[Reader-list] An Aid-worker´s account

Ravikant ravikant at sarai.net
Wed Oct 17 12:40:12 IST 2001

Here is a longish diary on pre-war Afghanistan, which i wish to share without 

A Last Road Trip Through Premodern, Postmodern Afghanistan
> September 30, 2001
> I got my last haircut in Kabul, but Sept. 11 found me
> standing on John Street in lower Manhattan with about 20
> volunteer rescue workers, amid masses of scorched paper and
> debris, watching fires burn near where the World Trade
> Center used to be. A recently returned humanitarian aid
> worker, I had rushed downtown when the towers collapsed.
> Brushing dust and ash out of my hair -- still short from my
> haircut -- I felt the low-level shock that came often in
> Afghanistan, the kind of shock I felt when I saw dead
> bodies, starving children, Taliban enemies hung from
> lampposts by cable. I marveled at the fact that I was
> feeling this familiar emotion in the financial district of
> Manhattan, an unusual place to be in shock. For a moment I
> felt that I had somehow not escaped Afghanistan, that I had
> brought its disaster home with me to New York.
> I have spent most of the past year working in Afghanistan
> and Pakistan for one of the international nongovernmental
> organizations that implement humanitarian aid programs for
> people suffering or fleeing from Afghanistan's multiple
> crises: civil war, persecution by the Taliban and by
> anti-Taliban military forces, economic stagnation, severe
> drought and food and water shortages. We were the welfare
> state for a failed state.
> Of course, everything has changed now. Relief workers from
> international groups and the United Nations have been
> evacuated from Afghanistan in response to an expected
> military strike by the United States. Humanitarian
> operations have been severely curtailed, and an increasing
> number of refugees are pouring out of Afghanistan into Iran
> and Pakistan. ''The country was on a lifeline,'' one of my
> colleagues said, ''and we just cut the line.''
> Like many countries suffering from political instability,
> Afghanistan is a complicated and weird place. In some
> areas, there are few traces of modern life. Goods are
> carried by donkey or camel, and oxen plow the ground. Old
> men with long beards sit beneath trees, fingering prayer
> beads, their skin brown and wrinkled. Many rural people
> live as their ancestors probably did 400 years ago: iron
> pots over the fire, clothes they made themselves and babies
> delivered by candlelight.
> In other parts of the country, life is more complicated.
> Taliban troops speed around Kabul in their clean new Toyota
> pickup trucks, tricked-out, hip-hop ghetto rigs. On the
> sides they have painted pseudo-American phrases: ''City
> Boy,'' ''Fast Crew,'' ''King of Road.'' Inside, young
> solemn-looking Taliban men sit in their black holy dress,
> sporting Ray-Bans.
> The juxtapositions can make your mind reel. Donkey carts
> carrying computer equipment. Hungry children digging
> through garbage piles using shovels from a Mickey and
> Minnie Mouse sand-castle set.
> The number of people displaced from their homes is
> enormous. Populations of the desperate roam around, begging
> for money and scraps of food. People eat wild plants,
> garbage, insects and old animal parts discarded by
> butchers. In one camp, an old man showed me a bowl filled
> with rotten cow bowels, grass poking out in places. ''This
> is what we eat, sir!'' he said, wiping away tears with his
> fist.
> I often had a strange feeling in Afghanistan, a sort of
> temporal vertigo. It was impossible for me to get a proper
> sense of time. Like many former cold-war battlefields,
> Afghanistan is partly frozen in time; most of its urban
> buildings and infrastructure were completed in the 1960's
> and 1970's during the height of Soviet and American
> spending on foreign aid to the developing world. The
> telephone in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul is
> one of those heavy models from the 1960's; in a pinch, you
> could probably knock someone out with the handset. There is
> an old telex machine in one of the offices, sitting dusty
> in the corner, making you think it's 1976. Then you see the
> American and Soviet military remnants from the 1980's:
> broken old Soviet tanks painted and lined up in town
> squares, a mural on a wall in eastern Kabul showing a holy
> warrior with a Stinger antiaircraft launcher on his
> shoulder. And still there are antique doors on some
> buildings with designs from the 13th century. History
> presents itself in a disorderly montage, like one of those
> heuristic displays in natural-history museums -- dinosaurs,
> the bronze age, the renaissance, space travel -- rearranged
> at random: pre-cold-war, post-cold-war, cold war, Buddhist
> antiquities, Kalashnikovs. The timelessness of this jumbled
> history made me feel like an old museum curator:
> time-transcendent, fascinated and lonely. This is perhaps
> why I felt so crazy at times.
