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?”
In 1876, at the so-called Battle of the Little Bighorn when U.S. Cavalry regiments attacked an Indian village along the Little Bighorn River in Wyoming, the first casualty was a ten-year old Lakota Sioux boy named Deeds. Unaware that U.S. troops were nearby planning an attack, he and his father were combing a hillside looking for a lost pony when U.S. troops encountered and killed him. The next casualties were six Lakota women and four children, who were murdered while in a field gathering wild radish bulbs, one of the many indigenous plants that Native people depended on for their livelihood, and hardly a threatening activity.
I think of these events today because of the recent killings of Afghan civilians, not only the 17 women and children killed in villages outside Kandahar, but also two recent and less publicized atrocities resulting from NATO airstrikes that killed civilians in Kapisa Province, including eight Afghan boys who were tending their sheep. Sheepherding, of course, is an activity as integral to their livelihood as gathering indigenous plants was to Lakota people.
“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.
Despite ten years of occupation and untold millions of dollars spent on rebuilding Afghanistan’s broken judicial and criminal justice system, the Afghan courts are “still too weak,” the Washington Post reported on August 12, for the United States to relinquish its control over the Parwan Detention Center on Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. On September 21, the same paper reported that the U.S. military is seeking contractors to significantly increase the capacity of the prison there.
The number of Afghans detained at Bagram has tripled over the past three years to more than 2,600 and the new construction will raise the capacity to 5,500 prisoners. Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the U.S. task force that oversees detention operations in Afghanistan, told the Post that the expansion was necessary to “accommodate an increase in the number of suspected insurgents being detained as a result of intelligence-based counter- terrorism operations, which we conduct with our Afghan partners.”
Many of those held at Bagram have been there since the U.S. occupied the former Soviet air base in 2001, and some two thirds of prisoners there have not been charged with or convicted of any crime. Corruption is rampant in Afghan courts and among police there as it is in many other places but the major fear of the United States is not that the Afghan courts will not function according to their constitution and accepted norms of law, but that they will. In order for Afghanistan to take sovereignty over its own judiciary and prison system, the Afghans must first fix the “cracks of an undeveloped legal system” and adopt essential “reforms,” including adoption of the U.S. practice of detaining suspected insurgents indefinitely without trial.
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.”
“The military is the muscle that protects the ruling elite from the wrath of the people,” says Pakistani political analyst Dr. Mubashir Hassan. “Right now, people are out on the street; blocking roads, attacking railway stations, etc. If you read the papers, it seems as though a general uprising has started all over Pakistan.”
Dr. Hassan says that sporadic outbursts of anger in Pakistan won’t coalesce into a people’s revolution anytime soon. The demonstrators are too disorganized. But, the sheer volume of daily protests shows that many sectors of Pakistani society have pressing needs and priorities that do not include enlistment as foot soldiers in a proxy force for the United States’ War on Terror.
Dr. Hassan, a co-founder of the People’s Party of Pakistan, is a respected scholar and statesman. Last year, when we met with him, he had just returned from a visit, in the U.S., with Professors Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, his contemporaries in seeking to build just and fair social structures. Last month, in Lahore, he spoke with us about U.S. interference in the region and changing dynamics in Pakistan.
May 17, 2010, Islamabad — Through the Soviet invasion and occupation, the Afghan civil war and now the United States war and occupation, a young man named Zainullah, around 25 years of age, has seen war his whole life. But you’d never know it by his engaging smile and his relaxed countenance. Zainullah currently lives at a paraplegic center in Hayatabad, Pakistan, a suburb of Peshawar, the capital city of the North-West Frontier Province. He is originally from the Helmand province of Afghanistan, which has been one of the most intense battlegrounds during the “war on terror” launched by the United States in 2001.
Zainullah was paralyzed about nine months ago after being struck with shrapnel from a U.S. cruise missile. On the day of the attack, Zainullah was getting ready to start his prayers. He heard a bomb blast, and before he had a chance to realize that he was the target, Zainullah was laying prostrate on the ground with a piece of metal lodged in his spinal cord. Two men from his village carried him to the nearest clinic. There he was given an injection and then taken to the International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC) facility in Helmand. Now paralyzed from the waist down, Zainullah spent one month at the ICRC , and then decided to seek more extensive rehabilitation treatment in Pakistan.
There’s a phrase originating with the peace activism of the American Quaker movement: “Speak Truth to Power.” One can hardly speak more directly to power than addressing the Presidential Administration of the United States. This past October, students at Islamabad’s Islamic International University had a message for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One student summed up many of her colleagues’ frustration. “We don’t need America,” she said. “Things were better before they came here.”
The students were mourning loss of life at their University where, a week earlier, two suicide bombers walked onto the campus wearing explosive devices and left seven students dead and dozens of others seriously injured. Since the spring of 2009, under pressure from U.S. leaders to “do more” to dislodge militant Taliban groups, the Pakistani government has been waging military offensives throughout the northwest of the country. These bombing attacks have displaced millions and the Pakistani government has apparently given open permission for similar attacks by unmanned U.S. aerial drones. Every week, Pakistani militant groups have launched a new retaliatory atrocity in Pakistan, killing hundreds more civilians in markets, schools, government buildings, mosques and sports facilities. Who can blame the student who believed that her family and friends were better off before the U.S. began insisting that Pakistan cooperate with U.S. military goals in the region?