Friday, October 31, 2008

Bloggers, Beggars, Buggers

I started this blog in September, out of boredom, encouragement from friends, going public with my writings (crap or not) and above all, to share views with some of you folks (otherwise, they are more than happy to stay in my C drive). But now that I am in it,  I became into it.

It may be too early for me to say this, but the number of my readership is crap! On a good day, I get maybe 25 and a bad day...oh well, let's not get into that. It's too embarrassing, not that 25 is not embarrassing enough. Oh yes, I do check my hit counters, with much vigour and obsession. It's my favourite past time, in fact. (If this generates a lot of comments about me not having a life, hey! I am not complaining because it just means that you're reading my blog and care enough to comment.)

Anyway, I've come to notice that unless a blogger is a politician, news buff, intellectual, facing sodomy charges, senile but yet not sterile, human rights celebrity, funny, vulgar, left, right, opposite, whatever..then you have it made. Unfortunately I am none of these, although I can be some of them, especially vulgar but Patrick Teoh's Niamah, Annie Choi's Annietown and Art Harun's Naval Gazing beat me to it. Damn!  Art Harun must be feeling proud that most of his readers get horny when reading his blog.

Well, my blog is not intended to incite horniness, intellectual masturbation (what I call someone who gets excited by his own intellect) or begging for attention, but simply to share stories. I do however aspire to be some bloggers whom I tabik (salute), Malik Imtiaz's Disquiet, Haris Ibrahim's People's Parliament and Marinah Mahathir's Rantings by MM.

I salute them because I find their writings honest , inspiring and real. I know two of them in person and they are not just writing for the sake of begging for attention. They already have enough attention in their own right. They write because they care, they really know the stuff they write about and they are original, none of these regurgitation of news.

There are also some bloggers whom I don't aspire to be, but strangely enough I still read their blogs. Now, these buggers in some way are really smart. They get you all riled up and yet, you still come back for more. I mean, how on earth do they know that this world is filled with so many masochists like me?

There is a certain blogger, who is also a certain someone in the media industry, whom I hold, let's say unfavourable opinions of. I don't find his opinions honest and in fact hypocritical for the simple fact that I doubt he practises what he preaches. Once I posted an unfavourable comment on one of his articles and that bugger rejected it. No balls or guts to face up or even dispute what I commented.  And yet, I still read his blog so that I can prove myself right.

And if you are not of a bugger who dares to speak the truth, you  might get buggered in the end. Look what happened to RPK and some others? There is simply no justice at all in this blogging world.

The bottom line is, I hope I won't end up being a blogger who begs and then get buggered in the end. I reckon that someone should start a reality show based on who can be the best blogger in ...oh well...America, I suppose. They always manage to come up with all sorts of crap first. Then, I might just give up being a blogger.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Back to front

Today, I start my life as a volunteer in Cambodia. I am assisting a Japanese NGO that  provides funding and support for development and relief projects.  For those who might have wondered where the hell I had been all day since I was almost online 24/7 for the past few weeks, I am throwing it back to you now, "Some people have to work, you know!" But then, why would you wonder if you're busy at work, right?

Anyway, if any of you do actually have the time to wonder why I am doing volunteering work if I have the choice of sitting at home  goyang my kaki (shaking my legs) and blog all day, my answer is that I am an altruistic person who wants to make a difference in this world and I am so selfless that I want to do something without expecting anything in return.

Yeah, right. That would be my answer fifteen years ago. Hey, I do like to travel and enjoy a certain level of comfort in my life and since I have persistently claimed that I am an empowered and modern woman, I am not going to rely on my husband for a lavish life. So, I need to take a  few steps back in order for me to hopefully move many steps to the front.

But seriously, if I don't ever need to worry about my finance, I would still consider doing volunteering work. It does feel good to be altruistic and selfless. Unfortunately, I don't have that privilege.

My first day turned out to be pretty good although my main challenge was trying real hard to stay awake, despite a strong cup of coffee, and it wasn't just instant Nescafe (blarrgghhh!). I think it was Lavazza. Bless these Japanese for their generosity and efficiency. I even have my own desk, internet access and email address, right from the start! Not too shabby for a volunteer I should say. All the staff members were nice and friendly and the Director seems to have that kindred spirit.

The bonus part of it all is that I get to help out in their projects on school constructions in rural areas, anti-human trafficking and forced prostitution. There is nothing more fulfilling than receiving something back in return for giving something up front.

So, I am hoping that my time served as a volunteer will equip me with more skills and experience to put me back in this competitive job market.

Then, I might be able to take that trip to Machu Pichu next year.

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part XV)

Quite suddenly and not to mention unexpectedly, I heard a familiar voice on the radio, “This is Bravo Golf 78. Ms. Ka Ea don’t worry and don’t be scared. I’m coming over to help you. I’m only 10 minutes away from where you are. Don’t worry – I’m coming. Don’t worry. Over”

I thought I was dreaming and I just couldn’t believe it. It was the voice of Ismarai, the tiny-built 21-year old UNAMA driver. Ismarai speaks fluent English and easily one of the best drivers for UNAMA. His small stature does not stop him from being the bravest and craziest driver. He was the driver that had brazed through Shatu pass within 5 hours that morning I left. He could be very arrogant as well because he acknowledges his driving skill and ability. Some of the international staffs hate his guts.

But Ismarai has always been friendly with me and I have a particular fondness for his little 7-year-old brother, Almos (which means diamond in Dari). Almos speaks fluent English and he’s very popular with all the international staffs for his charm and million-dollar smile.

Almos looks Tajik with blond hair and blue eyes. We often joke with Almos that we would hire him as a language assistant. Ismarai invited me once for lunch with his family and that was when I learned he is engaged to a 14-year old cousin of his.

So, that voice on the radio was no stranger to me. I just replied, “My God, BG78, you have no idea how happy I am to hear your voice. We’re stuck here in the middle of nowhere!! I’m not worried anymore now that I know you’re coming and I think I’m going to cry. Over!!”

I had no idea how he knew where we were or that we were stuck. I just didn’t know what was happening anymore and frankly did not care. We waited for about 30 minutes before we saw 2 white UN Land Cruisers stopped about 200m in front of us. Ismarai just jumped out from the car and started charging down the hill like an agile goat with a spade in his hand towards our pickups.

Another of our dear old driver, Rasudad, also came bouncing to our rescue. I went running towards them and Rasudad immediately asked me to sit in his car and put a blanket over me while he went to help Ismarai with the pick-up. My 20-hour ordeal ended as soon as I saw our drivers. I knew I was finally safe.

To add icing on the cake, I received radio communication from Raffaele. He said he was sending a rescue team of 2 cars from Panjao and I should expect them to be there soon. He asked me how my night went and was I cold, etc. He had sent 4 blankets with the rescue team.

I just told him, “BG41 (Raffaele), is the rescue team consist of BG78 (Ismarai) and BG75 (Rasudad)? If yes, let me tell you that they are here already. We’re now waiting for them to get the car out and we’ll be proceeding to Panjao after that. Over”

He replied, “BG47 (me), Don’t wait. Get into one of the cars and ask BG75 to send you to Panjao right away. Let the rest of the team fix the other car and they can come after. But come over to Panjao immediately. Over.” I replied, “Roger that. I’ll be moving over right now. BG47 out.”

So, I took off with Rasudad and headed for Panjao. It took us another hour before I finally arrived in Panjao Provincial Office with the familiar UN flag waving in the wind, beckoning me home. That was the second time that I have felt happy and relieved seeing that blue and white flag. The first was when I crossed the Mecedonian border to Kosova on foot at around 12 midnight 2 years ago.

I had been awake for more than 30 hours without food, drink and a shower. My eyes were bloodshot and my boots were completely covered with mud which was hardening already due to the sun. As I walked out from the car, Raffaele came out from the office. We just looked at each other and he grinned, “Welcome to Panjao”. Under normal circumstances, we would have hugged each other but in Afghanistan, such show of affection or comfort in public is frowned upon.

He started asking me what happened, etc. and all I could say was it was my fault that all this had happened and I realized that I had jeopardize my job and I would be fired, etc. I thought, gee, what a way to start my job in Panjao. But I think under such circumstance, no compassionate or sympathetic person would start having a go at someone who had spent a whole night on the Shatu pass. I guess I had been punished for my own mistake already.

I subsequently found out from Danny that at around 10:30pm that night, Bamyan had to make a decision of informing Kabul Chief of Security that I hadn’t call them and the possibility of security threat. Kabul was notified and they decided that if by morning, they still had not heard from me, they would have to send an air rescue team to look for us. But at this stage, I am still trying to figure out what was Kabul doing between 5am to 9am when we had not establish contact with Panjao base. I was not going to pursue the matter since nothing was brought against me until now.

