AHRDO “Public Memory” Initiatives

In January 2013 AHRDO held a two-day exhibition at Ibni-e Sina University in Kabul, open to members of the public. The exhibition consisted of 20 Memory Boxes, created by women from various ethnic groups and provinces across the country, and a selection of books that had once featured in the National Library. These books had been badly damaged during the Civil War.
Memory Boxes offer a window into the lives of war victims and their families by exploring personal histories through a reflective creative process. These ‘public spaces’ contain the objects and personal belongings of those who lost their lives to Afghanistan’s recent conflicts – collected, arranged and carefully presented by their families. The Initiative aims to document the violence and human rights abuses of the past, thereby contributing to a public memorialization process that will prevent these cycles of violence from reoccurring.

The Memory Box exhibition was officially inaugurated by Dr. Sima Samar, Head of the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission (AIHRC); Jalal Noorani, an advisor to the Ministry of Information and Culture; Fawzia Koofi, Head of the ‘Women Affairs, Human Rights and Civil Society Committee’ of the Afghan Parliament; Najiba Ziwari, a member of the High Peace Council; and Naiem Khogman Ulomi, Deputy of the Kabul Municipality.
The event was a big success, attended by nearly 1000 visitors. These included international and national journalists, the victims’ families, members of parliament, representatives from the Kabul Municipality, as well as the Ministry of Information and Culture. There were also speeches from a number of government and non-government representatives. These centered on the importance of memorialization as a means of implementing Transitional Justice, “It is only through collective endeavors such as the Memory Box Initiative that this can be done.” [Dr. Sima Samar, Head of AIHRC]

Mr. Khodadad Bisharat, Executive Director of AHRDO, welcomed exhibition visitors and kicked off proceedings. In introducing the initiative he laid out three clear objectives: “Firstly, to enhance the role of the victims of Afghanistan while helping them cope with their difficult circumstances; secondly, to challenge the current peace process dominated by the political elites; and thirdly, to make a contribution to the prevention of further violence in the country in the future”.

Ms. Fawzia Koofi went on to develop this idea further, “Many countries have experienced wars and conflicts but Afghanistan’s situation is quite unique. The Warlords have tried to eliminate all memories of what happened. Hence, documenting and exhibiting the victims’ memories will help us remember Afghanistan’s dark history and hopefully teach us how not to repeat the same mistakes”. Finally, Ms. Jalal Noorani added this, “Three generations of Afghans have suffered. Every day they experience new tragedies. We have a large population of the disabled”.
Some of these speeches feature in a documentary film of the event. “Our Memories, Our Future” sets out the process behind the creation of our Memory Boxes, and there are interviews with some of the victims themselves. We hope that this film will advocate memorialization as a tool for positive change, both in Afghanistan and in other conflict-affected areas.

A booklet named “The Memory Box Initiative; Seeking to Break the Cycle of Violence and Tragedy in Afghanistan” was also created in English and Dari, and contains more information on the Initiative’s background. We chose 20 Memory Boxes to feature in this publication, along with short biographies of the women who created them. These reflect Afghanistan’s ethnic and geographical diversity, and convey a sense of the far-reaching and multifarious impacts of the fighting.

Mr. Bisharat concluded the two-day exhibition with the following speech: “More than one thousand people have visited this exhibition, which is testament to the Initiative’s impact. As an organization, AHRDO now feels more responsible. Many of those who came from remote districts of the country requested that the exhibition be expanded in order to deepen public awareness and contribute to a national strategy regarding the protection of the victims. We have dozens of such Memory Boxes and we are asking ourselves what to do with them. Return them to the victims’ families or convert them into a national strategy plan to make sure that the memories of those who died become part of our official history. The final decision will be with the Afghan government, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the international community.  Will they make our memories matter?”