What to do Kathmandu

 

Old Friends

My good friend James was visiting me in Bangkok on his way back from the UK to Myanmar, staying the weekend.  We returned from a morning of vigorous (a euphemism for torturous) massage on the Saturday morning when a message popped up on my mobile phone asking if I was preparing to write a Situation Report.  Thinking my colleague had lost her marbles I asked her had I missed something in the few hours I was out having massage and lunch.

Indeed, I had missed the Nepal earthquake and emails were arriving by the minute with updates of the situation in Kathmandu and the office there.  I had travelled to Nepal a month previously to provide training on the communications aspect of an emergency to public information officers and to local journalists.  There was never a more timely training, but it wasn’t sufficient.

The phone calls from the international journalists began in earnest . As the afternoon wore on it became more obvious that the situation on the ground was not good at all – I knew  I would be returning to Kathmandu. I left the house for a few hours to have a meal with friends, all the time aware I would be packing bags at some stage.

Heading to Kathmandu

Another colleague called on Sunday morning to say if I dashed to the airport I’d make the flight, but I decided it was best to aim for the following morning and at least know that I had packed the necessities to last a few weeks if the situation was dire.  Monday morning bright and early I took the taxi to the airport, meeting more than a few familiar faces queueing for the Thai Airways daily flight to Kathmandu TG319 departing at 10.30.

Part of me was dreading the flight –and as I arrived to the airport another colleague who travelled the day before texted to say he scored five hotel rooms.  If the hotel was damaged then we could stay in the garden in our tents but at least would have access to a hot shower in the morning.  Things were looking up.  The flight took off and we were on our way to Kathmandu.

The time difference between Kathmandu and Bangkok is one hour 15 minutes, which confuses the life out of everybody. I’ve seen mathematicians taking their fingers to try and figure out the time difference with Nepal.  One hour into the flight I duly set my watch to Kathmandu time and enjoyed what I thought was going to be the last bit of decent food for a while.  It seemed to be taking an extraordinary amount of time to get to our destination until I realized we were circling and circling and then circling some more.  The captain came on the intercom and announced that we were going to Calcutta to refuel as there was a bit of a backlog in Kathmandu.  Apparently there were 14 flights circling in the air.  We arrived to Calcutta and I sent off a couple of emails apologizing for my delay to a meeting I was due to attend.  In fairness we didn’t stay long on the ground in Calcutta and once more took off headed for Kathmandu.

People were walking up and down the aisles of the plane, talking to each other, reconnecting with others met on previous missions, swopping business cards. I began watching the flight path on the TV screen as it kept starting at 40 minutes and counting down to five minutes before it would start again at 40 minutes.  We turned back to Calcutta, supposedly for the night where Thai Airways was to put us up in a hotel.  When we arrived there were five other flights ahead of us and all the passengers had taken our rooms in the hotel!

In the row behind me there were some Eastern European medics, who, judging by their tshirts were responding to the disaster.  The oldest member of the group began complaining about the flight, asking if they expected us to sleep on the plane and would they offer us a cup of water for a shower.

Passengers

There are some people who should just never volunteer to respond to a disaster. What did he expect? We also had 70 passengers who were from the Japanese search and rescue team, travelling with their rescue dogs on the flight. I could only imagine their frustration.  The Thai Airways pilot stayed in the air all day, trying to get us in to Kathmandu because he knew most people were on the flight as part of the response. Forget the fact that he went way over international standards for flying time, the man did his best to get us there and I pointed it out to the medic who complained.  Once again we took to the air, returning to Bangkok to spend the night.  We arrived back at 1 a.m.

Funny, the following morning, the row of seats that the four medics occupied the previous day, were empty. They just didn’t show up.

As we attempted once again to make our way to Kathmandu – everybody looked tired.  We were all dressed in the same clothes but at least I had found a 7/11 store to pick up a spare deodorant.

A state of calamity

We got to work as soon as we landed. I was fortunate I knew the crew in the UN office in Kathmandu, so understanding how they work made my job easier.

There were many differences between this response and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines just 18 months earlier and a few similarities as well.  We have a highly competent Irish-Scot, Jamie McGoldrick the Humanitarian Coordinator in Nepal who is a former TV and radio producer and who knows the media, again making my job way easier.  He’s articulate and sharp, unlike his cohort who was in charge during Haiyan.  Media wouldn’t have been her forte.

It’s easier to respond to an emergency when it is an island country – you can just ship in the humanitarian aid.  Nepal is landlocked and it has just one runway in its main airport, with an apron that can take just five planes at a time.  Transporting goods from India through the road network was an alternative, but it didn’t solve the problem of transporting goods to the remote villages.

Kathmandu, what to do….

Kathmandu is as chaotic as any Asian capital city – it’s polluted and normally choked with traffic because of the small roads.  On top of that every male driver thinks the horn on his car is somehow relevant or connected to his penis and he insists on honking his horn every five seconds, making it as noisy as every other Asian city I have ever visited.  It can take five minutes to cross the road, dodging cars, bikes, busses and motorcycles.  You need the agility of a prizefighter to weave and duck in order to avoid impact with the oncoming traffic. This time, when we drove in from the airport, Kathmandu was strangely empty – no traffic, no people and 90 per cent of the shops closed.

I expected to see something similar to Banda Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 earthquake, as we drove through the city to the office, but it was surprisingly intact with little evidence of the earthquake.  Buildings remained upright and Nepal wouldn’t be renowned for its excellence in building standards, so that was surprising.  It didn’t take long to look behind the facades though and when I went out to some of the temporary shelters, I found thousands of people sleeping outdoors in parks, fearful to return home because of the aftershocks.  The city had emptied as the migrant workers returned to their villages high in the Himalayas to ensure family members were okay.

First time

The first time I visited Nepal we went left the office after work one evening looking for somewhere to eat.  Durbar Square is a 20-minute walk from the office and a UNESCO cultural heritage site. I knew very little about Kathmandu so I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the square – palaces and places of worship all in one spot. There was a holiday atmosphere, yet few tourists.  It was very much a place for locals, especially young people – hanging out sitting on the steps of the temples – the square had a romantic, magical atmosphere that made it such a pleasant place to visit.

When the Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos, visited for three days in the aftermath of the disaster, part of her itinerary included a visit to Durbar Square which was unrecognizable. It was reduced to a pile of rubble where the military worked to clear the square, there was so much dust you could feel its grit in your mouth and in your lungs.  At the best of times because Kathmandu is in a valley, like Kabul in Afghanistan, the pollution is trapped in the valley, leaving an acrid smell from the fumes that pour out of baldy maintained trucks and cars on the road.

