Day 8, Monday March 21

Happy New Year! Sal-e nau mubarak ! Today is the celebration of Nau Ruz the Afghan New year and is a public holiday throughout the country as people return to their families in the villages and celebrate with family get-togethers, good food and gifts.

We went to a local park in the Shahr-e-nau neighourhood where we are staying to soak up some of the festive spirit – here are a few pics:

Ready for a ride?

 

family out for the day

 

Sisters in the park

This afternoon we heard a speaker from the Tribal Liaison Organisation, an NGO working to develop various areas of Afghan civil society. Today we heard specifically about issues of displacement and detention. Our speaker said a big problem is that as families return from Pakistan and other places after years away, home and ownership is being contested. Most families don’t have a formal land title, which means the state can claim the land or it can be seized by powerful groups. Outside Jalalabad there are large refugee camps as families have returned from Pakistan but have not been able to reclaim land their land.

The issue of the detention of Afghans in US prisons here is a minefield, with accurate, up-to-date statistics very hard to get. The estimates are that there are 5000 people going through the main prison a year and that there are about 3000 night raids (where US forces storm a house at night and make arrests) in any given year.

After capture, detainees are supposed to go through a renewal of status within two weeks. At 60 days they are supposed to have a full hearing in front of a tribunal. This has not been happening, and there is no process for separating civilians and combatants. Often people are held, even after they have been cleared. There is also a lack of reintegration upon release – which, according to our speaker, is contributing to the insurgency. Released detainees tend to get harassed and arrested again so they are fleeing to Peshawar and Quetta and re-engaging with the insurgency.

The boys share from the heart: Late this afternoon we enjoyed the opportunity to hear from the members of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers one-by-one. We heard stories of their lives in Bamiyan, their history and why they became involved in this special peace-making work. The boys aged, 14-20 years old, were born into the Taliban era with the scars of the brutal Mujahadeen wars all around them and now the present reality of the US-NATO war. Two brothers told the harrowing story of escaping through the snow after their father was murdered by the Taliban. The boys (there are girls involved back in Bamiyan) are attracted to the peace work because they are tired of war, they want to live in a world without war and are pro-actively working to create such a world. They have undertaken many projects in the past few years including making a book called “The Book of Questions” creating a Peace Park in Bamiyan, reaching out to Pashtun youth, speaking with people around the work by Skype   and writing a ‘letter’ to Barak Obama which they gave by hand to the US Ambassador when he was on a visit to Bamiyan. He promised he would deliver the mesage, but they still have no confirmation that he has. These are ordinary boys – they go to school and have part-time jobs such as delivering water by donkey, making potato chips, tending sheep and collecting wood – yet they have cultivated extraordinary hearts, under their teacher, the wise and gentle Hakim. They make proclamation such as “even a little love is stronger than the war of the world,” and ask questions of themselves and others as bold and as simple as:“Why not love?”

Amazing.

This kind of heart is the hope of Afghanistan

the boys sharing

listening to the boys

Tree-planting video clip and poem

On 19th March, the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, with an international team of 24 peace activists, planted 55 trees at a school in Kabul, Afghanistan. They did this to usher in the Afghan New Year, in hope for a new way of living, a non-violent way of rebuilding the country.

Please watch the tree planting here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xzcw9rA1mrc

Hakim and the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers http://ourjourneytosmile.com/blog

http://livewithoutwars.org

http://globaldayoflistening.org

Here is the poem the boys wrote for the occasion:

We need a different tree For seekers of roots, life has ample proof

that Power and Privilege consistently oppress the People.

This Power and Privilege is perfected in war,

& accepted universally like any other conventional tree.

And then,

its shade kills the People.

Why would an Afghan mother want a tree that kills?

Why would scholars promote it?

Why would the few rich and powerful insist on it?

Why would the People want it?

War is NOT what we wish to plant on any day, & certainly not today.

We wish to plant a tree rooted in Love,

a Love which says,’I live and love, so I shall not kill.’

If we wish to live without wars,

we need to plant a different tree.

Day 7, Sunday March 20

We started early, meeting with a friend who is the head of an international NGO that has been running projects in Afghanistan for 45 years. It was good to hear his perspective on things; that is that be believes the solution to the strife and suffering in Afghanistan is not a military one.

