Archive for July, 2008


July 21, 2008

I have left Afghanistan. I’m now sitting at home with the radio on and a glass of wine, and no plans to write anything here for a little while.

Many thanks to those folks who have commented or otherwise taken an interest in all this over the last few months.

My plans for the future are all up in the air at the moment, but I trust this wll be an intermission rather than an end.

Kabul street scenes

July 15, 2008

Driving to and from work each day in Kabul there’s always plenty to see.

Last summer, I was always greatly amused by the men in orange boiler suits, sweeping up the dust from the sides of main roads. In a city pervaded by dust and pollution, it seemed a wonderfully optimistic but ultimately futile endeavour. There’s perhaps an analogy there.

They’ve gone, to be replaced by traffic policeman standing at some junctions in their white shirts and peaked caps. Trying to direct the chaos that is driving in Kabul seems equally optimistic. They wave their hands about as if swatting away a swarm of mosquitoes, largely ignored by drivers but remaining remarkable expressionless. There is now one working traffic light in the centre of Kabul.

Potholes are the most effective means of directing traffic, usually into each other. In some strategic locations, where vehicles are slowed to a crawl, there are blue-burquaed begging bollards: women sitting in the middle of the road, arms outstretched.

Early in the mornings there are the crowds of men on street corners, waiting for the faint possibility of being picked up for a day’s labour to earn a pittance. One job they might be hired for, if lucky, is to dredge the sewage out of the gutters.

Some side streets become communal rubbish tips. The men in orange boiler suits periodically come round and have a go at clearing them up. Dishevelled young boys and girls and old men do a much better job, trawling through the trash for anything that could be recycled.

Anything worthwhile will be taken away, on wooden handcarts if the person owns one. These handcarts clog the streets, along with the stalls selling fruit and vegetables and men with trolleys filled with ice cream. These usually have some jingle hissing forth, often, incongruously, a Christmas carol. They fight for space with the buses, the Land Cruisers of foreigners’ and Afghan nouveau (narco?) riche, the overcrowded mini-vans stopping every twenty yards to squeeze another passenger inside, the pedestrians crossing over with blithe disregard for their own safety, the flocks off sheep and goats being herded down one of the few larger roads or roundabouts the wrong way.

Like the pedestrians, these animals seem sublimely unawares of saving their own skin: unaware of the skin and entrails of their brethren that they pass outside butchers, carcasses hanging up in the dust and diesel, disembodied heads staring up at you from the pavement, offal slipping into the gutters, to be dredged up a few weeks later by the men in orange.

It all makes for a heady mix. It’s often pandemonium, with two cars and goat being all it takes to cause a major jam. I’m amazed never to have seen a serious accident or a child run over. It’s the sort of experience that can have me gripping the edges of the seat with torment, but there’s a strange poetry to the motion of it all and I’ve learnt to laugh instead of cry, sharing incredulous, despairing but amused looks with my driver.

There’s one scene that is uplifting rather than just plain crazy, and that’s the gaggles of young girls going off to school, even if they do do it in shifts and scare the bejaysus out of me when they cross the road without looking. In their uniforms of black shalwa qamis and white headscarves and uniformly pretty, they would make for a more positive analogy than those road sweepers.

And finally: Gender in Afghanistan

July 13, 2008

Gender in Afghanistan? Pah! We don’t ‘do’ gender. It’s the Ministry of Women’s Affairs here – it’s women’s affair so us men don’t need to worry about it.

I’m exhausted. And not feeling too kindly towards Afghanistan right now. And trying to decide whether to come back here for another year or not.

Right now, I’d rather not, but there are some good job opportunities (I wrote something about the job market in Afghanistan the other day, but decided not to press ‘publish’ in case I do decide to return).

There’s a whole lot I’ve been bitching about with friends recently that I could write about (the National Solidarity Programme – Afghanistan’s flagship development programme – being left to rot for one). But there’s one thing that makes me really angry, and which I shouldn’t probably write about right now either, but hey ho.

I was walking down the road last week with a friend – a female expat. A young man passed us, going the other way. A few paces on, my friend says, with telling resignation rather than surprise, ‘he touched me.’ I stopped and turned around. He was staring back at us. At her. I wanted to shout out to all the men in the street looking on ‘would you do that to an Afghan woman? What if it was your sister? Have you no shame?!’ I wanted to hit him. I didn’t, and we walked on.

A young female Afghan was stopped at a police checkpoint in a remote province while on work. She’d forgotten her ID, and was escorted back to the office to verify who she was. The story that was told afterwards was that she’d been caught having sex. No basis for that, no evidence, no asking her side of the story. That was it. Condemned be men who, last I time was there, made laborious jokes about visiting prostitutes in Tajikistan.

The woman who was reprimanded by her male boss, professionally and morally, for showing one inch of flesh above her wrist. While otherwise fully covered up, in 40 degrees C.

