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Silas Marner in Afghanistan

Henrietta in Kabul refugee camp
Henrietta in Kabul refugee camp

by Henrietta Cullinan

From London to Kabul to Raveloe, we cling to our ‘way of life’ even though it makes us sick, obsessive and lonely. Governments cling to policies that cause harm to ordinary people. In this article, begun while staying in Kabul, Henrietta Cullinan asks what George Elliott’s Silas Marner has to tell us about our own ‘pile of gold’.

I recently travelled to Kabul, where I teamed up with the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. I took with me, to read under the covers when I couldn’t sleep, Silas Marner by George Elliott. Marner, estranged from his home town, sets up as a weaver in the small village of Raveloe. Through weaving he accumulates a pile of gold coins which he counts obsessively every night, until one day it is stolen. The plot turns when he adopts a small girl, the daughter of a drug addict, who wanders into his house. He mistakes her gold curls for his gold coins, miraculously returned to him. As he determines to look after the child he has to ask others in the community for help and so his life is transformed.

As a group of women in one Kabul refugee camp recounted their experiences of war, their injuries, the indignities they have suffered since being forced to leave their homes, Kathy Kelly asked at one point, ‘Did you know that the US has just committed 617 billion US dollars to military spending?’ The women implied by their gestures, ‘What do we care?’ One woman said, ‘I wouldn’t know the difference between one side of a dollar and the other, whether a dollar is black or white.’ It was at this moment the image of Silas Marner counting out his pile of gold coins, popped into my head. As well as a literal analogy with the ‘pile of gold coins’ devoted to military spending, there are lessons for us on western governments’ migration policies, that cause suffering amongst refugees.

Afghan restaurant in Calais refugee camp
Afghan restaurant in Calais refugee camp

In Europe, chances for Afghan refugees to claim asylum have grown slim, since the EU now considers Afghanistan to be a safe country, even though there were 5,600 casualties of armed conflict in the first half of 2016 alone. The EU plans to deport 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers. At the time of writing Germany and Sweden have already started the deportations. This is at a time when Pakistan and Iran are also pressurising Afghan refugees to return.

Kabul refugee camp
Kabul refugee camp

The refugees face homelessness and destitution when they return to Kabul, where there is not the infrastructure to support them. ‘A man-made humanitarian catastrophe could be the end result of these governmental policies’ writes Ahmed Rashid, a journalist in Lahore. 

Abdul Ghafoor in his office
Abdul Ghafoor in his office

At the Borderfree Centre in Kabul, Kathy Kelly and I spoke to Abdul Gafoor, of Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organisation. He says everyday twelve deportees arrive from Norway, as a result of its cruel deportation policy. Young boys call him, not knowing where to go. Very often, as soon as they have the opportunity, they will leave again, for Pakistan or Iran. They are given $1200 from the Norwegian government, so they use this money to move on as it is too difficult for them to reintegrate. There is nothing they can do in Kabul; there is no work.

Taken from a Kabul taxi
Taken from a Kabul taxi

Kathy Kelly, Nematullah Ahangosh, who is an Afghan Peace Volunteer, and I visited the ‘Police Camp’ an unofficial camp for IDPs and refugees. We took a long taxi ride, through heavy morning traffic, into an area of new development, where private hospitals with tinted curtain walling and new apartment buildings, some already clad, others just slabs and columns, lined the broad, unsurfaced road. Opposite a petrol station, where gaily painted lorries were filling up, we were let out onto the edge of an open sewer, the size of a small river, its grey white waters swirling with scraps of rubbish. Salim, from the Jesuit Refugee Service, soon fetched us and led us down a narrow path between mud shacks, to a place where we took off our shoes, stepped inside a small room, with red carpet, whitewashed walls, a stove in the middle, a plastic sheet for a window. Soon the elected camp leader, Raz Mohammed, came to tell us about the camp.

Of the 700 families resident in the camp, one third have come because of recent conflicts, such as in Kunduz in the north east of the country and one third are refugees who have been forced to return from Pakistan and Iran. Sometimes educated people, this latter group already sold all their property when they left Afghanistan, so now they are homeless and destitute. Refugees can only earn three dollars a day. Men work as porters in the market. Other jobs include washing cars, and selling boloni, pastries stuffed with potato and spinach. Others, despite the danger, send their children out to work in the street, cleaning shoes and windscreens or selling windscreen wipers, tissues and sweets.

