Afghanistan: Direct Information

Afghanistan: Direct Information

We are all used to getting our information from various news sources, but how often do you get to hear from those who are busy working to rebuild the country and who don’t have a political or news/commercial agenda? I have a relative who was working for a UN project in Afghanistan and she sent me emails once in a while. These include lots of great photos and information about the situation there. So… I decided to share all this good stuff! It’s kind of disorganized… but here it is:

The distance between locals and internationals is as true as I read in books prior to coming here, it is difficult to interact meaningfully, other than with nationals that work with us. I work with two amazing Afghan guys that know the country and program inside out. I wanted to bring one of my national staff to one of these parties we just had but I suspect that the guaranteed culture shock is what excludes them.

We work a lot and have a lot to do. It’s exciting. We are gearing up for a next round of training which will produce proposals for our labour intensive conservation activities.

I went to the local market finally the other day. I wanted to go in a burka with one of my Afghan collegues, but I am not sure he or I will be totally comfortable, so I went with some internationals (American, Canadian and Irish) and we got totally followed and harassed to buy things. A woman in a burka followed me, stroking my arm and crying ‘please’ and showing me some paper with writing on it that I think had a list of food. That was very hard. There are thousands of war widows.

Outside of the terrible poverty, I am really having an amazing time, especially with the International staff who are really great. I would tell anyone to take the opportunity to work internationally if it was presented to them. I love it here even though it is one of the poorest places in the entire world. Life expectancy is less than 44 years and one quarter of all children die before 5 years old. All indicators read medieval times. It’s completely undeveloped here. It’s open sewers, very weak if any power, no traffic lights, no exhaust regulation, no social security, one telephone for every 1,000 people, nothing… just lawlessness. 80% of women and 50% of men are illiterate.

And now they are relying on the good merit of the richest countries in the world for their development. The other existing political options are religious extremists and tribal warlords who rule by force instead of consensus. These ‘commanders’ or warlords are embedded in the county’s governing system. Actually, I just interviewed the Minister of Agriculture who is/was a ‘commander’. We had to go through a metal detector before entering his office and then had to wait in a line to see him.

Afghanistan has little nationalism and loads of inner conflict among an unproductive natural environment that is honestly on the verge of collapse. How much interest do rich countries have in this country to work hard to keep it on a path to well being? The US believes that if you facilitate democracy, everything else will follow. I don’t know, but maybe with the combination of democracy and aid, stability will be possible. Afghanistan has been, in the face of conflict, raided by those interested in personal gain. The forests have been sold off. But it was much more than the trees they took. There is a drought for the past three years that I believe is the result of unregulated de forestation. The vegetation (trees) are an essential part of the natural system and without them, the natural cycles of water and carbon and oxygen are disrupted.

The word on the street here is that Pakistan is increasingly becoming a problem in the region in terms of islamic extremeists and in supporting Afghan’s extremeists. I just got back from Islamabad Pakistan, it is a nice city. I got some beautiful things at the markets. I will have afghani outfits made, one for the office (at least) and a party one. The clothes are really comfortable. I wear a head scarf all the time outside of private houses and I think that that is only respectful. Women wear burka’s commonly, and I totally understand why. You get no problems hiding.

I am in Kabul, Afghanistan, getting settled in. I am here with UNOPS (Office for Project Services) working on a project called Afghan Conservation Corps. (ACC). It is providing much-needed work for Afghans and is renewing the country’s natural resource base. During 20 years of conflict, anything that could be eaten, burned or sold in Afghanistan, was. There are ACC projects across Afghanistan that vary from setting up nurseries, to reforestation (large and small tract), vineyard and orchard renewal, to cleaning and greening of public spaces and schoolyards. Fruit and nut trees are being planted along with native trees and bushes, largely conifers. UNOPS approves the project and signs a contract with the shura (community chief) who then mobilizes the corps, who then undertake the work. On Wednesday Afghan President Karzi will plant trees in recognition of ACC activities. Our project is funded by the United States, through UNDP and the World Bank.

All UN projects here come under UNAMA (Assistance Mission for Afghanistan) including road and bridge building, elections registration, de-mining, refugee resettlement and supporting education and health care… to name a few. Kabul and other relatively stable areas of the country are being patrolled by ISAF troops (International Security Assistance Force), which are made up of troops from the NATO countries. Canadian troops are here in large numbers right now. ISAF troops in tanks are sometimes guarding our offices and ISAF helicopters are flying over often. In the south of the country where the Taliban and Al-Queda are still strong (primarily along the Pakistan border) the Coalition (Americans) are there fighting. As you may know, UN programs have been pulled out of the South, but some are operating with only essential staff (some of our UNOPS guys) that are trying to set up for country-wide general government elections that are scheduled to take place in the summer 2004. Presently in Afghanistan elected officials from all over the country are coming to Kabul to undertake the constitution creation process.

As for me, we are under strict security restrictions and cannot go anywhere public after dark, and no public restaurants at all, and our curfew is 10 pm. We must do radio checks every night and if I were to walk anywhere in the daytime, I would have to be accompanied. We can go to parties at private homes (internationals living in them), and to ISAF or embassy events, but must return by 10 or stay over until the morning. Happily, the people here are really cool, especially my UNOPS collegues who are down-to-earth and come from all sorts of backgrounds. UNOPS is the UN’s implementing agency, so we work to get things done and it is quite rewarding. I love seeing all the trees planted on bare hillsides.

It will be nice to get out of Kabul, it has the worst air quality I’ve ever experienced. The Afghans that I’ve met have been very hospitable. On the way into Kabul, I got to fly in the cockpit of the UN plane from Dubai.