Artists said the tulips were painted to remember the victims of the war in Afghanistan.
Artists from Afghanistan’s ArtLords painted tulips murals in Kabul and three other provinces to honor the victims of the war in the country.
ArtLords chairman Omaid Sharifi said that so far 25,000 tulips have been painted on surroundings of main some offices in Kabul and other provinces, including the office of Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission.
He said each tulip represents a victim of war in the country.
“The people of Afghanistan are killed and martyred every day. This is not a statistics only; they all were the humans with many ambitions and hopes and wanted to live, but unfortunately, they are martyred inhumanly and we wanted to honor and remember them at least with one tulip,” Mr. Sharifi said.
Afghanistan’s ArtLords, a group of Afghan activists and artists in Kabul, was nominated for 2019 Freedom of Expression Awards.
The group has painted a series of murals on Kabul walls, highlighting social problems, supporting Afghan forces, defending freedom of expression and women’s rights. Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Awards exists to celebrate individuals or groups who have had a significant impact fighting censorship anywhere in the world.
ArtLords is a grassroots movement of artists and volunteers in Afghanistan who encourage ordinary citizens, especially women and children, to paint murals on issues which concern them. ArtLords completed over 400 murals in 16 provinces of the country. In March 2018, for International Women’s Day, ArtLords painted a tribute to Professor Hamida Barmaki, a human rights defender killed in a terrorist attack six years ago.
When I first visited Kabul in 2011, I thought it was a city on its knees. It had endured decades of war, starting with the Russians in 1979, followed by the Mujahideen civil war, crushing brutality under the Taliban and then the US/NATO invasion. At the start of ‘Enduring Freedom’ in 2001, the population of Kabul was 1.5 million. Today, with 13 refugee camps inside the city, its population stands at 5 million. Kabul’s already basic infrastructure, hugely stressed, can’t cope with an increased population.
Recently referred to as the ‘Kabubble’, because it escaped direct fighting between the Taliban and foreign troops, the city viewed from high above can appear like a buzzing metropolis – racy, almost seductive from a distance, cars dodging around each other, a hive of activity under a thick fug of tan dust. But back on the streets, you realise why Afghanistan has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Each war has left its scar: bullet-riddled buildings, dilapidated Persian compounds, bombed out palaces, Communist housing and crumbling Soviet industrial buildings, fallen grandeur from the 1960s-70s peaceful hippy trail days. Potable water is increasingly difficult to access, burning rubbish for fuel stains the air and open street sewers ensure the population, daily, breathes high levels of faecal matter.
Attacks by the Taliban and IS are now weekly. The Kabubble has expanded rapidly to accommodate soaring demand. At present it’s at bursting point and the prospects show little sign of relief.
The number of Afghans being deported back to Afghanistan has massively increased in the last year with many European countries deeming Kabul as a safe location for returnees – a policy based on the NATO narrative that post-2014 Afghanistan is ‘mission complete’. That line is hardly feasible, but since the country has dropped out of western media, most don’t hear about the weekly attacks within Kabul which normally claim between 20 and 70 lives. The most recent was an ISIS attack on a military hospital claiming the lives of 49 children, women, men and staff. As with many Iraqis today, many Afghans now half look back at life under a brutal authoritarian regime as a time which at least had stability.
In October 2016, the EU signed a deal with the Afghan Government obliging them to accept unlimited numbers of Afghan asylum seekers. A leaked memo suggested stripping Afghanistan of its aid if the government did not cooperate. Afghans constitute the second- largest group of asylum seekers in Europe, with 196,170 applying last year. Meanwhile neighbouring countries, Pakistan and Iran, have announced plans to remove Afghan refugees from within their borders, and estimates put that population at around 3 million. All will be returned to Kabul, a city which at best is crawling along.
To visit a Kabul refugee camp was one of the most extreme experiences of my life – crippling poverty, streams of open sewers, limited access to clean water, stoves fuelled by plastic and very little chance of escape. The camps are by no means a stop-gap for the 1.2 million internally displaced.
As Afghanistan heads towards a fourth decade of war, the majority of Afghans have truly had enough. Those who can afford to leave do so. People have long given up on the US/NATO puppet Afghan government largely made up of those warlords who will cooperate with the international community. The Taliban are said to have gained control of 35% of the country in just over a year, and they are now being joined by ISIS which is reportedly spreading across the country while also carrying out largescale attacks within Kabul. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recently reported an increase in casualties, with 3,498 civilians killed and 7,920 wounded in 2016. Severe poverty almost automatically creates high crime. For Afghanistan, within a decade, 7% of the population has become addicted to opium; warlords profit from this condition.