Setting the wheels in motion

After a week in the office of the usual manic post-disaster response, I headed to Gorkha, (where the famous Gurkha army comes from).  I went to see the devastation caused by the quake.  It’s a four hour drive, through the most spectacular countryside and as an added bonus, the further the distance we drove from Kathmandu, the clearer the air.

Even the town of Gorkha, where the buildings looked as if they are naturally tilted, I was surprised to see so many standing.  We called into the local administrative office where we met a young man Suedip who was working in Afghanistan when the earthquake happened.  He worked for a non-government organisation when he heard the news and got on the first flight to return to his mother’s village to help out.  He spoke with passion about the work they had already carried out and how they were trying to coordinate.  They had distributed tarpaulins for people to have shelter, food and cooking utensils.  In a country where the caste system delineates the high from the low caste, boundaries were coming down like buildings in an earthquake as neighbours who would normally never speak, helped each other out.   If you wanted to look for a positive outcome of this terrible tragedy, then this was it.

We set up a coordination office there a few days earlier, so there was an office tent and a separate tent with camp beds. Nights were very cold and I felt guilty in my warm sleeping bag as most people slept outside without decent blankets.  On the first night we slept in a field with no access to running water, so a bottle of water was used to wash. We had a porta-loo of sorts, but having a pee with 467 bluebottles, isn’t a healthy scenario.  The following day we moved to a hotel and camped on its grounds, so we had access to a room with a shower.

I have a fear in these situations that I will literally be caught with my knickers around my ankles, sitting on a toilet when the next disaster happens, or in the middle of having a shower.  None of the doors of the hotel would close properly, no matter how hard I tried. Kirsty, a colleague travelling with us from the NGO Map Action went for a shower the day following a fairly big aftershock and got locked in to the bathroom, where the door refused to close the previous day.  She had to phone to another colleague to ‘rescue’ her.

Devastation in Gorkha

While my colleagues went off to set up the coordination structures for the response, I went with the driver Gyanu to the off-road areas to see what the damage was really like.  Neither of us having visited the area before, I asked him to just ask somebody on the street where the best place was to see the destruction.  He scored well.  The first person he asked happened to be the local health inspector, Sharad Shrestha who knew everybody in the area and had no hesitation to jump into the car with us and to show us to areas where some of the damage was greatest.

Nepal is an agricultural country and because of the mountains, farmers have created steps into the side of the hills, to grow their crops – rice, corn and vegetables.  Just a half hour drive outside Gorkha it was a very different reality.  The terrain is challenging at the best of times and its people are tough, living so remote from the rest of the world, walking or using donkeys to transport goods to the village – they are a resilient, hardy people.  However, the earthquake had utterly demolished houses built of mud while many of the animals, mainly water buffalo, fettered under shelters died, leaving farmers without a means to plant crops.

They were lucky in a sense – the earthquake happened coming up to midday on 25 April, a Saturday.  Over 3,000 schools were destroyed – unbearable to think of if it was a school day. If the quake had occurred during the night, hundred of thousands of people would have lost their lives. On a regular Saturday, people were out and about in the fields working, reducing the death toll but leaving them without homes and sometimes livelihoods.

We parked the car and walked up to the villages to speak to people.  One man I met showed me a photo of himself and his wife on the balcony of their home and stood on the rubble with the satellite dish sitting on the top, so I could take his photo.  Even if there was a house left standing, people were so nervous they slept outside under tarpaulins.  It was interesting to see just a solitary door standing while a building was completely demolished – something that stuck in my mind.  We called up to the Nareshwar Health Clinic where Dev Nath Yogi was waiting to see the health inspector.  The back wall of the clinic displayed a major crack and is about to fall down, so the ‘treatment room’ and pharmacy was a desk at the front of the building.  Recovery from such devastation will take some time.

I returned to Kathmandu, after two days, leaving the remainder of the team behind to work on getting the aid out to those remote villages I had visited.  I was happy to go back to my comfy hotel that didn’t look as if it was going to fall down.  They were busy days, trying to advocate for the Nepali affected by the quake and raise the funds for the response.

Sounding alarms

We were located in the UN compound in Kathmandu, where most of the offices are fitted with an earthquake alarm. It’s not that you wouldn’t feel a major shock, but sometimes tremors can build into something bigger and you need to be aware that the tremor is starting, in order to ‘leg it’ out the door.  One day while conducting a press briefing with mainly local journalists, the alarm sounded.. bong, pause….. bong pause… Everybody ignored it.  I interrupted the briefing to point out that in fact it was indeed an earthquake alarm.  When it went off again several minutes –there were fewer pauses between the bongs.  It was the shortest press briefing in history and we made a good escape from the journalists and the quake by evacuating to a safe area.

I was frequently summoned to Jamie the Humanitarian Coordinator’s office for meetings and it was at one such meeting on Sunday afternoon when the alarm went off.  Myself, Jamie and another colleague, Stine took to the stairs like three demented escapees fleeing from the unknown. Stine, a tall, fit, much younger woman led the pace and I was on her heels.  I don’t think I have run as quickly as that in 20 years and once we reached the outside I gasped for breath after the dash.

With no proper space set up for the influx of surge staff, Leszek and I were sharing a desk. At lunchtime he went off looking for another colleague on the same floor, when the earthquake alarm went off.  There was no pause this time; it was just a high-pitched screech of an alarm indicating that this was a serious quake.  I fled from the desk, leaving everything behind and ran outside the area heading for the stairs.  I passed the doorway leading to Jamie’s office, which is double the  size of an average door and I spotted another colleague under the doorway holding on. Remembering the solitary doors that had remained standing in Gorkha, I jumped under the door.  Soon we were about eight people all squeezed in.  Stine, whose office was facing the door where we sheltered, came out of her office as if in slow motion; she was like an old woman with her arms stretched out, fingers splayed, trying to keep balance.  Once she realized she wasn’t going to fit under the doorway, she retreated back to her office and under her desk for protection.

It was the longest 45 seconds of my entire life.  I could feel my breath shortening in panic as I gulped for air. I didn’t want to die.  I was told that the building was earthquake proof, but if something is shaken for such a long time, eventually even the strongest building will give and tumble down.  We had experienced a 7.3 magnitude earthquake; the original quake was a 7.9, considerably stronger.  As the alarm bells slowed, we rushed down the stairs out of the building and on to safe ground.

