Divest from War 3/22/17

Kathy Kelly

Divest from War, Invest in People  – by Kathy Kelly

All Trump, all the time. With a punishing, disorienting barrage of executive orders, President Trump is reversing hard fought gains made in environmental protection, health care, women’s rights, immigration policy, and nuclear weapons reduction–with even more executive orders promised.

In his inaugural speech, Trump proclaimed “America First.” The U.S. does rank first in weapon sales, in mass incarceration and in producing waste material. Pope Francis urged President Trump to be first in protecting the poorest in society. But instead, President Trump has surrounded himself with generals and billionaires in cabinet level positions.

It’s true; some of President Trump’s policies actually extend wrongs enacted by previous administrations. Other presidents and their spokespersons have championed an escalating war on the global poor under the pretenses of humanitarianism and democracy. They wore “masks” that were easier for many in the U.S. to look at and accept, and yet their policies caused terrible bloodshed, starvation and death. A widespread drone war, annihilating civilians from the air, is an example of a brutal rightward turn that some liberals accepted. Was drone proliferation seen as an improvement on previous means of warfare because it was presented in an articulate, professorial tone? During a previous Democrat administration I recall protesting brutal economic sanctions which, halfway through their 11-year reign, had contributed directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children aged four years or younger. The antiwar movement tends to demobilize when a well-spoken Democrat is in office.

Trump’s victory hinged on the Democrats’ refusal to offer more than token resistance to militarism and rising inequality. To successfully organize against Trumpism, we must move toward making actual changes in the lives of those who are most vulnerable and unprotected, especially among the poorest people in our societies.

Dr. Martin Luther King discussed the “giant evil triplets” of racism, militarism and income inequality. He assured us none of these can possibly be conquered alone. As protests erupt against the policies of Donald Trump it is valid to question what is “style” and what is “substance.” How can the energy generated by these actions be channeled into functioning and effective resistance?

Trump’s executive orders have already escalated our government’s commitment to inequality well beyond what Hillary Clinton would ever have likely attempted. His cabinet appointments suggest he will rival or exceed her in militarism.

We must cut through the fog and recognize our collective responsibilities. There are numerous ways to turn the energy of protests into daily action, but they all involve organizing, not against a hated political figure, but against policies that must be successfully reversed. One example is war tax refusal. My own decision, made and held since 1980, is never to pay federal income tax to the U.S. government. Our leaders depend on taxes to continue their destructive campaigns. Monies not forwarded to the government can be redirected to causes in support of peace, victimized communities and the poor.

The National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC) is an organization that encourages interested parties to nonviolently oppose taxation for war. This group links to grassroots communities and may provide the basis for additional refusals of cooperation. Anticipating resurgent interest in refusal to pay for abhorrent, discriminatory policies, a group of war tax refusers approached NWTRCC with the idea of encouraging people to consider war tax resistance by contacting the network. Their “call,” posted on the NWTRCC website, is signed by a growing list now numbering over 120 people.

Essentially, we can’t afford Trumpism and we can’t afford alternatives to Trumpism that were rejected in the last election. We need to reject Trump’s executive orders in substance as well as style, living more simply so that others may simply live. War tax refusal is a small gesture in that direction, quieter than a march but potentially meaningful. It gives us a chance to align our lives with our deepest values and welcome kindred spirits to join us.

Kathy Kelly, syndicated by PeaceVoice, co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

Begged to Differ 2/22/17

Friendship in Defiance of War – by Kathy Kelly

(a version of this article first appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, Feb. 8, 2017)

Theresa Kubasak & Gabe Huck

Before making their home in Damascus, Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak had regularly visited Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, where they developed lasting friendships and deepened cultural awareness. Iraq was steadily deteriorating under thirteen years of U.S./UN imposed economic sanctions. Despite iron clad determination by U.S. policy makers to isolate Iraq, Gabe and Theresa repeatedly challenged the economic sanctions by carrying medicines and medical relief supplies to Iraqi children, families and hospitals. They also helped organize opportunities for scores of other U.S. and U.K. people to visit Iraq as part of Voices in the Wilderness (VitW). Voices delegations politely but firmly notified U.S. authorities that they would break the economic sanctions by personally carrying duffel bags filled with children’s vitamins, antibiotics, medical textbooks, surgical kits, first aid material and medical relief supplies, all of which the economic sanctions prohibited. Evidence for prosecution of one delegation included a bottle of water and a blank video that had been purchased in Baghdad. Punishment ostensibly imposed to force the Iraqi government’s compliance with weapons inspectors had directly contributed towards the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children under age five. The VitW campaign succeeded in sending 70 delegations to Iraq, all of which prompted greatly needed education and public discussion in cities and towns across the U.S. and the U.K. Leslie Stahl posed the question in a Sixty Minutes segment that aired in May of 1996: were the deaths of over one half million children under age five an acceptable price to pay for a dubious policy? “Yes, Leslie,” said Madeline Albright, who was the U.S. Secretary of State. “I’m a humanitarian person, and it’s a difficult choice to make, but the price, we think the price is worth it.”

Gabe and Theresa begged to differ.

Voices in the Wilderness (VitW) was based in a second floor apartment on Chicago’s north side, a few miles south of Gabe’s and Theresa’s home in Evanston. Eyes lit up inside “the office” whenever Gabe and Theresa came up the stairs. Along with their encouragement and wisdom, they would always bring fresh baked pastries or a loaf of bread. About a dozen young people had poured energy and determination into strengthening VitW efforts to defy the sanctions against Iraq. They in turn drew immense inspiration and guidance from Gabe and Theresa.

