2011 Year-end Letter

Hey Folks

I have made it back to Kabul in one piece. For those of you who just want to know I am still alive and have ten fingers to type this letter, here is your proof.

The Readers Digest version

We contracted 4 schools, 23 classrooms for 40 thousand dollars… Was offered a helicopter ride from Bamiyan to Kabul due to security concerns, not mine, others, but a couple of days in Bamiyan instead of Kabul as well as a chopper through the Hindu Kush made it a no brainer. Digestion is well, but like the security here, that too can change. Peace

 

The Sunday Times version

2 AM Kabul

My phone beeps, indicating I have a text message

Good time to be heading out, have you heard that the Intercontinental Hotel is under attack? Suicide bombers and the whole nine yards. You take care and be careful, times are tough.

Thanks Jean it gives new meaning to the term Ignorance is bliss.  Sometimes not knowing what is going on is for the best. I roll over and try and get a few more minutes of sleep. A Helicopter is buzzing overhead, and a loud boom are doing their best to keep me awake, it is too early for the morning call to prayer but the Mullahs at the mosques all over town start to sing whatever they sing over the loudspeakers when they are trying to cover the noise of another attack. Trying not to sound to cavalier but I did manage to get a few more minutes of sleep before the sun and my driver came to pick me up.

 

4 AM

My driver has arrived, we are dressed in local garb ready to go. We load our bags and 500 books of pleasure for our trip. The books are two Afghan fables translated into Dari and Pashtu. A State Dept. funded project with a primary goal of getting them into the hands of as many young people as possible.  My rural location makes me a perfect candidate to receive such a gift.  The 3 spare tires in the trunk prohibit me from bringing the other 500 books I received for free. They will have to go on another day, another trip.

 

As you head out of Kabul there is one last checkpoint for coming in and out of the city. Today they will be more attentive. Where are you going? the guard asks in Dari or Pashtu. Ghazni says my driver, Ghazni says my translator, the guard looks in the back seat at me. Ghazni I reply. And with a motion of his hand we are off, not to Ghazni city but close enough. We laugh and felt a little more comfortable that we should be under the radar. We also realize that we are on our own. Three people in a Toyota Corolla with no security, who just met last night. Our driver wastes no time getting up to speed passing other Toyotas, motorcycles and various styles of overloaded, slow moving cargo trucks carrying supplies south.

 

We arrive in Maidan Wardak  where the road to Behsud and Bamiyan will take us to our destination. We take the right on fresh pavement. I wonder how far they were able to go since last summer. I am in hopes that they were able to pave us through the various locations known for Taliban Checkpoints. We travel quickly pass the villages with wheat fields, fruit and nut  groves and ANA posts fortified with sandbags. Conversation is at a minimum, a cassette with Afghan music blares away as we move along. I recognize the spot where last year the road had changed from pavement to dirt. We have fresh pavement with no construction vehicles around indicating we would only have a few more miles before it would change to dirt. Excellent I thought, a few more miles and we should be out of danger for this leg of the trip. We quickly climb up the mountain pass that last summer was a series of detours as construction was in full bore. I remember an earlier trip in 2005 when the miles we traveled in this half hour, took us over 2 hours to accomplish back then.

 

Mr. Jun, Yea Aziz, we are out of danger, we are safe. Affernin I say, “well done” as I pat the driver on his shoulder. He smiles and gives me the thumbs up, we all can breathe a little easier. We still have the Kucchi faction to contend with but they have retreated for now after terrorizing countless Hazara villages over the past month. I send a quick text to Jean back in Kabul before we are out of cell range.

 

Back home I am always on the lookout at flea markets and yard sales for used cassettes to have for these trips. The sound of cats screaming in my ear all day is more then I wish to endure. Besides I am paying for the ride and as an ambassador of our culture I feel it is my duty to share our music. We split the time 50-50. Carol Kings “Tapestry” is passed up front, as Aziz hits the eject button. The road has turned to dirt, playing a cd is not an option now, besides most cars do not have that technology yet.

