Archive for the ‘Out of Afghanistan’ 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.


The joys of interviews

March 23, 2010

One organisation went to the trouble of paying for my travel to an interview. Where they made the mistake of asking me something about participation. This happened to be around the time of my post-grad exams, so I’d been busy brushing up on my theory, critiquing all of the development industry’s most beloved buzzwords. ‘Participation? Well its basically a crook of shit, isn’t it?’ was my considered response. (Didn’t get it.)

A time before that I was asked by a very nice table of people ‘How would your friends describe you?’ Ye gods, I mean come on, where do they get these from? An on-line dating agency? ‘Well, they’d probably say I’m a bit of a grumpy old git, downright unsociable in fact. Not much of conversationalist, not much to look at neither. Those weren’t their exact words but its what they was getting at the other night. Fact is, that’s why I’m applying for this job in Somalia…’

As I recall, I was actually stupid enough to say something along the lines of ‘Well it would depend who you asked I guess…’ I don’t recall how I finished my no doubt rambling response, but I like to think it was along the lines of ’cause I owe Dan fifty quid and I think he’s pretty pissed off, but then I’m fairly sure Lucy’s sweet on me so I reckon she’d put in a good word.’ (Didn’t get it.)

That was in the days before I realised they did actually have a book of these stupid questions that they’d just ask you at random, which meant it wasn’t a bad idea to practice a few set pieces beforehand (‘My colleagues would describe me as honest, reliable, enthusiastic and, err, what was that other adjective you used in the person specification?’)

Then last year I was back from abroad and applying for a job at home in an organisation’s headquarters. Where, after the interview, I had to do a test, plonked down at a desk in the middle of a large open-plan office. Mosquitoes, noisy generators, freezing cold, bombs going off outside, snipers: these are the kinds of distractions I’m used to at work. I’m not open-plan office trained. Instead of doing something to a logframe as I should’ve done, I spent the entire time reading the cards and post-it notes on whoevers desk it was I was borrowing, peaking over the partition at the soulless room around me and the woman discreetly tapping away on Facebook. (Didn’t get it, and went back to Afghanistan.)

Praise be for telephone interviews, which tend to be more common in the humanitarian field with people working all over the shop. For then you get to have a copy of the job description in front of you, look things up on the internet as you go along and write down all your clever answers beforehand. These you just read out while sipping your cocktail by the side of the pool or scratching your arse in bed, which is obviously a much more civilised way of doing things. (Got those ones.)

Winter in the Jardin Villemin

February 25, 2010

One of the joys of my last job in Afghanistan was getting to know my team. Of them all there was one young man in particular, let us call him Q, who was a pleasure to work with. (Before continuing, let me note that the use of the past tense does not suggest his demise.) Not particularly well educated, he had a curiosity and intelligence that put him beyond many his senior. It wasn’t always the case. He had been kidnapped with an expatriate member of staff and held for almost a month, forced across the mountains under the threat of death. Unsurprisingly, he had been severely knocked by the experience and it took him a long time to recover. To see him re-engage and build up his confidence was a good sight.

Last year he married, and was charmingly full of love. He was taking on more responsibility at work, and as I prepared to leave I was keen to recommend him to my manager and replacement, fearing to lose him from my department were he promoted but knowing he deserved it. In my last few days in Kabul it was decided that he would travel to France to attend a board meeting and some training courses. Within the organisation this signified great praise, and trust. Discussing it with my manager we felt that, recently married as he was, with much to look forward to, he would not abscond.

Not long after that meeting and I was walking up the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris on a bright free day and happened to pass the Jardin Villemin. It was here that several dozen Afghan asylum seekers had been camping out until they were forced out by the police, who were still conspicuously present when I strolled by. France is not known in Europe for having the most compassionate attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees. As in the Jardin Villemin, the state prefers to let them fend for themselves, until they become a public nuisance.

Some time later, and Q was in Paris. Where he did a runner. Hearing this I sent him an innocuous email asking him how his trip had been. Fantastic, said Q. But while in Kabul he had been threatened by people unknown who told him to do jihad and to spy on the kafirs and inform them of their movements. So he was not going back.

I did not believe him. It didn’t add up; this man’s background, a story that sounded too well angled to expatriates’ fears, plausible with no possibility of proof. And I was angry with him. For betraying my and the organisation’s trust, for making it harder to get visas for his Afghan colleagues to travel to Europe for training, for leaving his wife and family, and for what I felt to be his naivete in trying to seek asylum, not fully realising the new world of torment opening up to him in places such as the Jardin Villemin. I had spoken with him and many others back in Afghanistan about the difficulties facing asylum seekers in Europe, trying to tell them that the streets are not paved with gold as many seemed to think. It always felt like they never believed me, but I thought Q had more sense.