So that was my journey from Bamyan to Panjao. I’m sure some of you may doubt the validity of the whole story because it sounds like a dramatic action movie. But let me tell you that it all did happen. be continued in Part XVI....

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Je t'aime. Moi non plus"

Deceased French singer, Serge Gainsbourg was and still is a national icon in France. One of his songs, “Je t’aime. Moi non plus” is probably one of the most recognised French songs all over the world. Who can ever forget that very sexy...*ahem*...orgasmic voice of Jane Birkin, who by the way was also his wife, in that song? I remember listening to that song when I was very young, but of course I didn’t understand a single word of it apart from the fact that the tune and melody stick to my mind ever since.

Then, I got married to a French man who turns out to be one of Gainsbourg’s biggest fans. Gainsbourg was loved but at the same time despised by many, depending on whether you are a liberal or conservative person. He was well-known for his numerous controversial songs and methods when stating a point; apparently he burnt a French note on national TV, which is a crime by the way. Janet Jackson’s boobie flash is considered child’s play when compared to what this man had done.

Anyway, it turns out that in his song, part of the lyrics which goes “je vais et je viens entre tes reins” actually means “I come and I go in between your kidneys” and if you read into it more carefully, you will soon realise that the song is about sodomy. Anwar Ibrahim’s supporters would be happy to know that they can now have an official anthem which will take the government awhile to "crack" (with full tongue -in-"cheek" purposes!), if they are smart enough.

Anyway, what is the point I am trying to make here? Oh yeah, pornography. Recently, I must confess that I have had an overdose of French movies; part of the joy of living in a former French colony. It is unbelievable the amount of nudity one can see in these movies. It is like as if part of the requisite of being an actor or actress in France is the willingness to bare it all. I am not complaining though and on the contrary, I support it.

Now, now, there is no need to call me dirty names. I am a married 32 year old woman and believe me, I have seen it all. I support it simply because there is nothing dirty about a couple making love, a man taking a shower, etc. and the nudity part is just bringing the movie closer to reality. There is nothing more unnatural than seeing a woman wrapping herself up immediately after making love to a man (unless she has boils all over her body but the last time I check, Sophie Marceau's skin is clear and soft like a baby's bottom), which most movies tend to show. I mean, come on, you just had the most intimate exchange of bodily fluid with a man and you’re worried about him seeing you naked?

While I do not support hard core pornography (provided if you watch it in your privacy and mature enough to practise discretion), especially those depicting violent or degrading sexual scenes on national TV, nudity and the act of lovemaking, if done tastefully, can actually have positive affects on viewers. I mean, at least it teaches men how to treat women properly. It is nice to see people making love, as oppose to Tarantino’s “bloody” movies, non?

In France, it is common to see all these on national TV, with a +12 rating, sometimes even none. The French are brought up to see nudity and lovemaking as part of life and let’s face it, it is part of life! In fact, the movie industry in France is much less sleazy than America where actresses do not depend on their sex appeal as much as their American counterparts.

Everyone of us is borne with penises, vaginas and breasts. Ooh, what a shocker that other people have it too?

My point is this. I had an overdose of nudity that at some point, I actually got tired of it. My husband, being a man, actually turned to me and said, “Allez! Get it over and done with, man.”

So, it shows that if you persistently try to make something into a taboo, like a forbidden fruit, it entices you, taunts with you and in the end, obssesses you. It is human nature. It is written in the Holy Books.

But if you grow up to see and accept it as part of life, you get fed up of it. Again, it is human nature.

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part XIV)

As team leader for the convoy, I had to make a decision of whether to move on, to turn back to Yakawlang or to stay put. It would take another 2-3 hours to get back to Yakawlang because of the bad road conditions. I was not going to endure getting stuck on the way back to Yakawlang. I was not going to risk continuing the journey when it was completely pitch dark on the mountains. Any minor mistake could cost us our lives; we could fall straight off the mountain cliff due to the slippery roads.

So, I opted staying in the cars until daybreak. Arif suggested waiting for the rain to stop and move on to Panjao at 9pm. I asked him how long would it take to get to Panjao and he told me about 30 minutes. Damn, so near and yet so far. But I told him that I would not allow him to drive in complete darkness.

By then, I was going to call radio room in Bamyan to report our condition and guess what? Arif did not know how to use the Codan despite telling me he knew. By then, because of the exhaustion, I was too tired to get angry or upset; just incredulous.

I thought, what the hell, nothing mattered anymore. We were stuck and my anger would not change things. But I was worried that Bamyan would be freaking out by now not hearing from us at all since we left at 12pm. Also, Raffaele would probably be freaking out as well in Panjao having expecting us to arrive that evening.

A, the logistics guy, was literally out of control and kept screaming at the drivers. He told me that he used to work in communications in East Timor and I thought, then he should be able to figure out how to use the Codan but it turned out that he didn’t. He was whining and complaining the whole night and I swore I was going to shove him off the cliff myself if he didn’t stop whingeing soon.

I kept trying to fiddle with the Codan and then asked Farid, the other driver to keep trying. Our luck brightened up when we managed to establish contact with Bamyan radio room.

I was so happy to hear Mokhtar's, an Afghan radio operator in Bamyan, voice and we started exchanging sitrep (situation report). By then, I guess we had woken up the whole of UNAMA top guys in Bamyan and Kabul.

Mokhtar bombarded me with tonnes of questions; i.e. what time I left Bamyan, what time I arrived in Yakawlang, why didn’t I stay overnight in Yakawlang, etc. I think they were assessing what went wrong and I thought to myself, that was the end of my career in Afghanistan. I was quite convinced that I would be fired and I wasn’t going to argue with that. It was my fault to jeopardize the whole convoy because of my determination and obsession to get to Panjao. I should have stayed in Yakawlang and enjoyed Band-I-Mir instead.

I told Mokhtar that we would have to stay in the car until daybreak and we could not move at all due to the bad weather. He then said that I would have to contact the radio room every hourly to report our situation. Then in his calm and comforting voice confirmed that I had left Yakawlang at 15:00 hours and the weather got worse at Shatu pass once we arrived there and hence was stuck.

He told me not to worry and reassured me that he would be on stand-by at all times. I smiled and answered, “Affirmative”. You see, I had arrived at Yakawlang at 16:00 hours and it was an hour after we were expected to arrive there. I was told that if I arrived at Yakawlang after 3pm, I should not proceed with my journey. So, Mokhtar knew people were monitoring our conversation and he wanted to make sure that they thought I was not breaking any regulations, which would land me in trouble. He was covering up for me.

The night seemed so long and I was awake counting the hours and I swore it must had been the longest night I ever had. It was very cold, uncomfortable and we were hungry. I could not relieve my bladder because it was dark outside and cold. I did not want to be devoured by mountain wolves or being watched by the boys.

Again, we lost all contact the whole night and I began to get worried about Bamyan wondering why on earth we hadn’t reported as promised. All night, I kept thinking what would Bamyan or Kabul do and I would be damned if they started sending search teams for us.

My assessment of the condition was that we were safe and nothing would harm us. We were in the middle of nowhere; i.e. no human settlements within the radius and we were on top of the mountains. Nobody would be crazy enough to ambush us there. I wasn’t scared or nervous; just worried about others worrying for us.

We had to turn the light off completely for security reasons; not to attract any attention. Every hourly, I would turn on the car engine to start the heater because it was freezing cold. Then I would hear aircraft flying above us and thought Kabul had sent one to search for us. Then, I wasn’t sure whether we should turn on the lights in order to attract their attention or not. What if they were military fighter planes? But why would they be flying at 2am?

Then, I spotted that the planes that had flew above us were different planes from the UN’s, which confirmed to me that it wasn’t looking for us.

At about 5am, it was bright enough for us to proceed. The rain had stopped but the roads were still muddy. We got stuck a couple of times and by 9am, we got stuck again and this time for good.

I was beginning to get angry with Arif because he had been lying to me again and again. He told me that it takes 30 minutes to get to Panjao from there and we had been travelling for more than 3 hours since we left from our overnight spot. It was obvious that he did not know the area and I was angry with everyone else for recruiting and assigning him to me.

The Codan didn’t work. I had no Thuraya to call anyone and I was completely frustrated and exhausted. A 5-hour journey turned out to be more than 20 hours. Arif kept bitching about Farid; about how he had to wait for Farid for driving so slowly and hence we were late, etc. If I could speak Dari, I would have screamed at him to shut up and stop lying.

I just got out from the car, walked in the mud with my Nine West shin-length boots (which sank right into the mud) and stood on a hill fuming. My feet by then weighed a tonne because of the mud on my boots.

