Tag Archives: Beth Tichbourne

Refugee Camp

Afghan Perspectives on the Presidential Election

Kabul billboard - Politician hugging a child, photo of girls at school underneath.
Politician hugging a child, photo of girls at school underneath.

by Beth Tichborne

The Afghan elections did not go well, and it’s hard to imagine how they could have gone well, although you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage. You might know that there were Taliban threats and violence. There were thousands of news stories written about the threat of violence even before the assassination attempt on Abdullah. You’re less likely to have heard that half of the election commission staff were sacked between the first and second rounds because of suspected participation in fraud. Only a handful of media outlets covered that story. There are stories that fit the narrative and those that don’t. This emphasis serves a political purpose. A functioning democracy in Afghanistan is offered to us as proof that the long occupation, and its huge cost in lives, has been worthwhile.

The elections represent something different for everybody involved, and needless to say the coverage in Afghanistan has a very different emphasis to the coverage in Britain or the US (did any Western media mention the Durand line, a major topic in the presidential debates, but a forgotten relic of empire to most British people?). Even the medium is different: low literacy rates, poverty and unreliable electricity supplies make radio and mobile phones a much bigger part of communications than television or newspapers.

One of the many refugee camps in Kabul, home to some of the 600,000 Afghan IDPs
One of the many refugee camps in Kabul, home to some of the 600,000 Afghan IDPs

I spoke to some young peace activists living in Kabul before the first round of the elections. They are well placed to understand different perspectives on its significance. They live in the city, but mostly come from a rural background. They work alongside people from across the deep ethnic and class divides, from refugee camps and street kids through to teachers and NGO directors.

Nasrullah is 17 years old, and already a veteran campaigner. He’s also a budding photographer, although his sensitive portraits and evocative scenes of Afghan street life are only shared on his Facebook page with his friends. Alongside his peace activism he goes to school, although he doesn’t feel that he learns much there. I asked him what he thought about the presidential candidates. “If someone does politics I don’t trust them, I don’t trust politics at all. There was one person that I trusted, Malalai Joya. She defended the voice of the people. But in the end she was pushed out of parliament.”

Have previous elections been democratic? “I don’t think the last election was right, and it can’t be right this time. Whoever wants to be president has to get a pen and sign a paper [the Bilateral Security Agreement]. And the people of Afghanistan have no choice. If you [in the West] want Abdullah to be president then he will be president.” He said that young people want to change things, but have no one to inspire them, and that on the whole “people are busy with their own daily lives, everyone works to find bread, no one has anything to do with politics at all.”

Kabul Street Scene
Kabul Street Scene

Bayat is a 16 year old who would have voted in the parliamentary elections if he was old enough, but not in the presidential elections, “because there isn’t anyone to vote for!” He, like Nasrullah, grew up in rural Bamyan, and spoke about what democracy looks on the ground in much of the country. “It’s less easy for someone to read the news and see what’s going on. There are some places in Bamyan you can go and watch the news on TV, some people do work during the day and go watch the news at night if they can.” He also talked about fear and bribery around the process “the ordinary workers aren’t going to dare go out and say you need to do this or that, even though they’re unhappy. I remember [at a previous election] some candidates attracted people by giving out free food on campaigning day, I saw this happen. I think that they just did that to make people support them. When it came to it they didn’t help anyone. Changes don’t happen.”

What about the international presence in Afghanistan? “They say that their goals for being here are for democracy and freedom, but when you look at the last 10 years all you see is more violence, more war, more rape. Well I say that their goals are purely political. They just want some power and control. When you think about it you realise that Afghanistan has nothing: it has no money, it has no power. I see for myself that these days everything comes from America. Even if everyone in the whole country, from a soldier to the president, put their efforts towards one thing… Americans are the ones putting the money through, you realise it’s not us that has the choice, we’ve handed it over to someone else. The politicians don’t have any freedom, they are pressured to sign things, they tell them that if you don’t sign this we will cut funding.”

