Archive for the ‘People + Rivers’ 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.

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.

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.

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.

Enough rain already

May 14, 2009

I glanced at the reports about the damage done by flooding in the last few weeks (41 killed, hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of land destroyed ), but none of it was in ‘my’ areas so I didn’t really need to worry.

Flood map

After last year’s drought, I was welcoming the weather systems that have been sweeping over the country, dropping more rain than usual across the north and central highlands and giving us some short but sharp thunderstorms in Kabul. It was beginning to get a bit boring, but I told myself it was for the best.

But no. It’s gone too far this time.

Floods have hit a corner of one of ‘my’ provinces. Nobody killed but from the reports we’ve had so far, over a hundred jeribs of farm land destroyed and some 100 houses, plus roads wiped out and animals killed. Piddling compared to other disasters, but try telling that to the folks up to their arses in mud. Some people have lost every little thing they had, with nothing left for them and their families to live on and no hope of a harvest this year.

We’re doing what we can in response, though the roads are so bad getting enough food aid there is no easy task. Then there’s Mullah Troll-Under-the-Bridge, ‘taxing’ trucks that pass by. And the one small plane in the whole country that can reach the area is still being repaired after it crashed the last time it tried to land there. The usual fun and games.

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.

Balloons over Kunar

March 4, 2009


The Kunar river flows from the snow-covered mountains of Nuristan and Chitral down through a steep sided and stunningly beautiful valley.

There are small US military bases dotted across the province. Helicopters to and fro with an annoying repetitiveness. They have a lot to do. The main valley is safe enough, but the mountains that surround it are pretty hot. The Pakistan border is but a stone’s throw away. Away from the main roads, it’s bandit country. Above the US base by the main town of Asadabad, a large white balloon innocently floats. An aerial surveillance platform type thing, there is either a guy up there with a telescope or a load of high-tech infra-red cameras and the like. I waved at whoever it was. It’s a pretty smart idea, and sweetly forbidding.


US base and balloon. Both very very small.

There has been rampant deforestation in the area. There are still some trees on the hills, but seemingly even more in the timber-merchants in Asadabad town, where thousands of tonnes of huge baulks of old timber are piled high. We have a couple of horticultural projects in the province that I was visiting, growing fruit trees to increase people’s livelihoods and other trees to try and slowly reforest the hills.

I was standing in an orchard, basking in the sunshine and marvelling at the beauty of the place. It was incredibly tranquil and I was dreaming of setting up a hammock and settling down for the day with a book. Until the sound of heavy artillery and several machine guns boomed out from the hill above us and echoed around the valley. It wasn’t incoming, and my colleagues carried on talking as if it were nothing more than birds singing in the trees. So I nonchalantly strolled on to look at another row of mulberry saplings, and waited a while before asking what the hullabaloo was about. ‘That? That’s just the Americans practising. They’re so stupid.’ I was too preoccupied with hastily having to revise the story I’d been writing in my head to ask for more precise details of their stupidity, and anyway instinctively agreed. Surely they have enough to do for real without blasting away at the few remaining trees on the hills and shattering the peace just for the hell of it.

Later on, I tried again to ask what local people think of the Americans. ‘What does it matter what people think? They can’t do anything about them’ was about as much of an answer as I could get.


Not much analysis there then, but for a good insight into the military side of things within FOBistan,* check out Josh Foust’s recent dispatches.

*The land of the Forward Operating Base.

Up the Khyber

February 28, 2009

I haven’t actually been to the Khyber Pass, and doubt I ever will, but have recently made it as far east as I’m ever likely to in Afghanistan. On the road out of Kabul to Jalalabad, twisting down through a narrow gorge before reaching the warm green plains of Nangharha, it was impossible not to reflect on the chaotic retreat of the British along roughly the same route in 1842. Having royally ballsed things up in Kabul, they had little choice but to make a run for it, getting snipped at and slaughtered along the way. Of the 15,000 odd who scarped, only Flashman and one other chap made it through to Jalalabad alive (of the British. We don’t count the natives and camp followers who made up the majority of the expedition).


These days the gravest danger is from overtaking overloaded trucks from Pakistan on the hairpin bends. Unless that is one wants to get all allegorically-analytical and start making historical parallels with some fine figurative illustrations and quotes from Kipling to brighten up one’s policy prescriptions. (My, aren’t I feeling alliterative today.) I do wish I had a better idea of what’s going on in this country and that I was more studious about it, but to be honest most of the articles and analysis about security and politics that I glance at these days leave me cold. As so often, Steve Bell sums it up as well as I could wish:

Steve Bell, 19.02.09

Steve Bell, 19.02.09

There’s rather a fine audio slideshow from the BBC that gives a nice little potted history of the British in Afghanistan, with images from an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Audio slideshow: From the Afghan archives

I was hoping to be clever enough to embed that here but obviously not.

I’m tired, and part of my work is making me more cynical about aid and development than ever before. But it was uplifting to get out of Kabul for a while and see some new places. Especially when those places seem so remarkably green and fertile. It’s a blessed change from the chronic scrubland and food insecurity of central Afghanistan that I’m used to.

