The Road to Afghanistan: A Peacemaking Journal
BY JOHN DEAR
Dec. 3, 2012, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
The flight from Atlanta to Dubai lasted nearly 14 hours, and I'm exhausted but excited to be going to Kabul, to meet the Afghan Peace Volunteers, a diverse community of students from 15-27 who practice peace and nonviolence. I made it through customs without any trouble, collected my luggage, changed some money, and caught a taxicab across Dubai to the other terminal, where I now have an 8 hour wait for my 4:20 a.m. flight to Kabul. In the distance, I see the famous skyscrapers of this wealthy city, a kind of Mid-East Las Vegas and oil center. But my thoughts are set on impoverished, war torn Afghanistan, and the hope of its peacemaking youth who invited me to visit them.
Dec. 4, 2012. Kabul, Afghanistan
We set off in the dark over the resorts and the sea toward the unknown. I was wide awake and excited, even though I hardly slept for two days. At 6 a.m., orange light appeared along the horizon. Then all of a sudden, a giant ball of bright orange light popped up, shedding light below over hundreds of miles of majestic mountains.
Sunrise over Afghanistan! The enormous mountains went on forever, and we flew for nearly an hour before the small valley of Kabul appeared below. So my first impression of Afghanistan was staggering, majestic beauty-the likes of which I've never seen. Five hundred miles of the Alps. Snow covered mountains as far as the eye can see.
I immediately thought of Jesus' commandment, "Love your enemies," which has been so much on my mind and heart these past few months as I've prepared for this trip. There, he connects love for enemies with the sunrise! "Love your enemies, then you will be sons and daughters of your heavenly God who makes the sun rise on the good and the bad." What a consolation!
I thought too of Gandhi's declaration: "A nonviolent person sees the whole world as a family, and so he fears no one and no one fears him." I want to embody that Gandhian spirit of nonviolence on this trip, to see everyone I meet as my very sister and brother.
I would like to look at Kabul and the Afghan people through the eyes of the God of peace, the eyes of the nonviolent Jesus, with the vision of love. As the plane approached, I felt only love for these suffering people, who are loved unconditionally, infinitely, nonviolently by the God of peace. What a waste that we live in fear and hatred of one another, that we allow terror, war, drones, greed and poverty to continue, that we don't end this global violence, turn from centuries of war, institutionalize justice, equality, and nonviolent conflict resolution, and live together in peace.
Lonely Planet ranks Afghanistan, in terms of wealth, 173 out of 178 nations-one of the poorest nations on earth. It is also considered the most corrupt nation on earth, and has the second highest infant mortality rate. A recent U.N. report states that chronic malnourishment in Afghanistan is now on a par with the worst places in Africa. There are some 31 million people in Afghanistan, and 68% of them are under 25.
Five million people live in Kabul. From the air, it looks like a city of low brown buildings surrounded by brown walls and brown roads with no trees and no water. But as the plane approached the runway, the towering mountains around us disappeared and we entered a heavy yellow/brown layer of pollution. Kabul-one of the poorest places on the planet--is also one of the most polluted. One can barely breathe here, another legacy of war.
I made it through customs again, caught a bus out of the airport, and was met by the smiling faces of the young Peace Volunteers, and of course, Hakim, the charismatic 43 year old medical doctor who is the friend and mentor of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, and one of the world's great peacemakers.
We piled into a cab and took off across the city. What a hair-raising experience! Thousands of cars speeding at 65 mph. No lights, no stop signs, and no rules. Everyone yelling and speeding and cutting in front of one another. And children walking right through it all!
Sure enough, someone cut in front of our cab, our driver exploded in rage, and took off after him through the sea of speeding cars. Suddenly, I was in The Bourne Supremacy. They sped next to each other, yelled and grimaced-and then, as if on cue, they both turned their cars right into one another and--crash! We smashed into the other car. The left side view mirror was torn off, and the whole left side of the cab was damaged. But we were hit harder, so the taxi lurched forward-and hit a bike, throwing the biker off into the air and then ran over the bike! We stopped, everyone yelled at each other, the biker got up, shook off the dust, picked up his flattened bike--and then everyone took off again into the sea of angry traffic.
It was then, as everyone caught their breath and recovered from the shock, that Hakim turned to me and said with a smile, "Welcome to Afghanistan!"
Hakim facilitated the forming of the Afghan Peace Volunteers three years ago when he started to teach peace and nonviolence in the village of Bamiyan. Originally from Singapore, he had been serving Afghan refugees in Pakistan, moved into Afghanistan, and decided that the best way to promote health in Afghanistan was to teach peace and nonviolence. Sixteen multi-ethnic college students accepted his challenge and started living together for a semester as an intentional peace community, modeled after Gandhi's ashram. Some of the youth from different villages and valleys formed a core group, and studied nonviolence, organized peace walks, and even built a peace park in Bamiyan. Of course, threats were made against Hakim and the students, and then one day, Hakim's village house was pillaged and set on fire. Last year, to expand their work, they moved to Kabul.
