McMaster student Samira Sayed-Rahman speaks to a crowd of thousands in Chicago on May 20.

When Samira Sayed-Rahman was asked to represent Afghans for Peace for a workshop at a NATO Counter-Summit in Chicago, she considered declining, unsure if she was up to the task.

But the McMaster political science and religious studies student ultimately decided to go, having no idea that she would be leading thousands of protestors – she later heard estimates that ranged from ten to fifty thousand – through the streets of the city.

“I crossed two things off my bucket list, getting onto Fox News and Al Jazeera at the same time,” she laughed.

NATO leaders, including Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, were meeting at a Summit in Chicago, in part to discuss the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The plan was for Sayed-Rahman and two other young women from Afghans for Peace, an organization with chapters in Canada, the U.S. and parts of Europe, to speak and host a workshop at the Counter-Summit happening nearby.

She arrived on the evening of Wednesday, May 16 for a press conference the following morning with members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The veterans announced that, at a weekend rally, they would be giving back medals they had received for their time overseas, much like veterans of the Vietnam War did after returning home.

Later that day, the members of AFP and some of the veterans were walking past the Obama headquarters, where there was an anti-war rally taking place. Members of the rally recognized the women and the veterans from the morning’s media event and encouraged them to speak, leading to more coverage.

“From then on, we kept getting invited to all of these different events, running back and forth across the city to speak,” said Sayed-Rahman.

The workshop AFP held at the start of the weekend that followed was packed.

“It was a little strange having all these older folk looking up to me and asking me questions,” she said. “We’re all a bunch of young ladies – we’re all in our 20s – and it was an experience being there and having people look to us for answers, because most people didn’t know anything about the conflict.”

The weekend’s events were building toward Sunday’s rally. The many groups taking part in the march that day wanted to follow the lead of the veterans, who were drawing the bulk of the media attention for the protests. The veterans, though, wished to follow the three women.

“They said this was more about the Afghan people than it was about the people returning their medals.”

So the three walked at the front of the march, carrying the Afghan flag, as the veterans walked alongside them carrying the American flag. When they stopped, less than a block from the NATO Summit, the former soldiers folded up the U.S. flag to represent an end to the occupation.

“The veterans were an incredible group of people. They made sure we always felt safe and were always comfortable,” she said.

After throwing their medals, the men took a knee, a sign of apology to the Afghan people. By the time Sayed-Rahman was reading a statement to the crowd at the close of the event, the veterans were in tears.

“I don’t know how I didn’t shed a single tear on that stage. Looking back on the footage, I’m blown away by it … I don’t know how I was able to speak in front of all of those people.”

Much of Samira’s extended family still lives in Afghanistan.

“I am involved in anything anti-war, whether it’s the Palestinian movement or Libya or anything. But there’s that connection to Afghanistan through my family that I can’t escape, and it has really fuelled me.”

She has returned to Canada, and is back at McMaster for summer classes. But she’s anxious to continue pushing the issue. The young women of her organization have been invited to events in Germany, Nepal and elsewhere as a result of the attention they’ve received.

Samira acknowledges, though, that there might never be another event that comes close to matching her experience in Chicago.

“The relationships we built in two days, I don’t think I could build those relationships with some people in a lifetime.”

There is an entirely different war going on in the East than we are aware of.

Ryan Mallough

Silhouette Staff

 

On March 16, 1968, American Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division opened fire on the civilians of the South Vietnamese village of Mai Lai. Between 300-500 Vietnamese, mostly women and children, were killed in the massacre, which would be covered up for a year before reaching the American public.

Twenty-six American soldiers were charged, twenty-five of them acquitted. Only Second Lieutenant William Calley was convicted, given a life sentence on being found guilty of 22 murders. While Calley’s name will forever be associated with the massacre, his sentence was reduced to three years’ house arrest by President Nixon, and he was ultimately released in 1974, serving a total of just over three years for twenty-two murders.

There was no justice for the victims of Mai Lai.

On March 11 of this year, Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales allegedly left his base in Afghanistan an entered two nearby villages, opening fire on sleeping families and killing seventeen. This time, there was no cover-up. Staff Sgt. Bales was quietly withdrawn from Afghanistan back to the United States via Kuwait and held at Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, where he has been charged with seventeen counts of premeditated murder.

Bales’ lawyer has cited post-traumatic stress as the trigger behind his actions. It was Bales’ seventh tour, he had lost a part of his foot in previous duty and he had a close friend lose his leg days before the attack. While the Afghan shootings were shocking, what is perhaps most surprising is that something like this has not happened before.

According to a 2011 study by Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute at Brown University, 88,719 veterans of the Afghan and Iraqi wars were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as of 2010. Lutz also noted that 39 per cent of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq were on their second or higher tour of duty.

The American army does not have the man power to afford their soldiers single tours of duty. The longevity of the conflict and the relative strength and staying power of the insurgency have forced the Americans to stay far more engaged than expected at the outset of the war. In response, President Bush, and President Obama after him, oversaw a surge in troop levels, hoping to overwhelm insurgent forces, bringing more soldiers into the area, many of them veterans of multiple tours of duty.

However, as a result of the insurgency, the enemy no longer looks like the enemy, but instead looks like the people they are there to protect. The result was soldiers patrolling the streets and seeing a threat in every passing face. It inevitably takes a psychological toll.

The rationale behind Bales’ actions will be analyzed both in the courts of law and public opinion, and PTSD discourse will inevitably dominate the Western airwaves.

While PTSD is an issue that needs to be brought to the forefront, another issue will be lost in the coverage: the issue of justice, not for Bales’ actions, but for the Afghan people.

Whether it was ever their intention or not, the American forces entered Afghanistan under the pretence of removing the Taliban and brining democratic values to the region. Central to those democratic values are the ideas of accountability and justice. That one has to be held responsible for his actions.

Despite the fact the soldier was American, he committed crimes against the Afghani people. In light of the American’s role in Afghanistan, it would go a long way towards future relations to hold the trial in Afghanistan under Afghani law, even if the Americans reserve the right to punish Bales on their own terms. The Afghani people deserve to have their right to trial upheld.

At the very least the Obama administration should extend an invitation to the Karzai government to send a delegation to bear witness to the proceedings should they be held in the United States; even better would be to extend an invitation to an Afghani lawyer to participate in the prosecution. Such a gesture would do infinitely more to repair the damage caused than the current American strategy of throwing money at the problem ($50,000 per victim) and bringing the trial behind closed doors.

President Lyndon B. Johnson said that “ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and minds [of the Vietnamese]” in Vietnam War. Allowing events like the Mai Lai massacre to happen and the handling of its aftermath ensured that America would fail. Once again administrations have emphasised the importance of winning over “hearts and minds” This may be their last chance to fix the past, and to show they ever really cared.

His trial is pending, but if it continues on the track it is on, there will be no justice – conviction or no, death penalty or no – for the Afghan people. America has a chance to makes things right.

 

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