Tag Archives: Afghanistan

AFGHANISTAN: Building trust in Afghanistan

Kathy Kellyby Kathy Kelly
Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace

Here in Kabul, I read a recent BBC op-ed by Ahmed Rashid, urging a “diplomatic offensive” to build or repair relationships with the varied groups representing armed extremism in Afghanistan. Rashid has insisted, for years, that severe mistrust makes it almost impossible for such groups to negotiate an end to Afghanistan’s nightmare of war.

Glancing upward at one of the six U.S. manufactured aerostat blimps performing constant surveillance over Kabul, I wonder if the expensively high-tech giant’s-eye view encourages a primitive notion that the best way to solve a problem here is to target a “bad guy” and then kill him. If the bad guys appear to be scurrying dots on the ground below, stomp them out.

Nisar Works in the Centre Garden (1)

Nisar Works in the Centre Garden

Crushing only the right dots has proven very difficult for a U.S. drone warfare program documented to have killed many civilians. News sources speculate that the recent drone assassination of Taliban leader Akthar Mansour makes an end to this war far less likely.  A commentator for the highly respected Afghan Analyst Network has written that “with the U.S. killing Akhtar Mansur, it is unlikely the Taleban will be set on anything but revenge for now, as can be understood from the movement’s political psychology… There is no reason to believe the fighting will de-escalate with the new leadership.”

Was that simple prediction available to the U.S.’ giant’s-eye view?

My young friends among the Afghan Peace Volunteers have shown me a vastly different approach toward problem solving.  In a sense, they’ve been launching a diplomatic outreach, refining their approach through trial and error over the course of several years, taking careful steps toward building trust between different ethnic groups, and also relying on their own personal stories to help them understand the cares and concerns of others. Throughout their efforts they’ve tried to be guided by Gandhi’s advice about considering the poorest person’s needs before making a decision.

What has brought a non-violent future closer to Afghanistan – giant sized military and surveillance systems or the accomplishments of young volunteers working to develop inter-ethnic projects?

20 teams are working at the Borderfree Center organizing practical activities within communities coping with multiple economic woes, including food insecurity, unemployment, and inadequate income for meeting basic needs.

Young people travel to and from the Center along unpaved roads lined on both sides with sewage filled drainage ditches. Traffic is chaotic, and the air is so polluted that many wear protective face masks. Day laborers congregate at intersections waiting in desperation for the opportunity to perform hard labor for $2.00 a day or less.

Even those fortunate enough to receive an education will likely face extreme difficulty in finding a job. Unemployment is at an all-time high of 40% and many jobs are attained only through ‘connections.’

Throughout Kabul, refugees crowd into squalid, sprawling camps where people live without adequate protection from harsh weather. According to The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, between Jan. 1 and April 30 this year, “117,976 people fled their homes due to conflict.”  And, the U.N. says it has only received 16 percent of funds needed for humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan this year.

Nisar, one of the students at the Borderfree Center’s Street Kids School, understands destitution all too well.  He has been earning an income for his family since he was a small child, working as a shoeshine boy on Kabul streets and also in a butcher shop.  Now, at age 17, he will soon graduate from three years of classes with the Street Kids School.  In the past year, he has been a steady volunteer, taking on responsibilities with the duvet project and the organic gardening team.  Nisar says that when he first came to the Center, three years ago, he felt astonished to see people from different ethnic backgrounds sitting together. Nisar’s family comes from the Wardak province, and relatives of his are among those who recently fled the Taleban.  He clearly understands the terrible risks that armed struggle could bring, even here in “Ka-bubble” as Kabul is sometimes called because of the relative calm that still prevails here. In spite of tensions, Nisar feels sure that when people learn to overcome their fears and start talking with one another, they can set aside hatreds taught to them at young ages.

U.S. planners, heads lost in the sky, seemingly pay little heed to developing ways of building trust.  Resources are gobbled up by gigantic multinational “defense” companies dedicated to the task of further, trampling warfare, while withholding anything like the quantity of resources needed for the task of repairing the wreckage they themselves have caused.