A few years ago, Hakim wrote to our mutual friend Kathy Kelly of the Voices of Creative Nonviolence, and invited her to visit. Kathy, being the model peacemaker, accepted the invitation, and has been coming here regularly. It was Kathy who called me last April as I was traveling to speak in Wyoming, and said to me matter of factly, "John, I need you to go to Afghanistan in December. Save these dates. We'll talk later!" "Okay, Kathy," I replied, "Whatever you say."
The youth come mainly from the village of Bamiyan, and all are victims of poverty and war. They attend various schools nearby, but share every other aspect of life together, living in near total poverty with few personal possessions. They continue to organize peace events here in Kabul, host internationals and study nonviolence. With Hakim's guidance, they're breaking new ground for peace in one of the world's harshest cultures of war.
Eventually we took a side road toward a non-descript three story building at the end of the street which serves as their home and headquarters. Inside, they welcomed me warmly. We sat in a circle on the floor around a metal wood-burning heater and drank green tea, which is their welcoming custom. Afghanistan is known for its spectacular hospitality, and I sure experienced that today. Americans could learn a thing or two about hospitality from our Afghan brothers and sisters!
After 48 hours of travel with little sleep, I found a corner on the floor, rolled out my sleeping bag and rested. Later, I joined them for dinner. Again we sat in a circle on the floor. A mat was rolled out and plates of beans, rice and bread were put out to share, along with green tea. They told me about their lives, their work, and their hopes. Over the past year in Kabul, they've held a peace walk and many other activities, and hosted many international visitors. But in the last few months, they've organized a woman's sewing class and cooperative, and have begun to teach fifty little children, most of them beggars on the street-so the building is full of activity throughout the day. They meet constantly, and try to make every decision together in consensus. Of course, nonviolence is still fairly new for them, and not widely discussed in Afghanistan, so this remains a huge challenge as they transition from the culture of violence into the daily practice of nonviolence and mutual respect. But I am mighty impressed by these young peacemakers! What a sign of hope in this world of despair!
After dinner, they had a two hour meeting to discuss the upcoming peace walk and ceremony to launch their "2 Million Friends" campaign, which is the main reason why I'm here. As I wrote recently, they launched a website, saying that since two million Afghans have been killed over the last four decades in horrific warfare and occupation-from the Soviets in the 1980s, to the Civil War led by the warlords (who are now in government positions), to the repressive Taliban rule, and now through eleven years of U.S. war and occupation--they want two million people from around the world to counter this history of violence by signing up as friends of the people and youth of Afghanistan. It's a marvelous peacemaking venture, which I hope everyone will join! (See: www.2millionfriends.org).
Dec. 5, 2012
I slept on the floor in 30 degree room, just like the youth, but the duvet which the women's cooperative made-the 5 inch thick blanket, much warmer than a down comforter-kept me surprisingly warm.
"We know we will never live to see the results of our work for peace and nonviolence," one of the youth said to me as we sat in a circle for breakfast tea and bread, "but that is okay because this work is so important." I'm moved by each one of them--their spirit, their struggle, their suffering, and their passion for peace. This week, they're taking their exams, but they agreed to meet with me one at a time for a conversation.
This morning, I met first with Faiz, a gentle 22 year old student with black hair and a beard who has lost both his parents and his brother from war and poverty. "In my own study of Gandhi and nonviolence," he began, "I'm learning to become nonviolent, transparent and honest, and to face the truth of my own life. I'm gradually changing, and putting pressure on myself to change." With that, he bowed his head and started crying. Hakim sat between us, to translate from Dari to English. As the silence lingered, Hakim cried, too. Their tears spoke volumes.
"I have observed the pain of the people, especially the children. Something needs to be done, but what? Our society claims to be Muslim, but it's so hypocritical since so many families, women and children need help. I'm very disturbed by what is happening in the name of Islam. I do not expect to see peace in my lifetime, but I believe in trying to help people live in peace, and I think a small group of young people living in a peace community is a good start. Young people need to learn entirely new values, and not waste their lives seeking money, power and prestige as previous generations did. The youth have to grow if there is ever to be peace, so this is worth pursuing. I want to pursue the beautiful idea of nonviolence. I've learned that if people can't be honest about their violence and forgive one another, and learn to talk and negotiate, then there will be no way to resolve our ongoing violence. The wars will drag on. I hope to promote nonviolence in Afghan society."
"Life in Afghanistan is not good," 15 year old Ghulami told me next. "My family has faced terrible poverty and a lack of education. People are barely surviving. Growing up, I felt that life is meaningless. There is no work. If Hakim had not invited me here, I would be a shepherd boy in the mountains. I'm in the 7th grade now, and happy to study so that one day I can be of service."
"The war has had a negative effect on everyone in Afghanistan," he continued. "It aggravates poverty. Children are hungry. Youth cannot study in peace. There is no work. People are psychologically damaged by the war. When my parents were getting married, right during the wedding, a bomb exploded, injuring many, including my mother whose one arm remains limp and weak. But I'm happy to learn about peace and nonviolence. I'm learning that everyone is a human being, that no one is better than anyone else. I'm also learning to cook and to clean and to live in community with others."
