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One Cup of Tea

“Some questions cannot be answered,” my new friend says, when I press him as to what he would advocate as the way forward in Afghanistan. “I am bewildered, dismayed,” he says, “in that things are not going in the right direction for the people of Afghanistan now.”

He worked in the Afghan government for several years, wanting to help rebuild Afghanistan, but resigned his position when he finally lost any shred of hope that the government could ever function in a way that would benefit the Afghan people. He describes the Karzai government as a mafia, both in its organizational structure and its actions. Because of such statements, I must keep his identity secret so as not to place his life at risk. I will call him Mahmoud, but that is not his name.

I have met only a few people so far, but all are unanimous in their contempt for Karzai and his government. One man said, “Karzai is the worst president in the history of the country.”

Mahmoud asks, “Why has the US, knowing very well who Karzai is, kept him in power? Why did the US continue to support him following the fraudulent elections? Why has the US allowed war criminals to run the country?”  He points out that some of those in the highest positions of power in the government have committed known atrocities, such as cutting off women’s breasts.

We are having tea together in a courtyard restaurant secluded by high walls. Mahmoud pauses while pouring more tea into his cup. “Americans think they can win in a vacuum, because they have more guns,” he says. The “vacuum” to which he refers is the absence of attention to all the other aspects of the conflict—including pervasive government corruption, the power and criminality of the war lords and their incorporation into the government, and the lack of community development in a country devastated by decades of war.

The Afghans I have met these first couple of days believe that the only reason the US is in Afghanistan is because of the country’s strategic location, between Iran and Pakistan and bordering China and several republics of the former Soviet Union. With bases located in Afghanistan, the US can more easily “project power” and engage in “kinetic military actions,” as the latest Pentagon jargon has it. Just yesterday the New York Times reported that the US is negotiating a new agreement with the Afghan government to allow US bases to remain in Afghanistan for at least ten to twenty years after 2014.   While the US claims the war is to help the Afghan people and defeat the Taliban, the people I have spoken with here see little evidence of a humanitarian goal, and through its military tactics, the US is creating enemies faster than it can kill them. As was true of the Iraq war, this war most likely continues for a number of reasons.  Kathy Kelly wrote last year:

“There is no simple answer or brilliant conspiracy theory that sums up exactly why the United States is at war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. War profiteering, energy resources, the Trans-Afghan pipeline, strategic geo-political positioning and even the narcotics trade may all play a part. But whatever the case, it is clear that the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan have become a football to be kicked about by the powerful players in world politics.”

Driving to Charahi Qambar Refugee Camp

Another new friend, to whom I am giving the pseudonym Mohammed, drives me to the refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul where we will find some of these human footballs. Kabul was built for 500,000 people but now has a population of four million, I have been told. Many of the city streets on which we drive are unpaved, consisting of nothing more than hard- packed dirt. To navigate the ubiquitous potholes, drivers constantly move from lane to lane, including into oncoming traffic lanes. I see only one traffic light in our half hour drive, and that one is not functioning. If there are any rules of the road, they elude me. Driving here is a skill that takes nerves of steel.

Small, open kiosks, huts really, line the road for miles, showcasing all kinds of wares and food. Far more men than women are out shopping and walking on the streets. Of the women I see, only a few are wearing burqas, although all cover their heads, as I am also doing.

Mohammed and I are talking and he is perhaps paying insufficient attention to the road when he suddenly pulls aside and exclaims, “Oh, no, I have to get out of the way. I am too close!”  Three US army trucks have come up behind us, and all the cars must move to the side of the road. “If we get too close, they will shoot us,” my friend explains. He tells me that many people in Kabul have been shot for driving too close to such trucks. This is something I knew was common in rural areas, but I am surprised to learn that it also happens in the middle of Kabul.

We drive by the US army base, which is surrounded by a mud wall perhaps 20 feet tall with rolls of barbed wire on top. Mohammed wants to show me how huge the base is, and we drive for miles, following the mud wall.

As we approach the Charahi Qambar Refugee Camp, Mohammed explains that it is home to about 1,200 internally displaced people who have fled here seeking safety. Mahmoud had told me in the morning that there are some four million Afghan refugees in neighboring countries, many of them living in huge camps in Pakistan, but that these countries no longer accept refugees. Hoping to leave the country and find safety, Afghans have applied in the thousands for visas to all the embassies in Kabul, he said; but there are no countries that will give them visas.

