(Note: The five boys I met in Kabul, Afghanistan, from the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers were young – the oldest only 20 – and as charming and well-mannered as teenage boys can humanly be. Their mentor, Hakim, displayed patience and tireless compassion.
I found it easy to settle into a comfortable relationship with them for 10 days, but during the event described below, it became clear that these young men were a courageous lot, going against many cultural norms in Afghanistan and doing so publicly. People in places like today’s Afghanistan have been “disappeared” for less.
As I began to realize how dangerous the Peace Volunteers’ work could be, the global call-in project dubbed “Dear Afghanistan,” became much more than a chance for callers to meet a handful of charming, brave boys. It was the beginning of an international support committee that at some moment may need to quickly mobilize to demand governments intervene to protect these young men’s lives. Indeed, after a few years of quiet work in their province and the relatively high-profile Dear Afghanistan calling project, Afghan security forces visited Hakim’s village for a third time, leaving the distinct impression he is no longer welcome. Just before he and the AYPV were to make the 11-hour drive through the mountains to Bamyan, he booked a flight to another country.)
KABUL – At four in the morning on New Year’s Day, 2011, a group of young Afghan peace makers and their much-older U.S. colleagues huddled around a laptop computer in this city, to begin a 24-hour conversation with people from all over the world. They called their project “Dear Afghanistan” and as phone-a-thons go, it, and a similar one they did December 19, 2010, may well be the first of a kind.
The effort consisted of an entire day of Skyped-in phone calls, emails, Facebook and Twitter posts, with the goals of providing an opportunity for world citizens to learn about Afghanistan first-hand from experts – people trying to live their lives in a war zone; provide moral support for the members of Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV); and begin linking conversations among a global, below-the-radar network of veteran peace activists, determined that the war in this country can and must be ended absent military force.
Doug Mackey, technical producer for the project that was promoted entirely via independent media and the international peace movement, explained, “The teleconference team was centered in Olympia, with two crew members in Oakland, CA, one in Saratoga Fl, and a few around the world keeping an eye on production issues like teleconference connection, livestreaming and corrections.”
People wanting to participate sent an email to producers and were placed on a call-in schedule that was ultimately impossible to keep because of the highly animated conversations.
A sampling of callers and conversations included:
Sherrie, from California, told the five AYPV young men, that on December 16, two dozen people were arrested in San Francisco in conjunction with 131 people arrested that same day at the White House in a peaceful war protest. She also related the case of Father Louie Vitale, serving a 6 month jail sentence for crossing the boundary line of Ft. Benning, in Georgia, as part of the annual demonstration demanding closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas.
Ali: “Please tell Fr. Louie, ‘You are not alone. The government that arrested you, arrested you for peace, so you are not alone.’”
Sherrie: “All of us who were arrested had smiles on our faces. It gave us a chance to communicate with more people about what is happening in your country.”
Gulamai: In another conversation, about barriers to their work in Bamyan Province, he admitted the reality is that there is little trust among ordinary Afghans or between Afghans and their national neighbors. “We distrust people in Pakistan and India and this has to be overcome by persistence.”
Ali: “The people of Afghanistan want to build relationships with people in other countries as well as people here. People in other countries don’t trust their governments and so the same with the people. We have to end that!”
The next caller requested a news report from Kabul.
After few moments of silence, Abdulai¸ always ready with a wisecrack, announced, “Fresh news from Kabul…the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers had eggs, tea and warm bread for breakfast.”
Khamat, a young potato farmer from Bamyan, added, “The news from Kabul is, for someone coming from the farms and clear air of Bamyan, Kabul is very polluted and has lots of trash. All the money going to Kabul looks like it has been spent for security guards and concrete barriers and the drains are just as clogged as before.”
From Bellingham, WA, a member of Veterans For Peace, Richard Wilson, rang in with this cheerful greeting, “It’s important to reach out and shake hands across the world.”
Abduli: “Where did you serve your time in the military?”
Richard: “In several places, including in Vietnam.”
Ali: “How did you feel about being in Vietnam when you were there?”
Richard: “I was there as a young man and don’t remember feeling either positive or negative about it at the time…now I know we were told bad information and I think it was all was a tragedy…It is why I joined Veterans For Peace.”
Ali: “What was the turning point for you in deciding to leave the military?”