What does nonviolence mean for you? I asked. "To be nonviolent means you don't insult others, that you treat everyone equally, with respect. We have several basic principles as peace volunteers, mainly to be honest and true to one another and to try to love everyone.
Then, with a smile, he said, "I want to practice what Gandhi said: 'Simple living and high thinking!'"
What would you say to the youth in America? I asked. "We are all the same. We're all human beings, living under the same blue sky and we shouldn't be prejudiced against anyone. We should all be friends, whether Muslims, Christians, Jews or whatever."
"Life is very difficult here," 15 year old Ali said next. "There is a lot of suffering, a lot of prejudice. This makes me feel hopeless. It doesn't promise a good future. But this work of peace and nonviolence is changing me. I'm moving away from a life of violence even though I am not hopeful that I will see peace in Afghanistan in my lifetime. It will take many generations.
"Nonviolence, for me, means choosing a way of being honest and loving at all times, which means, not stealing or cheating or killing. Once, when I visited back home, I spoke to a class of young kids about peace and nonviolence, and I felt I really connected with them. I hope I can continue to do that with others. To the youth of America, I would say: Don't go after material goods and wealth. Try to live as ordinary people and help others. Nonviolence is the only clean way of living."
After an afternoon rest, we shared dinner with five internationals who just arrived-Patrick, Emily, Ellen and Chris from Milwaukee, and Culley from Australia. Afterwards, we went around the room, and everyone said one word to describe how they felt, and then a few sentences to explain why they choose that word. What an uplifting circle of hope! We heard the words "peaceful," "happy," "eager," "energized," "grateful," "relaxed," and "friendly." I said I was "hopeful," which I confess, I did not expect to feel in Afghanistan. "You give me hope," I told the peace community. "You dream of a nonviolent Afghanistan and pursue that dream by trying to be people of nonviolence and create a community of nonviolence. My friends and I in the U.S. dream of a nonviolent America, without war, bombs, drones, greed or nuclear weapons. We too are trying to become people of nonviolence. Together we are working for a new nonviolent world that we may not live to see. You give me new hope to continue the struggle!"
Dec. 6, 2012
Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my friend Philip Berrigan, with whom I spent 8 months in a tiny North Carolina jail cell. I awoke at 3 a.m., so I spent that quiet time remembering Phil, praying for Liz and his family, and for peace for our poor world.
The morning session with Muslim women was one of the greatest experiences of my life. We internationals and most of the Peace Volunteers sat together in a room with the 23 conservative Muslim women of the sewing cooperative. We all sat on the floor against the walls, and the women spoke to us for hours about their lives and their duvet project. The Afghan Peace Volunteers raise money through Voices of Creative Nonviolence, and pay the women a liveable wage to make these massive, wonderful, thick quilts. Then the peace volunteers distribute them throughout the country to poor villages and refugee camps, where last year many small children froze to death. (Please go to www.vcnv.org to contribute to this terrific Duvet Project!) Women in Afghanistan rarely leave their homes, so to go to a strange building where foreigners meet to learn a craft is a bold step. They hope to start their own business, to sell these quilts and make a living for themselves. That, too, is a hopeful sign.
Throughout the morning, these women dressed in black told us their stories and shared their suffering. It is risky for Muslim women to be in the same room with men, especially foreigners, so they took a real chance speaking with us. "I lost my husband 20 years ago," one said, "and I have raised three children with no money. I'm so worried about them. One of them has mental problems. So I cry every day all day. This is my way of coping." The pain she felt was shared by everyone, and seems to be the common theme of Afghanistan---immense pain and suffering from decades of war, greed, corruption and poverty.
"When I leave home in the morning to come here," another said, "I have to leave my little children at home alone, while my husband goes out to find work, and there is none. This is very stressful. We have no money."
"We want a better future for our children, that they can be educated," another said. "The school system in Afghanistan is very bad, and the few private schools are way too expensive for most people. The best way to help us is to help build a better education system. It's very difficult for us to go out of our homes. Our families are concerned that we will be killed by suicide bombers. And no one listens to our voices. We can't imagine a better future for our children. There is little hope for them. Some countries say they send aid, but where is it? We have never seen it. It all goes into the hands of the government leaders who buy homes in Dubai. Who will hear the voice of the people? We have so much pain in our hearts because no one will listen to us."
"War has had a negative effect on all the people," another said. "We are worried that the massacres and civil war will start again after 2014 [when most of the U.S./NATO forces leave]. We hope that the focus could be on building a good education system here."
"How much longer will we have war?" another asked. "Afghans know that the U.S. government is here for its own interest, not the interests of the people. Who will listen to the voice of the people?"
We were deeply moved by these Afghan women. It was a privilege to be in their presence, and to hear their heart-breaking cry for peace and call to do what we can to end war and poverty.
