Street kids, plastic sweet wrappers and refugee camps

by Maya Evans

Street kids in class, photo by Maya Evans
Street kids in class, photo by Maya Evans

We’ve just got back from seeing the street kids who came for their weekly lessons at the Borderfree Non-Violence Peace Centre.

Nassim doing a pre class handstand, photo by Maya Evans
Nassim doing a pre class handstand, photo by Maya Evans

The street kids were all on fine form today, I managed to do a head count and there’s currently 23 on the programme, part of the APV’s economic justice and education equality thrust.

I got to interview Habib (which means love), the boy I wrote about last year. Since then he’s been to Farah province after his uncle told him “lets go”. As usual 12 year old Habib wears a worried face, as if he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, probably not far from that as he’s still the main bread winner of the family, a stress for any grown man let alone a pre adolescent.

Habib, photo by Maya Evans
Habib, photo by Maya Evans

Habib has recently changed occupation, his weighing scales were not bringing in enough money so he’s moved onto shining shoes which earns him around 100 Afghanis per day, which is about £1.15

His weighing scales have been handed down to his 9 year old brother Samim who also works the streets. I asked him about his time in Farah province, one of the more volatile provinces in Afghanistan; known for it’s production of opium, prevalence of addicts and presence of Talibs. Habib shrugs and says “What’s there to like about Farah, there’s just fighting.” He expands a little and says there’s nothing much in Farah, no city, no health facilities, just countryside, and more importantly to Habib, nowhere to study. I ask him what he likes about Kabul, immediately he says

APV Zarghuna teaching street kids, photo by Maya Evans
APV Zarghuna teaching street kids, photo by Maya Evans

“study”, a testimony to the success of the APV’s project as his once a week lesson at the Border Free Centre is the only schooling he receives. I ask after his mother Maryam and his 5 brothers and sisters, again he shrugs and says “fine”, they still live in the same place, a piece of tarp stretched from the side of a building which creates one living space for the 8 members of the family.

Habib talks about his average day, work will normally start around 9 in the morning and end at 8pm. At the moment it’s getting dark at 5 and even teenage members of the APV tend not to be out later than 7 as the streets are so unsafe. He says his day is tiring as there aren’t many places to work so he must walk around a lot which is quite tiring. His biggest worry is security and the danger of being caught up in an attack. He describes how one day there was a bomb in Pul-e-Sulh, a shopping area not far from the peace centre, his mother was gripped with fear so walked the streets for hours, looking for him so as to take him home.

The memory of meeting his mother Maryam last year came back to me, she quietly wept under her burka as she described how her husband died in a sectarian suicide attack on a Shia mosque 4 years ago. I ask him if he still wants to become a doctor, he immediately answers “yes”.

Gul Jumu'ah, photo by Maya Evans
Gul Jumu’ah, photo by Maya Evans

Next I interviewed Gul Jumu’ah (meaning flower Friday), she doesn’t know her age but looks around 10. She partly caught my eye because of her already apparent stunning beauty, and then her shy smile which possesses a quiet inner joy. There are only 5 girls on the project, I’m guessing there are generally less girls working the streets as usually girls and women are expected to stay indoors and run the house. GulJumu’ah is Pashtoon and lives in Chara Kumba refugee camp. She looks timidly at me as I beam the biggest smile I can muster. Today she was dressed in a raggedy pink spangly dress which hangs off her thin frame. She sits crossed legged on the floor looking nervous, I suspect it’s the first time anyone has ever asked to speak with her, least of all a foreigner.