> Taliban troops and police are always easy to spot. They
> have black flowing robelike clothes, long hair and big
> silky black turbans with long tails running almost to the
> ankles. (These accouterments are meant to identify them as
> direct descendants of Muhammad.) They are often tall and
> imposing, even impressive. ''The Taliban troops are like
> gangsters,'' a colleague told me when I first arrived.
> ''Tough guys.'' But there is often a particular dandyism in
> them; many wear black eyeliner (part of the
> descendant-of-Muhammad costume), and their hair is long and
> curly. I once saw one buying Prell shampoo at the bazaar.
> They carry themselves like supermodels.
> The reputation for religious conservatism in the Taliban
> obviously doesn't come from their foppish troops. It comes
> instead from the leadership in the southern city of
> Kandahar, who founded the Taliban in the early 1990's. They
> are considered mullahs now, but 10 years ago they were
> essentially no more than a collection of seminary teachers
> from the rural south. These ''original Taliban'' are the
> ones who present the decrees barring women from work,
> making men wear long beards and prohibiting me from
> entering the country with ''pork products or lobsters'' (as
> one recent decree dictated). These are the people who
> proudly call themselves ''the Mosquitoes of Islam,''
> proclaiming, ''Islamic faith is a bright light: we seek to
> be so close to it that we catch fire.''
> In urban Afghanistan, crime was rare (one of the
> seldom-mentioned upsides to Taliban authority), and
> expatriates were treated with a good deal of respect by
> government officials and the military. ''He who believes in
> Allah and the hereafter shall perform good service for his
> guests,'' reads a sign in one small government office in
> the north. This is a telling poster. It might seem strange,
> but aid workers were considered guests of Afghanistan, and
> the title bestowed a special status on us. Even if we were
> seen as an enemy of sorts (perhaps by a particularly grumpy
> mullah), we were guests -- distrusted and carefully
> examined, but still welcomed.
> In our humanitarian work, my colleagues and I interacted
> with neither the black-robed troops nor the mullahs from
> Kandahar. We dealt mostly with the ''new Taliban'' -- the
> civil servants who in recent years have appeared from
> between the cracks to run the country for the predominantly
> illiterate and uneducated ''original Taliban.'' These
> people form the real bureaucracy of Afghanistan. Though
> they now sport the same flowing black turbans and long hair
> as the troops, many were ordinary municipal leaders a few
> years ago, local politicians. For the most part, they are
> opportunists who saw the direction the wind was blowing
> when the Taliban took power and adjusted accordingly; they
> grew out their beards and put on black robes and became
> Talibs.
> Of course, these new leaders' commitment to the moral
> righteousness of the Talib movement is questionable. Many
> seem fascinated by Americans and the West, eager to learn
> more English, more American phrases and more about America.
> (One afternoon, a Talib in Kabul kept me in his office for
> an hour to go over some English grammar rules and ask about
> New York and the ''Hollywood movie company.'') Still, the
> new Taliban follow the orders of the Taliban leadership.
> The decrees are enforced.
> The summer wind up in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north is just
> absurd -- you feel as if you are on another planet. The
> temperature is usually well over 100 degrees and the wind
> blows about 40 to 50 miles an hour almost every day,
> raising huge clouds of dust that hang hundreds of feet over
> the desert. You feel as if you're standing in front of a
> space heater in a dusty attic at the height of summer. Your
> nostrils fill with dust and dry up; your eyes turn to red
> slits. You have to wrap a turban around your head and nose
> and drink a great deal of water. It is a war against
> desiccation.
