How Far Can Commitment Go?
Friday, 9 May 2003
Hashem Jan, the UNDP gardener, was without a doubt our hero of the day. Yesterday I went over to him to see if he would like us to go to his village on Friday and drive him over to our guest-house so he could help with the garden. He seemed slightly reluctant to commit himself. When I asked him what the problem was he said that on Fridays he works as a taxi driver. I said in that case he could drive to our guest house at 9 o’clock and we’d go together to get the flowers. He agreed.
At 9:15 this morning, just as Parvin and I were wondering if Hashem Jan would be able to find the guest house, the doorbell rang and he stepped in. Hashem Jan is a shortish man, looking 60-something, but with black cropped hair and a thick, short black beard and sharp eyes. The three of us looked around the garden and decided what was needed.
I then went outside to get into Hashem Jan’s taxi – a battered twenty-year old Toyota with many bits missing on the outside, including the backlights. The engine struggled to turn on and was coughing badly, but it did not let us down at all during the 90 minute trip to Taimani, a district in north-west Kabul where you can buy bricks as well as trees turned into wooden beams, but also flowers and plants - and get your car, or truck or crane, serviced and washed.
The area, the size of [the North London neighborhood of] Muswell Hill, but completely flat, on the slopes of Kabul’s mountain belt, is full of garages, stalls, shacks and parked vehicles and massive containers. Traffic flows in strange curves, with cars, bicycles and pedestrians all over the place. Some forty years ago, said Hashem Jan, the area had been a lagoon, with plenty of vegetation and trees, and a great place for hunting ducks.
In about half an hour, we got ourselves some bricks to tidy up the edges of our flower-bed, five roses and thirteen potted plants, including some really beautiful geraniums. It all came up to about 10 pounds. With nearly four hours of work, Hashem Jan turned what in effect was a small waste ground, into a lovely little flower-bed. In the next few days, he’s going to fix a bald patch on our lawn using the lawn pieces I have written about that are carried around Kabul on horse-drawn carts. So now I know where the lawn goes, but I still don’t know where it comes from.
Hashem Jan spent two years in Iran, 1977-79, and came back to Afghanistan about six months after the Iranian revolution. He has also travelled much farther than Iran – to Karbala in Iraq to visit the grave of Imam Hossein. In 1980, at the age of 37, and with a family, he was drafted into the PDPA government’s army, even though he’d already done a two-year compulsory military service. This was because the government said it was short of soldiers to defend its revolution and even people in their thirties would be pulled into the army.
Hashem Jan stayed in the army for three years as a driver, serving for a long time in the south-eastern province of Paktika. He said, and he must be right, that God saved him during that period, because here was a member of Afghanistan’s minority Shia community, serving in the communist government’s army, that was fighting Pasthun Sunni Moslem tribesmen. Confronted by anti-government fighters who accused him of being a communist, Hashem Jan would defend himself by saying he was a Moslem, forced to serve in the army. ‘You should run away,’ he would be told. ‘Where to?’ he would ask. A man with a family living in a village near Kabul would not have found it easy to go into hiding, or to another land – although over the next twenty years millions of Afghans were forced to do just that.
For lunch, I went to UNICA, mostly to see if my discussions with the manager about the provision of vegetarian food had succeeded. They had, and in addition to barbecued chicken and sausages, today they were serving vegetable kabab which was received enthusiastically by the lunch crowd and disappeared quickly. I have now asked for mast-o-khiyar, esfenaj-o-mast and kashk-o-bademjan to be added to the menu. Judging by the repeated complaints I had heard about the food at UNICA, and the mistrust in its management, this seems to be a major success.
As we were enjoying the sunshine in the UNICA garden, overhead a jet was flying eastwards. We figured it must be taking the American Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, to India. As we were looking at the plane, bright balls with smoke tails like fireworks were shooing out of its back. These were flares which are meant to deflect missiles from an aircraft.
The best anti-aircraft missiles likely to be available to anyone in Afghanistan are the American-made Stingers which were given to the Mojahedin in the 1980s so they could bring down Soviet planes. The missiles then got sold on to others and the Americans made lots of efforts, apparently unsuccessfully, to get them back – a reminder of Naser-Khosrow’s poem about the eagle that was shot by an arrow guided to the target with one of the eagle’s own feathers.
Saturday, 10 May 2003
At around 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon, as I was sitting at my desk writing the last few pages of the 8 March report – which did finish last night – there was a massive bang from the eastern side of Kabul, around the airport, about ten kilometers from our guest-house. There was then another bang and the sound of jet engines.
