Kabul days

I arrived in Kabul from London, via Dubai, on Sunday 2 February 2003 to take up my post as the Gender and Media Specialist with the United Nations Development Fund for Women. The brief for my programme was to support women media professionals and raise gender awareness among journalists as a whole. The assignment ended on 21 September 2004, when I left Kabul for Tehran. >>> See

I had applied for the post after more than 20 years in journalism, mostly with the BBC World Service radio. Ten years earlier, in 1993,I had headed for a reporting visit to Afghanistan, via Iran, but had not been allowed by the Iranian authorities to leave through the Iranian border post at Eslam-Qal'ah and had had to return to London empty-handed.

So UNIFEM's decision to accept me was not only as an honour because of my gender, but also the fulfillment of a personal desire to visit Afghanistan.

I had no doubt that this was going to be a most profound professional experience and a very exciting chapter in my personal life. So I decided to keep a diary, something I had not done before and probably will not do in future.

I wrote my diaries almost every day and emailed them to my family and a small group of friends. By mid-August 2003 I stopped, having realized that I had achieved what I had set out do: to register the life around me in as much detail as I could.

While the diaries contain plenty of personal reflections, I have done my best to ensure that my observations are factually correct. When I did make mistakes and noticed them, I corrected them as soon as possible. But it is quite possible that I still have missed, misunderstood, or confused some details when trying to understand Afghanistan. I would therefore be grateful for any guidance from the readers.

With best wishes for my wonderful friends in Afghanistan who gave me such a full life, even though their own lives may have been far from comfortable.

Sunday, 2 February 2003
It's been lovely here. Great people, good room and food and very kind colleagues at a very friendly office. I think this will be a pleasant experience and I hope you will also come here to enjoy Afghanistan. My computer and internet will be working form tomorrow and I will write you more.

Monday, 3 February 2003
I've seen a good weekly newspaper, Kabul Times, with articles in Dari (Persian), Pashto and English. There are also several radio stations, including a French one, which can make you feel you are living in the west. At home there's the BBC World Service TV and a film channel, but I have not had the time for movies yet.

Out on the streets, you can see the signs of many years of war which have resulted in extreme poverty. But I've already seen lots of skillful and talented Afghan people and believe that with help from the rest of the world they can rebuild Afghanistan.

My work plan is becoming clearer and I will tell you about it as it develops. Right now, I am meant to organise some training courses. I will have to go on courses myself – gender training, as Roya [my partner] so cheerfully informs everybody!

Tuesday, 4 February 2003
It's a very pleasant and bright morning, but the beginning of a day with several meetings – which take up a lot of everybody's time here.

So far I've seen mostly the inside of the UNDP compound, the UNIFEM guesthouse where I live, and the inside of what seems to be the standard UN vehicle, a Japanese-made white 4×4, in this case a Toyota Land Cruiser. There are dozens of these white vehicles with huge “UN” logos on them going around Kabul.

The UN has hundreds of staff here, from almost every country in the world. There are many Iranians, some from Iran and others from Europe and America. I'll be meeting some of them later in the week when I go for a meal at another UN compound where they get together.

So far, I've been eating at the guesthouse, where we have a very good cook, an old gentleman called Agha Sarvar, from Afghanistan’s Hazara community. A Turkish colleague told me yesterday that cans of the Iranian stew ghormeh sabzi could also be found on the market. At the office, there is a canteen I have yet to try, and a deli nearby from which I got a pretty good chicken sandwich.

Right now, I'm going over to the Intercontinental Hotel where some thirty ladies from across Afghanistan have been meeting to discuss women's issues. I was at their first meeting yesterday – the only man! It was very enlightening, as they were all excited about women's rights and talked about the problems they've had, most importantly unemployment and the lack of health and educational services.

There will be a lot of work to do to prepare for the International Women's Day on 8 March. I am helping a colleague prepare some publicity material. So if you have any thoughts, please share them with me.

Thursday, 6 February 2003
It will be busy here today and tomorrow. Friday is the day off. So I might ‘’’not be able to write much before Saturday. It's been quiet at the office this morning; a lot of reading; writing a couple of memos; and planning for the next few days. I'm leaving for a meeting and will write back on Saturday.