After an hour or so, Leszek made a dash to recover his laptop and also recovered my phone.  I was reluctant to retrieve my laptop and it was at least five that evening before I took up the nerve to race upstairs and pick it up.

There had been several aftershocks that Leszek had felt during previous nights, enough to make him run outdoors.  I was obviously too tired and slept through them all. It probably had something to do with the fact that I had earplugs to block out the noise. The crows go berserk when an earthquake occurs, waking up Leszek, while I slept peacefully on.

Back to the 12 May and the 7.3 magnitude quake and we stood outside the building waiting for the all- clear but in the space of 30 minutes there were another five aftershocks, one measuring six on the Reciter scale.  After some time we headed to the tents that had been set up on the grounds, to do some work. The international media began calling so I got on with the job, setting up interviews.

Aftershocks

I recovered my laptop before we left the office for the evening and returned to the hotel.  Shops were once again closed as shop owners and staff went back home to their loved ones.  As we walked down the street on the way to the hotel, old and young, men and women sat outside on the pavement, afraid to stay inside.  Some of our own colleagues opted to sleep in tents in the hotel grounds. That evening, exhausted from the day’s events, I soon dozed off and slept with one foot on the floor.

I slept well until, what felt like a poltergeist banging my bed off a wall woke me up at 2.05 a.m.  Jumping from the bed, I ran down the stairs. A number of other hotel guests followed – we waited outside as the crows went bananas for several minutes.  Eventually we went back inside.  An hour later, sleep eluding me, we had yet another aftershock; this time not as strong but still enough to be felt and just three other hotel guests and myself stood outside the building.  The remaining idiots had decided it wasn’t worth it to take themselves out of bed and out of the way of danger leading me to believe that some people have shit for brains.  One man came down the stairs and sat in the reception area, presumably as a safety precaution.

Logic obviously doesn’t come in to the equation for many. When I stood outside the hotel the first time shortly after the first aftershock I noticed the perimeter wall of the hotel had collapsed, presumably from the afternoon’s quake.  A Swedish woman and her daughter were standing outside when I pointed out the collapsed wall.  “We don’t know if it was the earthquake that caused the wall to fall,” said the woman. “What,” I asked, “do you think made it fall – somebody blowing it down?”

Postscript

There was fun with hard work, stress and reward of a job well done.  But perhaps the most memorably documented moment of the three weeks I spent in Nepal was during the visit of the Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos. She was meeting with the Prime Minister and I had organized a TV interview with Al Jazeera, who had a temporary studio set up at the site of the nine-story tower, which was a national monument and had collapsed, killing many.  Markus my colleague who had led the mission was accompanying Amos along with her special assistant Manu (Emmanuel), on these official visits. I needed to ensure she would make it to the live panel interview.  The following is a transcript of the texts we exchanged on that Saturday:

Me:                Markus. The interview for Al Jazeera takes place in Dharara Square at 10.45. Orla.. There is an area where Valerie can prepare if she gets there early.

Markus:        But she has the Indian Amb(assador) at 10.30!! If the program has changed, I need urgent advice. Please get back to me now.

Me:                  Give me five.

PHONE CONVERSATION IN THE MEANTIME

Markus:          VA will need some stats on accomplishments over the past several days. How much has come in? Teams? Items? Some key snappy points on what has happened by 11.30 for Al-Jaz.

Me:                   On the case. Will get it to you and bring hard copy.

Markus:         Good. Just to confirm that you also be at Durbar Square.

Me:                  See earlier message. Dharara Square. Where the big tower was.

Markus:         Well copied. Yes. FYI VA will go back to PM so will be late for Al-Jaz.

Me:                  Straight to Al-Jaz after?

Markus:         Yes. On the way to square. VA wants to do this quickly. Few questions.

Me:                  This is a live weekly show.

Markus:         Where are you?

Me:                  Many gone for you… sorry Manu.

Markus:         What?

Me:                  Manu gone out to you.

Markus:         You see us?

Me:                  Where are you?

Markus:         Arrived at entrance to square. Same place as last visit.

……………………

Markus:          We’re at the wrong location.

Photography by Orla Fagan.  Click on pics to enlarge.

 

Until next time

Yours

Fagan

ORLA FAGAN HEAD SHOT

Call for Papers – Annual Conference of the Political Studies Association of Ireland, Cork, 16-18 October 2015

Irish Politics Forum

PSAI Logo

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/

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Indian Ocean Tsunami – Recollections

Aceh Indonesia 1Ten years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami wiped out huge tracts of Aceh in Indonesia and killed thousands in Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar and Thailand, as well Somalia and the coastal areas in Kenya, I’m back in Thailand and still working in emergency.  It’s hard to believe that I began this path with the Indian Ocean Tsunami, arriving in Banda Aceh just a few days after the tsunami wiped out more than 240,000 lives, destroyed homes and infrastructure – schools, shops, mosques, hotels, hospitals, road, sewage, water and electricity systems.  I remember arriving to Jakarta with less than six months to run on my passport.  In many countries in Asia, they simply don’t admit travellers but they were making exceptions for those who arrived to assist.

I had a few days in Jakarta buying tents and equipment to transport to Aceh where my Goal colleague Sheilagh Henry was busy trying to set up office and find us accommodation.  I managed to get a flight up first to Medan before securing a seat on a flight to Banda Aceh where a driver, recognisable by his Goal baseball hat, picked me up.  Mobile phones weren’t working properly and coverage was intermittent, so with a little luck and a lot of persistence I was able to contact Sheilagh eventually.

Armageddon

The earthquake that caused the tsunami measured 9 on the Reciter scale – it was massive. I can’t begin to describe what a terrible scene greeted me – it was an Armageddon. It seemed as if an angry god had thrown his toys out of a pram; boats, cars, houses all thrown together.  Mobile and communication masts were mangled and broken and the amount of sticky, dirty mud was incredible.  Everything was covered in it – everything was dirty. You could see the water/mud marks on the houses that remained standing, like a high-tide mark.

There was a ship that ended up in a housing estate with the steering wheel of a car sticking out from it – I couldn’t help imagining that there were many bodies buried beneath.  The top floor of a hotel lay on top of a pile of rubble that was once three or maybe four other floors – who knows.  But many, many bodies buried beneath and I doubt ever located.

Such was the chaos in the days after the tsunami it took me more than a week to realise we were supposed to be driving on the left hand side of the road – the same as Ireland.  I think people who had survived this tsunami just disregarded rules – in the grander scheme of things, it really didn’t seem to matter.