U.S. think tanks cleverly promote cartoonized versions of foreign policy wherein the mighty giant strikes a fist and eliminates the “bad guy” whom we are told has caused our problems. But I believe U.S. people would be better off if we could see the often-suffering communities that show admirable qualities as they try to survive.  We could learn from their efforts to build mutual trust and solidarity, and their courage to reject war. We could insist that the massively well-endowed US and NATO powers finally acknowledge that the best hopes for a lasting peace come when communities experience a measure of stability and prosperity. The giant powers could help alleviate the desperate need faced by people enduring hunger, disease and homelessness.

U.S. people should earnestly ask how the U.S. could help build trust here in Afghanistan, and, as a first step, begin transferring funds from the coffers of weapon companies to the UN accounts trying to meet humanitarian needs. The “giant” could be seen stooping, humbly, to help plant seeds, hoping for a humane harvest.

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

REFLECTION: Ending the war inside and outside us

Dr_Hakimby Dr. Hakim

For Omid, Mursal, Mehdi, and the Afghan Peace Volunteers, this winter in Afghanistan was different from the usual.

“This is the Afghan story, that I’ve been a breadwinner since I was very little,” 19 year old Omid said with perceptible angst. It is a usual story for young Afghans to have prematurely lost one or two parents, and to have to pick themselves up again and again to face the world. “I’ve taken up different kinds of ‘jobs for the poor’ ( ‘gharibi kardum’).”

“But, it still doesn’t quite work out,” Omid looked down in pensive thought. I could only imagine how Omid had tried twice to smuggle himself to Europe, once running away from threatening gunshots.

“I’ve found a flicker of hope this winter, helping with the duvet project, and then learning about the climate, sun, water, soil and food through the permaculture design course.”

15 year old Mehdi had signed up for the course too.

06 Relationships encircle us

I wish he had stayed throughout the course with Nisar, another street kid, and 42 other Afghan youth. Mehdi told me shyly, “Teacher, I thought someone else had taken my place in the course.” My guess was that his father needed him to find some extra income for the family. It was to make ends meet that Mehdi had to stop schooling last year. Isn’t this especially hard for an industrious, considerate kid who dreams of being a doctor?

Mursal is 13 or 14, and after two years in the Borderfree Street Kids School, she has discovered the activist within her, recently learning to ride the bicycle with the Borderfree Afghan Cycling Club. One day, she approached me and other volunteer teachers, saying, “I want to organize support for street vendors who are hit by the police with their batons.” My soul lit up, recognizing the struggle against such injustices which sparked the Tunisian revolution and ensuing Arab Spring.

Witnessing the energy of these never-say-die stalwarts who are too young to be shouldering responsibilities which adults have shirked, I feel like I’m at the edge of a cliff.

All over the world, we’re grasping this reality: the political, military and economic elite are bringing ‘The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist’s doomsday’s clock of earth and humanity’ to three ‘minutes to midnight’.

That’s why more and more people are autonomously building another world. Like Omid, Mehdi, Mursal and the Afghan Peace Volunteers, they are saying, “#Enough! is #Enough!”

I’ve tried to tell these stories through *six photo essays. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did in putting them together.

They depict the #Enough! GENeration I’m privileged to be working with, tender human beings who wish to nurture Green, Equal and Nonviolent relationships.

They are sick and tired of war, and want to abolish it. They represent the fragile, better sides of our human nature. They are the 99%.

It excites me that they could change everything even if their group ceases to be, because they try to work with ‘root meanings’ and not ‘superficial terms’, and because they’re suggesting a way, and not a thing or a person that can be eliminated or imprisoned.

These green, equal and nonviolent relationships can change our politics, economy, environment and our understanding of safe and secure spaces. They have been changing me by laughing, crying, worrying, healing and shivering with me.

Their love is carrying me through the whole range of emotions which point me to a better world, to who I really am, a human, a fellow human being.

Click here for links to the photo essays.