Kabul weekend – 7 February 2003
It snowed on Thursday night and by midday on Friday there was slush and mud on the roads, but a beautiful white all over the mountains. A couple of friends and I had lunch at a big UN compound where there is a barbeque on Fridays. We then sat outside under the sun for a while. Afterwards, we walked downtown to look around. Lots of very nice locally made leather goods and jewellery, plus plenty of imported consumer goods – appliances from East Asia and Europe and foodstuff, washing powder, and other items from Iran.

I bought some books. One is about ‘the first Muslim woman to write poetry in Persian and Arabic’, Rabe'ah, who lived in the northern city of Balkh about a thousand years ago. She was the daughter of a local Arab tribal chief, and is said to have been killed by her brother after she fell in love with a Turkic soldier serving in her father's army.

I also bought a book about an Afghan who returns home after a long time in the west, in recent times, and find he has to convince people that he has not given up his religion.

In the evening, a lot of reading and watching the news.

Today, there are two sets of interviews for new colleagues, and there will be another round of interviews tomorrow. In between, I'll have to work on material for the International Women's Day. A new colleague is arriving from abroad, and there will then be three of us in the guesthouse, until [the UNIFEM Afghanistan Director, Dr] Parvin [Paidar,] arrives and we have a full house.

Saturday-Sunday, 8-9 February 2003
It looks like morning letters are going to be the norm. In the evening, when I would like to write, the web gets clogged up by all you people in the West. This is a fine morning, bright and clear, and all signs of snow have disappeared from the roads.

Yesterday we interviewed two sets of people and employed a new colleague, which should give us a good media team. We still need a couple of more staff who should be in place soon. We're getting two new colleagues at the guesthouse and last night we were talking of getting a ping-pong table!

I have discovered a whole range of Persian and Arabic channels on our satellite television and this should provide some diversion in case of insomnia, which has not happened yet. Last night I read a lot – about the history of the province of Bamyan, where the Taliban destroyed two statues of Buddha a couple of years ago, and a bit more of Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep, by the Iranian journalist and film-maker, Siba Shakib, who is based in Germany.

I also watched some television, afternoon your time, the best part of it being Spurs scoring against Sunderland, which made me think Farhad must be happy at that very moment.

In a short while, I'm going to meet two people involved in the media who should be able to help us organise our own work. There will then be some more job interviews and helping the new colleagues settle down.

Before leaving home, I spoke to Parvin on the phone. She sounded fine, in spite of everything and I hope to see her here as soon as possible.

Sunday-Monday, 9-10 February 2003
Today I'm starting work with our new colleague in the media team – a young man, the only male applicant for the job, like myself! But we already have a female team member and the two of them should work well together, making it possible to get ideas about women's rights across to men, who are probably more in need of hearing them.

We have also been joined by a specialist form the Philippines who will work with the Ministry of Women's Affairs to increase their range of expertise and skills. Another specialist is soon coming form India to help us prepare for the International Women's Day. Life should get much busier next week, after the four day Eid-e Qorban holidays are over. One important step will be the decision on Afghanistan's next budget, which we hope will include clear commitments to women's issues.

Yesterday I went to see a couple of organisations who can help us with publicity. One is the Aïna Media and Culture Center, set up by the internationally renowned Iranian photo journalist, Reza Deghati, who is based in France. The centre is the base of about a dozen publications, including several women's journals and a satirical paper called Zanbeel-e Gham (the Basket of Sorrows), whose publisher I will be meeting next week.

The other place I visited was an information centre working with the Afghan government. I was told by a young American who works there that it would take us three minutes to walk to their office. But when we got to the gate of the compound, we were not allowed in and were told instead to take another route, around the compound and the block in which the information centre was located. Along they way, we stopped at several places to ask for directions and finally ended up there after nearly half an hour!

The good thing was that me and my female Afghan colleague who had been away from the country for more than 10 years did see a lot more of the city. At first I was worried about her being the only woman on the street, with hundreds of men walking or cycling around. Thankfully there were a few other women around, some of them in western-style clothes. On the way back we did walk through the compound and it did take only three minutes. Crossing the compound, we passed by a group of heavily armed, Western looking men on guard duty, who did not seem to take any notice of us.

Tomorrow and the day after are public holidays. We'll have fewer or no drivers – we have to use the office cars almost all the time – and I might not be able to come to the office to write to you. At the guesthouse there is no phone connection and therefore no internet. In that case I'll write again on Thursday.

