Afghanistan Diary
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
Kabul is getting hot. Temperature is about 40 Celcius, very dry. That wouldn't be so bad but we don't have any air conditionning to speak off so by the end of the day, I feel sticky and smelly. The worse thing about the heat though, is the stench of improvised garbage dumps and that of the open sewers brewing under the sun. Still I wouldn't trade this weather for the bitter cold we had last winter.

I started getting into my leaving mode. I keep making a mental list of all the things to do and buy before my departure (gifts, souvenirs). Only a little over two more weeks! Workwise, I finished one of the two projects my boss wants me to complete before I go. I am kicking myself hard to finish the other one which strikes me as pointless and dull. In addition, I have been working hard on my gps-pda-c# project for data gathering in the field. I am glad to report, it is going well, I may even be able to have a working prototype by this week-end. I even started to compile a comprehensive windows help file for it.

I bought a large quantity of pirated software (market value: $50k?) and I am mildly worried that it might get me in trouble at the US custom. I may try to find another way to send them.

I booked my flight and I will spend a day in Dubai. Since I haven't been there and I have a day to spend, I think it will be more interesting in Dubai than in Kabul. I have been told that it is insufferably hot and not to expect walking around in the city.

Today, I am saying goodbye to Lyn, who is travelling to Australia and won't be back before my departure. :( It is rather sad to think that I may never seen some of the people I met here again. According to my experience, you always get to see some people though.
Monday, June 27, 2005
  Last week

Last week-end, we went on a trip. Hafiz, the driver with whom we went to Mazar a few months back, invited us to see his family.

We first went to Iskalef, a small town renowed for its ceramics (we bought a few), then to his house which was located not far from there. Hafiz stays in Kabul during the week and come home on the week-end. The extended family lives in the house. It goes without saying that we did not get to see any women. We met three of his brother, the most interesting of which is a former mudjahedeen turned gardener and also quite a pothead. He made a beautiful garden. He was a little upset that we immediately pointed out the cannabis plant "all these flowers and you need to point out the cannabis plant!" Afghans love their flowers it seem and people take real pride in them. Close to the garden was a dirty pound which up to twenty years ago was the only source of water. Today however, they have a well (possibly made by DACAAR).

We ate lunch with the brothers and the father, afgham style, that is on the floor with our hands. As is often the case in muslim countries, the youngest brother got to do all the work. I hope that the women in the house had food of their own. I am saying this because I once ate with a very conservative kurdish family and as I was going for a second serving, my friend wispered to me to leave some food for the women, since they got to eat what the men's left.

Hafiz is a very nice guy, he tried his best to speak Dari in a way that we could understand (my dari really sucks but I understand a little. To put it more positively, I have advanced guessing skills).

After lunch, we went back to the garden and everybody enjoyed his favorite drugs (we brought some vodka). I thought I handled mine really well, until I spoke the wrong language to my companions and had the greatest difficulties in putting on my shoes.

On the way back, we stopped at one of Hafiz's friend house. The man, owned quite a bit of land. He had four fives (he was separated from one and looking to replace her) and eighteen children! It is not so much a house as a village really. The thing that was sad is that one of his kids was death-mute and I can't see how, in that context he will ever learn how to speak, read or for that matter, how he will ever go to school.

The man also had a horse with whom he plays buzkashi and two fighting dogs. He was very concerned to keep a safe distance between us and the dog. Perhaps he has seen what they can do. One of them (a bull with many scars on its face ) looked friendly though.

It has been a shamefully long time that I haven't written and this story is already pretty old. Truth is I haven't got that much to say. My boss is cracking the whip at the moment and I struggle to finish my lousy assignment. I also work on my pda-gps data gathering project. It is working well, but there is still work left to do. I have been working all this week-end but at least I finished one of the two project my boss buggs me about. I am hoping that the user did not say it was complete just because they were too lazy to actually test them.

I will try to spend a long week-end in Peshawar or Islamabad soon. I was thinking of stopping over in Pakistan for a few days on my way to New Mexico, but I checked the itinerary and it did not make sense. The only affordable trip through Pakistan I saw had seven connections, all pretty tight. No thanks. I will have to go through Dubai. I am debating whether or not to stop. It does not strike me as an interesting destination, but on the other hand, I have never been.

