During our visits to Kabul, Afghanistan from 2009 to 2019, young friends who welcomed me and other international guests to their urban community showed us enormously creative ways to practice nonviolence through sharing resources, caring for the environment, and preferring service to dominance. We have a choice to follow their lead in rededicating ourselves to nonviolence, in reaching our neighbors with stories of peace, and in building the beloved community.
My Kabul friends steadily strengthened a community wherein no one person was in charge. Tasks were shared equally and even toy weapons were banned.
The young volunteers distributed solar panels, solar batteries and rainwater collection barrels to their neighbors. After learning to build emergency permaculture gardens, they passed on their knowledge to others. They gathered every week for teach-ins focused on understanding and alleviating poverty, nonviolent conflict resolution, averting climate catastrophe and learning the basics of health care. They held an annual conference that brought together representatives from every province in Afghanistan to celebrate the International Day of Peace through workshops, games, and social events.
Over a six-year period they ran a seasonal sewing cooperative where scores of women were paid living wages to make thousands of duvets to help impoverished households stay warm during the harsh Afghan winters.
They also ran a Friday morning “Free School” for Kabul street kids—children forced by poverty to spend their days laboring to help their families survive. To enable the children to attend, my friends provided each child’s family with a monthly ration of cooking oil and rice to compensate for the income the children would have otherwise made selling cigarettes, candy and other small items.
From 2015 to 2019, approximately 500 children attended the school. Fourteen volunteer teachers instructed classes in language, math and nonviolence.
My friends held bi-monthly peace circles, planted thousands of trees, and held daylong events to clean the bed of the Kabul River. They formed a Cycling Club to encourage travel by bicycle, with young men loaning their bikes to young women to use early on Saturday mornings. They worked to build interethnic ties in a country riven by ethnic conflicts too often exacerbated by foreigners’ invasions.
They reached out to and welcomed visitors from all over the world. And most international visitors left with a large bag of Blue Sky Scarves to share around the world: the color blue chosen to remind us there is only one sky and it covers every human being without regard for our ethnicity, nationality or creed.
They sought to embody the Afghan saying, “Blood does not wash away blood,” with a simple question: Why not love?
I recall an icy cold winter day when four of our young friends guided Martha Hennessy and me up a mountain slope on the outskirts of Kabul, heading into the poorer areas (those farther from potable water) along narrow, primitive roads and crumbling stairs. I asked if we could pause as my heart was hammering and I needed to catch my breath. Looking down, we saw a breathtaking view of Kabul. Above us, women in bright clothing were navigating the treacherous roads with heavy water containers on their heads or shoulders. I marveled at their strength and tenacity. “Yes, they make this trip every morning,” one of the young girls said, as she helped me regain my balance after I had slipped on the ice.
Khoreb, a widow, lived near the mountain top in a room she shared with her daughter. Like her neighbors, she couldn’t afford coal or wood to heat her home in months when the temperatures were below freezing. She constantly cracked almonds, feeding the shells into a small heater and then sending a child to sell the almonds in the market place.
Khoreb’s home was neatly kept. She had formerly shared the one-room dwelling with only her daughter. But when the home next door was rendered unlivable by water damage from a storm, Khoreb invited the family of eight that lived there to move in with her.
The young volunteers, edified by the kindness of women like Khoreb, became skillful at a benign form of surveillance. They filled in simple surveys, asking how often each family ate beans in a week, what was their rent expense, how did they get access to water and who was earning an income? If the answer to the last question indicated a child under 12 years of age, that survey received particular attention. Our volunteer friends invited as many women as they could to participate in “the duvet project,” producing heavy life-saving blankets which were then distributed free of charge in refugee camps. The young volunteers set a rule for themselves: they would always strive to include, in their projects, equal numbers of people from the three main ethnic groups, – Hazara, Pashtun, and Tajik.
That was the surveillance they practiced. Simultaneously, a malign surveillance afflicted Afghans.
Whenever I visited Kabul, a U.S. surveillance blimp was always visible, hovering over the city and recording film footage of the streets below. Less visible but at times terrifyingly audible, weaponized drones constantly patrolled the skies, gathering surveillance to target people deemed a threat to the United States. Pilots and analysts working inside dimly lit trailers at bases in the United States would, when given the order, launch Hellfire missiles from Reaper drones, striking homes, villages, farms and roadways. Drone attacks killed and maimed thousands of Afghan civilians and the surveillance was repeatedly so flawed that, according to a U.S. government document, over one five month period, 90% of Afghans killed by drones had been innocents, mistakenly identified as terrorists.
Daniel Hale, a drone whistleblower who disclosed this information, is now serving a 45-month prison sentence at the Marion, Illinois federal penitentiary. Accused of stealing documents, he told the judge: “I am here because I stole something that was never mine to take — precious human life. I couldn’t keep living in a world in which people pretend that things weren’t happening that were. Please, your honor, forgive me for taking papers instead of human lives.”
In a New Yorker article, Jane Mayer explained that the U.S. military refers to those who run away and escape drone attacks, who appear like little ants as they scramble down a mountain side after a bomb blast, as “Squirters.” In military parlance, the life and death of someone killed by a drone is summed up as “bug splat.”
The drones the U.S. military develops have a capacity to track people, but they can never help us see and try to understand destitution, poverty, misery and terror felt by people who long to be part of a beloved community every bit as much as we do. Christianity’s practice can help us see, but to do so, we must set aside the weapons. Christianity’s teaching that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” should guide us here. If we wish to see the world around us, we must strive to set aside our wealth and weapons.
