Mitra Qayoom travelled back to her home country to reveal the lives of Afghans struggling against war and poverty

Afghan womenIt has been almost a year since my last trip to Afghanistan and here I found myself sitting in Dubai Airport waiting for my next flight to Kabul. I started to wonder, will I be as nervous when the plane approaches Afghanistan as I was last year? Will the sign ‘Welcome to the land of the Brave’ make me smile and feel proud of my county’s history again? Who will be waiting for me behind the gates of Kabul International Airport to greet me?

So much has happened in my life since my last visit but will Afghanistan be the same or have there been changes? And I wondered what stories my family and the locals would tell me this time. I started to feel butterflies in my stomach just thinking of it all.

The answers to most of my questions were ‘yes’ Kabul had changed, but not in a positive way. I noticed the roads I drove on last year were in an even worse condition and the ones which were fixed were now almost ruined. I asked what happened to these roads. My uncle replied: ‘Well, when they fix the roads they don’t use material that can withstand floods, snow etc. They use the cheapest material because most of the money goes to the corrupt contractors. They only fix some of these roads to show the world they are building Afghanistan but people don’t know the truth about what is really going on here.’

Refugee camp

My first stop this year was the Parwan-e-du refugee camp. After seeing the level of poverty in Kabul last year I planned to bring some money with me to distribute at one of the many refugee camps in Kabul. The Parwan-e-du refugee camp is actually one of the smallest camps in Kabul and home to hundreds of internally displaced families. Of course the money I brought with me was not enough to help everyone but we managed to help 11 families. Each family received 1000, 1500 or 2000 Afghanis, depending on their circumstances, money if spent on things like bread, water and other basic necessities would last the families a 3 to 4 days.

As well as distributing the money to the families I wanted to get to know them and hear their stories. One of the women I met was a widow with three children. Her situation affected me very much because as she was talking to me I could see so much pain in her eyes and her voice. She was originally from Parwan province but lived in Pakistan as a refugee for years. She told me: ‘My husband was murdered. He wasn’t a rich man; he put food on the table by doing the lowest paid jobs. After his death a year ago we moved here and life hasn’t been easy for us, as you can see none of my children have shoes on their feet. I don’t have the money to buy them shoes. My eldest son attends school, every day he comes home upset, crying, saying that all his classmates have something to eat at lunch but he doesn’t. We don’t have a man in the house to work and bring food home. The only man in the house is my father in law who is very old and sick. He just makes enough from begging to feed us.’

Another family that really touched me was a family from Kapisa province who had moved to Kabul due to war in the province. I spoke to the oldest member of the family, a woman in her 80s, paralysed on her left side from what I guessed was a stroke she had in the past. She told me: ‘There is no money for my medication. When the boys do make a little money from laying bricks, we spend it on food. There isn’t even enough water for me to make my Wazu (washing ritual before praying).’ As she was talking to me flies kept gathering around her which her daughter in law kept fanning away with a cloth. Her last words to me were ‘please don’t forget me my daughter.’

I spoke with another resident of the refugee camp, Abdul who has lived there for 11 years. Abdul and his family travel back and forth from Kabul to Laghman and vice-versa because of the cold winters that hit Kabul badly the most. ‘We are constantly threatened to leave because they want to build hotels and wedding halls here (as if there aren’t enough of them in Kabul already). The government don’t care about the poor. Afghanistan is not like it was back in the days where you commit a crime and you are punished for it. Every person placed in power be that a judge, a lawyer, or a police officer is placed in that chair due to bribery, not because they worked hard for it and earned it or because they know the law. Today people know that if you place a gun on someone’s forehead or put a couple of hundreds of dollars in their pocket you can get whatever you want.’ I asked Abdul what he thought about the war and whether or not NATO is winning this war. He replied: ‘The US and NATO war is a war for power and resources. This war started with a lie and any war that starts with a lie will never be won. They are losing this war every day.’

Leaving the camp I couldn’t stop thinking about the condition these people live in. In this country (UK), we wouldn’t even let our pets live like that. One woman told me two children froze to death during the winter and I could see how easily this can happen. Each hut has one or two huge windows which are covered with a thin curtain, no glass window. The condition these people live in is another proof of the millions that get poured into the country but does not go to the poor and where it is needed most.

