Tag Archives: Kabul

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. 

See How We Live

Jamila, age 11, holds a neighbor’s newborn, photo by Henrietta Cullinan

by Kathy Kelly

Here in Kabul, I’m generally an early riser at the home of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, but I’m seldom alone. Facing exams, my young friends awaken early and then stay up late to study. Before sunrise this morning, eighteen year old Ghulamai sits in the kitchen, poring over his textbook. His efforts have made him number one in his class for the past three school terms. Now in the eleventh grade, he greatly hopes to continue his education, but his situation is precarious.

After sunrise each day Ghulamai heads out on his bicycle to the one-room home that his mother shares with four of his siblings. His bicycle has a rack above the rear wheel with a pillow fixed to it by bungee cord. His mother perches here each day as he carries her for the twenty minutes it takes to reach the three-story building where she works. Six days a week, she cooks, cleans, and launders for three well-to-do families who live here. Ghulamai will return to fetch her in the late afternoon, bringing her back to their room where her children have been waiting for her. The oldest, eleven year old Jamila, looks after them while their mother is away.

Last week, Henrietta (Voices – UK), Ali and I visited Ghulamai with his mother and siblings in this room.  Joining us in these snug quarters were two neighboring women and their small children. Ghulamai’s mother served tea to all of us as we sat together learning about the women’s experiences trying to survive in a country ravaged by war and corruption.

Ghulamai’s mother was desperate when she recently moved to Kabul from the more rural province of Bamiyan. Now, in Kabul, her earnings just barely cover rent and very simple meals for the family, but back home no amount of hard work washing other families’ clothes would earn enough for her family’s food and shelter. The cleaning work here is difficult, in no small part because one of her hands is badly mangled from a Russian air strike upon her own wedding. At the time, she was 11 years old. Shrapnel tore one of her fingers clear away, crippling her for life. Strikes at weddings and other civilian gatherings have continued under U.S. occupation, part of a daily traumatic onslaught permanently narrowing life choices for the most vulnerable people here, as war can be expected to do.

According to Brown University’s Watson Institute, approximately 111,000 people have been killed and an additional 116,000, at minimum, wounded during the 15-year U.S. war in Afghanistan.  The death toll from poverty, malnutrition, disease, and social dislocation can’t easily be neatly calculated for such a study.   Over 31,000 – nearly a third – of the people killed in fighting alone are local civilians.  The United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) counts more than 40,900 Afghan civilian injuries since January 2009.

What has the war accomplished?  In the U.S., it is hard for anyone to credit the lie that our rampage through the Middle East, begun in vengeance for the 9/11 attacks of 2001, has made anyone safer. In April 2016, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported to Congress only 70.5 percent of the country was in Afghan government control, and just three months later (July 30 2016), SIGAR noted that “the area under Afghan government control had declined by about 5 percent.  Violence occurs even in the areas ‘controlled’ by the government.”

Today we met with Kubra, Latifah, Shekibah and Naima, four local seamstresses struggling to get by in alarmingly simple dwellings, and I mentioned that many in the U.S. believe the war has allowed the U.S. government to help and protect women in Afghanistan. All four women disagreed, insisting that any aid from outside Afghanistan goes to people who will never share it with the needy. 

“The U.S. may help the Afghan government,” said Latifah, “but all we see are new, fancy buildings.” It is difficult to see how, in the chaos and desperation war creates, women’s lives could be expected to improve. Pious talk about Afghan women’s freedom often ignores their greatest desire which is to find food for their children. When all we in the U.S. share is talk, when we demand transformation of people’s lives but choose then to destructively transform their society with airdropped bombs and missiles, plus millions of rifles and bullets, then our most impassioned talk becomes ridiculous and hurtful.

The APVs help the seamstresses provide for their children by giving them rice, beans and cooking oil once a month, but the women say no one else helps them. Two of these women are married to men who are disabled and the other two say their husbands can’t find work anywhere. During part of the year, the women do paid seamstress work in the APV duvet project and the blue scarf project.