Next we went to the internet café where the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers were in full swing of their world-wide Global Day of Listening skype-a-thon which started in the very early hours of the morning and will continue late into the night. We heard the boys speak with people from around the world including the U.S, Australia and Iraq. What a great opportunity for people across to connect and hear each others views. These calls will happen again in the future, so if you would like to be involved see http://globaldayoflistening.org/Home.html

the boys on their global skype call

 

 

 

 

 

 

the boys hard at work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Taxi driver’s view:

During our time in Kabul we’ve been catching taxi’s here and there and we all know that taxi drivers are great barometers for public opinion. Aware of this I always took the chance to ask taxi drivers what they thought about the situation here. Our taxi driver today had clearly thought this through and gave an insightful answer. He said from is point of view the problem is that Afghanistan is divided into three sectors: the smallest sector is the rich and powerful – President Karzai and his friends and relatives, and the warlords surrounding them, these people are not honest, he said, yet they control everything through bribes and corruption. Then, he said, there is a larger group of people who are the general workers, like himself, who have a job and who are just able to provide for their family. Life is a constant struggle and they work very hard, often at several jobs, just to get by. Then, he said, is the largest group by far: the people who have no job, widows, orphaned children, people in rural areas who have to beg to survive or rely on occasional aid. Dogged by malnutrition and poverty, more often than not, they don’t get by. The taxi-driver said these groups are in the wrong proportion. The masses should not be suffering and hungry – it should be a smaller group who suffer so badly. His conclusion: in Afghanistan, thanks to corruption, and the unnacounted for billions of dollars of western aid the richer are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and this trend is continuing at a fast pace. He said for the ordinary people to prosper, there first needs to be security, and this is what is lacking. After ten years of war in Afghanistan, of sending soldiers, tanks and guns and billions of dollars of aid, the observation of the taxi driver raises some serious issues and deserves our consideration.

Day 6, Saturday March 19

Day 6, Saturday March 19                                  

Today was huge, we packed in several inspiring activities starting with a visit to a local school. It was a suburban private school which catered for girls in the morning and boys in the afternoon, funded by small monthly payments from parents. The female principal had a message for us regarding Western aid, which often misses the mark in terms of delivery. She said the greatest need is to train professional teachers, not to build new school buildings which often cannot be used because of the shortage of trained teachers. She also expressed her view about the future: “if the foreign troops leave we will have a better chance for peace. We should do it by ourselves. And instead of spending money on war, we should spend it on education.”

We brought with us about 40 trees for planting with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers to commemorate the coming Spring and to symbolise the AYPV’s campaign of nonviolence.

Tree Planting with our friends

We planted the trees together (apple, almond, various fruit trees), Afghan and internationals. The peace volunteers read a poem talking about planting “a different kind of tree.” Then the students came out to play – the cutest little girls, some a bit shy, others curious about us strange-looking foreigners. 

Students at the school

 

Cutie pies!

 

After that we went to a hospital in central Kabul run by ‘Emergency’ an Italian NGO funded by private donors, therefore politically neutral and independent. They have clinics in various parts of Afghanistan, but this hospital caters specifically for victims of war, with a grim list of criteria for admission: gunshot wounds, stab wounds and wounds from shells and mines. It is the only hospital of its type in Kabul, most western aid here, the hospital director observed is according to political need, not the needs of the people. A similiar observation to the teacher’s this morning.    

Doctors said most people just turn up at the front gate with their wounds, either arriving by bus or car, and – in the spirit of neutrality – are accepted with no questions asked. Most public hospitals in Afghanistan won’t accept patients if they come alone because the hospital want a guarantee that family members will come each day to care and feed the patient. I asked what the most common wounds were, and they said gunshots wounds, the theory being that the more foreign soldiers there are patrolling the cities, the more gunfights there are and locals end up in the middle.  It was a sobering tour as we walked through wards, and saw people, including many children in their beds, knowing there was a story behind every person, and every wound. Looking at the children’s faces, I became overwhelmed and had to walk away. Here’s a picture of two boys with hand wounds.

Injured boys at the hospital

Tonight we shared a beautiful ceremony to remember the victims of the various wars waged in Afghanistan over the years. We were reminded that after three decades of war, virtually every family in Afghanistan has lost someone to violence. “Peace can never be found in darkness,” one speaker said. “When Kabul was bombed there was darkness and where there is darkness there is fear. We are lighting the candles while people are being killed by the politics of war. In the name of peace may this end.” We lit our candles and shared 2 minutes silence then the boys read the names of nine Afghan children recently killed by NATO forces in Kunduz. If we read all the names of those killed in war, it would have taken a year. It was a moving time as we responded the only way we could: we are sorry.

Silence for the victims of war

Candle light vigil for the victims of war

Day 5, Friday March 18

Friday is the day off work in Afghanistan, and so the traffic was not as busy as usual and families were out in parks to relax and enjoy the sunshine.

