Henoko Town, Okinawa, around one hundred and fifty Japanese protesters gathered to stop construction trucks from entering the U.S. base ‘Camp Schwab’, after the Ministry of Land over-ruled the local Governors’ decision to revoke permission for construction plans, criticizing the “mainland-centric” Japanese Government of compromising the environmental, health and safety interests of the Islanders.
Riot police poured out of buses at six a.m., out-numbering protesters four to one, with road sitters systematically picked off in less than an hour to make way for construction vehicles.
All the mayors and government representatives of Okinawa have objected to the construction of the new coastal base, which will landfill one hundred and sixty acres of Oura Bay, for a two hundred and five hectare construction plan which will be part of a military runway.
Marine biologists describe Oura Bay as a critical habitat for the endangered ‘dugong’ (a species of manatee), which feeds in the area, as well as sea turtles and unique large coral communities.
The bay is particularly special for its extreme rich ecosystem which has developed due to six inland rivers converging into the bay, making the sea levels deep, and ideal from various types of porites coral and dependent creatures.
‘Camp Schwab’ is just one of 32 U.S. bases which occupies 17% of the Island, using various areas for military exercises from jungle training to Osprey helicopter training exercises. There are on average 50 Osprey take off and landings every day, many next to housing and built up residential areas, causing disruption to everyday life with extreme noise levels, heat and diesel smell from the engines.
Two days ago there were six arrests outside the base, as well as ‘Kayactivists’ in the sea trying to disrupt the construction. A formidable line of tethered red buoys mark out the area consigned for construction, running from the land to a group of offshore rocks, Nagashima and Hirashima, described by local shamans as the place where dragons (the source of wisdom) originated.
Protesters also have a number of speed boats which take to the waters around the cordoned area; the response of the coast guard is to use the tactic of trying to board these boats after ramming them off course.
The overwhelming feeling of the local people is that the Government on the mainland is willing to sacrifice the wishes of Okinawans in order to pursue its military defense measures against China. Bound by Article 9, Japan has not had an army since World War Two, though moves by the Government suggest a desire to scrap the Article and embark on a ‘special relationship’ with the U.S., who is already securing control of the area with over 200 bases, and thus tightening the Asia pivot with control over land and sea trade routes, particularly those routes used by China.
Meanwhile, Japan is footing 75% of the bill for accommodating the U.S., with each soldier costing the Japanese Government 200 million yen per year, that’s $4. 4 billion a year for the 53,082 U.S. soldiers currently in Japan, with around half (26, 460) based in Okinawa. The new base at Henoko is also expected to cost the Japanese Government a tidy sum with the current price tag calculated to be at least 5 trillion yen.
Okinawa suffered devastating losses during the second world war, with a quarter of the population killed within the 3-month-long ‘Battle of Okinawa’ which claimed 200,000 lives in total. Hilltops are said to have changed shape due to the sheer bombardment of ammunition.
Local activist Hiroshi Ashitomi has been protesting at Camp Schwab since the expansion was announced 11 years ago, he said: “We want an island of peace and the ability to make our own decisions, if this doesn’t happen then maybe we might need to start talking about independence.”
We’ve just got back from seeing the street kids who came for their weekly lessons at the Borderfree Non-Violence Peace Centre.
The street kids were all on fine form today, I managed to do a head count and there’s currently 23 on the programme, part of the APV’s economic justice and education equality thrust.
I got to interview Habib (which means love), the boy I wrote about last year. Since then he’s been to Farah province after his uncle told him “lets go”. As usual 12 year old Habib wears a worried face, as if he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, probably not far from that as he’s still the main bread winner of the family, a stress for any grown man let alone a pre adolescent.
Habib has recently changed occupation, his weighing scales were not bringing in enough money so he’s moved onto shining shoes which earns him around 100 Afghanis per day, which is about £1.15
His weighing scales have been handed down to his 9 year old brother Samim who also works the streets. I asked him about his time in Farah province, one of the more volatile provinces in Afghanistan; known for it’s production of opium, prevalence of addicts and presence of Talibs. Habib shrugs and says “What’s there to like about Farah, there’s just fighting.” He expands a little and says there’s nothing much in Farah, no city, no health facilities, just countryside, and more importantly to Habib, nowhere to study. I ask him what he likes about Kabul, immediately he says
“study”, a testimony to the success of the APV’s project as his once a week lesson at the Border Free Centre is the only schooling he receives. I ask after his mother Maryam and his 5 brothers and sisters, again he shrugs and says “fine”, they still live in the same place, a piece of tarp stretched from the side of a building which creates one living space for the 8 members of the family.
