The now eight most Frequently Asked Questions about being an Expatriate Aid Worker (FAQs about EAWs)

If I “am” anything professionally, I am an “Expatriate Aid Worker” (EAW). I live abroad, generally in places for which Lonely Planet has but a few lines and a disclaimer not to go there. I work in a tiny, little way towards alleviating poverty and suffering, two manifestations of injustice. I don’t consider myself to be better than anyone else in the world. I am not a volunteer, and the challenge is as much a factor of motivation as the idealism. Success of an EAW’s work is always debatable, just like the success of an investment banker. But if I did not believe that I contribute in a tiny, little way to  improving the lives of at least some people, I could not put up with many of the less comfortable aspects of the life of an EAW, including malaria, TB, being geographically apart from friends and family, heavy workload, and occasional shelling and small arms fire.

Like all my EAW colleagues and friends, my social reference has become increasingly the EAW world, in which talking about the latest trip to Congo or Haiti feels totally natural. Natural because those in this world have also recently been somewhere similar.
However, fortunately, there are still normal people in my virtual environment, people for which “Abéché” or “Mazar-i-Sharif” may as well be on another planet. For some in that category, the attention span for stories from Dungu or Kenema is around 15 minutes, because it seems so different, and there is no way to relate to it. For others, it is fascinating, wild, mysterious. A path not taken, but wished for… (Oh yes, you would wish to have no house, no car, no wife, no children, at age 39?)
Since these normal people are asking often similar things, I thought I could write up the seven (now eight) most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) I have received about being an EAW. If you have more, please ask, and I will add the answers.
Q 1: Isn’t this dangerous? Are you dodging bullets when going to work in the morning?
A: In most places it is not that dangerous. Where active fighting is going on, people generally flee. Apart from the evacuation of wounded – often done by National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies and/or the ICRC – there is no particular need to be on the direct frontlines. In conflict environments, EAWs are often based in the next “safer town” into which Internally Displaced Persons (within their own country) or refugees (those who crossed an international border) are fleeing.
Now, that does not mean that EAWs do not venture out with knowledgeable local staff to the direct conflict zones, to evaluate the situation and bring assistance if needed. And conflict travels, even into your base that was not (originally) in middle of a fighting, as happened to me in Monrovia in 2003. Security management is one of the prime responsibilities for any middle manager or senior manager in the aid world. One must always gauge whether the risk of going out is worth what one can potentially achieve for people in need. As one becomes a more senior EAW, one is often based far away from the actual conflict zone, in a capital like Islamabad or Kinshasa, where a relatively normal life can be had, while the worry for your staff remains, of course.
Much of EAW work is in reconstruction and recovery after a conflict, earthquake, or flooding. Then, security risks have often moved towards common crime. And what do you think is the prime source of death for EAWs? Car accidents. So drive carefully with those heavy Land Cruisers.
Some EAWs also do pure development work, for example they try to help improve the health system of a country like Mozambique, and they may never actually feel unsafe beyond the danger of crime, which exists anywhere in the world.
Q 2: What do you eat? Isn’t food scarce in these places?
A: Yes, we EAWs eat, and often the food is decent. Sad to say, but even in famine zones, food is available, for a price. The price is too high for many people to afford it, because of drought, conflict, or a combination of both. This is precisely why we are there. It needs to change. However, we can’t change it if we starve ourselves.
To be sure, often you do have to make some compromises if you have special dietary requirements. Outside Asia, it’s pretty hard to be a vegetarian EAW, for example. I am not a vegetarian, but ironically I found that famine-affected Somalis were particularly into meat. When on field trips in Chad, it happened that I would have to buy some bread in one village and a goat in the next village, and by the time we reached our overnight destination, where we would sleep under a mosquito dome, we would have a decent mix of things to eat together.
Q 3: Where do you get water?
A: There are no stupid questions. But this one comes close. Where there is permanently no water, there are no human beings. Most poor people have to drink water, which is not fit for consumption. If potable water is not on tap, EAWs may carry bottled water, use purification pills, or simply boil it. And yes, they may very well be on a trip to improve the water supply.
Q 4: Who does your laundry?
A: Surprisingly, the absolute most FAQ I had in the past 11 years. So here is the hard truth. Please address all hate mails directly to me, because for some people this is decadence. I will bear the brunt of my profession.
Most EAWs live in houses (either in shared houses or, if they are in a “family duty station”, in their own houses with their spouses and sometimes children), where most employ someone to do cleaning, laundry, and sometimes cooking. That may occasionally mean that your socks come back half the size they were before, or never come back at all. But no, relatively few EAWs buy their toilet paper themselves.
There are two ways to look at it:
1) EAWs invade formerly colonized still poor countries and continue a lifestyle where they are the masters and the locals serve them.
2) EAWs work, depending on the urgency of the situation, between 10-16 hours a day, 5-7 days a week. (Average probably somewhere in the middle.) They are faced with a lot of work stress and frustrations. They travel frequently around the country or the region. Given the circumstances, not having to tend to the daily logistics of life is a huge relief. Plus, it provides employment, generally combined with health care otherwise difficult to get. The salaries are poor by Swiss standards, but way above average for a developing or conflict-affected country. If treated like any human being has the right to be treated, house staff is generally very happy to bring revenue to their often large family.
