Afghanistan Diary
Thursday, March 31, 2005
 

Piracy: things are so bad here that both the Dell representative and a Microsoft Certified Solution Provider recommended to DACAAR to buy one copy of the software and to install it on all machines.


Nothing much to report. The week was uneventful. Several important news in Afghanistan however (and I don’t mean Laura Bush’s visit). Firstly, a dam burst in Ghazni, two hours south of Kabul. Many houses have been destroyed by the flood that ensued, and important agricultural areas are now under water. DACAAR has many projects in the area. I think they took part in the repairs of the dam as well, but not to the part that collapsed. Secondly, another bomb attack, the third in the last ten days. Each attack was aimed at a military target and we are not in immediate danger. Perhaps the season has started again. Last but not least, there is a new legislation that was just passed that might make life very difficult for NGOs.


About a year ago, there was a change in the funding mechanism for humanitarian aid. Instead of giving the money to NGOs directly, major donors (like USAID, the European Union, etc.) provide the money to the Afghan government, which then invite NGOs to bid on specific projects. This mechanism was designed to strengthen the Afghan government, and although it does cause significant problems in the meantime (NGO complaints funds take much longer to get to them, some people in the field get accused of stealing funds and are threatened, etc.), Afghanistan is a sovereign state and it makes good sense that they should decide which projects get funded and who is in charge of their implementation.


A few days ago, a new legislation was passed. Most people have not actually seen the legislation so what I am describing is from people from have heard it from others people. Initially, it seems that the law was aimed at preventing NGOs to contract in building jobs. It would appear that in its final form, the law prevents the government to do any new contract with NGOs. This is not good news for anybody. You have to understand that without NGOs, there would be little or no drinking water, little or no healthcare, no equitable credit to poor farmers (except if they grow opium), etc. You might be thinking, “this might be true, but shouldn’t the Afghan government be leveraged to the point where they can take these functions over?” It should. Unfortunately, the current state is in no shape to fill most of these functions. The sadest part (beside the fact program recipients will be the one to suffer) is that this will not in any way strengthen the Afghan state. What will happen instead, is that contract that currently go to non-profit NGOs will go to for-profit private contractors, and that, I don’t see how it serve any purpose whatsoever.


Note 4/4/2005: It seems that the legislation will be amended. The aim of the legislation was to enable the private sector to contribute to building contracts

 
Monday, March 28, 2005
 

The Darulaman PalaceLast week-end was uneventful. I went to a hash, but it was raining which took some fun out of the event. We went next to the Darulaman Palace (also known as the King’s Palace) and to the Queen’s palace. There are talks of restoring the King’s Palace so that the parliament can be hosted there, but the building has much suffered from the war and is in pitiful shape. I doubt this is going to happen anytime soon.


We watched a few bad films during the week-end as well (there are many DVDs available but good movies are hard to come by). One of them was Rambo III, which we chose because it takes place in Afghanistan. The anti-Soviet propaganda is pretty extreme. There was a buzkashi scene in the film.


In the local stores, most DVDs, by far, are Bollywood movies. Indian music is also popular here. Another attraction of these films is the presence of Indian babes among the cast, and after two and half months here seeing mostly burkas in the street, even I think that this is reason enough to watch them. One of the IT boys (as we call the young IT technicians in the office) collects postcards of Indian actresses. According to what I read, in the seventies, some women wore miniskirts in Kabul. It is hard to imagine today.


There was an explosion next to Supreme supermarket today. At least two persons (Afghans) were wounded in the attack. It is not yet clear if it was caused by a mine or by a rocket. The store is located next to an ISAF based and is frequented exclusively by foreigners, including by a large number of soldiers. It is therefore a prime target. This is not good news. It might also be a sign that there are more bombs to come. We all go to Supreme when we need to buy alcohol or overpriced western goods (for instance: trash bags).

