What Laila Sees

by David Smith-Ferri

Kabul, Afghanistan – “We live in constant fear of suicide attacks,” said Laila, an Afghan woman who lives in Kandahar city and who visited with us yesterday. “When will the next one strike and where?”

“Twelve days ago,” she continued, “a good friend was walking home from the mosque. A four-minute walk. An IED was detonated, and my friend lost half his face. Another man lost his leg, and his son lost his leg, too. We live with that kind of uncertainty, when you don’t know what is going to happen from one moment to the next.”

Laila’s descriptions of living with fear and violence in Kandahar contradict the mild U.S. descriptions of the “security situation” there. “The Taliban do not control the city,” said Army General Stanley McChrystal, in a May 13, 2010 briefing concerning a “much-anticipated” military operation in Kandahar. “You can walk around the streets of Kandahar, and there is business going on. It is a functioning city.”

Compare McChrystal’s blithe comments with Laila’s experience. “In Kandahar city, you don’t know what’s going to happen, minute to minute. Every single minute that we live – if you can call it living – every single second there is the thought that this is going to be my last second.”

Laila went on to illustrate this graphically. “A good friend of mine had a ticket to travel to Canada to visit her mom for a family wedding. She dressed in a burqa, and went to say goodbye to some colleagues. When she returned home, traveling by rickshaw, she saw a neighbor outside. So she stood for two minutes to talk to her. In those two minutes, two men on a motorcycle drove up. One man shot her in the head and killed her, and the other man drove them away.”

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“Is This Normal?”

by David Smith-Ferri

Editor’s Note: American peace activists Kathy Kelly, Jerica Arents and David Smith-Ferri are part of a 3 person delegation currently travelling in Afghanistan. Find more entries from their travelogues on PULSE.

In a small storage shed at the edge of town, we watched as fourteen-year-old Sayed Qarim signed a simple contract agreeing to borrow and repay a no-interest, 25,000 afghani loan (roughly $555). Daniel from the Zenda Company, the loan originator, counted out the crisp bills and handed them to Qarim, who smiled broadly and shook hands. Qarim, whose family farms potatoes and wheat, plans to use the funds to purchase a cow and her calf. “There are great benefits of owning a cow,” Qarim explains. “Our family gets to use the milk, and we can sell the calf for a good profit.”

No one walking by outside on the narrow dirt road would have known an important business transaction had just occurred, one that could in fact help a young man and his family gain economic traction and greater security. The transaction didn’t take place in a bank. No village leaders were present. Only a fourteen-year-old boy, the representative of a private business company, and a witness. And while the signed agreement constitutes a business relationship, the Zenda Company sees it as primarily personal.

Qarim was recommended for a loan by Faiz and Mohammad Jan, two other young men who live in his village and who have themselves recently received and repaid loans. Following this recommendation, Zenda spent much time getting to know Qarim, meeting with him, assessing his knowledge, his resources (such as access to grazing land), and his character, answering his questions, and describing to him his responsibilities as a borrower.

Now that the transaction is complete, Qarim is required to send a picture of the cow and her calf as “proof” that the money was used as agreed. In addition, Hakim, another Zenda Company representative living in Bamiyan, who is fluent in Dari, the local language, will visit Qarim periodically. Along with Faiz and Mohammad Jan, he will try to provide whatever support Qarim needs to succeed.

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The Women’s Harvest

by Jerica Arents

Editor’s Note: American peace activists Kathy Kelly, Jerica Arents and David Smith-Ferri are part of a 3 person delegation currently travelling in Afghanistan. Find more entries from their travelogues on PULSE.

Autumn in Bamiyan

Kabul, Afghanistan – After a week visiting Bamiyan, a rural Afghan Province, one thing has been made abundantly clear to me: the experience of being a woman in this country is much different than being a woman in the United States. Here, the inescapable and indelible fact of gender colors social interactions, far more so than back home. But being a woman has also created safe spaces of inclusion within the village’s maternal system, from which I would have otherwise been kept at a distance.

