Archive Page 2

Baby Toes, Precious Gems, and Nuclear Waste

In a village outside Kabul, I visited a women’s literacy class. With notebooks and textbooks in their laps, about 20 women of all ages sat on cushions around the wall, while a couple of toddlers rolled around in the middle of the room. The babies had no toys and so they played with each other’s toes: one baby would lie on the floor and stick her feet out. The other baby would grab the little girl’s toes and pull. Then the children would fall over, laugh, and start again. They played this game for at least fifteen minutes, a long time for toddlers.

I asked the women to tell me how the war has affected them, and they all started talking at once:

“My two sons were killed. They were both engineers.”

“My husband was killed.”

“I lost my son.”

“My home was destroyed.”

“Both my children were killed.”

One woman summed it up: “The war has destroyed our lives.”

My friend Fahima, who is taking me to visit development projects, told me that she no longer asks that question because the outpouring of tragedy and grief is more than she can bear.

Despite suffering on a scale that is unimaginable to me, these women are determined to overcome the problems that the war has foisted upon them, and their participation in this class is testimony to their determination and commitment. They want to learn to read and then develop some skills that will enable them to overcome grinding poverty and bring a better life to their children—their surviving children, that is.

They begged us to stay for lunch, but Fahima said we didn’t have time. As we were walking out the door, one woman brought out a big loaf of warm, flat, country-style bread and invited us to tear some off and eat. I tried it and it was delicious. They encouraged us to take the entire loaf, but we said, no, no. Finally, one woman unzipped my rather large purse and crammed the loaf into it. I was secretly glad and didn’t protest, as warm, freshly cooked bread is one of my favorite foods. That loaf of bread became lunch for Fahima, our driver, and me.

Women's Literacy Class

Rumors and More Rumors

I have been struck by the many stories of U.S. and NATO malfeasance. Some of these stories seem clearly false to me, others highly unlikely, while a few may have some truth to them. Some examples:

  • German troops, while stationed for two years in the mountains of Badakhshan, frequently closed the roads and tunnels at night so that they could secretly mine precious gems, which they took out of the country and sold abroad.
  • In Helmand Province, the British essentially destroyed an entire mountain in uranium mining operations. They took the uranium and did not compensate Afghanistan for it.
  • Americans have brought massive amounts of nuclear waste from the U.S. to southern Afghanistan, where they have created a huge dump. The radioactivity from this dump threatens the health and lives of Afghans throughout the country.
  • The police chief in Kandahar was recently assassinated in his office on a Friday, a day that he normally does not go to work. It is proven that an American phoned him in the morning and told him to go to work that day. He was surely killed by the Americans. While it isn’t clear how the Americans would benefit specifically from this assassination, on the other hand, Americans frequently commit crimes of violence in order to show that they are needed in Afghanistan.
  • A group of Taliban fighters was intentionally allowed to escape by American forces–released in fact, after having been captured by some Afghan army soldiers. These Taliban had the latest U.S. weapons, far better than the ones the Afghan army has, and they also had American food provisions with them. Undoubtedly, these Taliban are being supplied by the Americans and supported by them.

Underlying such stories is the belief that the occupation forces are here for their own purposes, such as stealing the resources of the country, not to help the people of Afghanistan. The Americans, in particular, according to this narrative, intentionally foment discord and violence to justify their presence; some violence they commit themselves, but they also encourage violent acts by others, using divide and conquer tactics to create or exacerbate ethnic tensions.

The construction of huge, permanent-looking military bases, along with reports of new negotiations to maintain a U.S. presence in Afghanistan for at least ten to twenty more years, lends credence to rumors like these, and such stories are widely believed.  The most common reason cited by Afghans for the presence of American forces is to give the U.S. a geo-strategic location from which to control the region, including Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China. Whether or not one believes in the absolute truth of any particular rumor, the construction of these huge bases, combined with the clear intention of the U.S. to keep troops in them for many years to come, suggests that the Afghan analysis may well be accurate.


“Allahu akbar, you are a bitch!”

“We are depressed all the time and we have to keep pushing each other,” a young woman tells me, explaining how she and her sister manage to continue their art and cultural work in the face of both war and oppression.  Sheda, age 20, and Palvash, age 23 (not their real names), are glad that they have minimally more freedom now than under the rule of the Taliban. For example, they can go out of the house, work, and go to school, but such freedoms for women are limited to those who live in Kabul. The situation of women in the provinces—the huge majority of women in this country–has not improved, they tell me. And the freedoms Sheda and Palvash have, while very important to them, are not “rights” and can be retracted at any time.

