Tag Archives: Afghanistan

‘I was six when the Russians came’

Farzana and Zarghuna on graduation day

The story of Farzana, translated by her daughter Zarghuna and written up by Maya Evans

When I was six, life was good. I didn’t know anything outside my mother and father’s world. In the village where I lived it was possible to see the mud houses from far away. The Baba Mountains stretched forever into the distance. In spring everything was lush green, the water flowed from the mountains feeding the stream in front of our house, all the time you could hear water flowing. People worked hard on the land every day in the mountains herding sheep and goats or working in the shops at the Bazaar. Women made bread in tandoors. Life in the village of Topi was hard but people were happy.

I had just started school for maybe a month when the war started. The Russians had come to Bamiyan and it was the beginning of war for Afghanistan. When the helicopters started to drop bombs on our village the people fled to the mountains to live in caves. Sometimes two families would live in a cave for two or three months. We loaded food and blankets onto a donkey and crossed the rocky mountain paths to the safety of the caves. During the day the men would go out to cut alfalfa and the women sometimes travelled back to the farms to collect vegetables. I stayed in the cave and played with my dolls and my siblings, an older sister and two big brothers.

It took a long time for the Russian war to end, maybe two or three Presidents passed. It was hard growing up under constant pressure. People were always afraid and they couldn’t travel freely. When I was twelve I got to travel with my grandmother to Kabul when it was under the control of the Russian ‘iron fist’. Although Kabul was full of Russians then, and ‘bad men’ who would beat people, Afghan women wore short skirts and sometimes didn’t wear head scarves. I remember once being on a bus and a woman admired my handmade scarf from Bamiyan. The woman stroked it and said she had never seen a scarf like mine and asked me to bring one back from Bamiyan for her.

Kabul was clean then, not like today. The rivers, which now contain more rubbish than water, were a source of life and leisure for Afghans, with people fishing on the banks and even swimming. The streets weren’t crowded and the air was clean. I remember seeing the Russian tanks leaving to fight in the Panjsheer valley. When the soldiers left they were happy but when they returned they were beaten, carrying their dead and wounded from a battle. This victory made the Tajik Commander Ahmed Sheer Mahsood’s name, forever glorified in Afghan history as ‘The Lion of the Panjsheer’.

After the war people were very poor and there wasn’t much food. Many Afghans became refugees in Iran including my two brothers. One of my brothers travelled on foot in women’s clothing to avoid being forced to become a fighter. Those still living in the village returned to work on their farms, growing potatoes and wheat, and keeping cows. My grandmother and I planned to follow my brothers but my older sister, who had recently married in Kabul, fell pregnant so my grandmother stayed to help her with the baby.

By the time that war ended I was thirteen and it was decided that I should marry. It was autumn when I married. It was an exciting day and although it wasn’t my decision, I realised I had to accept it. My husband Rahmony was around nineteen years old and was handsome and kind. We had grown up in the same village so I already knew him. Everyone knew everyone in the village as there were only around 32 families.

My mother and father-in-law brought candies to the wedding and threw them in the air like confetti. The women played the doryha drum and danced, while they sang a special coming of age song. When I went to live with her husband’s family it was very difficult as it was a big family, he had three brothers and four sisters plus grandparents. One of the brothers had already married so his wife also lived in the house. My husband was gentle and he would sweep the floor and cook. His brother would say he was not a real man but I loved him and appreciated his kindness. Unlike other husbands he never beat me.

Every day I washed the clothes, collected alfalfa off the land and milked the sheep and cows. The alfalfa naturally grew near the potatoes and wheat and we knew that the crops would grow strong if the alfalfa grew. The men were all farmers and would spend the day working on the land.

Then the fighting started again and many of the men joined the Mujahuddin, but not Rahmony, he stayed to work on the land as he didn’t like the violence.

The men would mainly fight each other in the mountains but sometimes violence came to the village. I often saw flame throwers – canisters of gas propelled through the air by a flame. The fighting was between five groups and they would fire at anyone who was walking around. The different groups were drawn up along ethnic lines and were supported by different countries. ‘Nasar’ were helped by the Americans, ‘Harakat’ and ‘Scepor’ were backed by Iran, ‘Jamyat’ were Tajik and Pashtoon and there was also ‘Shora’. They all fought in the ‘Jang-e-dohkhely’ – the ‘war inside’.

I heard from the people in my village that America was a country far away but I didn’t know where. I heard the names of other countries like Iran, Russia and Pakistan, but only when people in the village talked about where the weapons came from.

I was fifteen when my first child Khamed was born. Life was hard because of the Mujahuddin but because of my husband Rahmony I was happy. A year later my second son Lolla was born, then four years later my first daughter Zarghuna was our third blessing.

After the Mujahuddin things weren’t clear. Najibullah became President and I thought he was good for the people. I remember listening to the radio at home, being warmed by the flames of our stove. I heard Najibullah’s voice crackling through the radio, with his message urging for peace and asking the fighters in the mountains to come down, to have peace and life. But they did not listen. I didn’t understand why they continued to fight, maybe it had something to do with the business of weapons, but I don’t know.

By this point my second daughter Karima had arrived, and then my younger sons Abdul and Arif making six. Life for me was the same, I still went out to collect alfalfa for the cows, washed clothes and looked after my family. My eldest daughter Zarghuna adored her father and never liked to be separated from him. Sometimes he liked to sleep outside under the stars and although she was afraid of the worms in the ground, she would insist on sleeping next to him, lulled to sleep by the sound of the stream running past their home. Rahmony was keen for his daughters to attend school. It was he who enrolled Zarghuna at age six and it was him who often fetched her from school.

And then the Taliban came to Kabul.

I had heard from others in the village that the Taliban killed everyone, especially the Hazaras, but I did not believe these stories. Then one day men from the Mujahuddin returned to the village and said the Taliban were coming, and that even they were afraid. At first the Talibs arrived by car and then on horseback. They carried guns and long knives. I realised then that the stories I had heard were true.

There was no time, it was chaos. Rahmony and I collected up all our children, except for Khamed and Abdul who were missing. But the family had to flee for their lives – immediately. During the day we crossed mountains, and that night we saw the smoke of burning houses which the Taliban had set alight. We had nearly escaped to the safety of the mountain tops where the Taliban would not find us.

We were not the only family who were fleeing. In our group were Rahmony’s brother and his family plus two other men. We walked for nearly a day when we became aware of the voices of Talibs close by so we crouched in the shady shadows under an overhanging cliff. Everyone was frozen to their hiding space. Karima said that she was thirsty but still we didn’t move as we could sense danger was near. The women were praying that the Taliban would not see them; we needed to stay hidden for just a few more hours and then dusk would hide our escape into the mountains where we would not be found.

A man whom we didn’t know happened to wander past, he wasn’t a Talib and he did not sense the imminent danger. He could see the group sheltering under the rock and called them to come out. His voice cut the silence of the mountains.

