Guantánamo and Inflaming Passions in the Courthouse and the World

By Johnny Barber

Four members of Witness Against Torture were found guilty in a jury trial at D.C. Superior Court on January 5, 2012. The jury brought back guilty verdicts in the cases of defendants Brian Hynes of the Bronx, NY, Mike Levinson of White Plains, NY, Judith Kelly of Arlington, Virginia, and Carmen Trotta of New York City, NY. Josie Setzler of Fremont, Ohio was acquitted mid-trial after the prosecution’s witnesses failed to identify her.

The demonstrators were charged with one count of disorderly and disruptive conduct on Capitol grounds. The charges stemmed from protests against a Defense Appropriations Bill—a precursor to the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA)—that took place in the citizen’s gallery at the House of Representatives on June 23, 2011. The protests were in response to provisions in the bill that make it essentially impossible to close the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba and that legalize indefinite detention.

Prior to the start of the trial, the Prosecutor Brandon Long asked District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Gerald Fisher to disallow any statements regarding Guantánamo into the courtroom fearing that mentioning the detention center and the torture that occurred there “could possibly inflame the jury”. Judge Fisher readily agreed, saying, “Speaking about Guantánamo is inappropriate for the purposes of this trial.” Carmen Trotta responded that it was vital for him to mention Guantánamo Bay because “due process everywhere is being threatened and we have the privilege of due process here, right now.” The judge rejected Trotta’s argument, saying, he “does not want an improper politicization of the defendants’ charge.”

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Whatever Happened to Women and Children First?

by Johnny Barber

“All wars, whether just or unjust, disastrous or victorious, are waged against the child.” — Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, 1919.

In Kabul, the children are everywhere. You see them scrounging through trash. You see them doing manual labor in the auto body shops, the butchers, and the construction sites. They carry teapots and glasses from shop to shop. You see them moving through the snarled traffic swirling small pots of pungent incense, warding off evil spirits and trying to collect small change. They can be found sleeping in doorways or in the rubble of destroyed buildings. It is estimated that 70,000 children live on the streets of Kabul.

The big news story on CNN this morning is the excitement generated as hundreds of people line up to buy the newest iphone. I can’t stop thinking of the children sitting in the dirt of the refugee camp, or running down the path pushing old bicycle tires, or the young boy sitting next to his overflowing sacks of collected detritus. He has a deep infection on the corner of his mouth that looks terribly infected. These images contrast with an image of an old grandfather, dressed in a spotless all white shalwar kameez squatting on the sidewalk outside a huge iron gate, embracing his beautiful young grand daughter in a huge hug, each smiling broadly, one of the few moments of joy I have witnessed on the streets of Kabul.

In Afghanistan, one in five children die before their 5th birthday, (41% of the deaths occur in the first month of life). For the children who make it past the first month, many perish due to preventable and highly treatable conditions including diarrhea and pneumonia. Malnourishment affects 39% of the children, compared to 25% at the start of the U.S. invasion. 52% don’t have access to clean water. 94% of births are not registered. The children are afforded very little legal protection, especially girls, who are stilled banned from schools in many regions, used as collateral to settle debts, and married through arranged marriages as young as 10 years old. Though not currently an issue, HIV/AIDS looms as a catastrophic possibility as drug addiction increases significantly, even among women and children. Only 16% of women use modern contraception, and children on the streets are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. This is why the “State of the World’s Mothers” report issued in May 2011 by Save the Children ranked Afghanistan last, with only Somalia providing worse outcomes for their children.

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The Darkness Approaches, a Light Shines Bright

by Johnny Barber

Today in Afghanistan people feel an unnamable horror lurking just below the surface of their everyday lives. It has been described as a tension, a feeling of pressing apprehension, as if a breaking point is about to be breached. People wake each day with this feeling; it accompanies them through their dreams each night.

Driving through the streets of Kabul I watch people set about their business deliberately. There is little laughter, the absence of joy as palpable as the heavy brown dust swirling through the streets choking off the sun.

We turn down a pock marked dirt road. Reminded of a video game my son used to love, we swerve from side to side to miss as many obstacles as possible, including oncoming traffic of all varieties, crashing through spine-jarring potholes with regularity. We spot the large pink building behind a huge steel gate. The guard points to a door and tells us to call inside.

We have arrived at the New Learning Center, a school serving the children of Afghanistan. It was founded and directed by Andeisha Farid, a young Afghan woman, who was herself a displaced person during the Soviet war and grew up in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. Andeisha had one simple idea. If she could help one child, that child would return to her family and influence the family. In turn, the family would influence the village, the village would influence the province, the province would influence the country. This simple idea has turned into 11 orphanages, serving 700 children, and the New Learning Center, newly opened in May 2011.

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10 Years After: Welcome to the Failed State of Americastan.

by Johnny Barber

Kabul–As we step off the Turkish Air flight and walk across the dusty tarmac to the terminal, we are greeted by a large billboard. In big bold English it proclaims, “Welcome to the Home of the Brave.” It stops me in my tracks. I shake my head, thinking, “damn weird” and continue in to passport control. After waiting in a short line, I present my American passport to the guard in the booth. He doesn’t acknowledge me. He flips through the shiny new pages until he gets to the visa. He stamps it. He turns to the picture. He gives me a precursory glance and hands the passport back to me. I turn and enter Afghanistan.

I have come here with two friends from Voices for Creative Non-Violence, forming a small delegation interested in developing relationships with ordinary Afghans and gathering stories of everyday life since the American invasion in 2001. After collecting our luggage and taking a short bus ride to the parking area, Hakim, Mohammed Jan, and his brother Noor greet us warmly. Hakim and Mohammed Jan are our hosts and the organizing force of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers.

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