Outside the refugee camp, I notice piles of mud brick beside the road .  Mohammed tells me that refugees make these bricks by hand and then sell them as a way to make a little money; mud is the one commodity that is in abundance.

Refugee Camp Showing Brick Factory

Charahi Qambar Refugee Camp

Living conditions in this camp are incredibly primitive. People live in hovels. When the refugees first arrived, they were given tents by aid agencies. After a while, the people built mud walls and placed the tents over the top to serve as roofs; these “roofs” leak when it rains. Open sewers run through the camp, and you step over them to move around.

Walking Through Charahi Qambar Refugee Camp

We stop to visit with one family, consisting of nine people who fled Helmand Province south of Kabul and have lived in the camp now for four years. We walk into their “compound”– three small, one-room mud huts surrounding an open area, a kind of courtyard.

Inside the Family Compound

The children are bringing in rocks in a wheelbarrow.  The patriarch of the group tells us that they will crush the rocks and then mix the resulting pebbles with a couple of bags of concrete they have just been given by an aid agency; he will then be able to build a toilet for the family. He tries to get day labor work to support the family, he says, but that is difficult to find. Otherwise, he has to rely on food aid provided by international agencies, which is inadequate to feed his family. He apologizes profusely that he is unable to offer us, his guests, a cup of tea, but he has none. This is clearly shameful to him.

The family came to Kabul to save their lives. One daughter, whom I meet, lost an arm to a bombing raid, and an uncle lost a leg before they fled. The family cannot go home, as it is too dangerous, and anyway, they no longer have any home to which they could return. At least the children can go to school here, I am told.

Girl Injured by Bombs, Inside Her Home

This is the saddest place I have ever seen.

On the Way to Kabul

Dubai Airport

I am fortunate to have been invited to accompany Fahima Vorgetts of Women for Afghan Women (WAW) on a trip to visit the projects funded by WAW in Kabul and nearby villages. Fahima is an extraordinarily impressive Afghan woman who has lived in the US for many years now. She sells Afghan carpets and handicrafts, and with the proceeds, funds projects for women’s education, health care, and other critical needs. I will have the opportunity to talk to the beneficiaries of these projects first hand.

In addition to the women from the WAW projects, I plan to interview a wide variety of individuals, each of whom has a special and distinctive perspective. Friends who have visited Kabul on earlier trips have given me introductions, and so once I arrive, I will be able to set up appointments. My goal is to learn as much as possible in the short time I have.

Why Go to Kabul?

I am taking this trip in order to become a more effective peace advocate.  There is no better way to acquire knowledge and an in-depth understanding of a country than to visit it. Obviously, a two-week stay in only one city will not make me an expert on Afghanistan, but I believe it will give me a much better sense of the complexities of this war and of the country itself and will lend credence to my statements.

I especially hope to learn more about Afghan women.  I was very moved by Ann Jones’ descriptions of Afghan women she has met, as described in her stunning book, Kabul in Winter.

I want to make the war become more real to me and to people at home, with whom I will share the stories when I return. It is far too easy to ignore this war. It seems to be happening in another dimension, far removed from anything connected to our daily lives. And yet, it is OUR government that has further destroyed an already-devastated country—and OUR tax dollars that are paying for the bombs, drones, and bullets to continue the destruction.

A few years ago, I was arrested in the office of Sen. Barbara Mikulski for sitting-in as a protest of her continuing votes to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the arresting officer said something surprising to me: “If you believe the war is wrong, you have a moral imperative to do everything you can to stop it.”  I agree with him. Interviewing people on the other end of our violence will, I hope, help me to do a better job of meeting that moral imperative.

Some Questions I Have

What stories are rarely, if ever, covered in our own media?  For example, the film Rethink Afghanistan shows a very large refugee camp on the edge of Kabul where people from all over the country have come to escape the fighting and where they live in appalling conditions. Nowhere else have I seen anything about this refugee camp, and yet, thousands of people live there in horrendous conditions, according to the film; children die frequently in this camp from exposure, for example. What can I learn about this refugee camp?  Another issue that doesn’t get any attention in our media:  under what conditions do women receive, or not receive, medical care? And who are the women in the women’s prisons and why are they there?

