All posts by Maya Evans

Maya Evans is a UK peace activist with focuses around Afghanistan, civil liberties, Islamphobia and drones. She is also a freelance journalist and campaigns organiser. She received Liberty's campaigner of the Year award in 2007.

Bagram & Guantanamo: What do Afghans Think?

APV Fasting in Solidarity with Guatanamo Prisoners
APV Fasting in Solidarity with Guatanamo Prisoners

by Ghulamai Hussein and Maya Evans

Guantanamo Prison has now been in operation for 12 years. 155 people are currently being held illegally, mostly without charge or trial. 16 of them are Afghans, many swept up in 2002 when fellow Afghans (perhaps motivated by bounty rewards being doled out by the U.S ) informed on fellow Afghans as being members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. International solidarity for the “enemy combatants” increased dramatically  when 106 out of 166 prisoners started hunger striking a year ago. Forty-five of them were eventually force fed. During the international week of solidarity 6-13th January, marking12 years of Guantanamo, the Afghan Peace Volunteers took action by pledging to a 3 day fast. Other global actions included an international fast, a sit in at Washington DC history museum to “make Guantanamo history” and a mass Trafalgar Square rally in the UK.

Ghulamai making a solidarity banner, Zerkrullah resting while on a fast
Ghulamai making a solidarity banner, Zerkrullah resting while on a fast

During our 3 day fast, which is no mean feat in an Afghan winter, the APV discussed the issue of illegal prisons both around the world and within Afghanistan. Ghulamai, a quietly smart 16 year old peace volunteer started off the discussion by debriefing on some research he had carried out. It seems there is a general lack of awareness in the Afghan mainstream about Guantanamo or Bagram, despite Bagram being in Parwan, the neighbouring province to Kabul only 67km away. Internationally the prison was put on the human rights map in 2002 when two homicides took place, with reports emerging that prisoners Habibullah and Dilawar were chained to the ceiling and beaten to death. Autopsies revealed severe trauma to both prisoners’ legs, describing the injuries as comparable to being run over by a bus.

Seven soldiers were charged; Captain Christopher Beiring was charged with dereliction of duty and making false statements; the charges were dropped, but he was reprimanded. Sgt. Christopher Greatorex was tried on charges of abuse, maltreatment, and making false statements; he was acquitted. Sgt. Darin Broady was tried on charges of abuse and acquitted. Sgt. Brian Cammack pleded guilty to charges of assault and making false statements; he was sentenced to three months in jail, a fine, reduced in rank to private, and given a bad conduct discharge. Pfc. Willie Brand was convicted of other charges, but acquitted of charges relating to abuse of Habibullah.

It was only in 2010 when the American military released (by legal force) the names of 645 detainees during a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Lawyers also demanded detailed information about conditions, rules and regulations.

On the road from Kabul to Bagram
On the road from Kabul to Begrime, abandoned Russian tanks

Today, according to news reports, there have been 3,000 prisoners in Bagram and allegedly 67 are non-Afghans.  Most are Afghans who were arrested in different places, most inside and a few outside of Afghanistan. The USA  kicked off their flagrant breach of international human rights in 2001 with the Patriot Act, which paved the way for other such abhorrent laws which allows the US to detain people without trial. Bagram prison was officially handed over to the Afghan government in March of 2013, however this turnover is theoretical, with the reality being that the U.S. is still in control. A few weeks ago, the Afghan government announced that they were releasing 650 prisoners from Bagram prison. The U.S. government considers 88 of those prisoners (who have never been on trial) ‘dangerous’ and demanded that they not be released.  The Afghan Government appointed a review board which decided to release 76 prisoners. As I write announcements are being made that 37 prisoners are due to be released, much to the outrage and protest of the US government. The recent wave of activity around the prisoner release is the first real awareness or knowledge many Afghan are having about Bagram.

Abdulhai reading up on Gandhi
Abdulhai reading up on Gandhi

Abdulhai, an astute 17  year old boy who lost his Father to the Taliban 12 years ago, said: “I feel the U.S. is playing power games.  Afghans need a greater awareness of what is going on .  They don’t have much information.  Maybe more awareness will be raised in the controversy over releasing prisoners from Bagram.”

