Being in Afghanistan for a week was like holding my breath'
Written by Stephanie Spencer
December 2001


Afghan refugee camp just inside the Pakistan border. Stephanie Spencer photos.

Afghanistan is the original multicultural society. Some people have red hair; some people look vaguely Chinese. Over thousands of years, Afghans have built beautiful monuments to Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

Afghans are not Arabs; they are not even of one ethnic group. Most speak Dari (Persian) as a first or second language. Afghans live at the crossroads of the two oldest trade routes between continents. The 5,000-year-old city of Herat grew up at the intersection of the Silk Road from China to the Arab world and of the route Genghis Khan traveled to the Indian subcontinent.

In Afghanistan I saw the world's most serious humanitarian disaster: the effects of 22 years of war, eight years of brutal repression and four years of severe drought. Schools have closed; the world's largest refugee population has fled; generations have lived in Pakistan camps. In a country the size of Texas, 23 million people live where more than 10 million land mines have been planted in fields and along roads.

All of this happened before the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, before the twin towers collapsed on September 11, before extremists like Osama bin Laden came to Afghanistan.

Partner organizations

I went to Pakistan and Afghanistan last May to see the work of the UCC's partner organizations. They have been supporting Afghan refugees in camps and settlements inside Pakistan since the mid-1980s. When I visited Afghan villages, camps, hospitals and clinics in Pakistan, I had to wear long pants and a long-sleeved tunic below my knees, with a cotton shawl wrapped around my head and shoulders so only my face showed. In Pakistan it was over 100oF each day.

In Afghanistan it was illegal to visit Afghans in their homes, but I met women and men, separately, in public places. Afghan women had to wear blue robes, sewn around a tight-fitting cap with a face net, that covered their whole bodies. For me, being in Afghanistan for a week was like holding my breath. The Afghan people have not taken a full breath for more than a generation.

Since 1993, conditions for Afghan people have grown far worse. Thousands of refugee boys learned Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistani boarding schools; thousands of girls and women in Afghanistan for years saw only the insides of their houses.

Taliban took control

When the Taliban religious movement turned into a military force that took control of Afghanistan, Afghans were brutally forced to change their lives—their work, their dress, how they socialized and traveled, all their personal freedoms.

Similar to the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea (Cambodia), the Taliban in Afghanistan brutally changed society to match their image of Islam, an image not seen before in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the Muslim world. In most of Afghanistan, since 1997 there has been less fighting, but no end to conflict, to despair, to hunger. The Afghan people are the first victims of terror from the Taliban, and are suffering again now because of the actions of terrorists hiding among them.

On Oct. 7, when our bombs began to fall, people who had moved to cities looking for food and shelter began to move to makeshift camps in rural areas. They couldn't go back to their villages because the harvest had failed again this year, and there is no food in rural areas. When the bombing ends, they still will be living in tents during a Canadian-type winter, or in over crowded cities with no stockpiles of food.

Taliban ousted

Today, in some parts of Afghanistan, women are going out without the blue burqas; men are shaving their beards; and people are playing music, outlawed for five years. However, hundreds of thousands of people still are trapped in tents and in cities with no food or medical supplies, and winter is almost here. Children have no schools where they can learn to read, four million Afghans still live away from their home country, and the ruined economy cannot supply new buildings, pave roads, or reopen universities.

As we pray for the safe return of the Americans who are risking their lives and missing their families in strange, far-away places like Afghanistan, let us feel kinship with Afghan people, too. Through the Afghanistan Emergency Appeal (see page A6), we can help the people of Afghanistan survive this winter. As they begin to imagine a society with no war, let us support them so that in the spring they can plant food, celebrate better health and begin to teach their children about peace.

Learn more

Contact Wider Church Ministries (216-736-3204) for an information packet, or visit File www.ucc.org and click on "Global Ministries" to download resources about Afghanistan and Islam. Recommended further reading: "The Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia," by Ahmed Rashid (23-year Afghanistan correspondent for Far Eastern Economic Review), IB Tauris, 2000.

Stephanie Spencer is program associate for Southern Asian office of Wider Church Ministries.

Partner churches respond to bombing

Below are excerpts from letters from UCC partner churches about the Allied bombing of Afghanistan:

No moral distinction—Church of Scotland:

We profoundly regret the simplistic "you're either for us or against us" approach which fails to take into account what is a highly complex international situation ... There is no moral distinction between the death of a civilian in Afghanistan and that of the innocent who died on September 11. Christ's command to love our neighbors means that our neighbor is an executive who was working high up in the World Trade Center and, on an equal basis, a child in Kandahar whose entire family has been killed by a U.S. bomb.

Innocent civilians are victims—Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, Germany:

This operation contains many risks. Muslim fundamentalists claim that this is a war against Islam. And increasingly they find supporters as it becomes obvious that innocent civilians in large numbers are victims of the strikes. With those military actions, new sources of conflict arise, even though it is of the highest importance to nurture understanding and reconciliation.

Inevitable dangers—South African Council of Churches:

There are inevitable dangers in acting in a context of collective injustice. Whenever those who have been victimized by injustice identify a whole country or people as collectively responsible for that injustice, the chances of innocent people paying the highest price are dramatically increased. When the quest for justice becomes animated by patriotic fervor, the risks are amplified further.

Another human tragedy—Communion of Churches in Indonesia:

The attack on Afghanistan by USA and her allies will cause another human tragedy, no less tragic than the human tragedy of 11 September. The innocent people of Afghanistan, who have suffered greatly as a result of the struggle for power within their country, will be subject to even greater suffering.

Demonstrate leadership—National Christian Council in Japan:

No matter how accurately targeted a missile may be, it is defenseless civilians, not those in power, who are placed in danger. Please stop the strikes [and] try to find a peaceful solution, by quenching the fires of the temptation to retaliate and gathering wisdom from the world, so that we may convict those responsible for this inhuman and intolerable terrorist crime, historically and internationally, and bring about peace in the world. Now is the time to demonstrate your leadership, in seeking that peace in which the hearts of people may be joined as one.

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