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Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

Well the month just disappeared and my departure from Kabul came around all too quickly.
I said a fond farewell to my students at their graduation, where they presented me with a beautiful Afghan carpet. Goodbyes to my colleagues were difficult also as we had lived so closely and become firm friends over the six months. Some friends you make for life and there are certainly some of those among them.
The instability of Afghanistan continues as NATO fights in the south, and the news of American troops quietly disappears. They have apparently gone to the north to work along the volatile Pakistan border, but if their objective is to stabilise that region, then I have no doubt their success rate will be the same as it was in the south….virtually non-existent. That too is a region of tribal factions and ‘hearts and minds’ are not going to be won by their presence. With winter coming, one can expect a respite from the surge of violence that has characterised my time there. The snow and bitter cold will keep it at a minimum I should think, if only because movement is more difficult.
Kabul airport is a strange place where there appear to be more workers than you can see jobs. Luggage is searched 4 times before check in, although I admit that this is half hearted at best. I only had to open one suitcase in each instance.
With the latest security scare of liquid bombs creating the required amount of paranoia, air travel has become somewhat of a nuisance, (and no doubt will become more expensive) with each airport telling you a different story about what you may or may not bring aboard, and luggage checks being either ‘over the top’ or rather lax. I don’t really know which is better.
One of these ‘over the top’ incidents was in Dubai. My dislike of Emirates as an airline has now been extended to include the Dubai airport staff. Let me explain.
On arrival at the transit desk in Dubai I had to wait at the counter before being transferred to the correct part of the airport. It was not the plain inefficiency or the service staff being more interested in talking on their mobile phones that bothered me, no, it was their search and destroy techniques.
My hand luggage was completely disassembled and laid out for all to see. Each container was opened without any care whatsoever for the contents. During this I actually managed to stay relatively calm, but when they decided to take the battery from my DVD player, I did lose it. This is when they lost all their ability to speak English….such an annoying trait….and I was referred to the security police, who in no uncertain terms told me I had no rights as to the treatment of my belongings. In the end, they broke two pieces of my jewellery, confiscated around £40 of hair products and a relatively expensive lighter….the benefactors of my goods no doubt the same people who took them from me in the first place. There was not even a suggestion of bagging them for pickup at the point of destination (as is common in other airports). I did, however manage to get the battery back. I was then transported to the main departures area of the airport, where I was searched another four times at different checkpoints, even though I had not been through immigration, or left the airport. Talk about overkill.
Nobody searched at the other end…the destination.
My stay in London was rather dampened by the fact that my hotel room was robbed and I lost my camera and the one piece of gold jewellery that I take with me. Such is life, and if you spent your life worrying about these things, then it would be a miserable time all round. It’s annoying and costly, but in the end, there is little you can do about it, so you have to move on.
BA remains one of my favourite airlines and I was not disappointed when I boarded for Khartoum. In London, I had reduced my hand luggage to my laptop bag and it was not even searched. This whole security thing is really just an annoyance and I was glad I was travelling after the initial paranoia was over. Excess baggage was also not of concern to them as the flight was nowhere near full.
I was met on arrival in Khartoum and taken to the school where my accommodation is. The school is just over 100 years old and the original building is still standing and used for administration. It is right in the centre of the city so very convenient. The airport too, is only around ten minutes out.
My flat is on the top floor where I have a view over rooftops that I find very pleasant. Overhead fans provide cooling along with water cooled airconditioning which must have a central unit somewhere. It is not that hot here at the moment, but it is very humid and I have to admit to needing to get used to that again. The school grounds are not large but heavily treed, and there are two grass areas for break times. It is a veritable oasis.
Weekends here are odd in that we have Friday and Sundays off. The school is a mixed religion school and so the ‘weekend’ caters to all. It does have plusses in that the main part of the week is short, but the loss of a vege day is something I will have to get used to. Classes are mixed sex but breaks are taken in segregated areas.
This year, I am teaching Year 7 and 8 History as well as Year 10 and 11 Economics. I only have one English class. That should keep me busy. The Year 11 Eco class has done none of the material for the two-year programme, so I am charged with teaching the whole thing in 20 weeks. This is a mammoth task and must be done well since they have external exams to pass. A challenge, which I will have to make sure is met.
The students in general are lovely and there is a student here I taught in Doha when she was in year 7….it truly is a small world. This is not an expensive private school, so we have students from a range of different economic backgrounds, which is a good thing as there is more balance.
In my first week, I was taken on a tour of the various supermarkets and stores to orient myself. There is a range of stores, which caters to expats and wealthier locals, and they often stock imported goods, but more interesting to me are the small local businesses and the vegetable stands and markets that seems to be quite common. This was my first real look at the city.
Khartoum is a wonderful mishmash of modern and run down buildings. The streets too, vary from paved to barely paved and the whole place is incredibly dusty, with a fine coat of reddish-orange clay coating everything. Traffic is surprisingly orderly, although jams are common during busy periods. The streets are colourful with people wearing an array of different clothing, illustrating an exciting variety of tastes and cultures.
Men wear the long white dress thingies with dashing white turbans, the shalwar kamise, or western dress; the women however, wear a mix of saris, shalwar kamise, long straight dresses in bright colours and total clothing wraps, which seem to be simply yards and yards of fabric wrapped loosely about them, covering their clothes. Many wear headscarves, but there are a number that don’t. It’s all very new and exciting
I was taken past the Hilton, which is singularly unexciting in appearance, and past Gaddafi’s Egg, a building so named for its shape, which is similar to the sailboat building in Dubai, yet hasn’t quite got it right.
My tour ended up at a grand old hotel, rather reminiscent of a colonial structure in South East Asia, situated on the banks of the Nile. It had a real old world feeling to it; steeply pitched rooflines and a soft cream exterior, whereas inside, an abundance of dark wood and windows swathed in drapings of gossamer, tiled floors with occasional rugs and soft colours balancing the dark with the light. It reminded me of the beautiful old colonial buildings in Jakarta. It was modernised enough to make it smart, without taking away any of its charm. I believe it used to be the British Officer’s Club in days gone by.
The Nile was high and running fast as there has been quite some rain of late. Very unusual, I’m told. It wasn’t far below the level of the road really and one would hope that there isn’t too much more rain until it settles. In the middle of the Nile….and I have no idea which of the two Niles it was….there is an island, which I shall have to explore at some stage. People apparently live there and I expect that the bird life will be rather good.
I am going to enjoy learning about this country and its peoples. Man has been living here for something like nine million years and the ancient history of Sudan makes for very interesting reading but I will get to that as I learn more about it. However, as I understand it, and briefly, from 1898, Britain and Egypt administered all of modern day Sudan in two separate colonies (north and south) under a condominium agreement. In the north, it was Islamic and predominantly Arabic, but in the south, Islam was discouraged and Christian missionaries were permitted to work.
In the early forties, Britain began to prepare the north for self-rule, but that decision was reversed three years later and the south were advised that they would be governed by a federal administration in the north. Many southerners felt betrayed as they were largely excluded from the government and the language predominantly used in the north was Arabic, whereas in the south, administrators had mostly been trained in English. Of the 800 new government positions, only 4 were given to southerners. Thus, the beginnings of a rift grew regarding perceived inequality and discontent.
When full independence was gained in the mid fifties, the new Arab-led government reneged on promises to the south to create a federal system, sparking a civil war that lasted 17 years.
Until 1969, a series of governments, military and civilian, proved unable either to agree on a permanent constitution or to cope with problems of factionalism, economic stagnation, and ethnic dissidence, but in 1972, under Numeiri (who gained power as the result of a military coup), a peace agreement was signed which allowed the south partial self governance. Six years later though, the discovery of oil in the south became an important factor in the strife between the two regions.
In 1983, civil war again broke out in the Christian south (the rebel SPLM/SPLA led by John Garang) when the Numeiri government instituted Islamic Sharia Law upon the whole country.
In ’86, another attempt at forming a civilian government was made but this was unsuccessful in solving the problems of the troubled nation and was eventually overthrown by Al-Bashir and his Islamic Front (NIC) in a military coup in 1989. He remains in power to this day.
Peace talks between the southern rebels and the government made progress and in 2005, a final peace agreement was signed and John Garang, the rebel leader from the south, was appointed first Vice-President of Sudan. He was to die in a helicopter crash three weeks later.
As one front settled, another violent conflict started in the western province of Darfur. This continues to date and is the cause of much debate both internationally and internally; Sudan’s recent refusal to allow access to UN peacekeepers is currently a point of world debate.
Life in Khartoum though, appears to be calm for the most part and walking in the street is a pleasure long since enjoyed. Occasionally though, things do happen.
On 6/9, school was in chaos as talks of a demonstration meant that students would have to leave early. It was expected to be a peaceful demonstration, (about the newly raised prices of sugar and fuel due to removal of subsidies to stop up a hole in the budget) but because we are in the centre of the city, it meant that with streets blocked off, our students wouldn’t be able to leave at the end of the school day. The dissemination of information in the school was chaotic but in the end, they all got off about lunchtime.
Having an early finish, another teacher and I headed off to the produce souq nearby the school to get some vegetables. It is a tiny souq but its proximity to the school means that we all give it a decent amount of business. Whilst there, we heard the first loud shot. Vendors immediately closed up shop and we decided that it was time to return to the school. It was still peaceful on the street but lines of police in full riot gear had arrived to block the street from any traffic or troublesome demonstrators. A friendly ‘Salam’ was said on our way past.
Once home and from the top floor, we had a bird’s eye view of the street and we watched as police cleared areas of people. It was all very peaceful and no one seemed in any panic or haste.
Four lines of riot police kept the road clear of traffic and people wandered to one end of the road. Now and then, tear gas canisters were fired into he souq area and down our street, I assume to clear it of people, and truckloads of soldiers and paramilitary personnel zoomed by to parts unknown. It was all very orderly, but the main action was not on our street. We did hear some gunfire close by and ambulances went by the school with regularity, but in reality, we saw very little but crowd direction.
Last week though, a journalist was kidnapped for publishing criticism of the Prophet’s origins. He was beheaded and his body dumped in a Khartoum street the same day as the demonstration.
Two days later, security police confiscated all the printed copies of a Sudan daily, prior to distribution, leaving them to wonder if a return to censorship would end months of press freedom in Sudan. The reason given was that articles in the press might compromise the investigation into the journalist’s death. One might be forgiven for thinking that security should have spoken to newspapers prior to printing rather than confiscating all copies after their production. It remains to be seen whether censorship is indeed to be enforced again.
We have had rain again tonight…heavy drenching rain that comes in under the doors and leaves great puddles on the floor. The lightning storm accompanying it was spectacular in the dark gloom of the evening and I wonder about the level of the Nile. I expect I shall find out tomorrow if the news is bad.
Finally, it’s unlikely that there will be any photos with mails as I am told that taking photos here is somewhat difficult. You need to have a permit and even then, it can be tricky, so discretion being the better part of valour, and because I just lost a camera to thieves, I shall make sure I know what is allowed before snapping away.
Anyway, that’s all for now.
Stay healthy and keep smiling

