"Tell them to come and see who we are." Almost every Afghan we met said that. Tell them to come and see. While my mind flashed to nightly news programs that portray all Afghans as dark, bearded men with big guns, ordinary Afghans told me that they want Americans to see them as just that: ordinary people. In October, I participated in a Voices for Creative Nonviolence delegation to Afghanistan. Kathy Kelly, David Smith-Ferri, and I spent almost a month in Afghanistan, joining the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers in Bamiyan for a week and spending the rest of the trip in Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul. The purpose of the delegation was to make human connections with those people who are bearing the brunt of our country's policies of warmaking. Entering the 10th year of U.S. occupation, and after 30 years of almost constant war, ordinary Afghans want the 43 occupying countries and the greater international community to stop the fighting. Come and see, the Afghans would ask wearily. We are human beings.
We were welcomed into the country by the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV), a group of young men in Bamiyan, an Afghan province directly west of Kabul. Bamiyan is a relatively stable area of the country with a large population of ethnic Hazaras and Tajiks. While we were there, the young men invited us into their daily lives. They work at small shops and in the fields, harvesting potatoes or hauling water by donkey. Their large families welcomed us into their homes with smiles and nods and messages of peace. We shared simple meals over food and with laughter, and seemingly insurmountable differences grew negligible.
All of the families in the surrounding villages of Bamiyan share memories of fleeing the Taliban during their reign in the late 1990s -- stories of large groups running down mountains in the dark, clutching small children and any possessions they could grab. Many of the very young and very old didn't survive. Countless women and men in Bamiyan suffer from depression after experiencing the ravaging nature of war. "We age very quickly here," reflected the mother of one of the AYPVs. Noting her weathered hands and worn eyes, I assumed she was in her late-50s. But the translator, after explaining that most women there suffer from anemia, persistent headaches, and debilitating depression, told us that the mother was only 38 years old. She went on, concluding: "I have experienced 30 years of war in less than 40 years of life."
As the days passed, we started to weave together each young man's story -- stories experienced in the midst of lifelong war that have forced these teenagers to age quickly, too. Abdulai, a bright-eyed and generous 15-year-old member of the AYPV, lived through the Taliban's abduction and murder of his father. Others told stories of witnessing their loved ones die, seizing the bullet-ridden bodies of their uncles and brothers. Faiz's parents both died from illness before he turned 7. "When I remember my childhood," he said, "tears come to my eyes." But still, their hope was infectious. During a phone call with a young Gazan, 12-year-old Ghulamai, we heard words of encouragement that bridged the miles between these two occupied lands. "Please remain strong and brave," pleaded Ghulamai. "We will endure this together, with you. If it's beyond enduring, please call us. Life will pass, but if it's beyond enduring, call us."
The history of Afghanistan, I am learning, is a complicated web of interlocking systems of violence -- a murder mystery-like story with warlords, ethnic oppression, drug rings, shadow governments, and corruption. But I am struck with the wisdom that was shared with us over tea in a Kabul café from a Western woman who has lived in the country for the last decade: There is not a military solution to the problems of Afghanistan. Forty billion dollars of U.S. humanitarian aid since the invasion in 2001 has done nothing for the poor. Policies to pump the country with even more weapons will never result in lasting peace. Young men with little education and no opportunity to provide food for their fatherless families will continue to join the Taliban for a meager salary. Come and see, the boys beg us. As they continue to bear the brunt of our military machine, may we hear them.
Jerica Arents (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and lives in the White Rose Catholic Worker in Chicago. She is a recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago's Institute of Pastoral Studies.