“I think I understand,” a young nurse from the U.K. murmured, as he sat at the bedside of a dying child in the pediatric ward of a major hospital in Baghdad. “It’s a death row for infants, isn’t it?” A death row for infants. Travelers to Iraq encountered brutal, lethal punishment of children. Every hospital visit was nothing less than shocking. By the time the U.S. military had geared up for the 2003 Shock and Awe campaign, Iraqis had already been pummeled, starved, humiliated and bereaved. “You come and you say, you will do, you will do,” said one Iraqi teenager, addressing a delegation of U.S. people visiting her high school class. “But nothing changes. Me, I am sixteen. Can you tell me, what is the difference between me and someone who is sixteen in your country? I’ll tell you. Our emotions are frozen. We cannot feel!” She sat down, suddenly overcome by feelings of anguish.

Many people worldwide may have been tempted, through mainstream media coverage, to think that only one person lived in Iraq, Saddam Hussein. Voices delegation members cultivated a passion to tell people about what they had seen and heard while visiting Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and other Iraqi cities. Gabe and Theresa exemplified a beautiful ability to explore history, culture, complexity, diversity and nuance, wherever they traveled. To this day, they maintain close friendships with people they first met during their visits to Baghdad. Always, their concern for children occupied the forefront of their distress and commitment.

Their research and study, along with their good humor, helped all of us gain needed maturity as we tried to campaign for ending the hideous economic war and prevent a new round of bombing and invasion.

Having watched them in action through many years of Voices witness and work, I wasn’t surprised by their readiness to become rooted in Damascus, intent on finding ways for ordinary U.S. people to begin reparations to Iraqis whose lives have been forever altered and traumatized by successive U.S. military and economic wars. But I often feel mesmerized by their seemingly endless capacity to learn, grow and serve. I remember visiting them in Damascus when they were learning Arabic. Utterly diligent in their studies, they knew they must give immovable priority to daily lessons.

Yet they also managed to invite young people to study with them, sharing with others their remarkable tutor, Mazen. Young people who went to study Arabic in Damascus could count on Gabe and Theresa for help with housing and orientation. What’s more, they would be treated to enlivening trips and boundless encouragement.

Eventually, these two efficient and hospitable teachers began to imagine practical, sustainable ways to help Iraqi youngsters, displaced by war, continue their studies. In September, 2016, a UNHCR report “highlighting education as an overlooked casualty of the global refugee crisis,” (NYT, 9/15/2016) noted that:

Nearly two-thirds of the six million school-age children classified as refugees have no school to attend…Roughly 1.75 million refugee children are not enrolled in primary school and 1.95 million refugee adolescents are not in secondary school, the refugee agency report said.

“It is essential that we think beyond basic survival,” said Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

Gabe and Theresa had identified one of the most grievous results of war and displacement. A new generation becomes undereducated, less able to care for their families and meet basic needs.

Ever appreciative of challenges and confident in their exceptional capacity to team up, they explored the many strands needed to develop potential for Iraqi youngsters to attend Universities in the U.S. The Iraq Student Project became a growing tapestry.

For Gabe and Theresa, and eventually a stalwart group of supporters who sometimes participated in springtime visits to Syria, Damascus was an idyllic setting in which to pursue a project that put them in touch with resilient and fascinating young people. Never Can I Write of Damascus…celebrates a plethora of sights, sounds, aromas, delicacies and intricacies of the city as experienced over the seven years when Gabe and Theresa resided there. But the Iraqi Student Project also connected them to a staggering array of bureaucratic requirements. With numerous forms to fill out and interviews to face, they doggedly pursued University admission and a U.S. student visa for each student who entered the U.S.

I marveled at their indefatigable, constant attentiveness to so much detail. They look back on those rigors with good humor and a gentle irony. Characteristically, they turn adverse experiences into a means for deepening needed empathy. Gabe recently suggested that I read a novel, The Corpse Washer, by Sinan Antoon. (It’s one of several books discussed in an annotated bibliography at the end of their book). Antoon writes with heart-wrenching sensitivity about how difficult it becomes to cross a divisive border following a war:

(p. 149) “I felt as if we had been struck by an earthquake which had changed everything. For decades to come we would be groping our way around in the rubble it left behind. In the past, there were streams between Sunnis and Shi’ites, or this group and that, which could be easily crossed or were invisible at times. Now, after the earthquake, the earth had all these fissures and the streams had become rivers. The rivers became torrents filled with blood, and whoever tried to cross drowned. The images of those on the other side of the river had been inflated and disfigured…concrete walls rose to seal the tragedy.”

Pope Francis exhorts listeners to overcome the fears that drive people to seal themselves off from others. With the walls come weapons and the weapons lead to war. “Why,” Pope Francis asked, when addressing the U.S. Congress in 2015, “would anyone give weapons to people who use them for war?” The answer, he said, was simple. “The answer is money, and the money is drenched in blood.”

Weapons and bloodshed have wreaked new chaos and havoc, destroying the lives and homes of people throughout Syria and beyond. Gabe and Theresa left Damascus in 2012. Since that time, thousands more have been displaced. The UN estimated in April 2016 that at least 400,000 Syrians have been killed. The rivers have become torrents of blood.

When I last visited with Gabe and Theresa, they shook their heads in silent sorrow, contemplating the ruinous debacle of endless war. Nevertheless, they and their friend Mazen have discovered ways, in Istanbul, to assist young refugees seeking continued education. When walls arise that would seem to seal the tragedy of war in concrete boundaries, Gabe and Therese find ways to cross the borders. Never Can I Write of Damascus invites us to do the same.

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org)

No Idea of Who 7/13/16

Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

Don’t Move  – by Kathy Kelly

Two major news stories here in the U.S., both chilling, point out how readily U.S. authorities will murder people based on race and the slightest possibility of a threat to those in positions of power.

On July 5 Baton Rouge police killed Alton Sterling in a Louisiana parking lot. Sterling was a 37-year-old Black father of five selling CDs outside of a local storage. As captured on widely seen cellphone video, two officers tased him, held him with their hands and knees down on the ground and then shot him multiple times at close range. The officers pulled a gun out of Sterling’s pocket after they had killed him but witnesses say Sterling was not holding the gun and his hands were never near his pockets. The situation might have escalated further but clearly little concern was shown for the sanctity of a human life deemed a threat to officers. In the witness-recorded video one officer promises, “If you f—ing move, I swear to God!”

