Arriving in Afghanistan put a stop to my pre-trip nerves. In spite of the diesel fume haze, I was able to see that our preparatory lists of pros and cons had only provided me with a shaky grasp of the risks of visiting Kabul.
What was clear to me though were the fears of the Afghan Peace Volunteers themselves and the risks they take in their daily work of living in community, running the Borderfree Centre, running humanitarian and cultural projects that promote justice and nonviolence. Even when living in fear for their lives, they continue with their commitment to nonviolence and peace making. The work of the APV is truly radical. In a country where fighting and guns are the norm, where armed sentry boxes stand at every road junction, where police drive with guns mounted on the rear of their Toyota pick-ups, to be dedicated to nonviolence and peace is truly courageous.
About a week into our visit, we were present at the monthly Skype call with Global Days of Listening. People from all over the world book a slot to speak to the volunteers, on the 21st of each month. Crammed into the smallest room at the Borderfree Centre, the stove going full blast in the middle, its punched metal sides glowing red hot in places, we all said our names and croaked a shaky ‘hello’ into the laptop across the room. There was no electricity and an intermittent internet connection. On this evening a gardener from the US, a psychiatrist and his students from Iraq and Kathy Kelly from Voices for Creative Non Violence in the US were on the line.
One by one the APV told of their personal reactions to the worsening security situation in Kabul. One after another the young men and women answered that their parents were worried, told them not to come to the Borderfree centre, not to cross town, not to visit their relatives, just to stay at home all the time.
Faiz feels that he himself could be the next victim of a random bomb attack. He himself could lose his life, going to college, walking on the street near a junction: this has become what life is like. Insecurity has affected him personally.
Bharat Han says that when he cycles to university in the mornings instead of taking the main busy roads, where the incidents happen, he takes the small roads to be extra careful. In the past he would gladly invite foreign peace delegates to visit his house, to meet his mother and family but he regrets that this time, for the safety of both the delegates and himself and his family this has become difficult. He regrets it. He wishes this was not the case.
Another says the unpredictability causes psychological fear: suicide bombers wear vests you can’t see – in a split second your whole life could change.
Zahidi tells us the Taliban have officially threatened all the citizens living in Kabul who are involved in cultural groups or in peace and justice groups. They have announced they will harm or attack these groups. She doesn’t feel safe coming to the Borderfree centre.
Ali says that in the past two weeks the Borderfree Centre has had visits from the authorities, the NDS [National Directorate of Security]. He became very worried when the NDS visitors suggested that there was a risk that certain groups, such as the Taliban, could misunderstand the work of the APV and therefore plan to harm them. This made Ali worry even more about coming to the centre. It’s not like in the past, he says, when we didn’t have to worry about coming on our own.
We learned later the NDS were parked outside the gates of the Borderfree Centre while we were there. Hakim, the community’s mentor, says he wishes they would come in, just to see what really goes on. Although they are ostensibly there to protect citizens, there is the possiblility the NDS people could be criminals, they could turn nasty if there was something they didn’t like.
The mood became grave and fearful, as everyone thought about the risks they were taking, even coming to the Borderfree Centre that night. The room became over heated, and airless. People started to go grow restless and coughs filled the Skype track.
It was the longest night of the year, 21st December. So the APV bought take-away chicken and chips, burgers, spicy potato pancakes, fruit and fizzy drinks. There was a tray of tea lights, and the boys just like boys everywhere started playing with the wax. Hohr handed us each a forfeit on a scrap of paper, and people responded with poems and songs, skits in pantomime. I recognised the rhythm of the storytelling voices and the animated gestures. The mood lifted and everyone seemed to forget their fears. Outside the street was empty and unlit, except for the neon sign of the petrol station, and the headlights of a few taxis.
Important occasions lay ahead. One was Christmas day. It was considered a good idea for us foreigners to stay at home on that day, to avoid the evidence of any kind of gathering, which might be interpreted as Christian. In the evening, a few members of the community came round for a special meal, by candle light, games and sharing thoughts.
Another was the end of Operation Enduring Freedom, the withdrawal of all the US forces from Afghanistan. The local newspaper showed pictures of soldiers lined up to attention and tanks driving away. There was the rumour there might be more incidents because of this.
Not all the dangers are violent. Like many young people, the APV are worried about their futures. When Hakim asked each member of the group for one word to describe how he or she was feeling, almost all of them said ‘worried’. One said, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ one young girl said ‘I wish I had never been born’.
The future for the community members is uncertain. What happens when it is time to leave? It might be dangerous for them to return to their families, now that everyone at home knows they have lived in community, taken part in mixed activities, boys and girls together, reading Gandhi and Chomsky. What happens if they get married, what happens if they can’t find a job? How long can they stay in the community? There’s no welfare state to support them for when they leave.
Thirteen years of war mean that fear and mistrust have seeped into many levels of daily life. Living in the women’s community, we learned about some of the other threats. One came from the neighbours and gossip. I will never think of gossip being idle again, particularly for a woman. Gossip and rumours could mean losing your home, having to move, getting you in trouble with you landlord, could mean people trying to extort money from you.
Windows were blocked with dusty net curtains, sheets of wood, window glass was dusty. Someone might see you dancing. Someone might hear you singing. Someone might hear a foreign voice and tell.. tell who? ..tell the landlord. It was imperative to behave in an inconspicuous way. If someone saw you in the garden, or leaning out of a window, or dancing or singing, they might not like it. Not liking it might mean they would tell the landlord, who might ask you to move. If they thought you had foreign visitors, they might ask for money, they might even try blackmail. The mistrust seeped into all areas of life.
The risk to my own self wasn’t so great. It wasn’t me who was at risk, but our hosts, the APV themselves. By being foreigners, by being Western, and therefore perceived as Christian, we made our hosts a potential target. We could bring unwelcome visitors to the Borderfree Centre. Yet they had invited us, trusted us and welcomed us and many others before and after us.
I was reminded again of the seriousness of the ‘bad situation’ when we took a taxi into another district to visit a woman named Latifa Amady, founder of the OPAWC. We found ourselves walking up a pitted and pot holed road, with low walls either side, one of the most bombed out parts of town. Describing daily life, she says, ‘We say goodbye to our children in the morning thinking we won’t see them again. Every day we say to each other, ‘Khodaa haafez’ (God be protector)’