Ewa Jasiewicz is an activist and writer involved in various
anti-capitalist, climate and solidarity campaigns including Fuel Poverty
Action, No Dash for Gas, the Polish Campaign of Solidarity with
Palestine and Witness Syria. She has
worked as a union organizer for Unite the Union mainly with casual and
migrant workers and has been involved in solidarity work in Iraq, Palestine and Syria over the past 10 years. 

twitter: 
@ewajasiewicz
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Ewa Jasiewicz is an activist and writer involved in various anti-capitalist, climate and solidarity campaigns.

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Afghanistan: time to move on?

The US is pushing the Afghan government to sign an agreement that would allow US troops to arrest, detain and extradite any Afghan deemed to threaten its security interests.

The US Army

This year will see the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan after 13 years of occupation. But will troops actually depart, and what will they be leaving behind?

The US is pushing for the Afghan government to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that would allow at least 10,000 US troops – and all drone bases – to stay and give the US the authority, without legal repercussions, to arrest, detain and extradite any Afghan deemed to threaten its security interests.

The alternative is the ‘Zero Option’. This would mean that all troops would leave, but that $4 billion worth of annual international aid would be withdrawn too.

At the time of writing, the Agreement was still unsigned.

Opinions on the ground vary as to whether the departure of US troops will be good or bad for the country. But most people will agree that NATO allies are leaving Afghanistan in a state of crisis. Suicide bombings are an almost daily occurrence and infrastructure is in tatters after 40 years of conflict, which has claimed two million lives.

Unemployment stagnates at an official 30 per cent but is thought to be as high as 60 per cent. Sewage flows freely in the streets; the main roads in the capital Kabul are unpaved and hard to navigate. Some 60 per cent of children are malnourished and nearly 40 per cent of Afghans live below the poverty line.

Women’s legal rights that were won over the last decade are under threat. Girls’ enrolment at school has stalled below 50 per cent; violence against women is on the rise.

Many Afghans are voting with their feet. At 2.6 million, they now make up the largest refugee community in the world, along with Syrians.

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/


Welcome to Afghanistan, drone-strike capital of the world

Afghan National Army Soldier

An Afghan National Army soldier in Kabul. NATO Training under a Creative Commons Licence

Mention Afghanistan and most people think of the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden, caves, drones, dust, and burkas. It’s a country few of us have a relationship with, even though our government has been at war with it three times, right now being the third and longest modern-day occupation for Britain to date. A total of 134,780 British troops have lived and patrolled here and 446 have died. British Reaper drone operators have launched at least 299 strikes, mostly from Creech US airbase just outside Las Vegas, but since April 2013 from British soil at RAF Waddington. The official Ministry of Defence line is that four civilians have been killed by British drones, but they refuse to release the names or numbers of those they have actually killed.

To date, the whole operation has cost us $60 billion – $25 million per day, or $3,000 per household since it began. It’s supposedly coming to an end, but with territorial, aerial and economic sovereignty off the table when NATO forces scale back (let’s not call it a withdrawal: the US wants 10,000 British and US Special Forces to remain), the idea of freedom is as cheap and disposable as the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) newspapers regularly dropped all over Kabul, which locals eagerly use for kindling for wood stoves (the main source of heating here) and chip paper.

Two million people have been killed in 40 years of constant war. Generations have grown up knowing nothing else. Poverty is extreme. Unemployment stagnates at an unofficial 60 per cent (and this is just for men, as women are not considered part of the workforce) and 90 per cent of all available work is in the casual sector: it’s men waiting at bridges to be picked up for construction work, cart pushers renting their backbreaking labour to market traders, women taking tailoring and embroidery into their homes, children selling incense blessings and chewing gum on the streets. Wages range from $1to $5 a day. Half a million remain refugees in their own country, defined as internally displaced. Those in Kabul live in old abandoned lots, on wasteland, opposite gleaming new hotels or an old amusement park. The camps are a full-on dystopia of plastic, sack cloth and mud shelters with open sewers. Children’s faces are tired and heat-scorched from wood fires. Intermittent aid drops have families scrambling for what they can under the machine-gun gaze of cops who steal their share with impunity. Above it all drift US surveillance blimps, data-mining this ‘adversary city’ for ‘advanced target acquisition’; scanning, ready to activate a ‘compressed kill chain’, as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency defines it. A push of a button in a bunker can execute a person, or several, in seconds.