Afghan Women Skills Development Centre

I visited the Afghan Women Skills Development Centre (AWSDC) again this year. AWSDC are working hard providing shelter for women who have escaped their abusive husbands and families. AWSDC aims to address women human rights through religious and cultural perspectives to contribute to women empowerment. They run various projects for women taking refuge in their shelter house to increase confidence and promote independence. Projects include: education, increasing knowledge on health and their rights, Quran, English and computer lessons. The women are also thought skills such as sewing and other skills needed to get a job. AWSDC are also working closely with the police to bridge the gap where women go to the police to complain and are put in jail. They are doing this by educating the police on women rights.

I didn’t get a chance to speak to the women this time but I got an opportunity to talk to Khorshid Noori and Masooma Rahim from the organisation. I wanted to hear from these women what they thought of today’s Afghanistan, how much they, as Afghan women think things have improved for women and what will happen after the 2014 withdrawal.

‘We are still at war in this country and there hasn’t been much improvement. There haven’t been many changes for women because, women are still being abused and we have an increasing number of women coming to take refuge at our shelter house every week.’

‘There is not enough funding for organisations like ours. A couple of years ago we ran out of money and we were struggling. We need permanent funding, not 6 monthly, so that we can continue helping these women. The money that you hear coming to Afghanistan to help the people hardly ever reaches them because most of it is used by the West to support their own people here. So you see, it is not only stolen by the corrupt Afghans but also by the foreigners. There are no charities for children, any proper shelters and food for the refugees, no proper schools or salaries for teachers.’

My cousin came home one day from school very upset and said to me: ‘You can’t be human in this country if you are a woman.’ I asked what she meant by that and she replied: ‘Every day when I walk home from school, the men from the market shout inappropriate names at me and make comments on my private parts. I can’t leave the house feeling I am a human being who deserves to be respected.’ For the next few days she didn’t go out with us and would go to sleep after she came back from school, she seemed very quiet and withdrawn. This broke my heart. I noticed it myself that whether you are covered in a Burqa or a scarf makes no difference because as long as you are a woman, young or old, your faith is the same as my cousin’s, even worse if you live outside of Kabul.

I asked why there is such a rise in domestic violence and street harassment today.

‘Because of a lack of education and poverty which are consequences of this and the previous wars. Men are not educated and they are not aware of women’s rights. Poverty has made boys/men resort to quiting school and start work at a young age. We are not talking about jobs in offices; we are talking about setting up a stall on the corner of a street and selling vegetables. Most days these men don’t make much and this leads to stress and frustration which then comes out on the wife at home. Also a large number of Afghans both men and women suffer from mental health as a result of many years of war and this again contributes to domestic violence.’

‘There are no laws that forbid men from beating women or harassing them on the streets. There are laws that we have been trying get passed by the parliament for three years now, which for example, punishes men for 7 years for slapping a woman. The problems we are facing is that these laws stop when they reach the parliament and are not being signed off to be implemented. And knowing who the powerful men in the parliament are makes sense of why this is so.’

‘After the 2014 withdrawal the Taliban will try to take control again. The West could have stopped this and still can but they don’t want to. They don’t want Afghanistan to be peaceful. If they really wanted to bring peace and stability they would have done this and achieved it a long time ago but they don’t want to because then the Afghans and their own people in the West would ask them to leave.’

‘If they wanted to rebuild this country as they said they would, they should have first started by stopping corruption and should have never placed the warlords in power. They need to create more jobs for all the young people by re opening the factories that closed down during the wars. Stop bribery so that those who have an education and degree but cannot get a job because they can’t effort to bribe their boss can have a job. Why is Afghanistan producing 90% world’s opium today? This is happening under the watchful eye of NATO. Instead of growing opium, the government need to train farmers to grow something else but this isn’t happening because the West is benefiting from the opium produced here.’

Talking about opium I remembered what someone I spoke with the day before told me: ‘It is very difficult to smuggle drugs through borders by land. It’s transported out of Afghanistan to the West by private planes. My friend who works in Kabul International Airport has witnessed it on many occasion, Afghan ministers and US officials exchanging bags of money and drugs, shake hands and then one leaves in his expensive car for his Kabul house and the other sets off in his private plane back to the West.’

I asked the women, what is their message to the world?

