Afghanistan, art of resistance

(Interview) Janus Metz Pedersen: War Is Like a Drug.

Janus Metz Pedersen is a Danish director known for the remarkable documentary Armadillo. It is a film about a group of Danish soldiers at Armadillo, an army base in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. Above all – it is a film about the chaos of war, both internal and external, about the mind games soldiers play in silence, and the spells of black magic that catch their shadows everywhere they go.

The film had a strong impact on me, and the least I could do was to discuss it with the director – Janus Metz Pederson.

Janus_Metz_credit_Robin_Skjoldborg/Janus Metz Pederson© Lorber Films / Photo: Robin Skjoldborg/

Armadillo is a film that, I imagine, was a real challenge in terms of preparations and expectations. No matter how well one is prepared, war  is something hard to prepare for and conflict areas always manage to surprise. What were the great differences (if there were any) between the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and your preparations in Denmark?

There were two preparations that I went through. I had to prepare myself, and prepare the film, in terms of grasping what the film was about. Preparing myself and preparing the film was sometimes part of the same process. I figured the best way to do that was to go and embed myself with the troops, to grasp the experience of the soldier. I did a lot of research, talked with the soldiers that were in Afghanistan, but also to Afghans I knew, to get a view of the conflict from a different perspective. I tried to immerse myself in the military culture and analyze how that affects the war. I did a lot of training with soldiers and tried to get to know them personally. I think of myself as an anthropologist filmmaker, I like to stand beside the characters, go through the process with them, and observe what they are doing. I particularly pay attention to emotion, to be able to tell it and film it.

About the differences on the ground – the thing is, you can never prepare for what’s happening on the ground, there has to be a level of stupidity or naivety in you to go out there and do it. You know, I’m not a war reporter, I’m more of an artist, an anthropologist. It was like, in a way, I got into the job, did the preparation and just couldn’t turn back and not do it.  I think that’s what happens to a lot of soldiers too. I mean, you go through this whole process – you have to write a farewell letter to your family, settle your scores before leaving. In that sense, I was forced to deal with a lot of personal issues that I wouldn’t usually deal with. Suddenly, your relationships become very important, the world around you becomes important, because you have to say goodbye to it. There is at the same time this myth of importance, the feeling you are a part of something big and you can go on and do it now. It’s almost like a soldier is a character with a death wish, with a desire to feel the world here and now, liberated from his old ties. So the whole preparation and the experience on the ground offered a lot of challenges and interesting insights for me personally and for the film.

armadillo_9/Mads in Armadillo© Lorber Films / Photo: Lars Skree/

In relation to the  film, I was surprised to see how young most of the soldiers were, and I also had a feeling they came from relatively safe background (financially). Generally speaking, a lot of the soldiers deployed to Afghanistan choose to go on missions because of the money, and in the US – the idea of ‘defenfing ourselves’, but what was the motivation of these Danish soldiers? From the film, I get a feeling that a lot of them did it out of the need for ‘adventure’. From your experience, living and filming among them – what is, at the end of it all – the main reason these young soldiers had for going to Afghanistan?

I think a lot of it has to do with my life has a purpose thing, although it may not be expressed by soldiers in such a way. They also did it for political reasons, there was a feeling of ‘defending ourselves’ in Denmark too, a feeling of fighting for a better world, but I always feel like that is almost an excuse, or just a surface layer of reasoning. I don’t think money is a high drive, although you can earn good money that way. A lot of the soldiers come from low middle class families with lower level of education, but I still wouldn’t think of money as the main reason for going on these missions. There are also career reasons, a lot of these young men wanted a career in military, and this was one important step towards it. There is also a great level of friendship and comradeship in these circumstances and that is appealing to many. Above that all, I feel like in the Western world, war has become something like an identity quest, an identity travel you undertake as a young person. In the 90’s everybody used to go backpacking, and now they go to war. It’s this desire for close to death experience. Have you noticed how nobody does bungee jumping anymore?  They search for adrenaline in other places.

From my experience on the ground I can tell you that soldiers are not politicians, and they don’t dwell on politics too much, or at all. They were given a good reason to be there, in their minds, and from that point onwards there’s a lot of parroting, a lot of mimicking of what someone else had said.

The film was criticized in Denmark for its portrayal of some of the soldiers and their behavior in combat. Where you suprised by that and, reflecting back, what would you say about the criticism you received?

Doing the film, I was prepared for the big debate, I knew the film would be taken apart. Most of the criticism can be summed up in one sentence: You haven’t filmed all the good things we do. But a lot of the so-called good things are fragile, unsustainable. Armadillo is about the psychological dynamic this war creates, about mistrust, about resistance to the occupation, about all those things. The political arguments were an expression of spin politics, right-wing parties were very clever about it – they said Armadillo was great because it showed how difficult being in the war is and we must remember difficulties of those who serve, but also remember that – they are doing it for the ‘higher purpose’. The film was a shock to the nation, it really was. It think it was the most discussed film in Denmark ever probably. But, all in all, that is good, because the debate about the war in Afghanistan was necessary.

Since ISAF entered Afghanistan, Denmark has been a committed and loyal coalition partner. The year 2014 marked the 17th rotation and final deployment to Afghanistan for DANCON. Since their first mission began, more than 18,000 Danish soldiers have deployed to the country. Throughout their deployments in Afghanistan, 43 soldiers were killed in action. Could you talk about the opinion of the Danish public about this mission and how has it changed since Armadillo was made?

A lot of things have changed, I think there is an understanding now that this war was not our victory. We have war veterans in Denmark now, for the first time after 19th century, and we have to learn to deal with that reality. When the film came out Afghanistan was a good war, Iraq was a bad war. Political climate was different, there was no place for criticism of the war in Afghanistan. Soldiers serving in Afghanistan were perceived as an extened version of ourselves, as the ones doing the dirty job for us. It has changed with time, we had to retreat, and discuss the war in-depth. That is what Armadillo did – we explored the true nature of war, and I am not saying we did it perfectly but I think we did help in starting the debate and the reflection process.

Armadillo is beautifully filmed, visually polished, with many striking images. Were you afraid of that aspect – of making it so beautiful aesthetically? It makes me think of one of Banksy’s anecdotes – he remembered how an old Palestinian man said his painting made the wall look beautiful. Banksy thanked him, only to be told: “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home.” Were you afraid of getting a similiar reaction?