 
Thursday, March 24, 2005
  Mazar-i Sharif

travelling afghan styleWe got the ok to go to Mazaar from the DACAAR’s director, who has been living in the country for thirty years. In fact, not only did he give his approval, he gave us permission to use a DACAAR car, and a driver (whom we paid, naturally). However, part of our crew talked to others members of DACAAR’s management who were adamant that it was dangerous and strongly advised them not to go. As a result, within the space of a day, our group shrunk from six people to two. Babak and I debated the matter at length for a solid minute before deciding that we were far too young and foolish not to go. We also had talked to others folks who thought it was ok. In retrospect, I really think it was quite a safe trip.
I am glad we went by car with a local driver (as NGO workers we could have got a free flight, which we initially planned to do). We got on extremely well with Hafiz, our driver, who also seemed to have the time of his life. I even think we made some jealous back at DACAAR because his colleagues kept calling him to see how he was doing and he took a visible pleasure in telling them what we were up to. Hafiz also had a knack to talk our way through places whose access was normally restricted. Every time a soldier barred access to a site, he kept arguing until we got in. In fact that was a lesson for us: here you should never take no for an answer. He did not speak much english at all. Babak’s persian skills came in handy. Generally, with bits of Persian, Dari, Turkish and English, loads of good will and strong guessing skills, we managed to communicate quite effectively.


It took us only eight hours to go to Mazaar. Against all expectations, the road was actually quite good. It is quite a scenic drive. We passed, green valleys, terrace fields, orchards, and villages with rows of men crouching and looking at the landscape. Local crops include wheat, some rice, and various fruits. According to an agronomist we met, every village tends to have a small poppy field somewhere but this is not part of the country’s main opium producing areas. Of course, it is Afghanistan, and there is always something, be it a minefield warning, a soviet era tank carcass, a tank chain used as street bump, or a one-legged man, to remind you of twenty-five years of war. The Soviet invaded using this road. More recently, in 1997, the region was fought over by the Taliban and two local warlords, Dostum and Abdul Mallik. It is alleged that the later perpetrated atrocities on Taliban prisoners and it is an established fact that the Taliban massacred Hazaras and Uzbeks when they conquered Mazar-I Sharif in 1998 (they also destroyed villages and orchards in the area). There has been also some serious mishandling (euphemism) of Taliban prisoners by the Northern Alliance (backed by the US) in 2001. I have been told that Mazar-I Sharif once famous covered market was destroyed during the war. Other than that, to the outsider, it appears that the city itself was not very damaged and many of its historical sites remain intact.


landscape

Mazar draws in large crowds for Newroz, yet, hotels were not full (most visitors stay with friends and family). Right in the center of town, we came into the self proclaimed ***** Bharat hotel (more like * IMHO) to ask for directions, and to our surprise they had rooms available. We did eventually manage to make a reservation ahead of time to the UNICA, UN’s guest house. It took us forever to find the place (it is located closed to others UN offices) and I will post the contact details shortly, should a traveler read this page. UN’s guest houses are designed to accommodate UN staff, but in practice, they do accept guests from NGOs and foreign embassies if they have space available. We paid $35 for a huge room with three double beds which is very cheap (despite being a poor country, hotels are quite expensive in Afghanistan). If you plan to travel there, do check ahead of time, because their pricing policies are very inconsistent. UNICA had good security, a lovely garden, a great buffet and a very British bar (with its marvelously distasteful green and golden wallpaper).


There was a lot of security in Mazar and on the road leading to it. There were frequent checkpoints, some roads blocked, and hundreds of soldiers with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades. It is more questionable if they were at all useful, since we got in everywhere without having been frisked.


On Sunday, we first went to the Amu Darya (Oxys River), right at the border with Uzbekistan. We were vaguely hoping to cross but there was no way they would let us in without a visa and it takes six weeks to obtain one. Babak and I decided to try to go to Uzbekistan this summer. In the afternoon, we went to Balkh, a city next to Mazar that dominated the region for nearly three thousands years, but which was destroyed by Genghis Khan. We also saw the Hajji Piyada Mosque, the remains of a 9th century monument built to honor a man who walked to Mecca and back seven times (which begs the question: why on earth did he not stay there?).