"Wisdom lies among the people of Afghanistan, especially the women," Hakim told us later over lunch. "After centuries of war, the male leaders tend to choose violence, but not the women. They are mainly concerned about food and children. We need to hear their stories and do what we can to help make peace come true."
That is what the Afghan Peace Volunteers are trying to do, and I'm so grateful to be here with them, to learn from them, the wisdom of peace.
In the midst of the darkness of war and poverty, they show me the Advent light of hope and peace.
Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012
This afternoon, we drove across Kabul, one of the most polluted, impoverished cities on earth with its sea of speeding cars, to one of the many refugee camps where we sat in a U.N. tent listening to camp leaders share their suffering and beg for peace. Some fifty five families fill this crowded camp, and some of the families have as many as 25 members.
"We are tired of war," the elder began. "We have nothing to live on. We have no work. We do not want our children killed, who would want this? Finish this war. We don't want anyone else killed. No one in this camp wants the war to continue. We are sick of war!"
"One of the main problems," he said, "is that we are not willing to talk to one another. The powers that be must talk. Everyone in Afghanistan is Muslim; there should be no fighting between Muslims. We all know war has no benefit for the people. They want it to end. The war only benefits those in power. There are many widows, orphans, maimed people, hungry, sick and unemployed people. They are sick of this war. The same fighting has been going on for decades and we fear we will never see peace. It's just been a matter of changing those who sit in the chairs of power; the killings just continue. The powers that be have turned Afghanistan into a killing field, their personal playground of war.
"I have not known anything but war my entire life," he continued. "War is a way of life for us. There is nothing else to do but kill people and then get killed and finally become a war hero. We need to talk with one another and find out how to live and how to negotiate. We need to lay down our weapons. But the powers will not allow the people to live in peace. They throw more and more money at our government leaders to divide us all. I wish we could all sit down and talk, but the powers that be will never allow it.
I asked him what his message is to Americans. "My message is that it's been eleven years since America came and started a war here, and nothing has been accomplished. The U.S. needs to leave. They also should help the Afghans unite." Then he spoke about his hopes for the younger generation, that they will stop the killing, and learn new ways to live together. "We need to get to the roots of the problems, and solve the problem at its roots, otherwise the tree of war will grow again."
Friday, Dec. 7, 2012
I began the day sitting with Raz Mohammad, who is 20 and a member of the Afghan Peace Volunteers. He told me his life story and his hopes for peace.
"The war has had a terrible effect on my life and my mind," he began. "I have so many difficulties. I can't study the way I would like to because I have no money and so many family problems. I keep asking myself why so many people fight and kill, why so many people from my village are getting killed. Afghans are totally divided, including young people. Everyone's taking sides."
He described life in his village in the province of Wardak, which has seen non-stop fighting. U.S. soldiers have searched every house, including his, and he no longer feels safe there. "I wish they were polite and respectable," he said, "but they come in during the day and hassle us, and at night, their helicopters frighten the children. We have constant surveillance by the U.S. drones.
"My brother-in-law was killed by a U.S. drone in 2008. He was a student, and visiting some friends one summer evening, when they decided to walk to a garden and sit there and talk. They were enjoying the evening, sitting in the garden, when a drone flew by and dropped a bomb. Everyone was incinerated. We couldn't find any remains. My sister was left behind with her baby boy. I think the drone attacks were first begun in my province. We hear them about every three nights. They have a low, buzzing sound, like a mosquito. They hover over us. They fly over us during the day, and fly over us during the night, when we can see the spotlight at the front of the drone.
"Occasionally, the large U.S. fighter bombers fly over, and they make a huge noise. All the people of the area, especially the children, are afraid of the U.S. soldiers, the U.S. tanks, the U.S. drones, and the U.S. fighter bombers. They fear being killed. Over the years, many people have been bombed and killed. Many houses have been destroyed. Two of my 10th grade classmates were killed in their homes when a U.S. fighter bomber dropped bombs on their homes killing everyone in the area. When the U.S. bomb our area, or a house, everyone dies, including all the women and children. Targeted bombings always end up killing women and children and innocent people, which is why no one should be bombed.
"We should not accept these drone attacks, if we are human beings. They are killing innocent human beings. Humanity should not allow this to happen. No one I know wants the war to continue. Ordinary people everywhere are sick and tired of war, yet we're demonized as warriors and terrorists. None of us can tell who is a member of the Taliban and who isn't. If we can't tell who is a member of the Taliban, how can anyone in the U.S. claim to know who is in the Taliban? Meanwhile, our schools, hospitals and local services have all collapsed. The U.S./NATO forces are not helping anyone, only bringing fear and death to the people."
I asked Raz Mohammad about nonviolence. "I'm learning that we are all human beings and that every human being is capable of being kind, of becoming a friend. We're all the same. Instead of continuing these divisions, we should all try to be friends. Nonviolence for me means helping me understand the possibilities of human friendship."
After my beautiful conversation with Raz Mohammad, I spent the rest of the morning visiting with Abdulhai, a 16 year old from Bamiyan whose father was killed in the war. Given all that he has been through, it's amazing to see Abdulhai's strength and leadership in the group.
