Friday, October 10, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part IV)

Saturday, 28 February 2004

Bamyan, Afghanistan

Dearest friends,

Salam from Bamyan!

It is getting harder to keep track of my life here. Things have been moving very fast since I arrived back here on 10 February 2004 from my short holidays in Malaysia. As the momentum begins to rise, my intention to write earlier has been postponed day after day due to the workload.

As you may have noticed, the group email has expanded considerably. I will not have the privilege to send any individual emails for the coming months. Even with this email, it will be done in parts.

The first phase of voter registration is officially coming to an end in the whole of Afghanistan. We will be embarking on the next phase from April until May. To me, this is a completely unrealistic goal although President Karzai has issued a decree that the election will be postponed from June to an indefinite time.

The first phase involves the regional center only and the second phase – the rest of the Provinces within the region. Bamyan is one of the four Provinces of Central Highlands. If I have failed to mention that the region I’m working in is called Central Highlands (and for the benefit of new friends whom I have included in this email), then I must explain more about this.

There are 8 regions in the whole of Afghanistan; Central (Kabul), East (Jalalabad), West (Herat), North-East (Kunduz), North-West (Mazar-E-Sharif), South-East (Gardez), South (Kandahar) and the Central Highlands (Bamyan). The names in columns are basically the capital city of each region.

In the Central Highlands, there are 4 Provinces; Bamyan, Ghazni, Uruzgan and Ghur.

Each Province consists of different districts;

Bamyan – Bamyan, Khamard, Saighan, Shibar, Besud 1, Besud 2 and Yakawlang.

Ghazni – Nawur, Jagwhuri, Malistan and Arijistan.

Uruzgan – Day Kundi and Sharistan.

Ghur – Waras, Panjao and Lal Wa Sarjangal.

Each district will then branch into valleys and each valley into villages.

So, in the first phase, we have completed Central Bamyan alone, but now, we are supposed to register every other unregistered person in the Central Highlands within the period of 1 month. The estimated eligible voters is about 1 million for the Central Highlands. So far, we have registered 25, 260 male (58%) and 10, 496 female (42%) as of the date of this email.

As you can imagine that this will be the ultimate challenge for us in the coming months. The challenge itself has a double impact for us in the Central Highlands. Although it is the smallest region with the least population in the whole of Afghanistan, the topography, weather condition, educational level, literacy rates and standards of living here are substantially lower than the rest of the regions.

A friend of mine was flying from Kabul to Jalalabad recently and had made a brief stop over in Bamyan. He called me up immediately and expressed his shock having seen the Center of Bamyan from the airport (it’s hardly an airport – it’s just a landing strip for small aircrafts with no clear demarcation of space). He said that Jalalabad, if compared to Bamyan is like Paris to, perhaps Aix-en Provence?

Bamyan to him looks like a village in Jalalabad. Hence, it is undisputable that Bamyan is way under-developed compared to other regions. All this has a lot of historical implications as I have mentioned in a couple of emails previously.

Hazarajat, as many locals prefer to call Central Highlands due to the fact that the majority of the Afghans here are Hazaras. The Hazaras have been neglected and abandoned for centuries in many aspects of life; both politically and economically.

Each Province has its unique difficult areas. Bamyan has the most districts which means, there has to be more registration sites to accommodate all the villages. Ghur has some of the most inaccessible villages which could only be accessible by either a small helicopter or donkeys. Day Kundi in Uruzgan is the largest district in the whole of Afghanistan with vast areas of dispersed settlement and Ghazni is a hot spot zone in terms of security.

There are plans to re-deploy me to one of the provinces in April for the second phase of the registration process. Hari, our Regional Coordinator (RC) has assigned me to Ghur district although it has not been confirmed yet as they might need me in Bamyan.

It takes 2 full days to travel from Bamyan to Ghur and Panjao district is regarded as one of the coldest part of the Central Highlands.

Panjao literally means “five water” in Dari (Afghan version of Persian/Farsi language); having derived the name from 5 rivers that flow into one district. Recently, Raffaele, the Provincial Field Coordinator (PFC) of Ghur went on a road mission to Panjao to assess the registration sites and some of the photos taken are completely out-of-the-world to me, someone who lives in a tropical country like Malaysia.

He spent most of his time shovelling snows that reach above his head; he’s probably more than 6 foot tall. I would really love to send the photo to you. If things go according to plans, I will remain in Ghur from April to June which means I will be cut off from all forms of communication within that period of time as there is no internet or telecommunication access yet although Shawn from UNOPS is trying to set up UNAMA provincial offices in all the Provinces.