Heroes

We had two local women working for us with the Irish NGO, Goal.  Kurnia was a young woman with excellent English. She accompanied me as we travelled around in the car.  The volunteers in the Red Crescent Society, the real heroes, were out on the streets bagging bodies and leaving them on the side of the road to be collected, like garbage. It was the only way it could be done.  It was a mammoth task and Kurnia, who had lost members of her family just didn’t want to see bodies up close and personal.  You didn’t need glasses to see just how distended and distorted bodies were.

The bodies took weeks to collect many of them never to be found. All numbers were just estimated as whole families died, I’m guessing with nobody left to report the deaths. The authorities opened a mass grave outside the town and didn’t bury the bodies deeply enough so coming in and out from assessing the areas outside Aceh, the smell of rotting corpses that would greet you when the helicopter landed, was stomach churning.

I think one of the most poignant things for me was standing on a street one day, looking down and there was a family photo album flapping, pages turning randomly.  It felt like sneaking a look into some family’s life and being privy to very personal moments. The smiling happy faces stared back at me, making me realise that there were very real, ordinary people, just like me, who had probably not survived.

The other woman who worked with us had qualified as a doctor and was in Jakarta visiting relatives when the earthquake and tsunami struck. Her home wasn’t the only thing she lost; Fita had two children, a boy and a girl aged about eight and ten. Both children were lost in the tsunami. She was desperate to find them and went off looking at even a hint of unaccompanied children showing up.  She kept saying her children were not dead; she had no bodies, but that they were missing.  Fita, like so many others was in denial.  She would have been in her late 30’s by that time and within weeks her husband had her attending a fertility clinic to see could they have more children.  I’m not sure Fita was ready for that – she just wanted her missing children, who like so many more, never turned up again.

Rumours

Fita also shared with us the stories that were in circulation among the community, that Christian soldiers had been seen drinking alcohol while sitting on the graves the previous evening and that’s what caused the tsunami.  We had trouble trying to convince Fita that they were indeed, just false rumours.

I managed a small office in Calang and travelling on the helicopter up along the coast you could see just the tiles of where the houses once stood.  The trees were gone, the grass was burnt and it was best described as desolation.  Every now and again you could see small camps where tents were erected for villages to protect them from the elements.

From Banda Aceh to the town of Calang, a distance of some 130 kilometres, there wasn’t a house left standing.  Nothing stood, except the odd mosque – the source of another rumour, that god protected the mosques, that’s why they remained standing.  Nothing to do with the fact that there was much better building materials used and because there were so many windows, it allowed the water to travel through.

The tsunami came in for about 1.5 kilometres and at the speed of a jumbo jet. When people saw the water going out, they ran out to fetch the fish that were left behind.  I met a man from the mayor’s office in Calang one day at the heliport who told me he knew what was happening when he saw the tide go out; gathered his family and they ran to the hills where they watched the town die.

Calang is a peninsula, so the water came in from all sides.  If 20 per cent of the population survived, it was all that survived the wall of water. Just one house remained and was used by the army and for our coordination meetings.  We lived in tents by the water and worked and slept there.  We travelled around by motorcycle (until a safety officer arrived from Goal headquarters and put a stop to all that).  The roads were unusable by car and the road from Aceh to Calang was only accessible by helicopter.

Calang was a dangerous place to be and more especially so if you were national staff.  I had a young water engineer from Jakarta, Satya, working with us – it was his first job and he would travel to the villages and assist them to de-salinate the wells, essential for the community.

At the time the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Free Aceh Movement wanted autonomy from national government in Jakarta. The western coast of Aceh is rich in oil and it was believed that most of the oil money went to the capital while Aceh remained a poor relation.  Like other freedom movements, when they begin, they are full of ideals.  This group, like others, descended into violence, causing fear among communities and more so for those who were not from Aceh.

The tsunami cut off the GAM volunteers from their food access, so they were more likely to come closer into the towns and villages to try and get food.  Foreigners and people from Jakarta were easy targets and Satya was stopped on more than one occasion questioned where he was going and what he was doing.  He and I both were terrified something would happen.  He left the camp one morning and when he hadn’t returned at the agreed time I began to really worry about his safety.  I eventually went to report it to the local army captain who radioed ahead to the outposts to keep an eye out for the team and report back on any untoward incidents.

Long after sunset when I had no nails left on my fingers and many imagined conversations with his parents explaining how he had died and how I was responsible, Satya showed up to the camp.  I didn’t know whether to kiss him or admonish him, but I was never so relieved in my life to see anybody.  The bike had a puncture and the radios weren’t charged…. If it could go wrong, it did.

Three months after the tsunami, the Goal operation closed down in Aceh. It was a pity, we were doing some real and meaningful work there.

I returned to Ireland and joined the other Irish NGO, Trocaire covering the tsunami region and began another great adventure based in Jakarta, but travelled to Sri Lanka, India and Thailand to report on the work or their partners.

Today, 10 years later, the Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos will speak at a commemoration ceremony in Phuket.  There is still a disconnect with the Aceh authorities and the government in Jakarta, so much so, there is no national commemoration.

I would like to think that if another tsunami came racing for the shore, that people would be smart enough to get out of its way, but we won’t know that until it happens again.  In the meantime, I continue to work in emergency reporting on disasters throughout Asia Pacific.

My wish for the New Year would be to be made redundant – no more disasters, no more wars, no more human suffering.  I hope 2015 brings you peace wherever you are reading this.

 

Aginas 16 cradles his sleeping 2 month old niece Safa

Aginas 16 cradles his sleeping 2 month old niece Safa

Happy that their father has received a global gift of a pair

Young patients at the Blang Padang clinic in Banda Aceh

Young patients at the Blang Padang clinic in  Banda Aceh

Boat and orphanage

Orphanage and Boat 015

Orphanage and Boat 019 (1)

Calang

Calang 007

DSC00577

DSCF0054

Until next time

Yours

Fagan

ORLA FAGAN HEAD SHOT

One year later – Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda)

 

rembering typhon haiyan 1 year onI went back to Tacloban one year after the biggest typhoon believed to ever make land struck the Visayas, the central islands of the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) left death and destruction, destroying people’s jobs, their homes, their schools and health clinics. There was so much debris on the road from the airport to the town it prevented the much needed rescue operation getting under way for several days.

I visited with the UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos, flying over the city and it was like as if somebody had tossed their toys out of a pram. Masts were mangled, cars and motorcycle taxis strewn around, ships gone aground and everywhere the corrugated tin roofs and houses blown to shreds.