I told Arif that he would have to walk to the nearest village and get help from the people. He said he should stay being the “experienced” driver and Farid should go. So, Farid went and then came back 30 minutes later reporting that the next nearest village is 6 hours away on foot. I was like, fucking hell, did the people of Panjao put a curse on me?

Then, we saw this old man riding on a donkey passing by. I was running after him and was completely upset with how the rest of the team just sat in the cars and watched. By then, I really did start screaming at them. I told them that they could have asked the man to lend us his donkey or something, whatever it was, just do something. What were they waiting for?

By then, I was slowly giving up hope on making it to Panjao. I had no idea how far away it was from where I was because I have learnt not to trust Arif. I had my handset radio with me and I was trying to call Panjao base on Channel 6; somehow hoping that someone there would hear us if they were near enough. be continued in Part XV......

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The End of Innocence

The Jakarta Post reported recently that a 43 year old Muslim cleric has allegedly married a 12 year old girl and plans to marry two more girls, both aged 7 and 9 respectively. He already has a 26 year old wife. The cleric is purportedly a rich businessman who owns a Muslim boarding school in Central Java and made generous donation to the poor during the fasting month of Ramadhan.

The government-backed Indonesian Child Protection Commission is currently carrying out an investigation on the matter. According to Indonesian law, a woman must be at least 16 years old in order to consent to marriage. Marriage with a minor carries a maximum five year jail sentence.

Even if one considers the legality of this matter, one cannot ignore the morality of such actions. The cleric might be rich and charitable, but does it not disturb his own conscience in taking away the innocence and youth of the girls? 7, 9 and 12 year old girls are not meant for marriage, when their lives are just about to begin. We no longer live in an era where girls were forced to marry at a young age.

Whatever that has driven the cleric to such actions can only be justified by his own lust for virginal blood, not to mention pedophilia tendency. For, if he is supposedly rich and charitable, shouldn’t he be providing the girls with free education and shelter if he believes that he is doing this out of socio-economic concern? Or, does he think that he deserves to be rewarded for his generosity?

In the midst of Indonesia’s current campaign for anti-pornographic laws, induced by Muslim hardliners, I am more shocked and appalled by this. The Indonesian government should give more priority towards protecting the rights of children, especially girls. I should think that this is part of the teachings of Islam.

The innocence of children should be protected, not terminated.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part XIII)

Monday, May 10 2004

Panjao, Afghanistan

I was deployed to Panjao on 26 April 2004. I was supposed to leave with Danny Brown, who eventually became the Provincial Process and Training Officer for Panjao. Danny and I worked in East Timor before and he was my coordinator.

That morning when we were supposed to leave, Danny decided to stay back for another day in Bamyan because he had not managed to finish what he had to do. It was about 12pm when he decided to stay back and I was to go with A (name withheld), our new Provincial Logistics Officer from the Philippines. A was to be deployed to Uruzghan and he would stop over in Panjao for one night before proceeding to Uruzghan.

It takes at least 6 hours to go to Panjao from Bamyan and at 12pm, it was really not a good idea to leave. However, I was determined to go because I had stayed up until 2am the night before packing my things and office. Besides, I was at a point where I just couldn’t stand staying in Bamyan for another night. Gayatri has given me the green light to leave at that time as well. I think he wanted to get rid of me too after finding out how desperate I was to leave Bamyan.

There are 2 ways to go to Panjao; the long or the short way. The long way takes more than 10 hours through Besud district in Wardak Province. The short way takes 5 hours through Yakawlang district and the Shatu pass. Shatu pass is closed during the winter because of excessive snow. It’s a narrow path through mountainous terrain in the middle of nowhere.

Early that morning, at about 6am, another convoy from UNAMA had gone to Panjao through the Shatu pass. I called the radio room to find out whether it was safe to use the Shatu route that afternoon and the radio operator reported that the UNAMA convoy had arrived in Panjao within 5 hours after using the Shatu pass and hence I had the green light.

We left in 2 UN Ford Rangers with tonnes of luggages and office equipments at the back of the pick-ups (international UN staffs have to travel in 2 cars for security reasons). The 2 drivers we had were newly recruited; Arif and Farid.

We normally have the Ford Runners with the Barrett, an older version of radio communication system. But with these new Ford Rangers pick-ups provided by UNOPS, it uses a newer type of radio; the Codan. Since it was the first time I was travelling in the Rangers, I did not know how to use the Codan.

Before we left, I asked Arif whether he knew how to use the Codan and whether he could show me. Because we were late, Danny just shoved us away and said that the driver knew. We all assume that part of the driver’s responsibilities is to use the radio communications, as he needs to report to the radio room every hour. But I insisted to find out from the driver himself and he told me yes. So, we left.

Also, I was supposed to carry a Thuraya with me when I’m on a road mission. Before I left, I asked Gayatri whether I could have a Thuraya and he said it was not necessary, as we would have radio communications.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Panjao, Afghanistan

So, if the Acting Regional Coordinator said it was not necessary, then I guessed it was fine.

Anyway, we took off and arrived in Yakawlang at about 4:00pm and had about 3 more hours to drive. Because we were on the Rangers with heavy loads at the back and new drivers who were not familiar with the roads, it prolonged the usual travel time. We stopped by for the drivers to take a break and then proceeded with our journey.

A few minutes after we left Yakawlang, the weather started to change and turned cloudy. I thought it was going to rain heavily but it just drizzled. Off and on, the sky cleared and it was sunny. Yakawlang is the biggest district in Bamyan Province with extremely dispersed population settlement. The people are more educated than anywhere else in Bamyan. The landscape in Yakawlang is different from anywhere else I had seen either. It was green and there were lots of beautiful white and pink cherry blossoms blooming in the field.

There is a “hidden” treasure in Afghanistan and it lies in the middle of Yakawlang. The treasure is named Band-I-Mir. It should be considered as one of the Seven Wonders of the World but unfortunately it isn’t.

In Bamyan itself – there are 4 famous landmarks; the Buddhas, the City of Sighs, the Red City and Band-I-Mir. All of these are in Bamyan Province. The Buddhas are pretty self-explanatory. The City of Sighs used to be a prosperous ancient city in Afghanistan hundreds of years ago. Then, an emperor ordered the city to be flooded with water to drown the people living there. As a result, the population was wiped out and hence the name City of Sighs as it was filled with pain and suffering. The Red City is a place with red mountains. I have not been there before but I’ve seen pictures of it.

Band-I-Mir is just breathtaking from the photos I’ve seen. It’s a huge lake surrounded by mountains that look like the Grand Canyon in America. The water is deep blue with the reflection of the clear blue skies of Bamyan. It’s a very popular spot for fishing and picnic in the summer. Raffaele had been there last summer and the photos taken are evidence of the real existence of the place. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have believed that such a beautiful place exists in this world. Whenever Kabul hot-shots come to visit us in Bamyan, all they want to do is to see the Buddhas and Band-I-Mir. None of them cares about what we are doing or what we need.

I immediately spotted Band-I-Mir from afar but we were not exactly near it. The drivers kept asking me whether I wanted to stop by at Band-I-Mir and have fish. They even suggested staying overnight in Yakawlang and then travel to Panjao the next morning. The idea was tempting as I don’t know when I will ever get a chance to see Band-I-Mir but that day, my whole focus and determination was to arrive in Panjao. So, I told them to move on.

Then, as we were close to Shatu pass (which is just one and half hour away from Panjao), it started pissing down with rain. The wind was strong and I was beginning to worry about our documents and equipment at the back of the pick-ups.

Then, as we moved along Shatu pass, my worried about the loot turned into whether we would ever survive the bad weather. Our cars were stuck a couple of times because by now, the roads were slippery and muddy. The ground had become so soft that the tyres kept getting caught between the mud.

It was getting dark and cold as well. It was 8pm when I started to realize that we were stuck right in the middle of nowhere on Shatu pass. It was completely dark and still pouring with rain. be continued in Part XIV......

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Project Smile at Gasolina, Phnom Penh


                     A leaflet introducing the 10 photographers of Project Smile

I’ve learned one thing about Cambodia. It is a country that has the ability to make you cry and smile at the same time. The suffering endured by many during the Khmer Rouge regime and the poverty facing those who remain are enough to bring tears to anyone. However, the Cambodians'  ability to laugh and keep on going despite the adversities of such harsh life can’t help but put a smile on your face.

More than a year ago, I visited Siem Reap as a tourist. I was taken aback by the number of children selling knick-knacks at Angkor Wat. There was one particular girl, she must not be more than 8, who persistently followed me around, insisting on selling some souvenirs. I refused several times because there were just too many of them.