I had dressed my young son Lolla in my own clothing so he looked like a girl, but there was no disguising Rahmony, his brother and the two other men. Zarghuna clung to her father as the Talibs ordered the men out of our hiding place. Rahmony took his scarf and wrapped it around seven year old Zarghuna, his daughter who never liked to be away from him, he told her not to be afraid and that he would always be with her.

Five minutes later we heard the sound of gunfire.

The Taliban told the women and children to return home. The shock left me unable talk and my legs stopped working. I had to go down the mountain by dragging myself along the ground. The next day we decided to try and find Rahmony but it was snowing and very cold. We searched but did not find him.

Rahmony’s Mother realised that the men had been killed so she went out to find the bodies. She discovered them not far from where we had been separated, holes were dug and they were buried at the spot that they had been killed.

Rahmony, my kind and handsome husband was gone.

Now I had to think about the lives of my six children. At first I didn’t want to tell Arif and Karima that the Taliban had killed their father, plus I still had no news about my eldest son Khamed and four year old Abdul. We asked the people returning from the mountains if they had seen them, but they had not. After twenty days the people in the village said that they must have been killed by the Taliban, but finally after forty long days a cousin came to say that they were safe and at an aunt’s house.

Life was nearly impossible without Rahmony. Two of his brothers and his father had also been killed. I asked his remaining family if I could have his share of the land, one of the brothers agreed but the other did not. But I was now the head of a family and like an Afghan man I claimed my piece of land. Security was still bad, the threat of the Taliban still loomed heavily so we sold our remaining livestock and planned to leave. We bought two sacks of flour for bread and loaded up our donkey. I lead my young family as we travelled for weeks; sleeping on hilltops and under the stars, dodging Talibs. Abdul was still a slow walker and Arif had to be carried, but still I kept my family together and safe.

Finally we reached the outskirts of Kabul and found a kind woman who wanted to share her large house with a family which did not have any men. Her husband and father had both left for Pakistan leaving her with three children and the house to look after. The room which we were given was beautiful as the kind woman’s father was rich. Lolla, now eleven, managed to get a job in a local shop and also went to the mountains with Khamed to collect bushes to fuel the tandoor and sell to other families.

We stayed in that house for six months until relatives in Bamiyan told us it was safe to return, that the Taliban had gone. We made the long journey back to our village, though by now it was winter so the journey was extra arduous. We collected wood and bushes during the day to burn at night.

When we returned to our house we found that someone else had been there. The pictures on the wall had been burnt, a box of clothes which we left in the corner had been thrown outside, and on the floor were bullets. My grandmother told stories of becoming a cook for the Taliban. They would call her ‘mother’ and bring chicken for her to cook or flour to make bread. The Talibs who occupied the village were different from the Talibs who first came and killed and beat women for not wearing socks. These Talibs accepted my grandmother and even gave her a new scarf because the one she wore was thread bare.

When the Americans came the Taliban left in cars with camouflage netting stretched across the roofs.

I remember food parcels being dropped from the sky and one of my neighbours running out into the field, unaware of a land mine which someone had planted during one of the many wars. Then foreign soldiers came but the village people did not ask questions. It was a time of peace even though everyone was poor and many people had been killed or had left.

Things were expensive. Khamed worked on the land and Lolla sold things on the street like bubblegum, socks, matches and walnuts – a walnut in its shell was 2 Afghanis (around 2p). Karima and Zarghuna worked at home washing clothes and collecting water from the spring, they also returned to school.

After so much travel and being hungry and scared, we found hope to be alive.

This interview took place when Farzana travelled from Bamiyan to Kabul for Zarghuna’s graduation ceremony. Today the roads from Bamiyan are extremely unsafe as they’re patrolled by the Taliban, ISIS and criminals. If a bus is stopped people say they are travelling to see family or for hospital, if students or government workers are found they are likely to be executed. If foreigners are discovered they will be kidnapped or killed. A white flag on a house signals the Taliban.

Zarghuna is a member of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, she is the first person in her family to become a college graduate, the first woman in her village and one of the first APVs. She translated her mother’s story and added details from her own recollections. Farzana was extremely proud to see her daughter graduate.

This was also written the week a UNAMA report was published stated that a record number of 3,948 civilians were killed in 2016 and 7,920 injured. Since 2009, the armed conflict in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 24,841 civilians and injured 45,347 others.

Social change from the grassroots

Kabul Street Kids at the Borderfree Peace Centre enjoying their weekly lessons
Kabul Street Kids at the Borderfree Peace Centre enjoying their weekly lessons

Voices for Creative Non Violence UK are very excited to announce that we’ve received funding to undertake projects in activist skill sharing with 5 refugee groups in the UK, plus 20 Fly Kites Not Drones workshops with young people.

Both projects will link closely with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, either connecting with them directly, or using them as inspiration or an example of activism in a difficult environment.

Working with refugees in the UK, we hope to empower and develop confidence and campaigning skills with some of the most vulnerable currently living in UK society. The project aims to enable refugees to share their stories, while also harnessing activist skills to counter animosity and explain the difficulties involved in gaining leave to remain.

Donate to the Afghan Peace Volunteers ‘Non-Violence Football Team’ – to hire a pitch for weekly practices costs £16.25
The football team comprises of mixed ethnic players who are combining the message of peace and co-operation amongst the different ethnic groups.
The Co-operative Bank
Account: 65583025
Sort: 08 92 99
Reference: Football Team
Captain Amir & Midfield player Hoor looking at the Clapton Ultras website, while brainstorming campaigning ideas for the APV non-violence football team
Captain Amir & Midfield player Hoor looking at the Clapton Ultras website, while brainstorming campaigning ideas for the APV non-violence football team

“Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” Abandoned for Forced Asylum

Makeshift dwellings on fire as French authorities close down part of the camp

This month, French authorities (supported and funded by the UK government to the current balance of £62 million) have been demolishing the Jungle, a toxic wasteland on the edge of Calais. Formerly a landfill site, 4 km² it is now populated by approximately 5,000 refugees who have been pushed there over the past year. A remarkable community of 15 nationalities adhering to various faiths comprises the Calais Jungle. Residents have formed a network of shops and restaurants which, along with hamams and barber shops contribute to a micro-economy within the encampment.  Community infrastructure now includes schools, mosques, churches and clinics.

Afghans, numbering approximately 1,000, constitute the largest national group. Among this group are people from each of the main ethnicities in Afghanistan:  Pashtoons, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks. The Jungle is an impressive example of how people from different nationalities and ethnicities can live together in relative harmony, despite oppressive hardship and infringement of universal rights and civil liberties. Arguments and scuffles sometimes break out, but they’re normally catalysed by French authorities or traffickers.

Earlier this month Teresa May won a significant battle to restart flights deporting Afghans back to Kabul, on the grounds that it is now safe to return to the capital city.

