The Afghan Bamiyan Diaries

Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan, a stunningly beautiful mountainous region, is located in the center of the country, roughly 100 miles from Kabul. Most people there live in small, autonomous villages tucked into high mountain valleys and work dawn to dusk just to scratch out a meager living as subsistence farmers, shepherds, or goatherds. The central government in Kabul and the regional government in Bamiyan City exercise little or no control over their lives. They govern themselves and live for the most part in isolation.


Given this, who would imagine that Afghan youth from the small villages across Bamiyan Province would come together to form a tight-knit, resilient, and effective group of peace activists, with a growing network of contacts and support that includes youth in other parts of the country and peace activists in the U.S. and Palestine? If the scope of our imaginations is limited by CNN and Fox News, we would not likely imagine an indigenous peace group forming in Bamiyan Province.


Calling themselves the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV), they range in age from 8 to 20 and they have been active for over 2 years, translating their camaraderie and the horror of their families' experience of war and displacement into a passionate and active pacifism. At an invitation from AYPV, three American peace activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence traveled to Bamiyan for five days in October to build bridges of friendship and support with these youth and their families. Over this time, we wrote a diary of our experiences and interactions with the AYPV.


Meeting the AYPV

By David Smith-Ferri


We arrived in Bamiyan after a 40-minute UN flight from Kabul on a 1960s-era Russian helicopter. We disembarked from the helicopter and stepped into the Bamiyan Valley, the bright autumn sunshine and the equally bright faces and smiles of the AYPV, all of whom were lined up and waiting for us eagerly. There was no question about carrying our own luggage, which the Afghan youth whisked away politely but firmly. Fifteen-year old Abdulai, a small-boned and lean but very sturdy Hazara boy from a potato-farming family, dismissed my objections good-naturedly with a smile and said with a mixture of pride and matter-of-factness, "It's OK. I am a mountain boy." There is an Afghan saying, "The first time we meet, we are friends. The second time, brothers (sisters)." We were certainly greeted in this spirit on day one of our visit.


In a country occupied by a foreign power, bleeding from military, political, and ethnic violence, worn by decades of war and corruption, the AYPV are looking for meaningful ways to raise a voice of nonviolence. Because there is so much suspicion and strife among the major ethnic groups in Afghanistan—Pashtun (44 percent), Hazara (18 percent), Tajik (25 percent), and Uzbek (7 percent)—AYPV has sought ethnic diversity, both as a symbol of the need for reconciliation and to teach themselves tolerance.


At present, there are only Hazara and Tajik people in the group, largely because the population of Bamiyan Province is almost exclusively Hazara and Tajik. There are also no girls or young women in the group. To address this, they developed a relationship with a staff person at an orphanage in Kabul where many Pashtun children live and earlier this year several AYPV members visited the orphanage. The trip to Kabul, which requires passing through areas controlled by Pashtun people, was itself a courageous act, as was showing up at the orphanage with their message of nonviolence. Their courage was rewarded. Seeds were planted among Pashtun youth at the orphanage and a follow-up visit is planned.


Over dinner, we talked about prejudice and the intolerance that is such an obstacle to peace. Mohammad "Jan" (a term of endearment), at 20 the oldest member of the group, began the discussion by saying, "War is increasing prejudice and divisions in Afghan society because much of the fighting is happening along ethnic lines." The conversation became personal, as some of the boys discussed their own struggles with prejudice. "I was prejudiced against Pashtuns and Tajiks when I joined the group, but these prejudices are now gone," Abdulai said. Ali, a 14-year-old Hazara boy, concurred: "I was prejudiced against Tajiks. Now Mohammad Jan and Faiz [another Tajik member of the group] are like my brothers. There is still a great deal of prejudice in the general community. The solution is to make friends." Zekirullah, a stocky 11-year-old Hazara boy, commented: "I had great prejudice against Tajiks and Pashtuns, because it is so widespread among Hazaras. Sometimes I still feel this prejudice."


Over the time the group has been together, there have been cutting remarks, especially against Mohammad Jan and Faiz, the two Tajiks. Because Tajiks are Sunni, Hazaras (who are Shia) may see them as "infidels." "Often we refuse to see each other as human beings," Mohammad Jan said. "Instead, we see Tajik, Pashtun, Hazara, Shia…. I think we have to have a long-term viewpoint and young people are the key. Old people are like full grown trees which can't bend. But young people are like saplings. They can change their direction."


Building Bamiyan Peace Park


The city of Bamiyan, with a population of roughly 60,000, has only one paved street, a wide, two-kilometer road without lanes that is a site of constant activity from 5:00 AM to curfew, at 10:00 PM. It is referred to as the "Bazaar" because it is lined on both sides with shops.


By day two, we've been struck by how hard people, both in town and in the outlying villages, have to work to make a living. Children work hard, too, seeming to participate fully in the livelihood of the family. At almost any time of the day they can be seen helping set up the family street stall early in the morning, riding a donkey to fetch water in five-gallon plastic jugs, helping harvest potatoes, herding sheep or goats, collecting leaves for fuel, washing clothes in a creek, caring for younger siblings and, of course, attending school.


