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Witnessing Against Torture: Why We Must Act

By Kathy Kelly

June 22, 2010

   

Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  U.S. Constitution Amendment I

An old cliché says that anyone who has herself for a lawyer has a fool for a client.  Nevertheless, going to trial in Washington, D.C., this past June 14, I and twenty-three other defendants prepared a pro se defense.  Acting as our own lawyers in court, we aimed to defend a population that finds little voice in our society at all, and to bring a sort of prosecution against their persecutors.

Months earlier, on January 21st, we had held a memorial vigil for three innocent Guantanamo prisoners, recently revealed to have been in all probability tortured to death by our government with what would turn out to be utter impunity – and because we had wished the culpable parties to take notice, we’d staged a vigil where they worked, specifically on the Capitol Steps and in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building. We had been charged with causing a “breach of the peace,” a technical legal term for a situation that might risk inciting people to violence. In abetting Administration use of torture, Congress had been inciting others to horrendous violence, and we’d been protesting perhaps one of the gravest imaginable breaches of the peace.  Now we were making our small attempt to take these crimes to court, in the course of defending ourselves against what we felt to be a misdirected charge.  

The world cup of economic and military warfare

By Kathy Kelly and Joshua Brollier

June 2, 2010

Islamabad– “Our situation is like a football match. The superpower countries are the players, and we are just the ball to be kicked around.” This sentiment, expressed by a young man from North Waziristan, has been echoed throughout many of our conversations with ordinary people here in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Most are baffled that the United States, with the largest and most modern military in the world, can’t put a stop to a few thousand militants hiding out in the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  

Just about everyone we have spoken with, Pashtuns included, has little to no sympathy for the Taliban or their tactics. Many people have lost limbs, homes and loved ones to the brutal assaults of suicide bombers or the indiscriminate violence of IEDs. Yet, people expressed frustrated confusion over uncertainties regarding U.S. government goals in relation to the Taliban. Some believe that the United States might be working with the ISI (Pakistani Intelligence Services) or at least not working against them, to enable continued Taliban resistance. If there is no resistance, according to this view, a military presence in the region cannot be justified. Nor can a so-called humanitarian presence further flood the Pakistani and Afghan economies with millions of dollars in aid that most often lines the pockets of the politicians, elite bureaucrats, and United States corporations involved in construction and security.

The fact that very little aid money has reached the impoverished and war weary people who need it most has been confirmed to us by members of the Afghan and Pakistani governments, human rights organizations, Non-Governmental Organizations and several very unfortunate families forced to live as refugees. As Hyder Akbar, a Pashtun working on NGO assessments in Afghanistan, said to us, “If you are pouring 100 million dollars into a tiny and impoverished province like Kunar and seeing no results, you’re obviously doing something wrong.” With a population of less than 500,000, you could easily give each Kunar resident over a million dollars. But, several seasoned analysts agree that money alone can’t solve problems faced by impoverished people in Afghanistan and Pakistan.    

Both Dr. Mubashir Hassan, former finance minister of the Peoples Party of Pakistan, and Nur Agha Akbari, from the Ministry of Agriculture in Afghanistan, strongly believe that efforts to bring people out of poverty in South Asia must be initiated, at district and village levels, through consultation with grass roots, indigenous community groups. Mr. Akbari stressed that there is still an opportunity for the United States government and people to play a positive role in Afghanistan, but that role will not be possible until the United States stops giving orders and starts listening to community groups living in Afghanistan.

Photo by Joshua Brollier: Hillside near Kabul.

Unarmed and Courageous: Emergency Workers in Afghanistan

By Kathy Kelly and Josh Brollier

June 1, 2010

For six days in late May, 2010, Emergency, an Italian NGO providing surgery and basic health care in Afghanistan since 1999, welcomed us to visit facilities they operate in the capital city of Kabul and in Panjshir, a neighboring province. We lived with their hospital staff at both places and accompanied them in their weekly trips to various FAPs (First Aid Posts) which the hospitals maintain in small outlying villages.