"I didn't understand life at all for a long time," he began. "I remember the day [when he was 6 years old] when the Taliban came to my village, and everyone fled to the mountains. Our family was separated into two groups for six months, and only later did we find out that our father was killed. When we were hiding in the mountains, I thought life was awful. People were not kind to us. We were starving and cold. Even the other relatives we met and stayed with were cruel to us. We were worried about our survival as refugees. My older brother has 'lost his mind' now, and suffers psychologically because of the war. Later, we returned to Bamiyan and started growing wheat and potatoes on a little piece of land to support ourselves. I am very sad about all that has happened.
"In this work for peace, people need to have very big hearts," Abdulhai said to me. "You need a big heart if you are going to relate with others peacefully. Now I realize you also need to think big."
When I asked about his message to Americans, he said, "We want to be friends with you. If you do not know much about us, or think we are all terrorists, come here and meet us, like John."
"I get a negative feeling every time I see someone carrying a weapon," LaLa, another youth, said to us during lunch. "It makes me feel less human."
After lunch, two visitors spoke with us at the APV house. First, we met with journalist Mohammad Arif who also works with the Transitional Justice group, as well as a group that tries to stop violence against women. "Poverty is pushing people to take up arms," he began, "because they do know what else to do to bring about change. People are desperate to make a living. Education is the key if we are to have a future. Most Afghans are illiterate or unaware. We have to educate them and address their extreme poverty. Education is the best way to increase nonviolence in Afghanistan.
"The U.S. bombings always kill innocent people," he continued. "The U.S. military thinks that any male with a turban is a member of the Taliban, so they try to kill him, and in the process, they kill an innocent person and many other innocent people. This has to stop."
Then we met with Bill Schmidt, the executive director of Catholic Relief Services in Afghanistan. Before coming here, he recently served as an emergency CRS aid director in Haiti, after the horrific earthquake. He has an $8 million budget, and nearly 400 people on staff (almost all of whom are Afghans), and oversees the best relief project we have heard about so far. They run a community-based education program, and have started schools all over the country where there are none. So far, since 2005, they have founded over 500 schools, and have changed the lives of thousands and thousands of children. They find teachers and classrooms, train the teachers and provide the resources. They also run a livelihood program to help poor people manage their natural resources and improve their agriculture. Then, they provide relief during specific emergencies.
I was mighty impressed with Bill and the work of Catholic Relief Services in Afghanistan. CRS now works in over 100 countries. I have long been a supporter, and have recently tried hard to raise funds for their work in Haiti. Their programs here in Afghanistan are amazing! I hope many people will also contribute to their projects in Afghanistan. They give me hope!
Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012
My friend Ann Wright arrived this morning, fresh from two weeks in Gaza, where she met survivors of the recent, evil Israeli bombings which killed over 150 Gazans. Ann is a retired army Colonel and former state department diplomat who officially reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2001, but later resigned from the U.S. government when it began the 2003 war on Iraq. She now works with CODEPINK and Veterans for Peace. When we return to the states, we are scheduled to appear together on "Democracy Now!" with Amy Goodman in New York City.
This morning, we drove across Kabul to a clinic which treats impoverished drugs addicts. Drug addiction is a growing problem in Afghanistan. Unemployed youth often travel to Iran, get caught up in drugs, and return to Kabul to live with the other homeless addicts under the bridges. The director is a charismatic woman who runs a restaurant and uses all the proceeds to provide shelter and services for this rehab program. Of course, she is in grave danger for doing this and has received many threats. "This is not a glamorous job and brings no money," she said with a smile, "but I want to help people and this is one way to meet their needs."
This afternoon, we visited the "Human Rights and Eradication of Violence" organization at their main office and community center. They advocate for women and children, and try to help the poor turn away from violence. "Afghanistan is considered the most corrupt government in the world," the director said. "None of the international aid from other governments ever reaches the people on the bottom. Corruption is at the heart of all the problems." We want to stop the corruption, the violence the war and the poverty, he said.
At nightfall, we all piled into several vans for the hour and a half drive through heavy traffic to the airport to pick up Mairead Maguire and Ann Patterson. The Peace Volunteers decided last night that they all wanted to go together to welcome Mairead, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was amazed at this gesture of hospitality, and know Mairead and Ann will be touched. As we stood in the freezing cold by the entrance to the airport, and talked with the soldiers and one another, our excitement grew and grew.
I've known Mairead for many years, probably since 1985, but came to know her and her family well while living and working in Northern Ireland in 1997-1998. We went to Iraq together in 1999, and have worked together at various conferences and events. In 1998, I published a collection of her essays, The Vision of Peace (which is now available from www.wipfandstock.com). Her colleague Ann Patterson is also a great peaceworker. She has served as a counselor for victims of war and genocide in Northern Ireland and Africa. Both Mairead and Ann recently joined our annual protest at Los Alamos, New Mexico to lend their support to our campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, their visas had the wrong dates, so their passports were retained at the airport and they had a hard time getting out and finding us. They will have to go to the ministry of immigration to get the proper paperwork in order to leave the country later in the week, but what a thrill when they finally appeared in the darkness of the parking lot! The youth greeted them one at a time, and many pictures were taken! It was a great moment. As we turned to walk to the car, Mairead said, "Just a moment," and we all watched in stunned disbelief as she then greeted each soldier with a smile and a handshake. One of the youth started to cry, and said to me, "She's already teaching me what nonviolence means. We have to be kind to everyone."