‘We don’t want to be hugged by Hilary Clinton, given fake promises and then be forgotten. We don’t want them to just come here and take reports but then do nothing about it. They (US and NATO) don’t care about the Afghan women or people. They are here for our resources. They started this mess and they can stop it by leaving.’

The Afghan women message is clear, that the US and NATO’s bombs are not the answer to their liberation.

Recently organisations such as Amnesty International have been campaigning with their posters of Afghan women in their blue Burqa’s promoting NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan and further encouraging the public to support the propaganda that the US and its NATO allies are in Afghanistan to help liberate the Afghan women. We see Hilary Clinton shaking hands with Afghan women promising to help them in their fight for justice and women’s rights in Afghanistan. But when it comes time to do so, she ignores the voices of these women. She could not care less. I am tired of seeing the Afghan women being used as an excuse to continue this senseless war.

A few days after my meeting with AWSDC the Taliban executed a woman in Parwan province. A demonstration was organised demanding justice. The women from AWSDC were on the front line leading the protest. That first night when the clip of the execution was shown on the news I was left in a state of shock. I was in out of sleep that night. I was having dreams of being chased by Taliban trying to catch and kill me. I realised how different it is to hear and witness these horrors over here compared to back in London where you would hear about it mainly on the internet. It was then that I fully understood why so many women suffered from anxiety, depression and still lived their lives in fear.

As an Afghan woman who strongly supports and believes in women’s rights, I do not believe this can be achieved by military intervention and occupation. I find it very disappointing that organisations such Amnesty are helping NATO exploit the issue of Afghan women’s rights to continue this war when they couldn’t care less about what these women go through every day or have gone through in the last three decades. Please stop supporting this propaganda if you really care about Afghan women and their rights.

Their rights as well as peace and stability, can only be achieved, by the immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops out of Afghanistan and by the rehabilitation of the country through education and laws that forbid men treating women this way.

Driving through the Makroyan area of Kabul, we drove past my old house. I almost didn’t recognise the building because of all the trees blocking the view and the market built where there was once a field belonging to a farmer from whom my mum used to send me to buy vegetables. In front of very block of flats there are now tall trees planted where the playgrounds used to be. The whole area around each building are surrounded by metal fences, kind of making the buildings look more like prisons. The playgrounds are no longer there for children to play. I kept thinking of the times when me and my brother would go out in the afternoons, get on the swing or play on the monkey bars chasing each other. I also remembered playing skipping with the girls from the fourth floor, Palwasha and Nooria who became my best friends. I remembered how hard it was to say goodbye to them and leaving them behind in the war. I had to hold back the tears that were forming in my eyes at the thought of either Palwasha or Nooria not being alive today. Unfortunately I couldn’t get out of the car and visit my old house as the roads soon were jammed with traffic. I felt sad the more I remembered what this area looked like 21 years ago and what’s become of it now. I kept asking myself the question, what have they done to my Kabul, my home, my childhood?

Driving through Kabul I also noticed how much security had increased around the US embassy and the centre of the city where there are more Western supermarkets and shops, compared to last year. So I asked why this was so. The reply I got was: ‘It is to create tension and fear in order to make people believe they are not safe and need the Western support for their security. The latest attacks in Kabul are all drama created by the US to make the world think the Afghan people need them here to bring peace and stability, and that our own people are not capable to achieve this without their help.’

So why are they in Afghanistan, I asked? ‘Because they have too much to lose by leaving, they are here to occupy the natural resources and minerals of the country. If the US leaves then countries like China and Russia will try to take control of the country’s resources and this is something that the US will never allow to happen.’

It is true; Afghanistan’s natural resources seem to be a big reason why everyone wants a piece of the country. Recently oil has also been discovered in three different provinces: Helmand, Paktia and Herat. We are talking about a country rich in resources, some of which are only found in Afghanistan. This makes you ask the question: why a country so rich in resources is starving today?

General David Petraeus himself said in an interview: ‘If Afghanistan can become the central Asian “roundabout” to use President Karzai’s term, to where it can be the new Silk Road, think of the implications for that, recalling that, of course, Afghanistan is blessed with the presence of what are trillions, with an ‘S’ on the end, trillions of dollars’ worth of minerals if, and only if, you can get the extractive technology, the human capital operated, the lines of communication to enable you to get it out of the country and all the rest of that.’