They are concerned about U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, fearing that these negotiations will lead to more restrictions on women.

Sheda, petite and pretty, has spent a year in France studying film, and in fact, her short movie will soon be featured in a major international film show.  Palvash, too, is cute and exuberant, talking constantly and switching from English to Dari whenever she can’t remember an English word.  The two of them help each other out with English, often finishing each other’s sentences. Their eyes light up and their speech quickens as they describe their art projects.

I ask about being a woman in Afghanistan. Palvash replies that it is very hard. She tells me that family sexual abuse is endemic here, that unmarried daughters, sisters and other women living in a family compound are at great risk of rape by the men of the family; if a girl becomes pregnant as a result of such sexual abuse, she is killed.

In fact, they tell me, violence against women in all forms is common throughout Afghanistan. For example, Sheda says, last month in Herat, two women were beheaded by their husbands; nothing happened to the killers. Palvash explains that men want women to stay in the house, to do whatever they are told, and not to have any ideas, work or thoughts of their own. If a woman objects to living like this, she will be killed by her husband.

Some three years ago, a law was passed that codified the status of Shia women. Among other things, Sheda says, this law allows marriage of girls at age 9; requires written permission of a woman’s husband for her to work, and if she does work, requires her to hand over all the money she earns to her husband; and allows men to have up to seven wives. There was sufficient outrage among women in Kabul at the time this law was being considered in Parliament that a women’s demonstration was held, with Sunni as well as Shia women participating—even some women in burqas demonstrated.  Palvash shows me a video of the demonstration, pointing out the mob of angry men shouting and yelling at the women. Palvash translates their words:  “Allahu akbar [God is great], you are a bitch!” and “Die, women, die!” and “Death to women!”

The bill was signed into law by Karzai and enshrines the status of Shia women as living at the mercy of men.

Palvash and Sheda are so worried about the possible return of the Taliban, which they say would consign them to house prison, that they cannot bring themselves to advocate for the removal of foreign troops. On the other hand, they see little good and much bad that the NATO and U.S. presence has brought to Afghanistan. “We do not want to be a battleground of other countries, but we are,” Palvash says.

Bus in Kabul: LoveNoWar

Culture and Art as the Way to Peace

Palvash and Sheda have given up on the Afghan government as a force to bring stability, freedom or development to Afghanistan. Like others I have met, they describe the government as a mafia, one that is corrupt from top to bottom. Every law that is passed, they say, is an expression of corruption because all the people involved in the process are corrupt.

They believe the government intentionally keeps people poor as a way to manage them. Afghanistan has a proverb, Palvash says: “If you want power, keep the people hungry.” Those who must struggle for the basics of life have no time or energy for rebellion.

Palvash and Sheda have also turned against Islam, which they say has been used by politicians to drag the nation down. “We do not believe in Islam any longer, we believe in humanity,” Sheda says. I ask how this is received here, and they reply that they have a small cadre of friends who all agree with them and who provide support to each other. They don’t express such sentiments outside their small group of friends, though, as it would be far too dangerous. They tell me that probably there are others in Afghanistan who share their point of view, but no one would dare express such beliefs publicly as to do so would be to court death.

Desperate for change in Afghanistan, these two young women see no hope of achieving it through the political process. Instead, they aim to affect the mentality of the Afghan people through art—film, photography and music.

“We really want to do something for Afghanistan,” Palvash says. “But we are afraid that we may get tired. The way is long. Still, we are lucky to live in Afghanistan. Maybe if I lived in the U.S., I would not be the same person.  The situation makes your character. Living here makes you grow up quickly.”

The Shura in the Porno Cafe

Afghanistan ranks 176th out of 178 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index, only slightly better than Somalia and tied with Myanmar. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that no matter who I speak with, the conversation quickly turns to corruption. In Afghanistan, corruption doesn’t mean just a little skimming off the top by a few people. Rather, it means a corrosive destruction of society based on a complete lack of justice. It means that the government’s sole function is to accept bribes. It means that a small group of families controls all the wealth in the country while the huge majority of Afghans barely survive. And it means that no one can feel safe because power is concentrated in the hands of a few, who are beyond any law.