Gul Jumu’ah is painfully shy, she looks down and plays with her dress, her hands are weathered and filthy, she only occasionally looks up to flash a shy smile. I find out that her work involves trawling the streets for plastic to burn for fuel, this morning she collected 2 sacks of plastic. She’s been living in the refugee camp for the last 3 years, before then she lived in Sangin, Helmand province, the area of Afghanistan where British troops were based and the fighting has been most fierce. She says that her family left Helmand 3 years ago after her father was killed. She has 5 brothers but 2 of them have died in the war and 1 of her 5 sisters has also passed away. Her older brother was a cobbler but his equipment was stolen so now he can’t work. Her only memory of Sangin is war, I try to press her for more detail but again she just says “war”. The last year at the border free centre is her first experience of education, she says learning is important to her and when she’s older she’d like to become a teacher and help people. I want to know more about Gul Jamma but can sense a deep sadness which I feel is not my place to disturb. I ask her about toys, her only doll, she has black hair and wears a scarf but doesn’t help with housework.

Since being in Kabul we’ve heard whispered horror stories, one being the trafficking of young Afghans to the Middle East, mainly for slavery and even body parts, the rumours say that street children are particularly vulnerable.

This morning Obama announced that the war with Afghanistan has come to a “responsible end”.

At the end of today’s lesson we brought out a box of Quality Street chocolates which the kids excitedly gobbled down. Some of the wrappers were carelessly discarded on the floor by many of the children. I noticed Gul Jumu’ah discretely bend down and collect the wrappers, no doubt to be added to her fuel stash.

Habib, Noor Rahman & Raul, photo by Maya Evans
Habib, Noor Rahman & Raul, photo by Maya Evans

Noor Rahman, a chubby 12 year old in a filthy yellow hoddie plays with his mobile phone, he’s the kind of kid who could probably fix up anything, you name it, he can get it. He complains to Hakim that the phone company charges him 1 Afghani every time he connects to the internet, Hakim laughs and advises him to disconnect his internet service.

Raul bumps his sack of rice down the stairs, photo by Maya Evans
Raul bumps his sack of rice down the stairs, photo by Maya Evans

The teenage members of the APV then called each of the kids out of the room to collect their monthly subsidy of food, a sack of rice and a large bottle of oil. Raul, who looks around 8 drags his sack out of the centre, he expertly bumps it down the stairs and then hikes it over a shoulder while grabbing his bottle of oil and swiftly making off.

Gul Jumu'ah at the bottom of the stairs
Gul Jumu’ah at the bottom of the stairs

Gul Jumu’ah looks up at me from the bottom of the stairs and flashes me a smile, my heart melts, she then skips out of the centre to meet her brother who has come to help her with the rice and oil.

Although physically we’ve done very little today I feel quite tired. At the moment  a “dramatic sunset”  is forming outside our living room window. From where I’m sat (in the corner of the room), I can only see the razor wire on our neighbour’s wall and a few yellowing clouds. Khamed Jan has just lit a fire, the room is slightly smokey. The familiar call to prayer has just started up, the quality and emotion of the Imam’s voice is almost enough to make me want to convert, I guess that’s the idea.

The sun is forming a dramatic sunset which I’m almost tempted to photograph, Zahidi is talking about her memories from the Russian war, of waiting for hours in the freezing snow to get 2 loaves of bread to feed 6 members of her family. Her life has included many years as a refugee in Pakistan and then Iran. At 30 she is already considered too old to marry and her slight limp (maybe from Polio) also counts against her marrying chances. She says living in the community has massively changed her life, that it’s taught her how to speak with and trust people. Zarghuna says that meeting internationals  and other members of the group makes her love many people like they’re family.

This is my fourth year in Kabul, without a doubt I love these people as family.

Christmas in Kabul

by Maya Evans

cakeChristmas in Kabul is probably the least Christmasy experience on the planet, other than a mini icing rich christmas cake which got cracked out after lunch there were no signs of seasonal festivity. We’re having a stay at home day as some of our good friends have advised us not to be out on Christmas day. We’re taking ultra cautious security measures to safeguard our young friends and ourselves. The only walking we do is from our front door to the door of a waiting taxi. We only take short journeys and usually to the peace centre. When in the taxi we say nothing and usually cover our faces with scarves. What a curious group we must be, 3 women in the back of a taxi with covered faces being escorted by young men, usually wearing a Martin Luther King T Shirt. It’s definitely to our advantage that culturally women are not expected to speak, and being buried under scarves is also fairly normal. We speak in a whisper in the hall area of our home which adjoins our neighbours. It makes me think about Anne Frank and her life.