What ideas do Afghans have for the best way forward?  Numerous studies and proposals have been put forward in the U.S. about next steps, but Afghan voices are rarely heard. I don’t expect that all Afghans will speak with one voice. I know that there is a diversity of opinion—not surprising in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country, with urban-rural and religious differences; however peace comes, it will bring gain to some groups and loss to others. So, it will be instructive to see what different people, from different groups, advocate.

How is corruption manifested? We have heard that the current government is hopelessly corrupt, and yet we are fighting to strengthen and further empower this government. How do ordinary Afghans experience corruption and what do they propose as the way to counter it?

What is the best way to advocate for women and children? We have learned that the “warlords” are just as oppressive towards women as the Taliban–the same warlords that largely compose the Afghan legislature and for whose benefit we are fighting. How can we design a strategy to move to peace, while protecting women and children from the warlords we have funded and empowered and from the Taliban that we fight? Which civil society organizations  are doing the most for women and children and how can we support them?

Random Thoughts

My flight was from Dulles to Dubai, where I am now waiting for a connecting flight.  Dubai Airport is probably the most beautiful, modern airport I’ve ever seen. The atrium features many large palm trees, and the ceiling in the departure lounge is three stories high. I was surprised to see kiosks for Cinnabon and Cold Creamery.

With eight seats across, the plane was big, and it was almost full and mostly male. I’d bet that 80% of the passengers were American contractors. One guy had on a Blackwater tee shirt. The man sitting in front of me on the plane was going to Kabul to do “human resources” work for three weeks for DynCorp. I wonder how much money is going to pay salaries and expenses of just those people on my flight.

My husband and I had some electrical work done on our house last week, and I mentioned to the electrician that I was going to Afghanistan in a few days. He said that his neighbor, a construction worker, has had a job in Afghanistan for three years, at the rate of $130,000, tax free, for every six month stint. How many contracting firms there are, I have no idea. I read that there are 800 NGOs in Kabul—an astonishing number—most run by foreign consultants. What’s clear is that a lot of people are making a lot of money off of this war, and most of them are not Afghans.

I find myself here in the airport closely studying women’s clothing. In preparation for the trip, I struggled over what to pack. Because I am bringing medical supplies in my baggage for the WAW clinics, I had extremely limited space for clothes. The few clothes I packed needed to be appropriate, by which I mean, clothing that would help me fit in. So, a scarf—yes, no problem. Long sleeves and no scoop neckline—okay, I have a couple of things that fit both criteria. But then, I read that the tops to go over pants should be long, mid-thigh length. Hard to meet all the requirements with what I had on hand, and it is possible that in the end, I’ll buy something in Kabul.

Here in the airport, where people come from all over the Gulf and other places, quite a few women are wearing chadors, the total black cover-up costume, and a veil with just a slit for the eyes—very similar to a burqa. I have a visceral, furious reaction when I see them.  The chadors look hot, bulky, difficult to see through, hard to walk in, awkward and generally uncomfortable. Initially and inexplicably, my fury is directed at the woman for wearing such a thing and then I remind myself that it is extremely unlikely that it is her choice. My rage is more appropriately directed at whatever patriarchal society she comes from and the men who control her life.

Some chador-covered women wear stylish high heels, even high heel platform shoes, that you can see peeking out below the hem of the chador.  I imagine that these women feel that dressing stylishly under the chador is a way to express their individuality and modernity. To me, such shoes are a different form of oppression from the black chador, one that originates in the West, and seeing these shoes reminds me that the oppression of women is worldwide. How sad to see someone exhibiting BOTH the Eastern and Western forms of oppression of women, as reflected in apparel.

In a couple of hours, I’ll get on the plane to Kabul. Electricity there is supposedly sporadic and Internet access uncertain. I hope to have the time and ability to send this blog post right away and another one soon.

“UNDERMINING GUATE”

As follow-up to a photo-essay about “Gang rapes, forced evictions & the endless nightmare of nickel mining in Guatemala ”, published on Rights Action’s listserv, May 27
(http://rightsaction.org/Alerts/Guatemala_nickel_nightmare_052710.html), comes this Spoken Word Piece, “Undermining Guate”, by Rachel Small.

Rachel is studying environmental justice at the University of Waterloo . Rachel first visited the Mayan Qeqchi community of “Lote 8” with a Rights Action delegation, and later returned to gather testimonies from community members, including powerful testimonies from women who were gang raped by soldiers, police and security guards hired by then Skye Resources (now HudBay Minerals) mining company, that is trying to operate a nickel mine on traditional Mayan Qeqchi lands.