Faiz, a sensitive 22 year old Tajik training to be a journalist said: “It’s not only the general public that lacks awareness, the prisoners themselves are also clueless about what is happening.  People need to understand the roots of the problem, understand U.S. support for the Mujahideen who eventually became the Taliban, and understand how it is that they are caught and stuck in prison.”

Ghulama: “It’s unknown as to whether the 3,000 prisoners are innocent or not, but based on what is known about Guantanamo it could be that the majority are innocent.”

Ghulamai in the Panjshir
Ghulamai in the Panjshir

I asked Ghulamai what he thought about Bagram as a result of his research. He said: “I think due process of law should be applied to any person arrested.  A person should be charged and tried in court, even during this war on terrorism.  The court process should follow gathering of evidence.  Lawyers should be provided for prisoners that cannot hire their own lawyers.  The case should be determined along the course of law by a judge who would then pass a sentence.  The situation for the 3,000 now involves detention without trial, no access to lawyers, and uncertainty about whether any charges have been made against them.”

Abdulhai : “The U.S. government is demonstrating that they are not subject to anyone else’s laws.  They are powerful.”

Peace volunteer Raz Mohammed, a 21 year old twinkly eyed engineering student from the volatile province of Wardak, talked about his first hand experience. His home province is an area populated mainly by Pashtoons, the ethnic group which mostly make up the Taliban. Raz explained how his neighbour Alam Gul in the Nakh district of Wardak was taken to Bagram a year ago. Alam is around 33 years old and married with children. Last year American soldiers came to his house and took him in the middle of the night. He was asleep with his family in a room when the door was broken in by soldiers shouting not to move. They searched the house and took him away, and he was sent to Bagram for 3 months. For his family it was very hard as for a month they had no idea where he was, until finally they found out he was in Bagram. After 3 months Alam Gul was released with his arrest being described by American forces as a “mistake”. Thankfully this man didn’t experience torture.

Raz Mohammed in the Panjshir
Raz Mohammed

Raz Mohammed also talked about his Uncles’ daughter’s husband Bashir, from the village of Dadal in Wardak province. It was 2 years ago and Bashir was around 26. Like Alam Gul he was taken at midnight by American soldiers but in his case there was also the assistance of local Afghan soldiers. At first he was taken to Logar province prison and tortured, before being transferred to Bagram where he was tortured further with sleep deprivation and weekly interrogations by American soldiers. This lasted for a month before he was released without charge. Bashir described Bagram as being much harder than Logar prison because of the sleep deprivation and interrogations. He was also kept in isolation and on occasions saw some people who had been held for 7 to 8 years without trial.

I asked Ghulamai if people in Afghanistan feel safer or more angry because of Bagram, he paused and calmly responded: “People are more angry.  I would be angry if I saw or experienced torture or rape, and for what? If I got sent to Bagram prison I would invite Obama to go with me.”

Read more:

UK resistance to Guantanamo: http://londonguantanamocampaign.blogspot.com

37 Bagram prisoners are going to be released: http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2014/01/27/22465065-afghanistan-to-free-37-bagram-inmates-despite-us-protests?lite

The Duvet project at the APV compound

Winter Warmth and Seasonal Greetings from Afghanistan

The Duvet project at the APV compound
The Duvet project at the APV compound

“After 10 years of a large international presence, comprising about 2,000 aid groups, at least $3.5 billion of humanitarian aid and $58 billion of development assistance, how could children be dying of something as predictable — and manageable — as the cold?” 
 New York Times, Feb 2012

by Maya Evans with Ali

For the second year running the Afghan Peace Volunteers’ duvet project is well underway. VCNV UK has been able to contribute £3,000 this year with the support of anti-war groups and many individuals, to date $30,000 has been raised internationally. In the middle of Kabul’s brutally cold winter, the venture provides an income for some of the poorest women in Kabul who are paid to make the duvets, and it brings warmth to disadvantaged families who live in some of the worst conditions in the world.

