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Afghan Radio Station Spreads Culture

September 13, 2002

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BAMIYAN, Afghanistan (AP) _ Behind the door of Room No. 1 at a government guest house, Radio Bamiyan is on the air, broadcasting news and music to a valley recovering from years of abuse at the hands of the Taliban.

The fledgling radio station, started with the help of the U.S. Army in May, is still battling technical hiccups that can knock it off the air for days at a time. But with a potential reach of 50,000 people, it has a powerful influence throughout the Bamiyan valley of central Afghanistan.

``Our goals are to provide news, to spread new information to the people to improve their thinking,″ said station manager Qurban Ali Fasihi.

Many men take their portable radios to work so they won’t miss Radio Bamiyan’s one-hour program, which starts at 6 p.m. Women congregate in one home to listen together to the health and human rights programming.

Staff Sgt. Joe Smith, chief of the U.S. Army Psychological Operations team in Bamiyan, calls the station the ``public crown″ of his team’s work since coming to Bamiyan in April.

His three-member team is charged with building rapport with the residents in a 35-mile swath of the valley, an area rich with historical treasures where people are still recovering from the strict rule of the Taliban regime that was ousted last November by a U.S.-led military coalition.

They talk with residents about their needs, get feedback on coalition activities and distribute posters and leaflets warning residents to avoid land mines, condemning the Taliban and urging support for coalition activities.

Other brochures promote acceptance of different ethnic groups. Bamiyan province is home to the Hazara, who suffered heavily at the hands of the predominantly Pashtun Taliban. Under Taliban rule, hundreds of Hazarans were killed or imprisoned and farmers were prevented from planting crops.

The Taliban also destroyed two towering, 1,400-year-old Buddha sculptures that had been the pride of the valley and, in rare times of peace, a tourist attraction.

To appeal to local culture, the broadcasts, including music, are in Dari, the local language. Pashto, the language of the Taliban, is rarely heard.

``Although we want to preach tolerance, that won’t happen by making them turn off the dial,″ said Spc. Darren Davila of the psy-ops team.

The radio station was one of the first tasks of Smith’s psy-ops team following successful radio ventures in other provinces.

The team arrived to find a broken transmitter as their only asset. After a quick fix, they recruited volunteers and had the station running three times a week. Within a month, the provincial governor hired six journalists and the station was broadcasting every night.

Radio Bamiyan transmits from the governor’s guest house. The office, empty except for the 400-watt transmitter next to the window, looks out over farmland and an empty niche in a cliff where the destroyed Buddhas once stood.

The journalists spend the morning gathering news from local provinces and lift items from the BBC or Voice of America’s Dari broadcasts. They pre-record their one-hour program in the afternoon, mixing news with music, featured programming and public service announcements.

Though there are frequent equipment breakdowns, Radio Bamiyan has already made its mark in the community. Listeners regularly offer suggestions to improve the broadcast _ more Dari singers and more international news, for example _ and many take advantage of the regular ``Ask a Doctor″ or ``Answers to Your Letters″ programs.

Listeners drop off letters personally, since there is no telephone service through much of Bamiyan. They ask for advice on treating children’s ailments, why the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas and why the station is not playing a particular singer.

``Every society wants different things,″ said Fasihi. ``We play according to their beliefs. It is difficult because there are modern vs. old-fashioned ideals here. We have to please both.″

The U.S. Army provides the generator to keep the station on the air, but Smith expects it will eventually become completely independent. Fasihi has been soliciting non-governmental organizations for advertising dollars, though the response so far has been minimal.

``Now we’re in the crawling stage, but the station is definitely going in the right direction,″ Smith said.