> On a particularly windy and hot day in June, some
> colleagues and I took an almost insane trip from
> Mazar-i-Sharif west into the scorching Iranian Plateau, to
> a province called Jozjan, to gather some information about
> the drought crisis areas there.
> We started out at 5 in the morning to avoid some of the
> heat and drove for hours through the desert -- or what I
> thought was desert. I learned later that it was, in normal
> years, productive agricultural land. The heat and dust were
> intense. The car rocked in the wind, and sometimes
> visibility was reduced to only a few car lengths. To pass
> the time, the young Afghan staff members told me about
> their time in the jihad when they bombed Soviet
> installations from the mountains. I recited hip-hop verses
> at the request of one of the young Afghans, who wanted to
> know ''about the African people with black skin in
> America'' who ''sing, but without music, like shouting.''
> We drank huge amounts of water.
> We arrived in a small village called Aqchah, a dusty and
> extremely windy trading town. We stumbled out of the car,
> clothes soaked with sweat and filthy from the dust, and
> walked into the local Taliban office to ''check in.'' (One
> must indulge in this courtesy in order to avoid problems
> later.) Then we sat for an hour with the entire village
> leadership -- 15 or so men with long beards who argued
> among themselves about what sorts of aid projects might
> keep more people from leaving town for the city. (We had
> this sort of meeting all the time.)
> We drank a lot of tea. The men spoke in Persian, and my
> interpreter just filled me in on essentials. In the next
> room, through the doorway, a man with a large knife stood
> cutting fat from a sheep carcass hanging from the ceiling.
> Every so often, the man would come halfway into the doorway
> in his blood-stained apron, knife in hand, join the
> conversation briefly, make a point and then go back to his
> butchering in the next room. The others listened to him
> with respect, but I never found out why. Our meeting
> finished when the tea ran out.
> We drove through another desert -- a real desert -- to
> arrive in the capital of Jozjan, Shiberghan. The trip took
> about three hours. We arrived dusty, wind-blasted and
> spacey. We staggered into the local Taliban office -- a
> bombed-out building without windows -- to check in. The
> local liaison official for international relief workers in
> Shiberghan was about 22 years old. We were invited into his
> office, a room facing the courtyard with no furniture, just
> a rug on the floor and a phone. After the regular
> introductions, the young official explained that he would
> need to ''ensure my safety'' by supplying me with guarded
> accommodations. I insisted that this wouldn't be necessary.
> I told the official that I did not fear for my safety. I
> even flattered him and said that I was sure that his city
> was exceedingly safe. Still, after 15 minutes, he stood up,
> put on his black turban and left to go secure my lodging.
> We had to wait for more than two hours. We got bored. I
> examined a curious calendar on the wall that displayed a
> map of Afghanistan surrounded by planes, tanks and ships
> all labeled ''U.S. ARMY'' and all pointing missiles toward
> the center of Afghanistan. Various Taliban functionaries
> came and went -- new Talibs mostly. Finally, the official
> returned to inform me that I would be staying at a hotel
> reserved ''for foreign dignitaries'' (this is how my
> interpreter translated it) called Dostum's Castle. It was
> obvious that this was an honor, so I made an effort to
> thank him profusely, despite the fact that I did not want
> to go. I insisted, however, that the Afghan staff accompany
> me. He obliged me at least on this point. Off we went.
> Dostum's Castle. What can I say? It was chintzy
> Soviet-style public architecture combined with low-rent
> Miami design: long frosted-glass windows and a faux marble
> facade. There were peacocks on the front lawn -- peacocks
> -- and a swimming pool filled with algae-plagued water.
> Inside, it was like ''The Shining.'' We walked down long
> wide corridors with dark red carpeting; each of the
> hotel-room doors had a padlock on it. We were the only
> guests. The air-conditioner in my room sounded like a
> Harrier jet, and there were bullet holes in the furniture.
