‘We are all responsible for Afghanistan’: Confrontational exhibit highlights Australia’s 20-year war | Afghanistan
FFront-page newspaper articles and ripped excerpts from a damning report into war crimes allegedly committed by Australian soldiers will feature prominently in a month-long exhibition in Sydney’s west of 20 years occupation of Afghanistan.
The documents form the basis of a collection of protest collage artwork by Elyas Alavi as he struggled to address the stark and shocking findings contained in the Brereton report into war crimes in Afghanistan.
Among the mediums used in the collection are washes of the artist’s own blood.
“As an Afghan Australian, I found it hard to imagine how the Australian Defense Force could commit such crimes,” he told Guardian Australia.
“I have this paper called citizenship, I’m safe, but in Afghanistan there are victims, and here there are families of victims.
“Afghanistan is so far away, the government says it’s a tragic country, there’s nothing more we can do, but Australia went there to help, and innocent people were killed by Australian soldiers. That’s why I use my blood.
Around 50,000 Afghans currently living in Australia will mark the first anniversary of the Taliban’s arrival in Kabul later this month.
More than one in five of these Afghan nationals, most of whom arrived in Australia as refugees over the past 20 years, now reside in the greater Sydney area.
With the redacted version of the Australian Defense Force Inspector General’s Inquiry Report into Afghanistan, commonly known as the Brereton Report, now in the public domain, these relatively new Australians are grappling with a disturbing truth about how which their adopted country treated its people.
Confronting Australia’s role as co-saviour, co-conspirator and co-offender is one of the dominant themes of Twenty Years: The War in Afghanistan, which officially opens at the Leo Kelly Blacktown Arts Center on Thursday.
The program includes a series of forums coordinated by Maryam Zahid, founder of Afghan Women on the Move, with speakers drawn from the Afghan community, including public interest lawyer Lala Pordeli, SBS journalist Abdullah Alikhil and Judge Kabul court exile Farah Altaf Atahee, who fled to Australia with her husband and three children shortly after the Taliban took control of the capital last August.
On August 24, Afghan war crimes whistleblower David McBride will join an online forum on the future of Afghanistan and the social and political challenges Australia faces when dealing with a militant Islamist government.
McBride was one of the subjects of an exhibition of photographic portraits by Hoda Afshar recognizing the work of whistleblowers, which toured earlier this year.
The work of another exiled photojournalist, Najiba Noori, is featured in the Twenty Years exhibition. Noori worked for Agence France-Presse (AFP) as a video journalist based in Kabul until the Taliban took power a year ago. She is now based in Paris.
Noori told the Guardian last October that she feared for her family, friends and colleagues left behind. The new director of Kabul University, where her younger brother was studying music, had just called for the death of all journalists.
In February, the International Federation of Journalists reported that about half of Afghanistan’s media had collapsed in the previous five months and that more than 70% of journalists who fled or went into hiding were women.
Journalist and filmmaker Antony Loewenstein co-curated the extensive program with artist and writer Alana Hunt. He wants the exhibit to provoke, inspire outrage and inspire a wider section of the community to confront Australia’s role in the longest war in that country’s history.
Loewenstein spent time in Afghanistan in 2012 and 2015; he says, while the US-led war may officially be over, its dark legacy lives on.
“We are all responsible as Australians for the current situation in Afghanistan,” he told the Guardian. “We have occupied the country for 20 years, committed war crimes against Afghan civilians and have had very little [that’s] positive to show for our involvement.
“The war has fallen into the memory hole…our heritage as a nation is tarnished,” he said.
Calls to refocus on Afghanistan
A federally funded Australian war memorial project, launched in 2016 to study Australia’s military involvement in the conflicts in Timor-Leste and the Middle East, is part of a controversial expansion plan $500 million for the National War Museum.
Official Australian military historians, however, have not yet had access to the full, unredacted Brereton Report, which may not be released until investigations are completed later this decade.
Loewenstein says the Afghan community fears that if historians are not given full access to the report, the War Memorial exhibit will continue to present a glossed-over account of Australia’s 20-year presence.
The concerns are not unfounded. The existing exhibit documenting Australian forces in Afghanistan makes no mention of alleged war crimes, despite the fact that, as Guardian columnist Paul Daley pointed out almost two years ago, the Brereton inquiry was already at this 18 month stage.
Loewenstein says organizers hope the Twenty Years exhibit and symposium will bring some of the media attention back to Afghanistan which, perhaps due to ingrained racism, has been overlooked by the media and public policies. When Kabul fell, for example, the Morrison government promised refuge to just 3,000 Afghan asylum seekers out of its annual allocation of 13,000; meanwhile, over 8,000 Australian visas for Ukrainian refugees have been issued since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The two countries have roughly the same population of around 40 million.
“All refugees must be treated equally and the new Australian government has the opportunity to repair the damage caused by [the occupation]explains Loewenstein. “Australia has a moral responsibility to help the Afghan people.”
Twenty Years: The War in Afghanistan is at the Leo Kelly Blacktown Arts Center until September 3