Afghan shop keeper
Afghan shop keeper

Those who work in the market can bring home potatoes or turnips but not enough for regular meals. The rest of the time they have only bread and tea. Some don’t even have tea. For fuel they burn plastic bottles, shoes and old clothes. Every winter twenty-five people die of cold. Water has to be bought at 10 Afs (10p) for 20 litres. On the way in we saw a single pump. Raz tells us that a woman who runs a beauty parlour noticed the women walking to buy water so she donated the pump but the water is not ‘sweet’.

After speaking to Raz Mohammed we went to visit a group of women who were finishing a class. They sat round the edges of the cold classroom. A teenage daughter ran in to drop off a baby to be fed. The women told us that all ethnicities are represented at the camp. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Baluchis living together. They said they felt safe in the camp, but conditions are dangerous to health, especially in cold weather, and there is no access to health care, despite the private hospitals next door.

‘If only we had had an education we wouldn’t be in this situation,’ they said. One woman, feeding her toddler under her black scarf, says she used to have a job in Kunduz. She made boloni and her husband sold them.

Another woman told us how she had fled from Kunduz, almost leaving her child behind. Another, from Laghman province, showed us the injuries to her upper arm she had sustained when she escaped. She said that she had no food for lunch. After the class she would cover her face and go and beg at the bakery.

The leader said he gathered people together and went to the government for help. The government only provides food. He thinks they should provide education, buildings. He said the UN had been to visit the camp, even the US ambassador. But nothing has changed. Eighteen months ago, during Ramadam, the authorities attempted to clear the camp, with armed police, but the refugee inhabitants responded with stones.

Afghan refugee camp
Afghan refugee camp

Without sufficient food, fuel, education or health care, the women concluded, ‘No one cares about us. The government doesn’t care.’

Another group of women I spoke to were seamstresses at the Borderfree Centre. They embroider scarves which are sold in the US and the UK to raise funds for the centre. All having between five and seven children each, their main concern is to feed their families. Despite their husband’s disapproval, they have to go out to work outside the home. Even so the wages are not enough to pay the rent, to buy clothes for their children, food and books for school.

‘The government doesn’t care about us,’ they said, echoing the words of the the women in the refugee camp. They said, ‘If you want to help, you must give money to us poor people’. The seamstresses said they saw all the huge construction projects, and concluded the government was spending money on these projects and not on alleviating the problems of the poor.

Government ministers just use aid to buy each other ‘a cow or a hen’. I asked if they had any means of making their voices heard, which was translated literally I realised. They said their husbands wouldn’t like it if their voices were heard outside the home. Not able to read or write, their only option would be to join a protest. They didn’t dare go on a demonstration, they said, because the government might come after them, or there might be a bomb.

Back in London this week, I did my regular shift in the local winter night shelter. Many of the homeless I encounter at the shelter suffer from poor physical and mental health, and even have mobility problems, which should be reason enough for the authorities to house them without delay. Many were caught between losing their job and waiting for benefits to come through; a gap of six weeks is enough time to lose your flat. Surprisingly some guests are actually working. Holding down a job while sleeping in a shelter must be almost impossible but one man I spoke to was doing just that. His car was parked outside, he wore the uniform of a building servicing company and over breakfast he was giving his mobile phones a last minute boost, checking the location of the first job of the day.

The residents of the refugee camp in Kabul and the guests at the London night shelter are all at the mercy of government policies. Worse than that, our government is unwilling to correct the very policies that made people homeless. As John Berger wrote,
‘The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.’

Collectively, whether in the UK or Afghanistan, we must turn to the poorest, most helpless members of our society and learn, just as Silas Marner did, from experiencing community again.

Silas Marner, once he accepts his loss and turns to another, a helpless child, builds relationships with the other members of his village community. It is when he turns to another helpless being, and becomes helpless himself, that healing begins. Our governments, and therefore we, are addicted to unsustainable policies that keep many displaced and homeless. When we accept our own weakness, our own loss and turn to look after the poorest there is hope.

George Elliott also asks us to reflect on the nature of work. Silas Marner sits at his loom day in day out, even on Sundays, weaving linen for the well to do of the neighbourhood and collecting gold coins to no end other than to be counted and hidden. US taxpayers are paying nearly $700 million a week for the military in Afghanistan, money which the US government spends without attempting to avoid corruption.

