Tag Archives: Afghanistan

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.”

Bagram & Guantanamo: What do Afghans Think?

APV Fasting in Solidarity with Guatanamo Prisoners
APV Fasting in Solidarity with Guatanamo Prisoners

by Ghulamai Hussein and Maya Evans

Guantanamo Prison has now been in operation for 12 years. 155 people are currently being held illegally, mostly without charge or trial. 16 of them are Afghans, many swept up in 2002 when fellow Afghans (perhaps motivated by bounty rewards being doled out by the U.S ) informed on fellow Afghans as being members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. International solidarity for the “enemy combatants” increased dramatically  when 106 out of 166 prisoners started hunger striking a year ago. Forty-five of them were eventually force fed. During the international week of solidarity 6-13th January, marking12 years of Guantanamo, the Afghan Peace Volunteers took action by pledging to a 3 day fast. Other global actions included an international fast, a sit in at Washington DC history museum to “make Guantanamo history” and a mass Trafalgar Square rally in the UK.

Ghulamai making a solidarity banner, Zerkrullah resting while on a fast
Ghulamai making a solidarity banner, Zerkrullah resting while on a fast

During our 3 day fast, which is no mean feat in an Afghan winter, the APV discussed the issue of illegal prisons both around the world and within Afghanistan. Ghulamai, a quietly smart 16 year old peace volunteer started off the discussion by debriefing on some research he had carried out. It seems there is a general lack of awareness in the Afghan mainstream about Guantanamo or Bagram, despite Bagram being in Parwan, the neighbouring province to Kabul only 67km away. Internationally the prison was put on the human rights map in 2002 when two homicides took place, with reports emerging that prisoners Habibullah and Dilawar were chained to the ceiling and beaten to death. Autopsies revealed severe trauma to both prisoners’ legs, describing the injuries as comparable to being run over by a bus.

Seven soldiers were charged; Captain Christopher Beiring was charged with dereliction of duty and making false statements; the charges were dropped, but he was reprimanded. Sgt. Christopher Greatorex was tried on charges of abuse, maltreatment, and making false statements; he was acquitted. Sgt. Darin Broady was tried on charges of abuse and acquitted. Sgt. Brian Cammack pleded guilty to charges of assault and making false statements; he was sentenced to three months in jail, a fine, reduced in rank to private, and given a bad conduct discharge. Pfc. Willie Brand was convicted of other charges, but acquitted of charges relating to abuse of Habibullah.

It was only in 2010 when the American military released (by legal force) the names of 645 detainees during a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Lawyers also demanded detailed information about conditions, rules and regulations.

On the road from Kabul to Bagram
On the road from Kabul to Begrime, abandoned Russian tanks

Today, according to news reports, there have been 3,000 prisoners in Bagram and allegedly 67 are non-Afghans.  Most are Afghans who were arrested in different places, most inside and a few outside of Afghanistan. The USA  kicked off their flagrant breach of international human rights in 2001 with the Patriot Act, which paved the way for other such abhorrent laws which allows the US to detain people without trial. Bagram prison was officially handed over to the Afghan government in March of 2013, however this turnover is theoretical, with the reality being that the U.S. is still in control. A few weeks ago, the Afghan government announced that they were releasing 650 prisoners from Bagram prison. The U.S. government considers 88 of those prisoners (who have never been on trial) ‘dangerous’ and demanded that they not be released.  The Afghan Government appointed a review board which decided to release 76 prisoners. As I write announcements are being made that 37 prisoners are due to be released, much to the outrage and protest of the US government. The recent wave of activity around the prisoner release is the first real awareness or knowledge many Afghan are having about Bagram.

Abdulhai reading up on Gandhi
Abdulhai reading up on Gandhi

Abdulhai, an astute 17  year old boy who lost his Father to the Taliban 12 years ago, said: “I feel the U.S. is playing power games.  Afghans need a greater awareness of what is going on .  They don’t have much information.  Maybe more awareness will be raised in the controversy over releasing prisoners from Bagram.”