Habib talks about his average day, work will normally start around 9 in the morning and end at 8pm. At the moment it’s getting dark at 5 and even teenage members of the APV tend not to be out later than 7 as the streets are so unsafe. He says his day is tiring as there aren’t many places to work so he must walk around a lot which is quite tiring. His biggest worry is security and the danger of being caught up in an attack. He describes how one day there was a bomb in Pul-e-Sulh, a shopping area not far from the peace centre, his mother was gripped with fear so walked the streets for hours, looking for him so as to take him home.
The memory of meeting his mother Maryam last year came back to me, she quietly wept under her burka as she described how her husband died in a sectarian suicide attack on a Shia mosque 4 years ago. I ask him if he still wants to become a doctor, he immediately answers “yes”.
Next I interviewed Gul Jumu’ah (meaning flower Friday), she doesn’t know her age but looks around 10. She partly caught my eye because of her already apparent stunning beauty, and then her shy smile which possesses a quiet inner joy. There are only 5 girls on the project, I’m guessing there are generally less girls working the streets as usually girls and women are expected to stay indoors and run the house. GulJumu’ah is Pashtoon and lives in Chara Kumba refugee camp. She looks timidly at me as I beam the biggest smile I can muster. Today she was dressed in a raggedy pink spangly dress which hangs off her thin frame. She sits crossed legged on the floor looking nervous, I suspect it’s the first time anyone has ever asked to speak with her, least of all a foreigner.
Gul Jumu’ah is painfully shy, she looks down and plays with her dress, her hands are weathered and filthy, she only occasionally looks up to flash a shy smile. I find out that her work involves trawling the streets for plastic to burn for fuel, this morning she collected 2 sacks of plastic. She’s been living in the refugee camp for the last 3 years, before then she lived in Sangin, Helmand province, the area of Afghanistan where British troops were based and the fighting has been most fierce. She says that her family left Helmand 3 years ago after her father was killed. She has 5 brothers but 2 of them have died in the war and 1 of her 5 sisters has also passed away. Her older brother was a cobbler but his equipment was stolen so now he can’t work. Her only memory of Sangin is war, I try to press her for more detail but again she just says “war”. The last year at the border free centre is her first experience of education, she says learning is important to her and when she’s older she’d like to become a teacher and help people. I want to know more about Gul Jamma but can sense a deep sadness which I feel is not my place to disturb. I ask her about toys, her only doll, she has black hair and wears a scarf but doesn’t help with housework.
Since being in Kabul we’ve heard whispered horror stories, one being the trafficking of young Afghans to the Middle East, mainly for slavery and even body parts, the rumours say that street children are particularly vulnerable.
This morning Obama announced that the war with Afghanistan has come to a “responsible end”.
At the end of today’s lesson we brought out a box of Quality Street chocolates which the kids excitedly gobbled down. Some of the wrappers were carelessly discarded on the floor by many of the children. I noticed Gul Jumu’ah discretely bend down and collect the wrappers, no doubt to be added to her fuel stash.
Noor Rahman, a chubby 12 year old in a filthy yellow hoddie plays with his mobile phone, he’s the kind of kid who could probably fix up anything, you name it, he can get it. He complains to Hakim that the phone company charges him 1 Afghani every time he connects to the internet, Hakim laughs and advises him to disconnect his internet service.
The teenage members of the APV then called each of the kids out of the room to collect their monthly subsidy of food, a sack of rice and a large bottle of oil. Raul, who looks around 8 drags his sack out of the centre, he expertly bumps it down the stairs and then hikes it over a shoulder while grabbing his bottle of oil and swiftly making off.
Gul Jumu’ah looks up at me from the bottom of the stairs and flashes me a smile, my heart melts, she then skips out of the centre to meet her brother who has come to help her with the rice and oil.
Although physically we’ve done very little today I feel quite tired. At the moment a “dramatic sunset” is forming outside our living room window. From where I’m sat (in the corner of the room), I can only see the razor wire on our neighbour’s wall and a few yellowing clouds. Khamed Jan has just lit a fire, the room is slightly smokey. The familiar call to prayer has just started up, the quality and emotion of the Imam’s voice is almost enough to make me want to convert, I guess that’s the idea.
The sun is forming a dramatic sunset which I’m almost tempted to photograph, Zahidi is talking about her memories from the Russian war, of waiting for hours in the freezing snow to get 2 loaves of bread to feed 6 members of her family. Her life has included many years as a refugee in Pakistan and then Iran. At 30 she is already considered too old to marry and her slight limp (maybe from Polio) also counts against her marrying chances. She says living in the community has massively changed her life, that it’s taught her how to speak with and trust people. Zarghuna says that meeting internationals and other members of the group makes her love many people like they’re family.