“The Americans promised that they would bring justice to Afghanistan, but there is no justice,” Salim, executive director of an NGO, tells me. Because of the lack of justice, he claims, the suffering of ordinary people is now “over the limit,” but anyone who dares to speak up is dealt with quickly. It is too dangerous for local leaders, unaffiliated with the Mafia government, to arise now, he claims. “Ordinary people feel like they are in prison. The only thing we are permitted to say is ‘Yes, sir.’ This is a return to slavery,” he declares.

Salim contends that the actions of the U.S. have fostered corruption, and in the process dramatically increased the power of a few families to such a scale that even the U.S. cannot control them now.  Billions of dollars have been poured into the country, and continue to be, but still average people cannot feed their families. Where is all this money disappearing, Salim asks? He points out that during the Soviet occupation, at least people could eat, there was a basic level of subsistence for everyone. But now, immense amounts of money simply enrich the war lords who control the government, further solidifying their power. And the people go hungry.

The U.S. Army Tries Community Development

Fahima and I go to a village outside Kabul in the afternoon where we are supposed to meet with some village elders in a “shura,” or council, set up by an army captain. The captain wants to win hearts and minds with a few local projects, and to that end, he hopes Fahima will organize education classes for women.

Fahima and the Captain

He had spoken with people in three villages near the large military base on which he is stationed and found some interest on their part, at least to the point of agreeing to speak with Fahima. However, when we arrive, the captain tells us that he is extremely disappointed: due to an “incident” the night before, one of the villages is “mad” and is unlikely to participate now. We ask what happened, but he says he can’t tell us. However, later we find out from one of the villagers.

The story began about eight months ago. A young man in the village got married, going into debt to put on a large, Afghan-style wedding. Right after his wedding, he was arrested by the Americans and sent to a prison where he languished for four months—in fact, his is a case of mistaken identity, his name being similar to that of someone else wanted by the military. By the time the man got out of prison, his debts had grown quite large, since he couldn’t make payments on loans during the time he was incarcerated. He decided to go to Iran, where he could make more money in a shorter period of time, as a way to begin to pay down his debts. He returned to the village yesterday, glad to be home and happy to see his bride again. In the middle of the night, his first night home, the U.S. military broke into his home and arrested him again—the exact same case of mistaken identity. The villagers are furious.

Hard to win hearts and minds this way.

Our shura is held in a simple café on base, in a building made of plywood, with orange fabric covering the windows. Orange-flowered plastic table cloths adorn the tables, along with bottles of hot sauce, and we sit around the tables in cheap red plastic chairs. A young Afghan man stands behind a small counter with a large “tips” jar next to a television. When Fahima and I arrived, the Afghan and a couple of American soldiers were watching a porn movie on the TV but quickly turned it off when they saw us. The heat in the little plywood café causes us to sweat profusely. After a couple of hours, someone finally brings three electric fans into the room and turns them on; but the fans blow a fuse and the electricity goes off. The soldiers finally get that fixed and after a half hour, they are able to get one fan going, for which we are grateful.

Fahima negotiates with the captain, trying to get funds for the projects he says he wants. She is willing to help establish a school for women and a training program for midwives if she can get a minimal commitment from the captain. She wants the army to buy a few $50 sewing machines to enable her to establish dressmaking classes, and she wants school supplies. The captain says that he will try to obtain these, but he isn’t sure if that will be possible. In any event, funding for the projects would be restricted to a maximum of $5,000.

We actually have two separate shuras, with just two Afghans participating in each, representing two of the three neighboring villages. Fahima explains the projects to them and seeks information on what it is they want and the extent to which they are willing to allow women to take courses.  Even without knowing the language, I could tell that she was very persuasive!

The Shura at the Military Base

The result: Fahima gets the village elders to agree that women can take classes, and she is invited back in a couple of days to finalize the plans. The captain will see what he can do.

After we leave the base, Fahima tells me that one of the village elders explained  that they are tired of dealing with the Army about development projects because it is all talk and no action. The Army organizes lots of shuras, but no results ever seem to come from them. The Afghans consider this a waste of time.

A Few Observations

It is clear that the Afghans from these two villages do not trust the Americans, although they may ultimately accept some small projects from them, such as the education classes Fahima would like to bring to the women and the widening of a path in the village. And it is clear that the Americans are hoping to buy the friendship of the Afghans with these small projects. Fahima is essentially begging for school supplies, when we know that the U.S. is paying over one million dollars per year to support every soldier in Afghanistan.