We went out to the patio, which now overlooks Hashem Jan’s pretty garden, and looked around. There was nothing to be seen. I figured the sound must have been a sonic boom, with American fighter jets speeding up and breaking through the sound barrier. Another possibility would have been the controlled detonation of mines and other explosives that the ISAF people say they carry out around the airport. The noise, though, was too big for anything like that, unless really huge amounts of the stuff had been blown up, but that would have caused a lot of smoke and would perhaps have shaken the ground too, neither of which happened.
About half an hour later, there was a news flash on BBC World TV saying there had been a big explosion near Kabul. No details as to what, where, how, or what damage. No mention of this on any other TV bulletin that night, nor on BBC radio which is normally much more cautious than the BBC World TV.
About three hours after the bang, a BBC Persian Service reporter in Kabul said there had been no explosion and no one had been hurt, but it was not clear what had happened. The programme promised to tell us later what had happened, but did not – either later at night, nor this morning. There was nothing on the other radio stations either. Neither was there anything in the morning newspapers, which was not surprising, given their very limited resources.
At the office, one colleague said another colleague who had been in a Kabul suburb at the time had seen a convoy of cars carrying ‘Northern [Alliance] troops’ from Panjshir shouting anti-American slogans. He had then seen jet fighters swooping down in the area where the bang had come from on Friday. Then there had been two bangs and this meant that the jets had bombed the Panjshiris.
Now, the Panjshiris have the Ministry of Defence, the secret intelligence – which is not so secret these days – and a few other organisastions. It seemed a mystery to me why they should get themselves into a fight with the Americans, at a time when others say the Defence Minister is preparing to unseat Mr Karzai and take over from him – something he could not hope to do without American support. But never mind that little bit of detail.
Another friend was convinced that this had been a bombing by a B52, ignoring the fact that it would not make sense to send such a massive, high flying plane to drop two bombs on a target near a city which the Americans would not want to damage – not now at any rate. This hypothesis also ignored the fact that much smaller fighter jets had in fact been seen swooping down on the area in question.
At lunchtime, I came across one of our security officers and asked him what had happened. He said there had been an explosion, but at a quarry. I said it must have broken a lot of stones. He said they must have used a lot of dynamite. Would anyone use such a huge amount of explosives just to blow up rocks at a quarry, when they could stockpile it for a future battle? It did not make sense. But here was the security official, and he should have know his stuff.
At Afghan TV, five colleagues, all of them senior journalists, had no idea what had happened. One of them said he had been on shift at the time and people had called in to find out what had happened, only to be told that no one at television had a clue. One colleague asked what a proper journalist should have done to find out. Another colleague said nothing could be done, because there were powers at work in Afghanistan to make sure no one would really find out what was happening. As to who or what these powers were, he had little to say.
Back at the office, there was an email from our security, saying several experts from various agencies including the UN and ISAF had been to the area and had determined that there had been an explosion at a quarry. A couple of hours later, there was another email from security, saying that following further investigations it had been determined that the sound had been caused by two F16 fighter planes – Americans, obviously, though this was not stated – breaking through the sound barrier over Kabul. The message said the pilots would now be severely reprimanded.
I happened to read this at the same time as our Indian colleague, the businesswoman who is organising a group of Afghan women craft producers. When I burst out laughing and read out the email, she said she too had suggested at the time that this was a sonic boom, especially since she had been at the Intercontinental Hotel and had seen the planes dive and then rise up.
So two non-experts nowhere near the scene - one of them not even having seen anything - had beaten the experts by nearly twenty-four hours. It somehow does not add to one’s confidence in the people responsible for one’s safety. Especially since I think there is much more to the story, and the pilots could not have been involved in some kind of ‘joyriding’ for which they would now be ‘severely reprimanded’.
This incident may well have been linked to the perceived threat against, and the flare throwing by, Armitage’s plane yesterday. In all likelihood, the Americans suspected someone somewhere had missiles or something that needed to be checked out. With relatively small targets, on short notice, the best way to get close to have a look and perhaps take pictures would seem to be to get a supersonic plane in and out quickly, before anyone’s had the chance to aim at it. We may soon find out what exactly happened.
Sunday, 11 May 2003
‘Reality check’ is the expression that came to my mind as I was leaving Afghanistan Television building this afternoon, after a 75 minute meeting with the production team of their bi-weekly women’s programme. The aim of the meeting had been to follow up the results of our discussions last week and to discuss the script for the new edition of the programme.
There were three people at the meeting: two men – the director and the head of department – and the head of department’s woman assistant. Two other women who had been at the earlier meeting were not there today. One had gone on a provincial visit, and something incomprehensible was said by the men about the other woman’s absence.
I began the discussion by asking if the new script was there. The director pulled a few hand-written pages out of his pocket, but the head of department said those were useless and the director should give me the running order of the programme. While the director was writing that, I gave all of them copies of the notes of the previous session’s meeting during which the three women present had identified half a dozen changes that needed to be made. The two men had said the programme was fine, considering their resources. One of them had said that given the limitations, the programme had to be seen as an ‘honourable service to the Afghan people’.
