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.

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Torn

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.

Election observations

August 24, 2009

So then. Free and fair elections in Afghanistan. Democracy blooms. My work here is done.

Well, freeish, and kinda fair. It’s all relative.

OK, so maybe not, but it’s so much easier if we pretend. Then we can all go home for tea and cake.

I was going to give a round-up of all the events across the country on election day, but there were 86 reported security incidents from the eastern region alone, so such a summary would be pretty boring for all concerned.

Sitting at home on the morning of election day, listening to the BBC reporters dotted around the country, and reading the ANSO security updates that streamed into my computer, and things seemed to be getting rather lively. In the end though, after planning for the worst, the day was strangely anti-climatic.

It’s one thing to stay at home relaxing; another to be forced to stay at home in mind-numbing boredom (yet getting a strange kick out of the constant updates on bombs across the country. like watching the on-line live text updates on the cricket. hmm, people getting killed and a very peculiar game: too crass a comparison perhaps? not if you’ve studied your Douglas Adams.)

The attacks that took place seemed to be aimed at disrupting the elections rather than killing, so causality figures were thankfully low (gee, thanks guys for killing only 26 people, that’s real swell of you). Voter turn out was low as anticipated, guessed to be around 40%. Fraud, intimidation, and general fuck-ups were aplenty, but hopefully not disastrously so. It could have been a lot better, and it could have been a whole lot worse.

Yep, that’s the extent of my analysis. The closest I’ve been to the elections this week is shaking a few people’s ink-stained hands. But since voters observed 10 observers for every voter, you don’t need me to stick my oar in and so I can concentrate on the serious business of being flippant.

Hamesha provides a much more interesting account, of his trip to the polling station. And of the televised debate between three presidential candidates a few days earlier, including the incumbent. I watched a bit of it (with a running translation from a friend) and was likewise mightily impressed. Afghan media may have mostly obeyed the order to not broadcast any bad news on the day (we don’t want to scare anybody off now do we? much better that they die trying, in joyful ignorance, then stay at home in heart-still-dejectedly-beating apathy), but sometimes the press provide much needed optimism.

The very next morning after the election, two people claimed to have won, which I thought was a pretty impressive feat. And the main candidates have promised Holbrooke that whatever the outcome they’ll kiss and make up afterwards, so that’s sweet. (Although I then read this morning that Abdullah’s accusing Karzai of fraud – shocking! – and continued doubts about the legitimacy of Karzai if he does win. who’d a thought eh.)

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.

Election fever

August 6, 2009

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My, elections are exciting, aren’t they? I’ve been resisting commenting on them for fear of jeopardising my humanitarian impartiality* but can no longer resist the allure of politics and power (and the guy above telling me to vote). So, with only a few weeks to go, here’s a rough round-up of what’s been going on.

Things kicked off in earnest with Karzai winning the election, then some argy-bargy about who was allowed to run for the Provincial and Presidential elections, various complaints about certain candidates, the role of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), who was going to get to be the bestest friend of the USA, some small concerns about the actual date of the elections and something to do with the Constitution, and a few even smaller concerns about the possibility of ever holding free and fair elections given that the Government has no control in several districts of the country (nearly all of which happen to be Pashtu, thus just possibly leading to a slight sense of disenfranchisement, or of just being a bit pissed off, from a fair proportion of the country’s electorate). I may have the order of these events a bit mixed up – it’s all been going on for a while now and I’m forgetting the finer points.

Who that electorate is is another question. In some places it seemed that there were more women on the electoral register then men. Given the general situation of gender equality and women’s suffrage, that surprised some (those hard-nosed cynical nay-sayers, mostly. They’re never satisfied). Actually I was slightly surprised anybody was able to register at all after reading about Hamesha’s attempt to do so in Kabul.

As many as three million duplicate registration cards may exist according to one unnamed election observer in a newspaper article, out of a total 17 million registered voters. With what’s been going on so far, there’s a chance – an outside chance that you wouldn’t want to bet on maybe, but still a chance – that nobody will accept the results whatever they are, and that whoever does win will have less legitimacy than Karzai after the last elections.