yardAt the moment there’s something of a Christmas scene. Henrietta is patiently knitting in the corner, I’m feeling snoozy after a very carb heavy lunch of rice, potatoes and bread. Golden sunlight pours through our south facing windows, some sparrow type birds roost in an apricot tree in our yard chirping a cheerful tune. The call to prayer booms out over the rooftops, children play football in the lane on the other side of the wall to our yard, a man somewhere near beats a piece of metal, the children upstairs run up and down their balcony squealing with delight. Someone lights a fire and smoke belches out of a mud chimney opposite. In the bubble of our compound the Persian charm of the city almost makes you forget that we’re in a war zone and one of the most desperate countries in the world.

Latifa
Latifa in the OPAWC office

Yesterday we visited OPAWC, Organisation to Promote Afghan Women’s Capabilities, a grassroots organisation who teach women in Kabul basic literacy, numeracy and handicraft so that they have an opportunity to gain economic independence and education. The office is located in district 5, very close to the notorious Chara Kumba refugee camp, the largest in Kabul and a no go zone for foreigners where, it’s said, gangs working for the Taliban (whoever they are these days) are currently operating. The area was also decimated by a local war lord during the civil war when hundreds of people were massacred, as a result the neighbourhood now has many widows, many of whom attend the centre for free teaching. The director of OPAWC is Latifa Ahmadi, she formed the group with some of her friends when they were teenagers living in Pakistan. Latifa and her friends were moved by the plight of Afghan refugees so initially set up a school and then a health clinic, the organisation expanded to establish orphanages around the country, but due to the economic recession and a drying up in funding the organisation has slimmed down to just a health clinic for women in Farah province and their centre of education in Kabul. Without a doubt Latifa is one of the most inspiring women I have ever met, her political analysis is alongside that of Malalai Joya, who was once part of OPAWC, and has a conviction equal to Angela Davis. She paints a grim picture of what life is like for Afghan women today, “billions of dollars spent on basic security for women and still the majority of women in Afghanistan are without access to education, healthcare and the right to not be abused”. She describes the women in government as being symbolic and the country being driven by a car which has 2 steering wheels installed by American John Kerry who steamed over from the US to decide that Abdullah Abdullah would be President, while Ashraf Afghani was Prime Minister; that’s “independent democracy” for you, she almost starts to laugh at the ridiculousness of the political situation. Despite her feelings of desperateness she still has hope in the Afghan people, the majority of which are young and clued up about the endemic corruption which grips the country.

As we leave Latifa she warns us that travelling around the city isn’t safe, and as foreigners we shouldn’t be making such trips.

The three of us had actually made a risk assessment the night before and concluded it would just be bad luck if we got caught up in an attack, and the most likely thing to happen was the taxi breaking down or getting lost. Much to our amusement, though slight alarm, both of those things actually happened. Thankfully the taxi driver managed to resuscitate the passenger laden car after we pulled to a halt on a busy road not far from the Chara Kumba camp. Our driver nonchalantly stepped out the car, in the middle of a busy highway, pulled up the bonnet, tightened something and restarted the car. Then the inevitable getting lost moment came, our pre emptying of the event meant I had Latifa’s number to hand.

These cauliflowers have not been photoshopped

The way home was wildly exciting as we inched slowly through traffic which paralleled a busy bazaar. The hustle bustle of an Afghan market is one of the most exciting sights to behold, old beaten up carts with carefully arranged towers of the sweetest oranges from Jalalabad, pomegranates from Kandahar, giant Gulpees (cauliflowers) perhaps 4 times the size of a standard British colly, potatoes from Bamiyan, apples from Wardak, piles of pine nuts still in their husks, a man cracks open some almonds piled on his cart, another Hazarra man with handsome mountain weathered Mongol feathers walks past in labourers clothes. Men sitting on the side of the road drinking tea from fine Persian style teacups, horses pulling carts, greasy bolany stalls (like a fried pancake with a potato and leek filling), people weaving in and out of traffic. The sky is bright blue, crisp sharp sunshine, a spectacular picture postcard view of the reclining Hindu Kush in the background, quite unaffected by the sprawl below.

