I worked as a humanitarian in conflict and post-conflict situations, through famine and the aftermath of earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami. My first mission as a humanitarian was the Indian Ocean tsunami response in Indonesia. This set me off on a course, that I never imagined as a youngster growing up on Dublin’s northside.
In September 2009 I found myself working for the coordination arm of the United Nations in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. For the most part, non-government organisation workers and UN staff, lived in guesthouses on small compounds around the city. In the early hours of the 28th October, Bakhtar Guesthouse was attacked by three Taliban. When I stepped into the garden that morning to go for breakfast I became aware of the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. Over the top of the compound walls the billowing smoke rose high into the sky, matching my increasing sense of fear and panic. My stomach knotted and descended into my shoes as I felt the blood drain from my head.
Five colleagues, two Afghan security guards and a civilian died that morning.
A stop was put on all staff movement as we went into immediate lockdown, unable to leave the compound. Information on the situation was sparse as senior management scrambled to inform headquarters. The logistics teams went to work to evacuate the injured. Two of my own colleagues jumped from the roof of Bakthar guesthouse to the roof of the neighbouring building, both breaking their ankles.
As the news made headlines across the globe, the TV became our main source of information. There was a sense of frustration not knowing what was happening to colleagues. Real fear that we could be the next target, created tension and incredible stress for the residents inside our compound. Adding to the stress was the fact that the telephone network crashed. Colleagues became desperate to make contact with loved ones at home to reassure they were okay. I seemed to have the only working internet connection so my room turned into the equivalent of an internet café with a queue outside in the first 48-hours after the attack.
Winter, which can be brutal in Afghanistan, hadn’t yet arrived. We gathered each day in the fading rose garden, comforting each other on the loss of colleagues and putting together pieces of information gleaned through various sources. Those afternoons in the garden became therapeutic as we spoke of our grief, our fears and our families at home, all the while transitioning from familiar acquaintances to friends.
My time in Iraq was not so different. In Baghdad we lived on a compound in windowless containers, packed high with sandbags for protection. Each container had a Tannoy that triggered when a rocket was headed in our direction. We were frequently woken by the automated response with a mechanical voice repeatedly shouting “take cover, take cover, take cover.” Our personal protection equipment consisted of a helmet and a 10 kilogramme bullet proof vest, which we dragged to and from work each day. Concrete shelters to provide protection in the event of an attack, dotted the empty roads of the ‘Green Zone’ – the diplomatic area of Baghdad. On more than one occasion I froze in fear lying in bed listening to the rockets land across the Tigris River and thinking they were inside the compound.
Colleagues acted differently to this daily level of stress. Some choose to disengage and rarely left their containers except to go to work. Others choose to gather after dinner in the area outside the canteen known as the piazza, pulling together tables and chairs around the large yellow swing. There we found our tribes and consoled each other when the stress of living in confinement and fear became overbearing.
Being confined to barracks in Ireland is somewhat different to lockdown in Iraq or Afghanistan. There is the pure luxury of an early morning walk when the sun is re-introducing itself, as it slithers around Howth Head when I march down the Clontarf seafront. Daily meditation helps me cope with the fear of Covid-19 and I increasingly appreciate the safe space my own home provides. When I lived in Kabul, my wise Australian colleague and friend would take out her lipstick when the going got tough. She believed that when we had our lipstick on, we could put the world to rights. Before I step outside the door each morning to take my walk, I take out my brightest red lipstick and apply liberally.
My contract in Nigeria finished in January so I left a few days before Christmas, taking all my holidays. I was happy to leave in one sense, the constant human misery in the north was taking its toll but I have to admit I was more than a bit torn; there was also a part of me that wanted to go back and help highlight this crisis for the 5 million plus people facing starvation. Five million people – that’s more than the population of Ireland. Trying to create interest in the humanitarian situation was difficult in Nigeria itself, let alone among the international community.
