Archive for the ‘Ghor’ Category

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


Make rain not war

April 9, 2009

As if it didn’t have enough to deal with, the weather was not kind to Afghanistan the last year.

2008 started with an unusual chill that killed several hundred people and many thousands of animals. The heavy snow fall melted early though, the spring rains were not enough, and summer temperatures were above average. The drought in 2008 was the worst in the last eight years, while the price of wheat rocketed (see here and here for more on the same). The year before wasn’t exactly great either.

The province of Ghor in the centre of the country is a barren and impoverished place at the best of times. It’s starkly beautiful and one of the most food insecure parts of Afghanistan. There have been a number of emergency food aid projects there over recent years, but they’ve been pit against the weather and it’s been an uphill struggle.

Through the tedious business of analysing the results of a rapid food security assessment, I saw a picture of hunger emerge from the rows of numbers. It’s not normal to find a database so emotive, but the statistics were depressingly bleak.

Wheat yields were almost half that of 2007 in some districts. The average number of animals a household own also halved. Sheep and goats are a key livelihood, but the drought has forced people to sell off their herds. Levels of debt have increased substantially as families have had to buy food on credit.

At the time of the survey, a majority of households had enough to eat for about two months. What counts as ‘enough to eat’ often amounts to no more than bread and tea. The gap between that time and the next harvest is about four months. To try and fill it, families will go even further into debt with local shop keepers and sell off more animals, furthering a cycle of declining livelihoods. Selling off a daughter as young as twelve or thirteen in marriage is a not an unheard of response to a chronic lack of food and money. 

Food shortages are not uncommon throughout the world. Here though the world’s attention is so transfixed by the fighting that more humdrum problems such as hunger tend to get passed over. But there’s more than one way to die in Afghanistan.

While I’ve been getting increasingly bored with politics, I’ve been spending more time staring out the window at the clouds. How much rainfall there will be this spring has seemed more relevant than how many more troops the US and NATO will send forth into the breach, at least in the short term.

In Ghor and elsewhere, people will be hungry until the next harvest in August, but it’s been a huge relief to see the sky darken and the streets of Kabul turn into one large quagmire after several weeks of rain.

The sailor in me enjoys keeping a weather eye on such things, and another drought like last year’s would be disastrous.

Satellite imagery shows about average snow depth and coverage for most of the country, and so far rainfall has also been on track for a better year. Temperatures have been above average so there’s the danger of earlier snow melt, and a few people have been killed in floods last week (the mud roofs of many more falling in on them), it’s been cold and grey and miserable but I’m still hoping it will last a little longer.

Sat image of Afghanistan extracted from FEWS Net

‘Rain rain rain! It never stops!’ ‘Yes, rain and mud, but at least it is good for the eggs’ I replied.

Eggs / wheat seeds; near enough right?

The other presedential elections

November 5, 2008

Presidential elections are due to take place next year in Afghanistan. The first stage is voter registration, which is taking place at the moment. They are starting with the most inaccessible provinces before the winter snow shuts them off. My trip to Ghor coincided with the process, and the presence of some 300 Afghan National Army soldiers to ensure it goes without a hitch. I wasn’t greatly pleased with this coincidence, concerned by the security implications and the effect it might have on our work.

We were there to carry out an evaluation of a project, and I was worried that our asking of questions might get mixed up in people’s minds with the government’s asking of questions, so we had to take pains to separate the two. As for the security, I was assured that unlike the police, the army would actually quieten things down not stir them up.

Driving through a district where I would have preferred not to stop, we did. Just as I was beginning to protest, the driver pointed to a cloud of dust on the road ahead. We pulled over to let the convoy of 40 or 50 vehicles past, and took the opportunity of having a picnic upwind of the road. As we sat on the grass tearing at our bread and meat, we shyly waved at the guys in the back of the pick-ups, their black balaclavas pulled tightly down to keep out the dust. Pick-ups, supply trucks and an oil tanker, an ambulance and a couple of humvees rolled passed, slowing in the bottleneck of a little village then speeding away up the valley.

On a hill above our picnic spot was the ruins of some old building: a stack of stone pillars worn down but amazingly still standing. There were several sites like this on our trip. I was told they were watchtowers, positioned to survey movement up the valley, built during the Ghorid empire that ruled here in the twelve century. There was an apt juxtaposition between these and the army convoy: of ruling powers trying to patrol, monitor and protect their domain.

Struggling to count and name villages in just a couple of districts, I dread to think what it must be like trying to get an even remotely accurate electoral register. That though is probably the least of their problems.

There have already been reports of voter intimidation in Logar province, and there are worries that using schools and clinics as registration centres will make them into political targets, endangering those inside. I don’t see it being possible to do what they are doing now in Ghor in large parts of the south and east of the country. They would need a much larger convoy, and even then it’s hard to think that the security situation will allow the unfettered registration of voters. And as these parts of the country are where the majority of Pashtuns live, if the registration process is seen as at all incomplete, then a large proportion of the population will see themselves, and probably will be, as under-counted and politically disenfranchised. That will not make for a happy election.

