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Kathy Kelly, arrested many times for protesting war, has been a high school and community college teacher in the Chicago area for decades. She is a multiple nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, an anti-nuclear weapons protester and war-tax resister. Kelly is the author of Other Lands Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison (2005). She is active currently with Voices for Creative Nonviolence and recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan.
Seth Sandronsky: What did you find on your recent trip to Afghanistan in terms of what ordinary people there are coping with?
Kathy Kelly: In late March and early April of 2017, Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV) in Kabul welcomed me to stay at their guest house in a working class neighborhood in Kabul and to visit, each day, at their Borderfree Center. At the guest house, I shared accommodations and meals with young people whom I’ve known since 2010. Their experiences help me understand the severe problems their families and friends face. Ghulamai, a member of the guest house community, sadly told me that he must move in with his mother and four siblings who recently moved to Kabul. His mother, although maimed by a bomb attack that crippled her on her wedding day, mangling her hand, serves as a cleaner and cook for three families. Ghulamai transports her to and from her work place before and after going to his classes at a government school in Kabul. He feels desperate for some means of helping his family. His teachers encourage him to study hard because he is already number one in his class. I’ve visited his mother and siblings in their “yard” where they dwell in a small room with a shared kitchen and latrine. Ghulamai’s father abandoned his family about seven years ago.
Ali’s family continues to mourn the death of Ali’s older brother, Sultan, who was killed while serving with the Afghan National Armed Forces. Bismillah’s family likewise mourns the death of his 28-year-old brother, who had also enlisted to serve in the Afghan armed forces and was killed. Zarghuna and Khamad Jan learned that a neighbor in their home province of Bamiyan had committed suicide. He was destitute and desperate to escape a violent domestic situation. Nawid learned that his young cousin living in a neighboring province runs to hide every time he hears a drone overhead. Barath Khan traveled to his home province of Paktia for the funeral of a cousin killed by an unknown assailant.
People in Kabul cope with contaminated water and air, shortages of food and electricity, and a disastrous sewage and sanitation system. Hakim observes that among the dozens of young volunteers at the Borderfree Center, every single family is dealing with severe traumas.
Yet the arrival of spring heralds special family and community events. On my first full day here, we filled a bus and traveled to a small village where Abid’s and Zahro’s relatives celebrated because the couple had married each other, in Herat province, the week before. The party was Disneyesque! Our group of women from Kabul sat with the village women in a large tent. We could identify Abid’s sisters and cousins by their brightly decorated gowns, fashionable hairdos and cosmetics. Young and not so young women took turns dancing and singing. “Wedding culture” remains quite strong in Kabul and throughout the country, but many families experience severe financial strains trying to meet the expenses involved, often with serious and long-lasting consequences. This morning, Bassierah, a new young friend, told me that she believes weddings bring peace because families learn to live together, sometimes even crossing ethnic boundaries. “And also,” she said, “we love to dance.”
SS: Talk about the recent US dropping of a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, a 22,000-pound bomb, on alleged ISIS forces in Afghanistan.
KK: The MOAB is sometimes called the Mother of All Bombs. It’s wrong to use the term mother in relation to bombs, but greed is truthfully the generator of weapons and weapon systems. I believe that greedy weapon manufacturers, eager to test their bomb in an area where the US has declared war, wanted to push the MOAB out of a plane over Afghanistan. How will this massive explosion affect the water and the arable land in the region? How will Afghans living in Nangahar’s towns and villages cope with trauma and displacement? The US mainstream media moves on to the next crisis, with scant attention to the aftermath of US usage of the largest U.S. non-nuclear bomb it has ever used to attack people who have posed no threat whatsoever to people in the US.
SS: Describe the work that Voices for Creative Nonviolence does in Afghanistan.
KK: In Afghanistan, VCNV listens to and learns from the Afghan Peace Volunteers. Through their efforts to assist destitute people, we gain a glimpse of how US war has affected their country. We accompany them as they survey families, ascertaining how best to organize manufacture and distribution of the heavy blankets that impoverished women manufacture each year. The blankets are delivered, free of charge, to people who have scant protection from harsh winter elements in Kabul. We also observe how they organize the Street Kids School, inviting vulnerable children, most of whom are child laborers, to participate in a program which enables them to attend government schools and compensate their families for the funds they would have earned, working on Kabul streets, while in school. The children gather each Friday at the Borderfree Center for classes in Dari (their language), math, and nonviolence. During my short, ten-day stay in Kabul, the APVs and the Street Kids School participants planted 90 trees at various schools in Kabul and held a “Fly Kites Not Drones” event. My young friend Nematullah, an Afghan Peace Volunteer, invited me to the class he teaches in a refugee camp where we met with several dozen girls eager to study language and math; Nematullah joined me and several other friends to donate blood at the local Emergency Center for Victims of War, founded by Italian medics and activists. I and my companions feel privileged to live with APVs. We marvel at their readiness to extend a hand of friendship to people even needier than they themselves are, always holding open the possibilities for negotiation and dialogue to resolve disputes.
SS: What drove you to begin a fast in early April?
KK: After viewing President Trump and both houses of Congress applauding the widow of the Navy Seal officer who was killed while participating in a Special Operations action, I felt appalled because the country in which this operation occurred was never mentioned. No context was given. My friend, Brian Terrell, later suggested that had the context been given, had people been told that the Special Operations forces attacked a small village in Yemen where, on the same night that Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens was killed, 29 Yemenis were killed, half of them children, in a country on the brink of famine, it would have been difficult to consider the US actions heroic. The New York Catholic Worker community joined me in wanting to express deep alarm and concern about the conflict-fueled near famine conditions in Yemen and the US-Saudi allied maintenance of a blockade preventing import of desperately needed food and other essentials. We also condemn Saudi airstrikes, including those which have destroyed five cranes that were previously essential for moving food and other goods from ships at the Port of Hodeidah to vehicles that could transport the goods to other parts of Yemen. Likewise, we condemned the US airstrikes. Using conventional weapons to attack civilian populations constitutes a war crime.
SS: How can people get involved with VCNV?
KK: We welcome people to visit www.vcnv.org. To learn more about the Afghan Peace Volunteers, please visit ourjourneytosmile.com. And do consider joining the APVs Global Days of Listening phone call on the 21st of each month; see globaldaysoflistening.com