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This is likely my last correspondence from Kabul as I am leaving for The Sudan at the end of August. The last few weeks tend to go really fast and I don’t expect that I’ll have much time for anything.

Life here goes on, as always a tad uncertain, and always chaotic.

The government has gone even further to appease its fundamentalist opposition by proposing Departments for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. They are adamant that these will bear no relationship to the religious police of the Taliban era. However, the advent of this is being strongly questioned by Afghan women and human rights organizations in Kabul. It is not yet a ‘done deal’ as it has to pass through parliament, but there is little doubt that it will do just that.

This illustrates the desperation of Karzai to gain some control as his western backers slowly desert him and leave him to his own devices. He has no choice but to deal with his detractors to maintain his position….to remain alive for that matter. To date he has had a large contingent of US forces to protect him, but that will be handed over to NATO, who are likely to expect more of him than has the US. I have no doubt that we will see more of this ‘dealing’ in the months to come.

Kabul has remained relatively peaceful and there have been no major incidents such as the May riots. There have been several demonstrations in the city, but these have mostly been ministry workers angry about their long unpaid salaries, and there was a small bomb outside the American Embassy, but in general, it has been a quiet month.

Crime though, is definitely on the rise in Kabul with methods becoming more and more clever. One recent method is to puncture a tyre on a vehicle when stopped at the lights or an intersection, and then further down the road when the driver notices and has to get out of the car…the robbery takes place. Of course, vehicles are chosen with careful consideration and recently there have been large amounts of money stolen in this way. The majority of these incidents where large amounts of cash have been stolen have been carefully planned, the perpetrators watching organizations carefully to ascertain when payroll cash is picked up.

Night time though, is usually quiet…even in areas where fighting is almost constant, and here in the city, not much moves about at night. However, recently, as I was just drifting off to sleep around midnight, I was jarred back to full consciousness by the unmistakable staccato of gunfire, which sounded like it was not far from the house. Several volleys followed and as more gunfire was heard, all international staff were herded together and sat in the dark in the core of the building where we would not be exposed to broken glass or direct fire, should that eventuate. We were obviously not the target, but the gunfire was too close for security to ignore. Gunfire from an automatic weapon has a very specific sound; it is not like fireworks or anything else. An hour or so later, we were allowed back to our rooms. It seemed that there had been an armed robbery in the next street and the gunfire we heard was between the police and the robbers. The incident woke us all up very effectively and sleep afterwards, was quite elusive.

In the south, Operation Mountain Thrust goes on, having killed some 600 Afghans (I refuse to call them all militants) as well as a dozen or more coalition troops since June 10. The number of wounded is unknown, though Aussies are among them. And yet, there appears to be little ground gained in ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the people, the violence in the south now threatening to spill over into the relative calm of the west. Though some reports tell of success, the most damning evidence of their failure to hold the south is that NATO is shortly to double its troops there. As previously stated, military might seems not to be the answer, though what is, is anyone’s guess.

At the university, a lot has happened, and yet nothing has, and uncertainty remains the order of the day, especially for students.

The chief administrator left very quietly, students not really even aware of the fact. However, we did have a quiet farewell for her at the Korean restaurant. Several of us attended…notably, only one member from admin was present……and the table was decorated with flowers and photos to remind her of the time she spent with us. Two teachers wrote a song for her and I was co-opted into the singing. It was a nice send off.

She was not the only one to depart though, a week later, my boss too, left. She worked right up until the last moment and there was not time for anything but a very quick, personal send off from her staff. Perhaps in this period when so many of us are leaving, it’s a godsend not to go through a barrage of farewell parties.

‘The American’ (mentioned earlier during the May riots) broke her contract and left in a huff when she had finally gathered enough rope to hang herself. Immediately, the atmosphere in the staff room and at The Orchards lightened. She left with no fanfare at all.

From the Board of Trustees we have heard little, and stories fly around as to when and if the undergraduate programme will start. To date we have been told three different stories and these do nothing but add to the confusion. No one is now sure whether we will start in January, next year, or if indeed, as the last version would have us believe, two units will be started in September. The university president, a quiet, rather mousy Afghan American, actually came personally to a class to tell them the latest plan. However, I believe he came because he was incensed, or at the very least concerned, after reading the student newspaper where the front page story was about the delay of the undergraduate programme. It contained some damning comments from students, mostly about the Board of Trustees and their loss of trust in our organization. He did not like this at all and blatantly told them that the Board was not to blame…..a direct contradiction of what we had been told earlier. Oh no, he told them, it was the chief administrator who was to blame. She, of course, is no longer here to defend herself, and it’s doubtful she had that kind of authority anyhow.

The students were not fooled, even they know that decisions like this don’t come from admin, they come from the top, and here before them was the Top Cat, scolding them for writing such negative (honest) articles. When pushed by one student regarding the freedom of speech, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and left. It seems to me that our students are regarded as if they don’t have good thinking minds, but we have just spent nigh on 20 weeks teaching them to think critically, to ask pertinent questions, rather than blindly accepting what they are told……I think we can safely say that they have learnt that lesson well.