 

We travel through the countryside reaching elevations over 10,000 feet, the air is thin, I pop a couple of Tylenol in preparation of the inevitable headaches I hope to avoid. Mr Jun. Yes, Behsud here, Nawur is there. We have reached the border between districts. Carol King is singing Your so far away, it would be so nice to see your face at my door. I realize that my thoughts often are so far away. Thinking of you, family, friends, colleagues. Not missing you really just thinking of you, this is where I want to be. If I were with you grilling a steak or foraging for Chanterelles I would be thinking of and missing here. This is my tenth summer in Afghanistan, at times I feel like I have returned home, I have family and friends here who look forward to my arriving for another summer.

 

My drivers phone indicates he missed a call earlier, we stop for a moment so we can stay in cell range long enough to make a call. He hangs up and makes another call, we have been asked by my colleague to escort 3 men who want to travel to Nawur but don’t know the way. We reach them on the phone, they are up ahead several miles and are waiting for us. A half hour later we meet up at a location where I have stopped before, a large mound of calcium deposits with a warm spring whose water smells strongly of Sulfur. At least now we have some company for the rest of the trip, something that is always welcome.

 

Several flat tires and overheated radiators later, we reach our destination in Northern Ghazni. Before we can stop the car we are surrounded by a mass of men who are happy to see our safe arrival. Changese opens my door and gives me a huge hug… Aaahhhh Jun, Jun, Good Sex, Good Sex! Now before your imagination gets going let me explain. One day several years back, Changese, Jarod and my translator were traveling through Ghazni when Changese asked me via my translator how one would say that the sex was good. Good Sex? I asked? Changese repeated the phrase and after that Good Sex was an inside joke. If we hit a bump Changese would say Good Sex, if the car had gone silent for too long he would say Good Sex, we would all laugh and the conversation would start back up, or after fixing a flat which happens on a daily basis Good Sex became our mantra for just about anything that came up. It has been our joke for a number of years now and we have not grown tired of the possible uses for the term. It has eased the tension after certain stretches of road and it has solidified between us the one thing in common with all men. Good Sex. I describe our road trips as sort of Deer Camp on Wheels, minus the alcohol and the deer and when you think of it we are not necessarily the hunters as much as avoiding being the hunted.

 

Changese is like an American Express card. I don’t leave home without him. He is my security, I sleep better and travel easier if he is with me. You can’t explain the bond between a man who has literally protected me, putting his life in Danger, bullets flying all around him as I lay prone on the ground bullets bouncing off the stone wall between me and certain misfortune. But that was another time, another story

 

My bag is lifted from the back and brought into a long narrow room with the usual carpet on the floor, mats for sitting, and Mr. Qasimi at the end of the room, a smile on his face as he gets up to greet me. Ah Jon, Jon Juturtisti? Huba? Huba?, we hug and hold hands for a minute as Aziz translates our greetings and questions about our families health etc… I pull out a pair of Hand knit socks made by my mother. These are for you I say. My mother thanks you for taking good care of me and wants to keep your feet warm. These will be for me he says, no one else will wear these which is common with him. He is not looking for gifts from me, but this one he can’t refuse, or give to someone else. This is personal. It is hard to find a gift for a man who has little compared to us but needs little compared to most.

 

Chai is served, we sit and start another year of building schools together. We have no need to discuss where we will build, my job is finished for the most part, and his is just beginning. All I need to do is be ready to hop in a vehicle, take photos and listen for the most part. It took a couple of years but we know our jobs, I raise the funds, he determines where we will build, and the village is responsible for the actual construction. We have built 13 schools this way and have plans for four more schools this summer.

 

Mr Qasimi has gathered elders from the villages nearby, they are here to primarily have a meeting with Mr Qasimi but to also lay eyes on the American they have heard about. This is my tenth summer here and my reputation is well known in these parts. Many a villager comes up and shakes my hand knowing who I am, what I am here for. These elders wish to thank me for my time and for traveling so far from home on roads they prefer not to travel just to build a school in an area that no one else bothers to visit. Several years back they started to call me the Nawur PRT, Last summer my friends started to call Mr Jun Nawuri. An Afghan name which describes the region I have built most of our schools in “Nawur”

 

The sun is starting to go down over the mountains, the generator is started to give us light to have our meal of lamb curry (boiled meat) with nan and chai. Over the years I have learned to stay away from the meat and broth, I opt for moss (yogurt) nan and chai instead. This will be my diet for the next week. I call it the Afghan diet where I finish off most of my winter gain in a few short days. As I chew on the nan I think back a week ago when I was at Olives in NYC. Kevin a former student of mine and acting chef for one of Todd English’s marquee restaurants was personally preparing close to 15 different appetizers that by the time our entrees were served, we were waving our white napkins in defeat and asking for doggie bags. From ten hour squid and white wine, to yogurt, bread and tea.

