Still here, sort of

Well. Facebook and Instagram and so on seem to have overtaken blogs like this. That, and the sense that I am no longer sure what I have to say.

I brought myself to watch some of the movie ‘Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot’ tonight. A terrible rendition of Afghanistan, but close enough in some parts that it has taken me a long time to consider looking at it. (For your viewing information, when the lead actor arrives at ‘Kabul’ airport, it is in fact New Delhi railway station they filmed… look at it closely… all the writing is in Hindi.)

I got to the bit where the camera man, played by Martin Freeman is freed from capture. At a party that night, he produces a handful of bullet casings as gifts for his friends.

Something about that made me stop watching; a memory overtook me.

I remembered gathering up shell casings. Digging them out of walls. I’ve still got some on my shelf, less than a two metres away. My son has some in a box, in his cupboard.

What is going on there? What has happened that we take these articles of death and hang on to them?


Its hard to look at it squarely, but going to Afghanistan took a lot more than we expected, than we realised, and than we allowed for.




It’s five years to the day that we returned to live in Perth. I just realised this tonight. Five years ago, we arrived back here.

The last few months, I have been aware in some new ways of the costs of living for so long in a place like Afghanistan. The signs have been there for a while, but it came to the fore late one night, as a heavy truck streamed down the hill past our home. Maybe 2am or 3am? We both awoke, instantly. Something about the noise, the hiss. For me,  I think it was the wave of air that I sensed, rather than felt, that preceded the truck. It brought back out of my body the memory of shock waves that preceded explosions. I didn’t sleep much that night, and I know I haven’t slept well for a long time. There are some other symptoms too.

I’m getting some help with this. We’ll be ok.


The Dad Book

It’s  out!

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These stories of being a father come from around the world – Cuba, India, the USA, Australia, England, Switzerland, Sweden and elsewhere, but they have in common an honesty about the gift and work of being a father. The Dad Book is not about how to be a better Dad. It’s about being a Dad – the struggles, the regrets, the things we got wrong, and the things we get right. The moments of joy and wonder, the things we learn along the way and the things we’d rather forget. And the things we want to remember.


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It was a good month. We got a lot done. Security infrastructure and procedures, team building and support to projects, consensus building with other agencies.

I got home on Sunday night, and while a privilege to have been in Afghanistan, it was also lovely to be back with my family.

On Wednesday, I briefed our Executive Director on what I had done, and my thoughts about the future. I mentioned that I thought another attack on an NGO were likely, within the next two or so months.

On Thursday morning, two of our staff were shot and killed, in downtown Herat, while going shopping. They were long term workers in Afghanistan, fluent in Dari, culturally sensitive, careful and experienced. No motive for the attack can so far be discerned.

I had worked closely with one of these women, over the years. I saw here just last Saturday, before she flew to Herat. She had just arrived back in Afghanistan, after some time back in her home country. We talked about her future work. It was good to see her again.

It is a hard path ahead.



My contradicted self.

Owing to a certain unrestrained, and often unfocused generosity of my mother, I am a life member of the Qantas Lounges. This is not as cool as it may sound. To get in the lounges, you have to be flying Qantas on your next flight, and Qantas are generally way more expensive than everyone else, with less comfortable planes and way more disinterested staff. Their lounges are crowded with FIFO workers, and supplied with pirate crew of surly, superannuated stewards who specialise in making you feel bad for asking for a peanut.

Anyway, Qantas, sensing the writing is on the wall, have done a deal with Emirates (who will soon emerge as The Global Airline). This deal means I can go in Emirates lounges when flying Emirates. 

All that is preface. I arrived in Dubai this afternoon after 4 weeks in Kabul. It was a good four weeks. No one died. That’s not a blithe comment. It is a part of our considerations these days. I helped keep things going. I supervised security improvements, scoped for a new head office, consulted on various projects, picked up the bits and pieces, incinerated old documents, tried to encourage the team, hosted a weekly BBQ. I am grateful to have been there and it was a privilege. And do not think it was a hardship: the electricity failed only once, I had hot, running water, fans to keep me cool, and ready access to most conveniences. Kabul is not what it once was.