The decision to return was taken out of my hands so with a three month break under my belt, it almost came then as a bit of ‘light’ relief to find myself boarding a plane back to The Stan (Afghanistan) after a seven-year absence. Memories merge in my brain between my time in Afghanistan and Iraq, another duty station where freedom of movement is restricted because of insecurity. I can hardly complain about the tight security in Afghanistan considering there was sweet fanny adams in terms of security measures in place in northern Nigeria where Boko Haram, the local jihadi group, run riot.
There are a few differences; in Kabul I don’t have to negotiate traffic each day as I did in Nigeria. We live and work on the same compound. I reckon it’s probably less than 100 steps between the living quarters, small restaurant and the office – it takes just three minutes to walk the inside perimeter.
I can’t make up my mind whether the compound is more like living in an open prison, a convent or a home for alcoholics as there is zero booze to be had in country at the moment and the people coming back from their R&R are welcomed with open arms by inmates almost emptying out their suitcase on arrival. Nigeria in comparison has no taxes on alcohol; so the excellent South African wines were at giveaway prices. If you compare accommodation in Kabul it’s a thousand times better than anything in Nigeria – the compound is located in the former Dutch Embassy – (the Dutch couldn’t afford the horrendous rents that come with war zones, so the UN took it over). There is a small restaurant where lunch is around $5. There’s also a pool and decent gym in the basement.
The gym is unavailable to women between 4.30 and 7.30 pm when the local male staff have access. In this supposedly deeply conservative society it’s not kosher for men to see any part of a woman’s body. My preference is to rise early, usually by 5.30 a.m. and be in the gym by 6 a.m. It’s all about timing and routine – the cup of green tea, checking the emails… if I miss my imaginary deadlines it just upsets me for the day. The boss decided to call a very early morning meeting not so long ago, upsetting my timetable resulting in a missed exercise schedule. I skipped (figuratively not literally) out of the office during lunchtime to catch up. The national female staff began pouring in and the door, normally left open, was firmly shut behind them. They arrived in long coats and scarves and disrobed once inside mostly to reveal regular gym gear under the coats. Scarves were whipped off as they inspected hair and makeup in the mirror, and preened themselves before their workout! One or two had pinafores over the gym clothes, which always looks strange to me to see somebody on a treadmill in full garb.
There are several UN compounds scattered around the city, the furthest being on the Jalalabad Road out towards the airport. It’s one of the most dangerous roads in the world with horrendous traffic and there are plenty of opportunities for bad people to attach magnetic bombs to cars while stuck in traffic. One of our own staff members was driving to work not so long ago when a suicide bomber across the road decided to blow himself up and while my colleague was thankfully unharmed, he was very upset that there wasn’t a window left on his car.
Most of my journeys around Kabul involve going to and from meetings. I can understand why there is an R&R cycle to allow people a break after six weeks of living in lockdown! The lack of freedom of movement gets to you after a while so even being stuck in traffic allows you to observe life and I could happily sit for hours in a traffic jam (albeit always looking over my shoulder) and just watch people and behavior. What’s fascinating though is to watch the traffic at roundabouts – there are no rules. Rather than taking the third exit off a roundabout, it’s normal to see cars just going in the opposite direction to take the shortest route possible. Like many other countries in the region, it’s not unusual either to see a car careering down a highway travelling in the opposite direction to every other car on the highway so you need nerves of steel.
The general security situation hasn’t improved much in the seven years, a recent report says there were more people killed last year in Afghanistan than Syria and that’s saying something. It is believed that the BigT (Taliban) has control of more than 40 per cent of the country and there doesn’t appear to be abatement in the numbers of insurgents or their strength. The Americans and British are still around and the sound of military Chinoook helicopters crossing the skies several times a day can be heard long before they’re seen in Kabul. The US picked the Easter weekend to target the ‘mother of all bombs’ in the east of the country where they believe ISIS to be hiding out in caves – no doubt increasing the likelihood of counter attacks on foreigners. I have a few friends who live out in the compound close to the airport and sometimes I take the work-shuttle to go and hang out on a weekend. This is much more like a village than a compound, although still surrounded by t-walls and heavily secured. Sitting outside with an Irish friend, eating pizza I noticed that many of the aircraft flying over the compound had no lights.… a little bit worrying. My friend pointed out that these were military planes and in fact when you looked up as they passed over, the bombs attached to the underbelly were clearly visible.