Tidal wave

A tidal wave caused by the storm killed many hundred of people living along the shoreline in shanty towns. One aid worker travelling to a meeting a few days after the typhoon saw the leg of a dead child sticking out from under the debris.

Stopping at the spot to rescue the body on his return, they lifted some of the debris to find 50 bodies beneath.  These were the poorest of the poor; the people who live in shanty towns built on the shores of the ocean and whose only means of earning a living is by fishing.  Many are undocumented, probably never registered at birth adding to the uncertainty of just how many died during that time – we may never know the true numbers.

One year on and Tacloban is a different city. Traffic is back, people are trading on the streets again, the city is alive. There are large numbers of very vulnerable people who remain living in less than ideal conditions and there are concerns that when the next puff of wind comes along, they will be the most affected.  The very poor have no safety nets. To truly protect them, you would first need to tackle the problem of endemic poverty.

Moving on

However, standing in the streets of Tacloban and looking around the improvement is remarkable and visible. All is not perfect, but in true Filipino fashion, they have dusted themselves off and are getting on with their lives. Their resilience is awe inspiring and often times humbling.

Jeff Manibay is one such example of Filipino resilience.  Both his elderly parents died during the typhoon.  “We are well used to typhoons,” he told me, “but nobody expected the tsunami-like surge of water that came.”  With the death of his parents Manibay lost almost everything he held dear, including his business.

The owner of a small cable network Cat8, all Jeff’s equipment was lost when the ocean surge crashed through the streets of Tacloban.  His team were out filming the typhoon at the time.

Rather than wallowing in pity, Manibay set out to rebuild his life, energising the community and bringing them together to remember those who were lost during the typhoon.  He organised the candlelight vigil and worked tirelessly to ensure people across the Philippines and the world do not forget what happened to them.

Paying respect

Mass was celebrated at the graveyard in the morning where the victims were buried.  Thousands came to mourn their dead. I watched one woman stand alone at a grave, head bent, sobbing silently.  She was like so many others who came.  The heads of the UN agencies came to pay their respect, as did the non-government organisations who were so crucial to the recovery efforts in the clean up operation.

Tacloban is Marcos-country and Imelda herself arrived via helicopter. She was then brought in a wheelchair to the awning, where she sat at the top row.  I know the woman is 85 years-old but she has had some amount of plastic surgery, not a line on her face, or her make up was so thick you just couldn’t see what was behind the mask.  She was wearing a wig and had a beautiful diamond swan broche pinned on her dress.  She was wearing a pair of Ecco sandals, which resembled something a nun would wear… I wasn’t impressed with the choice of shoes from a woman whose footwear take up the contents of a museum in Manila.

Politics

The Marcos and Aquino families are political opponents, so there was minimal representation from the government, which is currently Aquino-led.  The Mayor (a relation of Imelda) is critical of the government’s response to the recovery efforts.  At the end of the day everything is political, even rebuilding communities after a typhoon.

That evening people lined the streets in a candlelight vigil that stretched for over 24 kilometres. The atmosphere changed from the somber graveside prayers earlier in the morning to an almost carnival-like celebration with candles lined along the main streets, winding around the side roads and out as far as the settlements housing those who lost their home duirng the storm.

I was privileged to be able to return one year after Typhoon Haiyan; privileged to stand with the people of Tacloban; and privileged to call some my friends.

Imelda Marcos uses her body guards as crutches to help her to her seat at the commemoration mass for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan

emelda marcos

 

Remembering the dead at the one year anniversary mass for victims of Typhoon Haiyan

remebering one year on

 

 

Check out some of their stories on unocha.org/philippines

 

 

ABC Australia News Radio Report

 

one year anniversary

 

RTE Radio 1 John Murray Show speaks to Orla Fagan live from the Philippines

Irish aid worker Orla Fagan is based in the Philippines and she tells John this morning about civet coffee produced in an unusual manner using civet cats. You can follow Orla on her blog at http://www.fagansblog.com

Click on pic to listen back to Podcast

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Vi-Aqua: Extract from The Facts of Light – Chapter on Water – Author Austin Darragh

Professor Austin Darragh

Water

Classical science teaches us that water is composed of the chemical elements hydrogen and oxygen and exists in gaseous, liquid, and solid states. There is a now awareness of a fourth state of water – a plasma. Water is one of the most plentiful and essential of compounds. It is vital for life, participating in virtually every process that occurs in plants and animals. Although the molecules of water are simple in structure (H2O), the physical and chemical properties of the compound are extraordinarily complicated.

Water is a colourless, tasteless, and odourless liquid at room temperature. One of its most important properties is its ability to dissolve many other substances. The versatility of water as a solvent is essential to living organisms. Life is believed to have originated in the world’s oceans, which are complicated solutions. Living organisms use aqueous solutions – e.g. blood and digestive juices, sweat and urine – as mediums for carrying out all biological processes.

The water molecule is…

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Excess and extremes – find it all in the Philippines

 

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I was just one day in the office in Manila before the first typhoon of 2014 came trundling down the Pacific and crashed into Northern Luzon, striking Manila, Albay and Bataan.  It was a bit of a baptism of fire and hopefully not an omen of things to come over the next few months.

Almost 100 people lost their lives in the typhoon and luckily it avoided the areas hit by Typhoon Haiyan on 8 November 2013.  There are still millions of people left homeless in the wake of Haiyan, believed to be the biggest weather system to ever make landfall. Another typhoon hitting them at this time would be catastrophic and indeed I don’t suppose they will be as lucky when the next weather system strikes.

In a typical Filipino fashion, everything and everybody is called something different to their original name.  The most recent typhoon was known internationally as Rammasun, but known locally as Glenda.  Super-typhoon Haiyan also had a different local name – Yolanda.  Confused? Good, because that’s only the start of it.  Every single Filipino I know uses a different name to their birth name.  The lady who cleans my home is Virgi, short for Virginia, but not her real name, which is something like Rachel.  Then I thought, maybe Agnes, one of the senior members of our staff in OCHA, that it was her original name, until I realised she is Maria Agnes…Maria being her first name.  Eio from UNDP is Eliot etc.

When I arrived back to Manila the level of in-your-face consumerism once again struck me.  The route from the airport to the city is just one massive billboard after another.  The latest craze according to one of the billboards is for men’s beauty.  “How to have thicker eye brows,” with a picture of a young Filipino male with bushy brows, followed by ads for deodorant that promise to whiten the underarm skin as it reduces odours.  I feel bad enough that deodorant is sprayed/rolled under the glands, but mixing it with whitening chemicals… holy moley – just asking for trouble.  There’s an obsession with white skin – it always amuses me because Caucasian skin wrinkles and ages more quickly.

