“[The] sky is not the place of war and killing; it is the place of moon, sun, stars, kites and birds.” – Student at Borderfree Street Kids School
“Who would have thought that permaculture lessons could soften us to be vulnerable with each other and with our bare, dry land?” – Dr. Hakim, mentor with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers
In 2008, in the Bamiyan province of Afghanistan, a dream was born. As war sunk its roots further into the earth of their country, a group of university students from diverse ethnic groups decided to try living together for a semester. Since then, they have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of peace and the building of alternatives to war.
The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers embody an ardent belief in nonviolence: in the economy, resolving conflicts, and in our relationships with the earth and each other. They wear light blue scarves around their necks, to remind themselves that all human beings “live under the same blue, borderless sky.”
Based now in Kabul, they lead a number of initiatives. One of their main projects is the Borderfree Street Kids School, where children living and working on the street can take classes in Dari, mathematics, literacy, art, tailoring, and nonviolence. The curriculum is designed to foster compassionate and critical thinking, and to educate students about global warming, militarism, and socioeconomic inequalities. In 2015, 93 children attended the school. Powered by solar energy, the school also provides monthly packages of rice, flour, beans, and oil to the families of street kids.
Marked by a strong ecological bent, other projects run by the volunteers include a permaculture farm on the outskirts of Kabul and the Borderfree Afghan Cycling Club, designed to encourage Afghan girls and boys to bike. In 2009, they also built the Bamiyan Peace Park, a landmark memorial. On its grounds, an engraved marble stone reads: “Even a little of our love is stronger than the war of the worlds.”
The challenges the volunteers face are immense. They are working in a country riven by violence that shows no clear sign of fading. Hundreds of thousands of fellow children are forced to abandon school and make a living on the streets. Over half of all of Afghanistan’s forest cover has been lost. Some provinces such as Nangarhar have almost no trees left.
I spoke to the volunteers about the situation in Afghanistan and their vision for a just and safer world.
Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik: In the West, Afghanistan is often presented as a country “in transition.” This year, former UK Prime Minister David Cameron affirmed that “tremendous strides” have been made, while announcing a commitment to send more troops. As the US marks 15 years of war in Afghanistan, President Obama has also announced that he will be leaving more American troops than planned. How do you see the current state of things in Afghanistan?
Zarghuna: The security situation hasn’t improved. Poverty is rampant across the country. Pollution and environmental destruction are reaching crisis levels. There is widespread corruption and violence, both of which are escalating. Afghanistan is a field that belongs to nobody, but everyone is trying to dominate it. The strategy of the international community has not changed. It continues to pursue a military solution to the conflict, an approach that has not worked.
Abdul Ali: If we look at the history of Afghanistan, the same strategy and technique is applied to try to address the problems in this country: war.
The first Anglo-Afghan war took place more than a hundred years ago. Since then, it’s been a continuous series of conflicts. So what we’re looking at is human beings repeating the same mistakes again and again.
We recently heard a NATO announcement in Warsaw that leaders were going to continue pursuing a military strategy in Afghanistan, delivering more security support and aid. This is just the sad continuation of a strategy that does not benefit the people of Afghanistan or their own agenda.
We have to recall the root causes of the war: different countries, such as the British or American governments, are involved in Afghanistan because of money and power. But the result of their quest is that we, the people, suffer.
Hoor: Since the time of Amanullah Khan [king of Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929], we haven’t really had any stability. Right now we have some kind of “democratic” government, but the processes that really happen on the ground show a government which is not democratic. Even the elections are rigged. There is overwhelming evidence from the past fifteen years, from [Hamid] Karzai to [Ashraf] Ghani, of electoral fraud and political corruption.
What we have now in Afghanistan is a political compromise between forces, a national unity government. This has given us some kind of system of government, but it does not work for the people.
DV: If politicians see war as the only solution, what is your vision for achieving a safe, peaceful Afghanistan? What does peace mean to you?
Hur: We have a vision that sees the people of Afghanistan come together from different ethnic groups to make their desires, the vision for the future, known.
Abdul Ali: Exactly. We want to see young people join together to work under a method of non-violence to craft that vision. We think that as the people of the country come together in a movement that uses the methods of non-violence, well then we can work towards genuine peace.
Zarghuna: We want to work towards a different country, towards a world that is green, equal, and non-violent, without war. We hold on to that vision. And we continue to believe in the symbol of the free blue sky: as a human family, we all live under the same blue, borderless sky.
Zekerullah: We also believe that we have to try make that peace work ourselves. Among the volunteers, one of the things we are experimenting with is that we do not have any directors or bosses here. We believe that a new or better world will be one that is structured without bosses calling the shots. So you come together in different teams and you work in consultation with one another. Once a week, a group of about twenty coordinators will meet and discuss our programs. We work as much as possible on the basis of consensus-building. The way power is distributed in human society and relationships is crucial, and by addressing this issue of power between us, we feel we can help build a more equal and better system.
DV: What is surprising is just how broad your vision is. Most people, I think, see the problems of the world as a menu of separate issues: you have war here, environmental issues there, poverty over there, gender inequality over here. But you seem to have a much more integral vision. As you write: “People across all borders are awakening to the reality that their daily struggles over seemingly ‘separate’ issues have common root causes spinning off from ‘that same wrecking ball,’ and as we join the dots, we are voicing our democratic hopes together, non-violently. We realize that to address global warming, we need to address socio-economic inequalities, and to address socio-economic inequalities, we need to address militarism and wars.”
Bashir: Afghans are facing three crises head-on: we have a war that is raging, we have severe economic and social inequalities, and our environment has been wrecked and poisoned. These problems are all linked together because a common system drives them. The status quo is not addressing any of them.
Nawed: There are many examples of the links. War has its roots in social and economic inequality. An unequal power system creates elites that then compete with each other using different political or armed groups.
War as well contributes to climate change and environmental destruction. The weapons and materials used in conflict have a direct link to contamination. Over the past 16 years, we’ve experienced the use of depleted uranium here in Afghanistan, leading to the pollution of lands and water sources. Untreated chemicals from military bases and munitions deposits have also led to poisoning. War has wrecked rural areas and forests.
Over time, we have come to understand how the same group of military, political, and economic elites are driving these crises. All the dots are connected to one another. We have to work on addressing them together.
DV: A common theme throughout your work is breaking down borders: Border Free. Can you talk a bit more about what this means, particularly at a time when borders are becoming increasingly militarized, when fences are being erected, when many Afghan refugees are being denied asylum in Europe?
Abdul Ali: We believe that human beings should be free to travel and move around as they desire. I’ve been teaching non-violence to Afghan street kids, and one of the things we study is the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. In the UNDHR, we read that in 1948 the nations of the world agreed that every human being should be able to travel freely without hassle. But “border free” is much more than just unrestricted travel: it means fully realizing that refugees are human beings who should be accepted by other human beings. If Afghans go to Europe, they should be seen and received as human beings. So should Europeans if they come to Afghanistan.
Abdulhai: Our Earth is a large home, a house. And in this house, we have many rooms, but each of these rooms is under the same roof. And so, we must care for our home, for our house, for each of the rooms, and each of its inhabitants.
Ultimately, this is about care and creating relationships of care. Americans and British people have a relationship of friendship, and so citizens can move fairly freely between those countries. Borders don’t really mean much to them. But they mean a lot to us because borders treat us unequally. As Afghans, we are not seen as people who can cross borders. We are not seen as full human beings.
Bashir: We also cannot forget that the Western world has a particular obligation to many of the refugees we’re seeing now. Many Western countries are directly involved in the wars that have driven human beings from their families, from the homes where they were born. They have maintained wars in Syria, in Iraq, and here in Afghanistan, where people find it intolerable to live.
We can’t forget World War II, when Jews had to seek refuge outside of their home countries. They were scattered everywhere, and different countries gave them refuge. Right now we have a similar situation. If we look at history, we have cycles of refugees, of countries abusing their people who then flee. Ultimately, we share history. We share the Earth. And we share a humanity. We can’t forget that we may find ourselves needing refuge because other human beings are dominating us.
DV: Even though you grapple with such large problems, from global warming to militarism, you constantly stress the importance of personal relationships, of starting from “small” gestures of compassion. If we change the way we relate to each other, that can already help lead us towards a different politics, a different economy.
Hoor: Yes, this comes from understanding the realities we have today. We know that the methods and legacies of war and militarism may stay with us for a long time. They are problems with deep, deep roots. We may not be able to abolish war in our lifetimes; we are talking about a huge problem, after all. But what we can do is change a perspective towards war and its related problems, one person at a time. That is something we can realistically do. At our center, we encourage the young people who come to bring one of their friends along.
Without awareness, there will be no change. And in our work, we’ve realized that without compassionate relationships, you cannot spread awareness.
We always come back to our principal motivation, which is: how do we get rid of the idea of war from the human heart, from the human mind? That begins through another kind of relationship, another kind of conversation.
Abdul Ali: We have an Afghan saying: “mountains cannot reach mountains; only men can reach men.” If we reach out to other human beings, we are doing what mountains cannot do.
So one of the things we’ve learnt a lot about is communication. We have this project called Global Days of Listening, where we have online conversations with many people from different parts of the world. We’ve made contact with friends from forty different countries.
When we speak to them we uncover friendships. We recognize that our issues are connected to one another and that our stories are similar. These conversations, these relationships change our lives, they change our understanding of things, and that gives us continued motivation.
Zarghuna: There’s another Afghan proverb which says: “A drop of water with another drop of water will eventually become a river.” One person cannot deal with such huge problems. We are just a drop, but if one person finds another person, then the drops coalesce and come together to form a stream. Only then, together, can we address the problems we face.
DV: What are some of the precious memories you’ve gained through being involved with the peace movement and with the volunteers?
Nawed: I came to join the volunteers a couple of months ago. I remember meeting Muqadisa, who is one of the youngest volunteers. She is thirteen years old. She stood up to share her thoughts: “I want to abolish war.” To me, that seemed like an impossible thing. I was surprised that she had these ideas, especially at that age.
Muqadisa once went up to her classmates at the government school, and on the palm of her hand she wrote: bas (enough). Enough war. They ridiculed her, they didn’t believe her. In class, she wrote “enough war” on a page of her notebook. And in front of the class she tore the page from her notebook. She then taped that page back into her notebook. And she said: “War is something that man created. We tore this page [of peace] out of our book. If we have made it, we can mend it. We can abolish it.” I am older than her, but I am so inspired by how much energy there is among young people.
Abdullah: One of the most special moments happened a few years ago. We have a small farm in Kabul which we have developed over the years. And one day we had a symbolic burial of weapons. Street children dressed in black, in funereal clothes, brought their toy weapons that they used to play with. They used a hammer to destroy the weapons against a rock. The pieces of weapons were thrown into a pit, and covered with earth. And right there, on top of the remains of the weapons, we planted a tree.
With gratitude to Dr. Hakim for his much-valued assistance in translation and coordination.
All photographs courtesy the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers.