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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 17, 2009

Embracing Afghans in midst of war

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Connie Frisbee Houde uses her camera to show Americans the face of Afghanistan.

A photojournalist, she has traveled to the war-torn country four times and also has documented the lives of Afghans living locally.

“After 9-11,” she said, referring to the terrorists’ bombings in 2001, “I wanted to see what was going on.”

Frisbee Houde was part of the mix at the Guilderland Public Library as Robert Greenwald’s film, Rethink Afghanistan, was screened in the midst of a national debate on the worth of the war. Views range from favoring a military build-up with a goal of winning the war to wanting immediate troop withdrawal. Monday’s event was sponsored by Guilderland Neighbors for Peace.

About three-dozen people, mostly middle-aged or older, turned out to see the film. Among the viewers were two young congressional aids, whom organizer Steve Wickham termed “keynote listeners” — Rob Scholz for Scott Murphy (D, 20th District) and Sean Shortell for Paul Tonko (D, 21st District).

Members of Guilderland Neighbors for Peace had met with Tonko two weeks ago, just before President Barack Obama announced that he is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

“Our view is, instead of spending $100 billion a year on the war, the money should be spent to employ the Afghani people,” said Wickham. “Right now, there is 40 percent unemployment in Afghanistan and the Taliban is hiring for $7 a day…We could help re-build the country, not destroy it.”

The three-year-old Guilderland peace group, which holds monthly vigils along busy Route 20, has about a half-dozen active members, Wickham said, and an e-mail list of about 50 people.

After seeing the film, Shortell told the crowd of Tonko, “He’s very, very skeptical about what’s going on.”

Shortell himself said he was “a little befuddled” by Obama’s stance. “I don’t know if this is politically motivated,” he said. “I certainly hope not.”

Scholz said that Murphy sits on the Armed Services Committee and that the sister of his chief of staff went to Afghanistan in February and was killed by a roadside bomb, heightening the staff’s awareness. “There isn’t a person who doesn’t think about it every day,” he said.

“The best we can do,” Shortell said, “is be hopeful the Obama Administration is an honest broker.”

Shortell said that Tonko is “a domestic policy-driven guy,” who, after meeting with the peace group, had said, “I don’t know what I can do.”

“You can tell the congressman, he can make a statement against the war,” came a voice from the gallery, greeted with applause.

“He will speak staunchly against it…when the time is right,” said Shortell.

Documentary designed to drive policy

Greenwald’s film, made this year, pushes for non-military solutions; the Rethink Afghanistan website is set up so viewers can “tell Congress to vote no.”

Known for his films critical of Fox News, of Walmart’s corporate practices, and of war profiteers, Greenwald takes an activist approach to filmmaking. To keep Rethink Afghanistan current, he produced the film in sections and posted installments online.

The film features interviews with American experts such as Robert Pape and Ann Jones, author of Kabul in Winter, as well as interviews with various leaders in Afghanistan.

Anand Gopal, a correspondent with The Christian Science Monitor based in Afghanistan, says in the film that people join the insurgency because their homes have been bombed. He also says there is no oversight or accountability for the huge sums of money meant to be spent on improvements.

“The real way to fight terrorism is through police work,” says Gopal, referring to a study by the Rand Corporation.

“This is hardly a global jihad,” says Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, defining the insurgency as “a regional opposition to Western military control.”

The film says that the costs of one American soldier in Iraq is $500,000, three times as expensive as in any other war, and is likely to be higher in mostly rural and mountainous Afghanistan.

Robert Baer, a former CIA operative who has written a book called See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War Against Terrorism, a 2003 memoir, says on camera, “The Taliban did not attack us on 9-11.” Baer says that going after the Taliban is the equivalent of going after a hotel operator who had a guest that committed a bad crime. “We are going after ethnic Pakistanis…,” he says. “We are fighting a civil war.”

He also says that Al-Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan. “We are still fighting a war. They’re not even there. It’s crazy,” he says.

Gritty, sometimes blurred footage of a camp of displaced people in Kabul City shows an old woman trying to care for five orphans. “They’re hungry, thirsty, and I don’t know what to do,” she says.

The old woman has no feet and asks God to kill her.

Another scene at the same camp shows a man with a little, barefoot girl in ragged clothes. “This child, I can sell her but no one will buy her,” the father says. “She is innocent, but I am poor. I have nothing.”

The film later reports that both the old woman and the barefoot little girl have died.

Seeing human beings

Frisbee Houde said she met several of the Afghans featured in Greenwald’s film.

She told the gathering on Monday of an Afghan-American woman she knows with 92 first cousins. “And she knew them even though she was here,” said Frisbee Houde. “‘If one of my cousins is killed with a bomb, you’ll have 91 cousins mad at you,’ she said,” reported Frisbee Houde. She went on to contrast that with America, saying, “We think of small families.”

Just as ill will can spread far with extended families, so can good will, she concluded.

Now 61, Frisbee Houde, an Albany native, says she has been a photographer all her life.

“The first time you visit a new culture,” said Frisbee Houde, who has taken pictures in various venues around the world, “your view is very superficial.”

“I fell in love with Afghanistan,” she told The Enterprise. “It’s an absolutely gorgeous country. It’s tragic what has happened there,” she said of the quarter century of war that has wracked the country.

“It’s a very ancient culture…with really very special people that are unfortunately seen or painted as primitive, illiterate, and stupid. They are not.”

On her first visit to Afghanistan, Frisbee Houde stayed in Kabul, but realized that 80 percent of the country is rural. In 2004 and 2005, she photographed work done by the National Organization of Ophthalmic Rehabilitation, bringing eye care to remote parts of Afghanistan. “NOOR is Arabic for ‘light,’” she said of the acronym, and the non-governmental organization is trusted in the country.

On her most recent trip, this year, Frisbee Houde said that travel was severely limited compared to earlier trips when she was free to go, with her camera, where she pleased. 

Her mission remains the same. “I’m trying to put a face to the people of Afghanistan so they are not seen as the enemy,” Frisbee Houde said.

She went on, “My husband was in Vietnam. I went with him when he went back to visit. I learned from him, the whole idea in a war is you make someone an enemy. You call them nasty names. You paint them with a dark brush….If you make it more of a one-to-one thing, if you see human beings, it’s not so easy to write them off.”

Locally, with a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, Frisbee Houde has recorded, in words and pictures, the stories of Afghan families living in the Capital Region.

“My father was in jail right before we left,” says AJ, a member of one of those families, who was 6 in 1983. “As the Russian government took over militarily, they put people in jail who had positions in the government. We fortunately had enough money to bribe the people from jail to get him out. Then we got the first goat truck to escape to Pakistan.”

“As a human being, I am happy here, the way they are treating me,” says Hafiza, now a grandmother, who, as a youngster in Afghanistan, was dressed as a boy so she could work in her father’s store. “…We are safe here….The United States is a second country for me. I always pray for them,” she says of those she left behind. “I miss my home so much; no one can take its place.”

On her most recent visit to Afghanistan, Frisbee Houde spoke, through a translator, with Afghans at a camp in Kabul for displaced people. “It’s hard to look at a family living in a tent with winter coming and no means to take care of their children,” she said.

She described visiting Camp Eggers, a military base in Kabul near the United States Embassy, that looks like a permanent installation. “My photos show…right outside, you have the beggars on the street. On the other side, you have surf and turf and people watching movies. The disparity between the two is stunning.”

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