However, the students remain angry, and although they come to class, much of the enthusiasm in them is gone. They do find novel ways to vent their anger though, and my whiteboard in the classroom was a good example.

The weather has changed yet again. Although it cooled down at night for a week or so, the constant wind seems to have largely disappeared and the temperature has again climbed, but this time, it is accompanied by humidity. It is midsummer, though being so high up, I didn’t expect to find my body constantly coated in a light mantle of dew…..men, of course, just sweat. However, when the sun has gone down and the tiny bats come out to feed, the temperature drops to a balmy level and this is the perfect time to sit on the balcony and just take in the peace of the Orchards. The fruit is now in various stages of ripe and I have been enjoying the apples, pears and peaches. The grapes and persimmons are yet to ripen and the pomegranate are still a long way off….what a shame. Tomato plants by the hundreds, planted in between the trees, are just starting to fruit and the bean plants have climbed the height of the greenhouse struts. Pumpkins too are getting bigger though I’m not sure when one can say they are actually ready to eat. Pumpkin soup does sound marvelous though…..to we Aussies here, it sounds divine!!

There are many things I will miss about living here.

Our cat population became ridiculous after a second litter was born and so plans were made to reduce the numbers. Feeding and trapping them was a poor choice, and if you’ve ever been in a small space with a trapped feral cat, you would understand. Their ferocity was that of small tigers. Plan A was dead in the water.

With Plan A totally scuppered, Plan B came into effect. Valium would be crushed into the feed and once sleepy, the cats would be boxed and taken to their new home up by the Intercontinental, where there is a large population of cats. However, only one came to eat and he took a long time to get drunk, so to speak, but we did successfully relocate him. The irony of it all was that Gene, a housemate, who had been absent for Plan A and B, was available for the next attempt. He called them, picked them up like housecats and that was that! All the cats barring the one domesticated feline, and one of the kittens, have gone. The kitten mewls loudly for her mother every day, but we cannot catch her, and so she remains with us.

Well that’s about it for now. So till next time,
Stay safe and keep smiling

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I remember I once said that this war had turned a country of rubble into dust and I wasn’t wrong. The ravages of war are visible everywhere.

However, the widely touted view that Afghanistan is a success is finally being torn apart throughout the world as violence rampages through the country.

The south is of course seeing the heaviest fighting, but by all accounts, it has taken the troops by surprise. The insurgents are much larger in number than first thought and their competence and weaponry has improved immeasurably.

Other than firefights with coalition troops, nationals working for the military, government and foreign companies are being seriously targeted. Work buses have been attacked or bombed, and this week, five nationals on their way to the US military base where they worked, were ambushed and shot. This has serious ramifications for any Afghan working for foreign interests, but also for nationals working for their own govt. They are no longer safe. They are now targets. They are easy to find…just follow the work vehicles that take them to and from work each day.

On July 4th, two bombs were set off in Kabul, killing and injuring nationals only. The next day there were three more, again aimed at killing nationals working for the government and the Afghan military. All the bombs were on remote detonators and several more were found and disposed of before being detonated. This was very definitely a planned action aimed at disruption in Kabul, although being July 4th, possibly predictable. Security firms believe there were 12 bombs planned and that left 5 unaccounted for….but to date these have neither been found nor detonated.

All this resulted in movement of Auaf staff being restricted to home and work areas. It also meant that the proposed trip to Bamiyan that weekend, was cancelled. Spirits however, remained relatively high. After all, we still had a three day weekend, if nothing else.

The growing insurgence is aimed at destabilizing the government and there appears to be no shortage of people willing to join the fight.
Previous to the bombings, there was a kidnap warning for internationals. Warnings here come thick and fast and I’m unsure whether they exist to help prop up the immensely lucrative security industry or if, in fact, they are for real. We are never told where the information comes from and having become, for the most part, a thinking person, I like to have the facts. It is after all what I teach my students.

The following week an improvised grenade was lobbed over the fence at the residential building at Kabul Education University. This is the first attack on a university, though attacks on schools are common. Thankfully only one person sustained minor injuries. Hopefully this will not become a trend. Kabul is seeing more and more of the violence and the relative safety of the capital is now being sorely undermined, the government seemingly powerless to stop it.
The capital remains cut off from the surrounding countryside in many ways and is in no way representative of the country. Here in relative peace, until lately, people are not subject to the same intimidation and fear of bombs or bullets, but they are easily frightened; memories are long.

Since the beginning of Operation Mountain Thrust in the south, approximately 700 Afghans have been killed, supposedly all Taliban fighters. Bombing raids have been alarmingly high in number and yet, the foreign troops seem not to be making headway at all. It has to be highly questionable whether the number of Afghan deaths quells the insurgency, or stirs up more support for it. There seem to be endless numbers willing to fight, and yet, the military continues in the only way they know how. Even Karzai has criticized the military for the number of Afghans being killed in this offensive.

Somehow the troops….or the administrations that drive them….cannot grasp that standard military tactics do not work here, that they cannot create a new democratic society at gunpoint. Afghanistan has long been a lawless country, one of dominant tribal factions, and one which has rarely…if ever…succumbed to foreign invasion or rule. Western political understanding of this country and its people is virtually non-existent, and five years down the track it is still not clear to them.

The US has chopped and changed sides and the very people they armed previously, are now the enemy…and a fierce one, but military might is obviously not the answer.
I don’t know what the answer is, but surely a better understanding of traditional Afghan culture would go a long way. Bullets and bombs and billions of dollars spent without proper consultation with Afghans is not working….that much is clear.

You cannot pull a largely unwilling country into the 21st century by force, and although expat Afghans are much better educated…and perhaps better qualified….than those who stayed, there is a strong resentment against those who came back (after decades of western living) to take the prime jobs, the jobs that wield the greatest power. Tribal society has survived for centuries in this country, however unstable, and it is impossible…and short sighted….to think that it can be changed anywhere near to quickly.

“Watch an Afghan tribesman on the hillside using the Stingers that the CIA showered on him 20 years ago and you may think you see a sophisticated (if dishevelled) fighting man.

What you do not see is a sophisticated political operator ready to trade in his hardware for a tractor, World Bank grant, and single transferable vote.”
Peter Preston, The Guardian, 11/7/06

At the chalk face we have our own problems. The Board of Trustees made the decision that the undergraduate programme would not commence in August as planned. There are two major reasons for this; USAID funding has been held up by Congress as the Board has not kept their part of the agreement to raise certain funds, and the university administration has not done enough to recruit new students. The result of this is that our current students have now nothing to look forward to, nothing to work towards. Their hopes and dreams have been shattered….and for many, there are no other options for a foreign education. It is heartbreaking.

On my part, I am outraged at the way this was done. Some of the teaching staff were not notified of this prior to telling the students…myself included. One group was told that a January start was a possibility and another was told August 2007. No one really knows when…or if…it will start.

This news comes barely a week after the final installment of student fees were paid, and after students had paid out another $100 to sit the IELTS exam. None of this sits well with the teaching staff or the students.

The atmosphere in the school has dulled compared to the cheerfulness we are used to. Students are numb….dazed….angry. They feel cheated. I have one young student who hasn’t the courage to tell her parents yet.

Coming so soon after completing the first of their major projects in my class, it has completely destroyed the mood. They have every reason to be proud of their achievement, but it has been dampened by the bad news.

I have to ask myself if this is another NGO project going down the drain, having only really benefited those on massive salaries. Right now it feels that way. I have to remain positive for the students’ sake, but it’s not easy. A year down the track, the things they have learnt from us will not be at the forefront of their minds anymore. Next August is a bum deal for them.

They ask who is to blame, and I have no answer. I am not privy to the confidential workings of the project and so don’t have all the facts, but I sincerely feel that the whole project has been badly mismanaged on several levels.

There has clearly been a lack of oversight by USAID and the fiduciary agent, TAF, on how the money was spent….and who oversees the Board? A Board that performed as badly as ours has would, in any other country, have been summarily dismissed and replaced.

Having only one source of funding was also a grave error, but on whose part, I have no idea.
Some of the teachers have written letters to Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates in the hopes that they may be interested in granting funds to the university. Laura Bush has also been the recipient of emails in a desperate attempt to save something for our students. There is much negativity in the staff room, but there are also some trying to find positive solutions for the students we have.