“UNDERMINING GUATE”

(By Rachel Small, rachelblumesmall@gmail.com)

View Rachel’s Spoken Word performance:
http://rachelblumesmall.wordpress.com/

The first news I heard when I got back to Canada told me that:
“Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to make the plight of mothers and infants in the developing world Canada ’s “signature” initiative at the G8 summit.”
And gee doesn’t that sound great?

Only…
all that comes to mind for me
and refuses to leave
are the testimonies
of communities
like Lote ocho, Lot 8.
Up high in the hills in Guatemala
near Lago Izabal;
a community whose mothers and infants
that Harper cares so much about
have been completely plight-ed, blighted
by hate and fate and rape and… Canada .

Lot 8, where the nickel in the ground
has brought Canadian corporations:
Inco, Skye, now Hudbay,
all determined to do aways
with anyone there who’s in their way
no matter how long they
have been there
lived there
no matter whether they have anywhere else to go
to grow
mais frijoles platano
to sow the seeds
for the plants that feed
their families
in a country where 18 families
own over half the land
and where 80% of Guatemalan land
that can grow food
is not being used,
in the hands of the few
who go to western supermarkets to buy their food.

And I guess it’s true
that when the name you give a town
is a number – lot 8 –
and when you demarcate, delineate
the borders of a place
with mineral exploration trenches,
it becomes easier to designate
people, as property.

But Lot 8 is the people’s property
and the people of lot 8 have nowhere else to go
and so, after being evicted illegally
by a Canadian company
arriving unexpectedly
with the police, private security, and what looked like half the army
over 700 men with guns
who burned their homes, crops, lives to the ground
raining tear gas canisters
gunshots drowning out the sound
of the town
screaming
mourning
disbelieving
what they were seeing
what was happening.

But Lot 8 had nowhere else to go
and so, after this eviction this attack
they had to come back
and start rebuilding.

And 8 days later,
the 700 men came back too
only this time the town men were off in the fields
and the police, army, security found
only women and children in the town.

And I feel like you know what I’m going to say
what the army, the police,
and the private security hired by our Canadian company
did on that day,
January 17th, 2007,
But I promised Elena Choc Quib
that I would repeat
how 8 men
beat her
and raped her
left her unable to move
on the ground
and how she never gave birth
to the child she was eight months pregnant with at the time.

And I wish I hadn’t heard the same story
from Irma Yolanda Choc Cac
or lots of other women in the town.

and I don’t even think we can begin to comprehend
how alone these women are.
cause if it’s the
the Canadian company,
the police,
and the army
who have raped you
then who the hell do you have to turn to?

I wish these stories didn’t exist of mothers and infants
on whom Canada has certainly left its “signature mark.”
But they do, stark
and clear and so
it makes me sick
to sit and ingest the hypocritic bullshit
stories our leaders feel fit
to share.
And they say it all with a straight face.

I can’t face that the only thing I could stand up straight
and say in Lot 8 was
Lo siento.
I’m so sorry.
Lo siento.
Lamento mucho.
And I said it so many times,
lo siento,
I began to wonder,
lo siento,
who I thought I was apologizing for.

And it killed me to know
that all I could promise
was that I would tell their stories
when I got back home
I explained that I’m a nobody in Canada
that mining companies, the government wouldn’t listen to me
that the g20, g8
are meetings of states
where people sign “signature initiatives
for the plight of infants and their mothers”
without ever speaking to mothers,
or listening to Canadians who have.
Or coming close to looking
at the origins of this “plight”
or who should share in the fight
of campesinos in Guatemala
who know
that if we would only go
leave them alone
and bring our companies home
that would help much more
than Harper’s signature whatever.

I want a g20, a g8
where Canadians articulate
that we want a say in what companies we all invest in
through the Canadian pension plan.
Where we can take a stand and di-vest in Hudbay,
create laws that keep our companies at bay
so Guatemalans can protest
without facing arrest
or being killed or abused by Canadian companies.

I want a summit
where we call it
as it is.
Because if this isn’t a new generation
of colonization
then I don’t know what it is.
Or maybe these systems of raping
and razing
and segregating,
creating euphemisms
like “community resettlement”
do have a name.
Maybe we call it development.
And I do believe this is development work
if the worth you’re developing
is Canadian stocks.

