We were lucky enough to receive an invitation in December to visit a self-run community called Chelsitun on the edge of Kabul in Wasalabad; it’s a mixed Tajik and Pashtun community split into 8 sections, consisting of 2,000 households each having its own representative which implements government initiatives and also manages security in the area.
We were told that the community practices religious and ethnic tolerance and has one of the only Mosques which welcomes joint worship by both Sunnis and Shias with the two Muslim groups sharing funerals and ceremonies. When we arrived in Chelsitun the pathway were unusually set with concrete; an independent initiative by the community (paid for by the people within the area) as a move towards installing proper infrastructure.
Our group was directed into a compound and then into the office of the community elders. It was like stepping back in time into what I imagined pre-war Afghanistan to be like; exquisite prayer mats hung on the war, the traditional ornate Afghan rugs; a greenhouse conservatory made of improvised plastic sheeting with the lushest greenery I have seen since leaving the UK.
We were warmly greeted by an assembly of community elders clad in the traditional Afghan turbans, long white beards; many were wrapped in the classic camel colored Afghan blanket. Once the greetings had been administered the elders took their seats cross legged on the floor. I was amused to see pinned up on the wall a very familiar poster which every co-op in the UK has displayed somewhere—the image of two donkeys tied with a rope heading in different directions trying to reach separate piles of hay, then a picture of the donkeys going towards the same pile of hay and both getting a share. The message: co-operation is better than conflict.
Once we sat down in the nicest of Afghan hospitality the secretary of the group “Tea for Peace” outlined the ethos of their work: “We want to control corruption in the area and the abuse of power especially among the marginalized of the community.” It was interesting to observe that a group of traditional Afghans had taken on ideas and practices you wouldn’t necessarily associate with such a culture. He continued to consult his written notes and explain the group further: “If there is a conflict in the community they bring the two parties together, have tea and aim towards bringing those parties together.”
It quickly struck me that this community was practicing strong elements of anarchism. The middle-aged secretary with round Gandhi-style glasses went to explain that their aim is to bring national unity, to get rid of discrimination whether religious of ethnic, that everyone is free and that no one should be discriminated against. He also emphasized that when interacting with one another they make sure there is no discrimination and that democracy and human rights are practiced within the community. They even have a letter of praise from the Human Rights Commission. They are all working in a voluntary way, and they do not take funds from the government.
One of the other elders chipped in to explain some of the result of their community focus: a concrete pathway, schools and piping for the whole area. This was all brought about as people want control of their area and in affect they’re freed from difficulties with the authorities and the massive current corruption problem of land grabbing.
Another elder with a long white beard and intense eyes stated with passion: “The people want peace so much, they take their lessons from the Quran which says that peace comes from a place of well being. They have no problems with any human being—all people deserve respect.” He went on to explain: “Peace can begin to be built in this country if interference in the region stops and also interference by foreign forces. There has been a betrayal by international communities, especially when the killing of Afghans is silent.” He went onto to explain that the people are under so much pressure with 44 NATO countries who are supporting the land grabbing and government. There are no honest people who work for the government. If the people rise they will face guns. The U.S. is behaving like a dictator and that’s not what the people want.
I learned that for their work within “Tea for Peace” they very much believe in empowering people, they feel it’s important for the people to get together and form a group, to work from the foundations addressing the root problem. To bring reconciliation where there is conflict they also use their faith.
Their words made be remember a teaching in the Quran which AYPV Roz Mohammed had shared with us only the day before. It roughly translates that God made lots of tribes on the earth so people can get to know one other (apparently it is written in the prayer room at Kabul Airport).
There was strong consensus in the group of elders that involvement of international forces has been extremely unhelpful and detrimental on various levels ranging from the bombing of civilians on the one hand by international forces against the people. It would be better for both sides to sit down together, with no party left out of resolution process. Internationals need to support the people, otherwise they won’t solve the problem
I was interested to hear about how they would deal with the Taliban, especially as international forces use the Taliban as one of the main justifications for being in Afghanistan. The elder with the big white turban addressed the question: “The Taliban themselves have been nurtured by foreign elements. The mujahudeen had been armed by the U.S., while the people of Afghanistan are trapped in a game which is hard to get out of. If there was no foreign interference then the Taliban could sit down with other Afghans and deal with their own problems, but with foreign interference there is always a condition which they will find impossible to accept. Afghans themselves can sit down together, however, it is impossible with foreign interference.”
Kathy Kelly asked a question relating to the planned Silk Road Path running through the country which will allow the transportation of raw materials mined within Afghanistan and will also act as a central trading route for the countries surrounding Afghanistan. A cross legged elder immediately jumped in: “It is very clear to Afghans that any minerals taken away from the country will not benefit the people. If in an ideal situation the pipeline and minerals went to helping the people of Afghanistan then that is acceptable, Afghans will not accept these initiatives. They can not accept them if this mining is being owned by foreigners. Foreign businesses must realize that they will not be able to exploit these natural resources unless the conflict is resolved.”
Another elder then chipped in: “The people that the U.S./ NATO have placed in power are thieves and murderers. They need to be taken out of power and placed somewhere else. If they could fill the parliament with 100 members of the people then peace would come to the country.”
The meeting ended with the message that unity is the key to uniting the people of Afghanistan. With the elite in power they do not understand how the common people live. Foreign money to the government disappears before it gets to them. If we want change then you can’t expect the current people in Parliament to bring it. We need representatives from the people.
It was very exciting for me to hear these viewpoints, I got the impression that their opinions hadn’t been formed by reading political books but from their first hand experience, wisdom and intelligence.
We were then shown around the lush greenhouse warmed by the traditional Afghan wood stove. I got to duck into the living quarters of an elder (to use the restroom) whereby I was fortunate enough to meet children playing in the yard and some of the women. It was explained to me that an extended family of around 45 people lived in the homes surrounding the yard and there was a communal water well where those in the area without running water come for supplies. I was very impressed by the organization of the community and radical ethos of the “Tea for Peace” group, which was definitely not what I or most Westerners would necessarily expect.
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