Being a peace visitor in Kabul

Green tea in KabulI 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.

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Being a peace visitor in Kabul

Being a woman in Kabul

As International Women’s Day approaches, the question is whether conditions for women in Afghanistan have improved after thirteen years of western military presence. When I travelled to Kabul recently I was able to glimpse first hand how entrenched cultural practices make women’s lives doubly hard, lives that are already made hard by the lack of security.

We hear that even people in power support restrictions on women’s ability to move and act freely in public, that they support to the custom that means that women should only travel when accompanied by a male relative.

This can be interpreted as not being able to take a plane, cross a border, but for some households this means not going out at all. There are many consequences to not going out, that are dangerous and even life threatening, not just humiliating and unjust. Not going out is not just an issue of inequality but also a barrier to young women’s livelihoods. Latifa Ahmady, founder of Organisation for the Promotion of Women’s Capabilities says ‘The way women in Afghanistan are treated badly puts pressure on us all.’ Her demand is that we campaign for Afghan women’s rights from all over the world.

For a short time I was a woman in Kabul. I listened to female members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and at the APV’s Borderfree centre talk about the restrictions to their movements. The young women I met took on responsibilities in the humanitarian and educational projects run from the Borderfree Centre. One young woman organized duvet handouts at Darul Aman refugee camp. I saw her confidently arrive in the truck, call out names from a clip board as women from the camp came rushing up to collect their duvets. I witnessed another couple of teenage girls organising the local seamstresses who embroider the Borderfree scarves, and checking their work for accuracy. Two young women teach the street children literacy and maths. Another takes charge of the community budget, organising currency exchange and banking the donations.

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The first impression I had was how difficult life is for a young unmarried woman. To make the journey back to see her family in Bamyan province involved taking a male relative. For her to live in all female community there had to be a male relative staying there too, in this case her brother. The young men from the male community took it in turns to keep him company for a few days at a time. This same lad would get the taxis for us foreign guests, go out shopping and generally fetch and carry. So in fact the women’s community couldn’t be all female.

Travel restrictions had other effects on the young women beside making life awkward. While I was in Kabul, I had my own experience of not being able to go out. In my case the reason was because I was a foreigner. I felt like a child again. I wasn’t even sure how to call a cab.

I hardly knew where I was. It was only when, to avoid the traffic, the taxi driver took a circular route home I worked out the relationship between the river, the mountains, the main roads and our house. I slowly built a mental map of main roads, the market stalls, a flyover and offices.

We asked the young women at the Borderfree Centre about restrictions on their movements, on not going out. They said under the Taliban it had been much worse; no girl over the age of nine could leave the house. There are still some families that don’t allow their daughters to go out. An example they gave was of a family who spoilt their daughter, loved her very much bought her all sorts of beautiful clothes and expensive treats, but wouldn’t allow her to go out or use a phone. This made her very unhappy. She told them, ‘I don’t care about the clothes or the food.’

The girls experienced varying degrees of restrictions. Some were allowed out but had to be back before their father came home. One said she was often hassled in the street, being asked where she was going, what was she doing, does her father know. A relative might see her and tell her father. Another reports not being able to go out if there are men in the house, if their father’s at home. If a woman is not used to going out into society, one girl said, when she does she will not know how to behave and then might put herself in danger. She might behave inappropriately, and be called a prostitute.

If girls cannot go out their education suffers. The girls said confidently 50% of girls could have an education if they want to. These particular girls were attending classes, university or school in Kabul. Whizzing around in our delegation taxi, we often saw crowds of teenage girls outside schools, collecting their exam results, carrying their files and books, rushing to lectures.

Some girls seem to be getting an education. How good an education was a different matter; our friends complained of out of date text books from Iran, a teacher who kept them waiting in the cold, who talked about himself instead of teaching the class. The girls in our community were university students studying for their first year exams. We were told to help as much as possible with the housework and the cooking. They must study hard; they had to do twice as well as the boys to be taken seriously.

At the Borderfree Centre, the girls explained that fathers don’t want their daughters to ‘show the whites of their eyes’, an Afghan expression. That is intelligent women become bad women by rolling their eyes, being disrespectful towards their fathers and male relatives. So fathers don’t allow their girls to go to school.

Some fathers believe universities are bad for girls, because there are mixed classes and male lecturers. The fathers don’t allow the girls to come to the Borderfree Centre, for the same reason: girls and boys are mixed together. Some girls come to the centre in secret they said. Others have discussed it with their their father and he’s given permission so they don’t care what the other relatives think. More enlightened fathers are happy to discuss things while others insist the female members of the families are home when he gets home.

