of the 1998-1999 Kosovo war is seen in the village of Izbica on March 28, 2017.(AFP)
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A memorial of victims of the 1998-1999 Kosovo war is seen in the village of Izbica on March 28, 2017.(AFP)
Members of the NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo (KFOR) attend the change of command ceremony in Pristina on Oct. 15, 2021. (AFP)
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Members of the NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo (KFOR) attend the change of command ceremony in Pristina on Oct. 15, 2021. (AFP)
Kosovo Albanians pay their respects to their relatives and victims of the Racak massacre on January 15, 2022 in the village of Racak. (AFP file photo)
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Kosovo Albanians pay their respects to their relatives and victims of the Racak massacre on January 15, 2022 in the village of Racak. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 17 February 2022

On independence day, Kosovo remembers painful past, imagines a brighter future

Kosovo Albanian children hold pictures of relatives killed during the Kosovo war, as they mark the 15th anniversary of the massacre in the village of Izbica on March 28, 2014. (AFP file photo)
  • More than 100 countries have recognized Kosovo since it declared its independence from Serbia on Feb. 17, 2008
  • Both regionally and internally, the leadership faces great challenges even as it sees opportunities for change

ABU DHABI: As Kosovo celebrates its 14th independence day, Europe’s newest country — and one with the continent’s youngest population — has much to be proud of. More than 100 countries have recognized Kosovo since it declared its independence from Serbia on Feb. 17, 2008.

Despite a high government turnover rate, Kosovo continues to be a robust democracy with a dense network of nongovernmental institutions and civil society groups. It has a resilient economy, a capable leadership and excellent relations with the EU, US and the Gulf countries.

Still, much remains to be done. Getting Kosovo fully engaged and integrated into the region and European and Euro-Atlantic institutions is a work in progress. Relations with its neighbors Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are far from normalized. As for Russia, China and the five EU members that do not recognize Kosovo’s statehood, there is no sign yet of any change in their attitude.

Fortunately for Kosovo, the people who currently hold the two highest offices in the land — Albin Kurti and Vjosa Osmani — cut their political teeth on the issue of corruption. Since late March 2021, politics in Kosovo has been shaped jointly by movements launched respectively by Kurti and Osmani, Guxo and Vetevendosja.

Kurti is the country’s sixth prime minister while Osmani is the fifth elected head of state. Both are seen as untainted politicians with no wartime baggage, having clear visions for the country, and unafraid to spell out their positions on matters involving Kosovo’s allies as well as adversaries.

They also have no illusions about the tasks at hand. Both regionally and internally, Kosovo is faced with major challenges. Unless its domestic problems are tackled as a matter of priority, the country’s dream of standing on its feet and boosting its chances to integrate into the EU, which Kosovars strongly desire, will remain unfulfilled.

Topping the list is the endemic corruption in both the government and the private sector. The mere perception of corruption being tackled would spur foreign investment, as investors avoid countries where corruption is widespread and palms have to be greased at every level.

In a 2021 report by the UNDP, Kosovo Serbs listed unemployment, personal safety and urban development as their top three concerns. For other ethnic groups, poverty and regular access to electricity were the top priorities for the foreseeable future.

On the bright side, all ethnic groups agreed that the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government had become more efficient and less corrupt.

READ MORE

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti spoke exclusively to Arab News in a wide-ranging interview to mark the 14th Independence Day of his country. From NATO to relations with Gulf nations, read the full interview here.

Then there is the need for faster economic development, given the persistently high levels of poverty and unemployment, insufficient domestic and foreign investment, and problems in the business environment.

Another domestic challenge for the Kosovo government is the protection of human rights, regardless of people’s ethnicity, religion, political beliefs and orientation. Treating all citizens as equal before the law in both theory and practice will undoubtedly improve Kosovo’s chances of integration into the EU.

Kosovo’s secular democratic foundation cannot be taken for granted in view of the threats presented by authoritarian leaders in such EU countries as Poland and Hungary. Keeping religion out of civilian affairs is just as important as preserving free and fair elections, freedom of the press and assembly, and a judiciary free of political influence.