The Afghan people have nowhere to go. They are trapped between a rock and a hard place. Foreign immigration policies don’t take responsibility for the repercussions of their bombs which leave families bereaved, homeless and displaced. The ‘Kabubble’ which is expected to receive a flood of refugees is already bursting. Peace is still a long way off.
The story of Farzana, translated by her daughter Zarghuna and written up by Maya Evans
When I was six, life was good. I didn’t know anything outside my mother and father’s world. In the village where I lived it was possible to see the mud houses from far away. The Baba Mountains stretched forever into the distance. In spring everything was lush green, the water flowed from the mountains feeding the stream in front of our house, all the time you could hear water flowing. People worked hard on the land every day in the mountains herding sheep and goats or working in the shops at the Bazaar. Women made bread in tandoors. Life in the village of Topi was hard but people were happy.
I had just started school for maybe a month when the war started. The Russians had come to Bamiyan and it was the beginning of war for Afghanistan. When the helicopters started to drop bombs on our village the people fled to the mountains to live in caves. Sometimes two families would live in a cave for two or three months. We loaded food and blankets onto a donkey and crossed the rocky mountain paths to the safety of the caves. During the day the men would go out to cut alfalfa and the women sometimes travelled back to the farms to collect vegetables. I stayed in the cave and played with my dolls and my siblings, an older sister and two big brothers.
It took a long time for the Russian war to end, maybe two or three Presidents passed. It was hard growing up under constant pressure. People were always afraid and they couldn’t travel freely. When I was twelve I got to travel with my grandmother to Kabul when it was under the control of the Russian ‘iron fist’. Although Kabul was full of Russians then, and ‘bad men’ who would beat people, Afghan women wore short skirts and sometimes didn’t wear head scarves. I remember once being on a bus and a woman admired my handmade scarf from Bamiyan. The woman stroked it and said she had never seen a scarf like mine and asked me to bring one back from Bamiyan for her.
Kabul was clean then, not like today. The rivers, which now contain more rubbish than water, were a source of life and leisure for Afghans, with people fishing on the banks and even swimming. The streets weren’t crowded and the air was clean. I remember seeing the Russian tanks leaving to fight in the Panjsheer valley. When the soldiers left they were happy but when they returned they were beaten, carrying their dead and wounded from a battle. This victory made the Tajik Commander Ahmed Sheer Mahsood’s name, forever glorified in Afghan history as ‘The Lion of the Panjsheer’.
After the war people were very poor and there wasn’t much food. Many Afghans became refugees in Iran including my two brothers. One of my brothers travelled on foot in women’s clothing to avoid being forced to become a fighter. Those still living in the village returned to work on their farms, growing potatoes and wheat, and keeping cows. My grandmother and I planned to follow my brothers but my older sister, who had recently married in Kabul, fell pregnant so my grandmother stayed to help her with the baby.
By the time that war ended I was thirteen and it was decided that I should marry. It was autumn when I married. It was an exciting day and although it wasn’t my decision, I realised I had to accept it. My husband Rahmony was around nineteen years old and was handsome and kind. We had grown up in the same village so I already knew him. Everyone knew everyone in the village as there were only around 32 families.
My mother and father-in-law brought candies to the wedding and threw them in the air like confetti. The women played the doryha drum and danced, while they sang a special coming of age song. When I went to live with her husband’s family it was very difficult as it was a big family, he had three brothers and four sisters plus grandparents. One of the brothers had already married so his wife also lived in the house. My husband was gentle and he would sweep the floor and cook. His brother would say he was not a real man but I loved him and appreciated his kindness. Unlike other husbands he never beat me.
Every day I washed the clothes, collected alfalfa off the land and milked the sheep and cows. The alfalfa naturally grew near the potatoes and wheat and we knew that the crops would grow strong if the alfalfa grew. The men were all farmers and would spend the day working on the land.
Then the fighting started again and many of the men joined the Mujahuddin, but not Rahmony, he stayed to work on the land as he didn’t like the violence.
The men would mainly fight each other in the mountains but sometimes violence came to the village. I often saw flame throwers – canisters of gas propelled through the air by a flame. The fighting was between five groups and they would fire at anyone who was walking around. The different groups were drawn up along ethnic lines and were supported by different countries. ‘Nasar’ were helped by the Americans, ‘Harakat’ and ‘Scepor’ were backed by Iran, ‘Jamyat’ were Tajik and Pashtoon and there was also ‘Shora’. They all fought in the ‘Jang-e-dohkhely’ – the ‘war inside’.
I heard from the people in my village that America was a country far away but I didn’t know where. I heard the names of other countries like Iran, Russia and Pakistan, but only when people in the village talked about where the weapons came from.