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Afghan man, Haji Rozuddin shows fraudulent voter registration cards in Logar province July 1, 2009. Buried outside his house near the Afghan capital, Haji Rozuddin keeps hundreds of fraudulent voter registration cards to sell to anyone wanting to vote in next month’s presidential election. Picture taken July 1, 2009. REUTERS/Hamid Shalizi

The British ambassador has said “We have to recognise that these elections are going to be pretty rough and ready in places. They will not be up to the standards of a western democracy. The test of success is whether they are credible, secure and inclusive enough that they are seen as credible by the people.” Which to me sounds like “The elections will be successful as long as no one makes a fuss and we can paper over all the problems and pretend everything’s fine and dandy.”

There was much excitement about the sudden flowering of campaign posters all over Kabul, with pictures of the main candidates plastered over every wall and bus, some even tattooing their images onto the backs of goats. Not just in Kabul neither; posters have been sighted running in the wilds and up the highest mountains populated only by a single shepherd. Every vote counts.

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Most prominent among these pictures have been the handsome faces of Karzai, of course, and his main rivals Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. What’s not to like about a man whose first name is the same as his second? Especially when it caused such confusion for the BBC and their standard line that ‘many Afghans only have one name.’ There are 38 other names on the ballot paper, minus the people who have already given up (perhaps a bit late since the papers have already been printed, possibly confusing a few people, but at least they tried huh?).

Karzai’s failure to appear on the much-heralded first televised debate between the main candidates didn’t look too good (the reason given in one report for his last minute withdrawal was that he hadn’t had time to prepare his policies) but probably hasn’t dampened his chances unduly. At least no more so then appearing and getting a mauling, as he would have done.

If he doesn’t get 51% of the vote then it goes to a second round with another vote a month and bit later. If this happens it could really spice things up.

One of Abdullah’s chaps has already said if Karzai wins, it won’t be fair, so Kalashnikovs at the ready. Which is obviously a great start, especially as Karzai is still the most likely to win. Whatever you may think of him, he’s a canny politician for sure, and seemed to have things wrapped up even before they began simply by getting the ‘right’ people (read the most powerful, unsavoury, possible-war-criminal type people) on his team, dividing and ruling the opposition.

Admittedly, Abdullah has got some reason to complain. At first it was allegations that Karzai’s supporters were tearing down his posters. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a couple of RPGs have been fired at a political rally held in his favour, and one of his key supporters has been assassinated.

At least four Provincial Council Members have been killed and several more wounded or abducted up to June, according to the ANSO 2nd Quarter report.

With all this going on, a few NGOs are beginning to wonder what to do. Going on holiday in late August appears to be the favoured tactic at the moment (though I’ll be sticking around to give you a blow by blow account of the protests that will follow. And to use the 50 voter registration cards I bought in the bazaar yesterday. Think I’m going to vote for this guy as he’s also a competitor in the Tour de Kaboul).

Taliban are boycotting the elections, and suggesting to others, in the nicest possible way, that it would be best if they didn’t vote. Which, if you squint a bit, could be seen as a good thing as it does mean they are at least taking them seriously (nothing worse than an insurgent group just shrugging its shoulders with a Gallic ‘buff’ and generally being a bit patronising about the legitimacy and importance of your elections, especially when you’ve gone to all that trouble…).

There are 7,000 polling stations (with 600 odd unlikely to open due to security). Getting the ballot papers there and back is what’s known in the trade as a logistical nightmare. One convoy carrying equipment has already been attacked. 3,000 donkeys are going to be employed to transport papers to the more remote corners of the country, stuff ballot boxes and make tea for the handful of election observers.

Some of those polling stations have been set up in schools and hospitals. This has worried many, who don’t want to see a rocket through their nice new project just ‘cause it’s tainted with election fever.

I could go on and on, and more good news comes pouring in every day, but best leave it there for now as I’m out of breath.

UN special envoy Kai Eide has gone so far as to borrow my favourite response when anybody back home asks me about Afghanistan, describing the elections as ‘complicated.’ ‘Nough said.

 

* The staff at our NGO have been required to sign a statement, agreeing to resign if they happen to be running for President (none of them are, but you can never be too sure) and generally trying to draw a line between whatever they think and do in their own free time, and what they get up to as official employers of the organisation. The whole ‘Non-Governmental’ thing tends to preclude electioneering during the lunch break, and perceptions of neutrality are often matters of live and death in Afghanistan. One paragraph read: “Political debate and discussion about candidates are strictly forbidden in … compounds and during working hours, both between … colleagues and with other people (including beneficiaries).” I understand the reasoning behind this, but it makes the elections much more boring for me. I’d be interested to know from others if their organisations have ever taken similar steps.

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.

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.

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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.

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.