Following the mass shooting of school children in Uvalde, Texas, a young Afghan friend of mine wrote to express how sorry he felt “about all the children killed by guns.” He wondered if there was anything he and others could do to ease the pain of parents who lose their children.
I remembered an unusual action he and his companions in Kabul had taken, seven years ago, when, along with child laborers, they collected as many toy guns as possible. Then they dug a grave for the guns. After burying them underground, the group of volunteers and children planted a tree at the burial site.
The action inspired onlookers. One woman rushed over to help them plant additional trees.
Sadly, today, many Afghan children are killed and maimed by dreadful explosives buried under the ground in Afghanistan. Mines. Cluster bombs. Unexploded ordnance. UNAMA, The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, laments that many of Afghanistan’s 116,076 civilian war victims have been killed or injured by explosive devices. Remnants of U.S. and other weapons continue to endanger the lives of civilians.
The Emergency Surgical Centers for Victims of War in Afghanistan note that from September 2021 until March 2022, 548 patients were admitted to EMERGENCY’s hospitals due to injuries caused by explosive violence; nearly 3 patients every day.
Presently, Afghans face the worst drought in 30 years, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented levels of food insecurity. The World Food Program reports that wheat and cooking oil prices have increased by over 40%, and diesel fuel prices have risen by 49% compared to prices in June of 2021.
Serving as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet addressed the deplorable consequences of war in Afghanistan. “It is unacceptable and unconscionable,” she said, “that the people of Afghanistan have had to live with the prospects of either bombing or starvation, or both.”
Despite the overwhelming needs faced by Afghans, the majority of whom are women and children, in August of 2021, the United States took the extraordinary step of freezing Afghanistan’s central bank assets held in the United States, depriving the Afghan economy of $9.5 billion dollars.
These assets belong to the Afghan people, including those going without income and farmers who can no longer feed their livestock or cultivate their land. This money belongs to people who are going hungry, and who are being deprived of education and health care while the Afghan economy collapses under the weight of U.S. sanctions.
Some of our young Afghan friends who lack money for food have been planting emergency gardens, collecting rain water, using grey water for irrigation, saving seeds, and using solar energy as much as possible.
Under the de facto government of Afghanistan today, those who hosted numerous delegations of internationals in Afghanistan are now at risk for having associated with “Westerners.” For security reasons, they have had to disband and they now ask not to be named. Many are in hiding and several dozen have chosen to seek refuge beyond Afghanistan.
Choosing to flee from conflict can, in some contexts, be the only available non-violent means to escape becoming a victim, reject fighting, and overcome helplessness. As I write, ten of our young Afghan friends are now forming a new community in Quetta, Pakistan, calling it “The Women’s Safe Space.” The community relies on skills learned in their former community center as they await a better option for resettlement.
Seven young adults and one infant took the risk of escaping Afghanistan to resettle in southern Portugal. There, residents of Mértola have warmly welcomed the young Afghans. Language classes, shared meals, mutual cultural exchanges, and a dynamic project to help regenerate arid land are all means for sowing seeds, literally and figuratively.
The growing community in Mértola exemplifies a nonviolent approach to welcoming people displaced by war and conflict.
Mértola’s community leaders were at the airport to welcome the young Afghans who have moved into their small city, and residents have steadily extended hands of friendship to the newcomers. At a gathering to celebrate the Afghan New Year, Arsalan, who was born just days before his parents fled Kabul, spotted a baby across the room and raced, on all fours, to meet his new friend.
It’s good to contemplate Arsalan’s instinctive desire for friendship.
In another war-torn part of the world, Iraq, from 1991 – 2003, I watched numerous delegations from western countries deliver medicines and medical relief supplies to Iraqi families and hospitals in open defiance of a brutal embargo imposed on Iraq primarily at the behest of the United States and the United Kingdom.
I’d like to believe that at least some lives were saved by these efforts. Given the scope of the suffering Iraqis endured, our deliveries were the proverbial “drop in the bucket.”
The friendships people formed were, I think, crucial. Delegation members returned to their home countries with stories about ordinary Iraqis whom they had met. They held forums, wrote articles, spoke with faith-based groups, organized demonstrations, and tried relentlessly to help their communities rebut the media propagated notion that only one person lived in Iraq: Saddam Hussein.
The mainstream media paid almost no attention to Iraqis suffering because of economic sanctions, even though the United Nations reported that hundreds of thousands of children under age five were dying as a direct result of the economic sanctions. Stories about Iraq simply couldn’t be found in western mainstream media.
And yet, in the weeks preceding the United States-led “Shock and Awe” invasion of Iraq, people in the United States and throughout the world came closer than ever before to stopping a war before it started. Millions of people demonstrated their opposition to economic and military war against Iraq. How did they learn about conditions in Iraq?
I think opposition to the cruelty waged against Iraqis came from the bottom up. Small groups of people from organizations like Pax Christ, Peace Action, Code Pink, the Community Peacemaker Teams, the American Friends Service Committee, Veterans for Peace, the Catholic Worker and Voices in the Wilderness visited Iraq and then spoke far and wide, saying essentially, “this is what we’ve seen and heard.” They told their stories.
Stories are our number one way to grasp reality. Just as early Christian communities formulated their stories into gospel narratives, calling on people to cross borders and seek to love one another, we who wish to abolish war must reach out to supposed enemies, try to learn from them, and continue building staunch communities of nonviolent resistance.
ZNetwork is funded solely through the generosity of its readers.Donate