Archive for December, 2007

Kabul Interlude

December 17, 2007

A week in Kabul, sleep-walking through work while counting down the days till I go on holiday. It’s good to come back here for a short time every now and then but I’m not a great fan of Kabul and am usually glad to leave, even to go to Ghor.

In winter at least the few tress that are here are supposed to be bare; in summer they just look like the dead sticks covered in dust that they are.

It’s been a week of goodbyes: over half of the handful of international workers in Ghor are leaving so I’ve been unusually active on the Kabul social scene for farewell drinks: to L’atmosphere, the French bar for Kabul’s beautiful people; to Gandamacks, the British pub for less beautiful, hardier types; to La Cantina, the Mexican place usually full of foreign mercenaries with guns poking out the backs of their trousers. 

Each of these deserves an essay of its own, for Kabul’s expat scene is a thing of disturbing wonder. But they will have to wait. Tomorrow I’m flying out – least I bloody better be – and don’t plan on posting anything here for several weeks to come. 

The Get Away

December 9, 2007

The past week has been an anxious one. I woke one morning to find Chagcharan and the surrounding mountains draped in snow. An exhilarating change of scene but at a time when I was plotting my departure – from Ghor and shortly afterwards from Afghanistan – an unnerving reminder of the possibility of getting stuck.

The airstrip was closed for a day or two, the possibility of hitching a ride in a car to Herat fell through, and I was getting rather worried as I tried to finish off all the work I could before my planned flight out. And much though I love being in Ghor, tired, worn out and longing for a break, I was bloody keen to get out too.

I have become slightly superstitiously nervous about packing my bags; too many flights have been cancelled even in good weather. As we got to the airstrip this time it started snowing again. As the cloud eased its way down the distant mountains towards us I steeled myself to the likelihood of hearing an airplane approach, circle invisibly overhead, think better of it and fly back to Kabul.

Instead it landed and whisked us off, jolting and sliding through the icy clouds. Back to a Kabul now encircled by snow streaked mountains. Back to the now familiar but still sinister rows of Mig fighters, bulbous grey cargo planes and vicious helicopter gunships of the Afghan military, parked up at the airport.

It has been an anxious, exhausting week and now back in Kabul I feel as overwrought as my writing, just without the grammar holding me together. For some reason, when I got back to my Kabul home I decided to cut my hair. I started hacking randomly away at it with a blunt pair of scissors before remembering the cheap clippers I had bought previously were broken, leaving me with the tufty head of a partially singed porcupine. I then decided to have a shower, knowing there was no hot water but not fully grasping the significance of that fact until I poured the first icy bucket over my head. Now, as if to prove to myself that I’m not altogether with it and really do need a holiday, cold and wearing a hat, I’m writing this blog.

Farewell Frida

December 8, 2007


Farewell Frida. Chagcharan’s star blogger has left town, leaving it a poorer place. So maybe not everyone here will be sorry to see her go, but for a human rights worker who hasn’t pulled her punches I figure that’s a good thing.

For your company, insight,  and unbeknownst blogging inspiration – tashakor.

And fareyewell.  

A map

December 6, 2007

I’ve been trying to find a decent map to put up here to remind me where I am.


I do like a good map I do. And cartography is such a nice word. Unfortunately, they’re hard to come by for Afghanistan. The provincial divisions on this one are out of date, though it’s probably too small to see anyway. That’s Ghor, or Ghowr, just left of centre.

AIMSis your one-stop shop for Afghan mapping needs. And I have a bone to pick with them. The one distinguishing feature of the provincial capital Chagcharan is the Hari Rud running through it East to West. Yet unless my eyes deceive, on their otherwise very detailed map this river does not exist. Doesn’t bode well for those of us trying to find our way.

Child labourers

December 5, 2007


 I saw this and I went ‘ahh.’


I saw this and I laughed at the incongruity of it. 


I saw this, my body tensed and a voice inside my head cried ‘child labour!’

We had been talking with a man about his carpet weaving business when he invited us to his house. Before sitting down on expensive green carpets and being served tea and sweets, he showed us his work: a dimly lit room, one end filled with bundles of dyed wool while along one side a bench with two boys and three girls sat facing the wall, hands flickering as they twisted and wove the yarn. The youngest looked about five.

They were, he said over tea, his family. ‘Trainees,’ they only worked after school finished at noon. I felt a certain elusiveness in these answers. He was more precise on other matters. It would take his trainees four months to weave a 12 meter square carpet, three square meters a month, twice that if they worked full time. Whether or not the children would get fed or paid was not a question I felt able to ask.

But one question in particular has been bothering me since this encounter a week ago. Why was my reaction so strong when I see children working everyday and bat not an eyelid? Children herding flocks of sheep all day, girls washing clothes in frozen streams, boys carrying water or working in the fields. Is it just because these fit my own perception of rural life, while children of the same age working inside have a more sinister, workhouse light to them in my mind? Children outside: good and wholesome. Children inside: Oliver Twist or obese kids watching too much TV.

To my mind, the idea of ‘child labour’ – with its usual Western connotations – does not hold much water in Afghanistan. As in many parts of the world, the concept of ‘childhood’ does not have the same aura of sanctity that the Victorians pinned to it. Cultural relativity should not become an excuse for ignoring children’s rights, but children are expected to work and out of necessity may often have no choice.

