Resuming transmission

The last month has involved, in this order, me stabbing myself in my thumb knuckle, deeply, striking bone and rupturing the capsule and rendering me 9 fingered (temporarily); a nasty burn on my calf being the result of a hot water bottle (pathetic, I know); and a sense of being inflated by a bike pump, and a lot of time spent in the bathroom. And being really, really tired. And uncreative.

But things are looking up. Megan the wonder surgeon (taking over from Ken the super surgeon) sewed up my thumb on a Friday afternoon at the kitchen table as I held the torch (power went out as she made the incision). And here’s a tip: locally bought lidocaine is about 30% as strong as it should be. That is, it wears off after 20mins rather than two hours. Or, more precisely, when the surgeon is still stitching.) The leg burn wound thing is healing. Etc. And it is turning to Spring. A few markers of this: it is raining, not snowing. I have stopped wearing long-johns. I have stopped wearing mittens. I have moved back into  my office at work (rendered uninhabitable over winter by the freezing temperatures, the leaking roof and the freezing temperatures. And the leaks.) We have stopped heating our home 24/7. The snow is melting. We played soccer and threw balls around in the yard and  it was great.

Interestingly, today as I walked to work, some guys in a Technical drove past.

example of a Technical.

Ostensibly, I suppose, they were guarding a VIP. But it was identical in appearance and form to Taliban times, and it prompted in me an internal conversation about evidence of real changes over the last 10 years. There was a Government then – as now. Both are seen by a large proportion of the population as illegitimate or propped up by foreign regimes (Saudi/ USA). Both had or have limited power outside of Kabul. Both tried or are trying to win loyalty and support from – or at least create cohesion in, a country that is still not a nation, and where ethnic and tribal links are far more deeply rooted than any kind of allegiance to a central power. Neither has done anything much to improve the rights of women or ethnic minorities. Security under both has been terrible; arguably better under the Taliban. Both stimulated very piecemeal/ ad hoc/ ineffective economic and foreign policies. Ministries are run by commanders and warlords in both cases; both have been hostage to the religious power-brokers. I’m not arguing things were better then; but I don’t thing things are much better now. Not in an enduring sense. This is not what you could call a robust, well rooted, popularly-supported Government, not a Government with effective control and reach, not a country that is united and cohesive, not functional, not secure, not maturing. Not yet.


Some recent developments

I am at our cash office, taking out some money. H, the diminutive finance officer asks me about my family back in Australia. He tells me his maternal uncle’s son has lived in Australia for the last 25 years.  I suggest that the maternal uncle’s son come back to Afghanistan and contribute to the rebuilding and rejuvenating of the country. H tells me that he did return recently, for a short while: ‘He said that in all the things he saw, only one thing had improved over the last 25 years.’

‘And that was?’

‘You can get good bread here now.’

I ponder this as I go upstairs. Part of me rejects it as a cynical comment, tossed off without thought. Of course if you left here in the early 80s, before the country was shot to pieces and if your baseline is Melbourne, then current Afghanistan does not compare favourably. But his remark reflects a deeper truth, which is that Afghanistan has dropped a long, long way from the high watermark of the early 70s, and it has not recovered. 35 years of conflict and still counting, we should not be surprised at the slow rate of change.

That said, there is plenty of evidence of similar cynicism: a friend sat next to a leader from the Panjshir Valley on a flight recently, and this leader told him how they have a shadow Government, primed and prepared to take over as soon as Kabul falls. These are not Talibs, but Tajiks. Competent, probably, and long-sighted, they are planning for the next decade. In contrast, aid donors and military planners think in terms of the next 6 months. There are multiple such shadow Government structures all around the country.


