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The Lived Experience of Violence in Afghanistan

 The following analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 2 of the Peace Science Digest

At the center of armed conflict for the past 40 years, Afghans have experienced a Soviet invasion and occupation, internal fighting and the take-over of the Taliban regime, and U.S. invasion and occupation. Although most attention devoted to Afghanistan in the western news media in recent years has focused on the fight against the Taliban and fatalities of U.S./NATO forces, this research turns our focus instead to the everyday violence experienced by Afghans themselves over the past four decades. Two central questions animate the author’s study: 1) “What is the individual experience of living with violence daily?” and 2) “During political conflict, how is violence incorporated into daily life?”

To answer these questions, the author engaged in six months of field research in Afghanistan, ultimately interviewing 40 people of diverse ages, genders, ethnicities, and ideological/political leanings (though interviewing them in English in the capital city of Kabul may have led to an overrepresentation of educated, middle-class Afghans). Over the course of multiple interviews with each person, the author asked the interviewee to provide her/his life narrative, focusing on several dimensions related to the experience of violence and its impact on oneself, one’s family, one’s identity, and so on. The author then analyzed the interviews to identify common themes in the experience of violence.

Four key themes emerged through her analysis: “institutional violence and coping in everyday life, normalizing violence, childhood experiences of violence, and resilience and its functions.”

First, violence became a regular occurrence, worked into the very fabric of social and political life in the form of Soviet bombings, disappearances and torture on the part of the Afghan government, street violence related to the state intelligence agency and rival ethnic militias during the civil war, and public acts of punishment like stonings and beheadings under Taliban rule. This relentless violence had an impact on the population who expressed various levels of helplessness, fear, widespread insecurity, and trauma.

Second, to cope with the ubiquity of violence, however, Afghans found ways to normalize this violence and integrate it into their lives. This integration took the form of everything from catching up with neighbors and telling stories to the kids while hiding out in the basement during rocket attacks, to finding a tailor to make a burkha to wear on the way to work so as to avoid getting in trouble with the Taliban, to feeling odd if a few days went by without the smell of gunpowder—all of which also required a measure of desensitization to the violence that was being normalized.

Third, the author notes the distinct qualities of childhood experiences of violence—a focus that highlights the way in which whole generations have grown up in Afghanistan with violence as the “normal” backdrop to their lives. While “inquisitive” about their surroundings, children have also developed a capacity for emotional numbing in the face of regular violence, including an ability to ignore the possibility of their own death. The author describes numerous examples of children’s exploration among the “wreckage” of war amid flying bullets and un-defused bombs or children’s gaping at the spectacle of nighttime firefights, with bullets appearing like stars. She also notes the everyday groundedness and banality characterizing how children have dealt with personal grief and processed trauma: for instance, a boy who briefly left the childhood friends with whom he regularly played volleyball to go to the store, only to return to find that a missile had exploded there and killed them all, ending his narrative with the words, “There was no volleyball anymore.”  As the author notes, this “tale of tremendous grief and loss morph[s] into one of disruption of routine,” echoing her earlier findings about the integration of violence into daily life.

Finally, resilience marked the narratives of the Afghans interviewed. Many commented on the strength they gained and the lessons they learned through their war experiences—sometimes requiring “tremendous courage and fortitude”—as well as their faith in God as a source of their resilience. This focus on resilience also highlights an often fine line between “victim and victimizer, oppressed and oppressor”—presumably in the way that resilience was sometimes itself seen to require violence. For example, child combatants who took pride in protecting their families and communities against attack as part of neighborhood patrols risked death or injury but also took up arms. The nightly ritual of leaving the house and kissing his mother goodbye was one boy’s routine for making it through, just as others adhered to the routine of regularly going to school, even under dangerous conditions, especially for girls. The yearning for a better life, to reach their “full potential,” that drove children (and their parents) to continue the routine of education was also the same yearning that fueled their ability to survive.

Contemporary Relevance:

Although the experiences with violence examined here focus mostly on earlier chapters in Afghan history (in one place the author notes that the study covers the time period from 1978 to 2012, but elsewhere she notes that it covers only the period from 1979 to 2001, the end of Taliban rule), the author’s findings are extremely relevant to understanding the implications of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan over the past decade and a half. This research draws attention to the lived experiences of the real human beings who have had their lives shaped by recurrent violence in their home country—something to which those of us in the West do not normally pay enough attention. It bears remembering that these are the people who were made to “pay” for the attacks of September 11, 2001, in the U.S., and that the same sorts of experiences are lived daily by thousands and thousands of families trying to make it through similar episodes of violent conflict in other countries around the world (for example, the on-going violence in Syria, including the retaliatory attacks by the U.S., France, and the U.K. in Syria in April 2018). How does this steady experience of violence shape their views of the actors perpetrating that violence? What are the long-term effects of so many people integrating and normalizing violence in their daily lives? What does all this say about the efficacy of violence as a clear-cut tool for reaching concrete policy ends?  

Talking Points:

  • Long-term exposure to violence in Afghanistan over the past four decades has had a significant impact on Afghans.
  • In response to the regular occurrence of violence in Afghan society, Afghans have expressed helplessness, fear, widespread insecurity, and traumatization but also have learned to cope by normalizing violence, desensitizing themselves from it, and integrating it into their daily lives.
  • While “inquisitive” about the war landscape surrounding them, Afghan children have also developed a capacity for emotional numbing in the face of regular violence, including an ability to ignore the possibility of their own death.
  • Afghans have demonstrated real resilience in the face of violence, attributed to their faith in God but also to the maintenance of routines and the yearning for a better life.

Practical Implications:

This research draws our attention to the lived experiences of war, something that is too seldom central to “our” deliberations about going to war. This must change. Making such considerations central not only humanizes the people who may be on the other side of “our” bombs and machine guns, heightening our awareness of the human costs of war, but it also forces us to better consider the “messiness” of war. Although it is tempting to think of war in purely instrumental terms, as a means that will lead to a desired end, the operation of collective violence is never that straightforward. Rather, as something that is experienced by real, complex human beings who can respond in myriad ways, violence can backfire and have unintended effects. “Our” use of violence can reinforce cycles of violence more broadly, particularly if whole generations have grown up in the midst of violence and have become both traumatized by and desensitized to it. In such contexts, it is less likely that violence will be experienced and reacted to as a clearly defined coercive tool and more likely that it will simply add itself to the mound of grievances already piled up on an aggrieved population—who may find new meaning and even resilience in reclaiming agency in the form of armed resistance. For all these reasons, attention to the lived experience of war brings with it a fuller, more realistic assessment of the ethics and utility of violence—whether its use is proposed in North Korea, Syria, or elsewhere.

Continued Reading:

  • Trump, Mattis, and the Future of Afghanistan By Evan Perkoski, with Deborah Avant, Nader Hashemi, and Kirstin Brathwaite. Denver Dialogues for Political Violence @ a Glance, June 27, 2017. http://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2017/06/27/trump-mattis-and-the-future-of-afghanistan/
  • The U.S. Needs to Talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan By Borhan Osman. The New York Times, March 19, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/opinion/america-afghanistan-taliban-talks.html
  • The Secret to Effective Nonviolent Resistance By Jamila Raqib. Ted Talk, November 2015. https://www.ted.com/talks/jamila_raqib_the_secret_to_effective_nonviolent_resistance

Citation:

Ray, A. (2017). Everyday violence during armed conflict: narratives from Afghanistan. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 23(4), 363-371.

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