Q 5: What do you do for leisure?
A: This is a popular question among recruiters, because the danger of burn out is very real in the EAW work and life style. I have seen a few people going over their limits and needing medical and/or psychological treatment. Security permitting (which is the case in most instances, see above), EAWs would do one of the following to get distracted from the eternal internal and external problems they face (80% of the job of an EAW at any level is related to solving problems):
1) Going to restaurants or bars, meeting other EAWs (including VIPs with whom you have failed all week to get an appointment through their Dutch personal assistant);
2) Organizing a party at your house, or (preferably) going to someone else’s house to do the same. Amazing what a few crates of beer (if culturally acceptable), a good external hard drive full of 80ies and 90ies music, two decent loudspeakers, can do to make you forget quite a lot of shit, even if all around you is sand or mud;
3) Watching a movie. That power point presentation in that important workshop was so sharp that the same projector can be used to project a movie, provided you have a white wall or a white bed sheet, and, again, two good loud speakers. I will never forget how we showed the extended full version of “Apocalypse Now” in the desert of Eastern Chad under the open stars on a Friday night. Out of the initial 25 people or so, to be honest, only 10 did not leave before the 3.5 hours were over. But the survivors wanted to see the bonus material until well after midnight. In Afghanistan, I once invited all staff to my home and gave them a choice of movies. They only wanted war movies, so I clarified that war reminds me too much of work, so we agreed on a thriller as a compromise;
4) In some towns or capitals, there are often cultural centers, museums, historical sights (no one knows about), or even beaches.
Q 6: Is it possible to have a relationship?
A: Most EAWs are neither Mother Theresa nor Warren Buffett. They are something in between. They haven’t left other needs behind at home in the store room. Pretty human. Relationships are part of it. Fortunately, in the places I’ve worked, the times where male EAWs would hook up with prostitutes seems over. In many organizations, it is even outright forbidden to exchange money for sex considering the circumstances of those countries and the values at the heart of development work. Some EAWs obviously fall in love at some point with a local man or woman. Most often, however, the relationships are between EAWs. Imagine two relatively idealistic people posted to a foreign country, living under less than ideal conditions and experiencing a lot of stress. The likelihood that you meet another EAW with something to talk about and with similar values is actually quite high.
So yes, it is possible to have a relationship, particularly if both have climbed up the EAW career ladder as far as to be able to live in a capital city for 1-4 years at a time. For most EAW couples, the moment of truth comes when the assignment of one or the other is over. Then it is either the end of what is commonly called a “mission relationship”, or something more. Whereas at home, the end of a contract would not generally mean the end of a relationship, in the EAW world it does, quite frequently so. To find a job for both in Jenin or in Niamey, which satisfies both people’s professional aspirations as well as all expectations on living conditions, can be quite challenging. Often what I observed is that one partner will accept a job, while the other will come along and look for a job while there.
Having real, meaningful relationships in disaster zones is difficult, even more difficult than relationships already are. It is much easier in a Capital and very easy if both can find a job in Headquarters.
Having said this, I have met couples, who are today in their 50s, who have moved around the world for 20 years, often with children, and still seem to be doing  very well. Sometimes I envy them. Having a meaningful job abroad and a family at the same time seems too good to be true.
Q 7: Additional question from reader: Are you getting paid for this?
As with the other questions, the rift between someone with a “normal life” and someone with an EAW lifestyle is so great, that the answer is obvious to all of us working in the field, whereas some people outside the aid world may associate an EAW worker either with a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Nicaragua, or a decadent civil servant in Bangkok confusing her or his bank account with her/his value as a person.
EAW salaries are somewhat of a taboo subject. So let’s talk about it. I always liked the transparency with which Oxfam is dealing with this. Look at any international job advert and you know what an Oxfam EAW gets.
A: Yes, the vast majority of EAW workers is getting paid, and not too poorly, but that is subject to debate.
The answer varies greatly according to the categories of EAWs. What is true for almost all is that, apart from a salary, there are additional benefits linked to living and working abroad. For example, most EAWs have their overseas housing costs and health insurance covered (incl. for their spouses and children, if it is a family duty station).
Depending on the organization one may work for, allowances for security or hardship, relocation (i.e. moving your private stuff), an allowance for posts hard to recruit, a rental subsidy (in the rare case housing is not included), and either a daily subsistence allowance (DSA) or something balancing out the difference in cost of living between countries; is also part of the deal.
In a sometimes hypocritical way, when this taboo question is asked during an EAW party, some EAWs will mention their USD 1,000/month salary, forgetting that they have few expenses due these add-ons. Some EAWs boast about how little they make; others boast about how much they make. The latter category makes me want to vomit more easily than the first category. However, the proclaimed idealists-only higher moral stance has also serious flaws.
So let’s not talk about salary but about “packages”. 