The throng is thrilling.

Drone Wars Afghanistan

drones slide

by Mary Dobbing

Afghan Peace Volunteers and VCNV UK hosted an international seminar about armed drones in Kabul  for grass-roots peace activists and the local press. As far as we know it’s the first attempt to do such a thing. Here are some notes from the day.

Drone experts joined us from UK: Chris Cole from Drone Wars UK, Chris Woods investigative journalist and author, and Jennifer Gibson an international human rights Lawyer with Reprieve. After a half day presentation about drones and Afghanistan two days ago, the Activists and Press asked questions of the experts joining by us skype.

Javid asked “Do you think Afghanistan is singled out as a playground for other countries to wage war in? Were we singled out?

Jennifer Gibson (Reprieve) said, Afghanistan is a country where wars can be waged without any accountability. ISAF, with UN’s permission, have been carried out this long war without any accountability. What worries Jennifer is that unaccountable war has happened in Afghanistan for thirteen years and is now being exported. This lack of accountability is now being exported to Iraq and Syria.

I added, new military technologies such as drones makes this possible.

Chris said “with this kind of technology war becomes invisible and unaccountable, and its a threat to global security. We need to work together to end it.”

Chris Cole told us that Afghanistan has been the country most bombed by drones.

Drone Resistance in the UK

From Chris Woods we heard that there are two drone wars going on side by side – Operation Enduring Freedom which ends 31st December, that has some accountability as a UN Security Council approved action, and another being waged by US Special Forces which is ultra secret and completely unaccountable. Both drone wars will carry on (now Operation Resolute Support).

Jennifer Gibson was emphatic that there will have been war crimes committed by the use of drone strikes. International Humanitarian Law dictates that lethal force can only be used that is discriminate (between combatants and non-combatants) and proportionate. To kill a combatant they must be directly commiting a violent act which threatens your own forces. Its not legal to kill ordinary criminals such as drug dealers (check recording for wording).

We need evidence about drone strikes such as where? and who? The names and details of all casualties of combat are needed – combatants and civilians. With these details we can challenge all the governments concerned, US/UK and Afghanistan.

Jennifer Gibson concluded – it is crucial to get information from the ground and to get it into the public domain. Reprieve and Drone Wars UK can get the data into the public domain and hold governments to account at the International Criminal Court

Questions:

Are there more drone strikes in Afghanistan than Pakistan?

Chris Cole said yes, more than anywhere and Afghanistan was where the first drone strike was fired in October 2001.

Gulamai asked if Afghanistan gave permission for drone strikes.

drones seminar

Jennifer Gibson said that after the Bilateral Security Agreement was signed between the US and the new Afghan Government, under international law it is legal to make drone strikes if a government invites a foreign force in to help out with an insurgency, and it doesn’t need UN security council sanction. Its called a non-international armed conflict in international law.

The next day we looked up the Drone Wars UK website only to find it had been blocked by the Afghan Government. Four days later it was reinstalled.

First Impressions

by Henrietta Cullinan

View

My way of getting to know a new city is to set out on foot, see where my feet will take me, stop for coffee. In Kabul, this will not be possible. At the moment, it is too dangerous for foreigners to walk anywhere; all trips will be by taxi. We will disguise our presence, heads down, keep silent in front of strangers.

Stepping off the plane, into the bright yellow light, there is a sweet smell, partly diesel fumes partly something chemical. Pale yellow, grey dust covers the roses, trees, soil, in the small airport garden. The dust and the smell are the same painful yellow gray.