Having had a chance to talk with members of AYPV, it was with delight that we visited the Bamiyan Peace Park with nine proud members of the group and learned about their role in its development and use. The Park, inaugurated a year ago as part of International Peace Day activities, was a real test of character for the AYPV. In 2007, the Mayor of Bamiyan proposed the construction of a Peace Park at an undeveloped, 1,150-square-meter site, strewn with rocks and overgrown by weeds, on the outskirts of the city. For over a year, the proposal to build a Peace Park languished for lack of local initiative and an absence of foreign aid to pay for its construction.


According to Hakim, the Singaporean medical doctor and ex-pat who is a mentor to the AYPV, many young Afghans adopt the same expectation as adults that all civic projects depend on foreign aid. When Hakim proposed that the AYPV spearhead a local effort to construct the park, they were thrown off balance. Where would the money come from, the materials, the labor? Who were they to undertake such an effort? But small successes helped them. They met with Dr. Sarobi, governor of Bamiyan Province—the only female governor in Afghanistan—and she agreed to approach the private sector for support.


In September 2008, they held a ground-breaking ceremony. The owner of a local hotel donated soil, two construction companies loaned graders, and the AYPV came with shovels to remove rocks and help with leveling. In the spring of 2009, the youth gathered to prepare the soil for planting, working alongside Bamiyan City workers to help till and landscape the site. They interacted with local government ministries in ways they hadn't done before, reminding the Environment Directorate to source for and plant grass seed and delivering an official request for saplings to the Agricultural Directorate.


"The grass and trees were planted," Hakim said, "and our courage grew with the greening of the park." But a big test lay ahead. The AYPV wanted a sign in the park with a clear message of nonviolence, but again there was no money for its construction. An international NGO that works with children offered funding that would have covered the cost of the sign as well as construction of toilets, but the NGO had a policy requiring the placement of a sign in the park acknowledging their contribution. If the group accepted this money, it might end up looking like a foreign-built park after all.


In a clear declaration of their self-confidence, the youth voted to refuse the donation and politely withdrew their application. Then they went back to the hard work of outreach and fundraising. Eventually, they had an opportunity to sell a book to raise funds and, through its sales paid for the sign, a five-foot-high, four-foot-wide, pentagonal brick monument, a marble plaque inset with the words in Dari script: "Bamiyan Peace Park Established 1388" (according to the Muslim lunar calendar in use by local people). The script at the top of the monument reads: "Why not love? Why not make peace?"


Shortly after the monument was installed, vandals defaced the lettering, intentionally splattering red paint across it to resemble drops of blood. The boys were frightened by this, but they came together, recreated the lettering, and on the reverse side of the monument added the words: "Even a little of our love is stronger than a war of the worlds."


Each of the last two years, the boys have gathered at the Park on International Peace Day after inviting people to call them with messages of peace and solidarity. This year their invitation read: "We plan to be together to receive calls for 24 hours. We'd rather stay awake to hear your voices than sleep without those human connections we yearn for." On September 21, 2010, they received calls from people in 20 different countries, a remarkable thing in a community so isolated both within its own country and from the rest of the world.



War Does This to Your Mind

By Kathy Kelly


Khamad Jan, age 22, remembers when he was younger, he was a good student who enjoyed studying. "Now, I can't seem to think," he said sadly, looking at the ground. There was a long pause. "War does this to your mind." He and his family fled their village when Taliban forces began to attack the area. Bamiyan Province is home to a great number of Hazara families, and Khamad Jan's is one of them. Traditionally, other Afghan ethnic groups have discriminated against Hazaras, regarding them as descendants of Mongolian tribes and therefore inferior.


During the Taliban attacks, Khamad Jan's father was captured and killed. As the eldest, Khamad Jan bore responsibility to help provide for his mother, two brothers and two sisters. But he struggled with debilitating depression. One day, he said he felt ready to give up on life. Fortunately, community members and his friends in the AYPV helped assure him that he can find a meaningful future.


Khamad Jan's village is a particularly hard place in which to build houses, roads, or farms. He and his family own a small plot of land that produces potatoes and wheat. The family works hard, but they only grow enough to feed themselves for seven months of the year. They must depend heavily on bread and potatoes, a carbohydrate diet which can lead to malnutrition. Like other women in the village, Khamad Jan's mother and sisters are chronically anemic, suffering from headaches and leg cramps.


Assisted by an interest-free loan from a private corporation called Zenda, Khamad Jan has taken the risk of starting a small business producing potato crisps. Afghan potatoes are delicious and Khamad Jan hopes that the quality of his crops will give him a slight competitive edge. On day three, we met him at a site in a new settlement, on the outskirts of Bamiyan city, where he coordinates construction of a small facility to house the potato crisp production line. Earlier, we had visited a shed that he rents to store his main pieces of equipment—a potato slicer and a bag sealer. When the new factory is completed, he'll move the equipment in and start production.


