Snowy morning in Kabul

Pandora’s Hope meets Afghan Action

 by Mary Dobbing

Snowy morning inKabul
Snowy morning inKabul

One morning we headed out to listen in on a joint meeting between the seamstresses at Afghan Action and Pandora’s Hope, the APV based seamstresses. The morning was bright and cold with freshly fallen snow covering the roads and buildings.  A deep blue sky spread above the snow covered mountains and the morning mist was dissolving in strong sunshine. From the car we could see men shovelling snow – with attention to the getting it off the roofs. Small avalanches of fluffy new snow fell onto the sidewalks from the flat roofs.

Afghan Action’s seamstresses are forming themselves into a cooperative and are starting to get contracts to make uniforms. The meeting was to explore whether they and Pandora’s Hope could collaborate in any way.

Two stoves were burning away with big brass tea kettles warming on top when we arrived with the Pandora’s Hope seamstresses. Afghan Action’s workshop has about thirty sewing machines and big windows looking out over a sunny courtyard with a garden and trees. There were two large cutting tables at the front and a pressing table with a sleeve press. It was a bright room with giant low energy light bulbs providing a good working light. The wood laminate floor was warm and clean, and steel girders held up the wooden roof.

VCNV with Afghan Action Carpets
VCNV with Afghan Action Carpets

Afghan Action is funded from donations from Britain, and some earnings from carpet weaving. Their seamstresses are salaried while they train for one year. Pandora’s Hope women train for a few weeks and do not receive any money. Their work space is used both as a classroom and sleeping room at other times of the day, so all the sewing machines have to be put away. There was a sense that Afghan Action’s women were better trained and they certainly had better equipment and conditions.  All the women had a sewing machine permanently installed with separate tables in a dedicated work space. Afghan Action’s seamstresses have had help forming a business making garments which it is hoped will become self-sustaining. Pandora’s Hope would like to do this for their seamstresses.

The meeting was being held between the seamstresses from both ‘firms’. After Salaam’s all round, the men from each firm introduced the issues which were not translated. There were about thirty young women aged 16-17 years and four or five older women in the meeting. There were some questions and answers between the two groups including some long statements by the women. And occasionally everyone giggled covering their mouths with an end of a scarf, and then looked more serious again.

Maya EvansPinned to the walls were samples of work and paper patterns. There were samples of women’s tops with gathered pleats and embroidered chest panels in several colours. There was a white lab coat and some black blouses. These samples were arranged to attract customers for contracts for uniforms.

There are specific challenges for Afghan women going into business. The Carpet Weavingwomen are unwilling to work from shop front premises in the bazaar. Being open to the public in a shop, and selling and displaying goods are social no-no’s for Afghan women. The culture dictates that women are confined to the domestic and family spheres.Making Afghan Carpets Families prefer women to work at home and all of the above are hard to do in a conservative society. Therefore their problem is how to market their products, take orders and deliver orders to customers.

Outside men were still shovelling vast amounts of snow off the flat roofs. It’s landing with resonant thumps on the walkways outside punctuating the discussion. We left the women to talk while we met with Samim (Manager of Afghan Action) in his office.

Talking with Afghan Action Manager
Talking with Afghan Action Manager

He explained that Afghan Actions’ seamstresses have had one year of training. The primary challenge is how to employ the women and promote independent and sustainable businesses after their training finishes. The first cohort of trainees has just finished and ten or fifteen of the women want to create a business together. They will need to be licensed to get investment from the Afghan Support Investment Agency (ASIA). They hope to get small contracts for uniforms for schools, hospitals, restaurants and hotels etc. As they graduate from their training Afghan Action wants to help the team to start a business. The greatest fear is that after training for a year the women will disperse back to their homes, with no work and no longer getting the training salary. Their training and the business opportunities may evaporate as though nothing had ever happened.

The global economic downturn has affected Afghanistan and the surrounding countries too, and now the orders have stopped. The options remaining for the newly trained seamstresses are:

  • Local marketing – design the garments themselves and get orders from friends and relatives.
  • Contract market – schools, hospitals, restaurants etc
  • Make up their own designs and bring them to the market and sell to the public – traditional Afghan clothes.

While the women had their discussion we heard about another of Afghan Aid’s projects. Afghan Aid also supports carpet weaving and training. The trainees get schooling in Information Computer Technology (ICT), business skills, accounting, literacy, and a bit of English. There is a health care nurse on site to help with minor ailments.

The carpet weaving project is in its seventh year. The sewing project is in its first year. Afghan Action has registered with the Ministries of Business, Economy, Women, and Education. The trainees get a certificate at the end of their training.

The economics of both carpet weaving and sewing garments is stacked against the new Afghan Action trainees. Apprentice made goods are relatively expensive compared to factory production or imports from China and Pakistan. The income from sales of trainees’ pieces is needed to fund more trainees sustainably. Selling the pieces locally means paying a margin to a middle person which also ramps up the item costs.

Afghan CarpetsThe carpet weaving graduates are finding employment in the Kabul carpet factories which is a significant achievement. But the trainees’ apprentice carpets which are sold to raise funds for further trainee places, are valued at $200 per square metre which is more than the carpets from the factories cost. Then there are problems with the expense of difficult and dangerous overland transport. Exporting the carpets costs $15 per kilo in transport alone, which adds yet more to the costs of marketing the carpets outside the country.

