Between a rock and a hard place
I have been visiting Afghanistan regularly since 2011, working with a nonviolent Afghan youth peace group, recording my general observations, and creating campaigns to keep the ongoing Afghan war within the awareness of UK citizens. I have made 9 trips so far. I’d say Kabul has changed considerably over the last seven years, there’s a lot more construction taking place, new buildings seem to pop up overnight and the city seems to have become increasingly busier, there’s a strong feeling that it’s bursting at the seams. When the US and NATO invaded in October 2001, the population of Kabul was 1.5 million, but today that figure stands at 5 million (1) with so many war-displaced flocking to the city for safety, as it is one of the few locations in Afghanistan with no direct fighting between the military forces, the Taliban and IS. That’s not to say that Kabul is in any way safe, (2) with weekly suicide bomb attacks, sporadic street violence, and a small industry of abductions for ransom being common threats. When I first started visiting it was relatively fine for me to walk the streets even though a foreigner, but today my teenage friends earnestly advise all visitors against walking anywhere, urging the hire of taxis for even 5 minute walks. The biggest danger for a foreigner is kidnap (3), while the biggest worry for everyone is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My friends in the Afghan Peace Volunteers (4) live in Karte Se – District 3 – a relatively mixed residential area within Kabul. Taking a short walk to the local bazaar gives you a snapshot of the some of the many problems gripping Afghanistan. The opportunity to venture out is rare and very exciting, the bustle of Kabul street life is intensely stimulating on the senses, the echo of recorded announcements from tannoys which are strapped to carts selling juicy oranges from Jalalabad, or towers of pomegranates from Kandahar, or cauliflowers bigger than your head. The blue cloudless sky and bright sunlight is blinding, the spectacular Hindu Kush mountains in the background look unreal, as though someone had cut a picture out of the National Geographic and stuck it behind a very busy city scene.
Most of my shopping experiences are to Karte Seh’s “Red Bridge”, from which much of the red paint has now been chipped away (it’s generally caked in dirt). The bridge is a hive of activity, though: it is a market. People compete for spaces, labourers sit with their shovels, waiting for work, representing an estimated 40% of the male population who are currently unemployed (5). A woman under a burka clutches a small baby bundled in rags, with her head bent and a begging-hand extended. I am told prostitution is a thriving industry, but what is under the bridge is even worse. The bridge once crossed a lush river where in the ‘70s children swam and people fished for their suppers, but today the riverbed is a dumping ground for uncollected rubbish, where a grey slug stream snakes around discarded water bottles, plastic bags and general detritus, and the people who have become addicted to opium. This is a popular congregation point for them; openly consuming heroin, their hands and gaunt faces black with dirt, their eyes vacant, because their souls have been robbed. Today Afghanistan has approximately 3 million people addicted to opium, a staggering 12% of the population (6) due mainly to the massive surge of the lucrative poppy cultivation industry after the start of the war. Today warlords dominate Afghanistan despite copious blood on their hands from unspeakable massacres during the war and in the decades before it; and many of these are now directing an opium industry which accounts for 90% of the world’s supply, up from only 27% before the 2001 invasion (7). This relatively new phenomenon catches Afghanistan with little-to-no infrastructure ready to cope with it, the rehab clinics being few and far between, and the reasons for wanting to forget all too obvious.
When in Kabul I usually make a point of visiting some of the refugee camps, of which there are now 50 in and around Kabul (8). For several consecutive years I have visited the “Charman-e-Babrak” camp which sits near a row of private health clinics, across a mud road with no laid surfaces so that cars often get stuck in deep pot holes, and cyclists ride in zigzags. In the last 7 years I’ve seen no improvements in that camp, it’s the same children walking around in the mud and snow with either no shoes or just sandals. The heavy stench of raw sewage immediately smacks you in the face upon entering the camp via a rickety makeshift corrugated iron bridge over the camp’s roadside moat, a torrent of raw flowing sewage. The houses are made of mud bricks and of scavenged bits of scrap iron and wood, with old bits of canvas stretched over to make a roof. These are the conditions for some of Afghanistan’s 1.3 million internally displaced people, a staggering figure which threatens to steadily increase as more refugees are deported en-masse from Pakistan, Iran and Europe (9).
