Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In Kabul and Environs: Afghanistan March 2008

In more than twenty five yeas of traveling, this was the most inclusive tour I’ve ever experienced.  The country was Afghanistan. severely ravaged by strife for as long as I’ve traveled; the agent was Global Exchange,  a non profit international human rights organization.  So it wasn’t just a sightseeing trip - though I did that - but  there was a series of interviews with the would-be movers and shakers  struggling  to rebuild the country.  Much of this focused on women as Women Making Change was the theme of the tour - very appropriate for Afghanistan. The tour was ten days and I stayed  an additional four days.  

As I write this, I am remembering a statement from  an expat Kiwi, a library  coordinator:  don’t believe anything you read about Afghanistan and only half of what you see!  Keep that in mind; and it probably applies to more than just Afghanistan  

Actually, I was in Kabul more than into Afghanistan though  I did get  into the northern area a bit - the village of Istalif, the Paghman summer retreat, into the Panjshir Valley. and  up to Salang Pass.   I had hoped to get to Herat,  one time capital of the Timurid Empire and out to see the Minaret of Jam  - but another time!  

The first thing you notice is the security in and about Kabul.  Private security, local police, Afghan Army and ISAF (International Armed Response Forces) .  The Army and ISAF drive around in tandem armoured vehicles  At either end of the street where we stayed in West Kabul were barriers and security guards.  Across from our guesthouse was an international school, as well as private homes.  The Afghans 4 Tomorrow, who ran the guesthouse, had just moved there because of security concerns.   An  Afghan worker  I talked with, crosses Flower Street enroute to his job, which worries him for it it is downtown , the target area for kidnapers and bombers.   

Almost every place I entered had security staff checking you in and out, even the Kabul Coffee shop with two metal gates at least six feet tall.  The Serena Hotel, recently bombed,  not only had two really tall (10 feet?) metal security gates with guards at each sector - it was like going through a prison sally port -  and  a thorough individual inspection - as good as at any  any airport.    Security is on everyone’s minds.  If you are uncomfortable with guns around, don’t go to Kabul.  The one positive thing was that, unlike Yemen, the guns I saw were all in the hands of the uniformed  guys, not the tribesmen.

Interestingly, the streets, while full of Afghans, all shapes, colors, sexes, and sizes, were devoid of Westerners.  I saw some at the Hotel Serena where some  mercenaries stay (the food is lousy I was told by an Aussie ex-ranker) and a British TV couple doing a story on Afghan cricket, very popular,  at The Landmark Arcade (where the local ATM is - that would be a good target for the Taliban!).  In two instances, I observed other visitors being taken around, certainly more officially than our bunch. They were in the  ever present Land Rovers wrapped in Kelvar vests with  their “minders” carrying sidearms. I did see Westerners on the loose at the Kabul Cafe and at several upscale shops.  At the Golf course, they were with minders but no Kelvar.   The same for the runners along Lake Kagha.   On the other hand, we  (there were five of us on the tour: a activist, an academic, a pharmaceutical consultant, a Red Cross worker and me) went about with our leader/guide/minder Armed with his mobile, and a driver with his  rather unreliable van - ok in town but broke down twice coming back from Istalif.   And our only personal protection were headscarves.  

Kabul is a gray sprawling city divided by the polluted appearing  Kabul river,  in a valley surrounded by the   Hindu Kush mountains.  Population is now estimated as approaching four million.   The city was wasted in l982 by the mujaheddin and it went bad to worse after the American bombardment  of the Taliban in 2001.  It seems that half the buildings are shot up; mortar and bullet holes are throughout.  The edge of the airport runway is  littered with smashed fuselages and airport buses.  In the midst of the city’s rubble are a few newer buildings of glass, concrete  and steel, somewhat incongruous with the old mud and brick architecture, but with small shops peering out from the first level.  Most of the roads match the buildings:  pretty dismal though there are some asphalted streets running through town.  

But trash is cleaned up.  The Afghans are tidy.  They stack it all around the corner in hopes someone, someday, will stop by and haul it away.  