Yes, I understand that fear. You don’t want war to look beautiful, but in a scary way it is beautiful. I mean that in terms of all the darkness, the heart of darkness you can explore. I wanted to use all the filmmaking tools available to present this war story, not just the obvious level of it, but all the deeper ones, the levels of the unsaid. I wanted to use all the artistic tools to get to that deeper level. I also wanted to transcend the usual presentation of war. Making the film visually beautiful provided even a greater shock in some of the horrible situations like seeing a shooting and dead bodies. All that ugliness stood out more when it was put in this polished frame, it offered us to give a crack and the audiences to see that crack, to witness the dichotomy. That was our way of mediating the war to people.

armadillo6/Armadillo© Lorber Films / Photo: Lars Skree/

From the interviews I did with war veterans, it was always surprising that they wanted to go back, most of them. One would think that, after witnessing all the horrors of war, they would never want to go back, but – just like in Armadillo – they do. Why do you think that is the case?

It’s one of the first things that started puzzling me… When I talked with some of the older soldiers about their experiences, they often said it was the best time of their life. Some of them have seen horrible things, but they still said they would do it again. I think it has a lot to do with that purpose of life thing, I think it made them feel their lives have higher meanings. I think they were longing to feel alive. Also, when you are a soldier, life is really simple. You’re told what to do, you have the same routine every day, you are a part of intense comradeship, and for many – it is a satisfying life. Even I, as a filmmaker, miss it sometimes. It’s just that intense. I think it also has a lot to do with some of our primal instincts, it’s like a drug in a way.

Finally, what are you doing at the moment, and what are some of your plans for future projects?

I recently came back from LA, I was directing one of the episodes of the second season of True Detective. I am soon going to Thailand to work on a documentary, which is actually a continuation of the two films I did – Love on Delivery and Tickets to Paradise, which deal with prostitution, sex industry and migration. My wish with this documentary is to see what happened to those people and around them, to do a character study over a ten year period (Love on Delivery was made eight years ago).

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Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Under The Spell of Opium.

Afghanistan has had opium issues for many years now (the country is the leading opium supplier in the world). In a society disrupted by ongoing conflicts, where more than eighty percent of citizens are farmers, opium has been the only possible getaway for many people – for those producing it – it was a getaway from starvation, and for those consuming it – it was a getaway from the depressing reality. Afghanistan’s economy has thus evolved to the point where it is now highly dependent on opium, just like its people are.

NYC59855/Badakshan province. A farmer collects poppies. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos/

In the 2014 Afghanistan Opium Survey (UNODC & Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics), there are several key findings:

The vast majority (89%) of opium cultivation took place in nine provinces in Afghanistan’s Southern and Western regions, which include the country’s most insecure provinces. The total area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated at 224,000 hectares in 2014, a 7% increase from 2013.  Average opium yield amounted to 28.7 kilograms per hectare in 2014, which was 9% more than in 2013 (26.3 kilograms per hectare), and potential opium production was estimated at 6,400 tons.

opium/photo via UNODC/

Eradication efforts have forced many poppy farmers into the margins of the countryside. To many of them, opium is the only way of securing annual income, only way to survive. That is the way they have been living for many years. War has a lot to do with it, of course. War has everything to do with it, acutally. Since the 1979 Soviet invasion and the insecurity that came with it, opium poppy cultivation became the core of Afghanistan’s agricultural economy. Afghanistan overtook Myanmar as top producer of illicit opium in 1991, and the cultivation has been increasing ever since (with short downfall periods – after 2008, eradication efforts, as well as a cash incentive program for provinces that eradicated all opium poppy crops, helped reduce cultivation drastically through 2010).

NYC59778/Nangahar province. Women and children stand in a corner as DEA and Afghan interdiction troops assault a village hiding chemicals and drugs. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos/

Incapable and corrupt government does not make it easier for the farmers. The provinces that are poppy-free receive $1 million awards from the American Embassy, paid directly to the governor’s office. It is not known how that money is divided among people, or what is done for the people with it. Many farmers continue cultivating in new places, in the deep jungle of the countryside.

In the provinces that are not poppy-free, farmers are just angry and sick of promises – many of them are promised wheat seeds and fertilizers to start a new cultivation business, but most of them were never given any, the same way the USAID money (and other aid money) often goes to suspicious places and projects that are never carried out.

hsod/photo via UNODC/

Afghanistan is a country still broken in many ways, and it seems that the only thing it is good at is producing opium. Afghanistan could become a true narco-state. In an article ‘Can Afghanistan Win The War Against Opium?‘ (February 2011 National Geographic), veteran Afghan law enforcement official said: “Afghanistan is controlled by the drug mafia. How else do you think those people in the government with their low-paying salaries bought their fancy houses in Dubai and the U.S. in the past few years?”

Another issue concerning opium is the addiction – around ten percent of Afghans are addicted to drugs, often opium or herion. They rarely receive drug treatments, because there are not many rehabilitation programs, and if there are – they are underfunded.

NYC59824/A poster warning against the use of opium. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos/

The overall situation in Afghanistan could be described with one line from Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater: “I take it for granted, that those eat now who never ate before; And those who always ate, now eat the more.”

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art of resistance, Guantanamo

Happy Birthday, GTMO: Guantánamo Diary.

This year I still didn’t write anything about GTMO and it’s birthday (January 11th), so this is my version of congratulations card. The book Guantánamo Diary is written by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, still imprisoned Guantánamo detainee. It is the first ever public account written by a still-imprisoned Guantánamo detainee. Slahi has been in Guantánamo for twelve years, although United States has never charged him with a crime. A federal judge ordered his release in 2010, but he remains in custody.

tumblr_mm2p9g7CcA1qedj2ho1_1280/Guantánamo Diary, photo via The FJP/

Three years into his captivity Slahi began a diary, recounting his life before he disappeared into U.S. custody, “his endless world tour” of imprisonment and interrogation, and his daily life as a Guantánamo prisoner. The following is an excerpt from Slahi’s diary.

Jordan–Afghanistan–GITMO
July 2002– February 2003

The American Team Takes Over … Arrival at Bagram … Bagram to GTMOGTMO, the New Home … One Day in Paradise, the Next in Hell

July __, 2002, 10 p.m.