Dr. Hakim, (Dr. Teck Young, Wee) is a medical doctor from Singapore who has done humanitarian and social enterprise work in Afghanistan for the past 10 years, including being a friend and mentor to the Afghan Peace Volunteers, an inter-ethnic group of young Afghans dedicated to building non-violent alternatives to war. He is the 2012 recipient of the International Pfeffer Peace Prize.

AFGHANISTAN: How many global crises can a fifteen year-old Afghan take?

Dr_Hakimby Dr. Hakim

On 31st Jan, I followed Zekerullah, an Afghan Peace Volunteer who coordinates the Borderfree Street Kids School in Kabul, to visit Zuhair and his family in their rented room. Zuhair attends the School on Fridays with 92 other working and street kids, a minuscule number in the context of 6 million working children in Afghanistan.

Zuhair-740x493My heart squirmed at the unequal math of today’s economics.

In any world, children should have access to water, but in an internationally supported, ‘most-drone-attacked’ and ‘democratic’ Afghanistan, Zuhair is one person among 73% of the Afghan population who do not have access to clean, potable water.

Partly, Afghanistan and the world’s drinking water is drying up. And contaminated.

A recent analysis estimates that 4 billion people, two thirds of the world’s population, are affected by a falling water table.

I was challenged; since the Afghan and allied international governments don’t seem too bothered about resolving the root causes of the water, environmental or any crisis, what could the Afghan Peace Volunteers and I do?…

Click here to read the entire story.

REFLECTION: A swollen river of refugees

By David Smith-Ferri, Voices for Creative Nonviolence

The author, Mohammad and Omar at a Finnish camp for asylum seekers, January 2016. Photo by Dr. Hakim.

The author, Mohammad and Omar at a Finnish camp for asylum seekers, January 2016. Photo by Dr. Hakim.

Last month, as U.S. border patrol agents began rounding up Central American women and children denied asylum, a small group of international peace activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence boarded a plane for Helsinki, Finland, to visit two longtime Iraqi friends who fled Baghdad last summer and somehow completed a perilous seven-week journey over land and sea to reach this northern seaport. Negotiating our way from the airport in Helsinki to Laajasalo, a small island and suburb where we were to stay with a Finnish journalist, we crossed a frozen and snow-covered Baltic Sea, as white flakes swirled in the streetlights and the temperature dropped to minus 25 degrees Celsius, a long, long way from Baghdad.

Our friends Mohammad and his teenage son, Omar, come from a small farming village where they grow okra. Last autumn, like hundreds of thousands of others, they were part of the swollen river of refugees whose headwaters sprang from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where endless war has devastated society and local violence has left so many people at grave risk. The journey to Europe is not merely a long, exhausting trip. It is treacherous from the start.

To begin with, while leaving their country of origin, people risk their lives traveling through contested parts of their country or over roads controlled by militias or warlords known to capture and kill people of their ethnicity or religious sect. Risks, we can be sure, they wouldn’t undertake except out of desperation. All of this merely to enter Turkey. In Istanbul, where refugees must try to find a trustworthy smuggler, make a deal with one of his agents, and pay a hefty fee – held in a sort of escrow until a specific, agreed-upon part of the trip is completed – Turkish police patrol the streets and coffee houses looking for migrants. Iraqis are particularly at risk. If captured in Turkey and identified, they are imprisoned and eventually turned over to Iraqi authorities. And in the charged, sectarian atmosphere in Iraq, refugees shudder to think what might follow.

From Turkey, Mohammad and his son planned to travel by bus to a port town – “Well, it’s not really a town, just a place at the beach” – and launch a rubber dinghy onto the Aegean Sea at night. Their hope was to reach Farmakonisi, a tiny, largely uninhabited Greek island five and three quarter miles from the Turkish coast…

Click here to read the entire story.

AFGHANISTAN: Surveillance and surveys in Kabul

Kathy Kellyby Kathy Kelly
Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace

In Kabul, where the Afghan Peace Volunteers have hosted me in their community, the U.S. military maintains a huge blimp equipped with cameras and computers to supply 24 hour surveillance of the city. Remotely piloted drones, operated by Air Force and Air National Guard personnel in U.S. bases, also fly over Afghanistan, feeding U.S. military analysts miles of camera footage, every day. Billions of dollars have been invested in a variety of blimps which various vendors, such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and Aeros have shipped to Afghanistan. All of this surveillance purportedly helps establish “patterns of life” in Afghanistan and bring security to people living here. But this sort of “intelligence” discloses very little about experiences of poverty, chaos, hunger, child labor, homelessness, and unemployment which afflict families across Afghanistan.