“Ok, ok. You ask me any country’s capital. If I give correct answer, you buy. You buy, ok?” That was her sales line and she successfully gained my attention. In my mind, I thought, let’s give her a difficult one. She’s only what? 7? So, I asked her, “Hungary?” Without any hesitation, she answered, “Budapez”.

I wasn’t really interested anymore about her products. I asked another one, then another one, all in increasing difficulty. True behold, she answered all of them correctly. I was really impressed and I couldn’t help but smile thinking how did this girl become so smart?

As if anticipating that I might have  lost interest, she quickly challenged me, “Ok, ok. Like this, ok? I ask you any country’s capital. If you correct, no buy. If you not correct, you must buy, ok?” I must admit that, at that point, I should have surrendered to spare myself the embarrassment of not knowing my geography as well as a 7 year old, but I took up the challenge anyway.

I ended up buying several souvenirs from the girl because I failed to know Antananarivo is the capital of Madagascar. Would you have known? Well, she did.

So, my visit yesterday to a photo exhibition organised by Smile Project, funded by ANZ Bank Royal Bank at Gasolina, bears similar sentiment. This project is created by Michelle Harrison-James, a British freelance photographer who was formerly a lawyer in the United Kingdom.

The project aims to provide basic photography lessons to some of the children from the Center for Children’s Happiness (CCH), providing shelter to children who previously lived and worked at Steung Meanchey, Phnom Penh’s largest garbage dump. Once these children become proficient with using a camera, they were tasked to take documentary photos which culminated in the photo exhibition last night. Proceeds from the exhibition will go towards a vocational training programme for disadvantaged Cambodian youths.

Posing for press_compressed Guests_compressed

(L): Some of the photographers posing for a press picture, (R): Guests enjoying a night out at the photo exhibition in Gasolina

Michelle arrived in Cambodia 8 months ago and quickly started this project after helping out at the CCH. In her interview with The Phnom Penh Post, Michelle said, "Many of the children involved have been subjects of photos. I wanted to turn this around and give them a chance to find a voice as well as a passion and possible vocational skill." (For her full interview, please refer to

I thought it was a brilliant idea and for a change, it was really comforting to see that role reversal where the children were the center of attention and the adults listened to them when they talked about their work.

When I first learned about this project from Michelle’s blog “Living in Cambodia”, I quickly decided to write a story about this and to meet Michelle and the budding photographers in person. When I finally met her last night, I was surprised how young she is (sorry Michelle, if you’re reading this!) and obviously impressed and inspired by her work.

I had the opportunity to talk to two of the ten photographers; Un Naran, a bubbly 12 year old girl who made a joke about her surname and initials (a triple "UN") and a more mellow Say Raksmey, another 12 year old girl. It was evident that they were both very excited with the exhibition and wasted no time in dragging me around the cafe to view their photographs proudly after I interviewed them.


                           A smiling and happy UN posing for me  

Naran revealed that she was taken in by CHH two years ago because her mother is mentally ill and her father is unable to look after her and four other siblings. She showed no reservation or the shame that you would normally expect from many children when asked about their less than ideal family condition, but instead looked optimistic and happy. Like many of the other children from CCH, she used to wake up very early in the morning to collect scraps from the garbage dump all day and never went to school. Now, she is studying in an international school, on a scholarship. She visits her family once a year during special festival.

One of her photographs on display shows two little boys who are still living in Steung Meanchey, staring into her camera. The facial expressions of her subjects were so powerful that you could almost feel a sense of how it is like living in such condition. Perhaps, that was what inspired her since she is able to recall her own experience while living there.

I like taking photographs too and my favourite subjects are people. Although I am not a professional photographer, I know how difficult it is to capture expressions on lens. She nailed it with that photograph.

While Naran showed recognition for her own achievement, admitting that she is proud of herself, she hasn’t forgotten where she came from. When I asked her what she would like to say to the readers of my blog, she carefully thought about my question and then answered in proficient English, “I am really happy to do something. I want to thank all the people who have come to support this project. I am happy with foreigners who are doing something and hope they will help Cambodians forever. I want the children of Cambodia to have a good future and opportunity just like me.”

It is no surprise that she has spoken out to foreigners like me because most of the people attending the exhibition were expats.

Raksmey2_compressed Showing photo_compressed

(L): Raksmey, feeling self-conscious as I took her photo, (R): Raksmey explaining one of her photographs to a guest

Raksmey, more reserved and shy, although I think it is due to the fact that she doesn’t speak English as well as Naran, told me that she has lived in CHH for two years. Her father has passed away and her mother is not able to look after her. She has two other brothers. While not being able to get Raksmey to talk more about herself, I was delighted to see her chatting comfortably with some of the guests alone. Very often, I would spot her with a guest in front of her displayed photographs, taking the time and interest to explain and answer to their queries.

When both girls were asked what they would like to be when they grow up, Naran said she would like to be a photographer and Raksmey, an accountant. I really hope they will continue to receive similar encouragements and opportunities to help them get there. With their optimism about life and displayed will to grasp at any opportunity, I am sure they can be anything they want, if given a chance.

I really like one of Raksmey’s photographs of a smiling elderly man, which she named Happiness. One can’t help but smile when confronted by a face filled with upward wrinkly curves connected to a huge grin.

*Sigh* Unfortunately, I cannot afford to buy all the photographs but settled for a coffee table book instead; a compilation of all the photos on display. At USD45 per book, I hope I can do my bit for these children and at the same time, received something from them; the joy of looking at their work of art. It’s a shame though that I no longer drink as much as before because for each drink bought at the bar, 25 cents go to the center.

I wish the children all the happiness that they deserve and will continue to receive the opportunity to feel proud of what they have become.

In the meantime, I think the project is a huge success at a personal level because I left the exhibition...... smiling.

P/s: For more information about Project Smile and how you can contribute, please visit their website at

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part XII)

G was supposed to be deployed to Panjao. So, it was my duty to brief G on the operational plan for Panjao. G spent about 3 days in Bamyan before deployment. Within those 3 days, I tried to explain and brief him about the plan which Raffaele and I had spent our energy and time on. The plan was a masterpiece and it was brilliant in the sense that we covered all details with the limited resources we have; meticulous coordination plan with copies of maps, sites, work schedule, etc. Thanks to Raffaele and Jaffar, I had one of the most fulfilling and satisfying work experiences in my life.

But you know what? G never once bothered or truly appreciated it. Because he was going to be in Bamyan for 3 days only, all he cared about was to visit the Buddhas and shopping at the bazaar. He kept changing the subject whenever I tried to talk to him and he never once asked me about "the plan".

It suddenly dawned on him that he wasn’t coming here for a holiday. He was in for a hard time. You see, this mission is not like in East Timor (beaches, sunny weather and freedom of movement). All he kept saying was, “This isn’t as easy as I thought.” I was deeply troubled and angry with him because I kept thinking that I had put my heart into this and done all the hard work and this man was just going to destroy it. As arrogant and blunt as it sounded, I was insulted by his presence.

Anyway, Uruzghan was then the only Province left without an international civic education officer. Collin, the PFC for Uruzghan, is an easy-going person as compared to Raffaele, who is a perfectionist in many ways. I was worried about civic education activities in Uruzghan. No educators had been recruited at all. So, I thought my next task would be Uruzghan.

By that time, the core staffs have been deployed and I asked Hari to allow me to visit Uruzghan for a week just to recruit people and start training. Gayatri, the PFC for Bamyan and also the acting Regional Coordinator at that time (Hari was sent to Mazar temporarily) denied permission for me to go.

In actual fact, because I’m staying in Bamyan, Gayatri is also my PFC. He kept saying that he needed me in Bamyan, etc. I got pissed off and told Hari that Bamyan is just about the easiest Province because it’s close to the Regional Center with all the communications network and accessibility of roads, etc. Bamyan started registration in phase I and had the experience already and we have our 2 most experienced national trainers in Bamyan. PFCs like Collin have nothing and as the coordinator for civic education, it was my responsibility to provide support to other Provinces as well.

Unfortunately, Gayatri has a huge influence on Hari and both were determined to keep me in Bamyan. I was exasperated and at one point decided to resign and leave. I told myself that I was not going to call myself a regional civic education coordinator if I am not allowed to do my job.

I called Kabul and asked them to issue a clear terms of reference for my role as the coordinator but they never did. I knew by then that all this coordinator thing is pure bullshit and I was going to be stuck in Bamyan forever.

I had sleepless nights and I threw myself into depression. Everyone else by then had left. I was stuck in Bamyan with Gayatri. I was bored because Bamyan lacks the challenge which the other Provinces face. So I lost focus.