The music was off. The conversations of the guards faded away. The truck emptied. I felt alone in the hearse truck. The waiting didn’t last: I felt the presence of new people, a silent team. I don’t remember a single word during the whole rendition to follow.

A person was undoing the chains on my wrists. He undid the first hand, and another guy grabbed that hand and bent it while a third person was putting on the new, firmer and heavier shackles. Now my hands were shackled in front of me.

Somebody started to rip my clothes with something like a scissors. I was like, What the heck is going on? I started to worry about the trip I neither wanted nor initiated. Somebody else was deciding everything for me; I had all the worries in the world but making a decision. Many thoughts went quickly through my head. The optimistic thoughts suggested, ‘Maybe you’re in the hands of Americans, but don’t worry, they just want to take you home, and to make sure that everything goes in secrecy.’ The pessimistic ones went, ‘You screwed up! The Americans managed to pin some shit on you, and they’re taking you to U.S. prisons for the rest of your life.’

I was stripped naked. It was humiliating, but the blindfold helped me miss the nasty look of my naked body. During the whole procedure, the only prayer I could remember was the crisis prayer, Ya hayyu! Ya kayyum! and I was mumbling it all the time. Whenever I came to be in a similar situation, I would forget all my prayers except the crisis prayer, which I learned from life of our Prophet, Peace be upon him.

One of the team wrapped a diaper around my private parts. Only then was I dead sure that the plane was heading to the U.S. Now I started to convince myself that “every thing’s gonna be alright.” My only worry was about my family seeing me on TV in such a degrading situation. I was so skinny. I’ve been always, but never that skinny: my street clothes had become so loose that I looked like a small cat in a big bag.

When the U.S. team finished putting me in the clothes they tailored for me, a guy removed my blindfold for a moment. I couldn’t see much because he directed the flashlight into my eyes. He was wrapped from hair to toe in a black uniform. He opened his mouth and stuck his tongue out, gesturing for me to do the same, a kind of AHH test which I took without resistance. I saw part of his very pale, blond-haired arm, which cemented my theory of being in Uncle Sam’s hands.

The blindfold was pushed down. The whole time I was listening to loud plane engines; I very much believe that some planes were landing and others taking off. I felt my “special” plane approaching, or the truck approaching the plane, I don’t recall anymore. But I do recall that when the escort grabbed me from the truck, there was no space between the truck and the airplane stairs. I was so exhausted, sick, and tired that I couldn’t walk, which compelled the escort to pull me up the steps like a dead body.

Inside the plane it was very cold. I was laid on a sofa and the guards shackled me, mostly likely to the floor. I felt a blanket put over me; though very thin, it comforted me.

I relaxed and gave myself to my dreams. I was thinking about different members of my family I would never see again. How sad would they be! I was crying silently and without tears; for some reason, I gave all my tears at the beginning of the expedition, which was like the boundary between death and life. I wished I were better to people. I wished I were better to my family. I regretted every mistake I made in my life, toward God, toward my family, toward anybody!

I was thinking about life in an American prison. I was thinking about documentaries I had seen about their prisons, and the harshness with which they treat their prisoners. I wished I were blind or had some kind of handicap, so they would put me in isolation and give me some kind of humane treatment and protection. I was thinking, What will the first hearing with the judge be like? Do I have a chance to get due process in a country so full of hatred against Muslims? Am I really already convicted, even before I get the chance to defend myself ?

I drowned in these painful dreams in the warmth of the blanket. Every once in a while the pain of the urine urge pinched me. The diaper didn’t work with me: I could not convince my brain to give the signal to my bladder. The harder I tried, the firmer my brain became. The guard beside me kept pouring water bottle caps in my mouth, which worsened my situation. There was no refusing it, either you swallow or you choke. Lying on one side was killing me beyond belief, but every attempt to change my position ended in failure, for a strong hand pushed me back to the same position.

I could tell that the plane was a big jet, which led me to believe that flight was direct to the U.S. But after about five hours, the plane started to lose altitude and smoothly hit the runway. I realized the U.S. is a little bit farther than that. Where are we? In Ramstein, Germany? Yes! Ramstein it is: in Ramstein there’s a U.S. military airport for transiting planes from the Middle East; we’re going to stop here for fuel. But as soon as the plane landed, the guards started to change my metal chains for plastic ones that cut my ankles painfully on the short walk to a helicopter. One of the guards, while pulling me out of the plane, tapped me on the shoulder as if to say, “you’re gonna be alright.” As in agony as I was, that gesture gave me hope that there were still some human beings among the people who were dealing with me.

When the sun hit me, the question popped up again: Where am I? Yes, Germany it is: it was July and the sun rises early. But why Germany? I had done no crimes in Germany! What shit did they pull on me? And yet the German legal system was by far a better choice for me; I know the procedures and speak the language. Moreover, the German system is somewhat transparent, and there are no two and three hundred years sentences. I had little to worry about: a German judge will face me and show me whatever the government has brought against me, and then I’m going to be sent to a temporary jail until my case is decided. I won’t be subject to torture, and I won’t have to see the evil faces of interrogators.

After about ten minutes the helicopter landed and I was taken into a truck, with a guard on either side. The chauffeur and his neighbor were talking in a language I had never heard before. I thought, What the heck are they speaking, maybe Filipino? I thought of the Philippines because I’m aware of the huge U.S. military presence there. Oh, yes, Philippines it is: they conspired with the U.S. and pulled some shit on me. What would the questions of their judge be? By now, though, I just wanted to arrive and take a pee, and after that they can do whatever they please. Please let me arrive! I thought; After that you may kill me!

The guards pulled me out of the truck after a five-minute drive, and it felt as if they put me in a hall. They forced me to kneel and bend my head down: I should remain in that position until they grabbed me. They yelled, “Do not move.” Before worrying about anything else, I took my most remarkable urine since I was born. It was such a relief; I felt I was released and sent back home. All of a sudden my worries faded away, and I smiled inside. Nobody noticed what I did.