Faiz, a sensitive 22 year old Tajik training to be a journalist said: “It’s not only the general public that lacks awareness, the prisoners themselves are also clueless about what is happening.  People need to understand the roots of the problem, understand U.S. support for the Mujahideen who eventually became the Taliban, and understand how it is that they are caught and stuck in prison.”

Ghulama: “It’s unknown as to whether the 3,000 prisoners are innocent or not, but based on what is known about Guantanamo it could be that the majority are innocent.”

Ghulamai in the Panjshir
Ghulamai in the Panjshir

I asked Ghulamai what he thought about Bagram as a result of his research. He said: “I think due process of law should be applied to any person arrested.  A person should be charged and tried in court, even during this war on terrorism.  The court process should follow gathering of evidence.  Lawyers should be provided for prisoners that cannot hire their own lawyers.  The case should be determined along the course of law by a judge who would then pass a sentence.  The situation for the 3,000 now involves detention without trial, no access to lawyers, and uncertainty about whether any charges have been made against them.”

Abdulhai : “The U.S. government is demonstrating that they are not subject to anyone else’s laws.  They are powerful.”

Peace volunteer Raz Mohammed, a 21 year old twinkly eyed engineering student from the volatile province of Wardak, talked about his first hand experience. His home province is an area populated mainly by Pashtoons, the ethnic group which mostly make up the Taliban. Raz explained how his neighbour Alam Gul in the Nakh district of Wardak was taken to Bagram a year ago. Alam is around 33 years old and married with children. Last year American soldiers came to his house and took him in the middle of the night. He was asleep with his family in a room when the door was broken in by soldiers shouting not to move. They searched the house and took him away, and he was sent to Bagram for 3 months. For his family it was very hard as for a month they had no idea where he was, until finally they found out he was in Bagram. After 3 months Alam Gul was released with his arrest being described by American forces as a “mistake”. Thankfully this man didn’t experience torture.

Raz Mohammed in the Panjshir
Raz Mohammed

Raz Mohammed also talked about his Uncles’ daughter’s husband Bashir, from the village of Dadal in Wardak province. It was 2 years ago and Bashir was around 26. Like Alam Gul he was taken at midnight by American soldiers but in his case there was also the assistance of local Afghan soldiers. At first he was taken to Logar province prison and tortured, before being transferred to Bagram where he was tortured further with sleep deprivation and weekly interrogations by American soldiers. This lasted for a month before he was released without charge. Bashir described Bagram as being much harder than Logar prison because of the sleep deprivation and interrogations. He was also kept in isolation and on occasions saw some people who had been held for 7 to 8 years without trial.

I asked Ghulamai if people in Afghanistan feel safer or more angry because of Bagram, he paused and calmly responded: “People are more angry.  I would be angry if I saw or experienced torture or rape, and for what? If I got sent to Bagram prison I would invite Obama to go with me.”

Read more:

UK resistance to Guantanamo: http://londonguantanamocampaign.blogspot.com

37 Bagram prisoners are going to be released: http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2014/01/27/22465065-afghanistan-to-free-37-bagram-inmates-despite-us-protests?lite

Ewa with refugee kids

Kabul on a Key Meter

Ewa Jasiewicz at VCNV financed aid drop
Ewa Jasiewicz at VCNV aid drop

by Ewa Jasiewicz

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.

APV left over spaghetti surprise
APV left over spaghetti surprise

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.

Formidable female camp elder
Formidable female camp elder

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.

Chaman-e Barbak refugee camp
Chaman-e Barbak refugee camp

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

APV school
APV school

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.

APV strategise non violent peace
APV strategise non violent peace

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.

Street kids visiting to APV compound

Afghan Street Children Beg for Change

Street kids visiting to APV compound
Street kids visiting the APV compound

by Kathy Kelly

Kabul, Afghanistan is “home” to hundreds of thousands of children who have no home. Many of them live in squalid refugee camps with families that have been displaced by violence and war. Bereft of any income in a city already burdened by high rates of unemployment, families struggle to survive without adequate shelter, clothing, food or fuel. Winter is especially hard for refugee families. Survival sometimes means sending their children to work on the streets, as vendors, where they often become vulnerable to well organized gangs that lure them into drug and other criminal rings.

