Epilogue

Faiz and I at the New Year celebrations

Just wanted to wrap up my return home with some thankyous and some final thoughts. This blog will continue to be a repository for events as they happen, including opportunities to hear more about the trip. But for the moment, as the trip is over, so are the reports.

Firstly, let me say thankyou to everyone who has made this trip possible – from financial contributions to prayers and messages of support. I’ve been overwhelmed by the love that has been shown by people responding to these emails, and have passed on your letters and gestures of support to the AYPVs.

A particular public thankyou to my wife Julie, and to my kids, for partnering with me in this trip. As many of you would know it’s far harder to be the one left behind than the one leaving. I can’t imagine how hard it was for Julie, but I’m deeply grateful to have had this experience.

There will be reportbacks happening over the next few weeks and months, and I’ll keep the blog updated with the times and places they will be happening. If you’d like me to come and speak to your church/community group/kitchen table then please let me know.

A few people have asked me “where to from here?” Two things stand out for me as outcomes of this trip.

One is personalising what has largely till now been an ideological battle. Thomas Merton (Trappist monk who provided much of the wisdom behind the Christian peace movement in the 1960s) once wrote to Jim Forest (head of Catholic Peace Fellowship) when he was feeling despondent about their efforts to end the Vietnam War. He urged Jim to focus not on the results, but on the rightness, the value of the work itself. “Gradually,” he said, “you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end…it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” This trip has taught me that love is not abstract, but very, very personal. I was glad to be able to spend so much of it with the Youth Volunteers, to build friendships with them, and to put faces and names to a war zone we normally only read about. I look forward to keeping up with them via the wonders of the internet.

The second is that it has cemented my faith in nonviolence as the only way forward for the world. Of course, the standard objection to any advocacy of nonviolence in situations of war is something like, “Well that’s all very well for you, you’re living in Australia. Try living nonviolence in a war zone and you’ll quickly change your mind.” Sometimes I’m tempted to believe them.

But the AYPVs have proven that it’s possible. Their service to us is more than just providing embodied nonviolent resistance to the corruption and violence in their country – it’s the imagination to see an entirely new way forward, to open up horizons of creativity rarely glimpsed before. They’re living proof that not only is it possible to live nonviolence in the midst of war, but that it is a vastly superior way to live – for those living it, and for those with whom those living it come in contact.

There are challenges, for sure – even this week violent protests across Afghanistan have killed UN workers and others. But everyday, people also get on with their lives – they plant crops, they prune vines, they assist lambs to be born, they forgive and reconcile. Love is winning, but it can always use some help.🙂

This year I’ll continue doing nonviolent resistance to the war effort back here in Australia, and working on expanding the Bonhoeffer Peace Collective, a Christian discipleship movement. We would love more people to join us, in all manner of roles, even if you’re just wanting to explore it. We’ll be particularly focussing on July as a month of action against the war. I’ll also be part of organising a speaking tour for the three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominated head of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and organiser of the Afghan delegation, Kathy Kelly. She will be in Australia for Pace e Bene in October/November of this year. Watch the Pace e Bene Australia website for more details.

For those interested in following up my media engagements, I had a piece published in the ABC online opinion section “Unleashed” last week, so if you’re interested check it out here.

I also (somehow) managed to have a video question to Kevin Rudd aired on ABC1’s Q&A program last Monday (my question is about 17 minutes in). The panel’s response was fairly predictable, but I hope that people at least had an opportunity to hear an alternative view from me. Unfortunately they cut off the end of my question (which was kind of the point of it!), the full version of which you can see below.

As far as radio goes, I’ll be interviewed on Melbourne’s 3CR (855AM) on Thursday 7th April at 7:30am; I have recorded an interview on LightFM (89.9FM) for a couple of weeks’ time, and am supposed to have an interview on ABC Radio’s Life Matters program at some stage soon.

*Update* Here’s a followup interview I did with 3CR for their drivetime program last Wednesday 13th:

As the Global Days of Listening expand in each region, there are needs for people to assist with organising. After the enthusiastic response from Aussies to the last Global Day of Listening Doug Mackey is keen to set up a hub for the calls here. I would urge you to consider whether this might be a role you could play in the expansion of love across the world. If you’d be interested, particularly in being a contact person in Australia (or in learning more) please contact me or Doug Mackey at the Global Day of Listening website.