Afghan Peace Volunteers

I met with the Afghan peace volunteers (APV), a group of Afghan youth from different ethnic backgrounds, who have come together to fight for peace and equality in Afghanistan. To my knowledge APV are the only such group I know of inside Afghanistan. Members of Afghans for Peace have been in touch with this group and speak with the members regularly via Global day of listening and are very inspired by these youth, and I could see why after speaking to them.

Each member introduced himself to begin with and then Faiz told me how the group was formed: ‘The group was initially formed in Bamiyan province three years ago and we decided to form a group consisting of Afghan youths from various backgrounds and different provinces. There are about 16 of us in Kabul which is a small number compared to other provinces. And each member has a responsibility to run one of our many projects. Our mission is to create an Afghanistan without war, and for all of us Afghans to work and live together in harmony. The way we are trying to achieve this is by organising meetings with younger people and other groups, provide education to break the barriers that exist between for example, Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras, and teaching them that unity is the answer not war.’

I asked the youth what they thought will happen to Afghanistan after 2014.

‘The Taliban will come back. We lived through the horrors of their regime and do not want them back in power. But it was the US that funded and trained the Taliban in the first place so let’s not forget that. We as Afghans need to stand up and take care of one another and of our country; we need to encourage our people to live in in an educated society that wants to move forward in peace. Until the problems faced in this country today are not resolved from within the country, no foreigner can help us. We need to work together to rebuild this country so that no one can have an excuse to come here in the name of helping the Afghan people.’

‘Insecurity has increased not only in other provinces but also in Kabul. The Pashtuns in the south are living in terrible conditions; women and children are being slaughtered every day. We need to take a look at not only the situation of Afghanistan but also the suffering of its people, then we can we can come up with solutions.’

‘I don’t think there will be a complete withdrawal of the troops after 2014. They have geo-political and strategic interests in the region. As you know Afghanistan is surrounded by power countries such as Iran, Russia and China, and is home to some of the rarest minerals on earth.’

What is the APV message to other youths and Afghans living in the West?

‘I have heard from one of my friends that Afghans living in the West, particularly those in the UK lack unity, they still live as Pashtuns etc. for how long can we live in this way? We all need to come together and live as one. We, the younger generations have to make sacrifices and break these barriers that exist between the different tribes so that our future generations can live in peace and harmony.’

I couldn’t stop thinking about Faiz’s message and how true it was, that we, the younger generation need to sacrifice our lives for the freedom of the future generations of Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan have seen nothing but war, poverty and death for the last three decades and this has played a major role in creating a sense of hate and distrust between people of different backgrounds. I believe the only way to stop this is through education. The need for education cannot be emphasised enough. I believe education is the infrastructure needed for rebuilding a nation and creating unity, not bullets and guns. Malcolm X once said: ‘Education is the passport to the future’ and I strongly believe that.

Afghans need to be targeted at a young age not only in Afghanistan but also abroad, with thoughts about unity, that we are all Afghans despite of our differences. When we leave Afghanistan, we are all known as Afghans, whether we are Pashtuns, Tajiks or Hazaras, so why can we not call each other that in Afghanistan and live as one? They need to be educated on the history of Afghanistan (which the government is now trying to take out of history books). Afghanistan has an amazing history full of brave people who have fought against foreign invaders. They have fought together, in unity, and made Afghanistan an unconquerable land. A land that is today called, ‘The Graveyard of Empires’.

Sitting on my flight back to Dubai I kept thinking of everything I heard and saw during my trip, some things that made me lock myself in the bathroom and cry my heart out and others that made me smile and feel proud to be an Afghan. I looked down the window of the plane and saw the faces of every new friend I made, the women of AWSDC, the children I met in the refugee camp, the girls from Lessay Bibi Sara girl’s school and the boys from the orphanage I visited.

Meeting all these people made me realise that there is still hope for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan. I saw hope in the eye of each child I met and if anyone can change Afghanistan it will be these children. This is the reason why we need to fight even harder to stop this war and end the occupation because all that this war is doing is killing and destroying the future of Afghanistan.

Despite of everything that is going in Afghanistan, bad or good, it is still my home, the land that my heart belongs to, the land that keeps calling me back.

As Sam Cooke once sang: “It’s been a long time coming but I know a change is gonna come” and this is hope I am going to live with.

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