Monday, March 21, 2011

Peace Activists in Afghanistan

These posts are the first three days of a trip to Afghanistan.

Here in Wisconsin where I live, we get very little news about either of the wars our government wages across the globe. I was taken by the lack of any real news about our latest war in Libya. I guess the Obama administration takes it one step further than George W. Bush, and that is to totally hide what the government is doing instead of just cloaking it as goodwill.

Being active in the important business of the day for peace, I get many e-mails from various outlets. One in particular is a daily log of a peace activist that is traveling right now in Afghanistan on a mission of peace. His name is Steve Clemens.

I know Steve, I have met him a few times over the years. Last time we hung out together was the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul in 2008. Steve is a regular participant at a weekly action in Eden Paririe for Alliant Technoligies, the old Honeywell Corporation that manufactures deadly depleted uranium weapons and ammunitions.

I think very highly of the character and resolve of Steve's works and will post his daily reports from his peaceful visit to Afghanistan here on these pages.

Day 1

By Steve Clemens

Three Powerful Perspectives on Afghanistan by Steve Clemens. March 18, 2011

I couldn’t afford to give in to jet lag after my arrival in Afghanistan this morning after 3 flights and layovers totaling 40 hours before reaching my floor space in a Kabul office of a small nonprofit human rights organization formed by some very dedicated Afghan women eight months ago. I did nap for about an hour before Hakim showed us a new five minute video he had just created from yesterday’s historic peace walk through the streets of Kabul.

It was a group of more than 20 international nonviolent peace activists and at least a dozen Afghan counterparts that crowded into the 12’ x 16’ office room and overflowed into the adjoining space. After a few minutes for introductions and several more for logistics and a look at the proposed schedule for our week here, Hakim, the mentor, translator, and prime mover of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV) begins to share about yesterday’s historic event.

About 40 Afghan young people, primarily in their teens and early 20s donned bright blue scarfs and carried banners as the inter-ethnic group marched from the Iranian Embassy to the Embassy for the United Nations in the busy area of central Baghdad. [I’ll hopefully be able to post the video of the walk after I return to the US.] Hakim shows us the video before explaining that “ ‘Peace’ is a dirty word to Afghans”. President Obama won the ‘Peace Prize’ in 2009, the same political leader who has increased the level of foreign military occupiers (both uniformed armed forces as well as ‘contractors’ and other mercenaries under the pay and control of the Pentagon or US State Department). “Peace” is the term used (or more accurately, abused) by everyone to excuse or justify anything. Many, many Afghans have been killed in the name of “peace”.

“We have had non-stop occupation and war; Afghans can’t trust each other because of decades of war”, Hakim tells us. We get a lot of ‘lip-service’ to the causes of peace by others – but then they ‘don’t show up’, he continues. “How do we restore hope; how do we begin to build up trust?” He observes there is not a culture of questioning here in Afghanistan (at least out loud, not in public). “War mongers have misused the word of peace” – to the point there is no trust. It is left to us, foreigners, who must encourage Afghans to find their own voice, this trained Public Health medical doctor from Singapore tells us. He started working in public health with refugees first in Pakistan and then accompanied them back to the Bamiyan area of central Afghanistan 8 years ago when he decided his role to encourage and nurture the ideals of the local young people was more pressing and in line with his deep commitment to Gandhian nonviolence then his medical practice.

“It is easy for politicians to talk about peace – but nothing is working here. Violence is a failing strategy. Every family here has someone who has been killed [in these wars]” – if not in the immediate family, then certainly in the extended one. There is no clear plan by any leader that is nonviolent he laments but goes on to say that there are only two leaders that these young people trust: Malalia Joya, an out-spoken woman activist, and Dr. Ramazon Barshardost, a humanist Member of Parliament who states categorically “It is wrong to kill” but is readily dismissed by many of his compatriots as “the mad (crazy) one.” Joya tells these young people, “If you truly walk this path [of peace and nonviolence], you will be killed one day.” We are told that the US government has just refused to give her a visa to come to the US for a planned speaking trip that was to begin next week.

