Archive for October, 2008

‘Humanitarian’ risk management

October 28, 2008

It’s starting to get cold in Kabul. One of my team came in this morning wearing a thick jumper that happened to have the US flag sewn onto one arm. His brother had been given it when he used to work as a translator for the Americans. I joked that the flag could get him in trouble. He didn’t find it so funny, and took it off.

International aid workers get all the limelight when they get killed, but national staff members face much greater risks. Of 28 aid workers killed in Afghanistan from January to September, 23 were Afghans. Similarly, Afghans comprise 90% of aid workers kidnapped. There’s an article from IRIN that’s well worth reading that puts the risks faced by expatriates into perspective.

And an article here asks the uncomfortable questions on the same theme:

To put it blunty, it often seems that the life of a western aid worker is worth more than his or her Afghan or Congolese or Somali or Sudanese colleague.

Granted, given that the vast majority of humanitarian workers are national staff, it’s not surprising that they tend to suffer the majority of attacks.

What is disturbing, however, is how humanitarian strategies for operating in places like Afghanistan effectively transfer risk from international to national staff.

Too dangerous for me to go somewhere? A shame, but no matter, I’ll send an Afghan colleague instead. He will certainly attract less attention than I. I’ll just tell him to not take any ID card or official documents from work, to delete the names of foreigners from his phone, to think of some story to say why he has to go there, should he be asked by the wrong person.

While I’m referring to other sources, here are a couple more: as ever, Ghosts of Alexander provides better analysis on Afghanistan then I ever find in any newspaper, and has written some valuable pieces on negotiating with the Taliban, in Mecca  and in historical perspective.

And itinerant and indignant, another aid worker in Afghanistan, has some interesting thoughts on the troubling times in Kabul and the perception of risk.

A Geographic Information Shambles

October 28, 2008

The simplest things. Like finding out where one is, or the name of the place one wants to be. Never mind governing a country, carrying out a census or collecting taxes.

I have a list of villages in two districts in Afghanistan. Actually, I have several different lists of villages. Problem is, they don’t match.

The key source of information is the lists from the Afghanistan Information Management Services and the government Central Statistics Office. For the districts I’m in interested in right now, they name about 400 or 500 villages, all neatly displayed with geocodes and GPS points. Problem is, they’re a couple of hundred villages short, and they can hardly get the district borders right let alone an accurate lat and long. Plus, I don’t know if the village listed by the CSO is the same as the village with the same name on one of my other lists.

Districts, as a unit of analysis, are usually no problem. But within each district, we have ‘areas,’ ‘manteqas,’ and ‘zones’; some are administrative, some agro-ecological, project-based or just made up. Two villages may have the same name but belong to different manteqas, or to different ‘communities.’

Lets start with what we mean by ‘village’. A settlement, a distinct collection of houses, probably clustered around a mosque and an old donkey, with some vague social and economic ties between the inhabitants and a single shura, perhaps. Or would that be a community? There are differences, but they seem to mean different things to different people. Do several villages form a community, or do several communities make up one village? And what about related sub-villages, that little cluster of houses a little walk up the valley where the mullah’s brother moved his family a few years ago?

A name, that’s all I want, just a name. But here’s where the fun begins. Translating and transcribing from Farsi to English is always problematic. Koran or Quran, as one basic example; there are some characters that can be changed in different ways, where convention gives the only correct spelling (but is of no use right here). So, I can fairly safely assume that the ‘Sarma Zor’ on one list is the same as ‘Sarmazoor’ on another, but that’s an easy example and you have to be careful.

Complication two is the fact that many places have compound names, which aren’t always written down. AIMS data is full of such gems as ‘Sarshar [1]’ and ‘Sarshar [2]’. Well, I know there’s a Sarshar Ulia and a Sarshar Sufla – an upper and lower Sarshar – but which is which? I’m guessing the ‘Piyazi’ on one list is the same as the ‘Nili Piaziy,’ but without accurate GPS coordinates I can’t be sure.

I’m sorry, I know this is very boring but it’s been driving me crazy and I want to rant.

How many villages can you see?

Next up is the fact that many places don’t really have a name, least ways not one that’s widely accepted. Or, the name of a place given by the folks living in it is different from the names outsiders know it by. Or the question just gets confused between the name of the village, the name of the community, the name of the shura, or the name of the oldest bloke in the village. I have several groups of places that are named ‘Masjed Obaidullah,’ ‘Masjed Hanifa,’ Masjed Haji Abdul Rahman,’ ‘Masjed Mulla Abdul Rahman,’ ‘Masjed Gul’ and so on – named after the guy that built the local mosque, or in the case of the last one, maybe the pretty rose that’s growing up the side of it. These are usually the names of the small isolated places that have never really had need for a more ‘official’ name. What if there is more than one mosque in a ‘village,’ or ‘community’? I start knocking my head against the table that’s what.

