Pacifist Kelly speaks on war in Afghanistan
Thomaston — Kathy Kelly, a peace activist from Chicago, was in Maine last week to speak on the war in Afghanistan, including a presentation at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rockland Aug. 23. "I'm very grateful to be in touch with activists here," she said.
Kelly said witnessing the impoverishment of others inspired her peace activism. "I was quite isolated in the Hyde Park area," she said. "So when I made a change and moved to the poorest area on the North Side, I realized these were people I liked and felt fond of — they weren't just this clump, the poor — they were my neighbors."
The nuns that taught Kelly as a child also significantly influenced her lifestyle. "The nuns never got paid anything or seemed interested in acquiring personal wealth. They lived simply and shared everything," she said. "I should really be grateful to those young women."
In 1981, Kelly, a teacher, requested that her employer drop her salary below a taxable income in an effort to not contribute to military funding.
Kelly co-coordinates Voices for Nonviolence, a campaign to end U.S. military and economic warfare. She has spent time in war-torn countries outside of the Middle East such as Bosnia and Haiti to provide aid and work toward peaceful resolution.
Kelly has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize twice, in 2000 and 2001.
Kelly has traveled to Iraq 26 times to supply Iraqi peoples with basic supplies such as medicine and food, disobeying a U.S.-imposed economic sanction.
In 2003, Kelly lived in Baghdad with native families and met with American military at the onset of the occupation. Kelly remembers one soldier telling her it was too dangerous for her to be in Iraq. "It was a lot more dangerous when you were bombing us," she replied. "He looked at me like he was puzzled and his buddy said, 'What she means is we were the ones dropping the bombs on them.'"
Kelly said sometimes there is a disconnect in war — especially with more mechanized forms of weaponry.
She said living with families in Iraq during the American invasion was "excruciatingly painful," recalling expressions of sheer agony on a mother's face when bombing would start.
"She would have a child in each arm and try to get down to the bomb shelter, which was four steps down on a prayer mat." Kelly described the bombs making "ear-splitting blasts and sickening thuds."
"There is such dismay when you're in a hospital and a family comes rushing in with their loved ones in their arms and people are bloody and dismembered and they were just sitting and having lunch together."
While at the hospital, Kelly was sitting with a woman who was sobbing with grief and Kelly attempted to console her. The woman spoke enough English to communicate that she didn't know how to tell her young nephew — who lost both arms in an explosion — that he was the only surviving member of his immediate family. The aunt was now his only relative.
The injured Iraqi boy's name is Ali Abbas. "His picture went all around the world with these two stumps and this very innocent face," said Kelly.
Abbas is now a British citizen and said he wants to work for peace. "The heroism and bravery of the young ones who survive these wars but have trauma still somehow manage to say, I don't want revenge or retaliation, I want to live without wars."
Afghanistan is also a young country; a United Nations statistic from 2008 reported 65 percent of the population is under 25.
Kelly is critical of the United States stance on disallowing Iraqi or Afghan citizens visas to enter the country between the ages of 15 and 30 unless they are students. "Yet, every one of them is eligible as a target for one of our drones," she said. "That's all it takes, to be that age and an Afghan male."
Kelly hasn't been to Iraq since 2005. "Truthfully, a lot of our friends are afraid to have Western visitors with the chaos and the threat was still so high it makes them nervous to be singled out as colluding with Westerners," she said.
Kelly said that women's issues are not a driving force behind the U.S. involvement in the Middle East. She cited a recent New York Times article that reported under President Hamid Karzai, draconian laws reducing the rights of women have been implemented — practices even the Taliban did not enshrine as law.
In the past two visits Kelly made to Afghanistan, she said Afghan women have said to her, "I think I'm losing my mind — I think I'm going mad." Kelly said their acute frustration results from the inability to feed their families with U.S.-imposed sanctions, raising food prices.
After 10 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Kelly said it's unfair to claim women's situations have improved.
"With the U.S. spending $2 billion a week on its military, you would think a sprawling, squalid and wretched refugee camp across from the base with supplies of fuel and food being transported, some aid could be spared," Kelly said. She added that using the plight of women and children to say it's a humanitarian war has been pernicious.
"There's no access to fuel for the 10,000 people living in this camp, and winter is coming. One hundred children froze to death in Afghanistan on record, eight of them in that refugee camp," she said.
Kelly said it troubles her when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Secretaries Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice appear on films seen by millions saying they are concerned for Afghan women during a time of war, showing female soldiers cradling babies in refugee camps. "If they really cared about those babies, they may have sent a blanket or two," she said.
Kelly describes the war in Afghanistan as inscrutable — costing enormous sums of money that sometimes is distributed to people the U.S. is trying to fight against and also causes Afghans to join the Taliban.
She added that although the U.S. has the best-trained and most professional warriors in the world, they have not been able to overcome fighters indigenous to the area that are protecting their land.
A young Afghan woman recommended a "make friends, talk, build" approach rather than the U.S. "fight, talk, build" strategy propagated by Clinton.
"That may at first seem to be hopelessly naive, but why not start with trying to seek out negotiations with all of the warring parties to at least call for a cease fire?"
Kelly explained it's difficult for Afghans to trust people who have invaded them including "Russia, the United States, Pakistan, Iran — there are so many countries involved," Kelly said, adding the U.S. should be paying reparation costs.
"Although the United Nations hasn't been perfect, you have to start somewhere," she said, adding that promoting unarmed solutions that don't rest on threat and force as well as trying to understand grievances is recommended by young people she meets through the Afghan Peace volunteers.
"The U.S. will spend trillions on what does not bring us security," she said.
Kelly acknowledged some small countries, such as Cuba, are able to aid other countries with water purification projects, and added that Cuban doctors are legend for their humanitarian efforts. She hopes the United States will begin to redirect military effort to help solve global social and environmental issues. She added that Americans are willing to help.
"I think average Americans want to be that way and want their children to be that way," she said.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at JLaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.