We went up Teppe Maranjan mountain, which overlooks a very old part of Kabul, now housing the Kabul stadium and many modern buildings. We wanted to see the monumental tomb of former king Nadir Shah (assasinated in 1933) and his son King Zahir Shah. We had a quick look at that but it was clear the main attraction was the hundreds of people flying kites, riding horses and playing sport on the mountain-top.

Colourful paper kites filled the blue sky (although it was hard to capture them in photos because some were quite high), some children rode horses, there were bright stalls selling kites and colourful string, as well as plenty of food and drink.

Here’s some pics which set the scene better than words.

Kite flyer in front of King Nadir Shah's tomb

Young horse rider

Ready to fly my kite

Coloured string for the kites!

About to launch

How about that smile!

 

Lunchtime!

In the afternoon we went to our space and met a few new arrivals from the US who had landed early in the morning. We had some more introductions and heard more about the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYFPS) and Open Society.

AYPV started three years ago in Bamiyan when a ‘peace’ workshop was offered at the Bamiyan College. Fifty students turned up and the course lasted 3 months. At the end of the workshop the participants came to the conclusion that peace is impossible in Afghanistan. The students were then challenged about what to do about that conclusion. Some accepted it and moved on, but an invitation went out to come together for another workshop and 16 people signed up. A core group formed committed to exploring ways to bring ethnic groups together and they went from village to village and picked up more boys along the way. They’ve undertaken several projects including establishing the Bamiyan Peace Park. They also held a 7-day vigil demanding a message of peace and reconciliation be delivered to US President Barack Obama.

Some of our new AYPV friends

The group acknowledges that the current military strategy in Afghanistan is failing to bring peace to the country. They say because the strategy is based on using violence to confront violence, it doesn’t work. The boys, aged 14 to 20, acknowledege that they may never see peace in their lifetime, but still believe is it worthwhile to pursue it. They support two Afghan leaders who are also promoting nonviolent options for Afghanistan Dr Ramazan Barshadost and former female MP Malalai Joya. More on the AYPV’s later as we continue to get to know them.

Open Society is a new group which started seven months ago with a focus on human rights and democracy. “We want to do something different to what has been done so far. There’s been a great deficiency. We want to approach it from the point of view of ordinary people and by promoting values,” they told us. They have already participated in the Festival of Human Rights in Afghanistan and put together a photographic display about victims of war and there are plans to establish a singing group to bring the message of human rights to people through song, especially in rural areas. They are also working in the area of film-making and have put up anti-war cartoons around Kabul which have received some attention as people gather to talk about them. Another plan is to train Afghans to use web-blogs to share their views about Afghanistan and peace.  Most funding has been personal funding because receiving funds makes the group answerable to the donor and less independent.                

Zahar – the female co-director says the group feels very much alone in their mission. The work is burdensome, she told us, “it’s a hard load on our shoulders because many Afghans are born in war and lived generations of war and therefore peace is strange to them and it will take time to move away from the war mentality.” 

She said the aim is to become more organised like groups in Egypt. But all revolutions in Afghanistan have been violent so people are nervous about change.

Zahar says it’s harder for women to be involved because many women are illiterate and not used to speaking out to express their views. But there’s hope, one woman who was anxious about yesterday’s peace march initially stood back, but when she saw the blue scarves and everyone moving together, she had the courage to join in too.

Today we also heard from Larry Warren, head of operations of Catholic Relief Services in Afghanistan. He told us about CRS projects in Bamiyan, Ghor and Herat focusing on agriculture, education, water and road construction. It led us into an interesting discussion about the corruption surrounding the delivery of international aid in Afghanistan – millions of dollars are unaccounted for. And also the issues of aid delivered by military via the PRT’s in each province (Provincial Reconstruction Teams). Members of the PRT will often turn up to a village in flak jackets, accompanied by soldiers and this is confusing for local people.    