Last year, the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV), a group of young Afghans who host me and other internationals when we visit their home in Kabul, began a program to help street children enrol in schools. They befriend small groups of children, get to know the children’s families and circumstances, and then reach agreements with the families that if the children are allowed to attend school and reduce their working hours on the streets, the APVs will compensate the families, supplying them with oil and rice. Next, the APVs buy warm clothes for each child and invite them to attend regular classes at the APV home to learn the alphabet and math.

Yesterday, Abdulhai and Hakim met a young boy, Safar, age 13, who was working as a boot polisher on a street near the APV home. Abdulhai asked to shake Safar’s hand, but the child refused. Understandably, Safar may have feared Abdulhai. But when Abdulhai and Hakim told Safar there were foreigners at the APV office who were keen to help, he followed them into our yard.

Kathy and Safar
Kathy and Safar

Sitting next to me, indoors, Safar continued shaking from the cold. We noticed that he had an angry red welt across his right cheek. Safar said that the previous day he had tried to warm his hands over an outdoor bar-b-que grill, and the cook hit him across the face with a red hot skewer to shoo him away. Safar clutched a half- filled small plastic Coca-Cola bottle in his hands. Asked why he was drinking cold soda on such a cold day, he said that he had a headache.

He was wearing a hoodie, light pants, and plastic slippers. He had no socks or gloves– hardly adequate attire for working outside in the bitter cold all day. On a “good” day, Safar can earn 150 Afghanis, a sum that amounts to $3.00 and could purchase enough bread for a family of seven and perhaps have some left over to purchase clothes.

Abdulhai and Hakim asked Safar to come back the next day with some of his friends. One hour later, he arrived with five friends, two Pashto boys and three Tajiks, ranging in age from 13 to 5. The children promised to return the next day with more youngsters.

Street kid Abi, aged 5
Street kid Abi, aged 5

And so this morning seven street children filed into the APV home. None of them wore socks and all were shivering. Their eyes were gleaming as they nodded their heads, assuring us that they want to join APV’s street kids program.

Here in Kabul, a city relatively better off than most places in Afghanistan, we have electricity every other day. When the pipes freeze and there’s no electricity, we have no water. Imagine the hardships endured by people living with far less. Even in the United States, thousands of children’s basic needs aren’t met. The New York Times recently reported that there are 22,000 homeless children living in New York City.

Thinking of how the U.S. has used its resources here in Afghanistan, where more than a trillion has been spent on maintaining war and occupation, I feel deep shame. In 2014, the U.S. will spend 2.1 million dollars for every U.S. soldier stationed in Afghanistan. Convoys travel constantly between US military bases, transporting large amounts of fuel, food and clean water—luxury items to people living in refugee camps along their routes—often paying transportation tolls to corrupt officials, some of whom are known to head up criminal gangs.

While the U.S. lacks funds to guarantee basic human rights for hundreds of thousands of U.S. children, and while U.S. wars displace and destroy families in Afghanistan, the U.S. consistently meets the needs of weapon makers and war profiteers.

A duvet distribution on the first day of snow if Kabul
A duvet distribution on the first day of snow if Kabul

Even so, the inspiring activities of my young Afghan friends fuel a persistent hope. Heavy coverlets, called duvets, are bulging out of several storage rooms in the APV home. Talented young women have coordinated “the duvet project,” now in its second year, involving 60 women who produce a total of 600 duvets every two weeks for distribution to impoverished families. The seamstresses are paid for each duvet they make. In a society where women have few if any economic opportunities, this money can help women put food on the table and shoes on their children’s feet. The women equally represent three of the main ethnic divisions here in Kabul, –Hazara, Pashto, and Tajik — an example that people can work together toward common goals. The young people work hard to develop similarly equal distribution amongst the neediest of families. Today they delivered 200 duvets to a school for blind children. Later in the day they will hike up the mountainside to visit widows who have no income.

