Divest from War, Invest in People

by Kathy Kelly

All Trump, all the time. With a punishing, disorienting barrage of executive orders, President Trump is reversing hard fought gains made in environmental protection, health care, women’s rights, immigration policy, and nuclear weapons reduction–with even more executive orders promised.

In his inaugural speech, Trump proclaimed “America First”. The U.S. does rank first in weapon sales, in mass incarceration and in producing waste material. Pope Francis urged President Trump to be first in protecting the poorest in society. But instead, President Trump has surrounded himself with generals and billionaires in cabinet level positions.

It’s true; some of President Trump’s policies actually extend wrongs enacted by previous administrations. Other presidents and their spokespersons have championed an escalating war on the global poor under the pretenses of humanitarianism and democracy. They wore “masks” that were easier for many in the U.S. to look at and accept, and yet their policies caused terrible bloodshed, starvation and death. A widespread drone war, annihilating civilians from the air, is an example of a brutal rightward turn which some liberals accepted. Was drone proliferation seen as an improvement on previous means of warfare because it was presented in an articulate, professorial tone? During a previous Democrat administration I recall protesting brutal economic sanctions which, halfway through their eleven-year reign, had contributed directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children aged four years or younger. The antiwar movement tends to demobilize when a well-spoken Democrat is in office.

Trump’s victory hinged on the Democrats’ refusal to offer more than token resistance to militarism and rising inequality. To successfully organize against Trumpism, we must move toward making actual changes in the lives of those who are most vulnerable and unprotected, especially among the poorest people in our societies.

Dr. Martin Luther King discussed the “giant evil triplets” of racism, militarism and income inequality. He assured us none of these can possibly be conquered alone. As protests erupt against the policies of Donald Trump it is valid to question what is “style” and what is “substance”. How can the energy generated by these actions be channeled into functioning and effective resistance?

Trump’s executive orders have already escalated our government’s commitment to inequality well beyond what Hillary Clinton would ever have likely attempted. His cabinet appointments suggest he will rival or exceed her in militarism.

We must cut through the fog and recognize our collective responsibilities. There are numerous ways to turn the energy of protests into daily action, but they all involve organizing, not against a hated political figure, but against policies which must be successfully reversed. One example is war tax refusal. My own decision, made and held since 1980, is never to pay federal income tax to the U.S. government. Our leaders depend on taxes to continue their destructive campaigns. Monies not forwarded to the government can be redirected to causes in support of peace, victimized communities and the poor.

The National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC) is an organization that encourages interested parties to nonviolently oppose taxation for war. This group links to grassroots communities and may provide the basis for additional refusals of cooperation. Anticipating resurgent interest in refusal to pay for abhorrent, discriminatory policies, a group of war tax refusers approached NWTRCC with the idea of encouraging people to consider war tax resistance by contacting the network. Their “call,” posted on the NWTRCC website, is signed by a growing list now numbering over 120 people.

Essentially, we can’t afford Trumpism and we can’t afford alternatives to Trumpism that were rejected in the last election. We need to reject Trump’s executive orders in substance as well as style, living more simply so that others may simply live. War tax refusal is a small gesture in that direction, quieter than a march but potentially meaningful. It gives us a chance to align our lives with our deepest values and welcome kindred spirits to join us.

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org) and has relied on NWTRCC (nwtrcc.org) since 1980 when she first began refusing to pay all forms of federal income tax.

I Had Forgotten the Afghan Mountain Spirit

by Dr Hakim in Kabul

 

The wars within and without had spun me into a hurry,

a hurry to do what, to accomplish what?

I had forgotten the mountains of Afghanistan until,

going up her untamed slopes encroached by an expanding cemetery,

I asked Sami and Sarwar, as a cold breeze blew my voice away,

“Is the mountain a living or non-living thing?”

The clouds were presenting shadow shows with the sunlight,

as the mountain peaks loomed above hibernating shrubs,

and graves previously and newly dug for grieving families.

“Alive! The mountain is living,” they both replied.

The earth’s seismic sway had served up her prominent art

for us to gaze and tread upon,

for us to reconsider our obsessions

to extract, exploit and kill on her watch.

During a team building circle two weeks ago, we had thought,

“How could we manage our fears, stresses, anger, sadness…?”

‘Go touch Nature, let her caress us, and calm us’

was one way in which Mexican activists coped.

Off and up we went,

a celebration of the previous day’s trickle of snow.

We were braced for the winter freeze,

and wondering if the mountains had something for our uncertain steps.

I reminisced how years ago, away from Kabul or any city,

I was living amidst the mountains of Bamiyan.

There, whenever I was tired,

I would walk out onto the raised tectonic plates…

A middle-aged grave-digger told us

that he dug several graves every day.

“They fill up quickly,” he stated, and asked for the orange crates we had,

probably to use as fuel.

