Listening to the Voices of Afghans

The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers Have Their Say by Steve Clemens. April 2011

Hakim, the founder and mentor of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV), lives very simply. He attended a Methodist boarding school in Singapore as a youth but didn’t see the faith put into practice. He has read both Gandhi and Noam Chomsky and their ideas and values permeate much of his life. One would never hear this from Hakim himself but when the AYPV boys were on a Skype conversation in December, they talked to Hakim’s parents who live in Singapore and learned from his mother that Hakim was “sometimes number 1 in his medical class”. He learned English while in school. He worked as a public health doctor and came to work in a refugee camp in Pakistan 8-9 years ago. While there, he met many of the Hazara refugees from the province of Bamiyan, Afghanistan and when they were ready to return to their homeland, Afghans like Hakim’s friend, Mr. Feda (who now works for the Ministry of Education in the Afghanistan government) drew him to accompany them. In the ensuing years he has become fluent in Dari (the local language and one of Afghanistan’s two national languages), an eastern version of Farsi or Persian, based on the Arabic alphabet) and taught at the university in Bamiyan, the capital city of the province located about an 8 hour drive through mountain passes northwest of Kabul.

55 multi-ethnic students signed up for his weekly workshop three years ago but after a semester the students concluded that “peace was impossible” (within their lifetimes) but they wanted to stay engaged. Hakim raised the possibility of “love”. Would any of you be willing to try to live together for one semester? 16 said yes; Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and 2 Turkmen. They dressed in all white and did a walk for the International Day of Peace. They publicized a statement as a multi-ethnic group that “we want peace”. This created talk and questions within the broader community but it also created some concern for religious leaders - Hakim was the foreigner, some of the students were Sunni while most of the Hazaras are Shia. Hakim and some of the youth went to all the youth councils of each village asking that young people come together voluntarily to work for peace. Because they offered no money, there were no takers.

After working with the college students he concluded he would need to work with even younger-aged youth to share his commitment to Gandhian-style nonviolence. We went to various villages in the province to ask elders if they would help select some young boys and girls for him to participate with in the peace programs. (Unfortunately we were not able to meet any of the girls/young women who are peace volunteers in Bamiyan because the conservative cultural mores do not allow them to leave their home areas unescorted by their fathers or other older male family member. Hakim tells us that some women in Bamiyan are allowed to go to the bazaar “only once a year”, a 25 minute drive downhill, but many will never see Kabul, an 8 hour drive from their homes. Once they get married, they usually don't leave the province. They must wear full burkas whenever out of the home.) His “volunteers” came from different valleys and different tribal youth councils. They’ve been together now for about two years. Hakim’s goal is to introduce new thought; working to break a cycle of violence and revenge that is deep in the culture. He claims it is the #2 value. However, the #1 value is hospitality and if people focus on that and broaden the groups one extends hospitality to, the revenge value fades into the background.

He encouraged the AYPV to help build a peace park in Bamiyan despite the skepticism of the adults, most prominently, Bamiyan’s female governor (the only female governor in Afghanistan). They were told they could “apply for a grant from USAID (the State Department’s Agency for International Development) for $10,000; they discovered the application was only available in English. When they told her they could not only do it, but would do it without government funds, she allowed the project to go forward, saying “let it be” (assuming it might not work out but why not let them try.)

After two years, they have planted trees and grass seed. They have created and sold a book (entitled “A Book of Questions” and published by Operation Mercy) to raise the funds needed. They’ve put up signs reading “Why Not Love?” and “Why Not Peace?” and, although vandalized twice, they’ve been re-painted and now there is a beautiful green patch in the city.

The boys embarked on a public 7-day vigil, hoping to get a statement delivered to President Obama when news came that US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry would be coming for a visit. The ambassador told them he would deliver the statement, “Reconciliation of Civil Hearts” (which can be found on their website at: but they have never heard any response back from the US White House. The Bamiyan young people, mostly Hazara but also including some Tajik and mixed-race young adults also made some hand-made gifts (100 cell phone pouches made from scrap leather) and sent them to Pashtun young people in Kandahar in the southern part of the country as a gesture of reconciliation and intentions of peace. (Abdulai and his older brother, Khamad, fled to the mountains 11 years ago after the Taliban killed their father. The Taliban who killed his father were Pashtun.) They followed the gift with a phone call to the Pashtun young people; the response they received back was, “I can’t believe that there can be such love”.