There is an unofficial hierarchy (from bottom up): 1. NGOs, 2. ICRC, 3. UN; 4. Donors

1. NGOs
1.1 NGOs with international volunteers
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are born out of a revolt in reaction to injustice. Revolts turn into organizations with different policies. For some, being a volunteer is an important part of their identity. For example, the French section of Doctors without Borders, or Voluntary Services Overseas, makes it very clear that they seek motivated idealists. EAWs in these organizations certainly do not make savings, but neither do they have to top up with their private funds what is often their often first international experience.
1.2 NGOs with international staff
That probably accounts for the majority of EAW people out there. Those are the MERLIN‘s, the Oxfam‘s (although they have many volunteers as well), the CARE’s, the Save the Children‘s, the IRC‘s, and thousands of others, you name them. Depending on the EAW’s country of origin of the staff (and, these days, the value of that respective home currency), the package will still generally be relatively OK, though definitely small considering the risks, living and working conditions, and the sometimes immense responsibilities some NGO EAWs have when they have to manage a large number of staff and funds entrusted to them.
The reputed strictly neutral and independent humanitarian organization is still a dream for many an EAW. But not due to the money, due to the experience. The International Committee of the Red Cross offers a good package (growing with higher levels of responsibility and with performance), higher than almost all NGOs, but lower than the UN. The ICRC would like to keep its staff for as long as possible, which is a difficult task given that it is a purely humanitarian organization, where you get that once-per-year Email from HR announcing your next duty station, and – compared to organizations, which also do longer-term development work – relatively few family duty stations are available. Nowadays, the ICRC is quite successful in retaining staff. The sought mix of idealism and competence of its work force seems just about right to me. “It is also a satisfaction to belong to the Red Cross”, I remember an HR executive telling middle managers in a course, saying that upping the salaries would not give justice to the value of the Red Cross Movement, where most people from the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world are indeed true volunteers.
3. UN
The United Nations (UN) comprises the UN secretariat and more than 20 specialized agencies or institutuions. While I was with the ICRC, I found the input-output ratio of many UN workers not in a good ratio, considering that the UN agencies (with variations) offer a better package than the ICRC. The salary scale is publicly accessible; the benefits are harder to find. Many NGO EAW are also disturbed by the discrepancy in R&R (Rest and Recreation) regimes. Those are arrangements, which also exist with NGOs and the ICRC, where one can leave its duty station for a week or so every 6-12 weeks (six being in very extreme situations only) without it being deducted from your leave balance. If you are working in what some describe as a shithole, and you see some people leaving every eight weeks, while you can only leave every twelve weeks, it goes against some fundamental sense of justice for some.
Today, I see this issue more nuanced. The UN is indispensable in the international system, and it’s the closest thing to a parliament of nations. The UN also, believe it or not, has troubles finding competent people and inciting them to stay. While I was amongst the big critics of the UN conditions when I was in Chad, for example, I found myself totally exhausted after nine months, whereas many of my UN colleagues stayed for two years. High turn-over also has a cost. My idealist criticism also further decreased when the American Peso (formally called US Dollar) diminished so much in value against the major currencies that the difference became less in terms of what economists call Purchase Power Parity.
4. Donors
For many an EAW, the big dream, the big price. Those USAID’s, DFiD’s, are allocating funds to all the others down the “food chain” (as a long-term EAW called it). The few donor representatives in the field are topping the pyramid in terms of packages. They are part of their respective government pay scale. There is little criticism to be heard in the EAW world about this, probably because one does not want to have a bad relationship with a donor, and because every tax payer in the developed world would want to be sure that someone competent and non-corruptible makes the right decisions about the use of that humanitarian and development budget for that really complex country or region. The smartest donors increasingly decentralize their staff to be as close as possible to the people in need and the partners of implementation.  
My very personal conclusion is: EAWs all make some money, and why on Earth shouldn’t they? Does the banking system have better managers than the EAW world? Can people affected by poverty count on a bail out in the same way that system-relevant banks can? Also, most organizations, whether non-governmental, governmental, or international, find it hard to recruit and retain competent personnel, who are willing to put up with the realities of the field. Amongst the sacrifices may be your own family.
Some EAWs are able to just get by with the money. Those are likely to be at entry level and stay for a shorter period of time. They are also likely to criticize those in the other categories, who make more, out of a position of moral superiority. Often, they reach those higher categories over time themselves.  Others stay on for longer, see it as a profession as much as a mission, can save over time for a house.