> The bathroom in our room didn't work, so we had to go down
> two floors to use another one. On the landing of the stairs
> two floors down, there was a large landscape painting,
> about 16 feet by 12 feet, of a pond, some flowers, a forest
> and a few animals. The heads of the three animals had been
> cut out of the painting to comply with Taliban aesthetic
> restrictions: the creation of images of living beings is
> forbidden under the Taliban's kooky interpretation of
> Islamic law. This left a decapitated deer standing by a
> pond and a headless beaver sitting on a tree stump.
> I considered the piece as I stood on the landing. A
> terrible painting in the style of Bob Ross, done entirely
> with two shades of green and one shade of brown and then
> vandalized by Taliban police trying to ensure its innocence
> before God without destroying it altogether. In its own
> way, I thought, it is a post-postmodern masterpiece. But
> surely I could add still more to this artwork. I could buy
> it from the Taliban, sell it for a fortune in New York and
> give the money to the Afghan opposition. Yes. Participatory
> political art. It just might be crazy enough to work. How
> much would a rich New York liberal with a sense of irony
> pay for this, this bad art, vandalized by the Mosquitoes of
> Islam and then sold to raise money against them? A new
> school: censorship as an art form unto itself. Politics as
> art. Art-dealing as art. I could be rich.
> I was still chuckling to myself when one of the Afghan
> engineers came down the stairs. ''What are you laughing
> about?'' he asked. ''I don't know,'' I answered.
> the next day was a nightmare: human suffering on a shocking
> scale. Displaced persons without enough food to eat were
> drinking water taken from muddy ponds -- mud really.
> ''They're drinking mud,'' I said into my tape recorder.
> ''They're drinking mud.'' I remember one particular
> experience especially. We were in a windy camp for
> displaced persons, and a man was showing us the graves of
> his three children, who had died of disease on three
> consecutive days: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It was
> Monday, and he had buried his last child the day before.
> After he described all this, we stood around the graves in
> the strangely loud silence of the wind, hot as an oven, and
> the man absent-mindedly adjusted a rock atop one child's
> grave.
> It was a very emotional moment, yet I didn't really feel
> sad. I was just fascinated by the realness of it all. You
> look out an office window, and you see a displaced family
> living in a bombed-out school, sleeping on the balcony and
> cooking some birds they caught, doves. This is their life.
> They can't change the channel.
> There are no channels, in fact. We are ''off the grid,''
> not linked up with the world's information sources or any
> of its culture. There are no telephones outside the cities.
> There is no television reception. We have no access to
> ''entertainment.'' There are no theaters, films, galleries
> or circuses. The Taliban has even banned music. All this is
> in contrast with the Western world, with its many
> reality-altering and distance-distorting mechanisms:
> television, cellphones, the Internet. Again, there seems to
> be a time warp. Sometimes it feels as if we have been
> brought back not just to a time before modern entertainment
> but to a time before art -- a time in which reality was
> just more real, a time without images and ideas and
> representations, only actual events.
> And yet moments here often seem cinematic to me. I
> constantly see things as scenes. Here we are walking in
> Kabul, near some women in their concealing blue burqas;
> goats are running by and an ancient Soviet tank lies gutted
> by the side of the road. Here we see the schoolchildren
> running by in their little Taliban uniforms, black turbans
> hanging to their knees, yelling to me in robot English:
> ''Hello! Hello! How are you?'' And here we are at the U.S.
> government club in Peshawar, over the border in Pakistan,
> sitting by the pool with some Belgian journalist, drinking
> Grand Marnier and orange juice and talking about German
> novels. I feel outside myself seeing these scenes play out:
> absurdities that seem so normal while they're happening.
> There is a propensity among some aid workers (usually
> younger ones) to work endless hours during a crisis. You
> cannot take a break, it is argued, when children are
> hungry. You cannot sleep, have a beer or lie in your bed.
> You have to act. And so you work endlessly. And then,
> inevitably, you crack: you go nuts, start acting righteous
> and weird, and your colleagues come to despise you.
> Ultimately, your organization evacuates you on
> psychological grounds -- a procedure churlishly referred to
> as a ''psycho-vac.'' You end up back home: unemployed,
> asocial, crazy, useless and pathetic.