Speaking about road mission, I took a 4-day road mission to Khamard and Saighan a couple of weeks ago. My mission was to assess strategies for civic education programme in those 2 districts and to establish networks with the local community. Needless to say, it was also customary for our team to introduce ourselves to the District Governors before starting our activities there. This was the first time I have left behind my “comfortable” and “luxurious” life in Bamyan and headed towards the world of the unknown.

I would like to share my journey with you but as I am not Hemingway, I am not able to transfer your minds to the places I have been or the people I have seen for lack of adjectives and words which would give justice to Central Highlands. But I would make an attempt as futile as it might be.

The road mission consisted of myself, Phillip, our 2 national trainers, Aliase Hassany and Homa Amiri, and 2 drivers, Hussein Ali and Shah Mohammad. We moved in a convoy of 2 cars; one with the men and the other the women. The cars were loaded with tonnes of civic education materials; posters, flip charts, banners, brochures, leaflets and the bare necessities of life; 7 sleeping bags which could withstand harsh sub-zero temperatures, 2 boxes of mineral water, canned food, warm clothing, blankets, torches and batteries-operated lamps and last but not least, 2 sets of blue UN coloured vests and bullet proof helmets which weigh like water melons. I had assumed that those 2 sets of armoury were meant for Phillip and I. So, it seems that the Afghans are naturally bullet proofed!

The journey from Bamyan to Khamard took about 6 hours through bumpy and treacherous roads. The whole journey was accompanied by warm and sunny weather much to my delight. There were no traces of snow at all throughout the whole trip.

As I am not a painter, I could not paint my memories for you. With my limited capacity to describe the scenery, I shall request all of you to picture this with me.

Imagine a blank canvass in front of you. You are given a brush and some paints; yellow, brown, blue and red. First you draw a mountain and you will paint it yellow. It looks good but let’s add some excitement into it. You paint another mountain and this time you colour it brown. Now that you have become more confident with the results, you draw yet another mountain. You thought – why not? Let’s add all the colours onto it; the yellow, brown, blue and red; layer by layer – not on top of each other but next to each other vertically. It looks a little bit stiff – so you drop some water on it to make the colours splotch. The colours begin to melt into the water to display a faint blurry Technicolor effect. The canvass is not completed yet because there is just no limit to the combination of colours and patterns. Like a true schizophrenic artist's tapestry, the whole landscape was bursting with colours and life.

That was precisely what I saw. Not one site or landscape is the same as the other. There are just so many mountains with different conceivable colours at every angle you see. I am more convinced each day that there is a Creator who is obsessed with beauty, creativity and perfection. It was just simply breathtaking.

The moment I left Bamyan on that road mission, I felt peaceful and free for the first time since I have arrived in Afghanistan. I had the whole world to myself and nobody was going to take it away from me. I felt in control. It was my road mission and nobody was going to tell me what to do and how to do it, where or when to stop and what next. It was just pure nature with God as my witness as we moved past small settlements after the other.

Sometimes, it could be nerve wrecking as we drove on narrow edges along the mountainous terrain (one slip of the wheel could plunge us to our deaths) or across rivers that rise more than 2 feet high. Fortunately, Hussein Ali and Shah Mohammad are both experienced drivers as they both breezed through the roads without a sweat.

The best music to accompany the trip was "The Saint" by Orbital. No kidding although of course many would scorn or even condemn my choice of music on such a trip. ("I mean, you're in Afghanistan!! Orbital? Orbital? Seriously?!!") A local tribal traditional music would have been more apt but believe me with Orbital on the background, it made the whole journey more thrilling and exciting; you know like Mission Impossible which has all the ingredients of suspense and action. It kept our adrenaline pumping and this was vital in order to stay alert on the roads.

Mind you, I had an overdose of traditional Afghan music which could be quite heavy at times. Shah Mohammad and I had an understanding that each of us would get to play our choice of music every other hour. It was a perfect compromise although things got a little bit embarrassing when the song “Sex on the Beach” came on one of my mixed tapes. I had to explain that it’s a name of a drink – which is TRUE! He likes “Don’t Call Me Baby” by Madison Avenue and listening to the lyrics “Don’t underestimate me or I’ll make you feel sorry you were born….” made me think it’s a good song to sensitise these patriarchal males in Afghanistan. Don’t you think? ;)

Anyway, I had left Bamyan in my jeans, a hooded blue top and a red jacket. The moment I arrived in Khamard, I could feel that things are different there. Nobody had briefed us on what to expect except that it’s a haven for poppy plantations. I had seen many fields along the way and assumed that they are poppy fields.