Reading this you might ask what do all these things have to do with each other. Visiting Kabul, not somewhere people normally visit for a holiday, gives a heady ride into geo politics, but mainly the opportunity to see the effect of government policymakers on the lives of the poor. You might think it odd I would use Silas Marner as a way to reflect on lessons from Afghanistan. George Elliott chose novel writing as a medium to comment on social conditions in her time and the novel has a lot to tell us now. 

Being a Woman in Afghanistan

Darulaman Refugee Camp 2014, photo by Mary Dobbing
Darulaman Refugee Camp 2014, photo by Mary Dobbing

by Henrietta Cullinan

On International Women’s Day, we should question whether conditions for women in Afghanistan have improved after thirteen years of the presence of US/ NATO troops in the country. When I travelled to Kabul recently I was able to glimpse first hand how entrenched cultural practices make women’s lives doubly hard, lives that are already made hard by the lack of security.

We hear that even people in power support restrictions on women’s ability to move and act freely in public, that they support to the custom that means that women should only travel when accompanied by a male relative.

This can be interpreted as not being able to take a plane, cross a border, but for some households this means not going out at all.  There are many consequences to not going out, that are dangerous and even life threatening, not just humiliating and unjust. Not going out is not just an issue of inequality but also a barrier to young women’s  livelihoods. I spoke to young Afghan women at the Borderfree Centre talk about the barriers put in their way and to Latifa Ahmadi, founder of Organisation  for the Promotion of Women’s Capabilities.

Latifa Amadi says “The way women in Afghanistan are treated badly puts pressure on us all.’ Her demand is that we campaign for Afghan women’s rights from all over the world”.

Women from the APV co-ordinate the duvet distribution
Women from the APV co-ordinate the duvet distribution

For a short time I was a woman in Kabul. I listened to female members  of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and at the APV’s Borderfree centre talk about the restrictions to their movements. The young women I met took on responsibilities in the  humanitarian and educational projects run from the Borderfree Centre. One young woman organized duvet handouts at Darulaman refugee camp. I saw her confidently arrive in the truck, call out names from a clip board as women from a refugee camp came rushing up to collect their duvets. I witnessed another couple of teenage girls organising the local seamstresses who embroider the Borderfree scarves, and checking their work for accuracy. Two young women teach the street children literacy and maths. Another takes charge of the community budget, organising currency exchange and banking the donations.

Travel restrictions had other effects on the young women beside making life awkward. While I was in Kabul, I had my own experience of not being able to go out. In my case the reason was because I was a foreigner. The hazards of not going out were realised one day, when by chance all the young people left us four guests alone. I felt like a child again. I wasn’t even sure how to call a cab.

I hardly knew where I was. It was only when, to avoid the traffic, the taxi driver took a circular route home I worked out the relationship between the river, the mountains, the main roads and our house. I slowly built a mental map of main roads, the market stalls, a  flyover and offices.

We asked the young women at the Borderfree Centre about restrictions on their movements, on not going out. They said under the Taliban it had been much worse; no girl over the age of nine could leave the house. There are still some families that don’t allow their daughters to go out. An example they gave was of a family who spoilt their daughter, loved her very much bought her all sorts of beautiful clothes and expensive treats, but wouldn’t allow her to go out or use a phone. This made her very unhappy. She told them, ‘I don’t care about the clothes or the food.’

Many women live their entire lives in the home
Many women live their entire lives in the home

The girls experienced varying degrees of restrictions. Some were allowed out but had to be back before their father came home. One said she was often hassled in the street, being asked where she was going, what was she doing, does her father know. A relative might see her and tell her father. Another reports not being able to go out if there are men in the house, if their father’s at home. If a woman is not used to going out into society, one girl said, when she does she will not know how to behave and then might put herself in danger. She might behave inappropriately, and be called a prostitute.

If girls cannot go out their education suffers. The girls said confidently 50% of girls in Kabul could have an education if they want to. These particular girls were attending classes, university or school in the city. Whizzing around in our delegation taxi, we often saw crowds of teenage girls outside schools, collecting their exam results, carrying their files and books, rushing to lectures.

Some girls seem to be getting an education. How good an education was a different matter; our friends complained of out of date text books from Iran, a teacher who kept them waiting in the cold, who talked about himself instead of teaching the class. The girls in our community were university students studying for their first year exams. We were told to help as much as possible with the housework and the cooking. They must study hard; they had to do twice as well as the boys to be taken seriously.