Police departments in the U.S. often arrest and all too often kill citizens on U.S. streets based on “racial profiling,” Young men of certain demographics are targeted based on their “patterns of behavior” for confrontations in which officers’ safety trumps any concern for the safety of suspects, and which easily ramp up to killing.

And so it is abroad. The week’s other chilling news involved the long promised release of U.S. government data on drone strikes and civilian deaths. The report covered four countries with which the U.S. is not at war. From 2009 through 2015 in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya the U.S. admits to its drone strikes having killed between 64 and 116 civilians, although these numbers are only a small fraction of even the most conservative estimates on such deaths made by credible independent reporters and researchers over the same period. With U.S. definitions of a “combatant” constantly in flux, many of the 2,372 to 2,581 “combatants” the government reports killed over the same period will have certainly been civilian casualties by world standards. Few eyes in the U.S. watch for cellphone video from these countries, and so the executing officers’ versions of events are often all that matters.

In June 2011 CIA Director John Brennan stated there hadn’t been “a single collateral death” caused by drone strikes over the previous eighteen months. Ample reportage showed this statistic was a flat lie. Marjorie Cohn notes that what little we know of President Obama’s 2013 policy guidelines (still classified) for decreasing civilian deaths is inconsistent even on the point of a known target having been present. Many strikes are targeted at areas of suspicious activity with no idea of who is present.

As ex-CIA officer Philip Giraldi notes, a March 2015 Physicians for Social Responsibility report claims that more (perhaps far more) than 1.3 million people were killed during the first ten years of the “Global War on Terror” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Adding Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, he finds the current total might easily exceed 2 million with some estimates credibly going to 4 or beyond. He fears the data released July 1st will end up normalizing the drone program, writing: “The past 15 years have institutionalized and validated the killing process. President Clinton or Trump will be able to do more of the same, as the procedures involved are ‘completely legal’ and likely soon to be authorized under an executive order.”

The July 1st data minimizes civilian deaths by limiting itself to countries with which the U.S. is not at war. But the United States’ drone arsenal is precisely designed to project violence into areas miles from any battlefield where arrest, not assassination would before have been considered both feasible and morally indispensable in dealing with suspects accused of a crime. U.S. figures do not count untold numbers of civilians learning to fear the sky, in formerly peaceful areas, for weapons that might be fired without warning. The drones take away the very idea of trials and evidence, of the rule of law, making the whole world a battlefield.

In the U.S. neighborhoods where people like Alton Sterling most risk summary execution, residents cannot be faulted for concluding that the government and society don’t mind treating their homes as warzones; that lives of innocent people caught up in these brutal wars do not matter provided the safety and property of the people outside, and of the people sent in to quell perceived disorder, are rigorously protected.

My friends and sometime hosts in Afghanistan, the Afghan Peace Volunteers, run a school for street kids, and a seamstress program to distribute thick blankets in the winter. They seek to apply Mohandas Gandhi’s discipline of letting a determination to keep the peace show them the difficult work needed to replace battlefields with community. Their resources are small and they live in a dangerous city at a perilous time. Their work does little, to say the least, to ensure their safety. They aim to put the safety of their most desperate neighbors first.

It makes no one safer to make our cities and the world a battlefield. The frenzied concern for our safety and comfort driving so much of our war on the Middle East has made our lives far more dangerous. Can we ask ourselves: which has ever brought a peaceful future nearer to people in Afghan or U.S. neighborhoods– weaponized military and surveillance systems or the efforts of concerned neighbors seeking justice? Gigantic multinational “defense” systems gobble up resources, while programs intended for social well-being are cut back. The U.S. withholds anything like the quantity of resources needed for the task of healing the battle scar the U.S. and NATO have inflicted on so much of the Muslim world. If our fear is endless, how will these wars ever end?

We have to face that when the U.S. acts as self-appointed “global policeman,” what it does to poor nations resembles what those two officers did to Alton Sterling. We must temper selfish and hyper-fears for our own safety with the knowledge that others also want safe and stable lives. We must build community by lessening inequality. We must swear off making the world our battlefield and be appalled to hear the U.S. government seem to tell the world “I will kill you if you f—ing move.”

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) is distributed by PeaceVoice and co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

Wreckage they Cause 6/8/16

Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

Building Trust in Afghanistan  -by Kathy Kelly

Here in Kabul, I read a recent BBC op-ed by Ahmed Rashid, urging a “diplomatic offensive” to build or repair relationships with the varied groups representing armed extremism in Afghanistan. Rashid has insisted, for years, that severe mistrust makes mentator for the highly respected Afghan Analyst Network has written that “with the U.S. killing Akhtar Mansur, it is unlikely the Taleban will be set on anything but revenge for now, as can be understood from the movement’s political psychology… There is no reason to believe the fighting will de-escalate with the new leadership.”

Was that simple prediction available to the U.S.A.’s giant’s-eye view?

My young friends among the Afghan Peace Volunteers have shown me a vastly different approach toward problem solving. In a sense, they’ve been launching a diplomatic outreach, refining their approach through trial and error over the course of several years, taking careful steps toward building trust between different ethnic groups, and also relying on their own personal stories to help them understand the cares and concerns of others. Throughout their efforts they’ve tried to be guided by Gandhi’s advice about considering the poorest person’s needs before making a decision.

What has brought a non-violent future closer to Afghanistan – giant sized military and surveillance systems or the accomplishments of young volunteers working to develop inter-ethnic projects?