I moved over to the hotel to be with Mairead, Ann, and Ann. After we were dropped off, we stayed up late eating and catching up on news and travels and our various peace projects.
Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012
Back at the Peace Volunteers house, I was delighted to see my friend Shane Claiborne who just arrived for a short visit. A popular evangelical preacher and author, Shane is a co-founder of The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community that serves the poor in inner-city Philadelphia. His waist-long dredlocks are famous throughout the movement, so it was a shock to see him with very short hair. He shaved his head, he told me, to be in solidarity with the Afghan youth. A beautiful gesture of support.
After breakfast, we visited the women's sewing cooperative again. Mairead spoke beautifully about the need to keep working, to stay hopeful, and to be peaceful. "Peace is possible," she told them. "Keep trying to be at peace with yourself and among yourselves and to be hopeful," she said. Then, they shared once again their pain and sorrows.
"Why is there always war?" Sakina asked. "Who will listen to the poor? No one listens to us poor people!"
"The U.S. should not send any more money or aid to Afghanistan," the teacher said, "because it just goes to the rich. We are so tired of war. When will we ever find relief? The lack of peace and our sheer fatigue from war is made worse because there is no money and no work. No one is healthy now. Everyone has been affected by the U.S. war. We have to hide from the bombs, run at all times from violence, and constantly search for food. It's a very difficult."
"We have nothing," another woman said. "We don't have good air, food, jobs or education. Who can help us? Who can we trust? Who are our friends? Even if someone tries to help, such as a journalist, he gets targeted with death threats and then killed. What can we do?"
"I've lost all hope," an eighth grade girl said. "School is a joke. The teaching is very bad. There's nothing to look forward to. I can't imagine my future. I'm worried and scared that the civil war and the massacres will start up again. So I think I should stop going to school and start preparing how to survive."
"In Afghanistan, some people call for women's rights, but we do not have basic human rights," another woman said. "In some countries, people need a permit to hunt animals. Here you do not need a permit for anything. So some people hunt people. We do not even have the rights that animals have in other countries!"
"My whole life has been warfare," another woman said, "but it's actually now getting much worse. Everything is painful. Shall I tell you about poverty, fear, hunger, or war? Where would I begin? Where can I find hope?"
"Afghanistan is just a big hospital," she continued. "We see death every day, and we're becoming numb to it. The U.S. is running a slaughterhouse, an abattoir where sheep are slaughtered. What can we do? It makes me weep."
"I thought President Obama would care for the oppressed, but he has made things much worse for us," another said. "He is even worse than President Bush. Please ask the people of the U.S. to take to the streets again and do what they can to stop this war now."
Before we broke, the teacher expressed her gratitude for listening to them. She said that for the first time in decades, she felt as if she had been heard.
Later, over lunch, our group reflected on our session with the woman. "It's very sad," Ann Patterson said, "because they don't see any hope. They have both hopelessness and helplessness together."
"At least they have one another," Ann Wright added, "and they can smile and laugh with each other." We discussed ways to support the Duvet project, and our hopes that people will continue to give money to pay them a liveable wage (To contribute to their quilting project, go to the Duvet Project at www.vcnv.org).
This afternoon, we attended a distribution of duvets for poor families. Two separate trucks loaded with over one hundred duvet/quilts followed us. We met in a large barren room with over one hundred desperately poor women. They sat on the floor with Mairead and the other women in our group in the center, while we men sat on the edge of the room against the wall. Mairead spoke with them about remaining peaceful and taking care of one another. Then, they too shared their struggles and pain.
"My husband was killed in the war," one woman said, "and my son was injured and lost his mind, so now I have nothing left." "I lose my husband in the war," another added, "now I'm struggling to raise my five children alone." "I have six sons and one daughter and I have great trouble trying to feed them," still another said. "I have only God to turn to." Their sharings were tragic and hard to hear. After the session, we gathered outside the building, and gave each woman two large duvet/quilts. It was a beautiful gesture, and however small, it could make a difference between life and death.
Monday, Dec. 10, 2012
This morning was utterly amazing. All of us sat on the floor of the main room in the APV house and shared our lives, our hopes, and our understanding of nonviolence-all the Afghan peace volunteers, Hakim, Mairead, Shane, Ann W., Ann P. and the whole American delegation. I was overwhelmed by emotion and consolation. We all were.
"Because I lost my father at the hands of the Taliban," one of the youth said, "I have hated all the other ethnic groups. But now I'm trying to overcome hatred."