Unkindly, I did not hide all of these thoughts in my reply to Q. I told him I thought he had made a stupid mistake. Without saying I did not believe him, I told him the authorities were very unlikely to believe his story, and asked aloud if it would not be better to spend the next years with his family rather than struggling to survive in a foreign and unfriendly land. I tried to assure him that my (brutal) honesty was from a friend who cared for his well being, but he was not best pleased.

The intensity of his reply took me aback. An unpleasant part of me wondered if it was partly due to his realising the situation he had put himself in. The rest of me had to guiltily admit that no, I did not know what it was like to be kidnapped and to face death and to be threatened and to be followed and no, I did not know that when he had gone they had, he wrote, phoned his wife and threatened her and she was taken sick and had to go to hospital then moved back to her parents’ house in a different city.


I didn’t know how to reply to that. I moderated my response, said I did not think he was a bad person but was simply worried for him. Which is true. I haven’t heard from Q since then. Someone else told me he was going to try and get to Scandinavia, which would be a fairly sensible move considering. How a person sans papiers gets from France to Scandinavia I have faint idea. Or maybe he is sleeping under a bush in the Jardin Villemin. Wherever, I wish him well.

Domestic clashes

October 10, 2009

Afghanaid discussion 3992719891_9ec724b602

One of the (many) challenges of having moved from Afghanistan to Britain is suddenly having to have an opinion on, and argue about, the question originally posed by The Clash: should (foreign forces) stay or should they go now? Being in Afghanistan the answer seemed obvious enough, or irrelevant enough, as not to have to bother thinking about: trouble either way but, contra The Clash, if they go it would be double.

Obvious, because if foreign troops pulled out, all hell would break loose and make life for rural Afghans considerably worse. Irrelevant, because when one’s work focuses on humanitarian relief and development the military side of things isn’t one’s main concern. Plus, one is far too busy planning the next party and swapping stories of daring-do to have time to analyse anything.

In the UK though, the focus is on the images of returning body bags, which obviously puts a slightly different spin on things and generates a whole lot of debate. Its domestic-centric approach doesn’t hold much interest for me but it does mean I now have to buck up my act and think of some clever things to say while propping up the bar.

So the recent BBC radio debate came in handy. As did a discussion put on by Afghanaid  that I went to this week (a small part of which was also covered by the BBC. Both of these programmes are only available for a limited time.)

I thought the Afghanaid one would focus more on the elections but the presence of General Richards swayed things back to the military. I wanted to try and change the direction a bit with a question following on from Captain Cat’s superb post about the corruption of the IEC and the poor showing of UNAMA and danger to its credibility, but never got the chance.

I hadn’t come across Francesc Vendrell before but for me he was the star of both shows. He argued that the elections are an indictment of our (western) democratic credentials and we, having paid for them, cannot sit silently by. Instead, the international community should demand a recount of 25% of votes cast as the EU have suggested, with an interim government to take over until further elections next spring; either a run-off or a re-run of the presidential vote.

Dawood Azami seemed to agree, but pointed out the challenges of holding another election: money, weather, security, the probability of even lower turnout, and all with no guarantee that they would be any better.

Horia Mosadiq then asked aloud if we can expect even worse fraud in the 2010 parliamentary elections, when a whole jolly bunch of miscreant warlords and others will be jostling for power. A good question, with a disturbingly predictable answer. Something to look forward to.

I’m listening to the BBC debate as I write, so this is going to be like a live commentary:

Bloody hell but the Stop the War Coalition piss me off. Once upon a time I marched through London with a Stop the War placard in hand. Now I’d be tempted to march in protest against them over Afghanistan.

‘National interest has got to be the bottom line’ or some such was the final word, by someone. No god damn it no. (In a 45 minute programme that’s all the live commentary I can manage. Slow typer, and too busy listening.) Now I just need to think of a way of explaining why without appearing like a callous, war-mongering bastard. So far, outbursts along the lines of ‘so what if more than 200 British soldiers have died in eight years? You know how many died in three months of the Falklands, or how many Afghan civilians have been killed in the last year?’ haven’t been winning me many friends.

[Photo from Afghanaid’s Flickr thing]

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.


May 18, 2009







With some extra R and a twist of R.

Typologies and transits

January 12, 2009

Missionary, mercenary or misfit: the three categories of aid workers’ motivations, so the joke goes.

Glancing back a few pages in my diary I noticed a scribble which maybe answers it for me. Written at two in the morning while hung-over, drunk and exhausted in the crap ‘Irish’ bar in Dubai airport after several hours waiting and chatting with various transiting strangers: “Aid work finally paid off: two free drinks.”

God I hate Dubai and its four and a half billion dollar new shopping centre (with airport attached). What could be done with that money in Afghanistan? Doesn’t bare thinking about. Probably doesn’t help that I’m always sleep-deprived whenever passing through there, walking around in a daze muttering to myself, but still.

It was at least the gateway to a wonderful break, from which I have recently returned. The better the holiday, the harder it is to come back, but it’s been good to catch up with friends back in Kabul, discover that my department hasn’t collapsed without me, and generally get back into the swing of things.