Kosovo faced a long rebuilding process after the destruction of the war, but the country is now eyeing EU accession as its political confidence grows. (Shutterstock)

EU integration could well be the best catalyst for transforming the socio-political and economic conditions in Kosovo. But the road so far has proved rockier than predicted.

In 2016, Kosovo signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, marking the most significant milestone in its history toward European integration. Two years later, the European Commission published its expansion plan for the Union’s post-2025 enlargement, including Kosovo and five of its neighbors — Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.




The road to EU integration for Kosovo has so far has proved rockier than predicted. (AFP file photo)

In 2020, Kosovo lifted its 100 percent tariff on imports from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, a move that enabled restoration of trade with Serbia and Bosnia and the resumption of the EU-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. However, Kosovo’s pursuit of EU membership has come to grief mainly over Serbia’s refusal to recognize its independence.

Serbia, which sees Kosovo as its own territory, continues to canvass countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo’s independence, although two former Yugoslav republics have defied such pressure: Macedonia (now the Republic of North Macedonia), which became a member of NATO in 2020, and Montenegro.

One of the main obstacles to normalization of relations with Serbia is the status of Serbs in Kosovo (Eastern Orthodox Christians comprise 84.5 percent of Serbia’s population while 95.6 percent of Kosovo’s population are Muslims, most of them ethnic Albanians).

READ MORE

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti condemned the continuing series of Houthi attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, and more recently the UAE, agreeing that such assaults reveal the Houthis to be a terrorist group. Read more here.

For the past two decades, Mitrovica in northern Kosovo has straddled a fault line between Serbs in the north and ethnic Albanians in the south.

The Serbs in Mitrovica and other northern enclaves have doggedly refused to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence. Before 1999, the city’s residents lived in mixed neighborhoods, but in the years following the war, the deep divisions separating Albanians and Serbs have solidified, leaving little room for dialogue.

NATO underwrites the fragile peace while the Ibar River effectively partitions the two communities, but EU-brokered on-off talks have yielded little progress over the years.

Prime Minister Kurti has suggested greater synchronization between Washington and Brussels in the Western Balkans while Kosovo works on three goals: Strengthening the rule of law, achieving security through NATO membership and forging greater European unity through Western Balkan membership of the EU.




Prime Minister Albin Kurti reviews Kosovo's honor guard in Pristina. (AFP file photo)

Additionally, Kosovo has time-tested partners in the Middle East who are committed to its independence and wellbeing, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the lead. The Kingdom was one of the earliest countries to recognize Kosovo’s independence, one of its main supporters at the International Criminal Court, and a key force behind the OIC’s recognition of its sovereignty in 2009.

One year after the Kosovo War, Saudi Arabia spent at least SR12 million ($3.2 million) in reconstructing houses, schools and mosques. In 2020, Kosovo and Saudi Arabia began the joint implementation of an agreement on avoidance of double taxation.

At a ceremony in Riyadh in January 2020 where Kosovar career diplomat Lulzim Mjeku was among a group of ambassadors who presented their credentials, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman emphasized his willingness to work with each country to enhance and develop bilateral relations.




Kosovar Ambassador Lulzim Mjeku presenting his their credentials to King Salman during a ceremony in Riyadh in January 2020. (Twitter photo)

During Kosovo’s fight against COVID-19, the Muslim World League sent valuable humanitarian assistance. Last year, Kurti thanked the Kingdom’s leadership for its support for Kosovo in all international forums and for providing aid for alleviating human suffering.

More recent talks between the two countries have focused on boosting cooperation in economy, trade, tourism, investment, education, health and infrastructure.

As for the UAE, it joined Nato’s KFOR peacekeepers in 1999, undertaking an aid mission that involved feeding thousands of fleeing refugees on the Albanian border. In collaboration with the Red Crescent, the UAE built a camp that, at its peak, served up to 15,000 people a day.




Members of the NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo (KFOR) attend the change of command ceremony in Pristina on Oct. 15, 2021. (AFP)

Almost 1,500 Emirati troops would serve in Kosovo over two operations: One was with KFOR from the spring of 1999 to late 2001. The other operation was the White Hands aid mission across the border, in Albania, between March and late June 1999.