All about is the bustle of human activity:  men in various head coverings with safari vests or suit jackets over their shalwar keemiz.    And women in birkas.  My guess is that one third of the city women wear the blue birkas while maybe 2/3s of the country women  wear  them.  (interestedly  the most militant of our ladies wanted  to buy a birka at the store the local women purchased them - she had to settle for one picked up by our guide! Another member wanted a Kevlar vest.  Go figure!I  I settled for a  ball cap!)

I visited most of the Lonely Planet suggested sights:  Darulamen Palace which was a shell of the old Royal Palace, across the street from the Kabul Museum.  The Museum collections had been  decimated by both mujaheddin and Taliban.  But there was a magnificent 1970s photographic exhibit  of Tashqurghan, an ancient caravansari destroyed by the Soviets in a 1981 retaliatory air raid.; the showing was sponsored by the Dutch. I would love to find a collection of these photos published.

Our group  shopped on Chicken Street one morning, the magnet for Afghanistan’s tourists, except there were  only us five and the shopkeepers.  It features all kinds of handicrafts, including the thimble I was looking to get for my sister in law.  We also wandered about Babur’s Gardens, a 16th century formal park created by the first Mughal Emperor with a small  restored white marble Mosque.  There we saw the beginnings of spring.  

The OMAR Land Mine Museum had were sixty - count 'em, sixty - kinds of land mines  found in the country, including  the Russian butterfly mines so damaging to children.  (Later, we visited the ICRC Orthopedic Center where not only mine victims were treated and outfitted with prosthesis but also those handicapped  from other difficulties.  I watched a two year old, helped by what I assumed was her father, slowly forge ahead  with her tiny braces.)

We went to several schools, three for girls and one for street kids.  The buildings are basic, the children crowded into small and badly in need of paint rooms.  But there is great enthusiasm by both students and teachers.  Two of the girls school were run by Afghans 4 Tomorrow, the plan being to try toget the girls up to grade, for some second graders were nearly as tall as I am.  Their education had been sadly/badly neglected during the Taliban era.  The supplies were limited:  you may be able to vamp a bit for the social sciences, but you need lab equipment for the sciences.  The other  girls’ school was a Madrassa, run by a blind cleric from his own funds.  The Street Children’s Training Center boasted a swinging band made up of  indigenous instruments and several variations of the accordion.  

There were urchins at large on the street, selling and/or begging, along with a fair number of blue birka clad women. and pathetic old men.  There is not much of a support system here if you are down and out.  Except the charity of the good Muslim, which our tour leader certainly was.

One of the unique places we saw was the Fatema Women Carpentry Workshop, a training/production  company working with sixty widows of Hazara descent. The factory itself was a large canvas tent where the women made sofas, desks and cupboards.  We met with a  number of Women’s activists, some of whom  left the area during the unrest and others, who had stayed albeit with a low profile.  There were also a couple of people into micro financing which allowed women to open small businesses or help with their husband’s endeavors.  We interviewed a dynamic  Afghan-American committed to working on a Masters of Education program for the University who also arranged for  us to spend an evening in a relative's home,talking with them abut life in Kabul today.  The  daughter- in-law made clear that stable electricity was high on her list of priorities, along with security and education.  

We met with several women doctors: one Member of Parliament and the other, Director of a hospital.  There was the feisty   psychiatrist, a former member of Parliament who has her own foundation,  working behalf of women and children.  We went to the National Achives and the Research and Evaluation library.   We spent time with CARE, Save the Children and the Red Crescent, which rents space to another organization, Parsa.  All are working with the disenfranchised; all are working toward human rights; all are  trying to provide education and vocational  services.  An American couple were affiliated with one organization - they were born in Afghanistan and met early on as their  families  had been working there with a NGO; later on,  they reunited and have returned in retirement to render service.

One of the high points for me, was the contact with Turquoise Mountain Foundation, started by Rory Stewart, author  of The Places In Between and Prince of the Marshes.  He, along with Michael Asher, has been one of my heroes and, unfortunately, he was in the States when we were there.  But I did get to see the work he’s spearheaded  in restoration of the  buildings in the traditional style.  I first became interested in restoration within the perimeters of the existing culture when I became acquainted with Dwarka’s in Kathmandu.  This is in the same mode, including training of a work force in the old way, which is likely more earthquake resistant than today's slapdash approach. The Foundation is also working with the potters in Istalif - I saw the shops and show room there - and reconstruction in the Old City - which I also saw.  I was most impressed.  