Completed duvets brought back by seamstress
Completed duvets brought back by seamstress

Over the next three months, around 3,000 duvets will be made by sixty women and distributed to families in Kabul who most need the extra warmth they provide.

The duvet project is run entirely by the young men and women APVs who work entirely voluntarily. In the last few months they have put a lot work into the project, researching which households will benefit most from the duvets, as well as recruiting local seamstresses who are in need of the work to help support their families.

The process starts with referrals from local NGOs of poorer households who are at serious risk in winter from the cold. These can include refugees, the disabled, the visually impaired, the families of drug addicts and street kids. When the APVs visit the homes they have an eligibility criteria to look for which include, for example, the number of people in a family, the number of bread winners, any individuals with special needs and whether the house is rented or owned.

Last week the seamstresses started to arrive at the APV compound to collect the materials to make the duvets. Twenty Pashtu, twenty Tajik and twenty Hazara women will make around 3,000 duvets for providing families with extra warmth for the next three months where temperatures can plummet to around minus 16 degrees celsius in the night. Each woman receives 150 Afghanis for each duvet she makes (equivalent to $2.67), usually taking enough material to make ten duvets at a time.

DuvetsThe yard of the compound has suddenly become a hive of activity with large bails of synthetic wool dotted about what is usually a makeshift football pitch for the APV. The bails are cut open and portions precisely weighed out for the duvets by Zekrullah, a long term APV member who is “approximately 17 years old” but I suspect a few years younger. Each portion of weighed out wool is bundled into a pre-made duvet coverlet, ready to be taken away and stuffed and quilted into a ready to use duvet by the women.

A duvet consists of a cheap coverlet purchased from the Mandaee Bizarre in Kabul town centre. They are probably from China and usually portray cartoon or comic characters such as Batman and Sponge Bob. These materials are the cheapest way of making the duvets. The APV looked into using local materials and making the duvets from scratch but the cost came up more expensive this way, which is another indication of how the long conflict has disrupted local manufacture and now the market is flooded with cheaper mass produced Chinese and Pakistani goods.

Seamstresses sign with a thumb print
Seamstresses sign with a thumb print

The seamstresses usually arrive with some of their children to help, some take the materials away in wheelbarrows and others hire taxis or get friends or relatives to drive away bundles of synthetic wool and coverlets. After a week they return with the completed duvets pilling them high in the yard. The APV account for the made duvets in a ledger, pay the seamstresses for their work and get them to sign it, or for those who are illiterate, a thumb print also suffices.

Shakira, long associated with the APVs and one of the seamstresses, described the importance of the project: “lack of money is one of the main causes of violence towards women in the home, if women can make an income that helps to relieve the problem”.

The main APV co-ordinators of the project are Ali, aged 17 and Holida, who is around 23 years old. Ali describes his role and the importance of the project: “I handle the accounts and part of the overall co-ordination of the project. When I was involved last year I was very affected and moved by the plight of needy families. I remember on one assessment we visited a family on a hillside in Kabul, they were living in extreme dire poverty. I feel very happy to be involved in the project.”

Holida helps with the distribution of materials and ensuring the records of payment are kept in order. She said: “I wanted to do something for the people. Afghans are so desperately in need due to the current poor economy.”

Tomorrow the duvet distribution to poor families will begin.

Read more:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/04/world/asia/cold-weather-kills-children-in-afghan-refugee-camps.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/08/afghanistan-cold_n_1262289.html

i have a dream

refugee camp

Internal refugees, motherhood, and illegal land grabs in Afghanistan

Refugee camp in the Perwan Dodo area of Kabul.

by Maya Evans with Hakim

A few days ago we visited a refugee camp, in the Perwan Dodo area of Kabul. The camp is relatively small compared to camps we’ve visited previously, with around forty families occupying an area about the size of a football pitch. Most of the families were from Pawan Province which is to the north of Kabul. They had become internal refugees after fleeing from their homes due to the fighting or lack of jobs.

It had been raining the night before and the road in front of the camp was flooded. There was a man in knee length wellies wading up to his shins in the water sucking it up with a large tube coming from a truck. We ducked under a curtain of ragged sheets which acted as a makeshift wall between the camp and the busy road. The little lanes which weaved around the camp leading to the various huts were a mud fest. As soon as we stepped into the camp our shoes became encrusted with mud.

