A visit with Nooria.

When we first came to Afghanistan, we lived in Mazar. Like most foreigners here, we soon employed a local woman to help with cleaning our home. While the idea of regular domestic help remains repugnant to me (I kind of think you ought to be able to keep your own house in order), we were persuaded that in Afghanistan it was a good idea. For a few reasons – it gave a poor woman employment, and unquestionably, in those days, the widows of Afghanistan needed it. It gave Julie an easy way to make friends with local women, and in Taliban times, that was helpful. And, we were here to work. We were not here simply to ‘be’. Having someone help keep things in order meant we could both work, full-time. When Pietà was born, having no family here, our khala-jan became a defacto auntie. Over time, Fatima, who was calm and gentle, became a dear friend to Julie and a loving nanna to Pietà.

Then, when we returned to Mazar after 9/11, Aziza came to work with us. She was more animated than Fatima, and sometimes brought her grandson, Quorban along to play with Pietà. She too, became a loved part of our home.

In Kabul, in the later years we had S. work with us. We inherited her from the previous family, she kind of came with the house, and she quickly made it clear who was really in charge. We didn’t get on with her so well, I think it is safe to say. Lastly, Nooria worked with us. Julie knew of her from earlier times, and liked her, and she had a lovely manner, though her life was very difficult and she was well acquainted with grief. Her husband had some kind of mental illness, based almost certainly in trauma, and was often violent. Particularly, and for no obvious reason, he very hostile towards to their 10 year old son. It was so bad the son could not be in the house, and this was very hard for Nooria. Julie helped get the husband some medication, through one of the expat Doctors here, and like many mental illnesses, as long as he kept the dosage stable, he was much improved. When he forgot, or ran out, things got awful very quickly.

He died a month ago. I saw Nooria a week back, and after the usual salaams, I said, ‘I know your husband died. Razi- Khudawand bashed.’ May he be welcomed by God.

Nooria began to explain, in a matter of fact kind of way –

‘Yes, it was very odd. He began to swell up, first his stomach, and then his chest. He couldn’t easily breathe, simply to draw breath was difficult. We spent so much on medicines. Then he got a little better, but his feet swelled and he couldn’t walk. Then his chest swelled again…’

Nooria stopped talking and buried her head in her hands. It was a while before she could speak. I sat and waited.
Wa, baz faut shud wa bas.’ ‘And then he died and that was the end.’

After a while she continued. ‘My son, he doesn’t accept it. He has said, “where is my father? When is he coming home?” He just sits and waits for him to come. He has said he will not go to school until he comes, and that is 18 days now. He is just waiting for his father to come home. I do not know what to do, and we have spent everything now on doctors and medicines and now we have nothing.’

I am able to give her some money.

Later I think about this thing of giving money. Many expats here do not give money to poor people here, at all. The rationale is that it doesn’t help in the long run. Better to train people, give them jobs, advocate for social reform. I agree. But those who say giving money to poor people doesn’t help, have never, I think, been so poor.

Fatima with Pieta, 2001. Julie was able to visit Fatima in Mazar last year as she was dying of cancer; she died a few months later. Razi- Khudawand bashed.


Incendiary images

One of the consequences of being an organisation that has been around for 40+ years is that we have accumulated a lot of junk. Old emails, newspaper articles, manuals on how to install HF Codans, recipe books (eh?), leadership seminar evaluation feedback forms, countless transparencies on how to manage your interpersonal skills, old Annual Reports, agreements with donors on funding for wells from 1999. 

We do have a shredder. It is a fragile and gentle creature, unaccustomed to hard work and resistant to the idea of document destruction. Consequently, it shreds two pieces of paper at a time, works for for 5 minutes, and then needs a good rest for two hours. 

So we have resorted to the time-tested approach of incineration. But believe me, burning the 30 or so trunks of documents we have, is also quite the job. Paper burns great one or two sheets at a time, but throw in a ream or two and you get a lot of singed edges and a whole lot of very readable remains. So we now have teams of staff, scrunching paper, throwing it in the two burn barrels, stirring up the burning contents, shovelling out the ash. It would be a pretty nice job in winter. In 40˚ summer, during Ramazan, it is less popular.

IMG_2267 IMG_2268

Images from Bamiyan.

Friends invited me to join with them on a day flight to Bamiyan, in the central Hazarajat.
We flew over the wonderful Band-i-Amir lakes, copper colouring the water a fantastic blue.

We saw the Buddha caves, of course. I remember when they were destroyed, the bemused response from Mullah Omar to the outrage of the world – ‘They are just stones – do you not care for the suffering of the Afghan people?’

We then drove out to Shahar Zohak – the Red City – a very ancient, and large destroyed fort complex, some 2000 ft up a steep climb. The minerals are right in front of you in these hills:

Reds, blues, greys, magenta, yellow and the deep green of the valley floor.

Of top of  the fort complex was a small bunker, from the Soviet era.

And an old gun.

It was good to get out of Kabul.

Images from a summer in Kabul

I watched as this woman and her child slowly walked up the street, and then sat down at the corner. The mother spread a little plastic square for her daughter to sit on. Later, I went over to her: ‘Khala-jan, ena. Bi-giren paisa.‘ Sister, take some money.

Day labourers, taking a rest in their barrows in the Karte Se Bazaar.

Jam stall.

