Merry Christmas from Afghanistan

Dear friends and family,

I hope you are all doing well in the pre-Christmas time, which can’t really be felt here where we are in the Muslim year 1382… At least it’s cold. I send you the best greetings from the North of Afghanistan.

If you expect anything interesting about, t.erroris.ts, Americans,, and the like, click delete now. As usual, these are only the politically correct news about Mazar-i-Sharif, the place I am most likely going to spend at least most of 2006.

The time between missions is usually a time to reflect, when “normal people” (probably those I don’t know well enough, so I consider them “normal”) ask plenty of questions, including the famous one: “How long are you still planning to do this?”. The weeks go by very quickly, and all of the sudden, while the memories of Eastern Chad are still very present, it’s time to get going again.

25.11.05: Someone comes to the door to collect everything of my personal belongings I consider important enough to take along in order to survive 9-12 months: two suitcases with 46kg of cargo, containing 27 books, 40 DVDs, a video projector (to organize cinema afternoons), and some other stuff, worth 3’200 US$ (rounded up for insurance purposes). Inshaalah, it will arrive here. In my other baggages will be, apart from clothes, my deer laptop computer, as well as an I-pod with 7’056 songs and 2’741 pictures. Behind remains only what I forgot. Who needes more?

28.11.05: Train to Geneva.

29.11.05: Briefing day at our Headquarters about political and humanitarian situation, as well as our programs in Afghanistan. It seems that almost anyone in the ICRC had passed at least once through Afghanistan since 1979. And everybody loved it and will never forget it. Some stayed for years, like the manager of our ortho programs in Kabul (since 1993) or his counterpart here in Mazar (since 2002). Others returned for a second, third or fourth mission . There must be something magic about this place – I hope I will get to know it.

30.11.05: The alarm clock rings at 6 a.m. It will not be until about 21 hours later that I arrive in the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul. Geneva – Munich // Munich – Doha (Qatar). Surreal overcrowded luxury transit area in the airport, where you can even buy a BMW. Some women covered in their Burkha sit on the ground.

01.12.05: Doha – Peshawar (Pakistan), after a short night flight, at 4.30 a.m. local time, a Pakistani guy with an ICRC sign picks me up and makes me feel – somehow – at home or at least familiar. A few hours later, one of our two small planes leaves Peshawar for Kabul. Sleep wasn’t much. Briefings start the same afternoon in our main office. Over the next few days, people from various departments tell me about their programs (protection, Health, orthopedics, water and sanitation, cooperation with the Afghan Red Crescent Society [ARCS]), as well as – again – about the situation. We are always very careful about security, especially since our expatriate collegue Ricardo was killed in 2003. So: No risks. A lot of international money seems to go into the reconstruction of Kabul, a City which has grown from 1 to 3.5 million people. Thousands of expatriates are living and working there today. I only see Kabul through the windows of our regular shuttle between the delegation and the compound, where we live. Strict security rules and almost no possibility to go out. That’s why the people create their own life at home. Today, it’s Thursday (beginning of the weekend in a Muslim context). That means we meet at our bar in a kind of underground bunker inside our compound. Good atmosphere in the team. A few beers in the bunker. Sometime after midnight, I try to find my way in the labyrinth of this immense compound in order to go to the house, where I spend my first night in this infamous mystical Afghanistan, which has only seen 40 years of peace in its 5’000-year history (1933-1973).

02.12.-04.12.05: More briefings and discussions with my bossman in Kabul. All of the Afghan staff seems to be nice, despite having seen hundreds of expatriates come and go over the decades.

05.12.05: Again an overcrowded waiting area of Kabul international airport. Many people busy with their mobile phones. Some Afghan men with beards, most without these days. Few women. Then, our little plane arrives and takes us on one of the most wonderful flights I had in my life, going North over the wonderful Hindukush mountain range, where the clouds are just at the height of the snow-covered peaks. After 50 minutes, the eight days of travel come to an end and I arrive in “my” City”, Mazar-i-Sharif. Famous for the Blue Mosque, the (presumed) grave mosque of the Muslim calif Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Mohamed, and therefore a pilgrim site for Muslims from all over the world. Famous also for the production of carpets and textiles. Sadly, Mazar is also famous for the events of 1997, 1998, and 2001. But today, international troops keep a relative calm in the North of Afghanistan. It’s a big City of close to 1 mio inhabitans (according to rather exagerated claims of locals), also growing due to people, who returned from the refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. However, many are not finding what they were looking for. Few jobs, high prices, even no shelter for some of them. Traffic jam, almost only men on the street, or women that are completely or partially covered. It seems that most men were happy to shave their beards, but are still not happy to let “their women” out alone. One of our female staff has to travel to Kabul for a seminar. She will be accompanied by her husband…