Janey interviews a mother in a refugee campJaney had wanted to interview a mother in a refugee camp as part of her short film project about the life of mums in Afghanistan. We were introduced to Paiky, a 42 year old mother of six. Her home was a hut made from mud with a small porch area which seemed to be used for cooking and then a larger area where the family of eight lived. Our Afghan camerawoman Alka set up her equipment while Paiky arranged herself under a large green patterned blanket. We had yet to hear her story but it was already obvious that she was in a lot of pain.

Janey and I sat next to her while some of her children peeked from behind a curtain which led into the darkened main area of the hut. The interview initially started with some of the men present but after a few minutes Paiky requested that they leave. Once the men left the porch Paiky opened her heart and poured forth about her life and physical ailments. She had given birth to four of her six children alone. Her last birth was also unassisted and due to lack of medical care she is still in constant pain six years later. She says the discomfort is so extreme that she can’t wear trousers or any garment on the bottom half of her body. She lifted her blanket and dress to show me her swollen stomach with some extremely sore looking veins running across it. Janey later said she wasn’t in a position to see her stomach but my expression had said it all.

At the end of the interview I joked with three of Paiky’s children, my limited Dari allowed me to describe them as “dost” friends, and in replyRefugee Family they laughed and called me “holla”, aunty. When I looked into the soft eyes of Rafiq who was about eleven, his smile was so warm and sincere that I immediately felt a deep connection with him. Paiky explained that he was the main bread winner of the family. Every day he went out into the street and washed cars for a living, and my heart went further out to this eleven year old man.

Outside our male companions were talking to the elders of the camp. They were learning more about the political economics of the situation. Apparently, the site was previously occupied by another group of internally displaced people (IDPs) who have now been housed in a building development overlooking the present camp. The site is now part of the land grab racket which is currently gripping Afghanistan and is described by Barmak Pazhwak, at the US Institute of Peace,  as “the next big conflict” for the country, while the Afghan Land Authority have assessed that 197,266 hectors of public land has been grabbed.

In 2008 Oxfam published a report which described land issues as now being the main cause of dispute within Afghanistan. The problem lies with the recent falsifying of land ownership documents. Previously there was no legal documentation proving the ownership of land in Afghanistan and land just belonged to families and was passed down between generations. The land theft has given rise to what is locally described as a “land mafia” who are suspected to be a mixture of rich corrupt property developers, drug dealers and war lords – many of whom are currently within the Afghan Government. Kabul is now gripped by this land theft racket.

Refugee KidsIn the case of this camp’s site, the previous refugees had negotiated a deal with the owner of the land, a rich property developer who is said also to have land in Canada and Dubai. Furthermore it is alleged that the developer had struck a deal with a warlord who negotiated housing for the refugees in return for their loyalty as fighters. The buying of refugees’ loyalty is now becoming common place. Many refugees who last year were considered among the poorest in the country are now relatively well off and living in new housing.

Property prices boomed in Kabul up to a year ago with rocketing rents fuelled by the large number of internationals living in Kabul who are earning big money. Recently rents have stalled and are predicted to level out, but are still at massively inflated prices by local standards. Everyday we hear about the problems for ordinary people in Afghanistan – a country with the highest number of drug addicts in the world; the highest infant mortality, mental health problems, domestic violence and internally displaced people – the list goes on and on. Land theft is just another problem to add.

Read more: http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/afghanistan-the-cost-of-war.pdf

http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/land-grabs-in-afghanistan-1-nangrahar-the-disputed-o-rangeland

http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/a-new-round-of-anti-sherzai-protests-in-nangarhar

susan and faiz

Suicide Bombing in Kabul

Susan walking the streets of Kabul, with help from APV
Susan walking the streets of Kabul, with help from APV

By Maya Evans

We’re back in a taxi and heading to visit a woman who has lost two of her sons during a suicide attack in Kabul. The taxi travels along a narrow bumpy street. The snow has now turned to compacted ice. I recognise the area as being close to the Kuchi refugee camp we visited the day before. The district seems to be a fairly poor residential area with the common style of modest Afghan housing akin to the two-up two-down housing found in the north of England.

