A tent-dwelling former Afghan presidential candidate with a reputation for fighting corruption has been named "Person of the Year" by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.
Ramzan Bashardost -- often called "Afghanistan's Gandhi" for his self-effacing style -- has been living in a tent adjacent to the Afghan Parliament since he returned from exile in France nearly seven years ago.
"Bashardost tirelessly seeks to improve the lives of Afghans regardless of tribe, ethnicity, gender, or religion," said Radio Azadi Director Hashem Mohmand. "We are pleased to formally recognize his inspiring work."
In 2004, Bashardost briefly served in Hamid Karzai's government but resigned to protest what he saw as the government's unwillingness to crack down on corruption within Afghanistan's nearly 2,000 non-governmental organizations. A year later, he was elected to his current post in the Afghan Parliament and, last year, Bashardost ran unsuccessfully for president. During the campaign, he gained notoriety for refusing bodyguards and using public transportation to travel around the country.
"My wishes and dreams are that not only Afghans, but all humanity across the world, should not suffer from poverty and hunger," Bashardost said in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Azadi shortly after being announced as the "Person of the Year." [read the full interview]
Radio Azadi's annual "Person of the Year" award recognizes outstanding individual contributions to democracy and civil society in Afghanistan. Last year's winner was Anarkali Honaryar, a 25 year-old female Sikh who is a noted physician, human rights activist, and member of Afghanistan's Constitution Committee.
Interview: The Life And Times Of An 'Afghan Gandhi'
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan welcomed independent lawmaker Ramazan Bashardost, winner of its "Person of the Year" award, into the studios of its Kabul bureau to learn more about his life and his views of the world.
RFE/RL: Greetings, Mr. Bashardost. Would you please tell us about yourself?
Bashardost: In the name of God and salute to the martyrs. I congratulate the Afghan people, because this selection reflects their wishes, will, and thoughts toward me. They have recognized that I am not in favor of any specific ethnic group, particular language speakers or specific region of Afghanistan. Every single Afghan, even those who cannot serve but have the intention to serve the nation, can differentiate between who is traitorous and who is a servant [of Afghanistan].
With reference to your question 'Who is Bashardost?" He is a Muslim, a human being, an Afghan, and a servant. His wishes and dreams are that not only Afghans, but all humanity across the world, should not suffer from poverty and hunger. People should not be deprived, tortured, invaded, killed or insulted. Thus, based on their human desires and beliefs, every person no matter where they live should have a car and a home, a mosque or a church. The mullahs of the mosques should have good meals. Employees should have good clothes and a salary, students should have good laboratories, schools, desks, and chairs.
RFE/RL: You have many friends, but at the same time, you have lots of enemies. Who do you consider your enemies to be?
Bashardost: My enemies are those people who think that if Bashardost comes to power, he will hang them, put them in jail, execute them, or confiscate their properties. That is to say, [those who say] he will act like a despotic dictator and issue decrees and do whatever he wishes. Others who are my enemies include those who have always victimized [Afghanistan's] national interests for their own personal gain.
RFE/RL: If you were to become the leader of Afghanistan, would you execute your enemies or put them on trial?
Bashardost: If Bashardost comes to power, he will not do anything against the law -- even if it is 100 percent for the benefit of the nation. What is obvious, if Bashardost comes to power, even one cruel person who has grabbed people's land by force -- attacked the honor of the people and seized people's property -- cannot work even as a gate man or clerk in my administration. Needless to say, they can never be a minister, a [provincial] governor, or a [military] commander. A new and honest generation -- a generation that believes 100 percent in Islamic values and human rights -- will work responsibly within my government.
Inside The Tent
RFE/RL: If you come to power, will you continue living in your tent like Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi?
Bashardost: There is a difference between my tent and Qaddafi's. He has made his tent like a palace. It is a luxurious tent which has female bodyguards aged 18 to 20. But my tent is the tent of [the Prophet] Muhammad and leaders of that time. I would not leave my tent. If I left my tent, be sure that I would isolate myself from the pains of [ordinary] Afghan people and events in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Please tell us more about your tent -- a description of your tent for those who have not seen it themselves.
Bashardost: My tent is a small and ordinary tent. I set it up for the first time in 2004 after I resigned as the planning minister. When I resigned from Ministry of Planning, a number of people wanted to see me. I had neither a house nor office nor a room. I would spend a night with one friend and the next night with another friend. I would promise some people to meet in restaurants. But our people, especially our elderly people and women, did not want to go to restaurants.
One day, I was walking in park of Shar-e Naw. It was there when Hyde Park of London came to my mind. I thought why can't we build a small Hyde Park in Shar-e Naw Park? I asked Noorzai, the former Kabul mayor, if he would let me set up my tent there. He said it was not a problem because I didn't have money to rent a luxurious house or office. One of our countrymen said he has a tent in his home. He brought that tent -- a very small tent. For four years it was with us. After Shar-e Naw, I became a representative of the people in the parliament. I set up the tent near the parliament. There, the tent got shredded a bit. Then, an Afghan who was donating tents for students gave me a tent [that I have now] -- an ordinary tent.
RFE/RL: What place do you call home in Afghanistan or abroad? Where does your family live?