Pilgrim note sent today to my email list:

Dear friends,
Greetings from Kabul, Afghanistan! I’ve been here all week now and have enjoyed getting around to see as much as I can and meet as many Afghan people as I can and listen to their views. Thankfully I have my own personal translator (Martin) which has been invaluable!
Take at look at my blog: www.pilgriminkabul.wordpress.com to see some pics and read what we’ve been up to. I’ll continue to update the blog in coming days.
Last night we met the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, a very impressive group of young people who are calling for an end to war. You didn’t hear about a peace movement in Afghanistan? Well, yesterday these young people joined with about 40 others for a peaceful vigil in central Kabul, calling for peace in their country. They were met by riot police, but the group just smiled and held their banners calling for peace. One of the police said to the group: “I want peace too.”
The next few days will be very special as the Afghans celebrate the beginning of spring and the Afghan New Year with holidays and celebrations. The Afghan peace volunteers will hold various events to mark the occasion and to launch their campaign of peace and nonviolence: a march in Kabul, a tree-planting ceremony and a candlelight vigil. It’s amazing that all these events will be happening in war-torn Kabul! We are here to support these courageous young people and to help give them a voice and share their message with the world.
They will also participate in the Global Day of Listening which I hope you can also participate in – a great opportunity to listen to people in Afghanistan and around the world.
“The first duty of love is to listen,” Paul Tillich, theologian, philosopher.
Please check out the website http://globaldayoflistening.org/Home.html to see how you can be involved.
There are also solidarity events happening around the world including Sydney and Melbourne.
I’ll sign off for now, but will hopefully share some reflections about my impressions in the coming days. Martin and I are feeling safe and well, the sun is shining here and I’m even a little sunburnt! I’m also aware of the many Afghan civilians that have been killed in the past week, in violent acts around the country. Let’s keep everyone’s safety in our prayers.
Your pilgrim
Donna           

                               

Day 4, Thursday March 17

Friends on Chicken Street: Went for a walk down Kabul’s well-known Chicken’s Street today, once the tourist-drag of Kabul, now a busy, pot-holed road with dim antique and curio stores selling faded rugs, gemstones, brass vases and teapots, etc Over the years Chicken Street would have done a roaring trade, but now the sellers stare out of their dark stores or stand in the doorway with hope that someone might walk by. As Martin and I have been walking around Kabul the last few days, we haven’t seen any other foreigners, so unfortunately we can’t imagine there’ll be much business at the moment.

Chicken Street sign

One eager seller, a short elderly man, called us over for a chat, he’s a kind-of English speaker and a bit of charmer and soon we were cross-legged on the carpet inside his shop drinking tea.

“I’m learning English and I’m a poet,” he declared with a flourish. “Listen.”

Seller on Chicken Street

 He quickly rattled off a poem, which I didn’t really understand and get to write down, but then he quickly announced that he has known many Australians over the years. I assumed these were journalists so I asked for names. He reached for a tattered brown envelope full of business cards. “I know many.” Indeed. He found one card, 30 years old, with the name of an Australian film maker named Jill. He’s obviously been around for a while, so I asked how long he’d had he’s store here on Chicken Street.

“You have many questions,” he replied. “I need the energy to answer, so first we need another 20 cups of tea,” he declared.

“Who are your customers,” I asked. “You are,” he said with a big grin.

“Um, anyone else?” He thought for a while, “I had a New-Zealander, and a Turk from Ankara, they were soldiers on leave.”

“How is business now?”

“Business is down, and when business is down, life is down. Have another cup of tea.”

Drinking tea in Chicken St shop

“Why is business down?”

“Because there is no security, it is not safe here.”

“How do you feel about the new year?” “Please, more tea, you are taking all my energy. If you have a good economy every day is a new year, without security it’s not a good year.”

“What do you think of the political situation and the future?”

“How can I tell the future? If the Russians knew what would happen to them in Afghanistan, then they would not have come. Nobody knows.”

“You saw many changes in Kabul.”

“If it’s not changing then it’s not Kabul.”

We left with a silver goblet in our hands, wishing him the very best for the future.

Trader on Chicken St

Flower shops on Flower St

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New friends from Afghanistan and the U.S:
This evening we met our hosts, the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, and Open Society and were greeted with wide smiles and hugs. We also met our fellow participants on the delegation – an impressive bunch of activists from various parts of the United States (and Simon Moyle from Melbourne!). We listened intently as our new Afghan friends introduced them themselves with wonderful welcomes: “your coming is like the coming of spring, making this place green”, and invitations: “we hope you take our voices back to where you are.” And they shared with us a poem:

Now that you’ve come please don’t feel strange

This poor-house of ours also belongs to you

It’s not only things that are glittering that have value

Poverty also has beauty and value.

The group told us about their amazing walk for peace today in Kabul. More than 40 young Afghan men and women walking peacefully and courageously on the streets of Kabul with banners saying: “We wish to live without war”.

The riot police turned up in numbers but were greeted only by wide smiles, one policeman remarked: “I wish to live without war too.” This was a powerful and significant event for Kabul. There are rarely peaceful demonstrations on the streets here, but rather political protests that become very aggressive and call for revenge and death.

