Afghanistan

Voting With Their Feet

Afghan Peace Volunteers plant a sapling in response to violence

On March 28 at about 4 p.m., the Afghan Peace Volunteers heard a loud explosion nearby. For the rest of the evening and night, they anxiously waited for the sound of rocket fire and firing to stop. It was reported that a 10-year-old girl, and the four assailants, were killed.

Four days later, they circulated a video, poem and photos prefaced by this note:

“We had been thinking about an appropriate response to the violence perpetrated by the Taliban, other militia, the Afghan government, and the U.S./NATO coalition of 50 countries.

So, on the 31st of March 2014, in building alternatives and saying ‘no’ to all violence and all forms of war-making, a few of us went to an area near the place which was attacked, and there, we planted some trees. -- Love and thanks, The Afghan Peace Volunteers"

Wounded Souls

WHEN CHIEF MASTER Sergeant Harry Marsters returned in 2008 from his time in Iraq, he knew something wasn’t right. At 54, the 32-year veteran of the Air Force—with 27 years full time in the military and the remainder as a reservist with the Air National Guard—felt that as one of the “older folks” he knew what to expect upon return from his assignment with the communications squad at the Kirkuk Regional Air Base in northern Iraq.

Marsters’ squadron trained Iraqi forces in the operation and maintenance of aerial surveillance equipment on the base, which housed 1,000 Air Force and 2,500 Army troops. As first sergeant he acted as a liaison to the Air Force troops and ensured the well-being of those stationed there. It was a job he relished, pouring care into building connections with the airmen and women, spending time with the chaplains, and coordinating recreation and morale-building activities.

Though Air Force personnel never left the base, they were subjected to the ever-present threat of randomly timed mortar rounds launched by insurgents. They also took part in nighttime “patriot details” in which Air Force personnel and soldiers lined the base’s runway as the bodies of fallen soldiers were loaded onto planes for transport back to the United States. But Marsters says he was most upset by what he felt was harsh treatment of the Iraqi nationals who came to work on the base.

“They were treated like criminals,” he says of the extensive searches and intimidation Iraqis received when going through base security. “Everyone in Iraq is not evil, bad, and nasty. It’s a very small group of people who are raising hell and trying to hurt the country. The average person is just trying to make some money and take care of his or her family.”

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VIDEO: The War Within

In "Wounded Souls" (Sojourners, April 2014), Gregg Brekke explores the church's role in "helping to mitigate the effects of guilt and shame" that veterans experience after they return home from duty. Many veterans suffer from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), which makes integrating back into civilian life both difficult and painful. Brekke argues that the church community can and should play a vital role in helping veterans begin to heal from their wounds—wounds that are not easily seen by the human eye. 

Watch the following video from 60 Minutes to learn some of the challenges that U.S. veterans with PTSD face.

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Salt and Terror in Afghanistan

APVs learn about world hunger. Photo by Abdulhai Safarali
APVs learn about world hunger. Photo by Abdulhai Safarali

Two weeks ago in a room in Kabul, Afghanistan, I joined several dozen people — working seamstresses, some college students, socially engaged teenagers, and a few visiting internationals like myself — to discuss world hunger. Our emphasis was not exclusively their own country’s worsening hunger problems. Rather, tmhe Afghan Peace Volunteers, in whose home we were meeting, draw strength from looking beyond their own very real struggles.

With us was Hakim, a medical doctor who spent six years working as a public health specialist in the central highlands of Afghanistan and, prior to that, among refugees in Quetta, Pakistan. He helped us understand conditions that lead to food shortages and taught us about diseases, such as kwashiorkor and marasmus, which are caused by insufficient protein or general malnutrition.

We looked at U.N. figures about hunger in Afghanistan, which show malnutrition rates rising by 50 percent or more compared with 2012. The malnutrition ward at Helmand Province’s Bost Hospital has been admitting 200 children a month for severe, acute malnutrition — four times more than in January 2012.

A recent New York Times article about the worsening hunger crisis described an encounter with a mother and child in an Afghan hospital: “In another bed is Fatima, less than a year old, who is so severely malnourished that her heart is failing, and the doctors expect that she will soon die unless her father is able to find money to take her to Kabul for surgery. The girl’s face bears a perpetual look of utter terror, and she rarely stops crying.”

Photos of Fatima and other children in the ward accompanied the article. In our room in Kabul, Hakim projected the photos on the wall. They were painful to see and so were the nods of comprehension from Afghans all too familiar with the agonies of poverty in a time of war.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., Atomazul / Shutterstock.co
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., Atomazul / Shutterstock.com

Week after bloody week, the chart of killings lengthens. And in Afghanistan, while war rages, a million children are estimated to suffer from acute malnourishment as the country faces a worsening hunger crisis.

Around this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we can and should remember the dream Dr. King announced before the Lincoln Memorial, the dream he did so much to accomplish, remembering his call (as the King Center asks) for nonviolent solutions to desperate concerns of discrimination and inequality within the U.S. But we shouldn't let ourselves forget the full extent of Dr. King's vision, the urgent tasks he urgently set us to fulfill on his behalf, so many of them left unfinished nearly 46 years after he was taken from us. 