There are still absurdities and injustices, which should be eliminated. Every USD, GBP, or CHF, which taxpayers or individual donors have entrusted to any entity, should be spent in way that is most likely to bring lasting change to the people in need. That includes some experts in the field.

But the bottom line is: If you are not already an EAW and have been reading that far, maybe waiting that finally some figures are posted, and are now continuing with research on sites such as Glassdoors to find out just precisely what will be on your bank account at the end of the month in your dream job, well, stay away from the aid world. The smile of a little girl in a remote village in Afghanistan benefiting from a successful project should always be your first compensation. 

Q 8: How long do you still want to do this?

A: Some people become EAWs for their personal development, for a couple of years. Others seek temporary adventure (often disappointed). Some have become non eligible for any normal job back home, so they stay on a bit longer than most of their colleagues and partners might wish.
And for some, it has become their life, their profession. EAWs often have to manage sizeable teams and budgets. It’s not enough to become a “good doer” after you have watched a really distressful documentary about Zimbabwe. You need to be as much of a professional as when you work in a Swiss insurance. If you do a bad job, people including your staff or yourself may be hurt. If you have some degree of success, you may accompany people in transforming their lives.
My very personal answer is: As long as the annual health checks remain good (I call them “astronaut tests” because of the quantities of blood they take for only-god-knows-what-tests – not unlike astronauts, the assumption is that you may not be within quick reach of a good health facility if you fall ill), I would not know what I would rather do. It’s frustrating. It’s stressful. Your social environment changes too frequently. But fundamentally most EAWs, and I still count myself in, do something they believe in, meet an amazing variety of people, and even if the days are sometimes long, none is ever the same.
There was unexpected interest in this post. Continue to Email me your questions and comments. The content of the answers are my personal views only.

An aid worker since ten years today

The 2 September 2001 was one of the mysterious dates in my life, the day I became an aid worker.

There are many degrees to be a real professional in humanitarian or development aid nowadays. However, practise is undoubtedly more important than theory when you embark for working and living under sometimes very adverse circumstances in foreign countries.

“Who of you has alread been in an environment of armed conflict?”, an ICRC official asked a group of university students possibly interested in working for the reputed organization. Hardly any hands went up.

You only know if you’re made for humanitarian work, when you are there trying it. It was the same for me.

The ICRC had a particular ceremony when announcing the first mission. Two weeks into the induction course, all newcomers had an envelope in front of them, the first ever “courrier interne” with their names on it. We knew that inside was a paper, which would change our lives, for at least a year, possibly longer.

The colourful page stated, in my case: “Sierra Leone, délégué”.

Argh? Sierra… Leone? White Man’s Grave? Is this not where rebels were chopping hands off? Indeed, but things were changing rapidly, and in my first week of actual mission in the field I actually found myself accompaning a child, who was separated from his parents, back after three years of separation.

Family reunion in Sierra Leone. It is not an understatement that the entire village was watching!

Everything that you do for the first time is so special because it’s unknown, and boarding a chartered small Red Cross flight to take you to the rain forest certainly belongs to that category. In the meantime, taking small airplanes has by all means become an equivalent to busses at home

But to be somewhere, where life has been horrible to ordinary children, women, and men, and to play a whatever small role to make a change in their lives – often in impossible circumstances, which makes the job challenging – that mystery has never gone away, and I still feel that whatever hours put in for little money, whatever malaria episodes and security issues, whatever frustrations inherent in any large organization, it’s an incredible priviledge to be out there and give your best.

And to be sure, on some Saturday evenings, aid workers party, and this is how I looked like when I did so ten years ago:

Kenema, Sierra Leone, 2001

Off to Liberia for family tracing…

Monrovia, Liberia, 2003 – displaced children due to the attacks on Monrovia.

Mass photo tracing campaign in West Africa – “We are looking for our parents”. More than 800 children were eventually reunified with their parents.

And then, off to… “Israel and the Occupied and Autonomous Territories”, as Head of office.

The ICRC office in Jenin, West Bank, well marked just in case, 2004.
Course in Amman, Jordan, together with Palestinian and Iraqi collegues, 2004.

