“They are our future!” – Kabul’s young generation

Young protesters Kabul
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Young protesters of the initiative "No to Terrorism" in Kabul raising their voice against war and terrorism

For many, the attack on the popular Lebanese restaurant “Taverna du Libnan” in January 2014 was the turning point. The restaurant, located in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter was a popular meeting place, not only for foreigners as was frequently reported, but also for young Afghans: love struck couples, groups and friends who came to eat falafel and hummus, and enjoy some peace and a sense of normality. The morning after the attack hundreds of young people gathered in front of the restaurant. They laid flowers and marched through the city centre. Their banners bore slogans such as ‘We will win, terrorism will lose’, ‘We want peace’ and ‘We condemn terrorism’.  “I had to do something”, explains Ramin Anwari who started the demonstration. “I was at home when I heard about the attack and just felt compelled to send a message to the perpetrators.” The same day, Ramin, who’d recently got his master’s degree in human rights at an English university, set up a Facebook group called “No to Terrorism”. He mobilized his friends and spent all night printing posters. Within hours the Facebook group had more than 500 members - an anti-terrorism protest movement had been born.

"No to Terrorism" – Mobilization with Facebook

“No to Terrorism” immediately attracted wide media interest. Following the demonstration, Ramin’s group began receiving phone calls and emails from all over the world. “Of course, that was because many foreigners died in the attack too”, Ramin points out, the implication being that otherwise the international media would not have taken as much interest. Nevertheless this kind of protest has become part of life for him. He says protesting and going out on the street is an important way of initiating a change in Afghanistan that people can see. “Our kind of protest connects with those who still implicitly accept what’s happening here”, says Ramin. The looks on the faces of passers-by show they support the demonstrators’ message, he goes on. Ramin says it’s not unusual to hear people say, “We hate the Taliban as much as you do”.

Similar Facebook campaigns followed the deadly assault on Afghan National Army troops in Kunar province and the attack on Hotel Serena in Kabul in March this year. “Enough is enough! We have to raise our voices together against terrorism and fundamentalism,” says the online campaign. Elsewhere there’s a veiled swipe at President Hamid Karzai who in the past called the Taliban ‘brothers’. “Berdare narazi na shahid ast, na ghazi” reads one of the posters – “Neither martyrs nor warlords are anyone’s brother”. Most young Afghans firmly reject any negotiation or cooperation with the Taliban: they regard them as murderers and one does not negotiate with murderers.

With just weeks to go before the April 2014 elections, a young generation of Afghans, especially those in Kabul, was making its voice heard louder than ever. A young, well-educated class has emerged in the cities of Afghanistan almost 13 years after the overthrow of the Taliban. It has had enough of war, suffering and conflict. Many of them have had firsthand experience of war. They are a generation shaped by bombs and bullets, fear and flight. Now they’re giving vent to their frustrations. Afghanistan’s young people are demanding change. They want an end to old archaic structures. They want those still in power with their dark pasts and longs beards to finally stand down.
More than 68 percent of the Afghan population is under 25. “We are one of the youngest societies in the world – we have to use our potential”, says one young activist. Although many are critical of the candidates running for president, most social networks are calling on people to cast their vote.

Young Afghan activists and their initiatives

‘I See You’ is the name of another campaign that aims to highlight corruption, or more specifically, to enlighten the Afghan people about corrupt practices. The campaign's symbol is a pair of all-seeing eyes that appears on walls, t-shirts, badges and in videos. In one of its early actions, in March the group sprayed eyes on a wall at the Ministry for Education. First though, the group gained permission from the minister. “We have to arrange it”, explains an activist of the initiative. “After our first action we got a call from the government. They said that if we named any names, they could crush us from one day to the next. We can’t do this without agreement, without caution.”

So far the entire project has been funded out of the activists' own pockets. They tell us that what's important is that the initiative is anchored in society, and not only supported by individuals or the international community. They want it to be legitimate. Their next action is already in the pipeline: after the elections, the group wants to use hundreds of white stones to put a pair of eyes on a mountainside near Kabul. 'I See You' has attracted an astonishing amount of media interest. Afghan TV channel Tolo TV featured the campaign on its evening news bulletin. An activist tells us, “When my wife went to pick up her passport at the authorities a few days later, the officials saw her 'I See You' badge and offered her a cup of tea straight away. They said that she was one of the 'Eyes People'".