Three years ago at a college in Bamiyan, Hakim led a 3 month workshop with students and their conclusion was “Peace is not possible in Afghanistan” – so, what do we do? He helped organize an effort to get an inter-ethnic group to live together for a semester and 16 students did. However controversy arose near the end of the time and Hakim started receiving death threats. He spoke to the “authorities”, he traveled from village to village, meeting people and listening. A group of boys coalesced and he helped supervise them in building a peace park in Bamiyan. The boys did a 7 day vigil to try to deliver a peace message to Obama. They recently sent gifts of some things they made to Pashtun people in Kandahar. A gift from some Hazaras and other ethnic tribes to Pashtuns stunned the recipients. “I can’t believe that there can be such love” was one of the responses Hakim heard. [Please go to the AYPV website to learn more about them.]

Zahra Mobtaker, an amazingly strong, 23 year old Afghan woman who spoke out during the peace march shared with us next. As the director of Open Society, a nonprofit working to empower Afghans –“helping ordinary people overcome their fears to give voice to their experiences”, she is focusing on human rights and democracy. She said they quickly found themselves very much alone. They sponsored a festival to help their fellow citizens overcome their fear and speak the truth. She has displayed photos of victims of the wars in gatherings to facilitate conversation about the reality of today’s Afghanistan.

This tiny (25 members) but bold non-profit has helped form a singing group with the intention of bringing a message of peace through song– especially to the many illiterate in the rural villages. They support their work primarily through their own personal funds – recognizing that their “aims might be sidetracked” by outside donors. This is often the reality of many NGOs here in Afghanistan – especially those getting the predominance of their funds from US AID, the UN, or other funding mechanisms tied to governmental agencies or large bureaucracies. (Note: this Open Society has no connection to the George Soros organizations which also take the Open Society moniker.) This group just operates in Kabul and Afghanistan. Open Society has also used film-making as a vehicle for peace and change. “The Night of the Cartoon-makers” used cartoons drawn on walls of public places, including mosques, as an educational tool. They were pleased that many of the cartoons have been “protected” by the people from defacement- a sign of the growing empowerment the group strives for.

They are also using web blogs ( and yesterday’s march was their first public partnership/ joint venture with the AYPV. “Thank you for coming to this exceptionally frightening country”, she told us. We felt her warmth and welcome and we are so grateful for her courage and eloquence.

Our heads and our hearts were already full before the country director from an [unnamed] NGO (non-Governmental Organization) dropped in to meet with us. He was pleasantly surprised to discover one of the international peace delegates he was to address included a Maryknoll priest who he had worked with in Cambodia many years before! The speaker had just joined this work in Afghanistan two months ago and is responsible for their program in 3 of Afghanistan’s northern provinces, Bamiyan, Herat, and Ghor. This organization has a long history in this country and focuses on 4 main program areas: an agriculture-based program in Herat which primarily works with girls and women developing sustainable methods; community-based education with a focus on girls; watershed management featuring gravity-flow spring management and work to prevent run-off and erosion; and emergency work with an aim to transition to sustainable development. This last program entails road construction and road snow clearance, especially the mountain passes which are cleared by shovel under a cash-for-work plan. One critical pass on the national highway between Herat- Bamiyan – Kabul must be cleared in a timely fashion to allow any traffic to flow, getting supplies to remote areas.

This NGO maintains a strict policy and reputation for not proselytizing and they don’t use any armed guards. Their director talked with dismay about the almost complete failure of the US/NATO military forces and privatized “contractors” (he said we call them ‘Beltway Bandits’ referring to the corruption in Washington, DC) to rebuild needed infrastructure. He said the saying among NGOs is “where progress begins, the Taliban ends”, referring to the on-going struggle against forces of fear and repression. However, what this group has observed is with every contract with US AID (Agency for International Development, the “foreign aid” arm of the US State Department), funds are siphoned off in kick-back style payments, even in the written agreement itself. He recommended we read Descent Into Chaos by Hamad Rashad about this practice and lamented that he sees a “perfect storm of US AID, “contractors”, and local corruption” as a spiral leading to frustration, despair, and a culture of corruption which infects most things happening in Afghanistan.

