Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Praying for More Unemployed Grave-Diggers in Afghanistan

The lines between aid agencies and the military have become blurred in Afghanistan,

Bamiyan where New Zealand troops are doing humanitarian work alongside their military duties. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The earthquake in West Sumatra has occupied every waking moment of my life in the past five weeks and has even stolen many of my sleeping hours. Midst the hundreds of emails I received was one from my good friend in Kabul, Steve Masty entitled "PIRATES.'

dear bob

i went into spinneys, the dubai-based supermarket in kabul, and looked at your 'Mountains of your Mind' book and, while well produced it looks to be a pirate addition, with no isbn number. when i go back i will bring a pencil to jot down the web address of the second publisher, different than the real one on the title page.


When I told Anuj , my publisher in New Delhi, he replied " you should be ‘HAPPY’ if your book is pirated. The pirates only ‘GO FOR THE BEST’."
So the book I published on Afghanistan in 2003 has been pirated, so I am flattered. Photo: Tara Press New Delhi

However, thinking of my book is a bit selfish at this time because I am more concerned by the blurring of lines and mandates between aid agencies and the military in Afghanistan.

The other day there was a headline in most New Zealand newspapers announcing in shocked tones that there has been a shooting incident involving New Zealand troops in Afghanistan.

It went on to say "Government sources say our troops have been fired on."

When you call a plumber to unblock a sewerage pipe, he gets shit on his hands. Send soldiers into Afghanistan they are likely to get blood on their hands, especially the New Zealand soldiers who do humanitarian work in communities with an automatic rifle slung across their back. Soldiers should be in a country to support the regime their Governments are backing politically, or doing UN-type peacekeeping work. Mixing military intervention with humanitarian works only contributes to genuine humanitarian workers being mistaken as soldier/humanitarian workers.

In his recent article Empire Games in the New Zealand Listener, Gordon Campbell observes:

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Taliban forces have mounted major attacks in recent weeks, rendering the provinces of Zabol, Helmand and Oruzgan highly dangerous for foreign and local ground troops. Aid workers have been withdrawn from many provincial areas. In both countries, foreigners and locals engaged in humanitarian work – including the reconstruction tasks that our deployment of 61 armed engineers have been set in Iraq – are being singled out as “soft targets”.

I am terrified when I read that 61 armed New Zealand Army engineers are doing humanitarian work, probably in areas where non-armed humanitarian workers are working.

Coalition Forces doing a form of humanitarian work in Afghanistan.

In his article Afghan aid as a military weapon, Thalif Deen in Asia Times Online in August 2004 was one of the first journalists to signal the growing problem about communities that humanitarian workers and soldiers work, Afghans have become confused as to the lines between aid agencies and the military. He writes:

"There are times when aid agencies need the support of the military - as in Bosnia - but we are concerned about the increased involvement of the US and UK military in the provision of aid," said Caroline Green of Oxfam International.

"Our impartiality is vital for us to carry out our work on the ground but this has become undermined by the United States giving aid to people not on the basis of need but in exchange for information," Green told Inter Press Service (IPS).

Besides aid agencies, humanitarian assistance - including food aid and relief supplies - have also been provided by coalition forces, including the US, the UK, France, Germany and Italy, according to the US State Department. "Communities that we work with have become confused as the lines between aid agencies and the military have become blurred in Afghanistan," Green said.

Those charges have been strongly endorsed by several other international aid organizations, including Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF or Doctors Without Borders), Christian Aid and Concern Worldwide. Last week, MSF pulled out of Afghanistan after having provided humanitarian assistance there for nearly 24 years. The reasons for the organization's withdrawal included a deterioration of the security environment in Afghanistan and, more important, the misuse of humanitarian aid by US military forces in the country.

MSF also said it was unhappy with the lack of progress in a government investigation of the killing of five of its aid workers in the northern province of Baghdis in June, presumably by insurgents. MSF, which employed about 1,400 local staff and 80 international staff, ended all its operations last week.

How many more soldiers and aid workers will be buried here ? The Christian cemetery in Kabul. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I remember the first time I went to that graveyard.
It was a cold winter’s day in early 1994 when I first met Rahimullah, grave digger and caretaker of the British Cemetery in Kabul. He looked poor in tattered Shalwah Kamez and a shawl wrapped round his shoulders to keep out the biting cold. The headstones and graves were dusted with snow. In the distance the Hindu Kush range stood high above Koh Daman, the hills that skirt Kabul. Rahimullah looked about 50 then. Since the Soviets withdrew from Kabul in 1989 he hadn’t been paid. I knew that Aurel Stein, the famous Hungarian born British Archaeologist was buried here in 1943. I didn’t know that this would to prove to be the most interesting grave yard I had ever seen. Its oldest residents are British soldiers from the Anglo-Afghan wars. Like the 29 members of the 67th Foot (South Hampshire Regiment), buried in a mass grave after a failed attempt to climb a hill south of Kabul on the 13th December 1879.
All that really remains of them is part of their grave stone, stuck along one side of the cemetery wall with other fragments of history. Long lists that tell no stories other than the staccato military details of name, rank, regiment and date. In between are assorted ranks of other visitors who never made it home. Explorers, journalists, hippies who lost the trail, engineers and aid workers; Italians and Germans and Canadians and Polish and many from other countries. Their headstones tell a snippet of Afghanistan’s rich history.

Fifteen years later my heart bleeds for the killing that is going on in Afghanistan, the country that deserves peace, a country that has been penalised by its geographic locations for more than two thousand years. I FERVENTLY PRAY FOR MORE UNEMPLOYED GRAVE-DIGGERS IN AFGHANISTAN.

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