Balkh border with Uzbekistan Afghan English

Dress code is pretty conservative in Mazar. With rare exceptions, men wear shalwar kameez and women they burka. Men have also a more Central Asian attire: many wear the turban, and some wear the a long cotton green and blue coat. Some clothes acts as ethnic and regional marker (Hafiz liked to tell us where people were from based on their dress). Mazar population consists of Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tadjiks and Hazaras. We had been recommended to wear a shalwar kameez and this turned out to be good advice. It is not that we passed as Afghans, but it made us less conspicuous.


For eating, we went to local kebab houses. In Mazar, typically, these houses have a dirt floor. Either on the floor or on a platform is a vinyl sheet and some carpet or cushion. People eat cross legged and bare foot, sitting on the cushions, and eating with their hands.


Late afternoon, we went to the Shrine of Hazrat Ali (blue mosque). In the 7th century, Hazrat Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet- was assassinated. It was feared that his body would be desecrated and to prevent this, his followers exhumed his remain and carried them on a white camel. A few weeks later, the camel died from exhaustion and his remains were buried on that place. The mosque was built on that location (I should precise that the mosque is built in honor of Hazrat Ali, not in honor of the camel, although the later is presumably buried at the same place). The original building was destroyed by dear Genghis and the current mosque dates back from the 15th century. I have seen many but it is without a doubt, one of the most magnificent I have ever seen. That alone would have been worth the trip. The mosque is actually a fairly large complex that includes several buildings. There are many doves all around. The story goes that these are ugly pigeons that get transformed into doves when they fly over the mosque. In the evening, we came back to the area also. Instead of using flashlights, locals put blinking lights all around the building. It was cheesy like hell (see picture).


Newroz also attracted a number of beggars, healers and story tellers.


Shrine of Hazrat Ali and doves Shrine of Hazrat Ali - detail Shrine of Hazrat Ali by night shoe shinners in front of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali Shrine of Hazrat Ali Shrine of Hazrat Ali Shrine of Hazrat Ali Shrine of Hazrat Ali Shrine of Hazrat Ali

On Monday, the crowds were everywhere. There was an opening ceremony that included president Kazaai and several dignitaries. We missed it because they performed the ceremony two hours earlier than scheduled due to some security concerns. Hafiz did not want us to get close to the event either because he thought it was dangerous. Canons were fired (we were slightly troubled until we knew what it was). People were climbing on trees and standing on top of roofs to see what was happening.


crowd crowd in tree

man with turban and glassesMazaar is famous for its Buzkashi games and we couldn’t miss that. It was very different from the game I saw in Kabul. There were easily 10,000 spectators and one hundred or so horses, even some donkeys! People were standing, sitting on the floor or on top of minivans. It was most confusing. People kept creeping into the playing area. Not only that but cars, motorcycles and bikes would cross in the middle of the field. When the players started to gallop in the direction of the spectators, they would run away in panic. In fact, if we face any danger at all during our trip, it was that of being caught in a stampede. I heard conflicting explanations about the game. According to one, there are no teams in Mazaar’s Buzkashi, it is every man for himself. According to another, the buzkashi we saw was a competition among several teams (more than two). I am extremely doubtful that many viewers actually follow the game closely enough to keep track of the score. It is just way too chaotic.


Buzkashi spectators camel Buzkashi gane Buzkashi

In the evening, there was a music festival. We heard some Iranian, Uzbek, Tadjik and Afghan performers. In all but one concert, the audience was exclusively male. It was rather intriguing to look at the men who were dancing. To a western audience, their movements made them look very effeminate.


musicians man dancing

On the way back we stopped to look at a site whose name escape me for now and at Surkh Kotal. Finding the later was an adventure that we could not have done without a professional driver and a 4WD. We eventually found the place. There was however, not much to see except for the beautiful landscape. All kids of the village came to greet us. Each of them gave us a two hands handshake (I might have said that already but people are VERY polite in Afghanistan).


ruins and tank dog

Unfortunately, we got stuck just before the Salang tunnel for five and half hours on the way back. Supposedly the tunnel is open to traffic on alternate days (i.e. one day Kabul-Mazar, the next Mazar-Kabul) but this was not the case when we got back (traffic was going both ways). There was a lot of snow in that part of the road. If you are planning to go through the pass a)check which days the traffic goes b) be sure to have snow chains. Not only will you need them, but they won’t let you pass unless you have them. Sometimes, the road is blocked both ways. To make up for the loss time, Hafiz made a point to overtake every driver on the road to Kabul. Although he is very skilled, there were a few tight curves where I wouldn’t have minded him going slower. In the Salang tunnel, we encounter a very strange sighting: a westerner, by himself, traveling on his mountain bike. The guy wasn't within cycling distance from a guesthouse. It is not like you can set up a tent anywhere, the area is heavily mined and the warnings are hidden under the snow. I felt both appaled at how irresponsible this man was, and at the same time envious.

