Tales in a Kabul Restaurant

by Kathy Kelly

Afghan children
Twelve children killed in the Kunar province, April 2013 (Photo credit: Namatullah Karyab for The New York Times)

May 21, 2013 – Kabul–Since 2009, Voices for Creative Nonviolence has maintained a grim record we call the “The Afghan Atrocities Update” which gives the dates, locations, numbers and names of Afghan civilians killed by NATO forces.  Even with details culled from news reports, these data can’t help but merge into one large statistic, something about terrible pain that’s worth caring about but that is happening very far away.

It’s one thing to chronicle sparse details about these U.S. led NATO attacks. It’s quite another to sit across from Afghan men as they try, having broken down in tears, to regain sufficient composure to finish telling us their stories.  Last night, at a restaurant in Kabul, I and two friends from the Afghan Peace Volunteers met with five Pashtun men from Afghanistan’s northern and eastern provinces. The men had agreed to tell us about their experiences living in areas affected by regular drone attacks, aerial bombings and night raids.  Each of them noted that they also fear Taliban threats and attacks. “What can we do,” they asked, “when both sides are targeting us?”

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Why Afghanistan Can’t wait

by Kathy Kelly and Dr. Hakim

Ali and Abdulhai

Two days ago, we spent three anxious hours in an outer waiting area of the “Non-Immigrant Visa” section of the U.S. consulate here in Kabul, Afghanistan, waiting for our young friends Ali and Abdulhai to return from a sojourn through the inner offices where they were being interviewed for visas to come speak to audiences in the United States.

They are members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and have been invited to travel with the U.S.-Mexico “Caravan  for Peace” that will be touring the United States later this summer.  We didn’t want to see their hopes dashed, and we didn’t want to see this opportunity lost to connect the experiences of poor people around the world suffering from war. The organizers of the Caravan envision and demand alternatives to the failed systems of militarized policing in the terrifyingly violent, seemingly endless U.S.-Mexico drug war. They want to connect with victims of war in Afghanistan especially since, as the top producer of opium and marijuana in the world, Afghanistan has a failing war against drugs as well.

It’s an unprecedented invitation, at a desperately crucial human moment.

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Afghan Screams Aren’t Heard

by Kathy Kelly and Hakim

Two Afghan youth taking refuge together with the Afghan Peace Volunteers

Last weekend, in Kabul, Afghan Peace Volunteer friends huddled in the back room of their simple home. With a digital camera, glimpses and sounds of their experiences were captured, as warfare erupted three blocks away.

The fighting has subdued, but the video gives us a glimpse into chronic anxieties among civilians throughout Afghanistan. Later, we learned more: Ghulam awakens suddenly, well after midnight, and begins to pace through a room of sleeping people, screaming.  Ali suddenly tears up, after an evening meal, and leaves the room to sit outside. Staring at the sky and the moon, he finds solace.  Yet another puzzles over what brings people to the point of loaning themselves to possibly kill or be killed, over issues so easily manipulated by politicians.

I asked our friend, Hakim, who mentors the Afghan Peace Volunteers, if ordinary Afghans are aware that the U.S. has an estimated 400 or more Forward Operating Bases across Afghanistan and that it is planning to construct what will become the world’s largest U.S. Embassy, in Kabul.  Hakim thinks young people across Kabul are well aware of this. “Do they know,” I asked, “that the U.S. Air Force has hired 60,000 – 70,000 analysts to study information collected through drone surveillance?  The film footage amounts to the equivalent of 58,000 full length feature films. The Rand Corporation says that 100,000 analysts are needed to understand ‘patterns of life’ in Afghanistan.”

Hakim’s response was quick and cutting: “Ghulam would ask the analysts a question they can’t answer with their drone surveillance, a question that has much to do with their business, ‘terror’: “You mean, you don’t understand why I screamed?”

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Cold, Cold Heart

by Kathy Kelly

It’s Valentine’s Day, and opening the little cartoon on the Google page brings up a sentimental animation with Tony Bennett singing “why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart.”

Here in Dubai, where I’m awaiting a visa to visit Afghanistan, the weather is already warm and humid.  But my bags are packed with sweaters because Kabul is still reeling from the coldest winter on record.  Two weeks ago, eight children under age five froze to death there in one of the sprawling refugee camps inhabited by so many who have fled from the battles in other provinces.  Since January 15, at least 23 children under 5 have frozen to death in the camps.

And just over a week ago, eight young shepherds, all but one under 14 years of age, lit a fire for warmth on the snowy Afghan mountainside in Kapisa Province where they were helping support their families by grazing sheep.  French troops saw the fire, and acted on faulty information, and the boys were all killed in two successive NATO airstrikes.  The usual denunciations from local authorities, and Western apologies, followed. (Trend News, February 10, 2012).

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Much to Forgive: The Story of Bibi Sadia

by Kathy Kelly and the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers

Bibi and her granddaughter.

