SIX days after Nauru whistleblower Mark Isaacs arrived in Afghanistan in February, 2016, a suicide bomber killed 12 people in front of a defence ministry building a kilometre or so from where he was staying.
"I jumped online to assure my loved ones I was safe and unhurt, but no-one had even heard of it. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, it was just another bomb," said Isaacs in his newly-released book, The Kabul Peace House.
It fits the narrative of Afghanistan as the basket case country that has been at war since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded and occupied until it left a decade later, followed by tribal warlords, militia and the Taliban until 2001, when the United States led an invasion after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
From 6pm on Tuesday at Wallsend Library Isaacs will speak about the different Afghanistan he experienced in 2016 in a multi-ethnic community in a Kabul share-house, whose mission is to try and achieve peace where many others have failed.
It was more than two years after the release of his first book, The Undesirables: Inside Nauru, in 2014, in which he blew the whistle about the reality of life for asylum seekers living on one of Australia's notorious offshore detention centres, and rode the storm of publicity that followed.
He travelled to Afghanistan in February, 2016 as part of a small team of volunteer researchers sent by the Edmund Rice Centre to report on the safety of asylum seekers returned to Afghanistan by the Australian Government.
He was introduced to the small community in Kabul whose members came together from 2009 with the most unlikely belief about their ravaged country - that there was hope.
It was in the Kabul Peace House that Isaacs met a man he calls Insaan, who used to believe that governments acted reasonably for the good of people until the destruction of his country over decades, culminating in President George W Bush's war on terror that "triumphantly unloaded bombs on an already devastated Afghanistan".
At the Kabul Peace House men and women from different backgrounds and ethnicities were "wondering if we have been misled" about the inevitability of conflict and violence, Insaan said in the book.
They spoke with Isaacs, at considerable risk, because "we want to be an example to the rest of the world that peace is possible".
Isaacs had been thinking about a book on change-makers like Martin Luther King and Gandhi when he arrived in Afghanistan for his week of research with the Edmund Rice Centre. He returned to interview people like Hojar, Hafijullah, Horse and Muslimyor about their lives and backgrounds and the risks they have taken to live as a community working for peace.
Isaacs was in Afghanistan and wrote the book against a backdrop of refugees fleeing to Europe from Syria, the Brexit vote where migration was a major factor in the "Leave" campaign, the rise of Donald Trump on the back of a "Build the Wall" campaign against South American refugees fleeing violence, and Australia's controversial off-shore detention policies.
After Undesirables was published some commentators criticised him for a perspective on asylum seekers that was "not in the real world".
But after extensive contact with people in war-torn areas who are forced to flee for their lives, Isaacs believes it is Australia that doesn't understand the real world about life for tens of millions of people.
"I don't think Australia gets it. To be displaced from your home, your culture, your life. We deny the fact that we're the ones who've displaced people. Not only do we deny new arrivals, we also deny the fact we were the displacers and invaders, he said.
Isaacs grew up in the Sydney suburb of Eastwood as the son of a children's doctor, David Isaacs, who has also campaigned strongly about the treatment of asylum seekers, and particularly children, on Nauru. His best friend as a child was from Afghanistan
As president of the Sydney branch of PEN, an international organisation of writers championing freedom of speech and the written word, he is strongly opposed to recent Australian Federal Police raids on media outlets. He is also strongly critical of the prosecution of a whistleblower and his lawyer over the Australian Government's alleged bugging of the Timor Leste Cabinet Office during sensitive oil and gas negotiations.
"I put myself in their shoes. You go out there thinking you're doing something right and your own government, your own people, want to punish you more than the worst murderer or the worst paedophile," Isaacs said.
He is concerned by the lack of a strong community response to the prosecutions, while in Hong Kong millions of people have been out in the streets for weeks fighting their government against moves they believe will threaten their democracy.
"I say to people, 'You need to be active participants in your own democracy'," he said.
The alternative is a loss of rights by stealth, he said.
- Mark Isaacs will speak to Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy at the Newcastle Libraries Author Talk at Wallsend Library on September 10, from 6pm. The talk is in partnership with Hardie Grant Books and Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy. Admission is free but bookings are essential. More details
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