When you think about Afghanistan today, you don’t immediately think of the word “peace.” But Amandine Roche, a French humanitarian, photographer, reporter, explorer, and conflict resolution consultant to the UN and other international organizations, is hoping to change that.
After being detained by the Taliban in Afghanistan in September 2001, Roche decided to commit herself to ending violence in the country. Since then, she has worked and lived on and off in Kabul, consulting Afghan officials and working to advance efforts in democracy, human rights, education, and media awareness. She has also built the Amanuddin Foundation, which seeks to bring peace to the Afghan people through education and mental health services.
We sat down with Roche to learn more about her incredible experiences, and what she’s doing to bring change to a country that so desperately needs it.
You were detained by the Taliban. What was that experience like?
I arrived in Kabul on September 10, 2001, when the Northern Alliance bombed the airport because Commander Massoud had just been assassinated. I was then in Mazar-e-Sharif when President Bush announced that he would bomb Afghanistan. At this time, all internationals were evacuated—but I was a tourist, so I remained with my companion.
We made our way back to the Pakistani border, but the border was closed in order to stop the flow of Afghan refugees, so we were not allow to go back to Pakistan. I asked the Pakistani guards to open the gate, and they agreed on the condition that the Taliban opened the gate, too. The Taliban refused, and detained us for one day—I presume they wanted to negotiate a ransom.
At the same time we were negotiating our release, one the Taliban guards jumped on a land mine at the border and lost his leg. He asked the Pakistani guards to open the gate in order to get to the closest hospital. The Pakistani guards accepted, on the condition that they release us. They made a deal, and we were able to cross the tribal zone during the night with a Pakistani escort.
After this experience, you decided to come back and commit yourself to the country, which is not a typical reaction for someone who’s just been detained. What were your reasons?
At the border, when we were detained, I spent the day playing with a small, barefoot Afghan girl, around 11 years old. At the end of the day, she understood that I had the chance to escape the bombings, and that I was released and could go to Pakistan. So she jumped on my arm, pinched me with her nails, and begged me to take her with me. I had to say good-bye to her when the Pakistani opened the gates to the border, and she said good-bye to me, crying.
For a week, she haunted me in my dreams, asking why I didn’t save her. So one night, I took a pen and I wrote her a letter: “My small Persian barefoot princess, I am very sorry I couldn’t help you and adopt you. But I promise I will come back and I will adopt your brothers and fathers, to show them what a real life is, without war.”
And in 2003, I did come back to Afghanistan. I joined the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping, and served as head of the civic education program in the Kabul Region to prepare the first presidential elections.
How have you seen women's roles in Afghanistan change, since your first time there?
Women are more independent now, and they can have jobs. They have the same rights as men to go outside and participate in public life. Unfortunately, though, the percentage of illiterate women is still very high in Afghanistan, and that is the reason why the change is not really obvious to the rest of the world.
When I was working on the elections, we prioritized the role of women, ensuring that women could vote, work in polling stations, and run as candidates. We networked with civil society groups and the government, provided information and feedback to international actors, and supported the Electoral Commission in creating a female-friendly working environment.
And slowly, we’re making progress. One example I’ve seen: An Afghan woman candidate was told by a man to stop campaigning. She explained to him that she has the same abilities as men, and he listened. In the end, he supported her in her campaign and she won the election.
According to statistics, the numbers of female candidates has increased since the last parliamentary elections. Step by step, we can change minds and attitudes.
You created the Amanuddin Foundation in 2011. Can you tell us a bit more about what you’re working on now?
I created the Amanuddin Foundation to face the darkness of the war and to raise the level of consciousness in Afghanistan through mental health programs, education programs, and media awareness. We focus on youth and women’s empowerment and try to create an inter-religious dialogue in order to allow moderate Islam to counter extremist Islam. We also want to offer yoga classes for Afghan women and meditation classes for Afghan men.
We have designed peace, non-violence, and human rights education programs for the Ministry of Education and for the detainees in jail. We also want to organize a non-violence week for kids, with debates, conferences, theater, film, and the launch of a book on Abdul Gaffar Khan to demonstrate how the population perceives non-violence in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, after promises from many donors—American, Indian, Danish, Norwegian, French, Polish, and the UN—all of them ultimately decided that these education programs were not their priority, and no funds have been received so far.
Now, I am wondering what the priority of the international community is in Afghanistan.
Each month, Americans spend $1.2 billion to maintain their 150,000 soldiers in the Afghan war. To finance our annual program, I just need the price of five American soldiers in Afghanistan, for five hours of war.
Afghanistan is sick of violence, the world is sick of violence, humankind is sick of violence. But violence is not a fatality. If we want, non-violence can heal humankind from the disease of violence. We can give our children the hope of non-violence, in order for them to live together in this fraternal land.
Liz Elfman contributed to the reporting of this story. Photo courtesy of Gelareh Kiazand.