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.


The cost of aid work/ of being away.

This blog has always (hoped to, at least) combine the personal issues of being an aid worker, with the professional ones. I don’t think, and have never thought that these issues can be separated, nor should be. Aid work/ development work – whatever you call it, stems from a deeply personal set of beliefs and perceptions about the world, and how the world should be. We are all, in this business, ideologues, I guess.

Some years back, when I lived in Australia, and having fun was easy, I used to go surf-kayaking. In little squirt boats, we would surf the waves, rolling and flipping, like wannabe dolphins.

On one occasion, I got dumped, badly. I didn’t roll up immediately, and so I got a lungful of water, and got disoriented. When I finally did roll up, the next wave hit me, and by then, I was close into shore, and this wave pushed me deep into the sand. My head hit the sea bed, hard. A bit harder, I could have broken my neck. My mate Mike, who was watching, had no idea where I was. When I finally emerged, I was a wreck. I had to go to the doctor to get my ears syringed, to get the sand out. She didn’t believe me, when I told her what had happened.

That’s sort of how I feel now. The ride got really hard, this last year. I find myself wondering,  has it been worth it? If I re-do the arithmetic, what will the answer be?

But, then, as I said, we are all ideologues in this business. We started this work, because we believed, long before the rest of the world was interested, that Afghanistan could be something more than a byword for misery and hopelessness. And that we could, or should, be part of that healing.

But why should that belief lead us to conclude that we would pass unscathed? Isn’t there likely to be a cost, somewhere? The other lives of which I am also a part  – son, brother, friend – have continued, in their various parts of the world. Nothing stopped, just because we went to work in Afghanistan. There will be a cost, and we were told that, right at the start. If that cost is never apparent, you are either very lucky, or have somehow stayed close to the surface, buoyant enough to avoid the deep currents.

Deep down though, I know I hoped that these other lives would keep till we returned.

Ordinary Afghan story.

It is the third day of Ramazan. It is a brutal time of year for the fast. The days are long, and to fully follow the requirements of this holy month, Muslims must rise and eat before dawn, and then endure some 13 hours of heat, without eating, drinking or swallowing, before Iftar, the breaking of the fast, when the sun sets. Even then, those who wish to please Allah will eat only a date, before doing evening prayers. The month of Ramazan follows the lunar cycle, so it is 10 days earlier every year: when we first came to Afghanistan, Ramazan was in February, a cool month with short days. Not so now, and next year will be harder.

This evening we have had guests, and given the heat, I cooked a Gazpacho soup, served cold, followed by a warm chicken salad, and home made ice-cream. It was quite delicious. I see our guests to the gate at 9.00, and then our watchman approaches me.

‘Phil-jan’, he says. He is tentative. ‘I am wondering if this year, you will pay the winter fuel allowance.’ I am confused for a moment. Why does he want this now? Then I remember that our agency has had the practice of giving the staff money for their winter heating fuel now, in the middle of summer, when wood is at its cheapest. If they buy it at the beginning of winter, prices will have doubled.

‘Yes, yes’, I say. ‘We will pay it.’ The truth is, I had forgotten about it. Our watchmen are not agency employees, but private, and they are on a confused salary scheme, owing in part to the fact that we share this house with another family, who had their own practices when we moved in here.

‘You see, Phil-jan… I was shopping last week, on Wednesday, in Mandaie bazaar. I had … ‘ He pauses as he speaks. ‘…bought more than 6000Afs worth of food – the things we needed to get us through Ramazan. Then… I stopped to make one more purchase and when I came back, all the things I had bought were gone. I searched and searched…’ There is a gap in his words. ‘My wife doesn’t know what to do.’

It is dark, and it is hard to see the face of our old watchman, but I can see he is crying, silently. His entire salary for a month is only about 7000 Afs.

‘I don’t know how it happened… It was there, and I was just buying onions, and it was gone. I searched the whole bazaar. I searched.’

I don’t ask him for details. It doesn’t matter. ‘We have some money we save. I will give you some. Don’t worry about it. It will be ok.’

He nods, tears still on his cheek. A few months ago, his young son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and he is now taking him to the Red Cross to learn how to manage this, how to support and help his boy. There is not, and probably will not be for decades, any other help available to him. Somehow his story is so typically Afghan to me. Hardship, followed by tragedy, followed by loss, followed by more hardship. An ordinary Afghan story.

I go upstairs, and count out $160US, about 7500Afs, and take it down.

We rejoice in no man’s death

There is a general mood of elation, it seems, that Bin Laden is dead. I do not share in that. I do not rejoice in his death.

It is a sad end to a chapter in a  long, sad story, which is far from ended. This in not the end of Al Qaeda, nor the Taliban. In the 10 years since the hunt for Bin Laden got serious, he has had plenty of time, I am sure to encourage up dozens of new leaders. Maybe they will be effective, maybe ineffective. Does killing him change that? Does any of it buy back the wasted years and the wasted effort and the wasted money? Those who are rejoicing because they think some kind of justice is achieved will not find their grief lighter, I suspect. Pain is not such an easy transaction.