Richard: It came slowly to me. I got married, had children, got involved in my church…I thought a lot about it. I came to the conclusion it was not the right thing to do or the right way to live.
Ali: “My brother is in the Afghan National Army and it has my mother really worried. She has periods of depression. My brother tries to comfort her by buying her meat to eat for strength.”
Abduli: “I have a request. Will you stay in touch and remain friends, tell others about us and the people of Afghanistan?”
Next up was a group of young people gathered around a speakerphone in Olympia, WA.
AYPV in unison: “Salinao Khush” (Happy New Year)
Craig from Olympia: “Even though I’ve never met you, it is a great honor to say hello and I send you my love.”
Edward: “I’m here with 8 wonderful workers for peace and justice, all here to wish you a good year.”
Young woman: We want you to know we love you; we praise you for the work you’re doing. We have to bring all our people home…When I think of the war, I cry and cry and I know you do, too. No wars. No hatred. No evil. Happy New Year to you!
Maggie, calling from an internet café in Vietnam: I came here to visit and help teach English. My class said to wish all of you peace.
Ali: Please tell your students to study hard, become engineers and be of service to people. And don’t be subservient to people like Obama.
Abduli: “Do young people in Vietnam have feelings about the war or are they too distant from it?”
Maggie: The country has recovered through the initiative and ambition of its people.
“The Vietnamese are very proud of how they’ve overcome many invaders…they’ve put
the (American) war behind them and are focused on the future only.”
Abdulai: The people of Afghanistan are undergoing the same thing as the people of Vietnam and we want to gain our independence and self-determination.
Gail, from Sidney, Australia, sent New Year’s greetings and words of support.
Mohammed Jan: “Here in Afghanistan, we are becoming more familiar with Wikileaks and Julian Assange. Do the people of Australia support them?”
Gail: “The people of Australia do...We are so proud of him.
Hakim: Please stay in touch and help link us to other groups in Australia.
A student from Evergreen State College, in Olympia, did a Japanese peace chant and received a round of applause from Kabul.
Calling from Germany, Elsa named several of the antiwar activities happening in her country.
Zahra: People in Afghanistan are still, at this point, mostly unaware of the international support they have to stop this war.
Elsa, surprised at this, noted a number of activities, some within the Bundestag, most from citizen groups, including a recent demonstration of over 30,000, French and Germans.
David: The latest poll I’ve seen says that in the U.S., support for the war in Afghanistan is down to 35%. If we can have a situation where 1/3 of the population supports a war and 2/3 do not support it, you can see we don’t have any more control of our government than you do in Afghanistan.
Hakim mentioned David’s new book, “War Is A Lie.”
David: “It’s a book that takes apart the reasons governments all over the world give for going to war...It puts war in the same category as rape and slavery – we don’t talk of a good form of slavery or a ‘just’ rape. We talk of them always as a crime.”
Addressing the youth, David inquired, “What should we say to the people in government and the 1/3 of the population who support the war when they say it’s humanitarian, for the good of Afghans, or to protect women’s rights?”
Mohammed Jan quoted figures re: the claim to protect women’s rights, from “Afghanistan – The People’s December Review,” which used U.N. studies and other reports to show Afghanistan has the third-highest infant mortality rate in the world, the second-highest maternal mortality rate and that last year, 2300 women and girls who killed themselves.
Regarding humanitarian reasons, “After $9 billion in aid, 42% of our people still live in poverty. The International Red Cross said it’s the worst shape Afghanistan has been in for the last 30 years…A report named, “Nowhere to Turn,” compiled by 29 NGOs working in Afghanistan details the terrible problems caused particularly by night raids and the arming of militias.”
Regarding whether it’s a war to fend off a Taliban resurgence, he said that most Afghans were glad at first when coalition forces toppled the Taliban, but, after 9 years of war and occupation, it’s time for the U.S. and NATO to leave.
More and more people who call themselves “Taliban” are fighting the presence of foreigners in their country. “We have to tackle roots of terrorism: poverty, hate, lack of meaningful relations between people and nations,” Mohammed Jan explained.
Before the all-day event ended, some callers were moved to express themselves in more artistic ways. Some read poems or favorite quotes and one woman, a violinist from the Sarasota Orchestra, played the third movement of J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 1.
Ferner is in Afghanistan with members of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. He is national president of Veterans For Peace and author of Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq.