Jamila, age 11, holds a neighbor’s newborn. Photo by Henrietta Cullinan

Here in Kabul, I'm generally an early riser at the home of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, but I'm seldom alone. Facing exams, my young friends awaken early and then stay up late to study. Before sunrise this morning, eighteen-year-old Ghulamai sits in the kitchen, poring over his textbook. His efforts have made him number one in his class for the past three school terms. Now in the eleventh grade, he hopes to continue his education, but his situation is precarious.

After sunrise each day Ghulamai heads out on his bicycle to the one-room home that his mother shares with four of his siblings. His bicycle has a rack above the rear wheel with a pillow fixed to it by bungee cord. His mother perches here each day as he carries her for the twenty minutes it takes to reach the three-story building where she works. Six days a week, she cooks, cleans, and launders for three well-to-do families. Ghulamai will return to fetch her in the late afternoon, bringing her back to their room where her children have been waiting for her. The oldest, eleven year old Jamila, looks after them while their mother is away.

Last week, Henrietta (Voices – UK), Ali and I visited Ghulamai with his mother and siblings in this room. Joining us in these snug quarters were two neighboring women and their small children. Ghulamai's mother served tea to all of us as we sat together learning about the women's experiences trying to survive in a country ravaged by war and corruption.

Ghulamai's mother was desperate when she recently moved to Kabul from the more rural province of Bamiyan. Now, in Kabul, her earnings just barely cover rent and very simple meals for the family, but back home no amount of hard work washing other families’ clothes would earn enough for her family’s food and shelter. The cleaning work here is difficult, in no small part because one of her hands is badly mangled from a Russian air strike upon her own wedding. At the time, she was 11 years old. Shrapnel tore one of her fingers clear away. Strikes at weddings and other civilian gatherings have continued under U.S. occupation, part of a daily traumatic onslaught permanently narrowing life choices for the most vulnerable people here, as war can be expected to do.

According to Brown University's Watson Institute, approximately 111,000 people have been killed and at least 116,000 wounded during the 15-year U.S. war in Afghanistan. The death toll from poverty, malnutrition, disease, and social dislocation can’t be neatly calculated. Over 31,000—nearly a third—of the people killed in fighting alone are local civilians. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) counts more than 40,900 Afghan civilian injuries since January 2009.

What has the war accomplished? In the U.S., it is hard for anyone to credit the lie that our rampage through the Middle East, begun in vengeance after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, has made anyone safer. In April 2016, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported to Congress that only 70.5 percent of the country was in Afghan government control, and just three months later SIGAR noted that "the area under Afghan government control had declined by about five percent. Violence occurs even in the areas ‘controlled’ by the government.”

Today we met with Kubra, Latifah, Shekibah and Naima, four local seamstresses struggling to get by in alarmingly simple dwellings. Many in the U.S. believe the war has allowed the U.S. government to help and protect women in Afghanistan. All four women disagreed, insisting that any aid from outside Afghanistan goes to people who will never share it with the needy.

"The U.S. may help the Afghan government," said Latifah, "but all we see are new, fancy buildings."

It is difficult to see how, in the chaos and desperation war creates, women’s lives could be expected to improve. Pious talk about Afghan women’s freedom often ignores their greatest desire which is to find food for their children. When all we in the U.S. share is talk, when we demand transformation of people’s lives but choose then to destructively transform their society with airdropped bombs and missiles, plus millions of rifles and bullets, then our most impassioned talk becomes ridiculous and hurtful.

The APVs help the seamstresses provide for their children by giving them rice, beans and cooking oil once a month, but the women say no one else helps them. Two of these women are married to men who are disabled and the other two say their husbands can't find work anywhere. During part of the year, the women are paid for their seamstress work in the APV duvet project and the blue scarf project.

As part of the APV effort to help people facing hunger, cold and little to no income, Ghulamai now coordinates their Food Bank. This project provides the monthly food ration, chiefly to families enrolled in the APV’s “Street Kids School." By offering a food ration, the APVs allow these families to forgo the income their children could earn as child street workers and instead send them to government schools for half the day, no longer sacrificing their futures to their immediate survival. It's a fine project, and now some of the older street kids volunteer time on the Duvet Project, through which women of no income can earn a wage sewing heavy blankets for distribution, free of charge, to families with little or no protection from the harsh winter.

Ghulamai once told me about an encounter he had with very young trash collectors who asked him if they could go through the trash bags he was wheeling to the local dump. He agreed, and they salvaged a few scraps of bread and some paper that could be used for fuel. Then they sat down to talk with him. Pointing to a large new home, of the type referred to as a "poppy palace" since opium plays such a great role in building new fortunes here, one of the children said,

"Look at that castle and at how those people live, and see how we live."

That child could be pointing at those of us who live in castles of our own in the west. It’s seems an impossible gap exists between our comfort and the nightmare precarity suffered by people in those countries where wars rip their security away. We cannot remain so remote from the poorest abroad or the poorest here at home, I think. It’s much wiser to invoke the Golden Rule, to find satisfaction in living simply, and to share resources as part of our work to move toward a better world.

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org), co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence. While in Kabul, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers (ourjourneytosmile.com)

Section: 

Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

More

Activists say no wall can be built that will keep them from standing together for immigration reform.

In this 1963 letter from his Birmingham jail cell Martin Luther King Jr. pushed back against the idea that civil...

From drone strikes against Americans overseas to broad surveillance powers to indefinite detention, Obama certainly...

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


Public School Shakedown

Progressive Media Project

Newsletter