Collateral Damage Made Real

I was wholly unprepared for the level of poverty and desperation I witnessed among refugees on a recent trip to Afghanistan. If you have never imagined the refugee camps, visualize a seemingly endless stretch of scrap-and-stick tents, filled with raucous children, lacking food, water, basic hygiene or infrastructure. Border it with stunning stark mountains, surround it with cold air and support it with dirt and dust. Then you will have an idea of the conditions under which Afghan refugees fleeing American bombs are attempting to survive.

Zeriba Taj, age 3

After the tragedies of Sept. 11, when it became clear that the U.S. would retaliate against Osama bin Laden's terrorist attacks though a campaign against Afghanistan, I began to worry. I had heard about "collateral damage" and "smart bombs" during the Gulf War. My gut tightened when I heard these rhetorical strategies deployed now. My father, a career U.S. Army officer, was deployed to the Gulf with those very phrases in 1990. This time it was my turn to travel to the region, to see for myself the effects of U.S. military action.

In late November I traveled to Jalalabad, Kabul, Peshawar and Islamabad on a four-woman delegation organized by Global Exchange, the human rights organization where I have worked for the last eight years. I also represented the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the oldest women's peace organization in the U.S. and, as a result, I focused particularly on the issue of women in a post-Taliban government and the condition of children in the refugee camps. But my main personal aim was just to witness, and what I witnessed was extremely troubling.

There was Ramsir, A 24-year-old Tajik mother whose 5-year-old child is psychologically damaged from the recent bombing. Rasmir's daughter was at a park in Kabul when American bombs, aimed at the airport, missed their mark and killed three of her playmates. The women in the park screamed, "Where's my child?!" Rasmir told me, as they searched for remains among the shrapnel. After this, Rasmir and her children, who remained in Kabul through both the mujahedeen and the Taliban regimes, fled the country. Before the slaughter in the park, Rasmir's neighbor's house had been hit by U.S. bombs. All nine members of the family were killed. Rasmir told me the shock her daughter experienced in the park was too much.

I met Rasmir at the Afghanistan Women's Council, a food distribution, health and educational services project for refugee women and children in Peshawar, Pakistan. Directed by Fatana Gailani, the center has recently been inundated by refugees fleeing not only the Taliban but the American bombing. I asked Gailani if she supported the U.S. bombing campaign, as I expected an educated woman from Kabul would. "Like most people, I was happy at first, as I am eager to return to a liberated Afghanistan," she said. "But then I started seeing the flow of refugees, almost every one with a story of civilian casualties. And now I say that the bombing must stop. We innocent Afghans are paying the price."

Gouhar Taj, age 32

Another vivid memory is of Haziza, a 12-year-old girl living in a refugee relief center in Peshawar. I sat with Haziza while an elderly woman told us she had lost her three sons -- one to the Russians, one to the mujahedeen and one to the Taliban. As Haziza started sniffling, another visitor to the center asked the girl crudely, "Why are you crying?" to which she responded with deeper sobs. As I reached to embrace Haziza, I could feel her body brace against the deepest pain. "We lived in Kabul near one of the Taliban military bases, where my father had a small grocery store," she said. "One day I was out with my father, when we saw planes roaring overhead and heard scary, loud sounds like thunder. When we returned home, my mother and younger brother were lying dead in a pile of rubble that was once our house. My father went into shock and lost his mind. Now I'm the one in charge of our household. I take care of my five brothers and sisters. We have no money and it's hard for me to find them enough food to eat."

I also met refugees in a camp on the road from the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad. They were from the nearby village of Duranta, which was nearly hit by American bombs that were targeting a Taliban camp and missed. After the bombing, inhabitants of the entire village fled. Eight days later, they began returning home in a trickle. But they have been terrorized by the bombing. I took a picture of 17 children standing in front of the village; the backdrop to the photo is bomb craters.

How many civilian deaths have occurred since the bombing campaign of Afghanistan began? I asked several Afghans if they could estimate the number. The estimates I heard ranged from 1,000 to 5,000. When I relayed that figure to a U.S. reporter upon my return, she paused and countered that it actually wasn't that many, considering we are at war. I replied that it was approximately the same number of innocent people who died in the World Trade Center attack. Have we become the evil we deplore?

The answer to the question will emerge as Afghanistan rebuilds itself, as more exact numbers of civilian casualties emerge, as our promises of aid are either met or retracted. But whatever the postwar Afghanistan looks like, the battle will be uphill. Afghanistan has long been a country in crisis. It has been devastated by over two decades of war. Ten percent of all land mines in the world are there. Life expectancy is 45 years of age, and Afghanistan's infant mortality rate rivals the poorest African nations. The national literacy rate is 10 percent and diminishes by half for women. Tribal warlordism and monarchy are the two political arrangements familiar to the Afghan people. Those traditions are resistant to change, and their remnants are the primary components of the new coalition government that resulted from talks in Bonn in November.

