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A border-crossing project for peace

Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers

Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers. © Ewa Jasiewicz

The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (APV) manage several projects from their hive of activity in Karte Char. Some were herding sheep on the hillsides of Bamiyan before they came to the big smokes (or dust). Now they run literacy classes for 23 street kids, help co-ordinate a duvet-making and distribution project with fellow APV women volunteers, cope with crowds clamouring for duvets in bi-monthly week-long distributions and organize budgets for all in-goings, outgoings, wages and expenses. All this is on top of regular planning meetings, skype calls with peace groups overseas and a daily cooking and cleaning rota for the whole live-in team (currently group founder Hakim, seven male volunteers and two visiting internationals), not to mention the hormonal, emotional struggle of being in your late teens.

One of the projects the APV are particularly proud of is their Border Free scarf-making and political initiative. Seamstresses have made hundreds of the vivid sky-blue scarves with the words ‘Border Free’ stitched on them in Dari and English. The group was inspired by Chomsky’s call for a border-free world, and they chose the sky blue to symbolize ‘the same blue sky that we all live under’.

For the 22,000 Afghans that sought asylum in Europe last year, it was all about borders – either getting smuggled through them, trying to negotiate them or coming up against them. On average Britain deports a charter plane full of Afghan asylum-seekers every month. Some are whole families with young children who’ve spent their formative years in Europe and now face the extreme disorientation of life in Kabul, where suicide bombings are an almost daily occurrence. Equally traumatic is the prospect of trying to return to provinces that can be inaccessible by road due to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) bombardment and Taliban or other insurgent group fighting or control.

According to the UNHCR, Afghanistan continues to be the world’s largest repatriation operation, and over 5.7 million Afghan refugees (representing a quarter of the country’s population) have voluntarily returned home since 2002. The number of Internally Displaced People stands at 600,000, many squatting in precarious slum camps on patches of wasteland in cities.

Despite these dangers, Britain, Belgium, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands are part of the European Return Platform for Undocumented Migrants (ERPUM), which is seeking to change the law so that unaccompanied minors – the most vulnerable refugees of all – can be deported back to Afghanistan. All those sent back end up in an old Soviet-era industrial estate that has been turned into a transit area and receiving centre. Called Jangalak, it is home to hundreds of drifting humans in limbo. ERPUM wants to turn Jangalak into a ‘safe house’ for 16-17 year olds – where, according to the Kabul-based campaigning network Stop Deportations to Afghanistan, they would be vulnerable to sexual exploitation, drug abuse and recruitment by insurgents.

Where can you go? Roads and entire provinces are danger-zones patrolled by drones and Taliban-hunting international occupation forces. Rural areas are plagued with landmines or jumpy poppy cultivators who could have links to local warlords, and even a simple road trip out to the Panjshir Valley can turn fraught with social border-enforcing police. Let me explain.

A group of us hire a bright yellow minibus decorated with multi-coloured Olympic rings, Mashallah above every window and the James Bond 007 logo but with the numbers back to front. We embark on a raucous race through dry, cold desert littered with burnt-out Soviet tanks and artillery, a giant ISAF base, police checkpoints and then, finally, into the provincial, unspoilt Panjshir valley. Purple and scarlet rocks loom over deep blue rivers, dusty hamlets, roadside football and volleyball pitches, an eerie burnt-out ghost village, and finally a winding road ending at Massoud’s tomb – the mountain-top resting place of the Tajik Soviet-era war hero who was assassinated on the eve of 9/11. A suicide bomber posing as a TV journalist and cameraman killed him. The camera pointed and exploded.

We’re with 10 Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers; some of them take turns to dance on the bus. One young woman plays DJ: there’s Bollywood, traditional Afghan ballads, some US hip-hop and pumping pop. Barat Khan’s drum gets passed around and pounded to the beats. The girls fly their blue ‘Border Free’ scarves out of the windows. We stop for salty popcorn, grapes and oranges plus a lunch of pilau rice and bread on a riverbank. It’s an idyllic, liberating day out – until we get stopped by the police. Ordered to pull over, I get squirrelled into the back and told by the APVs to keep my head down. The fear is of extortion of bribes: cops taking the opportunity to fleece a foreigner, because they can. I stare at my lap and listen to the languid, slightly sinister chat of the officer. Apparently someone reported us to the police for ‘uncouth behaviour’ and for banging the drum. A timid attempt at negotiation ensues, but he confiscates the drum. ‘Are you all Afghan?’ he asks. ‘Yes, yes!’ squawks back the bus. My eyes are burning into my knees. He leaves. Silence falls on the bus as we wind through the mountains. Barat Khan stares glumly out of the window. He loved his drum and played it regularly in the APV house at night. ‘My drum is innocent,’ he says balefully. ‘This would never happen in any other province.’

‘Not even in Kandahar and Helmand?’ we ask.

‘No, only in Panjshir,’ he insists. We doubt it, but the drum is gone and we’re bracing ourselves for another police checkpoint. We don’t meet one. A border-free Afghanistan, a border-free world, will need to be made through a million mutinies; millions of questions; millions of attempts to go beyond the places we’ve been put in, detained in, and denied in. The co-creation of the conditions for a society of equals, in gender, ethnicity, class and views, and beyond, is a border-crossing project and it has to be. The APV are working on it.

Stop Deportations to Afghanistan http://kabulblogs.wordpress.com/

Voices for Creative Non-Violence http://vcnvuk.wordpress.com/

Afghan Peace Volunteers http://ourjourneytosmile.com/blog/borderfree/

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