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Allauddin Khan/AP

Criminal element

Afghanistan | Kidnapping for pay is a growing line of work in a corrupt and donor-dependent war zone

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

Lima Sahar is a reminder of how much has changed in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. With her brightly colored headscarf tied neatly under her chin, she graced the stage of Afghanistan's version of American Idol as one of the top three contestants. Sahar is the first female to advance to the finals during the season's three-year run-a worthy accomplishment considering that only a few years ago women were not allowed to leave their homes without an escort, and television and music were banned.

But off-stage is another side of Afghanistan that threatens to force locals back into the shadows. Even as NATO pledges more troops to the mission, corruption remains a rampant problem, and kidnappings of Afghans for ransom are on the rise. While abductions of foreigners have captured media attention, local kidnappings have been largely ignored or underreported, and some say the country's security forces have done little to curb this growing trend.

When the 12-year-old son of a prominent doctor was kidnapped in the province of Herat at the beginning of March, residents of the province had seen enough. Doctors, businessmen, and factory workers launched a five-day strike against what they say is an apathetic response from local security personnel after a string of kidnappings that target wealthier residents and their families. Many abductees are released after a ransom payment is negotiated-usually to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Others are never seen again.

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WORLD spoke with one faith-based, nongovernmental organization (NGO) worker in Kabul who asked to remain unnamed, citing the imminent dangers posed to foreigners in Afghanistan. He says he knows several Afghan businessmen who have been targeted for kidnapping. One of them was abducted, held prisoner for a month and a half, then released after a $700,000 ransom payment was made. Another has been threatened and chased. "My observation is that the kidnappings these days are more criminal rather than terrorist-related. And very powerful people are behind them, from what I hear," he said.

Some accuse the police of involvement. Reports of abductions by uniform-clad individuals are not uncommon and reveal the confusion and mistrust pervasive throughout the country.

Abductions for ransom are not a new phenomenon in Afghanistan, but analysts say the billions in aid flowing into the country have increased opportunities for corruption. Widespread unemployment and meager salaries add to the temptations.

Local government offices say they've received reports of more than 100 kidnappings of Afghans for ransom in the past year but suspect the numbers are far greater.

While the kidnappings of foreigners have received more publicity, they are no less mysterious. In February, the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation (ARLDF) announced that it had obtained credible reports of the deaths of their kidnapped workers in Afghanistan, Cyd Mizell and driver Abdul Hadi. But late last month, an ARLDF worker in Kandahar-the city where the January kidnappings took place-challenged the validity of these claims, and local officials in Afghanistan say the case isn't closed.

"I don't think she is somewhere near Kandahar city," provincial police chief Sayed Aqa Saqib told Agence France Presse. "It is possible that the abductors keep her somewhere far." It is unclear who was behind the abductions, although Taliban leaders claim they were not involved.

As Afghanistan and its NATO allies continue the Herculean task of rebuilding a war-torn country while fighting insurgents and rampant crime, endurance will be crucial for success. Sahar may have been voted off of Afghan Star (the AI spinoff) during the first week in April, but her journey into the spotlight of this fledgling nation exemplifies the courage and tenacity it will take to change centuries of strife and oppression.

Undaunted by the barrage of criticism from local clerics who called her tame performances "un-Islamic" and "immoral," she pressed on, reminding her fellow Afghans during a recent press conference to do the same: "No pain, no gain."

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