I relish the contrast but it’s early in the trip.

 

The long plastic table cloth is rolled up with the leftover scraps of nan neatly tucked inside. Chai is served as we start to get ready for bed. Blankets are unfolded and the mats we sat on for dinner turn into our mattress for sleep which after a 6-7  hour ride, is most welcome. We will have an early start to the day. The sun comes up around 4 am this time of year, we will be on the road by five heading for our first village on the itinerary

 

Jun, Jun, this is your vehicle, wherever you want to go I am at your service. This is Changeses way of making a contract for the trip. He will expect me to pay him for security, gas and oil. Along with Jarod the driver and the vehicle itself, the cost can over the days come close to a thousand dollars. It is part of the reason he is so glad to see me. I am his bread and butter so to speak. The cost of  having three wives and their children can add up quickly

 

Tokrit vilage primary school

Contracted 5 rooms $10,000

120 boys and girls

7 teachers, paid by the government

 

Over the years we have built schools in four directions from our central location in Doab. Today we will head east to check in on the schools in Shemalto, Qarnala and start a new one in Tokrit which is our first stop of the day. We stop in one of the 4 villages that will use the school to gather a few elders waiting for us and proceed a few miles to a location where a Unicef tent has been set up as a school. The children are still walking to school as we walk to the location the village has determined would be a good location. One of the main factors is that it is as equal a distance for each village as possible. A well has already been dug on the sight in preparation for the construction. Surprisingly it is not a deep well, maybe 20 feet deep. This well is not necessarily for drinking as much as for the mixing of cement. In time if they decide they can dig a little deeper and have a local source of water for the students.

 

I take a few pictures as they discuss the layout. They ask me if I approve of the location. That is not up to me I said. That is your decision. Are you happy with the location? Bali Bali yes yes. Then I am happy, we all laugh and I use the moment to make sure they understand the importance of this project. Many people back home will be watching the success of this project, if you do a good job then I will be able to collect more money and build another school. If it is poorly done, I will have to inform my donors of this and I will not receive as much for school construction in the future.  The only thing I Insist on is that the school be made of Stone and Cement. The walls must be thick and strong. No mud brick. It is the same lines I use in each village short and sweet, but firm in what I need in order to continue coming back each year. The village assures me they will start work tomorrow and have it finished in a month. In reality it could take longer and still need a few village work sessions when I arrive again next year but over the years each village has come through with a stone and cement school that is a long term solution to their needs.

 

We approach the tent where the students have already opened the books and started to get along with their lessons. Aziz and I video and take some photos before we stop them from their studies to hand out the books I brought, each student will get one of the two versions. I have been asked to take photos to help document the success of the book program something I was more than willing to do.

 

Both Mr Qasimi and I love this part of our work, spending time with the children. He talks with each one, shakes their hand or rub’s their hair and says something encouraging for them to grab on to. Unfortunately for both of us the time spent with the children is to short, maybe ten to fifteen minutes at best. I work all year to bring a school to several villages and all told spend maybe a couple of hours with them when it would be nice to just sit and watch them study for a day or two. But that is not what we are here for. We have many schools to build. We say our speeches, shake some hands, take a few photos and hop back in the car to another village down the road. Please wave when you see me next year. Khadafis!

 

We travel a few miles down the road to a village whose name I forgot to write down. Here again the students are studying in a worn out tent with cheap plastic rugs laid out on the semi level gravel base. We will build a school here next year Mr Qasimi tells me via Aziz. It was part of the deal he had to make to keep the villages happy. I also get a better idea of where we will be building next year. I warn him that we have to raise the money 1st. something I have had to remind him of before. Let’s not get to far ahead of ourselves. His confidence in my fundraising capabilities is better than mine. Still it does give me a goal to shoot for. I take some photos and we hand out a copy of the books to each student and tell them Inshallah next year we will be back. We hop in our vehicles and take off for Shemalto.