My nice and humerous predecessor greets me at the airport (“I hope you like flat lanscapes” – Mazar is on a big plain North of the Hindukush), and again, a series of briefings. And once again, the Afghan staff of many different ethnic groups are very nice (a lot of them are highly qualified, some are medical doctors, others have studied abroad, and most have worked for many years with us), and the same applies for the expatriates. Over the next two weeks, we visit six of the eight provinces we cover from the sub-delegation. Meetings with various interlocutors, governors and Presidents of ARCS Branches, speaking about everything and nothing for hours, drinking tea up to the level of overdose, and eating “Khabuli” everywhere.

12.12.05: Earthquake in a neighbouring province bordering Pakistan. Fortunately, no casualties reported. I didn’t even feel it because I slept so deeply. Yes, it’s the same zone here.

14.12.05: Explosion in front of the Blue Mosque. The perpetrator dies of the explosion – he’s the only one. According to the authorities, a visiting Minister may have been the target. A reminder that not everything is over.

During the travel, local staff tell me about the most important cultural rules in this country, whose proud people have never been successfully colonized:
1. Don’t fart anytime, especially not in meetings. Learn to control it. [An expatriate to whom this happened in the past during a meeting, was asked by the Chairman: “Is this a habit from your country?”]
2. Don’t sneeze while in a meeting. Leave the room when you have to. [However, it seems to be completely acceptable during travel to open the car window and sneeze it all out onto the ground, making a sound that resembles farting very much.]
3. As a guest, always sit the furthers away from the door.
4. As a guest, never refuse a tea or food, even if offered to you minutes before your next meeting. Lie to your hosts about how much you like it, if necessary. (Actually, about Afghani breakfast I didn’t have to lie – never had such an extensive nice breakfast, including goat, fish, fruits, vegetables, etc. Not even the Israeli breakfast was so nice – dare I to compare two so different places?)
5. Never shake the hand of a woman, unless she initiates the handshake.
6. Dress formally. Even most drivers wear some kind of jackets. Always cover your arms and legs, even as a man. [It’s quite easy when it is 0 degrees Centegrade like now, and you need a lot of clothes – how it will be in June, when it is 45+ degrees almost day and night? Ah yes, I just read the temperature extremes on a national level: Max in summer +50 degrees, minimum in winter -50!]. Don’t wear very shiny colours.
7. Don’t stretch your feet while sitting.
8. If they look like they want to go for it, kiss men on their cheecks and hug them. [If you were to do the same to a woman – an idea so foreign here as going for a weekend to Saturn -, expect … very bad consequences, to put it diplomatically].

Well, these are just the ones I know about so far. There must be many more. Update in next Email.

So, what are we doing here in the North? In the good old days, we had 500+ staff in Mazar alone. Today, thanks to many international actors – unarmed and armed – who are engaged in reconstruction, our activities are focussed on visiting detainees, re-establishing family links, urban water rehabilitation (and hygiene education) as well as water sanitation works in prisons, some support to a hospital in one of the provinces, spreading the knowledge about international humanitarian law to tribal and religious leaders, all kinds of arms carriers, and everyone else who cares, and supporting the ARCS in every way we can. Staff has decreased to 190. A big focus is on land mines and unexploded ordonances (UXOs). Mine risk education teams go out and sensitise people about the risks. But still, every month, in our area alone, about 50 additional people step on a mine or an UXO and make it to our orthopedic center, one of six in the country.  It’s an amazing scene to see amputated people come into the center, and see them walking again with an artificial leg afterwards. Most of the employees of the center are themselves amputees. We also try to be ready for disasters – earthquakes also happen here (see above), and if the winter is not freezing, then there are often floods. If you’re really interested to learn more:

Exactly 200 persons are working for us in the North, 193 Afghans [no chance I will ever know a third of their names, but “Mohamed” and “Ahmed” are good bets] and 7 expatriates. All the programs are running normally. My job will mainly be to go around and meet people, not forgetting the above points 1-8…

I guess you can do without a description of the landscape.

Social life is a bit limited here, to put it again excessively mildly. The “Mazar Social Club” organizes some evenings for expatriates, often cut short by curfews or other security restrictions. We have a fitness center, a pool table, and – hopefully – soon my video projector…

Cheers from Mazar, and stay in touch,

* Personal e-mail – not an official ICRC communication *

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