The captain, a charming and intelligent man, had told us when we first met him, “My job now is to make friends and this project is part of that.” Perhaps he genuinely believes that trying to buy friends in the day with cheap projects, while arresting innocent people at night, will lead to stability and development.

Afghans understand that these projects are peanuts compared to what we are handing over to the war lords who now run the government. And what every Afghan I have spoken with really wants is justice and an end to corruption. Having to beg for school supplies from a wealthy occupying force is, in my opinion, unlikely to do much towards winning hearts and minds and it is unlikely to foster justice or counter corruption—what is really needed in Afghanistan. But perhaps Fahima can pull a hat out of a rabbit.

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.

“Green” Fuel is Now an Excuse for Exploitation and Repression

Bio-diesel, the supposedly green alternative to oil is causing great havoc among developing nations, with rain forests being plowed under to create room for palm plantations. As the story below indicates, the demand for bio-diesel, combined with the repression of the government in Honduras is now the cause for violence and repression among the campesinos in the countryside,


By Annie Bird,


Approximately six months ago, campesino farmers in Trujillo, Colon organized in the Campesino Movement of the Aguan, the MCA, were awarded provisional title to a farm which neighbors their community, as part of a long standing negotiation with Dinant Corporation, a biofuel company, whose land claims are illegitimate.

Since that time, the small farmers worked the land. In recent weeks they had noticed incursions into their land by armed security forces employed by the biofuel company, Dinant.

On Monday, November 15, the farmers went to their fields but were then attacked by Dinant security. Six were killed in the massacre and two more are in critical condition.

The massacre occurred the same day that the de facto Honduran president Pepe Lobo had planned to meet with the director of the US government development fund, the Millennium Challenge, in Denver to ask for funding for so called “renewable energy” – in Honduras, principally biofuels and dams.


The “renewable energy” plan Lobo is shopping around may be the result of an Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) funded technical support grant (T-1101) to the de facto government ushered in after the June 28 military coup. In November 2009, under a coup government and amidst grave human rights violations, the World Bank’s (WB) International Finance Corporation gave Dinant Corporation a $30 million loan for biofuel production, and now shares responsibility in the massacre.

Policies supposedly intended to stop climate change are in reality fueling climate change. The world must invest in a renewable way of life, not destructive “renewable energy”. Scientists have analyzed that biofuel industry together with the climate change prevention mechanisms currently promoted could actually result in the destruction of half of the planets forests.

In the same way that massacres cannot be stopped when justice systems are destroyed by military coups, the destruction of our planet cannot be stopped when the systems of governance have been hijacked by corporations who can buy off, or that failing, militarily intervene in nations attempting to build just forms of governance. Human rights and the environment cannot be separated.


During the past decade, campesinos in Honduras have challenged a series of illegitimate land titles obtained by agro-businessmen in a massive former US military training center known as the CREM.

On this land, over 5,000 hectares, the US military trained military forces from across Central America, particularly the Contra paramilitary forces attacking the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Once the CREM center’s operations ended, the Honduran government bought the land from a US citizen through the Honduran land reform program.

However, instead of being sold to small farmers, as the government was obligated by law to do, the land was illegally divided up between several large landholders as a result of corruption and fraudulent titling processes. A coalition of land rights organizations in Honduras organized in the Campesino Movement of the Aguan, the MCA, to challenge the illegal titles. Little by little the land titles were awarded to groups of campesinos organized in the MCA.

The titling process has been slow and marked by violent attacks by the large landholders who have influence in the government, police and military forces. Among the last of the CREM lands to remain in the hands of agribusiness interests is the farm called El Tumbador, approximately 700 hectares controlled by the Dinant Corporation, property of Honduras’ most powerful agro-businessman, Miguel Facusse.

A biofuel businessman with interests in several corporations, Miguel Facusse is infamous for the use of fraudulent methods, including intimidation and violence, to obtain lands throughout the country.


Since the military coup in June 2009, Honduras has been ruled by illegitimate, repressive regimes.

In November 2009, the WB extended a loan of $30 million to Dinant for its biofuel production in that region, despite a widely documented history of violence and corruption by the biofuel company. The WB failed in its human rights obligations in this case and shares responsibility for this massacre.