As always you can follow the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers at their website. They make new videos every couple of weeks, so check back often.

Finally, if you’re in Melbourne, there will be a silent peace march and forum in on Palm Sunday, April 17th from 12:30pm till 4pm, starting at the State Library. Would love to see you there.

Thanks so much for all you have done and continue to do for peace and justice in the world, in your work, in your families, and with your friends. May we continue to be inspired by the Youth Volunteers, and so many others working under difficult conditions for love and reconciliation. Thankyou for sharing this journey with me, and I look forward to many more.

Grace and peace,

Simon

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Farewell Afghanistan

An arcade on Chicken Street

Finally the day dawned, my last day in Afghanistan. I spoke to Julie and the kids on Skype, then went for breakfast.

After breakfast I wanted to fit in my last crack at shopping. On Tuesday I had been to the Afghan Artisan’s Workshop, a store (with armed guard at the gate, like many buildings) which sells only products made by Afghans, mostly Afghan women. At other places it’s hard to guarantee the products aren’t from Pakistan. Here it’s all beautifully handcrafted, handmade work, and you pay accordingly.

This time I decided to give Chicken Street a try, so I wandered over with John from the delegation. Chicken Street is as close to a tourist district as you’ll get in Kabul at the moment – mostly jewellery and scarves for the women and hats for the men (‘Karzai’ hats, as we call them). It’s a bustling street with labrynthine arcades and tiny stores so packed with merchandise you almost have to trade places with the shopkeeper to get inside. They’re only too happy to throw scarves and hats around the room until you find the one you like (always, “oh, this one is beautiful. Oh, you no like? No, is no good…”).

Finally I was cornered in a store and chose a couple of scarves. Looking through my pockets I found I didn’t have as much left as I thought. “How much?” I asked.

“$65,” he said. That was an outrageous price – twice what I would’ve paid at the artisan’s shop. “65 Afs?” I responded, hoping I hadn’t heard him correctly (Afghani exchange rate is 45:1). “No, no, dollars,” he said. Of course, dollars here are always US dollars. Every imperial power imposes their own currency I suppose.

“30,” I said, knowing that was more than generous and hoping that would mean the matter would be ended. I’m not a haggler. I hate conflict (yes, yes, I know, I know) and would far prefer to avoid it. Especially when I have relatively so much, it seems silly haggling over money that would probably make a big difference to this guy’s life. Hakim, however, insists that we not pay any more than an Afghan would pay – he thinks the double standard is outrageous and dishonest and that Afghans should charge everyone the same and be content with it. So here I sit with a dilemma: do I err on the side of being generous and reinforce the double standard, or do I err on the side of principle and risk being seen as a greedy Westerner?

I decided to err on the former (sorry Hakim!), but still insisted $30 was all I would pay. Actually it was all I could afford if I was going to get the few other things I needed; the only other money I had was US dollars and there was no way I was going to pay with that. “Alright,” he said. “45. But I won’t make a profit.” Again, I knew that was far from true. He threw in a small purse, and began wrapping up the items. I said “Neh, Tasha kour (no thankyou),” and began walking out.

He grabbed my arm. “Ok, ok, 40,” he said, and continued wrapping up. I told him I didn’t have that much as I needed to keep some for other items. He looked at me incredulously and I felt like a fraud even though I was telling the truth. I looked at John and made my final offer. “35,” I sighed, feeling somewhat ripped off. “No, no, no,” he insisted, and again I went to walk out. Again he grabbed my arm. “Ok, ok,” he said. “I no make a profit but you get beautiful scarves.”

Actually he probably made a 99% profit on that sale, but whatever. I scampered out, breathed a sigh of relief, and bought the other things with my remaining Afs.

Still, you know you’ve had a good trip to Afghanistan when your most stressful encounter is haggling over the price of scarves.

Hope House, a project of Mahboba's Promise

Before I went home I wanted to see the work of Mahboba’s Promise, an orphanage started by a strong, courageous Afghan/Australian woman. It featured heavily in the film The Garden at the End of the World, which I highly recommend. Everywhere you walk in this city (or outside it) you see children – some with their parents, but mostly not. Many are simply homeless and living on the streets, surviving on begging or, if they’re lucky, on selling phone cards or chewing gum. Not much of a childhood to say the least.

