APV GROUP

From Cowley Road to Kabul – The Afghan Peace Volunteers

GROUP pic 1By Susan Clarkson

We, the Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK delegation, have now returned from Afghanistan.  We spent two weeks in Kabul as guests of the Afghan Peace Volunteers.

This is a remarkable and unique community of young men who first came together in Bamiyan under the guidance of a local doctor, Hakim.  Inspired by the nonviolent spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, the group first came together in 2008 to create a peace park in their locality.  Bamiyan is a mainly Hazara area of Afghanistan and the local people have suffered at the hands of the Taliban.  In March, 2001 the Taliban destroyed two ancient giant statues of the Buddah in Bamiyan.  For a more detailed background to the APV, visit their website, http://www.ourjourneytosmile.com

APV GROUP END PIC

The community relocated to Kabul and has worked closely with Voices for Creative Nonviolence over the past few years.  The dream of the community is to form a multi ethnic group, committed to nonviolence and work among the poor of their neighbourhood.

To say that the APV has a vision of being a multi ethnic community does not give the full picture of the task they have set themselves.  Ethnic divisions in Afghanistan go deep into a painful and violent history.  The community is mainly Hazara but there is a Pashtun and a Tajik among the group.  It is a privilege to be part of their sincere desire to heal old wounds and build a society for the future of Afghanistan, free from ethnic chains.  Their task is not an easy one and they don’t seem to be under the illusion that it is.  The community and the country has a long struggle ahead to build a peaceful Afghanistan.  Spending time with these young men gives one the feeling that it is possible and that a commitment to nonviolence holds the key.

APV TEA MAKING

On our arrival in Kabul after a long but uneventful journey, we were met by community members and taken to their home.  We shared their living space for two weeks and were given typical Afghan hospitality. The four of us and later two friends from the US, Kathy Kelly and Martha Hennessy, slept on cushions in the main living area where, during the day we had meals, English lessons, discussions and meetings.

Martha, Susan and Beth
Martha, Susan and Beth

Kathy is the founder and co-ordinator of Voices and Martha is part of the New York Catholic Worker community.  She is also the granddaughter of Dorothy Day who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement.

Through its connection with Voices the APV have played host to several delegations of international visitors over the past year or so.

Susan, Beth, Maya and Mary
Susan, Beth, Maya and Mary

Delegates share fully in the life of the community and during our stay we were present at many community meetings during which a wide range of subjects was discussed,

APV in group discussion
APV in group discussion

from practicalities of daily communal living to deep philosophical reflections on the nature of nonviolence and its implications in a country reeling and bowed down by thirty years of war and conflict.

The APV as a community are involved in the life of their neighbourhood.  The house has a constant stream of visitors, young and old and all receive a warm welcome.  Each morning there is an English class, attended by some of the APV and other local young people, both boys and girls.  Hakim conducts the class and often emphasises that the reason for learning a language is to communicate.  During the lessons, which some of us attended, there was often a sharing of ideas and feelings about the future of Afghanistan and the aspirations of the students.  Teaching PicIt was very moving to be present as these thoughtful young people expressed their hopes and fears and also posed searching questions to us about our role in the future of their country. In the afternooons the APV themselves, along with other volunteer teachers, hold classes for local children, teaching Dari and maths. The community is also home to a sewing project for women.

Group Woman Duvet

At present this project focuses on making duvets for poor local families as the bitter cold of winter approaches. Financial help from Voices means that women can earn money by sewing the duvets, either at home or on the APV premises.  The sharing out of the materials to be made up into the completed products is carried out by the young men of the community.

APV Loading Van The duvets are then distributed by the APV.  There is a video clip on the website showing the most recent distribution on 21 December.

    Other duvets were also given to a nearby refugee camp during our stay.

Duvet Van Pic

As we’ll as living community life and working on these projects, some of the community members attend school or university.  The overall atmosphere of the community is of generous hospitality, cheerful enthusiasm, hard work in difficult conditions and, above all, a belief that they are living out a model of the society they wish to see for a future Afghanistan.  This model has at its heart a true desire for people of all ethnicities to live together and to work together for a better life for the poorest and most vulnerable.  These young men really do think globally and act locally.

APV distributing duvets to Kuchi refugee camp
APV distributing duvets to Kuchi refugee camp
susan and faiz

Suicide Bombing in Kabul

Susan walking the streets of Kabul, with help from APV
Susan walking the streets of Kabul, with help from APV

By Maya Evans

We’re back in a taxi and heading to visit a woman who has lost two of her sons during a suicide attack in Kabul. The taxi travels along a narrow bumpy street. The snow has now turned to compacted ice. I recognise the area as being close to the Kuchi refugee camp we visited the day before. The district seems to be a fairly poor residential area with the common style of modest Afghan housing akin to the two-up two-down housing found in the north of England.