This morning, Zarghuna listed for me the survey questions that she and her young colleagues ask when they visit families in Kabul. The family visits help them choose participants in the Borderfree Street Kids School and the Duvet Project. The survey teams also help with plans for a “Food Bank” that the Afghan Peace Volunteers hope to open sometime in the coming year.

The questions Zarghuna and the survey team use may seem simple.

Afghan woman with childHow many times a week does your family have a serving of beans? Do you rent your home? Can anyone in your family read and write? Child laborers are asked to tell about what type of work they do in the streets, how many hours they work each day and how much money they earn.

But the answers open up excruciatingly painful situations as many family members explain that they never have adequate food, that the only person earning an income is one of the children, that once they pay rent for the mud home in which they live, they have no remaining funds for food, blankets, fuel or clean water.

I’ve watched the young volunteers work hard to develop useful survey questions and discuss ways to be sensitive as they visit families and try to build trust. Sometimes very difficult arguments erupt over which families are most needy.

As the Pentagon decides about investments in aerial, remotely controlled surveillance capacities, disagreements over which proposals to support have arisen within the various military forces. Defense companies pay handsome salaries to former military leaders who will advocate for one or another program. Afghanistan has become a “proving ground” where different “protective” systems have been tested, including successive generations of Predator and Reaper drones and the aerostat “blimps.”

In Afghanistan, an October 11, 2015 accident involving a U.S. military blimp cost the lives of five people. The Intercept reported that “a British military helicopter was coming in for a landing at NATO headquarters, where the blimp is moored. According to an eyewitness who spoke to the BBC, the helicopter hit the tether, which then wrapped itself around the rotors. The helicopter crashed, killing five people –two U.S. service members, two British service members, and a French contract civilian—and injuring five more.”

Among opponents of continued funding for blimp surveillance, blimp accidents are but one of many criticisms raised. Some Army leaders argue that even a fully functioning blimp borne air defense system would be irrelevant in terms of the kinds of attacks that threaten U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Los Angeles Times notes that “the weapons that were killing and maiming U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were crude rockets, artillery and improvised explosive devices.”

Other real and life threatening threats afflict many Afghan people, especially the 40% of the population who live beneath the poverty level. These threats are invisible to surveillance carried on by blimps or drones.

A UN Human Development Report recently revealed that Afghanistan has slipped to 171st of 173 countries in terms of development.

The UN report says that an Afghan person can, on average, expect to live 60 years. According to the CIA World Fact Book, the average life span here is 50 years.

In 2015, 1.2 million Afghans were internally displaced and about 160,000 people fled to Europe.

The U.S. military continues to invest billions of dollars in the “surveys” accomplished by blimps and drones. Certainly poverty and desperation cause people to fight against foreigners who have invaded and occupied their country.

If U.S. resources spent on unproductive military surveillance of Afghans were dedicated to assessments of both U.S. and Afghan people burdened by poverty, unemployment, hunger, disease and climate change, today’s U.S. generations would be less willing to feed their tax money to the insatiable appetite of the “defense” corporations and their illusions of omniscient security.

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

REFLECTION: Notes from Kabul

by Carolyn Coe

Bearing quilted bed covers, Afghans walk through the cemetery to their mountainside homes. Photo by Carolyn Coe

Bearing quilted bed covers, Afghans walk through the cemetery to their mountainside homes. Photo by Carolyn Coe

They have descended from homes built on the mountainside. Women sit together in the cemetery not to mourn but to wait for the duvet distribution to begin. When I approach them, each woman extends a hand in greeting. Some have the needed small stamped pieces of paper to receive two duvets but most don’t. One of the women tells me about the pain in her chest, her legs. She talks about the war. I listen to all the manifestations of her suffering. I understand only a handful of words but as she clasps my hand, I know she wants my help in receiving a pair of duvets, too. I tell her I don’t make any decisions here. It is the elder representative of the neighborhood who determines who receives the quilted bed covers. Standing with the women, I say I’m sorry I’m sorry. All other words fail me.

