On Thursday morning, even as President Putin declared war on Ukraine, I was speaking with two Afghan women friends. These were work-related conversations but how could they not talk about the reality that is uppermost in their mind, omnipresent in their day.
Both were lucky enough to have left and to have their immediate family with them. But with reprisals on the rise, what of their extended family, and in our part of the world, there is really little difference in the intensity of our caring for second cousins and the mother-in-law of your cousin’s daughter?
More immediately, they were fearful for and heartbroken about their friends and colleagues—other women human rights defenders—who have been disappeared in recent weeks.
· Afghanistan: US envoy says Taliban detained 29 women and their families, Economic Times, February 14, 2022.
· Emma Graham-Harrison, Taliban have detained 29 women and their families in Kabul, says US envoy, The Guardian, February 12, 2022.
· Six women’s rights activists still missing in Afghanistan, UN News, February 1, 2022.
They are hearing that the women are being tortured to give out names and other information. They are also therefore, fearful of reprisals directed at others in their circle. They are afraid of being targeted abroad. They are furious at the silence around what is happening.
The abductions have made it even riskier to speak out—impossible within Afghanistan and increasingly difficult outside. And if a cloak of fearful silence falls, we have permission to ignore what the Taliban are doing and they have impunity.
When Afghans are facing hunger and repression at home or evacuated and stranded in other countries, unable to immediately find livelihoods, the decision to freeze Afghan assets and redistribute them among others makes no sense.
· Charlie Savage, Spurning Demand by the Taliban, Biden Moves to Split $7 Billion in Frozen Afghan Funds, New York Times, February 11, 2022.
· Charli Carpenter, A Better Use of Frozen Afghan Funds, Foreign Policy, February 18, 2022.
Afghans who are now refugees abroad are among the luckiest few, because they are alive and relatively safe. However, refugee life is not easy. You leave your home, your land and your community to end up in places where you are dependent, for a long time, on the charity of others. You may have assets at home, or at least, savings or a pension fund, or land that will feed you. Suddenly, everything given to you is already more than you can ask for. What happens if you fall sick? In many of our countries, someone will find you a doctor. In some of the advanced industrial countries, finding a doctor takes several months and if you have no insurance, it can be too expensive—especially if, as a refugee, you also haven’t found a job yet that will feed your family.
Warsan Shire wrote “no one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark.” No one. Anywhere.
This week, my brave Afghan friends sounded so defeated, worried and tired. And I listened to them, unable to do anything other than listen. I preach when I teach, about global citizenship, about our interbeing and about claiming and exercising agency, but really, am I also not trying to convince myself? Yes, I can write, but the men who decide read the men who think they decide. The rest of us are shouting into a void.
The world is worried about Ukraine. So am I. War is just wrong.
But we run global politics like a scorched earth policy. Decide, or least state, that something is wrong. Go to war. Get bored, get tired, get distracted, get real, get out. In the meanwhile, we have reduced places to rubble and lives to PTSD. We have theorised the disdain for discussion and listening as ‘securitisation’—if something is a security issue, we allocate more resources to it and limit access to information. This is what is. The theory ends up justifying the practice. So we either learn to ask no questions or cannot remember whom to ask. No one is listening anyway.
On Thursday, through my conversations, the song in my head was Enya’s recording of “How can I keep from singing?” The rest of the song is unrelated but as my friends’ worries go unheard, how can I keep from singing?
The world’s attention is focused on Ukraine. And because our attention spans are so shrunken, this means that everything, including improbably the pandemic and its miseries, have begun to fall off our radar. How can I keep from singing?