At four in the morning on New Year’s Day 2011, a group of young Afghan peace makers and their much older US colleagues huddled around a laptop computer in Kabul, to begin a 24-hour conversation with people from all over the world: “Dear Afghanistan”.
The effort consisted of an entire day of Skyped-in phone calls, emails, Facebook and Twitter posts, with the goals of providing an opportunity for world citizens to learn about Afghanistan first-hand from experts – people trying to live their lives in a war zone.
It was also to provide moral support for the members of Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV); and begin linking conversations among a global, below-the-radar network of veteran peace activists, determined that the war in Afghanistan can and must be ended absent military force.
Doug Mackey, technical producer for the project which was promoted entirely via independent media and the international peace movement, explained: “The teleconference team was centred in Olympia [Washington state, USA], with two crew members in Oakland [California], one in Saratoga [Florida], and a few around the world keeping an eye on production issues like teleconference connection, livestreaming and corrections.”
People wanting to participate sent an email to producers and were placed on a call-in schedule. A sampling of callers and conversations included: In one conversation, about barriers to their work in Bamyan Province, Gulamai admitted the reality is that there is little trust among ordinary Afghans or between Afghans and their national neighbours. “We distrust people in Pakistan and India and this has to be overcome by persistence.” The next caller requested a news report from Kabul. After a few moments of silence, Abdulai¸ always ready with a wisecrack, announced, “Fresh news from Kabul… the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers had eggs, tea and warm bread for breakfast.”
Khamat, a young potato farmer from Bamyan, added: “The news from Kabul is, for someone coming from the farms and clear air of Bamyan, Kabul is very polluted and has lots of trash. All the money going to Kabul looks like it has been spent for security guards and concrete barriers and the drains are just as clogged as before.”
A group of young people gathered around a speakerphone in Olympia, WA. AYPV in unison: “Salinao Khush” (Happy New Year).
Craig from Olympia: “Even though I’ve never met you, it is a great honour to say hello and I send you my love.”
Calling from Germany, Elsa named several of the antiwar activities happening in her country.
Zahra: “People in Afghanistan are still, at this point, mostly unaware of the international support they have to stop this war.”
Elsa, surprised at this, noted a number of activities, some within the Bundestag, most from citizen groups, including a recent demonstration of over 30,000, French and Germans.
Before the all-day event ended, some callers were moved to express themselves in more artistic ways. Some read poems or favourite quotes and one woman, a violinist from the Sarasota orchestra, played the third movement of JS Bach’s Sonata No 1.
The five boys I met in Kabul, from the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers were young – the oldest only 20 – and as charming and well-mannered as teenage boys can humanly be. Their mentor, Hakim, displayed patience and tireless compassion.
I found it easy to settle into a comfortable relationship with them for 10 days, but during the event, it became clear that these young men were a courageous lot, going against many cultural norms in Afghanistan and doing so publicly. People in places like today’s Afghanistan have been “disappeared” for less.
As I began to realise how dangerous the Peace Volunteers’ work could be, the global call-in project dubbed “Dear Afghanistan” became much more than a chance for callers to meet a handful of charming, brave boys.
It was the beginning of an international support committee that at some moment may need to quickly mobilise to demand governments intervene to protect these young men’s lives. Indeed, after a few years of quiet work in their province and the relatively high-profile Dear Afghanistan calling project, Afghan security forces visited Hakim’s village for a third time, leaving the distinct impression he is no longer welcome. Just before he and the AYPV were to make the 11-hour drive through the mountains to Bamyan, he booked a flight to another country.