The director’s running order simply said there was going to be a signature tune, opening and closing announcements, a few links, a report on women teachers’ mission, an item on engagement rituals, a couple of songs, a drama and a report on what women teachers want. His script consisted of a few pages on the great mission that teachers had in front of them and how bad it was to encumber engagement and marriage with conditions that made it difficult for young people to marry.
Before we had had time to talk about either the script or the running order, a stream of visitors came in to see the head of department, even though he himself had set up this meeting and seemed keen to be involved in what was being said about the programme. To make things easier, I suggested to the head of department that I could meet the director separately, rather than take up his time as well. He welcomed the idea and told the director to take me somewhere else and report back on what he had ‘agreed’ with me.
I said I was not there to make any proposals on which ‘agreement’ had to be reached, but to find out from them what they wanted me to do. At this point, the head of department, still speaking in a polite tone, reminded me that ‘last week 90 minutes of their time had been wasted’ by a meeting which had resulted in what they ‘already knew’ – although they had never had such a meeting and I am sure he was not in the habit of asking his staff what they thought about the programme. It was time, he said, for me to tell them what plans I had. I said I was in no position to have a plan because I did not know enough about their circumstances, and anyway they had to tell me what plans they had so I could find out what we could to do to help them.
There was then another fifteen minute revision of all the problems they had, including the Ministry of Women’s Affairs not giving them any resources to make a cookery slot, which was something ‘women really wanted’. The suggestion that their time had been ‘wasted’ last week was repeated a couple of times; the lack of resources, especially a vehicle, was restated several times; and there was consistent pressure on me that ‘rather than showing modesty’ by saying I could not tell them what to do, I had to tell them what I wanted them to do.
Realising that any comments on the programme would spoil the meeting even more, I said I would raise the question of resources with my organisation and the Ministry, but in the meantime I would have a separate chat with the director and tell him what I thought of his new script. We left the office, went outside the building and sat on the lawn under the shade and I heard much more of the problems my colleague faced every day, including the fact that his monthly salary of about $40 had not been paid for two months, and that he had to pay for the taxi out of his own pocket, to take the camera crew out on location.
To see what life really was like for them, he said, I had to go out on a shoot with them the following day. Only then would I find out why things were the way they were. And by the way, it would be nice if I could bring along an office vehicle. I said our office was short of vehicles and I myself had walked to television, but I would be delighted to go along with him tomorrow.
In our discussion, I also learned that my friend would write all the narration for the programme himself; that he would not discuss the programme with any of the women at the office, though he might ask his wife for ideas; that he did not read any of Afghanistan’s women’s magazines, or any other newspapers for that matter; and that he was hoping he’d get a job with a foreign radio station or with one of the private television stations that were going to start up soon.
When I asked him what had happened to his female co-producer who had been around last week, he said she had had to go shopping with her husband because a long weekend was coming up and they were planning to go to their province. Walking back to his office, we ran into the same lady on the stairs and she said she had had to go to the doctor because of low blood pressure. She looked very unwell, walked with difficulty, and was worried about her children at home.
In the evening, I heard on the radio that the Minister of Women’s Affairs who had been visiting Herat had not been received by the provincial officials at the airport. She had gone to the UN guest-house where she was due to stay, only to find its doors locked, and had to spend the night at a local citizen’s house. A couple of people were interviewed in the report, complaining of the treatment she had received.
Meanwhile in Kabul, there have been more demonstrations. One happened yesterday, attended by several thousand students at the military academy who had been told to switch to civilian colleges. They said they would not, because they had spent years studying military affairs and it was they who had to be enlisted in the new army, rather than the ‘illiterate’ people who were being given soldiers’ jobs after a three-month course. The protestors shouted slogans against the government and against the US. Today, about a hundred protested against Mr Karzai’s statements last week when he said most of the Taliban had been good people.
After my first meeting with the television group last week I wrote: ‘It is still too early to say anything about the outcome of these efforts: they really, really, really are very hard pressed and I would not blame them - especially the women, each of whom has several children - for not having pushed themselves much more. But I am very optimistic that in spite of the old cameras, edit suites with no chairs, and few vehicles to take them around – not to mention long power cuts – they could achieve a lot more through greater imagination and cooperation, and out of a deep sense of commitment to the Afghan public most of whom are much worse off than any television producer.’
I now ask myself: Could they? Could anyone? Would anyone? To get to the same level as the poorest communities in southern Europe, the people of Afghanistan need to have at least 25 billion dollars a year. This year’s budget is just over two billion. How much of that gap can be filled by a ‘commitment to the public’?
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