The chief administrator is leaving this week and the Dean of my programme, a week after that. None of this sends a positive message. It matters not that my Dean resigned for personal reasons over two months ago….the public perception can not be anything other than negative.

With the undergraduate programme delayed….and no guarantee that it will ever start, placement testing goes on for the September term. Plans are that the FSP and the Business English will continue along with the HEP programme which I believe ends in November.

Our school is not the only one in trouble though. Across the country, local schools continue to be a hot target for arsonists and staff and students are constantly intimidated and often beaten or killed. There have been upwards of 200 schools burnt in the last year, many of them newly built by NGOs. In Kandahar, the intimidation is particularly gruesome. There, girls are threatened with an acid face wash or even death, if they attend school. Teachers too, are threatened in the same way.

In Kabul though, many children attend, girls as well as boys, and at midday, the Darulaman Road is crowded with girls and boys going home from their respective schools; the girls all dressed in long black garb and white headscarves. Here they have winter holidays rather than the summer ones we are used to as the vast majority of schools do not have appropriate heating. However, you still see many a child working in the markets, sitting under the temporary shelters, helping their parents to make enough money to keep them fed, or pay the rent.

It’s pretty much mid summer here now and the days are long and hot, though the heat is easily bearable with a fan in the room. Outside, there is almost always a breeze….sometimes a very strong wind, but it cools the place down and even with the dust that flies round, I welcome it.

In August I will leave here as my contract is over and I have decided not to renew it. I will head to the Sudan to take up a position in Khartoum with a British International School. Till then, I will keep you informed of life here, as I see it.

Till next time, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep smiling

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It is barely three weeks since the riots, which killed approximately 20 people and injured five times that number. The Americans, in response to the cry to hand over the driver of the vehicle which sparked off the riots, announced that they are not subject to Afghan law as there is an agreement in place to that effect, making any call for justice from parliament, purely window dressing.

Since the riots, another two fatal accidents have involved American troop vehicles. One wonders if this has been the norm, but unpublished to date, or if they are just notoriously bad drivers. Of course, talking about bad driving in Kabul really involves every person behind a wheel…or on a cart or donkey for that matter. The difference in the case of Americans is that they drive armoured vehicles, (topped by guns) three times the size of anything else, and any injury caused by their involvement in an accident is almost certain to be fatal.

In the aftermath, the Afghan government has been busy, sacking many in the police force, and replacing 13 provincial chiefs with tribal nominees. One of those was Sher Muhammed Akhunzada, who was sacked last year as Governor of Helmand for opium running. I leave the rest to your imagination.

Karzai has long been between a rock and a hard place.He has to be seen clearing out the corruption and taking a hard line with extremists at the same time as keeping his American backers happy, and it’s not working. His popularity is in a fragile state; his coalition parliament filled with known warlords.

In Kabul the majority of the population is Tajik, who have traditionally had a large representation in the Government, but recently Karzai has dumped several of them, replacing them with Pashtuns. This has not been a popular move with Kabulis and there is a resentment bubbling under the surface of a currently, relatively peaceful capital.

Since I last wrote, Afghanistan has been a hotbed of violence, although not in Kabul. Around the country however, violence has escalated. Direct attacks, by both foreign security forces and insurgents, as well as suicide bombs and IEDs have killed a large number of people, mostly nationals. Suicide bombs were almost unheard of here until a little less than a year ago, but they are becoming more frequent….Iraq having been a good educator for this type of attack.

Karzai has armed approximately 120,000 militiamen, calling them community police, paying them (with western money) to fight the Taliban. This effectively destroyed all western attempts to disarm them.

Insurgents, possibly territorial warlords, or perhaps a strengthening Taliban, are taking the fight to the troops more than ever before. Still, the military maintains that things are not worse, just ‘more difficult.’ Around 80% of the country is lawless. Southern and Eastern border provinces are completely unstable and to date, no huge show of force has had the ability to tame them.

This past week has seen the advent of ‘Operation Mountain Thrust’. This will be the last in a series of failed offensives led by the Americans before they head back to Kabul and leave the south to the British, Dutch and Canadians. It is the largest offensive since 2001, involving some 11,000 coalition soldiers, and is concentrated in mountainous areas where no one has been for years. This current push will leave behind it more destroyed villages, dead bodies, and likely many more new recruits to fight off the ‘infidels’.

As an interested bystander, I wonder what the objective really is; if, in fact, there is one. The original plan in 2001 was to find and capture Bin Laden; to destroy Al Qaeda, which has certainly not been successful. Is this still about him? No one could seriously think that. Five years later, troop numbers are being increased, development is virtually at a standstill, the democratically elected Government barely controls Kabul, and fighting is at an all time high.

The effort to eradicate poppy crops is weak, but ongoing, though the military now play no real part in that, and it is a losing battle anyway. NGO money was poured into an irrigation system to allow farmers to grow different crops…poppies don’t need much water….but this resulted in even more poppies being grown, the crop this year larger than ever before. The Taliban managed to stop poppy growth altogether during their reign…..interesting, perhaps even curious, that it has flourished under the foreign invasion. The Government too, makes noises in this direction, but its resolve can hardly be taken seriously, as in reality, there is little action. Window dressing though, is something well learned, so recently, the Government set fire to 1.5 tons of illegal drugs (opium and hashish). However, the destruction of this haul has nothing to do with this year’s crop, or even last year’s. These drugs were confiscated three years ago!

One wonders how all this supports the ‘success’ story of Afghanistan? Perhaps in my blondeness, I need ‘success’ defined more accurately.

Attacks, usually against foreigners or Afghan security forces and police, have now taken a new direction; they are now also aimed at ordinary Afghans working for foreigners; cooks, translators and the like. It remains to be seen how that will affect the general population’s attitude.

And yet, I continually hear this being referred to as a post conflict society. This country is not post conflict, the conflict is in fact growing and that, in itself, will cause the foreign military presence, despite their positive murmurings, many headaches in the months to come.

The western idea that Kabul can, with a handful of foreign mercenaries, assert a control over Afghanistan that it has not enjoyed in history is bizarre. Such ideas gain currency only when foreign policy departs the national interest and good sense vanishes in clouds of international do-goodery. Simon Jenkins, Sunday Times, 18/6/2006

The university plods along without regard to the violence. The office is now closed and all staff work at the campus, effectively doubling the number of guards, cars and drivers that we had there before. Student numbers have increased due to the fact that a teacher training group (HEP) has started as well as a Business English group at night.

The HEP programme is fully funded by USAID, but money is filtered through another university in the US, which secured the contract to carry out the training. They subcontracted it to us, so in effect the actual amount to pay for the training was diluted (in the US) before anything had actually happened. I’m glad these are not my tax dollars. There are however, faults on both sides of this particular aid spectrum. On the Afghan side, teachers, who will ultimately benefit from this training (and I say that tongue in cheek because salaries are miserable and added training will not gain them anything financially) will not attend unless they are paid to do so. The amount they are paid to attend (via the grant from USAID) well exceeds their monthly salary. The daily allowance is around $15, 6 days per week, whereas their monthly salary is under $100. Is it any wonder that every man and his brother wants to attend? A driver for a foreign company earns in excess of twice a teacher’s salary. I’ve found the same in all the developing countries I have lived in. For some reason, teachers and police are amongst the lowest paid professions.

Our FSP students are three weeks from taking their IELTS tests to gain entry into the undergraduate programme and that in itself is up in the air right now. Planned for an August start, rumour has it that now, it may not start till January. That said, a professor is arriving this week and will be employed for the rest of the year helping in admissions, on her professor’s salary of course. This is the kind of planning disaster that seems to dog the university. Who is responsible is anyone’s guess. The line of administrators is long. My heart though, goes out to my students, who have worked hard so that they could enter the undergraduate programme in August. If the rumour is true, then my students could have put off their IELTS until the end of the course, giving them another five weeks to prepare.

