Saturday, October 4, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part I)

Being stuck on Shatu pass, confrontation with Afghan men, contracting pneumonia, relaxing in an “in-house” sauna, wearing bullet proof helmet and vest, smoking top quality Afghan pot, partying at the local ICRC Buddha Bar, coping with electricity blackouts and frozen toilet bowls, establishing friendships and many many more were all part of my life being a UN worker in Bamyan, Afghanistan.

Read this 18-part article to find out more!

In 2003, I had the rare opportunity to travel and work in Afghanistan with the United Nations. I was recruited as a Civic Education Officer to assist in the historic UN-administered first democratic Presidential election. I had similar experience before in Timor Leste and knew that working in Afghanistan would be a different ball game altogether.

Shortly after arriving in Kabul, I was paired with a young Ugandan man, Philip Mwaka and we were deployed to work in Central Highlands region.

For the first phase of the civic education programme, there would be two civic education officers, one male and one female in every region. It was a pre-requisite to have a female officer, not because of the UN’s policy on gender equality but a cultural necessity because Afghan women could only benefit from close contact with women only.

During our one-week orientation workshop in Kabul prior to deployment, all of us were anxious to know where would eventually be our “home” for the next coming six months or more. Many of us silently prayed that we would not end up in Kandahar, the most dangerous zone in Afghanistan. While we were asked to write down two of our preferred regions, the final decision ultimately depended on our coordinator. I remember my choices were Mazar-E-Sharif and Herat for reasons I no longer remember.

While Philip and I were somehow relieved that we did not have to contemplate the risk of suicide bombings, we were amused by our selection to Central Highlands. You see, being Malaysian and Ugandan, we are accustomed to tropical warm weather.

Sure, Bamyan, the capital city of Central Highlands, has its attraction being the host to two mystical giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Talibans, but living in the coldest region in Afghanistan would ultimately be our biggest challenge. Or so we thought.

True enough, in my first month in Bamyan, I had pneumonia. Living condition was harsh especially when temperature fell to -30 degree celcius. Due to poor heating system, every single liquid substance was frozen; shampoo, cooking oil and even the water in the toilet bowl. Getting out of bed to take a short bladder break was a nightmare but worst of all, was when the time came to take a shower.

I remember this to be the most physically challenging time I ever had in my life. I had the taste of how it feels like to be hungry, cold and dirty. Bless my Italian colleague who quickly took to the task of forcing me to drink boiling cups of milk with honey and brandy, which turned out to be an effective remedy for a cold.

When I was well enough, words had gone out to the head quarters in Kabul and they wanted to transfer me to Jalalabad, a significantly warmer region. At some point, I did consider it but in the end, I decided to stick to my posse in Bamyan.

What kept me going was perhaps the insurmountable strength generated by an amazing team of colleagues from various parts of the world, including some Afghans of course. Hari Prasad (Nepal), Raffael Ditadi (Italy), Hugh Collin (Liberia), Yumi Yasuda (Japan), Philip Mwaka (Uganda), Gayathri Pandey (Nepal), Koka Babu (India), Jodi Morell (Australia), Dan Radulescu (Romania), Shawn Pomskivich (Canada), Zarif, Aliase Hassany, Homa Amiri and Jaffar.

These are the names that will stick to my memory for as long as I shall live. Each individual with different personalities, characters and cultures had all, in their own individual ways, contributed in humbling and educating me to grow and become stronger mentally and physically.

Hari, the Electoral Regional Coordinator a.k.a the Big Boss and his team of PFCs (Provincial Field Coordinators); Raffaele, Collin, Gayathri and Babu, were all pioneers of the Electoral team in Bamyan, being deployed a few months ahead of us to set up the offfice and accommodation. Being a new edition to the team, it was sometimes difficult to break into their close circle of established friendship. They would often share private jokes or reminisced about their first experiences in Bamyan while we, newcomers, would listen and feel completely lost and left out.

It was tough for all of us (except for our Afghan counterparts and Shawn who lived elsewhere), with different habits and characters to live under the same roof in such close proximity for 24 hours a day. Cultural conflicts were bound to happen but as our work began to gain momentum, we somehow ended up complementing and relied on each other for almost anything. You just have to under such extreme context because if you don’t, you’ll end up alone and miserable, which eventually happened to Jodi.