Graffitis and films for a better future and peace
Azim Fakhri (aka 'Kabul Knight') and Shamsia Hassani also use art, mostly in the form of graffiti, to get their message across. The talents of the two Kabul-based artists have already garnered international acclaim. A selection of their works was recently exhibited at the French Cultural Centre in Kabul. Their pictures focus on war, peace, love and life in a war-torn country. “I didn't have anything to do with art”, writes Azim about how he began his work, “but I had emotions. I wanted to speak; I wanted to let these emotions out. Art was the only way.” One of his most recent pictures appeals to Afghans to cast their vote in the elections. Azim intends to show people outside Afghanistan that his country has good sides too; that people there do want peace and that they want to be respected. “We have to join forces and change things”, says Azim. Several times a week he goes out in Kabul where he leaves his spray paint messages on walls. “Often passers-by stop and ask what I’m doing”, he says. Recently a police officer approached him while he was spraying a wall. He watched Azim for a while before praising his talent and inviting him for a cup of tea. “I lost 12 years in Iran”, says Azim. “It wasn't a bad time but now I'm where I should be”. For Shamsia Hassani too art is a medium through which she hopes to change society and leave dark times behind. But as a woman in Afghanistan she is often on the receiving end of criticism for her work because it is at odds with traditional values.

Student Sahar Fetrat describes her connection to her native country: “When I arrived back in Afghanistan at the age of 10, my whole life changed. In fact, that was when my life started.” Last year the young filmmaker won first prize in the Italian Universocorto Elba Film Festival for her short film ‘Do Not Trust My Silence’. The film looks at sexual harassment faced by women in Kabul and Sahar’s own life as a young woman in Afghanistan. Sahar learned to make films with ‘Afghan Voices’, a project funded by the US embassy that aims to give young Afghans the chance to train in photography, filming and editing. The participants decide themselves what to make their films about. A recurrent theme for Sahar is people of her generation and her own role as a young modern woman in Afghanistan. “I like to depict problems, but also show positive aspects”, says Sahar.

For example, she says that although sexual harassment is accepted by society, her aim is to show that this could be changed. Sahar says that Afghanistan is often only depicted as the land of the Taliban. But there are young people who are struggling to change the country for the better, she adds. “I grew up very quickly here”, says Sahar. Despite the many offers of scholarships from abroad, Sahar has decided to stay in her home country. Mohammad Sajjid shows similar dedication, saying “I intend to work for my country for the rest of my life.” The young peace activist and filmmaker at ‘Afghan Voices’ is involved in a number of initiatives, some of them he launched himself, aimed at bringing change to his country. He relies mainly on social networking platforms. “If you look at the grand scale of things”, he says, “it is obvious that the ‘real Afghanistan’ will only change gradually.” He says education is the key - young Afghans in particular must be motivated to get an education that will enable them to take their future into their own hands. “Having an education here doesn’t necessarily mean knowing your rights. If a young woman learns about gender issues, and goes home and her husband breaks her leg for insubordination, then that isn’t genuine change”, says Sahar.

"The wish to be heard"

The potency of the young generation and their desire to speak out can be felt all over Kabul. Hundreds of political, social and artistic initiatives and groups have evolved over the past few years, often with international support but sometimes completely independently. Conferences are organized via social networking platforms and websites, declarations are drafted and campaigns directed at the government and the presidential candidates are planned. The level of creativity and courage is inspiring. The larger political organizations run by young Afghans are the result of informal alliances. Their numbers – and their significance - have soared since the last presidential election and since the withdrawal of international troops was announced in 2009.

“The transition has encouraged us, the upcoming generation, to redefine ourselves”, explains Gran Hewad, member of the ‘Afghanistan 1400’ organisation that has officially existed since 2012. The movement was established by young, like-minded educated reformers who wanted to make a public stand against corruption and for reform. Since 2011 the group has been known as ‘Afghanistan 1400’. In summer 2011 activists set a precedent when they held a memorial and planted trees following an attack that killed several families in hotels at the Qargha lakeside resort near Kabul. In August 2013 the group organized a major event together with other organizations run by young Afghans to celebrate a historic victory by the Afghan national soccer team in the Asian Cup.

‘1400’ relates to the Persian calendar, which gives the current the year as 1393. The number is intended as an expression of hope for change. ‘Afghanistan 1400’ plans to establish itself as a political party and aims to build a new and better nation. “Regardless of our political persuasions, we are united by our rejection of war and through our concern about our future”, says Gran Hewad.

"Change the country from within"

Despite their open criticism of the government, many ‘1400’ members work inside the system where they see themselves making change happen. Gran Hewad explains, “We believe in nation building. We want a modern government, a modern constitution and a modern parliament. And we will achieve it.” Of course, members of the group aren’t under any illusion about how hard it’ll be to change the thinking of the old political elite. And following lengthy debate the group decided not to officially endorse any of the presidential candidates. Instead their aim is to ensure the elections run take place in a fair and transparent process.

