As the Afghan government’s Western backers pour in cash, and tens of thousands of foreign soldiers patrol the country, a French human rights activist is trying a new way to break the cycle of violence in Afghanistan: yoga and meditation.
“In thirty years of war, we’ve tried everything and nothing has worked,” said Amandine Roche, who believes it is better to try to rid the mind of vengeful thoughts than to disarm a fighter at gunpoint.
Her organization, the Amanuddin Foundation, aims to promote nonviolence by teaching techniques of calm.
Volunteering since February as she searches for funds, she has given classes at which she demonstrates yoga and meditation to men, women, children, police officers, soldiers and former Taliban insurgents.
“It’s a new solution to an old problem. War starts in the minds of men, so peace starts in the minds of men. You cannot bring peace with the means of war, it’s as simple of that.”
The most recent conflict, which started with the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001, has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians, and cost tens of billions of dollars. According to United Nations figures, 2011 is the most violent year since the war began: all signs, Roche argues, that the Western military and diplomatic effort isn’t working.
“My project might look crazy, but what is more crazy?”
Key to her work is the idea that peace cannot be imposed from outside, but must come from within an individual, she said.
“I’ve become firmly convinced that nonviolence is not the best way for Afghanistan, it’s the only way.”
The young Afghans who have tried yoga and meditation have been receptive.
“When I do yoga exercise I forget all of my pains and I feel comfortable,” said Masoda, a 12 year old schoolgirl at one of Roche’s classes for children in the capital Kabul.
It might be quite a leap from working with children to bringing that same peace of mind to the gunmen of Afghanistan, but Roche, who was detained by the Taliban in 2001, says they are human too.
“My vision is to teach meditation to all the insurgents, to organize vocational training for them to become mediation teachers, so … they can go back to society, they have a job, they can reintegrate, and they will become peaceful.”
“Meditation is like an inner shower,” she said. “You feel dirty when you don’t take a shower for one week, you feel the same with your mind when you don’t meditate. It helps you to purify your mind, be rid of all the negativity, frustration.”
On Monday, the German city of Bonn is hosting a major international conference about the future of Afghanistan, at which the West will signal its long-term support for the country.
But evidence of the damage done by the cycle of attack and revenge is everywhere in Afghanistan. This week, in reaction to a NATO raid along the Afghan-Pakistan border that killed 24 of its soldiers, Pakistan pulled out of a major international conference on the future of the country.
“You look at the story of Afghanistan — from the British to the Russians to the Mujahideen, the Taliban, now democracy — it’s always revenge for the past war,” Roche said. “It’s never ended. If once, one day someone says ‘I stop, and you stop, and let’s stop together’ … let’s see.”
Still, Roche, who has worked on peace-building projects in Asia, Africa and South America, knows there are no easy fixes for the troubles of Afghanistan.
“I’m not a prophet, I don’t want to convert people. It’s not even a solution, it’s a tool. I don’t pretend I’m going to save Afghanistan.”