As part of the APV effort to help people facing hunger, cold and little to no income. Ghulamai now coordinates their Food Bank. This project provides the monthly food ration the seamstresses mentioned, chiefly to families enrolled in the APV’s “Street Kids School.” By offering a food ration, the APVs allow these families to forgo the income their children could earn as child street workers and instead send them to government schools for half the day, no longer sacrificing their futures to their immediate survival.  It’s a fine project, and now some of the older street kids volunteer time on the APV’s other main project, “the Duvet Project,” through which women of no income can earn a wage sewing heavy blankets for distribution, free of charge, to families with little or no protection from the harsh winter. 

Ghulamai once told me about an encounter he had with very young trash collectors who asked him if they could go through the trash bags he was wheeling to the local dump.  He agreed, and they salvaged a few scraps of bread and some paper that could be used for fuel. Then they sat down to talk with him. Pointing to a large new home, of the type referred to as a “poppy palace” since opium plays such a great role in building new fortunes here, one of the children said, “Look at that castle and at how those people live, and see how we live.”

In a way the child is pointing at those of us who live in the relatively comfortable castles in the west. An impossible gap exists between our demands for infinite security and the nightmare precarity suffered in those countries from which our wars rip that security away. It cannot be sustained, and our shaky existence in this poppy palace can only end with our finally waking up. We cannot remain high above the poorest abroad or the poorest here at home.  It’s much wiser to invoke the Golden Rule, to find satisfaction in living simply and sharing resources, and to become enlightened by truthful and altruistic youngsters who point us toward a better world.

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org), co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence. While in Kabul, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers (ourjourneytosmile.com)

To Touch A Colourful Afghanistan

Visually impaired student, Sonia, read her article about peace: “Everyone wishes for peace to come to all of Afghanistan.”

Last year, on the 21st of September, the International Day of Peace, the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Borderfree Street Kids reached out to 100 Afghan labourers, cooking and serving them a meal. To follow-up, microloans were given to five of the labourers to start their own small street businesses.

This year, the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Borderfree Street Kids reached out to the visually impaired and blind students at Rayaab (Rehabilitation Services for the Blind Afghanistan ). They brought MP3 players as gifts to 50 visually impaired students. The students will use the MP3 players to listen to recorded school lessons and educational programs. Rayaab is an Afghan non-governmental organization run by Mr Mahdi Salami and his wife Banafsha, who are themselves visually impaired.

The Afghan Peace Volunteers and Rayaab began their friendship in 2012:  Visually impaired Afghans for a better world : “And also, my message to the world is to get integrated to each other, in peace, in love and in kindness, and to throw away any hatred. And try to live in a very peaceful and very honourable and very kind environment in order to make a better world. Thank you. Love you all!” Mahdi Salami, Deputy Director of Rayaab, Rehabilitation Services for the Blind Afghanistan.

Below is a photo essay of this year’s renewal of friendship among Borderfree Afghan Street Kids, visually impaired students of Rayaab, and teachers from both groups. 

Spending International Peace Day, 21st September 2016, together

 

 

To Touch A Colourful Afghanistan

by Dr Hakim

With regards to human hope in Afghanistan,

most of the world is blind.

We don’t see Sonia’s daily effort to live meaningfully,

as mainstream media have replaced our eyes

and is just as obsessed with war as politicians are,

as if war is attractive.

We overlook the resilience Nature demonstrates

despite what international militarists are doing to her and to people,

plain people, Afghans, Syrians, Yemenis,

or ‘the others’ on different killing lists.

We don’t even hear what’s obvious,

“We are human beings.”

Not objects, not targets.

Banafsha (right), the Director of Rayaab, is also pursuing a Master’s degree in International Relations

For Banafsha, a sound is a colour,

touch is colour,

understanding is colour.

A bullet isn’t a colour….

“Bombs frighten me,”

Hadisa, a volunteer teacher, said at our meeting.