 

Shemalto

380 students

125 girls (up from 50 last year) 255 boys…Grades 1-10

One of 3 projects started last year

6 room addition to the 6 rooms already there

 

Shemalto is our eastern most location. It is close to the Wardak border which means that when the Kucchi / Taliban do their semi annual incursion into Hazara territory they are susceptible to a raid at any time. After chai in the village mosque we walk to the school where the teachers and elders have gathered. The school looks half finished. The walls are up but the roof, floor and final spackling of the building still need to be done. Aziz tells me they had to stop work this spring because of the Kucchi war. They will start work again next week. I nod my head and tell them I understand. I wish them good luck and that I look forward to seeing the school completed next year. We walk back to the 4×4’s, shake some hands and head off to Qarnala. Qarnala was my 2nd  school we contracted back in 2004 ?,I think. The years have packed in and even accounting for all the villages off the top of my head gets difficult. We built a 5 room school for the boys here and every year they asked me for more funds to build 3 more. Last year we had budgeted their request.

 

I was informed last fall that a flood had hit Qarnala doing extensive damage to the area. The cement pond built by CARE a decade ago for irrigation purposes was damaged, and filled in with silt. The road had received a few small repairs as well. I knew that they were only able to construct 2 rooms instead of 3 due to the rains that turned the sacks of cement into bricks. They apologized for the lack of a 3rd room as agreed. I said I understood. I had a few questions but determined that it was better to let it lie as it was.. We learn from our mistakes and I didn’t want to come off as displeased. The two rooms they had completed were strong and of good quality, actually a 3rd room would of stretched the $3,500 a little thin. They were not asking for more money, and I had none to give.

 

We headed back to Doab for the night and another meal of Lamb curry, nan and chai. Tomorrow we would head south to Bariki and two villages that would be recipients of this year’s funds for schools.

 

The next morning we headed south for the day. I love this stretch of Nawur. It is the old dried out Nawur lake depression, about the size of Lake Champlain minus the water. It is level and sandy which makes the journey less bumpy and we can cover more ground then through the mountains and valleys. Mr. Qasimi has a few condolences stops which we take care of 1st. while he is in the homes of the families who are grieving we hang out in the 4×4’s and have chai and melon brought to us. I blow up some balloons for the young children hanging around our vehicle curious as to who the ferengai is.

 

Koria

$10,000 for a 6 room school for girls

250 girls grades 1-12.. grades 1-6 in the morning session, grades 7-12 in the afternoon session

13 teachers paid by the government

By mid day Mr. Qasimi has visited both families in two villages and we are able to travel north on the western side of the plain to our 1st stop Koria. Koria has a clinic nearby and like the next stop has electricity due to a dam in the mountains built with Ghazni PRT funds. I am used to seeing handmade wooden power lines in the villages that deliver electricity from a generator for a few hours each evening, but seeing commercial metal poles strung up for miles is a welcome sight of progress even if it is for only a few villages in the area. I am told these villages have electricity 24-7 as long as there is water in the dam, which means that as long as the snow is in the mountains, and there’s not much left due to the lack of snowfall last winter. There are rumour’s of a possible drought in areas later this fall due to the lack of snow in the mountains

 

 

This village is a quick stop, Qasimi has already laid out the plan and this is more of a drive by for me to  give my short speech detailing my expectations. The contract is written and signed by the elders, we shake hands, and take a few photos and hop in the 4×4.s for our next stop Baahi.

 

Baahi

6 room school for girls. $10,000

Grades 1-6  225 girls

6 teachers paid by the government

 

A half hour up the road is Baahi. It is located at the entrance to the valley that holds the water that supplies the electricity in the region. Qasimi tells me and everyone except his two bodyguards to go take a bath at the reservoir which sounds like a good idea. The car is starting to smell like a bad onion. We drive to the base of the dam and climb over the hill to a large 20 acre? reservoir of water. The water is cold but clean and refreshing and deep.