To contextualize the Kabul camps, I should mention that I’ve spent time in the Jungles of Calais, and can confirm that they are a humanitarian disaster and a disgrace for the developed world; but in comparison to an Afghan refugee camp the Calais Jungle conditions are not half bad. Many Afghan camps receive little to no aid, they’re a nowhere land full of nowhere people, and generally a ‘no go’ zone for visitors. From speaking to people in Kabul camps it seems that once you land there it’s more or less impossible to get out, and they are your long-term-to-permanent future. There are, of course, also a calculated 2 million Afghans seeking refuge outside the country, making up the second biggest ethnicity of refugees in Europe, and many of their futures will lie in the desperate camps around Kabul, as most European countries (10) have judged Kabul a ‘safe’ location for deportation, despite the fact that many refugees have never visited Kabul, and have no family or friends in the city.
My visits to Afghanistan have always been to Kabul, as for a foreigner to venture outside the city would be extremely dangerous. Even for an Afghan it’s deadly dangerous: my friends describe it as the ‘Wild West’ with vehicles regularly stopped by the Taliban, people asked for ID and sometimes executed if found to have connections with foreigners. One of my young Afghan friends Zahra watched her friends’ execution after their bus was stopped by the Taliban in Kandahar. Four of her friends, all aged eighteen, had made the mistake of travelling with their student ID cards on them. Today Zahra struggles with depression, trying desperately to erase the memory of witnessing the roadside end of her classmates.
All of my Afghan friends exhibit some sort of behaviour ‘issue’ whether that’s throwing things at walls, or ripping up clothing, or falling prey to fits of rage, depression, detachment. Pretty much everyone in Afghanistan has directly lost a family member during the last 38 years of war. Last year my friend Ali lost his older brother: a police officer in Kandahar who fell victim to an IED. Then there’s 15 year old street-kid Habib, the main bread winner of his family after his father was killed, six years back, in a sectarian-based attack on a Shia mosque.Researchers calculate that for every one of these direct casualties of war, another 4 Afghans die due to indirect war causes such as hunger, disease and injury (11). Just the other week, one of the main co-ordinators of the group unexpectedly lost his 4 month old son: today Afghanistan has the second-highest infant mortality rate in the world (12). Everyone in Afghanistan has experienced loss, everyone lives close to death, the feeling of deep depression is evident in the faces of all people, mental health statistics are staggering, it is calculated that 68% of the population suffer from depression, 72% from anxiety and 42% from post-traumatic stress disorders (13).
The other week I chatted via Viber to 11-year-old street-kid Inam who polishes shoes for a living. He and his friends sometime call me on a Sunday morning to practice their English: we normally talk about our favourite fruits and vegetables. Last Sunday their teacher explained that Inam’s water well had dried up, now a common problem in Kabul and across Afghanistan where only 27% of the population can access clean water (14). Today in Kabul the wells are having to be drilled an extra 40 metres deep to reach a dropping water table (15), with the water crisis about to worsen with a Chinese copper mine north of Kabul having recently opened: water in great quantities is a must of the mining process (16). Much more foreign mining will almost certainly follow, with a geological study having calculated that Afghanistan has an estimated $3 trillion worth of precious materials to be mined (17). It’s deeply ironic that one of the poorest countries in the world has such potential riches. Afghans that I speak to are doubtful that they will see any of that wealth. It is calculated that 36% of Afghans are currently living below the poverty line (18).
During my last visit to Kabul, made earlier this year, I chatted to my young friend Gul, who faces, with an absent father, a high expectation of being the family breadwinner at age 17 for a family of 6 younger siblings. He asked me for advice, “Should I leave Afghanistan for Europe? What is there for me in this country, there is no work, the streets are dangerous even for walking, my life will amount to nothing if I stay.” I really didn’t know what to say to him, I shared with him what I do know, that the journey to Europe is extremely dangerous, that many people die en route, and that today the EU (19) and the UK (20) deem Kabul a ‘safe’ location to which to deport Afghans, so that even if you do make it to Europe there’s every chance of just being deported back again … I felt deeply compromised answering his question, as in reality there is very little for people in Afghanistan.