The watchman of another school for the visually impaired was killed

by extremists who entered via the yard of the blind,

into the American University Hadisa studies at,

to wreck havoc,

drowning in a failed tit-for-tat war,

shoot, anger, shoot, revenge.

All that was achieved

was a bloody red.

Mehdi Salami played the keyboard while the visually impaired students sang

We’ve even forgotten that Afghans sing,

that music can be heard everywhere,

the bees, the wind, the transformed caterpillars,

and leaves turning their faces towards the sun.

Mursal cried when she heard the blind students sing together

While they create tunes, they serve the Earth too,

pollinating, producing sweet seeds of future life.

“The blind use their hands to touch, to make out the shape of a flower,”

Mursal said, closing her eyes momentarily to imagine that world.

When Mursal heard the keen voices of the students

singing verses which lyricized the Dari alphabet,

she felt that “my heart had become very full”,

and she cried. 

Maryam (left) came despite being sick, with an IV cannula still attached to her hand

“If we can embrace our differences through respect,

we naturally become one,

the blind and the sighted,”

Mehdi Salami, Rayaab’s Deputy Director encouraged.

It made inspiring sense that

if we can bridge ‘darkness and light’,

we can merge all other diversities.

Maryam was sick, and still had an IV cannula on her hand,

but she so very much wanted to come,

Sonia, with soya biscuits which Rayaab served us with refreshments

and to share that, “I needed 3 or 4 persons to bring me here.

Today, I can manage on my own with a white stick.”

She overcame by the sense of touch, and some human support.

Trees provided her a walking aid,

to free her from our doubts.

As we said goodbye in the dim corridor space,

we remembered Tina Ahmadi’s request

that this not be the only time of our friendship,

that we should meet again and again.

Tina Ahmadi, in saying thanks and goodbye, asked to meet us again

We understood then that the blind ‘see’ more than we do,

that meaning, love and calm may pass us by,

but are grappled with in intense pursuit

by them, those we often ignore.

It is hoped that we’ll always invite ourselves to

behold the everyday struggles of Afghan folk from all walks,

and to recognize the effort of Mother Earth to nurture humanity,

not to rush past with our usual fleeting glances,

 but to pause with a ‘full heart’,

to wonder,

and to touch.

The Afghan Peace Volunteers and Street Kids saying goodbye to the students of Rayaab

 

 

 

Peace Education with Kabul Street Kids

a postcard from Ellis Brooks

Ellis Brooks leads a peace education session with the Borderfree school for street kids
Ellis Brooks leads a peace education session with the Borderfree school for street kids

With Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK, I have had the opportunity to practise peace education in Afghanistan for a few days. We are delivering workshops in conflict resolution and mediation with street children, and some ‘train the trainer’ sessions with Afghan Peace Volunteers. The APV have a team of nine young men and women who are coordinating work on conflict resolution.

The great thing about doing peace education with children and young people is that it comes naturally, no matter where you are. Young people get the need for fairness, the need to be heard, the need for justice.

That said, there are lots of challenges to doing this work compared with Britain. Translating not just the words but the ideas is not easy. A metaphor I often use is the “conflict escalator”, carrying you up out of control; as far as I can tell there’s only one escalator in Kabul (donated by a penitent of Bin Laden’s family), and the city’s street children are not so familiar with it. Gender norms, family, school and the balance between the individual and the group: all these are different. Moreover, violence is present in homes and the streets. Most if not all of the children we’ve spoken to have witnessed violence, making the idea that conflict and violence are not synonymous, hard to grant.

As a teacher, there are concepts and tools I want to convey, but the Afghan Peace Volunteers are teaching me about the conflict resolution they already do. Other Afghans have been surprised at how APV bring together Hazari, Pashtun, Tajik and Uzbeks under one roof. Afghanistan of course has an ancient tradition of conflict resolution, but I suspect Kabul’s young people have innovations of their own. So really, I’m the student.

