For many Afghans, Matiullah Wesa, a 30-year-old education activist, was an unlikely candidate for arrest. The founder of a respected education organisation, Wesa was avowedly apolitical, constantly referring to the bonds he forged with local communities and eschewing foreign funding.
Most importantly, he also stayed put. While other Afghan activists, advocates, and rights defenders fled the country as the Taliban closed in on Kabul in the summer of 2021, Wesa stayed in Afghanistan and was able to continue his work largely unimpeded.
The nature of Wesa’s work was more of a public shaming of the former Islamic Republic and its Western funders than critical of the Taliban: Having begun by travelling the country in 2016 to provide everything from backpacks and pencils to makeshift libraries for children, Wesa often cast a spotlight on the failings of the American occupation and the government it propped up.
So when authorities came for Wesa on the evening of 27 March, arresting him just after he completed Ramadan prayers at a Kabul mosque, Afghans were shocked. And in the intervening weeks, with scant information about his whereabouts, conditions, or even the charges, many activists fear he could face abuse while in detention, be coerced into signing a false confession, or simply be silenced. Others worry that well-meaning efforts by foreigners to bring attention to his plight could endanger him further.
Sami, a university student in the southern province of Kandahar who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, spent many hours with Wesa when he was visiting different districts in the south. Like many, he assumed the long periods the activist spent going village to village would serve as a shield against the suspicions the Islamic Emirate had of others.
“For years, he went to some of the most dangerous, war-ravaged areas when it was completely unsafe,” Sami said, pointing out that the Taliban, then functioning as an armed opposition group, often had very strong – if not direct – presences in those areas.
Wesa survived because of the nature of his work, Sami said: “Everyone knew his only intention was the advancement of education and the betterment of our youth. He wasn’t politically motivated, and he only ever spoke of education.”
International media outlets have branded Wesa “Girls’ education activist”, “Founder of Afghan girls’ school project”, and “Prominent girls’ education activist”, but supporters and friends say these headlines ignore his longer-term work, which far predated the Taliban’s return to power.
Over the past seven years, Wesa and his brothers travelled across some of the most remote and dangerous areas of the country to draw attention to the poor state of education. When they started, millions of children were either out of school or under-educated, despite the fact that Washington alone provided the former Western-backed government with almost $760 billion between 2002 and 2014 to support primary and secondary education in the country.
Through their organisation, Pen Path, the brothers helped to set up or restore schools. And along the way, they emboldened whole communities to keep pushing for greater education opportunities, and scores of youth to serve as makeshift educators – providing a model that could last long after the Wesas had moved on to their next destination.
When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, their Islamic Emirate government quickly shut the doors of secondary schools to adolescent girls in 32 of the nation’s 34 provinces. By December 2022, they decreed that female students could no longer attend university either.
As a longtime advocate of ‘education for all’, Wesa quickly focused the work of his Pen Path movement to try to show the Islamic Emirate that communities across the country were demanding their children be provided with access to education.
While that included girls, Wesa had been clear to stress his broader educational goals. It’s an important distinction at a time when the Islamic Emirate has been quick to arrest anyone they suspect of protesting for – or being involved in – women’s rights movements in the country.
In a report released after Wesa’s detention, Human Rights Watch noted that the government in Kabul has “increasingly targeted their critics for arrest, including civil society activists, human rights defenders, and women protesters”.
Orzala Nemat, a prominent Afghan academic and researcher who has known Wesa since 2018, said it was his dedication to meeting with people in some of the most under-served areas of the country that led her to seek him out.
“He dedicated his life to supporting rural and deprived people, and this message came from the voices of those very people.”
“His initial focus was on rural education, and asking the state to simply build schools in insecure, deprived areas of the country,” Nemat said.
In 2017, it was reported that 41% of all schools in the nation lacked physical buildings, and that one in every 12 schools in the country were “ghost schools”, existing only on paper, meaning education statistics touted by the former Islamic Republic and its Western backers were highly exaggerated.
Nemat was so impressed by Wesa’s willingness to travel to areas of the country many NGOs, politicians, activists, and media outlets would not venture to that she offered him her financial support. He always refused.