"I used to put people in categories and couldn't drink tea with anyone," another said. "Now I'm learning that we are all part of one human family. Now I can drink tea with anyone."
After three or four people took turns speaking, we stopped and watched a few videos of the various actions the Peace Volunteers have done over the years. They have filmed everything and have an amazing collection of videos (see: www.ourjourneytosmile.com and www.vcnv.org). We watched them build their peace park in Bamiyan, and install a beautiful statue of peace dove in the park, as well as build a large peace sign, lit up with Christmas lights, as big as a billboard, on the scaffolding around the ruins of the giant Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban several years ago. We also saw a video of their recent peace march in Kabul. They carried banners that read, "We are so tired of war." "We can still be friends." "We can live without war." "Let's take a stand for peace." As we watched the videos, most of the internationals in the circle cried. It was so moving!
"I want to do something for Afghan children," one of the volunteers said, and then burst into tears. "Why should Afghan children have to go through this? What have they done?"
"I used to detest other ethnic groups," one youth said, "but now I'm trying to overcome hate and prejudice. You international friends give me hope and strength to do this."
In another video, we watched the Peace Volunteers present a letter addressed to President Obama to the U.S. Ambassador, who was visiting Bamiyan. The American ambassador was clearly impressed with the youth, promised to pass on the letter, and encouraged them to keep working for peace. I was amazed at the audacity of the youth to arrange this meeting and to carry it out with such grace and skill.
"Nonviolence requires listening attentively and speaking mindfully," Patrick said when his turn came. "Here's how I put it: Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don't say it meanly. Nonviolence also requires caring and daring, a heart big enough to love, but definite courage to love."
"The things we have in common are greater than our divisions," Ellen said. "There are no extraordinary people, only ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That's what we're trying to do."
"Every human being is created to love and be loved," Mairead told our group. "We can deepen our love for one another and for life, and as we do, we learn what a beautiful gift life is. We have no right to take the life of another. We want instead to deep our love for others, to help heal the whole human family. For me, nonviolence is love in action to make the whole world better, fairer, more just." She urged us to let go of our fears, angers and hatred, to make peace with ourselves, and to smile and love everyone. She said we have to use our suffering wisely, to go through our pain and anger into a deeper love and compassion for others to create new depths of peace. "Celebrate the friendships you have," she concluded, "and you can be happy-even in the midst of war."
I found this morning's circle of sharing one of the greatest experiences of my life. We not only became close to one another, we helped each other understand the meaning of peace, hope and nonviolence. "You are my teachers of peace and nonviolence," I told the Afghan Peace Volunteers. I wish every American could hear their heartfelt longings of peace and learn from them the wisdom of nonviolence.
After lunch, we walked down the hall to visit the little kindergarten which the youth have started to teach the homeless children who live on the street and beg for food. In a matter of days, fifty little boys and girls started showing up to attend these impromptu classes. They are a bit wild, but they smile and laugh and play. Who knows what pain they carry deep within?
As our group of big, tall Americans and internationals entered the room, their eyes grew wide and their mouths fell open. We must have looked like aliens from another planet. Hakim asked Mairead to speak, and so she sat on a chair in the front of the room, with the kids sitting on the floor in front of her. But within moments, Mairead jumped down on the floor with them, and started telling them how much she loved them, and started singing with them! She asked them to sing and one by one, they stood up and sang or said something (usually a recitation from the Koran). We cheered each child, and afterwards to many group photos. The joy these children gave us was a balm for the sorrow and intensity of the last few days.
This afternoon, we drove across Kabul to visit the Afghanistan parliament. After making it through the military checkpoints and endless security stations, we met with Fauzia Kofi, a young Muslim woman who is a parliamentarian from a remote northeast district bordering on China. She is the chair of the Women's and Human Rights' Parliamentary Commission, and has announced that she will run next year for president. She was warm, welcoming, and articulate, but spent most of the time denouncing the Taliban. She lamented the injustices done to Afghan women and children and urged us to help end the war and promote justice for them. "We need peace with dignity," she said. "I ask friends around the world to offer solidarity and support to help the women and children of Afghanistan who are suffering so much."
This morning, a leading women's rights official was assassinated in northern Afghanistan. We were all aware of the great risks that Miss Kofi has taken by entering the fray and speaking out publicly on behalf of suffering women and children. She is very brave.
Later in the day, we drove across Kabul again to meet with another leading parliamentarian and president candidate, Dr. Ramazon Bashardost. He placed third in the national election a few years ago. International observers officially declared that Karzai bought over one million votes, and that the runner up also bought many votes. Nonetheless, the U.S. named Karzai the 'legitimate' president. In reality, Dr. Bashardost, who had bought or stolen no votes, should be president. He is not only popular because of his open, public forums in a tent in Kabul, he is committed to peace and nonviolence. He was recently awarded Radio Free Europe's Gandhi prize.
"We have to stop justifying killing," he explained. All the politicians are corrupt, and support killing someone, but killing anyone is never justified. We should not support anyone who kills another person. We Afghans need to decide what our human values are," he said so that we can stop the killing, violence, corruption and injustice.