I was fifteen when my first child Khamed was born. Life was hard because of the Mujahuddin but because of my husband Rahmony I was happy. A year later my second son Lolla was born, then four years later my first daughter Zarghuna was our third blessing.
After the Mujahuddin things weren’t clear. Najibullah became President and I thought he was good for the people. I remember listening to the radio at home, being warmed by the flames of our stove. I heard Najibullah’s voice crackling through the radio, with his message urging for peace and asking the fighters in the mountains to come down, to have peace and life. But they did not listen. I didn’t understand why they continued to fight, maybe it had something to do with the business of weapons, but I don’t know.
By this point my second daughter Karima had arrived, and then my younger sons Abdul and Arif making six. Life for me was the same, I still went out to collect alfalfa for the cows, washed clothes and looked after my family. My eldest daughter Zarghuna adored her father and never liked to be separated from him. Sometimes he liked to sleep outside under the stars and although she was afraid of the worms in the ground, she would insist on sleeping next to him, lulled to sleep by the sound of the stream running past their home. Rahmony was keen for his daughters to attend school. It was he who enrolled Zarghuna at age six and it was him who often fetched her from school.
And then the Taliban came to Kabul.
I had heard from others in the village that the Taliban killed everyone, especially the Hazaras, but I did not believe these stories. Then one day men from the Mujahuddin returned to the village and said the Taliban were coming, and that even they were afraid. At first the Talibs arrived by car and then on horseback. They carried guns and long knives. I realised then that the stories I had heard were true.
There was no time, it was chaos. Rahmony and I collected up all our children, except for Khamed and Abdul who were missing. But the family had to flee for their lives – immediately. During the day we crossed mountains, and that night we saw the smoke of burning houses which the Taliban had set alight. We had nearly escaped to the safety of the mountain tops where the Taliban would not find us.
We were not the only family who were fleeing. In our group were Rahmony’s brother and his family plus two other men. We walked for nearly a day when we became aware of the voices of Talibs close by so we crouched in the shady shadows under an overhanging cliff. Everyone was frozen to their hiding space. Karima said that she was thirsty but still we didn’t move as we could sense danger was near. The women were praying that the Taliban would not see them; we needed to stay hidden for just a few more hours and then dusk would hide our escape into the mountains where we would not be found.
A man whom we didn’t know happened to wander past, he wasn’t a Talib and he did not sense the imminent danger. He could see the group sheltering under the rock and called them to come out. His voice cut the silence of the mountains.
I had dressed my young son Lolla in my own clothing so he looked like a girl, but there was no disguising Rahmony, his brother and the two other men. Zarghuna clung to her father as the Talibs ordered the men out of our hiding place. Rahmony took his scarf and wrapped it around seven year old Zarghuna, his daughter who never liked to be away from him, he told her not to be afraid and that he would always be with her.
Five minutes later we heard the sound of gunfire.
The Taliban told the women and children to return home. The shock left me unable talk and my legs stopped working. I had to go down the mountain by dragging myself along the ground. The next day we decided to try and find Rahmony but it was snowing and very cold. We searched but did not find him.
Rahmony’s Mother realised that the men had been killed so she went out to find the bodies. She discovered them not far from where we had been separated, holes were dug and they were buried at the spot that they had been killed.
Rahmony, my kind and handsome husband was gone.
Now I had to think about the lives of my six children. At first I didn’t want to tell Arif and Karima that the Taliban had killed their father, plus I still had no news about my eldest son Khamed and four year old Abdul. We asked the people returning from the mountains if they had seen them, but they had not. After twenty days the people in the village said that they must have been killed by the Taliban, but finally after forty long days a cousin came to say that they were safe and at an aunt’s house.
Life was nearly impossible without Rahmony. Two of his brothers and his father had also been killed. I asked his remaining family if I could have his share of the land, one of the brothers agreed but the other did not. But I was now the head of a family and like an Afghan man I claimed my piece of land. Security was still bad, the threat of the Taliban still loomed heavily so we sold our remaining livestock and planned to leave. We bought two sacks of flour for bread and loaded up our donkey. I lead my young family as we travelled for weeks; sleeping on hilltops and under the stars, dodging Talibs. Abdul was still a slow walker and Arif had to be carried, but still I kept my family together and safe.
Finally we reached the outskirts of Kabul and found a kind woman who wanted to share her large house with a family which did not have any men. Her husband and father had both left for Pakistan leaving her with three children and the house to look after. The room which we were given was beautiful as the kind woman’s father was rich. Lolla, now eleven, managed to get a job in a local shop and also went to the mountains with Khamed to collect bushes to fuel the tandoor and sell to other families.
We stayed in that house for six months until relatives in Bamiyan told us it was safe to return, that the Taliban had gone. We made the long journey back to our village, though by now it was winter so the journey was extra arduous. We collected wood and bushes during the day to burn at night.
