Sunday, November 8, 2009

The bad stuff

It (Afghanistan) doesn't feel like a "collapsing third world country" - a comment I read recently.

In fact it's a beautiful morning: the rooster's crowing, the dogs are barking, there's the sound of hammers hammering and kids are shouting. And I'm off to the new campus for a walk. We haven't been able to walk there recently because of security problems...which leads me to...

A runoff election was scheduled for Saturday, November 7th, between current president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah who came in second in the general election. (After the UN-backed Election Complaints Commission threw out over a million fraudulent votes, Karzai did not have the 50% majority he needed to win outright.) You can read all about the allegations surrounding the election and the arm-twisting that went into getting Karzai to agree to a run-off.

As far as the University was concerned, we were told there was going to be some problems, security-wise. Westerners are often targeted when problematic situations arise. And the run-off promised to be problematic, to say the least. Here's what our Head of Security had to say:

"Pre-election: During the build up to Election Day the aim of insurgent/anti-government forces is to disrupt the election process and dissuade the population from voting. This will increase pressure on the government and demonstrate to the wider world that the Afghan security forces are unable to maintain security and conduct a free election.

Election Day: On Election Day a spectacular high profile may be conducted against government, military targets or polling stations in order to draw attention away from the voting and demonstrate the government’s inability to secure the capital against attack.

Post Election: Insurgent groups will want to disrupt the collection of ballot boxes and the general election process."

Nothing had been decided as to what the University was going to do, but the people who were here on August 20th for the first election told tales of a five-day lock down when no one could go anywhere and everyone watched movies and mostly drank.

Days before the rumblings in the political arena became deafening and deadly, the earth did some rumbling of its own.

We had an earthquake. Early in the morning of Friday the 23rd of October. 6.2 on the Richter scale occurring in the Hindu Kush mountains of Badakhshan province in the far northeast of Afghanistan. No one was hurt. It happened 125 miles underground and 160 miles away, but the tremors reached Kabul. I woke up because it felt like the earth was being stretched beneath my bed. Only way to describe the sensation.

I knew that it was not just my imagination or a dream remnant: the mobile hanging from the light fixture was swaying with no wind.

An earthquake seemed to be exactly what we were missing to complete the picture of life here in Afghanistan: security issues, lack of privacy, restriction on movement, unsafe water, erratic wireless connection, head scarves, and now an earthquake. But, in fact that wasn’t all that was ‘missing,' as it turned out.

On Sunday the 25th there was a demonstration down the road from us, centered closer to the Kabul University. Demonstrators were reportedly students and it was supposedly set off by a rumor that NATO forces had burned a Koran in Wardak province. (The allegation was denounced by both Afghan and Western officials.)

The demonstration started in the morning and led to a stopping of all transportation between the University and the guesthouses. If you were at school, you stayed there. At 'home' that's where you remained. Gunfire could be heard from at least one guesthouse and a stray bullet found its way onto the campus.

There was also a demonstration at the Serena Hotel, related to the protesting of a banking issue and one near a Kabul park.

The protestors dispersed in the afternoon and the ban on travel was lifted.

The story is that the Taliban who make up a large percentage of the student population in the other universities in town, are responsible for encouraging these demonstrations, again to disrupt the election process and discourage voting.

The next day, Monday, the 26th, another demonstration. No word on what was the spark. Another ban on travel to and fro. The election was still 12 days off and I, for one, was getting nervous.

Also that day 14 Americans died in two helicopter crashes in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, the 27th, another demonstration. Another ban on travel. It was getting old.

We were then advised that we would, in fact, be locked down for three days around the election (Friday, Saturday and Sunday).

And then on Wednesday (the 28th) a UN guesthouse was attacked and five of the UN staff were killed along with three Afghan guards. The attack was claimed by the Taliban who announced that they were targeting those who were working on the election. The same day several rockets were fired at the Serena Hotel, a popular international hotel in town. No one was injured.

A western journalist who was at the hotel was interviewed on NPR and stated that foreigners were ‘leaving in droves’ from Kabul. I’m not sure about the ‘droves’ part; no one from the American University of Afghanistan left.

And here’s part of what we got from our Head of Security.