This is my fourth year in Kabul, without a doubt I love these people as family.
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)
Drone 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.
Former 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 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.”
This is an overview of the Afghanistan – The Forgotten War: Britain’s Legacy conference held in London on Saturday 11th October 2014 by Voices for Creative Non-Violence UK (VCNVUK) to mark the thirteenth anniversary of the current war in Afghanistan.
British troops will vacate their final base in Helmand, Afghanistan, later this month and 31st December 2014 is the date set for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the NATO/ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) coalition from the country, effectively signalling the end of the current war.
Many Afghans are positive about and look forward to rebuilding their country in the post-conflict period. Having just elected not one but two new leaders, challenges lie ahead for both the leadership and ordinary Afghans.
Almost immediately upon the election of the new government, the US and Afghanistan signed a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) the previous president had refused to sign, whose terms include the retention of almost 10,000 US soldiers in the country after 2014 to work “on two important security missions: training and equipping Afghan forces and supporting cooperation against terrorism”. A similar agreement was signed with NATO, bringing the total number of foreign troops remaining in the country to around 12,000, 500 of whom will be from the United Kingdom.
The withdrawal of foreign soldiers, however, does not signal an end to fighting in the ongoing civil war between different ethnic and religious factions and war lords. With the focus on the US and NATO’s activities in Afghanistan, this war has been underreported in the international media.
The impact of the war on all parties will continue for many decades and in many ways. David Cameron’s visit to Afghanistan as the first foreign leader to meet new president Ashraf Ghani reflects this. While there, he reiterated the old fallacy that troops on the ground thereprevented terrorist attackshere.
With the conference falling at the end of the annual Drones Week of Action (4-11 October) and the planned final withdrawal this month, the focus was very much on Britain’s military legacy and ongoing covert engagement in Afghanistan. The conference was hosted and introduced by Maya Evans from VCNCUK. Around 50 people attended.
The Toxic Remnants
Andy Garrity from the Toxic Remnants of War (TRW) project, which looks at the detrimental impact of military activities and materials on the environment and human health, spoke about the consequences of the NATO drawdown and the toxic environmental legacy of the war.
In the process of withdrawal, over 1200 bases will either be closed or handed over to the Afghan authorities. The BSA negotiated at the end of September does not provide adequate rules on how bases are to be dismantled or decommissioned in an environmentally and human health-friendly way. Although the 2014 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) complies with Afghan legislation, the level of environmental protection offered is relatively low and there is no guarantee of enforcement by any of the parties.
There are many sources of environmental and health risks and pollution. Practice firing ranges, used to train soldiers, are usually abandoned due to the cost of clean-up and the lack of legislation making it mandatory. Residues and unexploded munitions stay behind. While the US says that it could take up to 5 years and $250 million to clean up such ranges, there has been no discussion on actually doing this.
According to the UN, children are at greatest risk from unexploded ordnances (UXOs): explosive weapons that did not explode at the time they were used and can still be detonated decades later. This is due to children, in particular, scavenging for scrap metal among the discarded materials to sell to earn money for their families. In addition to the risk of explosions, they are also exposed to carcinogens and UXO contamination.
Other risks are posed by MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) vehicles designed to withstand IEDs (improvised explosive devices) which are often simply abandoned. The cost of returning MRAPs to the US is estimated at $500 million where they would be of no use. These vehicles contain harmful carcinogenic materials, including cadmium, chromium and lead.
Before abandoning bases, many materials are disabled for “security” purposes, such as computers, fans, turbines, etc. and are of no further practical use. This scrap waste is sometimes abandoned on roadsides and poses risks to children playing and rummaging for metals to sell. Other waste from bases is consigned to burn pits, including aviation fuel, chemicals and clothing. This takes place at most bases and emits low-level pollution. Local residents have complained of increasing rates of asthma and respiratory problems. US army veterans have complained about higher rates and risks of cancer. While some compensation has been paid to veterans, following campaigns, the US maintains there is no risk of harm and admits no liability. No civilian health studies have been carried to assess the risk to Afghans or possible compensation owed to them.
While NATO and ISAF troops already adhere to low levels of environmental protection, drawdown has meant their replacement by private military contractors, who often overlook existing regulations and are not subject to public scrutiny. Currently outnumbering foreign soldiers two to one, their use is likely to increase further and their actions lack transparency, posing a concern for the future.