Then one day, I just got mad especially when I saw how the new Regional Process and Training Trainer, Danny, got to go around supporting other teams in the Provinces. I was adamant that I wasn’t going to be held back like that.

I had a discussion with my coordinator in Kabul and explained my condition. I even wrote to Hari and disclosed my concern about my role in Bamyan. Eventually, I had the clearance to leave Bamyan. I was sent to Panjao and G re-deployed to Uruzghan. Phillip was sent back to Bamyan as the “coordinator” after I told him that the coordinator thing is all bullshit and he will be bored in Bamyan.

Well, he has reported that he is bored in Bamyan at the moment and just the way he likes it! be continued in Part XIII.....

Friday, October 24, 2008

Quote of the Day

"All of us are Malaysians and we must move forward in order to be a truly Malaysian nation and I think the challenge is before us and so I think Umno has to come to understand the electorates and the other parties in Barisan Nasional"

- Syed Hamid Albar in an interview with Malaysiakini.

Sir, with all due respect I think that is precisely what we want; to move forward as Malaysians.

Unfortunately, UMNO's take has been for all Malays, or at least those in positions of political power, to move forward.

We, the other Malaysians want to have equal rights to education, housing, work opportunities too so that we can move forward.

So, please help us to do that, if you really believe in what you said.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Bucket List

When I was much younger, I remember staring into the darkness late at night thinking about death. The thought petrified me and it still does actually. One of its fears comes from not knowing what will happen after death. For religious people, the answer seems clear but what if you’re not?

Now, the fear has a lot to do with unfulfilled wishes. There are so many things I would like to do and basically, I am just not ready to die yet.

Many people firmly believe that when your days are numbered, nothing can change it. I am one of them. I’ve known several people in my life who have died in the most unexpected and inexplicable circumstances that it scares me to think that it could happen to me or my loved ones.

I had a childhood friend who was burnt to death while being locked in a bathroom that was set on fire by burglars. I knew this German girl who died in a car accident during her holiday in Australia. Another Spanish man who died in a fire in his hotel on holiday. My housemate in Kabul died of gas asphyxiation while he was sleeping and more recently another friend who was killed in a bus accident while she was travelling in Colombia. Tragic deaths which nobody saw coming, and yet they came.

Anyway, in order to expel all these morbid thoughts, I shall change the mood of the topic. I had a discussion with a friend last night. She told me that she is not afraid of death. I was shocked. It was not the first time I’ve heard someone said this but she surprised me because she is young, successful, happy and full of life.

I always thought that people who are ready to face death are either old because they have gone through life experiences and and they are at peace with themselves, or they are just miserable lonely people who hate life so much that there they have nothing to lose by being dead.

My friend told me that she is satisfied with her life and there is really nothing else she could ask for. I was not convinced and it was unfair of me to base my skepticism on my own life. After challenging her to a series of evaluative questions; what she has accomplished, so on and so forth, she stood firmly by her conviction that she is completely happy with her life that she is ready for death at any time; no regrets whatsoever.

I must say that this was a refreshing and pleasant revelation from my friend. I told her that I think she is the luckiest person I’ve known and in a way, I am envious of her.

I told her that I am so not ready and in a sense, perhaps I have too many expectations in life. If I know that I have just one more day to live, I wouldn’t know where to start. On top of my head, there are a few things and this may be the start to my own bucket list.

1) To make my parents proud,

2) To have such a huge impact on someone’s life that I will consider buying my parents a birthday card on my birthday  just to thank them for giving birth to me,

3) To feel dizzy with happiness,

4) To write a best selling book, which inspires millions of people and it becomes an Oscar winning movie,

5) To bring up a child who will become a good person and sees me as a role model,

6) To bring happiness, peace and love to someone,

7) To be a Nobel Peace Prize nominee (being a winner will be a bit too far-fetched),

8) To be known as a good person by those who know me,

9) To own a beach house by the Indian or Pacific Oceans,

10) To be in the Arctic with the polar bears.

So yes, I admit that I have too many expectations in life, but it does no harm to dream a little bit or a lot as I do. I think sometimes, it is good to have such unreasonable expectations because it gives you so many reasons to stay alive. The only thing is, when do dreams become a reality? Should I be content with just dreaming but never trying to achieve any of them? Perhaps, this may be the sole reason for my fear of death; dying without achieving anything in life.

So, I do encourage you to start your own bucket list and work towards at least one of them, so that when death comes knocking, you’ll be able to say, “No regrets!”

But if you are like my friend, then I wish to extend my most sincere congratulations to you.

P/s: If you have one more day to live, what would you like to do?

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part XI)

Recently, I am working with our national Provincial Public Information Officer (PPIO), Tahir, to organise an event for the people of Panjao. Tahir is a famous traditional singer in Bamyan, which is why I recruited him for the position so that he could attract the people with his musical talent. He is some sort of our local electoral ambassador, if you like.

(I like Tahir very much. He has this baby face that has the ability to brighten up everyone's day just with a smile. He has a kind heart as well and when something made him sad, he had this expression where you just knew he really cared and felt affected by it.)

We wanted to organize a musical concert with electoral theme in it. It’s a fun way of educating people and also to foster unity among them. I just thought that the Afghans have been suffering for years and it’s time to rejoice and have some light and easy entertainment. No major event with all the boring speeches but just uplifting traditional music with meaningful messages.

I went to talk to the principal of this high school to allow us to use the school compound for the concert. We also wanted some of his female teachers and students to come up with some drama, skit, etc.

The principal is a Haji and an elderly man. We presented him with our programme and as soon as he saw musical concert, he started telling me that the women should not be allowed to sit in the concert and asked to leave the event when the concert starts. I was startled because I thought the Hazaras are more liberal compared to the Tajiks and Pashtos.

I asked him why and he told me that the people believe that the Taliban was a result of women participating in musical concert in Afghanistan. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My initial reaction was to break into a guffaw because of the ridiculous statement he made. But I knew that if I start to show signs of hilarity in what he said which, to him appeared to be a very grave issue, I would only make matter worse.

So, with as serious a face as I could, I told him that the Taliban came because certain groups of people used religion to gain power and control over others. It happens in other parts of the world as well and it’s not because of women enjoying music. Then he went on about how uneducated the people are and they would not understand or accept this.

I told him that we were not trying to organize a rock or pop concert. The songs contain messages regarding the election, etc. and because I’m working for the UN which promotes equality between men and women, I cannot organize an event which discriminates  women.

Then I tried to convince him by saying that the Islamic State of Afghanistan Constitution protects women’s rights as well. I told him that if the people of Afghanistan want to progress and develop, they would have to acknowledge the role and rights of women in society of which the women make up 60 per cent of the population. I asked him to put aside the stereotype people have here but what did he think about it himself?

He kept quiet. Then he said, by allowing the women to vote is a big step in acknowledging their rights. The people need to take each step at a time. Point taken and I respected that argument.

There were two female teachers in the room and I turned to them and asked them what they thought about it. The women started getting excited and I didn’t know what they said. Then my Language Assistant translated that the women said they should be allowed to sit in the concert and they want to enjoy the music as well. I thought to myself…oh-oh…these men are going to go around and poison the people’s mind that I’m the devil that brings bad influence to their women.

I left the meeting promising the principal that I would not organize an event which might create controversy or commotion in the community because that would defeat the whole purpose. But also, I would not organize an event which discriminate women on unreasonable grounds and the Taliban excuse just isn’t good enough. We would either have a concert with both men and women or we don’t have a concert at all. But I would discuss this with other people to find out their opinions.

When I got back to report this to Raffaele, the Provincial Field Coordinator (PFC) for Panjao, and he thought I was being paranoid for nothing. Maybe I was but at the same time, a lot of these European or Western people tend to be very “insensitive” to the local culture and thought that liberation is all about the bullet-approach – just shoot. But what if you end up shooting yourself in the foot?

He kept insisting that the people have to start somewhere and now is the time. But how do we know whether now is truly the time? I could not answer that question in absolute certainty.

Then I thought to myself, am I turning into Mahathir Mohammad? Once he said that human rights should suit the temperament of a country or something to that extent. I just don’t want to end up being one of those Westerner who pushes his/her ideas around and thinking that his/her idea is the right one.

So anyway, we came up with a brilliant idea of putting the burden on the District Governor. Tahir and Jaffar, Raffaele’s Language Assistant, went to see him and presented to him what Haji Yunoos (the principal) had told us. The District Governor was absolutely mad when he heard this and started cursing who the hell is Haji Yunoos to decide what is best for the people. He said that it is perfectly all right to have a concert with the women in it.