Afterwards: Eastern Chad…. Head of sub-Delegation

Abeche, Eastern Chad, ICRC office (nowadays I am sure a smoke-free environment), but even the air was smoking outside at 50 degrees Celsius, 2005.

Refugee camp, Sudan-Chad border, 2005.

Next: Afghanistan, Head of Sub-Delegation.

After more than a week in remote Faryiab Province, with no cellphones or running water. “Monsieur Stoessel, I am happy to hear you again on a normal phone”, my boss said afterwards. 2006

Farewell party, I better do not post the pictures with traditional Afghan dress. 2006.

Off to Port-au-Prince (in my memories classified as “Haiti I”), Deputy Head of Delegation.

Head of Haitian Prison Administration, and myself. This is not me lobbying him about the conditions in the prisons, but actually a farewell event he invited me to. A very kind man. Port-au-Prince, 2008.

And then, Good Bye to the really great ICRC, welcome Oxfam, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Head of one of our local partner organisations, Eastern Congo, 2009.
Don’t worry that you may  not have the attention of a lot of children, DRC, 2009.

And then, all of the sudden, I was asked to embark on a 59h52m trip from DRC to Haiti, to lead the scale-up after the earthquake (in my memory classified as “Haiti II”)

The old half collapsed Oxfam office, Port-au-Prince, January 2010.

Office space was short – bathroom office for funding manager and shelter coordinator. Port-au-Prince, 2010.

And, after four months, back to DRC…

Yes I do love those violet Oxfam trucks.
Near Dungu, Province Orientale, DRC, 2011

The mystery has become a reality. I will always remember September 2011, not only because of 9/11, but also because my life circumstances so completely changed.
And where next? The most frequent question I hear. The “Where” is not really as important as the “What” and “With Whom”. Stay in this channel!

After nine months in Hispagnola

Dear family and friends,

Now it’s been 284 days since I have not left this island, Hispagnola. Arguably the longest time I have spent on an island!

I have been three times on the other side, in the Dominican Republic. Twice for short R&R, and once very unexpectedly in the beginning of November, when my boss called me: “We are missing a delegate; you have to go to Santo Domingo”. One of our delegates was coming back from France and had not arrived in Haiti. According to Air France, he had boarded the flight to Santo Domingo. According to “Tortugair” (speaks for itself!), he never boarded their small aircraft onto Haiti. His phone numbers did not work. The whole thing later turned out to be a big misunderstanding combined with communication problems, but anyway, I got two days of work in the Dominican Republic…

That was just after tropical storm “Noel”, which caused big damage on both sides of the island.

As for our work in Haiti, particularly in the Haitian prisons, it continues to be as necessary as it is difficult. There are 6’500 detainees now (2’000 more than the same time last year), 3’250 in the prison of Port au Prince alone, crammed together in inadequate infrastructures.Nine detainees died during the month of November in the biggest prison alone, due to undetected and/or untreated health conditions. It’s hard to see people suffer so much, four fifth of which are awaiting trial, sometimes for years. We have been working hard to accompany the authorities in the improvement of the health service as well as other conditions of detention, and to issue them recommendations to that effect.

The discussions also reached high levels of government. For the third time, together with our Head of Delegation, I had a chance to see the Prime Minister, this time together with the Minister of Justice, as well as the Secretary of State for Public Security. One arrives at the dignified white Primature (office of the Prime Minister). After going through the metal detector, next to which a sign is posted (“We do not accept any letters requesting assistance – the management”), a well-dressed lady receives you and asks: “Is it for the ‘PM’?” – “Aaehm… yes..” – “Please follow me.”. Up the stairs we go, waiting in large leather sofas, seeing surprised that the Minister of Justice is also waiting there. I use the opportunity to speak with the Minister in the few minutes we are waiting, because the Memorandi of Understanding we normally sign with him take us too long to be approved. He is interested in the projects we do (health, water) and then says: “We will delegate the power of attorney for your projects to the lowest level possible, so you can go ahead quickly. We’ll send you a letter this afternoon.” – “Merci Monsieur le Ministre”. Having said that, the last two weeks we have not received the letter yet.

The government and the administration is suffering a lot from intermediate cadres. So even relatively small issues have to be discussed at a high, sometimes very high level, in order for decisions to be taken. The secretary waves us into the meeting room next to the Prime Minister’s office. It’s only 8 h in the morning, but the PM often starts working at 7 a.m. There he arrives, quick handshakes, then straight to the point. What are the ICRC’s concerns? What has the government already done? What are the next steps? Every now and then an interruption from a phone call on the PM’s mobile phone (Who would call the PM on his mobile? The President? Foreign Heads of Government? His family?) 50 minutes later, we walk out of the beautiful white building. As for the Prime Minister, his day will still last for 14 more hours.