The total cost of clean-up has been estimated at $5.7 billion by the US. TRW believes that NATO and ISAF must be held accountable for environmental damage and damage to public health. In addition, military and security agreements must include more strongly-worded environmental protection. Seeking accountability, however, is hindered by the fact that this could set a precedent for conflicts elsewhere and claims for compensation and clean-up. Dangerous in the longer term, the focus is only on avoiding the cost of cleaning up right now.
Droning Wars continue…
Chris Cole from Drone Wars UK talked about the UK’s ongoing military involvement in remote control drone warfare in Afghanistan. Due to the secrecy surrounding operations, there is no data available to provide accurate statistics on strikes and casualties in Afghanistan; however, more drone strikes take place in Afghanistan than anywhere else. Cole called drones the “new form of warfare”, with remote control strikes being launched against targets from thousands of miles away.
The UK started using military drones in December 2004 along with the US as part of a joint taskforce in Iraq. Using its own MQ-9 Reaper drones, Britain has since become addicted to drone warfare; in spite of the drawdown of troops over the past few years, the number of drone strikes has multiplied. Britain has spent over two billion pounds on buying and developing drones. In 2014 alone, over £100 million has been committed to drone technology development.
Drones do, however, have certain advantages. With the war in Afghanistan longer than World Wars I and II combined, and increasing public hostility to war, especially the commitment of troops on the ground, drones offer governments a means of continuing their war games in a manner that bypasses public and media scrutiny: secrecy is a large part of the drone package.
In 2009/2010, almost half of all air strikes were by drones; that number is now over 80%. Virtually nothing is known about the impact on the ground. Following an investigation by the LA Times in 2010, only one incident in Uruzgan province, where 23 civilians were killed, including children, prompted a military investigation leading to compensation for the families. There were no prosecutions. Patchy media coverage is available; on the day of the conference, two people were reported to have been killed in a US drone strike near the Pakistan border.
An important point raised is that the secrecy surrounding the use of military drones is closely linked to a wide network of intelligences bases around the world, such as those revealed in Edward Snowden’s leaks about the activity of the US National Security Agency (NSA). With an increasing number of bases being used all over the world, the surveillance society and intelligence-gathering aspects of drones must not be overlooked. With an ongoing UN inquiry into the impact of drone warfare on civilians, it is clear that it offers no solution to global security problems.
The True Cost of War
Former military officer, barrister and author of Investment in Blood: the True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War,Frank Ledwidge spoke about the cost of the war.
The war has had a human cost for both the UK and Afghanistan; 453 British soldiers have been killed and more than 2500 injured, more than 600 seriously. Once they leave the military, they are only entitled to civilian support on the National Health Service (NHS), and not any special support, as is claimed. Although the remaining British army in Helmand have not been engaged in combat for most of 2014, the impact of their presence on the almost two million residents of the province is almost entirely unknown.
For most people in Helmand, however, the war is far from over with heavy fighting between local groups. While even NATO has recognised that most so-called Taliban are in fact local residents, as compared to the smaller contingent of asli (original) Taliban who ran the country before the war, many engaged in the current fighting are local people in gangs, drug dealers, war lords, etc.
An area now better known for its production of almost half the world’s opium harvest in 2013, at the time, the British army gave this rural area importance on the pretext of preventing domestic terrorism by placing troops on the ground to defeat the Taliban. In fact, there have been far more civilian casualties, even though official statistics are not broken down. Larger than the number of fatalities is the number of people injured or maimed. At the height of fighting between NATO/ISAF and Afghans in the province in 2010, in one month, one hospital admitted more than 4000 people.
Official government statistics have put the military cost of the war in Helmand at £25 billion, but the actual cost is over £35 billion, with fuel as one of the most expensive items. In the longer term, the single greatest cost will be care for veterans and wounded soldiers. Based on estimates for the US by experts there, Ledwidge has estimated a similar veteran care cost for the UK from Afghanistan of around £50 billion.
According to US experts, the cost of veteran care peaks 40 years after the conflict. In a freedom of information request made by Ledwidge to the MoD, he was informed that no budget has been set aside for Afghan veterans. There is only a £70 million fund for combat stress.
In conclusion, Ledwidge stated that there is no causal link between the Afghanistan war and domestic terrorism in the UK, even as this is being used as pretext right now for interference in Iraq and Syria. He stated that “we left Helmand a far worse place than we found it”. Looking at the human and financial cost of war, “going into the next war, we need to ask is this something we need to do?”
Afghan Women’s Voices
Skyping Kabul with Sabir, Maya and Farzana
Before concluding the conference and holding a set of afternoon workshops on issues such as Afghan women, drones and the war on terror, Kabul street children, and opportunities to build peace, a short Skype conversation was held with Afghan women in Kabul from the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV), who work closely with VCNVUK. “Saving Afghan women” was one of the main pretexts for the war.
