Monday, March 19, 2012

A Vigil in Fremont: Bringing the Massacre Home

On Saturday a friend and I went to a vigil in Fremont held by the Afghan community, to protest the massacre of sixteen civilians in Kandahar province last Sunday. I was deeply moved by the experience.

photo: SJ Mercury News
This is a community that has been slow to protest. The South Bay, stretching from Fremont to San Jose, has the largest concentration of Afghans in the U.S., roughly 65,000 in Fremont. Some fled during the Soviet occupation, others after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. They came seeking opportunity and freedom, and that vision has been both challenged and realized. They learned about racism, xenophobia and religious bigotry, and about the hidden realities of poverty in this country, but as one of yesterday’s speakers pointed out, plenty of them broke through and made it, lifting their families to middle class and even wealthier status.

They created their shopping districts, mosques and community centers and sent their kids to UC Berkeley and San Jose State.

Then came 9/11 and suddenly the land to which they had fled from oppression became the biggest source of violence toward Afghan people. Like many immigrant communities before them -- my parents’ generation of Jews, for instance, the primary response of the threatened community was to lie low and try to remain above reproach. While those of us not directly affected by the attacks on Muslims in general and Afghans in particular could scream in outrage against war and civil liberties violations, Afghan community leaders quietly set about creating institutions to protect or defend people from the worst abuses by our government, at the same time loudly and publicly proclaiming their support for the U.S. and distancing themselves from whoever perpetrated the 9/11 attacks (none of whom were Afghan, in case anyone is confused).

Judith Miller wrote in 2010:
Given their discomfort with the foreign policy of the country that has sheltered them but is still fighting in their former home and sometimes killing their friends and relatives left behind, many Fremont Afghans are reluctant to discuss politics with outsiders. The Afghanistan war is unpopular in much of this community, several Afghans told me. So, too, is President Hamid Karzai, despite the fact that he, like an overwhelming majority of the refugees in Fremont, is a Pashtun, Afghanistan’s majority ethnic group.
For sure there have been exceptions. Afghans for Peace has been a small but consistent presence in the anti-war movement when there has been one for them to participate in. Their participation has been hampered somewhat by the fact that the Bay Area movement is led by groups which defended the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, from which so many of the Afghans in this area were refugees. Fatima Mojadiddy, one of the most active members of Bay Area Afghans for Peace, commented on a blog post in 2010, which claimed, “The young socialist [pro-Soviet] government, which had overthrown a centuries-old monarchy, was cosmopolitan, outward-looking, and stressed the education of women as well as men. This was a time when women in Kabul could wear mini-skirts.”:

Soviet backed communists were brutal and used authoritarian force, violence, persecution, etc to enforce themselves upon the people. And Afghans in Kabul were wearing mini skirts well before the Saur Revolution of 1978, not that mini skirts really say ANYTHING about the real emancipation of women, other than Western cultural imperialism.

I am sick of how the American Left repeatedly white-washes the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan….In doing so you are no different from those who defend America's crimes towards the people of Afghanistan.
Last Sunday’s massacre seems to have broken a dam. Afghans around the country have organized vigils. Bay Area Afghans held a smaller one last Monday in Oakland, and this one yesterday which drew about 200 people to the Fremont Amtrak station, where a sign proclaims Centerville, the heart of the Afghan community.

When we arrived the people were lining both sides of the street, waving Afghan flags and signs saying, “Honk for Peace,” and “Obama We Want Peace Not War.” After about half an hour, they moved into the plaza for a rally which began with prayers. Women were asked to “line up behind the men, to respect our traditions.” I chose to stand off to the side holding a sign.

Speakers were eloquent. A young woman named Saylai Lalyas, a student at UC Berkeley, broke down in tears as she talked about how it felt to watch the news of what is being done to the people “back home.” She said, “I am not just angry, I am ready. Ready to take action.” The action she was urging is political – registering to vote and running candidates for local office. She pointed out that the Afghan community has never had a representative on the Fremont city council, in the state legislature or in Congress, despite the potential power their numbers could give them.

Abu Bakr Mojaddidy talked about the children who were killed in the villages, noting that many of the children at the vigil were the same age. He recounted the horrific violence done to those children, the mothers forced to watch their children cruelly murdered in cold blood, and said, “Those children are not over there. They are here.”

While Mr. Mojadiddy was speaking, I heard someone shouting from the street. I went to see what it was. A white man in a white pickup truck was stopped at a light, and he was leaning out his window. His head was shaved and he wore camouflage. He was staring at the protesters, and I had the sense that he hated us, but I thought, maybe I was just judging on the basis of how he looked. I hadn’t heard what he said. But when the light changed, and he pulled into the turn lane, he leaned out and this time I heard him very clearly: “Kill them all.” Fortunately, I don’t think anyone else was close enough o hear. But I had a moment of terror – what if he parked his truck and came back to attack someone? He might be ex-military, he could even be a reservist. He could be armed. Could something like this massacre happen here?

The man turned the corner and did not return.

The most moving speaker was a ten-year-old girl named Bahar. Her father explained that she had stayed up very late the night before writing a letter to President Obama, and she wanted to read part of it. She read only this sentence, “It doesn’t matter where in the world this happened, and by whom, the murder of innocent civilians, mostly women and children, is wrong.”

Her mother walked around the crowd, getting people to sign onto her letter. She gave out copies, and I read it when I got home. I wished that Bahar would have read the full letter, which I have to say shows a more sophisticated understanding of judicial process than most U.S. adults probably have. She criticized the decision to remove Sgt. Robert Bales, the accused killer, from Afghanistan, because:
“I don’t think he will receive the right justice through the trial without the representation of the families of the massacred civilians….I have a suggestion and a favor to ask: can you please order the U.S. military to bring the remaining members and community members of the massacred families from Afghanistan to the U.S. so that they can be present in the judicial process related to this massacre. This way, the families can fight for the justice of their loved ones and we will not forget the reactions and emotional duress this ordeal has caused…and they will see the American justice system in action as well as the love and generosity of Americans first hand.”
I hope the president listens to her. I hope the love and generosity of Americans will go out in some way to those families.

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