U.S. Veteran Welcomed By Afghan Peace Volunteers

By Ron Van Norstrand on

“Are you crazy?” “Are you out of your mind?” My friends’ concerns were foremost in my mind as I boarded Turkish Air Flight 706 bound for Kabul, Afghanistan. I had recently learned that US Embassy personnel no longer drive the streets of Kabul; they travel by helicopter.  As recently as October 3, 2015 the US military had “accidentally” bombed a Doctors Without Borders Hospital in the provincial capital Kunduz, north of Kabul, incinerating many patients as they lay in their beds. And after  14 years of US “presence”, the US Department of State warned citizens in November 2015 against travel to Afghanistan: “the security situation in Afghanistan is extremely unstable and the threat to all US Citizens in Afghanistan remains critical, including vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED), direct and indirect fire and suicide bombings.”

Although anxious and apprehensive, I was honored to be invited to join a small delegation arranged by Voices for Creative Nonviolence for a ten-day person to person visit with the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV). I was greeted at the airport by two members of the APV and as we taxied into the city, their warmth and accepting smiles eased my anxiety.  Upon arrival at the APV center I was welcomed with open arms and open hearts; by nightfall I felt right at home. During my short stay, the APV enthusiastically shared their personal stories and I witnessed and participated in the various ways these brave souls seek to bridge tribal and ethnic barriers in pursuit of peace and social justice.

Among their many achievements, the APV has established a School for Street Kids. The street kids are not able to attend government schools because their families depend on them to work the streets shining shoes, selling bolonis (home-made pancakes), washing cars, etc… So the APV started a school for them. Since many of them are illiterate, they begin with reading and writing and their joy to learn is palpable. Recently, literacy classes for illiterate adult women were started as well. The school budget is $50,000/year, the cost of one Hellfire missile, (92% of this school budget is spent on providing the street kids and their families with a needed monthly gift of a sack of rice and a bottle of oil).

  One of my fellow delegates, Aaron Hughes, an Iraq war veteran, is an artist, so he took the art class for one day.  He taught the students relief-printing, using potatoes carved into shapes and letters and an ink linotype pad he had brought, upon which he carved a likeness of one of the street kids.

The APV have also created a Winter Duvet Project, which consists of a cooperative of seamstresses who work for a decent wage producing duvets, thick blankets stuffed with synthetic wool. The duvets are given away to those in need to survive the bitter winters.  60 seamstresses are selected each year; twenty each from the three main populations, Pashtun, Tajik and Hazara. The project is currently in its third year and three 3,000 duvets are distributed each year.

Although they readily acknowledge the uncertainties they face, especially given the continual war waged on their country, the APV remain committed to building a nonviolent, sharing economy where the basic needs of all are met (especially the most vulnerable). This inspirational commitment is not based on utopian or academic notions; it arises from their life experiences.  They have lived their entire lives within the turmoil and convulsions of war. They have experienced first-hand war’s social and moral devastation and degradation.

When I explained that the war is often justified in the U.S. as necessary to protect Afghan women from the deprivations threatened by the resurgent Taliban, one volunteer, Zarguna, a third year college student studying journalism, whose father was killed by the Taliban when she was seven years old, seemed perplexed by the justification.  She stated firmly that the 14 years of US Military operations had not improved the lives of Afghan women and children. To the contrary, women and children constantly face the lack of food, employment, good education and healthcare.  Zarguna declared that, “we do not need soldiers” and asked the people of the United States to recognize that we are “human beings with human feelings” and that we “need food and education not war”.

When asked what message he would like me to take back to the American people, Hoor, an 18-year-old junior in high school, first referenced the warning of two of the world’s greatest champions of peace, Bertrand Russell, the famed mathematician and philosopher, and Albert Einstein, the world’s best-known scientist, who at the height of the Cold War declared: "Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?" Hoor questioned why the American people could not see that “even if all the Taliban were killed, their sons and daughter would pick up the guns and seek revenge”, and that “the millions spent on weapons, drones and bombs had only increased the terrorism” in his country.  He asked that we all take the time to analyze and understand the origins of groups like the Taliban and offered me a copy of “No Good Men Among the Living, by Anand Gopal as a primer in this regard, which I highly recommend.

I also met a remarkable young woman, Halima, who shares my passion for bicycling. While I bike the pastoral back roads of Central New York, Halima bravely pedals the city streets of Kabul. Halima was born in Iran. She was nine years old when her family returned to Afghanistan after the civil war ended and the Karzai government began.  She is presently a third year student in Business Management at American University in Kabul. She also works as a translator at Toto TV, where six of her friends and colleagues were killed in January 2016 by a suicide bomber.

She was initially attracted to bicycling as a convenient, inexpensive mode of transport and exercise which does not contribute to the suffocating smog of the city.  So in 2014 she borrowed her brother’s bike and after a few practice rides in the yard she boldly took to the streets. Shortly thereafter she and a friend formed the “Girl Up Club” to encourage other girls to join them.  She has no helmet or biking gloves, shorts or shoes. As she said, “I just have a bike”. When I foolishly asked how many gears her bike had, she laughed and said “no gears”.

When asked to describe what it is like to ride the city streets, Halima said that while she feels happy and proud to be riding, “it is very challenging”.  Many people utter insults and children often follow her and make jokes. However, she firmly asserted that there “is nothing a girl can’t do” and that “the male dominant culture has to change.” Then she cheerfully shared that one day a man stopped her and declared “This is good. Keep it up. You are the hope of Afghanistan”.

Subsequent to my visit I learned that, with Halima’s help, the APV formed the “Borderfree Afghan Cycling Club”. In the spirit of Susan B. Anthony’s declaration that the bicycle, "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”, their ultimate goal is to build a team of 100 cyclists, 50 boys and 50 girls, to encourage and support girls in biking and to promote gender equality in general among the youth of Afghanistan.

I benefited immensely from my brief stay with the APV. Their active pursuit of peace and social justice under extraordinarily difficult circumstances was inspiring. Continuing to delude ourselves that “military superiority” and “abundant consumption” will provide security and stability,  would truly be crazy and mindless. 

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