Asked about their views on the new government, some of the women said that it was too early to tell but that people were still optimistic; others said they were not optimistic as the current government included politicians who were involved in various wars over the past three decades. One woman there would be no real change until the style of leadership changes, eradicating nepotism and the culture of self-serving war lords who have no interest in the concerns of ordinary people.
Asked their views about the retention of thousands of foreign soldiers in the country, all of the women were against this as soldiers and military strategies have failed to bring about peace. Asked about the effects of war on women, one said a major impact was the loss of their husbands and children. In 2013, most casualties in Afghanistan were children. They also spoke about being psychologically traumatised, making many afraid to leave their homes. With the focus on staying alive, support for families and building families and communities takes secondary importance.
With thirteen years of war focused on combat and not people, one of the major challenges identified by this second annual conference is how to stop Afghanistan falling off the radar completely at the end of this year. The war is not over and media and public lack of awareness and disinterest must not serve as a pretext for further abuses and atrocities.
The conference was supported by Drone Campaign Network.
The biggest national UK anti drone action will be taking place this weekend when over 20 peace groups will be showing solidarity with Afghan peace makers who urge everyone to Fly Kites Not Drones for Nao Roz (Afghan New Year).
There will be a kite flying vigil at UK drone base RAF Waddington on Friday 1pm, and a London event at Speakers Corner Saturday 2pm, where activists will show solidarity with Afghans by joining in with the well loved Afghan pastime of kite flying.
Maya Evans, anti drone activist, said: “I’ve just returned from living in Afghanistan for 3 months where I personally witnessed the destruction and havoc caused by drones, not only are they killing innocent civilians but they’re also degrading the fabric of Afghan society as they cause mistrust and enmity.”
The issue of drones has been heightened in the last few months when Pakistani drone witness Kareem Khan was kidnapped and tortured- he was set to give evidence in the European Court; in addition a Yemeni drones witness was also harassed. Meanwhile British courts threw out the case of Noor Khan with worries of causing bad relations with the US, while new drone bases are set to open if not in Afghanistan then elsewhere in Asia.
Britain has also been exposed for infringing rules of combat by co-operating directly with the US on launching drone strikes. Currently the cost of life caused by drone strikes is unknown as the MoD refuse to release names and numbers due to “national security”.
Evans added: “These robot killers are fuelling resentment towards foreign occupation as well as making security worse for the ordinary Afghan. The message I heard over and over again was that Afghans do not want drones, they want an end to foreign interference which has brought endless violence, moreover, they want peace.”
The action was inspired by the Afghan Peace Volunteers who want an end to war and the use of drones which currently plague their skies.
We are sitting on the floor in a simple outhouse room attached to the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s compound, the unheated space is normally used for teaching local children various classes. Habib and his mother Mariam sit in front of us motionless, Mariam wears the burqa so it is not possible to read her face and ascertain how she might be feeling, the tentative expression on Habib’s face tells us that their life is hard.
It was around 2 months ago when I first met 12 year old Habib, he arrived on the doorstep with some of his friends wanting to join the Street Kids Project being run by the APV- an effort to help some of the 60,000 street kids of Kabul. Habib’s face looked concerned as he clutched his weighing scales- the tool of his trade- 5 Afghanis a go, around 5p.
Since then I have bumped into him a few times. Once outside our local bank- it was the first day of snow and he sat in the doorway shivering, his scales by his side, his ragged thread bare clothes offered small benefits to the freezing cold. I then saw him a few weeks later with his friends, who also work the streets, they were playing tag by the river, their faces beamed with exhilaration as they ran up and down a small unpaved road.
Habib is the oldest of 5 children, he’s around 12 years old and in 6th grade, he has 3 brothers and one sister, one of the younger brothers also works the streets.
As the breadwinner of the family he starts work with his scales at 8am and finishes around 12 noon, on average he earns around 100 Afghanis a day, though sometimes it’s less. After work he returns home to help with household chores, sometimes he helps his neighbours and whenever he gets the chance, he studies.
Habib’s Mother bought the scales for him, initially they borrowed a set from a friend who suggested that line of work for Habib, when it proved to be a good income she bought him his own scales for 350 Afghanis.
Habib sits next to his mother Mariam, his face combines sorrow and concern, understandable for a 12 year old who is the main provider for the family.
His mother Mariam is 26, a widow of 3 years after a bombing at the local Shia Mosque killed her husband. He was pushing a cart of oranges when he momentarily stopped outside the Abdul Fazal Mosque and a suicide bomber detonated deadly explosives, over a hundred people were killed. He was rushed to hospital but died after 3 days.
The outline of Mariam under a burqa is barely recognisable as a person, the all covering indigo cloth makes her human figure almost alien, the only visual human characteristic are her eyelashes which i can faintly see blinking rapidly behind the gauze. It is just her sorrowful voice which allows us to connect as humans.
She explains that her brother has a bad temper and doesn’t allow her to work as to do so would be indecent for a young woman, however he himself does not provide for the family, 12 year old Habib does. Thankfully her mother also lives with them, she helps out financially by washing clothes.
Mariam was also at the Mosque on that fateful day, she endured injuries which have yet to heal- she requests the men in the room turn away as she lifts up her burqa to show a scar on the left side of her chest. It’s strange to suddenly see a flash of intimate human flesh when I haven’t even seen her face. She doesn’t go into detail but her health is bad and she lives with daily pain.
I ask Habib if he had one wish in the world what would it be? With his scales resting on his lap and a thoughtful gaze he replies that when he grows up he wants to become a doctor.
We ask Mariam the same question; she wishes for peace and security to come to Afghanistan so her children can be educated and nurtured. She says that living in Kabul the current main dangers are suicide bombings.
She then explained how she lost 2 brothers, one during fighting at the time of Naji Bula and the other, who was a casual labourer, mysteriously went missing- he was out walking the streets of Kabul one night when he suddenly disappeared. The family looked for him, they even searched the prisons but he had vanished, they never received word or news of him again.
Mariam’s mother lives with the daily sorrow of her two lost sons, there isn’t a day that passes where she doesn’t feel distressed. She would like to locate her son’s body and lay his soul to rest.
I hear more about the lives of 26 year old mother Mariam and her 5 children who exist under a piece of tarp attached to the side of a building, their homestead is amongst the most humble of any in Afghanistan, no running water, no heating, the most basic of cooking facilities.
Mariam ends by saying she is grateful that Habib is on the APV Street kids project- a scheme which is helping 21 local street children by providing each family with a 25kg sack of rice and a tin of oil every month for a year. The children also attend a weekly class which provide basic literacy and numeracy skills, all led by teenage members of the APV.
Mariam says she feels frustrated that she can not offer her son more opportunities in life so is thankful that this project gives him the chance to learn.
This year VCNV UK contributed £3,000 to the duvet project, most of those funds were raised by Mary Dobbing and Susan Clarkson who took collections after talks given to peace and Quaker groups.
The APV’s projected budget was $30,000- which they have nearly reached, the bulk of the funds come from VCNV US, and Quakers in Australia.
The project is run entirely by APV’s on a voluntary basis, the lead co-ordinator is 22 year old Khalida, other members of the co-ordinating group are Ali (aged 17), Marzia, Meena, Zainab and Zorah- all teenage women between the ages of 16 and 18.
60 women are involved in the making of the duvets (20 from each ethnic group Tajik, Hazara, Pashtoon), the seamstresses are assessed at the beginning of the project to check they fulfil a criteria of being in need.
There will be 4 rounds of duvet making and distributing, each woman makes 10 duvets per round, which means 2,400 duvets will be made and distributed within the 4 month project.
Seamstresses arrive and take away material enough to make 10 duvets, on average a seamstress can make 3 duvets per day, it takes 2 hours to make a duvet, they are paid $1.50 per duvet, the average Afghan wage per day is between $3-$5
Duvets are distributed to the very poor and in need, the APV select community leaders or organisers who draw up a list of needy individuals in their area.
Distributions have been at: refugee camps, a school for the blind, a number of mosques, Bobor gardens and disabled groups including the Afghan Landmine Survivors Organization.
Between 120-200 duvets are loaded up into a truck for each distribution run.
At a distribution point each recipient (usually a woman) receives 2 duvets, their name is ticked off a list while they hand in an APV receipt.
Khalida Co-ordinator of the project, age 23 This is Khalida’s first job, she’s semi literate and really happy to be working on the project. Her role is as the overall co-ordinator, she works as a volunteer and her responsibilities include purchasing the materials, distributing them to the seamstresses, assessing seamstresses using an eligibility criteria, paying wages to the seamstresses and organising the distribution teams. Her family members support of her work.
Shakila age 14, Co-ordinators assistant – She says she does the job because it helps the poor by helping their daily needs. When they visit the homes of seamstresses some of the ladies don’t even have carpets so they lay cloth on the floor to sleep on.
