“We need a new kind of tree…”

Some of the scenes from our walk through Kabul

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

Spring has sprung in Afghanistan!

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

The school playground

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

Planting trees in Kabul!

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

Lighting candles for the victims of war

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.”

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Come the Afghan spring is here!

This is the latest video by Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers.

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Musings on what makes for safety

There are increasingly walls being put up in and around Kabul. As we drove around the city yesterday a large proportion of the streets are simply lined with blast walls four or more metres high and up to a metre thick. On top of them sits razor wire, and armed men stand guard at the gates.

All of which is intended to create an atmosphere of safety and security. But does it? Or does it, in actual fact, undermine that security?

At Urban Seed as we explore inclusion and exclusion with schools, churches and corporates on city walks, we often ask the question, “What makes a space safe?” Is it separation from our neighbours or is it getting to know them? Do surveillance cameras make a space feel safer or more threatening? If you try to keep the “bad guys” out, don’t you also risk excluding good guys (particularly if the “bad guys” turn out not to be so bad after all)?

In my experience, putting up walls creates an atmosphere of mistrust; it allows fear to fester. Like violence, it ends up backfiring on itself as people are excluded and othered. It creates enemies where there were none.

So is it barriers that make a place safe? Or is it, paradoxically, vulnerability which makes a place safe?

In contrast, vulnerability breeds trust; it says I have no need to be afraid of you. It gives others the space and opportunity to connect, even across difference. It allows the opportunity for friendship where there was none.

Of course, vulnerability is not a guarantee of safety. It’s not vulnerability if you can’t get hurt. But then, sitting behind walls afraid of the outside isn’t really living, it’s just existing.

One of the many inspiring aspects of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers is that, in the midst of blast walls being put up, they seek to tear them down. Or perhaps wear them down is more apt. By gentle persistence, insisting that love is what makes for peace, they are endeavouring to make themselves vulnerable, and thus open to connection with others. That can come at great cost. But no one can pretend in this place that war and blast walls don’t also come at great cost. Not merely to lives and limbs and resources either. They come at the cost of our humanity.

Martin Luther King Jnr – “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say:”We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

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How lovely on the mountains

Based on Isaiah 52, as a child I used to sing in church:

My first glimpse of the Afghanistan mountains

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him
Who brings good news
Announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness…

I had my first glimpse of the mountains of Afghanistan from the plane today. They’re breathtaking. At the moment they’re still snow-capped, as the thaw begins now with the coming of Spring. Rugged doesn’t quite capture it. We don’t really have mountains in Australia – hills certainly, but not mountains. This was the song that came to me as we flew over those mountains – mountains in which Taliban and other armed insurrectionists hide from US and ISAF forces and their all-seeing drones. How you could find anyone in the huge maze of gullies and sheer cliff faces is beyond me. I guess that’s at least one reason attempts to quell the insurgency have failed. Anyway, I couldn’t help wondering what it might look like to find some people whose feet brought good news from the mountains, announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness.

Kabul airport houses much of the US and Afghan air force equipment, which makes for a strange combination of military and civil aviation. Over one side of the runway are state of the art helicopters, fighter jets and transport aircraft; on the other, run down Soviet-era aircraft and leftover planes from China.

Through the bus window on arrival at Kabul airport

I had my first taste of Kabul within seconds of walking into the terminal – suddenly the few naked bulbs illuminating the room went out and the terminal was plunged into darkness. The starkness of the multi-million dollar military machines against the fragile civil infrastructure could scarcely have been greater. Within a couple of minutes they lurched awkwardly back to life, and we all resumed our queuing through immigration as though this was the commonplace event that it undoubtedly is.

Luckily the rest of the Voices group, who were in a flight ahead of me, were still in the terminal as I made my way through. Even though we had a set of instructions for meeting up, it was a relief to not have to follow through with them!

The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers were outside waiting for us, just past the police cordon. I had seen these guys many times of course, on You Tube, but seeing their shining faces in person was something else. They positively beamed. So did I.

Straightaway they were asking how was my family, my little girl (they had seen the Bonhoeffer 4 video which featured Chelsea crawling on me while I spoke). Hakim gave me a warm welcoming embrace, and we were on our way.