Mahboba started looking after one street kid, then two. The third and fourth followed and pretty soon she had started an orphanage. After thirty years of war, so much poverty and illness, and an average life expectancy of 44.6, there is no shortage of children without at least one parent, often two.

We met Mahboba’s brother Sidiq in the office of Hope House, and received the customary warm welcome and tea. Not many Westerners come to visit, so they’re always delighted when they do. We asked him everything we could think of: all about the projects they run, what he thought of the government, the military, security, etc.

There are many projects run under the banner of Mahboba’s Promise (in fact he could barely remember them all). They have a service where they deliver food to widows and their families once a month, sewing classes and a shop for the products of the sewing classes, the orphanages and now permaculture gardens.

One of the kids from the orphanage.

Sidiq believes the foreign occupation is not making Afghanistan stable or secure. He named the places he used to go, but now could not due to insecurity.

In fact, the corruption (everyone talks about the corruption) means that much of the aid money spent in Afghanistan goes into the pockets of the warlords and strong men. Afghans know this very well and are angry that the aid organisations allow it to happen. As the money only rarely ends up in the hands of those who really need it, people blame the aid organisations. For this reason, as well as rumours that they proselytise, NGOs are now targets according to Sidiq.

Mahboba’s Promise, however, runs on the smell of an oily rag, with only the money Mahboba can raise back in Sydney through fundraising dinners and evenings. Others have tried raising money in the West, but have been unsuccessful, which means all the effort falls on Mahboba.

The kids here are happy. In fact, they couldn’t wait to show me their rooms, their schoolwork, pretty much anything they could point to (floor, ceiling, downpipe) they wanted to show me in excited pulls with all their body weight. I felt like a rock star (well…maybe the Wiggles). At the same time, it was sad to see missing body parts, and even more, to hear about missing family members.

We played outside for a while – this trip has reaffirmed for me the value of games and sport as ways of connecting across cultures. I might not have three words of Dari, but I know how to play cricket or downball, and so do they.

This kind of organisation is, I think, the future of Afghanistan. If anything is going to change, it will emerge from the people themselves. Here was more hope – an organisation surviving on their wits, love and just a few Western dollars. No pretensions, nothing showy, just hard work and a lot of care. It’s certainly fragile – Mahboba called on our way back to the hotel to speak with Donna, and said they have just 4 months of funds left. They could certainly use your help – what happens here deserves your help. But mostly it’s home grown, clever, and held together with love.

The failure stories we heard over and over are ones of Western NGOs or militaries coming in and telling Afghans what they need and how to get it. But the most impressive, most successful organisations I came across survive on just a little outside help, and mostly Afghan hard work and ingenuity. “Help us do it ourselves,” said the teacher at the school last Saturday, in a seeming contradiction in terms. I’m not sure it is a contradiction anymore.

We raced back to the hotel in time for me to pack and say goodbye to the delegation. I was to go to the airport on my own, with others to follow later.

After going through security (and no less than four pat downs) I have mixed feelings. Relief is one – it’s a little daunting being by yourself in a foreign place with no language, especially such a place in the middle of a war. Of course I recognise how fortunate I am to speak English – most foreign people experience travel as this kind of foreign (and that’s if they’re able to travel at all).

Sadness is another. I leave friends here, beautiful people, precious to God and now precious to me. They remain in harm’s way, while I return to the security of a first world country. It’s simply not fair.

Of course another part of me is also delighted to be going home – seeing my wife and kids on Skype the last two days has been great, but has only reminded me of how far away I am.

The departure lounge is about a third full of ‘private security’ and military – the former you can tell by their steroid inspired builds and arrogant swagger. Actually the military are like that too, but they have particular passes hanging from their thick necks and army issue backpacks. Incredibly there are almost as many private security involved in this war as regular soldiers, you just don’t hear about it when they’re killed.

As I was walking out the gate, I received a tap on the shoulder. It was Chris from my delegation with a bolt of the blue chiffon material the AYPVs used in their march through Kabul a week ago. She thrust it into my hands, said, ‘Just made it!’ and with that I was on the plane.