The cases of sexual harassment battered away as unimportant, a misunderstanding, brought on because the woman was being friendly, thus asking for it. Like rape victims blamed for wearing too short skirts.

The woman who, out walking, complained to her male companion that a group of men were staring at her. And was told ‘well you shouldn’t be looking at them should you.’

The intelligent, kind man who, in a speech on International Women’s Day, said that even in the Koran, even in the Koran it says that if we are to hit a woman, we should do so only with a handkerchief. Someone I spoke to admitted the growing degree of racism she felt towards Afghan men: she didn’t trust any she knew not to beat their wives. I’m hugely glad to think there are men I know who wouldn’t, but I understood her point.

I could go on. And on. Stories of men who expect their wives and daughters to be paragons of virtue. Who stare unabashedly at un-burquad women. And, when asked, blame the woman for her immodesty.

The way women are objectified. Or perhaps, as someone argued, the way everybody is objectified; the lack of respect for people, for humanity in general. 30 years of war has no doubt caused grievous psych-social blah blah blah.

And the way many in the West used the suddenly found subjugation of women to legitimise military intervention. Lifting the veil with a bomb or two.

I’m exhausted and barely able to think straight and counting down the days till I depart. And my god the hypocrisy fucks me off. The insecurity, the lack of freedom I can cope with. It’s the gender relations that make me think this is not a country I could ever feel at home in.

I’ve been told, by a person better able to see than I, that attitudes are changing for the better. Perhaps it is the change that makes things so painful. At least in Saudi Arabia you know where you stand, right? A lot of that change – or rather the bit of it that I see – is to do with more foreign women about the place in international organisations. Many Afghan men don’t seem to be able to get passed the whole ‘well they smile and laugh and are friendly, and come from the West so are probably prostitutes, or at least it’s all right for me to touch them cause they do that kind of thing over there’ kinda thinking. Professional boundaries are fraught.

Why don’t I get this angry over the pay gap or abortion rights in Europe? Am I being hypocritical as well?

I wrote the above at two in the morning last night when I couldn’t sleep. Probably not a great idea but anyway. I’m uncomfortable with it. I don’t like passing judgment on an entire section of society. An entire country. But all those stories are true, from different sources. They are everyday occurrences. And it really does make me angry, the hypocrisy of it above all. So publish and be damned.

Civilian causalities in Afghanistan. Or, when militants get married

July 10, 2008

At least 250 civilians killed or wounded in the last six days in Afghanistan, according to the ICRC.

”Civilians continue to be killed and wounded in the ongoing hostilities. We call on all parties to the conflict, in the conduct of their military operations, to distinguish at all times between civilians and fighters and to take constant care to spare civilians,” said Franz Rauchenstein, head of the ICRC’s delegation in Kabul. “Civilians must never be the target of an attack, unless they take a direct part in the fighting. These fundamental requirements of international humanitarian law, also known as the laws and customs of war, are binding on all parties to an armed conflict.”

That includes Monday’s attack on the Indian embassy, denied by the Taliban and with fingers pointed at the ISI instead, and several US air strikes in the east of the country.

According to the US, these strikes were against militants and no civilians were harmed (in the making of this war).

According to everyone else, that’s bullshit. One of the strikes was against a wedding party. The ICRC report notes that civilians from the strike were treated by them in a Jalalabad hospital.

The attack on Friday killed three local aid workers from the International Medical Corps.

The International Medical Corps personnel were killed while leaving their village following warnings of an imminent attack. While details of the attack remain uncertain, early indications point to a coalition air strike which hit a public transport vehicle carrying local villagers and International Medical Corps staff. The strike resulted in the death of at least 16 people, and left an estimated 11 others wounded.

You tell people to get out of the area because your about to bomb it, and then you bomb them anyway.

It’s a war zone. It’s messy and complicated and hard to know what’s going on. Mistakes do happen. But do we admit it? Oh hell no.

The BBC reports on these events have a standard cut and paste line: ‘The issue of civilian casualties is hugely sensitive in Afghanistan.‘ No shit Sherlock.

The Taliban and the US led coalition: together killing civilians and denying it.

A bang outside

July 7, 2008

I thought at first it was a window slamming shut in the wind. Alas not. Sometimes I hear a door slam and wonder for a second if it is a bomb. Sometimes, I hear a bang and know it was not a door slamming.

It was a suicide car bomb driven into the Indian embassy in Kabul as two diplomatic cars were entering. At least 30 people killed or wounded. 41 people killed and 140 wounded according to the latest reports.

The embassy is on a busy road in the centre of the city. There’s always a crowd of people outside queuing up to get visas.

Of all the countries represented in Kabul, India seems like a strange one to target. They fund some large infrastructure projects but their biggest influence is probably through television. Maybe less strange if there is a Pakistani element behind the attack. Or it was just opportunistic, on a relatively soft target.

