‘We’re all responsible for Afghanistan’: confronting exhibition spotlights Australia’s 20-year war

An artist’s blood and the Brereton report feature in a month-long Sydney show and symposium that aims to platform victims of a war whose legacy lives on

Front page newspaper stories and torn excerpts from a damning report into war crimes allegedly committed by Australian soldiers will play a feature role in a month-long exhibition in western Sydney about the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan.

The documents form the foundation of a confronting collection of protest collage artworks by Elyas Alavi, as he struggled to process 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 struggled to imagine how Australian defence forces could do such crimes,” he told Guardian Australia.

“I have this paper called citizenship, I am 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 is why I’m using my blood.”

Elyas Alavi in his studio.
‘I struggled to imagine how Australian defence forces could do such crimes’: Elyas Alavi in his studio. Photograph: Courtesy Elyas Alavi

About 50,000 Afghans now living in Australia will mark the first anniversary of the Taliban moving into Kabul later this month.

More than one in five of those Afghan nationals, most who have arrived in Australia as refugees in the past 20 years, now reside in the greater Sydney area.

With the redacted version of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report, commonly known as the Brereton report, now in the public domain, these relatively new Australians are grappling with a disturbing truth about how their adoptive country treated their people.

Confronting Australia’s role as co-saviour, co-conspirator and co-offender is one of the dominant themes in Twenty Years: The War in Afghanistan, which officially opens on Thursday at the Leo Kelly Blacktown Arts Centre.

The program includes a series of forums co-ordinated 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 exiled Kabul court judge 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 24 August the Afghan war crimes whistleblower David McBride will join an online forum discussing 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 in an exhibition of Hoda Afshar’s photographic portraits recognising 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 was working 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.

Endless Sorrow, a photograph by Najiba Noori.
Endless Sorrow, a photograph by Najiba Noori. Photograph: Najiba Noori

Noori told the Guardian last October that she feared for her family, friends and colleagues left behind. The new head of the University of Kabul, where her younger brother was a music student, had just called for the death of all journalists.

In February, the International Federation of Journalists reported that about half of media outlets in Afghanistan had collapsed in the preceding five months, and more than 70% of journalists who had fled or gone into hiding were women.

Journalist and film-maker Antony Loewenstein co-curated the extensive program with artist and writer Alana Hunt. He wants the exhibition to provoke, inspire outrage and prompt a wider section of the community to confront Australia’s role in the longest war in this country’s history.

Loewenstein spent time in Afghanistan in 2012 and 2015; he says while the US-led war there may be officially over, its grim legacy lives on.

“We’re all responsible as Australians for the current situation in Afghanistan,” he tells the Guardian. “We occupied the country for 20 years, committed war crimes against Afghan civilians and have very little [that’s] positive to show for our involvement.

“The war has fallen down the memory hole … our legacy there as a nation is tarnished,” he says.

Calls to put the focus back on Afghanistan

A federal government-funded Australian War Memorial project, launched in 2016 to research Australia’s military commitment in conflicts in Timor-Leste and the Middle East, is part of a controversial $500m expansion plan for the national war museum.

Australia’s official military historians, however, have not yet been granted access to the full, unredacted Brereton report, which may not be released until investigations are complete later this decade.

Loewenstein says the Afghan community is concerned that if historians are not granted full access to the report, the War Memorial exhibit will continue to present a glossed-over narrative on Australia’s 20-year presence.

The concerns are not without grounds. The existing exhibition 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 that stage 18 months old.

Loewenstein says organisers hope the Twenty Years exhibition and symposium will throw some of media attention back on Afghanistan which, perhaps due to entrenched racism, has been left behind by the media and public policy. When Kabul fell, for instance, the Morrison government promised refuge to just 3,000 Afghan asylum seekers in its annual allotment of 13,000; meanwhile, more than 8,000 Australian visas for Ukrainian refugees have been issued since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both countries have roughly the same population, of around 40 million.

“All refugees should be treated equally and the new Australian government has an opportunity to repair the damage caused by [the occupation],” Loewenstein says. “Australia has a moral responsibility to help the Afghan people.”

Twenty Years: The War in Afghanistan is at the Leo Kelly Blacktown Arts Centre until 3 September


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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