Read the book Guantánamo Diary, for it is a rare window into the turture, pain, anxiety, and enormous injustice that shapes the lives of the detainees. Like Slahi, most of them spent numerous years of their lives in prison, with no charges against them. With that reality pressing him, Slahi still remains an optimist, a remarkable spirit caught in dreadful circumstances. Still, he survives, he lives, he writes. It’s upon us to atleast read what he has to say. The book is dedicated to his mother Maryem Mint El Wadia, who died while he was imprisoned.

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art of resistance, Pakistan

Massacre In Peshawar: “It’s True, But It’s Not The Whole Truth.”

Pakistan took the headlines this week (again). Taliban’s attack at a school in the northwestern city of Peshawar killed at least 145 people, including 132 children, and it’s Taliban’s deadliest attack to date. The Taliban said they targeted the children of military families in retaliation for Pakistan’s anti-Taliban campaign in North Waziristan.

The analysis of the event flooded the media. However, there are two I think need special attention beacuse they’re on point and try to explain the whole truth, going beyond shock and wailing commentaries. The first one is an interview Democracy Now did with Tariq Ali this week, and the second is Robert Fisk’s latest piece for The Independent.

In the interview, Tariq Ali says:

Two things need to be said about this straightaway. This has very little to do with religion. What we are witnessing in Pakistan now is a form of a power struggle going on between militants aligned with the umbrella of pro-Taliban groups known as the Pakistani Taliban Movement, which isn’t a single movement, a struggle between them and the Pakistani—or segments of the Pakistani state to determine who controls the country. And the fact that over the last decade or so the authorities of the state—the military and the political parties, especially those parties sympathetic to the Taliban—have been incapable of or have refused to do anything about it, we now see the results and the impact of that. And that’s the first point.

The second is that we shouldn’t forget for a moment that one reason these Taliban groups have not been dealt with is because sections of the state still feel—even after this atrocity, by the way—that they can’t completely get rid of them because they are linked to the fight in Afghanistan, and the notion of the Pakistani military high commanders being that we need Afghanistan to give ourselves strategic depth—always a nonsensical notion, but it’s now exacting a very heavy price in Pakistan itself. And at the time when the United States went into Afghanistan, I remember writing in The Guardian that one consequence of this massive presence of Western military troops is going to be the destabilization and the advancement of terror inside Pakistan itself.

So, it’s a horrific attack. It can’t be justified. What the Taliban are saying is, of course, true, that they are bombed, that their kids die, and no one says a word. That’s absolutely true. But you cannot justify one crime by committing another.”

large-Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave protesting the war in Vietnam/Tariq Ali and Venessa Redgrave protesting war in Vietnam, photo via The Friday Times/

Robert Fisk writes for The Independent:

It was a massacre of the innocents. Every report must admit this – because it’s true. But it is not the whole truth.

The historical and all-too-real connections between the Pakistan army, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) security police and the Taliban itself – buoyed by the corruption and self-regard of the political elite of the country – may well explain just how cruel this conflict in the corner of the old British Empire has become. And the more ferocious the battle between the military and the Islamists becomes in Waziristan, the more brutal the response of the Islamists.

Thus when stories spread of Pakistani military barbarity in the campaign against the Taliban in Pakistan – reports which included the execution of Taliban prisoners in Waziristan, whose bodies were left to lie upon the roads to be eaten by animals – the more certain became the revenge of the Taliban. The children of the military officers, educated at the army school just down the road from the famous Edwardes College in Peshawar – were the softest and most obvious of targets. For many years, the ISI and the Pakistani army helped to fund and arm the mujahedin and then the Taliban in Afghanistan. Only a few months ago, the Pakistani press was reporting that the Saudis were buying weapons from the Pakistani army to send to their rebel friends in Syria. Pakistan has been the tube through which America and its Arab allies supplied the anti-Russian fighters in Afghanistan, a transit route which continued to support the Taliban even after America decided that its erstwhile allies in that country had become super-terrorists hiding Osama bin Laden. Turkey is today playing much the same role in Syria.

For years, the Pakistani authorities have insisted that the old loyalties of individual military and security police officers to the Taliban have been broken – and that the Pakistani military forces are now fully dedicated to what the Americans used to call the ‘war on terror’. But across the Pakistan-Afghan border, huge resentment has been created by the slaughter of civilians in US drone attacks, aimed – but not necessarily successfully targeted – at the Taliban leadership. The fact that Imran Khan could be so successful politically on an anti-drone platform shows just how angry the people of the borderlands have become. Pakistani military offensives against the Taliban are now seen by the victims as part of America’s war against Muslims.

But if the Pakistan security forces regard the Taliban as their principal enemy, they also wish to blunt any attempt by India to destroy Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan; hence the repeated claims by the Afghan authorities – if such a term can be used about the corrupted institutions of Afghanistan – that Pakistan is assisting the Taliban in its struggle against the pro-American regime in Kabul. The army hates the Taliban – but also needs it: this is the terrifying equation which now decides the future of Pakistan.”

• • •

Read the full article by Robert Fisk on The Independent, and watch the Tariq Ali interview on Democracy Now.

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art of resistance

(Interview) Matthew Hoh: Veterans, America’s Wars & A Long Way To Go.

Matthew Hoh is a former State Department official who resigned from his post in Afghanistan in 2009. He did so in protest over US strategic policy and goals in Afghanistan. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Hoh served in Iraq; first in 2004 and 2005 in Salah ad Din Province with a State Department reconstruction and governance team and then in 2006 and 2007 in Anbar Province as a Marine Corps company commander.

He’s the former  Director of the Afghanistan Study Group, a network of foreign and public policy experts and professionals advocating for a change in US strategy in Afghanistan. Hoh’s articles were published in The Huffington Post, Guardian, Washington Post and USA Today (to name a few) and he also runs his website, were he often writes about the torments he went through during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and particularly – about the despair he faced upon his return to USA, facing an everyday life as a veteran. I think his voice is truly important in times when, as Ingeborg Bachmann wrote:  „War is no longer declared, only continued. The monstrous has become everyday.“

In the following interview, Matthew and I talked about war, Middle East, veteran suicides, resistance, and the paradoxes of our (Western) governments.

Jonathan-Landay-Matthew-Hoh-5479cc/Matthew Hoh, photo: Dale Robbins/Moyers & Company/

This month, all over the USA, people are marking Veterans Day. You write a lot about your personal experience and hardships you went through after your second deployment to Iraq, when PTSD and severe depression took over your life. Alcohol was your weapon of choice at the time, but it couldn’t kill the thoughts of suicide. How are you today, how did you manage to go through that period? Did the strength of purpose coming from you activist work help you in that period?

