CHRISTMAS, for many of us, meant tucking into roast turkey and drinking mulled wine in the company of family and friends, while watching repeats of festive movies on television. Not so for one intrepid woman.
Reporter RICHARD GLADSTONE spoke to peace campaigner Maya Evans about her very different festive break
LEAVING the comforts of home far behind, 32-year-old Maya Evans spent Christmas and New Year in war-torn Afghanistan.
She flew out via Bahrain just before Christmas and met with human rights activists, as well as refugees affected by the decade-long war.
Ms Evans, of Carisbrooke Road, St Leonards, also visited the capital Kabul and saw first-hand the effect decades of war have had on ordinary people.
“The Afghan people were very friendly and I did not feel in danger at all simply walking down the streets,” she said.
“The most worrying situation I found myself in was the chaotic traffic. The whole system is crazy and quite often you could be travelling on the wrong side of the road.”
Ms Evans found the arrival at Kabul airport a culture shock.
“There were only around 20 commercial aircraft and we walked on the runway itself before catching a bus. There was a big sign saying ‘Welcome to Afghanistan: Land of the Brave’,” she added.
The peace activist arrived in Kabul at dusk and there were no street lights on, so it was pitch black.
She said: “Kabul is one of the most polluted cities in the world with a murky atmosphere.
“The city is so run down and there is no real rubbish disposal so there are piles of it in the streets. The sewage system is just a series of ditches and trenches along the streets.”
Travelling around the city, Ms Evans said she often came across makeshift cemeteries. Some graves were marked with green flags, representing people who had died as martyrs for Afghanistan.
Ms Evans, who works for Idolrich Theatre Rotto, said: “Afghanistan has been at war for three decades and it is estimated that out of a total population of 30 million, two million have died.
“Every family has at least one member who has died as a result of war. Around 80 per cent of people in Afghanistan suffer from mental health problems.”
One of the most shocking things Ms Evans discovered was the massive drugs problem in the war-torn country.
She said: “Around 80 per cent of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan and it is cheaper to buy than food. A lot of parents give their children opium pellets as a hunger suppressant. It is such a sad situation. I saw around 40 men in a river bed getting high on opium and staggering around with very weathered faces, looking like lost souls.”
Expats and foreign aid workers live in secure compounds and it is not safe for a foreigner to leave Kabul, Ms Evans told the Observer.
She said: “Westerners have to be driven in secure cars around the city and buy their shopping in stores within the compound, which sell Western goods.”
During her visit in Afghanistan, Ms Evans met with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, a grass-roots group that promotes peace.
On the 21st of each month they take part in an international Global Day of Listening with peace activists from Iraq, Palestine and Libya.
This uses the internet to listen to, and talk about, what it is like to live in war-torn countries and the volunteers link up with people around the world.
Ms Evans, who joined in last month’s Global Day of Listening, said: “They are reluctant to receive funding because of the level of corruption in Afghanistan.
“All they ask for is solidarity and friendship with people from other countries.”
She also met up with an American group called Voices for Creative Nonviolence, as well as people affected by night raids and drone strikes.
Ms Evans visited a refugee camp to deliver aid raised by other British peace activists.
Around 300 families live on the derelict site near the Crystal Hotel in Karte Parwan, Kabul, and each family has an average of nine people.
Ms Evans said: “Most of them returned to Afghanistan in early 2002 having fled the Taliban regime and the civil war that preceded it, and now have no access to electricity nor clean water.”
She fears many could die through the harsh Afghan winter and added there were around 350,000 displaced people in the country.
She said: “Refugees International reported that air strikes and night raids by US and NATO forces were destroying homes, crops and infrastructure, traumatising civilians and displacing tens of thousands of people.
“More than $450 billion has been spent fighting a disastrous and immoral war, only a tiny fraction of this sum on meeting genuine human needs in Afghanistan, with the result that millions of Afghans are facing hunger and disease this winter.
“These people are now living in some of the most extreme poverty in the world.
“When I visited the camp the children greeted me warmly with big smiles and hugs. Despite living in severe poverty they still have love in their hearts.
“I was swamped by youngsters who were really pleased to meet me. They took me through their camp.
“It was potentially a dangerous thing for me to do, as a different refugee camp two journalists were kidnapped last year and were eventually rescued in Kandahar.
“A lot of the children in the camp were not wearing shoes and rubbish there contained used needles. There is a lot of disease in these refugee camps.”
Ms Evans has written a blog about her visit which can be found on this link
Information on the Peace News’ Kabul Winter Appeal can be found there.