I am constantly reminded of all the fond memories we had together. The arguments we had, the frustrations felt and the joy of coming back from our day’s work, completely exhausted but yet delighted to be greeted by Zarif, our local Hazara chowkidor (housekeeper) and shared a hot meal together in the freezing cold kitchen. The image of all of us huddled together in a circle and eating from our laps while being kept relatively warm by a small burning gas tank and no electricity may have been a past but yet remain present in my mind.

Of course, one would often expect all sorts of mischief to happen in such a tight knit group of people. No, don’t get excited. We didn’t have orgies or skeletons in the closet (sorry to disappoint you!). But we did play pranks on each other; mainly stealing.

Gasoline, a much needed substance to light our bukharis, traditional heating systems, was scarce. Each of us was allocated a jerry can of gasoline per week. While it was more than enough for some, like Gayathri who slept without heating (perhaps he is related to a Sherpa), it was insufficient for others, particularly myself. It wasn’t because I overused them but I wasted a lot of gasoline just trying to light up the damn thing. Plus, to be fair, I shared a room with Jodi and yet, we were allocated one jerry can of gasoline as oppose to Hari and the PFCs who each had their own room. Needless to say, we often ran out of gasoline before the end of the week while Gayathri kept piling up his portion of gasoline.

So in order to survive the cold, I would often plot with Zarif to sneak into Gayathri’s room and steal his gasoline little by little. Afterall, we didn’t want to arouse any suspicion. Others were not spared from this as I slowly expanded my network of victims. A little bit from Raffaele and a little bit from Collin but never from Babu. Babu liked to keep his room as hot as possible (He’s Indian, after all), so no chance of expecting him to have any spare gasoline.

Well, you might ask, why not just ask from them? *Snort* There’s one thing you will learn living in such condition. Nothing is ever considered superfluous. Although Gayathri did not need that much of gasoline then, he would not have given up his share because he might need them in the future.

Gasoline was not the only thing we fought over. Raffaele and I have a weakness for chocolates, a luxury item of course. Whenever we went on holiday, we brought back enough duty free chocolates to feed everyone for one day. But did we care to share? Of course not! Why share and have it for one day when we could hide them in our cupboards and enjoy them alone for weeks to come? And mind you, we were extremely territorial about our things, especially Raffaele. I finally learned to never ever touch his things.

Due to the high value of chocolates, it was also used as a highly effective peace offering. Once Raffaele and I had a huge fight and probably didn’t talk for days (most likely because I had touched one of his things). One day, I walked into my room to find a scarf underneath the door. When I picked it up, a bar of Carte D’or dark chocolate dropped onto the floor. Who would eat Carte D’or chocolates except Raffaele? As the chocolate melted in my mouth, my anger towards him dissolved as well.

All the stories told and shared during our mission can only be justified by the length of a book. For now, I am lucky enough to retrieve some emails which I had sent out to some friends many years back.

Here, I am also taking the opportunity to thank all the friends from home, many of whom have hectic work schedule but took the time to write to me. Some had provided me with constant moral and spiritual support which had all contributed to my sanity.

I will always look back fondly on the Afghans who had worked with us as drivers, language assistants and counterparts. Most of you are probably familiar with the book or movie, “The Kite Runner” by Khalid Hosseini. One of his main characters in the book, a Hazara boy, was depicted as a loyal friend. I was lucky enough to have met and worked with some who would have died willingly in defence of my security and honour. Such was the level of their loyalty towards us, which for me will always best describe the Hazaras whom I have known.

I will always regret that I was never diligent enough to document my life in Afghanistan and even more regretful for the fact that my laptop crashed awhile ago and hence all the photos taken were destroyed, living me with just my memories and these emails.

These emails have been edited for clarity as well as a certain level of diplomacy. However, more than 90% of the content has been retained in order to preserve the spirit of the email which was intended to express my feelings and thoughts at that time. Hence, I strongly urge the readers to practice discretion while reading this as a lot of the strong language expressed were reflections of my emotion, mood, impression and thoughts at that precise moment of writing the emails.

Some of my perceptions may have changed over time and it does not necessarily mean that the emails provide an accurate portrayal of the characters or persons mentioned on the emails. The opinions expressed are solely from a personal point of view.