During the holidays, we'll probably walk around the neighbourhood and maybe go to the top of a hill that overlooks it. I might then have more about the looks of Kabul to tell you.

Tuesday, 11 February 2003
I've come to the office on a day off – the first day of Eid-e Qorban – to write to you and check my email. It's a lovely sunny day and later on we plan to go to the top of a hill near the house to see what Kabul looks like from up there.

In the morning, a group of people had crowded outside our neighbours' house where a sheep was being slaughtered. A couple of days ago we saw a sheep that was being shorn – the sad image of having a hair cut before your life is taken away. This morning, though, walking to the office because the car was going to take longer to arrive, we saw a few other sheep that seemed to have had a lucky escape this year. They were probably having their own Eid celebrations.

The city is pretty quiet and the air cleaner than usual. There are not so many vehicles on the roads here and most of them are not that old either. It must be the poor quality of fuel that causes so much pollution. Also Kabul is at the bottom of a huge cup made by a ring of mountains and the air does not move very much.

On the road, several poor people asked for “bakhshish”. It is difficult to say no, but if you don't, you cause yourself and them more problems. You can get surrounded by many more poor people whom you cannot possibly help. You will disappoint them and feel even worse than before. I have to keep telling myself and them that the best I can do is to do my job well and help some people learn new skills. I cannot possibly help all the needy people here and I should not pretend that I can do so.

I'm now reading a long UN report about what women have suffered in wars across the world. The report does not cover Afghanistan, but we can use its findings to prepare our own training and publicity material.

Wednesday, 12 February 2003
It's a cool morning and the roads are slightly wet from an overnight drizzle. We, “the internationals”, are the only people at the office. The rest of the staff are on holiday. Most of them will return to work on Saturday. An Afghan friend of mine was wondering the other day how people could take so many days off – pretty much like in Iran – when not a lot of work is done when they are the work place. I thought that was the whole point: When you cannot achieve very much by turning up at the work place, why not stay at home where you can at least rest in your pajamas – or whatever?

We did go up to the top of the hill – Tappeh Bibi Mahroo – which is near a shrine with the same name. It is not very high, but the rest of Kabul is even less tall, so you can get a full view of the city: flat, with some trees here and there and a few multi-storey buildings scattered around, ringed by mountains.

One high-rise building at a distance, towards the mountains, is the Intercontinental Hotel, where the women's conference was held last week. Another, nearer where we live, is the Ministry of Health. Over in the distance, you can see the airport, visited by a few planes during the day.

The district of Bibi Mahroo was the scene of intense fighting in 1994. Right on the very top of the hill, there is an Olympic size swimming pool with a multi-layered diving board which has not been in use for more than twenty years. The steps on the diving board ladder have been removed and the pool itself must see substantial repair before it can be used again.

Our housekeeper says it was built – so foreigners could swim with privacy – at the time of Mohammd Daoud, the man who deposed the King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, who was his own cousin, in 1973, only to be removed from power by the Afghan communists a short while later. The communists were then attacked by the Islamic, Mojahedin movement, but were supported by the Soviet Union, whose forces entered Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviet troops left in 1989 after ten years of fighting in which they lost thousands of soldiers and the Soviet economy was drained, contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union a couple of years later.

The Soviet forces' departure made it possible for the Afghan communists to be overthrown by the Mojahedin 1992. The Mojahedin fought amongst themselves for four years and were overthrown by the Taleban in 1996. And the Taleban, of course, were driven out of power, though not out of the country, in 2001, by the Americans, who had earlier supported the Mojahedin against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan.

At the top of the Bibi Mahroo hill, there is the shell of an armoured personnel carrier and a few bits and pieces of a field gun. The slopes of the hill are partly terraced, giving the impression that at some stage something was cultivated there, though no one in our guesthouse knows what that might have been. There are also plenty of holes on the slopes which could have been dug up for trees to be planted.

The landscape around the hill – barren, parched earth, with traces of streams which must have flowed in happier, wetter times, and small plots of cultivated land near very modest dwellings – is very much like Khorassan.

Today and tomorrow there be more reading and perhaps writing. Next week, my colleagues and I will be meeting more Afghan journalists and I should have more work-related stories to tell you >>> See

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