"When you think about it you realise that Afghanistan has nothing: it has no money, it has no power"
“When you think about it you realise that Afghanistan has nothing: it has no money, it has no power”

Salim is 16, and met the others when he was working in a chip shop where they used to meet and talk about their plans. He started working as a street vendor when he was about 11 years old. He shared this cynicism about the intentions of outside powers “There are all these politicians… they think it’s all about them, and they all think about their own pockets. They think about everything from the perspective of what benefits them. They come here and say things like ‘we defend women’s rights!’; or ‘Democracy in Afghanistan!’;” And is there democracy in Afghanistan now? “Democracy? I haven’t seen any…” He pretended to think, while everyone laughed “No…really, I haven’t!”

Asif is Nasrullah’s older brother. His earliest memories are of going to school and enjoying learning. A little later, as a 10 year old, he carried his younger brother across the snow-covered mountains in winter, to escape from the Taliban. He doesn’t tell the story himself, but his friends and family talk about how after the long trek Abdulhai’s infant body was frozen, and he had to be thawed out by a fire for two days. As Asif grew up he felt that the worries of war and premature responsibility clouded his mind and he now finds learning is much more of a struggle. In the daily life of the community he’s quiet, cheerful, and hard-working. He likes walking in parks to relax, although green space is hard to come by in Kabul, and he dreams of going back to Bamyan, but stays in Kabul with his brother to study and to work for peace. He finds hope in the group, with its mix of ethnicities working together. He says that he doesn’t know if change will come in his lifetime, but that being human means keeping on trying. I asked if he would be voting in this year’s election.

“In the past I used to take part in voting, but my heart has become cold, and I don’t like voting. I’ve become numb to this whole subject. Whether I vote or not the same thing will happen. There is no meaning to it.”

Is that how many young people feel? “My friends don’t really understand anything about the current situation. If they have a good day, they have a good day.”

And why are other countries involved in Afghanistan? “To be honest, I don’t understand. What I do understand is that every single country that has come to Afghanistan has done corrupted work, and it’s very evident that they have corrupted goals. War has been going on for so long. If things could change then war wouldn’t have gone on for so long already. The people of Afghanistan could have changed things themselves. The work that is done here is not transparent, people lie. War has been going on for so long… with all of these interventions the people of Afghanistan have only seen more war.”

Scratching a living:  40-60% of men in Afghanistan are unemployed
Scratching a living: 40-60% of men in Afghanistan are unemployed

Guide to the Afghan Elections

By Beth Tichborne

Abdullah Abdullah in October 2009Abdullah Abdullah: In contrast to some of the other presidential candidates, warlords and deputy warlords, Abdullah Abdullah is presented in some media as an urbane and guilt-free man. However his short political career has given him opportunity to reveal where his own interests lie. He stood by the war criminals of the current government in 2007 when the “National Stability and Reconciliation” bill was discussed, and passed, granting themselves immunity from prosecution for past war crimes. If ever the waters of Kabul politics seem muddied with compromise and a confusion of alliances, votes like this one reveal the starkness of the issues at stake, and the unity of the elite power players on certain matters. Of all the harm done by the Western-installed government of Karzai, this vote must be one of the more damaging single events. It institutionalizes the turning away of the elite, whether they were directly involved or not, from the wounds in Afghan society.


Ashraf Ghani AhmadzaiAshraf Ghani Ahmadzai is certainly not a warlord. But the proud banner on his website “Global Thinker. Economist. Anthropologist. Politician.” doesn’t tell the full story either. He has received extravagant praise from Western think tanks, politicians and the media, for his financial ‘wizardry’ during his time in Karzai’s government.

His expertise is in the apparently politically neutral ‘technocratic’ measures of financial reform and institution building. He developed this expertise in and academic career in the US and subsequently in working for the World Bank. His absence from the country gives him the advantage of a clean record in terms of war crimes, dealings with warlords and complicity in the barbarism of the past 30 years. But it carries also the disadvantage that he appears to be more a part of a global elite than of Afghan’s own political society. In his quarter of a century absence from the country he has worked at hawkish think tanks (namely the Brookings Institute. He has also co-founded the ‘Institute for State Effectiveness’, a think-tank that sets out the requirements citizens should have of their states (most of these just read like the definition of a functioning state, rather than being an attempt to formalise standards of accountability or legitimacy). He’s no neo-liberal, or he doesn’t talk like one. But a closer look at the output of the ISE shows us who he’s talking to, when he recaps some of his ministerial acheivements “Since 2002, the Afghan government has significantly improved the investment climate. Our new investment law allows for 100% direct foreign ownership.” (Afghanistan craves investment” Ghani 2004). If the message wasn’t clear he appealed to expats for support in standing, when first considering running for president, rather than any societal base within Afghanistan itself.