While life goes on, Kabul is still a city under siege. Since my last visit, it’s striking the increase in the number of t-walls that surround buildings, blocking them to the average citizen and giving a very strange atmosphere to the city. The t-walls are mainly protecting Government buildings, NGOs, embassies and UN compounds. Of course apartment buildings where the ordinary Afghani lives, (if they are lucky not to be stuck in a tent somewhere), don’t have the luxury of t-walls and hence very little protection – it’s impossible to get a sense of the architecture though around the city centre. In the compound where I live, there are regular drills to the bunkers and the doors on each accommodation room is Taliban-proof so you can’t leave the key in the lock or it will take security an hour to drill through if they need to gain entry in an emergency. The windows are also bullet proof (see photo of my room with the cracked glass – I’m not even going to think how that got there). While you try to live or pretend that you live a ‘normal’ life, there is always something that brings you down to earth and reminders that this is a very abnormal life and situation.
We’re allowed to visit Spinneys and Finest supermarkets but can stay no longer than 20 minutes. Back in 2009/2010 these supermarkets had windows and I remember a time coming up to Christmas there was a mannequin of Santa Claus in the window ‘playing’ a saxophone. I think the BigT were more than a bit pissed off with that because there was a major attack on Finest in 2011 and eight people lost their lives. Now, the windows are boarded up and going into the supermarket is the nearest thing to boarding a flight these days, where you’re frisked and your bags are searched on the way in. Almost everything you need can be bought in the supermarkets, okay there is difficulty in accessing pork (but I’m not a big fan), however most other things including the big brands are easily available – even some decent Irish cheddar cheese. Magnum ice creams are a nice treat for a Friday afternoon, the first day of the weekend.
Around the city, there are many more burka-less women about and about. Indeed, it’s not unusual to see women without male escorts, although a colleague informed me that single women out on their own on the streets are generally hissed at as if they are prostitutes. Remember that Kabul is a city where women wore mini-skirts in the 60s and 70s. There also seems to be many more girls at school, identified by their black uniforms and white headscarves. When I was here seven/eight years ago it was really unusual to find women out on the streets at all and you would mainly see them first thing in the morning going to work as cleaners. Just a week ago there were women sweeping the streets outside the compound and an Afghan female colleague said it was the first time she witnessed women working outdoors. Change is slowly coming, but I’m not so sure that women’s ‘liberation’ has moved much beyond the centre of Kabul. Once out on the Jalalabad Road, most of the women wear burkas so I can only imagine this phenomena is unique in the city.
There is no doubt that women have a tough life in Afghanistan and I for one am very glad I wasn’t born here. Shamshia cleans my room and brings me some of the local flat bread three days a week. She had a nasty fall at work and her arm was bandaged up so she had to take a week off, but returned with the arm still in bandage to continue working. I felt so guilty about her having to work with a strapped up arm that I began cleaning my own room to give her hand out. Now Shamshia calls with bread and I get a big hug and a kiss on each cheek three times a week. Somehow I don’t think the contractor provides sick pay for staff. While I wouldn’t envy Shamshia’s lot, she at least has a job unlike the poor unfortunates who are begging, walking up and down between cars on the roads.
In 2015 I went to the regional consultations for the World Humanitarian Summit in Tajikistan. There was a gender meeting, mainly about women and women’s rights. In the middle of the meeting a professor from the University of Kabul stood up and announced that everything was okay in Afghanistan before these women started looking for an education. Everybody was so shocked the room went silent. I’d like to report that men’s attitudes have changed, but I find little evidence and not much evidence among the national male colleagues either. A work colleagues has a brother who works in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Each year Afghanistan gets an allocation of 10,000 places on the Haj so places are prized and people make the pilgrimage one in their lifetime. However, it’s the Ministry of Religious Affairs that allocates the places so this guy (Haj 3) has been to Mecca, yes, three times. He’s on the look out for a second wife, the first is probably worn out with the eight children she produced for him. Our driver supports 11 members of his family on his salary; he’s just a young fella with five kids of his own. Apparently his house was burnt down a while back by somebody pouring petrol through the door. They mistook his house for his landlords who it is believed shot a man in revenge for some petty incident. Life is not only interesting in Afghanistan but also cheap!