One step toward stability in Afghanistan is the incorporation of women in government, or their re-incorporation. Women were part of the loya jirga, traditional parliament, in Afghanistan before the wars, and I met several accomplished women who could be pivotal to rebuilding the country. In the end, two women were chosen to be part of the transitional government: Sima Samar, vice minister for women's affairs, and Suhaila Seddiqi, who will be appointed minister of health. "I'm elated," said Khorshid Noori, coordinator of the Afghan Women's Network in reference to Samar and Seddiqi's inclusion in the government. After five years of Taliban rule and the Northern Alliance before them, it's a start, though the general sentiment is it's far from enough.

The question put to me most often by Afghans relates to U.S. interests in the region. After the Russians were defeated in the late '80s, the U.S. government, and the rest of the international community, abandoned Afghanistan, leaving it to the warlords, militant foreigners and the interests of its more powerful neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Iran. The Afghans feel deeply skeptical about the motives of the United States in ousting the Taliban. If the U.S. concentrates its future aid on a much-touted Unocal pipeline, they tell me, then their worst fears about the U.S. intervention will have come true. Although the pipeline will be a source of future jobs in the region, many will see it as the reason the U.S. came back to Afghanistan.

The U.S. has much to prove to the people of this bomb-ravaged nation. The U.N.'s World Food Program is currently engaged in a Herculean effort to distribute 52,000 tons of food per month for the 6 million people rendered dependent from the bombings, 23 years of war and three years of drought. Aside from the mind-boggling logistical arrangements, there are two primary obstacles to the provision of aid. One is the U.S. bombing. Aid workers cannot distribute food under the present military campaign. The second obstacle is the banditry and looting taking place in the void of a central government. The solution to this is the immediate deployment of U.N. peacekeepers. At the time of this writing, the Bush administration was still obfuscating attempts by the U.N., France, Jordan, Turkey and Bangladesh to send an international delegation to secure food distribution in unruly areas. If food aid does not get through, and Afghans die by the thousands this winter, they will know whom to blame.

Ismutula Taj, age 8

Traveling the six-hour road from Jalalabad back to Peshawar, I found myself wondering about Afghanistan's postwar economy. Afghanistan does not have significant source of income other than its trade in opium. The country is the largest exporter of the drug in the world. If the international community, particularly the U.S., comes through with the billions of dollars, then, besides rebuilding the areas destroyed by bombs, it must help create viable economic alternatives to the opium trade and incentives for men to put down their guns. The reconstruction also must be sustained by locally based programs for income generation that do not put Afghanistan into environmentally dangerous industries or exploit its labor for the benefit of U.S. corporations. We must not put Afghanistan on a debt treadmill that leaves the country beholden to the economic dictates of its benefactors, nor the World Bank. In fact, reconstruction should start with the canceling of the $50 million in debt held by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The Afghan women I met insisted I repeat as often as necessary that aid must also focus on women and children. They told me future aid must target education, health and job opportunities for the young. The need to focus on children is obvious. The majority of Afghans are under 18 years old, meaning that well over half the country has spent all of their years under the scourge of war. Women also make up 60 percent of the country. They were denied the right to study, work and receive medical care under the Taliban, and were subjected to mass rape when the Northern Alliance held Kabul. Afghan women have been delivering needed assistance during two decades of refugee crisis, while the U.S. looked away. Now is the time for them to take greater control.

One fine example of the success of female-run aid programs is the Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA) organization, which was founded three years ago by 27-year-old Orzala Ashrawf. HAWCA, based in Peshawar, serves the refugee community by providing income-generating projects and literacy classes to women. It also provides classes once a week to girl carpet-weavers. Visiting one Sunday morning, I met a classroom full of girls. Every one was afflicted with a deep phlegmy cough from the daily inhalations of thread lint. Yet each one displayed a shining desire to learn to read and write. The youngest was 5. I asked her if she had any time to play amidst her labors. She said no. I then asked what time she went to work in the morning. She didn't know. She is too young to tell time.

This girl is my muse for helping in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Her brown-eyed gaze asks, "Will you do your part to end of the long tunnel of war I have survived? Or will I become another Afghan orphan forced to work before I can read?"

Photographs by Marla Ruzicka.

Deborah James is fair trade director of Global Exchange, an international human rights organization. She also serves on the board of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

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