A lot to think about on my first day in the war zone.

Steve Clemens

A video of a Peace March posted by Steve in between Day 1 and Day 2:

Hakim and the AYPV and Open Society's Peach March in Kabul this week mentioned in my blog

Day 2

By Steve Clemens

Day Two in the War Zone: Planting Trees, Burning Candles by Steve Clemens. March 19, 2011

In the morning we walked in groups of five for about 30-45 minutes through our area of Kabul en route to our morning activity. I awoke at 4 AM to use the bathroom and when the call to prayer was broadcast from the nearby mosque about 40 minutes later, I knew it was time to get up because the dogs on the street also joined the chorus. The city is fairly dirty (what does one expect in one of the poorest countries in the world which is at war with the world’s largest military machines?) and the traffic has no street lights or road striping so the cars switch invisible lanes as the pedestrians dodge and move between them.

Vendors crowd the sidewalk selling fruit, live chickens, freshly butchered meat, nuts, beans, and a multitude of other items. We travel in groups of 4 or 5 – always escorted by one of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers. I know I shouldn’t have favorites - they are all so wonderful and helpful – but I can’t help but respond most to 13 year-old Gholami, the youngest and smallest of the 8 who have joined us for several days. We walk in small groups so we blend in a little more than if we all walk together. About half of the International Peace Delegation is staying at a hotel, others of us are sleeping on the floor in the office building of a non-profit organization that has joined with AYPV in inviting us. After walking down two main streets, we branch off into what seems to be a side street which more resembles an alley with an open sewer/gutter on one side. As cars or trucks pass us they blow their horns so we can step aside.

Vans come by with other delegates from the hotel and we are offered rides but Simon and I prefer to walk with several of the boys, enjoying the sunshine and “fresh air”. Actually, the air is often quite polluted with fumes from older, untuned vehicles. We walk purposefully and deliberately so as to not draw undue attention, despite our pale complexions. (Simon, from Australia, is fairer-skinned than me.) Since most of the others arrived before us, we missed part of the presentation at the private school which was our destination.

Lena, the teacher who addressed our group at the school, was a young woman who described the school and answered our questions. We had “one cup of tea” (we could have had more if we wished – even 3 Cups of Tea) but were told what Afghanistan needs is not more money to build schools but rather to have teachers properly trained. Having school buildings does no good without trained teachers. And teachers have to be paid a wage they can live with. The public school teachers are not paid enough and often have class sizes of 50-70 students – an impossible situation to help students learn at the grade school level. This private school had 20-25 students per class and it appeared to me at the recess time that the predominance was girls at this school.

When asked about whether the US military is needed for security, both the school’s principal and the teacher quickly said they wanted the US troops to leave. Lena added that “we need to make peace by ourselves” – it is not something that can be imposed from the outside. She continued, “Instead of waging war [here], the US could concentrate on education instead”, using the incredible amounts of money to train teachers.

The AYPV had picked this school for the tree-planting opportunity as a way to symbolically celebrate the New Year which would begin two days hence on the first day of Spring. Afghans are about to begin Year 1390 – their calendar, like that it many other Muslim-dominated nations, is dated from the time of their Prophet Mohammad. Students at the school drew or painted pictures of trees as an art project to celebrate the tree-planting event in their schoolyard.

Before we moved to the schoolyard to plant the trees, Hakim and the AYPV boys recited a poem they wrote the night before, “We Need a Different Tree” – a moving statement of choosing peace over war. It lamented how “power and privilege oppress the people – it is perfected in war. … Why would an Afghan mother want a tree that kills? … War is not a tree we want to plant – so, if we wish to live without war, we need to plant a different tree.” Then 55 trees, almond, poplar, plum, apricot, and apple, were placed in the already-dug holes provided. A local man pruned them after they were planted and watered. As we finished, the children were let out of the classrooms for recess/exercise and they were enamored at the visitors to their school; some loved posing for photos, other avoided our cameras.