Under or on the ground,

the earth holds us, receives us and sustains life.

“If anyone is drowning with too many thoughts,” Barat reflected,

“he or she can come here. The thoughts will settle.”

The hills generate a magnetic field that

balanced our negative and positive energies,

not to make us ‘neutral’ people,

but to electrify us,

drawing us into their hems, folds and decisiveness.

Some tried to reach as high as they safely could,

while others were content just to be elevated

above the smog of Kabul,

the human-driven pollution of self-harm.

Sarwar held up a handful of snow as if to drink the crystals,

snow that provides Afghanistan with most of its water.

Sarwar understood that we are really 70% ‘water beings’,

we’re not as solid as we think we are.

Together with other volunteers, camaraderie meant that

they threw snowballs at me as I was filming them;

water interaction and rejuvenation!

The mountain seemed to have shared its resolute-ness,

because, returning to our homes at the end of the day,

the youth seemed to have embraced the mountain into themselves,

alive, appreciative and aware.

Sitting, their arms danced in wild unison,

acknowledging one another’s emotive presence,

caring for how tough life has become for everyone,

and remembering how we ought to always consult

our other mother;

Nature,

our earth.

All sorts of Afghan Winter Feelings: ‘I was frightened. I cried.’

by Dr Hakim in Kabul

“I was frightened. I cried,” she seemed like both a statue and a radio,

numb and alive, not shy about the horrors she had survived.

“There were bombs dropping from the heavens,

and firing from the army, the Taliban,

yes, yes, from everyone,

from everywhere.”

Already like a teenage mother to her younger siblings

who huddled around her, she insisted,

“We had to run, to escape Kunduz.”

Do we really expect her to have stayed put,

to not seek refuge from weapons the powers produce?

“And now? We eat little scraps found on the streets.

See? We burn plastic.”

A few unwashed glasses were in a corner,

and also Nasriya, their latest sibling,

gazing at her refugee world from a hanging baby cot,

no nursery rhymes, no birthday candles, no photo albums.

Sadly, such stories are not news these days,

not ‘attractive’ enough for viewers,

though it ought to be important to a humanity that is intact and engaged:

it is a brutal mirror of how we adults

are successfully destroying everything children dream of.

It is an upside-down ‘Toyota’ car-world

which presumes that kids who do ‘non-job’ jobs are lazy,

like the boy I saw on the road to the refugee camp.

He was burning incense in a black tin while asking for a few Afghanis.

He was really asking for bread.

We forget that Afghan children are like Shuba with the blue scarf, standing with her friends at the doorway of a makeshift school,

answering me without hesitation,

 “Me? I want to be a doctor!”

It was as if she was daring me,

“Pronounce your judgment!

What did you think I would have become?” 

I tried to imagine the lack of regular meals

for these refugees from Kunduz, Parwan, Kapisa

and returnees from Pakistan and Iran.

This was their share of the solar system,

chucked into corners of unwelcome,

in air so polluted they can’t see the stars.

How could we make millions of humans feel this way,

as if their address was not ‘Mother Earth’?

There was a noisy sense that their souls will never be heard.

Their faces seemed like art which had run out of purpose,

their eyes unable to cope with what we’re doing to one another,

with how we ‘vote’ for our oppressors

and habitually gobble up advertisements and stuff.

Our daily choices no longer seem logical:

we must have already died,

and this! This existence

was an orchestrated taunt, a haunt.

One of the elders, Kaka Ghulam, said,

“Several strongmen came to chase us away from this land.

They shot and killed my son for resisting.

No media was allowed to interview us after the incident.”

He would have told any journalist that

it was not the first son he had lost in a year.

And the journalist may have been threatened or killed afterwards.

I regretfully still don’t know her story,

but she is likely to be familiar with fear,

the breathlessness of bullets whistling towards bodies,

seeking to burst through flesh and bone,

to shatter all the best values we long for.

We don’t spare children either.

We don’t bother to count them,

but their transient innocence defies our neglect

as they smile,

giggle,

and flock around the camera,

if only to see themselves acknowledged on the digital screen,

light capturing light.

The human spirit of the adults inspired me too,

that they would cling on to humour,

laugh for a moment

and preserve their sense of happiness and gratitude

despite being misconstrued as potential ‘troublemakers’.

Whatever they may have been,

 farmers, shepherds, shopkeepers, professionals,

they are now all labelled ‘refugees’ or IDPs,

their human needs termed ‘the rights of refugees’,

so governments can cite national security as a sacred reason

to deny them the right to food, water, shelter, safety from death.

In the light, dust, pleas, and duvet distribution lists

were emotions too recent to be assuaged.

I witnessed a broken-ness lost to elitist conferences

that decide on the same old, same old.

Even if we couldn’t imagine the war-torn feelings of one mother,

how could we miss the plight of 65 million refugees worldwide?