I mentioned to the boys that I met Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame at the Kabul airport and our conversation shifted to education. Abdulai, the AYPVer with the best English says, “The one thing we need to be educated in is to stop the killing of other humans; this is even more important than literacy.”

The boys don’t see the use of money as a measure of how “internationals” can help us. [Greg Mortenson is reputed as saying if we had 241 fewer US soldiers as part of this present “surge”, he could “build 241 schools” which would have a much more lasting impact.] But the AYPV boys said, “$241 million in the present system will still end up falling into the hands of corrupt people, the already rich and powerful”.

Hakim tells us this much money and power “will corrupt even an angel”. He told us that Greg Mortenson comes across to him as impersonal. [They were introduced to him via email numerous times but, so far, have only been met with silence.] The boys said, “it is better for an illiterate shepherd boy to learn it is not kind to kill another than to become an engineer. The people who flew their planes into the NY towers were all ‘educated’.”

In illustrating the culture of corruption, Mohamed Jan told us that at a college entrance exam, the teacher administrating the test was accepting bribes, giving students the answers in exchange for money. “The whole system is rotten. Young people must rise up like they have in Egypt.”

Zikrullah told us he learned nothing in school between the 2nd and 7th grades because his teachers were not properly trained. He still couldn’t read, so he dropped out of school and was selling pens and cigarettes as a vendor in the bazaar to support his family. His participation in the 7-day vigil helped convince him to go back to school and so he has returned to the 2nd grade, determined to learn how to read!

Although a lot of money has been poured into schools, Hakim tells us, “USAID has been unable to monitor how (and where) it is being spent.” Abdulai adds, “Money cannot solve this problem.” The average pay for a teacher is $120 US/month but the more important value seems to be learning English so one can get paid as a translator and make much more money than teachers. The translators are hired by the US and ISAF militaries or by the “private contractor teams” for a lot of money because they will be targeted by the Taliban. Other translators are hired for less money (but certainly much more than teachers are paid) by other international NGOs. The boys tell us that many of the teachers are unqualified and have gotten the job by paying bribes.

Several of our new friends tell us that the Hazara ethnic group (the third largest in the country after the Pashtun and Tajik groups) were particularly targeted by the Taliban during their reign of terror from 1996-2001 because the men have little facial hair, tracing their ancestry back to the Mongol invasion of Genghis Khan. The fundamentalist Taliban insisted that all men wear beards and all women be fully covered in burkas or be treated as infidels. Since the Bamiyan province is predominately Hazara in ethnicity, they were often the target of Taliban zealotry and anger.

The boys take turns telling us their stories as Hakim translates. Mohammed Jan, at age 20, is one of the three older young men. He tells us he always wanted to have a group of friends with a shared sense of humanity and found this with AYPV. He wanted a group where he could address “the things that irritate me a lot” and found he could do this with them. A Tajik ethnically, he tells us, “We must try to stand up to fight corruption.”

Abdulai, age 15 is the one most fluent in English. He tells us his father was killed by Taliban 11 years ago and he and his older brother had to run away into the mountains when he was just 4. Khamad, his older brother and also a member of the AYPV is now 20 and tells us, “The killings must stop. Afghans must stop killing.” He says he “lost his mind” after his father was killed and still continues to struggle with trying to regain it. He runs a potato chip factory and hired 14 year-old Zikrullah to work with him when he isn’t back in school learning to read. Abdulai tells us that he was initially doubtful about the AYPV program. He was cynical. He thought, maybe it is a lie. But as he conversed with the various internationals through delegation visits like ours or over Skype conversations, he concedes, “peace may be possible”. Many, many times he “gives up”, he tells us, but the group “drags him back”. The visiting delegations have “sealed his heart” that peace may be possible. He was amazed, saying, “Who would want to come and see a bunch of nobodies in Bamiyan?” But, he says, “Peace must include action, not just words.” Zikrullah adds, “We’ve been fighting for so many years and all it’s gotten us is bloodshed.”

Faiz, at age 22, is the oldest of the AYPV young men who have traveled to Kabul to meet us. His parents died when he was a young boy and told us his brother was dragged out and shot at a close range in front of him during the war. He would like to bring “true justice” as one of the reasons he joined Hakim’s group. He bought 5 sheep with a small business loan, fattened them up, sold them and took out another loan. He now has 12 sheep and 6 new lambs.

