Article to read

Not normally into self-promotion, at least not regularly, but here’s an article I wrote, that got published, that I think says pretty much most of what I have to say at the moment. Read it all at http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/why-the-military-needs-to-leave-afghanistan-and-soon-20120402-1w8np.html 

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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.

An ordinary conversation

I am walking to our kids school for a meeting. A man is adjacent to me, and he looks into my face.

‘Mr Kim? You are Mr Kim? Salaam aleyikum!’

I return the greeting, though I have no idea who this man is. He senses that I am perhaps not Mr Kim and asks again.

‘No, I am not Mr Kim.’

‘Ahh, but you work with [our organisation], do you not? And now, see, you are walking to the school.’

I don’t like that he knows where our kids school is, but it seems pointless to deny it. I suppose it is pretty obvious.

The man goes on. ‘I used to work with your organisation. For 20 years! I worked with Mr Harri, and Mr Tom, the one who was killed in Nuristan. I worked with Mr Dan, who was killed with him. I worked in the eye hospitals. Now I am working in the Ministry of Public Health. I am like a doctor there. I control for quality. You are new in Afghanistan?’

‘No’, I say, ‘we came here 12 years ago.’

‘But I have never seen you!’

‘We were in Mazar.’

‘Ahhh, Mazar. I worked there as well. I worked in Mazar for 10 days! I supervised the eye hospital there. Perhaps we met then. There was that Finnish woman, there, a doctor…’ He gropes for the name. ‘Well, she was there. You remember her? And that other one, the… the.. Well, see, now, here we are at your school.’

Hamid, our school watchman opens the gate for me, and to my surprise, he greets the man with me with clear recognition, and they fall into an animated conversation.

The snow is deep in the school yard, piled into high drifts and though the sun is finally out, it will be weeks before it has all melted.

The man has left, and Hamid comes and stands beside me.

‘That man was a watchman, alongside me, for years. That’s what he was.’ Hamid says, answering my unspoken question. ‘He worked as  a watchman at the eye hospital, with Mr Tom. And then he was the watchman for Mr Harri. When the Taliban imprisoned us, he cried like a baby. Now he is working at the Public Health Ministry. He told me he earns 25,000, sometimes 30,000 Afs a month.’

Hamid pauses.

‘In all my life, I have never earned that much. Here, at the best, I take home 8,000, maybe 10,000 Afs a month. Soon I will end my work and that will be it. That will have been my life.’

Hamid pauses, and then speaks again, but now with more difficulty, as though the memories are locked away, hard to chip out. ‘The Taliban locked us up for three months I think…But that man, he knew someone high up, and he cried and cried and then they took pity on him and let him go… The second time we were locked up was… when the Taliban tried to take Mazar [1998]. There were missile attacks here [when Clinton ordered strikes against Al Qaida training camps]. Everyone thought it was all war again, or maybe that’s what the Taliban thought.’

As I listen to Hamid, I look at him. I try to imagine the life he has led, the chaos and the violence he has seen. The scars it has left on him. He is an old man now, and the lines on his face and around his mouth remind me of my father.

‘After that time, I went to Pakistan. I didn’t want to be locked up again. When I came back, I came to Kabul, and worked at the school again. That other fellow, he is at the Ministry, doing his job. And I am still here.’

Images of Afghanistan

A trip up to Qargha lake a few weeks back. Yes, that handsome horseman is I. Someone give me a role in a Bollywood movie now!

In addition to the horseriding, there are Swan shaped paddleboats at the lake. It was wonderful to hire them and have a paddle around, though Julie said she spent a while wondering what to do if someone opened fire on us (this happened to friends of ours – but don’t worry, Dear Reader, it was years ago, during the Taliban. And we are pretty sure they were just fooling around).

Paddleboating, as you can see, remains a serious business. A great day though. Good to get out of Kabul, and have a play.


Power trumps process: a reflection.

I am at Kabul airport. Again. So long I have been coming to this terminal. For years it hardly changed at all: girders hung broken and deadly from the ceiling, huge holes riddled the roof, exposed wires and pipers snaked through the building in an electrician’s nightmare. It was dark and cold and horrifically inefficient. But the people who worked here were fairly friendly. There was a timeless old man who emptied the bins, a foul huddle of steaming toilets and a pirate crew of guards and flight staff and lounging Mujahideen/ Talibs/ policemen. It was a good metaphor for the country as a whole. The guards and officials were resigned, cheerful and nonchalant (the Talibs were always surly). People smoked in the non-smoking areas, spat on the floor, slept slumped over like bags of spilling wheat, and entire families camped out for long periods, days or weeks perhaps, waiting for their flight. You could drive right up to the airport and sometimes right to the place when you were leaving, and when you arrived, you got out of the plane and walked through the building, where an immigration guard might or might not look at your passport. Bags were piled in a big heap out on the tarmac, and you simply collected yours and wandered off.