We exit the taxi and pick our way through a maze of side streets. The path is a typical Kabul dishevelled path, our partially sighted delegate Susan is led by one of the youth peace makers- around puddles, over potholes and into a side door set into a weathered mud wall.

We learn that terrorist attacks are almost daily in Kabul and more often than not, as per usual, it’s the ordinary people who suffer the most.

The two-up, two-down has a small yard with a few chickens stalking around, a line of washing with kids clothing. We step into a very basic home, the front room is barely furnished, but for the traditional form of heating, a stove under a frame covered in blankets. We sit on cushions around the heater and bury our feet under the warm blankets.

VCNV Group - Maya Evans, Rohila FamilyWe’re then introduced to Rohila, a woman in her early forties.  She sits down opposite us and also tucks her feet under the communal blanket. She ushers her small children to sit with her. A girl aged 11 and a small boy aged 7, they huddle in close to her, she wraps her arms tightly round them.

Her face carries creases of fear, worry and depression, her body seems enveloped with tiredness.  She starts her story.

The incident happened 2 years ago, her teenage sons aged 14 and 15 were walking home from school. Usually they would make their way back from school separately and at different times, but for some reason that day they were walking home together.

For some unexplained reason there was a military tank on the roadside where they were walking. At the same time the boys passed the tank a suicide bomber drove a car into the tank causing it to flip over and kill 12 people. The official story reported 2 deaths.

Rohila describes the day: “The explosion was so strong that we felt the vibrations in the house”

Since the incident she has become too afraid to let her other 2 children go to school. Her daughter Shazia says she wants to become a teacher and her son Roshot aspires to be a doctor. Neither have gone to school in the last year.

Rohila and kidsRohila’s mourning face describes her feelings: “I’ve spent so much of my life bringing up my sons, now I don’t know if I’m alive or not, I don’t know if it is day or night. Every time I pass a grave my heart breaks, I don’t know why this has happened, war hasn’t ended. Maybe god has bought this on us. Inshallah the foreign forces will stop the war”

By a strange coincidence one of the peace volunteers had lost his cousin in the same incident. He sat opposite Rohila and talked with intense seriousness about his cousin’s death. However unlike Rohila he doesn’t feel the responsibility for the war ending rests with foreign forces, instead he concludes:

“If the foreign military leaves Afghanistan that may stop some terrorist bombing, but we have the problem that other neighbouring foreign countries are also fuelling violence in the country.”

“People who commit suicide bombing have lost some of their family members and they want revenge for their anger, for example drones kills a family, some say: we don’t have anything for life because I lost all of my family, I don’t have a meaning for life anymore.  The political leaders have lost empathy with the people, they don’t feel their sadness.”

He ends his thoughts by summarizing: “War creates more war, it doesn’t stop the violence.”

Refugee Camp, Shahs Palace, Hindu Kush

Kuchi Refugee Camp in the Shah’s Back Yard

refugee camp_shahs palace_hindu kush

By Maya Evans

The first day of snow is turning to slush as we pull up outside a Kuchi refugee camp on the edge of Kabul. A small heard of goats dressed in old jumpers graze on a skip of rubbish, our taxi driver pulls up over some large puddles;  I tiptoe out of the vehicle onto solid land. The refugee camp is home to around 65 Kuchi nomadic families who have spent their lives wandering the land with livestock.

Goats grazing on rubbishThe camp is set in the former Shah’s palace grounds, perhaps once the grandest building in Kabul, the decrepit palace now stands alone on a hill fort, dilapidated and riddled with bullet holes, a sad relic of a former time.

The refugee camp is in a large walled off area which seems to be an extension to the palace grounds. Ramshackle tents constructed from what appears to be bits of rags, old sacking, old mats, juxtapose with the breathtaking snow-capped mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush, more synonomous with the pages of a National Geographic than a scene of desperate poverty and deprivation.

The Kuchi are traditionally nomadic people who wander land from Pakistan to Iran grazing cattle and gaining casual work. We hear that the Kuchi are considered amongst the least respected group of people within Afghanistan with tales of thievery and low living standards connected with their image. It remindeds me of the widely held perceptions which many Britons hold of the traveller community in the UK. Although the Kuchi are technically Pashtun in ethnicity they are considered a group apart and receive little to no alleigance from other Pashtuns.

Refugee Kids

As we walk into the camp we are greeted by a gaggle of young children dressed in a patchwork of clothing styles: one small boy wearing a pair of high-heeled women’s shoes wading through the mud, another boy in an adult’s fleece top dangling around his knees, a girl in a leopard print jacket over a traditional Afghan trouser suit. It’s surprising that people at the bottom rung of society would meet and treat visitors with warmth and enthusiasm, however they did.