 
  Troubling news

A Pakistani guy working for DACAAR was followed as he was driving home as few days ago. He hurried home, but before he got in one of the occupants from the other car pulled a gun at him.

As if this was not bad enough, there have been reports of people being robbed shortly after they left Supreme. It is a well-secured supermarket open to expats only where alcohol and others western goods can be purchased. Afghan nationals are not allowed to buy alcohol there. We are in the Transitional ISLAMIC Republic of Afghanistan after all. In practice, many locals do drink of course, and furthermore, I don’t think they would be denied a drink in a restaurant or a bar. It is just that bars and restaurants that serve alcohol (and there is no shortage of them in Kabul) are designed to attract western customers paying in dollars.

 
  Piracy

In Afghanistan, pirated DVDs, CDs and software are available everywhere for one or two buck a piece. Software piracy is rampant. Once, while visiting the office of another organization, I have had the opportunity to witness an IT person enter a 20 characters length product key from memory! He had installed the same software (licensed for one PC) so many times that he knew it by heart. Sometimes things go too far. For instance, in any decent store, one can buy software such as Microsoft Office 2005, or Microsoft Longhorn final edition, neither of which even exists as a commercial product.

 
Thursday, March 17, 2005
 
I found more info. on the game of buzkashi. It is said to have been introduced by Genghis Khan. It is played with either a goat or a calf carcass. During the bad all days of the Soviet-Afghan war, one journalist has also witnessed a game played using a living soviet soldier as a goat. There are actually two different versions of the game, but it more or less boils down to the same thing: fight for the goat carcass, do a little dance with it around a flag and drop it in a designated area. Since it became the national sport, there is an Afghanistan Buzkashi Federation that established some rules. They made the game considerably blander by banning the use of weapons, or even that of a whip to intentionally hit an opponent. They also limited the number of players to ten per team.

After tomorrow, a group of us is going to Mazar-e Sharif, a city up North, close to the border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. On March 21st, falls Newroz, a large persian festival, rooted in the traditions of Zoroastrian religion. It is one of the main celebration of the year. Mazar-e Sharif is the place to be at that time, and large crowds come to the city to celebrate. I don’t know exactly why people go specifically to Mazar, but I guess it must have something to do with the fact it is historically a Zoroastrian center.

Organizing our trip is not as easy as it seems. Among others problems is the accommodation. It is bad enough that we decided the trip very late and that all hotels are probably booked. But how do you go about booking a hotel anyway? You call and give your credit card number to hold the room, right? Try again. First, I have yet to see a business that accept credit card here. Second, I don’t know the hotels phone number. It’s not like there is a directory assistance you can use to look them up. I managed to find a description of several hotels but no contact details. At any rate, I won't be able to blog or check my email until Wed 23.


I have been learning Dari for a month and half or so, and my progress are disappointingly slow. I probably don’t dedicate enough time and effort to it. There is also not much material available to learn this language. I have yet to find a decent dictionary and I not even sure that one exists. The ones that are available are pretty thin glossaries written in latin script. I decided to learn Dari using persian script, although this turns out to be less useful than I expected. I thought naively that knowing the alphabet would help with me tasks such as reading street signs. Since I have been here, I have seen exactly one street sign.
 
Monday, March 14, 2005
  Paghman
view of Paghman


On Saturday, a group of us (Afghans and foreigners) went to Paghman. Before we left Kabul we passed two areas of interest. One was the Sikh neighborhood. There is a native Sikh minority in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban they were heavily repressed and forced to wear distinctive clothing. Sounds familiar?. The other was a neighborhood surprisingly tidy, full of new and shiny building. Houses were built in the new afghan style, with marble facades, colored glasswork and decorated iron gates. Others sightings of interest on the way to Paghman included bullet-ridden buildings, lovely adobe villages, less lovely minefields (marked with white and red stones) and the ever present decorated Pakistani trucks.