For British outlets selling Afghan Aid’s carpets look at www.afghanaction.org

We were called back in to the meeting in the sewing workshop to hear the upshot of the women’s discussion. There had been a searching conversation. Some of the differences emerging between the two groups were:

Working hours. There was a difference in availability between Afghan Action and Pandora’s Hope women about working hours. Afghan Action will come to work whether or not there is work to do. Pandora’s Hope would find that hard to do. Working 08:00-16:00 would not be acceptable to the families of the Pandora’s Hope women.

Separation from men. Pandora’s Hope need a work room where they can be separate from men. Afghan Action’s workshop arrangements cannot guarantee this.

Wages. In a single day they need to earn 500 Afghanis (or $10) per worker in order to help their families.

International Support. They request an international supporter to provide a foreign market for goods. They think they can get a better market for their goods abroad. The middle men in local Afghan markets take a cut and this reduces earnings.

At the end of this day’s discussions, Samim told to us that the seamstresses had agreed to share marketing. But Pandora’s Hope women need to decide whether to work at home or in workshops. They are clear that at the moment their families would not let them go out to work all day. They are needed at home for childcare and domestic duties. The Afghan Aid seamstresses are able to go to the workshop in the day.  The outcome of discussions on this day was that Pandora’s Hope and Afghan Action would stay separate for the time being aside from marketing.

Later, back at the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s community house we debriefed about the visit. It was explained to us that it is now the norm in Kabul for trainees get paid to do training.  International non-governmental organisations have introduced payment for training and created an expectation that payment will be made. Now people no longer value skills acquisition without the inducement of payment. As well as this, Afghan Aid has the added problem with dependency and how to get the trainees to move on to gainful employment when the training (and the training allowance) comes to an end. Unemployment is estimated to be 36% but there are no reliable statistics and no social security. This is just the male population,  there are no figures for women’s unemployment.

The women want to help with the family budget but they are hardly ever allowed to work. One woman from Pandora’s Hope said that coming to the sewing training was the first time she had ever been able to leave the home. The women said that there was a suspicion in their families that they will be seen by men, and that they were earning money, which can cause tensions at home. Contact with other women is important, however, for their personal and professional development. At the APV community the training space is ‘safe’ for the 5 months of the women’s training and it guarantees to the families that they will not be seen by men there.

The women come to sewing training for one hour at the APV community Mary with seamstresshome. They told us that if they were ever late home after training they stood the risk of being punished. Both of the women’s training groups are of mixed ethnicity. The women can get argumentative among themselves when resolving conflicts and this can divide along ethnic divisions and suspicions. For the women who have only just come out of the house, the prospect of starting a business is unthinkable, a huge leap in aspiration. The children of the women at the sewing training come to the community’s classes and learn in mixed (ethnicity and sex) classes which helps to broaden their horizons.

Mary with Pandora's Hope seamstresses
Mary with Pandora’s Hope seamstresses

The achievement of the women and the support of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Afghan Aid cannot be underestimated. For women to get together and to be able to thrash out their business models and plans without men or managers is unusual. The aim is to let them work it all out with minimal interference unless specific expertise is demanded. The objective is an economically sustainable project which benefits the women not only through learning skills in sewing garments for sale, but also increasing women’s confidence by letting them work out how to run their business themselves.

UK delegation with Pandora's Hope- women's seamstresses co-operative
UK delegation with Pandora’s Hope- women’s seamstresses co-operative
Hakim's Pics: Bereaved Afghan Mother

For Mothers Everywhere, Bereaved by Senseless Violence

Hakim's Pics: Bereaved Afghan Mother

By Mary Dobbing

This is written following the news of bombs set off at the Boston Marathon on 15th April. So far three people are reported dead and dozens seriously injured with many suffering amputations of limbs. Amongst the dead in Boston was an eight year old boy. Last December we visited an Afghan mother and heard from her the effects of the sudden violent loss of her two sons in a suicide bomb in Kabul.

We were driven to a home on the outskirts of Kabul. The entrance to the typical Afghan courtyard house was through metal gates from a narrow alley of high mud brick walls. The neighbourhood was a maze of similar blank walled lanes filled with puddles and snow, and only as wide as a car.

Smiling Giggling Girls

The gates opened into a sunny courtyard full of smiley giggling girls, and chickens. With shy Salams from the women and girls we entered, taking off our shoes, and were ushered into a long empty room. There was no furniture, only an alcove of shelves with a curtain across it. A quilt hung over the door to keep in the warmth. At one end of the room, large windows let in the dazzling winter sun on two aspects, giving its warmth through the glass. Between the windows on the floor was a pile of quilts under which, unseen, was a wood-burning stove (called a kursi I think). On top of the pile of quilts, which was held up by a table top of some sort, was a dried circular cheese about twelve inches across and stuck with flies, which was the only object in front of us as we met the bereaved mother and her two remaining children.

In any other circumstances this would have been a delightful encounter. We were invited to sit around the unseen stove and we pushed our legs under the edges of the quilts. We sat around, warm and toasty, with the stove at our feet and the warmed quilts pulled up to our waists. Behind us on the outside window ledges curious chickens pecked at the glass.

Bereaved Afghan Mother with her 2 Children
Bereaved Afghan Mother with her 2 Children

At one edge of the table our hostess sat with a small girl and a small boy either side of her. Her eyes were dull and she looked depressed. She told the story of the loss of her children in a suicide bombing, mechanically, in a monotone voice racked by prolonged grief. There were long silences between her statements which we held respectfully, but I longed to know how we could comfort her. A crowd of girls and older women sat along the edge of the room like a Greek chorus watching and listening to the story and its translation.