When we returned to our house we found that someone else had been there. The pictures on the wall had been burnt, a box of clothes which we left in the corner had been thrown outside, and on the floor were bullets. My grandmother told stories of becoming a cook for the Taliban. They would call her ‘mother’ and bring chicken for her to cook or flour to make bread. The Talibs who occupied the village were different from the Talibs who first came and killed and beat women for not wearing socks. These Talibs accepted my grandmother and even gave her a new scarf because the one she wore was thread bare.
When the Americans came the Taliban left in cars with camouflage netting stretched across the roofs.
I remember food parcels being dropped from the sky and one of my neighbours running out into the field, unaware of a land mine which someone had planted during one of the many wars. Then foreign soldiers came but the village people did not ask questions. It was a time of peace even though everyone was poor and many people had been killed or had left.
Things were expensive. Khamed worked on the land and Lolla sold things on the street like bubblegum, socks, matches and walnuts – a walnut in its shell was 2 Afghanis (around 2p). Karima and Zarghuna worked at home washing clothes and collecting water from the spring, they also returned to school.
After so much travel and being hungry and scared, we found hope to be alive.
This interview took place when Farzana travelled from Bamiyan to Kabul for Zarghuna’s graduation ceremony. Today the roads from Bamiyan are extremely unsafe as they’re patrolled by the Taliban, ISIS and criminals. If a bus is stopped people say they are travelling to see family or for hospital, if students or government workers are found they are likely to be executed. If foreigners are discovered they will be kidnapped or killed. A white flag on a house signals the Taliban.
Zarghuna is a member of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, she is the first person in her family to become a college graduate, the first woman in her village and one of the first APVs. She translated her mother’s story and added details from her own recollections. Farzana was extremely proud to see her daughter graduate.
This was also written the week a UNAMA report was published stated that a record number of 3,948 civilians were killed in 2016 and 7,920 injured. Since 2009, the armed conflict in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 24,841 civilians and injured 45,347 others.
Address to MPs in Parliament, as part of a Stop the War briefing
I have been visiting Afghanistan regularly since 2011, working with a nonviolent Afghan youth peace group, recording my general observations, and creating campaigns to keep the ongoing Afghan war within the awareness of UK citizens.I have made 9 trips so far.I’d say Kabul has changed considerably over the last seven years, there’s a lot more construction taking place, new buildings seem to pop up overnight and the city seems to have become increasingly busier, there’s a strong feeling that it’s bursting at the seams. When the US and NATO invaded in October 2001, the population of Kabul was 1.5 million, but today that figure stands at 5 million (1) with so many war-displaced flocking to the city for safety, as it is one of the few locations in Afghanistan with no direct fighting between the military forces, the Taliban and IS. That’s not to say that Kabul is in any way safe, (2) with weekly suicide bomb attacks, sporadic street violence, and a small industry of abductions for ransom being common threats. When I first started visiting it was relatively fine for me to walk the streets even though a foreigner, but today my teenage friends earnestly advise all visitors against walking anywhere, urging the hire of taxis for even 5 minute walks. The biggest danger for a foreigner is kidnap (3), while the biggest worry for everyone is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My friends in the Afghan Peace Volunteers (4) live in Karte Se – District 3 – a relatively mixed residential area within Kabul. Taking a short walk to the local bazaar gives you a snapshot of the some of the many problems gripping Afghanistan. The opportunity to venture out is rare and very exciting, the bustle of Kabul street life is intensely stimulating on the senses, the echo of recorded announcements from tannoys which are strapped to carts selling juicy oranges from Jalalabad, or towers of pomegranates from Kandahar, or cauliflowers bigger than your head. The blue cloudless sky and bright sunlight is blinding, the spectacular Hindu Kush mountains in the background look unreal, as though someone had cut a picture out of the National Geographic and stuck it behind a very busy city scene.
Most of my shopping experiences are to Karte Seh’s “Red Bridge”, from which much of the red paint has now been chipped away (it’s generally caked in dirt). The bridge is a hive of activity, though: it is a market.People compete for spaces, labourers sit with their shovels, waiting for work, representing an estimated 40% of the male population who are currently unemployed (5). A woman under a burka clutches a small baby bundled in rags, with her head bent and a begging-hand extended. I am told prostitution is a thriving industry, but what is under the bridge is even worse. The bridge once crossed a lush river where in the ‘70s children swam and people fished for their suppers, but today the riverbed is a dumping ground for uncollected rubbish, where a grey slug stream snakes around discarded water bottles, plastic bags and general detritus, and the people who have become addicted to opium.This is a popular congregation point for them; openly consuming heroin, their hands and gaunt faces black with dirt, their eyes vacant, because their souls have been robbed. Today Afghanistan has approximately 3 million people addicted to opium, a staggering 12% of the population (6) due mainly to the massive surge of the lucrative poppy cultivation industry after the start of the war. Today warlords dominate Afghanistan despite copious blood on their hands from unspeakable massacres during the war and in the decades before it; and many of these are now directing an opium industry which accounts for 90% of the world’s supply, up from only 27% before the 2001 invasion (7). This relatively new phenomenon catches Afghanistan withlittle-to-no infrastructure ready to cope with it, the rehab clinics being few and far between, and the reasons for wanting to forget all too obvious.