Afghanistan is the drone-strike and landmine capital of the world. There are 10 million landmines still littered around the country – one for every three people here. The US has 200 declared drones, Britain 10. It’s a laboratory for robo-war and socio-political engineering. Successive invasions, war lords, mafias and Taliban groups have all manipulated the four main different ethnic sects – Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek and Pashtun – against one another, using classic divide-and-rule tactics.

In the midst of this, in District 4, is a simple house with makeshift classrooms and workshops, home to seven young men, the core group of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (APV) and their mentor and group founder Hakim – a humble Ghandi and Martin Luther King-inspired doctor from Singapore gone native after 10 years of living here. In response to the brutal social engineering from above, Hakim and the volunteers are creating a kind of social engineering from below. The group consciously seeks to bring different ethnic groups together. It has a microfinance duvet-making project that employs poor women from different ethnic backgrounds to work together. The duvets are distributed freely to the poor, disabled and displaced

APV also runs a project for street kids, sending caseworkers to make contact with them and their families and giving them rice and cooking oil in exchange for allowing their children to come and receive free maths, literacy and English lessons.

The volunteers have harrowing pasts. Abdullhai, now 18, was forced to flee his village in Bamiyan when he was just five after the Taliban invaded. His older brother carried him on his back across mountains for weeks to a refugee camp where upon arriving he was apparently frozen stiff. He had to be suspended over a fire for two weeks to recover. When their mother joined them, she told them that their father had been murdered by the Taliban. Roz Mohammed, a smiley 21-year-old Pashtun from Wardak, lost his brother-in-law to a drone strike. US forces claimed he had been Taliban – he wasn’t. When Roz Mohammed’s nephew asked what had happened to his father, his mother said, ‘Your father was killed by a robot.’

Under this vertical oppression, from the government, from warlords, from occupation forces, from machines that kill, from a ruling class and aid industry that is often divorced from the poorest and most exploited, the idea of horizontal organizing from the grassroots up is rare and radical. The APV are deeply pacifist; here in Afghanistan, where violence is the dominant language, rejecting revenge and sectarianism and creating a safe space – for men and women – in one of the most violent cities in the world is revolutionary.

This blog is the first in a two-part series from Ewa Jasiewicz.

Boats set sail to aid Gaza

A warm welcome: Palestinians gathered to meet last year’s convoy. Israel has vowed to stop this year’s flotilla.

Mohammed Asad / APA / Landov

Freedom Flotilla 2 hits the waves at the end of this month with 12 ships from 23 countries – including Canada, Ireland, Britain, Australia, Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia and the US. Spearheaded by the Free Gaza Movement, which had previously sailed five successful missions to Gaza aboard two small adapted pleasure boats, last year’s flotilla had ended with boats attacked by Israeli commandos. Eight Turkish and one US civilian were killed, over 40 were injured and 700 were jailed as a result.

The UN fact-finding mission report on the incident, released last September, found evidence of grave breaches of the Geneva Convention, including wilful killing and torture committed by Israeli forces. Israel has justified its soldiers’ actions as self-defence and has said it will use snipers and attack-dogs to stop future flotillas.

Israel has vowed to stop this year’s flotilla, but activists are planning a co-ordinated defence using nonviolent direct action and anti-piracy tactics. Says writer and anti-war activist Fintan Lane of the Irish Boat to Gaza effort: ‘We’ll be doing everything in our power to prevent the Israeli army coming onto our boats, because if they board us they will kill us.’