However, as any presidential candidate must do, he has chosen Vice Presidential candidates to stand with him that complement his own strengths and shore up his weaknesses. No warlord himself, Ghani has certainly more than compensated for the lack of blood in his past with the choice of Dostum as a running partner. Dostum, while he was a US ally, was responsible for the Dasht-i-Leili massacre, in which hundreds, or possibly thousands, of prisoners were suffocated to death in metal containers. Ghani will be hoping that Dostum’s presence on his slate will bring him block Uzbek votes, although it seems likely to cost him a number of votes as well, as it makes it harder for those who would like to vote for a mainstream candidate without voting for past war-crimes.

RassoulRassoul is one of the big names in the presidential election. He resigned as Karzai’s foreign minister in order to stand for the elections, in October 2013. He is cosmopolitan, speaking a number of European languages, and having studied medicine in Paris as a young man in the early 1970s.

In his position as foreign minister he took opportunities to speak to the press, Afghan and international, about the requirements that must be made of the next president. To a certain extent his position helped him to shape the battlefield which he has now entered as a participant. Like other former ministers it has also increased his international audience. External support often depends, to a depressing, but perhaps not that surprising degree, on the proficiency in English of a candidate. He talks to foreign journalists about the Afghan people’s gratitude to the international forces, while politely reminding them that they are there at the will of their own governments and for the stated interest of their own protection.

Qutbuddin HilalQutbuddin Hilal is standing as an independent candidate, not as a representative of the notorious Hezb-i Islami, which he has been involved in for many years, as Hekmatyar’s deputy. This is just as well, as his stated focus on peace and equal access to education for girls is a bit of a startling contrast to his political career to date. Of all the mujahideen factions, Hezb-i Islami was one of the most feared and brutal. They received huge amounts of American money, channelled through the Pakistani ISI (along with money from Pakistan itself). They fought the Soviet occupation, but also used their position of best-funded militia to manipulate, betray and assassinate rivals, getting a head-start in the civil war before the resistance to the Soviet occupation had even come to an end. Hezb-i Islami were responsible for much of the shelling of Kabul that devastated the city in the early 1990s.

Abdul Rahim Wardak - Dec 17th 2011Wardak combines the unpopularity that comes with a close relationship with the US with the complications of a high-ranking mujahideen past. He fought with the National Islamic Front, known as one of the more ‘moderate’ of the seven major factions of the Soviet era.
Wardak is unlikely to be considered a serious contender by many. He resigned from his post as Foreign Minister in 2012, following a vote of no-confidence from the parliament, due in large part to his US connections.

APVs light candles commemoration of Hashim and Zukoom

Another Day in Kabul

Commemoration of Hashim and Zukoom
commemoration of Hashim and Zukoom

by Beth Tichborne

For the first time in my life I heard a bomb today. It was a long way away, and it turned out to be a ‘controlled explosion’ by the Afghan National Army, so nothing to worry about, although a lot of people must have been scared, and a lot of windows must have been shattered. I was working on the ‘2 Million Voices’ campaign with Hakim, mentor of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, in one of the upstairs rooms in the APV compound. There was a sudden rumble and a gust of wind swept up the side of the house and shook the windows. It was nothing scary from as far away as we were, just an eerie, window-rattling blast of wind out of a calm blue-skied day. I wondered if it was a bomb, but it seemed like a silly thing to say somehow. So we got back to work. Ten minutes later someone came upstairs and said it might have been a suicide bomb near us, so we went on facebook and looked up the news, and discovered it was the just the army, apparently blowing things up on purpose. I can’t see how that’s a good idea in a city full of worried people and heightened political turmoil, but at least no one was killed in Kabul today.