Each of their expressions, without speaking, spoke to me,

speech without sound.

What surrounds these 700 refugee families?

10 to 15-storey buildings,

rubbish,

fences,

Commander-in-Chiefs from too many countries,

an economic war disguised as democracy,

and an internet that still can’t relate with the mass human condition.

I could have felt very helpless,

if not for the complex emotions swarming me,

from our human family giving and receiving duvets,

from love which can transform fury.

 

Silas Marner in Afghanistan

Henrietta in Kabul refugee camp
Henrietta in Kabul refugee camp

by Henrietta Cullinan

From London to Kabul to Raveloe, we cling to our ‘way of life’ even though it makes us sick, obsessive and lonely. Governments cling to policies that cause harm to ordinary people. In this article, begun while staying in Kabul, Henrietta Cullinan asks what George Elliott’s Silas Marner has to tell us about our own ‘pile of gold’.

I recently travelled to Kabul, where I teamed up with the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. I took with me, to read under the covers when I couldn’t sleep, Silas Marner by George Elliott. Marner, estranged from his home town, sets up as a weaver in the small village of Raveloe. Through weaving he accumulates a pile of gold coins which he counts obsessively every night, until one day it is stolen. The plot turns when he adopts a small girl, the daughter of a drug addict, who wanders into his house. He mistakes her gold curls for his gold coins, miraculously returned to him. As he determines to look after the child he has to ask others in the community for help and so his life is transformed.

As a group of women in one Kabul refugee camp recounted their experiences of war, their injuries, the indignities they have suffered since being forced to leave their homes, Kathy Kelly asked at one point, ‘Did you know that the US has just committed 617 billion US dollars to military spending?’ The women implied by their gestures, ‘What do we care?’ One woman said, ‘I wouldn’t know the difference between one side of a dollar and the other, whether a dollar is black or white.’ It was at this moment the image of Silas Marner counting out his pile of gold coins, popped into my head. As well as a literal analogy with the ‘pile of gold coins’ devoted to military spending, there are lessons for us on western governments’ migration policies, that cause suffering amongst refugees.

Afghan restaurant in Calais refugee camp
Afghan restaurant in Calais refugee camp

In Europe, chances for Afghan refugees to claim asylum have grown slim, since the EU now considers Afghanistan to be a safe country, even though there were 5,600 casualties of armed conflict in the first half of 2016 alone. The EU plans to deport 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers. At the time of writing Germany and Sweden have already started the deportations. This is at a time when Pakistan and Iran are also pressurising Afghan refugees to return.

Kabul refugee camp
Kabul refugee camp

The refugees face homelessness and destitution when they return to Kabul, where there is not the infrastructure to support them. ‘A man-made humanitarian catastrophe could be the end result of these governmental policies’ writes Ahmed Rashid, a journalist in Lahore. 

Abdul Ghafoor in his office
Abdul Ghafoor in his office

At the Borderfree Centre in Kabul, Kathy Kelly and I spoke to Abdul Gafoor, of Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organisation. He says everyday twelve deportees arrive from Norway, as a result of its cruel deportation policy. Young boys call him, not knowing where to go. Very often, as soon as they have the opportunity, they will leave again, for Pakistan or Iran. They are given $1200 from the Norwegian government, so they use this money to move on as it is too difficult for them to reintegrate. There is nothing they can do in Kabul; there is no work.

Taken from a Kabul taxi
Taken from a Kabul taxi

Kathy Kelly, Nematullah Ahangosh, who is an Afghan Peace Volunteer, and I visited the ‘Police Camp’ an unofficial camp for IDPs and refugees. We took a long taxi ride, through heavy morning traffic, into an area of new development, where private hospitals with tinted curtain walling and new apartment buildings, some already clad, others just slabs and columns, lined the broad, unsurfaced road. Opposite a petrol station, where gaily painted lorries were filling up, we were let out onto the edge of an open sewer, the size of a small river, its grey white waters swirling with scraps of rubbish. Salim, from the Jesuit Refugee Service, soon fetched us and led us down a narrow path between mud shacks, to a place where we took off our shoes, stepped inside a small room, with red carpet, whitewashed walls, a stove in the middle, a plastic sheet for a window. Soon the elected camp leader, Raz Mohammed, came to tell us about the camp.

Of the 700 families resident in the camp, one third have come because of recent conflicts, such as in Kunduz in the north east of the country and one third are refugees who have been forced to return from Pakistan and Iran. Sometimes educated people, this latter group already sold all their property when they left Afghanistan, so now they are homeless and destitute. Refugees can only earn three dollars a day. Men work as porters in the market. Other jobs include washing cars, and selling boloni, pastries stuffed with potato and spinach. Others, despite the danger, send their children out to work in the street, cleaning shoes and windscreens or selling windscreen wipers, tissues and sweets.

