Archive for the ‘Gripes + Glories’ Category


April 21, 2010

Harry Rud is no longer an aid worker in Afghanistan. He’s a bean-counting text bitch in an international NGO’s headquarters in London. It’s a long way from the hari rud. It might be the death of him.

Life’s sweet. Going to see plays and exhibitions, bookshops I want to eat, restaurant menus to study, friends old and new, the certainty of abode allowing the excitement of planning. Proper breakfasts with toast, a pot of coffee and the Saturday papers. I am feeling incredibly fortunate.

I’m still on a river too. Well, a canal that spills into the Thames.

I’m feeling less sure about life in HQ. There’s just not the same comedy value in an open-plan office as there is in watching expats trying not to get kidnapped in the wild, for one. A sudden attack of dysentery while driving through a mine-field has so much more story-telling potential. And yet the ‘when I was in…’ stories, mine and others, are even more tedious than before.

I read blogs from far off lands and feel a twinge of envy. I remember curling up in an old wicker rocking chair in my garden in Kabul on hazy evenings, watching those birds. For a moment, I almost miss them.

The biggest thing going on in my new office is the daily delivery, and cross-departmental theft, of the milk. And we work in Haiti. All I do is demand and consume information from overseas country offices. Numbers and stories which are never good enough and are just grist to the mill anyway, ground up and fed to the donor. It’s a decent job with some nice folk, but only a few months in and I’m too cynical for my own good.

It’s been a frustrating week and I feel the need to bitch is all. There’s a post-it note curling on my computer that reads ‘at least you can walk to work’. It’s an important reminder.

I’m not ready to kill off hari rud completely, but don’t expect much from him. He’s too busy bragging about all the time he spent as this kick-ass aid worker in Afghanistan.

Becoming an ex-expat

September 14, 2009

The transition from expat to ex-expat is not easy. This is supposed to be a moderately civilized country I’ve moved to but it’s seemed far from it in my first week back.

Getting off the plane I looked high and low for someone I could pay a pittance to pick up my bags, but no one was to be found. I had to push the trolley myself, huffing and puffing with indignity.

Once through customs I tried calling my driver. His phone wasn’t working. After several more futile attempts I was about to call the head of logistics to complain when I realised I no longer had a driver and he was several thousand miles away anyway. Instead, I was forced to rough it with the mob and get the bus.

Back home, I dumped my dirty clothes in a corner. Two days later and they were still there! I couldn’t for the life of me think what the cleaner was playing at, but she seemed to have disappeared.

I shipped a few things home. In Kabul I’d given them to the logistics chap and got him to sort it out. He never told me I’d have to wait at home for them to be delivered. The first day the package was due I assumed the guard would take care of it. Seems he’s run off with the cleaner. I only found out when a friend spent half an hour knocking on the door. I finally went to see what was going on, and was told (by my strangely annoyed friend) I no longer had a guard. This has proved continually troublesome as I obviously can’t be expected to take my door keys with me everywhere I go.

Letters from the bank have been piling up. I emailed the finance department asking if they could spare a few hours to go through them all and got a most curt reply. They had the insolence to suggest I do it myself! When I did go down to the bank and the manager treated me like some poor beggar I was simply incandescent with rage.

Taking the dog for a walk one afternoon and I was getting a little parched. There was a farm house down the track so I thought I’d just drop by but was given a most unfriendly welcome. Downright hostile in fact. When I told them that if they weren’t even going to slaughter a sheep for me the least they could do would be to make me a cup of tea the farmer pulled out a shotgun. I was aghast and told them in no uncertain terms (while running away) that I thought their behaviour deeply at odds with the culture of hospitality I had come to expect of their kinsmen.

I had to console myself after that with a glass or two in the village inn. Naturally I didn’t have any of the local currency with me, but I really didn’t expect them to make such a fuss about it. I admit things got slightly out of hand but there was no need to call the police. I tried explaining to the officer that everything was perfectly all right as I wasn’t a Muslim and so of course I was allowed to have a drink, but the law was simply insufferable.

Dragged off to the police station I finally got to make a phone call, but all the bloody embassy did to get me out of my plight was to laugh at me.

By the time I extricated myself from that little mess I felt rather washed up, so I’m now planning my next R and R. Somewhere with servants and corrupt police, I think.


August 27, 2009

I’m busy trying to tie of as many loose ends as possible. I do hope they won’t unravel without me, and I am trying not to think of hanging around a bit longer to hold them together.

It goes without saying that I am indispensable. My department, the whole organisation, and quite possibly the whole country are in danger of going to the dogs when I leave.

It would help if I had a replacement but as yet I do not. There are projects and plans that I’ve hatched that are only now coming into fruition. I want to see them ripen. I have a team I deeply care about and I want to do right by them. There are parts of this country I still haven’t seen, adventures still to be had.

There are indescribable frustrations and grievances that I’ve carefully nurtured. There are days when I want to be on the first plane out of here, and failing that, have come close to stealing a donkey to ride off on. I want to go home. I want to see what this ‘work-life balance’ people hark on about is like.

I love this country, and this is the best job I could possibly imagine. Challenging but so full. I hate this country and want nothing more to do with it. The work sucks and I want a life outside shitty, dangerous places.