On a brighter note, the Orchards is starting to live up to its name, with fruit galore hanging from the trees. The grapes look outstanding and I can’t wait till they are ready to eat. Tomato plants populate the space between the trees and the roses are slowly being replaced by geranium blooms. Everything within our fences is green and lush. Outside the gates though, the dust awaits us as always.

The dust is ever present and most of us suffer from the ‘Kabul cough’. Days are hazy and more often than not nowadays, the dust in the air blocks my beloved mountains from view. The ‘Wind of 120 Days’ is here and although there is always a breeze blowing, you can almost set your watch by the time of the daily dust storm, which shrouds everything. Sand storms in the Sahara are completely different and don’t affect your respiratory system at all, but here you can actually taste the dust.

Also, this is the only country in which I’ve not been able to eat the food at all. I am thankfully not alone in this. Every one of us suffers from constant bouts of diarrhea and one person has been throwing up for months. She finds it hard to keep anything down at all. Even a V8 juice will see her running to the bathroom before she loses it again. I am told that all the things we have experienced are very common in foreigners. Perhaps that is why the military imports all its own food and water. We drink bottled water, but even that is suspect as the seals are often broken. That said, in general, we are not an unhappy bunch.

Right now, we are planning a long weekend to visit Bamiyan, which will hopefully be at the beginning of July. There are so many places and things to see, but we are limited in what we can do. Herat too, is high on our list of places to go and Nuristan, where many of the Afghan artisans live, would also be wonderful. So we plan, and hope for the best.

On a personal note, my first grandbaby is due in October. There is much to look forward to. That’s it for now.

Till next time, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep smiling.

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The middle of the month started off wonderfully with a short day trip out of town, this time to the PaghmanValley , a rocky canyon in the Hindukush, popular with Kabul residents for picnics. In a small convoy we set off in high spirits; getting out of Kabul has that effect on you….even when the destination is only 20 minutes out. The dust and rubble disappears, the restrictions of the city replaced by an incredible feeling of normality.


We drove up rocky slopes as high as we could in the narrow valley, crossing the Paghman River several times, and then got out to walk back down. The sense of freedom was tangible, the scenery, magnificent. The day was perfect and we laughed as we criss-crossed the river like children, the cold water exhilarating in contrast with the heat of the sun. There were several groups of people picnicking under trees, watermelons and drinks in the stream to keep them cold. There, we were just part of the scenery and people were warm and friendly when we stopped to chat.

The valley, largely uninhabited but for a few recently built houses, was once fertile and boasted orchards of pomegranate and apple, but years of intense fighting virtually destroyed everything and the mountains surrounding us were pocked with old bunkers from which freedom fighters held off the Russians. The massive pines that once flanked the fast moving river are gone, but new trees are starting to fill the void. For the residents, life cannot be easy. There is little greenery to feed stock and the mountains are reputedly still host to a large number of landmines.

The rest of our life goes on with the usual minor frustrations. Our second cook was no better than the first, taking good money for food and serving up poor quality stews day after day, though I admit that her carrot cake was good. It’s fairly safe to say that we were subsidizing her family income by more than her salary. My frustration got the better of me and I opted out of the pool, choosing instead to feed myself on cereal and cans of tuna. A trip to the French Bakery now and then breaks the monotony and my market shopping, taking into account my dislike of cooking, is limited to grated carrot, local goat’s cheese and raisins. Still, the odd trip out to a restaurant keeps me happy. Mostly it’s the pizza place 50 yards from home.

When I got up on the morning of the 29th it was hardly a day with a difference. I had no classes (due to mid terms) and so went to work dressed in ¾ pants and tshirt….heaven in the heat of the very warm spring day. I had a meeting and some marking to do, but that was it.

However, the news of the morning was not good. An American military convoy had been involved in an accident; one of their oversize vehicles had gone out of control and plowed into a large number of civilian vehicles. Needless to say there were fatalities, six dead, and the incensed crowd started throwing rocks at them. At this point, reports from onlookers clearly stated that the Americans had fired into the crowd along with the Afghan forces, who subsequently came to their aid. This was officially denied, but the US position has since been amended several times to; one US vehicle firing over the crowd, firing back in self defense….etc. Hard to deny that the US fired a weapon when there are photos taken by onlookers showing clearly that they did. Their story is now that the crowd fired on them first and that they fired in self defense. What the truth is, no one will ever really know I expect.

I am reminded of all the lies told by US administration throughout the build up to Iraq…and during Iraq, the blame apportioned to so many different people or situations; and finally, their eventual admission, (when the lie could no longer be sustained), of wrong doing or bending the truth. How can one trust anything they say…or do for that matter?

The Afghan parliament has since called for the drivers involved in the accident to be handed over to the Afghan authorities for prosecution….foreigners, both military and otherwise are subject to Afghan law. That, of course, will never happen, but it will be an interesting development to watch. Karzai has not been available for comment on that issue and the request from the lower house is not binding, so essentially it’s all superficial.

From that point on, we all watched our laptops with great interest, reading news at five minute intervals and digesting what students were hearing via their cell phones.

Riots started up around Kabul with remarkable speed….large ones, and in different areas. Their cries were anti-American and anti-Karzai. By 1330, our security guy came and told us we had to leave, “NOW!” There was a large, angry crowd coming down the Palace Road (where we are located) it seemed, and our only escape route was that way. They weren’t coming for us, but we needed to be out of the way before they blocked our route.

So, with number plates hastily removed from our vehicles, we were whisked off in a hair-raising drive, smoke belching from the exhaust and the acrid smell of burning rubber permeating even our closed windows. We had two stops to make; one at the Taj Mahal, the bosses’ house and then at the Orchards where I live with the other teachers. They are our two safest houses.

Upon arriving at the Taj, security made radio contact with our house and heard that the situation was not at all good around there, and guards advised us to stay away. Let me explain that a bit.

Our house is almost right at the Parliament buildings. Between our house and parliament are two others, Ariana TV and a pizza place that we go to about once a week. The Parliament has been subject to a few attacks since I got here and we are not allowed to drive by there at all.

The crowd had to pass the Orchards on their way to Parliament and it is obviously a foreign compound from the sheer size of it. Stones were thrown over the fences, shattering one window, and guns were fired at the gates before they moved on. They tried to burn Ariana and Parliament, without great success, but they managed to burn….gut, really….the pizza place. There was no rhyme nor reason but the frenzy of angry people. It was reported later that the sign in English had cost the Pizza Express owners their business.

So, my afternoon was spent at the Taj…no electricity, so no internet…sigh. With the generators turned off it would appear to rioters that no one was home and therefore, not a great target. The Orchards also had the generator turned off, but it was on the way and in reality, sustained virtually no damage.

While at the Taj, we heard several long volleys of gunfire and from

the roof, a pall of smoke, gave us an idea of just how close the riot was.

Afghan businesses were broken into and burned, many sold alcohol or expensive imported goods to foreigners; the crowds breached two UN guesthouses, but found no one at home so they burned a UN vehicle instead. CARE International was ransacked and then torched. Other foreign aid agencies along the way fared no better. I believe that twelve police stations were razed in different parts of the city.

To verify everything is difficult, but we do get pretty good intel from our security provider who liaises with all the other security companies here, and generally our information is pretty accurate. To the best of my knowledge, there were three separate riots around Kabul…perhaps four. One was at the American Embassy, where people were moved to bunkers as soon as possible. The American military went into lock down and left the turmoil to the local police force and army.

When we evacuated the university we took the national staff with us. They did not cope at all well and were visibly frightened. They were actually in more danger staying with us and so they were taken to their respective houses. Three female students waited with us for most of the afternoon though…shaky and scared, but trying very hard to put on brave faces. They are all from prominent families and were not here during the past fighting, so this was very frightening for them.

About 1730 we were allowed to go back to the Orchards and some of us were thankful for that, others were not. There were approximately a dozen Afghan Army personnel sitting outside our gate…not for us, but keeping an eye on the dispersing crowd.

A curfew was imposed from 2200 to 0400. I heard a rumour that anyone on the streets during curfew would be subject to a ‘shoot to kill’ order, but that sounded a bit far fetched and I could not verify this. I did subsequently read though, that all persons not complying with the curfew would be arrested and treated very seriously.

