By DAVID SMITH-FERRI Special to The Gary Baumgarten Report
BAMIYAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan - This stunningly beautiful mountainous region is located in the center of the country, roughly 100 miles from Kabul. Most people here live in small, autonomous villages tucked into high mountain valleys, and work dawn to dusk just to scratch out a meager living as subsistence farmers, shepherds, or goatherds. The central government in Kabul and the regional government in Bamiyan City exercise little or no control over their lives. They govern themselves, and live for the most part in isolation. Given this, who would imagine that Afghan youth from small villages across Bamiyan Province would come together to form a tight-knit, resilient, and effective group of peace activists, with a growing network of contacts and support that includes youth in other parts of the country and peace activists in the U.S. and in Palestine? I certainly wouldn’t have. In the United States, we may find it hard to believe that anything good can actually come out of Afghanistan, or we may have fallen into a trap of thinking that Afghans cannot accomplish anything useful without foreign aid and assistance. I confess that I struggle to live outside the shadow of this narrow-mindedness and ethno-centrism. Certainly, if the scope of our imaginations is limited by CNN and Fox News, we would not be likely to imagine an indigenous peace group forming in Bamiyan Province. But this is exactly what has happened. Calling themselves the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV), they range in age from eight to 20, and they have been active for over two years, translating their camaraderie and the horror of their families’ experience of war and displacement into a passionate and active pacifism. At an invitation from AYPV, three American peace activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence have arrived in Bamiyan for five days to build bridges of friendship and support with these youth and their families. Over this time, we will write a daily diary of our experiences and interactions with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers. We arrived in Bamiyan in bright sunshine after a 40-minute United Nations flight from Kabul on a 1960s-era, Russian helicopter, with messages (“no smoking”) and identifications (“main rotor shaft”) in Russian and English. Stiff and slightly sickened by the jarring flight and the diesel and jet fuel exhaust, we disembarked from the helicopter and stepped into the Bamiyan Valley, the bright autumn sunshine, and the equally bright faces and smiles of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, all of whom were lined up and waiting for us eagerly. There was no question about our carrying our own luggage, which the Afghan youth whisked away politely but firmly. Fifteen-year old Abdulai, a small-boned and lean but very sturdy Hazara boy from a potato-farming family, hefted my very heavy suitcase over his back like, well, like a sack of potatoes! He dismissed my objections good-naturedly with a smile and said to me with what seemed a mixture of pride and matter-of-factness, “It’s OK. I am a mountain boy.” There is an Afghan saying, “The first time we meet, we are friends. The second time, brothers (sisters).” We were certainly greeted in this spirit today. In a country occupied by a foreign power, bleeding from military, political, and ethnic violence, worn by decades of war and corruption, the AYPV is looking for meaningful ways to raise a voice of nonviolence. Because there is so much suspicion and strife among the major ethnic groups in Afghanistan – Pashtun (44%), Hazara (18%), Tajik (25%) and Uzbeck (7%) – the group has sought ethnic diversity, both as a symbol of the need for reconciliation and to teach themselves tolerance. At present, there are only Hazara and Tajik people in the group, largely because the population of Bamiyan Province is almost exclusively Hazara and Tajik. And there are no girls or young women in the group. To address this, the group developed a relationship with a staff person at an orphanage in Kabul where many Pashtun children live, and earlier this year several AFPV members visited the orphanage. The trip to Kabul (by road), which requires passing through areas controlled by Pashtun people, was itself a courageous act, as was the act of showing up at the orphanage with their message of nonviolence. Their courage was rewarded. Seeds were planted among Pashtun youth at the orphanage, and a follow-up visit is planned. Over dinner this evening, after we introduced ourselves, we talked about prejudice and the intolerance that is such an obstacle to peace in Afghanistan. Mohammad “Jan” (a term of endearment), a soft-spoken, strikingly handsome Tajik and at twenty the oldest member of the group, began the discussion by saying, “War is increasing prejudice and divisions in Afghan society, because much of the fighting is happening along ethnic lines.” The conversation became personal, as some of the boys discussed their own struggle with prejudice. “I was prejudiced against Pashtuns and Tajiks when I joined the group, but these prejudices are now gone,” Abdulai says.
Ali, a 14-year-old Hazara boy, concurs: “ I was prejudiced against Tajiks. Now Mohammad Jan and Faiz (another Tajik member of the group) are like my brothers. There is still a great deal of prejudice in the general community. The solution is to make friends.” Zekirullah, a stocky 11-year-old Hazara boy, commented: “I had great prejudice against Tajiks and Pashtuns, because it is so widespread among Hazaras. Sometimes I still feel this prejudice.” Over the time the group has been together, there have been cutting remarks, especially against Mohammad Jan and Faiz, the two Tajiks. Because Tajiks are Sunni, Hazaras (who are Shia) may see them as “infidels.”
“Often we refuse to see each other as human beings,” Mohammad Jan said. “Instead, we see Tajik, Pashtun, Hazara, Shia . . . I think we have to have a long-term viewpoint. And young people are the key. Old people are like full grown trees which can’t bend. But young people are like saplings. They can change their direction.”