Working in Kabul: Bomb attack on Hazara protesters

Researching Security fellow Jorrit Kamminga was working for Oxfam in Kabul during the bomb attack on Hazara protesters on 23 July 2016

Photo_Jorrit_KammingaThe day before the attack was a Friday, the first day of the Afghan ‘weekend’ and Kabul was very calm. There are always reports of security incidents but most of these are very far away from the capital or at least from the heart of the city. Late in the afternoon, I had a very positive meeting with the Commander of the Resolute Support Mission, in which we spoke about the security situation but also about the many positive developments in Afghanistan over the past years, such as the increase of interaction between civil society and the state, with more citizens now demanding good governance and access to their basic rights.

My visit to Afghanistan had almost come to an end, and knowing there was no opportunity to leave the guesthouse the day after, as the protests of the Hazara minority had already been announced a week earlier, I quickly went shopping for presents in Chicken Street. I have been coming to this famous shopping area for eleven years now and the intensive bargaining (followed by still paying too much of course) has almost become routine. I know the shops and I know where I can quickly buy what I need. With a bag with some lapis lazuli stones, some jewelry, a nicely carved wooden box and a present for an Afghan colleague who managed to arrange my working permit in no time, I went back to the Oxfam guesthouse.

The next day, Saturday, starts with the normal routine. As our Afghan colleagues have their second day off, I can stay at the guesthouse, go to the gym and have a bit more time than usual for breakfast. I meet with a few work colleagues and we talk about the protests of the Hazara ethnic minority who are demanding that Bamyan province is connected to the planned electricity transmission line. While at first glance the Hazara protests are about the provision of basic services, they are at least partly motivated by broader perceptions of systematic bias against the Hazaras. According to the first news reports, the protests are peaceful and no serious incidents are reported. The international news on TV is still dominated by the shooting in Munich and the government crackdown in Turkey. My colleagues are joking that I will be stuck in Afghanistan as my flight back through Istanbul will surely be cancelled in these circumstances.

A few hours later, Kabul is in turmoil. The suicide attack occurs in the south-western part of the city. I am in Qala-e-Fatullah, two police districts to the north. I don´t hear the blasts but a moment later there is some shooting going on in my neighborhood, apparently nothing serious but some panicking local people or tense security forces. Even here in Kabul people still get upset when such attacks happen, especially because we did not witness an attack of this scale since December 2011 when 63 (also mostly Hazaras) died in an attack on a Shia shrine. The worst part is that this attack was targeted at civilians. In contrast, while many civilians also die in Taliban attacks, the Taliban usually target a specific government or international institution.

My colleagues and I are quite shocked and watching the images of the attacks on television somehow makes it difficult to grasp that this is actually happening in the same city. At least we hear that all Afghan colleagues are safe and accounted for. At two o’clock at night, there is some further shooting in the area of the guesthouse but for the rest everything is calm.

On Sunday, the first working day of the week, most Afghan people have the day off because President Ghani has declared a national day of mourning. While I drive around Kabul in the morning, it am astonished how quickly a city can return to normal. People go about their business and it is almost as if the terrorist attack never happened. Some roads are still blocked and the Hazara community is torn between continuing their demonstrations (forbidden during the day of mourning) and calls to turn this horrific event into a nation-wide act of solidarity with the 91 people who died and the 265 who were wounded.

There is no silver lining to this tragedy. It is terrorism at its worst: cowardly striking fear into the political heart of a country where many people are working firmly towards putting an end to poverty, instability and to at least 38 years of conflict. Islamic State has claimed responsibility, which makes this their first attack in Kabul or in an urban centre for that matter. It is not clear whether the predominantly Sunni terrorist organisation was deliberately targeting Shia Hazaras, whether it was retaliation against the substantial military offensive against Islamic State that started the week before, or whether they would have exploited any big gathering in Kabul on this day. Some fear this may be the beginning of a bigger presence of the terrorist group in Afghanistan which so far has been mainly confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar. Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), as they are officially called in Afghanistan, consists mainly of former members of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) and fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). For the moment, however, the ongoing military offensive against ISKP seems to be quite successful in eastern Afghanistan, and they also face strong resistance from the Afghan Taliban.

