The biggest national UK anti drone action will be taking place this weekend when over 20 peace groups will be showing solidarity with Afghan peace makers who urge everyone to Fly Kites Not Drones for Nao Roz (Afghan New Year).
There will be a kite flying vigil at UK drone base RAF Waddington on Friday 1pm, and a London event at Speakers Corner Saturday 2pm, where activists will show solidarity with Afghans by joining in with the well loved Afghan pastime of kite flying.
Maya Evans, anti drone activist, said: “I’ve just returned from living in Afghanistan for 3 months where I personally witnessed the destruction and havoc caused by drones, not only are they killing innocent civilians but they’re also degrading the fabric of Afghan society as they cause mistrust and enmity.”
The issue of drones has been heightened in the last few months when Pakistani drone witness Kareem Khan was kidnapped and tortured- he was set to give evidence in the European Court; in addition a Yemeni drones witness was also harassed. Meanwhile British courts threw out the case of Noor Khan with worries of causing bad relations with the US, while new drone bases are set to open if not in Afghanistan then elsewhere in Asia.
Britain has also been exposed for infringing rules of combat by co-operating directly with the US on launching drone strikes. Currently the cost of life caused by drone strikes is unknown as the MoD refuse to release names and numbers due to “national security”.
Evans added: “These robot killers are fuelling resentment towards foreign occupation as well as making security worse for the ordinary Afghan. The message I heard over and over again was that Afghans do not want drones, they want an end to foreign interference which has brought endless violence, moreover, they want peace.”
The action was inspired by the Afghan Peace Volunteers who want an end to war and the use of drones which currently plague their skies.
This year VCNV UK contributed £3,000 to the duvet project, most of those funds were raised by Mary Dobbing and Susan Clarkson who took collections after talks given to peace and Quaker groups.
The APV’s projected budget was $30,000- which they have nearly reached, the bulk of the funds come from VCNV US, and Quakers in Australia.
The project is run entirely by APV’s on a voluntary basis, the lead co-ordinator is 22 year old Khalida, other members of the co-ordinating group are Ali (aged 17), Marzia, Meena, Zainab and Zorah- all teenage women between the ages of 16 and 18.
60 women are involved in the making of the duvets (20 from each ethnic group Tajik, Hazara, Pashtoon), the seamstresses are assessed at the beginning of the project to check they fulfil a criteria of being in need.
There will be 4 rounds of duvet making and distributing, each woman makes 10 duvets per round, which means 2,400 duvets will be made and distributed within the 4 month project.
Seamstresses arrive and take away material enough to make 10 duvets, on average a seamstress can make 3 duvets per day, it takes 2 hours to make a duvet, they are paid $1.50 per duvet, the average Afghan wage per day is between $3-$5
Duvets are distributed to the very poor and in need, the APV select community leaders or organisers who draw up a list of needy individuals in their area.
Distributions have been at: refugee camps, a school for the blind, a number of mosques, Bobor gardens and disabled groups including the Afghan Landmine Survivors Organization.
Between 120-200 duvets are loaded up into a truck for each distribution run.
At a distribution point each recipient (usually a woman) receives 2 duvets, their name is ticked off a list while they hand in an APV receipt.
Khalida Co-ordinator of the project, age 23 This is Khalida’s first job, she’s semi literate and really happy to be working on the project. Her role is as the overall co-ordinator, she works as a volunteer and her responsibilities include purchasing the materials, distributing them to the seamstresses, assessing seamstresses using an eligibility criteria, paying wages to the seamstresses and organising the distribution teams. Her family members support of her work.
Shakila age 14, Co-ordinators assistant – She says she does the job because it helps the poor by helping their daily needs. When they visit the homes of seamstresses some of the ladies don’t even have carpets so they lay cloth on the floor to sleep on.
Feedback from Seamstresses on the Duvet Project
Freyba Her husband was killed around 3 years ago during a suicide bombing at a Shia Hazara Mosque in Kabul. She says in place of unemployment this is a good project, she was hoping for something more on a long term basis but the money she receives is helpful for buying coal and flour.
Nafaz Gul Her husband was sent to prison for 15 years over a land dispute, he was also a drug user which perhaps contributed to his imprisonment, she is alone at home bringing up 4 children. Nafaz says what she gets from the duvet making helps to buy salt, oil and flour for her family, she is grateful that she is able to receive materials to sow.