We exit the taxi and pick our way through a maze of side streets. The path is a typical Kabul dishevelled path, our partially sighted delegate Susan is led by one of the youth peace makers- around puddles, over potholes and into a side door set into a weathered mud wall.

We learn that terrorist attacks are almost daily in Kabul and more often than not, as per usual, it’s the ordinary people who suffer the most.

The two-up, two-down has a small yard with a few chickens stalking around, a line of washing with kids clothing. We step into a very basic home, the front room is barely furnished, but for the traditional form of heating, a stove under a frame covered in blankets. We sit on cushions around the heater and bury our feet under the warm blankets.

VCNV Group - Maya Evans, Rohila FamilyWe’re then introduced to Rohila, a woman in her early forties.  She sits down opposite us and also tucks her feet under the communal blanket. She ushers her small children to sit with her. A girl aged 11 and a small boy aged 7, they huddle in close to her, she wraps her arms tightly round them.

Her face carries creases of fear, worry and depression, her body seems enveloped with tiredness.  She starts her story.

The incident happened 2 years ago, her teenage sons aged 14 and 15 were walking home from school. Usually they would make their way back from school separately and at different times, but for some reason that day they were walking home together.

For some unexplained reason there was a military tank on the roadside where they were walking. At the same time the boys passed the tank a suicide bomber drove a car into the tank causing it to flip over and kill 12 people. The official story reported 2 deaths.

Rohila describes the day: “The explosion was so strong that we felt the vibrations in the house”

Since the incident she has become too afraid to let her other 2 children go to school. Her daughter Shazia says she wants to become a teacher and her son Roshot aspires to be a doctor. Neither have gone to school in the last year.

Rohila and kidsRohila’s mourning face describes her feelings: “I’ve spent so much of my life bringing up my sons, now I don’t know if I’m alive or not, I don’t know if it is day or night. Every time I pass a grave my heart breaks, I don’t know why this has happened, war hasn’t ended. Maybe god has bought this on us. Inshallah the foreign forces will stop the war”

By a strange coincidence one of the peace volunteers had lost his cousin in the same incident. He sat opposite Rohila and talked with intense seriousness about his cousin’s death. However unlike Rohila he doesn’t feel the responsibility for the war ending rests with foreign forces, instead he concludes:

“If the foreign military leaves Afghanistan that may stop some terrorist bombing, but we have the problem that other neighbouring foreign countries are also fuelling violence in the country.”

“People who commit suicide bombing have lost some of their family members and they want revenge for their anger, for example drones kills a family, some say: we don’t have anything for life because I lost all of my family, I don’t have a meaning for life anymore.  The political leaders have lost empathy with the people, they don’t feel their sadness.”

He ends his thoughts by summarizing: “War creates more war, it doesn’t stop the violence.”

Refugee Camp, Shahs Palace, Hindu Kush

Kuchi Refugee Camp in the Shah’s Back Yard

refugee camp_shahs palace_hindu kush

By Maya Evans

The first day of snow is turning to slush as we pull up outside a Kuchi refugee camp on the edge of Kabul. A small heard of goats dressed in old jumpers graze on a skip of rubbish, our taxi driver pulls up over some large puddles;  I tiptoe out of the vehicle onto solid land. The refugee camp is home to around 65 Kuchi nomadic families who have spent their lives wandering the land with livestock.

Goats grazing on rubbishThe camp is set in the former Shah’s palace grounds, perhaps once the grandest building in Kabul, the decrepit palace now stands alone on a hill fort, dilapidated and riddled with bullet holes, a sad relic of a former time.

The refugee camp is in a large walled off area which seems to be an extension to the palace grounds. Ramshackle tents constructed from what appears to be bits of rags, old sacking, old mats, juxtapose with the breathtaking snow-capped mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush, more synonomous with the pages of a National Geographic than a scene of desperate poverty and deprivation.