Choir of girls
Choir of girls

The mother told us about her pain. She told us of the tragedy and shock of her young sons being randomly killed by a suicide bomber who had targeted one of the numerous NATO convoys in the streets of Kabul. The two boys had been walking to school and the suicide bomber triggered his device killing them along with other bystanders.  They went out to school on an ordinary day and never came home. She said that even now she still cannot bear to let the other children out of her sight, let alone go to school. She asked “what will become of them?” When we asked them, the girl said she wanted to be a teacher and the boy wanted to be a doctor.

APV Fais shares his experiences

It happens that one of our Afghan Peace Volunteer friends lost a cousin in the same suicide bombing attack in Kabul. He was able to tell the bereaved mother about his loss and they both looked very sad. Fais has recounted[1] elsewhere how he witnessed his older brother being murdered in the civil war when he was in Bamiyan Province. He has lost more than one close relative to the violence. These are but two of the untold thousands of stories of loss and trauma experienced by ordinary Afghans from the last thirteen years of war.

There is a wealth of latent talent and ambition among young Afghan men and women waiting impatiently for peace and some education provision so that they can realise their dreams. But this generation are being blighted by lack of opportunity and insecurity, as well as the struggle against the effects of psychological trauma from the endless violence.

Bereaved Afghan Mother with Beth & Mary

We asked the bereaved mother what message we could take back to British people. She answered “create peace and security so that Afghans can have a life”.

I would add, “so that we can all have a life” where ever in the world we are. Tanzeel Merchant wrote about how he was nearly among the casualties at the international meeting which was the Boston Marathon. He wrote

“The US, like many other countries in the world, must and will carry the consequences and responsibility of decades of interference and self-interest that have undermined the histories of other nations. But does wilfully killing innocent bystanders at an event, that is meant to bring people together, really further any cause? What ethic or religion condones matching blood with blood?

By the time the dust settles in at Copley Square, there will be a new enemy, new hatred, and new scars to add to the ones from last afternoon…. And the world will be no safer or better than it was when we woke up [to that] new morning of promise just 24 hours [before].

P.S: I encourage you to share your thoughts… Please be gentle, considerate and kind, both here and to those around you. Life’s too short to be otherwise.” [2]

The Afghan Peace Volunteers have as their logo a blue scarf which says for them “We are all human beings under the same blue sky”. Why not be friends?


[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yufP1iRr0z4&list=UUqLgo4v6w-BJtv_00XTs70g&index=108

[2] http://forbesindia.com/search.php?writer=Tanzeel%20Merchant

Shanty housing on a Kabul hillside

War on Terror – reflections

hillside

Lindsey German, from the Stop the War Coalition, reflects on years of the war on terror.

If all had gone according to plan, the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war should have been a time for government jubilation. In Tony Blair’s dreams, he would still be feted as a hero, having toppled a dictator and brought peace and democracy to the Middle East. The actual scenario turned out rather differently. Iraq is in turmoil, terrorism is a much greater threat across many parts of the world than it was when the ‘war on terror’ was launched 11 and a half years ago, attacks on civil liberties have worsened, with torture, rendition and imprisonment without trial now part of the fabric of the war, and discrimination and racism against Muslims growing.

The ostensible reason for the war – the need to prevent Saddam Hussein using his ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which he was supposedly concealing in the grounds of his palaces – has long been revealed to be a lie. The real aim of the war was regime change which would enable strategic control of Iraq and the wider region to be once again in the hands of the west.

Ten years on, the numbers of Iraqi dead are perhaps as high as 1 million, with many more made refugees and displaced. Living conditions for many Iraqis remain terrible, the effects of war have harmed physical and mental health,  and in parts like Fallujah there is evidence of serious problems with pregnancy and childbirth, attributed to the use of depleted uranium by the US forces there. Meanwhile, privatisation of oil and other industries, corruption and vast profits for private security firms are the spoils of the war for western companies and their friends in government.

Yet despite the obvious failure of the Iraq war, successive governments appear addicted to war. There are still over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, a war which has become more deadly as time has gone on. There is covert intervention in Syria and Iran, and recently David Cameron has announced he dispatch of 300 British troops to join the French intervention in Mali.

All this raises the question of how many more years Britain will continue to bomb and invade countries in the name of fighting terrorism? How many more countries will be drawn into the theatre of war? How many more lives will be lost in the task of eradicating Al Qaeda? How many people, especially in Muslim countries, will find grievances against the bomber and invaders which lead to them taking up arms?

I ask these questions because yet again a serious political crisis has been met with a not just inadequate answer, but one which will produce the diametrically opposite effect than its supposed intention.

David Cameron said of the recent Algerian hostage crisis that ‘This is a global threat and it will require a global response. It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months.’

Is that years and decades on top of the 11 and a half years already spent on the war on terror, since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001? Back then, its aim was to eradicate Al Qaeda from Afghanistan – rapidly achieved, although it became active in Pakistan. Since then, Al Qaeda or related Islamic terrorism has become a feature, at different times, in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Mali, Algeria…and on and on. In 2001, no one talked about the threat of such terrorism in most of these countries. Now greater and greater areas of the world have become new sites of conflict.

Everything that the peace and antiwar movements said 10 years ago, when up to 30 million people marched around the world and Britain saw its largest protest demonstration ever, has turned out to be true and everything our rulers told us has turned out to be false. A recent opinion poll in the Guardian showed that 55 % of those questioned thought the 15 February 2003 marchers were right, with even higher proportions among working class respondents.

This is one of the legacies of the antiwar movement: we have created a strong current of anti war opinion which makes it much harder for governments to directly intervene.

Today in Britain the government is enforcing austerity through cuts in  welfare, education and health but never hesitates to spend billions on weapons  and new deployments of troops. The cost of four years of the Afghanistan war, £20 billion, is the same as planned government savings on the NHS.