From the airport, the taxi noses round pot holes, round pedestrians and cyclists. Men in the street, gather in small groups, drink tea. Young women walk in small groups, girls gather around a school gates.

We pass garages, exhaust pipe and tyre shops, bumper shops, bodywork shops. Men crouch on the kerb, selling petrol from a long tank. The road passes marble shops, cement stores, concrete mixers, carpet shops, signs of a construction boom. There are new houses, with tinted glass and ornate balconies that look as if they have already seen better days or waiting for better days to come.

living room
Henrietta Culinan & Mary Dobbing

 

The atmosphere, the bright yellow light and the strange smell of diesel fumes and wood smoke, seems personified and in my jet lagged state seem to follow us into Kabul, into the flat where we’ll be staying. After a good sleep, the bright yellow light streaming across the carpeted floor, I soon grow accustomed to our inside life.  In the day I pick up sound clues, the neighbour’s ringtone, the neighbour’s children. I can hear the thud of a football against the wall and scuffling feet in sandals. I distinguish the street cries from the muezzin. The silent gap between our garden wall and the next building is the Kabul river bed.

Best of all I get to know our hosts, the young men and women of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, sitting round the beaten metal stove, eating the Celebrations we’ve brought. After a few days I start to hear their stories how the war has affected their lives and their families.

Mary, Maya & Henrietta outside

2015 Delegation

2015 Delegation
2015 Delegation

As foreign troops exit Afghanistan and violence across the country rages on, three women peace activists Mary Dobbing, Henrietta Cullinan and Maya Evans have headed to Kabul to spend Christmas with young Afghan peace makers.

Afghanistan is still one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, with little improvements made by the NATO/ US led offensive. Iliteracy, access to medical health, forced marriages, and domestic violence still remain amongst the highest rates of any country today (1), despite British taxpayers funding the war effort to the tune of £37 billion (2).

Mary Dobbing aged 58 from Bristol, Henrietta Cullinan, 53, from London, and Maya Evans, 35, from St Leonards on Sea, are part of the peace group Voices for Creative Non-Violence UK, which has been visiting and working with the youth group The Afghan Peace Volunteers for over 4 years. (3)

Mary & MountainsDrone researcher Mary Dobbing said: “Britain has spent at least £37 billion on the disastrous Afghan war, including millions on keeping out and deporting Afghan refugees and on British drone development. Despite this austerity for Britain continues and the 13 year war hasn’t made Afghans or Brits any safer.”

In the last 13 years 453 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, 1,819 American soldiers and tens of thousands of uncounted Afghans, at least 21,000 of which were civilians (4), yet still the Taliban are present in most of the country (5), people can not move safely from one province to another, drones dominate and poverty, illiteracy and violence are rife.

Henrietta CullinanFormer school teacher Henrietta Cullinan said: “This year Britain has focused on remembering the first world war. Today in Afghanistan, people have endured 13 years of British backed war – longer than the first and second world wars combined. Afghans are trying to reconstruct their lives in a country shattered by war, poverty and corruption. It shames me that my country has played a significant part in making life for Afghans so difficult.”

The US and NATO have officially declared Operation Enduring Freedom over, however at least 12,000 foreign special operation forces will remain in the country as well as private security contractors for the next phase “Operation Enduring Support.”

Maya Evans, Mary Dobbing, Henrietta Cullinan
Maya Evans, Mary Dobbing, Henrietta Cullinan

Maya Evans said: “If one thing is certain, it’s that violence and military action is not helping the Afghan people. My friends in Kabul asked me to send a message to our government; “Stop killing us”. Drone strikes, night raids, aerial bombing, illegal imprisonment and torture of Afghans has not won ‘hearts and minds’. In order for life to improve for Afghans all violence must stop.”

(1) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-26747712

(2)http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/30/afghanistan-war-cost-britain-37bn-book

(3) http://ourjourneytosmile.com/blog/

(4) http://costsofwar.org/article/afghan-civilians

(5)http://www.ibtimes.com/could-taliban-retake-control- afghanistan-1695833