Then factor in spelling mistakes, individual idiosyncrasies, and the odd spark of incompetence, and you have a right royal impenetrable mess. I have different lists, written by different people across the years, each containing different bits of information that I need to pull together. Don’t ask me why I need to pull it together, I forgot long ago. But I have an urge to make sense of it. I feel like some colonial administrator, trying to impose a schematic order on the unruly natives, to classify and chart and get these villages to stand in line each with a unique geocode. There’s a good word for all that but I forget.

I demand order! I must fit this chaos into a prettily formatted spreadsheet so I can tell you how many men, women, children and chickens are in the village of Zalargak without having to leave my desk. I want satellite tracking devices in each and every one of those scrawny bloody chickens.

But there are ethics to this. What if that information got into the wrong hands, and the US started using drones to attack those precisely located chickens?

The simplest thing. Knowledge is power, and this kind of boring data is usually pretty important for the chaps in the capital wanting to rule over their minions, or govern. I doesn’t exist in historically decentralised and fragmented Afghanistan.

And that’s all just about a ‘village.’ It doesn’t get any easier talking about a household. Or a family. Or a group of families living together in a single compound but not in a sharing system, or two households physically separated but in a sharing system. I would explain the differences but I’d have to start drawing kinship diagrams, and none of us want that.

Ghor again

October 26, 2008

In between the killing of Gayle Williams and two international DHL employers in Kabul, I’ve been back to Ghor – my former base in Afghanistan and where this blog started. It was a good trip.

A blast through the hills to some far flung districts, familiar routes and new people and places. I used to grumble that the very few people from head office who came out when I was living there stayed for a week and had a great time – fresh air, a change of scene, strangely beautiful landscape – and didn’t understand what I was complaining about when I tried to describe some of the difficulties. This time I was that person from head office, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I also got to drop in on my former colleagues for a quick cup of tea and a gossip, which was a treat.

But more of all that later. The killing of three internationals in Kabul in such a short time frame has been disheartening to say the least, and I have work to catch up with.

Rambling on the Taliban

October 20, 2008

The war can’t be won, said the General. Which is a shame, I guess. For if the war can’t be won doesn’t that mean it’s lost?

Oh no no no. Such defeatism, can’t have that. What if our enemies heard such talk and took heart? All we need to do is change what it means to win, a strategic movement of the goal posts if you will. Years of hard fighting have taught us a valuable lesson: our victory must include a political settlement.

Anybody got a number for the Taliban? We should give them a call. For sure, it will be a little unpalatable – human rights and whatnot – but really it seems the only way.

What, which ‘Taliban’ should we talk to? Oh, I’ll leave someone else to figure out the details.

For we are fast running out of money for ammunition and the stockbrockers on Wall Street need our humanitarian aid now as well. Anyway, the bombs don’t seem to be doing the job of winning hearts and minds and all this development isn’t defeating the bastards.

Plus, we need to figure out a plan before McCain or Obama stick their oars in and start attacking Pakistan or some other country. Then there’s elections due here next year as well – did you hear? they’ve started intimidating people registering on the electoral roll already. Very proactive. Not that it matters when security is so bad in much of the country that the idea of elections is farcical – but anyway don’t expect that to change much on the corruption front and basically the whole thing’s been dragging on far too long and isn’t getting any simpler.

Thing is, now doesn’t seem to be the best time to start talking really. As the General said, we can’t win, the US seems to be going all communist on us and I expect the Talibs are feeling rather chipper right now. Could make the negotiations a spot tricky.

Maybe this food crisis will help. After the winter they’ll be too hungry to carry on and half the population will be starved to death so we won’t need to worry so much about civilian casualties. Teach them right for attacking food convoys. More tea, sir?

Kabuli school disco

October 19, 2008

At the few parties I went to last year in Kabul, I declined to dance. Neither the music nor the setting compelled me to move. I may have come to Afghanistan I thought to myself, but I still have my dignity.

You’ll end up on the dance floor with the rest of us sooner or later I was assured. And so it has come to pass.

In windowless underground bunkers and bare, concrete-floored rooms, to music from Abba to Avril Lavigne and worse; manically stumbling about for hours to songs that would normally have me swinging a large blunt object at the radio.

Writing this the day after and I’m cringing at the bleary-eyed memory. But I have to admit, it’s bloody good fun.

If for no other reasons then there’s not much else to do, it’s great stress release, and it provides much needed exercise. Plus you get to make a complete tit of yourself and everyone else is too busy doing the same to care.

There’s something to be said about the psychology of people living and working in such strange conditions, and the seeming propensity for terrible music among the humanitarian community, but I’m too tired and can’t be arsed.

And definitely no photos.

Burqa doll

October 16, 2008

Tower of babble

October 13, 2008

Starting any new job there’s always fun to be had getting to grips with one’s predecessors filling system, especially if they didn’t have one and many of the documents you dig up are in a language you don’t speak.

