Archive for June, 2009


June 29, 2009

I’ve just had a little holiday in Bamyan, where I tasted the tears of a dragon and swam in a lake of cheese. It was bloody fantastic, but more of that anon. Having stepped off a plane yesterday I’ve got another one to catch today. I’ve been stagnating in Kabul for too long so it’s good to be on the move again. Should be back online this week somewhen.


June 22, 2009

A jerib is the most common unit for measuring land in Afghanistan. One jerib is 2000m², or 1/5th of a hectare. Which sounds simple enough. Of course, it isn’t.

Ask a farmer in Ghor, as one example, how much land they farm, and the answer will probably be along the lines of eight man. Ask a farmer in Behsud the same question and you may be told four seer. Both these farmers would be farming, in theory, one jerib.

A seer is usually a unit of weight. One seer equals 4kg. Or 7kg. Or perhaps somewhere in between 4 and 7 kg. It depends which part of the country you are in. A man is also a unit of weight. This also varies on which part of the country you are in. 7kg in Kabul, for example, 4kg in Herat and 14kg in Balkh.

I thought I would try to ham things up a bit and make this all seem as complicated as possible in a desperate bid to garner sympathy but heck, I really don’t need to bother.

Both seer and man may also be used as units of area. When a farmer in Behsud says he is farming four seer of land, what he means is the area of land he farms is the equivalent of four seer’s worth of seed sown. This should equal one jerib. But, maybe it doesn’t. The area of land one bag of seed may cover depends on the land being farmed. The land may be your standard four seer per jerib kind of land, or it may be five seer per jerib land.

If instead of planting wheat seed the farmer is planting potatoes, the unit of weight to a given area will, I think, be very different again.

In Ghor, we’d be talking about man per jerib. In theory, we have eight man per jerib. Trying to pin this thing down there one time and cross checking with various people, I got so many different formulas of x number of man per jerib I gave up all hope of ever getting reliable survey data on harvests and yields and decided I may as well just make the numbers up back in the comfort of Kabul. With no reliable conversion between units my carefully designed study, beautiful database and pain-staking analysis may have been as good as nought (or would have been if I hadn’t added an extra six page questionnaire to the original one and combined it with analysis of satellite images just to figure it out).

Maybe not quite, but remember this next time you read the results of a survey of wheat or opium yields carried out across several different provinces. Conversions aren’t easy. Lies, damned lies, statistics and statistics in Afghanistan.

By the way, I’m writing this from memory so anyone after the facts would do well to double-check.

Protect the aid worker

June 18, 2009

There is a campaign to get 2010 marked as “The Year to Protect the Humanitarian Aid Worker.”

A worthwhile cause to be sure and no quibbles from me, but I cannot entirely suppress a little snigger.

There was a campaign slogan from Amnesty International to ‘Protect the Human’ that struck me as a nice play on the more traditional ‘Protect the Whale’ kinda deal. The evolution of important things to protect from Orangutans to Aid Workers is flattering.

Aid workers are more often in the role of protecting others; there is a whole sub-species specialised in and dedicated to protecting the rights of refugees and the displaced, children, women, the elderly and disabled.

But it seems we too have joined the ranks of the endangered (for evidence, read this (pdf)  report) and general wretched of the earth, and so it is time to act!

Buy the badge, drop your loose change in the bucket and sign the petition. Forget the fundraising pictures of doe-eyed, fly-ridden African kids; we need mug-shots of dead Aid Workers. Draft codes and laws setting forth our rights to intervene in the name of goodness (oh, they exist already you say?) and protection against the unethical use of pictures of dead Aid Workers. Write to the Sudanese government demanding a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t!

But just one year?! Don’t we at least deserve a decade? And since I principally need protecting from bad drivers, dodgy airplanes and the Taliban (plus changes in currency exchange rates, insurance premiums, bad managers, the whims of donors, stomach bugs and cirrhosis), how, pray tell, am I to be protected?

What’s more, is it fair and right to objectify Aid Workers in such a fashion? I’m not sure I care for the use of the definite article in the campaign title. We are all individuals with different needs. Who has the right to offer me their protection, to speak on behalf of all Aid Workers?

