Friday, September 01, 2006
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
Preparing to leave Afghanistan
The time has suddenly come for us to start organising our departure from Afghanistan. Ed and I would both love to travel back overland, but we will have to see how forthcoming Afghanistan’s chippy neighbours will be in issuing us with visas. The most obvious route would be through Iran, which we both travelled to in 2001 and loved, but we were told yesterday at the Iranian Embassy in Kabul that there is a “special procedure” for American and British citizens only. Needless to say, given the current political climate, this procedure is anything but special – other than in the sense of longer, more complicated and more expensive.
I pored over the map yesterday plotting alternative routes, but they all involve a huge number of countries (and thus visas), especially if we try to avoid going through Uzbekistan again. One example: we cross from Afghanistan into Tajikistan, drive across Tajikistan over the mountains and eastwards into Kyrgyzstan, traverse the whole of Kyrgyzstan northwards, again across high mountains, up to the Kazakh border. We would then traverse the whole of southern Kazakhstan westwards, a massive trek across the proverbial hungry steppe of Central Asia. From Kazakhstan we would pass briefly into the Russian Federation, go through Volgograd and into Ukraine. Having been granted entrance to the Ukraine, it would then be a simple matter of crossing Hungary and Austria, before taking the night train from Vienna to Venice.
Having contemplated that route, this morning we decided to go back to the Iranian Embassy and submit our application. We took a deep breath and paid 240 dollars for the chance of receiving a 7 day transit visa within two weeks.
In the queue for the Iranian Embassy, I met a small Afghan lady who was also hoping to be allowed to enter Iran. She told me, in hesitant English, that she was a graduate of the Faculty of Law who had remained in Kabul throughout all the years of the war. Her husband and brother had been martyred, and she had no money, but she had heard that it was possible to apply for study grants from the Ministry of Martyrs and Maimed Veterans (that may not be its the exact title).
She told me she has never once left her country, but that she very much wants to, and that she wants to continue her studies. She gazed up at me in a supplicating manner as she spoke, and smiled so that the corners of her light brown eyes crinkled, but I could think of nothing to say.
Already that same morning I had shrugged away two requests for help – while Ed was in the British Embassy having a meeting, I waited in the car with the driver. We talked about boxing – he is a keen boxer and would love us to buy him a proper pair of gloves in England. The gloves to be found here are no good – the label might say they are made in America or England or Russia, but in fact they are all from Pakistan. He showed me his various boxing scars, and proudly pointed out that both his nose and teeth are unscathed. He also told me the interesting, and perhaps little known, fact that all the best boxers in the world always eventually wind up converting to Islam.
Our chat was interrupted by a man in his forties or fifties, with a suntanned face and a neatly trimmed beard, who accosted the window and asked the driver if he might speak to me. Having been assured that I spoke Dari, he explained that he was a teacher, but he was forced to beg because he had five children to support.
I didn’t have any money and told him so, and when he withdrew the driver explained that even experienced teachers only receive about forty dollars a month – which in Kabul can hardly be enough to keep body and soul together, never mind support a family.
Not five minutes after the teacher had departed, an old lady in a tattered burqa, lifted up so that we could see her face, clung to the car window pleading for a few Afghani to feed a poor widow. Again I explained that I had no money, but again I don’t think she believed me. In Europe, it is possible to feel confident that beggars and the homeless can rely on the state or private charities, but in Kabul, where even the teachers beg, there are just too many.
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
The next morning it was already time to rush back to Afghanistan before my visa expired, lest I find myself like Cinderella at the border, in all wrong clothes and a huge penalty to pay.
Alas, it was already getting late by the time we reached the border, and what with the Uzbeks having perhaps the most paranoid government on earth (up there with N Korea, Saudi A and Turkmenistan), we didn’t have an easy time of it. They moaned about my visa, they sifted through Ed's pockets, accused us of hiding our customs declaration and disappeared with my passport for an hour and a half, leaving us on a concrete curb in the gathering gloom.
We had 40 kg of luggage with us – having collected my voluminous winter wardrobe from storage in Tashkent, and were expected to walk over the 3km of bridge and no man's land, because "it is not safe" to allow cars across at night. Luckily we persuaded a special status UN car to take our heaviest bag across with them.