The last few years, Kabul airport has undergone a transformation. From being a broken, dysfunctional, welcoming place, it has slowly grown into the semblance of a functioning terminal. Walls have been repaired. People no longer spit on the floor. The no-smoking rule is enforced and people who want to suck on a cigarette have to go outside. There are security checks: a raft of them, a stupid, ineffective line of checks that do nothing to promote security, but do a great deal to produce irritation and delay. And the guards and police and officials are gradually becoming officious, arrogant and unhelpful.

I don’t know whether this change is to do with attitudes of policing learned from the foreign forces here: a good cop is a tough, aggressive cop. Or maybe it derives from the huge inequalities that every day here grow greater: those who can exercise power do, because any power people have can perhaps be translated into gain or favour. It might be to do with feeling powerless and once again, eternally poor. Poor and disappointed that the peace dividend of the US invasion of Afghanistan has been so meagre. Problems or issues here used to be mostly resolved with a conversation and a compliment; these days the impartial rule of law does not work, but neither is there a unbiased professionalism. And so little and ever less of the old manners remain, where tolerance, forbearance and a reliance on people to do the right thing were the norm. So we are somewhere in the middle: not the application of law, but not the absence of it. Instead, law is applied gratuitously, randomly, according to whim, mood, ethnicity, bribe, relationship, favour obligation. It is intensely frustrating.

*

At the airport this morning I stood in the queue and watched a woman and her daughter stack up over 140kg of luggage on the check-in scales. The official looked at it, and advised that a excess baggage fee of $120 was payable. The woman summoned a senior looking man in a suit, and whispered a name to him: Shekib. The man nodded, the bags were loaded, the mother and daughter went on their way and no fee was paid. Later, when I checked in, I was asked to produce my foreigners registration card. We all have to have these, and I don’t mind this, it is common enough in Asia. The original rule was, that every time you left Afghanistan, you surrendered the card, and on re-arriving, went and got a new one. That way, the Afghan Government could keep some record of the numbers of foreigners living and operating here (at least I suppose that was the idea). If this rule was systematically applied, I would be quite happy. But it is not: when my parents left Kabul, no card was required at all (just as well, as we hadn’t bothered to get them); when my friend Guen left, he had to surrender his. When we left to go to Kenya, they glanced at our cards, but said we could keep them. Often there is no one to take the cards. Sometimes there is two men, deep in conversation, and they wave you through. This morning, a truculent and stubborn official demanded I surrender mine. ‘ But I am coming back in a week! I am not leaving Afghanistan, this is just a short trip for work! Three weeks ago you let us keep them!’

Predictably starting such a conversation was pointless. And equally predictably, I got angry and he got angry. Then I calmed down and try to placate him, and he told me to go and have a good journey. I asked for my card back, and he again told me to go. Then I got angry, he got angry, and after a few more idiot orbits of this miserable encounter, I gave up and went through the gate fuming, telling the official he was crazy and unhelpful. ‘You’re a dog’ I heard him say, from behind my back, as I walked away.

Not a feel-good moment. But I have lots of not-feel good moments here in the last few years. I think it is because I don’t function well in this limbo of sometimes-law, sometimes not.

Later, after the card incident, I stood in another queue and watched as a large, powerful minister or Government officer and his flock of assistants jumped the queue in front of us all, and simply walked through all the semi-final security unchecked, unharried, unharrassed, and I again felt angry. I find it hard to not let such abuses of power bother me. Partly I am jealous and want such privilege for myself, but largely I loathe the self-serving use of such privilege and despise the way power trumps process.

Elsewhere in Kabul, friends of mine are at the moment dealing with a landlord who is attempting to break a housing contract struck by the landlord’s grandfather. The present landlord is using every dirty trick, including threat, force and bribery to get the lease declared void, and he probably will win. If he doesn’t win in the courts, he can simply throw a hand-grenade over the wall, and my friends will have to vacate the property anyway: two weeks ago, he arrived at the property with two trucks full of armed men, and attempted to seize the building by force. He has resorted to tactics and pressures that we can never use: if we do, we immediately lose any moral authority, and what’s more, we lose the fight as well. You cannot win against such a mindset.

I don’t know. Maybe I should end my time here. I used to love this place and the people. I functioned really well here in the anarchic, desperate, difficult days of the Taliban. Since the fall of the Taliban though, the rest of the world has gotten involved here, and I have found it increasingly hard to love and respect this place and the people. Afghan police now drive like the US military convoys, and have taken, I notice to wearing dark sunglasses. Afghan officials, who were once poor and desperate, but didn’t really stop you from your work, are now essentially out for themselves: two days ago, I was at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. In partnership with the IOM (a UN entity), we had submitted a proposal to help improve the rehabilitation and care processes of Kabul’s safe houses. There are only a few such shelters here, and the abused, trafficked and beaten women who find their way there are truly in need of real help (e.g., the recent story of a raped girl in Bamiyan who was taken to a cow shed and held down while her brother cut her open with a razor and performed a c-section abortion. No anaesthetic, and she was sewn up with potato sack twine).