Ali, 16 years-old, works as a “donkey water-fetcher”. He has two donkeys and is well known as the boy who fetches water. He charges 25 Afghanis (about 50-55 cents) for 2 containers of water hauled from a spring and can transport 4 containers per donkey on the one hour round trip. His two uncles were killed in war and tells us all the news on the radio is about killing. It is tiring; you hardly hear about peace. With this group he has a chance to hear about peace and less negative things than killing. He recently participated in a “donkey demonstration”: people in his village decided to demand that the local government make clean water available. They had a parade of donkeys marching near the provincial Governor’s office. He leaves at 3 AM to take his donkeys into the mountains and does 6 round trips per day. He also uses his donkeys to haul firewood for fuel from mid-summer until winter.

Ghulamai, at 13 or 14 (many don’t know their exact age as record-keeping is difficult with a largely illiterate population in the rural areas), is the youngest of the group. He tells us that the peace program was a good way for him to make friends. Amer Shah, 15, tells us that Ali was the “preacher” who convinced him to join the group.

Mohammad, the 35 year old van driver for the week was hired by Hakim because he was the only one contacted who did not raise his price when he was told that he would be driving around “a group of international visitors”. (Hakim expresses his disgust at the other drivers who try to take advantage of foreigners. “I challenge them to be true Muslims and only charge the going rate but all but Mohammad wouldn’t comply.”) He first met the AYPV boys when he drove them to the inter-ethnic peace march on Thursday, March 17th and as the boys tell their stories to us six days later, he tells them he wants to join their group. The boys joyfully embraced him and said of course they’d love to have him be part of their movement.

One of the boys observed, “What are the roots of terrorism? Hate, poverty, lack of understanding, discrimination and prejudice, misuse of religion. None of these roots can be stopped by war.” When asked what they think will happen if the US troops leave, one boy says it might mean the Taliban would agree to negotiate and leaves the opportunity for reconciliation. Another tells us yes, civil war may break out. Yes, people may be killed –but people are being killed now! If the US/NATO leaves, it gives the Afghan people the ability to work things out – we must be left alone. Someone says if Americans fear that all Afghans are wild and might become Talibs, this is not true. There is intense hatred and pain toward the Taliban. He wanted to reassure Americans that the people of Afghanistan will not accept the Taliban as leaders again; they may try to take power by force but the people will fight back. (From my own reading of Afghan history, many people accepted the Taliban in 1996 because they were fed up with the corruption and thievery of the warlords, not anticipating the brutal oppression that would follow until too late.)

Our delegation was not able to schedule a meeting with Ramazan Bashardost, a dissident Member of Parliament before I left (he did meet with other delegates the following week) but we were told his position is to ask the US to leave with transitional security being provided by the United Nations. He also advocates a transitional government led by international bureaucrats for 2-3 years, monitored by the UN, after which elections could be held because he feels no Afghans will trust any of the present leaders. As part of this process, warlords will have to be brought to justice and reparations must be sought from them. The AYPVers have also met with Malalia Joya who they said “goes straight to the truth” of the situation. She is very angry but also very committed, telling the boys to “never give up hope” but they should also be prepared “to be killed”. Are you ready to die for nonviolence? - is the question put before all of us. One of our international delegates reminds us that courage is when love takes over reason. Courage is when you control your fear enough to act. Courage is to speak one’s truth by following your heart – it is not na├»ve, nor is it silly. It was a sobering conversation.

Hakim tried to apply for a US visa to bring a few of the young men to the US but they were denied. He attempted to apply at the US Embassy in Kabul but was told he could “try again in 3 or 4 years from your own country”. Former State Department official Ann Wright has advised Hakim on some avenues for re-application. He desperately wants to amplify the voices of Afghan people around the world but it is extremely challenging as “only 3% of the Afghan people have access to the internet”. And within the country, virtually all the Afghan radio stations have been bought up by USAID, so their voices aren’t heard very often at home as well. They are voices Americans need to hear.


Atif said...

i am really impress by your article and i really like picture,looking too much pretty.

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Steve Clemens said...

I should have posted your picture at the New Year's celebration!