> I remember a story that a friend told me about an aid
> worker she worked with in Albania. During the Kosovo
> crisis, they were working together in a huge new refugee
> settlement across the border with inadequate sanitation
> facilities.
> ''We had to get 5,000 latrines built, like immediately. But
> I'll tell you, he was gone, man -- his brain was fried by
> trauma. He had been at Goma'' -- in the Congo -- dead
> bodies and hacked-off limbs in a pile, and they had to
> clean it up. I guess he was scarred. Anyway, he got like a
> pound of pot from some Albanian mafia playboy in Tirana. He
> would drink huge amounts of that terrible instant coffee,
> Nestle's -- I think they put speed in that stuff. He was
> high all the time. He didn't talk to anyone. He just drank
> that crank coffee and smoked pot. He worked like a madman.
> But we did it, man. We built those 5,000 latrines. They
> psycho-vac'd him a little later though. He lost it.''
> Just a few weeks ago, on an unusually cool summer evening
> in southeast Afghanistan, I was sitting with some
> colleagues at an outdoor restaurant above a small pond
> beneath the beautiful mountain ranges southeast of Kabul.
> We were enjoying a rare night of relaxation away from the
> madness of our work. We sat on carpets, drinking tea,
> waiting for food and enjoying the evening sky.
> The pond below was unnatural -- the result of a small
> hydroelectric dam built by Soviet contractors decades
> before -- but it was pretty enough, and we were enjoying
> the scene. We had come to have some fried fish, a rare dish
> in this landlocked country.
> We watched as a young boy climbed down to the pond to
> retrieve our dinner, some fish previously caught but still
> alive, swimming in a burlap bag laid in the water. In
> Afghanistan, dried to the bone by three years of drought
> and enduring a decreasing food supply, the sight of both
> fish and water was strange.
> Some Taliban troops appeared from the nearby road. ''We are
> here for fish!'' they announced in Pashtu. (My interpreter
> told me this later.) They sat beside us. My colleagues
> stiffened.
> ''Is he a Muslim?'' one of the Talibs asked, indicating me.
> (He appeared, incidentally, to be very stoned.) My
> interpreter answered in the negative. ''Christian?'' the
> Talib asked.
> My interpreter turned to me. ''Are you a Christian?'' he
> asked.
> ''Basically,'' I answered.
> My interpreter translated this, somehow.
> Questions began
> to fly: ''Is he an American?'' the Talib asked. ''Where is
> America? How close is America to Saudi Arabia? Are there
> Muslims in America?''
> My interpreter turned to me again. ''These are very
> uneducated peasant people from the south.'' I nodded.
> ''Is this a problem?'' I asked. ''Should we leave?''
> ''No. They are bemused by you.''
> The Talibs ordered some fish. Although we had ordered our
> dinners first, the owner gave the Talibs our fish and
> started to cook some more for us. The Talibs ate with
> gusto, spitting bones onto the floor, fish catching in
> their beards. When they finished, they rose and went to the
> next room for prayers.
> Our fish arrived. We began to eat, but soon the Talibs
> returned and sat down with us. ''Which province are you
> from in America?'' one of them asked. I told them I was
> from New York. ''This is a place with many black people,
> from Africa, is this right? Very dangerous.'' I tried to
> explain that this was a misperception.
> One Talib began to help himself to our fish, taking it from
> our basket as though he hadn't just eaten. ''The black
> people are very dangerous,'' he said. ''I hear that they
> are very tall. How tall are they?''
> I tried my best. There is only so much that can be
> translated from one language to another, from one culture
> to another.
> After a while, the Talibs rose to leave. Amazingly, the one
> who had stolen from our bowl of fish wiped his hands on my
> turban, lying untied on the ground next to me. Then he
> started to leave, but turned back, and a smile came across
> his face.
> ''God bless America,'' he said in English, inexplicably.
> John Sifton is a human rights attorney and humanitarian aid
> worker. The views expressed here are personal reflections
> and do not represent the organization for which he worked.
> For security reasons, it is not named hereOn Wednesday 17 October 2001 


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