So um, yeah. A bit of a mixed bag then. Swings and roundabouts doesn’t come close. The highs are high and the lows are low, and I can go from one t’other in the time it takes to make a cup of tea.

Still, variety being the spice of life an’ all, I feel alive in a way that almost makes me fear the absence of it.

Still, to sleep perchance to relax, have a good meal, walk down the pub for a pint, then dream.

Afghans on top

July 20, 2009

Afghan climbers have reached the top of Noshaq. They are the first Afghan’s to stand atop the country’s highest mountain, at 7,492 meters.

Hip hip, hooray!

That’s rather high, and I’m bloody impressed.

Eastern summer nights

July 3, 2009

sky at night

The view from my bed in Kunar. Taken with a crap camera. Imagine a sky alight with stars.

Am in the east, where it’s hot. Too hot to sleep inside without electricity, so the beds have been moved out into the garden.

As dusk faded through the trees up in Asad Abad, the serenade of a nightingale was replaced by the buzzing of insects and the loud wash of the river. A rather magical, slightly hallucinogenic night, drifting in and out of sleep as helicopters occasionally thundered low overhead through the warm, heavy air.

Now back in Jalalabad, sleeping out on the roof. The moon shimmering through the mosquito net as it billows in the wind, a stately four-poster sailing bed.

Or maybe I’ve got sunstroke.


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.

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.

Walking out of here

April 18, 2009

Boy did I need that. To get out of Kabul, just for a day, and just walk.

Most weeks running round a dusty school playing field overlooked by watch-towers is the only exercise I get. It keeps me sane but it’s hardly edifying. The furthest I walk during the rest of the week is across the office compound to steal coffee from a colleague in another building.

I could go on ranting about all that but I’m too happily tired to care. I escaped!

We drove out to Istalif, a village an hour or so north of Kabul that’s famous for its pottery. I can’t say I care for it overly, and was happy to drive on further up into the hills before abandoning the car and using my legs for a change.


I’m not poetic enough to begin to describe how good it was, but here’s a selection of photos. Without the better ones with people in, as I forgot to get them to sign consent forms for using them online.


We walked for over seven hours, climbing to 3,000 meters.


Galumphing through snow fields.


Saying salaam to the few bemused locals we passed collecting fuel or herding sheep. Rising above the dust and haze and looking out far across the Shomali plain.


Looking down on the vultures circling below us and the planes heading for Bagram. Looking at the stone look-out positions and shallow trenches scraped into the rock for Mujahideen to crawl hidden through while fighting the Russians.


Looking at the carefully built terraces high up the valley sides for rain-fed wheat.


Trudging slowly upwards; blistering back down the other side of the valley.


What a wonderful change to be physically exhausted instead of just mentally worn out. I had a few great walks in Ghor, and have dreamed of trekking in the Wakhan Corridor. This country has some amazing landscapes to explore, just a pity so many are off limits.

To be able to walk out and up, to feel free, away from it all on top of a mountain… that was good.

Wardak wandering

December 2, 2008


There’s a small village in Ghor, just outside of Chagcharan, known as Little Wardak: a Pashto enclave in a largely Tajik/Aimaq district. I used to drive through it a couple of times a week, on excursions to the spring just beyond it where we’d fill up half a dozen jerry cans with water.

This last week, I’ve been in the proper, province-sized Wardak. You say that these days and people usually look at you as if you’re crazy, at which point you have to explain that you were in Behsud, the Hazarjat bit of the province that, in security and ethnic terms is a very different place.

‘Twas grand. I’m pretty beat afterwards, for it was frustrating planning for with numerous logistical hiccups and it was an intense week in the ‘deep field’. But good for that and we achieved as much as I could hope for in such a short time. It’s always a relief to get out of Kabul for while and get back to the familiar routines and rituals; the long drives, the pauses and tea and the TV in the evening. The cold clean air and starry nights, the lack of basic hygiene, my awkwardness at not being able to talk properly with most of the people around me, the discomforts of sleeping in an overheated room with a dozen other men, sardined into a sea of old blankets.

There were times when I couldn’t imagine a more privileged job to have in the world. Driving around such a rich landscape at will, with good companions and work to be done. Being invited into people’s homes, to ask them all the silly questions I can think of; learning endlessly and never understanding but slowly getting to grips with another way of life and another way of seeing the world.

Having to sit there cross-legged, knees aching and unable to stretch them, busting for a pee and a cig and trying to wrap up a discussion while the old fellow across the room is just getting into his stride, until you’re cornered by their hospitality and a young boy brings in the basin of water to wash your hands before laying out the rug and loaves and mountainous plates of rice. Then another round of tea; the conversation relaxing, sitting back and stretching legs an inch, until we can finally unfold ourselves and bid farewell in a cats-cradle of handshakes.

To drive on in road-tripping freedom, and on a bit, to track down and round up a few more folk whose time I can waste in my legitimised role as a half-wit nosey bastard.

There’s an unfettered joy to it my heart soars at times, as the van jolts over into another valley. Truly, it is a rare privilege, the days like that – in such a place with such people – and I’m thankful for them and all their bloody bruises.

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.