Mausoleum of King Nadir ShahOnce at destination we went for a hike, or as much hike as we could manage since the area still had snow so deep it was reaching our thighs. It was very pleasant and beautiful. We also had ate some freshly made yoghurt that we bought from a local peasant.

For the rest of the day, we ate some of the best kebabs I have had in Kabul, in a small afghan restaurant. Half of the place was occupied by tables; the rest was a room in which people sat on the floor.

We visited the remains of the mausoleum of King Nadir Shah and his family and later we also went to the bazaar that was crowded, colorful and noisy like any self-respecting middle-eastern market.

 
Sunday, March 13, 2005
  Buzkashi

On Friday, I was lucky enough to see a Buzkashi, the national afghan sport.
It is a team sport, although it is not obvious to the outsiders since neither side wears any uniform. Every player has a horse and the game consists in getting a headless goat carcass from the center of the field, running around a flag pole with it, then dropping it inside a designated area. Of course, there is a rugby like quality to the event, as every player tries to grab the carcass. Last Friday, the goat was 50Kg, but it can weight up to 100Kg. Needless to say, it requires some strength to light 100Kg off the ground, with one hand, while riding a horse. Apparently one of the players even had a wooden leg! Buzkashi horses are apparently very expensive. Warlords are said to sponsor these games, and players who “score” received some amount of money (it was not very clear from whom. Probably from people betting, but there was no visible bets taking place). The field was located near the ISAF compound and the only shadow on the event was the presence of American military troops. It is fair enough that they attended but in between games, a blonde chick (need I specify, unveiled) in military gear found nothing better to than to ride one of the horses around the field. Not exactly the most culturally sensitive thing to do… goat carcass being dropped in the


Buzkashi Players  

Buzkashi players ighting for the headless goat carcass

  
Buzkashi players ighting for the headless goat carcass
 
Thursday, March 10, 2005
  Visit to the zoo

I have seen many zoos, but never a more pitiful one than Kabul’s. In its center stands a shelled out, bullet ridden building. Although most of the zoo ground is plain dirt (or more accurately in this season: mud) with nothing to see, there are a few animal exhibits near the entrance. One can see three pigs, two lions, three bears, a few monkeys and some birds. I probably omitted an animal or two but not more. To make things worse, the cages were glaringly inadequate. The poor bears had only green stagnant water to bathe into.

I went there with an international group, and for locals, we were quite an attraction ourselves, rivaling with the lions in terms of popularity.

One of the highlight of the visit was watching half dozen guards and one vet attempting to capture an injured pig to give him medicine. The event was reminiscent of a rodeo, although the pig was squealing as if it were a mantanza.

Kabul zoo used to have a one-eyed lame lion called Manja who gained a certain notoriety during the civil war. According to the most common version of the story, a Taliban fighter wanted to have a picture of himself next to the lion and got into the cage. Unfortunately for him, the lion ate him. A few days later, the deceased’ family came to avenge the death of their family member (as one does in this part of the world) and threw a grenade into the cage. The lion survived but lost an eye as a result. According to another version of the story, it was a starving man who threw the grenade into the cage, intending to eat lion for supper. As he got into the cage, a surprised awaited him: the lion was still alive and waiting for a snack… Whatever version of the story you believe, that lion is now dead.

In the zoo, we witnessed some gathering. People were buying hard boiled eggs painted in red and used them to compete with one another. Apparently, the game consisted in hitting your egg against your opponent’s. The person whose egg breaks first loses.

 
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
  More into for the killing
We got a little more info. on the killing last night. It was clearly a targetted killing execution style (see press report). The whole thing happened at a location five minutes from our home despite the presence of half-dozen guards with AK47 nearby. It is unclear whether he was killed because of this work affiliation with the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Development or if he was involved in some personal business he shouldn't have been. According to the bbc "He was working on a rural credit scheme, one of its aims being to reduce the dependence of farmers on growing opium." Would that be a motive for opium traders to kill him? Who knows?

