Tag Archives: Afghan refugees

Will drones really protect us?

Drugs, Surveillance & The War on Terror

By Maya Evans

Maya Evans on the seafront in Hastings. She is wearing sports clothes, kneeling on one knee, raising her left fist and holding a banner saying, 'Hastings welcomes refugees'
Maya Evans on the seafront in Hastings. She is kneeling on one knee and holding a banner saying, ‘Hastings welcomes refugees’

I’m seated in the police Zoom briefing with other council representatives for my small, seaside town, Hastings. The Chief Inspector is telling us about the crisis we have with soaring heroin addiction in the town. The recent surge is contributing to a general increase in crime. The next section of the briefing is about the future use of police surveillance drones, and how they could become useful in combatting crime.  

A few months ago, Nigel Farage arrived in Hastings to film himself on our tourist beaches, aiming to drum up hate and hostility toward migrants and refugees arriving in the UK, having just traversed the English Channel in precarious inflatables. Farage complains that the new arrivals are taking up hotel spaces. He triggers the public by saying it’s all coming out of the public purse, we can’t afford to look after our own citizens let alone refugees, and that these people will one day take their homes and jobs. The Home Office considers proposals to use watercannons on the migrant sea crossers, while Home Secretary, Priti Patel suggests the transportation of migrants and refugees to Ascension Island in the South Pacific, harking back to the 18thcentury, when Britain deported convicts to the penal colony of Australia. 

The British Army Watchkeeper drone has been commissioned to help with surveillance of people crossing the Channel. The Watchkeeper was initially developed when the British military requested £1 billion to develop a military drone. An Israeli arms company, Elbit Systems, was awarded the contract to design and develop the drone. When completed in 2014, it was transported to Afghanistan for ‘field testing’.

Was a ‘field testing’ in Afghanistan part of the tragic mistake made when a U.S. weaponized drone killed my friend Raz Mohammed’s brother-in-law and five of his friends? The young men were enjoying an early evening gathering in their orchard in Wardak province Afghanistan. All the men were unarmed, none of them were involved with the Taliban. Their instant deaths were the result of a ‘signature strike’ – a targeted killing based on racial profiling, the men ‘fitted’ the demographic of the Taliban – they were wearing Pashtoon clothing, in a Pashtoon village, men of fighting age – that was enough to get them killed.

Our local Chief Inspector finishes talking about police surveillance drones. At present, in my area of  Sussex, they are mainly using surveillance drones for traffic and ‘operations’, though elsewhere in the UK they have so far been used to survey a Black Lives Matter protest and another at an immigration centre.  Knowing how I would come across to others in the Zoom room, I decided to take the risk of sounding like a ‘conspiracy loon’ and plunged in – I highlighted the military method of ‘racial profiling’ during surveillance and targeted assassinations, how the US police have started using drones armed with non-lethal weapons (tasers, pepper spray, rubber bullets) against their own civilians, often anti-war, environmental and anti-racist protestors. The chief inspector was a little taken aback but quickly started to respond that British police were not like the military or the US police, that drones are really useful for helping lost people on mountain tops, and that having a drone operator walking around town, while flying a surveillance drone, would be great for community engagement. 

I suddenly recollect a fight which broke out in our town centre and wonder how a drone would have helped. Some sort of argument had arisen amongst the ‘street community’, a mixture of people who gravitate on the street to drink, to buy or take heroin and crack, or wait for their methadone subscription from the local rehab centre based above an arcade of shops which shadows the street community and the raucous outbreak. Shoppers walked past, some looking at the commotion, others head down, not wanting to inadvertently get dragged into a drug fueled hullabaloo. A young woman, weathered skin, tattered clothing, decaying teeth, aged beyond her years screams obscenities at another member of the community. Her gaunt face reminded me of the heroin addicts I have seen in Kabul, the people who live under a bridge, huddled in small groups, heads under a scarf as they cook up opium on a spoon. Their eyes are distant – friends and family say they are gone.   

Heroin addiction in impoverished British towns has soared in the last 10 years. At the crime briefings I attend as a Councillor, no one ever talks about where this cheap high-quality opium has flooded in from, the root cause probably considered ‘too political’. But in reality, heroin supply to Britain has careened in the last decade, namely due to the ‘solar revolution’ in Afghanistan. This has enabled farmers to use electricity generated from solar panels to pump untapped water from 100 meters under the desert. Now, where there was once an arid dust belt, there are now fields of thriving poppy, punches of colour lighting up the desert, too much of a lucrative cash crop for Afghan farmers to pass up. 

Many of the newly blooming fields are in Helmand, the Afghan province where Britain was assigned to fight the Taliban. Britain was also delegated, at the 2001 International Bonn Conference on Afghanistan, the responsibility of counter narcotics in Afghanistan. Considering Afghanistan was the first country in the world where weaponized drones were used – the 2001 unsuccessful assassination of Osama Bin Laden – and there after used as a “playground for foreign nations to kill Afghans like a video game” – as one of my young Afghan friends once described to me; it’s highly unlikely British Intelligence Agencies were unaware of the newly blossoming industry, much of which is growing in Helmand, a ‘hotspot’ for drone strikes and aerial surveillance. Today Afghanistan produces 90% of the worlds’ heroin, 3% of the Afghan population are addicts, and production of the crop has more than doubled, from 3,700 tonnes in 2012, to 9,000 tonnes in 2017. 

And so, in my home town, deprivation, crime, conflict and all the ills associated deepen. Drones are sent in to ‘solve’ the problem. To date, at least 40 UK police forces have either purchased a drone or have access to using one. In the area of Sussex and Surrey, there are 23 drones and, according to a recent Freedom of Information, they were used 108 times between January- June 2020.

Afghans are amongst the refugees washed up upon our beaches in flimsy dinghies, their channel crossing overseen by the very same Watchkeeper drone used to exacerbate war which drove them from their homeland. The most vulnerable in our society, from Britain to Afghanistan, are seized by the scourge of heroin and the conflagration of violence caused by war. The vaunted “eyes in the skies,” the surveillance drones, won’t help us understand these realities. The proliferation of weaponized drones will unleash more misery.

Momentum for campaigns to ban land mines, cluster bombs and nuclear weapons began with grassroots efforts to tell the truth about militarism and war. I hope a surveillance drone will get the message painted on large banners we’ve held, standing along our seacoast, proclaiming a welcome for refugees and a longing for peace.

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.