A harsh winter

We are headed for Dubai. It is intended to a be a short break in the middle of winter, and a break that does not involve death or bush fires or crisis. I am badly overworked and Julie not far behind.

As we drive to the airport, Mohammed Ali, asks me where we are going. I tell him we are going to Dubai.

‘And then to your home?’

‘No’, I say. ‘Just Dubai.’ I don’t add, ‘for a holiday’ because I realise I feel somewhat guilty about all of this. Going to Dubai if we are in transit to home is one thing; a discretionary, gratuitously chosen break in Dubai is another. Mohammed Ali – who is not trying to imply anything, I am sure, and would not even understand about guilt in such a context – has more questions:

‘What is the airport like then, here in Kabul? Isn’t it cold? Is it heated in winter? Will you wait long? What about in Australia? Do you have to arrive three hours early there too? Is the security process similar?’

As I answer, it is immediately clear that Mohammed Ali has never gone anywhere by air. Well, neither have the vast majority of the farmers, labourers, herders and miners of the poorer parts of the world. But this whole issue of inequity is one Julie and I have been thinking a lot about recently, in part because it has been such a hard winter in Afghanistan.  We have sat it out in minimal discomfort, complaining mainly about chilled toes and slipping in the ice. When we run out of kerosene to heat the house, we buy another barrel. When we get truly sick of the cold, we fly to Dubai.

Afghans just sit it out. Quietly or noisily, they just sit it out, trying to make it. Some don’t: there have been many deaths this winter. There will be more, yet. Quite a few Afghans we know ran out of wood to heat their houses weeks ago. They do not have the ability to simply ‘buy more’. A week or so back, Julie was talking to our watchman, and he cried, openly, in front of her. When she asked him the matter, he simply said, ‘We are cold and hungry. We ran out of wood. We just don’t have anything.’

While we are volunteers here in Afghanistan, we still, if truth be known, live like kings compared to 90% of Afghans. Like kings. We will go back to Australia one day, without having made any money on this whole venture, and that is fine – we are not here for money, at all. And sure, there are many expats here who live a whole lot better than us, on six week R&R cycles and $4K/ month ‘danger’ money; but the fact is undeniable: we live like kings. We all live like kings. When our watchman cries in front of us, we are wealthy enough that we can give him money, easily, and not even miss it.

I do the math as Mohammed Ali drives. Flights to Dubai: $1400. Hotel/ guesthouse for the week: $900. Meals: maybe $50/ day. We will buy unnecessary things there, like books, clothes and gadgets. We will go to a water park, a movie, a play-gym. The whole nine days will cost maybe $3500. Mohammed Ali makes $250 a month, our watchman about the same, and by Afghan standards, they are both doing pretty well.

We live like kings in the middle of awful poverty.


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.

Encounters with power: 3

I have written previously about power and its corruptions in this country. And I had intended that my next post, i.e., this post, be about the struggles we are having in Faryab province – our long term development work being undermined, sidelined and devalued, by the rising tide of uncritical aid money being splashed about. The crazy thing (or one of the many sad and crazy things) is that in those parts of Afghanistan where peace reigns, the development dollar has been the weakest: that is, proportionally far less has been spent on basic infrastructure, education, training of professional and technocrats and so on. Those places that are least stable – so, more poorly positioned to actually thrive – have had the most money spent. Big aid follows the military machine. It is called the peace penalty, it is well known and roundly criticised by people like us whose opinions never reach further than the next street.

In Faryab – seeing as I have now started – it used to be peaceful. Then some Taliban moved in. Then the US came and shot up some valleys and had some of their drones drop some bombs. Then one of our staff got kidnapped and lots of NGO staff got threatened. The insecurity continued to get worse, in part it seems, because people realised that insecurity attracts money. And sure enough, the big money came. And now, people in the villages – those few places where we can still work, where security is sufficient that it permits us a presence, big uncritical aid has corrupted the local people so comprehensively they no longer want to be participants in development. They want it all done for them. They will not contribute free labour: they want to be paid. They will not send their sons and daughters to literacy classes: they want incentives – wheat and oil – before they will give their children permission. And so on. And there goes our approach.

But more on that later.