Friday, 28 November 2003

Bamyan, Afghanistan

Dear All,

Remember the movie Cool Runnings???

The biggest enemy in Afghanistan to me is not the Taliban, warlords, poppy growers, etc. It's the weather.

It has been nearly a month since I'm here in Bamyan and I have been sick for more than 2 weeks. Nothing in my life has prepared me for such a cold condition. I have resorted to drinking milk, honey and brandy just to keep myself warm and to sleep in the night.

I was bedridden for nearly 2 weeks; fighting a bad cough, high fever and chest infection. Only a week ago when I was forced to go to Kabul for medical check-up that I discovered I had mild pneumonia with high fever. I have never been so sick in my entire life before. The drugs which the doctor prescribed provided some side effects; namely diarrhoea.

So, basically life has been a living hell here.

Here, we live literally in an ice box. Everything is frozen; from cooking oil to shampoo. Every single breath we take is accompanied by a gust of cold breeze coming from our mouth and nose. The heating in my room doesn't work and some people ended up burning their rooms with the conventional gas heater or "bukhari" as they are called here. One of my colleagues even burnt his hair and eyebrows trying to light the damn thing.

Temperature falls to -15 degree celcius in the night and sometimes -21. In the day time, it's about 5 degree celcius maximum.

Because of the cold, the water pipes freeze up and there is no water at all in the compound.

Many times in my life here I have constantly thought about the human rights theme; water: right to life. It has never had more significance in my life than now. Taking a hot shower is a huge commodity. At one stage, I was willing to pay for hot water so that I can have a wash. People here go on days without taking a shower.

Our toilets are clogged with shit and you name it. I have never felt so low in my life just thinking of the condition I'm living in. I was not prepared for this at all. In Timor Leste, our house wasn't that great and we had house mates who drained their pasta in the toilet which disgusted me. There should always be a minimum standard of hygiene anywhere. But here - the state of the toilet is enough to make anyone sick.

Bamyan…..Bamyan….If it isn't that cold - life would be much bearable here.

Work - I have spent half of my time here being sick. I am so afraid that the UN is going to send me home. Although during my delirious moment when I was so drugged - I have dreamt of warm and sunny Malaysia. I swear to God I will never complain about the heat in KL again.

Everything is so much more difficult here.

Budget - we live on limited budget here; whether it is personal or work wise. You have to fight for everything here; stationery, computers, cars, drivers, water, warmth and whatever.....

Before this, 10 of us shared 2 offices and 4 computers. No wonder tempers are flaring and people are becoming nastier. Everyone is so territorial about everything. I couldn't work properly because I felt like an IDP (Internally Displaced Person) moving from one office to the other.

The UN structure here is really weak. Although we are all UNAMA staffs but because we are hired specifically for the election, we are separated from UNAMA and fall under the UNAMA Electoral Component which means we have our own budget, staffs, drivers, etc. There are 10 of us Electoral staffs here in Bamyan. We have our own office, drivers, cars and accommodation. We literally eat, sleep and work together.

However, we get sidelined all the time by the UNAMA staffs although again technically we are all UNAMA staffs. Our logistics officer is constantly having fights with the UNAMA Regional Administration Officer because of budget, logistics and administration problems.

As for me, I have to take the shit of non-electoral UNAMA staffs asking me, “So what really is civic education?” and whether I honestly believe that I can change the mind set of the Afghans who know nothing about democracy, etc. To them, we are not doing anything important. It's really low for the morale here when people try to make you feel bad about your job. Plus because I have been sick, I haven't done much and I feel very disheartened and low spirited.

One of the reasons I have been sick is because I have gone to the field several times to meet with the women to talk to them about the voter registration process. At this time, it is really cold to be out in the field. We have about 2 metres of snow and most of the meeting rooms I went to have no heating facilities at all. I spent about 2 hours talking to these women who do not respond to any of my questions or initiations.

It's all so God damn frustrating. In that kind of cold environment, it's so easy to get sick. Really, this assignment is so tough.

Security problems? Not in Bamyan. I have been free to walk around by myself. I have not encountered any problems with the local Afghans. Generally, people have been respectful and as long as I go about minding my own business, there is no threat.