For someone who is not exactly a seasoned traveller, driving the streets of Kabul came as a somewhat amusing shock. There are very few road rules – very much every man, woman and child for themselves, and even pedestrians give as good as they get. There are people everywhere – selling all kinds of stuff out of carts on the side of the road, crossing the road or just milling around footpaths. There are bombed out buildings, slums, and the largest US military base in the world (it’s now bigger than Baghdad, I’m told). It’s all happening, and it’s all happening right in front of your eyes.

On the way to our accommodation the AYPVs told us about an action they had done earlier in the day, where they had a procession and silent demonstration outside the UN compound here. With banners reading, “Afghan civilians want no more wars,” “Peace is a prerequisite for progress,” and more they coalesced about 40 people to stand together on the side of the road. Complete with matching sky-blue banners and scarves, it was an awesome sight. Riot police soon arrived, decked out in full helmets, shields and batons – protests here are usually volatile at best and violent at worst. But it was soon apparent that this one was different, as they were met only with polite but determined smiles. One riot cop even pointed at the sign saying ‘no more wars’ saying, “I want that too.” It was also a rare occasion for another reason – girls do not usually participate in these kinds of demonstrations. A moment of deep empowerment and equality.

The welcome to the place we are staying was overwhelming – young person after young person came down the narrow staircase to embrace us and say in their best English, “Welcome to Afghanistan”. We are being well looked after by our hosts.

Later, we all introduced ourselves properly in a circle – Hakim translating for all of us. One of the girls from Open Society said she couldn’t believe so many people from rich countries would come and sit down next to them. It gave her hope, she said. Another told a common Afghan ‘joke’ that when God was creating the Earth he needed somewhere to put the rubbish, so he put it all in a pile and called it Afghanistan. I suppose humour gets bleak after 30 or so years of war. Mostly the AYPVs were just delighted we were here.

I talked about the fact that although I was one person, I represented hundreds of well-wishers and supporters (like you!) whose love and support had made my presence possible and whose love I brought with me.

Hakim went last. He is a Singaporean doctor who quit his private practice in 2002 to serve those in a refugee camp in Pakistan, and never quite went home again. He now has a significant role with the AYPVs. He told the story of trying to take a young Afghan boy’s photograph, asking him to smile for the picture, only to have the boy’s grandmother berate him. “Why should he smile? He has nothing to smile about.” Afghan people are losing hope, he said; what they need are examples of people who stand up for all that is good and right and beautiful in the world. I can’t help thinking that it’s not just Afghans who need such examples to bear witness to an alternative imagination; we all do.

The houses on the side of the hill have no sewerage or running water but they stay because they know the government won't move them on

So, in this room, was the hope for the future of Afghanistan. Here were people – young people, with a deep commitment to nonviolence – whose feet bring good news, announcing peace, proclaiming happiness despite the odds. I look forward to learning more from them in the coming days.

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The longest night

Saying goodbye was harder even than I thought. “But you don’t have to go do you Daddy? Stay with me,” Chelsea pleaded through tears. All I could respond through mine was, “I’ll talk to you soon.”

Saying goodbye to Julie wasn’t much easier, but at least she didn’t beg me to stay (thanks for that Jules!). Finally I passed through the tall chrome doors and disappeared into the International section.

Customs were surprisingly jovial – I was called up by an official rocking back and forth in her chair with laughter. “Practical joke day. I put Vaseline on the handle of his stamp,“ she explained through tears of laughter, referring to her colleague in the next booth. He made a face at her as he rubbed his hands together to disperse the Vaseline.

“Afghanistan,” she said. “What the hell are you going there for? Holiday?”

“Well, kinda. I’m going with a bunch of peace activists to meet up with some Afghan peace activists. So more holiday than work…not everyone’s kind of holiday, but my kind of holiday I guess.”

“Oh. Well…good onya,” she responded.

“So I’m done then?” I asked as she handed my papers back. “Unless you want me to do a song and dance number, yeah,” she responded.

Budding comedians, those customs officials. Who knew?

As we waited to board I struck up a conversation with an older couple on their way to a tour of Europe’s rivers. It was a while before they got around to asking me where I was going after Dubai.

“Kabul,” I replied.

Puzzlement.

“Afghanistan,” I tried again, and this time the surprise registered.

“Oh,” she said, and paused a full ten seconds as she worked out what to ask next. “For…work?”

Again I tried to explain. Again the bewildered expression flashed across her face.