When in Kabul I usually make a point of visiting some of the refugee camps, of which there are now 50in and around Kabul (8). For several consecutive years I have visited the “Charman-e-Babrak” camp which sits near a row of private health clinics, across a mud road with no laid surfaces so that cars often get stuck in deep pot holes, and cyclists ride in zigzags. In the last 7 years I’ve seen no improvements in that camp, it’s the same children walking around in the mud and snow with either no shoes or just sandals. The heavy stench of raw sewage immediately smacks you in the face upon entering the camp via a rickety makeshift corrugated iron bridge over the camp’s roadside moat, a torrent of raw flowing sewage. The houses are made of mud bricks and of scavenged bits of scrap iron and wood, with old bits of canvas stretched over to make a roof. These are the conditions for some of Afghanistan’s 1.3 million internally displaced people, a staggering figure which threatens to steadily increase as more refugees are deported en-masse from Pakistan, Iran and Europe (9).
To contextualize the Kabul camps, I should mention that I’ve spent time in the Jungles of Calais, and can confirm that they are a humanitarian disaster and a disgrace for the developed world; butin comparison to an Afghan refugee camp the Calais Jungle conditions are not halfbad. Many Afghan camps receive little to no aid, they’re a nowhere land full of nowhere people, and generally a ‘no go’ zone for visitors. From speaking to people in Kabul camps it seems that once you land there it’s more or less impossible to get out, and they are your long-term-to-permanent future. There are, of course, also a calculated 2 million Afghans seeking refuge outside the country, making up the second biggest ethnicity of refugees in Europe, and many of their futures will lie in the desperate camps around Kabul, as most European countries (10) have judged Kabul a ‘safe’ location for deportation, despite the fact that many refugees have never visited Kabul, and have no family or friends in the city.
My visits to Afghanistan have always been to Kabul, as for a foreigner to venture outside the city would be extremely dangerous. Even for an Afghan it’s deadly dangerous: my friends describe it as the ‘Wild West’ with vehicles regularly stopped by the Taliban, people asked for ID and sometimes executed if found to have connections with foreigners. One of my young Afghan friends Zahra watched her friends’ execution after their bus was stopped by the Taliban in Kandahar. Four of her friends, all aged eighteen, had made the mistake of travelling with their student ID cards on them.Today Zahra struggles with depression, trying desperately to erase the memory of witnessing the roadside end of her classmates.
All of my Afghan friends exhibit some sort of behaviour ‘issue’ whether that’s throwing things at walls, or ripping up clothing, or falling prey to fits of rage, depression, detachment. Pretty much everyone in Afghanistan has directly lost a family member during the last 38 years of war. Last year my friend Ali lost his older brother: a police officer in Kandahar who fell victim to an IED. Then there’s 15 year old street-kid Habib, the main bread winner of his family after his father was killed, six years back, in a sectarian-based attack on a Shia mosque.Researchers calculate that for every one of these direct casualties of war, another 4 Afghans die due to indirect war causes such as hunger, disease and injury (11). Just the other week, one of the main co-ordinators of the group unexpectedly lost his 4 month old son: today Afghanistan has the second-highest infant mortality rate in the world (12).Everyone in Afghanistan has experienced loss, everyone lives close to death, the feeling of deep depression is evident in the faces of all people, mental health statistics are staggering, it is calculated that 68% of the population suffer from depression, 72% from anxiety and 42% from post-traumatic stress disorders (13).
The other week I chatted via Viber to 11-year-old street-kid Inam who polishes shoes for a living. He and his friends sometime call me on a Sunday morning to practice their English: we normally talk about our favourite fruits and vegetables. Last Sunday their teacher explained that Inam’s water well had dried up, now a common problem in Kabul and across Afghanistan where only 27% of the population can access clean water (14). Today in Kabul the wells are having to be drilled an extra 40 metres deep to reach a dropping water table (15), with the water crisis about to worsen with a Chinese copper mine north of Kabul having recently opened: water in great quantities is a must of the mining process (16). Much more foreign mining will almost certainly follow, with a geological study having calculated that Afghanistan has an estimated $3 trillion worth of precious materials to be mined (17). It’s deeply ironic that one of the poorest countries in the world has such potential riches. Afghans that I speak to are doubtful that they will see any of that wealth. It is calculated that 36% of Afghans are currently living below the poverty line (18).