I am starting to be in a mood to go back to New Mexico. I have a phone interview for a job this coming monday.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Not much to report lately. We are still under curfew, so our movements are limited. A week ago, Clementina (the abducted Italian aid worker) was released. There are conflicting stories about her release, but it appear that what the police did is to keep the mother of the kidnapper (aidworkernapper I should say) in jail until Clementina was free. All along, they had known who did it. Although there has been some Islamic demands made such as that of a ban on the sale of alcohol and a stricter crackdown on opium cultivation (how do you measure that?), it had been said that the she was abducted by a criminal gang who intended to exchange her for one of their members who is currently in jail.

The security situation is not improving however. Among the long list of incident in the country, there was an abduction attempt (or something that looks like it) in Kabul. We have had two security meetings this week. The first was to discuss security measures and the evacuation plan. I had to register with the Belgian embassy, which I hadn’t done. The second was a meeting on security and stress to discuss how we cope with the current situation. Prior to the meeting, I would have said that my level of stress was very low (too low really, I cannot get stressed enough). However, according to some test given to us, I have all the signs of somebody on the verge of a major burnout.

I heard back from my attorney, but the answer was not what I was hoping for. What is especially irritating is that it is not a yes or no answer, as I expected. I am still debating the matter, but I am currently leaning toward going back to the States. Even if I stay, I will need to pay a visit to the States for immigration purposes. My boss, who is concerned that some of my projects are taking too long, said that she might help me with the cost of the plane ticket if I managed to finish some them beforehand. “Think of it as a carrot,” she said. The thing is: I don’t like to think of myself as a donkey.

This week-end, we have some outing planned with Hafiz, the driver with whom we went to Mazar. Also there is a circus in town that we really would like to see. We went there last week-end, but the show was cancelled due to bad weather. The circus has no animal, it has a frighteningly old equipment for trapezists. The tent, or what is left of it, appears to be made out of rags. To say that the circus is shabby does not capture, the advance stage of decay it is in. It would not be out of place in a post-apocalyptic movie. I will post pictures soon.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Sorry for not posting much recently, I was travelling. My boss thought I had been in Kabul for too long (I concurred) and she sent me to Heart for a days. There were two purposes to the trip. The first was to visit the city, but equally important for me was to be able to go to the field. I joined DACAAR to be part of the organization and sitting in front of my computer, it is easy to loose track of what it does. I think every expat, perhaps even every employee should go on field trips.

Compared to Kabul, Herat comes across as a smaller, less chaotic, cleaner city with large avenues and many trees. Kabul has a few parks, but otherwise, you'd be hard pressed to find a green area. It is dirt everywhere. There are many flocks of sheep and goats within the city and the poor animals have nothing to graze on but piles of garbage (need I specify that there are no garbage collection in Kabul?). Heart has the reputation to be a prosperous city, due part to the collection of custom taxes (the border with Turkmenistan and Iran is close). A local character of importance is Ismael Khan, a local warlord turned local politicien, then minister. He is quite popular and has the reputation of being an effective (if despotic) administrator.

Dress is Herat is pretty conservative. Many burkas but also many long black hidjabs tied under the chin and ending mid-waist. Some of men's clothes were interesting also. For instance, I saw several men, in white turban, with a long white beard without moustache, wearing khol around their eyes. I am not used to see men wearing such obvious make up and the effect was a little theatrical.

I stayed at DACAAR's guesthouse. I was going to write that it was very comfortable, but on closer examination, that statement reflects more on me getting used to Afghan standards than anything else (uncut floor carpet, unpainted doors, dirty fan, stained wall, etc.) Folks at the office did everything they could to be useful to me. DACAAR's Herat crew has shrunk considerably since the recent layoffs. I think it must be quite depressing to be there at the moment.

There are few internationals in Herat. In fact, I only met some in the plane. The security atmosphere seem less tense than Kabul, although ANSO discourage travelling in the area after 4pm. In addition, there has been serious anti Western riots in the lat twelve months, and a bomb was placed on DACAAR's office five months ago. I was discouraged to go out at night, which is a pity (though it’s not like I would have gone clubbing...).