Afghan shop keeper
Afghan shop keeper

Those who work in the market can bring home potatoes or turnips but not enough for regular meals. The rest of the time they have only bread and tea. Some don’t even have tea. For fuel they burn plastic bottles, shoes and old clothes. Every winter twenty-five people die of cold. Water has to be bought at 10 Afs (10p) for 20 litres. On the way in we saw a single pump. Raz tells us that a woman who runs a beauty parlour noticed the women walking to buy water so she donated the pump but the water is not ‘sweet’.

After speaking to Raz Mohammed we went to visit a group of women who were finishing a class. They sat round the edges of the cold classroom. A teenage daughter ran in to drop off a baby to be fed. The women told us that all ethnicities are represented at the camp. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Baluchis living together. They said they felt safe in the camp, but conditions are dangerous to health, especially in cold weather, and there is no access to health care, despite the private hospitals next door.

‘If only we had had an education we wouldn’t be in this situation,’ they said. One woman, feeding her toddler under her black scarf, says she used to have a job in Kunduz. She made boloni and her husband sold them.

Another woman told us how she had fled from Kunduz, almost leaving her child behind. Another, from Laghman province, showed us the injuries to her upper arm she had sustained when she escaped. She said that she had no food for lunch. After the class she would cover her face and go and beg at the bakery.

The leader said he gathered people together and went to the government for help. The government only provides food. He thinks they should provide education, buildings. He said the UN had been to visit the camp, even the US ambassador. But nothing has changed. Eighteen months ago, during Ramadam, the authorities attempted to clear the camp, with armed police, but the refugee inhabitants responded with stones.

Afghan refugee camp
Afghan refugee camp

Without sufficient food, fuel, education or health care, the women concluded, ‘No one cares about us. The government doesn’t care.’

Another group of women I spoke to were seamstresses at the Borderfree Centre. They embroider scarves which are sold in the US and the UK to raise funds for the centre. All having between five and seven children each, their main concern is to feed their families. Despite their husband’s disapproval, they have to go out to work outside the home. Even so the wages are not enough to pay the rent, to buy clothes for their children, food and books for school.

‘The government doesn’t care about us,’ they said, echoing the words of the the women in the refugee camp. They said, ‘If you want to help, you must give money to us poor people’. The seamstresses said they saw all the huge construction projects, and concluded the government was spending money on these projects and not on alleviating the problems of the poor.

Government ministers just use aid to buy each other ‘a cow or a hen’. I asked if they had any means of making their voices heard, which was translated literally I realised. They said their husbands wouldn’t like it if their voices were heard outside the home. Not able to read or write, their only option would be to join a protest. They didn’t dare go on a demonstration, they said, because the government might come after them, or there might be a bomb.

Back in London this week, I did my regular shift in the local winter night shelter. Many of the homeless I encounter at the shelter suffer from poor physical and mental health, and even have mobility problems, which should be reason enough for the authorities to house them without delay. Many were caught between losing their job and waiting for benefits to come through; a gap of six weeks is enough time to lose your flat. Surprisingly some guests are actually working. Holding down a job while sleeping in a shelter must be almost impossible but one man I spoke to was doing just that. His car was parked outside, he wore the uniform of a building servicing company and over breakfast he was giving his mobile phones a last minute boost, checking the location of the first job of the day.

The residents of the refugee camp in Kabul and the guests at the London night shelter are all at the mercy of government policies. Worse than that, our government is unwilling to correct the very policies that made people homeless. As John Berger wrote,
‘The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.’

Collectively, whether in the UK or Afghanistan, we must turn to the poorest, most helpless members of our society and learn, just as Silas Marner did, from experiencing community again.

Silas Marner, once he accepts his loss and turns to another, a helpless child, builds relationships with the other members of his village community. It is when he turns to another helpless being, and becomes helpless himself, that healing begins. Our governments, and therefore we, are addicted to unsustainable policies that keep many displaced and homeless. When we accept our own weakness, our own loss and turn to look after the poorest there is hope.

George Elliott also asks us to reflect on the nature of work. Silas Marner sits at his loom day in day out, even on Sundays, weaving linen for the well to do of the neighbourhood and collecting gold coins to no end other than to be counted and hidden. US taxpayers are paying nearly $700 million a week for the military in Afghanistan, money which the US government spends without attempting to avoid corruption.

Reading this you might ask what do all these things have to do with each other. Visiting Kabul, not somewhere people normally visit for a holiday, gives a heady ride into geo politics, but mainly the opportunity to see the effect of government policymakers on the lives of the poor. You might think it odd I would use Silas Marner as a way to reflect on lessons from Afghanistan. George Elliott chose novel writing as a medium to comment on social conditions in her time and the novel has a lot to tell us now.