I appreciate you asking me about this. I am doing much better today, thanks to the help of family, friends and many talented and compassionate mental health professionals. I must also say that I have received help from strangers. Fellow veterans who have spoken openly and publically about their difficulties, PTSD, alcohol, suicide, etc, have been of tremendous assistance. Their testimony has given me the courage to confront my problems and the strength to continue an often difficult and turbulent recovery.

My activist work helps me now, because as you describe it gives me a strength of purpose. However, I actually found that I needed to distance myself from the wars for a while and I needed to concentrate on myself. I needed to make my health and recovery my priority. I think this is an issue for many veterans, as veterans, so proud of being leaders and team players, often put others first and diminish their own sufferings and hardships to their own detriment.

Talking about suicide – we don’t have full data from all the US states, and as you said in some of the interviews you did – only a couple years ago the Veterans Administration (VA) started tracking veteran suicides on a national level. The estimates are that more than two veterans who kill themselves every day are Iraq or Afghanistan veterans. It actually means that more veterans have killed themselves after coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan than have been killed in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Could you tell me more about that – the numbers and the dreadful presence of these demons of suicide?

Yes, that is the case. It was not until 2013 that the VA published suicide data on veterans that included data from the states rather than data only solely collected by the VA. This data is incomplete of course, as less than 40% of veterans are enrolled in the VA, and for the most recent data collected by the VA from the states, less than 30 states provided information. So we don’t really know how many veterans are killing themselves each day and this understanding, that the VA only recently began to estimate the total number of veterans suicides, belies the notion that the VA and the federal government were doing everything possible to assist veterans. This article from August in the USA Today does a good job explaining the deceit and deception that is ongoing in the VA’s handling of veteran suicides.

With regards to the numbers we do know, yes, based upon those figures, more service members have killed themselves after coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq than were killed or died in those countries. We estimate two Iraq or Afghan veterans kill themselves each day, that is 730 a year. Even taking into account latency for the suicides to begin to manifest and occur in the first few years of the wars, we still have a greater number of suicides than we do numbers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan (currently 6,841 Americans killed in Afghanistan and Iraq). Of course, even if we stopped our role in the wars today, and brought all of our troops home, we would still be coping with the suicide problem of veterans for as long as this generation lives. The suicides are not going to stop because the wars stop.

There is one other number that is startling and very foreboding and that is the number of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) among service members. TBIs have essentially tripled since 2000. There is a well known connection between TBI and suicide. This may be most well known in the American public because of the relationship that has been seen between American football players and suicide later in life. With TBIs, onset of symptoms and problems often experience a delay in emerging. Additionally, for many years during the wars, there was a requirement for service members to self report in order for a TBI to be recorded and care to be provided; self reporting is something service members are notorious for not doing, ie admitting they are hurt, weak or sick. So I believe that TBIs are under-reported and that what we know is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of future issues with veterans’ mental health needs and care.

Barack Obama recently talked about the increased troop deployment to Iraq, saying it marks a new phase against Islamic State militants. He said “we” need ground troops and it is time for an offensive strategy, rather than a defensive one. The language of “striking back” and “hitting harder” is ever-present, and it seems that we are stuck in a circle of associating courage with warfare, agreeing on a change achieved through violence. You fought in Iraq and served in Afghanistan, and you’ve seen war firsthand. What do you think about the latest news about increased troops on the ground?

I think this is a massive mistake and will lead to the widening and deepening of the war in Iraq and the war in Syria. It is a foolish decision by the President and I think it has more to do with assuaging his critics in the US than it does with dealing with the wars in Iraq and Syria.

We are seeing that the American bombing campaign has pushed Sunnis into further alignment with the Islamic State and this was to be expected  while not providing any incentive for the governments in Iraq or Syria to make political concessions or pursue any line of negotiation with the insurgents and the populations they represent in order to bring about a ceasefire or political settlement. Further, American involvement plays right into the propaganda and recruiting messages of the Islamic State. We have seen an increase in young men (and some women) heading to Syria and Iraq in order to defend their faith, their lands, and their people from Western attack. The same recruitment messages the United States used to enlist young Muslim men to go fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s is now being used to provide recruits to the Islamic State.

Finally, along with the counter-productive and short-sighted nature of the folly of introducing American troops into Iraq and Syria, there is also a moral component to this that is very, very important. The United States, under President Barack Obama, just as it did under President George W. Bush, is killing thousands of people in Muslim countries throughout the broader Middle East out of a fear and panic still emanating from the attacks of September 11, 2001, attacks conducted by an exceptionally small group of terrorists in retaliation for American policy and presence in the Middle East. Over the course of the last 13 years, American hysteria has led to the death, maiming and displacing of millions of people from North Africa to Afghanistan. This is a stain on the soul of America that has not even begun to be addressed by the US.

Returning to the previous question and the language charging politically-driven violence, being aware of the power of language and media presentations, I feel we (the public) are very often sure we know what Iraq war (and other wars too) is all about, but we are actually fed with very well selected and often distorted fragments of a broad story. Our knowledge, if we stick to mainstream media, is reduced to always repeating phrases uttered by politicians. That is how panic is created, and fear is born. I see that as a great danger for every society.

You talked about the dissonance, the disconnect between the policy that was being promulgated in Washington, D.C., statements that were being made, and the reality of the war on the ground in Iraq. The same narrative was present in Afghanistan in 2009 and that was when you decided you could no longer take part in it. Could you tell me more about that dissonance, which is, I believe, a formative tissue of all the wars we are seeing in the Middle East? And, in relation to that, how do we communicate those discrepancies to the mainstream public?

There is a tremendous dissonance between the narrative of those conducting the wars in the Middle East from the outside, the US and NATO, and those actually experiencing the wars in their homes, villages, cities, etc. To those in the West the wars are about protecting the West from terrorism, however to those in the Middle East these wars are about sectarian violence, whether it be religious or ethnic based, that has created a cycle of violence that builds on itself in a manner uncontrollable by any individual, group or nation. This has culminated in the Islamic State. The Islamic State is a Frankenstein, thought to have been an organization that outside powers could use for their own purposes, the destruction of the Assad regime in Syria, and it is a parasite of war, it gains strength and purpose as the cycle of violence spirals, recruiting outsiders with its propaganda of defending the Muslim community from outside attack, while gaining alliances with Sunnis who find no other alternative than aligning with the Islamic State.

