Kabul Days (38)


Kabul Days (38)
by Hossein Shahidi

PARTS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38

Four Hundred Dollars a Second

Sunday, 10 August 2003
For the first time in twenty years, I have been experiencing the precise arrangement of seasons which is one of the best features of nature in this part of the world. While nothing else may be organised, the days began to get shorter precisely when the summer began 50 days ago. The weather has also been getting cooler since the peak in temperature four days ago, right in the middle of the summer, Qalb-ol-Asad, or the Heart of Leo. The wind and dust, though, continue as before and can even be seen on television because the broadcasters have been sitting in a small truck parked outside their studios which are being refurbished.

My work has a long way to go to have the same regular rhythm as the change of seasons on the Iranian plateau, but it already has some pattern. We’re due to have the second women journalists’ conference in less than two months, to be followed soon by another training course at the university. That will put in place a sequence that will have to be repeated twice before my first year has been completed. There will also be more short courses at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Afghanistan Radio and Television. A stream of written material is beginning to develop, now consisting of journalism manuals, but to be augmented soon with gender-focused material.

The effort so far has been rewarding, but how long can such work go to address the consequences of two decades of global warfare fought on this mountainous, largely infertile land? During the Kabul University course, we had to examine closely the justification for using 30 dollars to buy some flowers for the conference room or to pay an extra 50 dollars to cover a participant’s travel costs. Meanwhile, the United States alone is spending around 400 dollars every second on the war in Afghanistan, and four times as much in Iraq. [By 2010, both figures were much higher, but the order had been revered, with around $3,400 per second spent on the war in Afghanistan and around $2,000 for Iraq – ‘About These Counters’, The Cost of  War.]

Monday, 11 August 2003
From today, we in Kabul are in some respects on the same level as the citizens of London, Berlin, Rome, Paris and, of course, Brussels, for NATO has taken command of the 5,000 heavily armed ISAF soldiers who guarantee our security, as we drive to our offices in our 4x4s. ISAF’s appearance on the streets is alienating when you see the soldiers with their faces covered behind masks, their eyes behind dark glasses, and their hands on the machineguns mounted on top of their armoured personnel carriers. But in fairness, I have not heard or read any reports of them having misbehaved.

No one doubts that their presence has helped the public feel less insecure, and many Afghans would want the force to spread to other cities, something that is likely to happen to make sure the constitutional assembly elections in October and next June’s presidential poll can go ahead. If only the Western nations who have deployed such a sophisticated military force here would also spend a similar amount on health, construction and education.

Having referred to the masks worn by some ISAF soldiers, it occurred to me that this is in some ways similar to women wearing the burqa’ so they could not be identified by people they don’t know, and who may have ill intentions towards them. The analogy places very strong men with guns and grenades in as vulnerable a position as completely defenceless women.

A new eatery discovered today: the Ferghana restaurant, named after another historical city of this part of the world, now in Uzbekistan. The restaurant is right outside the Plaza Market, which is itself next to Plaza Hotel, in downtown Kabul. The food, and the staff, are of Uzbek origin and the customers are either the relatively poor people who work or shop in the area, or some of Kabul’s intellectuals who value the city’s authentic products.

I owe the discovery to my Oxford friend, Dr Askar Mousavi, who visited our office today. He, in turn, is indebted to an Afghan lady anthropologist who has lived and taught in the US for thirty years, but knows Kabul much better than many who have lived here forever. One day, Dr Mousavi says, as he and some friends were about to go to one of the foreign restaurants in Kabul, they were stopped by the lady who said it was a shame that Afghans should eat somewhere where they will be charged in dollars. Instead, she took them to Ferghana, which is now a hangout for these Kabul literati.

Ferghana serves three dishes only: samosas, which finish before 12, ash-e borida, or soup with noodles, close to the Iranian ash-e restheh; and mantou, or steamed dumplings, said to be so good that people from all over Kabul come to buy them from Ferghana, rather than make them at home. The soup was delicious, and the mantou much better than what I have tried elsewhere.

There were only men at the restaurant at lunch-time today, but the place has a small section in the back that can be curtained off for mixed groups. Dr Mousavi and I agreed that sometime soon we’d take some more of the colleagues from my office there. For them also it will be a discovery, because almost all of them have come back to Kabul after several years in exile and are unlikely to have been to such a restaurant when they were still in the city.

Tuesday, 12 august 2003
Iris scans, thought to be one of the most accurate means of detecting a person’s identity, are expensive and therefore not widely used. So far as I know, they are used in some high security establishments in the US, of the type shown in the movie, Minority Report. The aim, obviously, is to prevent unauthorized access to important or expensive assets.

