Thursday, October 21, 2010

Building a peace park in Afghanistan



By DAVID SMITH-FERRI
Special to The Gary Baumgarten Report


BAMIYAN, Afghanistan - This city of roughly 60,000, has only one paved street, a wide, two-kilometer road without lanes that is a site of constant activity from 5 a.m. to curfew, at 10 p.m., and is referred to as the “bazaar” because it is lined on both sides with shops.

In our short time here, we’ve been struck by how hard people, both in town and in the outlying villages, have to work to make a meager living. Children clearly work hard, too, seeming to participate fully in the livelihood of the family. 

At almost anytime of the day they can be seen at all manner of enterprise – helping set up the family street stall early in the morning, riding a donkey to fetch water in five-gallon plastic jugs, helping harvest potatoes, herding sheep or goats, collecting leaves for fuel, washing clothes in a creek, caring for younger siblings; and of course, they also attend school. Their work is as much a part of the landscape as the cottonwood trees and the red-rock cliffs which stand above the rivers.

Having had a chance to talk with members of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV) and learn something about their significant commitments to home, family and school, it was with delight and astonishment that we visited Bamiyan Peace Park today with nine proud members of the group and learned about their role in its development and use.

The park, inaugurated a year ago as part of International Peace Day activities, was a real test of character for the AYPV. In 2007, the mayor of Bamiyan proposed the construction of a Peace Park at an undeveloped, 1,150 square meter site, strewn with rocks and overgrown by weeds, on the outskirts of the city. For over a year, the proposal to build a Peace Park languished for lack of local initiative and an absence of foreign aid to pay for its construction.

According to our friend Hakim, the Singaporean medical doctor and ex-pat who is a mentor to the AYPV, many young Afghans adopt the same expectation as adults that all civic projects depend on foreign aid. When Hakim proposed that the AYPV spearhead a local effort to construct the park, they were thrown off balance. Where would the money come from, the materials, the labor? Who were they to undertake such an effort? But small successes helped them right themselves. They met with Dr. Habiba Sarobi, governor of Bamiyan Province – the only female governor in Afghanistan – and she agreed to approach the private sector for support.

In September, 2008, they held a ground-breaking ceremony and began to prepare the site. The owner of a local hotel donated soil; two construction companies loaned graders and the AYPV came with shovels to remove rocks and help with leveling. In the spring of 2009, the youth gathered again to prepare the soil for planting. Toiling alongside Bamiyan City workers, they helped till and landscape the site. They interacted with local government ministries in ways they hadn’t ever done before, reminding the Environment Directorate to source for and plant grass seed, and delivering an official request for saplings to the Agricultural Directorate.

“The grass and trees were planted,” Hakim said, “and our courage grew with the greening of the Park.” But a big test lay ahead. The AYPV wanted a sign in the Park with a clear message of nonviolence, but again there was no money for its construction. An international NGO that works with children offered funding that would have covered the cost of the sign as well as construction of toilets. But the NGO had a policy requiring the placement of a signboard in the Park acknowledging their contribution. If the group accepted this money, it might end up looking like a foreign-built Park after all.

In a clear declaration of their self-confidence, the youth voted to forgo the donation and politely withdrew their application. Then they went back to the hard work of outreach and fundraising. Eventually, they had an opportunity to sell a book to raise funds. Its sales paid for the sign, a five foot high, four foot wide, pentagonal brick monument, a marble plaque inset with the words, in Dari script: Bamiyan Peace Park Established 1388 (according to the Muslim lunar calendar in use by local people).

The story of courage and tenacity doesn’t end here. Dari script at the top of the monument reads: Why not love? Why not make peace? 

Shortly after the monument was installed in the center of the park, vandals defaced this lettering, intentionally splattering red paint across it to resemble drops of blood. The boys were frightened by this, but they came together, recreated the lettering, and on the reverse side of the monument added the words: Even a little of our love is stronger than a war of the worlds. Brave words. Brave actions.

In the year since the Bamiyan Peace Park was inaugurated, it has served as the venue for a number of important public events. For example, in response to the selection of President Obama as the 2009 Nobel peace laureate, the youngsters organized a cultural event, attended by local youth and by internationals. They read poetry, enacted a short drama, sang, and played the flute. They wrote and read a message of peace addressed to  Obama. At the event, 14 year old Abdulai stated, “We’re keeping a peace vigil at this park until the voice of peace is raised in Afghanistan and the world.”

Each of the last two years, the boys have gathered at the park on International Peace Day, after inviting people to call them on Skype with messages of peace and solidarity. This year their invitation read: “We plan to be together the whole day to receive calls, for all of 24 hours. We’d rather stay awake to hear your voices than sleep without those human connections we yearn for.” On September 21, 2010, they received calls from people in 20 different countries and across the U.S. A remarkable thing in a community so isolated both within its own country and from the rest of the world.

A 20 minute walk from Bamiyan City, atop a tall, rocky butte, finds the 800 year old ruins of a royal citadel which mark the site of the Ghorid family’s last stand against Genghis Khan, whose army defeated Bamiyan’s ruler Jalaludin and slaughtered all of the castle’s defenders. As the story is told, the noise of the violence gave the place its modern name: Shahr-e-Gholghola, which means “City of Screams.” Today, the rocky butte is windblown, sterile, and uninhabited. Nearby, the Bamiyan Peace Park is flourishing, and the voices of the Afghan youth who were central to its construction ring out far and wide.

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David Smith-Ferri and fellos co-coordinators of Voices for Creative Nonviolence are currently traveling in Afghanistan.


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