The Gulf countries’ close rapport with the countries of the Western Balkans holds the promise of facilitating the normalization of relations between Kosovo and all its neighbors, and unlocking the region’s full human and economic potential.

As Kosovo’s ties with Arab countries evolve from being centered around humanitarianism and reconstruction to political, economic and security cooperation, the transformation could well have a salutary effect on its relations with Serbia, too.


The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal
Updated 20 sec ago

The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal
  • Aid-dependent economy remains in free fall since the Taliban takeover of the war-ravaged country
  • Prices of food and other essentials have soared as drought compounds financial collapse

KABUL: When the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, amid the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, the group’s stunning return to power marked the end of two decades of warfare, which had killed tens of thousands of Afghans on their own soil. 

One year on, with the country pauperized and isolated on the world stage under its new leadership, life for ordinary Afghans has changed — largely for the worse.

During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. 

Women and girls were removed from public life, prevented from working or receiving an education, and even barred from leaving the house without the all-enveloping niqab and a male relative to chaperone them.

In Oct. 2001, US-led forces invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power, accusing the group of sheltering Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader deemed responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US that killed almost 3,000 people.

Edi Maa holding her baby receiving treatment for malnutrition at a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) nutrition centre in Herat. (AFP)

What followed were 20 blood-soaked years of fighting between the NATO-backed Afghan national forces and Taliban guerrilla fighters intent on retaking power.

While under the Western-backed administration, Afghanistan made progress with the emergence of independent media and a growing number of girls going to school and university. 

However, in many regions beyond the big cities, Afghans knew only war, depriving them of the many development projects implemented elsewhere by foreign donors.

Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved.

During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. (AFP)

“We only saw war in the past several years. Every day, we lived in fear. Now it’s calm and we feel safe,” Mohammad Khalil, a 69-year-old farmer in northwest Balkh province, told Arab News. “We can finally breathe.”

But the uneasy peace has come at a cost.

Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has been in free fall since the Taliban returned to power. Billions of dollars in foreign assistance have been suspended and some $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets parked overseas have been frozen.

Denied international recognition, with aid suspended and the financial system in paralysis, the UN says that Afghanistan faces humanitarian catastrophe. About 20 percent of the country’s 38 million population are already on the brink of famine.

Afghanistan: One year since the Taliban takeover

Aug. 15, 2021 - Taliban campaign culminates with the fall of Kabul.

Aug. 30 - The last US troops depart Kabul airport after evacuating more than 120,000 people over 17 days.

September - A new interim government is unveiled. The Taliban bring back the feared religious police.

October - More than 120 people are killed in two Daesh-claimed mosque blasts in Kandahar and Kunduz.

Jan. 2022 - Deprived of aid, Afghanistan is plunged into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis.

March - The Taliban block secondary school girls from returning to class. Government employees must grow beards.

May - Women and girls are ordered to wear the hijab and cover their faces when in public. Women are banned from making long-distance journeys alone.

June - More than 1,000 people killed and thousands left homeless in a massive earthquake.

August - The US announces the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a drone strike on his Kabul hideout.

The price of essential commodities has soared as the value of the Afghan currency has plummeted. A continuing drought has further aggravated the situation in rural areas.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimates about 70 percent of Afghan families are unable to meet their basic food needs.

“Most of the time we eat bread and drink tea or just water. We can’t get meat, fruit or even vegetables for the children. Only a few people have goats or cows to feed the children with milk,” Khalil said.

In the capital, Kabul, food is widely available, but few can afford a vaied and nutritious diet.

“There are plenty of food items in the market, but we don’t have the money to buy them,” Mohammad Barat, a 52-year-old daily wage earner, told Arab News.

The looming catastrophe is not only one of shocking levels of poverty, but also lost hope and opportunities.

Tens of thousands of Afghans fled the country over several chaotic days last August, when US forces and their coalition partners hastily airlifted Afghans from Kabul airport. Many others, including professionals, have since followed in their footsteps.