Women's Day, which really hasn’t been a big thing in my life, is a Big Thing there with several different celebrations.  We went to the Mother of them all, in a local high school auditorium with exceeding tight security for  President Karzai was speaking.  The auditorium was packed full of local women, all appearing to be from the upper tiers of Kabul society with some men interspersed throughout the audience.  Two  women Generals  were in the first row, in uniforms that must have dated from the Russian era.  We were just behind the American Embassy bunch, all fitted out with our  translating ear pieces.  Secret Service types, ours and theirs, prowled the aisles, before, during and after, Karsai’s talk.  In brief, he emphasized the need for women’s education  - for the good of the men and the nation.  He’s an attractive man who certainly knows how to meet and greet.

As we interviewed, we would first have tea, then receive a rather prepared presentation of the organization’s program and goals.  It was then  in the  informal  discussion that we would hear a more candid view of the country’s problems.     Overall, I understood waste and corruption to be the greatest problems with education and security to be the greatest needs.  People felt morepositive toward European countries.  There didn’t seem to be a lot of good will toward the US government; we didn’t seem to have been very tactful.  

For example:  Money would be allotted for a project that might or might not be needed. US firms would get the bid. US workmen would be imported to the  work.  The money  did not go into the Afghan economy but right back to the donor.  The estimate was  about 20% went  into the Afghan economy.  Specifically:    the US sponsored a new University. Laura Bush came out to dedicate it. Tuition will be $5000. Instructors will be from overseas.  First,  what Afghan short of the warlords’ children, can afford it?  Second,  how does this help the Afghan economy?

Another one:  A monster dorm for women was built but very few use it.  Again, the plan didn’t meet a need.      The corruption is tied in with the warlords who have ben invited into the government and cabinet and ministries.   The question seems to be whether Karzai  is corrupt or just weak. part of it On a lower level the police are  considered corrupt, but then they are paid a pittance.  
The four days on my own were with with our tour leader and a driver.  I was able to wander in the Old City a bit, get to  but not inside Bala Hissar, the old British Fort,  see the Ghzi Stadium where soccer was being played and into the British Cemetery, where Aurel Steins, a Central Asian archaeologist, was buried.    At the cemetery, I found  memorial plaques for Americans, Germans and Brits recently killed in Afghanistan.  The caretaker, who has been maintaining the cemetery for a pittance for 26 years, was  delighted to show me around.   (Online, I found both the NY Times and the Toronto Star  had articles published about the cemetery and custodian - I hope to use those to support efforts to get him  a raise!)

I spent one day with one of my companions from the tour who was forced to stay over with   
passport and visa problems, e.g.: she lost them.  So I made my first trip to an US Embassy.  Through several sets of cheerful security personnel, we advanced to the glassed  consular window where we were courteously treated by our US representative who sent us off to get photos and fill out the requisite form.  We took what must have been the oldest and gassiest cab in Kabul to Flower street for her photos - fortunately she got an extra pair for those were needed the next day when we went through a similar routine  with the Afghans.  Anyway, within several hours, she had a one year passport.   And it took several hours the next day and the help of our long suffering guide, for her to  come out with an appropriate visa, including a stop at the street scribe’s chair outside the Ministry for all her information to be translated into Dari.  

We - the leader and myself - went through a smilier routine to obtain permission for me to leave the confines of Kabul:  I wanted to travel into the Panjshir Valley and up to the Salang Pass, which required special permission for a foreigner to leave the city. In fact, at one point, they were talking of sending an Army guy with me!  Turned out unnecessary for  the Minister had been there the day before and felt it was safe.

So in a more reliable sedan than our van, we - the guide, his 11 year old son, driver and myself took off.  Countryside was lovely, just starting to blossom into spring.  We drove through several small villages and ended at Ahmed Shah Moussoud’s grave, which I suspect will eventually become a shrine.  He was the Tajik head of the Northern Alliance who as assassinated  by by Al-Qaeda.  At the grave is a memorial with words by his son and a Colonel Pike, USMC, extolling him and his life.  

