Of all the places in the world to be a peace campaigner, Afghanistan must be one of the most demanding.
Grassroots organization the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV) face threats, scepticism and the daily worries and risks that come with living and working in a war zone. The organization emerged in 2009 from a workshop in Bamiyan, a mountainous agricultural province of Afghanistan. Since then, APV has embarked on a campaign programme, going on peace walks, creating a peace garden and lobbying.
Journalist Faiz Ahmad travelled, as part of the group, to the Afghan capital, Kabul, where the group has found a house from which to start its latest project. They have founded a special community that challenges the corruption and poverty that a long war has created, a multi-ethnic microcosm of Afghan society, that aims to ‘bring the war under one roof’ and break down the barriers to peace.
‘It was difficult when we first came together,’ Faiz told me. ‘We have two religions in the group, Shi’a and Sunni, and there were arguments about prayer. People were criticizing each other for doing things differently, for not being real Muslims.’
They deal with such conflicts, whether large or small, by operating a policy of complete openness. In the evenings they have wide-ranging discussions about practical problems, and the underlying beliefs that create them. ‘One night, all the youth came together and discussed different ideas about god, prophets and holy books until we found points of unity. In the end we came up with the idea that all people are equally human,’ explains Faiz.
Most of the group has first-hand experience of war, from ethnic conflict to oppression by the Taliban and bombing by drones. As a young child, Faiz saw his older brother killed in front of him and witnessed the aftermath of a massacre. Later, he lost a cousin who was a bystander to a suicide attack on a NATO convoy.
‘The war has a bad effect on people’s minds. For people who’ve always been at war, killing a human becomes nothing, it’s just like slaughtering a lamb,’ Faiz has said. ‘We’ve had 30 years of war, which is a whole lifetime. It affects me a lot when I remember people being beaten up and killed, or those who were dismembered and had their eyes gouged out. I don‘t know how to feel, I wonder who and where I am.’
The community provides a way of processing these traumas, transforming fear and sorrow into hope for change but, as with any community, the problems aren’t all at such a philosophical level: ‘Cleaning has been another big issue. Because everyone’s mothers and sisters did the housework in Bamiyan.’
Community members have travelled to different provinces within Afghanistan to talk to young people about nonviolent solutions to their country’s problems. They are building links with civil society groups, they run classes for local children and are supporting a women’s project from their compound. Volunteers found a teacher to give sewing lessons to poor women in Kabul. They are paid a living wage for sewing duvets which are then given away to vulnerable people in the city.
But they also think far beyond Kabul, beyond even national borders, making connections with people around the world. The group has welcomed over 40 international visitors and has a monthly Skype call: a ‘global day of listening’. But this international outlook, and working with foreigners, isn’t without risk.
The problems the APV face can’t be minimized. They are a crucible in which a process of nonviolent living and learning is being practised in a very difficult environment. Many of the community’s volunteers are still in their early teens; the oldest are in their twenties. They are idealistic, but they understand very intimately the effects of war, poverty and violence on people’s minds and on society. The work they are doing is more than symbolic. ‘I’m proud of the fact that we work nonviolently and voluntarily for peace; this is now the meaning of my life. I want to help the people and learn from the people. This community is a university for everyone.’
To show solidarity with the work of the APV you can sign their 2 Million Friends petition.