It’s the third explosion since we’ve been here: the first was a suicide attack on a NATO convoy at the airport, that failed to kill anyone but the teenage bomber, the second was some strange kind of accident near the embassies, and then this one. I still can’t imagine what it’s like to be close to a bomb, I’m one of the many people in the world lucky enough not to know. I’ve only seen the video of the aftermath of a bomb near the APV’s previous compound. Just watching the video tears at my heart, to see my friends, pale and laughing shakily in a room full of broken glass. The failed suicide bomb, the accident and the controlled explosion are a reminder that explosions are common here, a constant possibility, barely news when no one has been killed.

Friends of Hashim and Zukoom.
Friends of Hashim and Zukoom.

And barely news even when people are killed. Today the APV held a commemoration for two of the ‘civilians’ killed in the attack outside the Polytechnic. Hashim and Zukoom were at the scene because they work in the streets after school, polishing boots. Three of their classmates are supported by the APV, with some necessities each month, and help with stationery and study materials. This support means that their families can afford to let them go to school, as it frees them up from having to work on the streets full time.

These little classmates came to the compound today and told us about their friends who had died. We held candles, and a dictaphone was passed around for everyone present to record their thoughts and feelings about the 2 million lives lost in Afghanistan. The first man to talk was Basir, a friend from our last trip, one of the people I’d been most looking forward to seeing again in Kabul. He’s a writer and a poet, blogs about women’s rights, a non-violence activist, and always has something interesting (and often provocative) to say. He spoke about his family members that had been lost to war. I didn’t even know before today that he had such a personal reason for his activism.

Other friends’ stories I had heard before, the childhood memory of seeing a brother shot, growing up orphaned… each loss unbearable and momentous, as every death is. There have been more than 2 million of these unbearable, terrible, undeserved deaths. The 2 million voices campaign isn’t about lobbying a politician to fix it, people have lost hope in that approach. It’s about connecting human beings around the world to share their pain at the world as it is, at the losses of innocent life in Afghanistan, and to share their friendship and hope for the future. Bombs shouldn’t be normal, children’s deaths shouldn’t be statistics, entire nations of people shouldn’t be written off as less deserving of life and safety. Through connecting, person to person, we can start to dismantle the systems telling us not to care, not to notice, not to remember. The APV are asking people around the world to sign the petition, and then to contact the group, through Skype or social media to say ‘we remember them too’.

Nassim, street kid who is being sponsored by the APV which means he can attend school rather than work the streets
Nassim, street kid who is being sponsored by the APV which means he can attend school rather than work on the streets
Fire and bomb-damaged Darul Aman

Remembering Afghans

Trigger Warning: graphic pictures

fire and bomb damaged Darul Aman
Fire and bomb-damaged Darul Aman

Darul Aman is a palace in Kabul, which was grand in the 1920’s, but is now falling down after two fires and shelling. Large areas of the roof have collapsed, walls have caved in. There are wide stone stairs, that spiral up the wall and which must have looked gravity-defying even when they were new, and which are now crumbling at the edges. Puddles and piles of rubble and plastic rubbish fill the rooms.

soldiers looking at pictures of Afghan victims of war
Soldiers looking at pictures of Afghan victims of war

To mark the International day of Human Rights, the Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers held a photography exhibition in the palace. Nailed to the crumbling walls were portrait photographs, on laminated A4 paper, of some of those who have died or disappeared in Afghanistan, from the Soviet era until today. Maya, Janey and I visited the exhibition, along with our friend from the Afghan Peace Volunteers, Raz Mohammed.

Ground floor of Darul Aman.
Raz Mohammed on the ground floor of Darul Aman.

The ground floor was the gallery of the victims of the Soviet occupation, with grainy black and white photos of grandfathers and fathers, some in old fashioned clothes, and some in rock star sunglasses and hats.  Above the faces were the photocopied ‘death lists’ that identified these men as targets.