Not being able to go out makes education hard for older women too. Latifa Ahmady runs an education project at the OPAWC, offering literacy and numeracy classes. The students progress to learning ‘handicrafts’ such as tailoring, chicken farming and jam making so they can earn a living. We met some of the women upstairs in the freezing classroom, everyone in their coats. They held up their text books. I asked them what made literacy hard, expecting the usual answer, spelling. No spelling wasn’t hard. The thing that was hard was not being able to leave the house. One said she had to lock her children into the apartment. One woman has to come in a burkha.

OPAWC has even had to move its literacy centre because the local ‘warlord’ has created a problem for them. The ‘warlord’ spread propaganda, saying the literacy classes were teaching Christianity. He told the mullah to tell the women not to come. When she found out, Latifa showed the Mullah the text book. The syllabus is provided by the government, and covers women’s rights, health, domestic violence.

All the young women at the Borderfree Centre and Latifa Ahmady at OPAWC emphasized how important it is for Afghan women to know their rights. If women never go out they will not be able to attend classes. If women are not educated they will not know their rights. Girls and women need to know their rights to a life free from violence, to equal pay, to be able to work, to access healthcare. They talked about putting out a radio programme to help women not allowed out of the house. Women need to be able to demonstrate for their rights, to healthcare, to work, to freedom from domestic violence even if they join a protest ‘hidingly’ in a burkha.

Being a woman in Kabul

Delegation to Kabul: the Afghan Peace Volunteers – their courage and bravery

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)’

Delegation to Kabul: the Afghan Peace Volunteers – their courage and bravery

Delegation to Kabul – pre trip anxiety and preparation

Here in London, free to hop on and off buses, run down the street, yell at the top of my voice, I am mostly afraid of being knocked off my bike by a truck or swallowing a poisonous cleaning product.

But over there in Kabul, as an unwelcome foreigner I could be attacked or I could be kidnapped. I could be hit by a suicide blast in a crowded place.

To go over there with a peace delegation I needed to prepare for what would happen in the event of my death or if I was kidnapped. My deepest fear, was what it would be like for my children. Does a peace activist with children do this kind of thing? I was afraid of what my mother would think of me. Why was I going? Why wasn’t I able to explain why I was going? I must be stupid.

Close friends reacted to my plans in various ways according to their own experience and expectations. I found that some were encouraging and even a little jealous, some questioned me at length, while some others couldn’t bring themselves to mention it at all. The anxiety this last group produced in me, as well as my own pre travel nerves, might have been enough to put me off altogether.

As well as being a foreigner I was a Christian and therefore at risk of being perceived as a legitimate target by the Taliban. There was no way I could pretend not to be Christian. However silent I remained on the subject of faith, to the Taliban, anyone western was probably Christian.

In the weeks before setting off, near my workplace, a church building, I suddenly noticed the street signs: the Angel, St. Giles Place, St. Martin’s Lane, Newman Street, Charing Cross. In Kabul these fearful addresses would get me into trouble. But this was wandering into the absurd, I told myself. I even started to grow a little defiant, an emotion I quickly batted away.

A few weeks before we were to depart, Afghan news site, Tolonews, regularly reported suicide bombings and attacks in Kabul. A South African and his two children were killed in an attack on an international aid organization in the same district that we would be visiting. The Taliban had claimed the attack and said the organization was a ‘secret Christian missionary group’.

Still, I reasoned with myself, if there had been a shooting or explosion in Hackney, I wouldn’t discourage friends from visiting. We gathered for a pre-trip Skype call, faltering, in trepidation, wondering if it was a bad time to be go. Maybe we should consider postponing. But as we sat down and listed the positives and the negatives and the positives outweighed the negatives, we decided we should still go ahead with our plans.

Once in Kabul, I learned that as the government doesn’t want to scare the population, some attacks are left unreported. Even if they are reported accounts of the numbers killed are often inaccurate.

Delegation to Kabul – pre trip anxiety and preparation

5 Kabul Taxi Rides

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Because of the ‘bad situation’ we are told not to take pictures from the taxi or walk around, So I’ve been trying to remember a few things from each journey.

1

Mountain range to the west covered in snow, street crier pulling a wooden barrow, woman in long black walking with a jaunty step, 4 young men chatting around a telegraph pole, 2 policemen in blue grey uniforms by the corner sentry box, sand bags stacked up to its window, guns slung over their shoulders, carpet shop, men sitting on the floor of a sea container sharing a meal, yellow anodised aluminium teapots for sale, man in a purple shell suit hitched up around his waist. At the last minute, at the blue wall of the centre, the taxi swings to a halt.

2

Petrol tank, green Toyota police car with blue lights flashing, man pushing trolley laden with socks and scarves, man selling phone cards, boy guiding car out of car park, boy crouched in front of a garage washing his hands with fairy liquid, man carrying  two loads of blue plastic jugs,  the same kind we use in our bathroom.