Ports of departure are as yet unannounced, as are the flags and location of vessels. This is to stave off Israeli sabotage – a tactic Israel admitted to using against the last flotilla. Free Gaza’s cargo ship The Rachel Corrie sustained mysterious damage to its propeller, and the Challenger 1 and 2 yachts both sustained damage to steering, bilge pumps and hulls.

Every national campaign participating in the flotilla has a grassroots fund- and awareness-raising effort. The US boat to Gaza, named The Audacity of Hope after one of Barack Obama’s books, has retired US Army Colonel Ann Wright at the helm. She explains that protests against the mission have backfired and motivated more people to join the effort. ‘Our fundraising events have provided a tremendous opportunity to educate communities about the plight of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Some of the events, particularly at colleges and universities, have had people protesting against the fundraiser and the flotilla. Generally, the protests have ended up getting more attention and [have led to] more participants in the fundraiser and subsequent events.’

Cargo ships, yachts and at least two large passenger vessels, including the refurbished Mavi Marama, raided and seized last year by Israel, will sail again. The message of the flotilla is clear. If the state-level international community will not end the illegal blockade on Gaza, then the grassroots international community will.

Viyakula Mary

Viyakula Mary talked with Ewa Jasiewicz

Viyakula Mary talked with Ewa Jasiewicz.

Photo by DAVID KIRKWOOD

In Tirupur, the heart of India’s textile capital, Mary works on behalf of exploited workers – including children – toiling in the factories. The full-time co-ordinator of the Child Rights Cell and Labour Resource Centre at SAVE (Social Awareness and Voluntary Education) has her work cut out for her: Tirupur’s textile industry employs half a million workers and produces millions of garments each year for the likes of Marks and Spencer, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and Primark.

‘I work towards rescuing and rehabilitating child labourers, orphans, street children, railway children, children from broken families, those living in extreme poverty and those children subject to physical and sexual abuse,’ explains Mary. ‘Our team works to place the children either in our residential homes or bridge schools, where after a year of quality education, they can be placed back into formal education, with the full support of SAVE.

‘The Labour Resource Centre mobilizes garment and textile workers to take action and call for the implementation of their statutory labour and welfare rights. Workers are subject to various forms of exploitation, from lack of basic health and safety measures, to low wages for long hours, no guarantee of work, misconduct, gender discrimination, and no entitlement to welfare, to name but a few. The centre educates workers about their legal entitlements and encourages them to unite and to organize unions so they can take a collective stand.’

Mary’s motivation for getting involved in such challenging work was simple. ‘To help others in need. Living in a patriarchal society where female discrimination is deeply entrenched in the culture, I too was subject to the overbearing pressure that the majority of females still face in India, to remain submissive and follow family and cultural orders. The protection of children has been a particular passion of mine, because of my own childhood experiences. As the second female child born into my family, my father saw me as yet another financial burden and had no interest in sending me to school. But thanks to the help of a local teacher, who pressurized my parents to register me in her school, I was able to begin my formal education when I was seven years old (relatively young compared to the children I work with today). Like many children, I too helped with the family work. 

‘From the age of five, I was working in our family fields, rearing the goats, grazing and milking the cattle. From the age of 13 or 14, I was working on construction sites in the evenings to help my father: I carried bricks and stones, which was considered adult work. At times I suffered physical abuse from my father – he would frequently order me to leave home. When I was 15 he forced me out and I ended up living in a hostel. Fortunately, after pressure from relatives, my father agreed to pay for my higher education. This vital opportunity allowed me to go on and earn my degree and masters. Realizing the importance of education to my wellbeing, I was motivated to help others who I knew were suffering from childhoods far worse than my own.

‘My main aim is to break down the barriers between men and women, and the social norms that are oppressing both in society. SAVE works to change cultural attitudes towards children’s education, women, social and workers’ rights. We have played a key role in achieving dramatic reductions in the levels of child labour. In the future, I hope that I can act as a role model for the children living under SAVE’s care so that they too take action and help protect future generations against human rights violations.’