Then a US military convoy shoot at some random people as they rushed through the city shortly afterwards, killing two. If a vehicle ever accidentally gets too close to a convoy, that’s how they tend to react.

Our drivers don’t always get this, and respond to the angry gestures of soldiers swivelling round and pointing a machine gun at our car by grinning and waving back as they contentedly drive closer.

People don’t always understand the (understandable) paranoia, or security measures, of military convoys, and certainly don’t understand whatever it is the foreign soldier is shouting at them. But the soldiers don’t always seem to understand that

Needless to add, all this, on top of the alleged (I write alleged, but for most people here it is a fact) bombing of a wedding party in the east yesterday by US forces, this will further endear both the US and ISAF, and the Taliban, to the local population. How’s that for some insightful analysis.

Update: For some proper analysis, and the regional Afghanistan/Pakistan/India dynamics, have a look at Barnett Rubin’s post here.

Think Global, Fuck Local

July 6, 2008

Is the title of a short play showing in London next week.

“Kabul’s like f**king Ibiza now. Heaving with pretty Sloaney girls. Quite good clubs. Plenty of drugs. I’m too old for all that now.”

Humanitarians. By day saving the world. At night they drink, party – move on. And then, some time, they have to go home. Out of Joint takes a look behind the public face of UN and NGO workers.

It’s at the Royal Court Theatre, if any one’s interested and in town. And there’s a piece about it over at OneWorld UK.

“I find their world hugely fascinating,” Feehily [the writer] told OneWorld UK. […]

[Aid workers] “are the real celebrities”, she says, taking a poke at the celebrity culture that dominates so much of the media. “There are a lot of interesting people out there doing incredible work who go unacknowledged.

“I find the whole sector pretty cool. And at the end of the day, it’s a force for good: so what, if they kick up their heels and have a bit of fun?”

The sex lives of aid workers: what a topic for an ethnographic study. Or a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. Maybe a black comedy would be better.

It’s good to know the sector is ‘pretty cool.’ Perhaps I could even be a celebrity?

And it’s a good title that’s for sure. Less certain about the premise, but not having seen it I can’t say.

There is an aura of sanctity around aid work (someone else’s expression but I don’t know whose). Anything that helps to dispel it is surely a good thing. But I find it odd that of all the many many issues about the sector (cool as it may be), the only ones that get an airing are about sex and fast cars: loose living young expats driving round in large white Land Cruisers, terrorizing the local population.

OK, not ‘odd’ at all, but frustrating that of all the ‘fascinating’ aspects of this ‘world’ (like the tropical diseases you can pick up, or different people’s motivations for working in the sector or, I don’t know, maybe the ‘local’ people you get to meet?), the focus of attention is so limited.

The best, and certainly the funniest, portrayal of aid workers I’ve come across is the blog Hope4Dave: it’s fantastic, go check it out. If you’ve ever bought anything through Oxfam Unwrapped you might like this as well: Uncovered and wrapped. Much more accurate.

Then there’s Inepd, the ‘International Network for Enabling Poverty Development.’ Also hilarious, least I reckon it is (an in-joke though?), and slightly scarily true.

In line with this posts’ title and what is clearly the most interesting part of aid work, we also have Humanitarian Dating from Dave (this used to be a spoof I think – sexualrelief web, another in-joke – but seems to have become all serious) and the Humanitarian Couple of the Year Award from Inepd.

It is a fascinating world. I’d love to stay and write about it some more, but I’ve got a party to go. Some Sloane’s leaving do.

No Survivors cartoon

The Perry Bible Fellowship: No Survivors cartoon

A picnic in Badakshan

July 3, 2008

It’s not all ceaseless self-sacrifices to do good for others. Shocking, I know, but there you have it. Occasionally we find time to enjoy ourselves. And when we do, we try and do it in style.

Like on this Friday picnic in Badakshan last month (now I’m back to the monotony of work in Kabul, I have to go back in time to find things to write about).

And this one, an alfresco breakfast of fresh yoghurt and cream with bread, purchased from some passing nomads:

Or sharing some mulburries with some local farmers:

 It can be tough out here.




Targeting the poor

July 2, 2008

In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag draws the comparison between the language of photography and the language of warfare. To get someone in range and shoot them could be said of using a gun or a camera. There is a violence about taking a photo.

It is years since I read it but it’s a wonderful little book. I was wondering the other day if a similar comparison can be drawn between the language of war and of humanitarianism.

In the aid world, we speak of ‘targeting’ certain areas or people for our ‘interventions’: we ‘target the poor,’ making the ‘indirect beneficiaries’ of our projects sound like collateral damage.

In Afghanistan in particular, we use the language of the military to describe the world around us: talk of AOGs and IEDs in RC-E as common as BP5s or PRAs. (I’ve been meaning to try and write a pastiche of all these bloody acronyms we use.)

Can anybody out there think of any more examples?