The authorities are trying very hard to get their country on its feet again, after the turmoil in 2004, which led to the departure of President Aristide, at the brink of civil war. Today, 9’000 UN troops and almost the same number of Haitien policemen are keeping the calm. But the country needs investment, development. Economic growth is cancelled by population growth. Environmental devastation is very high, making already impoverished people more vulnerable…

But that’s a little bit beyond our mandate. Anyway, Friday, I will get two weeks of break.
Arrive next Saturday for a course in Geneva, then from 22 to 29 December short holidays. Feel free to call or to leave a text message on: +41 76 336 42 22.

Mysery in Haiti

Dear friends and family,

It has been a bit more than three months since I have set my foot on this Caribbean island in order to spend 15 more months here. People say that if “time flies”, it is a good sign. Time has not flown for me, but in this case, it is not necessarily a bad sign. It is simply that events have been so dense in time, that I feel it must have been six months, when I finished my Creole language course and kindly asked Administration to find the keys for the office my predecessor left two months before I arrived.

My boss has handed over most of the operational files to me. So it’s easily taking 60 hours per week in normal times. But times are not normal. One doesn’t hear a lot of bad news about Haiti these days. Security is improving, major gang leaders have been arrested, kidnappings are on the decline. But the fact that the police starts to deploy and arrest, while the judicial system can not follow, means that at the end of the judicial chain, in the prisons, people live in utter mysery. I don’t tell any secrets here, as recently an ICG report has described the conditions in the Haitian prisons.
The most desperate have only about 0.25 square metres of space. They have to sleep “in turns”, to save space they have to use hammocks. Most do not see the day for more than 30 minutes per day. When I entered a cell in the biggest prison of the country, one detainee of the 2’800 detainees told me: “Oh, you are a new one. You also came to enrich yourself through our mysery.” Its his perspective.

So our protection team is visiting prisons throughout the country, and we are discussing with the authorities of any ways to improve the system. Our medical team is currently treating no less than 2’700 prisoners against scabies and other skin diseases, which are prevalent under these conditions. Detainees and authorities greatly appreciate this campaign. At the same time, lobbying is going on to build more prisons, and recently, there is quite a momentum on the issue. Recently, we had a number of meetings with the several Ministers and the Prime Minister. The latter is working very hard: His first meeting with us was at 7.30 h, and it was not the first one, and people say he’s carrying work home late in the evening. A lot of time is spent in meetings. Mostly internal meetings with departments or with guests on mission from Geneva (our HQ), but then also a lot of external meetings with UN, NGOs, the Prison Administration, Ministers and Secretaries of State. It continuous to be an interesting experience to have access to high level in government in order to discuss humanitarian issues. However, we try not to forget that meetings are only important in as far as they have an effect on the beneficiaries.

What suffered so far was private life, including the beach. The only beach I have seen so far was in the ugly poor slum of Cité Soleil (where I saw for the first time in my life a pig taking a bath in a dirty beach). Until recently, Cité Soleil was under the control of gangs, who had a monopoly of organized violence not too different from rebel groups we know in other contexts. Along with the Haitian Red Cross, we maintain contacts with the armed groups as well as with the UN force, the MINUSTAH, in order for the Haitian Red Cross to evacuate wounded people, or pregnant women. Fortunately, things have calmed down a bit in Cité Soleil. Now, I am writing from the peaceful Northern town of Cap Haïtien, so I better finish this mail to go to the beach.

Well, I wanted to write something funny about living high up or low down in this country, but I have probably lost the last reader some time ago. Regarding time, which passes quickly or less quickly, I recently read some old diaries from the eighties and the nineties. On the 1 January 1993, I wrote: “It still sounds strange the word “Nineteen ninety three”. I can’t believe we are already there.”….

Cheers from Haiti

Ready for departure from Afghanistan

dear friends and family,

I am sitting in the midst of litterally hundreds of pages of paper, trying to get rid of most of them. due report for tomorrow not yet written, yet tomorrow, sunday, is the day of my departure. at 11.40 h, if there is not too much sand in the air, the icrc flight “Red-121” will take me from mazar, afghanistan, to peshawar, pakistan – via a large detour of herat (12.55 h) in the west and kabul (15.05 h). after a short night in peshawar (getting up at 3.30 a.m. or so), a commerical flight will take me to dubai, where I will spend the entire day waiting, then at night 1:45 h departure to zürich, onto geneva, to arrive, inshallah, at 8.35 h on tuesday there. as things are ever-changing in the icrc and in afghanistan particularily, what follows is a bit different then foreseen.