But other regions have not been as lucky; notably Kandahar and Gardez in the South. A few weeks ago, my colleagues' office in Kandahar got bombed. Thank God no one was injured. Now, all of our offices and accommodations' windows have to be glazed with some sort of protective agent to prevent explosion. All road missions in Kandahar, Gardez and Jalalabad have been banned for an indefinite time. No staffs are allowed to travel by road to or from those areas.

Most of my colleagues in those regions are all under “house arrest” - they can't come out at all. I bet you have heard about the French girl who got killed by a Taliban in Ghazni Province, Gardez.

All the UNVs are now offered 3 options; to stay where we are, to be deployed to Kabul if we are uncomfortable with our region or to leave the mission. Other UNVs whom were expected to work for the registration team have been asked to postpone their trips. No one will be deployed for now.

I actually contemplated for a transfer; not because of security reasons but health reasons. Many times, I wish to be in a much warmer place rather than here. But everytime I think about what my Liaison Officer said to me, " Ka Ea, we have decided to deploy you to Bamyan because we know you can adapt to harsh environment (my arse!)", I feel my pride coming back and I'm too proud to admit that I can't handle Bamyan.

The truth is, Bamyan is indeed the harshest environment to be in Afghanistan. We have no electricity at all. We live in mud houses!!! We live about 2500 metres above sea level and because of the altitude, breathing gets difficult. The native Hazaras are the poorest ethnic group in Afghanistan. They have been neglected for years by the Afghan authorities. During the Taliban regime, thousands of them were killed because they are Shiites. Our housekeeper's 3 brothers were literally "slaughtered" by the Talibans.

Voter registration will start on the 1 December 2003. During that time too, Bamyan will be electing their delegates for the Constitutional Loya Jirga. The draft constitution is ready for voting and it looks like we will have a Presidential Election next year. So, beginning of next month, things will pick up considerably until February. From February to April, civic education activities will cease because of the weather.

Yep, I have been complaining about the cold but it will only get worse. Temperature will drop further to -30 degree celcius by January 2004.

I am planning to come home for Chinese New Year; probably from 15 January to 3 February. We are entitled to 5 days of Occasional Recreational Break (ORB) every 6 weeks plus 2 annual leave per month. The leave seems generous but in practice it doesn't work. It depends on the work load. For instance, we are not allowed to take leave in the beginning of December because of the registration process. the way, I have lost 2 pants sizes! Anyone who wants a free diet programme, this is the right place. I didn't manage to give up smoking. In fact I have smoked more since I came over and probably God is punishing me for that.

There is one thing that is keeping all of us sane is the Buddha Bar operated by the ICRC here. It's open every Monday and Thursday night and all drinks cost USD1 each; doesn't matter if it's a can of soda or a shot of whisky.

The bar is situated in an underground barn. It has to be underground to prevent suspicious Afghans exposing the international staffs doing all sorts of "haram" things. Anything goes at the Buddha Bar - all of us international staffs are in a way a resemblance of schizophrenics; we live separate lives in the office and completely different ones at the bar.

In the day time, when we work, no one talks about alcohol or behaves silly. To talk to an Afghan with your breath smelling of alcohol is one of the biggest insults you can imagine. Some international staffs in Kabul got the sack because they were caught roaming in the night drunk by Afghans.

So anyway, no physical contact whatsoever between men and women in the day time. At the Buddha Bar, we dance, we smoke and we drink ourselves silly. There is a code which everyone understands - the next morning – no one speaks about it at all. This goes on every Monday and Thursday night.

I was never one for such extreme social activities but when I am here, it's inevitable. Nothing works here and the cultural difference is too wide for anyone to adapt to it. We need some kind of a release mechanism. Buddha Bar is closing down this month because ICRC is wrapping up their projects here.

I don't know what else to write except that I miss home so much. There are times when I realise I'm not as strong or tough as I think. It's so difficult being here without the proper support and structure we need here.

There's one thing I can tell you, everyone here unanimously agreed that this is the most difficult UN missions. Some of these people have worked in more than 5 missions. I'm telling you, Afghanistan ....the Afghans are very unique people. They are tough, stubborn and proud. After all, it is one of the few countries which have resisted foreign invasion.

Wish me good health and hopefully as soon as I feel better, I'll be ready to rock this place!!!!!

Miss you all,

Ka Ea

… be continued in Part II…

No comments:

Post a Comment