The school principal announced that the garden/schoolyard would be re-named “The Friendship Garden.”

The van ride back to our office space –like all rides in the Kabul traffic – was another adventure. Just when you think the driver will hit a bike rider or pedestrian, scrape an on-coming car or one that you are passing, the brakes are applied or the steering wheel turned to prevent the accident. Any insurance agency would have to be crazy to cover someone for collision –although I don’t seem much beyond very close calls. It makes rush hour in the Twin Cities look positively relaxing.

Next on the day’s list (after a light lunch) was to drive to the Emergency Medical Hospital for civilian war casualties operated by an Italian NGO to donate our blood. (Ironically, I was told in Minneapolis before I left that I will not be able to donate platelets for a full year if I travel to Afghanistan due to threat of malaria – even though the threat doesn’t arrive until May, long after I’ve left.) My group had some difficulty getting a taxi to the hospital so we missed most of the tour and discovered that they only needed O negative blood that day. Two of us met that requirement but Kathy, who was one of the two, was asked to wait a couple of weeks since she gave at that hospital only several weeks before. She will donate again before she returns to Chicago in a couple of weeks.

Returning to the office, we had a convoy of 5 huge armored tan vehicles of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) pass us. Even though there were no US markings, it is clear to everyone who is in sight that these behemoths are the dinosaurs of the crumbling American empire – unfortunately still very deadly in its decline.

Later in the afternoon, we walked to the 3rd Eye Photojournalism Center, the host organization for the candlelight vigil in remembrance of the victims of war. A stunning gallery of wonderful photos taken from all over Afghanistan graced the walls of the four rooms and a table with candles encircling a banner reading “For the War’s Victims” in both English and Dari. After a few moving talks and the reading of the names of the 7 boys who were killed earlier this month in one of the northern provinces, the AYPV boys lit candles and passed them to all of us and we observed 2 minutes of silence in memory of all of war’s victims. Many of us felt tears welling up knowing that two of the boys present had lost their father to the Taliban several years ago. I am amazed at their courage and commitment.

At dinner afterward, I had a great conversation with Zahra, yesterday’s moving speaker from the Open Society, deeply moved by this 23 year old women who refuses to wear the veil except when she is outdoors. She has many questions for me – why I came here, what do I think about Afghanistan, what other Americans think about the war, … . I’m sure we will have several more conversations before our week’s end.

Having gotten up before dawn, I was very grateful for the air mattress and sleeping bag at 9 PM. I am so grateful for so many friends who have supported me/us on this pilgrimage/journey for peace.

Steve Clemens

Day 3

Day 3 in the War Zone: Creating Peace Via Skype
Day 3: Creating Peace Via Skype by Steve Clemens. March 20, 2011

We were told to expect the AYPV boys at our office lodgings at 4:30 AM because the Global Day of Listening was scheduled to begin by 5:30. They arrived a little late because they had been on the phone to others around the world since 10 PM last night. The plan for today was to continue the conversations over Skype connections on the internet. We rented a local internet café for the day but it wasn’t schedued to open until 8 AM so the conversation across the ocean(s) began with just telephone conversations.

Scott Shaeffer-Duffy from a Catholic Worker Community in Massachusetts helped begin the dialog as his wife, son, and daughter all joined in to talk with Hakim and the youth seated around our table in our office /“hotel”. We had a few technical glitches but everyone was engaged despite the long night and the early morning. Different members of the International Peace Delegation were asked to send greetings to their friends at home as part of the listening project. I signed up for 7 AM and actually joined the conversation at 7:30, sending greetings to the peace community in the Twin Cities where it was 10 PM on the day before. The young people asked me to tell them about groups I was part of in Minnesota so I described our weekly Wednesday vigil at Alliant Techsystems (ATK).