And on that not so cheery note I will sign off for now. I head to Erbil in a few weeks on another contract, which should see me through until the end of the year. So until Erbil, it’s Oscar Romeo Lima Alpha over and out from Kaboom.
Why cycle when you can bring your bicycle on a motorbike?
Sunset over the Hindu Kush mountains
The Fort in Kabul
Wedding season before Ramadan
Balloons for children
Women are not generally visible around Kabul
Roundabouts Kabul style
Kabul is surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains
Fashion Afghan style
Modern apartments in the cty
Chickens couldn’t come more fresh than this
Not unusual to find donkey and carts in the capital
A “forgotten crisis” is taking place in north-eastern Nigeria which the UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) warns could be the worst on the African continent. Seven years of insecurity sparked by the terrorist group Boko Haram has affected up to 15 million people in four states, leading to mass displacement. It has also caused a major food shortage as agricultural production has stalled. As a result, some 400,000 children face starvation. Dianne Penn asked OCHA Public Information Officer Órla Fagan about the extent of the crisis.
I was reminded of just what Nigeria is like when I visited the embassy in Dublin’s leafy upmarket Leeson Place in late June. The visa application office is in the basement of this beautiful old building and it has its own entrance ensuring Joe or Josephine Public is kept far from the embassy offices.
If you’ve ever tried for a Nigerian visa, then you’ll know just how frustrating and protracted it can be. The first time I went to Nigeria I was travelling from Liberia while working for an NGO and it took me five trips before I could gain entry to the embassy. On my fifth attempt, I managed to get my foot inside the door and once achieve, I refused to leave. And that was just to get the application form.
Most of the Nigerians who were queuing in Dublin had Irish passports and required a visa to go back ‘home’. On my first two visits I came well prepared with a book but so swift was my visit I over-paid the parking metre outside. On my third visit Sod’s Law kicked in – I forgot the book and spent my time feeding the metre as I waited for the diplomatic visa to be processed and issued.
On that last visit for the visa, I ended up waiting so long I needed the bathroom. To my surprise, (okay I’m being facetious), the toilets were actually located outside the building; something I don’t imagine exists anywhere else in Dublin in the 21st Century. The inside of the visa application office was reminiscent of a dole office anywhere in Ireland 30 years ago, before the Department of Social Welfare decided they needed to smarten up and pretend to show a little respect for its clients. The carpet tiles were curling at the edges for the want of a cleaning and the walls hadn’t seen a lick of paint for many, many years. There were notices posted everywhere warning that verbal or physical violence would not be tolerated. Notices also threatened that if you even stopped your car outside the embassy gates for just one minute, you may forget about receiving any service. The Nigerians themselves were true to form and vocal about the treatment of ordinary citizen by their government. One Nigerian man commented that he had lived in Eastern Europe where government officials also “sat upstairs (referring to the embassy offices) scratching their arse.” His words, not mine. Another woman told us she was at the embassy every day at 9 a.m. for one week and came prepared with her lunch box. I have to say – there were more than a few chuckles that day.
Nigeria was just a wee culture shock from my previous posting in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, with its shiny towers, good public transport and general easy lifestyle. While the city of Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria, is in the heart of Africa, it’s quite unlike any other African city I know (outside most of South Africa).
Renting in the federal capital, Abuja
Abuja was created just 40 years ago to gather the country’s civil servants in one spot. A planned city with huge boulevards and motorways, Abuja is like many cities in West Africa, full of (thankfully) Lebanese restaurants and supermarkets and the bonus of it all, some South African supermarkets. The city empties at weekends as most Nigerian civil servants travel back to their villages and towns after the Muslim Friday prayers. This sprawling city has a shortage of accommodation so rent prices are equivalent to the astronomical rents paid in New York or Geneva. Abuja is also where the UN agencies have their country offices and where I’m based for the next few months.