During my last visit to Kabul, made earlier this year, I chatted to my young friend Gul, who faces, with an absent father, a high expectation of being the family breadwinner at age 17 for a family of 6 younger siblings. He asked me for advice, “Should I leave Afghanistan for Europe? What is there for me in this country, there is no work, the streets are dangerous even for walking, my life will amount to nothing if I stay.” I really didn’t know what to say to him, I shared with him what I do know, that the journey to Europe is extremely dangerous, that many people die en route, and that today the EU (19) and the UK (20) deem Kabul a ‘safe’ location to which to deport Afghans, so that even if you do make it to Europe there’s every chance of just being deported back again … I felt deeply compromised answering his question, as in reality there is very little for people in Afghanistan.
One of my other contacts in Kabul is Latifa Ahmadi, Director of the “Organisation to Promote Afghan Women’s Capabilities”, a grassroots organisation which trains women in handicrafts and provides basic literacy and numeracy education allowing women to run small home businesses and provide an extra income for their families. Latifa has razor-sharp intelligence and a stunning dedication to the task of helping Afghan women, although she has received death threats for running such an organisation. Many of the women who attend class do so in secrecy from their husbands, their fathers, and other family members. I was very struck at our last meeting when Latifa described the current state of the country as “worse than living under the Taliban.” She went on to explain, “living under the Taliban was awful and oppressive for women – but at least there was security, you could travel on the roads and it was relatively safe. Today travelling by road is very unpredictable.”
In relation to women generally, very small gains have been made in the last 16 years. Certainly I have met women in Kabul who say their lives have been greatly improved since the removal of the Taliban, but these women have largely been middle-class professionals, those in academia and the NGO world. Without a doubt those women would not have been able to have had professional jobs under the Taliban. And there have been gains for girls in Kabul who, with the consent of family, are generally able to access schools (unless they’re street kids or refugees). However, for girls living outside of Kabul, in the rural provinces, very few enjoy the chance to attend school with a current estimate of 1,100 Afghan children dropping out of school every day (21). Instability within the country means it’s unsafe for many children to attend school, or they must work to support the family: at least a quarter of Afghan children are engaged in child labour (22). Then there’s the 2009 “Elimination of Violence Against Women Act” which is still struggling to be passed, though in 2015 the Supreme Court banned the imprisonment of women for running away from their husbands, with the caveat that if a woman does leave her husband she must go to a medical provider, the police, or the house of a close male relative (23). None of those locations are ideal for a woman trying to escape domestic violence.
When I speak with Afghan women’s rights activists they all share the opinion that war makes it difficult-to-impossible for women to organise and promote equality, as priority must be given to keeping themselves and their families alive.
To be an Afghan today is to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one side you have the Taliban, and now IS, using IEDs, suicide bombs and pressure plate devices, and on the other side you have Government forces and illegal militias who employ rockets and mortars. All of these weapons are devastating for civilians; and more often than not, civilians are caught up in the fighting. The last UNAMA report published in July 2017 calculated 1,662 civilians killed in the first 6 months of the year with 3,581 injured, and of those killed 174 were women and 436 were children, a 23% and 19% increase respectively from the previous year (24). UN figures show that since January 2009 more than 26,500 civilians have been killed and 49,000 injured as a result of conflict, while the “Cost of War” project says an overall conservative estimate of Afghans killed since 2001 is 217,000 (25). It’s reported that both sides in the conflict have attacked hospitals and healthcare facilities: in February 2016 Afghan Special Forces raided a health clinic run by a Swedish humanitarian organisation (26), attacking medical staff and shooting three patients dead. In September 2016 the Taliban dressed as doctors and attacked a hospital in Kandahar city killing one civilian (27). And then there’s the well-publicised US bombing of the MSF hospital in Kunduz, killing 42 civilians (28), an incident still under investigation which is being described as a ‘war crime’.
Last August President Trump stated in a speech that his intentions in Afghanistan were “not nation building again, we are killing terrorists.” The Pentagon has deployed a further 3,900 US troops to bolster up the 8,400 already in the country alongside 13,000 NATO troops, a redeployment which comes just months after the US dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ on Nangarhar Province, one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest countries in the world. Donald Trump’s speech and recent tactics suggest that the US will employ more aerial bombing in its fight against the ever-strong Taliban and the increasingly influential IS. Again, aerial bombing is devastating for civilians stuck between a rock and a hard place: with so much of Europe closing its borders, there is simply nowhere for them to go.
