by Ewa Jasiewicz
I’ve been in Kabul a week now, living in the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteer (APV) house on the border of District 3. The area is a mish-mash of wealthy mirror-windowed mansions fronted by surly gun-on-the-lap security guards, crumbling mudhuts, open sewers, children in ragged clothes warming themselves on burning rubbish, a fake McDonalds and Subway with directly lifted logos, and Kabul’s sole waterpark, for men only and 500 Afghanis a dip. One disc of naan bread is 10 Afghanis (around 10p) and the women working on the APV’s duvet-making project get 150 Afghani’s per duvet, a two hour job, and make 3 per day, earning £4.50 per day in total – a relatively decent wage compared to most people in the precarious work sector who earn between $1-5 per day.
Men wait for work on the ‘Red Bridge’, a 10 minute walk from us. It crosses the Kabul River, once free flowing but now a stagnant mud swamp, flanked with bags of rotting rubbish and opium addicts crouching in the shallows. Child workers take their breaks in chip shops and at Bolani stands (Bolani is a deep fried pastry filled with potato, green chilies and squash) swaggery and manly like mini 40-year-olds.
Everything feels on the brink here. The unemployment rate (stats apply to men only) is officially 30% but unofficially twice as high. Most work is precarious: street vending, cart pushing, tailoring and shop work – the main ones seem to cater for just-in-time-survival – car spare parts, all manner of appliance and home repairs and replacements, wood for home heating by stove, food, and gas sold not by the canister but by the kilogram. Catering for 10 (the number in our ‘family’ right now) involving boiling tea to have with all meals and a few times between for guests plus a hot lunch and dinner of simple rice and beans or okra or fried eggs, amounts to 15kg or 4 cannisters amoutning to 1200 Afghanis or £12.92 per month. Many families can’t count on a regular income and there’s no system of social security from the government despite the $100 billion given by the USA and the £37 billion by the UK for ‘reconstruction’ pumped into the country since 2001.
Aid drops – I’ve been to four so far – can turn desperate and hectic with those not registered with APV or refugee camp authorities being turned away empty outstretched-handed. At a recent drop in Charman-e-Hozuri, by Voices for Creative Non Violence we met camp elders, who uniquely for Afghanistan, were women. Strong, commanding, faces uncovered, and steely eyed, they shouted into a crowd slipping and clamouring in ice and mud to get hold of 500 tins of high quality cooking oil being doled out at one per family. The women stood between armed police and the crowd, gesticulating assertively and shouting orders to the men around them. The police facilitated the drop, even facilitating themselves to 3 canisters of the oil. Corruption, militarised and violent, is rife here. Police real wages seem to be bribes. Afghanistan ranks as the third most corrupt country in the world after Somalia and North Korea.
Most people seem to be surviving on handouts, money sent by family from abroad and precarious work. At one refugee camp opposite the gleaming Paris Hotel, home to 700 families from all ethnic backgrounds who were returnees from decades of exile in Pakistan and Iran, the main work seems to be cart-pushing and washing the clothes of wealthy NGO workers. The displaced live in mud-brick shelters and fortified tents, everything caked in the ubiquitous Kabul dust in part due to the unpaved, rocky and disintegrating roads. The fact they can’t afford secure housing is also due to the Aid Industry and corporate influx over the past decade which has seen rents rise to higher than in London. I was told of one apartment in the City Centre on Flower Street that was costing a German freelance journalist and her two co-sharers $2700 per month (with a maid thrown in). Maya Evans here, a good old friend and Voices for Creative Non-Violence co-ordinator put it well – she said it’s like the whole city’s running on a keymeter. It’s a metaphor borrowed from the Fuel Poverty Action work I’m doing in the UK, organising around the scandal of those on pre-payment meters, always on the brink of d
arkness, struggling to top-up and when they can’t, being regularly plunged into the cold and dark because of poverty and profiteering companies. Here we’re cut off every other day and the freezing, dank, dusty cold envelopes everything.
Where’s the way out of this systemic and violently enforced powerlessness? According to UNESCO 82% of women and 50% of men are illiterate, rising to 90% of women and 60% of men in rural areas which is where most people live. At least 2500
Afghan women committed suicide in 2012. 60% of the population is under 25 and 60% of children are malnourished. Accessible free education is a thing of the distant past. State schools are few and far between with many teachers having left the country. If they can afford it, parents put their children through private schools but most can’t. Religious schools and further education can still be found for free but the education is narrow in its’ scope. Universities charge on average 50,000 Afghanis ($1000) per year of study. I met one Economics student from Kandahar who said he wasn’t really learning anything at University. They lacked books, good teachers, materials and up-to-date information in Dari. NGOs and Aid are big business, grooming an English-speaking elite, many of whom squat the upper rungs of the socio-economic ladder before making a break for the ultimate destination; up and out of the country.
If this sounds dystopian, it’s because it is. But there are also a sizeable number of Afghan men, women and youth working to challenge corruption, the class system, sectarianism, misogyny and violence in all its’ forms. The APV is one such rare group. Totally grassroots and funded by likeminded grassroots peace groups from all over the world, it is independent of political parties and radical in its’ commitment to building safer spaces and anti-oppression in action. They carry a vision of a borderless world where war and economic, social, cultural and political violence can be abolished. A guiding philosophy is that the means by which we organise have to reflect the ends we want to see. They’re walking the talk and have been building integrity and trust since they emerged from Bamiyan six years ago, as a small group of Hazara youth taught by Singaporean Doctor Hakim (Wi Tek Young) gone native after 10 years in the country. They’re now composed of Hazara, Pashtun and Tajik community members and are looking for Uzbek participants in order to create the lived conditions for co-existence and co-operation between ethnic identities in a country where mixing between different groups is rare and sectarian violence and prejudice are rife.
The APV are hugely inspiring, and the work they do, the journeys they have been on and who they are reclaims, re-generates and re-defines the much abused, co-opted and discredited concept of ‘peace’ in a country where war has been the dominant language for decades. To respond to dystopia with an active creation of a utopia is a huge act of rebellion and one that we can all learn from as the world we live in becomes more and more oppressive. From Kabul to England, from the war we’ve exported to the ongoing class war at home – here are seeds for change that can go global.