Just 3 months ago I sat in the Kabul office of ‘Stop Deportation to Afghanistan.’ Sunlight poured through the window like golden syrup on a top floor apartment, the city of Kabul shrouded in dust splayed out like a postcard. The organisation is a support group run by Abdul Ghafoor, a Pakistan-born Afghan who spent 5 years in Norway, only to be deported to Afghanistan, a country he had previously never visited. Ghafoor told me about a meeting he had recently attended with Afghan government ministers and NGOs – he laughed as he described how the non-Afghan NGO workers arrived at the armed compound wearing bullet proof vests and helmets, and yet Kabul has been deemed a safe space for returning refugees.  The hypocrisy and double standards would be a joke if the upshot was not so unfair. On one hand you have foreign embassy staff being airlifted (for security reasons) by helicopter within the city of Kabul, and on the other you have various European governments saying it’s safe for thousands of refugees to return to Kabul.

In 2015, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 11,002 civilian casualties (3,545 deaths and, 7,457 injured) exceeding the previous record in 2014.

Having visited Kabul 8 times in the last 5 years, I’ve been acutely aware that security within the city has drastically declined. As a foreigner I no longer take walks longer than 5 minutes, day trips to the beautiful Panjshir Valley or the Qarga lake are now considered too risky. Word on the Kabul streets is that the Taliban are strong enough to take the city but can’t be bothered with the hassle of running it; meanwhile independent ISIS cells have established a foothold. I regularly hear that Afghan life today is less secure than it was under the Taliban, 14 years of US/NATO-backed war has been a disaster.

Back in the Jungle, north France, 21 miles from the British isles, around 1,000 Afghans dream of a safe life in Britain. Some have previously lived in Britain, others have family in the UK, many have worked with the British military or NGOs. Emotions are manipulated by traffickers who describe the streets of Britain as paved with gold.  Many refugees are discouraged by the treatment they’ve received in France where they’ve been subjected to police brutality and attacks by far-right thugs. For various reasons they feel the best chance of a peaceful life is in Britain. Deliberate exclusion from the UK just makes the prospect even more desirable. Certainly the fact that Britain has agreed to take only 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next 5 years, and overall the UK is taking 60 refugees per 1,000 of the local population who claimed asylum in 2015, compared to Germany which is taking 587, has played into the dream that Britain is the land of exclusive opportunity.

Refugees from Afghanistan, North Africa, Eritrea and watch as their temporary homes in the 'jungle' camp are destroyed
Refugees from Afghanistan, North Africa, Eritrea and watch as their temporary homes in the ‘jungle’ camp are destroyed

I spoke with Afghan community leader Sohail, who said: “I love my country, I want to go back and live there, but it’s just not safe and we have no opportunity to live. Look at all the businesses in the Jungle, we have talents, we just need the opportunity to use them”. This conversation happened in the Kabul Café, one of the social hotspots in the Jungle, just one day before the area was set ablaze, the whole south high street of shops and restaurants razed to the ground.  After the fire, I spoke with the same Afghan community leader. We stood amid the demolished ruins where we had drunk tea in the Kabul café.   He feels deeply saddened by the destruction. “Why did the authorities put us here, let us build a life and then destroy it?”

Two weeks ago the south part of the Jungle was demolished: hundreds of shelters were burnt or bulldozed leaving some 3,500 refugees with nowhere to go. The French authorise now want to move onto the north part of the camp with the aim of rehousing most refugees within white fishing crate containers, many of which are already set up in the Jungle, and currently accommodate 1,900 refugees. Each container houses 12 people, there’s little privacy, and sleeping times are determined by your ‘crate mates’ and their mobile phone habits.  More alarmingly, a refugee is required to register with French authorities. This includes having your finger prints digitally recorded; in effect, it’s the first step into forced French asylum.

The British government has consistently used the Dublin Regulations as legal grounds for not taking its equal quota of refugees. These regulations prescribe that refugees should seek asylum in the first safe country they land in. However, that regulation is now simply impractical.  If it was properly enforced, Turkey, Italy and Greece would be left to accommodate the millions of refugees.

Many refugees are requesting for a UK asylum centre within the Jungle, giving them the ability to start the process for asylum in Britain. The reality of the situation is that refugee camps like the Jungle are not stopping people from actually entering the UK. In fact these blights on human rights are reinforcing illegal and harmful industries such as trafficking, prostitution and drug smuggling. European refugee camps are playing into the hands of human traffickers; one Afghan told me that , the current going rate to be smuggled into the UK is now around €10,000, the price having doubled over the last few months. Setting up a UK asylum centre would also remove the violence which often occurs between truck drivers and refugees, as well as tragic and fatal accidents which come about during transit into the UK. It’s perfectly possible to have the same number of refugees entering the UK via legal means as there are by the ones which exist today.

The south part of the camp now stands desolate, burnt to the ground other than for a few social amenities. An icy wind whips across the expanse of littered wasteland. Debris flaps in the breeze, a sad combination of rubbish and charred personal belongings. French riot police used tear gas, water canons and rubber bullets to aid the demolition. Currently there’s a stalemate situation wherein some NGOs and volunteers are reluctant to rebuild homes and constructions which might quickly be demolished by French authorities.

The Jungle represents incredible human ingenuity and entrepreneurial energy exhibited by refugees and the volunteers who have poured their lives into making a community to be proud of; simultaneously it’s a shocking and shameful reflection of the decline in European human rights and infrastructure, where people who flee for their lives are forced to inhabit communal crate containers, a form of indefinite detention. Unofficial comments made by a representative of the French authorities indicates a possible future policy whereby refugees who choose to remain outside of the system, opting either to be homeless or not to register, could potentially face imprisonment for up to 2 years.

France and Britain are currently shaping their immigration policy. It is especially disastrous for France, with a constitution founded on “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”, to base that policy on demolishing temporary homes, excluding and incarcerating refugees, and forcing refugees into unwanted asylum. By giving people the right to choose their country of asylum, assisting with basic needs such as accommodation and food, responding with humanity rather than suppression, the State will be enabling the best possible practical solution, as well as complying with international human rights, laws set down to protect the safety and rights of everyone in the world today.

Afghan restaurant at the ‘jungle’ refugee camp, Calais, France

International Women’s Day in Kabul – Borderfree Action

In mark international women's day, the Afghan Peace Volunteers held a mixed gender bike ride!
In mark international women’s day, the Afghan Peace Volunteers held a mixed gender bike ride!

To mark international women’s day, the Afghan Peace Volunteers held a mixed gender bike ride!

In the UK, we were invited to join Women for Refugee Women with their campaign to support pregnant women in Yarls Wood Detention Centre – we joined Caroline Lucus, Natasha Walter and others at the Home Office.

Bombing a Hospital is a War Crime

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National Action 7th October Hospital Vigil

14 year anniversary of the US/NATO led war in Afghanistan we urge everyone to vigil outside their local hospital in remembrance of the 22 people killed during the attack on the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, North Afghanistan.

Support Médecins Sans Frontières who are calling the attack a war crime and are demanding for an independent investigation.

The US have described the attack as “collateral damage” but keep changing their story daily.

Suggested sign for vigil: “Bombing a hospital is a war crime, the same is true in Afghanistan”.

