Report from Day One in Afghanistan

Three Powerful Perspectives on Afghanistan by Steve Clemens. March 18, 2011

I couldn’t afford to give in to jet lag after my arrival in Afghanistan this morning after 3 flights and layovers totaling 40 hours before reaching my floor space in a Kabul office of a small nonprofit human rights organization formed by some very dedicated Afghan women eight months ago. I did nap for about an hour before Hakim showed us a new five minute video he had just created from yesterday’s historic peace walk through the streets of Kabul.

It was a group of more than 20 international nonviolent peace activists and at least a dozen Afghan counterparts that crowded into the 12’ x 16’ office room and overflowed into the adjoining space. After a few minutes for introductions and several more for logistics and a look at the proposed schedule for our week here, Hakim, the mentor, translator, and prime mover of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV) begins to share about yesterday’s historic event.

About 40 Afghan young people, primarily in their teens and early 20s donned bright blue scarfs and carried banners as the inter-ethnic group marched from the Iranian Embassy to the Embassy for the United Nations in the busy area of central Kabul.
Hakim shows us the video before explaining that “ ‘Peace’ is a dirty word to Afghans”. President Obama won the ‘Peace Prize’ in 2009, the same political leader who has increased the level of foreign military occupiers (both uniformed armed forces as well as ‘contractors’ and other mercenaries under the pay and control of the Pentagon or US State Department). “Peace” is the term used (or more accurately, abused) by everyone to excuse or justify anything. Many, many Afghans have been killed in the name of “peace”.

“We have had non-stop occupation and war; Afghans can’t trust each other because of decades of war”, Hakim tells us. We get a lot of ‘lip-service’ to the causes of peace by others – but then they ‘don’t show up’, he continues. “How do we restore hope; how do we begin to build up trust?” He observes there is not a culture of questioning here in Afghanistan (at least out loud, not in public). “War mongers have misused the word of peace” – to the point there is no trust. It is left to us, foreigners, who must encourage Afghans to find their own voice, this trained Public Health medical doctor from Singapore tells us. He started working in public health with refugees first in Pakistan and then accompanied them back to the Bamiyan area of central Afghanistan 8 years ago when he decided his role to encourage and nurture the ideals of the local young people was more pressing and in line with his deep commitment to Gandhian nonviolence then his medical practice.

“It is easy for politicians to talk about peace – but nothing is working here. Violence is a failing strategy. Every family here has someone who has been killed [in these wars]” – if not in the immediate family, then certainly in the extended one. There is no clear plan by any leader that is nonviolent he laments but goes on to say that there are only two leaders that these young people trust: Malalia Joya, an out-spoken woman activist, and Dr. Ramazon Barshardost, a humanist Member of Parliament who states categorically “It is wrong to kill” but is readily dismissed by many of his compatriots as “the mad (crazy) one.” Joya tells these young people, “If you truly walk this path [of peace and nonviolence], you will be killed one day.” We are told that the US government has just refused to give her a visa to come to the US for a planned speaking trip that was to begin next week.

Three years ago at a college in Bamiyan, Hakim led a 3 month workshop with students and their conclusion was “Peace is not possible in Afghanistan” – so, what do we do? He helped organize an effort to get an inter-ethnic group to live together for a semester and 16 students did. However controversy arose near the end of the time and Hakim started receiving death threats. He spoke to the “authorities”, he traveled from village to village, meeting people and listening. A group of boys coalesced and he helped supervise them in building a peace park in Bamiyan. The boys did a 7 day vigil to try to deliver a peace message to Obama. They recently sent gifts of some things they made to Pashtun people in Kandahar. A gift from some Hazaras and other ethnic tribes to Pashtuns stunned the recipients. “I can’t believe that there can be such love” was one of the responses Hakim heard. [Please go to the AYPV website to learn more about them.]

Zahra Mobtaker, an amazingly strong, 23 year old Afghan woman who spoke out during the peace march shared with us next. As the director of Open Society, a nonprofit working to empower Afghans –“helping ordinary people overcome their fears to give voice to their experiences”, she is focusing on human rights and democracy. She said they quickly found themselves very much alone. They sponsored a festival to help their fellow citizens overcome their fear and speak the truth. She has displayed photos of victims of the wars in gatherings to facilitate conversation about the reality of today’s Afghanistan.

This tiny (25 members) but bold non-profit has helped form a singing group with the intention of bringing a message of peace through song– especially to the many illiterate in the rural villages. They support their work primarily through their own personal funds – recognizing that their “aims might be sidetracked” by outside donors. This is often the reality of many NGOs here in Afghanistan – especially those getting the predominance of their funds from US AID, the UN, or other funding mechanisms tied to governmental agencies or large bureaucracies. (Note: this Open Society has no connection to the George Soros organizations which also take the Open Society moniker.) This group just operates in Kabul and Afghanistan. Open Society has also used film-making as a vehicle for peace and change. “The Night of the Cartoon-makers” used cartoons drawn on walls of public places, including mosques, as an educational tool. They were pleased that many of the cartoons have been “protected” by the people from defacement- a sign of the growing empowerment the group strives for.

They are also using web blogs ( and yesterday’s march was their first public partnership/ joint venture with the AYPV. “Thank you for coming to this exceptionally frightening country”, she told us. We felt her warmth and welcome and we are so grateful for her courage and eloquence.

Our heads and our hearts were already full before the country director from an [unnamed] NGO (non-Governmental Organization) dropped in to meet with us. He was pleasantly surprised to discover one of the international peace delegates he was to address included a Maryknoll priest who he had worked with in Cambodia many years before! The speaker had just joined this work in Afghanistan two months ago and is responsible for their program in 3 of Afghanistan’s northern provinces, Bamiyan, Herat, and Ghor. This organization has a long history in this country and focuses on 4 main program areas: an agriculture-based program in Herat which primarily works with girls and women developing sustainable methods; community-based education with a focus on girls; watershed management featuring gravity-flow spring management and work to prevent run-off and erosion; and emergency work with an aim to transition to sustainable development. This last program entails road construction and road snow clearance, especially the mountain passes which are cleared by shovel under a cash-for-work plan. One critical pass on the national highway between Herat- Bamiyan – Kabul must be cleared in a timely fashion to allow any traffic to flow, getting supplies to remote areas.

This NGO maintains a strict policy and reputation for not proselytizing and they don’t use any armed guards. Their director talked with dismay about the almost complete failure of the US/NATO military forces and privatized “contractors” (he said we call them ‘Beltway Bandits’ referring to the corruption in Washington, DC) to rebuild needed infrastructure. He said the saying among NGOs is “where progress begins, the Taliban ends”, referring to the on-going struggle against forces of fear and repression. However, what this group has observed is with every contract with US AID (Agency for International Development, the “foreign aid” arm of the US State Department), funds are siphoned off in kick-back style payments, even in the written agreement itself. He recommended we read Descent Into Chaos by Hamad Rashad about this practice and lamented that he sees a “perfect storm of US AID, “contractors”, and local corruption” as a spiral leading to frustration, despair, and a culture of corruption which infects most things happening in Afghanistan.

A lot to think about on my first day in the war zone.

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