The issues are connected. The globalised neoliberal system relies heavily on  its military wing to maintain strategic control of markets and to gain access to raw materials. So we face both economic crisis with devastating consequences and a rampant imperialism intervening in ever-wider parts of the globe.

It is these connected issues which make the anti war movement so important. We didn’t stop the war but we did create a mass movement to oppose imperialist war. We have made it harder for them to launch further wars. We have also made the connection between war and economic crisis, and campaigned against attacks on civil liberties and Islamophobia.

Our recent conference which attracted around 1000 people brought together a range of international campaigners, activists and speakers to reiterate our opposition to the war ten years ago. But more importantly, it stressed the need to confront war today by opposing present interventions and future threats.

The threat of war and militarism is such that we need to unite around what we agree on in order to defeat governments and warmongers. Stop the War is involved in organising a demonstration against drones at RAF Waddington base in Lincolnshire on April 27 which we hope will gain wide support. We support the demo and blockade of Trident in Scotland in April, the CND Aldermaston event at Easter and we hope to bring some of these issues together at the People’s Assembly against Austerity on June 22 which will be campaigning against welfare, education and health cuts.

This means a renewal of the anti war and peace movements, a commitment to organising, educating and campaigning in the months ahead. We should know
by now that we cannot rely on the politicians to stop wars. Only the mass of people can do that.

Lindsey German is convenor of the Stop the war Coalition and author of a new book, How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women (Pluto)

“I’m hurting too” Dr Hakim on Drones and Singapore

Hakim in snowThe hurt of militarized authoritarianism in Singapore, Afghanistan and the world

By Dr Hakim ( Dr Teck Young, Wee )

It’s hard for me, an ordinary citizen of Singapore, a medical doctor engaged in social enterprise work in Afghanistan and a human being wishing for a better world, to write this from Kabul.

But people are dying.

And children and women are feeling hopeless.

“What’s the point in telling you our stories?” asked Freba, one of the seamstresses working with the Afghan Peace Volunteers to set up a tailoring co-operative for Afghan women. “Does anyone hear? Does anyone believe us?”

Silently within, I answered Freba with shame,” You’re right. No one is listening.”

So, I write this in protest against my government’s presence in the humanitarian and war tragedy of Afghanistan, as a way to lend my voice to Freba and all my Afghan friends.

I do so in dissent, against the global security of imprisoned minds.

I thought, “If no one listens as humans should, we should at least speak like free men and women.”

Singapore’s complicity in the humanitarian and war tragedy of Afghanistan

It is clear that the Taliban, the many Afghan and regional warlords, militia groups and the Afghan government are responsible for the current humanitarian and war tragedy of Afghanistan.

But Singapore is also responsible because it is one of the fifty U.S. /NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) coalition countries working with the corrupt Afghan government ( rated the most corrupt country in 2012 ).

While the Singapore government would never support any corrupt Singaporean leader even for a day, they have sent troops to support the most corrupt leaders on earth! If accountability is at all important, we cannot say, ‘Oh…never mind!”

Moreover, Singapore has inadvertently become a minor accomplice of the self-interests of the U.S. government in Afghanistan ; The U.S. Vice President , Joe Biden, spoke at the Munich Security Conference recently, “The United States is a Pacific power. And the world’s greatest military alliance ( NATO ) helps make us an Atlantic power as well. As our new defense strategy makes clear, we will remain both a Pacific power and an Atlantic power.”

American power and economic interests naturally do not include the best interests of ordinary Singaporeans or Afghans.

Hakim and kidsThe Afghan humanitarian tragedy

In the normal, logical world, it should inspire the doubt and curiosity of Singaporeans that while the U.S. /NATO coalition was spending billions of dollars every week on the Afghan war ( the U.S. alone was spending two billion dollars every week ), Afghans have been perishing under one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. At least 36% live below the poverty line and 35% of Afghan men do not have work . The UN calls the acute malnutrition of nearly one million children in the Afghan south ‘shocking’ . Almost three quarters of all Afghans do not have access to safe drinking water .

On several occasions in the past few years, Afghanistan was declared the worst country for children and women, and yet, many of us still hold this warped presumption, “Afghanistan is the worst country for children and women but whatever we are doing over there MUST somehow be right!”

The Afghan war tragedy

In the normal, logical world, it should at least matter to ‘result-orientated’ Singaporeans that the very expensive Afghan/U.S. coalition’s ‘war against terrorism’ has increased rather than decreased ‘terrorism’, with the Global Terrorism Index reporting that terrorist strikes in the region have increased four times since the start of the Iraq war in 2003.

Even President Karzai said in the UK recently that the security situation in southern Helmand province of Afghanistan was better before British troops were deployed.

Adding to this cynical mess of increased ‘terrorism’ at the hands of global superpowers, the U.S. has established an epicenter of drone warfare in Afghanistan, with Afghans and Pakistanis and other ‘insurgents’ as their ‘targets’, and Singapore as one of their many allies. Singapore has had teams helping in drone reconnaissance operations, reconnaissance that may have eventually ended up with a U.S. /NATO decision to kill someone without trial.

I had raised this personal concern once in a meeting room at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs ; I was appreciative of the attentiveness given to this issue, but sensed that there was no great interest in ‘investigating’ how Singapore’s co-operation in the drone operations in Afghanistan may be violating international law, as was suggested by the ex-UN Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings, Mr Philip Alston.

