From Afghanistan, five days after 9/11, 2006

Dear family and friends,

I hope you are all in the best of health and happiness. I am less than a month from my EoM (End of Mission) here in Northern Afghanistan, and I know I have not written for a long time.

Today is 14/11, 2006. Five days and five years after the world has changed. Today, five years ago, the last expatriate had already left Afghanistan, which was under bombardment. Today, parts of Afghanistan are still under bombardment. Of course, the world has not changed five years ago. It has changed long before, and is constantly changing. But this incredible event and what followed has changed the perception of millions, if not billions.

Five years later, I am not telling a professional secret if I say that it´s not over here. One can´t say that the Afghans, who are so incredibly hospitable and whom I adore (I finally realize why some delegates stay for years, including one who stayed for 17 years), have been born in the best of places.
If we would forget 26 years of conflict and millions of landmines, they would still have spring floods, land slides, mud slides, earth quakes, very hot summers and sometimes very cold winters, let alone that few (legal) things grow in this natural environment.

Some of you wrote that there was no news lately, except the ones on BBC. It´s true that I was busy and made myself even busier. But it´s also true that I do not know what would interest anyone living outside this peculiar world of humanitarians precisely, and how I could explain it.

It´s also a bit more than five years since I have started my adventures with the ICRC in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Israel and the Occupied and Autonomous Territories (as we, once again, call it politically correctly), Chad, and Afghanistan. I am not sure if I will continue this life/type of work for a matter of weeks or decades, but I know that it is meaningful I enjoy it. Most people on Planet Earth are concerned with self-subsistence, survival. The growing middle class – and obviously the upper class – is still concerned essentially with making and spending money, and having fun. So who can say that he is doing something mostly meaningful and mostly enjoying it at the same time? On the other hand, not changing your room, all people around you, the cultural environment, on a yearly basis, also has it´s advantages 

Despite all of this, I will travel back to Switzerland with an open mind – maybe to other ICRC missions, maybe to other organizations (it´s easy to fall into a self-congratulatory kind of mood when you work half a decade for the Red Cross, which is better known than Coca Cola and hopefully less harmfull to health), or to private projects. I will see what destiny has in mind for me. I need holidays, and time to think.

Time goes by so quickly. When I last wrote, I still had a blue eye from a robbery in Uzbekistan. Believe it or not, I have almost completely forgotten that story, and I have been back there since. The time was so intense, that I don´t know which memories will last, or what I should write. As you know, the really interesting things are confidential.

After medical treatment and a course in Geneva in February, I got back to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the situation has gradually deteriorated in the Northern Region, which was previously considered as a safe haven. Things like VBIEDs are well-known abbreviations nowadays. VBIEDs? Vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Unfortunately, several Afghan staff members of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have been killed in our region, so security remains the prime concern. Life is cheap in Afghanistan. We have lost one expatriates in 2003, and we do not want to loose another one. But life is somehow …normal. Shops are open, people go after their business, wedding parties are celebrated, and no, we are not avoiding any bullets on the way to work, and we even laugh a lot. Most of the time, it´s very quiet.

Talking about normal life. This reminds me of one of our staff. He is not even 35, but he is the elder of the family (his father died in 1998, due to concern about the situation, he said). As the elder, our young dynamic field officer has to be consulted on all important matters of a large family. What seems very macho, has also another side of the medal: He also has to pay the bills. His brother got married, which set him back around 6´000 USD – you could compare that to 60´000 USD for a European or North American. More than 200 people attended the ceremony, which has been prepared for a long time, and it didn´t seem to bother him that there was no light due to electricity failure on the first day of the celebration.

As far as work goes, we have just intensively discussed our general and specific objectives for 2007 in Afghanistan. Proposals from the field have been discussed and approved in Kabul, and are in the process of being approved by our HQ in Geneva. Apart from that, we.keep up our regular activities (visits to detainees, the orthopaedic center, the water program, spreading of IHL, etc.), unfortunately we were always a bit understaffed, and I try to keep this boat with 200 crew floating and at the same time tell our interlocutors who we are and what we do – and sometimes what we want. It´s not so obvious anymore at a time when civilian and military action is mixed by some actors. As in Iraq, some civilians are embedded in international military forces to do what purely civilians would normally do. So we have to constantly explain that we are different, neutral and independent and, of course, unarmed.