So, Raffaele and I thought, if the District Governor has said so – then if something happens, we’re just going to say that the District Governor gave the green light. Not our problem at all. So it really makes me wonder whether Haji Yunoos is a pro-Taliban man himself. We’ll see, as the concert is due on 13 May.

Back to how I ended up in Panjao. Initially, I was meant to stay in Bamyan to be the Regional Civic Education Coordinator instead of a Provincial Civic Education Officer. This would be a de facto “promotion” kind of thing without any increment of allowance or official elevation of status. But it does mean bigger responsibilities and challenges.

There were just Phillip and I and one of us had to stay at the regional level. We were still waiting for 2 other international civic education officers to cover the whole of Central Highlands (which has 4 Provinces). Hari left it to us to decide who would stay.

Neither Phillip nor I wanted to stay in Bamyan. Phillip wanted to escape the extra responsibility while I just want to get out of Bamyan after being there for 6 months although acknowledging the fact that the condition would be worse in the Province. I’ve heard and seen the hardship of people in the Province.

Raffaele used to go on a road mission to Panjao to assess registration sites and to talk to the people before he was permanently deployed to Panjao. After 10 days, he would come back looking completely exhausted, dirty and extremely thin and malnourished. My heart would literal ache seeing that. But I wanted to broaden my knowledge and understanding of Central Highlands. I’ve heard so much about the Provinces and wanted to see it for myself.

Anyway, the civic education headquarters in Kabul recommended me to stay in Bamyan and I got pressured into staying. At the same time, I had a different or should I say idealistic understanding of my role as the coordinator. I thought I would be able to travel to all 4 provinces doing monitoring and support for the civic education staffs. That thought appealed to me and I decided to stay in Bamyan. Phillip was sent to Ghazni province.

So my first task was to support Panjao team knowing that our 2 new international staffs would not arrive until end of April and middle of May. I worked on the operational plan for civic education with Raffaele and established good working relationship with the Panjao national civic educators. All these took place in Bamyan prior to the deployment.

We worked until 4:30am one night and came out with a well-organised plan for both the national Field Coordinators and Civic Educators. I was very pleased with it. On the day of their deployment, I stood at the gate waving the team off. They moved in a convoy of 10 grey Russian jeeps.

As each jeep moved out from the gate, I bid them farewell and knew each and everyone of them by their names and which area they were going. By the 4th jeep, my eyes were brimming with tears. Luckily I had my sunglasses on. I did not know I was going to be that emotional but at that time, I felt sad not being able to go along with them after working with them so intensely for the past few weeks.

After they left, I went to my office and tried to gather my emotion together. But as soon as I stepped inside, Homa, started bawling. That sight just turned on the tap of my soul. We both just hugged each other and cried. I guess what had made me sad was the fact that I would never know how they were doing in the field and what sort of problems they would be facing.

The jeeps have no radio communications and they all do not have any Thurayas (satellite phones). National staffs are not bound by security regulations. They are not covered by insurance and hence are able to travel without all the mandatory installation of communication gadgets. Raffaele could not go with them either because the office and accommodation in Panjao were not MOSS (minimum operational security standard) compliant yet. But he had to send the national staffs out because time was running out.

Raffaele was constantly filled with guilt for sending his team out without all the communication tools in place and we hated Kabul for forcing us to start operation without providing us with the proper support or resources.

UNAMA is completely fucked up here and it is violating all human rights standards. You might think that, “Hey, it’s a war zone here and who cares about human rights?” Well, I do and in view that everything has been less than ideal here, we just have to learn to cope with it, whether we like it or not. A lesson, which I have finally learned after so many years.

So, we didn’t hear from the team until a week after when Raffaele was finally deployed to Panjao. I stayed behind and was quite miserable. By that time, we had received another international civic education officer, G (withholding real name) from Nepal. be continued in Part XII....

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

17 years after the Paris Peace Accord

1.5 millions Cambodians died, 4 missions, 4 personalities, 5 awaiting trials and 3 political outcomes. How many achievements?

At the wake of the 17th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accord (signed on 23 October 1991, to mark the start of a transitional period in Cambodia  in an attempt to restore political stability and peace), I take this opportunity to assess how far Cambodia has moved on since then.

Considering how long it took for the international community represented by the United Nations to finally assert a political solution in a nation ravaged by four years of cruel and inhumane communist regime in 1975, the achievements I feel are far less than desirable.

One of the biggest failures which will overshadow the rest is the fact that 1.5 million Cambodians (1/5 of its population) died as a result of systematic execution, torture, starvation and forced labour carried out by the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, and yet since 1979 when the regime ended, no one has yet being held accountable for the magnitude of such atrocities.

There are possibly three major political outcomes with most of its scenario dominated mainly by four personalities; former King Norodom Sihanouk, Hun Sen (leader of the CPP party), Prince Ranariddh (former leader of the FUNCIPEC party) and the UN since the signing of the Accord.

The Paris Peace Accord calls for four missions; to take necessary steps for an internationally supervised election, to repatriate Cambodian refugees and displaced persons, to rehabilitate and reconstruct Cambodia and to promote the respect for human rights.

The first political outcome was the creation of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to implement the Paris Peace Accord. Its first few tasks were to hold a free and fair elections leading to a new constitution, disarmament and demobilization of anti-governmental military factions and repatriate and resettle refugees and displaced persons. In a way, this was possibly one of the biggest UN operations at that time and as usual, the results were minimal compared to the amount of money poured into it.

Prime Minister Hun Sen made a statement which I read on the Cambodia Daily a few weeks ago. He called on the international community not to allow the United Nations to carry out elections in their own respective countries. He accused the United Nations of tempering with electoral votes and exercising its power to determine who will win in the election.

As some of you might already know, I used to work for the UN electoral missions in Timor Leste and Afghanistan. I have been highly critical of the UN myself but what I read displeased me immensely. The UN may be known for many mistakes it has done but playing a huge role in corrupting electoral results is not one of them, as far as I know. But then again, Prime Minister Hun Sen has many reasons not to support this international institution.

One of the main reasons is his failure to garner majority votes in the first election carried out in 1993. Instead Prince Ranariddh won by a huge majority of 45% to Hun Sen’s 38%. While it was a failure for Hun Sen, it was a huge achievement for the people since 4 million (90% of the population) Cambodians turned up to vote in the election. Such was their resolve in playing a part in this crucial transitional period.

This achievement was shortlived when former King Sihanouk, who was then reinstated as the king, decided to appoint Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen as first and second prime minister respectively. It was probably a calculated move taken to prevent another period of political uprising and instability leading to a lot of bloodshed and violence. I do personally believe that the King had in a way succeeded in doing so despite continuous rivalry and hostility between the two co-prime ministers.

Since then, the political landscape of Cambodia has be dominated by Hun Sen but not without strong challenges by other opposition parties. Subsequent elections, although in his favour, were carried out in an atmosphere of intimidation and violence.

While in the end, Hun Sen will always remain as one of the political legacies in Cambodia despite his draconian method of governance (but then again, he cannot be as bad as Pol Pot), the UN left with another legacy, only deadlier; AIDS.

Thanks to the then UNTAC Special Representative of the Secretary General, Yasushi Akashi’s cavalier management style, UN peacekeepers had contributed to the rate of HIV/AIDS in Phnom Penh to rocket 150% within one year. They have been the prime culprits to spread and bring the disease home or to another UN mission.

We all know what the peacekeepers do in their free time, don’t we? When alarmed by this, Akashi’s response was “boys will be boys”. The failure to conduct mandatory blood testing and disciplinary actions against those who frequented brothels and sexually harassed local women would ultimately be the result of a second killing field since the Khmer Rouge regime.

The second political outcome is the much delayed establishment of a joint Cambodian and UN Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCC), commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 1997. More than a decade has passed since the formation of this tribunal and yet, the five main alleged perpetrators; “Duch”, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan are still under detention and awaiting trials. Ieng Sary was convicted and sentence to death in 1979 by the local court but subsequently granted amnesty by King Norodom Sihanouk.

Despite tonnes of eye witness accounts of the alleged atrocities commanded and committed by them, today’s paper said that the court is unable to find substantial evidence to incriminate Nuon Chea. Time is running out for those few remaining survivors and their family members, who have been living in this nightmare for years, to seek justice and to find closure as the perpetrators are now slowly ravaged by age and failure of health.

Now, the tribunal itself is facing corruption charges and the international community has begun to question its effectiveness and integrity by stopping funding.

The third and final political outcome is the mushrooming of human rights NGOs and civil societies in Cambodia. While Cambodia is still one of the biggest human rights violators in the world, at least there is a will amongst the people to defend and promote human rights. This has not been easy, particularly when the government itself is opposing foreign intervention and rejecting the notion of international human rights standard.

