In 40 years, two generations of Afghans have grown up knowing nothing but war. What will they do if it's ever over? It's hard for them to imagine.
The watch works, although it's battered and half of the metal strap is missing. Seconds pass on the Casio display, even though the watch's owner has not used it for a long time.
This watch is one of the items in a large glass case. Piled on top of each other, they form a heap of clothes, backpacks, bottles, shoes, combs and other items. They used to belong to the victims of one of the many suicide bombings that took place in Kabul in 2018.
We are at an exhibition of the newly opened Afghan Centre for Remembrance and Dialogue. „In a way, Afghanistan is suffering from a double tragedy. The first is the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives taken away by war and violence. The second is the erasure of the victims from Afghan collective memory” – we read on one of the plaques. The Centre was established to restore the memory of the victims, and thus to reflect on the country's troubled past.
Salim Rajabi is the 36-year-old co-founder of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization that launched the exhibition. In his day-to-day work, he deals with the trauma of war and the country’s history. He seems too consumed by those matters to focus on the future.
We meet in Kabul when the temperatures are freezing. It’s snowing. In this weather, this mountainous country filled with valleys and questionable infrastructure quickly becomes impassable. I ask Rajabi what he'll do in times of peace.
This smiling, talkative, expressive man does not understand the question. He becomes momentarily confused.
– „We have so many beautiful places in Afghanistan. I would go to Nanganharu because the weather is beautiful now, unlike in Kabul” – he says at last. – „I'd go to Helmand to work with my friends. I can't do that now because it's dangerous.”
The conflict has been going on for so long that people have forgotten what peace looks like.
The display case remains empty.
Rajabi shows me around the exhibition together with 39-year-old Hadi Marifat, the director of the organization. They founded the Centre together; for years they have been meeting the families of the victims. They conducted workshops and encouraged family members to create "memory boxes" in which they placed objects associated with those who died.
After eight years, they managed to collect more than 4,000 personal items and stories, locked in more than a hundred boxes. They have 8,500 names and photos of people who have lost their lives in the consecutive wars that have spanned the last 40 years almost without interruption.
But the number of items they have collected pales in comparison to the number of victims. It is estimated that over 2 million civilians died between 1979 and 2001. This period was marked by the Soviet invasion, civil war and the Taliban regime. In 2001, the Americans and their allies attacked Afghanistan, overthrew the Taliban supporters of al-Qaeda, installed a pro-US government and started the longest-running war in US history. Since 2009, when the UN began to maintain detailed statistics, more than 70 000 civilians have been wounded or killed.
Subsequent display cases represent the years of the conflict. The last one is empty.
– „It represents the hope that the conflict will finally end” – says Marifat.
The chance of this hope becoming reality is slim, at least for now. According to the UN, 2018 saw the highest loss of civilian life in the last decade. Some 3,804 people (including 927 children) died and 7,189 were wounded. The fighting is exacerbated by the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the US in Qatar's capital city. Both the Taliban and the Afghan government with its western allies are seeking to strengthen their position in negotiating an agreement, the final shape of which remains to be seen. At least 119 members of government forces and 26 civilians died in the first week of March alone.
Therefore, another box will soon be filled with the mementos of more victims of the long Afghan war.
Theatre of the Oppressed
It's hard to believe that after all these years the conflict could end. It's even more difficult to imagine what peace might look like. In a country of 35 million people, tragedy has struck virtually every family.
This includes Marifat's and Rajabi's families, who left for Pakistan, fleeing poverty and war. Both of them were still children at that point. They spent their adolescent years in the neighbouring country. Nevertheless, they decided to go back and do something for the homeland which they felt a connection to.
They worked for various humanitarian organisations but kept looking for other ways to get involved. In 2009, they founded the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization. From the very beginning, their efforts were mainly aimed at people who had suffered in the war. – „You can't change the oppressors; you can change the oppressed” – Rajabi explains.
He was mostly involved in theatre workshops. His inspiration was the Brazilian director and playwright Augusto Boal, founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed. There, the boundary between the actor and the spectator was blurred as the latter would enter the stage and propose solutions to social problems.
It seemed like a brilliant idea to Rajabi because only two out of five people in Afghanistan are able to read and write. Theatre gives everyone a platform. Another way of overcoming the literacy barrier was to use drawings. In the „memory box” project, drawings are a means of expression for the relatives of the victims.
Over the past 10 years, Rajabi has conducted hundreds of workshops and held even more meetings. He has invited representatives of the various ethnic groups living in Afghanistan, in particular the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazars and Uzbeks. He believes that most of the problems in the country are caused by people's misperceptions of others. They tend to put their own ethnic community on a pedestal while demonising all of the others.
He reports on one of his first meetings. – „We brought in members of various ethnic groups. At the beginning, when they were talking about the past, people kept blaming one another” – he recalls. – „It was only during the third day of the meetings that the participants began to notice they were facing similar problems. A victim remains a victim. We have the same emotions, feel the same pain.”
Rajabi believes that once people realize this and start to get to know each other, most problems will fade away.
To walk with a boy, holding hands.