Peace education is already happening here as well. Besides APV, we’ve been in contact with Sanayee Development Centre, the US Institute and Jesuit Relief Services, all of which are reaching young people with different elements of peace education.

Ultimately, I will be happy if we have fun together. Solidarity is a big motivation for being here. Whatever the intent, many of the interventions by my country and others have made Afghans less safe and less free. But I want to picture Afghanistan as more than the home of drone strikes, illicit poppy cultivation and the marginalization of women. The Afghan Peace Volunteers have taken me beyond these headlines, showing that nonviolence can flourish even when there seems to be no space for it.

Conflict is experienced by everyone everywhere, so educating everyone in peaceful conflict resolution is not a “special” intervention that Afghans need more than others; it is a universal right. The work of Afghan Peace Volunteers says to the world that they are not giving up on this or any other rights for their young people, and I hope I can stand with them in that.

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.

Mary, Maya & Henrietta outside

2015 Delegation

2015 Delegation
2015 Delegation

As foreign troops exit Afghanistan and violence across the country rages on, three women peace activists Mary Dobbing, Henrietta Cullinan and Maya Evans have headed to Kabul to spend Christmas with young Afghan peace makers.

Afghanistan is still one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, with little improvements made by the NATO/ US led offensive. Iliteracy, access to medical health, forced marriages, and domestic violence still remain amongst the highest rates of any country today (1), despite British taxpayers funding the war effort to the tune of £37 billion (2).

Mary Dobbing aged 58 from Bristol, Henrietta Cullinan, 53, from London, and Maya Evans, 35, from St Leonards on Sea, are part of the peace group Voices for Creative Non-Violence UK, which has been visiting and working with the youth group The Afghan Peace Volunteers for over 4 years. (3)

Mary & MountainsDrone researcher Mary Dobbing said: “Britain has spent at least £37 billion on the disastrous Afghan war, including millions on keeping out and deporting Afghan refugees and on British drone development. Despite this austerity for Britain continues and the 13 year war hasn’t made Afghans or Brits any safer.”

In the last 13 years 453 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, 1,819 American soldiers and tens of thousands of uncounted Afghans, at least 21,000 of which were civilians (4), yet still the Taliban are present in most of the country (5), people can not move safely from one province to another, drones dominate and poverty, illiteracy and violence are rife.

Henrietta CullinanFormer school teacher Henrietta Cullinan said: “This year Britain has focused on remembering the first world war. Today in Afghanistan, people have endured 13 years of British backed war – longer than the first and second world wars combined. Afghans are trying to reconstruct their lives in a country shattered by war, poverty and corruption. It shames me that my country has played a significant part in making life for Afghans so difficult.”

The US and NATO have officially declared Operation Enduring Freedom over, however at least 12,000 foreign special operation forces will remain in the country as well as private security contractors for the next phase “Operation Enduring Support.”

Maya Evans, Mary Dobbing, Henrietta Cullinan
Maya Evans, Mary Dobbing, Henrietta Cullinan

Maya Evans said: “If one thing is certain, it’s that violence and military action is not helping the Afghan people. My friends in Kabul asked me to send a message to our government; “Stop killing us”. Drone strikes, night raids, aerial bombing, illegal imprisonment and torture of Afghans has not won ‘hearts and minds’. In order for life to improve for Afghans all violence must stop.”

(1) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-26747712

(2)http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/30/afghanistan-war-cost-britain-37bn-book

(3) http://ourjourneytosmile.com/blog/

(4) http://costsofwar.org/article/afghan-civilians

(5)http://www.ibtimes.com/could-taliban-retake-control- afghanistan-1695833

 

Borderfree community centre of Nonviolence

Borderfree

Borderfree community centre of Nonviolenceby Kathy Kelly

August 15, 2014

Here in Kabul, Sherri Maurin and I are guests of the Afghan Peace Volunteers’ recently formed live-in community for young women.  Hollyhocks in the garden reach as high as the second floor of our living space.  Rose bushes, morning glories and four-o-clocks have bloomed, and each day we eat tomatoes, mint and green onions plucked from the well-cared for garden. The water source is a hose and tank outside, (there’s no indoor plumbing) so dishes and clothes are cleaned outside. The latrine is also outside, –and unfortunately we’re sharing it with playful kitties, but otherwise  Zarghuna, Zahidi and Zahro have managed to efficiently manage almost every detail of housekeeping, each day, by 7:00 a.m.