Kabul – Bibi Sadia and her husband Baba share a humble home with their son, his wife and their two little children. An Afghan human rights advocate suggested that we listen to Bibi’s stories and learn more about how a Pashto family has tried to survive successive tragedies in Kabul.

Holding her three year old granddaughter in her arms, Bibi adjusted her hijab and launched into a narrative that began during the Soviet occupation.  The mujahideen had asked Baba to bring them medicines two or three times a week for those injured in the war. For each batch of medicines that Baba delivered, the mujahideen paid him a small sum of money. When the Russian occupiers discovered what he was doing, they beat him severely.  After that, the mujahideen accused him of spying for the Russians and they also beat him badly.

The vicious beatings gave him perforated ear drums requiring six operations and left him permanently hard of hearing.

They also left him mentally unsound, so that Bibi became the sole breadwinner for the family.  “During the time of the Taliban,” Bibi tells us with a soft smile, “I used to make bread, wash clothes and reap other people’s wheat to earn a living,” The mujahideen, having ousted Russia’s favored government and its army, were now in power and frowned on women working.  “I used to work by the moonlight, sewing clothes from animal hide”.

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Overcoming Contradictions

by Kathy Kelly and Hakim

Adelaide, Australia –At Tabor House Technical College, 21 young people sit in a semicircle looking curiously at Hakim and me. We’ve been invited to speak with them about the practice of justice.  Hakim, who has lived among Afghans for the past nine years, begins by describing how an Afghan youth, Zekerullah, would greet them.  “Salam,” he says to all. With his hand over his heart, Hakim makes eye contact with each student, and then nods in silent greeting. I smile, having watched Zekerullah do just this, whenever he entered a room. The students are interested.

“You can’t listen only to leaders,” Hakim tells them. “We must put our ears close to the hearts of ordinary people and listen to them.”  Hakim is often poetic, but he’s also a trained physician, prone toward assembling data and seeking careful diagnosis.

Rising early this morning, he prepared for today’s presentation by collecting statistics about government responses, in various parts of the world, to massive manifestations of public opinion.  As expected, the short survey showed that leaders aren’t listening well to ordinary people, that ‘national interests’ routinely overrule the people’s interests:

72% of Australians want their troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

But Prime Minister Julia Gillard insists that Australian troops will remain “till the end of the decade, at least.”

63% of Americans oppose the Afghan war.

But the US is about to sign a US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that will allow joint military bases in Afghanistan beyond 2024.

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The Wrong Occupation

by Kathy Kelly

October 20, 2011

In Kabul, Afghanistan’s beleaguered capitol city, a young woman befriended me during December of 2010.  She was eager to talk about her views, help us better understand the history of her country, and form lasting relationships.  Now, she is too frightened to return a phone call from visiting westerners.  The last time I saw her, during the spring of 2011, she was extremely anxious because, weeks earlier, U.S. Joint Special Operations Commandos (JSOC) had arrested her brother-in-law. The family has no idea how to find him. Once, someone working for the International Commission of the Red Cross called the family to say that he was still alive and in the custody of the International Security Assistance Forces, (ISAF).  Numerous families in Afghanistan experience similar misery and fear after night raids that effectively “disappear” family members who are held incommunicado and sometimes turned over to Afghan National Police or the dreaded National Directorate of Security, (NDS).

An October 22, 2011 New York Times report about the findings of UN researchers who interviewed 324 Afghans detained by security forces, found that half of those who were in detention sites run by the NDS told of torture which included beatings, twisting of genitals, stress positions, suspension, and threatened sexual assault.  Of the 324 interviewed, 89 had been handed over to the Afghan intelligence service or the police by U.S./NATO international military forces.

Even though high commanders in the ranks of the U.S. JSOC acknowledge that 50% of the time the night raids and drone attacks “get” the wrong person, (Washington Post, September 3, 2011), the U.S. war planners have steadily escalated reliance on these tactics.

Consider the killing of three brothers in the Nemati family who lived in the Sayyidabad village in Afghanistan’s Wardak province.  Ismail, age 25, and Buranullah, age 23, had returned from their studies in Kabul to celebrate the start of Ramadan with their family in August of 2010. With their brother Faridullah, age 17, they went to the family guest room to study for exams.  They were joined by their younger brother, Wahidullah, age 13.

An initial U.S. military press release on August 12th, 2010, indicated that U.S. forces had captured an important Taliban figure nearby and had taken fire from the Nemati home where they believed Taliban fighters were being hosted as guests. Indeed, two Taliban fighters had stopped at the home two days earlier, asking for food.  Fearful of repercussions if they didn’t feed them, the family had given them food.