So: it is Thursday. I have dropped some friends at Chicken St, and then I continue to Bush Bazaar, where I intend to stock up on provisions for our friends, Tom and Lyn, who are coming to Kabul to teach at the kids school. I buy oats and bacon, soap and shampoo, hot chocolate and real Italian pasta, weetbix and real coffee. It is a successful expedition.

I return to our car, and notice my front tire is flat. This is a frustration, as I am meant to be home in 15 minutes, so Julie can go out to lunch. The little boys who attend the vehicles, occasionally polishing them with filthy rags, in the hope of receiving a few Afs compensation for their re-arrangement of the dust, notice my arrival and gather around.

‘You have a flat tire’, they trill.


‘But it was the police. See, they have taken your number plate too.’ I am slow to catch on. It was the police?

‘Yes, you can’t park here. They said. They did it. They tore off your number plate. See, look! Come, see!’ Their excitement is palpable: a foreigner in trouble is high entertainment. I go see, and sure enough, the plate is gone. I look down the row of variously arranged cars; abandoned it seems, for such is the Afghan way of parking. I notice that perhaps half have similarly had their front tires punctured. Others are without plates too. It is not just me then.

Now my anger begins to build. Issue me a fine for parking in a wrong place (though post some ‘No Parking’ signs first), but take my number plate? Puncture my tire?

‘When did this happen? Where are they?’ I demand of the boys, as though they were complicit (they possibly were: they certainly encouraged me to park there, and I can’t be sure they don’t benefit in some way from all this).

‘Up there – see – if you run, you can catch them.’

It seems I have little choice. To have no licence plate is a serious problem and who knows to what graveyard of remote offices the hapless number plates will be borne and hidden? It could take me days to find. Better to try to retrieve it now. I set off jogging down the street, acutely aware that about $300 worth of goods are now sitting in my car in open sight.

After 5 minutes I catch the police. There are about 30 of them. Good Grief. How many coppers are needed to stab tires and pull off plates? Is this an all day thing? Is it such hard work? But more pressingly, who is in charge? Which is the commander? Who do I talk to? I gabble to various underlings and thrust my registration papers at many lowly police toe-rags before finally finding the Commander, and puff out my story. I am not abrasive  – perhaps I should be, or might be, if I hadn’t run the best part of a kilometre. I mainly want my number plate back, and starting a fight with 30 police officers is not going to work. See, I have learned something in the last 12 years.

The Commander scans my papers and grunts. I babble apologies. He takes a single appraising look at me, as if to ascertain how much trouble I can cause, or perhaps how much I am good for.

‘Give him his numberplate’. This is a concession to the fact that I am a foreigner, I am sure – an Afghan here would be told to get lost, to come to the office, to come back in three days. The Commander, without raising his eyes, starts to write something – a fine, perhaps, and then his sidekick, based on some subtle communication from the Commander, jumps to life and tells me, ‘1000Afs’. About $20. It is not too much, though whether it is a bribe or a fine I do not know. Should I protest? Is it too much? Is it official? An official bribe perhaps. The Commander writes out one, two, three, four, and then a fifth copy of the receipt.

‘Why five?’ I ask. Foolish, perhaps, but why do I need so many?

‘Five hours. 200Afs per hour.1000 Afs’ The Commander’s meaning is oblique. ‘Eh? Five hours of what?’ I start to ask, and then decide the better of it. That I was ‘illegally’ parked (note, there are no signs what so ever forbidding parking in the entirety of the street) for only one hour is not going to get my 800Afs back, and if I start to argue my case I might just find myself in his car along with my numberplate.

I get the number plate, the five receipts, my registration papers, and begin the jog back. It now takes only about 45 minutes to locate the jack, the tire lever, pancake myself under the car – now so low to the ground that you could barely slip a pizza underneath – jack it up and change the tire. The jack is the sort that you turn with a small handle, and it offers very little mechanical advantage. With each turn, the jack raises about 1/10th of a millimetre. It is a slow business, and with every turn, my knuckle knocks on the underbody of the car. In warm weather it would be painful, in the wintery 5˚ C, it is murderous, and at one point, I get up, kick a rock and say a bad word. The Afghan boys are delighted, and laugh openly: ‘He has a flat tire! He is changing the tire! He is angry!’