(I’ve just read a newspaper article saying some folks are pushing to have the election cancelled altogether.)

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.

Random pics.

June 28, 2008



Khodahafez, Ghor

June 26, 2008

So I’ve said goodbye to Ghor.

I left without throwing a farewell party, too ill to sort it out at the end, and such events in our office are not exactly riotous occasions, merely the addition of a couple of bottles of fizzy drink and a bit more meat with our rice at the evening meal. But I was sorry not to all the same. Food has never filled me up in Ghor, but it has fed my thoughts.

The night before I left, someone just back from Lal district told me of a woman he had spoken to there, the mother of five children, who had grain left only for another month. Her husband was away, working on someone else’s fields. When he finished the harvest there, in about three month’s time, he would get paid enough to buy wheat, and nothing else, to last them two or three months. What they would eat in between, and afterwards, the woman did not know.

Nearly all of the people from that village who could afford it had left to search for opportunities elsewhere; those that are left too poor to leave. When I first arrived in Ghor last July the harvest, I was soon told, was not good. This year as I leave it is no better. And a bad harvest when you have nothing else is, in the wonderful understatement I have got used to, very bad.

Aid organisations are slowly responding to the food shortages, but oh so slowly: it can take half a year to finalise a proposal, secure funding, and then begin activities. During which time people like that woman and her family just have to survive any which way they can. Sell off a daughter perhaps. Or starve.

The office was fairly empty as I made my farewells. Which was probably just as well as there are only so many vice-like hugs my ribs can stand in any one day. I was told by one gentleman that I was not like other visitors because I did not expect any more than other staff that live there had, that I have not been too proud. So I’ve done fuck all of any use but I haven’t made a nuisance of myself: a commendation indeed! My still swollen face usefully excused any moisture around my eyes. God willing, I said, I will be back sometime in the future.

Driving over the bridge across the hari rud for the last time on the way to the airstrip, the small girl sitting in the dust begging was still there.

Back in Kabul that same evening I feasted on vegetables. A visitor was at the table, and the talk turned to the food shortages and the shortages of funds. I couldn’t bridge the gap that was suddenly vividly illustrated for me, between ‘the field,’ where individual people starve, and the world of headquarters and meetings and policy, where numbers starve.

I wanted to speak about the family I’d been told of the night before, but it was all I could do to answer questions about rainfall patterns, malnutrition levels, metric tonnes delivered and other specious statistics. My usual inarticulateness made worse by exhaustion, I couldn’t translate the individual to the ‘bigger picture.’ Maybe it would have been rude to anyway, numbers being politer than naming suffering.

Damn it, I didn’t mean to get all serious. I’ve left Ghor, I should be happy. As we flew off and banked steeply above Chagcharan and the familiar expanse of nothing much but dust, I certainly felt relieve – mingled with many other emotions in the pit of my stomach. But if I haven’t already I’m in danger of getting all melodramatic about my own travels in false relation to those stuck on the ground. I’ll shut up now.

M*A*S*H, Chagcharan style

June 23, 2008

I woke up this morning feeling better, until I tried to open my eyes, which I couldn’t. It’s an allergic reaction of some kind I’ve had before. I’ve never known what caused it and it’s usually gone away by itself. But not this time and this morning my head and face were so swollen up I resembled a puffer fish.

With some reluctance I decided to take others’ advice and go to see the PRT medics. I could have gone to the local hospital, which is supported by the PRT, but decided I’d be better off at the army base where someone would speak English. Unfounded thoughts of the desirability of clean needles were also in the back of my mind.

On a couple of occasions in the past, I’ve acted as escort for our female staff on visits to the PRT clinic, using my innate skills as a non-Afghan to get them past security. I’d been conscious then, as today, of taking liberties and our (nay, my) privileged position in relation to the rest of Chagcharan’s residents. But you take the best option open to you, right?

After a quick examination and barrage of questions by an army doctor from Georgia, I was taken into a room and told to sit down on the bed.

‘We give you two injections. One in your arm, one in your moscow.’

‘My Moscow?’

‘Your Moscow,’ he confirmed, pointing at his bottom.

I didn’t have time to ask about the meaning of this strange expression and its implied opinion of the Russian capital (or strange linguistic coincidence) from someone from a now independent country of the U.S.S.R. before the nurse made me undo my shalwa and lie down.

And concerns about when was the last time I’d washed were quickly replaced by my wondering if soldiers require particularly big and painful needles to be treated.

After several more doctors, disconcerting in their army fatigues rather than white coats, had dropped by to poke me in the eye and ask who the hell I was and what on earth was I doing living in town, I was led unsteadily to a small ward of five beds and told to rest.

A clean, comfortable bed in a cool room with a nurse gently wiping my brow with a damp cloth made me much happier that I’d come. After some qualms about wasting their time I was now glad to do as I was told and get some sleep, dozing off thinking I should have gotten ill before.