"This war is a disaster for Afghanistan, but also for the American people," he said. "It's a tragedy. You are losing money, and the lives of your own soldiers. And you are not serving the Afghan people. You are providing security for the war lords, for the war criminals. All your money goes to the war lords. And so, you are the enemy of the Afghan people. You need to change sides! It is time to stop supporting the killers. Every day the situation gets worse. You Americans have no idea what is really happening here. It's time to change and stop the war. We need free elections. But right now, every single vote is bought. We need a new generation of leaders who have not killed others to emerge. And we need your support to make real peace for the Afghan people possible."
Tonight, back at the hotel, Mairead, Ann, Ann and I spoke live via skype to a gathering of students and local peace activists at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012
Today is the climax of our visit. We gathered in the compound of Afghan Action for our public event, with journalist and TV crews, to launch the "Two Million Friends" campaign. We call upon the United Nations to negotiate an immediate cease-fire to the war in Afghanistan, and to start talks aimed at ending the war and beginning the long road to healing and recovery, the Afghan Peace Volunteers said, as they presented their petition to a senior United Nations official.
Two million people have been killed in war in Afghanistan over the past four decades, they pointed out. After ten years of Soviet war and occupation in the 1980s, then the Civil War in the early 1990s led by the corrupt warlords, then the years of oppression under the Taliban, and now 11 years of American war and occupation, everyone is sick of war, they said. Their message was short and to the point: "Stop the Killings. End the war. We want peace." Part of their statement read:
We strongly urge the United Nations to broker a ceasefire in Afghanistan. We ask the United Nations to call on all the parties in the conflict, including competing warlords and the Taliban, the Karzai government, regional players and NATO, to lay down their weapons.
Each day the violence continues means a continuing humanitarian disaster for the people of Afghanistan. It is time for the parties in conflict to seek non-military alternatives and to work cooperatively to allocate the funds and resources necessary for a full reconstruction campaign in Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan, especially Afghan mothers, cry out for the wars to cease and for their children to be fed and educated. We ask for their cries to be heard.
We believe that a negotiated ceasefire initiated by the United Nations will greatly assist Afghans in their wish to end the war. A ceasefire will pave the way for negotiations, reconciliation and the important responsibility to meet the humanitarian and socio-economic needs of 30 million Afghans. [To sign their statement, visit: www.2millionfriends.org ]
Mairead Maguire spoke from her experience of thirty years of warfare and division in Northern Ireland to call for an end to the killings and U.S. drone attacks and the start of dialogue and reconstruction, for a nonviolent solution to the horrific wars and divisions that have destroyed the country, and urgent work to relieve the terrible suffering among tens of millions of impoverished, starving, hopeless Afghans, especially the women and children.
This beautiful call for peace was high point of our heart-breaking, astonishing eight days in Afghanistan. Surely this is one of the poorest, most violent, most war-torn, most corrupt, and most polluted places on earth, but because of the amazing "Afghan Peace Volunteers," it will always be for me one of the most hopeful. They are taking up the challenge of Gandhi, King and Abdul Ghafar Khan to do what they can for peace, and here they are, making a difference.
After the crowded and the media gathered, and the ceremony and speeches began, Ghulamai and Sharif led me to a van and accompanied me across town to the airport for my evening flight to Dubai. There in the back seat, they presented me with a gift-a beautiful, typical black, white and gray Afghan scarf, which is what many Afghan men wear. "It's a gift from the Peace Volunteers to thank you for being with us," they said. I was so touched and grateful. When I put it on, they said, "There. Now you are one of us."
Wed. Dec. 12, 2012, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
It's hard to leave Kabul after this extraordinary experience, certainly one of the greatest of my life. I've been to the moon and back, and witnessed the worst of poverty and war, but the best of peace and humanity. I sure hope to visit the Peace Volunteers again, and will try to do what I can to speak out for an end to the U.S. war on Afghanistan. I know that not everyone needs to go to Afghanistan, but I'm convinced that everyone has to do something to stop the long nightmare of war and poverty inflicted by us upon these suffering people.
Most of all, I'm moved and inspired by these Afghan youth who are trying so hard to become people of nonviolence in an entrenched culture of violence and war. If only American youth-and adults!-would do the same. They have so much to teach us!
A little of our love is stronger than the wars of the world. That's the slogan they carved into their peace statue in Bamiyan. It's become their motto, their mantra, their belief, their hope. They're learning from Gandhi that love and nonviolence are more powerful than all the wars and weapons of the world, because love and nonviolence come from the God of peace.
Sitting here in Dubai, waiting for my 15 hour flight back to America, I join their prayer for peace, and look with them to the God of peace. "Help us end the U.S. war and occupation of Afghanistan, God of peace. Help us end the suffering of the Afghan people, especially its women and children. Make us all 'Peace Volunteers,' that we too might become people of peace and nonviolence and learn one day to live in love with one another." A fitting Christmas prayer for peace.