Someone calls me over to the truck as the distribution will soon begin. In the Afghan gesture of greeting and leave-taking, I place my right hand over my heart and say goodbye.

A balloon seller approaches. A boy wheels a cart of apples nearby. Where a crowd gathers, there’s a potential sale, but no one buys. So the sellers observe the scene as I do. Colorful duvets, like clouds enveloping the bearers, seem to float by. I take a photo of a pair of girls. They become my shadow, following me and requesting more pictures.

The truck piled high with duvets is in a narrow gated car park. Perhaps two times as many people arrive as have the needed pieces of paper. The crowd presses towards the open gate, hoping. I observe one of the volunteers at work. Abdulhai has just finished 12th grade and is one of the founding members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers with a gift for crowd control. Instead of pushing the crowd back with outward facing palms, he smiles and snaps his fingers so the children laugh. He speaks kindly and softly. Both children and adults stop trying to edge forward, at least while he’s there. Their shoulders visibly relax. Some return smiles…

Click here to read this entire article.

AFGHANISTAN: Visits and conversations in a Kabul winter

Kathy Kellyby Kathy Kelly
Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace

Here in Kabul, last week, at the Afghan Peace Volunteer (APV) community home that hosts me, I watched Abdulhai and visiting activist Aaron Hughes work out ways to secure the greenhouse which they had partially assembled that morning. Warmed by the effort and with the sun beaming down on all of us, they sat on the garden ledge in their shirtsleeves although it is a quite cold winter here, talking about the greenhouse perched on an uneven garden plot before them.

I had watched Aaron, Abdulhai, Ron and Hakim maneuver the partly assembled greenhouse from a neighbor’s storage area, over a fence, and onto the garden plot. Aaron is 6 ft. 5 inches tall. His strength and height helped the process considerably.

Aaron and I first met in 2005, shortly after he returned from deployment to Iraq with the Illinois National Guard. The U.S. military had assigned him to drive trucks from Kuwaiti supply depots to Forward Operating Bases across Iraq.  At the end of his deployment, convinced he couldn’t endure another stint with the military, after seeing how futile, dehumanizing and destructive the U.S. occupation of Iraq had been, he took an option to come home, and decided, beyond committing to work organizing with Iraq Veterans Against the War, to become an artist, to create beauty. At age 33, he feels plenty of energy both for artwork and antiwar organizing efforts.

Photo by Dr. Hakim

Photo by Dr. Hakim

Aaron came to Afghanistan to present a particular project, related to prisoners in Guantanamo, called “Tea,” and to join the Afghan Peace Volunteers in various efforts to teach and create art. His construction skills became a greatly needed bonus as the greenhouse took shape.

Every day has been filled with learning exchanges. Tea creates an occasion for community, for having conversations together. Aaron taught children at the Borderfree Center to make potato prints using halved potatoes and acrylic paint. Several teachers at the school have learned sketching and print making skills from him. And Aaron says he’s been learning, too.

Ali describes the plight of five “day laborers” the APVs have gotten to know. Their names are Mohammed Dawoud, Ali Reza, Jalaladeen, Mirajadeen, and Qurban. The men wait all day, at Pul-e-Surkh intersection, where a bridge spans a putrid, dried up riverbed, hoping for a single day’s work even if at days’ end they take home just two or three dollars. Many shiver outdoors for hours, unemployed and desperate.

Especially during winter months, when construction shuts down, work is scarce. If chosen to work for part or all of a day, a laborer has no choice but to settle for extremely low wages. Hundreds of other laborers would take the rate being offered, so there is no point in bargaining for more. Day laborers live in miserable homes, always at a loss for resources to feed their families. When hired for temporary work, it will likely involve hauling heavy materials all day, back straining labor which some project managers might not impose on animals, since the animals would be more expensive to replace.