Time and time again, after meeting with the men in the family, I was led into a separate room to visit with the women, who had gathered there and were waiting eagerly for us with their children. Immediately, an exchange began, a series of greetings, smiles, thanksgivings, and comments about the style of my clothes, quality of my hands, or strangeness of my backpack. Daughters and granddaughters would join us, children at their feet, each little face more beautiful than the last.

When we met with women and men together, the men tended to be the focal point, dominating the conversation. In the absence of their male counterparts, the women, adorned in vibrant cloths, filled the sparsely furnished rooms with stories and laughter. In this conservative Afghan village, one woman shared with us the heartbreaking experience of having her husband kidnapped and killed by the Taliban – and raising her kids, now teenagers, without the breadwinner of the house. She looked down at her wrinkled hands and paused before telling us of her struggles with depression. “We age so quickly here” she reflected, looking up at me, circles under her eyes. Her skin was weathered and worn, bearing the years of harsh living conditions and inadequate nutrition. I would have guessed she was in her late 50s – she is in fact only 38.

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“Tell them to come to Afghanistan and make friends”

by David Smith-Ferri

Editor’s Note: American peace activists Kathy Kelly, Jerica Arents and David Smith-Ferri are part of a 3 person delegation currently travelling in Afghanistan. Find more entries from their travelogues on PULSE.

Again and again in this isolated Afghan province, when visiting Afghan people in their homes or when talking with members of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV), we have heard this message: “We want to know the people of the world, and we want the world to know that we are human beings, not animals.”

On our first night in Bamiyan, we joined the AYPV at a restaurant on the main street in town. The restaurant, unlike those I am accustomed to visiting, served groups of customers in separate, rooms. So we walked down an alley, around the back of the restaurant, up a steep flight of metal stairs to a narrow landing which opened onto several small, windowless rooms. Inside one of them we arranged ourselves as comfortably as possible on the floor and along the walls, eleven Afghan youth and three Americans.

At the outset of the conversation, fourteen-year-old Ali asked us, “How do Americans know we are bad?” The question burst out of him, without preamble, as though he’d been carrying it for years, waiting for this opportunity. He followed it with a statement: “We want Americans to know we are not animals.” Later, while he held my arm and walked me home in the dark, I asked Ali about this belief regarding American perceptions of Afghan people. “Why else would they bomb us?” he said. There wasn’t anything more to say.

Today, two days later, we again gathered for a shared meal, this time in twenty-year-old Moh’d (short for Mohammad) Jan’s home, in a village outside Bamiyan. We piled into a van, and drove out over rocky, pitted, unpaved mountain roads, following the fickle course of a narrow river. High, red-rock cliffs loomed above us, and wherever there was flat land, it was cultivated. “Would you like to leave the car here and walk to my home along the river?” Moh’d Jan asked. We readily agreed.

Stenciled on nearby rocks in the Dari language were words warning people that the hills above are laced with landmines. We left the road and followed a creek lined with willow and cottonwood trees, along the edge of cultivated plots – apple orchards, potato fields being harvested, swaths of thickly-sown, bright green pea plants – the autumn sun pouring into the valley with sweet abundance, as though time had stopped and it would always be like this.

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Creating a new Courage

by Jerica Arents

Editor’s Note: American peace activists Kathy Kelly, Jerica Arents and David Smith-Ferri are part of a 3 person delegation currently travelling in Afghanistan. Find more entries from their travelogues on PULSE.

Kabul, Afghanistan – After an exhausting day trekking through the dirt roads of the city of Bamiyan and outlying settlements, three Americans were guided by a dozen Afghan boys to a tent packed with overstuffed pillows and comforters. After the boys served them a delicious meal cooked over a small outdoor stove, they affixed their flashlights to the spine of the tent and invited the Americans to enter. Unlike the forts I made in my parents’ living room when I was little, this tent had a pressing message: a group of youngsters in a central province of Afghanistan want peace, not war.