Later in the day the nurse returned, taking off her holster and throwing her side arms onto an empty bed. She missed, and they fell on the floor with a bang. She gave me five very large black pills and plugged me into an I.V. drip.

The drip, explained the doctor shortly afterwards by pointing to his genitals, was to help clear my body of toxins.

‘Toilet out there on the right’ he added.

By the middle of the afternoon the swelling hadn’t really gone down any and I was starting to think of the work I needed to finish and the deadline that had just been moved forwards by a few days, so reluctantly asked permission to be dismissed.

Eventually I was, and on the way out was handed two different sorts of tablets as a souvenir, the details written on them in Estonian or Polish it seems. The doctor told me how many to take of each, but I didn’t quite grasp his explanation of what exactly they are, or what other drugs I’d been given during the day.

Inadequately stumbling out my sincerest thanks to the doctor and nurse (Dankershun being the nearest language I could think of that she might know) I made my way back into town.

The swelling has now gone down just enough for me to type this, my face an inch away from the screen. So I must get back to work. But first I’m going to use Google to try and find out what the hell these tablets I’ve been given might be.

More photos, of men

June 16, 2008




I have so many photos I may as well do something with them.

The observant among you will notice a slight gender imbalance among the photos I’ve put up here. These men expect their wives and daughters to put a large sack over their heads whenever they leave the house. Photographs of women, whoever the photographer, are usually out of the question. I don’t even feel comfortable taking pictures of women with burquas on.


Chagcharan riots

May 25, 2008

Not being in Ghor at the moment and only having had brief conversations with people who are, I don’t have much to add the news reports of what happened last week.

First, let us think of the US soldier who decided to use a Koran as target practice. Now hold your head in despair, take several deep breaths, and scream at the bastard callous moronic stupidity of some people and the institutions that continually let them make such… agghhh, I give up.

Why this event sparked off violent protests in Ghor of all places and not elsewhere I know not. It’s said some religious students organised the protests. That the crowd was shouting anti-US slogans at a base that is mostly manned by Lithuanians seems a bit odd, but symbolically understandable.

How the event got so out of hand that three people were killed and many more wounded is the key question, and one which I have no answer to and which I suspect anybody that does won’t be saying. Or will be saying different things.

That it was a new rotation of ISAF soldiers, only in place for a week, may not have helped. They could have bunkered down behind their fortress wall and weathered the storm, and I’m a bit surprised a Lithuanian soldier was ever in the firing line. The police would have been at the forefront, and may well have over-reacted. Or an ‘insurgent’ could have joined the crowd and fired a few shoots just to warm things up. Who knows? No point looking to blame any of them really.

What I do know is that the whole tragic thing is, well, tragic. Both the loss of life and the loss of trust between the PRT, the police and by extension the government, and the residents of Chagcharan. It’s a small event compared to many that happen everyday in Afghanistan, but it’s unusual for such things to happen in Ghor and it will be remembered for a long while with a great deal of bitter feeling on all sides.


Demonstration in Ghor and food shortages

May 24, 2008

My home town of Chagcharan in the news, for all the wrong reasons. From the BBC:

Two civilians and a Nato soldier have been killed in Afghanistan during a demonstration over the shooting of the Koran by a US soldier in Iraq.

The protest by over 1,000 people in Chagcharan turned violent after the crowd tried to storm a Nato base.

President Bush apologised earlier this week for the Koran incident, in which a copy of the book was found riddled with bullets at a shooting range in Iraq.

He also promised the soldier would be prosecuted.

The shooting broke out during clashes between the police and demonstrators outside a Nato reconstruction team base commanded by Lithuanian soldiers in Chagcharan, the capital of Ghor province.

Protesters were chanting anti-US slogans and throwing rocks, and tried to enter the gates of the base, police said.

General Ikramuddin Yawar, chief of police in western Afghanistan, said: “There was shooting during the demonstration. Two civilians have been killed. We don’t know who shot them.”

He added that the protest had been organised by students from a religious school.

But Nato said that Afghan police killed the two civilians, according to Reuters.


Nato also said in a statement that 10 Afghan police and seven civilians had been wounded in the incident.

A spokesman for Nato’s International Security Force in Afghanistan (Isaf), Major Martin O’Donnell, said: “Isaf vehemently condemns this violence.”

He added: “It is the people’s right in a free and democratic society to stage peaceful demonstrations. Violent demonstrations, such as this, have no place in Afghanistan. Violent demonstrations cause tragedies such as we have witnessed today.”

President Bush’s apology was made during a video conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

The soldier was sent home by the US military after the copy of the Koran was discovered by Iraqi police.

He was unnamed, but said to be a staff sergeant in a sniper section.

I wasn’t in town when it happened. Don’t have time just yet for any pithy commentry.  

And in other news:

CHEGHECHERAN, 19 May 2008 (IRIN) – Over 22,500 “most vulnerable” families (about 112,500 individuals) in Ghor Province, central-western Afghanistan, who have been severely affected by rising food prices and drought are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, according to aid agencies and provincial officials.

Read the rest of the report from IRIN here.