I derive only a small amount of satisfaction from the fact that I am a source of amusement to small boys. More interesting is the solidarity I feel with other car owners, who return to find their number plates gone and their tires down. They too look disgusted and angry, and when our eyes meet, there is the brief recognition that we have been wronged, together.

Finally I am done. I am filthy, from the mud, the oil and grease caked around the jack, the black of the tire, the effort, the blood from my banged knuckle.  I lower the car, hang the punctured tire on the brace at the back of the car, and I drive home, and though vexed, I am not furious. Perhaps I am getting better at managing these situations. Or perhaps I was just too irritated to get really enraged. Or just realised at a subconscious level the futility of it.

I continue to speculate as I drive. If my encounter with Kabul’s police was archetypical -and all I know and read and am told suggests that it is – I wonder how the people of this country are meant to vest trust in its institutions and its officials. I wonder at what point it tips, when enough people decide that on balance, ‘this’ state of affairs is preferable to another. What corruptions are acceptable and what aren’t? What will people put up with? I know it is a world I am largely not part of, and when I get home, I tell our watchman what happened. He says little, but looks at me in a way I can’t quite fathom. It is almost – almost, like he is thinking, ‘Now you’ve had a taste of it’. I do not mean he is mean, or vindictive – far from it, he is a kind and gentle man. But he knows, and I know, that I rarely ever experience anything like the privations and pains that he does, that poor people do. I would not blame him at all, for taking a measure of satisfaction that for a brief minute, I shared something of the hardness of the life of the poor.

Later I go out the bazaar and get the tire repaired. It is only 100Afs.

I please myself the following morning, by being able to laugh when the same watchman comes to the door at 7AM to tell me that I have two completely flat tires.

Some images from autumn and winter.

In a cold brown place and thinking

I am back in Kabul. As always, it is brown. Cold too, at present. We had some useful meetings in Phnom Penh. I also took the opportunity to eat some excellent Fish Amok and Lak Loc. Cambodian food is exquisite.

En-route back to Kabul, I spent several hours in the Emirates business class lounge at Bangkok airport. Having flown a bit over recent years, I was able to use points to upgrade to business class for the flight from Bangkok to Dubai, something I appreciated given the flight went though the night, arriving at 0430. Not very restful in spite of the business class leg room.

While in the lounge though, I took a shower in their well appointed facilities. This involved receiving a pack of three towels from the shower mistress. I would have thought one sufficient. On de-cladding and entering the shower, I was faced with a gleaming stainless steel rod set upright in the shower wall. It had a gleaming handpiece, three gleaming nozzles set in the middle, and a large gleaming shower head the size of a dinner plate. It was quite unclear though, how to turn it on. After some chilly fiddling, I was suddenly drenched in cold water. With alacrity, I fiddled a bit more and cleverly worked out the hidden levers and was soon able to calmly manipulate the many functions of this cutting-edge ablution technology. Though the shower head was completely, excessively adequate, I was able to employ the handpiece to further wet my body, and by turning on the nozzles, I could direct spray at my chest, stomach and groin simultaneously. I was nearly delirious with excitement. If only we could get such a shower into the hands of the poor, I thought.

As I towelled myself off with three separate towels, I wondered why it is that a simple shower isn’t enough. How many millions of dollars were spent researching and designing this utterly unnecessary bit of bathroom junk? Why is such a thing on anyone’s ‘to do’ list? If we are clever enough to build such a thing, can’t we do something about water distribution for the 2 billion people who don’t have any?

I know the answers to this idle speculation. Fancy showers make rich people feel privileged and happy, whereas the happiness of poor people is irrelevant. Fancy showers exist only in the elite domain, and so maintain the illusion so necessary for wealthy people that they have entered this domain on their own merits. If hard work were all it took to become rich, most Afghans would be millionaires. But hard work has little to do with it.

Happily, within a day of my elite shower experience, I was back in Kabul, in our bathroom that looks like those found in mental asylums, and I was washing again in a bucket under a trickle. And – that I can do that signals just how removed even I am from the really marginalised people here.


Barbed wire and bags: the arrivals area at Kabul airport.

An Afghan story

A few days ago, I got a phone call from Alberto at the Red Cross Orthopaedic Centre here. Alberto has been in Afghanistan about 12 or more years. I think he is Italian. I have never met him that I recall, but I am told he is serious about his work.  I would imagine that he has seen alot of things change, and a lot of things hardly change at all.