The second place that I know these devices are in use is along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the aim of establishing the identities of Afghan refugees coming back home with assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR. One may wonder what important asset could be involved here the protection of which would require the use of such sophisticated technology. The ‘asset’ is the small amount of money, flour and some building material that the UNHCR gives to each returnee family to give them a start in life back home after years in exile.

The amount may be big compared to the one dollar a day, or less, that many working people earn in Afghanistan, and is considerable for destitute people who will return with their meager belongings carried on a truck, or on their own backs. So, there has been a temptation for some refugees to receive the UNHCR assistance, enter Afghanistan, then leave a while later and re-enter and get some more. Hence, the introduction of iris scans to ensure that the refugees return only once.

The latest news is that children too are going to have their eye prints taken, to prevent them being brought in on several trips by different ‘families’, to benefit from the extra children’s rations. I am told a market had developed to ‘rent’ children for the journey home.

How successful this system is going to be is open to question. I am told that the computers that store the eye-prints at various entry points are not connected to each other. Even if they were, passing round the information and filing and accessing it may not be completely successful. Therefore, it should be possible for a determined returnee to cross into Afghanistan at least five times, passing through the five iris scan stations along the border with Pakistan.

Wednesday, 13 August 2003
A Toyota Townace was parked outside our office the whole day, but it was grey, not metallic blue, as mentioned in our latest security warning. Perhaps that’s why no missiles were fired from it, nor did it blow up.

Elsewhere in Kabul things have been different. An explosion in a house in West Kabul is reported to have killed two people and wounded one. The report said the victims were thought to have been planning an attack with the bomb that exploded accidentally. Down south and over in the east, around 60 people are reported to have been killed in separate attacks during the past twenty-four hours. I say ‘reported’ because the figures come from different sources and the exact dates and details are not always clear.

Around twenty were killed in a bus explosion in the southern province of Helmand. The blast is thought to have been caused by a bomb that was being carried on the bus to be used later, but went off prematurely. Twenty people were killed in clashes between the forces of two local commanders in the south-central province of Uruzgan. A further 19, including five government soldiers, are reported to have been killed in the eastern province of Khost.

The senior UN representative here, Mr Lakhdar Brahimi, has asked the Security Council to expand the use of ISAF to other parts of the country. One radio report quoted him as saying that around 1,300 soldiers would be enough for this task. The number looks like a serious underestimate - or ‘misunderestimate’, to use one of Mr Bush’s favourite terms.

If history is any guide, other extensive, long lasting, bloody and ineffective foreign interventions here have started with small forces coming in and not being able to do what’s expected of them. The Soviets who had 100,000 soldiers here reckoned they would have needed 500,000 to 700,000 to shut the borders and prevent any armed people from moving in and out of the country. The total number of international troops here is less than 20,000. I hope Mr Brhaimi knows a lot that I don’t.

There have also been two changes in provincial government, one of which is likely to lead to further trouble. The governor of Qandahar, who some reports had described as not being popular in the province has had his post swapped with the Minister of Urban Planning, Mohammad Yousof Pashtun. I know nothing about the former governor’s qualifications for urban planning, but perhaps he can’t do much harm because so little urban planning it taking place. The former minister, an architect by profession, will have a tough job running a province that was the Taliban’s center of power.

The other provincial move is the government’s announcement that the governor of Herat, Isamil Khan, will no longer be the commander of the local military forces. This could lead to a confrontation, unless an agreement has been reached during several recent visits to Herat during which the province has been described as Afghanistan’s most advanced, and compliments have been paid to Ismail Khan. News report said Ismail Khan himself had signed an agreement a couple of months ago under which government officials could hold only one post.

Work continues pretty well. A new course at television is starting next week for six radio and television producers who have been on the staff for eight or nine years. They have asked for discussions on news writing and programme making which should turn this into a much focused workshop.

As I’ve said several times in these notes, people here are dealing with great economic and political difficulties. In these circumstances my own expectations of what journalism can achieve are more modest than many other people’s. Still, the experience of most training activities so far has been positive and I am optimistic about the outcome of this new one too.

It was also encouraging to watch Afghanistan TV’s Woman and Society programme. It was the best I have seen so far, with shorter, sharper segments and only one song by a male singer – there used to be a mandatory two. The writing, interviewing, camerawork, sound recording and editing could still be improved. But we have come a long way, and the producer who feared for his job is still there. Tomorrow’s post-mortem will give us much more information about how much further we can go.