As luck would have it our plane ended up sitting on the tarmac for an hour. It seemed Afghanistan didn’t want to let me go. Finally we climbed up into the sky, leaving those snow-capped peaks beneath the clouds. It would be a long journey ahead, but I would see my family again soon, and be at home.

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Mixups, arguments and farewells

Some kids we passed on the way to the talk

A few scheduling issues saw today end up a bit confused but ok. After one speaker changed his time we heard again from the AYPVs, a bit more about themselves and what they’ve been doing.

In the afternoon we were invited to go and hear from one of the organisations involved in the Transitional Justice Organisation.

We were here to listen to Afghans, so when Liah from Solidarity for Justice asked us to come so she could tell us more about her organisation, we didn’t hesitate. Besides, it would give me a chance to catch up on some of the presentation I’d missed the night before.

Unfortunately due to a mistake in directions my group arrived late (we always travel in small groups for safety reasons). I’d already missed the opening lines so the next hour and a half was a tad baffling as we all worked out why we’d been summoned. Gradually it dawned on me: we hadn’t been asked to hear about her organisation at all. She didn’t even mention it until the end of the session, and even then only offhandedly and because she was directly asked.

We internationals had been summoned to make sure the message we went home with was that the international troops are necessary and welcome.

What I had missed in the opening of the session before I came in was, “These boys are young and naïve and know nothing of the horror of war. If they want the troops to leave, they are pro-Taliban.”

Despite the boys’ protestations (after all, every one of them has some family or friend who has been killed in this war, many by the Taliban) the session went on. It became progressively more tense as we tried to explain, politely of course, that the intentions of the US and NATO were perhaps not as humanitarian as they would like to think (given the US military’s history anyway). The problem was, the more politely we tried to say it, the less clear we were. Eventually I think we achieved some clarity but could not reach agreement.

What this episode underscored for me is how much fear there is in Afghanistan of the Taliban returning – particularly for those who are some way up the social chain. So much so that they are prepared to ignore a multitude of problems which the occupying forces cause – civilian deaths, a hardening of the resistance, poor governance, etc. I can’t blame them. It takes enormous courage to shun the narrative that violence saves.

But generally speaking, my observation was – and I asked several Afghans this, and they agreed with me – that the closer to the top of the pile people are, the more they support the foreign militaries. The closer to the bottom, the less they have to lose and therefore less to fear. Afghanistan’s elites are few; the masses are at the bottom.

After dinner, we finally had Noor come and share with us. I wish we’d had a week with this man, whose life story is like something out

Noor shares his story with us

of a spy novel. He has fled for his life numerous times, held top positions in various NGOs and struck out on his own, living and working at the grassroots around the country. He is passionate about permaculture, and the idea that Afghans don’t need much aid, they have all the solutions themselves and just need facilitators who can help them realise it. He now has a position in the Department of Agriculture, apparently the only Ministry in the Afghan government not owned by a warlord.

Finally, we said a quick goodbye to the AYPVs. I gave them Chelsea and Ella’s drawings; folded paper dolls holding hands. Each one, I explained, was different, but they all held hands together. Finally I gave them a frisbee, a symbol of peace which has held significance for me since 2007, my first act of civil disobedience against war. Four friends and I walked onto a military base in Queensland to stop live-fire military exercises or “war games,” asking the soldiers to trade them in for peace games instead. Carole Powell, Simon Reeves, Krystal Spencer, Sarah Williams and I played frisbee with the soldiers, and for a brief time we saw frisbees floating peacefully between people instead of rockets and grenades. We were arrested, but it was too late; our hearts were liberated.

I assured them I would be in touch; friendships forged under such circumstances are not easily broken. I look forward to talking with them again soon.

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“I can’t believe such a love is possible”

Ali (behind), Ghulomai, Amir Shah and Zikhrullah blow up balloons at the tree planting

We said goodbye to the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers tonight. They’ll be in Panjshir tomorrow, and I will leave before they get back. I managed to hold it together, but not by much. We’ve all grown close over the past week.

Last week Hakim took us through their history, how they got started out of a youth workshop, and gathered young people from all different villages and towns. How they’ve experimented with different ways of expressing the wish to live without wars.