The five have talked about their needs with APV members. Each dreams of acquiring a cart from which he could sell goods. Qurban would like to set up a tea serving cart and serve tea to laborers waiting for possible work. The equipment would give them a small measure of independence.  The APVs try to learn about micro-loans and possibilities for offering limited assistance.

Most afternoons during Aaron’s visit, a team of Afghan Peace Volunteers would return from visits to families living on nearby mountainsides, surveying for families most in need of help from  “The Duvet Project,” the APV’s program hiring local seamstresses to make 3,000 heavy blankets for distribution, free of charge, to impoverished families,  or assistance through  the “Borderfree Center Street Kids’ School”, supplemental schooling for child street vendors with community support for their families making it possible for the children to attend schools in Kabul. The school’s name is inspired by a call for a border-free world issued by U.S. professor Noam Chomsky – throughout the world, working to build community with impoverished people seems necessary to keeping ourselves honest and dedicated in a struggle against war. Decades of war have brought the people of Kabul to the place where they are now. The APVs call for an Afghanistan undivided by ethnic hostilities and external intrusions, with hard work on their neighbors’ behalf. And they also simply want to help.

The young people exude health and vigor, warming themselves at a wood-burning stove after the long hikes up the slopes. Ali flopped down on a mat, one day, leaning back with legs crossed, and described a man he had met whose wife could not bear him a child, and so the man adopted a child left by parents at a mosque. The child, at age three, could not walk and there was no hope of obtaining whatever treatment might have been available in a rich country or one not at war. At age 18, living as a shut-in with his parents, the child can communicate with no-one but his adoptive father. Meanwhile no-one in the family can find work.

In another home, a woman doesn’t have work and her husband cannot walk. She was away from home when Ali stopped by – when asked, the children said she has work in the nearby mosque, but Ali believes the woman may be obtaining money by begging. Living on a mountainside, in primitive homes a long way from drinking water, lacking income and caring for loved ones unable to walk seems unbearably challenging.

As APVs learn the stories of families they visit, relationships grow. “I was out running early one morning,” said Abdulhai, “and I heard a woman begging. I couldn’t see her under her burqa, but I recognized her voice and stopped.” “Aren’t you Habib’s grandmother?” he had politely asked.  The Afghan Peace Volunteers have been encouraging Habib to not only be part of the Borderfree Center Street Kids School, but also to join five older street kids who will begin learning how to organize the duvet production and distribution.

The young volunteers find their lives touched and shaped by ongoing challenges in these stories, especially since some of the stories are similar to their own experiences growing up during Afghanistan’s civil war and often being without food and blankets in their own homes.

Hoor, for instance, faces challenges from teachers, friends and relatives, who question the generous choices he makes. Hoor has been earning small sums of money as a researcher for a project sponsored by a U.S. university. When he is paid, he first goes to a sprawling refugee camp where he has gotten to know one of the neediest families. He gives a portion of his earnings to this family, even though his own family depends very much on his income.

On Aaron’s final day with us here in Kabul, he and the APVs were putting finishing touches on the greenhouse and getting ready to plant cucumber seeds. The Dari term for a greenhouse literally translates as “flower house.” Aaron will entrust to the APVs twenty plaster cast cups, decorated with flowers, each bearing the name of an Afghan citizen who lived in Guantanamo Prison. Each vessel is a testament to the withering effects of war and the crushing realities faced by detainees living under tortuous conditions. You could say the economy here is another such imprisoning consequence of war, of great-power ambitions, played out over many decades, in bloodshed and greed.

The path out of war seems to involve creating peace where we can, in earnest community with people whose basic needs aren’t met. As the APVs put it, it involves creating a green and equal world, acting conscientiously to abolish war.

Aaron helps build a “flower house” to shelter new seeds. He forges links with people who might otherwise be forgotten, and urges us to sit down with each other and talk. These are small seeds, and we shelter and nurture them in our hope to find future generations ready to abandon the violence of economic and environmental exploitation, –young people convinced that war is futile, whose empathy for neighbors in need steadies and energizes them.

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