Yesterday, early, J, S and I took a plane to Kandahar. We were to visit one of our projects there. We were all dressed in salwar kameez (or peron and tonbon, to put in more correctly), we were all unshaven and the idea was that we blend in. Kandahar is a difficult place for foreigners, and has been for some years now. An expat colleague and her driver, in 2008 disappeared in Kandahar and have never been found, and along with the heavy military activity based out of there, it has become quite edgy. That is not to say foreigners are all targets, and the local staff we met were predictably hospitable. But if it becomes obvious that an NGO is Western-funded, or has expatriate involvement, all the Afghans are implicated, and may wind up disappeared also. Hence our somewhat clandestine visit.
We did blend in, a little – but with our lighter skin, slighter builds, without large beards or turbans and not being Pashto speakers it would not have taken much to penetrate our disguise. Plus I wear glasses, which immediately identifies me as someone a bit odd. But really, all we did was land at the airport, be taken to the office, meet, eat, meet, sleep, eat, meet drive back to the airport and fly away. Classic seagull stuff: fly in, make noise, fly out. But necessary sometimes, and despite my misgivings and my desire to be more present there, it was encouraging for the staff and important to heed their concerns: a higher profile visit, or meeting with too many people is just too risky.
The project we visited does adult education – getting adults not just to learn English or a vocation, but engaging them in critical thinking skills, in learning about civil society, what makes a culture, about ethics and morality and owning your own community’s problems and being a part of the solution. In a context where many programs are intensely individual, and focus simply on enabling the clients to gain a skill and better only themselves, this project is a groundbreaker. It is not perfect, and many participants probably do have a more extractionist, pragmatic approach – but some do ‘get it’: they understand that they need to be a new generation who sees things differently, who can articulate a new, critical, engaged vision of the future and draw others into it.
It must also be said that Kandahar is home to millions of mosquitos. And along with the eucalyptus and oleander and bleached colours, it felt quite West Australian. There is a lot of military activity there, and we were searched, thoroughly, several times. Two or three big explosions too, though no one was remotely fazed.
Driving back to the airport, we noticed the blast walls are property marked ‘NATO’. Is theft of these really such a big problem? Each must weigh about 2 tons.
These Hesco barriers, surrounding the airport, often go with the blast walls. It does not create an inviting atmosphere.
I guess I should not graphically represent the sign below, as it tells me not to, but I cannot let the euphemism ‘lethal force’ pass unnoticed. I guess ‘We may kill all persons who attempt unauthorised entry’ isn’t strong enough.
We made it home a few hours late, but safe.