These wars have many causes, but for those of us in the West, we cannot and should not ignore our responsibility and culpability. For decades the West, led by the United States, has pushed sectarian differences to keep dictators in power or to foster revolt and revolution in an attempt to create a power structure and political order amenable to Western interests. This culminated with the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, which has set forth the cataclysm that the broader Middle East finds itself enduring. Interestingly, the only nations that appear to be without the instability and violence characteristic of the Middle East are those Gulf Kingdoms that are despotic, but in line with US political interests and goals in the region. This understanding and discussion of the causes of Middle East violence is completely absent from US and Western discourse. Rather, the discussion is focused on terrorism or a line of belief that goes “those people have been killing each other for thousands of years”. Both these narratives, about keeping ourselves safe from terror or that the people of the Middle East are just crazy and full of bloodlust, are two narratives that fail to measure up to the actual ongoing wars, tragedies and events.

In one of your articles for Huffington Post, writing about recent events in Iraq, you write how “Certainly atrocities have occurred in northern Iraq and battles have waged there, but what makes this summer and its dead different than the 500,000 dead, millions wounded and the one in eight Iraqis forcibly chased from their homes since 2003? What is causing the U.S. to get involved, again, and at this time? Oil.” Could you tell me more about that, about the issues of U.S. involvement at this moment in time?

The reference I was making in that article was to the decision by the United States in August to begin attacking Islamic State and Sunni forces, with the attendant and inevitable killing of innocents, as a result of Sunni incursion into Kurdish territory, and, importantly, Sunni threatening of Kurdish oil and gas fields.

In June, this year, when the Iraqi Army collapsed in Northern Iraq, Sunni and Kurdish forces filled the void left behind.  Most attention in the West was devoted to the Sunni capture of key cities along the Tigris and a push towards Baghdad, and little acknowledgement was made to the fact that Kurdish forces expanded Kurdish controlled territory in northern Iraq by 40%. This included Kurdish capture of a majority of the oil and gas fields in the north of Iraq, as well as the Kurds gaining complete control of Kirkuk, a traditional Kurdish capital (at least according to the Kurds), and the oil capital of North Iraq.

Control of the oil and gas in the north by the Kurds was not just a gain to the Kurdish Regional Government and their many western benefactors, but was also a serious economic threat to the Sunnis, hence the push by the Sunnis and the Islamic State to capture oil and gas fields.

The threatening of Kurdish oil fields alarmed many in the West, including members of the US government and Congress, who besieged by policy experts supported by the oil and gas industry, as well as a $1.5 million annual Kurdish lobbying effort in Washington, DC, panicked at the threat posed by the Islamic State and the Sunnis. Alongside this push for the oil fields, the Islamic State publically beheaded American hostages and began a murderous campaign against the Yezidi minority. These two later “humanitarian” concerns were the focus of much media attention and public statements for the need for America to go to war again in Iraq. However, I believe it was the threat posed to the Kurdish oil fields that posed the impetus for American involvement. I think this is proven by the location of most of the targets struck by American bombers in August and September and their relation to the oil fields as opposed to the location of humanitarian concerns or atrocities.

Veteran Thomas Young died two weeks ago. He finished his last letter (The Last Letter – A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran) writing: “My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.” Do you think Bush, Cheney or Obama will ever be held responsible for what they did and what they do? Is there a way to redeem ourselves from all the moral outrage that was and is done?

Sadly, no I do not think Bush or Obama will be held responsible in any formal way. I do think history will judge them and that the folly of their actions, along with the moral failing of American policy in the Middle East, will be recognized.  Whether or not that keeps the United States from perpetuating such madness and horror in the future is another matter.

The way we redeem ourselves is to fight for acknowledgement of the truth of these wars and to put ourselves in positions to speak against not just the current wars, but future wars. If for no other purpose we do this than to give a voice to the millions of the voiceless men, women and children who have suffered, horrifically and unjustly, in these wars, than that is purpose enough.

• • •

For more on Matthew Hoh and his activism, visit his website.

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Afghanistan, art of resistance

The Little Book of Kabul.

The Little Book of Kabul is an intimate portrait  of Kabul through the eyes, accents and activities of a number of creative people who live in the city.  It is a project by Lorenzo Tugnoli, a freelance photographer based in Kabul, and Francesca Recchia, an independent researcher and writer. When they started the project, they weren’t sure what they wanted it to look like. But they were sure what they didn’t want it to portray. In a conversation with TIME LightBox, Recchia said: “One of the things that we didn’t want was an exotic dimension. An ‘Oh my God, you work in Kabul!’ moment.”

11/You can buy the book here/

Having lived in Kabul for three years, Tugnoli and Recchia were familiar with its community of artists, one struggling to preserve a sense of normality on a day-to-day basis. Recchia explains how: “It wasn’t a matter of interviewing someone or taking a picture and then leaving, it’s really quite an intimate perspective on people’s lives.”

ase/A man looks out of the window as he travels in a bus in downtown                                                       Kabul/

On Tugnoli’s website, the book is described as a project that “takes the reader in a personal journey through the strive for artistic expression and the small, ordinary moments of life that escape the media representation of three decades of conflict in Afghanistan.”

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aser/Arifa, a student at the Center for Contemporary Art, poses for one of he colleauges’ art work/

Tugnoli and Recchia also run a blog The Little Book of Kabul, where they post their thoughts, field notes and little stories of daily life in Kabul. Describing the process of creating the book, they write:

“We have tried to reverberate through words and images what Kabul has gifted us through the eyes of her artists. We built a narrative in fifty photographs and twenty short stories made of small close ups and emotions.

It has been a longer journey than what we had initially imagined. The book has slowly taken over, beyond the rationality of schedules and decisions, gaining an autonomous shape, its own ‘personality’. We have chosen to be led, to follow rather than set the pace; we have chosen to allow the unexpected and to be surprised.”

dag/An actress runs through the ruins of Darulaman Palace during the recording of a music video filmed by Jump Cut, a collective of young independent film-makers/

der/Young skaters practice in the garden of the Institut Français d’Afghanistan during the Sound Central Music Festival/

For them, Kabul has been a “journey demonstrating that the desire to imagine the future is an important tool to build the present.”

