All posts by vcnvuk

The ‘Kabubble’ is bursting

by Maya Evans (as printed for Labour Briefing

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.

Stop Deportation to Kabul

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.”

I-was-six-when-the-russians-came

‘I was six when the Russians came’

Farzana and Zarghuna on graduation day

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.

What Do Afghans Think About Trump?

Donald Trump

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.” 

Conflict Resolution Afghan Style

by Ellis Brooks

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.

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. 

Human Rights Day, A Call to Care

Meeting a Kabul refugee family

by Kathy Kelly

December 10th marks the U.N. Human Rights Day, celebrating and upholding the indispensable and crucial declaration of universal human rights.On the eve of this event, I visited a refugee camp housing 700 families in Kabul. Conditions in refugee camps can be deplorable, intolerable. Here, the situation is best described as surreal. As I approach the entrance to the camp with my friends Nematullah, Zarghuna and Henrietta, we are overcome by the stench emanating from an open sewer filled with filth. I ask myself, “Can this be real?”

Kabul refugee home

Inside the camp, primitive mud huts are separated by narrow walkways. When the inevitable snow comes, the ground inside and outside the homes will be muddy until the mud freezes.  Plastic has been placed over some of the doors and roofs, in hopes of providing insulation from the coming cold. Mothers in the camp tell us winter months are unbearably hard. Children become sick at the onset of winter and they don’t recover until spring arrives. People burn plastic, boots, clothing, and water bottles for fuel, but when those resources are depleted, they rely solely on heavy blankets to protect them from the cold.

A single water pump serves all 700 families, and the water isn’t even potable.  It needs to be boiled for twenty minutes before use.

Latrines here are the “traditional type,” simple holes dug in the ground.

Our visit was arranged by Nematullah, an Afghan Peace Volunteer. A friend of his teaches informal language and math classes to children at the camp. Nematullah leaned over and asked me to jot down the rights listed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I quickly scribbled food, water, shelter, health care, employment  and security in my notebook. As we listened to the mothers describe their daily lives, we checked off the rights they have been denied.

Refugee family

“Some days we get food from the market if our children work there,” said Nazar Bibi. “They bring back potatoes or turnips. Otherwise we eat bread and tea. Sometimes we have no tea, and sometimes we don’t even have bread.”

We were told, “If someone becomes sick there is no clinic, no first aid. And we have no hospitals nearby that will help us. We can’t afford to travel to hospitals that might accept us.  (Six hospitals serving “better off” people are within walking distance of the camp, but none of them accept the camp residents, who have no means to pay hospital bills, as patients.)

We don’t want to send our children to work on the streets. We’re afraid they’ll be hit by a car or blown up by a suicide bomber. But we are desperate for food and fuel and there is no work for men and women here in the camp. Sometimes the children return home and there is no bread for them.  They wake up after midnight, begging for food because they are so hungry, and there is nothing for them.”

“If we had education, perhaps we wouldn’t be here,” said Nazar Bibi. “We want our children to learn, but even government schools cost money. We have no income.”

One woman managed to laugh. “We don’t even know what a dollar looks like!  What color is it? Is it black, or white?” said Shukria. “If America sends dollars here, we never see them. No one cares about us.”

The women said they do feel secure within the camp. They can go to the latrine without being harassed.

Shojun and her family are relieved to have escaped the fighting in Kunduz. She described nightmare experiences with bullets flying  back and forth over and through her house. After fleeing in haste they realized one of the seven children was still in the house.  Fortunately, he was saved. She and her family arrived in Kabul with no belongings, only themselves.

Shukria, who fled fighting in the Laghman province, showed us the large raw scar tissue covering her inner, upper arm.  The Taliban killed her husband twelve years ago.  She then married his brother, but two years ago, during renewed fighting between the Taliban and government forces, their home was attacked.  Her husband lost a foot. He then left the province, abandoning her and her two children.  Shukria says that sometimes she considers suicide but then thinks of the two children. Today, she has no food to serve them lunch. Shukria herself is painfully thin.  She shakes her head, and adds because she never has shampoo she washes her hair with detergent and she thinks it’s causing her hair to fall out.

Up to the end of 2014, the U.S. had spent more money for ‘reconstruction’ in Afghanistan than was allotted for the Marshall Plan ( more than two thirds of this had gone to build up Afghan military and police forces), yet Afghans remain one of the poorest people in the world. 

At the same time, the U.S. Congress has authorized $618.7 billion for the National Defense Authorization Act, to fund the Department of Defense in 2017. Even a fraction of this budget, directed toward human needs, would solve the problem of starving children worldwide as well as meet the needs of the destitute people living in the camps throughout Afghanistan. It would be fitting on this December 10th, U.N Human Rights Day, if the citizens of the US were to extend a hand of true friendship to those in need throughout the world and make meeting the needs of the world’s least fortunate the first priority. True security for the US will be achieved through caring for and respecting the world’s most needy, not through the rampages of war and destruction which has made the US the most feared country in the world.

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org). While in Kabul, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers (ourjourneytosmile.com)

Photo credit: Henrietta Cullinan