Or maybe the times of Henry Dunant have long passed? With the asymmetrical and total “war against terrorism” (as some call it – we use the politically correct formulation “global confrontation”), the laws of armed conflict, the protection of non-combatants (like the wounded, the detained, or simply civilians) and the limitation of the means and methods of warfare, are just not relevant anymore? We don´t think so. With the signature of Pacific island state of Nauru and the newly independent Montenegro, the four Geneva Conventions, which contain most of the codified laws of armed conflict, have become the only absolutely universal treaty in the world. Is it universally observed? Of course not, as any law isn´t. Is progress being made to change that? Yes, there is. Is there still a need for a neutral and independent organization watching over those rules and reminding the parties about their obligations? Definitely, there is. I´ve had some interesting conversations with Mullah´s recently, who will participate in a conference, which we will host on “Sharia and International Humanitarian Law”. These discussions also reminded me just how rich this culture is. It´s much more complicated than what you hear in the media. And it´s all the more sad in which situation the people still are in many parts of the country.

In April, we got reports of the usual spring floods affecting thousands of people in some remote Provinces. Some agencies, including the Afghan Red Crescent Society, with whom we work closely, had supposedly assisted the most seriously affected people. However, when we went to Fariab Province, some 325 kilometres from Mazar, we realized that the assistance was not properly assessed and far from enough. Initially, we just wanted to do some random checks on what was distributed in one valley. There was no road, we had to use that very river, which took many houses away, in order to reach the end of the valley. It is a district under the control of nobody. Too remote. When we arrived, we were immediately surrounded by desperate people. I think few if any of them have ever seen a foreigner. Elders, Mullahs, and Commanders, told us that they were without sufficient shelter and were soon running out of food. We sat down with them, talked about security, promised nothing except a re-assessment of the needs, and slept in a half-destroyed house without toilet or bathroom, but in an astonishingly beautiful mountainous green environment. None of us had clothes for more than three days.

We ended up staying for a full week, until two teams had completed a house-to-house assessment all along the river, climbed up the mountains with donkeys, and until our Adminstrator/Logistician arranged (quickly) for trucks to bring food, blankets, tarpaulins, and other essential household items to that end of the world (forget my Email from Chad… or… yes maybe as much the end-of-the-world as in Chad).

I slept in the same room with I don´t know how many Afghans, and every morning, I watched donkeys and curious Afghans while I was taking my bucket shower behind a house, which was destroyed the previous year. It was enough to stick my head out of my sleeping bag, and at least four children (or elderly people for that reason!) would stick their heads into the non-existing windows to see this strange creature. He sleeps. He eats. He takes showers. He goes to shit behind the trees. He has an electronic device, with whom he calls probably some other foreigner. After a few days, I started observing them, in their amazing Usbek and Tadjik dresses, their “agro products” (…) in the countryside, their donkeys. I will never forget that week in that village, and I can´t describe it properly.

On our way back, I had my I-Pod in the ear listening to Tory Amos and had only one thought: This evening, I will sleep in a bed. But then we were surprisingly stopped by what I would call once again in a politically correct way… “international military forces”. They were stuck with a turned-over truck and blocked the road with that truck, so we decided to make a turn-around and take the other way to Mazar, which takes one day longer.

There was another natural disaster in July – an earthquake in the North-East. I spare you that story how we got the 69 metric tons to those mountains. It took a few hundred donkeys.

The best is to see the smiles on peoples´ faces. In our orthopaedic center in Mazar-I-Sharif, since 1991, we have treated more than 12´000 patients, supplied them with artificial arms or legs, given home care to paraplegics, organized vocational training or micro credits to reintegrate those, who have been wounded by mines or other ammunitions. To see the smiles of those people on their faces, to hear some of them saying through a translator: “I hated myself. Now I don´t hate myself anymore”, is a fabulous reward. Sure, most of my own job has nothing to do with treating ortho patients and – if we were not understaffed – with bringing stuff to flood and earth quake victims -, but rather with solving political and administrative problems – with authorities, other arms carriers, staff, etc. But it´s good to see sometimes for what we work.

Even if a lot of people focus on the dangers we sometimes face, about the difficult cultural environment we have to work in, and about the family and social life we most of the time don´t have or only in a limited way, the pros still outweigh the cons. I am known to have become a chain-smoker (Don´t tell my mother, I´ve told her to stop since 25 years). I used to joke with our staff that I will stop once I will get married, i.e. once I will get out of this life. One Afghan replied: “Trust me, when I got married, my smoking increased big time!”.

Well, this was really an Email without a guiding thread or any objective, other than to say: I am safe, happy, and I need holidays. Hope to see some of you in October and November around Europe.

Greetings from Afghanistan, five years and five days after 9/11.

Marcel

PS: Yes, one politically incorrect remark is allowed. In the valley where we distributed stuff for the flood victims, several people were killed in fractional clashes a few days ago. Can´t they ((CENSORED))?

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