The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, a group of ethnically diverse young men from a city one hundred miles northwest of Kabul, have been actively speaking out against the U.S- and NATO occupation for the last four years. The boys have endured grave opposition and community ridicule. However, through the help of networking sites and YouTube, this group of young men want to ask the world, “Why not love?”

“Our life is a life of the poor”, reflected the mother of one of the boys as we sat in her simple village home. With Afghanistan now being the worst country a child can be born into, alongside the challenges of building life in a country that has been fraught with thirty years of war, the very existence of this group of gentle spirits is miraculous. Many of these boys have lost one or both of their parents to infectious disease or conflict. Their city of 60,000 has no running water, little internet access, and a few hours of generated electricity a night. A barrage of cars, bicycles, donkeys, motorcycles and vans share the single-lane paved road that bisects the city – and over and over again we experienced the striking hospitality of this tense land.

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Bamiyan Diaries – Day Two

by David Smith-Ferri

Editor’s Note: American peace activists Kathy Kelly, Jerica Arents and David Smith-Ferri are part of a 3 person delegation currently travelling in Afghanistan. Read Smith-Ferri’s first piece on their experiences here.

Building Bamiyan Peace Park

The city of Bamiyan, with a population of roughly 60,000, has only one paved street, a wide, two-kilometer road without lanes that is a site of constant activity from 5 a.m. to curfew, at 10 p.m., and is referred to as the “Bazaar” because it is lined on both sides with shops.

In our short time here, we’ve been struck by how hard people, both in town and in the outlying villages, have to work to make a meager living. Children clearly work hard, too, seeming to participate fully in the livelihood of the family. At almost anytime of the day they can be seen at all manner of enterprise – helping set up the family street stall early in the morning, riding a donkey to fetch water in five-gallon plastic jugs, helping harvest potatoes, herding sheep or goats, collecting leaves for fuel, washing clothes in a creek, caring for younger siblings; and of course, they also attend school. Their work is as much a part of the landscape as the cottonwood trees and the red-rock cliffs which stand above the rivers.

Having had a chance to talk with members of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV) and learn something about their significant commitments to home, family, and school, it was with delight and astonishment that we visited Bamiyan Peace Park today with nine proud members of the group and learned about their role in its development and use.

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Bamiyan Diaries – Day One

by David Smith-Ferri

Editor’s Note: American peace activists Kathy Kelly, Jerica Arents and David Smith-Ferri are part of a 3 person delegation currently travelling in Afghanistan. This is Smith-Ferri’s article written about their first day in Bamiyan province.

Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan, a stunningly beautiful mountainous region, is located in the center of the country, roughly 100 miles from Kabul. Most people here live in small, autonomous villages tucked into high mountain valleys, and work dawn to dusk just to scratch out a meager living as subsistence farmers, shepherds, or goatherds. The central government in Kabul and the regional government in Bamiyan City exercise little or no control over their lives. They govern themselves, and live for the most part in isolation.

Given this, who would imagine that Afghan youth from small villages across Bamiyan Province would come together to form a tight-knit, resilient, and effective group of peace activists, with a growing network of contacts and support that includes youth in other parts of the country and peace activists in the U.S. and in Palestine? I certainly wouldn’t have. In the United States, we may find it hard to believe that anything good can actually come out of Afghanistan, or we may have fallen into a trap of thinking that Afghans cannot accomplish anything useful without foreign aid and assistance. I confess that I struggle to live outside the shadow of this narrow-mindedness and ethno-centrism. Certainly, if the scope of our imaginations is limited by CNN and Fox News, we would not be likely to imagine an indigenous peace group forming in Bamiyan Province. But this is exactly what has happened.

Calling themselves the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV), they range in age from eight to twenty, and they have been active for over two years, translating their camaraderie and the horror of their families’ experience of war and displacement into a passionate and active pacifism. At an invitation from AYPV, three American peace activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence have arrived in Bamiyan for five days to build bridges of friendship and support with these youth and their families. Over this time, we will write a daily diary of our experiences and interactions with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers.

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