Ahmad Shah Mahsoud 

Ahmad Shah Massoud - picture taken from


Every other man wore a “pakol”; a cap made of wool traditionally worn by Tajik men. Not everyone can pull off a pakol and the infamous Ahmad Massoud (a Tajik warrior and fighter) revolutionized the “pakol” into a fashion garment now worn by other ethnic groups and also international male staffs here. Everyone has tried to wear it the way Massoud did but never quite achieving the same result.

Most women are in burqas and there is not a single woman to be seen in the local bazaar.

The physical appearance of the people looked different too; in fact, I have never seen so many good-looking men in my life! I can guarantee that the women would probably be beautiful although I could hardly confirm that with their faces hidden under the burqa.

Most of the men have dark brown thick wavy hair and sharp features. Some even have blue or green eyes. The Tajiks (as I have later found out that more than 90% of the population in Khamard and Saighan are Tajiks) are known to be “superior” in their looks compared to the Pashtuns and Hazaras. I know that most of you would again condemn me for such usage of words especially in describing ethnic attributes but many writers have failed to describe the Tajiks as politically correct as possible.

So, I was not as well-received in Khamard as I was in Bamyan. People in Khamard would most probably consider the Hazaras in Bamyan hooligans and barbarians; unrefined and lack sophistication. I can get away in Bamyan without the “chodar”/ headscarf and still considered dignified. But in Khamard, all women are expected to dress decently and their standard of being decent means a burqa over their heads.

The Tajiks are next in line with the Pashtuns when it comes to being completely obsessed with hiding their women. My hooded head was not enough, I was asked to put on a robe and a proper “chodar”, which I had to borrow from Homa. I have long gone gave up on wearing a “chodar” because it drives me insane while I’m working in the field. The head scarf would just fall off my head or dangle near my feet and it’s just so impractical.

I finally thought I have managed to strike a compromise by wearing hooded tops, I was told it is not the same. I mean, what is not the same? I still have my head covered and mind you, it’s more effective than the burqa when it comes to turning my head around to look at other people. With a hooded top, I need to rotate my head 90 degrees before I could see what is on my right and often ended up with a stiff neck by the end of the day. So, believe me, I would refrain myself from ogling at men around me even with a hooded top.

Meeting the District Governors for both districts was interesting because we managed to get most of the information from them concerning the geographical, political, cultural and social aspects of the districts. We have established that we will not have any problems with the weather condition as it was amazingly hot for the 4 days we were there. It was quite obvious that spring has finally arrived.

We were told that the international female staffs will not have to wear the burqa (whew!) but the national female staffs are expected to. The District Governors also insisted that the national staffs be recruited from the respective districts in order to be culturally sensitive to the local communities; i.e Tajiks for the Tajiks. We were told that the accent used in Khamard and Saighan is slightly different and it would create enormous problem for an Iranian-born Afghan woman to be giving civic education in those districts. (You see, many educated Hazara women in Bamyan are mostly borne in Iran or have studied there.) There are only 3 international organizations in the districts; Solidarites (French-based NGO), Aqa Khan Development Network (AKDN – established by a Pakistani philanthropist) and UN Habitat, all dealing with development and reconstruction.

There is no local NGOs or community groups at all to form civil society. There are only 6 female teachers in Khamard and 2 in Saighan. Female education is only up to 6th grade which is equivalent to Secondary 1.

We were told that a registration site would have to be set up in each village rather than one in every few villages. This is to accommodate the women, as all the women are not allowed to step out from the vicinity of their homes. In fact, they are already compromising their culture by allowing the women to walk to the registration site which would be considered far from their homes. Women will not have their photos taken during registration.

Putting aside all these conditions set forth, the District Governors smiled, shook our hands and promised that they will support our programme and the registration process wholeheartedly!

I had the opportunity of having 2 separate meetings with the women in one of the villages. We went through the registration procedure with them and I was surprised when one of the women said that she wants her photo taken because if there is no photo on the registration card, it will not prove ownership. I was very impressed when she said that and I thought, Phillip and Aliase would be facing a bigger challenge than Homa and I. They are the ones who will need to convince the men to allow the women to participate in the process.

The women are after all more liberal than the men as proven by that woman.

…to be continued in Part V…..

No comments:

Post a Comment