And in between 9/11 and May 2, 2011, how many thousands of Afghans have died in drone attacks, midnight raids, missile strikes, black prisons? How many soldiers from nations never concerned with all this have gone home in body bags, or deranged, removed, taken to a place from which they will never fully return. All their grief and that of all their families follows a different trajectory, unlinked to Bin Laden’s death, and one which will continue long past this day.

But seeing as Bin Laden is dead, and seeing as this somehow, for some people, legitimises all that has happened, can all the soldiers now go home? It’s over. It’s done. A demon is dead. The remnant Taliban are not, and never were a threat to the sovereignty of Western nations. They never had that ambition. Their agenda is surely a domestic issue, which most parties have agreed for years now, can only, ultimately addressed by the Afghan nation. Leave the Taliban to go legitimate or to go feral – they are doing it anyway – and go home, foreign soldiers. Your hunt for Bin Laden is over, and the real war, the war of ideologies, was never going to won with guns and bullets anyway.

Back to Kabul

In three days from now, we’ll all get on a plane to head back to Afghanistan and our lives in Kabul.

I think it will be good to establish some routine again. Trying to grieve my father, be a decent dad to my own kids, love my wife, support my mother, be a friend to my sisters, meet with lawyers, go through Dad’s stuff, organise things for Mum, move between five different houses in the last four weeks has been tiring. It would be hard enough to mourn Dad if we lived here, in our own home. Try doing all that with a toddler, two displaced kids, in other people’s houses.

Rachel, predictably, after having just started sleeping through the night, is back to waking every three or so hours. Our older kids are unsettled, alternately bored, wired, exhausted and energised. There is no pattern in what we are doing; it is all driven by the urgent, and enervated by sorrow.

But as I said, it will be good to get home to Kabul, and back in a routine. Though leaving now, especially now, is a wrench. Together with Mum, we just spent a week down south in Margaret River, at Mum and Dad’s place in the bush. It was lovely and it was sad. Beautiful weather and a beautiful place, auspiced by an unwelcome event.

Slowly and steadily, over the days, I went through Dad’s papers and through his tools, through the sheds and through his study. I sorted his clothes, his shoes, his memorabilia, his axes, his drills, his chisels, his papers, his research, his notebooks. Dad was not, despite his many qualities, a tidy man, and in his latter years, he seemed to think the solution lay in buying new toolboxes and files, which he then half-filled, before buying another. I found a dozen tool boxes, holding assortments: a chisel, a screwdriver, old screws, nails, tape, glue and broken reticulation pipe. Files with duplicate papers, covered with post-stick notes.

I learned some things I never knew about my father. He scored second highest in the state on his tertiary entrance exams. He was an awarded marksman. He had a photographic memory. He authored over 80 papers, 10 chapters of different books. He wrote a diary for every year – just jottings, but in 1995, I found notes he made when he and I travelled up to the Kimberley together, when I maybe saved his life by rigging up a breathing apparatus for him, one night. In the back of that diary, a note, ‘Sayings of PJS’, and underneath, something I must have said, ‘Politeness is the death of truth.’

Dad was so present in Margaret River – it is a where he and I have spent so many hours and days, working on tasks, doing stuff together. I missed him intensely, painfully. It is hard to really understand that he is gone from this life – despite seeing him die, despite burying him. Strange, the strength of the emotional bond. It derogates what we rationally know.

Oh Dad.

The long call

We received an email today from the widow of one of the people killed up in Nuristan recently. She wrote about ‘reaching the end of this long call to serve in Afghanistan’.

Apart from it being terribly sad and hard to read, it provoked some reflection from Julie and I. Why are we here in this country? So much effort over so many years is erased so quickly. So much goodness can be undone so easily  – in 2009, I evaluated a community development project working in the North East of this country. It was working in two remote valleys, where the staff showed huge commitment and substantial progress was being made. Since then, a bunch of Taliban moved down one of the valleys. US forces took note, and sent in a few drones, which bombed the place up. Everyone got hostile. One of the development team was kidnapped, then released; then they all had to pull out. Now they are working in a small, tight radius around the township. All their work in the valleys is pretty much over, the momentum lost.

It reminds me of our work in community development years ago, in the North. Long days, long years of work in remote, dusty places, which was terminated over night by the events of 9/11.

Why do we keep trying here? I am less and less sure that we achieve anything. I know, I know now that this work is not about us feeling good, or developing our CVs. And I am not an aid junkie, living on the high of the emergency, the thrill of saving lives. But I would like to see permanent progress here in some form, in my lifetime. I am less convinced that will happen, or at least less convinced that there is much I can do to expedite it.

It seems I follow a God of lost causes. I am not sure how I feel about that. As Nathan says, ‘I have joined the long defeat’.


Also, because the room I am sitting in is badly built, one side is about 4 inches lower than the other. I have propped the right side of the desk up on boards but the chair is still on an acute angle. I am just wanting you all to know that should I develop some kind of horrible arthritis or malignant osteopathic condition because of unergonomic seating, I will be vexed.

Still heading roughly forwards, mainly, mostly

Shocked and sad and grieving the death of the Eye Camp team, some of whom were friends and colleagues. Disrupted too, at a practical level, as we are meant to leave in less than a week. But we are still, mostly, mainly, heading back to Afghanistan. It just seems that the journey is never straightforward.