By Jahanzeb Hussain
On May 20th and 21st, Chicago hosted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for its summit on the future of Afghanistan. Absent from the official proceedings of course were the popular, dissenting Afghan and American voices. As usual, such voices were to be found in the city streets, as thousands of people marched in protest against the war, the summit and NATO.
This particular march though was not a regular demonstration against an American war. For the march was led by three young women – all of them in their 20s – from yet another country that is supposedly being liberated by the United States. For the march concluded with a reconciliation ceremony: Veteran US soldiers from both the Iraq and Afghan wars, after pronouncing their words of regret and apology, lanced their war medals onto the streets. In the eyes of these men and women, the medals were a sign of shame rather than a symbol of bravery; therefore, the appropriate manner to dispose them was to throw them away with all their emotional and physical strength. Then, the war veterans kneeled down in front of the three women to say sorry for what the United State has done to their people and their native country. At least, as far as the opposition to the Afghan war is concerned, which is the longest war in American history; there is no parallel example of humility and courage to be found.
The three women – Suraia Sahar, Saba Maher and Samira Rahman – belong to Afghans For Peace. They were invited by Iraq Veterans Against War to take part, help organize and lead the march, to give their speeches at the rally, and to be present at the justice and reconciliation ceremony. The march and the ceremony were significant in two respects: First, it makes a complete mockery of the image that the West presents of Muslim and Afghan women. Secondly, although not secondary in its importance, it was a moment of testimony by a number of former American soldiers that the war is a lie and that they are not the liberators of Afghan people but, in fact, they are – or were – their oppressors. Equally, the entire process – from the march to the ceremony – underlined the importance of the need for Americans to follow the lead of Afghans, especially Afghan women, as Afghan and American public confront the occupation of Afghanistan. Afghans have got everything to teach to the Americans concerning the war, resistance and the struggle for liberation. This is one critical dimension which often lacks in solidarity and anti-war movements. Gladly, however, nothing of this sort was missing on the day. Furthermore, the fact that three young Afghan women were asked to lead a ten thousand people march and were then apologized to for the invasion of their country symbolizes the respect that was accorded to Afghan women – in a sharp contrast to the humiliation that is reserved for them in the mainstream Western media and general Western culture. This was another instance where the veteran soldiers broke away from the dominant perception of Afghan and Muslim women.
At the same time, it is also necessary to understand that, in this rupture with their former employers, with their former selves and with the dominant perception of Afghan and Muslim women, the veteran soldiers were shedding their skins and letting go of their former roles, which they have now realized to be oppressive. The road to a new role for these former soldiers began with rejecting their military accolades and issuing a sincere apology towards those who were described to them as their enemies by United State’s government. Although Suraia, Saba and Samira were just three, they represented the entire Afghan people at the rally and the ceremony; and the apology issued to them and the respect and honor showered on them was meant for all the Afghans who have suffered so much from the American intervention in their country. The onus is now on these ladies to convey the soldiers’ messages to their people back home. Also, the veterans deserve a salute from us for their courage and humanity, for the war did not succeed in killing what is noble in a human being. Normally, one only talks about the atrocities committed by invading soldiers, but soldiers are victims of war just as much as civilians are. They are victims of a country whose economic system, in a large part, is based on wagging wars. Their country’s military hunts on young people who are looking for a meaning in life, as well as a facilitated access to education, housing and health care, but are not able to acquire it under the normal circumstances. Promising them what any young person wants in their life, the war machine sucks them in, and they become a tool for elites, their lives can be dispensed any time, just as the lives of those whom they are sent to occupy. If they are lucky enough to make it back to their homes alive, they come back mentally deranged from the horrors of war. They also come back to find out that they have no support from the institution they served, as they are left to be on their own. Imperialism and colonization damages the oppressor as much as it damages the oppressed. It is a two-way process.
Thus, the rally and the reconciliation ceremony was a marvelous and a very unique occasion where many undeserved perceptions of Afghan and Muslim women were done with, they were said sorry to and due respect to them was shown, many oppressive roles were realized to be such, some new grounds were broken in terms of anti-war politics and engagements, many got a chance to exorcise their demons, redeem themselves, heal themselves and lighten the burden on their conscience, most were left with tears in their eyes by what they saw and heard, many were overwhelmed, we all were reminded that humanity remains amongst us even when many events around us make us think otherwise. This was a moment of hope, even though none of us would kid ourselves to believe that a change is on its way; but it was truly a moment to be cherished.
To finish the article, here is what Suraia, Saba and Samira had to say about rally. This is some of the transcript from my conversations with them:
Samira: To see that we had three Afghan women leading a march of thousands of people through the streets of Chicago … it was a very big moment for Afghans For Peace, for Afghans in general and for the [anti-war movement] movement as a whole.
Saba: When we started that march and when we saw where we stood – on the front lines – with the soldiers behind us, backing us – backing us – honoring us, it was a historic moment for Afghans because it has never happened in our history like that.
And when we put our peace signs up, they [veteran soldiers] followed us in suit, in a military formation, and that felt historic. It was true solidarity … and when we got to the stage, the symbolic gesture of returning the sovereignty of Afghanistan to the Afghan people through Afghans For Peace, what a moment that was … I was in awe. And then they started throwing their medals one by one, I was proud to be on the stage and to witness that moment with them. And they were just as proud and honored to stand with us. And then when they took to the ground and kneeled [in apology] in front of three Afghan women – three Afghan women – whom they are honoring and respecting.
It was empowering, it was inspirational. And what I really hope that it did, because the three of us as Afghan women, we battle a lot because we bear so many different roles: activists, women, young, Afghans, Muslims, daughters of refugees or refugees ourselves. We are bearing so many different roles and to stand up on that stage and to bring all of those voices to the table … we are really putting ourselves on the line. And what we were really hopping it would do is that other Afghans who bear similar roles would want to join too, that they too would see and say: you know what, it’s ok to stand up against this [war], it’s ok, don’t be afraid.
Suraia: I’m happy to know that one of the largest anti-NATO demonstrations was lead by both Afghans and veterans, and ended with a reconciliation ceremony to signify solidarity and healing from both sides. [The soldiers were honoring us] not just through their actions but also through their words. It was important for us to hear them express their feelings of remorse and shame in their involvement in these wars. And now it’s important for us to share it with the Afghan community. Where the NATO summit has failed, this is how we’re working towards peace.
Jahanzeb Hussain is the editor of Collateral Damage Magazine. He is a 22 year old student based in Vancouver, where he goes to Simon Fraser University. He also represents the Vancouver chapter of Afghans For Peace.