Coming across one such document with an interesting title, I decided to try my luck with an online translator, just to get the gist of it. A part of the results I particularly enjoyed:

the communities are currently wait and want the cake and butter being paid to build or rehabilitate structures that will high impact on irrigated areas and even on their food security.

A corner of a foreign field

October 10, 2008

There is a corner of Kabul that is forever England.

The Sherpur Cantonment Cemetery, or British Cemetery, is a rare place of tranquillity sheltered behind large wooden doors, overlooked by an Afghan graveyard on the Bibi Mahro hill above.

Its oldest residents are British soldiers from the Anglo-Afghan wars. Like the 29 members of the 67th Foot (South Hampshire Regiment), buried in a mass grave after a failed attempt to climb a hill south of Kabul on the 13th December 1879. All that really remains of them is part of their grave stone, stuck along one side of the cemetery wall with other fragments of history.

On other walls are the engraved black marble slabs commemorating the deaths of ISAF soldiers in the 21st century, long lists that tell no stories other than the staccato military details of name, rank, regiment and date.

In between are assorted ranks of other visitors who never made it home. Explorers, journalists, hippies who lost the trail, engineers and aid workers; Italians and Germans and Canadians and Polish and many another country. Their headstones chart a partial history of the country.

The cemetery is tended by an old man, Rahimullah, and his son. A newspaper clipping pinned up on a mud shed tells his story, for those of us who don’t speak enough Dari to ask him himself: his thoughts on religion and death and the time Mullah Omar dropped by and asked him why he looked after the graves of infidels.

The rich dust of those infidels has fertilised a rare green space under Rahimullah’s care. If you ever find yourself in Kabul it’s worth stopping by.

Bird shit walking

October 6, 2008

Walking through the centre of Kabul towards the Old City was not a relaxing experience. The main drag was packed with people – shoppers, amblers, hawkers, traders – I was concentrating too hard on finding a way through the scrum and keeping sight of my companions to really notice who was around me. Never threatened, but on edge in the constricting streets: one didn’t want to linger.

Crossing the river – the stagnant effluent trickling between beaches of rubbish that passes for a river – and passing the Pul-e Khishti mosque, we were finally able to peel ourselves out of the crowd down a narrow shadowed lane, filled with the musty smell of chicken shit and grain and a strange sense of calm.

This is the bird market. A short stretch of cloistered alleyway that feels like a relic of Kabul’s past, some pigeon-fancying uncle lost on his rooftop. Cages line the twisting walls and fill the cage-like shops. Pigeons, finches, canaries and the prized partridges in their doomed bamboo coops, released for fighting. A medley of chirruping and singing. Old men sitting inside their dens, looking out as impassively as their wares. An avian sense of bored waiting. Intrigued, but not wanting to linger for too long.

Back to the mayhem of the street and back across the bridge past the Murad Khane: a small maze of houses and shops being rebuilt by a foreign organisation that trains local craftsman, trying to revive a relic of the past from meters high sediment of mud and rubbish, for whom I’m not sure.

Past that to the Bush bazaar, named after George W. in honour of the things that have fallen of the back of his truck and found their way here for sale. Concrete lanes covered by tarps, filled with old clothes and shoes and tubs of protein substitute and packs of MREs – meals ready to eat, and BP5 biscuits for the malnourished, Operation Enduring Freedom stationary and, one suspects, much else beside if one cared to linger and root around.

It’s an interesting corner of Kabul, a bizarre mix in the anarchic maelstrom of the old city centre. I’d like to explore it more thoroughly, to be able to wonder and get lost and look. To carry out an archaeological study of the layers of waste: bird’s shit and Bush’s shit and Kabul’s shit. But I do not find it relaxing to walk there; do not find it comfortable to do so. Some would think me stupid for going there at all, taking unnecessary risks. Maybe, but while I didn’t particularly enjoy it, it felt like a small victory of sorts, this walk. A petty defiance against the international communities’ tendency towards extreme isolation and disconnect from the city we live in.

Many foreigners here are not allowed to step foot outside their compounds, have lists of places they can and (more often) cannot go to, and strict rules about how high the walls, how thick the barbed wire, how many armed guards surround them. It is not a situation most want or enjoy. It drives many to distraction. I am lucky to be able to walk a little further, though it gives me no greater feel for the place when I’m too nervous to stop and look around me.

It’s hard to describe the causes of that nervousness. There’s the obvious but unlikely risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then there’s that disconnect; the sense of us and them it breeds, of being so very out of place and watched by an unknown crowd. A bird-like suspicion, to stretch the point.

Somewhere down that main drag, one of our company spotted some old work colleagues. My disquiet disappeared as we greeted. With strangers’ faces coming into sudden focus as individuals, with the contact of a handshake and a smile, I was fleetingly emplaced in the crowd: connected to it and briefly at ease. We parted and moved on, eyes scanning the crowd but no longer seeing.

If it’s hard to look around at the time, at least one can think about it afterwards.