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More Lost by the Second

by Kathy Kelly

Afghan women and children wait as U.S. Special Operations forces and Afghan soldiers search their home during a night raid in Farah province. (Associated Press)

It’s a bit odd to me that with my sense of geographical direction I’m ever regarded as a leader to guide groups in foreign travel.  I’m recalling a steaming hot night in Lahore, Pakistan when Josh Brollier and I, having enjoyed a lengthy dinner with Lahore University students, needed to head back to the guest lodgings graciously provided us by a headmaster of the Garrison School for Boys.  We had boarded a rickshaw, but the driver had soon become terribly lost and with my spotty sense of direction and my complete ignorance of Urdu, I couldn’t be any help. My cell phone was out of juice, and I was uncertain anyway of the needed phone number. I bumped and jostled in the back seat of the rickshaw, next to Josh, as we embarked on a nightmare of travel over unpaved, rutted roads in dizzying traffic until finally the rickshaw driver spotted a sign belonging to our school – the wrong campus, we all knew – and eager to unload us, roused the inhabitants and hustled us and our bags into the street before moving on.

We stood inside the gate, staring blankly at a family that had been sound asleep on cots in the courtyard.  In no time, the father of the family scooped up his two children, gently moving them to the cot he shared with his wife so that Josh and I would have a cot on which to sit.  Then he and his spouse disappeared into their humble living quarters. He reappeared with a fan and an extension cord, wanting to give us some relief from the blistering night heat.  His wife emerged carrying a glass of tea for each of us.  They didn’t know us from Adam’s house cat, but they were treating us as family – the celebrated but always astonishing hospitality that we’d encountered in the region so many times before.  Eventually, we established with our host that we were indeed at the wrong campus, upon which he called the family that had been nervously waiting for our errant selves.

This courtyard scene of startling hospitality would return to my mind when we all learned of the U.S. Joint Special Operations (JSO) Force night raid in the Nangarhar province, on May 12, 2011. No matter which side of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border you are on, suffocating hot temperatures prevail day and night during these hot months.  It’s normal for people to sleep in their courtyards.  How could anyone living in the region not know this?  Yet the U.S. JSO forces that came in the middle of the night to the home of a 12 year old girl, Nilofer, who had been asleep on her cot in the courtyard, began their raid by throwing a grenade into the courtyard, landing at Nilofer’s head.  She died instantly.  Nilofer’s uncle raced into the courtyard. He worked with the Afghan Local Police, and they had told him not to join that night’s patrol because he didn’t know much about the village they would go to, so he had instead gone to his brother’s home.  When he heard the grenade explode, he may well have presumed the Taliban were attacking the home.  U.S. troops killed him as soon as they saw him.  Later, NATO issued an apology.

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An Open Letter to Senator Mark Kirk on the Gaza Flotilla

An Open Letter to Illinois Senator Mark Kirk
responding to his call for U.S. Special Forces to attack a flotilla of ships that will sail to Gaza

Senator Mark Kirk
524 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington DC, 20510

June 29th, 2011

Dear Senator Kirk,

We are Illinois residents writing to you from Athens, Greece. Just before leaving the United States, we wrote to inform your office about our intent to sail on “The Audacity of Hope,” as part of the US Boat to Gaza project.  In our letters, we explained why we were traveling to Gaza.  We told you of our previous experiences living among Palestinians who lack access to basic necessities, such as clean water, because of the blockade. Referring to Gaza as the world’s largest open-air prison, we mentioned how hard it has been for people to rebuild after previous lethal assaults, especially the Operation Cast Lead attack which ended, after 23 days, on January 18, 2009.  According to B’tselem, the foremost Israeli Human Rights Organization, Operation Cast Lead caused the deaths of 1,389 Palestinians in Gaza.  Of those, 344 were children. Of the 13 Israelis who were killed, four were soldiers killed by friendly fire.

Knowing that you and your staff care deeply about the consequences of unemployment, poor education and dangerously limited health care delivery, we pointed out related statistics affecting people in Gaza where 45% of the population is unemployed and hospital administrators are sounding the alarm because they are running out of crucial medicines.  Half of Gaza’s 1.6 million people are under age 18.

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Don’t Look Away: The Siege of Gaza Must End

by Kathy Kelly

In late June 2011, I’m going to be a passenger on “The Audacity of Hope,” the USA boat in this summer’s international flotilla to break the illegal and deadly Israeli siege of Gaza. Organizers, supporters and passengers aim to nonviolently end the brutal collective punishment imposed on Gazan residents since 2006 when the Israeli government began a stringent air, naval and land blockade of the Gaza Strip explicitly to punish Gaza’s residents for choosing the Hamas government in a democratic election.  Both the Hamas and the Israeli governments have indiscriminately killed civilians in repeated attacks, but the vast preponderance of these outrages over the length of the conflict have been inflicted by Israeli soldiers and settlers on unarmed Palestinians.  I was witness to one such attack when last in Gaza two years ago, under heavy Israeli bombardment in a civilian neighborhood in Rafah.

In January 2009, I lived with a family in Rafah during the final days of the “Operation Cast Lead” bombing.  We were a few streets down from an area where there was heavy bombing. Employing its ever-replenished stockpile of U.S. weapons, the Israeli government sought to destroy tunnels beneath the Egyptian border through which food, medicine, badly-needed building supplies, and possibly a few weapons as well were evading the internationally condemned blockade and entering Gaza.

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