Khamad Jan says that they've needed help to do this, but he specifies that they need the help to reach them directly rather than through organizations that use resources for their own benefit. Earlier, his sisters were more assertive, telling us that much of the "help" they hear about on the radio goes to people who are corrupt and don't share it. Khamad Jan's sisters and mother say that government officials aren't involved in their lives; in fact they never see or hear of any governance action beyond their own village council. But they face severe problems, which they wish the government could help them solve. For instance, electricity is available only two hours per day. The roads are almost impassable and it's difficult for the children to obtain an education.


In her 40 years of life, Khamad Jan's mother has experienced 30 years of war. She remembers that when she was 10, during the Soviet occupation, her whole village had to trek into the mountains through snow. "Some were on donkeys," she recalled, "and some were carried on the backs of others." Families on the run couldn't adequately assist all of their loved ones. Many people were weakened in the journey, especially the very young and very old, and this led to calamitous falls from the mountain which she and her neighbors could only watch.


She fears yet another attack. Neither she nor her daughters had ever heard of the 9/11 attack in the U.S. Nor were they aware that the U.S. had invaded their country in October 2001. "We are illiterate women," said one of her daughters, "but we want a chance to find good, dignified work so that we can take care of our families." Above all, they want to live without the constant fear of war. "The world says they are helping us," said a neighbor of Khamad Jan's. "How? By dropping bombs?"


"War destroys people," Khamad Jan concluded, after giving us a tour of the developing potato crisp production factory. "It destroys our livelihood. It damages our minds. All the players in this war have their own purposes for being here," he added, after a long pause. "There is absolutely no benefit to the people here from the wars that are being fought."



The Women's Harvest

By Jerica Arents


After a week visiting Bamiyan, one thing has been made abundantly clear to me: the experience of being a woman in this country is much different than being a woman in the United States. Here, the inescapable and indelible fact of gender colors social interactions far more than back home. But being a woman has also created safe spaces of inclusion within the village's maternal system, from which I would have otherwise been kept at a distance.


Time and again, after meeting with the men in the family, I was led into a separate room to visit with the women, who had gathered there and were waiting eagerly for us with their children. Immediately, an exchange began, a series of greetings, smiles, thanksgivings, and comments about the style of my clothes, quality of my hands, or strangeness of my backpack. Daughters and granddaughters would join us, children at their feet.


When we met with women and men together, the men tended to be the focal point, dominating the conversation. In the absence of their male counterparts, the women filled the sparsely furnished rooms with stories and laughter. In this conservative Afghan village, one woman shared with us the heartbreaking experience of having her husband kidnapped and killed by the Taliban—and raising her kids, now teenagers, without the breadwinner of the house. She paused before telling us of her struggles with depression. "We age so quickly here" she reflected, looking up at me, circles under her eyes. Her skin was weathered and worn, bearing the years of harsh living conditions and inadequate nutrition. I would have guessed she was in her late 50s—she is only 38.


A doctor who has been living in rural Afghanistan for eight years spoke with us about the medical realities these women have to face—lives burdened with the physical manifestations of recollections of war. They have developed strong coping mechanisms to handle the severe headaches, depression, and anemia that plague their daily lives.


While sitting alone with Afghan women, we learned much about their way of life. While in the past, village women were married around 13, many now marry at 19 or 20 and then move in with their husband's family. Nasreen, a young woman who was recently married, told us of her "half happy, half sad" feelings of leaving her family for an arranged marriage in a neighboring village. The women only leave their village once a year and then only to go to the market. They make this trip clad in full burqas. For generations, these women have been identified by the existence of their children, spending their time tending to the needs of their large families in a pastoral culture. "We are all illiterate," said the 38-year-old mother, "so we harvest potatoes."


Three of the young women we met now go to school and revealed to us their hopes to become doctors. Their mothers and aunts looked on, smiling. All of the women think things will be better with an education. As we asked about the war, it was clear that memories of fleeing from the Taliban rushed into the room. But the women certainly did not communicate their favor with the ongoing U.S. and NATO occupations of their country.


"It's all rhetoric and words that America is defending the rights of women," said an articulate young woman named Zerghuna. With women and children dying daily not only from being caught in the crossfire, but also from the effects of poverty, malnutrition, and lack of available health care, they are skeptical about the justifications used by foreign forces around women's rights. Zerghuna wishes that the world would see to it that the efforts to improve the rights of women were actually implemented and that the billions of dollars allocated to aid organizations would reach the intended recipients—the poor. "They should come here and see that something happens because nothing does."


When asked about the system of government in Afghanistan and what they would request of it, the women asked for a few more hours of electricity a night. Other than that? "Help us find good, dignified work to take care of our families," said one of the mothers. The others nodded in agreement.


Jerica Arents, Kathy Kelly, and David Smith-Ferri are co-coordinators of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Photos from Our Journey to a Smile and