The connection is relevant for our friends in Afghanistan since this Minnesota-based war profiteer has made landmines and cluster munitions, two of the scourges of war which continue to plague civilians long after the conflict ended in certain regions of the country. I also mentioned the new weapon used by the US Army in Afghanistan, a combat gun that “shoots around corners”. Hakim asked if this was the XM-25 and I said that was - its new name and it’s “roll-out” was happening now in Afghanistan.

Abdulai asked me about whether I was hopeful about change coming after vigiling for so many years at ATK. This 15 year old boy is wise beyond his years. He had previously said that he feels tired of trying but said we need patience – and, if it doesn’t happen in his lifetime, the struggle is still worth it. I told him I shared his sentiment: if ATK doesn’t end it’s production and sale of indiscriminate weapons, it is still important for my own integrity to continue our protest at the corporate entrance because I have to act on my values. Even if change doesn’t come to ATK, change does come in my life and my heart.

The boys were very engaged in the conversation even though they had been doing this conversation across the table and around the world via cell phone and Skype for more than 9 hours before I sat down with them. After our conversation lasting 30 minutes, the whole group of us took a ½ hour break to move down to the internet café to continue the conversations around the world over Skype.

They talked with Sami Rasouli in Iraq (about his and other Iraqis experience with the US war machine) and Media Benjamin and Ann Wright in Washington, DC before both of them left for a trip to Quantico to protest the inhumane treatment of whistle-blower Bradley Manning. They talked with people in Australia, a guy in Laos (who told the boys of the legacy of unexploded bombs from the Indochina War), someone in Poland, and many other groups from the US. I listened to their conversations but also used the time to send a few emails to my friends and family to reassure them I was safe while engaged in this important work of peacemaking.

Patrick suggested we use part of the afternoon to go shopping with our new friends Zahra and Asif (to help translate/negotiate and to show us where to go). As if to show that even shopping in Afghanistan can be an adventure, our van driver was stopped by the police for driving the wrong way on a certain street since the other street was closed. (There were no signs indicating it was one way.) Patrick and I sat quietly in the van as both Zahra and Asif got out to engage the police as more and more surrounded our vehicle. While the other two negotiated, our driver was instructed to turn around in an impossibly small space. Driving conditions are a complete nightmare without the police stopping you.

After about 15-20 minutes, our two defenders came back to the van and said, “We’ll walk from here.” As we got to the sidewalk, Zahra assured us the driver wasn’t in serious trouble. She told me later that the policeman wanted a cash bribe. She told him she was a journalist and if he demanded money, she would print his name to expose his corruption in her newspaper. He withdrew his request. For a country where women have been marginalized, it is so refreshing to see a determined feminist here. She was no slouch in negotiating a fair price for the rug Patrick bought but she hesitated and was puzzled when I told her I wanted to buy a scarf for my wife. Here is a woman who is determined to be “unveiled” whenever possible, why would her new friend want his wife to cover her head? I laughed and told her Christine would only be wearing it around her neck! Besides, she’s the breadwinner in our family – while I’m out trapesing around the world in search of peace and justice.

After we returned, she shared her concerns with a couple of us about our safety here in Afghanistan. (I hadn’t known she had just received threats a week ago and I’m sure that added to her caution for us. She was concerned about the security of the area where the hotel some of the other delegates were staying at – noting that the main entrance was neither guarded nor locked. Anyone could walk into the building. She also expressed concern about a group of us traveling to Panjshir, a province north of Kabul, past Baghram Air Base and site of the notorious prison where the US had detained so many earlier in the war. Apparently they’ve just built a new detention center a few hundred yards away so they can claim not to being holding people in that shameful place.

After returning to re-join the young peace volunteer and their indefatigable mentor, Hakim, for several more hours, most of we westerners left to go to bed at 10 PM, leaving Kathy Kelly and a few others to finish the international dialog at midnight – 26 hours after they started! As is the custom this week, we walk back to our home-base in small groups, always accompanied by one of the Afghan youth. And here I thought that some of my work was to accompany them! They are such a blessing and inspiration to us.