Outside my national work colleagues who are well used to working with international colleagues, often times with a healthy and justified disrespect; there are many Filipinos who see having a Caucasian friend as a desirable thing, almost like owning a Mercedes or a pair of Gucci gloves.

My Irish friend here at the moment (Lu) likes to play golf and spends her weekends on some of the golf courses around Manila.  She had befriended a woman, in her sixties, who is the epitome of the Filipino wantabe upper middle-classes.  I’m not sure whether Raquel just never went out in the sun and used an umbrella like a sun shield (as I do now) or whether she could write a guidebook to cosmetic surgery clinics in the Philippines. In fairness has an amazing figure for a woman of her years.  I met her when Lu was invited to a Rotary party for the president’s birthday (husband of the Rotary president, I may add).

Raquel picked us up with her car and driver, dressed in little black sleeveless, over the knee number (dress) and we headed off to Quezeon city.  She had her ‘grand daughter’ with her (her friend’s daughter).  The child had just celebrated her seventh birthday and was sporting a pair of high heels, in a little yellow dress with matching handbag, containing her iPad.  All a bit too much for me I have to say.

We arrived at the party house.  The owner runs a wedding business, so there were old white Mercedes all parked alongside the house, decked with plastic flowers.  The almost empty room was like a big barn, with between 25 and 30 large circular tables and the music was blasting out of the enormous speakers. The glass look-alike see-through plastic chairs were around each table, draped in blue polyester material, matching the tablecloths.  Upside down umbrellas hung from the ceiling and there were several enormous chandeliers, lighting up the fake cherry blossom trees sprouting out of the walls.  We were told the party started at six but when we got there at 7 pm we were among the first guests.

I glanced over at my friend and indicated that 30 minutes was probably enough time to stay.  Several Rotary people joined the table and made some small talk about humanitarian assistance and the good work they are involved in.  When it was time to eat, there was a decent size buffet but I’m reluctant to tuck in on these occasions because of the abundance of monosodium glutamate used in the Philippines and it would be a bit of an understatement to say I don’t react well to MSG. One lady at the table was talking about diets and how she had lost 7 kgs recently. She proceeded to take out a food weighing scales and weight the meat from her plate. She actually cut a piece of meat into small pieces because she was able to have another 20 grammes.  It’s just amazing the sad, sad people you bump into some days.

The party goers came in dribs and drabs and we were wheeled out and introduced to people as they arrived, like some sort of show poodles.  Everybody was told we worked in the UN and I grinned through my teeth and muttered a few words, jumping from foot to foot to just get out of the place.  We made our escape about 8.30 muttering excuses about having to work the next day.  As we left there were still only about three full tables out of at least 30 tables.

taco4bogdyedThe following week Lu and myself met or lunch in Fort Bonafacio, a popular shopping spot for the more wealthy Filipinos.  We sat outside a trendy gastro pub (not so popular with me after a dose of MSG), when a group of wannabes strolled past walking their dogs.  One of the dogs, a poor poodle, with more make-up and hair dye than Lady GaGa on a good week, passed by leaving me bewildered at the level of extremes I see most days in the Philippines.

Another friend, Anu, is here in the Philippines, having arrived six months ago.  It’s great to have her around – this woman is as solid as a rock, with a great sense of humour.  We went off to Tagaytay, over an hour’s drive from Manila and a popular tourist spot because of its beauty and big volcano.  We headed off to ‘gaze at our navels’ at some spiritual retreat house one Sunday morning.  No point in trying to negotiate the Manila traffic, even on a Sunday, so we rented car and driver to bring us to volcano town. I have to report it was surprisingly worthwhile and enjoyable.

tacloban 1On the way Anu mentioned that she had stopped at Maria’s Café to taste civet cat coffee – a coffee drinkers nirvana.  The coffee grows in the Mt Apo ranges, which is in Davao in the south, but obviously also grows in Luzon, north of Manila (at least I think we went north – I was never interested in the direction I was going). We were reliably informed these are the best coffee beans in the Philippines. However, what makes the coffee special it that it comes from civet cat poo – yes, there are farmers who shift through the shit of the civet cat and pluck out the coffee beans from the shit to prepare for roasting.

According to the web, civets are nocturnal cats that feed on the fleshy pulp of fruits like coffee berries. Only the fleshy pulp is digested and the beans stay intact. Proteolytic enzymes inside the cat’s tummy seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and creating shorten peptide as well as an abundance of amino acids, resulting in less bitterness and more aromatic chocolate taste.  Apparently the cats select only the best coffee beans; well that’s what I’m reading anyway.

According to Maria, the coffee shop owner, the farmers come in once a week with the beans and each farmer brings just one or two kgs with him – it’s what makes it so expensive.  We were assured that the bean comes out whole as the cat can’t digest the outer shell and when the farmer eventually finds the beans in the cat poo, they are thoroughly washed by the farmers before being roasted.

taco3catIt is said that the coffee is the most expensive in the world. People are reported to have paid up to $80 per cup for cat-crap coffee. They give free espresso cups of coffee in Maria’s with the promise that it will ward of sleepiness and banishes bodily aches and pains!  I’m not sure of the weight of the bag I bought, but I reckon it’s a mere 100 kilogrammes and cost +€20.  Maria was happy to accompany me to show me the coffee shop’s civet cat in a cage apartment, with the cat on the ‘bottom’ floor and a poor monkey on the top floor, hardly able to move.

It was a week of travel; earlier that week I visited Zamboanga in Mindanao, the Muslim region of the Philippines.  Last November 9th, a faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front decided to go on a bit of a kidnapping spate (something like 130+ people) around the town.  The Government responded in an effort to free those who were kidnapped and in doing so, many innocent people lost their homes as they were burnt down.

At the height of the conflict, 112,000 people were displaced from their homes.  About 25,000 of them are still living in the sports stadium and transition camps in terrible living conditions.  It all seemed so surreal when the stadium’s loud- speaker was playing Charlene’s I’ve never been to Me on full blast to people living in appalling degradation, with the stench of sewage permeating the air, choking me and everybody else throughout the stadium.