I want a G8 or 20
where we take stock
of our country
and the companies of our nation
that run 60% of mines and mineral exploration
around the world.
And where we ditch the reputation,
the idealization,
of us as a peaceful nation
and instead work towards
joining in solidarity
with la lucha, the fight
of indigenous nations of Guatemala
which is our fight too.

I want a g8
where millions of us
cause a ruckus
put up one hell of a fuss
and finally admit
that the “plight of mothers and infants in the developing world”
is us.

Yes, Reduce the Deficit! Here’s How

To reduce the deficit, President Obama plans to freeze expenditures on social needs during a time of desperation for many in our nation, but he will exempt funding that is related to national security.  Of the total discretionary part of the budget (i.e., the part that is not required by law), “national security” now consumes 55%*. Where do all those billions go?

Here are some of the ways we are spending our “national security” dollars: The U.S. operates about 1,000 foreign military bases**, at a cost of about $250 billion per year***. Almost every week there is another news story on military contractor waste, fraud or abuse. The war spending continues to go up. We have a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons that costs billions to maintain, and we continue to buy weapons systems that in today’s world we don’t need.

If President Obama wants to cut the deficit, he should consider reducing the number of foreign bases, cracking down on war profiteering, eliminating nuclear and other unnecessary weapons, and he should bring our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

We currently have a military budget that is higher than at any time since World War II, higher even than during the Viet Nam war and the cold war. Why?

Conservative historian and retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich has suggested that we reduce the U.S. military budget to a level that does not exceed the combined military spending of all ten of the next highest-spending countries in the world. If we did that, we’d be cutting our military budget by 31%–a much better way to reduce the deficit. Surely, the U.S. doesn’t need to spend vast sums on the military when our only enemy is a rag-tag bunch of cave dwellers and when we have such pressing needs at home.

*Source: http://www.nationalpriorities.org/Publications/NPP_Security_Spending_Primer.pdf

**Source: http://www.fpif.org/articles/too_many_overseas_bases

***Source: http://www.fpif.org/reports/the_cost_of_the_global_us_military_presence

Gaza Freedom March: Fifth Letter

Gaza Freedom March
Fifth Letter—January 1, 2010

Hedy Epstein, 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, has stolen our hearts. At four feet-ten, she is a giant. Her gentle smile lights up every room that she enters, and yet if you saw her on the street, you might not immediately sense her power. Unless you paid close attention, you would just see a sweet little old lady.

When she came to Cairo, Hedy decided to undertake a fast in support of the people of Gaza, a particularly apt form of protest given the inadequacy of both the supply and type of food the people there have access to. Malnutrition is endemic in Gaza, and children’s growth is stunted; people frequently go hungry.

Inspired by Hedy, thirty others joined her fast, beginning on December 28. Today, the fasters held a press conference on the steps of the building housing the Egyptian journalists’ union. Some of the thirty will continue to fast, others will stop now. They released this statement:

We are thirty activists from around the world, inspired by Hedy Epstein, the 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, who initiated a hunger strike in Cairo for the opening of the borders of Gaza to the outside world.

We recognize that the Palestinians of Gaza continue to hunger for food, shelter, and most of all for freedom.

We continue to hunger for justice for Gaza and all of Palestine. At this time, we announce that we will feast when Gaza feasts.

Until that time, each of us will choose the time to end her/his fast and again take food.

Our pleasure in that food will always be mixed with the pain of Palestinians.

We call on all people of conscience from around the world to renew their resolve for peace and justice in Palestine.

My friend Keren, Jewish like Hedy, has talked about how personally difficult it is to work for justice in Palestine when your dearest community will not support you, even actively opposes you. Hedy, too, has struggled with this problem, Keren told me, when members of her own family rejected her. And yet, she takes this strong, brave action, risking her health and accepting shunning from loved ones in order to stand up for those who are oppressed.

On this final day of the Gaza Freedom March, I have reflected on the experience—did we accomplish anything? We have all been inspired–by individuals of conscience like Hedy, by the sense of international friendship and solidarity that has pervaded these days here, even by the observable impact of our practice of nonviolence on the young policemen. There has been media coverage of our multiple protests here, and so we have raised up the issue of Gaza around the world, although coverage in the mainstream media has been limited, especially in the U.S. We have made lasting connections with one another, and so a nascent international movement, initiated by the South African delegation, is forming to combat the apartheid system in Palestine, a system with many similarities to what once existed in South Africa.