They are at very real risk of being killed for their work. Not just from the authorities, but from their fellow Afghans. And of course the US and ISAF forces, who seem to put everyone at risk. When they met with Malalai Joya last year she told them straight out: if this is the road they wanted to take, it would likely end in their death. If they were to proceed, they needed to know the stakes.

So when they sent a bunch of mobile phone pouches t

hey had made themselves, along with letters of love from Hazaras and Tajiks in the north to Pashtuns in the south, saying that they only wished for love to overcome their differences, they weren’t expecting a response, let alone a favourable one.

Yet one young Pashtun boy’s response summed up our own incredulity. “I can’t believe that such a love is possible,” he said.

Faiz and I at the Naw Roz celebrations

I admit, I’m as cynical as anyone else about the prospects of unarmed love up against Hellfire missiles and religious hate. Really, what’s the competition? It’s a total mismatch.

So when I see young men – and rest assured, despite their youth, these are very much young men – insisting that love is the only way to end a war, I am shocked. I stand condemned by my own cynicism.

They know we in the West are cynical about its prospects. “To shock your cynical ears,” they say in one of their videos, “we humbly suggest that love is how we should ask for peace.”

Understand, these are no wide-eyed idealists. These are kids who have grown up knowing nothing but war. They have seen their fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and more gunned down as part of it. They have a deep and abiding personal investment in grief. Their commitment to nonviolence is not idealistic. It’s practical. They know that as Afghans, they can either continue contributing to the spiralling of violence, or they can end it here.

And that’s not without cost – not only to their reputations, or in terms of risk from others, but to the process of grieving and revenge that all of us are socialised into.

When we first arrived and were introduced, one of the youth made a similar comment to us as the Pashtun boy had made to them – something like, “I can’t believe you’re all here. We didn’t want to raise our hopes that you would come. Such a love is hard to believe.” And it wasn’t hyperbole – he was genuinely gobsmacked. But here was the evidence, right in front of him, that such a love does indeed exist. But without that love being embodied, who would know it?

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Day trip to Panjshir

Today was a day you couldn’t really do justice with words, so I’m going to try to approximate justice with pictures and video.

But first, a brief explanation of context.

Last night the German newspaper Der Spiegel released some photos of the U.S. “kill team” which had been killing Afghans at random and taking trophies from their kills. The photos depicted soldiers doing horrendous things to dead Afghans and were therefore supposed to be the new “Abu Ghraib”, where similar photos were released of detainee abuse which had caused mass rioting in Iraq. The assumption was that the reaction would be strong here, and with good reason.

So this morning we had to decide whether or not to take our planned trip to Panjshir (pronounced Panj-sheer), about 150 km north of Kabul. We’d been encouraged to do it, partly because it gets you out of Kabul and gives you a sense of the 93% of Afghans who live in rural towns and villages.

Given most of the country (even in Kabul) don’t have television or internet, we thought it was unlikely they would hear the news of the photos until later in the day at least. Even then, it was probably safest for us not to be in Kabul when people did find out. Added to that was the statements from every local we’ve talked to (bar one) that Panjshir was the safest part of Afghanistan. All we’d need to do was stay away from any U.S. military today as much as possible, as they would be the likely target of any attacks.

The most dicey part was going to be being noticed getting out of and back into town, so we covered ourselves up as best we could and headed out of town. Once out in the countryside, everything changed.

Panj (meaning five) shir (meaning lion) is named after five brothers who, as legend has it, were “like lions” and are the spiritual protectors of this place. We drove past their (supposed) graves on the way through the valley.

You can check out a bunch more photos on Facebook, but here are a few that I think are worth highlighting:

Our driver, Satar, pulled over by this shepherd with his flock of sheep so we could take pictures. Lo and behold, about a minute later we had watched the shepherd play midwife to a new baby lamb. Spring in Afghanistan brings new life yet again!

Of course, among the new life still stalks the old ways of death…while lambs are born on one part of the road, there are U.S. bases springing up on other parts. This is just one of three brand spanking new U.S. bases we saw along this 150km stretch of road (as well as two old ones). We also drove past the infamous Bagram Air Base – not directly past, but close enough to see it in the distance.

I just really liked this photo.

I still can’t get over the mountains here – so beautiful with their craggy, snow-capped peaks. This was taken in the morning mist.