By the time we reached Afghanistan it was 8pm, and the Afghan on duty had fallen asleep. There was no sign of a car to pick us up. Finally we managed to persuade the roaringly drunk head of the border police to let us use his phone to call Mazar. We were told by a frightened young radio operator that he had been refused permission to send us a car, because the road from Mazar was "dangerous at night". Neither he nor anyone else in the cuckoo organisation that employs Ed had any suggestions as to what we might do in a small Afghan border town until it became safe to send a car for us (the next day), so we are lucky that the drunk commander decided to take us in hand.
We were ushered us into his own room in the barracks, the way flanked by saluting underlings, who scrambled to carry our luggage without dislodging their machine guns from their shoulders. He gestured to the amenities his room offered, and announced we should sleep there ("Clean sheets!" he remarked several times for our benefit), while he ordered his underlings to fetch us rice and meat, fruit, Pepsi and vodka (the latter largely for his own benefit).
One junior soldier with his Kalash on his back was made to peel and chop apples for us, while another was dispatched to find us a suitable room for the night (after a few more vodkas he had concluded that "it is not good for women to sleep near soldiers").
He regaled us with stories of his Buzkashi exploits (the Afghan ancestor of polo in which a headless sheep or calf is substituted for the ball, and rules are few), and showed us the ugly scars on his leg dating from the last match. He proved his great love of horses by showing us his mobile phone, which whinnied on command, and commissioned us to buy him a pair of British Army boots when we next had the opportunity.
So, after dinner and toasts we were driven off to the flat of one of his colleagues, where a meek little wife and seven children smiled shyly at us and made us up a bed for the night. I fell asleep almost as soon as I had been ushered into the ladies’ room, but Ed enjoyed a few more rounds of Afghan courtesy before joining me.
In the morning we were plied with cake and fried meats, quince jelly and fresh cream, while the family apologised profusely for not joining us in any refreshments, as it is Ramadan and they were all fasting. They had had their breakfast at 4am. We were sat down in front of the telly (which was showing "Antz") until the ACTED car finally arrived to take us to Mazar.
Friday, October 28, 2005
GRE a la Uzbeque
My husband and I would love to attend graduate school in the US, and with this in mind set about studying for the GRE exam shortly after arriving in Afghanistan. The GRE is a necessary hurdle in the application process whatever subject one intends to study, and it must be sat in October ideally. We discovered that the nearest exam location to Kabul is Tashkent, and so I set about applying for an Uzbek visa several weeks in advance. No response from the relevant ministry.
After days of nail-biting suspense, and many visits to a suave Uzbek consular official with deceptively liberal ideas about world travel (“Borders? They are not God’s work! God created the world, but man created borders! My child and your child are the same underneath!”), I was finally granted a three day Uzbek transit visa – the day before our departure.
Cars are a little scarce in my husband’s organisation since the earthquake in Pakistan, and this NGO’s timely emergency response that stripped its Afghan offices of all essential staff, but nonetheless with a little bargaining we reached Mazar in a day.
I was very happy to see our friends at the guesthouse again, and to catch up with Sugarlump’s latest stories. We crossed the border into Uzbekistan with eerie ease, only to find no one waiting on the other side. So we walked along the path through the fields to the little teahouse, where we sat on a wooden platform under the apricot trees and drank a bottle of mineral water. The tea was a little while in coming as all cooking was being done over an open fire, but an Uzbek matron and her two daughters kept us company. One of them was busy making an extremely elaborate cushion cover using a flower-shaped stitch I had never seen before. They all had gold earrings and teeth and were very cheerful, laughing at anything we said.
Finally we were picked up, and taken to the guesthouse in Termez, where we were fed and watered before being put on the very small plane leaving for Tashkent. [to be continued…]
In Tashkent we were warmly greeted at the airport by our friends from the office there, one of whom had toothache and had swollen up like a hamster. As soon as we were settled into our room, we took great delight in walking out un-chaperoned into the great, dark city. It felt unusually wonderful to walk the dimly lit, tree-lined streets of featureless Tashkent, which had never struck as so pleasant before we had experienced months of Kabul claustrophobia. We found a Uyghur café that was still open (Uyghurs are a Muslim ethnic group from Western China who speak a Turkic language similar to Uzbek), and were welcomed into their warmest room. We had suzma, a tangy cream cheese to be scooped up with bread, and lagman, the Uyghur speciality: long noodles dexterously handmade at high speed, in a rich broth with seasonal vegetables and small chunks of mutton, seasoned with a liquorice-like herb. Old favourites of mine.