Seriously, no disrespect to the Stephen D. Vance Foundation. I salute you, and may even sign your pledge. It might be a start to also get international aid organisations to themselves do more to protect their national staff, who bear the brunt of all attacks. Or how about a year of actively demilitarising aid? (I have no idea how.) But anyways, ‘Protect Me!’

Pre-emptive aid strike

June 16, 2009

From air strikes to aid strikes, my, the US military keeps itself busy.

KABUL, 16 June 2009 (IRIN) – The US military has stepped in with humanitarian aid supplies in a bid to outflank a brewing conflict over grazing land between Afghan Kuchi nomads and ethnic Hazaras in a district in Wardak Province, some 30km from Kabul.

According to a statement by the US military, representatives of 15-20 Kuchi families agreed not to encroach on pasture land in Daimirdad District after receiving sacks of beans, sugar, flour, rice and tins of cooking oil, and the promise of more aid in future.

“Three weeks ago, we went to Daymardad [Daimirdad] and it was a very positive step for us. The Kuchi elders said they would not migrate [to the area] if they were given food, water and vaccination supplies for their animals,” Joe Asher, a US military officer, was quoted in a statement as saying.

The statement said tents, water and veterinary supplies would be distributed in future so that Kuchis do not need to enter the contested area.

“We hope this demonstrates that we’re saying `hey, we’re taking the steps to alleviate your problems,'” said the 12 June statement.

“The Kuchis won’t have to move their livestock, because they will have what they need,” the statement added.

Over the past few years, disputes over access to public pasture land between Kuchis, who are Pashtun nomads, and ethnic Hazaras, who live in central parts of the country, have often led to armed clashes.

I’m blown away by that and at a loss for suitably disparaging and despairing words. The IRIN report goes on to explain why well enough for me to leave it there.

Rambling return

June 15, 2009

So I’m back in Kabul. Rest and Relaxation (or is it Recreation?) was both, and much needed.

Actually I’ve been back for a while but trying to write here feels too much like a chore at the moment, and not worth forcing. Other things to be getting on with, but one event worth mentioning.

There was a US air strike in Ghor last week. It missed its intended target and killed a few civilians so nothing unusual, apart from the fact that it happened in Ghor – a favourite haunt of mine in the past and a province usually devoid of such excitement. I was almost proud seeing the province highlighted on international t.v. for the first time.

The intended target seems to have been Mullah Mustafa, a chap who has occasionally, obliquely, featured on these pages. He has been described as a Taliban commander on some news outlets but to me is known as a local warlord in Sharak district who’s just a pain in the arse for screwing up a couple of my plans before now. So reading the first lines of a report saying he was dead, I cringe to say it, I was almost pleased.

A few lines further down though and he was reported as phoning someone up an hour later to say he was still very much alive, though several of his family members were not.

There have been a couple of other incidents in Ghor the last week that haven’t made the news but don’t make for cheerful reading, especially as I want to get out there before too long. What has been in the news is that there have been more Taliban attacks in the last two weeks than at any time since 2001, which ain’t great news either.

Kabul though remains remarkably calm. So much so that there was even an article in the latest Afghan Scene magazine commenting on the fact and comparing the sunny situation now to the dark days of last autumn. From such an august publication it must be true. They’ve even re-introduced the ‘Be Scene’ section: pictures of drunken expats gurning at the camera at all the hottest parties, previously discontinued due to a lack of parties and reluctance of Kabul’s beautiful people (I’ve never been in it. Can you tell from my bitter sarcasm?) to be publicised for fear of the Taliban using it to draw up an illustrated hit list.

The level of security in Kabul has certainly been notched up in recent months. I was stopped at police checkpoints twice just on the way back from the airport to my house. Which reminds me of the conversation I had with my driver on the way to the airport: “Check, check, check! So many checks!” I complained as we were stopped and searched for the third time. “Yes. Check, check, check, BOOM!” That had me laughing all the way to the Ariana plane, the sight of which quickly put a stop to my giggles.

airplanes in chagcharan