Archive for the ‘Kabul’ Category

Oh for those halcyon days

November 2, 2009

Sad, bad news for the international community in Kabul last week: Five UN staff members were killed when their guest house was attacked in the early hours, plus three Afghan policeman and the attackers.

Walking through safe London streets when I heard the news and for the first time since I’ve returned home, I wanted to be back in Kabul. A strange reaction I know, but it is easier to find out who has been killed when you only live down the road and so the anxiousness of uncertainty seems that much less. I wanted, selfishly, to be in the thick of it, amongst friends in the same boat. (Several people I chatted with in Kabul, much more sensibly, are increasingly keen to get the hell out.)

I remember the mood this time last year when three internationals were killed within a week in Kabul and another was kidnapped. It was grim. From what I hear now it is again, doubtless only more so given everything else.

Thoughts and prayers to the families of those killed, and good vibes to old friends sticking it out.

Election contingency planning

August 18, 2009

Things are getting a little bit tense around these parts, what with the elections, the suicide attack on Saturday and the odd wayward rocket.

But we are well prepared, and as all the Afghan staff are on standby, I have the office to myself at the moment so can relax with music, talk to myself and concentrate on the work I need to do, which makes for a pleasant change.

I am finishing my job and leaving Afghanistan in three weeks time, so a lot to do before then. A lot I could write about my departure as well but maybe another time. Will be happy to be home but it’s never easy to leave, so. Anyways.

If things really go belly-up with the elections – very unlikely but as I said, we are well prepared, and it’s quite fun to ham these things up – I may be leaving before then. My grab bag is ready and my radio tuned to the World Service, over which the embassy has said they will communicate the code word for evacuation.

Which is rather exciting, but I am slightly concerned. If they announce it during the business news I think I will realise, but if somebody says ‘the goose is stuck in the oven’ during the cricket it would be very easy to assume it was just another esoteric technical term rather than the order to flee; something akin to a ‘duck in silly leg-off’, perhaps.

Actually, I have a choice of where to flee: into the arms of my own embassy or that of my organisation’s and colleagues’ home country. As the pick-up point for them is in a place that just happens to be well stocked with cold beers (and wine, if there’s no electricity and the beer is cold. must consider every worst-case scenario, however unpalatable. not that wine is unpalatable of course, just that when the weather is this hot, something chilled is preferable) I think I might go with them.

If the news is bad and things go a bit quiet here for the next week, rest assured I’ll be safely passed out under the bar waiting for the cavalry to arrive.

Kaboom in the ‘green zone’

August 15, 2009

A man drove a car down the road towards the entrance to ISAF HQ and the US embassy this morning, and blew himself up. Seven people killed at the last count, all civilians, with the Taliban claiming responsibility.

It’s a part of town I rarely visit but I happened to be in the same place yesterday, visiting a friend who works at ISAF.

In the various reports about the attack today, much has been made of the fact that it happened in a high security area; a ‘heavily fortified security zone’ Martin Patience on the radio next to me has just described it, ‘the safest street in the Afghan capital.’

Which in a way it is. But then again, yesterday I drove in an old Toyota Corolla – the most common car on the streets of Kabul – with no visible identification or security pass, to within 25 meters of the entrance to ISAF without being stopped or searched once. And not just because I was a foreigner. We could have got closer but I preferred to get out and walk the last bit rather than negotiate the concrete barriers snarled up with large unmarked armoured vehicles.

To get into ISAF itself is not so easy, but that a bomb should go off where it did today is not as remarkable as the fact that there have not been more attacks like this. Security checks in Kabul may still sometimes appear pretty farcical, but the police and intelligence services have definitely got their act together compared with previous years. But it’s impossible to stop everything getting through.

It seems most of those killed were people walking to work at the nearby Ministry of Transport, and several of the Macedonian soldiers on second-line defence, and the Afghan soldiers outside the main gate, must be among the wounded. I was chatting with one of those Afghan soldiers yesterday as I waited for my escort to pick me up, a very young man, bored and friendly. Hope he’s alright.

Tour de Kaboul

July 26, 2009

Le Tour de Kaboul has yet to garner the prestige of the Tour de France with all of its athletic prowess, but for the dizzying danger of the course and brave recklessness of the competitors, it deserves respect.

Between the potholes, mud dust and air pollution, the appalling, terrifying driving of taxis, buses and gun-toting security companies, it is a formidable event. The danger posed by crazed French spectators is nothing compared to that from the Afghan hawkers and pedlars, seemingly blind and oblivious school children and flocks of angry goats. Policing of the event, by bored, scared soldiers and a few futile traffic policemen does little to calm the tensions. Cycling in Kabul is a hazardous affair.

The bikes are all the same; simple black Chinese things, straight framed and usually falling apart. Brakes are optional; their use frowned on as unsporting, as is the ability to judge speed, distance or looking where you are going. The use of performance harming drugs appears to be not uncommon.

The riders in this year’s Tour are as always a startlingly eclectic bunch. Here are the ones to watch out for:

The proud wearer of the yellow jersey is to be seen also wearing a pakol, surgical mask, and swimming goggles to keep out the dust.

