Tag Archives: non violence

Being a Peace Visitor in Kabul

by Henrietta Cullinan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First days in Kabul

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

APV group
Our new friends from APV

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

APV making tea
APV making tea

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

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

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

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