The crowd of people who wound their way to the presidential palace included many from the Hazara community. But it also saw a coming together of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups to raise their voice against this fresh horror. It was a remarkable moment of solidarity and resistance, a potent demonstration of the anger of the Afghan people against the forces of hatred and violence destroying their society.
The killings had provoked a range of emotions in the vast crowd that gathered to walk with the coffins of the “Zabul Seven”, from the western suburb of Dasht e Barchi to the presidential palace in the centre of the Kabul. Men and women raised slogans condemning the Taliban and Islamic State, among others, and called for the resignation of the current government. Drone footage of the protest shows their overwhelming numbers, the mass of people spreading through the streets.
For the most part, the event remained peaceful, even as a few people pushed through the gates of the presidential palace with the coffins, demanding a response from the government. Most crucially, as Van Bijlert reported, it was a demand for “justice and protection, all over the country”. Again, it is unlikely that a casual consumer of news in India would have gained even a hazy idea of its importance or scale.
The protests were not confined to the capital – the march in Kabul was preceded and succeeded by demonstrations in other cities, including Zabul and Herat. Clearly, Afghans are not numb. But from the near total absence of these voices in our press, it appears that we are. The suffering in Afghanistan does not make news in India, or in Bangladesh or in Nepal, though it does sometimes in the west. Major western media outlets reported on the protests with varying degrees of depth. But still it was illuminating to read the Twitter feeds of young Afghan reporters and photographers and Afghan news agencies like Pahjwok or Tolo TV. It was they who best captured the urgency and impact of the day.
Taking cues from the west
Was the absence of the protest from our news palette just plain old indifference? Or did it have something to do with the fact that the images on display did not fit the narratives we expect from the city we know through war? As a broad rule, news coverage of Afghanistan consists of stories of violence and horror, or defiance and “hope despite the odds”. As a journalist who wrote from Kabul for several years, I realised early on how difficult it was to challenge the simple narratives. And how quickly attention shifted if you tried to move from events to history, from caricatures to complexity.
Over the past few years, Afghanistan has been slowly vanishing from our horizons. This is not the first time, though, it has faced such forgetfulness. In his book Ghost Wars, journalist Steve Coll described a CIA agent trying to discuss the country’s civil war in 1991 with George H W Bush. “Is that thing still going on?” Bush senior is reported to have said.
That places of constant conflict like Kabul should continue to exist is difficult to acknowledge for places untouched by strife. That they should try to challenge the way they exist is even harder to process. In the case of India and Afghanistan, such omissions take on greater import. As France responds to the attacks on its capital with “ruthlessness”, the throwback to Afghanistan bearing the brunt of retribution in 2001 is inescapable. In the future, India too will frame its responses, placing special focus on regional forces. But isn’t it time we stopped taking our cues in forgetting from the west, and began looking at our region, and places like Afghanistan, from outside the lens of strategy or policy? Isn’t it about time that our news media began the process of reporting on the country and listening to its voices rather than being content with reports from international agencies?
Two days after the Kabul protests, violent attacks unfolded in Paris, as they had in Beirut, in Mumbai and elsewhere. As they were bound to, and as they will continue to. In a news report on the Paris attacks, I read a phrase by a survivor: “It was a warzone, only at my doorstep.” The words spoke of the distance between home and war zones, a distance that Kabul has learned to live without. And yet, less than a week after mourning the “Zabul Seven”, Kabul held another memorial, for the victims of the Paris attacks.
In the days that followed the attacks in France, a thread of discourse dwelt on the asymmetry of the grief for Paris compared to other targets like Beirut or Baghdad. But more than the quality or degree of distress, it is important to understand how such spaces of violence are linked by patterns of forgetting. I cannot mourn for Baghdad the way I mourn for Kabul or even Paris, and I cannot presume to dictate the quality of grief for others. What Kabul needs is not our prayers or tears, but the dignity of being heard. When Afghans defy danger and constant violence to speak up for humanity, we owe them our solidarity, and at least our attention. Until we learn to listen to Kabul’s protests for peace, we may not be able to understand why we are forced to mourn for Paris.