Stand in solidarity with Afghans who have endured 35 years of war, who say they have had ENOUGH of violence, who say that life now is more insecure than under the taliban.

Take photos and send a press release to your local newspaper.

Social media: @MSF #Kunduz #WarCrime @We_Say_Enough @vcnvuk #MSF #IndependentInvestigation

22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan 
by Kathy Kelly
October 5, 2015

Before the 2003 Shock and Awe bombing in Iraq, a group of activists living in Baghdad would regularly go to city sites that were crucial for maintaining health and well-being in Baghdad, such as hospitals, electrical facilities, water purification plants, and schools, and string large vinyl banners between the trees outside these buildings which read: “To Bomb This Site Would Be A War Crime.”  We encouraged people in U.S. cities to do the same, trying to build empathy for people trapped in Iraq, anticipating a terrible aerial bombing.

Tragically, sadly, the banners must again condemn war crimes, this time echoing international outcry because in an hour of airstrikes this past Saturday morning, the U.S. repeatedly bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, a facility that served the fifth largest city in Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

 U.S./NATO forces carried out the airstrike at about 2AM on October 3rd.  Doctors Without Borders had already notified the U.S., NATO and Afghan forces of their geographical coordinates to clarify that their compound, the size of a football field, was a hospital.  When the first bombs hit, medical staff immediately phoned NATO headquarters to report the strike on its facility, and yet strikes continued, at 15 minute intervals, until 3:15 a.m., killing 22 people. 12 of the dead were medical staff; ten were patients, and three of the patients were children. At least 37 more people were injured.  One survivor said that the first section of the hospital to be hit was the Intensive Care Unit.

“Patients were burning in their beds,” said one nurse, an eyewitness to the ICU attack.”There are no words for how terrible it was.”  The U.S. airstrikes continued, even after the Doctors Without Borders officials had notified the U.S., NATO and Afghan military that the warplanes were attacking the hospital.

 Taliban forces do not have air power, and the Afghan Air Force fleet is subordinate to the U.S., so it was patently clear that the U.S. had committed a war crime.

The U.S. military has said that the matter is under investigation.  Yet another in an endless train of somber apologies; feeling families’ pain but excusing all involved decision makers seems inevitable. Doctors Without Borders has demanded a transparent, independent investigation, assembled by a legitimate international body and without direct involvement by the U.S. or by any other warring party in the Afghan conflict.  If such an investigation occurs, and is able to confirm that this was a deliberate, or else a murderously neglectful war crime, how many Americans will ever learn of the verdict?

War crimes can be acknowledged when carried out by official U.S. enemies, when they are useful in justifying invasions and efforts at regime change.

 One investigation the U.S. has signally failed to carry out would tell it how much Kunduz needed this hospital. The U.S. could investigate SIGAR reports (“Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction”) numbering Afghanistan’s “U.S. funded health care facilities,” allegedly funded through USAID, which cannot even be located, 189 alleged locations at whose coordinates there are demonstrably no buildings within 400 feet. In their June 25th letter they astoundingly write, “My office’s initial analysis of USAID data and geospatial imagery has led us to question whether USAID has accurate location information for 510—nearly 80 percent—of the 641 health care facilities funded by the PCH program.” It notes that six of the Afghan facilities are actually located in Pakistan, six in Tajikstan, and one in the Mediterranean Sea.

Now it seems we’ve created yet another ghost hospital, not out of thin air this time but from the walls of a desperately needed facility which are now charred rubble, from which the bodies of staff and patients have been exhumed. And with the hospital lost to a terrified community, the ghosts of this attack are, again, beyond anyone’s ability to number.  But in the week leading up to this attack, its staff had treated 345 wounded people, 59 of them children.

The U.S. has long shown itself the most formidable warlord fighting in Afghanistan, setting an example of brute force that frightens rural people who wonder to whom they can turn for protection.  In July of 2015, U.S. bomber jets attacked an Afghan army facility in the Logar Province, killing ten soldiers. The Pentagon said this incident would likewise be under investigation.  No public conclusion of the investigation seems ever to have been issued.  There isn’t always even an apology.

This was a massacre, whether one of carelessness or of hate.   One way to join the outcry against it, demanding not just an inquiry but a final end to all U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan, would be to assemble in front of health care facilities, hospitals or trauma units, carrying signage which says, “To Bomb This Place Would Be a War Crime.” Invite hospital personnel to join the assembly, notify local media, and hold an additional sign which says: “The Same Is True in Afghanistan.”

We should affirm the Afghans’ right to medical care and safety. The U.S. should offer investigators unimpeded access to the decision makers in this attack and pay to reconstruct the hospital with reparations for suffering caused throughout these fourteen years of war and cruelly manufactured chaos. Finally, and for the sake of future generations, we should take hold of our runaway empire and make it a nation we can restrain from committing the fathomlessly obscene atrocity that is war.

 

Being a Peace Visitor in Kabul

by Henrietta Cullinan

Henrietta in Kabul, visiting a refugee camp
Henrietta in Kabul, visiting a refugee camp

I had never considered that part of my own peace activism would be to visit a war torn country. I knew several people who had travelled to Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan. I also knew people who had worked in refugee camps in Syria. It didn’t occur to me that I could undertake such a journey until about a year ago. I had been taking part in the monthly vigil against drones at RAF Waddington. One day I travelled up to Lincoln with Maya Evans of Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK. She had recently returned from three months in Kabul. On the long awkward journey, Maya told me all about the young members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and their life in community. Eventually she said, ‘Have you ever thought of visiting Afghanistan?’

I had spent so much time praying about, discussing, protesting against UK involvement in NATO’s wars, my heart knew the true next step was to visit the site of so much suffering. At the same time I was nervous and found it difficult to work out why I was going or what I was going to do when I got there. Travelling to Afghanistan in a group, we could make the situation for our hosts potentially more dangerous. I recognised my heart was telling me to go, I recognised the Spirit was calling me to go, but my understanding had a difficult time catching up. It castigated me for causing too much bother, for spending too much money, for putting lives in danger, for missing family Christmas. It came up with a thousand excuses.

Afghanistan is a beautiful country like all countries are beautiful; the snowcapped mountain range hovers over the smog; on a clear day the sky is the most intense blue I have ever seen. Sometimes it was so cold the open sewer in the street was frozen over, but during the day kept us warm. I listened to the friendly, young Afghans as they talked about their homes in Bamyam province. I looked at their pictures of child shepherds, rivers, trees, mountains.

Once I said, ‘What a beautiful day!’ and my new friends laughed. ‘This is Afghanistan. There is a war on.’ But it was a beautiful day. The smog had been blown away. The green flag of faith on the top of the building opposite and the washing lines on the balconies were all fluttering. People were standing on street corners, gesticulating, chatting. Students were being students.

I felt excited to be in what felt like the centre of the world; Russia to the north, China and Pakistan to the east, Iran to the west.