Going back to Kabul I flew rather than go by road. A 20 minute hop over the mountains, factor in the time getting into and waiting at the large US military base / airport at Jalalabad and it would have been quicker to go by car. But it did mean I got to see a couple of pilot-less drones take off and swing round towards the Khyber, on their way to drop some bombs on Pakistan. It was fun waving them off on their way, though I soon got bored of trying to think of an historical analogy for their mission.

When I was in…

February 12, 2009

Put a group of aid workers in the same room and I guarantee at some point the conversation will run along the lines of: ‘when I was in DRC blah blah blah’ ‘when I was in Goma blaaahhhh’ ‘well when I was in Darfur blah!’ ‘I remember when I was in Sri Lanka and…’ Blah.

Sharing diverse experiences is of course a good thing, especially when it involves experiences of great danger and bravery, killer insects and tropical diseases, the best bars and drunken debauchery, and how fucked up such and such a thing/place is.

Sharing serious experiences is of course a good thing, especially when comparing the education policies in Haiti with those in Somalia. And when the ‘when I was in’ story is used to put oneself above one’s national counterparts who haven’t had the privilege of travelling to such exotic places.

Oh, so I know I exaggerate a little and it’s perfectly harmless and just part of normal conversation and we all do it, but ye gods it can get tedious.

Did I ever tell you about the time when I was working in Khartoum…?

[When I was in Afghanistan, I wrote this fantastic blog that was really interesting and that wasn’t at all a series of ‘when I was in’ stories written in the present tense. Damn.]

Taking the mick out of Mullahs

February 8, 2009

Once there was a Mullah, who lived in a village in the mountains. One day there was a flood that swept the Mullah into the river. The villages saw this and ran to the edge of the river to try and help. “Give us your hand!” they shouted, as the Mullah was swept down the river. But the Mullah did not do anything. “Give us your hand!” the villages shouted, but the still the Mullah did not try to save himself. One man thought for a few seconds then cried out to the other villages still waiting downstream, “do not say ‘give‘; say ‘take our hand’!”

The Mullah took, and was saved.

Mullahs seem to have a hard time of it in Afghanistan, being the butt of many a joke, often along the lines of the one above. I’m not sure to what degree they really reflect a perception of them as greedy or what have you, but guess there must be a kernel of truth to it to sustain the jokes. I’d like to know more, and feel the need for a book on the anthropology of humour and a long car drive to discuss it with my colleagues.

A while back I arrived at a field office late in the evening and settled down for the usual round of food, tea and TV. Unusually, the television was turned off and one of our company was persuaded to stand up and recite some versus of the Koran. Several others followed, reciting poetry or singing songs, often to great amusement. It was an odd mix of religion and comedy; humorous morality tales was what I guessed at the time from the snatches I could understand or that were translated for me. The one I remember was of a mullah who told his son to catch a chicken, wring its neck, and stash it in a bag while he distracted the village with his Friday sermon, but who made the mistake of mixing versus of the Koran with instructions to his son shouted out through the window of the mosque.

The connection didn’t quite click then, but I was reminded of it the other day when I was told that joke about the Mullah, and got talking about the tales of Mullah Nasruddin.

Under various guises, Mullah Nasruddin is part of the literary history of several countries in the region. A slightly foolish character but sharp tongued and with a wise wit, there’s a whole series of short stories about him. Of the ones I’ve read, my favourite is this:

As Nasruddin emerged from the mosque after prayers, a beggar sitting on the street solicited alms. The following conversation followed:
Are you extravagant? asked Nasruddin.
Yes Nasruddin, replied the beggar.
Do you like sitting around drinking coffee and smoking? asked Nasruddin.
Yes, replied the beggar.
I suppose you like to go to the baths every day? asked Nasruddin.
Yes, replied the beggar.
…And maybe amuse yourself, even, by drinking with friends? asked Nasruddin.
Yes I like all those things replied the beggar.
Tut, Tut, said Nasruddin, and gave him a gold piece.
A few yards farther on, another beggar who had overheard the conversation begged for alms also.
Are you extravagant? asked Nasruddin.
No, Nasruddin replied second beggar.
Do you like sitting around drinking coffee and smoking? asked Nasruddin.
No, replied second beggar.
I suppose you like to go to the baths every day? asked Nasruddin.
No, replied second beggar.
…And maybe amuse yourself, even, by drinking with friends? asked Nasruddin.
No, I want to only live meagerly and to pray, replied second beggar.
Whereupon the Nasruddin gave him a small copper coin.
But why, wailed second beggar, do you give me, an economical and pious man, a penny, when you give that extravagant fellow a sovereign?
Ah my friend, replied Nasruddin, his needs are greater than yours.

These stories aren’t really about taking the piss out of Mullah Nasruddin, though I wonder if they’ve influenced the contemporary Mullah jokes. Taking the mick out of any authority figure is a good thing in my book, and I find these jokes all the better for running so contrary to the usual ideas about Islam as portrayed in the west. Say ‘Mullah’ in Europe or the US and I bet most people would say ‘Omar’. Better to think of Nasruddin instead. nasreddin