The next morning our thoughts were very much taken up by our exam, due to begin at 2pm, and by how to find the venue. We arrived in good time, and sat through our two essays, our 30 mins of verbal acrobatics, our 45 minutes of maths (rather painful), and a mysterious "experimental" section on which we were not won't be marked. I severely ran out of time during the maths part, it almost as bad as being at school again – even after all my revision. Luckily it was all multiple choice, in which blind guessing can also bring its rewards.
We were so glad when it was over – as well as chuffed to realise that both Ed and I had got the maximum score in the verbal section – that we went straight out and blew all of 28 dollars on a huge slap up meal at the most expensive restaurant we could find. This was a most discreetly elegant Korean place with Russian waitresses in tiny scarlet skirts (a most pleasing change from Kabul), where we were given seven types of complimentary salads as a starter - which won my heart already - and then elaborate little mouthfuls wrapped up in seaweed (a bit like sushi), whole roasted fishes, and - forbidden delight - roast pork nuggets with sesame. We only made one bad choice - a scary soup with fermented soy beans in it - but that's good going considering we were deciphering a patchily translated menu.
Sunday, October 09, 2005
I was woken on saturday morning by the sound and motion of my bed, rocking from side to side, but not violently. When I opened my eyes, I saw the chandelier swinging two and fro above my head, and heard the walls or window frames doing a certain amount of creaking and whining.
I stayed awake just long enough to realise it was an earthquake, and to hope that the epicentre was somewhere nearby, which would have meant that it was but a baby earthquake.
Alas, as we now know, quite the opposite is true, and I am lucky not to have found myself further east that saturday morning.
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
Today I have launched a new, special blog, dedicated to Bemani and the fundraising effort to send her to England for surgery. You can read an INTERVIEW with her, to get an idea of what an amazing person she is.
Today is also the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. I wish all my Muslim friends strength in their fast, and many happy iftar meals with their families.
Ripples from a murder
The ripples from the recent killing of a parliamentary candidate in Mazar-i-Sharif continue to grow. Ashraf Ramazan was killed with his bodyguard on 27 September, and the protests at his death have been gathering momentum. Already on the day after his death mourners took to the street in protest, demanding that his killers be swiftly found and tried.
Today, hundreds of protesters in Mazar blocked the main road from Kabul and from Mazar airport into the city. Ed and I had set off for Mazar at 6:30 am this morning, but we were warned by radio of the road block and only reached as far as Pul-i-Khumri. We had lunch there, and headed straight back on the 6 hour journey to Kabul.
However, there are protests in Kabul also, for the same reason, and the latest news is that the Taliban have claimed responsibility for his death.
According to RZ, who we spoke to from Pul-i-Khumri, the protest in Mazar is not limited to the Hazara or Shi’ite minority who would form his most natural constituency. Ramazan belonged to the minority Shi’ite Wahdat party, and was ethnically a Hazara, but seems to have been generally liked in Mazar.
Ramazan was said to have been in fifth position in the vote count for the Balkh province elections, which would have given him one of the eleven district seats in the new parliament. The results of the elections are due to be announced only on 22 October, but a lot of the experts have already been wondering whether the “assassination clause” in the electoral law was a good idea. This clause stipulates that if a winning candidate dies, his seat passes to the runner up candidate.
The protests and roadblocks in Mazar are expected to continue for some days, but it remains to be seen whether the start of the fasting month of Ramadan tomorrow will have an effect.
Protesters are demanding the resignation of the provincial governor, Mohammed Atta, as it seems to many that he could well be behind the killings. There’s an article by Christian Parenti here which gives an idea of how life and the rule of law are respected under Atta’s regime.
“As a prelude to becoming governor here, the warlord Mohammed Atta had his men lay siege to the home and offices of a rival, the provincial security chief Gen. Mohammed Akram Khakrizwal, who is almost universally acknowledged to be an honest man committed to the rule of law. Police loyal to Khakrizwal were driven away, and an armed standoff ensued for the next twenty days.
During the siege, Khakrizwal was resupplied with food and water by the small garrison of British troops stationed here, but the foreign soldiers were unable or unwilling to intervene further. Eventually some accommodation was reached and Mohammed Atta was appointed governor of Balkh province.”
The current regime in Afghanistan does seem to be dangerously conciliatory towards such thugs – the only occasion in which I have seen Atta was at a dinner at the Indian Embassy celebrating India’s Independence, at which he was an honoured guest.
Thursday, September 29, 2005
HAPPY BIRTHDAY WILLIAM !