In Kabul, Locked in Winter

Abdulai Safarali
Refugees in the Chaman e Babrak camp stand amid the rubble. Abdulai Safarali

The fire in the Chaman e Babrak camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, began in Nadiai’s home shortly after noon. She had rushed her son, who had a severe chest infection, to the hospital. She did not know that a gas bottle was leaking; when the gas reached a wood-burning stove, flames engulfed her mud hut and extended to adjacent homes, swiftly rendering nine extended families homeless and destitute in the midst of already astounding poverty. By the time seven fire trucks had arrived in response to the fire at the refugee camp, the houses had burned to the ground.

No one was killed. When I visited the camp, three days after the disaster, that was a common refrain of relief. Nadiai’s home was on the edge of the camp, close to the entrance road. Had the fire broken out in the middle of the camp, or at night when the homes were filled with sleeping people, the disaster could have been far worse.

Even so, Zakia, age 54, who also lives in the camp, said this is the worst catastrophe she has seen in her life, and already their situation was desperate.

Afghan Street Children Beg for Change

Kathy Kelly with Safar, an Afghan “street child”
Kathy Kelly with Safar, an Afghan “street child”

Kabul, Afghanistan, is “home” to hundreds of thousands of children who have no home. Many of them live in squalid refugee camps with families that have been displaced by violence and war. Bereft of any income in a city already burdened by high rates of unemployment, families struggle to survive without adequate shelter, clothing, food, or fuel. Winter is especially hard for refugee families. Survival sometimes means sending their children to work on the streets, as vendors, where they often become vulnerable to well-organized gangs that lure them into drug and other criminal rings.

Last year, the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV), young Afghans who host me and other internationals when we visit Kabul, began a program to help street children enroll in schools. The volunteers befriend small groups of children, get to know the children’s families and circumstances, and then reach agreements with the families that if the children are allowed to attend school and reduce their working hours on the streets, the APVs will compensate the families, supplying them with oil and rice. Next, the APVs buy warm clothes for each child and invite them to attend regular classes at the APV home to learn the alphabet and math.

Yesterday, Abdulhai and Hakim met a young boy, Safar, age 13, who was working as a boot polisher on a street near the APV home. Abdulhai asked to shake Safar’s hand, but the child refused. Understandably, Safar may have feared Abdulhai. But when Abdulhai and Hakim told Safar there were foreigners at the APV office who were keen to help, he followed them into our yard.

Lessons from Afghanistan

AS THE U.S. prepares to officially (but not completely) pull out its military from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, some wonder whether it all was a waste. More than a decade of war has cost tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. But the balance sheet of “lessons learned” shows some less-depressing calculations.

In the last several years, U.S. generals have repeatedly told Congress and the U.S. public that “there is no military solution” to the war in Afghanistan. This marks a significant shift in military thinking. In the early 2000s, the boastful, overconfident views that wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be quick and easy outnumbered more cautious and skeptical military voices. If nothing else, more military leaders today are forthrightly speaking out against the fantasy of firepower solutions to complex political problems.

The U.S. and its Western allies are also learning a related lesson: The lack of legitimate governance is a fundamental cause of much of the world’s violence. Afghanistan’s political leaders who opposed the Taliban became de facto Western allies, even though many had ruled by force and racked up their own long list of human rights abuses. In the rush to set up a new government to replace the Taliban, the West propped up corrupt and tyrannical warlords as provincial governors, dooming hopes for an Afghan democracy and authentic leaders with popular support.

Counterinsurgency projects attempted to pull support from the Taliban and other insurgents by winning Afghan hearts and minds so they would trust their government. But Western military forces learned that free handouts of Western aid money could not fundamentally change the corrupt nature of the Afghan government or its public image.

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AUDIO: Kathy Kelly's Defiant Peace Activism

As Ramzi Kysia writes in "The Song Remains" (Sojourners, August 2013), after decades of work, Kathy Kelly’s commitment to peace and nonviolence remains strong. When Sojourners editorial assistant, Dawn Araujo, caught up with her in June, Kelly was between visits to Afghanistan and her work with the Afghan Peace Volunteers. She was spending her “down” time protesting drones, nuclear weapons, and organizing a U.S. speaking tour for the newly formed Veterans for Peace in the UK. She shared with Dawn some of her thoughts on aging and how she stays centered in her whirlwind world.

 

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Afghanistan's Children of War

The United Nations issued a report on Wednesday stating that the number of civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan rose by 23 percent in the first six months of 2013, with women and children faring the worst — killed by roadside bombs almost every day. An earlier UN report noted that

"Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a child."

Over a third of Afghans are living in abject poverty, violence is escalating as NATO forces withdraw, and years of international aid has done little to decrease the abuse of women and children.

Click here to see the Atlantic's photos series on Afghan children.

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