Wow, what a day.
First, due to jetlag I seem to wake up somewhere between 4 and 5am and not be able to get back to sleep. Luckily I’m also going to bed earlier, but it’s pretty weird having a long stretch before ‘breakfast’.
This morning we went for a long walk through the streets of Kabul. Not the tourist district, but the back streets of the section Westerners don’t really frequent. That was a cultural experience in itself – the carts, the people, the open sewers. It’s such an overwhelming feeling being in such a different place, but feeling very much yourself.
The reactions have been fascinating – lots of people stop and stare at you like you’re some sideshow oddity (which I probably am in these parts), others say, “How are you?” and still others try to sell you stuff or ask for money. Almost no one ignores you.
Life is pretty hard for most people here. Most places have no running water, and for those that do the water is not safe to drink. The air quality is terrible – I already have what they call the ‘Kabul cough’. I’m told that Kabul has the highest amount of fecal matter in the air of any place on Earth (a dubious honour) due to the random sheep, goats, dogs, chickens and cats roaming the streets, whose droppings dry out and get blown around with the rest of the dust and smoke. Being surrounded by mountains the pollution tends to
get trapped, hence there are an estimated 3000 deaths per year from air pollution alone.
Just three weeks ago it was snowing here – today we applied suncream to keep from being burnt. Spring has definitely sprung! The weather has been amazing – cold at night, but during the day it has been around 20-25 (I’m guessing).
After our walk through Kabul we came to a private school where we were doing the tree planting. This was one of the reasons I was so keen to come – tree planting has deep significance for many cultures, and mine is no exception. The Hebrew prophets speak of a time when everyone will live under their own vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. It’s a vision of peaceful economic self sufficiency, where everyone has shelter, safety and food. The very things we all wish for Afghanistan, but which has been so elusive for so long.
First though we met with a teacher at the school, who gave us a great idea of what life is like for them and what their needs are. Public school in Afghanistan is free and supposedly compulsory, but with no way to enforce it, attendance is only about 60% in Kabul alone. Some provinces don’t even have accessible schools for a large section of the population. Private schools here cost students $15-20 a month over a 9 month school year. (If you’d like to help, how about offering a child a scholarship?)
Schools are of particular interest to me because a large part of the Australian military’s role in Afghanistan has been building schools, and this is always held up as a shining example of the good our military can do. When we mentioned this though, the teacher scoffed. “Afghanistan does not need you to build more schools,” she said. “We don’t have enough teachers for all the schools already. What use is a school if there are no teachers to teach the students?”
Part of the problem of endemic poverty is that those who do get a good education end up leaving Afghanistan because there are no
prospects or jobs here, and because pay is poor, there’s no incentive to stay. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy because those who are educated and skilled don’t hang around long enough to improve things. Those who remain are the poorest and least educated, which fuels the cycle of poverty. Teachers like this girl are worth their weight in gold.
Interestingly, we asked her if the US leaving Afghanistan would mean there was a better chance for peace or a worse chance. She said there would clearly be a better chance for peace and stability if the international forces left. “Besides,” she said, “we should stand on our own two feet.”
I hear this again and again – Afghans are sick of foreign powers meddling in their affairs. They believe, for better or worse, that they would be far better off making their own mistakes than having to wear the consequences of others’.
Afterwards the AYPVs introduced the tree planting with a poem they had written themselves, “We need a new kind of tree”. I’ll put up a copy of it when it’s posted for everyone to hear. It was so deeply moving, using the image of a new kind of tree – not one with its roots in corruption and war, but a peaceful tree which provides safety and good fruit. This is what the AYPVs seek to be for Afghanistan.
We then proceeded to the playground area to begin the tree planting. When I say playground area, I mean a patch of totally bare hard-packed earth where it looks like nothing has grown for years. We planted peach, almond, apricot, apple, and poplar trees, in two long rows. I can’t think of a better contribution that we could make to this country than this – Afghans, Aussies and Americans
working the earth together, joining in communion with creation. Afterwards the school children overcame their shyness and wandered over to say ‘salaam’. All of them wanted their picture taken, and to meet the strange white people who had come to their school. They have such beautiful faces, and reminded me of my own children. It’s hard to believe 2 such children were killed by NATO forces last week, and 9 two weeks before that. Real children, with real hopes and dreams for their future.
In the afternoon we visited the Emergency Surgical Centre for War Victims, an Italian run hospital which caters specifically to those who have been physically injured in the wars. Anyone is welcome, and no questions are asked about whose side the patient is on. It is deliberately and vocally independent of any alliance, being entirely funded through Italian philanthropists. It’s an impressive operation (no pun intended). We went there intending to donate blood, but as there were only a couple of us with blood types they needed most of us left with our blood still inside.
Later we made our way to a local hall. Here we held our candlelight vigil.
The AYPVs read the names, ages, and fathers’ names of the 9 children killed by NATO forces in Kunar on March 1. We observed two minutes’ silence in remembrance of all of those killed in wars. Kathy then made an apology on behalf of those in the international delegation for our countries’ destruction of Afghanistan. Others also had a chance to speak.
I have done this many times before – having vigils at which the names of the war victims are read and remembered. But it’s something else sharing it with those directly affected. No one I’ve talked to this week has been untouched by the war – on top of those who have lost fathers, brothers, and other relatives I’ve spoken with no fewer than 5 people who have been kidnapped by the
Taliban and lived to tell the tale. It was deeply moving to share this moment with them.
Afterwards I sat and talked with one of the girls who has recently joined with the AYPVs. Her assessment, like most, was pretty bleak. “Living in Afghanistan is like being trapped in a prison,” she said. Trapped between poverty, lack of education, warlords, the Taliban and the international forces waging their wars, there was nowhere for them to turn. She, like many others in Afghanistan, believe the war is just a pretext for an indefinite foreign military occupation. “If US is so big and clever, why they not defeat Talib yet?” she asked, again a common question among Afghans.
There is no love for the Taliban here; but neither is there any love for the international forces. All cite Afghan led education as the key to a better future.
On the way out the door I asked one of the AYPVs if he found vigils like this difficult. Did they bring back the grief? I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “But I don’t like crying with so many people in the room. I will cry tonight. I cry a lot.”