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Devastated by Decades of War, Letterbox Campaign Helps Afghans Cope with Mental Health

“I live in grief but I smile. People think I am brave but I have no choice,” wrote one unidentified person

Members of the ArtLords sort letters of Dard-e-Dil (a painful heart) project in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 6, 2019. VOA

Hundreds of Afghans, weary of war and unsure of the future, have joined a letter-writing campaign to share their feelings with the powerful few who will decide on peace with the Taliban and, with it, the fate of their country.

The letters from different parts of Afghanistan express a tangled mix of confusion, resignation and fear.

“I live in grief but I smile. People think I am brave but I have no choice,” wrote one unidentified person.

The letters, part of a project called Dard-e-Dil (a painful heart) are addressed to U.S. diplomats, the Taliban and government officials.

War, Letterbox, Campaign
Hundreds of Afghans, weary of war and unsure of the future, have joined a letter-writing campaign to share their feelings. PIxabay

They are being written as high-level talks are underway to find a political settlement to end a war that has raged on for 18 years.

“I am writing with a hope that we have a better life in Kabul, we live amidst so much tension, I can do nothing to change the situation but I am still writing,” wrote another person from the Afghan capital.

The Dard-e-Dil project aims to give ordinary people an outlet to express their feelings at a time when the peace talks among top officials dominate politics, even though the fighting has not subsided.

“The prevailing political uncertainty is clearly the most nerve-racking phase for Afghans, most of us are already battling depression and mental health issues,” said artist Omaid Sharifi, who organized the project.

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Sharifi’s interest in expressing the feelings aroused by the conflict goes back to his work with ArtLords, an art collective he co-founded that has become famous for the dramatic murals it has painted on grim concrete blast walls around Kabul.

His team has installed special letter boxes outside cafes, educational centers, hospitals and government offices, encouraging people to try to deal with their anxieties and voice their opinions about the peace talks in letters.

The letters are sorted at the ArtLords studio with the aim of sending them on to government authorities, diplomats and the leaders of the insurgency.

More important, though, is the need to help people tell their stories, a basic requirement for mental health, said Sharifi, who struggled with anxiety for years.


War, Letterbox, Campaign

The letters from different parts of Afghanistan express a tangled mix of confusion, resignation and fear. Pixabay

“Everyone has a right to narrate their story. Some of these stories will highlight and reveal human rights abuses and some will offer hope and solidarity,” he said.

Afghanistan has been devastated by decades of war, stretching back to the conflict with the former Soviet Union from late 1979.

Violence, instability and poverty have touched virtually every family and many Afghans suffer from mental health problems. However, facilities for treating such illnesses are scarce.

Wahid Mayar, a spokesman for the public health ministry, estimated that about half of the population will experience mental stress during their lifetime, a consequence of war often overshadowed by daily struggles.

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“The suffering of mental illness in Afghanistan is a silent war. If peace comes then we will have to accept the new normal, but currently we are in a phase of tremendous uncertainty,” Mayar said.

“The prospect of peace brings hope and anxiety. We wonder can peace ever come to embrace us, to calm our minds,” he said.

Accurate data on mental health is not available in Afghanistan but the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates more than a million Afghans suffer from depressive disorders and more than 1.2 million from anxiety disorders.

The WHO says the actual numbers are likely much higher.

Nobody expects the letter-writing campaign to heal the wounds of more than four decades of conflict but it may allow at least some people to start working through their fears and prepare for an uncertain future.

“There are times when I want to run away from my country and then I think I should wait for peace and plan my life here,” wrote one person.

“Kabul is always the best place to be.” (VOA)

Next Story

Here’s Everything you Need to Know About the Increasing Islamic State Terror Activity in Syria

Surge of IS Violence and Terrorism Seen in Syria

Smoke Syria
Smoke rises while people gather at a damaged site after two bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State hit the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli near the Turkish border, Syria. VOA

By Sirwan Kajjo

Islamic State militants have increased their terror activity in recent weeks in Syria, carrying out deadly attacks against Syrian regime troops and U.S.-backed forces.

Since early December, the terror group has conducted at least three major attacks on Syrian government forces and their allied militias in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, local sources said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has reporters across the country, recent attacks claimed by IS against Syrian military forces have killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded more than 50 others.

Last week, at least three fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in what local military officials described as a suicide attack carried out by IS militants in the province of Raqqa, IS’s former de facto capital before it was freed in 2017 by the SDF and its U.S.-led allies.

Islamic State Syria
Islamic State militants clean their weapons in Deir el-Zour city, Syria. VOA

‘Threat to our forces’ 

IS “terrorists still pose a threat to our forces, especially in the eastern part of Syria,” an SDF commander told VOA.

“They have been able to regroup and reorganize in some remote parts of Deir el-Zour, where there is a smaller presence of our forces or any other forces,” said the commander, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

He added that despite the declaration of the physical defeat of the terror group in March 2019, IS “still has hundreds of sleeper cells that have the capability to wage deadly attacks on civilians and combatants alike.”

In the town of Tabqa, in western Raqqa, local news reports this week said a suspected IS sleeper cell assaulted a family, killing three of its members, including a child. The reports did not say why the family was attacked, but IS has in the past targeted people whom it suspected of having ties to or working for the government or U.S.-backed local forces.

While most of the recent activity has been in areas IS once controlled as part of its so-called caliphate, the militant group has been particularly active in Syria’s vast desert region.

The Syrian Observatory reported at least 10 IS-claimed attacks in December that originated from the mostly desert eastern part of Homs province in central Syria.

Baghdadi’s death

Islamic State Syria
The Islamic State group’s leader extolled militants in Sri Lanka for “striking the homes of the crusaders in their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz,” a reference to IS’ last bastion in eastern Syria, which was captured by U.S.-backed fighters. VOA

Despite the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October in a U.S. operation in northwestern Syria, IS still represents a major threat in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, experts say.

“As ISIS returns to its original decentralized structure, members of the group are trying to show ISIS still poses a threat, even after the defeat of its caliphate and the recent death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, using another acronym for IS.

Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist militancy, echoed Thomas’ views.

“IS is now living a period of stability, so to speak. After the death of Baghdadi, their objective is clearer now. They try to stay focused on carrying out assassinations, ambushes and suicide attacks, and they have been successful at that,” he told VOA.

Kinno said IS “really believes in a recurrent cycle of violence, so for them the territorial defeat they experienced this year is just a phase of their ongoing jihad.”

US withdrawal 

U.S. vehicles Syria
A convoy of U.S. vehicles is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

U.S. President Donald Trump in October announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, which was followed by a Turkish military offensive against U.S.-backed SDF fighters in northeast Syria.

Some experts say the U.S. troop pullout allowed IS to regroup, and thus its terror attacks have increased.

“The U.S. decision sent a signal to [IS] that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term presence in Syria,” said Azad Othman, a Syrian affairs analyst based in Irbil, Iraq.

IS “now feels that its low-level insurgency in Syria could be even more effective as long as the Americans don’t have a significant military presence in the country,” he told VOA.

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report in November that “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”

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“The withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. troops has also affected the fight against ISIS, which remains a threat in the region and globally,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, said in the report.

But the U.S. has decided to keep about 500 troops to secure oil fields in Syria to prevent IS militants and the Syrian regime forces from accessing them. (VOA)