This would be my peace message, an obvious message but one I could now hear in reality not just in theory. One I need to repeat. Countries are full of young and old, thoughtful, hopeful people just like us. We have no right to destroy their means to live, to make life so difficult, a whole country dysfunctional, a whole country traumatised, so many families having lost a father, a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister. As I was there the US army was leaving, the UK army had already left. One boy said to me, ‘Hey! Our countries are no longer at war. We can be friends!’

Another message I held close to my heart is one inspired by scripture but also a practical one. Our trip wasn’t going to be very long, only three weeks. What could I do in three weeks? What skills could I possibly bring? I’m a literacy teacher, but only in English, not Dari. I’m not a journalist. I know nothing of aid work.

On the Sunday of Christ the Kind I sat in my local church searching and searching for an answer. Why was I going to Kabul? I went through the works of mercy, the gospel reading for that day. Separate the sheep from the goats. Feed the hungry. It’s not helpful the other members of my group said, to take food to the refugee camps. We could cause a riot. Clothe me when I am naked. As westerners, our group had a dim view of that too. Gloves and socks and pants? We hadn’t raised money to buy food or clothes. I’m not a journalist so I can’t add an eye witness account. ‘Absorb!’ the rest of the group told me.

I was thirsty and you gave me drink. There was fantastic hospitality in Kabul. Everywhere we went, a large pot of green tea came out, hot, steaming, weak and left on top of the wood stove to keep warm. It was served with a thermos of hot water, sometimes flavoured with cardamom. You could drink the plain hot water or use it to top up your glass of tea. In the morning our young hostess came rushing in to put glasses of tea by our beds. After the first night I woke up with my throat sore and feeling as if it was full of gravel. Our hosts said, ‘You’re not drinking enough.’ Fumes from the wood, coal and diesel that people burn to keep warm, fills the atmosphere with a strange yellow smell, which burns the throat and nostrils.

Going through the works of mercy, I came to the last one. I was sick and in prison and you visited me. I was all those things. But this was something I could do. I do know how to do this. Hospitals are full of visitors. I have sat beside the beds of elderly relatives often enough, felt embarrassed, been told to go away. When someone is sick, they’re not polite. All I can do is sit there. There is not much I can do except stay a while. And just be.

That was what I could do in Afghanistan. I was visiting; nothing grand. The country is sick, from lack of infrastructure, from the effects of one war piled upon another war, from lack of manufacturing base, from pollution. And the young people are imprisoned by lack of opportunity, unemployment, uncertainty, the unpredictable security situation. So this was the  main reason to go, to be a person who visited.

It gave me great courage, while I was in Kabul, to obey these words of encouragement from scripture.

Afghanistan: The Forgotten War & Britain’s Legacy

This is an overview of the Afghanistan – The Forgotten War: Britain’s Legacy conference held in London on Saturday 11th October 2014 by Voices for Creative Non-Violence UK (VCNVUK) to mark the thirteenth anniversary of the current war in Afghanistan.

Afghan Peace Conference 2014

by Aisha Maniar

British troops will vacate their final base in Helmand, Afghanistan, later this month and 31st December 2014 is the date set for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the NATO/ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) coalition from the country, effectively signalling the end of the current war.

Many Afghans are positive about and look forward to rebuilding their country in the post-conflict period. Having just elected not one but two new leaders, challenges lie ahead for both the leadership and ordinary Afghans.

Almost immediately upon the election of the new government, the US and Afghanistan signed a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) the previous president had refused to sign, whose terms include the retention of almost 10,000 US soldiers in the country after 2014 to work “on two important security missions: training and equipping Afghan forces and supporting cooperation against terrorism”. A similar agreement was signed with NATO, bringing the total number of foreign troops remaining in the country to around 12,000, 500 of whom will be from the United Kingdom.

The withdrawal of foreign soldiers, however, does not signal an end to fighting in the ongoing civil war between different ethnic and religious factions and war lords. With the focus on the US and NATO’s activities in Afghanistan, this war has been underreported in the international media.

The impact of the war on all parties will continue for many decades and in many ways. David Cameron’s visit to Afghanistan as the first foreign leader to meet new president Ashraf Ghani reflects this. While there, he reiterated the old fallacy that troops on the ground there prevented terrorist attacks here.

With the conference falling at the end of the annual Drones Week of Action (4-11 October) and the planned final withdrawal this month, the focus was very much on Britain’s military legacy and ongoing covert engagement in Afghanistan. The conference was hosted and introduced by Maya Evans from VCNCUK. Around 50 people attended.

The Toxic Remnants

Andy Garrity from the Toxic Remnants of War (TRW) project, which looks at the detrimental impact of military activities and materials on the environment and human health, spoke about the consequences of the NATO drawdown and the toxic environmental legacy of the war.

Andy Garrity
Andy Garrity from The Toxic Remnants of War Project

In the process of withdrawal, over 1200 bases will either be closed or handed over to the Afghan authorities. The BSA negotiated at the end of September does not provide adequate rules on how bases are to be dismantled or decommissioned in an environmentally and human health-friendly way. Although the 2014 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) complies with Afghan legislation, the level of environmental protection offered is relatively low and there is no guarantee of enforcement by any of the parties.

There are many sources of environmental and health risks and pollution. Practice firing ranges, used to train soldiers, are usually abandoned due to the cost of clean-up and the lack of legislation making it mandatory. Residues and unexploded munitions stay behind. While the US says that it could take up to 5 years and $250 million to clean up such ranges, there has been no discussion on actually doing this.

According to the UN, children are at greatest risk from unexploded ordnances (UXOs): explosive weapons that did not explode at the time they were used and can still be detonated decades later. This is due to children, in particular, scavenging for scrap metal among the discarded materials to sell to earn money for their families. In addition to the risk of explosions, they are also exposed to carcinogens and UXO contamination.

Other risks are posed by MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) Andy Garrity & Maya Evansvehicles designed to withstand IEDs (improvised explosive devices) which are often simply abandoned. The cost of returning MRAPs to the US is estimated at $500 million where they would be of no use. These vehicles contain harmful carcinogenic materials, including cadmium, chromium and lead.

Before abandoning bases, many materials are disabled for “security” purposes, such as computers, fans, turbines, etc. and are of no further practical use. This scrap waste is sometimes abandoned on roadsides and poses risks to children playing and rummaging for metals to sell. Other waste from bases is consigned to burn pits, including aviation fuel, chemicals and clothing. This takes place at most bases and emits low-level pollution. Local residents have complained of increasing rates of asthma and respiratory problems. US army veterans have complained about higher rates and risks of cancer. While some compensation has been paid to veterans, following campaigns, the US maintains there is no risk of harm and admits no liability. No civilian health studies have been carried to assess the risk to Afghans or possible compensation owed to them.

While NATO and ISAF troops already adhere to low levels of environmental protection, drawdown has meant their replacement by private military contractors, who often overlook existing regulations and are not subject to public scrutiny. Currently outnumbering foreign soldiers two to one, their use is likely to increase further and their actions lack transparency, posing a concern for the future.