Zorah Her body aches all over constantly and she usually feels tired. She was widowed during the communist period, for ages she struggled to get ID papers from her home province, this is required in order to receive an annual allowance from the Department of Martyrs. Zorah wants to get on the duvet project as a seamstress.
Soraya She was widowed last year when there was a mini bus attack by a suicide bomber, her husband was on the bus. She is now bringing up 5 children alone. As well as making duvets she also washes clothes and cleans in people’s homes. She says that when the project ends she hope another one will start so she can continue to earn money. The project is good for her as she prefers to work from home. She is keen to receive duvets as well.
Nassima Her husband works as a labourer, she has 4 children. She says the project is some help but hopes work will continue.
Problems within the project A few of the seamstresses commented that transport costs are a bit of a problem for women who live far away. A taxi to transport the materials home and then the duvets back can be around 800 Afghanis, this is over half the amount (1500 Afghani’s) they receive in wages per duvet batch. Ali (a coordinator of the project) explained that when they selected the women they had a set budget which didn’t include transport costs. He also pointed out that if they started giving subsidies to women who live far away then all the women should receive something for travel, then there might be accusation that the group had extra funds all along which they were keeping (apparently a common practice with NGOs). Also the issue of whether they refund past travel expenses. We came up with the proposal for Ali to work out an estimation of how much a travel subsidy would cost, we would then try to raise funds to provide a grant, we hope for all the women.
Feedback from Duvet RecipientsKarte Sahi duvet distribution
Najeeba has four children, one son and three daughters aged 2-14. Sat in the pale sunlight of a cold January morning, she tells me that the duvets she will receive from the APV will be of vital help: “This is a very good thing, there are a lot of poor people in this area”.
We’re in District Five, at the foot of a mountain, in the courtyard of a mosque filled with women in burkas waiting to collect their two puffy, warming duvets, made by women from backgrounds as impoverished as theirs. A cemetery of basic, barely marked graves on uneven ground is just beyond us, and in the distance, a stunningly beautiful blue domed mosque catches the light before giving way to hundreds of homes built into the rock of the mountain. It’s a beautiful sight.
I ask Najeeba whether her husband works. “My husband pushes a cart for a living, he carries things for other people – rice and oil, to the market. He earns 150 Afghani or just 50 per day, it depends on who hires him”. 150 Afghani is about £1.50.
“I also taking on some needle work from shops which I can sew at home in between looking after my children. I sew scarves and dresses. For embroidering a dress, which can take me two months, I get 2000 Afghani (£20) This involves very hard, detailed work. I sew after I have finished the housework of cleaning and sweeping. I spend three hours a day sewing”.
“Many women are in the same situation as me. I have a lot of hopes for the future though. I hope we can afford to buy our own house and that my husband will find a better job”.
Najeeba lives in a simple two room house with no kitchen. They cook their meals and make tea on a simple stove. The rent sets them back 3000 Afghani a month – a large part of her and her husband’s joint income.
“I have high hopes for my children, that they will study and get a good education. Both myself and my husband are illiterate but I hope also to study. Simple things, like understanding phone numbers and names”. I ask her what she feels about the forthcoming elections? “I still have hope. I will vote this year. I believe change will come”.
Other women were asked to participate in an interview but declined
I’ve been in Kabul a week now, living in the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteer (APV) house on the border of District 3. The area is a mish-mash of wealthy mirror-windowed mansions fronted by surly gun-on-the-lap security guards, crumbling mudhuts, open sewers, children in ragged clothes warming themselves on burning rubbish, a fake McDonalds and Subway with directly lifted logos, and Kabul’s sole waterpark, for men only and 500 Afghanis a dip. One disc of naan bread is 10 Afghanis (around 10p) and the women working on the APV’s duvet-making project get 150 Afghani’s per duvet, a two hour job, and make 3 per day, earning £4.50 per day in total – a relatively decent wage compared to most people in the precarious work sector who earn between $1-5 per day.
Men wait for work on the ‘Red Bridge’, a 10 minute walk from us. It crosses the Kabul River, once free flowing but now a stagnant mud swamp, flanked with bags of rotting rubbish and opium addicts crouching in the shallows. Child workers take their breaks in chip shops and at Bolani stands (Bolani is a deep fried pastry filled with potato, green chilies and squash) swaggery and manly like mini 40-year-olds.