 

Upon arrival back in the village Qasimi had gathered the elders to discuss the location of the school. I can tell by the tone of the voices and the movement of hands that not everyone is in agreement. What’s the problem I ask Aziz. They do not agree on the location. One group wants the location over here and the other prefers there. In other words a few hundred yards on either side of the boys school. This is where I just pull out my camcorder and video the spot and the discussion. Two fighter jets fly a couple hundred feet overhead which is the 1st time I have seen a fly by in this area in 10 years.

 

It was about this time several years back that a Wisconsin VNG F-15 crashed killing both pilots nearby. I wonder if it’s a flyby to honor the two men or if it’s a couple cowboys enjoying the level terrain, or maybe a sign that they are in the area as a show of force for the kucchi – Hazara battle going on to the north. The jets are barely noticed by the villagers as they continue the discussion concerning the location. I sit back and let the villagers work it out.

 

What do you think of this location I am asked? It doesn’t matter to me really, either would be fine. Would it be possible to plant a row of trees between the two schools I ask? It is a strange request and I never got a definitive answer from the villagers. I keep asking for shade and greenery and they don’t seem to see the need. Their concern is water for the crops and contend that poplars will suck up the precious resource before reaching the fields. I ask but never demand. Someday I am in hopes that one village will surprise me with a small grove of poplar saplings and maybe a rose bush or two.

 

Finally a location is agreed upon, but only if the landowner agrees to sign over the gravel and stone laden location to the village. We walk back to the village across the road where we will have dinner and spend the night.

 

The room is packed with village elders from both villages, along with our security entourage there is only enough room to cross your legs, yoga is not something I practice, and reserve a corner at the front of the room where I can stretch my legs behind Changese. Food is served in due order and eaten in a few short minutes. Being a chef I can only imagine the chaos behind the scenes and am glad I am at the head of the room as an honored guest instead of the women who I assume will have the chore of cleaning the dishes for 40 plus men. Chai is served and over the next half hour Qasimi holds court. The conversation sounds pleasant, not political.

 

The elders start to get up and shake Qasimi and my hand saying Tashakor and Khadafis before filing out the door, the guards start to reserve their space for sleeping and plug in their cell phones for another charge before bed. We have another day of travel tomorrow and will head from here to Doab and then I am told to the battle grounds of the Kuchhi Hazara war.

 

 

 

Hey folks 2011 Part two

 

After a breakfast of Chai and Nan we thank our hosts and head for our vehicles. It is an hour to Doab and the trip is over before we know it. Upon our arrival the cell phones are turned on, the local cell tower had been out of commission for over a week. From what I could gather a couple of brave Taliban on motorcycle rode under the cover of darkness to destroy the dish that brought coverage to the area.

It sounded like a good tactical move on their part. After all they were in the middle of a “war” and communication is vital. We stopped in Doab to refuel, clean our air filters and determine who was staying and who would continue North. I bought a couple sodas and a few packs of cookies for me and my guys. I had no idea where or for how long we would be gone. Better to have something to eat then wish you had something to eat is my thought. A lesson I learned years back one hungry day.

 

We travel North over the Navar lava domes, a series of 16 domes from another era. You can find them on Google earth. Doab is just south of the domes. It may sound romantic but it is a hard ride. The road is nothing more than the wear and tear of countless vehicles making a path on the same stretch of open plain. As we descend down the other side we put the truck in low gear. The breaks are good but better not to overheat them this early in the day. The trip takes a little over an hour. This is not good actually. We are heading to the battle grounds of the so called Kucchi – Hazara war as the locals called it.

 

A little background

The traditional Kucchi is a Nomad that in this area travels south for the winter, Helmand, Kandahar, Baluchistan, Iran, and in the summer months would travel north to grazing area’s for their livestock of sheep, goats and camels,  traveling as far north as the Tajikistan border and beyond. Now the traditional Kucchi has been doing this probably since the beginning of time or longer. I have seen Kucchi Caravans of all sizes over the years and admire their free spirit and independence.