• • •

For more on the book and Tugnoli’s and Recchia’s work, visit their blog and Tugnoli’s website, and follow Recchia on twitter.

// all images in this post © Lorenzo Tugnoli/The Little Book of Kabul //

And a little music to conclude these Kabul fragments.

 

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art of resistance, Iraq

Marking Veterans Day 2014: The Nature of War & The Letter From a Dying Veteran.

For more than ten years now, StoryCorps is listening to Americans and sharing stories of their lives. They have collected and archived more than 50,000 interviews with more than 90,000 participants. Their mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives, and they are doing a wonderful job at it.

This month, StoryCorps marks Veterans Day with new animated shorts and a radio special.

The Nature of War is a story of Justin Cilburn. While serving in Baghdad, Justin formed an unlikely friendship with two Iraqi boys who lived nearby. At StoryCorps, Justin speaks with his wife, Deanne, about the lasting impression the boys left on his life.

In the light of this year’s Veterans Day, I am posting The Last Letter of Thomas Young, a soldier who served in Iraq (he was paralyzed by a bullet to the spine while deployed in Iraq), and  one of the first veterans to come out publicly against the war, spending most of his life after the war protesting. His story is the subject of the documentary Body of War. He died two days ago, on November 10th, 2014.

The Last Letter – A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran

“I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I have, like many other disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.

My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.”

 

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Afghanistan, art of resistance

Remembering Nadia Anjuman: One Day, My Hands Will Become Weavers.

Nadia Anjuman was an Afghan poet (born in 1980, died in 2005). She was born in Herat, a city captured by the Taliban in 1995. With no hope for continuing her education at that time, Anjuman rallied with other local women and began attending an underground educational circle called the Golden Needle Sewing School, organized by Herat University professor Muhammad Ali Rahyab in 1996.

Members would gather three times a week under the guise of learning how to sew (a practice approved by the Taliban government), while in actuality the meetings enabled them to hear lectures from Herat University professors and lead discussions on literature.

nadia anjuman/Nadia Anjuman, image via Phyllis MacLaren/

My first thought when learning about the Sewing Circle of Herat was very predictable – it reminded me of Dead Poets Society. The notion that they had to meet in secret to discuss literature and write poetry was terrifying and enchanting at the same time. Terrifying was the fact that they had to do it with such great risks, enchanting was that they did it in spite of that.

In 2001, the doors of the girl’s schools were opened once again. Anjuman was admitted to the Literature Department of Herat University, and couple of years later, when she died, her brother recalled how that was the happiest time in Nadia’s life – “she seemed as though she’d been handed the whole world”. Her parents were supportive and respectful of her talent and she was adored by her brothers and sisters. Her writing blossomed and she published her first book of poetry, Dark Flower, four years later (2005).

Rich

One day my thoughts, instead of a chill

will bring fireworks

One day my eyes will be wide open

such that

in seeing the shrunken leaves of the ocean, they continue flowing

One day my hands will become weavers

and upon life’s wasteland of a body

spin a gown with wheat and flowers

One day a lullaby

will bring sleep to the weary eyes of homeless children

One day I will sing praise

to the spirit of fire

with soothing songs of rain

On that day

I will write a rich and exalting poem

with the sweetness of a tree’s fruit and the beauty of the moon

(written in summer of 2001, translated from Dari by Diana Arterian & Marina Omar)

Unfortunately, Anjuman found herself in an unhappy marriage. Her husband, Farid Ahmad Majid Neia, graduated from Herat University with a degree in literature and became the head of the library there. Although he was a literature graduate, many of Anjuman’s friends and relatives claim Neia was not supportive of her writing.  One night, in November of 2005, Anjuman and Neia had a fight. That night Neia beat Anjuman until she was unconscious, causing severe bruising and a cut to her head. It was reported that she died as a result of injuries to her head.

Anjuman’s brother describes the night she died:

“It was the bitterest news we had ever received. No one could believe it. That night was a hundred times darker than other nights. The moon had been veiled and Nadia’s life had been extinguished!”

He continues to say:

“Nadia was buried amidst an aura of tragedy; the light rain fell like tears in the cemetery in north-east Herat. In the days that followed tributes appeared in all publications. Nadia’s poetry, talent, character and personality were praised. Interviews appeared in the media, round table discussions and scholarly dissections of her tragic fate. Many people still come to our house to bless Nadia, but to what end? Nadia has left this horrible world forever.”

Anjuman’s husband Neia was imprisoned after her death, but the tribal elders in Herat began to lean on Anjuman’s ailing father, asking that he forgive Neia for her death in order to shorten his prison sentence. With the promise that Neia would remain in prison for five years, Anjuman’s father relented. Her death was officially deemed a suicide by the Afghan courts, and Neia was released just one month later. Her father died shortly after from the shock, according to Anjuman’s brother.

The Complete Poems of Nadja Anjuman were published by Iran Open Publishing Group in 2014. There are couple of English translations of  Anjuman’s poems available online. She is now one of the dead poets, but the eternal pit of time will not be able to turn her greatness into the darkness of oblivion, I am sure of that.

Eternal Pit (translated from Dari by Diana Arterian & Marina Omar)

Once she was filled with the familiar

Her hands planted the rootless sprig

with intuition—

so it would grow

 

Once, in the bright spring of her mind

ran many great thoughts

 

Once, at times

her hand tamed the trees

 

Once even her guts were obedient

perhaps they feared her power

But today

her hands are wasted and idle

her eyes burnt sockets

her bright thoughts are buried in a swamp

fading

 

She distrusts even her feet

They defy her

taking her where she doesn’t want to go

 

She sits in a corner of quiet

lost in a sea of darkness

emptied of the thought of time

That

eternal pit

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Afghanistan, art of resistance

Remembering Meena Kamal: Hope Is The Thing With Feathers.

Hope is the thing with feathers, Emily Dickinson wrote a long time ago.  Where does it fly nowadays, does it keep its eyes on Afghanistan? Last night I read poems by Meena Keshwar Kamal (commonly known as Meena). I wanted to type something about Meena right away, but then decided it would be better to do it in the morning, to let her poems stay with me for a while, in the stillness of the night.

