Interview with Maya Evans, the first British peace activist to visit to Afghanistan


In 2005 Maya Evans was arrested along with fellow peace activist Milan Rai for standing by the Cenotaph and reading aloud the names of Iraqi civilians and British soldiers who had died in the Iraq war.

 

She became the first person to be convicted under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act – the controversial law that made it illegal to hold an unauthorised demonstration within one kilometre of Parliament Square.

 

Since then the 32-year-old has been busy – as a columnist for Peace News, working with anti-war group Justice Not Vengeance, taking part in Climate Camp and visiting Dale Farm to show solidarity with the now evicted Travellers.

 

But when I caught up with Evans in London as she was heading home after a speaking tour of Scotland it was her recent trip to Afghanistan I wanted to talk about. Evans became the first British peace activist to visit the country.

 

Evans has been actively interested in the British role in the occupation of Afghanistan for several years.

 

In 2008, working with Public Interest Lawyers, she filed for a judicial review of the British policy of handing over prisoners to Afghan authorities including the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan secret police. Prisoners in its custody would often be tortured.

 

"Under the Geneva Conventions that is highly illegal because if you capture someone they are your prisoner of war and you are supposed to look after them," she explains.

 

"When we did get the documents, which included witness statements from Afghans who had been tortured, masses of it had been redacted."

 

The two weeks in court were similarly frustrating.

 

"Three days of it were done behind closed doors," she says. "So I wasn't allowed to go in and my lawyers weren't allowed to go in.

 

"But there were these special lawyers who were working for the government, paid by the government, but also working for us, so were arguing the case on our behalf."

 

Despite this Evans won a "partial victory" in 2010, when the High Court ruled it illegal to transfer any more detainees to NDS Kabul.

 

Transfers to other NDS facilities were allowed to continue – but that isn't the end of the story. Evans notes that in October 2011 the United Nations assistance mission in Afghanistan published a report that documented torture in a number of NDS detention centres, including some that Britain had deemed safe to keep transferring detainees to. Evans and her lawyers will soon be asking the High Court to reinvestigate.

 

In Afghanistan Evans met with a number of grassroots organisations working for peace, including the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers and the Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers. She also visited the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission led by Dr Sima Samar.

 

"My impression was that they were very much under the thumb of the government," she says, noting that a day after meeting her Dr Samar met President Hamid Karzai.

 

"NGOs, if they are in receipt of foreign money, have to toe the line."

 

More broadly Evans's time in Kabul gave her an insight into how Western aid works in Afghanistan. She cites a 2009 Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief study which estimated that 40 per cent of Western aid simply gets absorbed by corporate salaries and profits.

 

"The NGOs have been given the job the government should be doing – providing refuges for women, sorting out education and public health," she says. "I think that's the responsibility of the Afghan government and of Afghans. It's almost like another form of colonialism where you have these foreign organisations coming in and sorting Afghan society out."

 

And how did the Afghans she meet feel about the US/Nato occupation?

 

As with most of her answers Evans turns to the factual evidence first.

 

She refers me to a 2010 joint poll by a number of media organisations including the BBC and the Washington Post. It found that 63 per cent of Afghans support US troops' presence in Afghanistan.

 

"I think that reflects fear of the Taliban rather than thankfulness for what the US is doing," she says, explaining that there are regional differences in the results.

 

US forces are far less popular in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strongest and where the fighting is most intense. A survey conducted last year by the International Council on Security and Development found that 99 per cent of respondents in Sangin thought Nato operations were bad for the Afghan people.

 

"I found middle-class professionals who were usually in receipt of US money through NGOs were very supportive of foreign troops being in the country," she says. In contrast the people she spoke to on the street "had a clear analysis that they didn't want foreign troops in the country – that they were making things worse. These individuals weren't in receipt of the foreign money coming in."

 

But Evans does not propose withdrawing all foreign troops immediately, favouring a gradual, timetabled withdrawal of US and Nato troops which could be replaced by a neutral, probably Muslim, peacekeeping force to stop the country sliding into civil war.

 

She also calls for a radical change in the behaviour of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan.

 

"The number one recruiter for the Taliban at the moment is the US and Nato," she says, pointing to the destructive effects of night raids, drone attacks and aerial bombing.

 

"I heard a number of stories from people who had friends who had been killed in drone attacks. People who had known others in their villages who were apolitical, not fundamentalists, but who ended up fighting with the Taliban after their families had been killed in an aerial bomb attack."

 

This testimony is backed up, she notes, by a 2007 study by Globe and Mail journalist Graeme Smith. Smith conducted remote interviews of 42 members of the Taliban in Kandahar using an Afghan researcher and found that a third of respondents said a family member had been killed by Nato bombing.

 

Friendly and funny in person, Evans is hopeful about the chances of a political settlement.

 

"The Taliban has to be part of negotiations," she says. "It's not going to go away. If the Taliban can agree to moderate its stance and be part of a mixed government – from what its list of demands says I think that is feasible – then there is a chance of success at the negotiating table.

 

"We have to remember that the political movements that have risen to the top, like the mojahedin, were financially backed by the US from the '70s onwards, and also by this country.

 

"And the Taliban has been backed by Pakistan and the Saudis. So if you take away all foreign intervention I think Afghans stand a better chance of sorting things out and sitting down and talking with each other."

 

Evans was currently preparing a short pamphlet on her trip for Justice Not Vengeance. However, this will have to wait.

 

On February 29 Evans was jailed for 13 days for her role in a non-violent "die-in for Nato's victims in Afghanistan" outside Northwood military base in 2009.

 

"In Afghanistan I met a young man whose sister had been left widowed with an infant son by a Nato air strike that killed five civilians," she says in her press statement.

 

"Meeting the victims of US and British policies has only strengthened my conviction that we need to terminate Britain's role in this senseless and bloody war."

 

 

*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK http://twitter.com#!/IanJSinclair and ian_js@hotmail.com.

  

 

 

 

 

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