A recent New York Times article highlights these ‘fears  for U.S. allies’, reporting on a lawsuit in the British courts that ‘accuses British officials of becoming “secondary parties to murder” by passing intelligence to American officials that was later used in drone strikes.’ My life has been changed by listening to Afghan friends like Raz Mohammad tell how ‘drones bury beautiful lives’.museum group pic

The U.N. is finally living up to its charter to ‘remove the scourge of war’ by duly investigating  drone warfare. Major U.S. newspapers are also asking for more transparency over Obama’s weekly, premeditated ‘kill lists’. There has been concern over unchecked Powers getting even more out of all jurisdictions with the appointment of ‘drone justifier’ John Brennan as Obama’s CIA Director nominee.

Even the UN Committee on the Rights of a Child has been “alarmed” at reports of the deaths of hundreds of children from US attacks and air strikes in Afghanistan since the committee last reviewed U.S. practices in 2008.

Singapore should be alarmed too.

Singapore’s own identity as a militarized, authoritarian country

Deep within, like most human beings, Freba yearns for a decent livelihood without war. Abdulhai and the Afghan Peace Volunteers wish for friends from all 195 countries of the world, a better world without borders!

What kind of identity do Singaporeans wish for their country, a peaceful and friendly country or otherwise?

Again, I’m concerned. We like pictures of be-medaled soldiers more than unsung ‘Mother Teresa’ heroines. Our government has a significant number of ex-military commanders.

According to the Global Militarisation Index released by the Bonn International Centre for Conversion (BICC), Singapore has been the second most militarized nation in the world for years. The latest ranking puts Singapore just second to Israel and one brutal position more militarized than Syria.

What also worries me is that this militarized mindset may be behind Singapore’s enthusiasm in the drone show-business, and in ‘unintentionally’ being part of the U.S.’ ‘Asia pivot’ by hosting four U.S. littoral combat ships.

Even on the economic front, while Singapore has one of the higher Gini coefficients of income inequality in the world, not many people in Singapore are aware of or debating Singapore’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership , again a partnership that corporate America is pushing for.

What Singapore has aligned herself with in Afghanistan is militarized authoritarianism that concentrates profit and power in the hands of a few. While this follows global norms, such a system works mainly for the wealth and power of the 1% in the short term, but not for the daily needs of the 99% in either the short or long term.

I personally think that both the democratic and socialist practices of today are ‘non-progressive’ vehicles for the rule of the few ‘Kings, Emperors, Presidents, and Prime Ministers’ over the many presumably ‘ignorant, helpless and sometimes lazy’ subjects. These elitist systems tend to maintain control by ‘pacifying the masses’ through formal education, mainstream media and force.

I hope Singapore can steer itself away from this ‘norm’, an ugly ‘norm’ in which war becomes fun, like when Prince Harry described his combat pilot job in Afghanistan as “a joy … because I’m one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox, so with my thumbs I like to think I’m probably quite useful.”

I believe that for effective defense and genuine security, we ought to be friends with neighbours and all peoples of other lands rather than militarists with superior weapons.

Perhaps these are differences in opinions which can be included in Our Singapore Conversation.

It’s hard for me to write this, but I am sincerely ashamed to be a citizen of the 2nd most militarized nation on earth, a country that has participated in the legally-questionable drone warfare in Afghanistan.

Thankfully, I have hope in Singaporeans like I have hope in humanity. There are alternatives. The world is awakening, the human race is revolutionizing, and so is Singapore’s electorate. Most ordinary folk in the world don’t want to send missiles or guns to kill strangers in other places! Human beings have always preferred otherwise.

My voice is not political. My voice is human.

Afghans are hurting very badly.

kids in refugee campAnd I am hurting too.

Raz Mohammed

Drones Bury Beautiful Lives

Raz Mohammed

Afghan Peace Volunteer, Raz Mohammad, speaks out on drones

By Dr Hakim and the Afghan Peace Volunteers

11th Jan 2013

Below is a transcript of an interview of Raz Mohammad, an Afghan Peace Volunteer, with questions prepared by Maya Evans of Voices for Creative Non Nonviolence UK.

Raz Mohammad : Salam ‘aleikum. I am Raz Mohammad. I’m from Maidan Wardak province and I’m Pashtun.

Kathy Kelly : Raz Mohmmad, what do you think about drones?

Raz Mohammad : I think drones are not good. I remember how, in my village, a drone attack killed my brother-in-law and four of his friends. It was truly sad. A beautiful life was buried and the sound of crying and sorrow arose from peaceful homes. I say that this is inhumane. Today, the idea of humanity has been forgotten. Why do we spend money like this? Why don’t we use an alternative way? The international community says that drones are used to kill the Taliban. This is not true. We should see the truth. Today, it’s hard to find the truth and no one listens to the people.

Kathy Kelly : How have drones impacted Wardak Afghanistan?

Raz Mohammad : Drones have a negative impact on the lives of the people of Wardak and other provinces in Afghanistan, because drones don’t bring peace. They kill human beings. Drones bring nothing but bombs. They burn the lives of the people. People can’t move around freely. In the nights, people are afraid. Drones don’t improve people’s lives, they limit the people’s lives. The people are not happy with drones. When they hear the sound of drones, they feel sad. Those who live in Kabul and those who live in the provinces especially in Pashtun areas feel differently about drones.  Those in Kabul don’t feel the pain of those in the provinces where there’s war and family members are being killed. It is those families of victims who should be asked and whose voices should be heard.

Kathy Kelly : Are drones making Afghanistan safer?

Raz Mohammad : No. Drones don’t protect the people of Afghanistan. Instead, drones kill the people of Afghanistan. You hear in the news and reports that every day, families, children and women are killed. Do you call this safety?