At the Orchards, some questioned how secure we were, another finally got through to the US Embassy, telling them about our second rate security, the same security which had whisked her off to safety hours before, during riots that her own countrymen had sparked off. Amongst all my American colleagues, she stands alone; an unpleasant bag of hammers who browbeats me with the upright disapproval of a disgruntled taxpayer from the greatest democracy on Earth, reminding me, with her very manner, that her taxes pay my salary, blaming some incompetent in the administration for this travesty. Representing amongst us the primary indivisible unit of democracy, this self-appointed royal is made by the walls constructed for her, the same way a property is made by a fence, be it a cordon of armed guards, concrete barriers, immigration laws or the spiked top of the fences around the Orchards. This is The American.

This is the individual who constantly thumbed away at her cell phone trying to contact the Embassy, sure they were going to get her out; the same individual I offered my phone to, so she could SMS her children (her phone not having that capability); the same individual who, distraught during the wild drive from the university turned on me crying, “Your not wearing a headscarf is going to get us killed!”

Essentially, the Australians went back to their normal routine and the Americans worried.

Later, the security chief came to tell us that guards and drivers would be spending the night here with us, just in case we had to leave in a hurry.

Later still, the six occupants of the Taj were evacuated to the Orchards because the house opposite had been broken into. They heard shots fired and apparently the guards there had taken off. Not surprising in the least. People pay their guards about $200 per month, which is good money here, but can we really expect these men to lay down their lives for us if attacked? I shouldn’t think so. Yes, they have guns, but they also have families, and survival is a basic human instinct. My thought is that they would be over the fence very quickly. Of course, I hope that never gets put to the test.

Everyone is ‘on’ tonight and that means overtime and lots of radio chatter outside. They walk around our little compound, in shifts, with their AKs and check the perimeter fences. I’m not making light of them; they have done a lot of training with our head of security to get where they are and they are very attentive to what is happening, as are our drivers. I have every faith in them, but for the off chance that they might have to die to protect us….and I could be wrong. Today however, they did a marvelous job, especially considering it’s the first time they have had a chance to put their training to use.

Our guests from the Taj brought wine and beer (they had started drinking earlier in the afternoon) and set about making themselves happy for the night. I wonder that they did not see this as being very silly. If we did have to evacuate…and we had been briefed on how this should go down if necessary….being drunk would not be an asset. But what do I know? These were the bosses who get very cross with us if we don’t follow safety procedures. I expect there are no rules about drinking during a security crisis.

The next morning was calm and the city quiet. Scores of Afghan Army and NATO troops were positioned around the city to stave off any trouble before it began. Tanks came into the city for the first time. There were two demonstrations planned, but they were quashed before they could get started. Most offices were closed, but the market close to our house was operating and in our area, children walked home from school as normal.

We went back to work the next day.

The riots will not be the end of it. Since then, Afghan nationals working for foreign companies, have been targeted and shot, others killed by a roadside bomb. Police stations have been taken over and destroyed in other parts of the country. On the same morning as the riots, another US led air strike killed dozens of people in the Helmand province, this, the second air strike in a week. Frustration and anger are replacing the goodwill that was here early on. Frustration at the starvation that is still rife, the unemployment, the lack of basic facilities; frustration that with the billions of dollars thrown at this country over the last five years, the only people who appear to have benefited, are the rich.

Foreign aid might be defined as a transfer from poor people in rich countries

to rich people in poor countries.” Douglas Casey, Georgetown University

Afghanistan is falling apart, little by little. The only supposed success story of the ‘war on terror’, will eventually be exposed to the world as another farce….another lie in the tapestry woven since 9/11.

Till next time, stay safe, healthy and keep smiling


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The weather has turned and spring is truly upon us. The roses in our garden are blooming wildly and the trees have lost their blossom and are setting fruit. Outside the dining room, the pergola is now covered with lush grapevines and tiny bunches are already visible.

In our garden too, a pair of Afghan hedgehogs have come out of hibernation and wander freely about at night, not at all worried by the hoards of stray cats which seem to have made the garden their personal playground. We have already established that they love almonds and melon and I have no doubt that they will be well fed, whereas the cats have to scrounge through the rubbish or convince the guards to feed them.

With the temperatures climbing into the high 20s, everyone is feeling the heat and summer is not yet here. At some 1800 metres above sea level, I don’t expect it will get too much hotter and I certainly have no problem with the temperature, but it is a lot more humid than the Sahara. In lower regions however, the temps are already up in the high 30s. Perhaps the extremes of cold in winter are mirrored by extremes in summer…..that remains to be seen.

The snowcaps on the mountains are all but gone, leaving only tendrils, like wet hair, straggling down the mountainsides. Those too, now covered with a sprinkling of green, barely visible as it struggles to take hold on the barren slopes.

The hot weather brings with it spontaneous dust storms which disappear as quickly as they spring up, leaving a fine brown coat on everything in its wake, and redistributing papers and plastic from the piles of rubbish that are on every street and empty block. Still, there is beauty amongst the rubble. The unblemished sky slashed only occasionally by the white trail of an aircraft at high altitude, street stalls selling rosebushes and geraniums in a riot of colour, and the brightly coloured clothing that people seem to wear when the weather improves.

In the streets also, orange sellers are now outnumbered by stands selling melons, huge pale green orbs piled as high as a man under the shelter of plastic tarpaulins. One wonders where they are grown since Kabul is a veritable dustbowl with little greenery in public places.

Public parks are simply dirt areas with conifers holding what little they can to the earth. Sunken paddy like areas surround the trees and these are filled with water on a daily basis, nurturing and feeding to keep them alive. Along the sides of many streets, wire fences have sprung up around areas now being used to grow vegetables, these too in paddy like sections.

Herds of sheep and goats are regularly taken to various areas around the city to feed on rubbish piles or vacant lots of scant greenery The ewes and nanny goats are heavy with young, their udders bagged so that their previous young cannot suckle, the milk much too valuable to waste. Spring is definitely in the air and with it, a normalcy that is not unwelcome.

With the warmer weather though, come more attacks, mostly on military convoys and still mostly out of town. Rocket attacks are more frequent and in the city, rarely hit their targets, making the unexpected a more palpable threat. Still, I don’t feel unsafe and to be honest, no one can protect themselves against random unexpected events and with the many security procedures we have in place, there is little we could do in the event of a rocket landing in our beloved garden.

My students are now almost half way through their 20 week course and the improvement is measurable, but whether they will be capable of reaching the required mark in the TOEFL or IELTS is another matter. Many started at too low a level, but some will definitely get through.

Mid terms will be in a couple of weeks and we will have a solid idea of their progress then.

They are highly motivated and very enthusiastic and that is heartwarming. We have a mandate to make places available for women since during the Taliban regime, they were not allowed to be educated. Approximately 30% of our students are women and that’s a good start. Some will not make it this August, but a few will. It is very moving to see how much they actually care about us. I recently spent a week in bed with a bacterial infection in my lungs, something I have been fighting since my arrival. Their constant enquiries about my health while I was away and the warm welcome I received, including a large bunch of fresh flowers, when I returned, makes all things worthwhile.

Still, the tuition fees are too high for normal Afghans and this was brought home in an article just published, called Education for the Elite. The article went on to say that $5000 per year tuition was out of the reach for all but the political elite and actually named several of our students, citing their fathers’ jobs in Government. But the sucker punch was as follows, and I quote;

“This university was built for the sons of ministers, commanders and
those who have a lot of money, but not for me,” said Farhad Alizada, who
graduated from high school last year. “My father is a government employee and
makes 60 dollars a month.”

Jamaluddin, a student at Kabul University, wanted to go to the American
University but could not afford the fees. He is bitter that what he calls
“the offspring of drug smugglers and warlords” can take advantage of the
high-quality facilities that he is denied.

“Their fathers burned our schools during Jihad and war and made us
illiterate,” he said. “But now their sons and daughters study in modern
universities.”

No one can actually deny this is true, that is the real shame. Funding may well be the problem with USAID slashing its original aid offer of 17.7 million to 5 million. Laura’s best intentions gone sour. How could that not make a big difference in the way we operate. The fees are abnormally high for a university that is not yet accredited and cannot be for quite some time. Such is the way of foreign aid. It often only helps those who can afford to help themselves.