Up to 10,000 people remain in the sports stadium and I had the opportunity to visit to speak to people about their experiences.  Many live on the steps of the stadium and whole family’s on one step, about two feet wide. Their possessions amount to some cooking equipment and clothes – nothing else. Some have set up ‘shops’ around the compound selling small bags of washing powder and the basics such as rice and tinned milk.  The biggest fear is that there will be an outbreak of disease, not helped by the recent rains, which saw a lot of dengue fever in the camps. This is worrying; as it will likely affect children and old people the most. It is a terrible, terrible life and as usual, the most vulnerable are the ones who continue to suffer.

This week I head to Tacloban, where I had visited in November 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan to see what’s happening with the community down there.

Until next time…

Yours Fagan

Orla Presser

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hair-raising stories from my travels around the globe

Priorities

When I arrive in a new country, my most pressing need is to find safe and secure accommodation. As soon as that is out of the way and my bags are unpacked, there are three things I prioritise: 1) a massage parlour because of the stressful nature of my work, 2) a wine store for obvious reasons, and 3) a decent, recommended hairdressers.

Fagan Orla Naivasha KenyaFine wispy hair requires as much if not more maintenance as long flowing locks and can cause heartache for a traveller.  I can go four or possibly five weeks without a visit to the hairdressers and then it becomes more urgent than finding either accommodation, massage or wine.  At the beginning of week five after a haircut, my hair begins to curl out at the sides, giving Bozo the Clown a run for his money.  Once it descends over the upper earlobes, I get a Hilary Clinton aka ‘OMG somebody tell the woman she needs a haircut’ look, which just isn’t right.

I remember an Irish friend telling me years ago how she would travel through the horrendous Nairobi traffic from Karen where she lived, to the Hilton Hotel in the centre of the city, to get a haircut.  The nature and texture of African hair is poles apart from the often straighter, softer hair found elsewhere in the world.  Most African women use wigs and extensions, and can spend whole weekends having extensions woven through their hair.  Some of the most beautiful females I have seen are African women with shaven heads – it is rarely I’ve seen an African woman looking better with a wig or hair extensions.

nairobi and somalia mapIn 2012 I worked for the UN operation in Somalia, based in Nairobi. My Italian colleague Roberta arrived in the office one day with a stunning haircut, announcing that it was the work of the hairdressing salon on the third floor of the Sarit Centre, just around the corner from where I was living.  I headed off the following Saturday and scouting around the Sarit, found the salon on the third floor.  I should have suspected something was up when I realised I was the only white woman in the salon, but I kept going.  “Is there is a stylist free, who is used to cutting straight hair,” I enquired of the woman behind the reception desk.  She assured me that there was indeed a stylist experienced in cutting straight hair.

First aid for hairdressers

Ushered off to have my hair washed I was greeted by, I think a young woman, (it’s impossible to tell the age of Africans, they could be 15 or 50, their skin doesn’t wrinkle). I sat up in the swivel chair and she began cutting. Her cheeks were puffed out and she was biting her tongue in concentration.  It was too late to stop.  Searing pain set it when she kept pulling the hair out from my head as if she was in a tug-of-war and I stopped her to show her how to hold hair between her fingers and cut along the exposed hair jutting along the edge of her fingers. I was aware that if I did stop the process, not only would I be left with a botched haircut, but also my young stylist’s confidence would be greatly damaged and I really didn’t want to do that.

fagan sitting squares nairobi“Relax,” I kept telling her as I realised the poor woman was a bag of nerves.  Ten minutes into the haircut and there’s blood pouring everywhere.  The hairdresser was screaming. I was screaming.  Everything in the salon stopped.  All eyes were on the young stylist and me. My hands went up to my head searching for where I had been cut but it didn’t take long to realise that it was the hairdresser who had cut her hand.  My instructions obviously didn’t carry a safety warning.  The poor woman was so uptight about cutting a mzungu’s (white person) hair the scissors slipped and stabbed her.

fagan with monkey in nairobiThe first aid kit came out and after her wound was attended to by some of the other staff, she came back over to me.  I insisted she continue what she had started albeit with a very large bandage wrapped over the cut hand.  When she had finished and I was leaving the salon, I tipped her and hopefully left some of her confidence intact to be able to deal with the next mzungu who came through the door.  Despite my assurance at the cash desk that I would be back for another haircut, I had no intentions of returning.

On Monday when I got to the office, Roberta informed me I had visited the wrong hairdressers.

Finding Kelvin

The hunt went on to find a suitable hairdresser in Nairobi and at the spa between the Sarit Centre and Westgate Mall I found Kelvin, bless him.  There’s probably more work keeping short hair looking good, than styling long tresses.   I would visit the salon every four/five weeks and would come out with a top class haircut, feeling great.  Kelvin is a talented man who knows how to charge but he was worth every penny.  I was paying the equivalent of €30 – first world prices and aware that it was the mzungus and wealthy Kenyans could afford such extravagances.

Fagan Forest walk KenyaAfter a number of months visiting Kelvin I was told that the price had increased. Not by a few miserly Kenyan Shillings but by a whopping 30 per cent.  The price of the haircut went from the extravagant €30 to an outrageous €40, breaking down to €10 a week for a haircut.  Even for a mzungu it was just too much to swallow.  It was also unusual for a mzungu to question the price of anything, but they hadn’t met me before.  I refused to pay the woman at the cash desk, calling out for Kelvin to explain the inordinate increase in price.  “The cost of the materials,” I was told.  I like to think I am fair and I don’t mind that I pay more in a developing country because of the colour of my skin, but a thimble-full of shampoo and conditioner? I didn’t think it warranted that much of a price increase.  We agreed that the frequency of my visits merited a lower pricing structure and I continued my monthly encounters with Kelvin until I left Nairobi.

Amin in Amman

It was a lot cheaper in the Middle East for a good haircut.  Amin, a young male hairdresser in Toni and Guy in Abdoun gives a great haircut and his price varied between €10 and €17.   I was genuinely pleased for him when he excitedly told me one day how he was be selected to do a course in Toni and Guy in London, and the idea of visiting the Oxford Street had him grinning from ear to ear.  Every time I returned I would ask did he complete his course, but the British Embassy in Jordan didn’t trust that he would return and denied him a visa, which was a great shame considering his obvious talent.

amman jordan mapAbdoun is the embassy area of Amman so many of the more wealthy Muslim women who lived in the area wouldn’t wear the hijab (the head scarf worn by Muslim women) or the niquabs (full facial and head covering).  In many Muslim countries women as seen as the property of a man and cannot go outside unless she is in the company of a male relative.  The wealthy women around Abdoun had no difficulty being in the company of males who were not related to them nor visiting the hair salon alone nor having a male outside the family tending their beauty needs.   Occasionally a fully clad nijab wearer would be ushered in to have her hair coiffured by a female stylist in a separate private room, away from the gaze of men.