Breaking through the social customs and attitudes which Mary believes are restricting the growth of her society has proved difficult. ‘Sometimes we make major advances in our work, rescuing children from their workplace, the streets, or their home and rehabilitating them; yet the parents or relatives come and take their children out of care so they can work for the family. They don’t understand that only through education can their child aspire to better employment opportunities and break out of the cycle of poverty and exploitation that they themselves are often suffering.’

Another challenge is convincing workers to join the trade unions despite their underlying fear: ‘Workers here lack a collective voice that’s strong enough to stand up for their rights against the major capitalists who are keeping their employees’ voices suppressed. As a result, trade unions have low membership and are not able to represent workers’ needs. Our staff sometimes receive verbal threats from those opposed to SAVE’s efforts to mobilize workers.’

Mary’s life has taken a very different path from that of the majority of women in India. She has built a career, but says she has had to sacrifice a married life in order to dedicate herself to her work. Her message is unequivocal: ‘We need to work for gender equality in all aspects and we need to fight against corruption.’

Hands off our oil

Five years into the war and occupation of Iraq, and following five missed deadlines, the proposed Iraqi Oil Law remains off the statute books, despite the best efforts of those whom it would benefit. The law would allow foreign oil companies to control the extraction, production and depletion of Iraq’s oil reserves for a generation. Furthermore, it would allow sectarian élites, who already enjoy both military and political power, to sign their own contracts with oil companies, thus reinforcing their long-term economic control.

Dick Cheney, General Petraeus, Condoleeza Rice and the former supreme commander of US forces in the Middle East, Admiral Fallon, have all visited Baghdad in person to push for ratification of the law – yet their diplomatic efforts, flanked by over 150,000 US troops, have failed. Iraqi civil society and embattled parliamentarians are winning.

Inside Iraq, unions, still illegal and subject to Ba’athist anti-union legislation, are leading the fight against this resource theft. The Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU) is on the frontline. The 26,000-member independent federation is active in 11 state oil and gas companies throughout the country and is the only union to have forced Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to the negotiating table. The IFOU has held numerous protests, conferences and seminars about the Oil Law, popularizing the term ‘Production Sharing Agreements’ – the contractual agreement which has become a by-word for ‘oil theft’. Later drafts of the Oil Law had to drop the term due to ‘media and popular fuss’, according to the Ministry of Oil.

When Iraqi Pipeline Union workers took strike action last summer, Oil Minister Hussein Al Shahristani called the action ‘economic sabotage’ and arrest warrants were issued against the IFOU’s leadership. Iraqi troops occupied the oil fields as US helicopter gunships circled overhead. Despite death threats from both sectarian militias and Government allies, the union remains steadfast in the face of mounting repression. And they are not alone. Power, port, agriculture and steel sector unions have organized a co-ordinating committee in Basra, Iraq’s oil capital, to campaign for union rights and against public sector privatization. The Federation of Workers’ Councils and the General Federation of Iraqi Workers are both involved in the committee and in similar initiatives around the country. Likewise, representatives from all unions are involved in the Iraq Freedom Congress’s ‘Anti Oil Law Front’. Based mainly in Baghdad and connected to the Worker Communist Party of Iraq, it has held conferences and demonstrations in the capital against oil privatization.

Last year over 100 technocrats, including senior former Oil Ministry and Iraqi National Oil Company directors and lawyers, signed a statement urging the Iraqi Government not to support a law which allows for long-term contracts to be signed while the country is still occupied.

So far the law remains unpassable. Yet Oil Minister Shahristani is inviting oil companies to sign under existing Ba’athist legislation and to treat the Oil Law as passed, despite there being no democratic mandate for it or the economic occupation it represents.

The issue of resource sovereignty is uniting Iraqis. A powerful alliance of grassroots civil society organizations and technocrats has been created and it is intent on keeping Iraq’s oil in the hands of the people.

*Ewa Jasiewicz*
For further information see
www.basraoilunion.org
www.handsoffiraqioil.org

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