So, on arriving in Dubai, I find the Business Lounge is shut and I am directed to the First Class Lounge. I have been in the First Class Lounge twice before: my reckoning is that people are more likely to sneak into Business Class. Those who are going into First Class have a massive sense of entitlement, all you need to do is emulate that. So I did. I just walked on in. The first time, I spent 6 hours there. The next time, after about 30 minutes, they found me and said, ‘Mr Sparrow, you should not be here.’

‘Yes’, I said.

‘Will you please leave now?’ they said.

‘Yes’, I said. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But today, I am ‘entitled’ to be here, so to speak. In First Class, you order your meal. The whiskeys are 15 years old. The seats are leather. It is preposterous, in every sense. I enjoy the peace it affords me, but I rail against it. It is wrong. It is wrong because I left a place where people do not even have clean water to drink. 

I look out the window at the endless steam of jets taking off, and think of the massive contradictions humans are capable of. Me included. 

A visit with M

On Wednesday afternoon, M. comes to visit me.

We met properly in 1999, when we started in the community development project, based out of Mazar. He was one of the four Afghans working with us in those remote, poor, difficult villages. Later we hired five more local staff, and within a few years, M. had become the team leader. He was educated, and so was granted a natural status, and he knew it. He was also, variously, sulky and easily irritated. Mind you, perhaps we all were back then. It was a sulky time, and the Taliban were world authorities in irritating people.

But he grew in leadership, and in character, and in servanthood. By the time we closed the project down in 2005 – the area by then being saturated with NGOs doing development work, mostly badly – he was mature, competent and a valuable part of our team. We opened a new development front, 8 hours to the West, in the tiny outpost of Maimana, but he didn’t want to move there – his wife was still working in Mazar, and their son was at high school. Unsurprisingly, he soon found a job with another NGO. I caught up with him again in 2007, and we kept in touch over the years as he worked for Oxfam, TEAR Fund and other groups, steadily growing in responsibility and stature.

It is wonderful to see him. He climbs down from the 4WD that he has arrived in. He is a big man. He lifts a back pack, the sort most aid-workers use. He has a beard, flecked with grey now, I notice. We go back to the office and I offer him water, and we share our news with each other. His son, U,  is married, and has a daughter; their first child died at birth. U is working for a mobile phone company now: U, now a man, who I knew as a child. M’s wife is not working – ‘She is older now, and the offices don’t want to employ an older woman. She has white hair, like me.’ It is an exaggeration, M is probably the same age as me and his hair is black and thick. I remember how M. and his wife shared a genuine love and affection for each other, I still have the photo of them sitting together, cradling Pietà when she was little.

M. phones his son, U, and I talk briefly with him, and give congratulations on his marriage and his little one; I show M. photos of my family, and he gasps at Pietà – she was four when he last saw her – and chuckles at Elijah and Rachel, and he offers condolences on the death of my father and mother.

But as we talk, I notice M. is increasingly quiet. He often repeats a phrase – ‘kho, zendagi ast’ – ‘Well, this is life’. I think I know what he is feeling, and I feel it too: the passing of years, and the intractability of life. It is 15 years since we met, we are not young men anymore. Afghanistan is still beset by innumerable problems, what has changed? He reminds me of when we were both North of Kabul, in Kapisa, back in 2007, and I told him that things would get better here, that a time of peace was coming.
‘And now we are here, and still there is no peace, and perhaps tomorrow or next year I will get shot, or hit by a rocket.’ He shakes his head. ‘And will you tell me again that peace is coming?’

I don’t know what to say. I hope what I am seeing is just something I have seen with many Afghan friends who have lived so much grief – someone taking a moment to unload, to tell their story. But I am not sure. M. is not really unloading. He is not telling a story. He is just being honest.

After a while, M. takes his leave, and heads off to stay with his brother on the other side of town. In a month or so, he will start a new job with an NGO he has worked with before. ‘The salary is less, but the people are honest. There was so much corruption in _____. What could I do? If I stayed there, I would be counted as one with them. One man cannot change all that. It is better for me to have less money, but be with people who are just and truthful. We have things in common.’

We embrace, and shake hands, M. swings his backpack over his shoulder and walks slowly to the corner.