Peace campaigner and Hastings Councillor Maya Evans, who has been visiting Afghanistan for the past 10 years, gives a first-hand account of life for the Afghans she met and came to know so well. They are, she says, the real left-behind poor, the ones who have already suffered so much in the conflict through no fault of their own. And she explains why now, more than ever, they need – and deserve – the West’s help to rebuild their devastated country and shattered lives…
Having visited Afghanistan 10 times during the last decade, I’m surprised that the world is so surprised by what has happened lately. For over 10 years I have been giving talks, writing articles and running campaigns about Afghanistan. Whenever I told people about my work, the most common response would be: “Is there still war in Afghanistan? I thought it was over.”
Every Afghan faces death every day
Even without four decades of war, Afghanistan is a desperately poor country, barely coping, with many of its people grinding along on a hand to mouth subsistence existence. The cultural norm is NOT to make long-term plans. It’s an Afghan joke to say people plan their weddings the day before. Underlining that joke is the sombre awareness that every Afghan carries when leaving their home: they do so with the grim expectation that they may not return.
Being in Afghanistan is intense on every level. Every Afghan has lost a family member to war; every Afghan has a horrifying story; every Afghan has witnessed brutal violence; every Afghan will have a family member who has fled the country; every Afghan has had enough and wants out. The feeling of your own helplessness to help, as well as the feeling of hopelessness of your friends, is hard to mentally process.
Four million internal refugees forced to live in squalor
Afghan refugee camps are exacerbated by the extreme poverty, lack of basic infrastructure and a completely failed aid system. Kabul is the only major city in the world to still have an open sewer. The stench of raw sewage is disabling. There are at least 4 million internally displaced people in their own country and conditions in the camps are unsanitary. Over the last 20 years, Afghans have been the second biggest group of refugees within Europe. The crisis will inevitably now get worse.
During the last month, I have thought about the people I have met and interviewed. I think about Mariam, mother of street kid Hamza, widowed with six young children after her husband was killed in a suicide bomb attack on a mosque. He had been standing outside selling oranges from a cart when a bomb exploded. Mariam now lives with her six children under a piece of tarpaulin fastened to the side of a dilapidated house.
A 10-year-old boy becomes his family’s main breadwinner
Six years ago, Miriam told me her story while quietly weeping under a burqa, a dress code forced upon her by male family members. The mainstream Western narrative since the 2001 invasion has described Afghan women as ‘liberated’. And indeed, women were no longer legally required to wear the burqa, but for many, like Mariam, the choice not to wear one was not an option. At the time, her 10-year-old son Hamza was the main breadwinner, working the streets of Kabul with his weighing scales.
A year later I saw Hamza again. He had spent the best part of nine months in a Madrasa (religious Muslim school) which his Talib uncle had made him attend. Apparently this particular school focused on Jihad – Holy War. The young boy’s spark had faded a little. I asked him about the school; he just shrugged his small shoulders, looked down and said “fine”.
For women, domestic violence is the status quo
I think about Shakira, the older, charismatic head of a seamstress cooperative located in a side room of the peace centre. She was forever altering my clothing, and I would commission her to dress me in garments which would help me ‘fit in.’ She would measure me up and laugh at my keenness to look more Afghan. An open and honest woman, she would show us bruises sustained from her husband.
During endless glasses of green tea around a wood-burning stove, all the seamstresses spoke of domestic violence; for them it was the status quo. The daily stress they felt would exhibit itself in depression, headaches, body aches – as a result, many of them were taking some sort of painkiller or anti-depressant in a bid to block out the violence of everyday life.
For these ordinary Afghan women, illiterate and poor, it was hard to see what 20 years of foreign occupation had done for them.
Educated, articulate: the women now under threat
Occasionally we would visit professional women who were lucky enough to have become academics, doctors, lawyers. They were always incredible individuals, very smart and super-articulate. Their secure compounds were like another world: granite flooring, fine Persian rugs, leather sofas, servants bringing snacks and green tea. It was a world that seemed a million miles from refugee camps which were sometimes just around the corner.
They were generally fortunate enough to come from families who could afford to educate them, who were progressive enough to allow their daughters and sisters to attend school. These were often the women appearing on TV news channels, many of whom were, understandably, prioritised for evacuation once the Taliban took over again.
The Taliban never really left
At this stage, international concern for Afghan women feels disingenuous. ‘Liberating the Afghan woman’ was a key motivator for invading 20 years ago, yet it was barely an afterthought at the peace talks, while the US and Nato countries remained mute on the matter.
The Taliban’s recent rapid takeover is a reflection of how embedded they still were within Afghanistan, as well as being a reflection of the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government. Installed by the US in 2001, it was the equivalent of overthrowing Mussolini and appointing the Mafia. The surrender of the Afghan National Security Forces was also predictable; due to government corruption, much of the army were waiting to be paid.
Public floggings – carried out by the police
Seeing the news unfold has been saddening, but not surprising. As a regular visitor I always embedded myself into working class communities. I have witnessed brutal street fights and public floggings carried out by the police. I have heard nearby bomb explosions. I’ve seen deep desperation in refugee camps. I’ve held friends as they wept in desperation of the situation. A cancelled meeting meant I missed a mass shooting in a restaurant whereby everyone was killed.
The last time I visited Afghanistan, in 2019, I left thinking: ‘How can it get any worse for this poor country which has the misfortune of being perpetually invaded?’
If the world is shocked by the last few weeks of news footage coming out of Afghanistan, taking a more detailed look should leave people even more horrified at the reality of the bigger, more distressing story. The fear of the Taliban is real; the unknown and uncertainty are harrowing. The situation now is dangerous for all Afghans who worked with foreigners, but it’s also unsafe for millions of other people who stand no chance of being airlifted out.
“The US military is the number one recruitment agency for the Taliban”
An accepted explanation for the current chaos in Afghanistan is to blame President Biden for carrying out the exit strategy put in place by his predecessor Trump. It would be more accurate to blame Vice President Biden for his failure to condemn the US drone programme under President Obama.
It isn’t the last month that’s been a disaster, it’s the last 20 years. How can anyone seriously expect to win over a nation after two decades of relentless aerial bombings, the deliberate targeting of wedding parties and funerals, drone strikes, detention and torture. A comment I heard regularly during my trips there was, “The US military is the number one recruitment agency for the Taliban”.
After so many years of war, the US and other NATO countries owe a debt to Afghanistan. Those reparations should come in the form of things like landmine clearance – there are an estimated 10 million landmines still in the country.
Reparations and putting an end to policies of war & violence
And there’s so much more… Iodine is needed for the 55% of children who are malnourished and suffering stunted growth; immediate humanitarian relief should go to the 4 million plus internally displaced refugees; the million opium addicts need rehab centres.
The battered country also needs reforesting, agricultural replanting, repairs to the irrigation system, clean water, healthcare…
Since 2001, the UK government has spent around £27.7bn on military operations in Afghanistan. Over this period, it provided a fraction of this amount in aid – approximately £3.8bn. Imagine what the country would be like if those spending budgets had been flipped?
As many of us knew 20 years ago, war and violence do not work. I hope decision makers will finally accept that humanity is the way forward.