Bashardost: I have no piece of land -- not even a centimeter -- in Afghanistan or abroad, fortunately. My parents live in Dasht-e Barchi, a neighborhood on the west side of Kabul. My father has an auto-parts shop. In the past 30 years, he has owned a mud hut in Dasht-e Barchi. One of my brothers lives in Kabul and another lives in Qara-Bagh, a district in Ghazni Province. The latter has a piece of land that he uses to feed and support his family. During summer, I usually live in the tent. But during winter I cannot live there because it is expensive to and inefficient to warm it up. I have a room in my father's house where I usually live alone. I mostly cook myself, clean my room, wash my dishes, and clothes. But I do not iron my clothes because I do not have patience for ironing. I simply wash my clothes and wear them when they are dry.
RFE/RL: Are you married? Do you have any children?
Bashardost: I am not married yet. I was thinking that when, with the support of the Afghan people, I become the president and then I ask any Afghan family to give me the hand of their daughter in marriage, they might not reject my proposal. But now, I think with my small car that does not even have enough space for one person, the father of a girl will say the car is not enough even for myself. [They will say,] "How will you find place for my daughter in your car and where under that tent should she live?" But, if God is willing, I will get married. It is the tradition of Muhammad [the Prophet]. My marriage will be based on Islamic criteria. That is to say, I am seeking a partner for life like Khadija, [the wife of Muhammad, the Prophet] who will support me throughout my campaign and jihad.
Comparisons To Gandhi
RFE/RL: Some Afghans have referred to you as Afghanistan's [Mahatma] Gandhi. To what extent is this important to you?
Bashardost: Gandhi was a great person. He sacrificed his youth and life for the national interests of his country. This is the positive aspect. It makes me proud for me and for the Afghan people to have a Gandhi figure because there are some people who project the idea in world public opinion that Afghans are only slaves of money and terrorists -- that killing and violence is in their nature.
The negative part is that if they call me Gandhi, and if I wear clothes like Gandhi, I will not survive for even an hour in the cold weather of Kabul.
RFE/RL: Considering the ethnic structure of Afghanistan, have you ever had the feeling that you belong to the Hazara ethnic group?
Bashardost: By no means, I have never had the feeling that I belong to an ethnic group. It is too restrictive for me to think that I belong to an ethnic group. It is even too restrictive for me to think that I belong to one nation or am limited to one geographic location. I mostly consider myself as a human being. Humanity and all my wishes and goals circulate around those criteria. All Afghan tribes are the same to me. Fortunately, most Afghans see me as someone who defies such barriers. They do not see me as an individual, belonging to one ethnic group. If that was not the case, I could not take even one political step in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Tell us about your childhood.
Bashardost: I was born in an Afghan village and completed my secondary school there. Fortunately, my father worked for a sugar company. At that time, the rules of the company required employees not to work in any one province for more than two years. Employees had to travel to other provinces. One summer, for instance, I studied in Abubaid Jawazjaji high school in Jawazjan [a province in northern Afghanistan] and spent the following winter in Uruzgan Province [in the south]. I have spent time in Muqur and Helmand [both in southern Afghanistan]. These travels during my childhood encouraged me to move beyond tribal borders.
I have lots of unforgettable memories. For example, during a winter season, we were living in Oruzgan Province. Our home was close to a gas station, where the nomad people had set up their tents. From early in the morning, when the light emerged, I would go and play with young nomadic boys and girls until the evening. Sometimes I would not even eat lunch with my father, which usually was soup. Instead, I would eat my lunch, cooked by those nomad people. The nomad mother would cook for kids and other family members. The mother would seat all her sons and daughters in a circle. Like one of her sons, she would also seat me among them. She would give me the same amount of food as she gave to her own sons and daughters.
When I went to Oruzgan during [last year's] presidential campaign, the governor of the province, while on the roof of the governor's office, told me that the lights you see around are the tents of nomads. There I had this feeling that my other mother might be in one of those tents. I longed to have time to find her. Whenever I have a discriminative feeling, I close my eyes and remember the face of that mother. Fortunately, I do not differentiate -- not even a tiny bit.
RFE/RL: Would you please describe your interests in culture, literature, and music?
Bashardost: I am mainly interested in reading books. Especially books about historic personalities -- both good and bad -- which led me to change the destiny of the country. In addition, I am interested in films that reflect the pains of people. For example, films being made about Gandhi or films made about the U.S. Civil War during the time of [U.S. President] Abraham Lincoln.
I like to listen to music -- especially the meaningful songs of [the late Afghan singer] Ahmad Zahir, Hajab Sabri Khuda Darad, ["What Patience God Has!"]. I also like some songs of Naghma, a female Afghan singer. If I have spare time, I read newspapers that are sent to my tent.
But unfortunately, I do not have time for cultural issues. However, sometimes when I am invited to cinema or theater, I do try to go. In the world literature, I like to read books by writers such as Plato, Aristotle, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Baron de Montesquieu, and so on.
RFE/RL: How did you feel when you first learned that you have been named as RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan "Person of the Year"?
Bashardost: When I first heard that the people of Afghanistan selected me as the person of the year, my belief in the maturity and political wisdom of the people grew. They trust me based on their fundamental Islamic, human, and national values. The other feeling that touched me was that the trust of the people has increased my responsibility a million times. I thought that I should not do anything or say anything that will possibly trigger those Afghans in provinces like Khost, Jawazajan, Badakhshan, Dai Kundi, Bamiyan, Kandahar, and Nangarhar to regret trusting [me]. I never want to be ashamed in front of those people. I would like to remain committed -- 100 percent -- to my principles and beliefs until the last drop of my blood.