Everything feels on the brink here. The unemployment rate (stats apply to men only) is officially 30% but unofficially twice as high. Most work is precarious: street vending, cart pushing, tailoring and shop work – the main ones seem to cater for just-in-time-survival – car spare parts, all manner of appliance and home repairs and replacements, wood for home heating by stove, food, and gas sold not by the canister but by the kilogram. Catering for 10 (the number in our ‘family’ right now) involving boiling tea to have with all meals and a few times between for guests plus a hot lunch and dinner of simple rice and beans or okra or fried eggs, amounts to 15kg or 4 cannisters amoutning to 1200 Afghanis or £12.92 per month. Many families can’t count on a regular income and there’s no system of social security from the government despite the $100 billion given by the USA and the £37 billion by the UK for ‘reconstruction’ pumped into the country since 2001.
Aid drops – I’ve been to four so far – can turn desperate and hectic with those not registered with APV or refugee camp authorities being turned away empty outstretched-handed. At a recent drop in Charman-e-Hozuri, by Voices for Creative Non Violence we met camp elders, who uniquely for Afghanistan, were women. Strong, commanding, faces uncovered, and steely eyed, they shouted into a crowd slipping and clamouring in ice and mud to get hold of 500 tins of high quality cooking oil being doled out at one per family. The women stood between armed police and the crowd, gesticulating assertively and shouting orders to the men around them. The police facilitated the drop, even facilitating themselves to 3 canisters of the oil. Corruption, militarised and violent, is rife here. Police real wages seem to be bribes. Afghanistan ranks as the third most corrupt country in the world after Somalia and North Korea.
Most people seem to be surviving on handouts, money sent by family from abroad and precarious work. At one refugee camp opposite the gleaming Paris Hotel, home to 700 families from all ethnic backgrounds who were returnees from decades of exile in Pakistan and Iran, the main work seems to be cart-pushing and washing the clothes of wealthy NGO workers. The displaced live in mud-brick shelters and fortified tents, everything caked in the ubiquitous Kabul dust in part due to the unpaved, rocky and disintegrating roads. The fact they can’t afford secure housing is also due to the Aid Industry and corporate influx over the past decade which has seen rents rise to higher than in London. I was told of one apartment in the City Centre on Flower Street that was costing a German freelance journalist and her two co-sharers $2700 per month (with a maid thrown in). Maya Evans here, a good old friend and Voices for Creative Non-Violence co-ordinator put it well – she said it’s like the whole city’s running on a keymeter. It’s a metaphor borrowed from the Fuel Poverty Action work I’m doing in the UK, organising around the scandal of those on pre-payment meters, always on the brink of d
arkness, struggling to top-up and when they can’t, being regularly plunged into the cold and dark because of poverty and profiteering companies. Here we’re cut off every other day and the freezing, dank, dusty cold envelopes everything.
Where’s the way out of this systemic and violently enforced powerlessness? According to UNESCO 82% of women and 50% of men are illiterate, rising to 90% of women and 60% of men in rural areas which is where most people live. At least 2500
Afghan women committed suicide in 2012. 60% of the population is under 25 and 60% of children are malnourished. Accessible free education is a thing of the distant past. State schools are few and far between with many teachers having left the country. If they can afford it, parents put their children through private schools but most can’t. Religious schools and further education can still be found for free but the education is narrow in its’ scope. Universities charge on average 50,000 Afghanis ($1000) per year of study. I met one Economics student from Kandahar who said he wasn’t really learning anything at University. They lacked books, good teachers, materials and up-to-date information in Dari. NGOs and Aid are big business, grooming an English-speaking elite, many of whom squat the upper rungs of the socio-economic ladder before making a break for the ultimate destination; up and out of the country.
If this sounds dystopian, it’s because it is. But there are also a sizeable number of Afghan men, women and youth working to challenge corruption, the class system, sectarianism, misogyny and violence in all its’ forms. The APV is one such rare group. Totally grassroots and funded by likeminded grassroots peace groups from all over the world, it is independent of political parties and radical in its’ commitment to building safer spaces and anti-oppression in action. They carry a vision of a borderless world where war and economic, social, cultural and political violence can be abolished. A guiding philosophy is that the means by which we organise have to reflect the ends we want to see. They’re walking the talk and have been building integrity and trust since they emerged from Bamiyan six years ago, as a small group of Hazara youth taught by Singaporean Doctor Hakim (Wi Tek Young) gone native after 10 years in the country. They’re now composed of Hazara, Pashtun and Tajik community members and are looking for Uzbek participants in order to create the lived conditions for co-existence and co-operation between ethnic identities in a country where mixing between different groups is rare and sectarian violence and prejudice are rife.