One morning, accompanying a field officer from the Kabul hospital, we pulled off of the main road and traveled over unpaved lanes, then walked a short distance to a shady grove outside a small Afghan village. Villagers, eager to welcome Emergency’s staff and drivers, served ripe mulberries and a salty cucumber yogurt drink. We sat in a circle, shaded by the trees. When breezes stirred the branches, we’d enjoy a momentary rain of mulberries, much to the amusement of little children nearby.

The five youngsters, age five – ten, smiled shyly at us, shook our hands, and then joined their older brother to systematically gather mulberries. Using a large hoe, the older brother slammed the tree trunk. The children caught the cascading mulberries in a plastic tarp. Then they sorted the fruits, seeming to take discipline and routine for granted.

Earlier, Felippo, an Emergency nurse in Panjshir, had told us about how hard life can be for Afghan children in rural areas. “They never get a day off,” exclaimed Felippo. “Never. If they attend school, and school is closed for a day, the kids join workers in the fields.” Felippo, who has been to Afghanistan for three six month rotations, fantasizes about building a theme park where kids could play and be entertained.

The majority of Afghanistan’s agricultural laborers, both children and adults, face harsh realities.

Report from Pakistan: ‘I want to live with my family’

By Kathy Kelly and Josh Brollier

May 24, 2010

Islamabad–Abir Mohammed, a refugee from Bajaur, says that the battles which raged in his home province since 2008 have dramatically changed his life. We met him in a crowded Islamabad café where he politely approached customers, offering to shine their shoes. He isn’t accustomed to shoeshine work. But, he needs to earn as much money as possible before reuniting with family members who await him, near Peshawar, in a tent encampment for displaced people.

Formerly, he lived with his wife, his five children, his mother and four brothers in a home near the Afghanistan border. “We were very satisfied with our life,” says Abir Mohammed. “My brothers and I cultivated wheat crops and maintained orchards.” His land is full of rich soil. “But, in these days,” says Abir, “due to disasters and lack of water and electricity, there is no chance of cultivating crops.”

In late January, 2010, Pakistani military and paramilitary units launched a major military operation in Bajaur, one of Pakistan’s seven Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA). Jane’s Defense News (Feb. 2, 2010) reported that 30,000 troops conducted the drive into Bajaur, accompanied by artillery, tanks and five military helicopters.

Drones and Democracy

May 18, 2010

by Kathy Kelly and Josh Brollier

Islamabad–On May 12th, the day after a U.S. drone strike killed 24 people in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, two men from the area agreed to tell us their perspective as eyewitnesses of previous drone strikes.    

One is a journalist, Safdar Dawar, General Secretary of the Tribal Union of Journalists. Journalists are operating under very difficult circumstances in the area, pressured by both militant groups and the Pakistani government.  Six of his colleagues have been killed while reporting in North and South Waziristan. The other man, who asked us not to disclose his name, is from Miranshah city, the epicenter of North Waziristan.  He works with the locally based Waziristan Relief Agency, a group of people committed to helping the victims of drone attacks and military actions.  “If people need blood or medicine or have to go to Peshawar or some other hospital,” said the social worker, “I’m known for helping them. I also try to arrange funds and contributions.”

Both men emphasized that Pakistan’s government has only a trivial presence in the area.  Survivors of drone attacks receive no compensation, and neither the military nor the government investigate consequences of the drone attacks.  

Pressured from all sides in Pakistan’s Swat Valley

By Kathy Kelly and Joshua Brollier

Photos by G. Simon Harak

May 14th, 2010

In May of 2009, under tremendous pressure from the United States, the Pakistani military began a large-scale military operation in the Swat District of Pakistan to confront militants in the region. The UNHCR said the operation led to one of the largest and fastest displacements it had ever seen. Within ten days, more than two million people fled their homes.

Now, a year later, our small delegation visited the Swat District. After a breathtaking ride through the Hindu Kush mountains (pictured), traveling in a pick-up truck from Shah Mansour in the Swabi district, we arrived in Swat’s capital, Saidu Sharif.

