Healing Afghanistan through peacebuilding

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Former Maryknoll missioner works to build peace in Asian land

Just before leaving Afghanistan last February after working there for three years, I gazed out my office window on a landscape of snow-capped mountains surrounding the capital city of Kabul. The streets were relatively empty on this government-declared snow holiday except for some happy children tossing snowballs and vigorous men shoveling snow off the roofs of their mud-built homes. A snapshot of this calm scene is what I wanted to carry with me. Instead, images of buildings pock-marked with bullet holes and faces of war-weary citizens crowded my mind.

Almost 40 years of violence at the hands of dictatorial rulers, feuding ethnic groups and foreign occupiers have left scars of trauma on families, communities and organizations throughout this society. Easy access to weapons remains a key factor perpetuating the violence in many parts of the country.

As service workers with an international non-governmental organization, my wife Kirstin and I had come to help strengthen the peacebuilding capacities of Afghans longing for a lasting peace.

We discovered morale at an all-time low and thousands of Afghans desperately raising money to pay human smugglers to help them flee the country in pursuit of economic and physical security. Almost every Afghan family we knew had a relative in this dangerous pursuit. Afghans, after Syrians, constitute the world’s second largest refugee population. I have been torn by their stories and the toll taken on separated families.

Afghan women come together to discuss conflicts they face and surface solutions.

I think of Shafi, the 28-year-old son of a fruit vendor who was the first young friend I made in Afghanistan. Shafi had dropped out of school in the sixth grade to work in his father’s shop. I used to sit in his one-room stall sipping tea as he told me gripping stories of bombs raining down on Kabul when he was a boy.

One day during the current violence he confided to me that, aided by a smuggler, he had decided to join the ranks of those fleeing. I understand from his parents that after arriving in Iran, he began his trek to Germany, but I never heard from him after he left his homeland. There is always a prayer on my lips for him.

Part of our service work in Afghanistan involved helping develop conflict resolution skills, particularly in communities where diverse groups were vying for access to limited land, water, electricity and health services. In Lal Wa Sarjangal district in central Afghanistan, for instance, we brought together 25 religious and community leaders and youth representatives for a five-day workshop to analyze root causes of their conflicts and surface solutions. This was the first step in an ongoing relationship between our project and the local community that we hope will foster peace.

In an eye hospital with 50 staff members and thousands of patients annually, our project’s Afghan staff member saw the need to add to the technicians’ training program a monthly course on peacebuilding strategies. It includes interactive exercises and reflective activities to enhance their ability to resolve conflicts among themselves and tools to help resolve conflicts in their communities and the clinics they will be assigned to across the country.

Afghan village council leaders use drawings to map out steps needed to resolve local conflict.

The same staff member also proposed using the media to foster peace nationwide. He initiated a radio program featuring speakers discussing the impact of violence on religion, identity, culture, family and community. People from all walks of life can call and voice their opinions and concerns, a platform previously reserved for politicians and other influential people.

Our organization has worked with the Afghan Ministry of Public Health to train 12 mental health professionals to raise awareness of the need for nonviolent pathways to reconciliation. This module will be used to train government mental health professionals across the country to address trauma from a medical and social standpoint.

In Afghanistan I have discovered people who radiate warmth and kindness, the likes of which I have rarely seen elsewhere in the world. My 10-minute walk to my workplace, weekly marketing trips, and strolls in the neighborhood have been fertile ground for social interactions and enriching friendships.

Abdullah, a vegetable vendor, became one of my closest friends in Kabul. I could bear my soul to him, describe my struggles, ask questions about his Muslim faith and culture, and even sound him out on political issues. His simple answers revealed his deep faith and trust in God. His vegetable cart was a meeting place for rich and poor, old and young, men and women. Spending time with him was like being in an oasis of peace.

Women draw their idea of a model peacebuilder.

And there was Salma, representing the emerging voices of women in a society where, according to the international organization Oxfam, 87 percent of women have been abused or forced into marriages. At 23, Salma graduated from Kabul University and enrolled in a law degree program while working in a peacebuilding institute. She works with marginalized women’s groups, building their capacity for leadership.

There is much I have shared with Afghans but much more I have learned from them. Their salutation, As Salaam Alai Kum (Peace be with you), and daily calls to prayer have reminded me of my calling to be a vehicle for peace, and that prayer and worship are the essentials that bind a community. In time of war, values of building and restoring right relationships, so deeply embedded in the Afghan culture, are delicately poised.

As Kirstin and I transition out of Afghanistan, my plea and prayer is that communities and governments worldwide will do their utmost within the framework of nonviolence to contribute to a sustained peace in Afghanistan. A healed Afghanistan would allow its people to hold their heads up high, contributing from their cultural riches to the world of nations.

Featured Image: Afghan children find temporary shelter at a camp for internally displaced persons in their war-ravaged homeland.

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To read last issues’s Peace building story, go to Conversations for Peace in Kenya.


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About the author

Merwyn De Mello

Merwyn De Mello is a former Maryknoll lay missioner who served in Japan, Tanzania, Kenya and Zimbabwe. He and his wife Kirstin lived and worked in Afghanistan from January 2014 through February 2017.