Accommodation is something else and like Dublin there is a shortage of properties to rent. There are an awful lot of very wealthy property owners who exploit the ex-pat community and civil servants who frequently travel to the city. The first apartment myself and another newly arrived colleague went to look at was dingy beyond belief. You could hardly see the hand in front of your face it was so dark and the ceiling was particularly low – the one-bedroomed apartment was renting for US$1,500 per month. It was such a depressing environment I would have ended up on Prozac within a week, if I had chosen to live there. We ended up in a ‘super luxury apartment’ paying half of my salary in rent. To add insult to injury there is a further charge for laundry, with no washing machine in the apartment. Super luxury the apartment ain’t, but what is luxurious are the number of Mercs and Lexus cars parked outside each day. There seems to have been some very big party (possibly a wedding) at the complex and a 600SL (but what would I know about cars?), parked outside for a few days with the number plate ‘Emir of Zunu’.
The one positive aspect of the accommodation is that it is within walking distance of the office and the footpaths are more than decent, ensuring walking is not an extreme sport as it can be in many other cities across Africa. I wouldn’t feel safe enough to walk the 3.2 kilometres home alone and do so only when I have company. Walking back to the accommodation in deep conversation one day there was beeping behind us and as we turned around to see a car travelling at about 20 kph up the footpath we had to scramble to the grassy bank to avoid being run over.
I hate assuming stereotypes, but patience isn’t a strong point for most Nigerians. Sitting with the work driver one day and waiting for the solar powered traffic light to turn green, there was a horn honking behind the first car to make the right turn at the lights. When the driver, respecting the rules of the road and the pedestrian crossing didn’t move, the honking-horn driver mounts the footpath and bypasses the cars waiting at the lights to turn right.
Transport around Abuja is reasonably cheap but like everywhere else cars are held together with pieces of string and rubber bands. They frequently break down at the side of the road, or sometimes even in the middle of the road, where they can be abandoned.
I’m still in the process of trying to find another Issac, my lovely taxi driver from Nairobi and so far I’m not having much luck – but I will continue to try. The office drivers are available for a few months to bring us in and out of work, but there’s the supermarket shopping at the weekends and the trips to Blu Cabana, a rather nice place so chill out of a Sunday afternoon – not that there’s much else to do on a weekend in Abuja.
Sundays’ are not the day to change money, unless you want to chance your arm with the guys lining the street sitting on the chairs under the trees. The official exchange rate for the Naira is fluctuating like a yoyo and frequent trips to the moneychangers rather than the banks will render you a rate of at least 20 per cent better on the official rate. When I arrived early July 2016 there was 260 Naira to the US$ – on 30 July the rate went from 316 to 322 on one day! Black market rates on 29 July were 375 Naira to the US$. Not only will the dropping Naira help make rents cheaper, it will also keep the price of red wine very reasonable, well at least until stocks run out! Some of the best South African wines are available in Nigeria so there are a few great aspects to living here for a few months anyway.
Now work and B0ko Haram antics…. well, that’s a different blog altogether. So until next time, I’ll leave you with some of the photos.
What happens when you have 5 minutes until your train leaves and there are three thousand migrants standing in your way? The personal account of Rita Perintfalvi. For the original article please click here.
“The train to the Promised Land: the refugees and me, waiting/longing for the early morning train.
The newspapers are filled with stories about the refugee crisis, I know. But I was there this morning, wanting to catch the early train to Vienna to get to work, as I do every week. The train was to leave from a different platform than usual. I quickly realised that it was because this platform could be cordoned off and the police could form a protective shield around it. I had 5 minutes till departure, so I had to rush, when I was suddenly faced with hundreds of refugees in front of me, who were waiting outside the cordon…
Political Studies Association of Ireland Annual Conference 2015
Gresham Metropole Hotel Cork, 16 – 18 October 2015
The annual conference of the PSAI will take place in Cork over the weekend 16 – 18 October 2015. Paper proposals are invited from all areas of the discipline. A detailed list of themes is included below and is also available on the conference website at http://www.ucc.ie/en/government/psai/