Finally we boarded, and took off. I soon discovered the guy next to me had the ‘flu – he coughed, spluttered and sniffed his way through the whole 13 and a half hour flight. A one year old in the row in front made for an interesting duet.

The entertainment system on Emirates is pretty impressive – I watched the new films 127 hours, The Social Network and The King’s Speech. Only got a little bit of sleep, despite trying for hours. Too cramped. For someone who hasn’t really travelled it was a weird experience – the night just went on and on and on, until the equivalent of 2pm my normal time. The long, dark night as they say.

Finally we arrived in Dubai. The airport here is massive – like Chadstone Shopping Centre on steroids, it’s opulence gone mad. And that’s just one of several terminals. Even at 5:30am when I arrived it was wall to wall people. It took me an hour and a half to work out where I needed to go, despite asking at 7 different information desks.

Now I’m here, waiting for my connecting flight, looking forward to seeing Kabul in whatever daylight is left. Then sleeping. Oh yes…sleep.

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What you can do to support

1. Educate yourself on Afghanistan and the war itself. There are plenty of great documentaries to make it easier – The Boy who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Rethink Afghanistan, The Garden at the End of the World and more.

2. Talk about the Afghanistan war with your friends, family, work colleagues, etc. The silence surrounding this ten year war is deafening. You can change that. Call talkback radio, and other media.

3. Check out the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPVs) website. Sign their petition.

4. Participate in the “Global Day of Listening” which the AYPVs are organising. You might even get to chat to me in Kabul!

5. Plant a tree simultaneously with us on March 19th or hold a candlelight vigil simultaneously with us on the 21st to mourn the victims of war. Or just hold an Afghan New Years’ party on the 20th/21st! More info here.

5. Let me know if you would like me to come and speak to your church/school/community group about the trip.

6. I’ll be doing regular updates while I’m there (internet permitting) so if you’d like to be on an email list to hear about the trip let me know by emailing smoyle [at] gmail.com (it won’t go beyond the week I’m there I promise!) You can also catch up with updates via Facebook, Twitter (@simonmoyle) and of course this blog. 🙂

7. If you’re the praying type, we’d appreciate your prayers for the delegation, but please don’t stop there. Pray for all involved in this conflict – from soldiers to warlords, from children to grandmothers.  Our safety is no more important than theirs. And please pray for my wife Julie and the kids – this is the longest period we will have been away from each other and the certainly the most significant risk we have taken.

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Brochures and booking flights

I sat facing the wall of shiny brochures, stretching from corner to corner of the travel agency. It brought back memories of my only other overseas destination: Fiji for my honeymoon. On this occasion at a cursory glance I couldn’t see any brochures for my current destination: Kabul, Afghanistan.

“And where would you like to go, sir?” the travel agent asked politely. “Afghanistan,” I said. “And when would you like to travel?” “In three weeks’ time,” I said. “Arriving March 17th.”

It was several minutes of wordless tapping on his keyboard before he asked for more detail. During that time I made a more thorough scan of the wall; now I was sure there weren’t any brochures for Afghanistan. Not that I was surprised; a country racked by 30 years of war probably struggles somewhat with tourism. Even still, the agent didn’t seem particularly surprised by my choice of destination.

Actually, if you’d asked me a month ago even I would’ve been surprised by my choice of destination. It was then that I’d had a conversation with a friend about how little desire I had to travel. Some people have the travel bug; some catch it. I seem to have been born with an immunity.

Having said that, I’ve been actively involved in various antiwar activities for about 6 years now. Over time (as Thomas Merton says) the range does tend to narrow down and get much more personal as you make connections with people (“In the end,” Merton says, “it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”). Meeting and spending time with Malalai Joya, and then talking with and listening to the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPVs) has been part of that personalising process for me, a process that would be deepened by spending time together face to face.

Even still, when the invitation came from Voices for Creative Nonviolence to be part of an international delegation of peace activists to Kabul (at the invitation of the AYPVs), it was a surprise to me that I would seriously consider it. It is a war zone, after all.  And I have a wife and three young children.

Perhaps I can share more about motivation another time. For the moment, I have taken up the invitation. And between ordering passports and visas and receiving various vaccination jabs from the doctor, that decision has been confirmed deep within me. I hope this journey enables not just me, but you also, to be introduced to some inspirational people in the most difficult of circumstances.

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