The ditches being dug around the place that I referred to earlier: an interesting aspect to these is that the drains used to be regarded more or less as the property or responsibility of the adjacent householder. Now that some donor has paid for the municipality to subcontract their construction, the ownership and maintenance of these ditches has become unclear. As a result, no one is cleaning them out. For most of the year they collect rubbish, rocks, dead animals. But when it snows – then they block, and flood. Was this foreseeable? Could a better process have ensured community ownership of the ditches? Because while a donor was happy to pay for their construction, no one has the money or willingness to pay for their ongoing care.

They do serve the purpose though of allowing you to shake your carpets out.

Meanwhile, it has snowed. This cleared the air and created a whole big great wonderful lot of fun.

Then it snowed more and yesterday when we woke up there was a foot or so on the ground. The children were delirious with excitement.

Easy for us to enjoy it, with barrels to kerosene to fill our heaters with, and thick snow clothes inherited from our Swedish friends. Not so much fun for poor Afghans. We have had a few requests for help, and have given away a bunch of clothes and jackets, following St Basil’s admonition:

‘The bread which you do not eat is the bread of the hungry; the coat hanging in the wardrobe is the coat of the one who is naked and cold; the shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity you do not perform are the many injustices that you commit.’ 

We know that giving away money and clothes is a short term solution. It is, however, a solution to those who would otherwise go hungry and cold, until a better solution can be found. And that is not going to be anytime soon, here.

Finally, the Government must have decided that ‘illegal’ roadside installations are to be eliminated, because all the nice little shops and so on along the streets have been torn down. The guard boxes are being repositioned, as you can see. I can’t see this working for the shopkeepers though.

Embarrassed for my country

It is 7.55am. My son has his new Spiderman backpack (secondhand, 200 Afs at Bush Bazaar*), and my daughter has her new pink backpack (170Afs at Bush Bazaar, also secondhand). Lunches, books, hats, waterbottles all packed we exit our home, and the guard lets us out the compound door. Outside it is a clear morning. The dust has not yet risen in the streets, and the traffic is light. No helicopters overhead, no noise. We turn right and walk towards school. It is only a few minutes, past the National Congress for Afghanistan (a warlords political front), past several English and Computer schools, past delapidated and shelled houses, open drains, dogs wheezing in the morning cool.

School is a large compound. The walls have been raised several meters and are now topped with razor wire. To get in, we enter through a barred gate into an airlock chamber, where the guard surveys us, friendly and welcoming, before letting us into the next yard. Then one more gate, another guard and we are in the school. Elijah goes to his class: four other students, American, German, Spanish and Finnish. Pieta goes upstairs. Eight students in her class. I kiss them, and check on Elijah again. He broke his arm falling from a hammock two days ago and has been a bit weepy and small since then.

As I leave, the guard asks me who the older people were with me the previous day. ‘My parents’, I reply. ‘Their first visit here’.

‘How long will they stay? One month or two?’

‘Only 9 days. They will go on to visit my sister.’

‘Ahh. They are welcome in here. Where are they from?’


‘A good country. There are many Afghans there.’

It is both a statement and a question. Most city Afghans know about Australia. They know many people went there, seeking a better life, seeking refuge. They know many were locked up. They know several hundred drowned enroute. They know others were turned away, sent to an island, sent back to Afghanistan.

I am again embarrassed for my country, for its hardness. For the Government which showed such intransigence and meanness in the face of human suffering ‘It is a better country now’, I say, ‘There is a new Government. They are more kind.’

The guard nods, his face wrinkled and worn. Why am I apologising? I slip through the gate and he bolts the door behind me.

I wish I could be more proud of how Australia has conducted itself in recent years.


*Bush Bazaar: named for GW, for the huge number of blackmarket US items you can get there: sugary foods, blow up pools, apple sauce, pop tarts, mixed nuts, flick knives, anabolic steroids, sugary foods, nightvision binoculars, rifle sights, Schmuckers peanut paste, Enduring Freedom caps, sugary foods, Frosted Flakes,weetabix, pinapple titbits, Aunt Jemimas Maple Syrup (with 2% real syrup) and so on. Quite  good place to go for things that have sugar in them.