Reza Fazli, who is a member of the organization ‘Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness’ (A3) that was founded in 2010, has also seen some heated discussion. In his opinion, these debates are less about fundamental differences than about how best to use the group’s own potential. Like with ‘Afghanistan 1400’, many members of ‘A3’ hold posts at national institutions. The activists are reluctant to admit that holding such positions can also change people's attitudes. Fazli says people have to think of themselves too, and that an education and career is important to many. The original thinking behind ‘A3’ was to offer actors on the national and international stage analysis and political briefings. Now ‘A3’, ‘Afghanistan 1400’ and other smaller organisations are trying to have an impact on the political processes and to ensure fair elections are held. At a series of youth forums currently being held under the aegis of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Kabul, various groups have come together to discuss the political and social challenges.

“Our country will not be democratized by the government – you have to create democracy yourself”, says Dunia Alkozay. The young politics student at the American University who is also assistant to the Minister of Education and representative of the Afghanistan Young Leaders Initiative of the Asia Society is concerned about young people suffering political fatigue and their often very biased view of politics. She says that in addition, Afghanistan’s young people are still being passed over by the “old elite” at the top. “I see it as my duty”, says Dunia Alkozay, “to encourage young people to take up leadership roles themselves.” She travels the land and listens to her contemporaries talk about their thoughts and fears. She says the young generation wants change but that it lacks the confidence needed to think beyond one’s own interests and to come up with ideas for a nation. The reasons, she explains, are often hopelessness, but also egotism and problems with identity. She goes on to say that many young Afghans grew up in exile in Pakistan or Iran, and they lack a real sense of national belonging. Dunia says political interest is especially low in rural regions where there’s little or no sign of change. The young generation can only bring about change with the help of the international community, she concludes: “As long as the international players are here, no one can silence us.”

"A lot of questions, not so many answers"

The most difficult thing for Afghanistan’s young generation is to unite under a set of common objectives. The young political movement is just as riven as the civilian population. Initiatives are springing up all over the place, enthusiasm is widespread, conferences and workshops are constantly being held. But the powers of this young generation need to be channelled. For Reza Fazli, the fact that so much commitment exists at all is evidence of massive social and political change. But the question remains how everything will pan out. All the various groups support the same fundamental aims: peace, democracy, women’s and human rights, a state under the rule of law. “We have a lot of questions”, says Reza Fazli, “but not enough answers.” He says his generation has been let down badly in the past. “We are disappointed by the rightwing, we are disappointed by the leftwing. And there is still nothing in between. After all that has happened in our history we are no longer to take risks. A young revolution in Afghanistan is unthinkable, you can forget it.”

What people want is fairness on the political stage. Fazli says ideas such as democracy haven’t been completely thought through and have yet to be rendered in a way that they can be applied to Afghanistan. And precisely that is the task of the young generation, says Reza. “How many people can you really mobilize? How many can really relate to the modern ideas that we’re discussing? The way I see it, my generation are still a load of lame ducks.”  Other problems are the lack of a connection between urban and rural Afghanistan as well as a lack of mutual trust among the people. “Many just think that we are the puppets of foreign powers”, says a "No Peace"-activist about his encounters with young people outside Kabul. He says the young Afghans you see discussing politics and change in an expensive Kabul restaurant are very much the exception, and account for perhaps ten percent of the young generation. Omaid says that he often notices young people reverting to radical patterns of thought.

Over the past 13 years almost all attempts to modernize the country have been defined by international donors. Many young Afghans are no longer prepared to accept that. In their view the international community has failed to rebuild Afghanistan’s civil society and to unify the country. They say above all, it must be the Afghans themselves who define their needs. “We lack a true national strategy”, admits Ramin Anwari. He says it has to begin at grassroots. At the moment, there are some such small groups being run by the young generation but they have hardly any legitimacy at national level. “Like many of my generation I grew up in a civil war and then got forced into life under the Taliban regime”, says Ramin. “Over the past few years we’ve experienced freedom. The question is: are we prepared to give up those freedoms again – or will we fight for them?”

All quotes are from interviews conducted by Lisa Akbary in Kabul, Afghanistan in March 2014


Interview with Masood Karokhail (The Liaison Office, Kabul, Afghanistan): "How young activists are changing Afghanistan"


Masood Karokhail (TLO): How young activists are changing Afghanistan - Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

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Masood Karokhail is a founding member and now the director of The Liaison Office (TLO) in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is an expert on governance, tribal issues, and the political economy of Afghanistan and has authored and co- authored numerous articles on these subjects.

In this interview Karokhail speaks about young activists in Afghanistan, about their goals and how they want to see Afghanistan beyond the time of 2014. The interview was conducted March 12th, 2014 at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.