However much I rationalised it, I still walked away feeling deeply uneasy. What concerned me with the carpet weavers was the possibility they were not child labourers but bonded labourers: ‘owned’ by the business man, working to pay off their families’ debt.

Or, they could be attending school while also learning a valuable practical skill, and in twenty years time their eyesight may be just fine.

Stomach Rumblings

December 2, 2007

naan1.jpgThe snow that fell a few days ago in Lal wa Sarjangle is a foretaste of things to come. With snow several meters thick on the high passes, the province is pretty much cut-off for up to five months of the year.During the summer few people can grow enough food to see them through to the next harvest, even in a good year. This year’s harvest has not been disastrous but it has not been good. To survive people rely on sporadic remittances sent from family members working as casual labourers in Herat or Iran; running up ever more debt, often ending up in a position of bonded labour; selling precious livestock if they have any; or selling a young daughter.

A report out a while back by the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS Net) claimed the need for over 14,000 metric tonnes of food aid for Ghor. Some of this has been delivered before the snow closes the roads but there remains a shortfall. A meeting of the great and the good in Ghor couldn’t quite figure out how much of a shortfall, or how many people would need assistance. I left more confused than before at any rate. The one thing that does seem fairly certain is that for a large number of people, it’s going to be a long lean winter. Again.

The other thing I’m sure of is that I’m going to continue to bitch about the food I eat. Ok, so to go from the starving thousands to my own culinary gripes isn’t a particularly delicate or comfortable change of topic. But I’m going to end up bitching about my diet at some point so I may as well accept the contrast.

Naan. Dry flat bread. Many people will eat nothing else until next spring. I am sick of it now. Especially when it is accompanied, as it invariable is for me, by a bowl of oil: a strange, orange coloured oil of unknown provenance, though which I suspect is the engine oil used in machines making olive oil, recycled for the Afghan market. This bowl of oil usually contains a lump of stewed gristle and bone, occasionally some potato peelings or a couple of chickpeas. Rarely, this oil is used to drown, nay, massacre, an innocent vegetable.

Raw onions would be a saving grace if they weren’t first washed in river water then doused in salt, assaulting both my palate and my gut. Apples – peeled, old, soft and tasteless – are the only fruit. I have become mildly addicted to biscuits, able to devour a packet in minutes, as they at least taste of something, however synthetic.

So maybe I exaggerate a little, and most of the time I am content, or at leased used to this diet. And never hungry. But a few weeks back when I was ill – tired, worn out after five months without a break and with some nasty little bug – the very smell of this food made me gag and I could barely bring myself to eat anything for several days. Getting back on one’s feet on such a diet ain’t easy.

Praise be, I can get out and find food elsewhere. Pity the poor sods that live here eating bread and the benevolence of international food aid.

Introducing Ghor

December 1, 2007


Ghor. The ‘h’ is important. Gor means graveyard in Dari. It’s a mistake in pronunciation I continue to make and a similarity I continue to be amused by. The province has its fair share of graveyards – heaps of jagged stones with coloured rags fluttering on sticks above them – but other parts of the country have certainly seen more violence and hold more reminders. Rather, it is the similarity with the old nautical phrase ‘graveyard watch’ that strikes me: that time in a ship’s day when the night is darkest, the hours slowest.

Ghor is a backwater: it takes Afghanistan’s graveyard watch. Colleagues in Kabul laugh at me for seeming to like it here. One man from Nuristan, a province known for its beauty but not for its ease of access, looked at me with a pity approaching horror when I told him Ghor is where I spend much of my time. Finding qualified staff willing to work here for any length of time is a perpetual problem. It is, as the young men I work with frequently remind me, a boring place to be. And as a fellow expat said, it helps to be a little introverted to get by out here.

In the simplified political geography usually given to Afghanistan and the apparent separation of North and South, Ghor doesn’t quite fit, being awkwardly in the middle and studiously avoided by the country’s ‘ring road.’ It shares this fate with equally mountainous Bamiyan and Daikundi provinces. I don’t know about Daikundi, but at least Bamiyan is a day’s drive from Kabul and has two anti-Buddhas and a Japanese hotel serving vegetable sushi to raise its profile.

Neither the ‘good guys’ nor the ‘bad guys’ take much interest in Ghor. It is hard to reach and has little to draw people to it. One of the few times people get interested in Ghor is when other areas threaten its isolation. In one meeting, a USAID chap in Kabul spoke of his growing interest in the province as the ‘Taliban’ were pushed into it from fighting to the south. So he came to speak of the need for pre-emptive development to head them off at the pass. Or something like that. It is unfortunate that people here see large sums of money being spent in areas beset by violence while sleepy old Ghor gets diddly squat. I can’t quite figure out how that translates as a ‘peace dividend.’

Some days though I take comfort from the fact that, at present, Ghor is largely forgotten by all and sundry.

I have cited these statistics in so many documents I no longer believe them, but for what they are worth: The female literacy rate in Ghor is 3.7%, compared with a national average of 19.6%. The male literacy rate is 25.9%. 68% of families in Ghor have no access to a toilet. 71% of families are further than half a day’s walk from the nearest health facility, or have no access at all. Over 90% have no electricity. 93% of households have ‘low diet diversity across all food groups,’ the highest rate in Afghanistan. (These figures are from the National Risk and Vulnerability Analysis of 2003 and 2005.)

The province’s name comes, I believe, from the Ghorid empire that had its centre here x number of centuries ago. Clearly I need to do my homework before waxing lyrical on that.