I always thought it was such a waste to have your hair done then for it all to be covered up by either a hijab or niquabs, especially during the summer months when the temperature rises and just standing still makes me sweat.  I just can’t understand how women can look so cool under the polyester scarfs they use winter and summer.  A Palestinian friend came to visit once clad in her niquabs and she disappeared into the bathroom to return 10 minutes later fully made up with the most gorgeous head of hair.  She was able to remove the layers because she was in the company of women.

Baggers

In December 2012 I returned Baggers (Baghdad) to work with the UN mission.  Such was my hurry leaving Ireland I didn’t have time to have my ‘shorter than short, I’m going abroad’ haircut and left Ireland on the cusp of requiring an encounter with a pair of scissors.

baghdad iraq mapUN staff has no choice in where they live in Baghdad.  There are two accommodation compounds, Tamimi and D2 – both located in the Green Zone, (now known as the International Zone (IZ)).  The IZ is relatively safe from the daily bombings in the Red Zone. The more privileged employees live in D2, a compound gifted by the American Government to the UN.  The bungalows are brick-built and have real windows – they also boast a bedroom and separate living area with cooking facilities.  The majority of the staff however, live in much poorer conditions in Camp Tamimi.

fagan sandbags bagdadTamimi is a village of container accommodation, with windows in the containers covered by sandbags allowing no natural light to enter.   It’s akin to living in a rabbit warren as the containers are then enveloped in a structure also filled with sandbags, to protect its residents from the rockets that once plague the compound on a regular basis. (Since the American withdrew from Iraq they are more likely to throw rockets at each other and leave the IZ alone).  Tamimi boasts of a dining facility called a defac (not quite sure why it’s not called a canteen), run by Bangladeshi migrant workers, serving food dripping in grease.  These two compounds are about five kilometres apart in the relatively ‘safer’ IZ. D2 not only is a nicer place to live, it also boasts a unisex hair salon.

The Scissor Brothers

Two Iraqi men operate the salon at the weekends and the Fiji troops, who protect the two compounds, are entitled to free haircuts, while everybody else is changed the princely sum of $5.  I was about week eight post-haircut, with no sign of a reprieve from Baggers and no entitlement to any rest and recuperation because I worked as a consultant.  I was looking more like Hilary that I ever wanted.  I decided I needed a haircut but was reluctant to admit to any of my colleagues that I planned to visit the D2 salon.  It was considered okay for men to visit the salon, but not really for a woman.

IZ in baghdadFriday is the first day of the weekend in the Middle East and our working week was Sunday to Thursday.  On Friday mornings it was common for employees to circle the compound, either running or walking for exercise.  I was lucky enough to be staying in a friend’s accommodation in D2 while she was on out on leave, so slipping into the salon for a haircut was not so noticeable.

I ensured there was nobody else in the salon before entering and as I sat up in the chair I proceeded to give instructions in sign language.  The two gentlemen knew no English and my Arabic is limited to giving taxi drivers instructions, so I proceeded to indicate how short I wanted my hair cut.  The towel was put around my shoulders and the nylon shawl placed over the towel almost choked me when the stylist takes out a pair of kitchen scissors and begins to cut.  I really need to write a note to self and just tell hairdressers when I am not comfortable.  However, telling an Iraqi man with a pair of kitchen scissors in his hands that I wasn’t comfortable was probably not the best time to practice being assertive.   I am sure I was the first non-army woman to enter the door of the salon.

Mostly I’d like to think I’m philosophical about haircuts. Hair grows back and whatever mess has been made, corrects itself.  The Baggers cut though was a little different and retrospect is a fine teacher.

I would have been better off if I had requested the razor and gone for an army style short, back and sides.  The man with the blunt kitchen scissors started combing my hair with a filthy-looking comb before he began hacking at it.  I really don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I got.  I would have got a better haircut if I had given a seven year-old child a pair of scissors and let them at it.  I ended up with the hair on the crown of my head permanently sticking up and even when it was wet, it refused to sit down and behave itself!  It was the topic of conversation long after I left the mission in Iraq and served as a warning for women not only to hold off and wait until they got to Amman but looking like Hilary Clinton wasn’t so bad as it first seemed – at least she has brains!

Kaboom

Working in Kabul was a little different to Baggers – there was no IZ to ‘protect’ us and we travelled (albeit in armoured plated vehicles) through the city to meetings.  We could actually see people on the streets and how they lived, unlike the IZ where I never saw a child during all the time I was there.

kabul afghanistan mapThe ring of steel, supposed to stop the Taliban from entering Kaboom wasn’t quite as effective as President Karzai would have wished.  On 28 October 2009, the Baktar Guest House where several of my colleagues resided was attacked and the Taliban murdered five UN staff.  At the time, we lived in guesthouses around the city with some staff living in rented houses.  I opted to stay in the shabby but friendly UNICA compound, which boasted about 40 rooms spread over several buildings, each one was different and each had its own peculiarities.

UNICA first opened its doors as a UN guesthouse in 1958. The owners kept adding to it over the years and the compound even boasted a bar. During the time of the Tailban it was the only place in Kabul where a body could find alcohol and Hamid the bar man had worked there for more years than I think he even cared to remember.

While supermarket shopping was permitted, we were not allowed to visit any other establishment.  There were beauty parlours for women everywhere and they had heavy net curtains, preventing people (mainly men) seeing inside.  They reminded me of seedy sex shops around Europe.  Like Abound in Amman, it was the wealthier women who would frequent the beauty parlours and they would emerge without burqas but often with niquabs looking stunning with make up, lipstick and nails polished.

We had a hairdressers in UNICA and a young lad, dressed in the trendiest Western gear would appear each weekend and we would queue up for haircuts.  There were no heavy curtains on the windows and men and women sat together waiting on their turn.  Haircuts were good value at US$10.  It wasn’t the best haircut in the world, but you could at least appear in public and didn’t feel the need to wear your niquab around the office.

UNICA eventually closed down shortly after I left Afghanistan.  The elderly owner lived in the States and her children had no interest in managing the property.  It sold for over US$5 million and the last I heard, they had built an office block on its grounds.  It was the end of an era for many foreigners who travelled through and found sanctuary and solace inside its walls.

Until next time.

Yours Fagan.

fagan profile pic in blue