Thursday-Friday, 14-15 August 2003
This is a special, double edition because, today, Friday, there was no internet connection at the office. The reason could be a failure in the land station in Norway that links us to the rest of the world, or power cuts in the US. I’ll tell you a bit about today later on, but for the moment, here’s what I wrote yesterday.

The one hour dissection of the Woman and Society programme went well, with lots of positive feedback and plenty of critical points and practical tips on how to improve quality. There’s still the question of spending more time with the team on a daily basis to help them practice what in discussions they all agree with.

Whether that works out or not, there is the question of shortage, among so many things, of vehicles. Afghanistan television had forty vehicles ten years ago. Now it has four. So producers often have to hire taxis on the street to go and shoot their reports. A second hand car costs at least $3,000, but the Woman and Society programme has only $2,000, the fee for my course which we said should be spent on equipment for the programme.

We now to have to find a donor willing to put up the extra $1,000 – equivalent to 2.5 seconds’ worth of US military expenditure in Afghanistan. So far, no success. Even if we find the money and the vehicle, it’s not clear how much access Woman and Society, one of more than a dozen programmes under one department, will have to it.

The grand scheme of things, meanwhile, is getting more and more complicated. With a constituent assembly expected in October and presidential elections next June, factions within and around the current administration are working to strengthen their positions. One of the latest developments has been the announcement of the creation of a royalist party, followed shortly by its indirect dismissal by the former King’s office.

Trying to go on writing this note, I came across a problem I faced last night: considering that I am spending far less time outside the office, there are few fresh stories about real life that I can tell. Over the past few days, I have written more about power politics than about daily life, about which there is little to say that I have not said so far.

Daily life in this very new environment was what fascinated me and gave me the urge to write, and I knew I had to do it, even before I got here. Now that that resource is growing thin, I don’t want to fill the space by writing about struggles for power, local or global, because the facts are available to all of us and my opinions matter more to me than to anyone else. Nor do I want to give you press or book reviews. After about 200 days or so, I guess I should call it a day.

Had the internet been on, that would have been the end of the story. But since I could not send you that ‘last’ note earlier, I thought I would add a few more lines.

Living in Afghanistan has been a deeply moving experience, but one which I still need to absorb more fully. There is also a lot here that I have not been able to see. Over the coming months, work should take me beyond Kabul and put in me in touch with a wider variety of people. That, and not writing daily notes that run the risk of becoming clichéd - if they have not already - should help me widen and deepen my understanding. Maybe then I will have something new to say.

One important area of life here that I have not experienced is that of the expatriate community. In addition to the kaleidoscopic mixes of people in the big UN hostels, there are also smaller, homogenous clusters of people from the same country or region sharing accommodation and creating a home away from home – a bit like what we do in this house some of the time. My work so far has not necessitated such contacts and I don’t know how much I’ve missed as a result. The ad below, sent round to foreign organisations in Kabul, is about one type of event of which I have been deprived:

Dig your best Afghan suit or little black dress for the
Inaugural Global Risk Strategies Summer Ball
All drinks included
Dinner on the lawn
Dance Floor
Movie Room
3 Bars
Secret Auctions
Lucky Door Prizes
Tickets $25
Dress: Formalish
Net proceeds to the best charitable idea on the night!

[Note 1: In an article with the title, ‘Don't call us mercenaries, says British company with lucrative contracts and cheap labour’, the Guardian newspaper had this to say about the organisers of the above party:

‘Global Risk Strategies is a UK company which has developed an entrepreneurial edge to win lucrative military contracts from the US in Iraq. Where British or US ex-special forces soldiers can command more than £300 a day - sometimes a lot more - for their services, Global need only pay around £35 a day to its 1,300 force of otherwise unemployed Fijians and Gurkhas ...

‘The firm's path to prosperity began when the US invaded Afghanistan. Mr Perl and Mr Andrews, who has also worked in the City, started operating helicopter transport, and eventually an "air bridge" to fly those working for non-governmental organisations and the media into Afghanistan from Manston in Kent.

‘It branched out into renting out secure compounds in Kabul and, according to former colleagues, impressed the local CIA team so much that it was given the contract to distribute new currency in Afghanistan. That rapidly led to a similar deal in Iraq’ - The Guardian].


[Note 2: A visit to Herat had been one of my desires since I arrived in Afghanistan. This became possible just over a year later, when I flew from Tehran to Mashhad to catch a plane to Kabul, but missed it. I then decided to travel to Herat by land and take a UN flight to Kabul the next day. Further flight problems in Herat made me stay there for two days– the chance I had been longing for to see this charming city, the birthplace of so much beauty that large of parts of it still remain, after centuries of conquest, plunder and killing >>>]


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