Our new friends are truly a light in the darkness, they, and others like them are the hope of this country. Please watch this short Youtube clip, you will be moved and amazed. What a special week ahead I have, spending time with these remarkable young people.

Day 3, Wednesday March 16:

Babur Gardens

Today, more exploring of Kaul. This morning we headed to Babur Gardens, the largest green space in the city, an enclosed area of 11 hectares of landscaped gardens laid out in the 16th century by Mogul ruler, Babur, and containing his tomb. Left to ruins during the various wars, the gardens have been well restored by the Agha Khan Cultural Trust. The park is terraced up the hillside with a white marble water-course running down the centre. At the top of the hill is a large pavilion providing great views, an elegant white marble mosque and the simple tomb of Babur. On this sunny, warm day families and couples were enjoying the gardens. Tea shops, games areas and park benches were scattered around the park. The flowers and trees are not yet in bloom because the winter snows have just melted, but a few cherry blossoms had just started to flower giving a hint of how spectacular the park will look in a few weeks when everything is in full bloom. A place of tranquillity in an otherwise hectic city.

Babur Gardens mosque

Donna in Babur Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

Royal Palace of Daraluman

Built in the 1920’s displaying grand, European opulence, this massive palace is now an empty shell in ruins. I couldn’t help but be in awe as I imagined its former grandeur, and felt a tinge of annoyance, wishing the various militia’s could have left it alone for the peoples’ use. Martin said that a few years ago virtually every building in this area looked like this: pock-marked, half demolished. There’s been a lot of re-building in recent times. Near to the palace I saw another, quite serious, game of cricket. I really didn’t realise it had caught on here!

Palace of Dharulaman

Martin and Mustafa (out taxi driver) in front of Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kabul Museum     

Considering the depth of problems and violence confronting this city, I am amazed and impressed that it even has a functioning museum! But it does, although it is a shadow of its former glory having been ransacked and looted over the years. And during the Taliban time, the Minister for Culture, ahem, ordered the smashing of all image-bearing items. So it’s quite remarkable that anything is there at all. And as you could imagine its collections would have been significant considering Afghanistan’s location at the crossroads of Asia, and therefore the intersection of various cultures. The museum is beautifully laid out with a large 15th century black marble basin in the entrance hall, known as the Budda’s begging bowl. There are many other Buddhist icons and statues, illustrating the significant part Buddhism played in the culture of Afghanistan. Another amazing exhibition was the wooden carvings and statues of the pagan people of Nuristan. These life-size wooden carvings of goddesses, ancestors, animals, and loving couples were quite African in style. Another exhibition displayed artefacts dug from excavations along the Silk Road, another precious collection. Outside the museum is a rusted old steam train, but it was never used because only a few kilometres of track were ever laid. Outside the museum is a sign: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive,” Indeed. Hats off to the staff and supporters of the museum for keeping the culture alive.

Martin and the Buddha's begging bowl

Wooden statue from Nuristan collection

 

Buddhist icon at Kabul Museum

Ancient Buddha head at Kabul museum

 

We headed back into town and as a deliberate contrast to yesterday we had lunch at a well known local eatery, the Herat Restaurant. In the company of local families and couples, we ordered yummy Afghan dishes and felt far more comfortable than the day before in the ‘secret, foreigner-only’ café. And the price tag was significantly different too, despite the meal being much more delicious!

Over dinner at the Guest House we met more aid workers and as I casually told them what we got up to today one of them opened his mouth wide in shock. “you did what? You walked the streets??”

“Well sometimes we hailed a taxi,” I replied. At this point he almost lost his mouthful of food as he spluttered: “you hailed a taxi? Just like that?” Oh my you guys are courageous, that’s amazing, how was it out there?”

I told him it was wonderful because out there were people, real human beings happy to talk to us. He was envious that he could not do the same, and emphasised that would not certainly be able to use a camera (he is Indian and could be mistaken as Afghani and that would be dangerous). He asked if he could have some of our photos. So tonight I felt more sympathy for the locked-up aid workers than cynicism. I know many are resisting the bubble, trying to find simple, low-key accommodation and work alongside the locals. More power to them – they are the courageous ones, working here day-in day-out. 

We lost power for most of the afternoon and evening, then the hum of generators started at the big hotels. Exhausted and sunburnt again tonight, it’s much warmer here than I expected, the Spring has arrived with haste. Would love to take time to write an overall reflection, but am waiting for more experiences and impressions.  Most of the delegation arrives tomorrow; it will be great to connect with them.          

                  

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