We walk through a bit of the camp, past a group of women huddled under a makeshift shelter, some wearing burkas, others wearing modern clothing likely donated from a western source. The children follow us every step of the way wanting to have their photos taken. The tents and shelters are tightly packed together, there’s a cow tethered to a stick, some chickens pecking the ground, the bright sun melts the snow from the day before. The ground underfoot is a mixture of slush and mud.

FridaIt seems like the camp elders are trying to work out the best tent to host us in. Eventually we were shown into a medium sized tent constructed from hardy canvas material. The muddy  floor is lined with off-cuts of carpet and small rugs, I remove my shoes and step into the tent which is large enough to stand up in. I walk to the back of the tent and sit on the floor, the bits of carpet feel cold and damp. The other delegates and some members from the Afghan Peace Volunteers also enter the tent and we are introduced to Frida, a female elder of the camp who explains she’s received training from the Ministry of Public Health to teach other women about hygiene, she holds up a badge in a plastic sleeve. Frida is immediately striking, perhaps in her 50’s, her weathered face set with deep expressive wrinkles seems to exude strength and wisdom. Her eyes are intense and you somehow know she has seen and done much in her hard life.

We learn that the camp has been there for four years, that the land belongs to the Government and the refugees live with the fear of being told to leave at any point… some sort of military helicopter flies overhead and drowns out Frida’s voice for a few seconds. Frida explains that they were in Pakistan until the UNHCR told them to return to Afghanistan and they would receive help. She tells us that so far they have received none of that promised help.

Her voice is emotional as she explains (via an interpreter): ”Guests are like the light of our lives, we are unable to have our needs heard by leaders such as Karzai – why as president can’t he find a way to look after his people.” She explains that a man standing just outside the tent had to bury his two two dead children in the street as the Government refused to give them a plot for their dead. Frida goes on: ”If we can’t bury our dead we may as well not live”.

Kuchi talks about unemploymentA man who is sat in the doorway wrapped in a classic Afghan blanket wearing a traditional Pashtoon hat explains his feelings: “We are all trampled upon, no one will speak up for us or talk about our concerns, aren’t we born here, don’t we belong to this land?” We learn that all the men are unemployed, unable to find work, the children don’t go to school. Apparently there is a German NGO who provide some basic medicines but beyond that they can not get treatment for proper medical help.

An older man also sat inside the tent, perhaps Frida’s husband is asked for his opinion: “There are so many problems I don’t know where to start, I’m an old man but I want to work, but I can only tie up donkeys, maybe if I had a few sheep it might be a way I could get by. The tents sometimes get so cold that we prefer to sleep outside.”

Kuchi refugee man who wants to keep sheep

I ask if there is a message to send the people in Britain, he replies: ”If the people of Britain could do what they can to help us get through the cold of winter, we are without work or necessities to get by, even if you can’t help us, we are grateful for you hearing this message.”

I personally would like to add to his message. The people of Britain should be speaking out against our own Government who have been central in installing the current corrupt Afghan Government who care very little for the welfare of its people. Our Government has been and continues to be central to the ongoing war which is stopping innocent people from living a life with basic human rights standards. The situation for the 350,000 internally displaced Afghans currently in the country is a symptom of a much bigger issue: it’s not working, and it will never work while Governments such as ours  continue to prop up and maintain corruption and inequality.

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.”

Maya Evans, Mary Dobbing, Susan Clarkson & Beth Tichborne, Kabul 2012

The Importance of protest for Afghans

group 1

By Susan Clarkson

On 21 October our delegation met in the Peace News office for further planning and to talk to our friends, the Afghan Peace Volunteers on Skype…

On the 21 of each month the APV hold a Global Day of Listening when they are connected by the internet to friends and supporters all over the world.  We had booked a half hour slot and once again it was very exciting to hear the greetings of the people we will be visiting in December.  Hakim once again did a sterling job of interpretation and the session was moderated by Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

After the greetings Kathy, who is always aware of what is going on, asked us to talk about the demonstration we had been on in London the day before against the Government cuts to services.  We told our friends about the reason for the demonstration and how it felt to be there.  We asked them about demonstrations in Afghanistan and soon realised that the treatment we receive from police on such events is mild compared to what the Afghan people face.

During our conversation we talked about the demonstration in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq, attended by a million people.  Our young friends responded with a poignant question: why had there been no such demonstration against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001?

After reflection we offered the explanation, but not the excuse, that in 2001 things happened very quickly.  We had been told by our leaders that Osama Bin Laden was being protected in Afghanistan and immediate invasion was necessary.  We pointed out tentatively that less than a month passed between the attacks of 11 September and the invasion on 7 October, whereas there had been a protracted build up to the invasion of Iraq during which we had been fed more and more lies.

This brief exchange brought home to us how little we, the British people, have, over the years, let down the people of Afghanistan by allowing this war to continue.  It makes us even more resolved to make the most of our short visit and to be resolute in carrying the messages we hear in Afghanistan on our return.

Reflections on a Journey in Faith http://susanclarksondotcom.wordpress.com