 

In the late 1800’s Afghanistan was governed by the Pashtun tribe and decided that pushing the Hazara tribe to the central highlands was not good enough. They started to portion off parts of the territory as areas where the Kucchi had grazing rights leaving the Hazaras defensless to the fact that Thousands of goats, sheep, camels and horses owned by the Kucchi could come and graze in Hazarajat razing the locals of their hay, wheat and grazing areas for their own livestock.

 

Over time this was generally accepted and life between the two tribes co-existed even though the Hazaras were getting the short end of the stick. But lately, primarily since the 1990’s when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, (or tried to) the situation changed. No longer were the Kucchi just coming and grazing but battles were fought and not necessarily over grazing rights. The tactics had changed and the people using the ruling were not necessarily real nomads, they were Taliban in the Hazaras mind, they didn’t come with their camels and sheep, they came with their motorcycles carrying RPG’s and Kalishnakovs.

 

We arrive into a village that looked deserted. No one had to tell me we had arrived. We started to walk through the village. Except for no people or animals around, the place looked fine, Until we walked around a corner and I started to see some of the destruction. It was simple at first, piles of ashes where the sage brush to keep them warm this winter was burned. This alone would be devastating for a family. It takes all season of gathering this to keep the house warm for the winter. They will not be able to collect enough fuel before snow starts in the fall. We kept walking through the village and came across a woman and her children hiding behind some fresh cut hay, another woman popped her head out from a window and a lone man came over to check us out.

 

We stopped and through translation learned that they had been here during the invasion. Over a hundred motorcycles with two men on each one came roaring into the village. 4×4’s and pickup trucks carrying more men were not far behind. They came after dark and started to terrorize the village. They burned my cow inside the stall the women cried, our children were told to run over there into the hills. They destroyed our homes, our livestock and some of our crops she said. Some crops will die because no one was here to irrigate the fields. All this was true and quite evident. But there was one thing that was glaringly obvious and finding the answer to this would be hard to ascertain.

 

The destruction was selective. Some houses were spared and others were completely destroyed. We walked by 4 or 5 houses that were in good condition, untouched and then find a house or two that had their winter fuel burned and maybe their livestock stolen but their houses were still standing. Then others were completely obliterated WHY? Was the 1st question I asked myself but did not ask

 

We toured several more hamlets with the same observation, most houses were spared and others were completely destroyed. It reminded me of my trips to Kosova where I had witnessed the same sort of  destruction only there it was done with tanks.

 

We climbed to the ridgeline where the ANP had strategically positioned men and Humvees to keep the Kucchi / Taliban from coming for another go around. We met up with a company commander who was more than willing to take an American with a camera around to see more. He knew me from previous years but I unfortunately couldn’t place his face. There are many of them and only one of me to remember.

 

We toured 26 villages over the next couple of hours and then took a break for lunch. I had seen enough.

If you Google the Kucchi Hazara battle you will find many stories concerning the conflict. Most are from out of the country. Most are from Australia where there is a large Hazara population of immigrants

Some reported over 650 homes destroyed which from my observation was an inflated number like the women back in the village who said that a few of the children were eaten by wolves when they ran for the hills, both sides can add a little spice to the story.

 

Still the fact remains that considerable damage was done and entire villages had not returned from being displaced with relatives in safe areas of the region. I did see several Toyota buses filled with family’s and belongings making the trek back as I was departing the area several days later but not in large numbers.

 

I heard numerous accounts of the war over the past 6 weeks, on the street, on the web but when I reported this to the local head of the AP who is Afghan, he claimed he had not heard a thing about this? How can a person such as myself hear about this numerous times, even back home, and a local person in charge of the news claims he has heard nothing? I think we have too many journalists here who all run for the same story, Karzi’s brothers death, suicide bombers, snow leopards in Badaghshan etc.. but no one can write a piece about an internal conflict other then the battle going on along the Afghan Pakistan border? I have determined that like the rest of the human population Journalists are SHEEP!

 

This late spring offensive has been going on almost every year since I have been coming here but has grown in size and scope the past three years. Here in Kabul, and Ghazni, and Wardak the elected officials really have done nothing to avert this, even when they know about it before hand. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that next spring several thousand Taliban will gather together and over a 2-4 week period will plunder and pillage selected villagers who have either run for office or strongly support a politician who is not Pashtun. Only after a small contingent of police are placed between the two tribes will the fighting subside and then maybe an official will come and negotiate another truce to the fighting.