This is the entrance to the Panjshir valley – the sheer sides demonstrate visually how difficult it would be to take control of this area militarily. The hero of these parts is Ahmed Shah Masoud – his picture is pasted up everywhere on buildings in the valley, often with “National Hero” written underneath. He was a much-loved leader of the people who had defended them from the Soviets and then the Taliban. In fact, at one of the checkpoints inside (near the old rusty Soviet tanks) one of the police told us with pride of the time the Soviets tried to take Panjshir. Masoud allowed them to come into the valley, then blocked it at both ends, and killed them all. They had no chance, no way to escape.

Then more recently when the Taliban tried to take it they intended to do the same thing, only to find that there were too many refugees coming through to do it safely. So instead they retreated through the gap, came back around the back of the mountain, and defeated the Taliban through superior knowledge of the area.

Of course, these stories have to be taken with a grain of salt but locals are certainly fiercely proud of their ability, through knowledge of this place, to defend it from all comers.
There is certainly no shortage of leftovers from the Soviet war. From land mines to rusted tanks, these stand as a semi-permanent reminder of why you should never mess with the Afghan people.

In fact, the tanks sit directly below this town, perched at the top of sheer cliffs, housing a staggering 5000 people.

The Taliban came through here at one point and destroyed this refugee camp, the remains of which can be seen on the opposite side of the river.

Simply stunning.

I’ve been really wary of taking photos of kids, partly because I know how weird it would be for some random stranger to come up and take photos of my kids. So I’ve only taken kids’ photos if they’ve asked me to and their parents have said its ok. Even still, I hesitate in putting them out for all to see. But I also think it’s incredibly important to put faces to the people who are being killed in this war. On March 1st, 9 children just like these were killed and one seriously injured by a NATO air strike while they were collecting firewood for their family home. On March 15, 2 kids like these were killed by a NATO air strike while they were digging an irrigation ditch. Kids like these sit in dirty refugee camps for years, sometimes decades. Kids like these are put into detention in Australia for no other reason than their parents wanted them to live somewhere safe. This war is not a geopolitical issue, it’s a personal issue.

This is the main town of Panjshir – the fields in the foreground are shaped into a map of Afghanistan. The left side of the picture is the south and the right is the north. Amazing!

Here’s the crew that came to Panjshir today – from left to right is Donna, Steve, Martha, Paki, me in front, the “security” guy for the area (who said that we would be safe as long as we were in this valley under his protection), Martin and Patrick.

Speaking of staying away from military convoys, we ended up seeing four small convoys of armoured personnel carriers on our day trip. This one is Afghan National Army (ANA), but all of them included U.S. and ANA.

And from the weird and wonderful files comes this shot of three live turkeys tied to the roof of a van. The kids in the van packed full of people were looking at quizzically as if to say, “So we have three turkeys on the roof of our car. What’s the big deal?’

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Sale Naw Mubarak! (Happy New Year!)

Tens of thousands of people climb tv hill for New Years' celebrations.

Every day has been amazing (as you can no doubt tell) and this one was no exception (tomorrow will probably also be amazing!). Can you tell I’m not much of a seasoned traveller?

I think part of it has to do with the fact that there are hardly any Westerners around – other than our group and a few U.S. troops I don’t remember seeing any. So this trip has a really extraordinary feel – we’re getting to experience the country without the buffer zone of tourists. Which means beautiful opportunities like this morning just happen.

So today is Afghan New Year, or Naw Roz (literally “new sun”, or “new day”). It’s a huge celebration over the whole country, a public holiday and day of family get togethers. Unlike us, Afghans don’t celebrate at midnight, they wait till the actual daytime arrives.

And when it does they dress in their finest clothes – bright whites, reds, greens, and traditional dress. There are a bunch of customs to follow – buying goldfish to put in their houses, putting dried fruit in a bowl of water and so on (I don’t know why the goldfish but the dried fruit is like a symbol of rebirth).

And many people make their way to “TV hill” for a special mosque service (is that what they’re called?) and festival.

Some of us decided we would go and enjoy the Naw Roz celebrations on the streets, so with our wonderful tour guide Basir (also a photographer with The Third Eye organisation) we took off down the street towards TV hill.