Alberto wanted to refer to us a girl and her mother. The mother is paralysed and wheelchair bound. The girl is about 17 or so. She is studying in the 10th grade at a school here. Her father died when she was 2 months old, killed in the fighting. The mother is cared for 100% by the girl, who I suppose leaves her each day as she goes to class. They survive on Red Cross assistance and zakat, the Islamic requirement to give alms to the poor. They presently live in a room at the mother’s brother’s house. His patience and tolerance are wearing thin.

Alberto called me because the girl is getting increasingly frequent, serious death threats. He didn’t know what it was about, but he considered it beyond his remit. He has been trying to assist the mother with her degenerative paralysis; death threats are not his area.

I asked our program manager to go see the girl.  When Karima returned, she filled in the gaps. She told me that the girl’s other uncle – her dead father’s brother – wants the girl to get married to a man of his choosing – possibly to settle some debt, or seal some bargain. She refuses. So he threatens to kidnap and forcibly marry her, or kill her. He lives somewhere in Western Pakistan: it is not like we can go and visit him.

I heard the story and felt what I have so often felt here: this sense of hopelessness, this inability to change what is wrong, to help people with their ordinary sorrows and griefs.

We talked some more, and then I wondered aloud to Karima how they had arrived at the Red Cross centre from C District, which is a long way away. I wasn’t really questioning the integrity of the story, though I do often hear great fictions here. Red Cross assessments are thorough and reliable. It was more an idle wondering as to how this girl and her mother got around. You can’t push someone in a wheelchair through the streets here.

In response, Karima told me that the mother is so frail and thin, that the girl, in order to move her about, simply lifts her in to a taxi. They leave the wheelchair at home. On arrival to their destination, the girl carries her mother again, till a chair can be found. This Karima had seen with her own eyes.

I thanked Karima and told her to leave it with me. After several hours work on other things, the only thing I could think of doing was giving the girl and her mother some money. There is a fund here, which many of the expats contribute to, for times such as this. We just put money in every now and again, and then when something arises, we can apply for a few hundred dollars. Sometimes it buys food, sometimes rent, sometimes  medicines. Sometimes it is abused, and sometimes misspent. But sometimes, a few hundred dollars at the right time, while not solving everything, can help a great deal.

I asked Rachel for some money from the fund, and after a few more phone calls, we had secured it.

So today Karima went and got the girl, and after some more talking, gave her the money. We know there is no solution to the danger of her being kidnapped, or forced into marriage, or being killed. I know well that it is no long term solution. But some money towards rent might help the uncle remain sympathetic towards the girl and her mother – his sister. Maybe it might also buy some things to get them through the winter.

We talked about it afterwards. We will stay in touch with them. If the threats remain just threats, then in a year or two, the girl may find a job, or get married. Meanwhile, it is just an Afghan story:  common, intractable and sad, and there is not much that can be done.

On the absence of light and power.

In sharp contrast with our home, which presently is warm, well lit and cosy, with functioning 18hr/ day electricity (thanks to a deal President Karzai has struck with Turkmentistan), our office is dark, cold and powerless. Yesterday the city power dropped out, causing, as usual computers, printers, heaters etc to crash. It took a long time for the generator to be started, because the only person who possessed the arcane knowledge of how to turn it on was out in the city. By around 2pm we were able to start work again. By which time I was so cold I had put on a beanie (- woollen hat) and second scarf, in addition to my thick leather jacket, scarf, thick thermal fleece, long shirt, second fleece, t-shirt and second t-shirt. I was wearing ski-pants as well, and I was still cold. Staff came in just to look at me and giggle.

Now it is today and the power has just crashed again. It has been raining for hours, and fuses outside have melted, burned, disapparated or something. A bunch of office staff are standing around them, looking, gesturing and nodding sagely. One man is holding a screwdriver. I wander out to see what is happening. I wander back in again. No power means no access to the server, or the printer. A friend of mine thinks it is time to make the technological step to the computerless office, where we work on paper. He suggests it doesn’t crash, is invulnerable to power surges, archives well and doesn’t get clogged with dust. Paper: the new computer. I think he is on to something.

Meanwhile, I am still sitting here in the cold and dark.