Twenty teams are working at the Borderfree Center organizing practical activities within communities coping with multiple economic woes, including food insecurity, unemployment, and inadequate income for meeting basic needs

Young people travel to and from the Center along unpaved roads lined on both sides with sewage filled drainage ditches. Traffic is chaotic, and the air is so polluted that many wear protective face masks. Day laborers congregate at intersections waiting in desperation for the opportunity to perform hard labor for $2 a day or less.

Even those fortunate enough to receive an education will likely face extreme difficulty in finding a job. Unemployment is at an all-time high of 40 percent and many jobs are attained only through ‘connections.’

Throughout Kabul, refugees crowd into squalid, sprawling camps where people live without adequate protection from harsh weather. According to The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, between Jan. 1 and April 30 this year, “117,976 people fled their homes due to conflict.” And, the U.N. says it has only received 16 percent of funds needed for humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan this year.

Nisar, one of the students at the Borderfree Center’s Street Kids School, understands destitution all too well. He has been earning an income for his family since he was a small child, working as a shoeshine boy on Kabul streets and also in a butcher shop. Now, at age 17, he will soon graduate from three years of classes with the Street Kids School. In the past year, he has been a steady volunteer, taking on responsibilities with the duvet project and the organic gardening team. Nisar says that when he first came to the Center, three years ago, he felt astonished to see people from different ethnic backgrounds sitting together. Nisar’s family comes from the Wardak province, and relatives of his are among those who recently fled the Taliban. He clearly understands the terrible risks that armed struggle could bring, even here in “Ka-bubble” as Kabul is sometimes called because of the relative calm that still prevails here. In spite of tensions, Nisar feels sure that when people learn to overcome their fears and start talking with one another, they can set aside hatreds taught to them at young ages.

U.S. planners, heads lost in the sky, seemingly pay little heed to developing ways of building trust. Resources are gobbled up by gigantic multinational “defense” companies dedicated to the task of further, trampling warfare, while withholding anything like the quantity of resources needed for the task of repairing the wreckage they themselves have caused.

U.S. think tanks cleverly promote cartoonized versions of foreign policy wherein the mighty giant strikes a fist and eliminates the “bad guy” whom we are told has caused our problems. But I believe U.S. people would be better off if we could see the often-suffering communities that show admirable qualities as they try to survive. We could learn from their efforts to build mutual trust and solidarity, and their courage to reject war. We could insist that the massively well endowed US and NATO powers finally acknowledge that the best hopes for a lasting peace come when communities experience a measure of stability and prosperity. The giant powers could help alleviate the desperate need faced by people enduring hunger, disease and homelessness.

U.S. people should earnestly ask how the U.S. could help build trust here in Afghanistan, and, as a first step, begin transferring funds from the coffers of weapon companies to the UN accounts trying to meet humanitarian needs. The “giant” could be seen stooping, humbly, to help plant seeds, hoping for a humane harvest.

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) is distributed by PeaceVoice and co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence. She is writing from Kabul where she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers.

Food, Fuel, Water 1/13/16

Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

Surveillance and Surveys in Kabul

By Kathy Kelly

In Kabul, where the Afghan Peace Volunteers have hosted me in their community, the U.S. military maintains a huge blimp equipped with cameras and computers to supply 24-hour surveillance of the city. Remotely piloted drones, operated by Air Force and Air National Guard personnel on U.S. bases, also fly over Afghanistan, giving U.S. military analysts miles of camera footage, every day. Billions of dollars have been invested in a variety of blimps which various vendors such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and Aeros have shipped to Afghanistan. All of this surveillance purportedly helps establish “patterns of life” and bring security to people living here. But this sort of “intelligence” discloses very little about experiences of poverty, chaos, hunger, child labor, homelessness, and unemployment which afflict families across Afghanistan.

This morning, Zarghuna shared the survey questions that she and her young colleagues ask when they visit families in Kabul. The family visits help them choose participants in the Borderfree Street Kids School and the Duvet Project. The survey teams also help with plans for a “Food Bank” that the Afghan Peace Volunteers hope to open sometime in the coming year.

The questions Zarghuna and the survey team use may seem simple.

How many times a week does your family have a serving of beans? Do you rent your home? Can anyone in your family read and write? Child laborers are asked to tell about what type of work they do on the streets, how many hours they work each day and how much money they earn.

The answers often open up excruciatingly painful situations as many family members explain that they never have adequate food, that the only person earning an income is one of the children, that once they pay rent for the mud home in which they live, they have no remaining funds for food, blankets, fuel or clean water.

I’ve watched the young volunteers work hard to develop useful survey questions and discuss ways to be sensitive as they visit families and try to build trust. Sometimes very difficult arguments erupt over which families are most needy.

As the Pentagon decides about investments in aerial, remotely controlled surveillance capacities, disagreements over which proposals to support have arisen within the various military forces. Defense companies pay handsome salaries to former military leaders who will advocate for one or another program. Afghanistan has become a “proving ground” where different “protective” systems have been tested, including successive generations of Predator and Reaper drones and the aerostat “blimps.”

In Afghanistan, an October 11, 2015, accident involving a U.S. military blimp cost the lives of five people. The Intercept reported that “a British military helicopter was coming in for a landing at NATO headquarters, where the blimp is moored. According to an eyewitness who spoke to the BBC, the helicopter hit the tether, which then wrapped itself around the rotors. The helicopter crashed, killing five people –two U.S. service members, two British service members, and a French contract civilian—and injuring five more.”

Among opponents of continued funding for blimp surveillance, blimp accidents are but one of many criticisms raised. Some Army leaders argue that even a fully functioning blimp-borne air defense system would be irrelevant in terms of the kinds of attacks that threaten U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Los Angeles Times notes that “the weapons that were killing and maiming U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were crude rockets, artillery, and improvised explosive devices.”

Other real and life threatening threats afflict many Afghan people, especially the 40 percent of the population who live beneath the poverty level. These threats are invisible to surveillance carried on by blimps or drones.

