Saturday, January 9, 2010
Working underground in an old Soviet bunker, a group of Afghan civilians and French Foreign Legion officers busy themselves with a couple of laptop computers and microphones until someone shouts for silence.
"We're on air!" a sergeant chief warns, as a sweet tune of flutes and chirping birds rises from a sound box.
"Welcome to Surowbi Radio, your radio, by and for the people of Surowbi," a voice says in Pashto, the language of the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.
Launched in December by a French NATO regiment, the station is the first-ever FM broadcast in Surowbi district, a poor region of steep valleys east of Kabul that is home to 130,000 people, most without electricity or television.
Surowbi Radio differs from the several other military-run stations in Afghanistan, including the nationwide ISAF Radio operated by NATO command in Kabul.
"The goal really is to give local people their own community radio," said Capt. Michel, a 32-year-old Foreign Legion paratrooper who manages the station. He gave only his first name per French army regulations.
Radio Surowbi doesn't specifically promote NATO troops, nor is it geared to attacking the Taliban, said Capt. Raphael, a French public radio journalist and a reserve officer who is helping to launch the station.
"We're just basic news, music, and community concerns," he said.
The makeshift studio, which is on a NATO base, is housed in the remains of a bunker where dozens of Soviet troops were slaughtered by Afghan fighters during a previous war in the 1980s. The antenna stands on a nearby peak that French troops have renamed Mont Saint-Michel after the famous tourist site in Normandy.
Music takes up most of the 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. air time, with an hour-long dedication program in the evenings.
"We're very, very busy, it's a big success," said Nassir Ahmad, one of two residents hired to host the shows, as some 30 people called in to dedicate songs.
He said the most requested tunes were by Ayman Udas, a female Pashtun singer from neighboring Pakistan who was murdered last spring after defying hardline Islamists who thought it was sinful for a woman to appear on television.
The broadcast also includes two daily news bulletins, a weather forecast lifted from the regiment's air operations command next door, and an hour of reading. The first story was a Pashto translation of "The Pearl," a short story by John Steinbeck.
Ahmad's colleague, Azziz Rahman, got a crash course in journalism from Raphael, the French radio journalist, who helped him prepare the nightly newscast.
Rahman, the headmaster of the girl's high school in Surowbi, suggested that the top story should be a visit by delegates from the Afghan Education Ministry.
"They promised to raise the teachers' salaries and fix the school's broken windows," he said.
Raphael politely suggested another story: the arrest of Kabul's deputy mayor for corruption.
"I think more people will be interested in that," he said.
Other news items included traffic problems on the main road between Kabul and Pakistan, which crosses Surowbi; insurgent attacks in the region; the release of prisoners in a nearby province and a visit by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to southern Afghanistan.
Ahmad slipped in the Education Ministry visit to his school near the bottom of the broadcast, just before closing with cricket results.
"The roots of the Afghan conflict are in large part a social crisis," said Col. Benoit Durieux, who launched the radio station to help bridge the gap between the country's urban minority and the impoverished masses in the countryside.
NATO units are distributing 4,000 solar- and battery-powered radios, he said, adding to the euro10,000 budget ($15,000) to start the station.
"It's great, people are even calling from Taliban-held villages," said Michel, the station manager. "It really shows that ordinary Afghans are tired of fighting. ... They just want music and a normal life, like everybody else."