Today, most Afghans are deprived of their most basic universal human rights. The future for Afghanistan looks even grimmer than the present, with many predicting all-out civil war eliciting intensified violence from foreign fighters. The discovery of abundant natural resources almost certainly means foreign interests will continue to reign over Afghanistan, with mining-exacerbated ‘water wars’ visible on the not too distant horizon. It’s hard to imagine how things actually could get any worse in an already war-weary country, on its knees and broken after 4 decades of conflict and violence. When I speak to Afghans about what foreigners can do to help, their most common response is: “foreign fighters have so far not helped this country, they haven’t beaten the Taliban, lots of civilians have been killed. If you want to help Afghans then support our schools and healthcare, support civil society groups, but please, stop killing us.”
Sitting with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in the Border Free Centre in the Afghan capital, I picture a glossy advert:
Kabul: central Asia’s best kept secret.
“Will you miss out on the journey of a lifetime? Millions are flocking to take advantage of the Afghan haven. Free one way ticket on your 18th birthday.”
by Ellis Brooks
Kabul must have quite a draw given the millions of people its way headed. The secret is of course that almost none of them are travelling by choice.
The UK government has fought hard to be able to deport failed Afghan asylum seekers, and now regularly charters flights to expedite the process. The Afghan government pleaded with the UK not to resume deportation; human rights organisations protested; the UN and World Bank said it would further destabilise the country; but the Home Office cheerfully began enforcing departures in March 2016.
Part of the basis is that, while the rest of the country is riven with increasing violence from the Taliban and Islamic State, Kabul is safe. Safe enough to deport you even if you have no family or friends here; safe enough even if you’re not from within 500 miles of the capital; safe enough even if you’ve only just turned 18 with no experience surviving in Kabul. 2,018 young people who arrived in the UK as child asylum seekers have been deported to Afghanistan since 2007.
But Kabul is safer than the rest of Afghanistan the way the frying pan is safer than the fire. Attacks and intimidation in the capital are frequent. Abdul Ghafoor, who runs Afghan Migrants Advice and Support Organisation (AMASO), told us “It’s not a suitable time to deport this number of Asylum Seekers back to Afghanistan.
“Kabul is no safe city…. They’re attacking ethnic minorities. The mosques are not the safe, the schools and educational establishments are not safe. Who are the victims? Afghan civilians.”
In this city, even day-to-day decisions like whether to attend a friend’s graduation ceremony or Friday prayers become a security question. Nationally, the war has worsened with 3,498 civilians killed in 2016 according to UNAMA.
There’s no economic security either. There’s already sky-high unemployment and more vulnerable people than can be supported. It’s not that the people in Kabul aren’t resilient; just to survive here takes more strength than I have. The Afghan Peace Volunteers themselves support hundreds of street children and poor families battling the odds.
But Kabul is a city of 1.5 million now accommodating 5 million people. Meanwhile, more than a million refugees from neighbouring countries are being sent back to Afghanistan. On top of this, in 13 camps around the city there are 1.5 million Afghan civilians displaced by violence. Amnesty International describe many thousands “in makeshift shelters, where overcrowding, poor hygiene and harsh weather conditions” lead to widespread disease. Many have died in the cold this winter. It is to this poor excuse for a haven that Europe is set to deport a further 80,000 people.
Abdul calls the deportation policy a “lose-lose situation” because European countries are spending millions to force out asylum seekers who, when confronted with the danger and vulnerability of life in Kabul, will migrate again despite the risks of making the journey.
At the knock-down rate of $4,000, you entrust your life to traffickers to get you over land and sea to get somewhere safer, even if only a little. Abdul described to us the abuse, enslavement and death such a journey risks, telling you all you need to know about how desperate you’d need to be.
In addition to the counsel and support AMASO offers, Abdul’s running a safe house for recent deportees to Kabul, but keeping up with the influx looks set to be impossible.
He’s asking European countries to re-evaluate their unreal attitude to Kabul in the light of the facts. “I went to a meeting inside the European compound and the officials were wearing body-armour,” he says. “So imagine how safe it is in Kabul.”
While in Kabul, February 2017, Donald Trump was making moves to enforce his ‘travel ban’ on Muslims. We asked some Afghan young people their thoughts on this….
Ali, age 19: “All white Americans were immigrants, would he have treated the founding fathers in this way? He is also creating stresses for Muslims within America as they’re now being treated differently. If Trump continues Obama’s policy of maintaining troops it will have a negative impact for us. If feels like American policies have been designed to control the minds of Afghans, if that continues, it won’t be good.” 9:
Haddisa, age 18: “I don’t really know that much about him except he’s a business man and he’s banning Muslims from America. I think immigration is a good thing because sometimes people need to start new lives and a diverse society means you learn a lot.”