Meanwhile, DACAAR follows the recommendation from the Afghanistan Non-Governmental Organisation Security Office (ANSO) and we just got a memo that reads "All expatriate staff must restrict unnecessary movement in Kabul city after 20.00 hours." Bummer. What happened to DACAAR's approach of advising us, rather than telling us what to do? I find that the meaning of the terms "restrict" and "unnecessary" is quite ambiguous. According to the Miriam-Webster, to restrict is to "
to confine within bounds". Which bounds are these? As for uncessary, what if going out is necessary for our mental health. I shouldn't talk lightly about these issues, I know, but we are concerned as to how long this state of affair is going to last.

Update March 10, 2005:

There are many more rumors and speculations circulating in Kabul about the Scott.'s assasination. I am not going to turn this into a gossip column, but suffice to say that some of these stories make it very credible that it was an act of personal revenge, not a terrorist attack. Having said that, the Taliban did claim responsability for the attack but security analysts are doubful that they would still have the means to carry such an attack. Besides they often claim responsability for acts they did not commit.
 
  Afghanistan is still dangerous

This week, two incidents reminded us that Afghanistan can still be a dangerous place.

First, an acquaintance of Penilla (one of my housemate) was involved in an incident in which her family was attacked in broad daylight in the center of town by four armed men who beat up the car and its occupants. Apparently they did so because “the mother was a whore” (whatever that means) and it seem pretty clear that it was a family dispute or some sort. The victims claim it was simply a carjacking, but their story does not hold water.

The second event happened last night. I went to the elbow room (an expat hangout) with two of my housemates and one other person. Today, we learnt that one expat who was there talking to Lyn, was shot dead at around 10pm. Nobody knows if it was a personal vendetta or a terrorist act (probably it matters little to the victim, but the implications are different to us), although there are speculations that it was a targeted killing. There are a number of well-armed guards in the immediate vicinity of the crime scene, which makes it unlikely that it was a random mugging. We’ll have to wait to see how it affects our safety guidelines.

I also feel guilty for another reason. At around eleven, all of us but Lyn wanted to go home. I took the car and drove the ladies I was with to their respective residences, leaving Lyn behind. I did not feel bad about that because she was with someone whom I know had a driver, and I figure he could give her a lift. Later she called me to ask me if I was still up and if I could pick her up (the guy’s driver was nowhere to be found). I would have done it (I was in bed though) had I known for sure how to get there, but I didn’t (I don’t know my way around Kabul well). As it turns out, Lyn and her friend walked to get a taxi exactly to the same area that the guy was shot.

It takes some efforts not to become complacent about safety issues here because we don’t feel insecure at all on a daily basis. Just because a place “feel” safe does not mean it is. Albuquerque has a crime rate about twice the US average, and there is a serious shooting incident every year or two in front of the university. Yet, I have never felt unsafe there.

It may also be that we have to come to terms with the sad fact that some insecurity is part of life. There were bombs going off and others terrorist acts when I was in Brussels (several bombs by the CCC, including one that did not go off accross the street from my house), Manchester (the IRA blew up a shopping center), Turkey (Islamic fundamentalist and/or PKK), London (the IRA blew up Canary Whorf), Northern Ireland (Real IRA's bombing in Ormagh), Israel (attacks on buses by Hamas) and the US (9/11). Basically everywhere I went to.

In terms of security, DACAAR is among the loosest organization in here. Expats live in houses protected by unarmed guards, carry a cell phone at all time and need clearance before traveling out of town. Other than that, we drive ourselves wherever we want to go. We get security recommendations but it is up to us to follow them. Many other People who work for others NGOs often have a curfew, are forbidden to go to parts of the city, only travel with a driver, and some must carry a radio (which is pointless since the cell phone reception is fine in Kabul). The worse off are UN workers who are under stricter regulations. Worse still (but these are not NGO folks) are those associated with the military (contractors and soldiers). They are usually locked down in the military base. If they do go out, they tend to do so by group, all carrying arms and visibly looking at the world around them as if there was a sniper posted on every street corner.