Kathy Kelly : Is there a mental impact on Afghans from the presence of drones?

Raz Mohammad : Yes, drones have a  negative impact on the mind. For me, when I go home, I recall the incident with my brother-in-law which affected me a lot and changed my life. I don’t have a peaceful mind. When I’m home and study at night, my father & mother are very worried and tell me not to stay up too late because they may make a mistake and bomb the house. When my younger brother knows of a drone incident, he says he won’t go to school or get out of bed early today because the drones may come.  See, how it affects the mind of a 5 or 8 year old child.

Kathy Kelly : What do you think about the use of drones after the 2014 withdrawal?

Raz Mohammad : I think that the use of drones today or in 2014 is inappropriate. Why has the international community sent drones to wage war in Afghanistan? Why have we forgotten the concepts of humanity and the love of humanity? War is not a solution. We can see this from the past 30 years of war in Afghanistan. Wars bring killing and enmity. Drones after 2014 will cause enmity between Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras because those in government use the people for their own benefit. For their own power and lives, they drop bombs on the people, and bring division and inhumanity. As I see it now and after 2014, innocent human beings will be killed.

Kathy Kelly : Do you have any other message to give?

Raz Mohammad : My message to the ordinary people of the world is to listen, and become aware of drone warfare because what international governments say about using drones to kill terrorists is not true. Friends who come here can see that innocent people and women are killed. We should listen to the voices of Afghans and promote and defend humanity and humane relations. My message to the governments of the world is : Why have you forgotten humanity and the love of humanity? You are killing human beings for your own monetary benefit. I demand that this ( drone warfare ) be stopped, especially the spending of so much money on drones in Afghanistan and the killing of so many innocent people. Isn’t it appropriate for you to help the people in alternative ways? We are human beings and are always your friends, thank you.

The Struggle for Justice

member of transitional justice network talking to vcnc uk delegation

By Mary Dobbing

“Why do you pay taxes?”

This was the answer we got from most of the people we met in Kabul when we asked “what do you want to say to British people?” The Afghans we met were well aware that the United States is spending nearly $2 billion a week on the war and the British around £1.6 billion a year since 2001.  Of this, 94% of (US) spending was on the military and only 6% on diplomacy and aid between 2001 and 2009.

Our hosts in Kabul, the Afghan Peace Volunteers, have dedicated themselves to living non-violently and to helping the poor. Their witness for peace extends to a network of like-minded people who we were introduced to. Afghans are sick and tired of war and of living with fear and insecurity. In thirty five years of war two million Afghans have died and many more have been physically and psychologically maimed; more again have left the country and are living in exile as refugees. They long for more than an absence of war. We heard from everyone that they need jobs, education and health services for sustainable peace, and justice. Human rights activists say the country is doomed to repeat its violent past if abuses are not brought to light and prosecuted. Justice is something which all ethnicities, factions and religious persuasions can unite around and it offers a nonviolent way forward for resolving the conflicts and hurt.

As well as current grievances about government corruption and the perception that officials and politicians pocket all the foreign aid, there is also the problem of the past and the perpetrators of crimes against humanity – many of whom are allegedly among the politicians and government officials in post today.

We met a representative from the Transitional Justice Group (TJG) which is an umbrella group of forty grassroots organisations asking the Afghan government for a system of transitional justice. As well as this the TJG want a network for the victims of war to be formed to empower them to speak out about the crimes meted out to them. Some victims are beginning to speak out but do so in fear of retribution from the perpetrators. Outside of Kabul the victims have no voice to speak out. The same war criminals are in power in the regions as committed the crimes, so speaking out for victims can be lethally dangerous. The TJG’s hope is to work outwards from Kabul to empower the people to speak out and to make the provincial officials and politicians accountable for their crimes against humanity.

The TJG want all war criminals to be brought to justice and to ensure that none will be given positions of power. The Afghan government has responded to the evidence of the crimes by granting an amnesty to all war criminals for crimes committed before 2001. It was in 2001 that the transitional government lead by President Hamid Karzai was formed, and therefore the amnesty removes the threat of prosecution from those in power now.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) produced the report a year ago outlining their research into massacres and war crimes for the period 1978-2011. The report, “Conflict Mapping in Afghanistan Since 1978” was compiled from interviews with the families of victims of war by forty researchers over six years and was commissioned by the Afghan government. The findings in the 800-page document include evidence of 180 mass graves, killings of civilians and prisoners, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, and the destruction of towns and villages. The report gave rise to controversy because of the names it named and the Afghan government will not publish it. Many of the names mentioned in the report were Mujahedeen war criminals which are now in the government. The AIHRC is still demanding that the report is released into the public domain, locally and internationally.

The AIHRC’s report A Call for Justice (January 2005), was a vision for transitional justice from grassroots organisations and promoted peace with justice. But it has been met with only obstacles and challenges. The Action Plan for Transitional Justice (December 2005) was the government’s response to ‘A Call for Justice’ and upheld their four demands:

1. Acknowledge the suffering of the Afghan people.

10th December has been designated a special day for the recognition of the victims of war. Memorials have been established and museums created about the lives of the wars’ victims and their families.

2. Ensure credible and accountable state institutions.

The government should be able to set up processes to try the perpetrators/criminals. But this hasn’t happened to date.

3. Truth-seeking and documentation.

The conflict mapping report which documents the war crimes and the conflicts that have happened in the last three decades has been submitted but not published. It is still with the President’s office.

4. Promotion of reconciliation and national unity.

This would entail, amongst other things, a process being set up to hold war criminals accountable and to try them in court. Ideally it would be followed by a procedure between the families of victims of war and the war criminals whereby they could forgive the crime or demand the due process of law.