A young victim of the soviet invasion
A young victim of the soviet invasion

Under the photos are the names and titles, many begin ‘Osted,’ teacher. Many others are prefaced ‘Shadid,’ martyr. Raz Mohammed explained that these were innocent men who didn’t know why they died. He said that his father had told him about the era of the Soviet occupation, about students at universities being given guns to kill their fellow Afghans, and if they refused then they were shot themselves. The ghoulish representation of Afghan ‘martyrs’ in our media, as aggressors not victims, hides the reality from us, makes us think that the young men who’ve died in the long wars of Afghanistan are somehow different,  less worthy of respect, than the young men who died in Europe in the Second World War. The only difference is that here the deaths continue.

One of the martyrs of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
One of the martyrs of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The gallery continued up the wall to the first floor, where the black and white pictures now showed the same smiling or solemn faces, but these ones were victims of the mujahedeen and civil war.  Up another flight of stairs the laminated sheets started to include colour pictures.  There were also, mixed in with the portrait photos, scenes of some of the deaths.  This was the Taliban-era gallery, and the pictures became a lot harder to look at.

There were pictures of car thieves hanging by the neck in Kabul

There were pictures of car thieves hanging by the neck in Kabul, and Hazara people by the feet in the provinces. There were women in blue burqas being beaten by police, and men with guns to their head at the side of a road. The most disturbing photograph was of a child, who at first seemed to have bleeding hands, but a smiling untroubled face. Looking more closely you saw that the child was holding a pair of someone else’s hands, recently severed at the wrist and still pouring blood. In this gallery for the first time women and children were as numerous as men.

Second floor of Darul Aman
Second floor of Darul Aman

Off to the side of this corridor was a circular room, the roof and windows so dilapidated that it was like an open balcony onto the city. Even from the entrance door you could see out, over parks and buildings to the mountains at the edge of the city. For a second it felt like a moment’s respite from the horror of the display. But this room was, for a visitor from Britain, the most horrifying part of the whole exhibition. Downstairs there had been a lot of people, journalists and groups of people talking, this room was nearly empty. I walked around it with Raz Mohammed, who told me what was happening in each picture, although many of them didn’t need an explanation.

There were rows of small bodies, with pale faces and feet protruding from blankets and sacking

There were rows of small bodies, with pale faces and feet protruding from blankets and sacking, looking as if they’d could have been tucked in for the night, except for the brown blood stains spreading out from the torso of each child. These children were among the many innocent victims of a drone strike, half of these remote-controlled murders are committed by the British military. In the next picture, a village going up in smoke.

Child with burnt face
Child with burnt face

In the next, the anxious brown eyes of a toddler peering out from a face burnt by sticky white phosphorus.  In the next, another child, face made homogenous, the eyes sealed shut by bubbling skin and mouth half burnt away. It went on around the room, adults and children, mothers and babies, families and villages.

Raid on an Afghan home
Raid on an Afghan home

The photographs of living victims were almost worse than those of the dead. A woman screaming at the loss of her sight to nerve gas; a prisoner, head covered and genitals cupped, naked behind barbed wire and laughing soldiers; children and babies in whole suits of bandages, only tiny patches of the pink skin of a shallow burn showing between their dressings; women trying to plead futilely with the soldiers violently raiding their homes.

NATO & ISAF gallery on the 2nd floor
NATO & ISAF gallery on the 2nd floor

On the far side of the room a picture was nailed up between two gaping windows. A white soldier, in dusty combat gear, holding the bleeding body of an Afghan boy, half his size, if that, trousers dragged down to his knees and head lolling. The soldier isn’t holding the boy as a human holds another human, he isn’t offering comfort or first aid, he is holding him like a trophy kill, grinning at the camera. I couldn’t find any words. Raz Mohammed, who, like many ordinary Afghan people, has lost family members to international forces,  his brother-in-law having been killed in a drone strike, was also silent, until we moved on to the next picture, when he glanced back once more at the picture of the grown man making a joke of the broken body of a child to say  “And they call us terrorists.”

Pictures of NATO/ISAF atrocities
Pictures of NATO/ISAF atrocities

The Afghan Peace Volunteers, our hosts in Kabul, are launching  a campaign to find 2 million voices to remember the 2 million Afghan war deaths, and to make contact with them personally (see the ‘why this is important’ section on the petition page).

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.”