I have a little bit of hope, therefore, that this ruthless attack might somehow play a part in putting the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban back on track. The fact that the Taliban quickly denied any responsibility for this suicide attack could maybe represent a tiny stepping stone towards peace in Afghanistan. For me personally this attack will not stop me from returning to Afghanistan. My next trip is already planned and in my current support role I will be assisting Afghan colleagues and project teams until at least March 2017. Over the years, I have experienced quite a lot of tension and turmoil in Afghanistan but this will never weigh up against all the beautiful things I have seen in this country and all the wonderful interactions I have had with Afghan people since 2005.

Appreciating the Positive Moments of Researching Insecurity and Violence

 by Susan Hoppert-Flaemig, July 2016

Although being an academic requires spending an essential amount of time with desk work, the time spent ‘in the field’ is most important to advance in my thinking. Like other researchers, I tend to focus more on the problems rather than on the positive aspects of my topics. Dealing with issues of violence in Central America and the incapability of governments to contain violence, this can be become quite depressing. However, there are moments when I am reminded that the courage of a few people can make the difference, even if only one individual life is changed.

My first trip to Central America was in 1999. I was 18 years old and volunteered at the Casa del Niño, an orphanage in La Ceiba, Honduras. For one year I shared my life with a bunch of lovely wild boys. Many of these boys had experienced poverty, abandonment, abuse, and violence but they were also just children who wanted to laugh and play and live their lives. One of these children was Noe, he came to the Casa del Niño with his brother Carlos when he was about seven years old. He was one of the youngest of the group of about 25 boys, a sweet little kid, smart and playful, and I enjoyed spending time with him and Carlos. That year in La Ceiba opened my eyes about the enormous difficulties many people face every day who are affected by violence and poverty and who are neglected by the state.

I remained attached to the region. In recent years, Honduras gained the sad reputation of being the world’s most violent country.[1] La Ceiba is considered one of the ‘murder hotspots’.[2] In 2011 I came back to La Ceiba. Now a PhD researcher, I had just spent a few weeks of fieldwork in El Salvador. Before heading back to the UK, I wanted to visit some friends in Honduras. One of them was Tania who had been teaching at the Casa del Niño for many years and was now working as principal at an NGO called Niños de la Luz. Niños de la Luz was providing a home and education for children and young adults in a high risk neighbourhood. Tania was working with the same dedication, empathy and persistence I had observed at the Casa del Niño. I was shocked when she told me that most of the children I had met at Casa del Niño had died. At some point in their young lives they had become involved in the lethal business of Honduran street gangs of killings, drug addiction and extortion. It was depressing to think about the kids as young men who killed and were killed.

However, as Tania showed me around Niños de la Luz, we came across a young man whose face seemed somehow familiar. It was Noe, the little boy of the Casa del Niño! His way was exceptional. Not only had he managed to survive and stay healthy. He had also earned a degree in business administration and worked as the financial manager of the project. Seeing Noe alive, happy and thriving in his career was such a pleasure. It showed me that the brave work of all those committed to boys and young men at risk and trying to offer them an alternative to violence and crime is worth it. Researching issues of insecurity and violence is often about being confronted with people living in depressing and difficult situations. But it is worth highlighting and remembering the positive stories as they encourage us to keep engaging with the topic.

[1] According to the UNODC Global Study on Homicides, 90.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants were counted in 2012.


Pictures from the field: Alternative livelihoods in rural Colombia

by Jorrit Kamminga (May 2013)

My PhD research analyses international support for alternative development and trade policies that aim to reduce the supply of illicit drugs. The central argument of the research is that Colombia can be considered a benchmark for the development of an effective international regime on cross-border support for alternative development strategies. This regime – the key academic contribution of the research – would be called an International Economic Security Regime (RISE, using the Spanish acronym of Régimen Internacional de Seguridad Económica). It combines international regime theory (Stephen Krasner et al.) with the theoretical concepts of ‘economic security’ and ‘shared responsibility’.

For my field research on alternative development in Colombia, I visited three regions: Tumaco, Meta and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Here are a few photo impressions from my trip in May 2013.

For more field research pictures from other young scholars, please click on the links below:

New pictures from Susan Flaemig’s field research in El Salvador

Security politics in El Salvador

by Susan Flaemig (2011, 2012, 2013)

These pictures were taken during my research trips to El Salvador in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Obviously, for me as a young scholar it is very difficult to get images that speak of the tremendous violence that people suffer from or that would portray state responses to violence. The main obstacle for me was the risk to carry a camera on a public bus – buses are frequent targets of robbery and assaults. Luckily, on the day I experienced an intended robbery, I didn’t have my camera with me.

Please click on the photographs for more information!