Afghanistan-a peek into the diary (4)

image20 October 2005
I have just got back from my first trip to Jalalabad where I met my colleagues for the next year. A fantastic team consisting of a very bright, gifted chief engineer called Mohib, friendly guards, admin assistant,Rabia (our cook and cleaner) and other engineers. They have not been working together long as a team, as Scott fired the entire old team last year because they were a lazy and corrupt bunch. That said, they have been through a lot together already as the office got burned to the ground in May by a rampaging mob, as indeed were many other UN offices and compounds in Jalalabad. As a result, we have a brand new office which looks like an Indian temple and which we officially opened on Monday—I myself got to cut the ribbon and throw sweets around the place as Afghan tradition dictates. It is not fully functional as yet but as soon as the Japanese funding is released we can make final arrangements for buying new computers furniture etc, as well as, of course, for starting the actual project work. I look forward to it and think it will go well, though I do anticipate a bit of friction with Mohib, who is used to being the boss and may find it hard to accept a female coming in and taking overall responsibility for the work of the UDG regional office. Some diplomacy and lots of encouragement will probably not go amiss.

Part of the purpose of the trip was to officially open 3 hammams (public bath-houses) in Jalalabad, which UDG had just completed with EC funding. Hammams, in addition to providing a way for people to actually wash in a country which has poor infrastructure facilities, are also key part of public life in Afghanistan, a place where friends meet, women can go and mingle and be among themselves, chatter, exchange gossip; where men arrange marriage contracts, discuss political and social affairs. It was fascinating being at the opening ceremony—the speeches were boring as speeches usually are, but as I was sitting at the front, I got a good view of our audience: girls in traditional dress who sang for us; women in burqas or at least covering face and hair with a scarf; men sitting and listening, some wearing the traditional pashtun head-dress, all of them in shalwar kameez…….a real insight into what public life in Afghanistan can be like.

The projects which UDG Jalalabad will be implementing in the future are designed to help the urban community (seeing we are the Urban Development Group) and consist of a project to put in proper drains and channels, as currently waste water runs down uncovered sewers which not only gather dust and muck and are disgusting but also provide a trap for people, not least the many disabled people in Jalalabad, to fall into or break a leg in; 2 sets of public toilets; a slaughter-house to improve local hygiene and strengthen local business and economy; garbage cleaning project; refurbishment of the market area to make it more hygienic and safe for the local population, as well as Bag Zananas, multi purpose meeting centres for women. Construction draws on local labor notably ex- combatants, internally displaced people and those with disabilities where possible. We have also set aside funds to support the Directorate for Martyrs and Disabled People, one of the most disadvantaged groups in Afghanistan and a large one at that. All of these projects have been requested by the local authorities—the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, the Mayor and Deputy Mayor, the Director of the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and Martyrs and Disabled People respectively, as well as the Governor himself.

We had meetings with all of these people this week, all of which were fascinating. I was encouraged by their positive attitude, and respect and hospitality towards me—we even had a Ramadan iftar (meal to break the fast) at the house of local Governor Sharzai, which was an amazing experience. The meeting with the Governor was also the most challenging, however. Not only because you are dealing with an ex-warlord who is loaded with money, has four wives, blows his nose like an elephant in front of an entire meeting even though public nose blowing is frowned upon in Afghanistan, and feels free to interrupt when it takes his fancy….but also because of some of his attitudes. For example, he outright rejected the women’s shelter requested by the Ministry of Woman’s Affairs, claiming it was not relevant to Afghan society like in the West and that they would not be able to guarantee the women’s safety. All is not lost yet, though and I am hoping Pashtuna, the MoWA rep, will still have the courage to fight it out with him and if not, we will simply build an annex shelter into the Bag Zanana…..All in all, though, Governor Sharzai is one of the better governors to have to work with and at least he listens to and welcomes women in his meetings.

The region of Nanghahar, of which Jalalabad is the capital, is fascinating: lush and green, with lots of vegetation, a river, lovely to look at from the plane –that is when you are not feeling sick during the spiral descents. (The latter are used for all UN flight landings and involve flying at high altitude right up to your destination and then landing by circulating above the city in tight spirals while losing altitude fast—-all to prevent rocket attacks). The climate there will be pleasant in autumn, less cold than Kabul in winter but stiflingly hot in summer—up to 50 degrees. That, coupled with the dust and humidity may be hard to cope with but hopefully I will get used to it. Other than that, Jalalabad is a poor city, with dirt tracks, donkey carts and basic housing and shops. No libraries, museums, theatres for the locals or little me to enjoy—and in any case I would not be allowed out. My life will consist of trips between office and guesthouse. Currently the situation is peaceful, though some disgruntlement as the counting of ballot papers continues is still a cause for concern. Just before we were due to set off, Jalalabad was declared “White City”. White City means that you have to stay put wherever you are and not move around anymore until the end of whatever is causing the problem. It usually lasts only for a day or so. Thankfully, on Sunday, it was only a matter of a friendly demonstration, so we were able to fly into Jalalabad after all.

I return to Jalalabad “for good” on Tuesday next week and am looking forward to it. It will be good to have a base again after months of moving around, packing and unpacking….hopefully I will find decent accommodation in one of the guest houses, although Jalalabad tends to be very expensive with no rates for UN Volunteers like me. The next few days will see me getting some sleep, doing some more shopping in Kabul for things like shampoo , special treats to eat etc, as well as meeting with reps of other UN agencies with whom I think we might be able to cooperate in Jalalabad.

It is very late for Afghan standards and the power has gone off so I am sitting typing this in the pitch black. Funny how 11pm is a very late night here in Afghanistan—I guess because there is not much to do, because the curfew is currently 11pm and because work here starts at 8am as well. To think that in London 11pm was an early night for me…..