PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Afghanistan: The Right to Life by peaceprobe

In the heart of Kandahar, Afghanistan (population 450,000) a bomb went off last week killing 43 people.  “Anything can happen to ordinary Afghans. We are not safe. We are without value. We have no right to life,” said one victim whose family is among the living wounded.  Who does he turn to?  Who will speak for his family?

In 2002 I was in Afghanistan with Christian Peacemaker Teams.  It was a time of change.  Our peacemaking mission was welcomed.  People allowed themselves to dream that the 20 years of war that began when the Soviets invaded might be ending. I returned home hoping that we could place peacemakers there because I saw signs that suggested unarmed violence reduction could augment what villages, groups, and individuals already had, based upon their own patterns of peacebuilding developed over generations.

I listened to village elders describe how they deal with violence, murder and injustice.  I heard people describe the bombs that fell near or on their homes after 9/11.  I was surprised by people’s candour, their hospitality and their confident formulas for conflict resolution.  I am old enough to know that hospitality may be a means of masking the truth, but I also know that by accepting their generosity we each became surer of one another’s sincerity.

I saw rubble and rusting hulks from the Soviet period, the acres and hectares of destroyed city where warlords once fought for spoils.  On the road to Bagram Air Force Base I witnessed deserted fields, irrigation systems and villages where crops of wheat and vegetables once fed people of Kabul.  “Where have you been all these years?”  asked an Afghan when he heard we were sent from the people working for peace.  Similar sentiments came from others too, in small gestures of kindness and big dreams shared privately over tea.

I learned from seasoned Afghans that armed and uniformed soldiers would have great difficulty creating the conditions for reconciliation.  Even as a civilian I was not convinced that I had a secret instrument for peace.  I wanted to be honest but worried that Taliban and the war lords would ignore my fumbling peace probes.  Being a foreigner particularly an American didn’t help.  After decades of work in conflict situations I had learned to live with my uncertainty.   My instinct told me to test and try various words, actions, suggestions in conditions where violent conflict resolution had become routine.   Surprise!  Something usually works even when society seems to be coming apart .

The signs of the futility of foreign military intervention have been there for at least eight years, and for centuries for those of us who take the time to read the pointers in Afghan history.  When a nation is submerged in the political economy of war, turning the dial towards a peaceful direction is more difficult than juggling American citizens to consensus for health care reform.  The promise of more foreign troops erects an even higher threshold.

Neither drones, nor F-15s nor brilliantly trained marines can find the path to harvest a new political economy where the things that make for peace sprout and blossom.  If the dominant threads of development, crop improvement and infrastructure, are combat-clothed, security is lost for everyone.   Suspicion, and opportunism always win in conditions of war.  We should not be surprised by the daily rants from the foreign press describing corruption and opportunism. War and development don’t mix.  Even the recent elections are exercises in political entertainment, devoid of trust.  Our huge social-cultural mind set that violence can be redemptive does not work.

As American or Canadian or British soldiers continue to depart for the conflicted front I hope someone tells them about the kindness of the Afghan people.  I hope the soldiers can listen in ways that generations before them would not or could not.

If they do listen they may come home early, not because of bullet wounds or truck bombs, but because they learned that they were sent into a conundrum of the impossible.  They will remember the wise voices in the villages where they took extra time to listen.  For some foreign soldiers those voices will resonate within because their hearts have been prepared.  For them this will launch a new vision that includes all of humanity.  I want to support them.

The US and its NATO partners are tired.  The people of Kandahar are tired.  Everyone is less secure.  The 2500 Canadian soldiers in Kandahar, like their partner to the south are stuck.  The government of Canada, its people and its soldiers anxiously await 2011 when the government has promised to end the military “mission”.  Meantime the United States is preparing to send 20,000 additional soldiers.  Without a “right to life” where is the hope?  The way we invest in Afghanistan is more costly and treacherous than security swaps on Wall Street.  Must we wait until all sides are exhausted to end it?

For the past 8 years I have been thinking about what we can do for Afghans who ask, “Where have you been”?  Peace people, let us find our voices. Here are three suggestions.

1.  Listening delegations can be organized to spend time in Afghanistan to learn and feel the void of meaning in the violence.  Their experience will rev up all of us to engage.

2.  Local efforts of listening to returning soldiers will help them sort out their story and complete at least a piece of our own.  What have they learned from the Afghan people?  about war?  about this war?  about themselves?  about what is worth living for or dying for?

3.  When the town meetings happen or the legislative telephones wait to ring, how about a simple message, “The Afghan War is bad for my health”.

Find the local and national organizations who are already working on these items.

For people of faith there must be a response for the words from Kandahar, “We have no right to life.”  When I came back from Afghanistan in 2002 despite my best efforts I could not find the people and financial support to place teams in the field there.  A whole team of peacemakers could have been placed there for the cost of just one foreign soldier.  And for the cost of another soldier several local teams could have been trained and put to work.  Those bold words are still calling out to me.  “Where have you been all these years?”  And, where are we now?

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4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Great message. Thanks for your appraisal. Hope we can spread the word. We are still going after the drones here at Creech. They are pouring in every morning in growing numbers (especially at the lower (south) gate). No sign of letting up. Keep up the good word!!…Louie

Comment by peaceprobe

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