In Kabul

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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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IL6DiXTf8K4

 

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.

Images from the Palace

Our good friend Cam T is visiting us from Western Australia. We decided to wander the old, ruined Darulaman Palace together. The guards were initially reluctant, pointing out that we needed ‘a letter of permission’ to enter, though I am not sure who would issue such a pass. Perhaps they meant a different kind of letter. But with a little encouragement, the chief guard, who had a split lip and a loud voice, relented, though not before pointing out some areas where a little donation would help. I demurred.


From within the ruined old palace, the new Parliament takes shape.

We climbed a few internal staircases, somewhat hidden away, and there in a roof space was a pile of school books. It was odd.

The fallen ceiling. It was quite beautiful, the way it hung, a lattice of plaster and wire.

From an upper window. Clearly, someone had been hidden there, sniping at people below. 

On our way out, we passed the guards, and I slipped them 500Afs. I’ll come again, with other visitors, and I’d like to keep the relationship cordial. Needless to say though, the guards looked disgusted at the paltriness of my thanks. ‘500Afs? What use is that?’

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Today we learnt that our bush property in the South West of WA has been largely burnt in the bush fires. My uncle’s house is destroyed; my parent’s home damaged. It is hard to be so far away, and the shock has an unreality to it.

Image of hope

Sometimes, at the right time of year, at the right place, Afghanistan is a wonderful place to be. We have had three long days of real heat, and then today, it rained. Not much, but enough. The dust was caught up in the moisture, and as the call to prayer sounded at Iftar, the smell of lamb and chicken on the charcoal spits mingled with the rain and it was all wonderful.

Nothing is ever perfect: last week there was an attack at the British Council, and we fully expect the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to be significant. But we have to take the good moments when we can. In Faizabad, in the north east last week, I helped a new team of community development workers with their training; all going well, we will start work in another set of remote communities within a few weeks. Our renewable energy work there is extraordinary, thanks to a committed Afghan team and a scrupulous German engineer. Villages that would otherwise be forever using candles and torches are now having electricity via hydro-power, every night. And our adult education program is bringing people into new countries: critical thinking, interrogation of long held beliefs, voicing opinions, forming civic groups, standing up against injustice.

I sat tonight and smelt the rain and felt grateful that I can be here.

Bomb disposal at the Sound of Music.

My wife and my daughter have been going to dancing lessons the last semester. I know that sounds out of place in Kabul, but several years ago, a woman from the US, mainly through vision and raw determination, set up the Kabul Dance Studio. In a context of war and violence and chaos, dancing seem to her to be a sign of hope and beauty. And for lots of the young girls and their mothers – Afghan and expat, it has become so.

Yesterday was the performance, and most of the day the dancers were all in doing final rehearsals. The performance was at the Serena Hotel – the most fortified of hospitality venues you are ever likely to encounter. At 2.30, we arrive, well in time for the 3.00pm start, and are directed through a chicane, where we are stopped behind heavy boom gates.  I produce ID and we are asked if we are carrying weapons. The car is inspected for bombs, and we then pass through the blast doors. We are then bag scanned and body searched, and finally permitted entrance. The Serena has been a target for suicide bombers in the past, and some parents refused to let their children do the dancing, or attend the show, on security grounds, but it is a risk we decide acceptable. You have to take fun where you can here.

We settle into the Grand Ballroom in the seats Julie has reserved. A few minutes later Pete notices a bag lying on floor near us. It looks to be a video camera bag. We joke that it might be a bomb. Haha, yes, a bomb. After another few minutes we look at each other, and Pete says, with a tone of nervousness, as though apologising for worrying about such things, ‘You know, maybe it is a bomb. We should check.’

He’s right that it is odd, that a camera be left there, with no one claiming it, minutes before the show starts. I take the bag and gingerly open it. It looks like a video camera. I speculate aloud whether if I turn it on, it will trigger the bomb. ‘Haha, yes, could be’, says Pete. Haha, yes, I think, not turning it on. I fiddle with it a bit, in a very uncommitted way, remove and replace the battery, and declare with a complete lack of conviction, that it is probably ok. But it is still making us fidget, and so Pete goes and hides the bag behind a large pillar, so that if it does blow up, the blast will go away from us all. That’s bomb-disposal 101 folks! See how easy it is!