I need to tell of an anecdote that I got from Lyn. Lyn manages a development program. During a meeting, representatives from each region had to relate the situation on the ground. One man described the security situation in his district as fine, locals having no problem with DACAAR. That was surprisingly good news because it was a very conservative pasthoon area where more difficult relations can be expected. Later, it came up in the conversation that someone fired a rocket at the house of the DACAAR’s female worker, Somehow this unimportant detail was omitted from his presentation of the security situation.

 
  Misc.

Mobile phone retailers, English and Computer classes, gyms and beauty parlors are all booming businesses in Kabul. You can expect to find one of each in each neighborhood. Of course you can see many more grocers, street carts, pharmacies and barbers but I don’t think these are new.

From what I gather, the weather in Afghanistan is like this: in the Winter, it is bitterly cold and snowy, in the Spring it is rainy and muddy and in the Summer it is dusty and too hot (buildings don’t have AC). I don’t know about Fall so there is still hope.

 
  Cars

Now that the weather is warming up, a few horses can be seen in the street. Either they are ridden or they are pulling heavy wooden carts with two automobile wheels at the bottom (although by far, most such carts are man powered).

Kabul is Toyota country. One can see a few Benz and some Ladas, but the overwhelmingly popular cars are Toyotas, especially the Townace minibus and the Corrolla, of any age and shape. They other day, I was counting the Corrollas and they composed something like 60% of the cars on the roads. I know they are good cars (I just sold mine) but I don’t know why there isn’t more diversity of vehicles. It would be a good commercial “Only the Toyota Corrolla is robust enough to drive on the beat up Afghan roads.” The main exceptions are the big ass 4x4 vehicles that belong to the UN or to others NGOs.

While on the topic of car, ours (guess which brand and model? A Toyota Corrolla) had a flat tire for the second time in the space of a month. It happened when Lyn was driving it so I wasn’t there to help (which might be just as because I don’t know how well I would have done).

In Kabul, the police does not tow illegally park vehicles, neither do they clamp the wheels. Instead, they ingeniously let the air out of two tires.

 
  Work
I haven’t been so little stressed about work in recent memory. In the past, one of the difficult things about work was to manage to work on several concurrent projects while simultaneously providing support to end-users, attending meetings and “managing” others people. Here I have the luxury to more or less concentrate on one project at a time and I am not too pressured for deadlines either (truth be told, most people don’t have a clue as to what it takes to develop a software so they go with whatever I tell them). Whenever somebody does come to me with an urgent problem to fix, he is usually so apologetic about disturbing me that it is almost embarrassing. And I should add that my boss is happy with my work as well. The challenge will be to remain motivated. So far, the job still has enough novelty to keep me interested but it is pretty easy and I can foresee getting frankly bored in the future. I have been lobbying for a major system upgrade that might make work more challenging for me.

My boss expects that I will leave them with a working system that manages itself, and I had to break it to her that this is not the way things go in IT. Qualified staff will be needed to administer and maintain the product of my labor. My job description include the word “capacity building”, however, management has been quite elusive as to what this means. Our stated long term objective is to “afghanise” the workforce (i.e. to get Afghans to replace international staff) but DACAAR is also reluctant to provide much training because once the IT staff is trained, they take a better paying job and bye bye. You could argue that even if they do leave, training qualified staff is a service provided to the country anyway, but in the meantime our organization get screwed. Another problem is the lack of high level technical training offered in Afghanistan (some of our staff take distance education courses from Pakistan).
 
Thursday, March 03, 2005
 

In Aghanistan, dollars and Aghanis are used interchangeably. Even your grocery store around the corner accepts US Dollars (its owner won't have a cash register but he probably will have a calculator handy to do the conversion). "Luxury" items (for instance prepaid cards for cell phones) have a price tag in USD.



According to yahoo finance, the exchange rate of the dollars to the Afghanis has remained totally unchanged for the last two years. I suppose this means that the Afghan monetary system is based on US currency.

 
This is my diary. My name is Lev and I work in Kabul for a non-governmental organization (dacaar.org).

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Location: Kabul, Afghanistan
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