10.-13 october geneva
14.-17. october anywhere
18.-19. october geneva
20.-22 october anywhere
23 october departure again to afghanistan
7 november arrival back from afghanistan (zürich)

haven’t been in europe for half a year and would enjoy hearing from you. the best is if you call me or send me an sms on this number:
+41 76 336 42 22

see you soon… I am going back to the papers….!

Mobile phone direct (time zone: GMT +4.5 hours):
Skype: livingstone2004

icrc (at) stoessel (dot) ch. (absolutely no attachments)
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Snail mail, parcels up to 1 kg (no alcohol):
Marcel Stoessel; ICRC Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan;
19, Av. de la Paix; 1202 Geneva; Switzerland
* Personal e-mail – not an official ICRC communication *

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.


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))?

If at least they could rob you in a civilised way in Usbekistan

Dear friends and family,

Two more months have passed since my first Email from Afghanistan. Many things have happened since. If you do not want to receive this Email, please wire the unsubscription fee or … just… bugger off!

25.12.05 Christmas Day surrounded by around 40 strangers from different humanitarian organizations. All of them came to the basement of our Residence 2, to eat tasty turkey, drink , and replace the non-existent or far away family.

26.12.05 After three hours of sleep, a working day starts with a field trip to Pul-e-Khumri, Kunduz, and Taloqan, in the North-East of Afghanistan. At least that was the plan, until a roadside bomb went off just a few hundred metres in front of us, targeting a military convoy.

Blood was all around. We stopped all of our vehicle movements in order to find out what happened. Then, we all safely return to Mazar. The trip is for another time…

31.12.05 The 40 or so strangers are already a bit less strangers at the New Year’s Eve Party at IOM. We changed the curfew from 22 h to 30 minutes after midnight…. It’s incredible that it’s already 2006.

3.-6.1.06 Finally our trip to Pul-e-Khumri, Kunduz, and Taloqan can take place without problems. In Kunduz, my assistant gives a radio interview in Dari about the prevention of mine accidents. Last year, 200’000 persons received mine risk education from ICRC and ARCS in the North of Afghanistan. Kunduz and Taloqan are heavily mine-infected areas – several former front lines have passed in the area, including the very last frontline between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Driving in the Landcruiser through the snow-covered mountain road, which looks like Switzerland, is mind-blowing. Especially with my assistant, working for us since 1994, who tells me the story behind every burned-out Soviet tank, every green flag for a dead Mujahedeen fighter, and every hill that was an IDP camp. “Behind there, we assisted 20’000 displaced people a few years ago”, he said as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Afghan warriors are legendary, but so is Afghan hospitability. In Kunduz, we get again a huge Afghan breakfast at the ARCS Branch. It’s enough food for more than a day, and we have to try of every plate a bit. At the end, the ARCS President says: “You didn’t eat much again”. In Taloquan, it’s time for lunch, and as expected, huge amounts of goat meet, rice, and all kinds of other things are piled up in the ARCS office for us. I struggle with the food. At the end, the ARCS President says: “You didn’t eat much”. Please! In the Kunduz Hotel, it’s below Zero degrees even at night, and they charge 50 US$ for it. We decide to renovate the ARCS guest house and spend our nights there in the future.

10.1.06. It’s the Muslim holiday of Eid – no local staff except security guards and radio operators are working. I use the time to fix a small dental problem in Termez, Usbekistan, just 1.5 hours away from Mazar. The border must be about 3 km from the first Afghan to the last Usbek checkpoint, going over a long bridge. My Russian is limited, Usbek friendliness also, but I make it to the other side, am met by the field officer of our office in Termez, and am happy to be somehow in civilization in that former Soviet Republic.

After the dental appointment, the field officer drops me at a restaurant, and we agree to meet again the next morning at the Hotel for transfer back to the border. When I leave the restaurant, an English-speaking employee helps me find a taxi. We walk on the main road, with many people around us, when I see that two strange young men in their early 20ies have followed us from the restaurant. I ask if it was not better to turn back. No sooner than I ask, both of the guys are on my side of the road. They don’t say a word, they just walk next to us. I feel uncomfortable and want to turn around. Without saying a word, one of them smashes his fist in my face. I fall to the snow-covered ground. Faced with the infamous “fight or flee” alternative, I choose flee. But I can not even get properly up, when I am again punched into the eye and the mouth. I am lying on the ground and just wait for the punches to be finished. I was not hit more than five or six times in total, but it was an eternity. The last kick was with the foot in the face. I barely felt a hand in my right pocket, taking away the equivalent of 20 US$ as well as an “Oral B” mouth rinse I got from the dentist. I bleed heavily, not realizing if it’s out of the eye, the nose, or the mouth, that I am bleeding. Instinctively, I check if all teeth are still in. All are in, even if one is loose. A taxi stops and takes me to the Hotel, to which our field officer rushes.