Most people will leave Cairo either tomorrow or the next day, returning home to their various countries. A few of us are staying on, however, hoping that we can, in a few days, get into Gaza after all–not to participate in a march but rather to offer our service as volunteers. If we are successful and cross into Gaza, we know that we will be greeted with love by the people there. We received this e-mail yesterday, written a few days ago, from the youth of Gaza:

We are still waiting for everyone to cross and share his/her feelings with us, but even if Egypt keeps you out, your work in Egypt is critical. Egypt is one of the perpetrators of the blockade, and we so appreciate all the solidarity protests you have conducted at great personal risk throughout the great city of Cairo, at every important “nerve center.” You showed your support of Gaza and Palestine loud and clear, waking humanity up to the 1.5 million persons in Gaza who have been suffering for the past four years.

So please don’t stop fighting, no matter what happens. With your help, we will achieve peace and justice. We are marching for freedom together.

We are still waiting for the Gaza Freedom March to cross from Cairo and we are against the Egyptian government’s decision! Welcome to Gaza and to a Happy New Year without blockade, settlements and occupation!

As for me, I have never spent a more memorable New Year’s Eve than last night, when I went to the French Embassy where the 200-strong French delegation was still camped out. Marching on the sidewalk between rows of small tents, with a couple of hundred riot police standing guard at the curb, the French, wearing paper New Year’s Eve hats, chanted, “Ga-za, Ga-za, on n’oublie pas! Ga-za, Ga-za, on n’oublie pas!” Gaza, Gaza, you are not forgotten! And, “Gaza, bonne annee, oui! Gaza, bonne annee, oui!” Happy New Year, Gaza.

May 2010 be the year that the blockade ends and freedom comes to Gaza and all Palestine.

Gaza Freedom March: Letter Four

Gaza Freedom March
Fourth Letter: December 31, 2009

Over 1300 people came to Cairo this week from all over the world, hoping to join Palestinians today in a nonviolent Gaza Freedom March to end the blockade. Since we were prohibited from going to Gaza, we decided to march in Cairo today instead. We hoped to step off at 10 a.m., the same time as the march in Gaza was to begin.

Many people managed to make it to the location selected for the march—near the Egyptian Museum– but they were quickly and forcibly removed from the street; a few were injured and some had their cameras destroyed. Once off the street and onto the sidewalk, protesters were surrounded by riot police, and there they remained all day.

I was one of those who didn’t manage to get to the march. Egyptian police surrounded the Lotus Hotel early this morning, where many people are staying, including me, and they prevented us from leaving. The government also cut off Internet access to the hotel. We were able to go outside directly in front of the hotel, which is on a busy street, but we could not cross the police line. So, we set up a demonstration on the sidewalk, chanting, waving signs, singing, and talking to passers-by and to the police.

We finally stopped the demonstration at about 3 p.m.

A lovely French woman named Delphine is my roommate, and tonight we went together to eat dinner. We saw a young couple going into the same restaurant as us and speaking American English. Assuming they were with the March, we invited them to join us, which they did. But it turned out that they were simply in Egypt on vacation. We began to tell them about the March, which they found interesting. Both were well-educated, but neither knew anything at all about Palestine, Gaza, or the issues we are trying to address. Nothing. Nada. Rien.

It was disheartening to see the level of education that is needed in the US if American policy is ever to change. They were a very nice couple and highly supportive of our actions, once they understood what they are about.

There is so much work to do in the US.

Tonight we will ring in the New Year in Tahrir Square, altogether. We hope, we pray, that 2010 will bring some relief and some hope for all Palestinians and, especially, that the siege of Gaza will end.

Gaza Freedom March: Questions for the U.S. and Lessons in Nonviolent Resistance

Gaza Freedom March
Letter Three—December 29

Free Gaza actions occurred all over Cairo today, and so the police, who are often in riot gear, have had a busy day—they show up wherever we go. They are incredibly young, maybe 18 or 19. Typically, when the police work a demonstration, they surround us with moveable steel fences, which they line up behind– sometimes two deep–and they watch us with what seems to be curiosity, not malice. However, their innocent appearance doesn’t mean they won’t become aggressive; for example, police today were very rough with several Spanish protesters. As internationals, though, we have great protection, not enjoyed by locals. Some Egyptians have joined in these protests, and we find their courage astounding.