A UN Human Development Report recently revealed that Afghanistan has slipped to 171st of 173 countries in terms of development.

The UN report says that an Afghan person can, on average, expect to live 60 years. According to the CIA World Fact Book, the average life span here is 50 years.

In 2015, 1.2 million Afghans were internally displaced, and about 160,000 people fled to Europe.

The U.S. military continues to invest billions of dollars in the “surveys” accomplished by blimps and drones. Certainly poverty and desperation cause people to fight against foreigners who have invaded and occupied their country.

If U.S. resources spent on unproductive military surveillance of Afghans were dedicated to assessments of both U.S. and Afghan people burdened by poverty, unemployment, hunger, disease and climate change, today’s U.S. generations would be less willing to feed their tax money to the insatiable appetite of the “defense” corporations and their illusions of omniscient security.

Kathy Kelly, syndicated by PeaceVoice, co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence. While in Afghanistan, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers.

Feed Their Families 9/16/15

Which Side Are We On?

By Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

“On the one side, powerful military bureaucracies, influential and richly financed weapons industries, their lobbies, their captive legislators, those for whom paranoia or past wars are a way of life,” he wrote. “On the other side, only reason, the will to survive, the inarticulate poor” – John Kenneth Galbraith, foreword to the 1978 edition of Ruth Sivard’s “World Military and Social Expenditures,” as quoted in the NYT obituary for Ruth Sivard.

Kabul – Here at the Afghan Peace Volunteers’ Borderfree Center, between morning and afternoon Street Kids School sessions, I asked several of the volunteer teachers how they felt about organizing the school and teaching weekly language, math, and nonviolence classes.

“Now we have 100 students,” Zekerullah said. “I feel happy because I see how they change after spending time here.” When he first met some of the children, all of whom work on the streets as child laborers, ideas of washing up, dressing for school, bringing completed homework to classes, and being part of a community that cares deeply about them might have seemed remote or even unimaginable. Many who live in refugee camps get caught up in wild behavior, and hard work on the streets further toughens them.

The children seem exuberantly happy during the Friday classes. They care for and respect each other. And their eyes light up when they see their teachers, all of whom are students in secondary schools or Universities in Kabul.

“Many of the children come from one room, mud homes inside refugee camps,” said Hamida. “They have no safe place to store their notebooks and school supplies. But still they try hard to prepare for classes.”

Each of the students is given a book that the teachers designed together. Included in the various language and math lessons are guides for being courteous, practicing good hygiene, and understanding basic health care. Zarghuna said that the book and the classes are making a positive difference in the children’s lives. Then she showed me a book she is reading, called “I Am Malalai,” by the Nobel Laureate Malalai Yousafzai. Zarghuna has bookmarked a page in which Malalai notes: “If the world would stop military spending for just eight days, education could be provided for all the children of the world for 12 years!”

Ali and Zarghuna taught the nonviolence class today. First, the lesson focused on how people can share resources. Ali showed a video of children from Kenya who became crippled because, lacking proper shoes, they were vulnerable to insect bites that led to foot diseases. Three teenage girls in the U.S. decided to raise 30,000 U.S. dollars to purchase shoes for the Kenyan children.

The video helped the children understand that people suffer from poverty all over the world; they could also see young people wanting to help in practical ways.

The children had already grown excited, two weeks ago, about a proposal to prepare and serve a meal, on September 21, the International Day of Peace, to 100 day laborers working on the streets of Kabul.

Many of the laborers, desperate for income, stand for hours, day after day, hoping to be chosen for even a few hours of work. The children understand desperation among families because they themselves work on the streets. They polish shoes, wash cars, sell tissues, and devote long hours, even during the harshest weather, hoping to help feed their families.

Before class ended, Ali and Zarghuna invited each student to volunteer for any one of 10 teams that will prepare for the event on September 21.

Each team now has a leader, selected from among the older children. One team will identify 100 laborers and invite them to the meal. Other teams will price and purchase food, welcome guests, serve the food, and clean up after the event.

Serving the meal will be part of #Enough!, a campaign to abolish war, which the Afghan Peace Volunteers will launch at their International Day of Peace celebration.

Our young friends have had enough of war, displacement, trauma and hunger. 60 million people, worldwide, now seek refuge, many of them fleeing war and violence. Shameful warlords and war profiteers, such as those who commandeered U.S. wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, destabilize defenseless populations. The wars lead to massive refugee crises. Anyone called upon to support wars or warlords should learn the priorities embraced at the Borderfree Center – and switch sides.

This article first appeared on Telesur

Kathy Kelly, syndicated by PeaceVoice, co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org). While in Afghanistan, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers (ourjourneytosmile.com)

Let It Shine 8/26/15

By Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna’ let it shine! Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

Imagine children joyfully singing the above line that eventually became a civil rights anthem. Their innocence and happy resolve enlighten us. Yes! In the face of wars, refugee crises, weapon proliferation and unaddressed climate change impacts, let us echo the common sense of children. Let goodness shine. Or, as our young friends in Afghanistan have put it, “#Enough!” They write the word, in Dari, on the palms of their hands and show it to cameras, wanting to shout out their desire to abolish all wars.

This past summer, collaborating with Wisconsin activists, we decided to feature this refrain on signs and announcements for a 90-mile walk campaigning to end targeted drone assassinations abroad, and the similarly racist impunity granted to an increasingly militarized police force when they kill brown and black people within the U.S.

Walking through small cities and towns in Wisconsin, participants distributed leaflets and held teach-ins encouraging people to demand accountability from local police, and an end to the “Shadow Drone” program operated by the U.S. Air National Guard out of Wisconsin’s own Volk Field. Our friend Maya Evans traveled the furthest to join the walk – she coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV) in the UK. Alice Gerard, from Grand Isle, New York, is our most consistent long-distance traveler, on her sixth antiwar walk with VCNV.