 

What I can tell you is this. The destruction is Selective and is not done by a group of Camel Herders

 

We head back for Doab where we will take an afternoon bath in the local reservoir, one of the few projects by the Ghazni PRT done in the region. Time for me to cool off.

 

Barikak

85 students, approximately half are boys half are girls

Grades 1-6 …7-12 attend Alton for high school if they can travel / walk that far

6 Govt paid teachers

5 rooms. $10,000 dollars

The next morning we head north back over the Lava Domes to Barikak. It is a short drive not more than an hour. We take a right off the main road but have to stop due to the new road to town has not been completed. How far do we have to walk? 10-15 minutes they say. Normally this would not be a big deal, even at 10,000 feet, but the watermelon I had for lunch yesterday with the ANP was giving my stomach problems. I had Aziz carry my camera bag which is quite heavy. We made it to town where the village elders and the local children were waiting to greet us. I took some photos and shook some hands and proceeded to head to a room to make the contract with the village. Qasimi explains the contract and everyone agrees.

 

Would you like to see the location of the school? How far is it I ask. About the same distance as you just walked. I was not up for the hike. I was drained. We can get you a donkey they suggest. I still had to head to Jorghai after this visit to document the school project from last year and a Donkey was not on my list of travel options at the moment. Can you get me a Motorcycle to bring me back to the truck? Changese, Jarod, Aziz, and I can visit Jorghai while you work out the location here. So off we went on motor bike back to the truck while Qasimi and others visited the school location. I left my pocket camera with Mazarf to document the location for future reference.

 

 

Changese, Jarod , Aziz and I  hop back in the truck and head towards Jorghai. We pass though Alton along the way. The sight of one of my schools built 3 or 4 years ago I forget. It looks good, still needs glass in the windows but that to will come someday. We don’t even bother to stop.

 

An hour later we arrive in Jorghai and climb out of the valley towards the school. It looks great. This town has been true to its word, a six room school with a courtyard for the girls to hang out in. The school is well built with stone and cement, carpet on the floor, clean and inviting. Much better than a  crowded room in the mosque down the hill.

 

It is late in the day, all the students and teachers have left for the day. One lone teacher is around and tells me everyone is pleased with the school. I tell them they should be proud of what they accomplished and please tell them that I am extremely happy with the school. A couple more photos and a hope that next year we will see the school in action and we head back towards Doab.

 

As we come into Alton an ANP green Ford Ranger is parked by the mosque. One of the policeman waves his hand indicating we should stop. We will sleep here Aziz tells me. Mr. Qasimi made the drive and is visiting with the village elders. We hang outside the mosque for over an hour talking amongst ourselves and waiting for dinner to be served.

 

The next day it is time to say good bye to Mr. Qasimi. He will head towards Doab eventually after several more stops to talk with his constituents, and we will head North to Bamiyan where I have to check in on the Bamiyan Eco Tourism project that we supported with 9 pairs of Tele-mark skis and boots. Before we go our separate ways he tells me that in Bamiyan I must take a flight to Kabul. The road is too dangerous. A respected elected official was brutally murdered on the Bamiyan Parwyn road two weeks ago which is making everyone edgy.

 

Last summer the VNG was in charge of the Parwyn province and had good success keeping everyone safe in the area. Personally the ride would not been of much concern to me, but I have to respect those who are in charge of my safety, we have many schools to build. No time to be a hero.

 

The ride through Behsud is uneventful and we make it to Bamiyan in good time with only one flat tire and a rest for the vehicles at the base of Hajigak mountain, considered the sight of the world’s largest Iron Ore deposit. Once we get to the top it is downhill most of the way to Bamiyan.