This afternoon, 2 dozen young girls will be compensated for embroidering 144 blue scarves that proclaim “Borderfree” in Dari and English. The blue scarves, which are now being distributed in various parts of the world, symbolize the reality that there’s one blue sky above us. Activists in numerous peace and justice campaigns have been wearing the blue scarves.

Here in Kabul, our young friends gathered together on the evening of the winter solstice for music and celebration. At one point, they sat quietly, their faces illuminated by candle light, as each person in the circle said what they hoped would change, in the coming year, to help bring the world closer to peace. The visions danced – I hope children will be fed… I hope we won’t buy or sell weapons… I hope for forgiveness.

Young girls collecting scraps of rubbish in a Kabul cemetery
Young girls collecting scraps of rubbish in a Kabul cemetery

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The collective yearning and longing of children who deserve a better world may yet affect hearts and minds all over the world, prompting people to ask why do we make wars? Why should people who already have so much amass weapons that protect their ability to gain more?

I hope we will join Afghanistan’s children in begging for change.

refugee camp

Internal refugees, motherhood, and illegal land grabs in Afghanistan

Refugee camp in the Perwan Dodo area of Kabul.

by Maya Evans with Hakim

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 interviews a mother in a refugee campJaney 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 replyRefugee Family 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.

Refugee KidsIn 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.

Read more: http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/afghanistan-the-cost-of-war.pdf

http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/land-grabs-in-afghanistan-1-nangrahar-the-disputed-o-rangeland

http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/a-new-round-of-anti-sherzai-protests-in-nangarhar

Fire and bomb-damaged Darul Aman

Remembering Afghans

Trigger Warning: graphic pictures

fire and bomb damaged Darul Aman
Fire and bomb-damaged Darul Aman

Darul Aman is a palace in Kabul, which was grand in the 1920’s, but is now falling down after two fires and shelling. Large areas of the roof have collapsed, walls have caved in. There are wide stone stairs, that spiral up the wall and which must have looked gravity-defying even when they were new, and which are now crumbling at the edges. Puddles and piles of rubble and plastic rubbish fill the rooms.

soldiers looking at pictures of Afghan victims of war
Soldiers looking at pictures of Afghan victims of war

To mark the International day of Human Rights, the Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers held a photography exhibition in the palace. Nailed to the crumbling walls were portrait photographs, on laminated A4 paper, of some of those who have died or disappeared in Afghanistan, from the Soviet era until today. Maya, Janey and I visited the exhibition, along with our friend from the Afghan Peace Volunteers, Raz Mohammed.

Ground floor of Darul Aman.
Raz Mohammed on the ground floor of Darul Aman.

The ground floor was the gallery of the victims of the Soviet occupation, with grainy black and white photos of grandfathers and fathers, some in old fashioned clothes, and some in rock star sunglasses and hats.  Above the faces were the photocopied ‘death lists’ that identified these men as targets.

A young victim of the soviet invasion
A young victim of the soviet invasion

Under the photos are the names and titles, many begin ‘Osted,’ teacher. Many others are prefaced ‘Shadid,’ martyr. Raz Mohammed explained that these were innocent men who didn’t know why they died. He said that his father had told him about the era of the Soviet occupation, about students at universities being given guns to kill their fellow Afghans, and if they refused then they were shot themselves. The ghoulish representation of Afghan ‘martyrs’ in our media, as aggressors not victims, hides the reality from us, makes us think that the young men who’ve died in the long wars of Afghanistan are somehow different,  less worthy of respect, than the young men who died in Europe in the Second World War. The only difference is that here the deaths continue.