I recently went for a walk down Chicken Street with two other teachers. The day being a beautiful one and nothing pressing to do meant we could just wander to our heart’s content….dawdling through the many tiny shops.

Chicken Street has been a focus of attention from the hippy hangout days in the 60’s to the return of foreign workers after the fall of the Taliban. The street, signposted in English, is lined with handicraft shops selling everything from Lapis Lazuli to carpets, antiques, Herati glass and Uzbek embroidery. Shops are dusty and usually dim, and haggling is a must. Carpet shops are numerous and among the more beautiful traditional carpets and kelims are small commemorative rugs, cheap and nasty looking, but interesting for their profoundly bad spelling and sometimes the bad taste pictorials of 9/11.

On our way we were, of course, followed by several children looking for baksheesh or trying to sell us old magazines, and also a mother in a burkha with two small children, waving a prescription in our faces, wanting money. This is quite common, for though there are numerous foreigners in town, not a lot of them are seen on the streets.

The vast majority of them shop in two places, Supreme or Blue, both of which are highly secured behind high fences and look more like warehouses than supermarkets.

Vehicles are checked with under-car mirrors and though drivers are allowed into the secure carpark, guards must remain outside the fence. In the summer heat, that will be pretty harsh. The prices are higher than at home and unless you want to buy alcohol, you are better off shopping in someplace local.

On Fridays, there are two local markets, both on military sites and both secured by sniffer dogs, military personnel and armoured vehicles with guns on top at the entrance. These are basically craft markets, but many stalls sell copy dvds, cheap copy watches, and military paraphernalia. Some of the old guns for sale are beautifully hand carved and inlaid with mother of pearl and the number of dangerous looking weapons is amazing. It seems to be military personnel that buy these as souvenirs, but how they get them into their country is anyone’s guess.

Carpets too, are common as well as embroidery, shawls and all manner of Afghan clothing, all secured behind high fences and razor wire.

Jewellery ranges from the insipid modern, to more local styles, but you can also buy some old traditional jewellery, which is what I personally prefer. Unfortunately, the prices here are quite high and you can find the same things in Karachi and Peshawar for much lower prices. Still, if you bargain hard, stick ruthlessly to the price you have in your head at the start, they will give in, and they will still make a profit.

Military personnel from all over the world are in abundance at these markets, all toting their big guns, the Americans wearing bulletproof jackets. The troops are all part of ISAF, which is a conglomeration of all the international forces. At the moment, the Italians are in charge of the entire ISAF organization, but this will be taken over by the British in July. It is obviously a rotating responsibility.

We don’t really see many of them, except at the markets where they will quite happily chat to us about anything and everything, but we do see the armoured vehicles moving about the city on a regular basis.

On days out, I try to get to a restaurant for lunch, anything to avoid eating the Afghan food, which just does not agree with me, and which I find incredibly boring. I have discovered two places that I like very much, one Thai and another Lebanese. Both serve food that is infinitely superior to anything I have tried here, but there is always the Serena Hotel, where on a Friday for $30, you can partake of an all you can eat brunch. In a developing country, $30 is a lot to pay for a meal, but I have heard that it is well worth it as they have sushi, smoked salmon, lots of salads and even lobster on the buffet. My mouth waters at the thought.

On my infrequent tramps around the city, my eyes are usually drawn to the mountains and on several occasions I have noticed a long wall which snakes its way up the rocky slopes.

The great wall of Kabul? No, I hear it referred to as the old Kabul town wall. Several stories are told about its existence, my favourite being the two brother Kings who could not agree on who owned what, so they built the wall and split the city in two. However, more believable is that it was built to secure the city from invaders back in the 5th century. The age is consistent, but the stories wildly vary. There are also tales of bodies being buried within the wall. I expect that I shall never find out the truth, so I leave it to my imagination and continue to look at it in wonder. You can just see it in the pic below, looking almost like a ridge, but actually built on some of the steepest slopes and this is only a tiny part of it.

Well, that’s it for now.

Stay healthy and safe and above all, keep smiling.

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My first month in Kabul is already past and I feel like I’ve been here forever. I guess life settles into a routine and so the newness in that respect, wears off. It is routine in that I am picked up and dropped off each working day at the same time…any variation of that has to be thought about in advance wherever possible. I also have to check in twice a day with security to let them know where I am. On a Friday, usually someone from the house goes shopping, so it is a chance to go out of the compound for a while, but when they are off to the American PX, they’ve lost me.

I have no interest in shopping there. This is when you find out how expensive Afghanistan can be. You just know foreigners are getting paid good money when they can afford to pay $5.20 for a small tub of cottage cheese, or $7 for the smallest jar of instant coffee. I’m not mean, but I’m not stupid either. I prefer to shop in small local groceries.

Food though, has become my nemesis. Local cooking is something I have now given away completely to save myself from the constant bouts of gastro that I have been plagued with. No more vegetables boiled in oil, no more beans or chick peas floating in red coloured oil….in effect, no more oil. Humdillilah! My new diet will consist of fresh veg and fruit, when I can get it, and muesli, with perhaps the odd egg thrown in to balance things out. Not so bad when you think about it.

I’ve now become familiar with my small corner of Kabul. It is a tiny corner, but full of character. I live on the Darulaman Palace road, named after the palace that is at the other end of the road, just a few hundred metres from the campus. It was built in the 1920s as a symbol of King Amanullah Khan’s plans for democratic modernization. Nowadays it symbolizes the destruction of the civil wars of the 1990’s. There is much talk about reconstruction so that it can be used to house parliament as it was originally intended to, but spending on this cannot be justified when there is so much else that needs doing.

Opposite the orchards is a small strip of shops, mud rendered boxes really, some selling fruit and vegetables and others, unknown bits and bobs. There is a butcher there too and his meat hangs in the open air for all to see, and for the flies to enjoy. Butchering is often done out in the open on the wide dirt strips at the side of the road, a sheet of dirty plastic or fabric the only barrier between the animal and the muddy…or dusty, depending on the weather….ground. Sanitary conditions are not a consideration, they are just not available.

There are many mobile food stands a few hundred metres up the road and they are very busy at lunchtime when I drive by. I have no idea what they sell as we are not allowed to walk anywhere…my view is restricted to what I can see from the car.

Poverty here is prevalent and the statistics are staggering. 53% of the population lives below the poverty line, making less than a dollar a day. Life expectancy is only 45 years and one child in five dies before their fifth birthday. Only 13% of Afghans have access to safe drinking water and only 12% have access to adequate sanitation. A mere 6% of Afghans have access to electricity. One has to wonder what the myriad of NGO’s are doing…..have, in fact, been doing for the last 5 years.

1.2 million Afghan girls are not going to school, primarily due to cultural and religious restrictions based on fear and ignorance, not to mention the lack of schools. This applies far more to the rural areas than the city. Afghan illiteracy stands at 70% while illiteracy of Afghan women in rural areas is estimated to be 96%. I don’t have figures for the boys, but they are bound to be better than for the girls. Down the street from me, a huge new madrassa is being built….bigger than any new school I have yet seen here. There is also the Habibia High School, (for boys), renovated courtesy of the Indian Govt, but I have never seen a student there, so I’m not even sure it is operational.

Most of the homes here are shacks, sheds or mud houses with little or no insulation.

On the mountainsides, many of the small homes have plastic sheets covering their windows and doors and I shudder at the thought of the winters here, when below zero temperatures can last for months. Throughout the city so many of the homes, shops, and other buildings are bombed out or destroyed.The roofs have collapsed, or are gone completely, walls are covered in bullet holes. They stand testament to recent history.

Only the wealthy, and internationals like me, live in homes that have generators for electricity and running water. The generator we have cost around $20,000 dollars and is the size of a Volvo wagon. We, the fortunate, grumble when they go down, this usually because the diesel suppliers water down the fuel, but the average Afghan does not have this luxury. To think of running water and electricity as a luxury is something I’ve learned over time spent in developing countries, but still, when it fails and we have to go without, we find it difficult. The things we take for granted don’t even figure in the lives of so many.