Qazi Fouzia, the Deputy for Laws at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs told us that neither Hagar nor the IOM could not work with any Afghan-run shelter, period. She tapped her high heels against the floor, and continued: ‘…the shelters are Afghan’s business; you cannot do this work. You have no protocol. But,’ she said, smiling, ‘we do need new tables, chair and office furnishings here. Actually, we need a new office.’ My eyes rolled in their sockets and involuntarily I found myself shaking my head, but I still smiled back. If she, a woman, has so little heart for the poor women of this country, just what is the point? In the old days, officials would ask for a pen, a book, an English text. Now they want 4WDs and airconditioners to sweeten the deal.

Some people tolerate this kind of stuff much better than me. They have a larger capacity for putting up with other people’s bullshit. The abuse of power, the selfishness, the corruption of laws, the opportunism – it riles them less. I get riled, I get angry. But getting angry here only wins you enemies. A person I know, when he left here for the last time, shook the dust from his feet as he boarded the plane at this same airport. He was recalling the Biblical example, where such an action indicates that a place has rejected light and chosen darkness. That was his opinion; wrong perhaps, but that was how he felt. I don’t want to leave here feeling like that. I want to leave here with my love intact.

Migrating, leaving, goodbyes.

We are off for several weeks. To Africa. Needing a break, we are also taking the time to do some reflecting on our lives here, and to try to make some decisions.

The last time we did this was in August 2001, in the context of the Taliban’s increasingly onerous edicts, then enlarging to encompass foreigners in their dictation of how reality should look. We took time out to go to China, visit family, and think things through. While we were there, the Shelter Now workers were imprisoned. We read about it in Ning Bao, Southern China. Shortly after that, the agency we worked with was kicked out of Afghanistan, and all the expat workers given 48 hours to leave the country, or be imprisoned. The head of the organisation was summoned before a junior staffer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ‘You are the head of nothing. Your organisation no longer exists’, he was told. **

We had come back to Pakistan, and I had just negotiated a return to Mazar, when this went down. We watched, mutely, from Peshawar, as our staff arrived by plane and by vehicle, carried their small evac bags. Nothing was ever recovered from our home and life there, and it still hurts.

While we tried to work out the future of our organisation from the logistics office base in Peshawar, September rolled around. We were in a meeting, downstairs, when a worried colleague called us to the TV, and we watched as the Twin Towers fell.

We were evacuated to Australia a few days later, still with only what we had taken on holiday. A whole life, truncated. I have often wondered what different futures we might have had.

 

It has crossed my mind several times that such a scenario could easily be repeated. Partly that is why we live with a light footprint here: all it takes is one evacuation and the ensuing loss, to know forever that we are just visitors, and that we might be out of here at a moments notice.

So I am packing things up, mentally saying good bye. If we come back again, great. But I will not be robbed of the chance to leave properly again. 

 

** in a strange turn, it is the Taliban’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and that junior staffer who no longer exist. Our agency was the first NGO invited back by the new Government of Afghanistan in 2002, and has the registration number 001.

On cars with black windows

For the third time in two weeks I have just been forced off the road by convoys of vehicles.

The first occasion involved two Landcruisers with the mandatory black tinted windows. After forcing me into the ditch, they passed at speed, only to halt 100 m later. Out stepped a high ranking Pashtun delegation. I raised a finger as I drove by.

Today, in short succession, it happened again. I was bringing my son and his playmate to a venue for a rare chance to have a run around. I was about to turn left at a juncton, when I noticed the lead car in an approaching convoy flashing its headlights at me. As I was significantly closer to the intersection, I ignored it and made the turn. But a short way down the road the three Landcruisers shouldered by me, horns blaring, again pushing me off the road. Predictably,about 300m on, they all turned and pulled into compound of a well known local commander.

Around they next corner, I was pushed to the side of the road by a guard with the usual AK47. Irate, I questioned who we were waiting for now.

‘The assistant to the Honorable Khalili’.

Khalili is a former warlord, now rehabilitated as an MP. Even his assistants now travel in three car convoys with black windows, road closures and an attitude to match.

I felt annoyed. Unreasonably, perhaps. But this habit of leaders assuming total rights over ordinary people- pulling rank, if you like – is offensive. It is, I suspect, an outcome of the way the foreign military conduct themselves. They set the example of impunity, privilege and arrogance, through forcing their way through any traffic simply by threating to shoot (or, by shooting) those who resist them. They too, set the example of black tinted windows, no number plates, and anonymous, agressive, bullying driving. And now any one who can afford it travels in similar fashion. It is not surprising that ordinary Afghans are angry at this corruption and misuse of power.

‘What sort of country has Afghanistan become?’ I asked the guard.
‘It’s the people who blow themselves up who have brought it to this’, was the reply.

Maybe. Or maybe the lure of being above the law is just too tempting. The idea of being special, untouchable, privileged. 

A few minutes later Khalili’s assistant passed, four vehicles, Landcruisers, black windows, lights flashing. After another minute we were allowed to pass.

It took me half an hour or so, but I got over it. And the kids had a great play.

002

Autumn leaves at the play area we sometimes visit.