“Doctors are leaving, engineers are leaving, professors and experts are also leaving the country,” Abdul Hamid, a student at Kabul University, told Arab News. “There’s no hope for a better future.”

Those who worked for the deposed Western-backed administration have been removed from public life, particularly women, who are now forced to wear face coverings, banned from making long-distance journeys alone, and prevented from working in most sectors beyond health and education.

Women face a growing number of restrictions in their daily lives; right, Taliban fighters in Kandahar celebrate the US withdrawal. (AFP)

Education, too, has been strictly limited for women, even though allowing girls into schools and colleges has been one of the international community’s core demands since the Taliban retook control of the country.

In mid-March, after months of uncertainty, the Taliban said that they would allow girls to return to school. However, when they arrived at schools around the country to resume studies, those above the age of 13 were ordered to return home.

In a last-minute decision, the Taliban had announced that high schools would remain closed for girls until a plan was ready to receive them in accordance with Islamic law.

Almost half a year later, teenage girls fear they will not return to the classroom anytime soon.

“There’s no reason for banning girls from school,” Amal, an 11th grade student at Rabia Balkhi High School in Kabul, told Arab News. “They just don’t want us to get an education.”

Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved. (AFP)

Despite repeated claims by the predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group that time and experience have softened its rough edges, the streets of Kabul increasingly resemble the Taliban-governed pre-2002 era.

Since the restoration of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which enforces the group’s austere interpretation of Islam, traditional clothing, turbans and burqas have replaced suits and jeans, which only a year ago had been considered normal attire in the Afghan capital.

Key symbols of the nation’s identity are also changing, with the white and black banner of the Taliban now appearing on government buildings and in public spaces, gradually replacing Afghanistan’s tricolor, despite earlier pledges it would not be changed.  

For some, the replacement of the old national flag is more than symbolic, and is indicative of the Taliban’s hijacking of the country. 

“It doesn’t represent any government or regime. The Taliban could keep both,” Shah Rahim, a 43-year-old resident of Kabul, told Arab News. 

“The flag is a representation of our nation, our values and our history.”


Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting

Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting
Updated 13 August 2022

Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting

Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting
  • Lofti sold and lent items to Metropolitan Museum of Art and kept other artifacts in an apartment located across the road

LONDON: An antiques dealer from Lebanon has been accused of smuggling looted artifacts worth millions of dollars into the US.

Georges Lofti, 81, who previously assisted the Antiquities Trafficking Unit in exposing an Egyptian golden coffin on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as having been looted during unrest in Egypt in 2011, is also accused by law enforcement agents of using the agency to give stolen items a “sheen of legitimacy,” The Times reported.

Lofti sold and lent items to the museum and kept other artifacts in an apartment located across the road, the report added.

He often invited ATU agents to his storage space, believing that they would not suspect the antiquities kept inside were stolen, according to a report by The New York Times.

The ATU were granted an arrest warrant for Lotfi this week on suspicion of stealing 24 items and tricking investigators into giving the artifacts a stamp of approval.

According to legal documents attached to the warrant, ATU security agent Robert Mancene confirmed that Lotfi tipped them off regarding the gold Coffin of Nedjemankh, which the museum bought for $4 million in 2017 and put on display. Following Lofti's tipoff, the coffin was returned in 2019.

“Over the years (Lotfi) has provided me with detailed information about looting practices globally,” Mancene said. The dealer, described by Mancene as “a valuable source of information,” also passed on details about global looters and traffickers, according to the report.

One of the stolen items Lofti is accused of smuggling into the US is the “Palmyra Stone” — a limestone sculpture from Syria depicting a couple with three children worth an estimated $750,000 — which investigators said Lofti did not purchase from a dealer in 1982 as he had claimed, but instead obtained from a smuggler in 2010 or 2011.

Several mosaics, one valued at $2.5 million and another at $500,000, were also among the items Lofti is alleged to have looted.

Lofti, who said that he was shocked by the allegations and denies any wrongdoing, told The New York Times: “I was fighting with them for 10 years to stop illicit trading and they turned against me.”


Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines

Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines
Updated 13 August 2022

Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines

Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines
  • Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko said Russian authorities repeatedly have blocked efforts to provide state-subsidized drugs to people in occupied cities, towns and villages

KYIV: Ukraine’s health minister has accused Russian authorities of committing a crime against humanity by blocking access to affordable medicines in areas its forces have occupied since invading the country 5 1/2 months ago.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko said Russian authorities repeatedly have blocked efforts to provide state-subsidized drugs to people in occupied cities, towns and villages.
“Throughout the entire six months of war, Russia has not (allowed) proper humanitarian corridors so we could provide our own medicines to the patients that need them,” Liashko said, speaking at the Health Ministry in Kyiv late Friday.
“We believe that these actions are being taken with intent by Russia, and we consider them to be crimes against humanity and war crimes that will be documented and will be recognized,” the minister said.
The Ukrainian government has a program that provides medications to people with cancer and chronic health conditions. The destruction of hospitals and infrastructure along with the displacement of an estimated 7 million people inside the country also have interfered with other forms of treatment, according to United Nations and Ukrainian officials.
The war in Ukraine has caused severe disruptions to the country’s state-run health service, which was undergoing major reforms, largely in response to the coronavirus pandemic, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade on Feb. 24.
The World Health Organization said it recorded 445 attacks on hospitals and other health care facilities as of Aug. 11 that directly resulted in 86 deaths and 105 injuries.
But Liashko said the secondary effects were far more severe.
“When roads and bridges have been damaged in areas now controlled by the Ukrainian forces... it is difficult to get someone who had a heart attack or a stroke to the hospital,” he said. “Sometimes, we can’t make it in time, the ambulance can’t get there in time. That’s why war causes many more casualties (than those killed in the fighting). It’s a number that cannot be calculated.”


Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry

Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry
Updated 13 August 2022

Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry

Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry
ANKARA: Two more ships left from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Saturday, Turkey’s defense ministry said, bringing the total number of ships to depart the country under a UN-brokered deal to 16.
Barbados-flagged Fulmar S left Ukraine’s Chornomorsk port, carrying 12,000 tons of corn to Turkey’s southern Iskenderun province, it said. The Marshall Island-flagged Thoe departed from the same port and headed to Turkey’s Tekirdag, carrying 3,000 tons of sunflower seeds.
The statement added that another ship would depart from Turkey on Saturday to Ukraine to buy grains.

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul
Updated 13 August 2022

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul
  • Some women protesters who took refuge in nearby shops were chased and beaten by Taliban fighters with their rifle butts

KABUL: Taliban fighters beat women protesters and fired into the air on Saturday as they violently dispersed a rare rally in the Afghan capital, days ahead of the first anniversary of the hard-line Islamists’ return to power.
Since seizing power on August 15 last year, the Taliban have rolled back the marginal gains made by women during the two decades of US intervention in Afghanistan.
About 40 women — chanting “Bread, work and freedom” — marched in front of the education ministry building in Kabul, before the fighters dispersed them by firing their guns into the air, an AFP correspondent reported.
Some women protesters who took refuge in nearby shops were chased and beaten by Taliban fighters with their rifle butts.
The protesters carried a banner which read “August 15 is a black day” as they demanded rights to work and political participation.
“Justice, justice. We’re fed up with ignorance,” chanted the protesters, many of them not wearing face veils, before they dispersed.
Some journalists covering the protest — the first women’s rally in months — were also beaten by the Taliban fighters.
After seizing power, the Taliban had promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterised their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
But many restrictions have already been imposed.
Tens of thousands of girls have been shut out of secondary schools, while women have been barred from returning to many government jobs.
Women have also been banned from traveling alone on long trips, and can only visit public gardens and parks in the capital on days separate from men.
In May, the country’s supreme leader and chief of the Taliban, Hibatullah Azkhundzada, even ordered women to fully cover themselves in public, including their faces — ideally with an all-encompassing burqa.
Some Afghan women initially pushed back against the curbs, holding small protests.
But the Taliban soon rounded up the ringleaders, holding them incommunicado while denying they had been detained.