The curtain goes up, and if you thought tap-dancing in Afghanistan was anachronistic, try watching the ladies and girls perform the Sound of Music in Kabul. Ballet, waltz, lyrical dance, tap, shiny taffeta dresses and make up like Spack-filler.  It is great though, and most movingly, the dance instructor has this season worked with half a dozen girls from one of the orphanages. Six girls, from ages four to eight, performed Edelweiss, and it was lovely. I can’t imagine a day in the life of a girl in a Kabul orphanage being much fun, but yesterday was certainly an exception.

The end to the camera bag bomb incident comes as Pete notices that a group of boys – my son included, are now hanging around the pillar where we have so cleverly hidden the bag. In a final decisive move, we take it outside and leave it on a table. The performance ends, the dancers are cheered off, no bombs, and we all eat icecream in the grassy grounds of the Serena Hotel as sunlight streams through the green mulberry leaves.

Images of Kabul

I took the below photo without the boy’s permission. I had meant to take it with his back to the fire, but at shutter click, he turned. I felt unhappy about that, it felt like I had taken something from him.

The Kabul River. If you google for photos of the Kabul River in the 60’s, it is devoid of rubbish. People swim in it. It is clean and while not beautiful, at least appealing. These days, it is a drain and a rubbish bin.

Images of destruction at Eid-e Quorban

The last three days have been Eid-e Quorban, the Festival of the Sacrifice. For those of you who went to Sunday School, you’ll know that Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his first born son, Isaac, on the mountain (one of those bible stories I end up shaking my head at). At the last minute, as Abraham has sharpened up the knife and is preparing to slit his son’s throat, God intervenes, thanks Abraham for his devotion, and in gratitude, Abraham kills a nearby sheep instead. In the Islamic tradition, Abraham is told to kill Ishmael, but the rest of the story is pretty much the same.

So at this Eid, which remembers that event, lots of sheep and goats are killed, and the meat distributed to the poor in thanksgiving. Quite a nice tradition, unless you are one of the sheep, I guess.

For Muslims around here, it is a time to visit, share meals with each other, and judging by what I see on the streets, give beebee guns to your children. I wonder how much the incidence of eye injury rises during Eid…

Julie took the time to visit and hold a wee, premature baby that has been left at nearby Cure hospital. The young mother had twins, a boy and a girl, prematurely. The boy has been taken home; the girl left at the hospital. It desperately needs touch and love, and so a roster of expat mums has been there to hold and cuddle it. I don’t think it is the case that the mother is disinterested – she is young, it is a long way to travel every day, and she has the other child to care for. It is predictable though, that it was the girl child who was left. Hopefully, if she gains strength, she will rejoin her family when she can come out of the Intensive Care Unit.

I and the kids took the time to visit the old Ministry of Defence, further up Dar-ul Aman.

We have visited previously, but the military then took a dissuasive position with regards us going in. This time we were more lucky, and the lone guard was happy to let us poke around. It appeared to be thoroughly demined (it was certainly thoroughly graffiti-ed, and in many places, thoroughly used as a latrine), and it was also thoroughly destroyed.

Kabul used to be full of such buildings or remnants of buildings, there are fewer and fewer as they are bulldozed for the construction of new narco-palaces.

Walking through it with the kids was strange. It was moderately nerve-racking, wondering if there was still any UXO around;  it was depressing – seeing the ruin and devastion of what had once been a beautiful and grand building; and it was a bit numbing. The Afghans I spoke too were ambivalent about the building: I don’t think they saw it romantically. It signifies loss and destruction for them, a sad time when the Mujahideen blew Kabul to bits. It is also simply a building, home now to some 30 refugee families.

Afterwards, we drove back to the hospital and shelled peanuts until Julie came.

 

(* all these images shot with the superlative Tokina 11-16 F2.8 lens, a fantastic wide angle lens, superior in construction, speed, performance and price than the Nikon equivalents – and I am normally a Nikon purist.)