Saidu Sharif is a small town, ringed by mountains. The Swat River, a few hundred yards in width, runs through it. It’s easy to imagine a former time when tourists would flock to visit this scenic treasure. While we were there, the town seemed tranquil. Stores were open and the streets were bustling. Merchants, children, shoppers, bicyclists, goats, cars, donkey carts, rickshaws, and tractors jostled for space in the narrow roadways. But, we also saw dozens of uniformed men, carrying weapons, suggesting that tensions still prevail in Swat.

Atrocities in Afghanistan: A Troubling Timetable

By Kathy Kelly and Dan Pearson

April 30, 2010

Peace activists can hasten an end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan by demanding a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal. A bill in the U.S. Congress introduced by Representatives McGovern and Jones, requires such a timetable. In the Senate, a similar bill has been introduced by Senator Feingold. Arguments in favor of a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan should include readiness to examine disturbing patterns of misinformation regarding U.S./NATO attacks against Afghan civilians.

It is worth noting that even General McChrystal acknowledges that U.S. forces have killed civilians who meant them no harm. During a biweekly videoconference with US soldiers in Afghanistan, he was quite candid. “We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force,” said General McChrystal. “To my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I’ve been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it.”

Those families and individuals that General McChrystal refers to should be our primary concern. We should try to imagine the sorrow and horror afflicting each individual whose tragic story is told in the “timetable” of atrocities committed against innocent people. How can we compensate people who have endured three decades of warfare, whose land has been so ravaged that, according to noted researcher Alfred McCoy, it would cost $34 billion dollars to restore their agricultural infrastructure.

We should notify our elected representatives that the $33 billion dollar supplemental funding bill sought by the Obama administration to pay for U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could be directed toward helping Afghanistan replant its orchards, replenish its flocks, and rebuild its irrigation systems. We should insist on an end to atrocities like those which follow.

The list below describes, in part, the suffering and agony that people in Afghanistan have endured since April, 2009. To focus on this list doesn’t excuse atrocities committed by Taliban fighters. It does indicate our own responsibility to urgently educate others and ourselves about a deeply disturbing pattern: U.S./NATO officials first distribute misleading information about victims of an attack and later acknowledge that the victims were unarmed civilians.

Decency and Strength

By Kathy Kelly

February 2, 2010

Here in Colorado Springs, student and community organizers recently invited me to try and help promote their campaign against a proposed “No Camping” ordinance, a law to ban the homeless from sleeping on sidewalks or public lands within the city limits.  The organizers insist it’s wrongful to criminalize the most desperate and endangered among us, that it instead seems quite criminal to persecute people already in need of far more care and compassion than we’ve been willing to offer, especially during these bitterly cold winter months.  But others in the area are intent on eliminating the tent encampments near the Monument Creek and Shooks Run trails, complaining that the encampments mar natural beauty, deter tourists, create fire hazards, and degrade the environment by strewing heaps of trash and debris near the creek and even in it.  

 

Kathy Kelly: Tough minds and tender hearts

By Kathy Kelly

January 19, 2010

I spent Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday in Washington, D.C. as part of the Witness Against Torture fast, which campaigns to end all forms of torture and has worked steadily for an end to indefinite detention of people imprisoned in Guantanamo, Bagram, and other secret sites where the U.S. has held and tortured prisoners.  We’re on day 9 of a twelve day fast to shut down Guantanmo, end torture, and build justice.

The community gathered for the fast has grown over the past week.  This means, however, that as more people sleep on the floor of St. Stephen’s church, there is a rising cacophony of snoring.  Our good friend, Fr. Bill Pickard, suggested trying to hear the snores as an orchestra, when I told him I’d slept fitfully last night.      

There is a young boy in Mir Ali, a town in North Waziristan, in Pakistan, who also lies awake at night, unable to sleep.  Israr Khan Dawar is 17 years old.  He told an AP reporter, on January 14th, that he and his family and friends had gotten used to the drones.  But now, at night, the sound grows louder and the drones are flying closer, so he and his family realize they could be a target.  He braces himself in fear of an attack.