President Hamid Karzai has refused to extend the action plan for transitional justice which expired in March 2009 and which failed to achieve most of its targets, according to human rights groups. A “Catch 22” is that the war criminals are seen as needed in the negotiations to bring the war to an end, but threatening them with prosecution is an obstacle to getting them to the table.

In addition to this we were told that the Afghan government has pursued two ‘ineffective’ processes, with the support of the international community. Millions of dollars have been expended on these (including from Japan):

1)       Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR). AIHRC sees this as a failed programme adding that “no one has been able to disarm the Afghans”.

2)       The government has been releasing Taliban prisoners from Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is dangerous the TJG thinks because the Taliban’s ideology is still for an ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. And this policy is bound to fail because these people are also guilty of terrible war crimes.

We also met with one of the member groups of the TJG which works with the families of victims of war called the Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers. The woman spokesperson said that the biggest problem is that the people who perpetrated the crimes against humanity are still in positions of power in the Afghan government. She added that regrettably the US/NATO forces who have occupied the country for the last 11 years are complicit in these crimes and they themselves have committed war crimes in the provinces. She says that no conflict in any other country has been resolved by military force from foreign countries and no foreign force can bring peace to Afghanistan by military means. She added that it’s clear to her that no foreign force is in Afghanistan to bring peace, democracy and justice but only to serve their own interests.

Concerns for the draw-down of US/NATO forces in 2014 and why:

The Afghans sense that the international community is tired of waging war and they will pull out leaving them in the lurch. In the TJG’s view more and more options are being offered which will allow the Taliban to return to power, for example, by negotiating with them. The Taliban’s rhetoric is that negotiating a settlement with the international community will mean that they have ‘won’ and that this will sit well with the rest of the Islamic world. Then there is the added danger that the Taliban will get money and weapons support to regain power as well as getting regional kudos. We met people who remembered Kabul during the last Taliban regime and they were deeply concerned about a repeat of that reign of repression and terror.

What can British people do?

British people are asked to consider how their tax pays for pointless and ineffective military intervention and how it bolsters a corrupt government whose members are strongly implicated in war crimes.

We were asked to encourage the British government to look at a peace process which is good for the people of Afghanistan, and not just the ruling elite and the military. Internal prejudices and internal divisions have always been there and foreign military interventions have simply exacerbated the ethnic and religious divisions.

The people of Pakistan also need processes of justice. The British government should hold the Pakistan government accountable for training and sending increasing numbers of Taliban across the border into Afghanistan which exacerbates the conflict.

The Afghan Transitional Justice Group believe the people of Afghanistan want justice but there is not enough international support or active groups in Afghanistan demanding it.  On the one hand, Afghans differ greatly in how justice should be brought to Afghanistan, and on the other hand, the international community seems to think that weapons are the only way to enforce justice in Afghanistan. The TJG believes judicial processes are needed for a sustainable peace. Without justice there cannot be peace.

APV GROUP

From Cowley Road to Kabul – The Afghan Peace Volunteers

GROUP pic 1By Susan Clarkson

We, the Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK delegation, have now returned from Afghanistan.  We spent two weeks in Kabul as guests of the Afghan Peace Volunteers.

This is a remarkable and unique community of young men who first came together in Bamiyan under the guidance of a local doctor, Hakim.  Inspired by the nonviolent spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, the group first came together in 2008 to create a peace park in their locality.  Bamiyan is a mainly Hazara area of Afghanistan and the local people have suffered at the hands of the Taliban.  In March, 2001 the Taliban destroyed two ancient giant statues of the Buddah in Bamiyan.  For a more detailed background to the APV, visit their website, http://www.ourjourneytosmile.com

APV GROUP END PIC

The community relocated to Kabul and has worked closely with Voices for Creative Nonviolence over the past few years.  The dream of the community is to form a multi ethnic group, committed to nonviolence and work among the poor of their neighbourhood.

To say that the APV has a vision of being a multi ethnic community does not give the full picture of the task they have set themselves.  Ethnic divisions in Afghanistan go deep into a painful and violent history.  The community is mainly Hazara but there is a Pashtun and a Tajik among the group.  It is a privilege to be part of their sincere desire to heal old wounds and build a society for the future of Afghanistan, free from ethnic chains.  Their task is not an easy one and they don’t seem to be under the illusion that it is.  The community and the country has a long struggle ahead to build a peaceful Afghanistan.  Spending time with these young men gives one the feeling that it is possible and that a commitment to nonviolence holds the key.

APV TEA MAKING

On our arrival in Kabul after a long but uneventful journey, we were met by community members and taken to their home.  We shared their living space for two weeks and were given typical Afghan hospitality. The four of us and later two friends from the US, Kathy Kelly and Martha Hennessy, slept on cushions in the main living area where, during the day we had meals, English lessons, discussions and meetings.

Martha, Susan and Beth
Martha, Susan and Beth

Kathy is the founder and co-ordinator of Voices and Martha is part of the New York Catholic Worker community.  She is also the granddaughter of Dorothy Day who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement.

Through its connection with Voices the APV have played host to several delegations of international visitors over the past year or so.

Susan, Beth, Maya and Mary
Susan, Beth, Maya and Mary

Delegates share fully in the life of the community and during our stay we were present at many community meetings during which a wide range of subjects was discussed,

APV in group discussion
APV in group discussion

from practicalities of daily communal living to deep philosophical reflections on the nature of nonviolence and its implications in a country reeling and bowed down by thirty years of war and conflict.

