Archive for the ‘Travel + Security’ 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.

Night letter clip art and other snippets

September 2, 2009

A lot of effort goes into night letters. Not only do you have to find and watch your target for long enough to know what they are up to (and thus what they should be warned off doing), but the design of the letter itself takes a deal of care and consideration. Look at the top of the one below, for example. Now that’s some fancy clip art. Plus, they went to the effort of printing it out in colour, no easy task in the wilds of Afghanistan. Aesthetics are important when threatening to kill someone.

Night letter clip art

In my honour (I assume), a soundtrack to my forthcoming departure and return home.

There was a huge storm a few nights ago. After going for a midnight swim in Jalalabad, I was kipping on the roof watching it role in, the sky blazing with lightning. Just as I was nodding off, wind and rain came lashing down in torrential torrents. After a little strobe-lit dance I was soaked to the skin and forced inside, where a frog came and slept on me.

While I’m away I’m handing over all saving-Afghanistan-through-blogging duties to the charming Captain Cat and her legion of sub-tribes. Cap’n Cat (in Afghanistan one assumes a soldiery sort of Captain, but I always prefer the more piratical kind) throws babies down karezes in Gardez and stuffs ballot boxes on behalf of the IEC.

Now back to writing my epic hand-over notes.

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.

Rocket induced hole

July 16, 2009

It’s caption competition time. The writer of the best caption gets a bit of shrapnel engraved with one of rud’s finest bon mots.


To give a bit more detail; this is why it is generally a bad idea to build a health post, school, veterinary clinic or anything else within a hundred meters of a police station. Rockets do not seem to be very accurate.

Often times, when looking for a bit of land, the government will offer something close to one of their buildings saying ‘oh yes, it will be very safe here.’ Yeah right, you just want to shine in our reflected glory. Or the military will see what a nice job we’ve done with the place and want to move in next door.

On the sign outside another of our buildings, also close to a police camp, someone had added ‘Re’ where it read ‘Constructed by…’, so many times had it been damaged in the cross fire and repaired.


June 29, 2009

I’ve just had a little holiday in Bamyan, where I tasted the tears of a dragon and swam in a lake of cheese. It was bloody fantastic, but more of that anon. Having stepped off a plane yesterday I’ve got another one to catch today. I’ve been stagnating in Kabul for too long so it’s good to be on the move again. Should be back online this week somewhen.

Protect the aid worker

June 18, 2009

There is a campaign to get 2010 marked as “The Year to Protect the Humanitarian Aid Worker.”

A worthwhile cause to be sure and no quibbles from me, but I cannot entirely suppress a little snigger.

There was a campaign slogan from Amnesty International to ‘Protect the Human’ that struck me as a nice play on the more traditional ‘Protect the Whale’ kinda deal. The evolution of important things to protect from Orangutans to Aid Workers is flattering.

Aid workers are more often in the role of protecting others; there is a whole sub-species specialised in and dedicated to protecting the rights of refugees and the displaced, children, women, the elderly and disabled.

But it seems we too have joined the ranks of the endangered (for evidence, read this (pdf)  report) and general wretched of the earth, and so it is time to act!

Buy the badge, drop your loose change in the bucket and sign the petition. Forget the fundraising pictures of doe-eyed, fly-ridden African kids; we need mug-shots of dead Aid Workers. Draft codes and laws setting forth our rights to intervene in the name of goodness (oh, they exist already you say?) and protection against the unethical use of pictures of dead Aid Workers. Write to the Sudanese government demanding a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t!

But just one year?! Don’t we at least deserve a decade? And since I principally need protecting from bad drivers, dodgy airplanes and the Taliban (plus changes in currency exchange rates, insurance premiums, bad managers, the whims of donors, stomach bugs and cirrhosis), how, pray tell, am I to be protected?

What’s more, is it fair and right to objectify Aid Workers in such a fashion? I’m not sure I care for the use of the definite article in the campaign title. We are all individuals with different needs. Who has the right to offer me their protection, to speak on behalf of all Aid Workers?

Seriously, no disrespect to the Stephen D. Vance Foundation. I salute you, and may even sign your pledge. It might be a start to also get international aid organisations to themselves do more to protect their national staff, who bear the brunt of all attacks. Or how about a year of actively demilitarising aid? (I have no idea how.) But anyways, ‘Protect Me!’

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.

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

Security stats

April 11, 2009

The good people at the Afghanistan NGO Security Organisation (ANSO) have released the match stats for the first quarter of the 2009 battle between good and evil. As most ANSO reports are supposed to stay within the NGO community, I don’t get to say it often, but ANSO are great and even greater for making this report open source so it can be shared with all and sundry.

Ghosts of Alex has made it available here.

The nub of the matter:

“All data confirms ongoing, widespread and intensifying war.” No shit Sherlock.

The highlights:

Civilians continued to get killed a lot more than any other group (342 fatalities in the first quarter of 2009), with an honourable mention to the Police for coming in second.

The Afghan National Army and the Foreign Army have put in a poor showing, staying mostly alive, while NGO and UN workers pulled up in last.

International Military Forces can proudly claim to have caused a higher percentage of all civilian fatalities in the first quarter of 2009 than the same period of 2008, up from 19% to 32%. However, they’re still lagging way behind Armed Opposition Groups and criminals in the league tables (AOG 2: IMF 1).

The biggest cause of getting killed for NGO workers is SAF. Can you imagine the indignity of getting killed by a three letter acronym? Shocking. Thankfully, SAF mostly occurs on the road so travelling without the Encyclopaedia of Commonly Used Acronyms (ECUA) may mean you never know what hit you. 

In the charity match between Nationals vs Internationals, Nationals get killed in office compounds 9-0. This may suggest a disparity in the protective measures NGOs take with compounds depending on the nationality of who is living there, or that the referee’s a wanker.