The total cost of clean-up has been estimated at $5.7 billion by the US. TRW believes that NATO and ISAF must be held accountable for environmental damage and damage to public health. In addition, military and security agreements must include more strongly-worded environmental protection. Seeking accountability, however, is hindered by the fact that this could set a precedent for conflicts elsewhere and claims for compensation and clean-up. Dangerous in the longer term, the focus is only on avoiding the cost of cleaning up right now.

Droning Wars continue…

Chris Cole from Drone Wars UK
Chris Cole from Drone Wars UK

Chris Cole

Chris Cole from Drone Wars UK talked about the UK’s ongoing military involvement in remote control drone warfare in Afghanistan. Due to the secrecy surrounding operations, there is no data available to provide accurate statistics on strikes and casualties in Afghanistan; however, more drone strikes take place in Afghanistan than anywhere else. Cole called drones the “new form of warfare”, with remote control strikes being launched against targets from thousands of miles away.

The UK started using military drones in December 2004 along with the US as part of a joint taskforce in Iraq. Using its own MQ-9 Reaper drones, Britain has since become addicted to drone warfare; in spite of the drawdown of troops over the past few years, the number of drone strikes has multiplied. Britain has spent over two billion pounds on buying and developing drones. In 2014 alone, over £100 million has been committed to drone technology development.

Drones do, however, have certain advantages. With the war in Afghanistan longer than World Wars I and II combined, and increasing public hostility to war, especially the commitment of troops on the ground, drones offer governments a means of continuing their war games in a manner that bypasses public and media scrutiny: secrecy is a large part of the drone package.

In 2009/2010, almost half of all air strikes were by drones; that number is now over 80%. Virtually nothing is known about the impact on the ground. Following an investigation by the LA Times in 2010, only one incident in Uruzgan province, where 23 civilians were killed, including children, prompted a military investigation leading to compensation for the families. There were no prosecutions. Patchy media coverage is available; on the day of the conference, two people were reported to have been killed in a US drone strike near the Pakistan border.

An important point raised is that the secrecy surrounding the use of military drones is closely linked to a wide network of intelligences bases around the world, such as those revealed in Edward Snowden’s leaks about the activity of the US National Security Agency (NSA). With an increasing number of bases being used all over the world, the surveillance society and intelligence-gathering aspects of drones must not be overlooked. With an ongoing UN inquiry into the impact of drone warfare on civilians, it is clear that it offers no solution to global security problems.

The True Cost of War

Frank Ledwidge

Frank Ledwidge
Frank Ledwidge author of Investment in Blood: the True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War

Former military officer, barrister and author of Investment in Blood: the True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, Frank Ledwidge spoke about the cost of the war.

The war has had a human cost for both the UK and Afghanistan; 453 British soldiers have been killed and more than 2500 injured, more than 600 seriously. Once they leave the military, they are only entitled to civilian support on the National Health Service (NHS), and not any special support, as is claimed. Although the remaining British army in Helmand have not been engaged in combat for most of 2014, the impact of their presence on the almost two million residents of the province is almost entirely unknown.

For most people in Helmand, however, the war is far from over with heavy fighting between local groups. While even NATO has recognised that most so-called Taliban are in fact local residents, as compared to the smaller contingent of asli (original) Taliban who ran the country before the war, many engaged in the current fighting are local people in gangs, drug dealers, war lords, etc.

An area now better known for its production of almost half the world’s opium harvest in 2013, at the time, the British army gave this rural area importance on the pretext of preventing domestic terrorism by placing troops on the ground to defeat the Taliban. In fact, there have been far more civilian casualties, even though official statistics are not broken down. Larger than the number of fatalities is the number of people injured or maimed. At the height of fighting between NATO/ISAF and Afghans in the province in 2010, in one month, one hospital admitted more than 4000 people.

Official government statistics have put the military cost of the war in Helmand at £25 billion, but the actual cost is over £35 billion, with fuel as one of the most expensive items. In the longer term, the single greatest cost will be care for veterans and wounded soldiers. Based on estimates for the US by experts there, Ledwidge has estimated a similar veteran care cost for the UK from Afghanistan of around £50 billion.

According to US experts, the cost of veteran care peaks 40 years after the conflict. In a freedom of information request made by Ledwidge to the MoD, he was informed that no budget has been set aside for Afghan veterans. There is only a £70 million fund for combat stress.

In conclusion, Ledwidge stated that there is no causal link between the Afghanistan war and domestic terrorism in the UK, even as this is being used as pretext right now for interference in Iraq and Syria. He stated that “we left Helmand a far worse place than we found it”. Looking at the human and financial cost of war, “going into the next war, we need to ask is this something we need to do?”

Afghan Women’s Voices

Skyping Kabul with Sabir, Maya and Farzana

Sabir, Maya & Farzana

Before concluding the conference and holding a set of afternoon workshops on issues such as Afghan women, drones and the war on terror, Kabul street children, and opportunities to build peace, a short Skype conversation was held with Afghan women in Kabul from the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV), who work closely with VCNVUK. “Saving Afghan women” was one of the main pretexts for the war.

Asked about their views on the new government, some of the women said that it was too early to tell but that people were still optimistic; others said they were not optimistic as the current government included politicians who were involved in various wars over the past three decades. One woman there would be no real change until the style of leadership changes, eradicating nepotism and the culture of self-serving war lords who have no interest in the concerns of ordinary people.

Afghan Peace Conference 2014Asked their views about the retention of thousands of foreign soldiers in the country, all of the women were against this as soldiers and military strategies have failed to bring about peace. Asked about the effects of war on women, one said a major impact was the loss of their husbands and children. In 2013, most casualties in Afghanistan were children. They also spoke about being psychologically traumatised, making many afraid to leave their homes. With the focus on staying alive, support for families and building families and communities takes secondary importance.

With thirteen years of war focused on combat and not people, one of the major challenges identified by this second annual conference is how to stop Afghanistan falling off the radar completely at the end of this year. The war is not over and media and public lack of awareness and disinterest must not serve as a pretext for further abuses and atrocities.

The conference was supported by Drone Campaign Network.

Penny from DCN Maya Evans VCNV
Penny Walker from DCN Maya Evans VCNV
Refugee Camp

Afghan Perspectives on the Presidential Election

Kabul billboard - Politician hugging a child, photo of girls at school underneath.
Politician hugging a child, photo of girls at school underneath.

by Beth Tichborne

The Afghan elections did not go well, and it’s hard to imagine how they could have gone well, although you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage. You might know that there were Taliban threats and violence. There were thousands of news stories written about the threat of violence even before the assassination attempt on Abdullah. You’re less likely to have heard that half of the election commission staff were sacked between the first and second rounds because of suspected participation in fraud. Only a handful of media outlets covered that story. There are stories that fit the narrative and those that don’t. This emphasis serves a political purpose. A functioning democracy in Afghanistan is offered to us as proof that the long occupation, and its huge cost in lives, has been worthwhile.