Brian Terrell noted what mothers speaking to Code Pink, as part of the Mothers Against Police Brutality campaign, had also noted: that surprisingly many of the officers charged with killing their children were veterans of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He recalled past national events, such as the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago where organizers tried to recruit temporary security officers from amongst U.S. veterans. Former soldiers, already traumatized by war, need support, healthcare and vocational training, but instead are offered temp jobs to aim weapons at other people in predictably tense settings.

The walk was instructive. Salek Khalid, a friend of VCNV, shared “Creating a Hell on Earth: U.S. Drone Strikes Abroad,” his own in-depth presentation about the development of drone warfare. Tyler Sheafer, joining us from the Progressive Alliance near Independence, Missouri, stressed the independence of living simply, off the grid and consuming crops grown only within a 150 mile radius of one’s home, while hosts in Mauston, Wisconsin, welcomed Joe Kruse to talk about fracking and our collective need to change patterns of energy consumption. The ability to withhold our money and our labor is an important way to compel governments to restrain their violent domestic and international power.

We weren’t alone. We walked in solidarity with villagers in Gangjeong, South Korea, who had welcomed many of us to join in their campaign to stop militarization of their beautiful Jeju Island. Seeking inter-island solidarity and recognizing how closely they share the plight of Afghans burdened by the U.S. “Asia Pivot,” our friends in Okinawa, Japan, will host a walk from the north to the south of the island, protesting construction of a new U.S. military base in Henoko. Rather than provoke a new cold war, we want to shine light on our common cares and concerns, finding security in extended hands of friendship.

On August 26, some of the walkers will commit nonviolent civil resistance at Volk Field, carrying the messages about drone warfare and racial profiling into courts of law and public opinion.

Too often we imagine that a life swaddled in everyday comforts and routines is the only life possible, while half a world away, to provide those comforts to us, helpless others are made to shiver with inescapable cold or fear. It’s been instructive on these walks to uncoddle ourselves a little, and see how our light shines, unhidden, on the road through neighboring towns, singing words we’ve heard from children learning to be as adult as they can be; attempting to learn that same lesson.

The lyric goes “I’m not going to make it shine: I’m just going to let it shine.” We hope that by releasing the truth that’s already in us we can encourage others to live theirs, shining a more humane light on the violent abuses, both at home and abroad, of dark systems that perpetuate violence. On walks like this we’ve been fortunate to imagine a better life, sharing moments of purpose and sanity with the many we’ve met along the road.

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) is distributed by PeaceVoice and co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (http://vcnv.org).

Anguish & Fear 7/1/15

Before the Dawn
by Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

Each year, throughout the Muslim world, believers participate in the month-long Ramadan fast. Here in Kabul, where I’m a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, our household awakens at 2:15 a.m. to prepare a simple meal before the fast that begins at 3:00 a.m. I like the easy companionship I feel, seated on the floor, as we share our food.

Friday, the day off, is also household clean-up day. It seems a bit odd to be sweeping and washing floors in the pre-dawn hours after we finish our meal, but we tend to these tasks and then try to catch a nap before heading over to meet the early bird students at the Street Kids School, a project my hosts are running for child laborers who otherwise couldn’t go to school.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

I didn’t nap – I was fitful and couldn’t because my mind was filled with images from a memoir,” Guantanamo Diary,” which I’ve been reading since I arrived here. Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s story of being imprisoned in Guantanamo since 2002 rightly disturbs me. In all his years of captivity, he has never been charged with a crime. He has suffered grotesque torture, humiliation and mistreatment, and yet his memoir includes many humane, tender accounts, including remembrances of past Ramadan fasts spent with his family.

Describing his early time in a Jordanian prison, he writes:

“It was Ramadan, and so we got two meals served, one at sunset and the second before the first light. The cook woke me up and served me my early meal. Suhoor is what we call this meal; it marks the beginning of our fasting, which lasts until sunset. At home, it’s more than just a meal. The atmosphere matters. My older sister wakes everybody and we sit together eating and sipping the warm tea and enjoying each other’s company.”

I’ve never heard Muslims complain about being hungry and thirsty as they await the fast-breaking meal. Nor have I heard people brag about contributions they’ve made to alleviate the sufferings of others, although I know Islam urges such sharing during Ramadan and aims to build empathy for those afflicted by ongoing hunger and thirst. Mohamedou relied on empathy to help him through some of his most intense anguish and fear.

“I was thinking about all my innocent brothers who were and still are being rendered to strange places and countries,” he wrote, describing a rendition flight from Senegal to Mauritania, “and I felt solaced and not alone anymore. I felt the spirits of unjustly mistreated people with me. I had heard so many stories about brothers being passed back and forth like a soccer ball just because they have once been in Afghanistan, or Bosnia, or Chechnya. That’s screwed up! Thousands of miles away, I felt the warm breath of these other unjustly treated individuals comforting me.”

A judge ordered Mohamedou’s immediate release in 2010. But the Obama administration appealed the decision, leaving him in a legal limbo.

From 1988 to 1991, Mohamedou had studied electrical engineering in Germany. In early 1991, he spent seven weeks, in Afghanistan, learning how to use mortars and light weapons, training which would allow him to join the U.S.-backed insurgency against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul. He was one of Ronald Reagan’s celebrated “freedom fighters.” In early 1992, when the communist supported Afghan government was near collapse, he again went to Afghanistan and, for three weeks, fought with insurgents to overtake the city of Gardez. Kabul fell shortly thereafter. Mohamedou soon saw that the Mujahedeen insurgents were fighting amongst themselves over power grabs. He didn’t want to be part of this fight and so he went back to Germany, then Canada and, eventually, home to Mauritania, where he was arrested and “rendered” to Jordan for questioning, at last arriving in Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Force Base on his way to Guantanamo.