Given the conditions in Honduras, the WB must suspend both private and public sector funding to Honduras, and freeze funding of biofuels in the region. The biofuel industry in Central and South America violently displaces small farmers and contributes to global warming.

Another multinational public fund that finances international private investment, the Interamerican Investment Corporation, has also recently funded Dinant.


Biofuels are one of the fastest growing industries, a sector that sees high levels of investment from venture capitalists. This massive growth has been stimulated by taxpayer dollars pouring into renewable energy through many funding agencies, but particularly the IADB, the WB, and carbon emissions trading markets.

The trade in carbon credits was created as an element of the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997. It attempts to implement a market based system to curb global warming by levying penalties against heavy polluting industries that produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon burning energy generation plants. But those penalties can be paid off, or offset, by the purchase of carbon credits.

Carbon credits are given to industries that undertake activities that reduce emission of gases that generate climate change, and those can then be sold on the market to companies that generate global warming.

The system is riddled with problems, beginning with the fact that the big money to be made in “green” industry creates a big incentive to greenwash, to disguise polluting activities as activities that do not pollute in order to cash in on climate change funds.

This is the case with biofuels.


Even as governments pour taxpayer money into biofuels, it is being demonstrated that biofuel production contributes significantly to global warming, through the destruction of wetlands, displacement of small farmers and food production, often to cut forests, direct clear cutting of forests for biofuel production, and even cutting forests to generate wood pellets that make ethanol.

One study published in Science magazine in October 2009 analyzed regulation set up in the Kyoto Accords which promotes the use of biofuels, but finds that these measures could result in the loss of up to half of the world’s forests.

As the negative impacts were beginning to be felt, though the extent is only beginning to be understood, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and others committed to market incentives for polluters, set up the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil.

This body certifies palm oil as having been ‘sustainably’ produced. In May 2010, WWF signed an agreement with Miguel Facusse’s Dinant Corporation to begin the process of certifying Dinant palm oil. The WB, in November 2009, shortly after disbursing Dinant’s loan, froze palm oil funding while it created its palm oil strategy, expected to be completed in March 2011.


By the time these impacts were being seen, big corporations, with their lobbies, were drooling over the potential profits. The WWF is strongly committed to paying off big business to reduce emissions. A recent WWF study urges taxpayer money be poured into renewable energy in “lesser developed countries” (LDCs) in order to stimulate job growth in the United States.

Governments are committing to insuring that a certain percentage of fuel consumption be converted to biofuel consumption around the world but especially in “LDCs.” This will generate a huge market for technology to convert engines and other existing infrastructure, which according to WWF could represent a $27 trillion dollar market for US corporations.

Faced with the powerful corporate lobby corrupting and pressuring governments around the globe, and sometimes promoting military interventions to back their interests, changing policies to really fight climate change as opposed to subsidizing corporations seems a quixotic dream, as was seen in the failed summit on climate change in Copenhagen last year.

At the 16th international summit on climate change in Copenhagan, nations agreed to set up an, as yet, unclear mechanism called the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), which would focus on curbing deforestation. Paradoxically, incentives for forest preservation are still banned, and the potential for biofuel stimulated deforestation of half of the world’s forests is still not addressed.

It is important to remember that the WWF and others who believe in and promote environmental market economics have promoted a system of biosphere privatization which allows degrading activities to be carried out by private companies that subsidize non-governmental organizations that manage the biospheres, while ignoring the rights of campesino communities and indigenous peoples.


The international community’s failure to substantively address climate change is a result the unwillingness to acknowledge and name the economic and political policies and actors that are responsible for climate harm.

The “free” market cannot correct the damage it has done, further investing in the same actors and under the same policy framework that generated climate change cannot reverse it.

To reverse climate change, the wealthiest nations and people of the world must change how they live. Indigenous and campesino communities have more sustainable ways of life, have learned to live in a sustainable way with the resources they produce. But they are being displaced and massacred to usher in the concentration of land and wealth, the genocide of a sustainable way of life.

Rather than subsidizing corporate mass destruction, the nations of the world must invest in a different way of life, and hold accountable those that destroy human life and destroy our only and irreplaceable, planet.

(Annie Bird is co-director of Rights Action,, Feel free to re-publish this article, citing author & source)


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
(, 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.


(By Rachel Small,

View Rachel’s Spoken Word performance:

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?

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
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.

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