Mahdi, age 17: “He seems to be against Muslims so I feel afraid of him. Before he was President, Afghans could study in the U.S., now I think that will change.”
Farzana, age 16: “He will not have good policies because maybe he only knows about business. I don’t think he will be good for Afghanistan if he has a bad idea about Muslims. By his behaviour he will bring segregation and this is bad for anyone who is not white.”
Qasim, age 18: “He is an angry President, I don’t think he will be good. There are many protests and still he doesn’t give up his decision about Muslims and Latinos. He is so angry about Muslims, I think he will use more drones in Afghanistan. I think he needs to not look at things like a business deal.”
Bismillah, age 18: “I hate politics, I don’t want to talk about it, it’s all false. Trump is a bad person and all the world knows it.”
Sami, age 19: “I don’t see how it is possible for him to do business with countries like Saudi Arabia, but then say Muslims are banned. He could possibly be good for Afghanistan as he’s a business man and doesn’t like spending money on soldiers. But as Afghanistan is strategic in Asia, he will not want to leave”
Zahra, age 17: “I don’t know much about him him except he’s banned Muslims from America. We are all global citizens, and although we’re Muslims we haven’t done anything wrong, we share love and humanity, our religion is humanity.”
Neda, age 17: “I’ve heard he doesn’t like Muslims or immigrants, I don’t think he will be a good President, immigrants go to the U.S. because they need to but he rejects them. We know America wants to be the most powerful country in the world, their army have been here fighting, I don’t things will improve for us if he sends more troops, most of the victims have been civilians. I’m sick of war but it will continue if more foreign soldiers are sent.”
Afghan Peace Volunteers are doing something incredible. They are uniting for nonviolence in a country where the voices in power- the Taliban, their own government, the USA- tell them fighting is the answer. In a society riven by abuses of power, they make decisions together. They overcome long held mistrust to bring together young people of different ethnic backgrounds, whether to tackle poverty, educate street children, play football or a dozen other projects for equality, peace and sustainability.
But the challenges of peacebuilding are never over. Living and working together so closely, conflict is a necessary part of life for these young people. Who should join which committee? How should the ethnicities be divided between the football teams? What about when women are excluded from an activity?
The APV Conflict Resolution Team have been running workshops with their peers this week. They plan to offer a mediation service and to engage other youth in alternatives to violence.
I’m learning a lot too. Conflict is universal, but our ways of dealing with it are like the colours of the rainbow. The “Afghan” in the APV name doesn’t just tell you where they are; it signifies the rich heritage that they can draw on when dealing with conflict.
For an Afghan, you don’t enter conflict merely as an individual. Far more than in UK culture, you carry with you the responsibility to your group, be it your family, ethnic community, perhaps your gang. This loyalty is a real strength and source of resilience in a society where people have depended on one another to survive decades of war. Whether we’re talking about physical or mental suffering, poverty, or conflict, knowing you have a group who will be there for you is a source of strength.
It contrasts favourably with Western individualism at its worst, which presumes everyone will prioritise her or his own needs whatever the cost to others.
Equally, this responsibility to your group carries pressure and dilemmas. For example, perhaps you’ve had an argument you regret with someone from a different group; if you accept your wrongdoing in the conflict, you’re not just accepting it for yourself: you are bringing that guilt upon your group. Your group might not welcome that! But if the conflict escalates, your whole group lives with that danger.
And if the conflict is within your group, asserting your personal needs may look disloyal. More than that, it says to your group that it has failed to meet your needs, a source of shame. Many people’s needs are being accounted for in this equation.
In our sessions we’ve explored “conflict styles” based on how assertively and how cooperatively you behave. Afghans, perhaps in a spirit of self-preservation, say they tend towards either avoiding conflict altogether (like a turtle), or going to the other extreme and to force their point (like a shark). Entering into equitable dialogue, where both parties’ needs are heard, is a high-stakes undertaking. When you do, you are likely to involve your whole group: your whole family or community. Everyone has a stake in the conflict. Traditional Pashtun practices like the Jirga take this all-in format.
It’s like playing spindle sticks: move one part and everything shifts. It contrasts with the Western hue of conflict resolution in which individual rights and responsibilities are emphasised. You could look at the group versus the individual as two incompatible models, another clash of East and West. I prefer to see it as a healthy tension, different lenses which each shed more light on the problem. The APVs are doing just that.
While every volunteer has a unique background, this group has built its own identity as the Afghan Peace Volunteers. Their identity is rooted in striving for nonviolent solutions together. They combine their own insight and experience with practices from their own culture and around the world.
So if you want to find out about conflict resolution, Kabul is the place to be.
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.