We’re told that we will be more secure if the CIA continually attack the so-called lawless tribal areas and eliminates “the bad guys.”

In late May and early June of 2009, while visiting in Pakistan, a man from the village of Khaisor, also in North Waziristan, told us about his experience as a survivor of a drone attack.  Jane Mayer, writing in The New Yorker, mentioned that the people operating the drones and analyzing the surveillance intelligence have a word for people like him who managed to survive a blast and run away.  They are called “squirters.”  So, I suppose he would have been considered a squirter.  

This man, at some risk to himself, walked a long distance and took two buses to meet with us.  Because of travel restrictions, we would not have been allowed to visit him in North Waziristan. His village is so remote that there are no roads leading up to it.  Five hundred people live there.  Often, western media refers to his homeland as “the lawless tribal area.” One day, three strangers entered Khaisor and went to the home of vigil elders. For centuries, villagers have followed a code of hospitality, which demands that when strangers come to your door, you feed them and give them drink. It’s not as though you can point them toward a Motel 6 or a 7-11.  The strangers were welcomed into the home they approached and they left after having been served a meal.  They were long gone when, at 4:30 a.m. a U.S. drone, operated by the C.I.A., fired 2 Hellfire missiles into the home they had visited, killing 12 people, two of whom were village elders.  Children were dismembered and maimed.

Speaking truth to power

By Kathy Kelly

January 8, 2010


There’s a phrase originating with the peace activism of the American Quaker movement: “Speak Truth to Power.” One can hardly speak more directly to power than addressing the Presidential Administration of the United States. This past October, students at Islamabad’s Islamic International University had a message for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One student summed up many of her colleagues’ frustration. “We don’t need America,” she said. “Things were better before they came here.”

The students were mourning loss of life at their University where, a week earlier, two suicide bombers walked onto the campus wearing explosive devices and left seven students dead and dozens of others seriously injured. Since the spring of 2009, under pressure from U.S. leaders to “do more” to dislodge militant Taliban groups, the Pakistani government has been waging military offensives throughout the northwest of the country. These bombing attacks have displaced millions and the Pakistani government has apparently given open permission for similar attacks by unmanned U.S. aerial drones.

Every week, Pakistani militant groups have launched a new retaliatory atrocity in Pakistan, killing hundreds more civilians in markets, schools, government buildings, mosques and sports facilities. Who can blame the student who believed that her family and friends were better off before the U.S. began insisting that Pakistan cooperate with U.S. military goals in the region?

Reclaiming November 11 for peace



Across the country, there’s a movement quietly taking shape to reclaim November 11 as a day of peace.

What is now called Veterans Day was originally designated in the US as Armistice Day, the day that World War I ended at 11 a.m.  on 11/11.  In the UK and elsewhere, it is also known as Remembrance Day or Poppy Day.

Prepare to nonviolently resist Afghanistan strategy

By Jeff Leys

Co-Coordinator, Voices for Creative Nonviolence

This past Wednesday, Admiral Mullen (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) announced that the Pentagon will seek additional war funds for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2010.  While he did not give a firm dollar amount, the New York Times reported that defense budget  analysts are kicking around the number of $50 billion.  The Times also

reported that Jack Murtha, Chair of the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, indicated on October 30 that he expects the supplemental spending bill for 2010 to be in the range of $40 billion.  The final dollar amount won’t be known until the White House submits its “emergency” supplemental spending request to Congress, most likely around February 2.

In the immortal words of Coach Vince Lombardi: “What the hell is going on out there?”

We should be so lucky if it were a simple matter of the Green Bay Packers screwing up the power sweep.

Instead, it’s a matter of the Obama Administration now leading us down the path of the most expensive year in war funding since President Bush began the so-called “Global War on Terror” (now morphed into the “Overseas Contingency Operations” under President Obama).

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