This morning, I was at the U.S. Embassy with a group of about 40 other Americans. We went hoping to see the Ambassador, but instead we were surrounded by Egyptian police in riot gear and kept penned in for some five hours. The police told us that they did this at the behest of the American Embassy, but later the “political security officer” of the Embassy denied it. So, who is lying? It is interesting that the French ambassador spent the night outside with the French protesters when they first occupied the sidewalk in front of their embassy, but the American ambassador refused to see us and apparently had us detained, and for no reason.

We went to the American Embassy to ask the U.S. to prevail upon the Egyptian government and allow our nonviolent delegation into Gaza. The U.S. has tremendous leverage with Egypt, of course, and if the U.S. asked Egypt to allow us to go to Gaza, the border would surely be opened immediately. Three members of our group were allowed inside the Embassy to speak to an American representative, while the rest of us were prevented from moving outside our temporary pen. Our spokespersons reminded the political officer with whom they met that when Barack Obama came to Cairo in June, he spoke movingly of the power of nonviolence as a way to resist oppression. The President said,

For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding.

The Gaza Freedom March embodies that “peaceful and determined insistence” about which the President spoke. I wonder if the Ambassador heard his speech.

In that same speech, President Obama acknowledged the dire circumstances of Palestinians in general, and Gazans in particular. He said,

So let there be no doubt: the state of the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own. . . Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security . . . Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.

And yet, it seems that we Americans have turned our backs on the people of Gaza: we are doing nothing to end the siege, which is creating unimaginable suffering. And we have done nothing to compel Israel to end the siege. Indeed, the U.S. is presently facilitating a strengthening of the siege: it was announced last week that the Army Corps of Engineers is assisting Egypt in further isolating the people of Gaza by helping in the construction of a huge underground wall. This wall will cut off the only remaining sources of food, clothes, medicine, and all other necessities of life, which now enter Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. How shameful that the U.S. is working to increase the suffering of the people of Gaza rather than to diminish it.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, President Obama said,

As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

Our President thus applauds nonviolent action and recognizes its strength. The Gaza Freedom March was conceived as a nonviolent response to what President Obama characterized as an intolerable situation and a humanitarian crisis—a crisis that has become increasingly dire since he spoke here in June.

Thus, we are attempting to do exactly what President Obama recommended, and yet when we went to our own Embassy for intervention with the Egyptian government, we were surrounded by police and detained for hours in an open-air pen, an appropriate symbol for Gaza itself, actually.

President Obama said in Oslo,

It is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.

In Gaza, because of U.S. complicity with Israel in the blockade, people do not have enough food, clean water or medicine. There are no books or paper for school children, and the schools that were bombed cannot be rebuilt because building materials are not allowed into the Strip. Unemployment is at 75%. There is little hope in Gaza.

President Obama ended his eloquent Oslo speech with these stirring words:

So let us reach for the world that ought to be – that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. . . Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.

Let us live by their example.

And yet, when we U.S. citizens attempt to speak with representatives of our own Embassy–in a client state–about our desires to help alleviate a dire humanitarian situation, we are detained for hours like animals and refused an audience. Is this the audacity of hope? Is this change we can believe in?

We ask our government to live by the words of our President and to help us end the illegal and immoral siege of Gaza.

Gaza Freedom March: On the Flight to Cairo

Gaza Freedom March
On the Flight to Cairo, December 26, 2009

Our goal: to draw attention to Gaza and end the blockade.

We intend to shed light on the terrible suffering of the 1.5 million people subsisting in the desperate little piece of land called the Gaza Strip. We hope that if people world-wide understand what is happening, something will be done—and the people of Gaza can once again live like human beings.

On the anniversary of last year’s horrific attack on Gaza by Israel, we had planned to join with Gazans on a three-mile non-violent solidarity march, at the same time that people in many countries around the world hold their own local demonstrations and vigils. Over thirteen hundred people from 42 countries are on their way to Cairo for the march, and we had planned to board buses on December 28 for the five-hour drive to Rafah, the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Our historical models for the Gaza Freedom March are Gandhi’s salt march and Martin Luther King’s Selma march.

We have all agreed to abide by non-violence guidelines. We know, of course, that the forces for violence in the region are entrenched and powerful, but we believe that our non-violent witness will be part of a moral force pushing back against war and injustice. We hope that our presence can show the world that change is both possible and necessary. Because of this hope, we have given up our Christmas holidays, and each of us has dedicated two thousand dollars or more for expenses—a small cost, indeed, given what we would like to accomplish.