3

Young girl carrying a shiny black quilted bag with gold chain handles, wing mirrors for sale,  wire bedstead for sale, urn on top of pillar, green soup for sale, windscreen wiper sellers, one each side of the road, women in black crossing the road with red bucket.

4

Money changers

5

The Kabul river, the sun setting over the Red Bridge, the ‘hello kitty’ duvets just handed out, man handing out coats, firewood in huge piles, the wood merchants by the side of the river. Each merchant has a huge old curved band saw. Sections of concrete pipe.

5 Kabul Taxi Rides

Kabul: First impressions

My way of getting to know a new city is to set out on foot, see where my feet will take me, stop for coffee. In Kabul, this will not be possible. At the moment, it is too dangerous for foreigners to walk anywhere; all trips will be by taxi. We will disguise our presence, heads down, keep silent in front of strangers.

Stepping off the plane, into the bright yellow light, there is a sweet smell, partly diesel fumes partly something chemical. Pale yellow, grey dust covers the roses, trees, soil, in the small airport garden. The dust and the smell are the same painful yellow gray.

From the airport, the taxi noses round pot holes, round pedestrians and cyclists. Men in the street, gather in small groups, drink tea. Young women walk in small groups, girls gather around a school gates.

We pass garages, exhaust pipe and tyre shops, bumper shops, bodywork shops. Men crouch on the kerb, selling petrol from a long tank. The road passes marble shops, cement stores, concrete mixers, carpet shops, signs of a construction boom. There are new houses, with tinted glass and ornate balconies that look as if they have already seen better days or waiting for better days to come.

The atmosphere, the bright yellow light and the strange smell of diesel fumes and wood smoke, seems personified and in my jet lagged state seem to follow us into Kabul, into the flat where we’ll be staying. After a good sleep, the bright yellow light streaming across the carpeted floor, I soon grow accustomed to our inside life.  In the day I pick up sound clues, the neighbour’s ringtone, the neighbour’s children. I can hear the thud of a football against the wall and scuffling feet in sandals. I distinguish the street cries from the muezzin. The silent gap between our garden wall and the next building is the Kabul river bed.

Best of all I get to know our hosts, the young men and women of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, sitting round the beaten metal stove, eating the Celebrations we’ve brought. After a few days I start to hear their stories how the war has affected their lives and their families.

Kabul: First impressions

Night shelter

So this is where I am today, Friday morning having spent the night at the Hackney Autumn Night Shelter. My fellow overnight volunteer and I divide the hours into two shifts. For the first half I stay up with my knitting in the light from the kitchen door, left ajar. The guests are coughing and spluttering, getting up and bedding down, wandering about in their underpants, swinging the squeaky door to the toilets. Our guests are astonishingly vulnerable: one wets the bed, can barely straighten himself up, can hardly pull himself up the stairs. Then there are the young ones. In the morning we strip the dampish bedding, damp from the night of coughing and spluttering and fevers.

Going to spend the night at the night shelter is like visiting another country. I think oh, how many hours until I can go home to my nice warm bed. But then my bed is at the other end of a cold bike ride. Then at three it’s my turn and I settle into the camp bed, the same flowery duvet and pillow case that all the guests have, thirsty from the roaring heater but soothed by the sound of regular breathing, that gets slower and slower. And we enter the quietest part of the night, around four. Extreme quiet settles over the group.

Angry that so many vulnerable people have only a camp bed in a church hall to sleep on, rickety joints not well, chesty, asthmatic, too young, too elderly and infirm. Just today Cameron proposes no benefits for EU migrants for four years after arrival. Two polish men get up at six, grab a sandwich from the breakfast team, and set off for work. None of these friendly people should be sleeping in a church hall.

It’s unsustainable that’s what it is. Piles of washing, armfuls of volunteers, church hall heating full blast through the night, cooked breakfast, wet socks, wet coats. The health risks from staying out all day in the winter, are a cost, not just physical.

Some of the guests help clear away the folding chairs and tables, swinging them quickly into place, experts at leaving no trace, everything spick and span in the twinkling of an eye. Others sit motionless, watching, waiting for the last possible moment before they will be chucked out.

It’s a terrible violence against the poorest, most vulnerable, infirm. It’s a terrible violence, that someone elderly and infirm is not cared for, getting worse not better. It’s not possible to have any worthy thoughts about any of this. It’s only my own experience, sleeping on the same creaky camp bed, tip toeing to the same freezing church hall loo – someone’s been smoking in the toilets again – that makes me realise sorrow and anger. I don’t have to see anything; I just have to remember that if I’m longing to reach my own warm bed, my own kitchen table, then what must the guests experience night after night.

Night shelter