The elections represent something different for everybody involved, and needless to say the coverage in Afghanistan has a very different emphasis to the coverage in Britain or the US (did any Western media mention the Durand line, a major topic in the presidential debates, but a forgotten relic of empire to most British people?). Even the medium is different: low literacy rates, poverty and unreliable electricity supplies make radio and mobile phones a much bigger part of communications than television or newspapers.

One of the many refugee camps in Kabul, home to some of the 600,000 Afghan IDPs
One of the many refugee camps in Kabul, home to some of the 600,000 Afghan IDPs

I spoke to some young peace activists living in Kabul before the first round of the elections. They are well placed to understand different perspectives on its significance. They live in the city, but mostly come from a rural background. They work alongside people from across the deep ethnic and class divides, from refugee camps and street kids through to teachers and NGO directors.

Nasrullah is 17 years old, and already a veteran campaigner. He’s also a budding photographer, although his sensitive portraits and evocative scenes of Afghan street life are only shared on his Facebook page with his friends. Alongside his peace activism he goes to school, although he doesn’t feel that he learns much there. I asked him what he thought about the presidential candidates. “If someone does politics I don’t trust them, I don’t trust politics at all. There was one person that I trusted, Malalai Joya. She defended the voice of the people. But in the end she was pushed out of parliament.”

Have previous elections been democratic? “I don’t think the last election was right, and it can’t be right this time. Whoever wants to be president has to get a pen and sign a paper [the Bilateral Security Agreement]. And the people of Afghanistan have no choice. If you [in the West] want Abdullah to be president then he will be president.” He said that young people want to change things, but have no one to inspire them, and that on the whole “people are busy with their own daily lives, everyone works to find bread, no one has anything to do with politics at all.”

Kabul Street Scene
Kabul Street Scene

Bayat is a 16 year old who would have voted in the parliamentary elections if he was old enough, but not in the presidential elections, “because there isn’t anyone to vote for!” He, like Nasrullah, grew up in rural Bamyan, and spoke about what democracy looks on the ground in much of the country. “It’s less easy for someone to read the news and see what’s going on. There are some places in Bamyan you can go and watch the news on TV, some people do work during the day and go watch the news at night if they can.” He also talked about fear and bribery around the process “the ordinary workers aren’t going to dare go out and say you need to do this or that, even though they’re unhappy. I remember [at a previous election] some candidates attracted people by giving out free food on campaigning day, I saw this happen. I think that they just did that to make people support them. When it came to it they didn’t help anyone. Changes don’t happen.”

What about the international presence in Afghanistan? “They say that their goals for being here are for democracy and freedom, but when you look at the last 10 years all you see is more violence, more war, more rape. Well I say that their goals are purely political. They just want some power and control. When you think about it you realise that Afghanistan has nothing: it has no money, it has no power. I see for myself that these days everything comes from America. Even if everyone in the whole country, from a soldier to the president, put their efforts towards one thing… Americans are the ones putting the money through, you realise it’s not us that has the choice, we’ve handed it over to someone else. The politicians don’t have any freedom, they are pressured to sign things, they tell them that if you don’t sign this we will cut funding.”

"When you think about it you realise that Afghanistan has nothing: it has no money, it has no power"
“When you think about it you realise that Afghanistan has nothing: it has no money, it has no power”

Salim is 16, and met the others when he was working in a chip shop where they used to meet and talk about their plans. He started working as a street vendor when he was about 11 years old. He shared this cynicism about the intentions of outside powers “There are all these politicians… they think it’s all about them, and they all think about their own pockets. They think about everything from the perspective of what benefits them. They come here and say things like ‘we defend women’s rights!’; or ‘Democracy in Afghanistan!’;” And is there democracy in Afghanistan now? “Democracy? I haven’t seen any…” He pretended to think, while everyone laughed “No…really, I haven’t!”

Asif is Nasrullah’s older brother. His earliest memories are of going to school and enjoying learning. A little later, as a 10 year old, he carried his younger brother across the snow-covered mountains in winter, to escape from the Taliban. He doesn’t tell the story himself, but his friends and family talk about how after the long trek Abdulhai’s infant body was frozen, and he had to be thawed out by a fire for two days. As Asif grew up he felt that the worries of war and premature responsibility clouded his mind and he now finds learning is much more of a struggle. In the daily life of the community he’s quiet, cheerful, and hard-working. He likes walking in parks to relax, although green space is hard to come by in Kabul, and he dreams of going back to Bamyan, but stays in Kabul with his brother to study and to work for peace. He finds hope in the group, with its mix of ethnicities working together. He says that he doesn’t know if change will come in his lifetime, but that being human means keeping on trying. I asked if he would be voting in this year’s election.

“In the past I used to take part in voting, but my heart has become cold, and I don’t like voting. I’ve become numb to this whole subject. Whether I vote or not the same thing will happen. There is no meaning to it.”

Is that how many young people feel? “My friends don’t really understand anything about the current situation. If they have a good day, they have a good day.”

And why are other countries involved in Afghanistan? “To be honest, I don’t understand. What I do understand is that every single country that has come to Afghanistan has done corrupted work, and it’s very evident that they have corrupted goals. War has been going on for so long. If things could change then war wouldn’t have gone on for so long already. The people of Afghanistan could have changed things themselves. The work that is done here is not transparent, people lie. War has been going on for so long… with all of these interventions the people of Afghanistan have only seen more war.”

Scratching a living:  40-60% of men in Afghanistan are unemployed
Scratching a living: 40-60% of men in Afghanistan are unemployed
Mother Mariam and Habib

Mother Mariam and Habib

Habib

Watch Habib’s video

by Maya Evans

We are sitting on the floor in a simple outhouse room attached to the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s compound, the unheated space is normally used for teaching local children various classes. Habib and his mother Mariam sit in front of us motionless, Mariam wears the burqa so it is not possible to read her face and ascertain how she might be feeling, the tentative expression on Habib’s face tells us that their life is hard.

It was around 2 months ago when I first met 12 year old Habib, he arrived on the doorstep with some of his friends wanting to join the Street Kids Project being run by the APV- an effort to help some of the 60,000 street kids of Kabul. Habib’s face looked concerned as he clutched his weighing scales- the tool of his trade- 5 Afghanis a go, around 5p.

Habib arrives for the Street Kids Project
Habib (left) arrives for the Street Kids Project

Since then I have bumped into him a few times. Once outside our local bank- it was the first day of snow and he sat in the doorway shivering, his scales by his side, his ragged thread bare clothes offered small benefits to the freezing cold. I then saw him a few weeks later with his friends, who also work the streets, they were playing tag by the river, their faces beamed with exhilaration as they ran up and down a small unpaved road.

Habib is the oldest of 5 children, he’s around 12 years old and in 6th grade, he has 3 brothers and one sister, one of the younger brothers also works the streets.

As the breadwinner of the family he starts work with his scales at 8am and finishes around 12 noon, on average he earns around 100 Afghanis a day, though sometimes it’s less.  After work he returns home to help with household chores, sometimes he helps his neighbours and whenever he gets the chance, he studies.