Feedback from Seamstresses on the Duvet Project
Freyba Her husband was killed around 3 years ago during a suicide bombing at a Shia Hazara Mosque in Kabul. She says in place of unemployment this is a good project, she was hoping for something more on a long term basis but the money she receives is helpful for buying coal and flour.
Nafaz Gul Her husband was sent to prison for 15 years over a land dispute, he was also a drug user which perhaps contributed to his imprisonment, she is alone at home bringing up 4 children. Nafaz says what she gets from the duvet making helps to buy salt, oil and flour for her family, she is grateful that she is able to receive materials to sow.
Zorah Her body aches all over constantly and she usually feels tired. She was widowed during the communist period, for ages she struggled to get ID papers from her home province, this is required in order to receive an annual allowance from the Department of Martyrs. Zorah wants to get on the duvet project as a seamstress.
Soraya She was widowed last year when there was a mini bus attack by a suicide bomber, her husband was on the bus. She is now bringing up 5 children alone. As well as making duvets she also washes clothes and cleans in people’s homes. She says that when the project ends she hope another one will start so she can continue to earn money. The project is good for her as she prefers to work from home. She is keen to receive duvets as well.
Nassima Her husband works as a labourer, she has 4 children. She says the project is some help but hopes work will continue.
Problems within the project A few of the seamstresses commented that transport costs are a bit of a problem for women who live far away. A taxi to transport the materials home and then the duvets back can be around 800 Afghanis, this is over half the amount (1500 Afghani’s) they receive in wages per duvet batch. Ali (a coordinator of the project) explained that when they selected the women they had a set budget which didn’t include transport costs. He also pointed out that if they started giving subsidies to women who live far away then all the women should receive something for travel, then there might be accusation that the group had extra funds all along which they were keeping (apparently a common practice with NGOs). Also the issue of whether they refund past travel expenses. We came up with the proposal for Ali to work out an estimation of how much a travel subsidy would cost, we would then try to raise funds to provide a grant, we hope for all the women.
Feedback from Duvet RecipientsKarte Sahi duvet distribution
Najeeba has four children, one son and three daughters aged 2-14. Sat in the pale sunlight of a cold January morning, she tells me that the duvets she will receive from the APV will be of vital help: “This is a very good thing, there are a lot of poor people in this area”.
We’re in District Five, at the foot of a mountain, in the courtyard of a mosque filled with women in burkas waiting to collect their two puffy, warming duvets, made by women from backgrounds as impoverished as theirs. A cemetery of basic, barely marked graves on uneven ground is just beyond us, and in the distance, a stunningly beautiful blue domed mosque catches the light before giving way to hundreds of homes built into the rock of the mountain. It’s a beautiful sight.
I ask Najeeba whether her husband works. “My husband pushes a cart for a living, he carries things for other people – rice and oil, to the market. He earns 150 Afghani or just 50 per day, it depends on who hires him”. 150 Afghani is about £1.50.
“I also taking on some needle work from shops which I can sew at home in between looking after my children. I sew scarves and dresses. For embroidering a dress, which can take me two months, I get 2000 Afghani (£20) This involves very hard, detailed work. I sew after I have finished the housework of cleaning and sweeping. I spend three hours a day sewing”.
“Many women are in the same situation as me. I have a lot of hopes for the future though. I hope we can afford to buy our own house and that my husband will find a better job”.
Najeeba lives in a simple two room house with no kitchen. They cook their meals and make tea on a simple stove. The rent sets them back 3000 Afghani a month – a large part of her and her husband’s joint income.
“I have high hopes for my children, that they will study and get a good education. Both myself and my husband are illiterate but I hope also to study. Simple things, like understanding phone numbers and names”. I ask her what she feels about the forthcoming elections? “I still have hope. I will vote this year. I believe change will come”.
Other women were asked to participate in an interview but declined
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.
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.
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, 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.”
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 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.”
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
Peace group Voices for Creative Non Violence UK will this week witness £3,000 worth of aid, the total amount of funds raised by the group, delivered to Chaman-e Barbak refugee camp in Kabul, the second biggest camp in the city, home to over 700 families who are among, some of the neediest people in the world.
Representative Maya Evans, aged 34, from St Leonards on Sea, will be at the camp when aid will be distributed; flour, oil and sugar will be divided into portions to last each family through the toughest months of the year where temperatures plummet to around minus 16 degrees celsius, previous years have seen reports of children freezing to death over night (1).
