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More lost by the second

Kathy Kelly on courtyard life and courtyard death in Pakistan and Afghanistan

It’s a bit odd to me that with my sense of geographical direction I’m ever regarded as a leader to guide groups in foreign travel. I’m recalling a steaming hot night in Lahore, Pakistan, when Josh Brollier and I, having enjoyed a lengthy dinner with Lahore University students, needed to head back to the guest lodgings graciously provided us by a headmaster of the Garrison School for Boys.

We had boarded a rickshaw, but the driver had soon become terribly lost and with my spotty sense of direction and my complete ignorance of Urdu, I couldn’t be any help. Finally, the rickshaw driver spotted a sign belonging to our school – the wrong campus, we all knew – and eager to unload us, roused the inhabitants and hustled us and our bags into the street before moving on.

We stood inside the gate, staring blankly at a family that had been sound asleep on cots in the courtyard. In no time, the father of the family scooped up his two children, gently moving them to the cot he shared with his wife so that Josh and I would have a cot on which to sit. Then he and his spouse disappeared into their humble living quarters. He reappeared with a fan and an extension cord, wanting to give us some relief from the blistering night heat. His wife emerged carrying a glass of tea for each of us. They didn’t know us from Adam’s house cat, but they were treating us as family – the celebrated but always astonishing hospitality that we’d encountered in the region so many times before. Eventually, we established with our host that we were indeed at the wrong campus, upon which he called the family that had been nervously waiting for our errant selves.

Under the same sky

This courtyard scene of startling hospitality would return to my mind when we all learned of the US Joint Special Operations (JSO) Force night raid in the Nangarhar province, on 12 May.

No matter which side of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border you are on, suffocating hot temperatures prevail day and night during these hot months. It’s normal for people to sleep in their courtyards. How could anyone living in the region not know this? Yet the US JSO forces that came in the middle of the night to the home of a 12-year-old girl, Nilofer, who had been asleep on her cot in the courtyard, began their raid by throwing a grenade into the courtyard, landing at Nilofer’s head. She died instantly.

Nilofer’s uncle raced into the courtyard. He worked with the Afghan local police, and they had told him not to join that night’s patrol because he didn’t know much about the village they would go to, so he had instead gone to his brother’s home. When he heard the grenade explode, he may well have presumed the Taliban were attacking the home. US troops killed him as soon as they saw him. Later, NATO issued an apology.

“The raids occur ‘every night. We are very much miserable,’ said Roshanak Wardak, a doctor and a former member of the national parliament.” I am reading a McClatchy news report, dated 8 August. “Residents of the Tangi Valley area, in eastern Wardak Province, about 60 miles southwest of Kabul, issued similar complaints about the night raids in their vicinity, charging that they have killed civilians, disrupted their lives and fueled popular support for the Taliban.”

In Helmand province, in Nad Ali, the district governor told a New York Times reporter one incident in the spiral of violence: a NATO foot patrol came under fire from a family home on 5 August, killing one soldier and wounding an Afghan interpreter. The NATO troops called in an airstrike. NATO is now investigating a report that the airstrike killed eight civilians, seven of them children. “The home belonged to Mullah Abdul Hadi, 50, a local imam who Afghan officials say was helping the Taliban,” said Mr Shamlani. “He was killed along with one of his two wives and his seven children, all younger than seven years old.”

Now comes the US determination to seal a “strategic partnership declaration” with its client Afghan government. Many in that country (and the US) expect such an agreement to allow the US to establish permanent military bases, a permanent occupation presence that will provoke resistance groups there to declare perpetual war.

The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, a group of young people dedicated to ending wars and inequalities in their country, write in their 9 August statement: “The US-Afghanistan strategic partnership declaration will perpetuate ‘terrorism’ and bring it to everyone’s doorsteps”: “The ‘extreme’ Taliban will conveniently ‘use’ these bases as a stand-alone reason for their ‘holy jihad’. Why can’t we quiet our nerves, look deep inside humanity, and begin healing?”

Everyone wants to be safe, but I think of the Lahore family taking us into their sleeping courtyard and their home that night, knowing nothing of these crazy Americans who had been dropped on their doorstep. We had woken them up but they chose to stay awake and take care of us. Americans seem to respond to our endless wake-up calls from Afghanistan by just going, every time, back to sleep.

Kathy Kelly co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence which, with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, is helping to organise for the 6 October “Stop the Machine! Create a New World!” campaign to end wars: http://vcnv.org/