A group of local seamstresses also have two rooms here, but lately they have been with their families as Ramadan came to a close followed by Eid celebrations.

The men’s community, separate now from the newly launched “Borderfree Community Center of Nonviolence,”where projects and programs take place, also has a fine garden and similar room arrangements.  An added plus, – their yard has four trees!

Going and coming from our communities to “the center” is a 35 minute walk through village-like streets if you take the back ways.  The Borderfree Community Center, when it was first rented, needed considerable rehab and repairs. Hakim, Faiz, Zekerullah and Abdulhai worked very hard to shape it up.  Now, guests enter an attractive space, neatly painted, with plenty of classroom and meeting space.  Plants, curtains, photo exhibits, and choices for rugs and carpets have all been carefully chosen.  Sadaf, one of the APV women who has been very active Borderfree scarf production, organized art students from local Universities to paint images on the walls of a children’s classroom as well as the reception area.  Painted on a wall inside the center’s gate is a playful graffiti with lots of floating bubbles. Letters floating in some of the bubbles spell out “We love Peace,” although certain bubbles have wafted up and down, making it a challenge for linear thinkers.  Another artist, a well-known cartoonist, painted an image on the outside wall of the Borderfree Community Center, (a wall that can be seen by anyone passing by), of a figure shooting a slingshot at a drone, but instead of a rock, a red heart breaks the drone in half. 

Love Will End Drone Attacks

The graffiti, ‘We Love Peace’, on the wall of Borderfree Community Centre of Nonviolence

Classes and programs keep the center lively.  Earlier this week, the center invited a small group of people to the first session of a four week course orienting people to better understand nonviolence and the APV history and goals.  We also gathered for the weekly Global Awareness sessions which focus on a wide range of topics related to militarism, environmental concerns, and socioeconomic inequalities.  Hamidullah Natiq, a seasoned practitioner of conflict resolution in Afghanistan, meets with the group once a week. Local children who are part of a “street kids” project come once a week for Dari and math classes, guided by Hadisa and Farzana, two capable young volunteer teachers.  And, once a month, the “street kids” receive, for their families, large sacks of rice and containers of cooking oil. These donations allow them to attend school rather than work as vendors on the streets of Kabul.

Rent for the center costs $500 per month. The APVs hope that by selling the borderfree sky blue scarves they can help cover this cost. Sherri, I and other internationals will encourage people in our home locales to assist with the center’s expenses. 

During a recent visit to the Emergency Surgical Center for Victims of War, here in Kabul, the staff shared with us news that they get about what’s happening around the country.  They rely on reports from staff working at several dozen clinics and the two main hospitals they run in two additional provinces.  Much of our conversation pointed to the reality that Kabul is “a bubble.”  Full scale wars are being fought by heavily armed sides in eastern and southern Afghanistan, but generally the only news coverage that goes beyond Afghanistan pertains to Kabul.  The groups fighting the Afghan government include various warlords, the Taliban, drug kingpins, and foreign fighters, some of whom may be strategizing ways to cut off the roads to Kabul. Clearly, the Kabul “bubble” can be quite vulnerable. 

I asked Faiz what he most appreciates about the center.  He immediately spoke of the graffiti outside, saying that it gives him hope and suggests a sense of freedom.  The heart of love that breaks apart the drone, propelled by a slingshot converted into a peace-making tool, points all of us in a direction, sorely needed, that aims to abolish war. I hope the Bordefree Centre, like the live-in community’s gardens, will flourish.

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
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.”

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.