From here we turned back to head out to the Salang Pass., stopping for lunch at a road side restaurant along the way.  Again., wonderful snowy mountain country, the kind of country trekkers die for.  The Himalayas I keep coming back to.  Got into the snow and exchanged snow balls with my young traveling companion; we then turned around, homeward  bound.  

The next morning saw me in jail!  In view of my past life, I had indicated an interest in visiting the jail and/or the courts.  Apparently, there had been trouble in the  main facility:  several Taliban had escaped and heads were rolling.  Not a time for a foreigner to wander in.  But I was able to convince the head of the women’s organization providing services to the women’s initial detention facility of my legitimate interest, so came in with her  assistant and three other workers.  Between us and the four women employees (ladies in long black dresses with shawls covering their  heads are hard to term  “guards”), we almost outnumbered the twelve rather sad ladies in custody.  It was a small, well used facility, with about five cots per room and a small asphalted enclosed area for a yard.  The women sat in chairs with their faces to the wall and backs to the sun.  Cooking pans were drying the the middle of the yard.  
With the help of the accompanying women, I talked a bit with them.  They were there from 3 days to, in an extreme case, four  months while their cases made an initial appearance before  before the Court.  Apparently no one was released pending Court.  One very depressed looking youngster was there for running away from home, have done this in response to a forced marriage - she faces  five, count them, five years incarceration.  Two others had been arrested for what sounded like embezzlement.  Several were charged with  prostitution.  One woman, looking more middle class than the rest, kept the bottom half of her fact covered throughout though she was quite articulate.    No personal items are provided, bed and food  only (literally, three hots and a cot!); the women’s organization does provides any “extras”.  All have attorneys though most ae court appointed, some attorney s are women, some judges are women and few trust their attorneys.

As I left, I noticed no visitors for these women while there was a long long of men waiting to visit at the main jail.  

No one I talked with would predict the country’s future.  They would shrug when I asked about next month (the Taliban  have announced an Spring offensive for April) or next year.    They were too busy trying to do today.  It was the old AA adage, A Day at a Time. So much energy; so much effort, so much to do!  You could cry!  
Leaving Kabul, I stopped at the Kabul Cafe which was on the way to the airport, where earlier I had  a mango smoothie - a hangout for Westerners with a nice garden where you could enjoy Kabul’s answer to Starbucks..  And earlier,  I did get to The Bookseller of Kabul, though  bought nothing there.  But I plan to return next year and  volunteer, maybe doing conversational English at Turquoise Mountain Foundation, and then travel,at least to  Herat and Mazer-e Sharif.  For the country is beautiful and the people most gracious.  I’ve never felt more welcome. And  I’ve never drank as much tea for tea is part and parcel of any welcoming.

Costs:  Roundtrip airfare British Air SFO-LHR-Dubai: $1267 plus Kam Air Dubai-Kabul: $410.  Reality Tour charge: $1700 (including two meals/daily).  Additional cost for 4 days: $760 including two meals daily). Tips:  $120.  Overnight Dubai: $100.  

The guesthouse was quite comfortable:  two to a room excepting our fifth woman out.  Electricity was unpredictable - we had solar backup but that didn’t help with our heater or the hot water.  Food was basic:  rice, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, kabobs, flat bread, beef, potatoes, tangerines.  Lunch was at small restaurants  used by  the locals, not foreigners.  We ate at the Rose Restaurant several times as it had chicken kabobs.   

It was a well organized schedule which kept us moving and ready to return to our quarters by supper time.  Our leader/guide/minder was outstanding and very patient with us.  One of the group described his job as “herding a bunch of cats” for we would  invariably head off in different directions, according to our interests.  

Besides  Rory Stewart’s books, I suggest  Greg Mortenson’s and David Relin’s  Three Cups of Tea, Sarah Chayes The Punishment of Virtue and Greg Mills’ Africa to Afghanistan  all giving a different perspectives on the area.  Besides the invaluable Lonely Planet, I found Bijan Omani’s and Matthew Leeming’s  Afghanistan, a Companion and Guide helpful.