Habib’s Mother bought the scales for him, initially they borrowed a set from a friend who suggested that line of work for Habib, when it proved to be a good income she bought him his own scales for 350 Afghanis.

Habib sits next to his mother Mariam, his face combines sorrow and concern, understandable for a 12 year old who is the main provider for the family.

His mother Mariam is 26, a widow of 3 years after a bombing at the local Shia Mosque killed her husband. He was pushing a cart of oranges when he momentarily stopped outside the Abdul Fazal Mosque and a suicide bomber detonated deadly explosives, over a hundred people were killed. He was rushed to hospital but died after 3 days.

The outline of Mariam under a burqa is barely recognisable as a person, the all covering indigo cloth makes her human figure almost alien, the only visual human characteristic are her eyelashes which i can faintly see blinking rapidly behind the gauze. It is just her sorrowful voice which allows us to connect as humans.

She explains that her brother has a bad temper and doesn’t allow her to work as to do so would be indecent for a young woman, however he himself does not provide for the family, 12 year old Habib does. Thankfully her mother also lives with them, she helps out financially by washing clothes.

Mariam was also at the Mosque on that fateful day, she endured injuries which have yet to heal- she requests the men in the room turn away as she lifts up her burqa to show a scar on the left side of her chest. It’s strange to suddenly see a flash of intimate human flesh when I haven’t even seen her face. She doesn’t go into detail but her health is bad and she lives with daily pain.

Habib with his scales
Habib with his scales

I ask Habib if he had one wish in the world what would it be? With his scales resting on his lap and a thoughtful gaze he replies that when he grows up he wants to become a doctor.

We ask Mariam the same question; she wishes for peace and security to come to Afghanistan so her children can be educated and nurtured. She says that living in Kabul the current main dangers are suicide bombings.

She then explained how she lost 2 brothers, one during fighting at the time of Naji Bula and the other, who was a casual labourer, mysteriously went missing- he was out walking the streets of Kabul one night when he suddenly disappeared. The family looked for him, they even searched the prisons but he had vanished, they never received word or news of him again.

Mariam’s mother lives with the daily sorrow of her two lost sons, there isn’t a day that passes where she doesn’t feel distressed. She would like to locate her son’s body and lay his soul to rest.

I hear more about the lives of 26 year old mother Mariam and her 5 children who exist under a piece of tarp attached to the side of a building, their homestead is amongst the most humble of any in Afghanistan, no running water, no heating, the most basic of cooking facilities.

Mariam ends by saying she is grateful that Habib is on the APV Street kids project- a scheme which is helping 21 local street children by providing each family with a 25kg sack of rice and a tin of oil every month for a year. The children also attend a weekly class which provide basic literacy and numeracy skills, all led by teenage members of the APV.

Mariam says she feels frustrated that she can not offer her son more opportunities in life so is thankful that this project gives him the chance to learn.

Habib 2

Martin Luther King day

For Whom the Bell Tolls

APV Ringing a bell to make the victims of war on Martin Luther King day
APV Ringing a bell to make the victims of war on Martin Luther King day

by Kathy Kelly 

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.  …  A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. – “A Time to Break Silence (Beyond Vietnam)” Dr. Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967

This month, from Atlanta, GA, the King Center announced its “Choose Nonviolence” campaign, a call on people to incorporate the symbolism of bell-ringing into their Martin Luther King Holiday observance, as a means of showing their commitment to Dr. King’s value of nonviolence in resolving terrible issues of inequality, discrimination and poverty here at home.  The call was heard in Kabul, Afghanistan.

On the same day they learned of the King Center’s call, the young members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, in a home I was sharing with them in Kabul, were grieving the fresh news of seven Afghan children and their mother, killed in the night during a U.S. aerial attack – part of a battle in the Siahgird district of the Parwan province. The outrage, grief, loss and pain felt in Siahgird were echoed, horribly, in other parts of Afghanistan during a very violent week.

APV with a chart showing the victims of war
APV with a chart showing the victims of war

My young friends, ever inspired by Dr. King’s message, prepared a Dr. King Day observance as they shared bread and tea for breakfast. They talked about the futility of war and the predictable cycles of revenge that are caused every time someone is killed.  Then they made a poster listing each of the killings they had learned of in the previous seven days.

They didn’t have a bell, and they didn’t have the money to buy one. So Zekerullah set to work with a bucket, a spoon and a rope, and made something approximating a bell.  In the APV courtyard, an enlarged vinyl poster of Dr. King covers half of one wall, opposite another poster of Gandhi and Khan Abdul Gaffir Khan, the “Muslim Gandhi” who led Pathan tribes in the nonviolent Khudai Khidmatgar colonial independence movement to resist the British Empire. Zekerullah’s makeshift “bell’ was suspended next to King’s poster.  Several dozen friends joined the APVs as we listened to rattles rather than pealing bells. The poster listing the week’s death toll was held aloft and read aloud.

Martin Luther King and Zerkrullah's Bell
Martin Luther King and Zerkrullah’s Bell

They read:

“January 15, 2014: 7 children, one woman, Siahgird district of Parwan, killed by the U.S./NATO.  January 15, 2014, 16 Taliban militants, killed by Afghan police, army and intelligence operatives across seven regions, Parwan, Baghlan, Kunduz, Kandahar, Zabul, Logar, and Paktiya.  January 12, 2014: 1 police academy student and one academy staff member, killed by a Taliban suicide bomber in Kabul on the road to Jalalabad.  Jan 9, 2014: 1 four year old boy killed in Helmand, by NATO.  Jan 9, 2014: 7 people, several of them police, killed in Helmand by unknown suicide bombers.  January 7, 2014: 16 militants killed by Afghan security forces in Nangarhar, Logar, Ghanzi, Pakitya, Heart and Nimroz.”

We couldn’t know, then, that within two days news would come, with a Taliban announcement claiming responsibility, of 21 people, 13 foreigners and eight Afghans, killed while dining in, or guarding, a Kabul restaurant. The Taliban said that the attack was in retaliation for the seven children killed in the airstrike in Parwan.

Week after bloody week, the chart of killings lengthens.  And in Afghanistan, while war rages, a million children are estimated to suffer from acute malnourishment as the country faces a worsening hunger crisis.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we can and should remember the dream Dr. King announced before the Lincoln Memorial, the dream he did so much to accomplish, remembering his call (as the King Center asks) for nonviolent solutions to desperate concerns of discrimination and inequality within the U.S.  But we shouldn’t let ourselves forget the full extent of Dr. King’s vision, the urgent tasks he urgently set us to fulfill on his behalf, so many of them left unfinished nearly 46 years after he was taken from us.  One year to the day before his assassination, he said:

… A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”… The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

We must never forget the full range of Dr. King’s vision, nor the full tragedy of the world he sought to heal, nor the revolutionary spirit which he saw as our only hope of achieving his vision – making do with everything we have to try to keep freedom ringing, despite the pervasiveness of the evils that beset us, and a world that needs vigorous effort to save it from addictions to tyranny and violence practiced by reckless elites.

“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”