The APV are hugely inspiring, and the work they do, the journeys they have been on and who they are reclaims, re-generates and re-defines the much abused, co-opted and discredited concept of ‘peace’ in a country where war has been the dominant language for decades. To respond to dystopia with an active creation of a utopia is a huge act of rebellion and one that we can all learn from as the world we live in becomes more and more oppressive. From Kabul to England, from the war we’ve exported to the ongoing class war at home – here are seeds for change that can go global.
A few days ago we visited a refugee camp, in the Perwan Dodo area of Kabul. The camp is relatively small compared to camps we’ve visited previously, with around forty families occupying an area about the size of a football pitch. Most of the families were from Pawan Province which is to the north of Kabul. They had become internal refugees after fleeing from their homes due to the fighting or lack of jobs.
It had been raining the night before and the road in front of the camp was flooded. There was a man in knee length wellies wading up to his shins in the water sucking it up with a large tube coming from a truck. We ducked under a curtain of ragged sheets which acted as a makeshift wall between the camp and the busy road. The little lanes which weaved around the camp leading to the various huts were a mud fest. As soon as we stepped into the camp our shoes became encrusted with mud.
Janey had wanted to interview a mother in a refugee camp as part of her short film project about the life of mums in Afghanistan. We were introduced to Paiky, a 42 year old mother of six. Her home was a hut made from mud with a small porch area which seemed to be used for cooking and then a larger area where the family of eight lived. Our Afghan camerawoman Alka set up her equipment while Paiky arranged herself under a large green patterned blanket. We had yet to hear her story but it was already obvious that she was in a lot of pain.
Janey and I sat next to her while some of her children peeked from behind a curtain which led into the darkened main area of the hut. The interview initially started with some of the men present but after a few minutes Paiky requested that they leave. Once the men left the porch Paiky opened her heart and poured forth about her life and physical ailments. She had given birth to four of her six children alone. Her last birth was also unassisted and due to lack of medical care she is still in constant pain six years later. She says the discomfort is so extreme that she can’t wear trousers or any garment on the bottom half of her body. She lifted her blanket and dress to show me her swollen stomach with some extremely sore looking veins running across it. Janey later said she wasn’t in a position to see her stomach but my expression had said it all.
At the end of the interview I joked with three of Paiky’s children, my limited Dari allowed me to describe them as “dost” friends, and in reply they laughed and called me “holla”, aunty. When I looked into the soft eyes of Rafiq who was about eleven, his smile was so warm and sincere that I immediately felt a deep connection with him. Paiky explained that he was the main bread winner of the family. Every day he went out into the street and washed cars for a living, and my heart went further out to this eleven year old man.
Outside our male companions were talking to the elders of the camp. They were learning more about the political economics of the situation. Apparently, the site was previously occupied by another group of internally displaced people (IDPs) who have now been housed in a building development overlooking the present camp. The site is now part of the land grab racket which is currently gripping Afghanistan and is described by Barmak Pazhwak, at the US Institute of Peace, as “the next big conflict” for the country, while the Afghan Land Authority have assessed that 197,266 hectors of public land has been grabbed.
In 2008 Oxfam published a report which described land issues as now being the main cause of dispute within Afghanistan. The problem lies with the recent falsifying of land ownership documents. Previously there was no legal documentation proving the ownership of land in Afghanistan and land just belonged to families and was passed down between generations. The land theft has given rise to what is locally described as a “land mafia” who are suspected to be a mixture of rich corrupt property developers, drug dealers and war lords – many of whom are currently within the Afghan Government. Kabul is now gripped by this land theft racket.
In the case of this camp’s site, the previous refugees had negotiated a deal with the owner of the land, a rich property developer who is said also to have land in Canada and Dubai. Furthermore it is alleged that the developer had struck a deal with a warlord who negotiated housing for the refugees in return for their loyalty as fighters. The buying of refugees’ loyalty is now becoming common place. Many refugees who last year were considered among the poorest in the country are now relatively well off and living in new housing.
Property prices boomed in Kabul up to a year ago with rocketing rents fuelled by the large number of internationals living in Kabul who are earning big money. Recently rents have stalled and are predicted to level out, but are still at massively inflated prices by local standards. Everyday we hear about the problems for ordinary people in Afghanistan – a country with the highest number of drug addicts in the world; the highest infant mortality, mental health problems, domestic violence and internally displaced people – the list goes on and on. Land theft is just another problem to add.