One of my other contacts in Kabul is Latifa Ahmadi, Director of the “Organisation to Promote Afghan Women’s Capabilities”, a grassroots organisation which trains women in handicrafts and provides basic literacy and numeracy education allowing women to run small home businesses and provide an extra income for their families. Latifa has razor-sharp intelligence and a stunning dedication to the task of helping Afghan women, although she has received death threats for running such an organisation. Many of the women who attend class do so in secrecy from their husbands, their fathers, and other family members. I was very struck at our last meeting when Latifa described the current state of the country as “worse than living under the Taliban.” She went on to explain, “living under the Taliban was awful and oppressive for women – but at least there was security, you could travel on the roads and it was relatively safe. Today travelling by road is very unpredictable.”
In relation to women generally, very small gains have been made in the last 16 years. Certainly I have met women in Kabul who say their lives have been greatly improved since the removal of the Taliban, but these women have largely been middle-class professionals, those in academia and the NGO world. Without a doubt those women would not have been able to have had professional jobs under the Taliban. And there have been gains for girls in Kabul who, with the consent of family, are generally able to access schools (unless they’re street kids or refugees). However, for girls living outside of Kabul, in the rural provinces, very few enjoy the chance to attend school with a current estimate of 1,100 Afghan children dropping out of school every day (21). Instability within the country means it’s unsafe for many children to attend school, or they must work to support the family: at least a quarter of Afghan children are engaged in child labour (22). Then there’s the 2009 “Elimination of Violence Against Women Act” which is still struggling to be passed, though in 2015 the Supreme Court banned the imprisonment of women for running away from their husbands, with the caveat that if a woman does leave her husband she must go to a medical provider, the police, or the house of a close male relative (23). None of those locations are ideal for a woman trying to escape domestic violence.
When I speak with Afghan women’s rights activists they all share the opinion that war makes it difficult-to-impossible for women to organise and promote equality, as priority must be given to keeping themselves and their families alive.
To be an Afghan today is to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one side you have the Taliban, and now IS, using IEDs, suicide bombs and pressure plate devices, and on the other side you have Government forces and illegal militias who employ rockets and mortars. All of these weapons are devastating for civilians; and more often than not, civilians are caught up in the fighting. The last UNAMA report published in July 2017 calculated 1,662 civilians killed in the first 6 months of the year with 3,581 injured, and of those killed 174 were women and 436 were children, a 23% and 19% increase respectively from the previous year (24). UN figures show that since January 2009 more than 26,500 civilians have been killed and 49,000 injured as a result of conflict, while the “Cost of War” project says an overall conservative estimate of Afghans killed since 2001 is 217,000 (25). It’s reported that both sides in the conflict have attacked hospitals and healthcare facilities: in February 2016 Afghan Special Forces raided a health clinic run by a Swedish humanitarian organisation (26), attacking medical staff and shooting three patients dead. In September 2016 the Taliban dressed as doctors and attacked a hospital in Kandahar city killing one civilian (27). And then there’s the well-publicised US bombing of the MSF hospital in Kunduz, killing 42 civilians (28), an incident still under investigation which is being described as a ‘war crime’.
Last August President Trump stated in a speech that his intentions in Afghanistan were “not nation building again, we are killing terrorists.” The Pentagon has deployed a further 3,900 US troops to bolster up the 8,400 already in the country alongside 13,000 NATO troops, a redeployment which comes just months after the US dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ on Nangarhar Province, one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest countries in the world. Donald Trump’s speech and recent tactics suggest that the US will employ more aerial bombing in its fight against the ever-strong Taliban and the increasingly influential IS. Again, aerial bombing is devastating for civilians stuck between a rock and a hard place: with so much of Europe closing its borders, there is simply nowhere for them to go.
Today, most Afghans are deprived of their most basic universal human rights. The future for Afghanistan looks even grimmer than the present, with many predicting all-out civil war eliciting intensified violence from foreign fighters. The discovery of abundant natural resources almost certainly means foreign interests will continue to reign over Afghanistan, with mining-exacerbated ‘water wars’ visible on the not too distant horizon. It’s hard to imagine how things actually could get any worse in an already war-weary country, on its knees and broken after 4 decades of conflict and violence. When I speak to Afghans about what foreigners can do to help, their most common response is: “foreign fighters have so far not helped this country, they haven’t beaten the Taliban, lots of civilians have been killed. If you want to help Afghans then support our schools and healthcare, support civil society groups, but please, stop killing us.”