We are two weeks into our stay with the Afghan Peace Volunteers and the time is filled with many meetings and discussions. Before their departure our British delegates interviewed several of the peace volunteers about conditions in their country. Zekerullah’s testimony stood out to me; he held such compassion and wisdom beyond his years. He was asked what he would have to say to a young man from the U.K. who is considering joining the military and possibly coming to fight in Afghanistan. He stated that he hoped the man (his counterpart) would not become a soldier but would stay home, do the work that is needed there, and take care of his parents. Zekerullah’s insightfulness typifies the responses I’ve heard, again and again, from the Afghan Peace Volunteers when they talk about the ravages of war and their visions for the future.
Despite the long-term degradations of poverty and war, we are hearing sentiments of hope from a variety of individuals and groups. The majority of Afghanistan’s population is under 25 years of age and they want reform and an end to the violence and corruption perpetrated by foreign, regional and internal self-interests.
We sat with the secretary-general of the Afghanistan Youth Peace National Jirga, a governmental organization of 1,700 members that has a central office in Kabul. Members come from all 34 provinces around the country and include those involved in different Afghan political parties. The purpose of the Youth Jirga is to create a space for a national discourse on Afghanistan’s peace process, involving all domestic groups. There are significant obstacles to peace for the Afghan people who find themselves caught between so many hostile interests with complex alignments that can easily shift. The U.S., U.K., Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia all play varying roles. Internal factions include the Taliban (often described as a mask which hides many players), Hezb-i-Islami, past warlords turned ministers, and Karzai’s puppet government.
The Youth Peace National Jirga’s agenda consists of these points:
1. Establish a way forward for the peace process.
2. Address corruption in governmental administration.
3. Discuss/clarify the Bilateral Security Agreement and the future of the U.S. military presence.
4. Address the higher educational needs of the population.
5. Generate employment for both educated and uneducated youth.
This is a very tall order but the issues are clearly identified by the younger generation.
The Youth Peace National Jirga met with President Karzai last summer, hoping to have their voices heard. The Jirga is aware of the peace processes held in or mediated by Doha, with Japan, Turkey, France, Germany and the U.S. Many Afghans feel this effort is being used for political purposes and that a genuine peace process has yet to emerge.
We frequently hear concerns being expressed over the upcoming transitional period of 2014. The importance of this time hinges on the movement of power from Karzai’s administration to a new government, as well as the shifting of security from foreign military to local and national entities. If the power falls into the hands of those who would continue to neglect the peoples’ needs, there will be another lost decade and generation. But many of the young people do have a vision for peace and reconciliation. Our delegation members have listened to dozens of young men and women who are ready to transform the old military and political strategies into a different model. They want a new approach that is based on humanitarian rights and the social well-being of the people, especially those left in abject poverty. It is work and education that will keep the youth out of the hands of the military and Islamic fundamentalists who preach the taking up of arms.
The statistics are grim with many new refugees being displaced daily, the deaths of one in five children under age five, and half of Afghan children unable to attend school. Two billion dollars have been spent weekly on maintaining foreign troops. Despite these realities the young people continue to envision a peaceful and independent tomorrow with education for everyone.
We visited elderly widows who live on the surrounding hillsides above Kabul City where the paths are steep and icy. With no other option, it is the cheapest housing that they can afford. When the water lines freeze they must carry heavy containers up the treacherous paths.
We met victims of U.S. rocket attacks as well as people with other disabilities who work valiantly to organize and provide humane care for those in need.
These small-level efforts are happening all over Kabul. When I look out the window in the early mornings I see the bustle of life, people carrying on with work and school. It is hard to imagine that our friends live with memories that are “painted in blood” as Hakim, our mentor, tells us. I am convinced that the human heart is created for love and love is a stronger force than fear or hatred. I see it every day in the eyes and smiles of those who work so hard to get by each day and who keep hope for tomorrow.