I lay here and wonder how he is feeling as he observes Ramadan without his family for the 13th consecutive year. I wish he could know that growing numbers of people in the U.S. believe he should be released and want to help atone for the suffering he has endured.

I wish Mohamedou could visit Afghanistan again, not as part of a training camp for insurgents, not as a terrified, shackled prisoner, but as a guest of the community here. A former U.S. military person dropped by the Street Kids School on Friday morning. The U.S. Air Force trained her to operate weaponized drones over Afghanistan. Now, she comes to Afghanistan annually to plant trees all over the country. She feels deep remorse for the time in her life when she helped attack Afghans.

I don’t believe in training anyone to use weapons, but as I read Mohamedou’s words about his brothers who went to foreign countries as fighters, I thought of the Pentagon’s recent practice runs, over the New Mexico desert, training people to fire the terrifying Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a bunker buster bomb which is 20 feet long, weighs 15 tons and carries about 5,300 pounds of explosives. People in the U.S. should consider how their horror at the violence at the hands of U.S. enemies encourages and exonerates the far more crushing violence of their own government, engaged at this moment in conflicts throughout the developing world and armed with weapons capable of extinguishing all human life within minutes.

On this fast day, I remembered that many U.S. people worry, like anyone anywhere, about the hardships a new day may bring, in a dangerous and uncertain time that seems to be dawning on every nation and our species as a whole. In the U.S., we carry the added knowledge that most of the world lives much more poorly – in a material sense, at least – than we do, and that were the sun to truly rise upon the U.S., with familiar words of equality and justice truly realized, we would have to share much of our wealth with a suffering world.

We would learn to “live simply so that others might simply live.” We would find deep satisfaction in beholding faces like those of my friends gathered for a friendly morning meal before a day of voluntary fasting. Or, like Mohamedou, find warmth in the imagined breath of others sharing involuntary hardships. “Another world is not only possible,” writes author and activist Arundhoti Roy, “she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” U.S. people must know that life in the daylight might also be the start of an unaccustomed fast.
When will day break? I haven’t a clock nearby to tell me when, but I can’t go back to sleep. When I see the children adapt so readily to the schooling denied them, when I watch my young friends struggle eagerly to take the small steps allowed them, sowing seeds of mutual understanding or planting trees in Kabul, and when I read such grace and dignity in the words of Mohamedou Ould Slahi after years of torture, I have to believe that a dawn will come. For now, it remains a blessing to work alongside people awake together, even in darkness, working to face burdens with kindness, ready to join with kindred spirits near and far, faces aglow with precious glimmers of a coming day.

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) is distributed by PeaceVoice and co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (http://vcnv.org).

Cleared For Release 1/21/15

Inside the Uniform, Under the Hood, Longing for Change
by Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

From January 4-12, 2015, Witness Against Torture (WAT) activists assembled in Washington D.C. for an annual time of fasting and public witness to end the United States’ use of torture and indefinite detention and to demand the closure, with immediate freedom for those long cleared for release, of the illegal U.S. prison at Guantanamo.

Participants in our eight-day fast started each day with a time of reflection. This year, asked to briefly describe who or what we had left behind and yet might still carry in our thoughts that morning, I said that I’d left behind an imagined WWI soldier, Leonce Boudreau.

I was thinking of Nicole de’Entremont’s story of World War I, A Generation of Leaves, which I had just finished reading. Initial chapters focus on a Canadian family of Acadian descent. Their beloved oldest son, Leonce, enlists with Canada’s military because he wants to experience life beyond the confines of a small town and he feels stirred by a call to defend innocent European people from advancing “Hun” warriors. He soon finds himself mired in the horrid slaughter of trench warfare near Ypres, Belgium.

I often thought of Leonce during the week of fasting with WAT campaign members. We focused, each day, on the experiences and writing of a Yemeni prisoner in Guantanamo, Fahed Ghazi who, like Leonce, left his family and village to train as a fighter for what he believed to be a noble cause. He wanted to defend his family, faith and culture from hostile forces. Pakistani forces captured Fahed and turned him over to U.S. forces after he had spent two weeks in a military training camp in Afghanistan. At the time he was 17, a juvenile. He was cleared for release from Guantanamo in 2007.

Leonce’s family never saw him again. Fahed’s family has been told, twice, that he is cleared for release and could soon reunite with his wife, daughter, brothers and parents. Being cleared for release means that U.S. authorities have decided that Fahed poses no threat to the security of people in the U.S. Still he languishes in Guantanamo where he has been held for 13 years.

Fahed writes that there is no guilt or innocence at Guantanamo. But he asserts that everyone, even the guards, knows the difference between right and wrong. It is illegal to hold him and 54 other prisoners, without charge, after they have been cleared for release.

Fahed is one of 122 prisoners held in Guantanamo.

Bitter cold had gripped Washington D.C. during most days of our fast and public witness. Clad in multiple layers of clothing, we clambered into orange jumpsuits, pulled black hoods over our heads, our “uniforms,” and walked in single file lines, hands held behind our backs.

Inside Union Station’s enormous Main Hall, we lined up on either side of a rolled up banner. As readers shouted out excerpts from one of Fahed’s letters that tell how he longs for reunion with his family, we unfurled a beautiful portrait of his face. “Now that you know,” Fahed writes, “you cannot turn away.”

U.S. people have a lot of help in turning away. Politicians and much of the U.S. mainstream media manufacture and peddle distorted views of security to the U.S. public, encouraging people to eradicate threats to their security and to exalt and glorify uniformed soldiers or police officers who have been trained to kill or imprison anyone perceived to threaten the well-being of U.S. people.

Often, people who’ve enlisted to wear U.S. military or police uniforms bear much in common with Leonce and Fahed. They are young, hard pressed to earn an income, and eager for adventure.

There’s no reason to automatically exalt uniformed fighters as heroes.