"As you are aware, fighting erupted in Kabul this morning as Taliban gunmen stormed a UN guest house close to the diplomatic district of the capital… In the run-up to the election it is possible that there will be similar attacks.I do not want to alarm anyone, but...

he had my attention!

…I am recommending all residents be prepared for lock down or short-notice relocation to a safe haven, if required. The advice on 'go bags' sent by email yesterday should be adhered to. "

My ‘go’ bag consists of two toy animals, a favorite mobile, a change of clothes and hygiene stuff. We all stocked up on food. And booze.

I asked one of my students what the dorm residents thought of what was going on vis-à-vis the UN bombing. She looked a bit shamefaced when she said that they were largely hoping that the midterm exams would be cancelled. Inured to violence or just students being students?

So three days worth of demonstrations and an attack on the UN and, of course, more restriction on travel.

The next day: another earthquake. Again a 6.0 on the Richter scale and from the same area, and again we felt the tremors.

That night we were having a going away party for a colleague heading back to the states at 'my' guesthouse. Maybe 10 people sitting around a couple of tables, drinking, eating pizza, being silly and the room started shaking. We assured each other that it was not alcohol-related shakes, but in fact another ... earthquake. Ha! Ha! Drinks all around!

Next up: Swine Flu.

Sunday night, the 1st of November we first heard the rumor about a possible school closing related to Swine Flu; the next day it was a reality. The Minister of Education announced that classes at all public and private (that's us) schools in Afghanistan would be cancelled for three weeks to prevent the spread of Swine Flu.

That was the official story; the unofficial and widely-accepted one is that the government did not want people to be able to congregate (at schools – notorious for fermenting dissension!) for fear of demonstrations and other manifestations of civil unrest.

And what better way to instill fear in a populace than to say ‘Pig’ and ‘Disease” in the same breath in a Muslim country.

On Thursday, the 5th of November, five British soldiers were killed by an Afghan policeman who had been working with them.

On the same day the UN decided to pull out some 600 (of 1100) staff here in Kabul: moving them, temporarily, to a 'safer' locale either in Afghanistan or out of the country. This was not good news.

The run-off election was scheduled for Saturday, but Abdullah decided to boycott; the run-off was cancelled and Karzai declared the winner.
The promised lock down did not materialize and we were free to travel, more or less.

Currently, Karzai is reportedly picking his cabinet, another 'security risk' for internationals. I'm not sure why this would be, but 'security risk' often simply means "we don’t want to tell you what's going on." least two restaurants, catering to drinkers of adult beverages, were closed on Friday night. Word is that this may be a move towards a more rigid non-alcohol serving Islamic state - arising perhaps from a promise or two made during the presidential campaign. The other word, and better one from my standpoint, is that it’s a temporary situation and may well change as the election recedes further into the past.

A couple thoughts on this mess:

I’m reminded of the question that I got so often in the States when I announced that I was going to Afghanistan. “Why?”

My answer is still "I want to save the world," but it's just a little harder than I thought.

Considering the importance of education to this country's future, I find it appalling that the government would shut down the schools for three weeks, particularly if there is any truth at all to the notion that the closing is politically motivated.

And, I didn't like the juxtaposition of events: a demonstration with gunfire over an unproven allegation of NATO burning the Koran and the deaths of at least 14 Americans and five British in service in Afghanistan.

I still have hope. I view the Afghans as powerful and resilient people and I sincerely hope that President Karzai and his government will get their act together and start moving this country forward. Decent roads and a clean water supply would be nice for starters. Oh, and less corruption in government, too!

But, I live here, at least right now. And, today, I had a great walk on the new campus. I also bought kites for the boys next door and a kite for me. My current project is to learn how to fly the darn thing.


  1. Thanks so much for keeping us all up to date and to give us a better perspective of what is happening there.
    Enjoy the kite flying, you'll be learning from the best.

  2. Thanks for all the info and for answers to unasked questions, e.g. what is your access to the internet like - and are you getting news about the dissent and killing. Seems that you are. At least what you're reporting mirrors much of what we're reading here, tho nothing about the schools and swing flu that I've seen. Stay safe and try to quit shakin'.