Meena was an Afghan revolutionary political activist, feminist and founder of Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). She was only 20 when, in 1977, she launched RAWA, Afghanistan’s first organized movement for women’s rights. Four years later, Meena launched a bilingual feminist magazine called Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message).

Meena_founder_of_RAWA_speaking_in_1982/Meena speaking in 1982, photo via RAWA/

In the beginnings with RAWA, Meena started a campaign against the Russian forces and their puppet regime in 1979 and organized numerous processions and meetings in schools, colleges and Kabul University to mobilize public opinion. Payam-e-Zan has constantly exposed the criminal nature of fundamentalist groups. Meena also established Watan Schools for refugee children, a hospital and handicraft centers for refugee women in Pakistan to support Afghan women financially.

Sadly, when she was only 31, Meena was assassinated by agents of KHAD (Afghanistan branch of KGB) in Pakistan in 1987. She was married to Afghanistan Liberation Organization leader Faiz Ahmad, who himself was assassinated a year earlier, by the agents of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in 1986. They have three children, whose whereabouts are unknown.

meenaaaa/photo from the book Meena, Heroine of Afghanistan/

In a biography about Meena, published on the RAWA website following her death, the organization said:

 “Meena gave 12 years of her short but brilliant life to struggle for her homeland and her people. She had a strong belief that despite the darkness of illiteracy, ignorance of fundamentalism, and corruption and decadence of sell outs imposed on our women under the name of freedom and equality, finally that half of population will be awaken and cross the path towards freedom, democracy and women’s rights. The enemy was rightly shivering with fear by the love and respect that Meena was creating within the hearts of our people. They knew that within the fire of her fights all the enemies of freedom, democracy and women would be turned to ashes.”

poster2/RAWA’s poster for Meena/

In her poem I’ll Never Return, Meena writes:

I’m the woman who has awoken

I’ve arisen and become a tempest through the ashes of my burnt children

I’ve arisen from the rivulets of my brother’s blood

My nation’s wrath has empowered me

My ruined and burnt villages fill me with hatred against the enemy,

I’m the woman who has awoken,

I’ve found my path and will never return.

I’ve opened closed doors of ignorance

I’ve said farewell to all golden bracelets

Oh compatriot, I’m not what I was

I’m the woman who has awoken

I’ve found my path and will never return.

rawa2

/photo from the book Meena, Heroine of Afghanistan/

I’ve seen barefoot, wandering and homeless children

I’ve seen henna-handed brides with mourning clothes

I’ve seen giant walls of the prisons swallow freedom in their ravenous stomach

I’ve been reborn amidst epics of resistance and courage

I’ve learned the song of freedom in the last breaths, in the waves of blood and in victory

Oh compatriot, Oh brother, no longer regard me as weak and incapable

With all my strength I’m with you on the path of my land’s liberation.

My voice has mingled with thousands of arisen women

My fists are clenched with the fists of thousands compatriots

Along with you I’ve stepped up to the path of my nation,

To break all these sufferings all these fetters of slavery,

Oh compatriot, Oh brother, I’m not what I was

I’m the woman who has awoken

I’ve found my path and will never return.

Meena represented the struggle Middle East needs the most – the liberation from within. Not some Western forces coming to “liberate” or to “establish a democracy”, but a true change that can never be achieved by imposing it from the outside. She spoke about the history of Afghan women’s struggle for social recognition and equal rights in connection to the history of the country’s physical and cultural devastation (by different invasions and wars). She connected the two, which is what Western mainstream media so often fails to do.

Her organization, RAWA, continued with work after Meena was assassinated, and is still very active today:

RAWA believes that freedom and democracy can’t be donated; it is the duty of the people of a country to fight and achieve these values. Under the US-supported government, the sworn enemies of human rights, democracy and secularism have gripped their claws over our country and attempt to restore their religious fascism on our people.”

meena22/photo from the book Meena, Heroine of Afghanistan/

Women from RAWA are doing great things and helping many people. In that sense, all those images we see of helpless and abused Afghan women in the Western media, obuscure the great role Afghan women play as agents of change in Afghanistan, and have been playing for the last couple of decades. It’s not just RAWA and Meena. One of the things that first comes to my mind is the story of the village widowed women built on a hill overlooking Kabul. Or the story of women’s bakery in a small village in rural Afghanistan. Or the story of Shamsia Hassani, Afghanistan’s first female street artist. Or the story of Setara, singer who appeared on the Afghan Star, sang with great emotion, and included dance in her final performance, an action that put her life in danger. Or the story of Sadaf Rahimi, first female boxer in Afghan national team, who was invited to London Olympics in 2012 (at the age of 17).

There’s many stories like this, and there will be many more, because the women of Afghanistan are not just oppressed, abused and broken, but powerful, brave and active. Like Meena was. Hope, that thing with feathers Dickinson wrote about, still keeps so many warm, and never stops – at all.

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Afghanistan, art of resistance

Afghanistan, A Daily Distress.

Massimo Berruti’s black and white photographs always manage to take me places. I do not mean that in terms of geography, I am talking about something like an internal bleeding, chaos emerging from within.

From his Pakistan series (Hidden Wounds, Drones Victims, The IDPs Drama /the Swat Valley/, just to name a few), to his Afghanistan series I am focusing on today, Berruti ‘produces’ great photographic work – one that really makes the viewer involved and almost argus-eyed.

Afghanistan, a daily distress is Berruti’s project from 2008. Published by Agence VU, the project is not only about the contemporary conflict, it excavates the wounds of the past, presenting the exhausting state of a never-ending story.

In the words of Agence VU: “Massimo Berruti is not an «Embedded» photographer. His work in Afghanistan is not just about a war. It’s a story about Afghan people’s life, destroyed in their flesh and in their soul by a conflict, which has been gnawing them for a long time. Drugs, car bombs, minds that fall into madness slowly but surely. All this is present in Massimo’s pictures…but above all in the situation they document.”

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afg5

afg7

afg8

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//all images © Massimo Berruti/Agence VU//

For more on this project, go to Agence VU. For more on Massimo Berruti and his work, visit his Agence VU profile and his official website.

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