Despite the fighting, suicide bombings and constant human tragedy, the prospect of peace has never been closer than it is today.
At the turn of February and March, the Taliban negotiated with the Americans for over two weeks. This was the fifth, and so far the longest round of talks. The result is a draft agreement focusing on four issues: a guarantee that Afghanistan will not become a hotbed for terrorist organisations, withdrawal of foreign troops, opening of dialogue between the government and the Taliban, and a full ceasefire.
Masuma Bahar, a 23-year-old journalist, is self-assured. Out of all the people I talked to about the future, she had the most to say. Like most Afghans, she views the ongoing talks with hope but also with concern. She thinks they might finally bring peace. – „Everyone wants it to happen. It's only a matter of time” – she says.
Her fear is that perhaps the government and its allies are prepared to give up too much to achieve peace, mainly at the cost of women and minorities.
However, if the peace talks are successful and the conflict ends, Bahar has many plans. As a journalist, she would like to travel all over her country, visiting every province. – „I want to hear the voice of my people, what they are struggling with and how they live” – she says.
For now, travel is dangerous, especially for a single woman. Conservative Afghans, particularly the Taliban, believe that a woman's place is in the home. Women are expected to shy away from public spaces; at the very least they should be accompanied by their husbands or male relatives.
In five or ten years' time, Bahar would like to change her profession and become a member of parliament. She says that this is because she loves her country. Once it is quiet and peaceful, Afghanistan will finally be able to become like other countries, where women are treated equally to men.Women will be able to study and work without obstacles. Currently, there are a guaranteed number of seats for female delegates in the parliament (over 20%). Bahar would like to see it change, so that women and men have the same number of seats to fill.
– „If it’s still dangerous, if the war continues, and if the suicide attacks do not stop, we’ll never be able to achieve our goals. Only peace will let us do good things” – she says.
Bahar doesn't just think about her career. She also dreams of what she will be able to do when the shooting in Afghanistan finally dies down, and everyone has more freedom. She would like to walk down the street with her boyfriend; someone she truly loves, not a man chosen for her by her family. They would walk together, close to each other, holding hands, not having to worry about reproachful glances.
50 percent chance of success
Bahar and 19-year-old Muhammad Foladi share a common goal for their futures. He wants to be a politician too, as well as a tradesman. He would like to help the poor. He is a first-year public administration student at the University of Kabul. We meet him in the room of the tiny humble dormitory he shares with several other men who are students, or have recently finished their education. It's a sizeable room with mattresses and a wood-burning stove. The room is dimly lit by lightbulbs.
Foladi is a serious young man; he seems anxious. He made it back to Kabul after the holiday break. He comes from the central province of Ghazni, which was considered one of the safest in Afghanistan until last year. However, in recent months, the Taliban have carried out several grave attacks there. Some of them have been in the Jaghori district inhabited predominantly by the Hazar ethnic minority, comprised mostly of Shiites. The battle took place in November. The Taliban (Sunni, and mostly Pashtoons) attacked Jaghori, surrounding it from three sides. It seemed they would take control of it. They were stopped, but several hundred people died and more than a thousand families were forced to leave their homes.
Every time he travels home from Kabul or back, Foladi, who is Hazar, passes through territories that are not entirely under government control.
– „Each time I have a 50 percent chance of success” – he says. – „After the battle, the civilian population in this area also became a target”.
Constant danger and an enduring sense of dread make him desperate for peace. He'd like to play a part in bringing it. But he finds it hard to believe peace is possible. – „War has been around forever. That's why we don't believe in peace. I am 19 years old and the war has been with me all my life” – he says. – „I might graduate without seeing peace come here.”
What if it does? Foladi would like to finally see what his country looks like. He'd like to travel far and wide across the countryside, explore villages and valleys he never had access to.
Wanting to discover their own country seems to be a dream shared by many Afghans. They do not long for distant countries or great adventures, but would rather see what surrounds them.
– „I could finally hug my brother from Nanganhar and my friend from Kandahar. Shake hands with them, say hello and just talk” – he says, his tone revealing a sense of relief.
A difficult pose
Usually, when I asked about what they would do when the war was over, the people would hesitate to answer. It was as if they were trying to fill an empty space in their heads with something they had not yet seriously considered.
For the time being, achieving peace seems a distant prospect among the continuous bloodshed. Politicians, armed groups and foreign powers do not inspire much trust, and the Taliban's participation in government does not bode well. That's why people postpone worrying about what happens next until the war is truly over.
Many years ago, during one of his theatre workshops, Rajabi asked the participants to stand still in a pose depicting the war. They were able to do this without a problem. Some looked as if they were shooting a rifle or a gun, others pretended to stab with an invisible knife.
Rajabi then asked them to adopt a pose that would represent peace. This task left the participants struggling, unable to come up with anything. Rajabi asked again. He gave them some tips, asked what peace would look like, what they would like to achieve. To no avail.
He asked them for the third time. To this one of the men answered: „Salim, we have never wondered what peace is. So how are we supposed to do this?”.
The article was published originally in the weekly „Tygodnik Powszechny” 8 March 2019.