Henrietta talking to young women at the Borderfree Centre
Henrietta talking to young women at the Borderfree Centre

At the Borderfree Centre, the girls explained that fathers don’t want their daughters to ‘show the whites of their eyes’, an Afghan expression. That is intelligent women become bad women by rolling their eyes, being disrespectful towards their fathers and male relatives. So fathers don’t allow their girls to go to school.

Some fathers believe universities are bad for girls, because there are mixed classes and male lecturers.  The fathers don’t allow the girls to come to the Borderfree Centre, for the same reason: girls and boys are mixed together. Some girls come to the centre in secret they said. Others have discussed it with their their father and he’s given permission so they don’t care what the other relatives think. More enlightened fathers are happy to discuss things while others insist the female members of the families are home when he gets home.

Latifa Ahmadi, Director of OPAWC
Latifa Ahmadi, Director of OPAWC

Not being able  to go out makes education hard for older women too. Latifa Ahmadi runs an education project at the OPAWC, offering literacy and numeracy classes. The students progress to learning ‘handicrafts’ such as tailoring, chicken farming and jam making so they can earn a living. We met some of the women upstairs in the freezing classroom, everyone in their coats. They held up their text books. I asked them what made literacy hard, expecting the usual answer, spelling. No spelling wasn’t hard. The thing that was hard, was not being able to leave the house. One said she had to lock her children into the apartment. One woman has to come in a burkha.

OPAWC has even had to move its literacy centre because the local ‘warlord’ has created a problem for them. The ‘warlord’ spread propaganda, saying the literacy classes were teaching Christianity. He told the Mullah to tell the women not to come. When she found

Craftwork by women at the OPAWC centre
Craftwork by women at the OPAWC centre

out, Latifa showed the Mullah the text book. The syllabus is provided by the government, and covers women’s rights, health, domestic violence, and handicraft.

All the young women at the Borderfree Centre and Latifa Ahmadi at OPAWC emphasised how important it is for Afghan women to know their rights. If women never go out they will not be able to attend classes. If women are not educated they will not know their rights. Girls and women need to know their rights to a life free from violence, to equal pay, to be able to work, to access healthcare. They talked about putting out a radio programme to help women not allowed out of the house. Women need to be able to demonstrate for their rights, to healthcare, to work, to freedom from domestic violence, even if they join a protest ‘hiding’ in a burkha.

Artwork by Afghan woman, as part of an OPAWC project
Artwork by Farida Mohammady, as part of an OPAWC project

First Impressions

by Henrietta Cullinan

View

My way of getting to know a new city is to set out on foot, see where my feet will take me, stop for coffee. In Kabul, this will not be possible. At the moment, it is too dangerous for foreigners to walk anywhere; all trips will be by taxi. We will disguise our presence, heads down, keep silent in front of strangers.

Stepping off the plane, into the bright yellow light, there is a sweet smell, partly diesel fumes partly something chemical. Pale yellow, grey dust covers the roses, trees, soil, in the small airport garden. The dust and the smell are the same painful yellow gray.

From the airport, the taxi noses round pot holes, round pedestrians and cyclists. Men in the street, gather in small groups, drink tea. Young women walk in small groups, girls gather around a school gates.

We pass garages, exhaust pipe and tyre shops, bumper shops, bodywork shops. Men crouch on the kerb, selling petrol from a long tank. The road passes marble shops, cement stores, concrete mixers, carpet shops, signs of a construction boom. There are new houses, with tinted glass and ornate balconies that look as if they have already seen better days or waiting for better days to come.

living room
Henrietta Culinan & Mary Dobbing

 

The atmosphere, the bright yellow light and the strange smell of diesel fumes and wood smoke, seems personified and in my jet lagged state seem to follow us into Kabul, into the flat where we’ll be staying. After a good sleep, the bright yellow light streaming across the carpeted floor, I soon grow accustomed to our inside life.  In the day I pick up sound clues, the neighbour’s ringtone, the neighbour’s children. I can hear the thud of a football against the wall and scuffling feet in sandals. I distinguish the street cries from the muezzin. The silent gap between our garden wall and the next building is the Kabul river bed.

Best of all I get to know our hosts, the young men and women of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, sitting round the beaten metal stove, eating the Celebrations we’ve brought. After a few days I start to hear their stories how the war has affected their lives and their families.