Remark 1: In civilized countries, we rob each other by putting a gun at someone’s front and by saying politely: “Give me money or I kill you”. Why can’t they do it that way in Uzbekistan?

Remark 2: Being beaten in the face is one of those things that you see ten thousand times happening in a movie, but that you never think would happen to you. So how does it actually feel? Surprisingly maybe, at 10 below zero centigrade, you don’t feel anything. Let’s be honest, it’s a bit humiliating if you just wait for the other to stop. But it was over in less than a minute, and in the first moments, it was just something out of this planet, something unbelievable. However, the physical pain started, when I was in the hotel room.

The F.O. rushes me to the hospital, where four ex-Soviet doctors with white hats like cooks receive me. “No problem, we keep you here only one or two days”. That was a good one. Give me another one. I turn to my F.O. and tell him that he should ensure sterility in whatever they do, just in case I fade into unconsciousness. I feel a needle in my a… The doctors clean the wounds around my right eye. The nose is not broken, they say.

Then, four police officers in leather jackets rush in and start to take my formalities and wanted me to tell them the story. I told them to go back to the restaurant and ask the owner for the two guys. I remember that they also had been at the restaurant before. Off the KGB-types went.

At 1 a.m., I am back in the hotel, the police calls. Two persons arrested. I need to identify them. At the police station, they rush me into a first room and tell me not to say anything inside that room, just to look at the guy. It was clearly the one, who beat me up. I recognized him from his face, his golden teeth, his “Lucky Strike” sign on the jacket. The second type took me more time to identify, but finally I was also sure that he was in the team, although I was not sure if he beat me.

Yes that’s me, in the morning after.

11.1.06. The night at the hotel was short (the plan is to go to the Capital City Tashkent for treatment) – at 7 a.m. the police call me again to the police station, for a cross fire interrogation (or however that is called), which was videotaped. They denied having done anything to me, and they didn’t know where the blood on the shirt came from… At the end, the investigating judge says: “Can you confirm that all your statements are true and have been taped with a Panasonic video camera?” – “I swear to God and Panasonic that everything I said is true”. I am just ready for the nine-hour drive to Tashkent, when the police tell me to go to the “governmental medical expert”. OK, I am beyond being tired. Since I looked into the mirror in the morning, I realized that a few tooth had quite some corners missing. I looked somehow like Frankenstein with my black-blue eye and my broken tooth.

And that’s one of the culprits, easily recognizable by (my) blood on the Lucky Strike jacket. Photo taken from mobile phone during the Panasonic-video-camera filmed interrogation at an Usbek police station.

Then, we drive for nine hours throughout Usbekistan to Tashkent, over a 3’000 m mountain. Very beautiful landscape, in as far as I saw it. The snow started to hurt the eyes. On top of the mountain, the F.O. forces me to eat something. “I can’t eat. My teeth are broken”. I get some soup and see that I am in good hands. My spirits start to go up. To the hell with it, I am alive. At 10 p.m., still on the road, I am way beyond being tired. I am just up in space with my Ipod competing for the Russian music the F.O. plays through the sound system. At 10.30 p.m., he says: “We are in Tashkent”. I look out of the window: Wide open landscape. “That’s not how I imagined your 3 million Capital”. It’s Tashkent Province, he explains. At 11 p.m., we arrive at a quite nice Hotel.

12.1.06 Appointments with dentist and eye doctor are planned, but the F.O. doesn’t show up at the hotel. He slept too long, being tired himself, and the the car had the Diesel frozen. In the restaurant at breakfast, nobody wants to sit nearby Frankenstein. I recognize a guy from Mazar. He looks unbelieving at me, clearly thinking that I committed some kind of crime. Dentist fixes the most important corners. Eye doctor: Eye will be 99% ok, but a CT wouldn’t be a bad idea. In the afternoon, flight back to Termez.

13.1.06 Back to the safety of Northern Afghanistan. All the officials at the border already know the story – formalities are very easy this time.

Oh gosh, it’s almost two months later now. This Email will be without end. So let’s keep it short: I am fine now again, went to Geneva for a course, medical treatment, as well as the burial of my grandmother, temperatures are slowly starting to rise here in the North, the snow has melted. More bombs have exploded, some others have not exploded. We discovered an unidentified object in front of our office – it turned out to be garbage, through empirical investigation of the Afghan National Police.

Stay in touch !


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 *