One of the martyrs of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
One of the martyrs of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The gallery continued up the wall to the first floor, where the black and white pictures now showed the same smiling or solemn faces, but these ones were victims of the mujahedeen and civil war.  Up another flight of stairs the laminated sheets started to include colour pictures.  There were also, mixed in with the portrait photos, scenes of some of the deaths.  This was the Taliban-era gallery, and the pictures became a lot harder to look at.

There were pictures of car thieves hanging by the neck in Kabul

There were pictures of car thieves hanging by the neck in Kabul, and Hazara people by the feet in the provinces. There were women in blue burqas being beaten by police, and men with guns to their head at the side of a road. The most disturbing photograph was of a child, who at first seemed to have bleeding hands, but a smiling untroubled face. Looking more closely you saw that the child was holding a pair of someone else’s hands, recently severed at the wrist and still pouring blood. In this gallery for the first time women and children were as numerous as men.

Second floor of Darul Aman
Second floor of Darul Aman

Off to the side of this corridor was a circular room, the roof and windows so dilapidated that it was like an open balcony onto the city. Even from the entrance door you could see out, over parks and buildings to the mountains at the edge of the city. For a second it felt like a moment’s respite from the horror of the display. But this room was, for a visitor from Britain, the most horrifying part of the whole exhibition. Downstairs there had been a lot of people, journalists and groups of people talking, this room was nearly empty. I walked around it with Raz Mohammed, who told me what was happening in each picture, although many of them didn’t need an explanation.

There were rows of small bodies, with pale faces and feet protruding from blankets and sacking

There were rows of small bodies, with pale faces and feet protruding from blankets and sacking, looking as if they’d could have been tucked in for the night, except for the brown blood stains spreading out from the torso of each child. These children were among the many innocent victims of a drone strike, half of these remote-controlled murders are committed by the British military. In the next picture, a village going up in smoke.

Child with burnt face
Child with burnt face

In the next, the anxious brown eyes of a toddler peering out from a face burnt by sticky white phosphorus.  In the next, another child, face made homogenous, the eyes sealed shut by bubbling skin and mouth half burnt away. It went on around the room, adults and children, mothers and babies, families and villages.

Raid on an Afghan home
Raid on an Afghan home

The photographs of living victims were almost worse than those of the dead. A woman screaming at the loss of her sight to nerve gas; a prisoner, head covered and genitals cupped, naked behind barbed wire and laughing soldiers; children and babies in whole suits of bandages, only tiny patches of the pink skin of a shallow burn showing between their dressings; women trying to plead futilely with the soldiers violently raiding their homes.

NATO & ISAF gallery on the 2nd floor
NATO & ISAF gallery on the 2nd floor

On the far side of the room a picture was nailed up between two gaping windows. A white soldier, in dusty combat gear, holding the bleeding body of an Afghan boy, half his size, if that, trousers dragged down to his knees and head lolling. The soldier isn’t holding the boy as a human holds another human, he isn’t offering comfort or first aid, he is holding him like a trophy kill, grinning at the camera. I couldn’t find any words. Raz Mohammed, who, like many ordinary Afghan people, has lost family members to international forces,  his brother-in-law having been killed in a drone strike, was also silent, until we moved on to the next picture, when he glanced back once more at the picture of the grown man making a joke of the broken body of a child to say  “And they call us terrorists.”

Pictures of NATO/ISAF atrocities
Pictures of NATO/ISAF atrocities

The Afghan Peace Volunteers, our hosts in Kabul, are launching  a campaign to find 2 million voices to remember the 2 million Afghan war deaths, and to make contact with them personally (see the ‘why this is important’ section on the petition page).

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

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

By Dr Hakim ( Dr Teck Young, Wee )

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

But people are dying.

And children and women are feeling hopeless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hakim and kidsThe Afghan humanitarian tragedy

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

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

The Afghan war tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singapore should be alarmed too.

Singapore’s own identity as a militarized, authoritarian country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My voice is not political. My voice is human.

Afghans are hurting very badly.

kids in refugee campAnd I am hurting too.

First days in Kabul

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

APV group
Our new friends from APV

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

APV making tea
APV making tea

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

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

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

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