But a humane society will surely seek understanding and care for any person who survives the killing fields of a war zone. Likewise, people in the U.S. should be encouraged to see every detainee in Guantanamo as a human person, someone to be called by name and not by a prison number.

The cartoonized versions of foreign policy handed to U.S. people, designating heroes and villains, create a dangerously under-educated public unable to engage in democratic decision-making.

Nicole d’Entremont writes of battered soldiers, soldiers who know they’ve been discarded in an endless, pointless war, longing to be rid of their uniforms. The overcoats were heavy, sodden, and often too bulky for struggling through areas entangled with barbed wire. Boots leaked and the soldiers’ feet were always wet, muddy, and sore. Miserably clothed, miserably fed, and horribly trapped in a murderous, insane war, soldiers longed to escape.

When putting on Fahed’s uniform, each day of our fast, I could imagine how intensely he longs to be rid of his prison garb. Thinking of his writings, and recalling d’Entremont’s stories drawn from “the war to end all wars,” I can imagine that there are many thousands of people trapped in the uniforms issued by war makers who deeply understand Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for revolution:

“A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.”

This article first appeared on TeleSUR English. Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) is distributed by PeaceVoice and co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org). On January 23rd, she will begin serving a 3 month sentence in federal prison for attempting to deliver a loaf of bread and a letter about drone warfare to the commander of a U.S. Air Force base.

Going To Prison 12/17/14

Drones and Discrimination: Kick the Habit
by Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

Kathy Kelly

On December 10, International Human Rights Day, federal Magistrate Matt Whitworth sentenced me to three months in prison for having crossed the line at a military base that wages drone warfare. The punishment for our attempt to speak on behalf of trapped and desperate people, abroad, will be an opportunity to speak with people trapped by prisons and impoverishment here in the U.S.

Our trial was based on a trespass charge incurred on June 1, 2014. Georgia Walker and I were immediately arrested when we stepped onto Missouri’s Whiteman Air Force where pilots fly weaponized drones over Afghanistan and other countries. We carried a loaf of bread and a letter for Brig Gen. Glen D. Van Herck. In court, we testified that we hadn’t acted with criminal intent but had, rather, exercised our First Amendment right (and responsibility) to assemble peaceably for redress of grievance.

A group of Afghan friends had entrusted me with a simple message, their grievance, which they couldn’t personally deliver: please stop killing us.

I knew that people I’ve lived with, striving to end wars even as their communities were bombed by drone aircraft, would understand the symbolism of asking to break bread with the base commander. Judge Whitworth said he understood that we oppose war, but he could recommend over 100 better ways to make our point that wouldn’t be breaking the law.

The prosecution recommended the maximum six month sentence. “Ms. Kelly needs to be rehabilitated,” said an earnest young military lawyer. The judge paged through a four-page summary of past convictions and agreed that I hadn’t yet learned not to break the law.

What I’ve learned from past experiences in prison is that the criminal justice system uses prison as a weapon against defendants who often have next to no resources to defend themselves. A prosecutor can threaten a defendant with an onerously long prison sentence along with heavy fines if the defendant doesn’t agree to plea bargain.

In his article “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty,” Jed S. Rakoff draws attention to the institution of plea bargaining which now ensures that less than three percent of federal cases go to trial at all. “Of the 2.2 million U.S. people now in prison,” Rakoff writes, “well over 2 million are there as a result of plea bargains dictated by the government’s prosecutors, who effectively dictate the sentence as well.”

“In 2012, the average sentence for federal narcotics defendants who entered into any kind of plea bargain was five years and four months,” Rakoff writes, “while the average sentence for defendants who went to trial was sixteen years.”

It’s one thing to read about the shameful racism and discrimination of the U.S. criminal justice system. It’s quite another to sit next to a woman who is facing 10 or more years in prison, isolated from children she has not held in years, and to learn from her about the circumstances that led to her imprisonment.

Many women prisoners, unable to find decent jobs in the regular economy, turn to the underground economy. Distant relatives of mine knew plenty about such an economy several generations ago. They couldn’t get work, as Irish immigrants, and so they got into the bootlegging business when alcohol was prohibited. But no one sent them to prison for 10 years if they were caught.

Women prisoners may feel waves of guilt, remorse, defiance, and despair. In spite of facing extremely harsh punishment, harsh emotions, and traumatic isolation, most of the women I’ve met in prison have shown extraordinary strength of character.

When I was in Pekin Prison, we would routinely see young men, shackled and handcuffed, shuffling off of the bus to spend their first day in their medium-high security prison next door. The median sentence there was 27 years. We knew they’d be old men, many of them grandfathers, by the time they walked out again.

The U.S. is the undisputed world leader in incarceration, as it is the world leader in military dominance. Only one in 28 of drone victims are the intended, guilty or innocent, targets. One third of women in prison worldwide, are, at this moment, in U.S. prisons. The crimes that most threaten the safety and livelihood of people in the U.S. of course remain the crimes of the powerful, of the corporations that taint our skies with carbon and acid rainfall, peddle weapons around an already suffering globe, shut down factories and whole economies in pursuit of quick wealth, and send our young people to war.

Chief Executive Officers of major corporations that produce products inimical to human survival will most likely never be charged much less convicted of any crime. I don’t want to see them jailed. I do want to see them rehabilitated

Each time I’ve left a U.S. prison, I’ve felt as though I was leaving the scene of a crime. When I return to the U.S. from sites of our war making, abroad, I feel the same way. Emerging back into the regular world seems tantamount to accepting a contract, pledging to forget the punishments we visit on impoverished people. I’m invited to forget about the people still trapped inside nightmare worlds we have made for them.

On January 23, 2015, when I report to whichever prison the Bureau of Prisons selects, I’ll have a short time to reconnect with the reality endured by incarcerated people. It’s not the rehabilitation the prosecutor and judge had in mind, but it will help me be a more empathic and mindful abolitionist, intent on ending all wars.

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org) and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

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