There have been various tasks that I’ve putting off till winter, expecting it to be a quieter time with some of our programme areas snowed closed. So I now have a long list of things to do and am as busy as ever just trying to decide where to start. Time to start planning the next holiday.

Post to pre departure

August 22, 2008

There’s some sound advice on how to readjust and deal with the reverse culture shock that can follow working abroad at Aid Workers Net. I’ve tried to follow it but since getting back from Afghanistan I’ve been a bit too hung-over to do so. I’ve had a lot of catching up with friends to do.

And, having decided to go back there, I’ve been busy with the pre-departure stuff instead of post-departure plans.

Having been offered a job in Kabul with another NGO, the first two weeks at home were spent agonising over whether to accept it or not. Long story short – I did. Can’t say I’m overjoyed at the prospect of another year there, but it should be an interesting position. The security situation is a little off-putting of course. Five aid workers killed in the last week, 10 French soldiers killed in a pitched battle 30 miles from Kabul, rockets fired into Kabul… It does all dampen one’s ardour for the place, as well as making one feel guilty for going. But still, duty calls.

So anyways, I’ve been getting myself ready. This has mostly involved, as mentioned, rediscovering the delights of a drink at lunchtime with friends and, having lost a bit of weight, eating. Fattening myself up (for the kill) is the perhaps inappropriate phrase that’s been chuckling around the darkness of my head.

More mundane things to sort out have included tax and social security stuff, and shopping. I don’t particularly like shopping. Walking down a main drag in London looking for a pair of jeans had me snarling at fashionable teenagers and tourists getting in the way so that I was about ready to hit someone by the end of it. I’d like to be able to say that it was a reaction to the poverty I’ve seen in Afghanistan, the gross opulence here and the general bloody inequality of the world, but it wasn’t. I just get like that out shopping.

Some stores I can deal with. I spent a fair while pootling around an outdoorsy camping shop, wondering if I should buy a hugely expensive thermal coat for the winter or a cunning belt to hide money in case one’s robbed and other gadgets. You never know when you might need a spare tent-peg after all. But then, in the back of my mind was the knowledge that of all the things I didn’t take last time, a pair of swimming trunks for the pool at L’Atmo and a penguin suit for the posh do’s at the British embassy were what I should take now (former, tick; latter, never). It may be dangerous out there, but I’d wager a bowties still more useful than a penknife.

Most importantly on my pre-departure shopping list have been books. Bookshops I can do. I went to one of my favourites to look for some solid reading materiel to take out. A new tome on Afghanistan, perhaps? A manual related to my new job? An interesting looking edited volume on development economics for those sleepless nights? I walked out empty-handed and headed for the charity shop down the road that I knew would stock a random selection of trashy novels.

Fleeing from Boris

May 3, 2008

I heard recently that after six months the young lad from this post has safely arrived in London to seek refuge, where his troubles will just be starting.

It’s bad timing now Boris Johnson is mayor, and I’m wondering if there’ll be some asylum seekers coming the other way.

Indian interlude

April 17, 2008

I’ve just got back from a week’s R and R in north India. Too short a time but a wonderful escape all the same. I took my camera but not a single photo, and felt freer for avoiding the viewfinder. But that does now mean I have no pretty pics to show, and am struggling to think how to describe it without clichés.

Delhi – wow. That’s quite a city: not exactly relaxing, but certainly exhilarating. So much energy Kabul felt like a ghost town when I returned. Sultry night air, assaulted by the smells and sounds… clichés be damned.

Terrifying at times, buzzing round in auto-rickshaws, being nuzzled by the blunt, battered bows’ of buses squeezing in from all sides. But the joy of just being able to walk as far as the sun would allow, getting lost, being swamped by the place, imbibing something of the wonder of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, one of my favourite books.

I normally dislike being a ‘tourist,’ or being the type of tourist I dislike, making little effort to understand where they are. This time round I did pretty much that. ‘Cultural awareness’ is in my job description. On this holiday, I went without. Shamefully, I didn’t learn a single word of Hindi. Give too hoots I did not.

I escaped the heat of the plains for a few days and went on a spiritual retreat to the foothills of the Himalayas with a bottle of whisky. To a delightful old town, a once favoured holiday spot of the British Raj, and now of Delhi’s middle-classes. Such greenliness! My eyes and soul fell on the sight of trees like a shrivelled camel stumbling to an oasis.

Back in Delhi I planned to spend my last day in Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Enjoying a care-free disorganisation I left it too late to go by train, my plan went awry and I never made it. I may come to regret that but in a way I was happy not to go. Seeing the world’s greatest monument to love, single and alone…? It would be like a teetotaller going to the Guinness museum in Dublin.

Instead I spent the day idling around bookshops and coffee shops, being a very lazy tourist and loving it.

Taj Mahal, pic from wikitravel

A picture I did not take, of what I did not see.