Recently, the UN Human Rights Special Representative to Cambodia, Professor Yash Ghai, resigned from his post after three years of contentious relationship with the government. Prime Minister Hun Sen celebrated his departure by issuing public statements filled with insults against the UN Representative.

So, after all this, I still think there is a cause for Cambodians to celebrate the 17th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accord. Against all adversity and repeated failures by local institutions and international community to protect their rights, Cambodians still display strong will, tenacity and hope for a better future. They are ultimately the only post-Accord achievement in this new Cambodia.

When you walk on the streets of Phnom Penh, it is obvious that Cambodians are industrious, kind and polite people. Shops are opened as early as 6:30am and closed as late as midnight. Many turn their backs against what is happening politically because they are tired and they have lost trust in whatever political party is in power. As long as their lives are not being subjected to the policy of “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss”, all they want is to simply move on with their lives.

Despite what they have gone through, many of them possess the ability to forgive. When one of the survivors of the S-21 or Tuol Sleng massacre was asked whether he thought that a museum dedicated to remember the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime would help the reconciliation process, he answered “no”. When asked why? He said that the museum would serve as a reminder to the younger generation of what had happened and this would incite revenge.

Peter Maguire, the author of "Facing Death in Cambodia", which much of my research depended on, asked the survivor how he would feel if confronted by those who had carried out his torture. The latter answered, “Some of them have come back, and I would not like to meet them because I would really like to kill them. I would like to see them punished. But truly, I cannot do like that because I am Buddhist – no revenge.”

That is how committed the people are towards peace and reconciliation, which is one  hell of a good reason worth celebrating on the 23 October.

Written on 21 October 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part X)

The second woman who came for the interview, Amina, also works for IAM. In the interview, I would always ask the IAM girls how they felt about leaving their health care profession to work with us. How would they feel about these women walking from a village 5 hours away to seek treatment and there is no women to attend to them. I wanted to understand their job motivation.

Amina surprised me. She is a member of the Women’s Affair Association. She told me that she thinks women’s political right is important and she wants to be a part of the process. So, I asked her what about the right to health care and is political right more important that life itself? She answered, by participating in the election, the women are able to change and improve the policy of a country; better health care, better education, etc. this is more sustainable. Amina is not a high school graduate but she certainly read Amartya Sen alright! I was really impressed with her.

Did we select her? Well….unfortunately not. We had to choose only one IAM staff and we chose Sara instead. Sara had no problem travelling alone and she showed great interest and passion for the work. She was talkative and managed to convince me that she is willing to walk the extra mile just for the women. It was a difficult decision we had to make but Sara has the edge of being able to travel extensively.

Working with these Afghans has taught me to be tougher and less naïve. I used to get emotional and weak easily as my heart poured out to their plight and living condition. I felt sorry for them and hence clouded my ability to judge according to what was best for the programme and the people in general (the whole big picture). It was so easy to sympathise and cave in to a few random people but forgetting about what would eventually be beneficial to the bigger population.

I have learned it through the hard way, how these Afghans manipulate and take advantage of others. They don’t trust each other and I guess it is a product of the years of ethnic fighting, etc. How does one learn to love and respect others when one has not been loved or respected?

Despite this revelation and understanding, I still need to make decisions based on who would be the best person to carry out the job so that the women could get the best out of it despite how potentially unpopular I became. In addition, there are always tonnes of people who need a job and the list is endless. So, what can we do?

This is also a product of working with international staffs. A lot of these international staffs do not show respect to the locals and are arrogant as hell. So these Afghan staffs start to pick up bad work ethics and professionalism.

This is especially prominent in Kabul. Every time I’m in Kabul, I notice how much more rude and disrespectful the Afghan staffs are compared to Bamyan. I am very fond of all our drivers in Bamyan and have a lot of respect for them. They are simple people working hard and being paid honest money. I feel safe with them and know that they will protect me if anything happens.

In Kabul, the drivers show bad attitude and think they are too smart to be drivers. I have more respect and gratitude towards our illiterate “chowkidor”, Zarif than these Kabuli drivers.

One thing which has not vanished from my sense of perspective is how uncompromising it is to remain honest and humble in our every day life. I used to think that I’m an altruistic person but now I begin to realize that I’m not. I can be very selfish when the going gets rough. Living here provides an opportunity for self-reflection and I learn a lot more about myself.

Hari, our Regional Coordinator, discourages book reading rather than promoting it. He reasons that one’s life is a book itself. One should learn to read oneself and discover the content of one’s life. If you can’t finish reading and understanding yourself, why bother reading other books. Books shape and distort one’s perception of life. Now, I’m beginning to value and appreciate his philosophy of life.

As I have mentioned, after living here for 7 months, I have become tougher and stronger. I have handled many situations in an uncompromising manner which makes me a less popular person. This is especially hard being a woman. I can never stop emphasizing how disadvantageous it is being a woman here. This has reached to an extent whereby I’m beginning to have nightmares in my sleep.

I have dreamt about being killed for my uncompromising principles here. In Lal, the District Governor tried to interfere in the recruitment process and lobbied some of his staffs. Once I knew this, I had immediately informed all our national staffs not to entertain this even if it’s from the District Governor. I will not allow politics and nepotism to rule our recruitment process. That night, I dreamt that the District Governor had sent someone to assassinate me.

Within 2 days in Lal, everyone knew who I was and the “power” I had in recruiting people. I began to feel uncomfortable walking on the streets when we announced the successful candidates because these people knew I was the one responsible in making the selection. That was the first time, I felt self-conscious of my own presence in Afghanistan and the possible threat of being an “unorthodox” woman in such a conservative and patriarchal society. be continued in part XI.....

Sunday, October 19, 2008

If we were wolves

I was watching a documentary on wild mountain gray wolves on Animal Planet a few days ago. I managed to learn a couple of things about these wolves:

1) They are communal animals that live in packs,

2) There is a leader in every pack, usually an alpha male who asserts its dominance over the rest of its pack. This is an important trait to ensure the survival and harmony of the pack, particularly during times when food is scarce,

3) There are strict code of conducts which are practiced and understood by each member of the pack,

4) They play together to create and enhance bonding,

5) The whole pack shares the responsibility of looking after their pups,

6) They do not attack human beings for food, but if it does it is often out of self-defence.

It was interesting for me to watch the behaviour of the wolves. The alpha male, once being recognised as the leader of the pack, would ensure that every other member of the pack stays in their own submissive roles. It dictates who can share the fruits of a hunt, who can participate during playtime and who can join the pack.

From time to time, the alpha male will remind the rest who is the boss. It displays dominance by staying on top of the other, snarling impressively by showing its big and sharp fangs, hair rising on its back and positioning its jaws on the neck of the other. The latter will lie on its back, surrendering in total submission. Once, the position of power is established, the alpha male will back off and the other one will stay away. It doesn’t really bite, unless being challenged. A wolf’s bite is lethal because it has incredible jaw strength unmatched by other animals, able to bite into the flesh of animals ten times its size.

A pup will acquire this code of conduct by instinct. When approaching an alpha male, a pup displays meekness by tucking its tail underneath its body and stays cautious until it gets the green light from the alpha male.

Such behaviours may seem harsh but necessary to ensure the continuous survival of the specie.

It seems that dogs, although being tamed for centuries, still possess the genetic memory or instinct by displaying similar behaviour. I had an unfortunate experience while I was in Ethiopia not too long ago.

My husband and I “inherited” two bitches, owned by the previous resident of a house which we rented. Being a dog lover, I didn’t mind taking over the responsibility of looking after them. They were both very friendly and it didn’t take long before they began to accept and treat me as their “master”.

After a few months, they both got into a fight, which resulted in injuries, particularly Sofres, a German Shepherd, who was older and weaker. Our security guard then informed us that the fights were normal and occurred at least twice a year, during the mating season.

True enough, it happened again after a few more months and each time it happened, Sofres suffered more and more due to increased aggression by Milu, a mongrel breed. I tried to observe their behaviour and it was evident that Milu was very territorial and possessive of me. She displayed similar signs of dominance; snarling and threatening to bite Sofres whenever the latter approached me for affection. However, I noticed that Sofres never seemed to learn because she would try again and again in defiance of Milu’s threats.

At that time, I just concluded that Sofres was a silly and stubborn bitch, but now I realised that Sofres was probably an alpha female as well and due to old age and extremely weak hind legs, a common genetic defect of German Shepherd, she could not challenge Milu the way she would have wanted to.

As a solution, I decided to spay Milu but it didn’t work out because she nearly died of a botched operation done by a local vet. Unable to trust another vet, I was forced to contemplate another solution and thought about sending either one of them to an animal shelter. Before I could make any decision, another incident happened, which ultimately led to an unpleasant outcome.