“He would decline the money, and instead asked me to buy books so he could distribute them to villagers in remote areas,” Nemat said. When the former Islamic Republic failed to address the people’s needs, the Wesa brothers would take matters into their own hands, and build libraries in villages themselves, she added.
According to Nemat, when Wesa did shift his efforts to focus more on girls’ access to education, it was simply reflecting a larger reality, not because he had forgotten the poor state of education for boys and girls in many parts of the country prior to the Islamic Emirate’s return or because he had turned his back on the cause of education for all.
“He dedicated his life to supporting rural and deprived people, and this message came from the voices of those very people,” Nemat said. “He simply wanted to communicate what he saw and heard to the authorities, and to the world.”
Unproven claims of foreign influence
In the days since his arrest, supporters of Wesa have held him up as a “National Hero”. However, online backers of the Islamic Emirate were quick to make vague allusions to unproven connections with foreign actors.
Soon after his arrest, supporters of the Taliban started reposting pictures of Wesa with foreign diplomats, travelling in Europe and, most worryingly, seemingly doctored images trying to tie Wesa to small women-led rights protests.
“Western diplomats tweeting #FreeMatiullahWesa is another form of exploitation of Afghans for political gains,” one online supporter of the Islamic Emirate tweeted days after Wesa’s detention. “They only raise suspicion about Wesa and other advocates for education by linking them to their own nefarious role in Afghanistan's 4 decade long tragedy.”
The tweet was in reference to posts from the UN, the United States, and Germany – all of which have expressed their support for Wesa. Taliban officials, meanwhile, have made repeated, if vague, allusions to being concerned about Wesa’s activities.
“He spoke about an active, successful Afghanistan.”
Zabihullah Mujahid, chief spokesman for the Islamic Emirate, told VOA, “Wesa has been detained for investigation because the intelligence agency had some suspicious information about him,” but gave no further details.
Abdul Haq Hammad, an official in the Islamic Emirate's Ministry of Information and Culture, told local media that a “government has the right to call in such people for clarification", when asked about Wesa’s detention, as well as that of his brothers, who were released shortly after arrest.
Nemat and others who have known Wesa say he was always transparent about his few interactions with foreigners.
“When he did travel to Europe, it was to visit public schools and universities in order to learn about the education system,” Nemat said of his week-long visit to Brussels earlier this year.
Wesa, she said, “doesn’t deserve any blame for working for anyone other than his own country and his own people.”
A resident of Kandahar province who witnessed Wesa’s visits to several districts in the southern province, told The New Humanitarian people needed to remember that Wesa always focused his efforts on engaging directly with communities who for decades felt unseen and unheard.
“Whatever village, whatever district he went to, he always made sure to visit the elders, the tribal leaders, and even the mullahs,” the young Kandahari man said.
He said what won people over was the simplicity and directness of Wesa’s message: “He spoke about an active, successful Afghanistan,” which required an active education system.
Education for all still unresolved
Last month, the school year officially started for Afghans across the country. Once again, adolescent girls were unable to attend government-run schools. Women across the country were also barred from attending university.
All of this has worried Afghans, as well as the international community.
Male students at a private university in the eastern province of Nangarhar called on the Islamic Emirate to re-open schools for all women and girls across the country. In the capital, a group of young women staged a demonstration outside Kabul University, a campus they’re no longer allowed to study in.
It was amid this popular fervour that Wesa, arguably the country’s most well-known education activist, was arrested.
But his arrest is unlikely to quell the growing frustration over Taliban policies.
A doctor in an eastern province, who did not wish to be named due to security fears, said that when Wesa visited his province last year, he met with like-minded tribal and local elders who were also looking for a way to allow adolescent girls to return to secondary schools.
“These were all older, influential men from the area who were already doing this work themselves,” the doctor told The New Humanitarian by phone.
A 29-year-old young man from Paktia province said Wesa is hardly alone in his call for schools to open for all students – male and female. He said smaller groups of young people are also campaigning for education as part of more local movements.
Like others, he stressed that such issues must be sorted out domestically. “This matter can only be solved through local mediation,” the young man said. “Foreigners calling for his release won’t do him any good.”
Edited by Abby Seiff.