The Kuchi are traditionally nomadic people who wander land from Pakistan to Iran grazing cattle and gaining casual work. We hear that the Kuchi are considered amongst the least respected group of people within Afghanistan with tales of thievery and low living standards connected with their image. It remindeds me of the widely held perceptions which many Britons hold of the traveller community in the UK. Although the Kuchi are technically Pashtun in ethnicity they are considered a group apart and receive little to no alleigance from other Pashtuns.

Refugee Kids

As we walk into the camp we are greeted by a gaggle of young children dressed in a patchwork of clothing styles: one small boy wearing a pair of high-heeled women’s shoes wading through the mud, another boy in an adult’s fleece top dangling around his knees, a girl in a leopard print jacket over a traditional Afghan trouser suit. It’s surprising that people at the bottom rung of society would meet and treat visitors with warmth and enthusiasm, however they did.

We walk through a bit of the camp, past a group of women huddled under a makeshift shelter, some wearing burkas, others wearing modern clothing likely donated from a western source. The children follow us every step of the way wanting to have their photos taken. The tents and shelters are tightly packed together, there’s a cow tethered to a stick, some chickens pecking the ground, the bright sun melts the snow from the day before. The ground underfoot is a mixture of slush and mud.

FridaIt seems like the camp elders are trying to work out the best tent to host us in. Eventually we were shown into a medium sized tent constructed from hardy canvas material. The muddy  floor is lined with off-cuts of carpet and small rugs, I remove my shoes and step into the tent which is large enough to stand up in. I walk to the back of the tent and sit on the floor, the bits of carpet feel cold and damp. The other delegates and some members from the Afghan Peace Volunteers also enter the tent and we are introduced to Frida, a female elder of the camp who explains she’s received training from the Ministry of Public Health to teach other women about hygiene, she holds up a badge in a plastic sleeve. Frida is immediately striking, perhaps in her 50’s, her weathered face set with deep expressive wrinkles seems to exude strength and wisdom. Her eyes are intense and you somehow know she has seen and done much in her hard life.

We learn that the camp has been there for four years, that the land belongs to the Government and the refugees live with the fear of being told to leave at any point… some sort of military helicopter flies overhead and drowns out Frida’s voice for a few seconds. Frida explains that they were in Pakistan until the UNHCR told them to return to Afghanistan and they would receive help. She tells us that so far they have received none of that promised help.

Her voice is emotional as she explains (via an interpreter): ”Guests are like the light of our lives, we are unable to have our needs heard by leaders such as Karzai – why as president can’t he find a way to look after his people.” She explains that a man standing just outside the tent had to bury his two two dead children in the street as the Government refused to give them a plot for their dead. Frida goes on: ”If we can’t bury our dead we may as well not live”.

Kuchi talks about unemploymentA man who is sat in the doorway wrapped in a classic Afghan blanket wearing a traditional Pashtoon hat explains his feelings: “We are all trampled upon, no one will speak up for us or talk about our concerns, aren’t we born here, don’t we belong to this land?” We learn that all the men are unemployed, unable to find work, the children don’t go to school. Apparently there is a German NGO who provide some basic medicines but beyond that they can not get treatment for proper medical help.

An older man also sat inside the tent, perhaps Frida’s husband is asked for his opinion: “There are so many problems I don’t know where to start, I’m an old man but I want to work, but I can only tie up donkeys, maybe if I had a few sheep it might be a way I could get by. The tents sometimes get so cold that we prefer to sleep outside.”

Kuchi refugee man who wants to keep sheep

I ask if there is a message to send the people in Britain, he replies: ”If the people of Britain could do what they can to help us get through the cold of winter, we are without work or necessities to get by, even if you can’t help us, we are grateful for you hearing this message.”

I personally would like to add to his message. The people of Britain should be speaking out against our own Government who have been central in installing the current corrupt Afghan Government who care very little for the welfare of its people. Our Government has been and continues to be central to the ongoing war which is stopping innocent people from living a life with basic human rights standards. The situation for the 350,000 internally displaced Afghans currently in the country is a symptom of a much bigger issue: it’s not working, and it will never work while Governments such as ours  continue to prop up and maintain corruption and inequality.