Maya Evans said: “It’s extremely shocking to see that despite 13 years of a full scale international presence, where at least £37 billion and $100 billion has been spent by the UK and US governments alone, people are still living in some of the worst conditions in the world; children walking around without adequate foot ware and clothing, open sewers running alongside homes which are basic mud huts, piles of rubbish next to homesteads, it’s so depressing.” (2)
She added: “Most of the money poured into this country has gone towards war, which hasn’t brought the country much closer to peace or improved living conditions. The Afghans I speak to say they are tired of war and want an end to foreign involvement, people are tired and war weary, it’s time to end the violence.”
In addition the Chaman-e Barbak refugee camp experienced a devastating fire last week (4), it left 70 people without homes during the coldest period of the year. Immediate aid was delivered to the camp in the form of duvets for all the affected families, these were provided by the Afghan Peace Volunteers. (5)
A few days ago we visited a refugee camp, in the Perwan Dodo area of Kabul. The camp is relatively small compared to camps we’ve visited previously, with around forty families occupying an area about the size of a football pitch. Most of the families were from Pawan Province which is to the north of Kabul. They had become internal refugees after fleeing from their homes due to the fighting or lack of jobs.
It had been raining the night before and the road in front of the camp was flooded. There was a man in knee length wellies wading up to his shins in the water sucking it up with a large tube coming from a truck. We ducked under a curtain of ragged sheets which acted as a makeshift wall between the camp and the busy road. The little lanes which weaved around the camp leading to the various huts were a mud fest. As soon as we stepped into the camp our shoes became encrusted with mud.
Janey had wanted to interview a mother in a refugee camp as part of her short film project about the life of mums in Afghanistan. We were introduced to Paiky, a 42 year old mother of six. Her home was a hut made from mud with a small porch area which seemed to be used for cooking and then a larger area where the family of eight lived. Our Afghan camerawoman Alka set up her equipment while Paiky arranged herself under a large green patterned blanket. We had yet to hear her story but it was already obvious that she was in a lot of pain.
Janey and I sat next to her while some of her children peeked from behind a curtain which led into the darkened main area of the hut. The interview initially started with some of the men present but after a few minutes Paiky requested that they leave. Once the men left the porch Paiky opened her heart and poured forth about her life and physical ailments. She had given birth to four of her six children alone. Her last birth was also unassisted and due to lack of medical care she is still in constant pain six years later. She says the discomfort is so extreme that she can’t wear trousers or any garment on the bottom half of her body. She lifted her blanket and dress to show me her swollen stomach with some extremely sore looking veins running across it. Janey later said she wasn’t in a position to see her stomach but my expression had said it all.
At the end of the interview I joked with three of Paiky’s children, my limited Dari allowed me to describe them as “dost” friends, and in reply they laughed and called me “holla”, aunty. When I looked into the soft eyes of Rafiq who was about eleven, his smile was so warm and sincere that I immediately felt a deep connection with him. Paiky explained that he was the main bread winner of the family. Every day he went out into the street and washed cars for a living, and my heart went further out to this eleven year old man.
Outside our male companions were talking to the elders of the camp. They were learning more about the political economics of the situation. Apparently, the site was previously occupied by another group of internally displaced people (IDPs) who have now been housed in a building development overlooking the present camp. The site is now part of the land grab racket which is currently gripping Afghanistan and is described by Barmak Pazhwak, at the US Institute of Peace, as “the next big conflict” for the country, while the Afghan Land Authority have assessed that 197,266 hectors of public land has been grabbed.
In 2008 Oxfam published a report which described land issues as now being the main cause of dispute within Afghanistan. The problem lies with the recent falsifying of land ownership documents. Previously there was no legal documentation proving the ownership of land in Afghanistan and land just belonged to families and was passed down between generations. The land theft has given rise to what is locally described as a “land mafia” who are suspected to be a mixture of rich corrupt property developers, drug dealers and war lords – many of whom are currently within the Afghan Government. Kabul is now gripped by this land theft racket.
In the case of this camp’s site, the previous refugees had negotiated a deal with the owner of the land, a rich property developer who is said also to have land in Canada and Dubai. Furthermore it is alleged that the developer had struck a deal with a warlord who negotiated housing for the refugees in return for their loyalty as fighters. The buying of refugees’ loyalty is now becoming common place. Many refugees who last year were considered among the poorest in the country are now relatively well off and living in new housing.
Property prices boomed in Kabul up to a year ago with rocketing rents fuelled by the large number of internationals living in Kabul who are earning big money. Recently rents have stalled and are predicted to level out, but are still at massively inflated prices by local standards. Everyday we hear about the problems for ordinary people in Afghanistan – a country with the highest number of drug addicts in the world; the highest infant mortality, mental health problems, domestic violence and internally displaced people – the list goes on and on. Land theft is just another problem to add.