The APV as a community are involved in the life of their neighbourhood.  The house has a constant stream of visitors, young and old and all receive a warm welcome.  Each morning there is an English class, attended by some of the APV and other local young people, both boys and girls.  Hakim conducts the class and often emphasises that the reason for learning a language is to communicate.  During the lessons, which some of us attended, there was often a sharing of ideas and feelings about the future of Afghanistan and the aspirations of the students.  Teaching PicIt was very moving to be present as these thoughtful young people expressed their hopes and fears and also posed searching questions to us about our role in the future of their country. In the afternooons the APV themselves, along with other volunteer teachers, hold classes for local children, teaching Dari and maths. The community is also home to a sewing project for women.

Group Woman Duvet

At present this project focuses on making duvets for poor local families as the bitter cold of winter approaches. Financial help from Voices means that women can earn money by sewing the duvets, either at home or on the APV premises.  The sharing out of the materials to be made up into the completed products is carried out by the young men of the community.

APV Loading Van The duvets are then distributed by the APV.  There is a video clip on the website showing the most recent distribution on 21 December.

    Other duvets were also given to a nearby refugee camp during our stay.

Duvet Van Pic

As we’ll as living community life and working on these projects, some of the community members attend school or university.  The overall atmosphere of the community is of generous hospitality, cheerful enthusiasm, hard work in difficult conditions and, above all, a belief that they are living out a model of the society they wish to see for a future Afghanistan.  This model has at its heart a true desire for people of all ethnicities to live together and to work together for a better life for the poorest and most vulnerable.  These young men really do think globally and act locally.

APV distributing duvets to Kuchi refugee camp
APV distributing duvets to Kuchi refugee camp
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.

First days in Kabul

UK delegate Beth Tichbourne shares her first impressions of Afghanistan with us…
“I didn’t know what to expect in Afghanistan. I knew there’d be men with guns about, and that there would be a lot of visible poverty, addiction and the other marks of a long war on people and the landscape. But I couldn’t imagine what it would be like landing in Kabul, getting a taxi from the airport to the compound and meeting our hosts, the Afghan Peace Volunteers.

APV group
Our new friends from APV

What I definitely wasn’t expecting was to feel so at home. We landed to a scene like nothing I’ve ever been part of before, a strange mixture of a heavy military presence and the more traditional aspects of Afghanistan. We walked out of the airport past men in various uniforms and crowds of ordinary Afghan people wrapped up in scarves against the thick snow. We had barely stepped into the carpark when were met by Ebi, a friend of Maya’s from her previous trip and by Gulan, who has joined the APV more recently. They were so welcoming and friendly that despite its strangeness Kabul felt immediately like the right place to be, even before we had got in the taxi I felt unexpectedly at ease. They took us in two taxis back to the compound where the APV are based.

APV making tea
APV making tea

We spent the first sleep-deprived day acclimatising and making friends. There are all the funny little things that make a place seem foreign. They have carrot jam and gigantic fluorescent light bulbs. The room that we’re staying in, which is also the meeting room, is beautiful, there’s a stove to one side that heats the room and provides water for the constant cups of tea, a red carpet and gold cushions and curtains. For lessons and meetings everyone sits around the edge of the room on the cushions, and at night the four of us from England turn the cushions into mattresses and stay snug despite the snow outside. I think the other rooms are less luxurious and we’re getting some guest treatment in having this as our sleeping space.

The compound feels like a safe space for a diverse range of people to come and to explore difficult and dangerous issues. There are the volunteers themselves, who are boys and young men from different ethnicities and backgrounds doing deep reflective work alongside the practical projects and campaigning that they run from here. There are women who come to sew quilts and are considering how to set up a business in a way that won’t put them in danger from strangers or their own families. Some of the daughters of the women come to English lessons first thing in the morning along with the volunteers and other students, most of whom are in their young teens. And there are international visitors like us, who come to learn from the APV and to visit Afghan people to hear their stories of everyday life in Afghanistan.

We’ve only been here a couple of days but we’ve already visited a refugee camp, a women’s business meeting and a woman who lost two children in a suicide attack. The boys and men of the APV that we’ve been making friends with have their own experiences of bereavement and hardship. It’s startling and horrible to be in a meeting and to suddenly hear about the toll the war has taken on someone who you’ve just been sharing bad jokes and a plate of food with. And it’s never just one tragedy. Ebi, the boy who greeted us at the airport with the friendliest grin I’ve ever seen, who is studying journalism and wants to one day travel to Africa, Mexico and Egypt to witness and support other people’s struggles around the world, told us today in the meeting with the mother who had lost her children that he had lost a cousin in the same attack. Later he told us that when he was six he’d seen his older brother killed in front of his house.

The people we’ve been out to visit are exhausted. They have immediate needs and a profound tiredness and lack of hope. Every group has said the same thing in slightly different words. They don’t know where to start telling you their troubles, there are too many to recount. Against this background the goodness and the energy of Ebi and the other volunteers is hard to comprehend. They do such hard work with such commitment and love. In the evenings they talk for hours, addressing the root causes of the prejudices that have left some of them bereaved in the potentially volatile setting of a mixed ethnic group. They also address problems that thay have a more indirect experience of, like how to live their values of recognising the fellow humanity of women in a society where genders are segregated in many ways and women very disadvantaged. In the daytime they do outreach and projects that empower the poorest and least visible members of their community. They don’t shy away from living with contradiction or addressing controversy. I am learning a lot about Afghanistan, about the realities of war and poverty, but I hope I’ll also be able to absorb something of the sincerity, passion and friendliness of the community here and find ways to apply it back in England. Two weeks already feels far too short a time to be here.”