The people too, reflect the poverty of the city. The pedestrians walking by your stylish SUV are largely dressed in clothing that has more than seen better days. More often than not, their clothes are covered in the ever present mud or dust, the colour having long faded away. The few sets of clothes that many people have are simply worn-out from over-use. There are many impaired individuals with missing limbs, eyes, and noses. No-one stares, they are part of everyday life here.

However, with all the security surrounding us, you need not worry about my safety. We are in far more danger when in that fancy SUV. Driving here is akin to playing chicken as cars, trucks, bicycles and sometimes tank-like vehicles, zoom toward our vehicle daring us to chicken out or stand our ground. When I say that there aren’t any traffic laws here, I mean there aren’t any traffic laws here. I take that back….there are two very important traffic laws in Kabul: 1) The biggest vehicle has the right-of-way

2) The one who gets there first has the right-of-way. And since everyone is constantly fighting for the right-of-way, there is simply chaos on the roads. Intersections are just a tangle of traffic, honking and nudging to get through. There are no lanes marked, and if there were any, you wouldn’t be able to see them anyway because of the mud, so you find yourself constantly weaving in and out of traffic onto any part of the road that is not occupied, barely missing vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, children, goats or sheep. If it moves, you will find it on the road and thus, it takes part in the constant juggle for position.

The recent history of Afghanistan is devastating. The country experienced relative stability throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but in 1979, the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan and stayed for a decade. They tried to force communism and atheism on a very established Muslim community. Afghan resistance forces fought back. Thousands upon thousands were killed on both sides until in 1989, the Russians admitted defeat and pulled out. For the next five years, there were civil wars between the warlords who wanted rule over the country. This again caused massive destruction, putting Kabul in ruins.

In 1996, the Taliban took over Kabul and Bin Laden established Al Qaeda camps throughout the country. The Taliban were brutal and killed many, many men and women. The rights of the people, especially women, were wiped away. The harshness of the Taliban was so extreme that Afghans did not know what was better, an enforced communist regime, a civil war amongst themselves, or the fanatically-inflicted religious society of the Taliban. Then amongst this almost schizophrenic culture of devastation, 9/11 happened, and shortly after, the Americans came in with more bombs and destruction.

25 years of destruction. 25 years of fleeing in and out of your country to refugee camps. 25 years of bombs and guns. 25 years of killings, murders, rapes, and corruption. 25 years of loss. Loss of your home. Loss of your belongings. Loss of your friends and loved ones. Loss of your identity. Loss.

But in the midst of this devastation is the resilience of the Afghan people, their hopeful hearts pounding within those mud-ridden clothes declaring that one day their country will return to what it should be, what it once was. Hopeful that there will be hospitals established for their sick and lame; that there will be schools for their children; that there will be an established economy to thrive upon. This hopefulness survives even though extremism is still alive and well and halting the progress that might be made.

Women now have more freedom, though possibly not by our standards. Many now only wear a headscarf, but just as many still wear the burkha. Some because their men still demand it, others because of fear, or dislike of being stared at. But they now move alone, rather than having to be accompanied by a male; they are now seen on the streets, in Kabul at least.

On the surface, westerners seem quite welcome here and to a large extent I believe that is true. We are needed to rebuild the country and to establish schools and universities such as the one I work for. But there is an underlying feeling that is not at all obvious, but does exist. One that feels they are trading their beliefs for ours in exchange for this rebuilding. There is no doubt resentment too, that we do this for much greater salaries than they could ever hope to earn anytime in the near future.

Of course it is the rich we are educating at the university; the poor cannot afford it, even if their English is good enough. To balance this out as best we can, we offer financial assistance, some to the tune of 95% of the tuition fees and all books are sold at cost price.

Our students, regardless of their financial situation, are however, the privileged. Most of them left the country during the fighting, not to western countries but to Pakistan or Iran. Many were educated in those countries and they learned English in either English medium schools or from television or private lessons. They are eager and motivated, knowing that they are the future of their country. They all have dreams of their country providing a much higher standard of living but they are under no illusions that this will be easy, or that they can do this without foreign aid. Their hope and determination is remarkable and makes us work just that much harder.

All of our ancillary staff and many in administration are also Afghans. The salaries they earn are well in excess of what they could earn in an Afghan organization, but some level of English is required. Many of them have not had the advantage of formal language instruction, but nevertheless, they have made the effort and learned to communicate, for the most part effectively. There are many NGO’s to choose from, all of which require drivers, administration and IT staff, so the motivation is high.

Our campus is nothing like we would expect in our own countries. But, having been to Kabul University and seeing the state of the buildings there, seeing the virtual nonexistence of basics such as furniture and resources, ours is pretty impressive. It was once a dormitory for students and has been refurbished over the last few months. Work on this, of course, is nowhere near finished, but the main building is not unpleasant to work in and the others are well on the way to being completed. The gymnasium is still as it was and reminds us of the progress we are making.

A publisher in the US donated 7500 books to our university and some of these will be donated to the other universities in the city, so even though we still await some of the necessary texts, we are not completely without resources.

Only the Foundation Studies Programme has started at this stage, this being necessary to get students to the level of English they will need to undertake the undergraduate courses, which start in August. Our programme is of course ongoing and will always be needed.

We have a small staff in my department; the Dean, Deborah, is warm and gentle, but has an iron will when it comes to getting things done. She inspires loyalty and a willingness to do more than expected and we all know how lucky we are to have her. Lyn, a fellow Aussie, is the Academic Programme Coordinator and has been here for nearly 2 years working with another development company. She will not stay after her initial 6 month contract. It’s wonderful to work with her because she understands all my colloquialisms and we have the same Aussie sense of humour, though the others are learning quickly.

Gene and Lisa are my fellow teachers. In our little world, everyone is gay, with Deborah and I being the only heteros. It’s a change for us to be in the minority. Gene in particular has a wonderful sense of humour and keeps us in stitches a lot of the time. He and I are very similar in our way of thinking and in many of the ways we do things….that’s quite unusual considering we come from different hemispheres.

We have a new teacher coming next week and all of us are hoping that the wonderful atmosphere will not be changed, but we are thinking positively. She has worked in Burma, so should not be new to the rigours of living in a third world country. The restrictions on movement may be new to her though.

Today, we took a picnic to Lake Kharga, just outside Kabul. We set off in the school minivan and an escort car, both with driver and guards, who almost outnumbered us. We passed through villages where small shops and markets were in full swing, even though today is the Prophet’s birthday, and is a holiday. We stopped when we saw a large group of Unicef tents, perhaps thirty of them along the side of the road. This was a primary school for local children and we got out to have a closer look. Up the hill from the tents, the Japanese are constructing a permanent school with 12 classrooms. Currently there are over 2000 children at this school and they come to school in three shifts, so 12 classrooms, though a good start, will not fulfill their needs at all. The boys and girls are taught in segregated classes, but it was good to see lots of little girls there.

A few months ago, the children were sitting on the cold ground, but one day a group of Italians, working for an NGO, passed by and stopped just as we did. One week later, they delivered desks for all the tents. Sometimes wonderful things happen, and quickly.

Once we reached the lake, it was like being in another world. This is a resort in the making and the lake is a perfect setting for it. The vibrant aqua of the water is a brilliant contrast against the surrounding snow topped mountains. Brightly coloured paddle boats are pulled up on the shore as you enter the area and further on, chalets, painted in jewel colours are being completed for the summer season. A large restaurant is located in one of the most beautiful spots and inside the furnishings are reminiscent of that from the Swat Valley in Pakistan. The outdoor areas are situated for the best views of the lake and large ‘rentabeds’ (flat platforms covered in carpet and laden with cushions to lay on) are placed in shaded areas. These are not beds as such, but places where groups get together and eat whilst lazing comfortably in cushioned comfort.

We had our picnic further along the lake where we found a gazebo to shelter us from the sun, though not the wind. It was such a pleasant way to spend a day off and a very lovely change from being at the Orchards all weekend. We have decided that this kind of outing should be undertaken at regular intervals. It is the only way we will get to see anything of the country. Well, thats it for now.

Ciaou


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