Everyone has packed a few items to bring to people in Gaza, items that are now either unavailable to Gazans or so expensive that, in a region with 74% unemployment[i], impossible for people to purchase. I packed several sweaters for children, a few packages of markers, a couple of toys, and calcium supplements for pregnant and nursing mothers. Some people are bringing books and laptops, desperately needed by students.

My offerings are pathetic, given the vast need, but it is all I could carry.

A few days ago, we learned that the Egyptian government has decided to prevent us from entering into Gaza. Previous delegations have been allowed in. Of course, those delegations were much smaller than the thirteen hundred coming for the Gaza Freedom March.

Even after learning of the Egyptian decision, almost everyone decided to go ahead and travel to Cairo, hoping that Egypt will relent and allow us entry, and if that doesn’t happen, that we can mount a public protest in Cairo, even though doing so might well lead to our arrests.

Egyptian authorities have told March organizers that if anyone displays banners or protest signs, or if people gather in groups larger than six, we will be arrested. None of us want to be arrested, especially in Egypt, a country known for its harsh prisons and torture. But, it hardly seems that we can travel to Egypt and just go look at the pyramids. While contemplating what I felt comfortable and brave enough to do, I happened to read a statement on-line from the leadership of a group in the West Bank town of Bil’iin. Bil’in has held weekly demonstrations for months in non-violent resistance to the construction of the illegal Israeli wall that will impoverish and destroy the village. As a result of these demonstrations, villagers are regularly tear-gassed, shot with rubber-coated steel bullets, subjected to sound bombs, beaten up, arrested and even killed. Here is what the people of Bil’in wrote to us:

Egypt has announced that the Rafah border into Gaza will be closed over the coming weeks to the 1,300 international delegates attempting to march in solidarity with the people of occupied Palestine . . . on the anniversary of Israel’s horrific Cast Lead massacre that killed over 1,400 people. The powerful and diverse collaboration of international support must now choose its response to this horrific injustice. Will you stand waiting permission at the gates of Gaza? We say that you need not wait; if Egypt will not open their border, then the time for action is now. We encourage and support the escalation of non-violent direct action. It is up to you to take the next steps. It is no surprise that Egypt is not allowing the march to continue, so the natural progression towards a victory over this injustice is creative tactical escalation. If you cannot march on the roads, then set up camp and sleep on them instead; fast in solidarity with the people who are dying of starvation; refuse to be stopped by their temporary boundaries. We can look to the lessons, the creativity, and the determination of our sisters and brothers from historical resistance movements.

We are the voice of the voiceless, the arms of those physically held captive, the eyes of those blinded by hate.

There are those of us who resist because we have no choice, we resist to live. And there are those of us who know that no one is free until we are all free, and we use our bodies and the privilege of our relative freedom to resist oppression in all its forms.

There is no time for words without action. Here in Bil’in, we will be demonstrating in solidarity with Gaza and all those trying to enter.

We have learned that Egypt has forbidden the bus companies to transport us to the border. Egyptian authorities have cancelled the space that had been rented for our group meeting scheduled for the evening of December 27. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that we will be able to get anywhere near Gaza.

So, somehow, we will take a stand in Cairo.

No War in Afghanistan: Suggest a New Slogan!

Obama Won’t Sign Treaty on Landmines

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, in an announcement that did not recieve much media attention, the Obama administration declared that it would not sign the international antipersonnel landmine ban. The administration said that the Bush era landmine policy “remains in effect.”

This is another disappointing decision by the administration and comes only two weeks before President Obama travels to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

The move brought immediate criticism. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., criticized the described the decision as “a lost opportunity for the United States to show leadership instead of joining with China and Russia and impeding progress.”

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a coalition of hundreds of NGOs, churches and grassroots organisations worldwide, “strongly condemned” the decision. “We cannot understand this shameful decision and we definitely cannot understand President Obama’s decision to continue with the Bush policy,” said Jody Williams, Nobel co-laureate for her role in the landmine ban. “This decision is a slap in the face to landmine survivors, their families and affected communities everywhere.”

Human Rights Watch condemned the decision saying that “It is painful that President Obama has chosen to reject the mine ban treaty just weeks before he joins the ranks of Nobel peace laureates, including the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.”

This decision will add to the disappointment felt by the peace community over Obama’s decision to widen the war in Afghanistan.


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