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Mazar gears up for Nawruz, but security concerns cast a shadow

Mazar gears up for Nawruz, but security concerns cast a shadow

By
On
Mar 16, 2011 - 14:06

MAZAR-I-SHARIF (PANinfo-icon): Authorities in northern Balkh province arehoping that more than a million people will join this year’s New Year festivities in the provincial capital of Mazar-i-Sharif. But residentsfear that increasing instability will keep many guests and relatives away.

Every year, on the first of Hamal, March 21, Nawruz is celebrated across the country, but no more so than in Mazar, where a flag israised in the shrine of the fourth caliphate of Islam, Hazrat Ali.
The flag stays up for 40 days and on the 41st day, it is brought down in a special ceremony.
A number of high-ranking officials traditionally attend the flag
raising, or Janda Bala.
This year, the first vice president, four Cabinet ministers and a
number of officials from neighbouring countries have been invited,
according to Zabiullah Akhtari, an official in the governor’s office,
said, although due to security he could not say who will attend.
Officials from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistaninfo-icon and Iran
have also been invited, he said.
During the 40-day period, friends, family and tourists all flock to
Mazar to take part in the festivities. People sightsee, visit with
friends and family and often go on picnics, known as Mele Gule Surk,
meaning red tulip picnic, as the hillsides are covered with the
colourful flowers.
With just a few days left until the Nawruz celebration, Saleh Muhammad
Khaleeq, the head of the provincial information and culture
department, said he believed the city was ready and that this year
would bring in more than a million people.
Baryalai Jalalzai, 28, said that every year, he is joined by friends
and relatives from other provinces.
“This year, my cousin’s friend from southern Ghazni province and my
brother’s classmates from Nangarhar University in the east will also
join us at the festival.”
But some residents of the city are worried that people will stay away
because of the unpredictable security situation.
“I hear about small attacks in the news all the time. But for the past
10 days I have been hearing about suicide attacks. If a suicide attack
happens on the celebration day, so many civilians will be killed,”
said Naseer Ahmad, a student in 12th grade.
Nawruz would not be as good as previous year’s celebrations, he predicted.
Shir Jan Durani, the provincial police spokesman, said security forces
were cooperating to ensure Nawruz would pass off peacefully.
The Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, 303 North Police
Zone, Afghan National Directorate of Security, and the International
Security Assistance Force (ISAFinfo-icon) were all working together.
ISAF forces would not patrol in the city but would help Afghan
national security forces outside of Mazar, he said, adding that one of
their drones would also provide surveillance.
Vehicles are being prevented from getting within 10 kilometres of the
Blue Mosqueinfo-icon, where the flag raising ceremony takes place, and
checkpoints have been set up on all the major highways leading into
the city, he said. Police have been manning these checkpoints since
March 6.
 Despite fears of security, residents of Mazar-i-Sharif said attending
the flag raising ceremony was an important symbol of unity in
Afghanistaninfo-icon.
Sefatullah, 34, said all of Afghan’s tribes and ethnicities take part
equally in the Janda Bala,.
“It is the only day in which all Afghans come together in national unity.”
And despite three decades of war, Afghans still love a celebration.
The culture department of Balkh has appointed a commission to direct
the entertainment for Nawruz. Concerts and programmes will be free of
charge from March 20 to March 22.
As well as Afghan singers, there will be entertainers from Tajikistan,
Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
The municipality has started sprucing up the city and stringing lights
from the trees and the Blue Mosque, said Mohammad Younus Muqim, mayor
of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Muqim said he would personally oversee the hotels and guesthouses to
make sure they were clean and offering a quality service to visitors.
There are over 20 hotels and guesthouses in Mazar but only a few
provide standardized services.
Mohammad Nader, owner of Babur Hotel, said they had been getting ready
for a flux of visitors since Feb. 6.
Healthinfo-icon officials are also working to ensure they are ready for any
eventuality. Usually, there are several injuries on March 21 as people
rush to get close to the flag-raising ceremony.
Because the flag is raised in an iron enclosure in between the mosque
and the mausoleum, people try to climb over the barricade often
hurting themselves or crushing other people in the effort.
Dr. Mirwais Rabbi, head of the provincial health department, said
dozens of people fainted or were injured last year and that they were
well-prepared for this year.
A 24-hour medical camp will be stationed from March 16 to March 22 in
the garden of the Blue Mosque, staffed by both female and male
doctors, he said.
An extra 100 beds are being made ready at the hospital for unexpected
incidents and the number of health workers on duty that day will be
doubled, to 200, he said.

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