Weaving at full pelt between a crowd of cars while holding an umbrella to keep the sun off, looking ever such a dandy, is the wearer of the green jersey.

Winner of the polka-dot jersey, the man with a hundred-weight of freshly cut sheep-skins and offal piled high on his handlebars and back panniers, his wobbling route marked by dots of blood in the dust.

Sharing the white jersey, and current record holders for most people on one bike, five kids.

Awarded the title of Lanterne Rouge for coming in last but at least surviving, the guy who fell of his bike while cutting up a military convoy and, surprisingly, didn’t get shot.

Sadly, previous year’s Tours have been marred by cheating, with at least one competitor filling his bike up with explosives (technically termed a BBIED, or Bike-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) and blowing up himself and several spectators. He was disqualified.

Finally, though not strictly a competitor, an honourable mention to the beautiful Afghan woman, sitting side-saddle on the back of a bike as it creaked through the maelstrom, looking as serene and composed as a queen in her carriage.

The politics of lunch

July 14, 2009

A chap got fired from IRD for complaining about the separation of Afghans’ and expats’ eating arrangements. Culinary apartheid.

In many INGOs I know the expats eat separately from the national staff in Kabul. In my last outfit, we ate together, apart from some expats who preferred to go to a café for lunch or bring in their own from home.

My current gig operates a two-tier system. The expats tend to eat separately, outside the office at home, and pay more for the privilege of marginally better fare.

The food in the office is certainly a sore point, not for who eats it but the quality. Far as I’m concerned it’s not bad – have certainly eaten far worse – but it’s still not good enough for some and is probably the most hotly debated topic at work. The cook nearly caused a mutiny at one stage.

As I’m one of the few who has my team with me in Kabul, I tend to eat with them in the office. But once a week I enjoy leaving them to it and hanging out with my foreign colleagues.

Afghan staff are not invited. Which obviously isn’t fair or nice. But it is nice to have the opportunity to discuss some issues we wouldn’t otherwise, over a cup of expensive coffee.

It would be a different story if we ate separately within the same office, but going home makes the division feel somehow less acute. I’m conscious of the inequity and not always easy with it, but I wouldn’t change it.

What I cannot accept is not being allowed to attend the 14th July celebrations at the embassy with my foreign colleagues simply because of my nationality. Bloody French connards.

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

On subtlety

May 13, 2009

The ‘Enemies of Afghanistan™’ are getting subtle. Like chemical warfare is subtle. But more subtle than just throwing acid in girls’ faces.

“Another 98 Afghan girls were rushed to hospital Tuesday in the latest in a spate of mysterious poisonings to hit three schools north of Kabul in a fortnight, officials said.”

Snapshot: The benefits of burqas

April 22, 2009

Walking out the office gate to a car waiting outside one morning, my mind elsewhere, it took me a while to figure out what the blue thing squatting down in the middle of the drive was, or why the guards were trying to shoo it away.

Oh, it’s a woman in a burqa having a pee. Urm, OK, I think I’ll wait here till she’s finished.

Kabul in The City

April 1, 2009

I’ve been enjoying reading news reports about the planned protests in London for the G20. I do like a good protest I do. What I particularly like is the news that the police are advising workers in the City to dress-down, adopt a low-profile and, if they do have to go into work, go at different times to avoid arriving on mass. It sounds like working in Kabul: keeping a low profile, altering times and routes of trips to not set patterns, moving in fear of the unknown faceless hordes and forces of chaos and terror and bloody socialists outside.

Almost makes me homesick, but I don’t know for which home. The whole thing is making me a little muddled as I imagine the City Suits walking to work in Kabul and turbaned grey beards stepping off the bus outside the Bank of England chaperoned by the Metropolitan Police riding Humvees, anarchists doing battle with the Afghan National Police and a haze of tear gas over the whole scene.

Food and flattery

February 26, 2009

A while back I was asked by Michael Kleinman to contribute a Kabul restaurant review to his Humanitarian Relief blog series of ‘Where to eat in the worst places in the world’. An honour I was glad to accept, and promised something promptly.

Being slightly less than prompt (it was the damned proposal I tell you), he gave me a subtle reminder in the form of gross flattery. That made my day that did. I love the ‘slightly mysterious.’ So the proposal was put to one side and the review was written. It’s here.

Praising the Humanitarian Relief site now runs the risk of seeming like mutual back slapping. But damn the risk: I eat out at fancy French restaurants in one of the worst places in the world. I’m hardcore; I can deal with it.

It’s great. If you have any interest in humanitarian affairs and aid work or want news and analysis on the situation in the worlds slightly less popular tourist locations then read it regularly.

While I’m at it there’s a few other blogs I’ve come across recently and have been meaning to add to the sidebar so may as well mention now: Wronging Rights is an enjoyable acerbic take on human rights; Transitionland gives a great perspective on refugee resettlement in the US and much else beside; and the Thirsty Palmetto is an aid worker in a place I kicked around in for a little while (and, I’ve just looked it up, a type of palm tree. So now I know) whose writing I’m liking.

I’m now waiting for the job offers as a food critic to start arriving. I will accept any that will pay me to eat somewhere other than Afghanistan.