Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Return to the Stan

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.

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Afghans love roses and there are plenty in the summer

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.

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Bullet holes in my room window

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.

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The supermarkets for foreigners are more like fortresses

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.

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Kabul, a city of T-walls

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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

Last Woman Standing, Jalalabad and a Lot Of Cold Water….

Diary April 2010

DSCF0015I’ve finished week four now of my glorious return to Kabul and between two minds about being back.  I had an extension on my contract for three months and to be honest I don’t think I’d fancy a longer extension since it’s either dust or pollution that ensures I need boxes of tissues everywhere I go because my sinus’ suffer so much.

Winter Istalif 059We’ve been lucky with the weather and the real heat hasn’t started, so far.  Spring is well and truly established though.  I’ve never seen anything as fast as the onset of Spring in Kabul.  It was like watching one of those fast-forward films of a flower that’s budding – one day there’s snow and the next Spring is in full flight.  I spotted roses in bloom at the beginning of April and our garden at work and the garden in the guest house (UNICA) are looking stupendous.

Istalif, Afghanistan 02.10.09 014It always amazes me that the Afghans, despite the war and violence they endure are so interested in nice gardens and put so much work into having pretty flowers around.

I retained Room No. 6 in UNICA, which makes me very happy.  Okay, so there’s cigarette burns in the carpet, it’s badly in need of a lick of paint and the shower curtain has more holes than curtain; but it has a desk at the window that overlooks the main garden and a very comfortable wicker chair; so when I sit to work, I can see all that comes and goes.

Summer in Kabul 018This guesthouse has been used by the UN for almost fifty five years and the owner has recently sold it for $5 or 6 million for an office block to be built on the land.  Property prices in Kabul are as expensive as Dublin was at the height of the boom.   It will be officially handed back to the owner on July 31st but as the UN own the furniture they will close it down on May 31st to do an inventory and sell off the assets.  UNICA has been written about in many books and the only place in Afghanistan that has consistently sold booze for more than 50 years and was also the only place in Afghanistan to boast of satellite TV throughout the reign of the Taliban.

UNICA is slowly emptying out as people move out of the compound.  I could very well end up being the last woman standing at one of the oldest international institutions in Kabul before the auditors and bulldozers move in.  When I arrived last September, the garden was in full bloom, the evenings warm and a bunch of us spent many hours sitting around eating, drinking and enjoying the wonderful oasis in the middle of a busy city.  Other than Kelly (who is from Texas and NOT the United States as she keeps reminding us), all the pals have gone and I must admit there are days when I question my decision to stay until the bitter end.

fagan profile pic in blueUNICA has seventy rooms and its impending closure has put pressure on space for international staff working with the UN.  There are MOSS (minimum operating security standards) regulations that buildings must meet, e.g. a building has to be a minimum of 30 metres behind the boundary wall and the boundary wall has to be a certain height.  This is to stop insurgents trying to lob grenades over the wall as they cycle past or drive their white Toyota Corolla cars through the barriers before blowing themselves up.    There are many reasonable guest houses around Kabul that comply with MOSS regulations but the department of safety and security (DSS) are playing games and trying to force as many UN organizations on to the huge compound (UNOCA) on the Jalalabad Road, the most bombed road in the country.  As most of the UN offices are in town, this requires travel to and from work every day down the Jalalabad Road.   Now it’s fine travelling down the Jalalabad Road if you are going to buy a couple of bottles of red wine from UNOCA but we’re having a REAL emergency now as UNOCA hasn’t had a drop of red wine since I came back from my leave.

I recently had a phone call to say that the red wine was back in stock and by the time I had organized a driver and we headed off in the armoured vehicle down the Jalalabad Road to arrive at UNOCA – they were out of stock again.  I bought a couple of the remaining bottles of white wine that would be best used for cooking!

Summer in Kabul 023The white wine did however come in useful when I was travelling to Jalalabad last weekend for work. They have Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) all over the country and these are run by the international military, who ‘assist’ the Government of Afghanistan to rebuild the country.  They are mostly very conveniently located to suit the needs of the foreign military, for instance the Americans have placed their PRTs strategically along borders of potentially unstable countries.  That means when it comes to aid and the distribution of resources, they are allocated geographically rather than where it is needed.  This is not only a waste of valuable resources but also denies those who are most vulnerable of badly needed assistance.