The mosque at the centre of the celebrations

Immediately the streets were thick with people, all pouring like a river in one direction. Occasionally as we were swept alo

ng we had to stop to keep everyone together. Today is not the day to get lost.
There was certainly mass security but we greeted each policeman or soldier with a warm smile and “Salaam aleikum” or “Sale now mubarak” (Happy New Year). A couple of our crew were frisked down but mostly as Westerners we were just allowed straight through roadblocks.

Before we knew it we were being ushered through crowds of people waiting to be allowed into the mosque which forms the centre of the celebrations, and into the grounds themselves. The door clanged shut behind us, and we were ushered further in, up onto theroof of the embalming room right next door! This is where all the press were stationed, taking video, photos, etc. Not only did we have a view over all of Kabul, but we were able to watch the mosque service in its entirety.

The mood was jubilant – listening to hundreds of thousands of people chanting the responses to the prayer calls was like the first goal

Just some of the estimated million or more people out in the countryside for New Year celebrations

of a grand final – times ten.

At the end, a huge pole is raised, with flowers attached to the top, and people touch or kiss the pole as an omen of a good year ahead.  People climb all over each other to get to the pole, and once there they climb over people to get as high up the pole as possible.

When all was done, we went and had lunch before making our way back. I took a call from the candlelight vigil crew, which was fantastic, and we spent the rest of the afternoon listening to the AYPVs tell their story through interpreter Hakim.

I’d like to tell their stories (they gave us permission) but I think to honour them best I will tell them in person rather than writing them. Their focus is so much on relationships, I think it wouldn’t do justice to just have them written, and we have all become very close over the week. I will probably tell some of the stories of their actions on here in the coming days though.

Believe it or not (in case there’s not enough going on) in the early afternoon there was an earthquake here – not huge, but enough to rattle everything for about 10 seconds. Apparently they’re not unusual in Kabul.

I’ve now moved to different accommodation, closer to the centre of town and with 24 hour internet so I’m a bit more connected.

I’d ask for your prayers over the next few days as Der Spiegel (German newspaper) releases some photos of US soldiers mutilating dead prisoners. I’m just aware that the backlash towards foreigners may be severe, particularly Americans and those who might be mistaken for them (ie. me). I suspect there will at least be protests, and protests here do not usually end well for anyone, so pray for the whole country as they reel from yet more atrocities coming to light. Thanks.

Some of the delegation with some of the AYPVs, plus some extra friends.

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Cricket is not war

Hakim and the AYPVs during the Global Day of Listening

Wow, another totally amazing day!

This morning began at 4:30 when the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers came to the place we’re staying to continue the Global Day of Listening that they had begun at midnight. Again I found myself inspired by their responses and the openness of their hearts to so many people around the world. The responses they were giving are way way beyond their years.

After meeting with a friend at a local NGO I made my way to the internet café at which the Day of Listening was continuing. I decided to get some writing and blogging done, so managed to get online before a familiar voice floated over the Skype connection of the Global Day of Listening.

It was my parents! Such a strange feeling hearing their voices as though they were in the next room, with me all the way on the other side of the world. It did my heart good. It also seemed to do the AYPVs good, as they excitedly laughed and asked questions.

Not long after, Julie and the kids also connected to the Skype call. The sheer delight on the faces of the AYPVs mirrored my own. The kids’ rendition of Twinkle Twinkle almost brought the house down. Here, I thought, was true peace – human beings connecting as family across oceans, mountains, deserts, entire continents. And that’s just what it felt like – they had connected with my family just as I was connected to them as family. We were all one.

As I was finishing up in the internet café I looked out the window to see a game of street cricket! Couldn’t have been more delighted. One of the things I’ve been keen to do is connect with Afghan cricket, which is just beginning to take off as the Afghan national cricket team has been doing particularly well (in fact, as I found out later, they are ranked 13th in the world!) At Urban Seed we run Laneway Cricket competitions, bringing together people from the street with lawyers, accountants and other professionals to build

These kids can bowl...fast.

relationships and break down stereotypes. After all, cricket is the great leveller – a good inswinger can’t tell if you’re rich or poor. Games take place in the various laneways of Melbourne – transforming dodgy back alleys into places of playful enthusiasm.