One day, I was alerted by loud whimpering sound coming from the garden and rushed out to witness Sofres pined underneath Milu, completely helpless and “destroyed”. Milu had her jaws on Sofres’s face and her fangs were dug deep inside and she would not let go. She intended to exterminate Sofres that day. The security guard, our housekeeper and I tried to separate them but Milu was undeterred. The level of her strength and aggression were unbelievable.

In the end, we somehow managed but it was too late. Milu had caused so much damage to Sofres that the only humane thing to do was to end her life. That day, I did not just end Sofres’ life, I did the same for Milu. Many of you may question why. Whether it was the right or wrong thing to do, I don’t know. The decision taken was one of the most difficult ones I ever had in my entire life. While the burden was so great, I had to do something and most of you might not understand this but Milu was in fact, my favourite. I didn’t end her life as a punishment to her, but as a favour.

Now, for those who are against euthanasia will conclude that what I did was morally wrong. I am willing to take up a debate on that but for now, this isn’t really the point I want to make in this article.

My point is, after understanding a little bit about certain animal behaviour, I can’t help but wonder whether as human beings, do we somehow possess similar trait and characteristic as these wolves? Men have been fighting for power and asserting dominance over one another since time immemorial. But my question is, like these wolves, would it be better for all of us if we learn to submit ourselves to one leader with absolute power?

I have read many times how some Iraqis and Afghans reminisce the time during Saddam Hussein and the Taliban’s rule. They said that they were better off then since there were lesser crimes and politically more stable. Sure, there was no freedom and democracy whatsoever but they were safe. What about living in a communist regime? If properly implemented, could it not be an ideal way of life where communal living will ensure that nobody gets hungry?

I am not a communist, nor someone who supports dictatorship, but perhaps in the end, we are ultimately no different from other animals. Ever since we became a civilised nation, we have tried for so long to evolve  from acts of barbaric aggression and dominance into a nation governed by a different code of conduct; one which protects and defends human rights, democracy and social justice. And yet, like dogs, we are held back by our genetic memories and instinct to exterminate those who are "either with or against us".

I can't help but wonder, what if we were wolves?

Written on 19 October 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part IX)

I was recently sent to Lal Wa Sarjangal, a district about 5 hours away from Panjao to recruit some staffs. My one-week journey in Lal is another story altogether. Anyway, I interviewed more than 30 people within 2 days and had a number of frustration and stress along the way.

We were having so much difficulty recruiting the only 4 female civic educators we are allowed for Lal district. In Lal, there are only 5 female high school teachers and 12 health care workers. These are about the only educated women in Lal. The dilemma was quite obvious – who else can we recruit apart from these women because of our no teacher and health care worker policy?

We couldn’t possibly have primary and secondary school graduate educating people on democracy and the election. The only solution which I could come up with was to talk to the Department of Education and the NGOs about the possibility of allowing some of their staffs to take 2-month unpaid leave to work with us. But of course, the NGOs refused. Since the beginning, UNAMA is already in bad terms with the NGOs especially Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF), OXFAM, ICRC and Solidarites (all well-funded and influential humanitarian relief NGOs) because of the whole “poaching” of staffs issue.

I was about to give up and had a nervous breakdown by the end of the 4 days; thinking that we would have to recruit the women from other districts. Although you may think that would be the best solution but at the same time, we wanted to hire people from the local community for many reasons. First, these people would be familiar and known in the area. Secondly, it would provide equal opportunity to the local people as well.

You have no idea how I felt. I was so frustrated because I felt that this was truly a mission impossible.

At the same time, Aliase was getting really exasperated with me. He could and would not try to understand why we were implementing such a policy. Despite having recurrence discussions and arguments with him about this, he still refuse to understand and abide by the policy. He would get mad at me for rejecting applications from these people to the point of being rebellious and defiant. Even the District Governor could not understand me when we talked to him about it.

I was the only female international staff in the whole convoy to Lal. Sitting in front of the District Governor with a bunch of elders was quite an experience. I was not scared, nervous or even intimidated. I don’t know why. It can be frustrating though because they would discuss things in Dari and I wouldn’t understand what they were talking about. The interpreters were quite languid in translating things. And also because I am a woman, they normally don’t feel my presence as important enough to warrant translation unless a question is directed at me.

Anyway, I had to tell them that no doubt registration is important in Afghanistan and has an impact on its future, we cannot focus our whole lives on it. Come what may – registration will happen. But what’s also important is life itself. We need to consider other implications such as recruitment of these staffs.

Then, I went on about the whole Taliban sob stories and ask them whether their conscience would allow the girls and women to be deprived of education and medical treatment? Medical care in Lal has a particular significance for the women. There is only one health care NGO in Lal with female staffs. Many sick women from far away villages would walk for hours to this NGO for treatment.

Everyone stayed silent when I asked them about their conscience. I think they would have poofed-poofed me off if I am an Afghan woman but because I am a foreigner working for their registration process, they could not take me too lightly.

Then I proposed to the District Governor to speak with the Department of Education and NGOs about the 2-month unpaid leave in which he did. He put a lot of pressure on them and finally the Department of Education and IAM (a Christian medical healthcare NGO funded by Scandinavian governments) agreed to release one staff each to work with us. IAM told us that we could interview their staffs but only select one.

So as you can imagine, applications started flooding in and a group of women came to see me, etc. In fact, Lal has a Women’s Affair Association made up of this handful of educated women. Their mission statement is to promote women’s rights. So, these women are more forward thinking than the women in Panjao (which by the way, I have hardly seen since I have arrived in Panjao).

What was interesting to me was when the entourage of women prepared a welcome poem for me. I don’t know whether that was a custom or they were just trying to suck up to me. Whatever it was, it felt odd to receive such a treatment. It felt like colonial treatment which made me felt uncomfortable.

So, we managed to interview some of the women and there were 2 special cases which I would remember forever of my stay in Lal.

The interview panel consisted of Aliase, Latifa (our new provincial female trainer) and I. This woman, Khadijah works with IAM. She told us that she had been granted a 3 month-leave and she could work with us. I asked her whether she had applied for the leave in order to work with us. She said that even if she didn’t get the job, she would have taken that leave anyway.

So, I asked her whether it was customary to take such a long leave and to which she replied that she was entitled to it. I thought, hmmm….strange for IAM to grant such a long leave.

So, we went through the whole usual reality check thing with Khadijah. I wanted to make sure that these women understood what they are heading for. It is not an easy job with us as it requires a lot of travelling and long working hours. We normally recruit women who are able to travel far distances, walk for long hours and work alone without a "mahram" or male escort in Dari.

Anyway, she agreed to everything, etc. She was not very talkative and appeared a little bit awkward and unfriendly in the interview. I tend to warm up to people with cheerful disposition in interviews. Some girls were giggly and I thought that was charming and appealing.

So, I told her that I felt she was a little bit too shy and quiet and asked her whether she was nervous and would be different when she speaks to the local community. She gave me a monosyllabic “no” with no further explanation or justification. I asked her whether she could elaborate on her answer. She answered me, “I have answered to all your questions. What else can I say?” I thought to myself, gee, that would earn you a job for sure.

The moment she left the interview, Aliase casually mentioned to us that he suspected her to be pregnant. I turned to him and said, “Whoa, hang on. What are you saying? Did you guys discuss something in Dari and I missed it?” He said no but asked me whether I had notice how weird she behaved.

I said, “Well…she was quiet and unfriendly but that did not mean she’s pregnant.” I turned to Latifa and asked her whether she suspected the same. Latifa is a mother so I thought she would know. Latifa shook her head and said she didn’t notice any sign of pregnancy. But I told them that we had to find out because if she is indeed pregnant, we could not recruit her. The physical exertion needed for the job would affect her pregnancy and we don’t want to be responsible for any miscarriage, etc.

So, I asked Latifa to run after her to find out although it was a really personal question. Latifa went off and came back with one of the most shocking news. She told us that Khadijah was due to deliver in 3 days’ time!!!

I was completely dumbfounded. It wasn’t so much as because she didn’t look pregnant at all. Afghan women wear very loose clothing and they tend to hide their pregnancy because it’s considered a sensitive and embarrassing thing. But the fact that this woman thought that we would be paying her money to lie on the bed nursing her new-borne child. What was she taking us for?

She knew she would have to start work the very next day. I just could not fathom her mentality until today as I’m typing this out. Forget about the level of education here but what about common sense and logic? Yes, perhaps she needs the money, etc. but how was she going to lie her way out of the situation. It was not like we were never going to find out.

Secondly – HOW ON EARTH DID ALIASE KNOW AND NOT US, WOMEN??? be continued in part X....