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 Kandahar

Yesterday, early, J, S and I took a plane to Kandahar. We were to visit one of our projects there. We were all dressed in salwar kameez (or peron and tonbon, to put in more correctly), we were all unshaven and the idea was that we blend in. Kandahar is a difficult place for foreigners, and has been for some years now. An expat colleague and her driver, in 2008 disappeared in Kandahar and have never been found, and along with the heavy military activity based out of there, it has become quite edgy. That is not to say foreigners are all targets, and the local staff we met were predictably hospitable. But if it becomes obvious that an NGO is Western-funded, or has expatriate involvement, all the Afghans are implicated, and may wind up disappeared also. Hence our somewhat clandestine visit.

We did blend in, a little – but with our lighter skin, slighter builds, without large beards or turbans and not being Pashto speakers it would not have taken much to penetrate our disguise. Plus I wear glasses, which immediately identifies me as someone a bit odd. But really, all we did was land at the airport, be taken to the office, meet, eat, meet, sleep, eat, meet drive back to the airport and fly away. Classic seagull stuff: fly in, make noise, fly out. But necessary sometimes, and despite my misgivings and my desire to be more present there, it was encouraging for the staff and important to heed their concerns: a higher profile visit, or meeting with too many people is just too risky.

The project we visited does adult education – getting adults not just to learn English or a vocation, but engaging them in critical thinking skills, in learning about civil society, what makes a culture, about ethics and morality and owning your own community’s problems and being a part of the solution. In a context where many programs are intensely individual, and focus simply on enabling the clients to gain a skill and better only themselves, this project is a groundbreaker. It is not perfect, and many participants probably do have a more extractionist, pragmatic approach – but some do ‘get it’: they understand that they need to be a new generation who sees things differently, who can articulate a new, critical, engaged vision of the future and draw others into it.

It must also be said that Kandahar is home to millions of mosquitos. And along with the eucalyptus and oleander and bleached colours, it felt quite West Australian. There is a lot of military activity there, and we were searched, thoroughly, several times. Two or three big explosions too, though no one was remotely fazed.

Driving back to the airport, we noticed the blast walls are property marked ‘NATO’. Is theft of these really such a big problem? Each must weigh about 2 tons.

These Hesco barriers, surrounding the airport, often go with the blast walls. It does not create an inviting atmosphere.

I guess I should not graphically represent the sign below, as it tells me not to, but I cannot let the euphemism ‘lethal force’ pass unnoticed. I guess ‘We may kill all persons who attempt unauthorised entry’ isn’t strong enough.

We made it home a few hours late, but safe.

Images of toughness

We flew back to Afghanistan a few days ago. The flight out of Perth was a long sleepless slog, but the flight into to Kabul from Dubai was a pleasure, and landing in Kabul was wonderful. Spring is here, and the air felt clean and soft. Not so clean that within a few hours we weren’t cleaning black gunk from our noses, but still, a lot cleaner than the aerosol crud we inhaled throughout winter.

The flight in was with Safi, the airline favoured by security men and diplomats and aidworkers. It has a higher safety reputation than the other contenders, one of which has just gone belly up, for falsifying black-box data after its aircraft smacked into a mountain side out of Kabul last year. The ratio of security men, diplomatic staff and NGO workers on Safi flight is about 90:5:1, and as the photo shows, there is a whole lot of toughness on these flights. The testosterone is thicker than Brie, and I have to be surreptitious in taking a photo, in case one of these guys takes umbrage and kills me with a single finger. Rachel wanders up and down the aisle, smiling to the security men, who are wrongfooted by such a little child, and diplomats look bewildered: there is a family with little children going into this country?

Sadly, the protests that have followed the Qur’an burning, along with other threats mean we have to drive even within our neighbourhood. But, it is great to be home.

Thats a whole lotta man there.

Security assessment

I hadn’t expected the next killings of expats to come so quickly.

Though the deaths of the DHL staff are murkier in their motives – was it a suicide shooting? – a grievance? – a what? – concentrating too much on why these guys were killed takes attention away from the fact that they were killed. Does it matter if it was armed opposition groups or armed criminal groups or Taliban. Or, as is often the case these days, maybe it was Taliban subcontracting to criminal groups. Or maybe it was criminals with Taliban sympathies. You can ride the speculation train for a long time.

But like I said, maybe it doesn’t matter so much. Yet somehow, and I hesitate to write this, it still feels different to Gail’s killing. Is it because I knew Gail? Is it because Gail was an aid worker? Is it because Gail was killed so close to our home? And because today’s killings feel different, we are still not pushed over the edge to leave here.

Am I simply justifying not making the decision to leave? Is the killing of these two men so different? Presumably, they got up, got dressed, putting their pants on one leg at a time, as usual. Ate breakfast, came to work.  I am sure they would have known about Gail, but they must have thought they were different. I can see their reasoning: ‘Her death was over there. She took risks, walking the street. She was an aid worker. She was a Christian. Our situation is different.’

Maybe the routes were different, but they all ended up in the same morgue.

Well. After some thought, I did make up a self-assessment sheet for the expat staff to fill out each month, as a means to monitor changes in how they perceive security, and how they feel about it. Hopefully it will help us avoid accommodating and justifying and minimising the negative changes (which we all do). I hope it can help us retain a bit of objectivity, and see more clearly how things have changed. 

Assuming we are still here in a month to fill out the next one.

For anyone interested in using  the tool, feel free. It is not onerous (or people never use such things): Security threat assessment expat staff

I’m working on a similar tool for national staff.

And thanks again for the comments and care.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.

Part of the reason for my taciturn retiscence over the last weeks can now be revealed: a close colleague and friend had been kidnapped about 2 months ago, and we were, on request, all keeping quiet in order not to further jeopardise his situation and the negotiations.

It was very hard not to talk about it, and we were increasingly worried, when we received the good news a few days ago that he had been freed. He is ok, and we are grateful.


This morning a colleague was shot and killed just a few streets from our home, on her way to work.

We need to make some decisions in light of these events.