My first visit in the field was to the Robat-e-Sangee field office. I was shown an irrigation project and another project consisting in growing pistachio. Pistachio sells for a hefty price, but it takes several years for the tree before it produces a sufficient number of nuts. What was specific about that project is the fact that the communal lands were collectively cultivated. The pistachio are planted on a downhill slope and some hole is dug so that water is collected. There were actually not many pistachio trees, far fewer than I imagined, in fact the field had a variety of crops: almonds, watermelon, melon, and some plant used for animal feed that also can be used as a fence (pesants find it difficult to gather construction material for a barbwire fence). I don't know much about agriculture (although I have worked in the fields once upon a time!), but it strikes me as a labor intensive way to cultivate, limiting the use of tractor (which can be found in the area), etc. Perhaps it is so because of the land ownership patterns.

People working in the field office are very dedicated. The folks stay usually away from their families during the week (in some cases their beds are meters away from their desks) and frequently putting twelve hours days (meetings with villagers take places at night).

When I was a student, the emphasis in our courses was on understanding local culture. The project of changing it was looked at with suspicion and easily casted aside as cultural imperialism. This approach strikes me today as quite naïve. Actual development projects aim to bring about some social change such as greater participation of women, collabaratve farming, etc. As long as local culture is taken into account, I don't see this as a problem necessarily. Otherwise you only let ruthless people imposing change (think forced collectivisation of the late 70s, Taliban, etc.)

I did of course all the "touristly" things in Heart (the blue mosk, the citadel, the bazaar, etc.)

Babak arrived yesterday. That was a great news. Almost as good a news, was that I received all the toys I asked him to bring for me: a high tech GPS and car kit, various map software, a pocket PC with miscellaneous accessories and a gps bluetooth adaptor to connect the gps to the Pocket PC. While I was in Herat writing down some travel notes in a notebook, it occurred to me that travelling would never be the same again. From now, on I will travel with a gps, preventing me to get lost and I will write notes and preview photographs with my Pocket PC. Both the GPS unit and the Pocket PC are very nice, I am happy with mty choices. chose a powerful pocket pc with a high resolution (640x480) screen (it is sooo niiice!), which will come handy when designing my navigation system.

On Thursday, there was a rumor of a suicide bomb attack near the Intercontinental Hotel. Yesterday, we also heard a blast in the afternoon. I haven't been able to listen to the news to verify. More than sixty people died in the South of the country in the past week.

On Saturday we went on a little trip. First we stopped at the reservoir. The water level was extremely high, which was funny for us, since we walked on the ice when the level was very low last winter. Later we went to Paghman and hiked in the area (I think the area is pretty mine-free). We saw a few baby cannabis plants. They were pointed out to me of course, I wouldn’t know ;) It appear as if they rotate culture in these field and that cannabis is certainly one of the cultivated crops. Paghman has been a place where Kabulis go in the summer for a long time. They are currently building a lot of holidays houses. Some croatian military police were hanging out there. They did not speek a word of Dari, which is a little disturbing for mps.

Some advances on the geek front. I have managed to obtain two arcview shapefiles. One contains all major roads of Afghanistan (and lakes, rivers, etc) The other has all the streets of Kabul. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I uploaded the first to my gps. It is pretty cool, I now have a good background map (in color no less!) of the city. Getting lost is defintely getting harder, although it is not beyond my capabilities. I am having some trouble with the second shapefile that has a different coordinate system (I am still hopeful that this can be solved with the help of an actual GIS expert). I did find a Pocket PC software that reads the file (I have a bluetooth adaptor for my gps that I use to connect the gps to the Pocket PC) but when I tried to buy it it said it couldn't due to a technology embargo on Afghanistan (it detected my location automatically). I am pretty sure the embargo is over. In terms of programming, I know how to interpret the gps data, but not how to retrieve it. I looked in the books I have but I couldn’t find info on how to programmatically use a bluetooth connection. Will do a search tomorrow.

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

Location: Kabul, Afghanistan
January 2005 / February 2005 / March 2005 / April 2005 / May 2005 / June 2005 / July 2005 /

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