A kind of quiet has fallen on Kabul. People are anxious about the election outcome. Many people dislike Abdullah Abdullah, as he is a jihadi, and people fear he will take Afghanistan back to the time of the Mujahideen. On the other hand, Ghani’s Vice Presidential pick is Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord of the north. Ustad Atta, the powerful Governor of Mazar, and a man I used to have tea with, – how shall I put this? – pretty much loathes Dostum, and has put his (essentially private) army on alert – ‘If Dostum comes to power, be ready for war.’ A Northern/ Tajik – Southern/ Pashtun divide is emerging.

I doubt though, that we are looking at civil war. Protests definitely, a lot of shouting, and some violence. But the majority of people do not have the energy for war. I think.

Kabul, 2014

Up until the fall of the Taliban, and for a short time thereafter, begging was very common in Afghanistan’s cities and towns. Mainly women, but disabled men and children also. Then, for several years, the numbers of people by roadside, hands held out in supplication, seemed to drop off. The relative state of the economy had something to do with it. More jobs, more money, more being spent, more people giving zakat, more waste, just more.

There has been a change since we left here in 2012. It is very visible, and it is hard to look at. I would rather look away. Entire families are camped out at corners, in the middle of the roads, tapping on car windows. I haven’t seen so many people begging for years – since the harsh times of the Taliban. Troops have pulled out, and for every soldier, there was probably three or four Afghans that found employment: fixers, translators, drivers, cooks, cleaners, logistics, guards. Aid budgets have been cut, and the same metric applies. Less money is flying around. Fewer jobs, less spending, leaner times. Fine for those have have some kind of padding, but for the vulnerable, there is no buffer.

And the proof of all that is on the streets. There is still plenty of money – four and five storey residences are being built all over the place – but that money is moving in much tighter circles, and the vast majority of urban poor are locked out.

I suspect most people knew those good times were an aberration. That the economy resets is not a bad thing, in the long term, at a macro-level. No country can continue to be subjected to so much careless money; it would end in chaos or revolution. But at the human level, Afghanistan is heading for much harder times. As the crutches are removed, it will be dreadful for poor and vulnerable people in the cities.

In Kabul


I feel curiously stuck as to how to start a post about this time in Afghanistan. It may be to do with the overall strangeness of this period – I am here, in a place I know so well, but it is far from normal. Very few of the expatriate staff I used to know are here: very few expatriates are here at all. There is a feeling of considerable emptiness – our team meetings have eight people at them; previously, you could count 30 or 40 adults and a spray of kids. The office is full of empty rooms. Afghanistan itself is on hold – facing the heat of summer, enduring Ramadan, and waiting on the outcome of the election results. It will stop being on hold at some point, and it could get untidy. The protests so far have been significant, but peaceful – chants of ‘Death to Ashraf Ghani’ and some effigy-burning was about as violent as it got. The preliminary results will be announced on Wednesday, and that is the date when a spike may occur.

Odd, also, to be in a place I love so well, when I felt such antipathy about returning. Not many will know this, but in the days before leaving Perth last week, I was filled with dread. I considered again, the real costs of my return here, and what it could mean. Am I getting more scared as I get older? Are the costs higher, as my family grows up? Am I listening more to the voices that suggest responsible living above radical (or perhaps just ‘real’) faith?

Probably it is all of these. Several people warned me about returning here. Their careful, caring rationale was that it was dangerous, and that I had a family. Nothing new to me. But somehow their words penetrated, and stuck. Realistically, I probably have about as much chance of being caught up in something adverse here, as I do being eaten by a shark while surfing, but these same people do not carefully warn against surfing. Or, as another friend pointed out, about 11 Australians die each week in Bali, while on holiday – far more than are dying in Afghanistan – but no one speaks in grave tones about the risks of going to Bali.

Regardless. Afghanistan is seen as lawless, capricious and unsafe, and I started to believe that, and I longed to pull out of this trip.  It was not until I landed in Dubai, that I started to feel ok about coming here. Then, on arriving in Kabul, it felt as it always has: warm, hospitable, with an unpredictable edge. Afghan friends have been delighted to see me; old men in the bazaar have recognised me from times past – ‘Ohhhh! I thought I would never see you again! I thought you had left for ever! Welcome, welcome! Drink tea!’ and embraced me.

But neither it is the same place. Recent attacks have shown our vulnerability, and also that in the minds of at least some people, we are fair targets. We need to take some new steps to ensure staff – local and international – feel reasonably safe.

Through all this, a constant has remained, and it is this: Julie and I determined to follow Christ at the outset. So far, that journey has not led us, or those who we love and care for, to any serious harm (and it fact has led to all sort of lovely adventures). Of course, there is no promise of protection in our faith, and it may be that I get buried here. Should that chance mean we falter in our following? Should Julie and I follow Jesus only little ways, on safe journeys, with things that are, if we are honest, largely within our control? If we do not follow Christ in what matters most, then I suspect we do not really follow him at all.


A short walk – 5min video of the neighbourhood.



To Kabul for a short while. Also, sewing.

I’ve been asked to go back to Afghanistan for a month, to lend a hand. Leadership is a bit thin, following some security incidents, and the team has drawn down to a minimum. In June/ July, it will drop a bit below that minimum, and that is where I step in.

It is nice to be asked to help.

Separately, but also importantly, I learnt how to use magic hem tape. Pieta has a concert for school on Wed and Thurs this week, and the material of the dress she is to wear is too fine to sew without leaving picks in the fabric. With an impressive degree of patience and skills honed in woodworking, I marked out the hem line, applied the tape, and ironed it up, raising the dress 8cm.

Clever me.