If the war was over, then the PRTs would be useful and viable, but with intensified fighting in many areas their sole existence is to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Afghans as any reconstruction is pretty useless until there is peace.  One of the big downsides of this though is the perception of men in military uniforms handing out school books or building clinics.  This only serves to confuse the role of the humanitarian worker and the military in the minds of the insurgents and for the humanitarian workers in the provinces, this is proving to be dangerous and at times lethal.  My job was to make a presentation to the US PRT in Jalalabad on the need for neutral aid being delivered and the use of military as a last resort.  Not exactly within my scope of expertise but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get out of Kabul and see something else of the country.

DSCF0034Jalalabad is just 120 kms from Kabul but the road is dangerous and there is a flight for UN staff.  Kenny Rogers from Sierra Leone is the regional head of office there and when I asked him would he like some ‘cold water’ brought down to him (a euphemism for booze), he was delighted with my offer.  I wrapped one of the white wine bottles in a towel and threw it into the suitcase and put another into my computer bag.  Kenny lives in a small guesthouse with six others, so a lot smaller than anything in Kabul.  I was assured as I wasn’t taking a commercial flight that the cold water wouldn’t be a problem.

However, the security guard on the UN flight had a different idea and pointed out the directive from President Karzai saying that no alcohol was to be transported.  The security guard had spotted the bottle in my suitcase, but not my computer bag.  I offered to pour out the wine but they almost had a heart attack and the chief of security came along and waved me through with my two bottles of precious cold water.  It is a well known ‘secret’ that if you bring in two bottles of duty free, the customs officers will take one for themselves and leave you with the other – so much for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Other than work, there ain’t a lot to do in Jalalabad.  I went from the airport to the office and the office to the guesthouse, to the office, to the military base.  No TV in the room, no computer connection… nada, zilch, naught…. and nada to do while there, except work.  The lads were lovely and the only entertainment was a karaoke machine one of the guys from Ghana had in his room.  Kenny Rogers fancied himself as a singer…. but in the mode of Lionel Ritchie and going down to the kitchen for a drink of water at 2 a.m. in the morning and hearing Kenny trying to belt out some Lionel Ritchie love songs, was indeed some experience.  Okay, so he was in the privacy of his own room but he had no problems the following night when we all gathered to have a go at the karaoke and he screeched out the same song time and time again.  You’d need a lot of cold water to appreciate this version of Kenny Rogers!

Butcher Street, Kabul, June 2010Jalalabad itself is a lot greener and a lot hotter than Kabul.  You go down into a deep valley and the countryside is well irrigated from the many rivers that flow into the valley.  They supply a lot of the produce that’s available in Kabul and being on the border, it’s very much culturally influenced by Pakistan with highly decorated tuk-tuks as the favourite mode of public transport.  As 3-wheeler motorcycles with coverings on the back, they squeeze in about five or six people so not an ideal mode of transportation if you require safety.  It’s also a lot more conservative than Kabul, but then again everywhere outside Kabul is a lot more conservative.  There were hoards of young boys going to school on the morning I was leaving, but I didn’t spot one girl with a white head scarf (usually worn going to school) – I actually didn’t see one girl out that morning.  In Kabul maybe 10 percent of the people on the streets are women, in Jalalabad it must be less than 2 percent and you can only imagine that the women are locked up in their homes.

Travelling back on the UN flight and there is no terminal in the military base, so a guy arrives in an open truck and places his brief case in the back.  He has a stock of tags and labels the bags, checks your ID and tells you he doesn’t trust you enough to leave you with your hand baggage, so he takes it from you until you board.  He weights the bags by picking them up with both hands, shrugging his shoulders and then guessing the weight for the manifest.  He is also the baggage handler and his assistant gives him a leg up to climb into the luggage hold on the plane as you hand him up your baggage.  It all seemed so normal at the time.

Bread Shop, Butcher Street, Kabul, June 2010Winter is great for covering up and wearing a scarf when out in public is not a hardship.  However, with the onset of the good weather it’s very annoying to see men going around in short sleeve shirts, while as a woman I’m expected to wear long sleeve garments, that also cover my ass and then a scarf in the scorching heat, for fear of exciting a man!  Tawab is a young tailor who has a small shop beside Kabul Café and he’s very innovative and great at copying clothes.  I called down to have some tops copied for the summer and he was sitting with a copy book practicing writing English script and words.  His brother is importing carpets into Dubai and they’re setting up a website so he wants to be able to read and write English and access the potential customers who speak English.  Tawab is quite shy and he speaks English reasonably well, asking the difference between the pronunciation of colour and collar. It’s one of the things that really impresses me about Afghans, their desire and willingness to learn.

I’m planning my R&R break in India to see the Taj – I think I’ve wanted to see that since I was about 10…. Hopefully the Taliban will behave themselves over the next couple of weeks and I won’t have much to report… but let’s see!

Until next time.

Yours Fagan