Today is my little brother’s birthday - I remember William when he looked like a squirming little beetroot in the bath with me, and when we dressed him up as Father Christmas and let him loll around in the fireplace.
But now William is an accomplished author, who has penned many spine tingling tales in his youth, but more recently turned to comedy. He starred, together with black Labradors Humphrey and Dora, in the grisly horror film “The hounds of Hell”.
He is celebrated for having written the history of Yutlin Island, for which he also drew the first maps, and conducted a study of its people in great detail, down to the uniform worn by the police of this little known island. Indeed, William for many years has had a strong interest in law enforcement, quite eclipsing his earlier fascination for burglars, and at some stage wished to be a riot policeman.
William is an epicure, privileging quality over quantity when it comes to food: while uncertain about the point of many vegetables, he adores truffles and is fond of fine dining in exclusive restaurants.
His taste in music is decidedly catholic, as although I believe his all-time favourite is still J.B. Bach, he also sees the merits of 50 Cent and Iron Maiden. William is also a consummate musician, and plays both the piano and the violin to the great delight of his rather less musical family.
Perhaps William is more of an intellectual and artist than a sportsman, but this does not mean that he and I have not engaged in deadly kickboxing sessions on the lawn.
With such qualities, who could blame me for missing him? Can’t wait to see you, William – and Happy 13th Birthday!
Well, I had my laugh about security warnings.
Yesterday a suicide bomber attached one of the bases of the Afghan National Army, just as a graduation ceremony was being held for the new recruits, and at least twelve people were killed.
This morning, Ed received a call from his young archaeologist friend to say that the parliamentary candidate who was employing him has just been assassinated.
Neither of these events make me feel that my personal safety is any more in jeopardy than it was, but they are grim reminders of the challenges faced by the courageous people fighting for a peaceful, honest future for their country.
RZ, the young archaeologist, is one of our best friends in Afghanistan and an extraordinary person.
My first contact with him was through the presents that he gave Ed to celebrate our marriage, before I had met him. He gave us a rather charming plaster cast of the Madonna and Child (unexpected!), a very colourful poster of a sinuously loving couple in Shahnameh style surrounded by riotous flora and fauna, and a beautiful sample of his calligraphy, one of his many talents.
RZ is a tireless and effervescent young man who was born and brought up as a refugee in Tehran, and travelled to Afghanistan for the first time last year. He has settled with his family, like most of the new returnees, in an exposed patch of land on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif.
He has no formal training in archaeology – a subject which it would have been a great luxury to pursue in the circumstances, indeed his undergraduate degree in engineering was interrupted when he was obliged to leave Iran. But he is extraordinarily knowledgeable and well-read, having combed the ancient remains in and around Mazar and read everything he could find about Afghanistan’s past. He has written four books (unpublished, as yet – but I am sure that will change when his luck does) on the history of Balkh province, the Bactrian empire and so forth.
All his books are written out by hand, and illustrated with his careful drawings of Bactrian coins and transcrubed insciptions.
He has been employed by the Ministry of Culture, despite his youth and lack of qualifications, and is responsible, I think, for the Museum in Mazar, or possibly for Historic Monuments in general. The Ministry of Culture appears to be a somewhat fluid and mysterious organisation. RZ largely supports himself though by running calligraphy classes for girls and boys in Mazar.
Doubtless because of his great energy and flair, RZ was employed by one of the candidates in the parliamentary elections to organise his campaign and write his speeches.
He worked extremely hard in the run-up to the elections – sometimes all night, it seemed, but he was very reserved in speaking to us about this, and he did not tell us the candidate’s name. He told us only that the candidate was a very rich man (with several large cars, as I recall), and a good man, and that he hoped he would receive some help if the campaign was successful. Knowing RZ, I can imagine that the help he hoped for would be something in the nature of better funding for architectural preservation, or a more concerted effort to combat the ongoing plunder and defacing of the monuments, which distresses him so.
Now it seems that this man is dead, and RZ is badly rattled. Without knowing the details, I can only assume that this candidate was perceived to be a threat to the interests of the powerful drug trafficker / warlords who control Balkh province (of which Mazar is the capital), a focal area for opium production and conveniently located on the border with Uzbekistan (which has a rocketing heroin problem).
One of my main goals before I leave Afghanistan is to help RZ to get a fully funded place on an archaeology degree, preferably at UCL or Chicago University. All offers of help and advice gratefully received as always.