This street cricket was all happening in front of a razor wire guarded compound, with the armed guards occasionally swapping their huge automatic weapons so they could have a bowl or a bat. On top of that there were two kids and a couple more teenagers. I wandered over initially to take a photo, but when I said I was from Australia they immediately handed me the bat.

The challenge was on.

So, it turns out they can bowl fast. The wickets was a solid pile of bricks, but that didn’t stop them knocking it down with a taped tennis ball. I got a few away, but definitely missed more than I hit. The drawback with playing street cricket in Kabul is not the six-and-out-over-the-fence hit, but the ball-rolling-into-the-open-sewer hit. Twice I hit it in there. Twice I retrieved it (yes, it was worth it).

Soon I was due to meet with Mum’s friend Mirwais, and I still hadn’t eaten my lunch, but they were determined that I should play on.

New friends. Guy on the right refused to put down his gun.

When I insisted I had to go, they insisted they all have a photo with me. Once again I’m totally amazed at how cricket – or any sport really – can bring such different people together in genuine warmth comradeship!

I soon met Mirwais, who took me to his house. Mirwais was one of my Mum’s students in Melbourne for a couple of years, before he was sent back to Afghanistan. His English is amazing, and though he does use it frequently in his job in the health field

It was great to just be in an ordinary Afghan home. Mirwais lives in a set of highrises with his parents, wife and two brothers. Immediately out came the tea, and we were chatting like old friends.

Too soon I had to go and meet with Raees Ahmadzai, an appointment I’d set up long before. Mirwais offered to drive me there, so I accepted with delight (truth be told, he was worried for my safety meeting with a total stranger in a place I didn’t know!). On my way out the door, in true Afghan style, they invited me to come back afterwards for dinner. Again, I accepted with delight.

Raees Ahmadzai was the captain of the Afghanistan National Cricket Team until last year. He won seven man of the match awards in

Raees Ahmadzai

his career, and captained his side to victories over Pakistan, Ireland and more (in fact, it was a loss to Afghanistan that cost Ireland a place in the World Cup, he told me with not a little pride).

It took a while to find his house, but find it we did. He welcomed us in, and we sat out in his backyard on deckchairs on only the second patch of green grass I’ve seen in Kabul.

I was here because after his retirement Raees started an organisation called Afghan Youth Cricket Support Organisation (AYCSO), developing cricket skills in Afghan youths. Cricket used to be seen in Afghanistan as a Pakistani sport, and was therefore regarded with high suspicion. It certainly still holds a more popular place in Pashtun circles.  But since the national team has been doing well in the last few years, it has exploded in popularity in the north as well.

Raees grew up in a Peshawar refugee camp. He first heard of cricket in the camp, and they would cut straight branches from trees and shape them to use as bats, and rolled up rags for a ball.

When he returned to Afghanistan in 2002, he tried out for the cricket team. He made man of the match in his first game, and was soon captain of the side.

Now retired, he uses cricket as a way to connect the different ethnicities, and to give them something positive to do with their time and bodies. After all, as long as they’re picking up a bat or ball, they’re not picking up a gun, and it gives them something better to aspire to than corruption and violence. He goes around the provinces with AYCSO, running training camps using the players from the Afghan National cricket team. In his position as technical director of the ACB (Afghan Cricket Board) it also gives him a great position to spot talent and develop it. Kind of a win-win situation for him.

“We have a saying in Credo Cricket,” I said. “’Cricket is not war. Cricket is morally superior to war.’”

It was nice to get in a proverb of my own – Afghans have one for every occasion.

He showed me around his trophy room/office, and gave me a couple of gifts. He invited us in for dinner, but as I’d already accepted the invitation to Mirwais’, had to decline.

Then we made our way back to Mirwais’ home. Mirwais remarked that despite his initial misgivings, he was amazed that he had never heard of Raees Ahmadzai, and that we had been able to meet him.

Dinner was totally amazing – dumplings (not the Afghan name) and sweet fried rice and vegetables and then dessert! All Afghan food, eaten on the floor, with our hands. I think I could get used to this.

And now I’m back in the internet café for the last stretch of the Global Day of Listening – the boys have been going almost nonstop for 24 hours! That’s the kind of commitment to genuine friendship and love that will see them become the future leaders of Afghanistan.

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