 

Before reaching the city limits of Bamiyan we have to pass through Kalo a village we had contracted a school with. Long story short with 86 NGO’s working in Bamiyan Province the villagers decided that they would rather wait for funding that did not require them to contribute the 1/3rd that we ask of each village in the form of labor, beams and mining the stone for the construction of the school. In some ways I don’t blame them, but with the list of schools still not started and the Transition being implemented they might have missed their chance. Barikak received the funds to build their school

 

Bamiyan is one of the most peaceful places I have visited except for the Nawur region where our schools are located. Both locations have several spots on the road in and out that can be dangerous but once you are there it is safe and peaceful. The difference is that in Bamiyan there are 86 NGO’s and the B&B’s for all who need to stay there to support their work where as in Nawur there is basically only myself and a Care office that I only heard about this past trip. I only learned they were in the area after we played a couple of volleyball matches in their courtyard in Baahi. They do no educational projects to speak of except some paper and pen handouts every once in a while.

 

I settle up with Changese and Aziz and tell them to enjoy the evening. I should be fine on my own here. I have a place at Camp Budda. Hadi, my father Haji’s son has a small B&B located there and I will be his guest there for the next 4 days when my flight is booked. I settle in and take a well deserved shower then take the 5 minute walk to the Bazaar to just get out and about before dinner.

 

I have two small projects in Bamiyan, one is a small private school that I have supported by request from one of my donors who is familiar with the school and wanted to help it keep its financial head above water. The second is an Eco Tourism project that along with Eric from Mad River Glen we shipped 9 pairs of Tele-mark skis and boots in time for last winter and the possibility of Ex-pats working in Kabul who might venture here for a weekend getaway. They had 49 skiers which isn’t bad when you think of the Logistics involved, as well as getting the word out, and the lack of snowfall early in the year.

 

 

 

 

I had four days in Bamiyan, documenting the project’s would take a day at most. The rest of the week was filled by traveling with the Governor and Mayor of Bamiyan to Band Amir one day for a picnic on the far side of the lake with the Turkish Ambassador. The ride use to take 3-4 hours on a good day. With fresh pavement it is now done in an hour tops. Another day I was again invited to visit the grand opening of a new café near the 1st check point coming into Bamiyan city. It looks and feels nice but might be a bit far to attract enough Expats stationed in Bamiyan to make a go of it. My days were full but not rushed. I had time to visit the bazaar but never did stop by the Budda Statues except when driving by.

 

On Saturday morning a Helicopter ride with the Kiwi PRT was arranged for me to hitch a ride back to Kabul. It does a loop from Bamiyan to Panshir, to Bagram and then Kabul picking up and dropping off NGO workers and soldiers at their desired location. It was fun to be traveling through the valleys flying below the 12-14 thousand foot mountains of the Hindu Kush. The ride was smooth and uneventful and I was dropped off at the Kabul Airport where I was bussed to the Airport road where I flagged down a Taxi.

 

So here I am on my last day in Kabul sitting in my room at the Gandamack Lodge, a popular place for the Ex-Pats working here in Kabul. The place is clean and well run. It has lodging and a restaurant that offers a place to relax and have conversation in an outside garden with a cold beer or glass of wine.

 

Peter and Hassina have welcomed me to stay here every year for a few days before I head home for free. It is several steps up from the flea bag hotels I have patronized over the years. I do miss the closing of the Mustaffa where I knew everyone and the staff always enjoyed it when I arrived. The same can be said of the Gandamack. Over the years I have worked in the kitchen with the Chefs and had a few sessions with the waiters giving them advice on how to please the over worked and over paid staff of internationals here in Kabul.

 

It is my 10th summer here, something that most who have been to Kabul cannot say. Some come for a contract or two for their resume and then move on to Sudan, or Bangladesh or Brussels. Do the math.

I have had an opportunity to get a snapshot of the progress made or the lack of progress made. Its difficult to put in a few paragraphs what I think or have seen but will try and put it in perspective.

 

I also live outside the self imposed bubble that they live under. I walk the streets, ride the roads, sleep in their houses and I used to eat their food. For the most part those working here have gotten to know their driver, housecleaner and cook and have never left Kabul unless by convoy or by air.

 

Back home we live in a Mc’Donalds minute. In the west we live with microwaves that can cook a dinner in 3 minutes and we didn’t have to grow the food. We have clean water, refrigeration 24 -7. The roads are smooth though lately that is questionable back home. Even our most dilapidated schools would be considered one of the best here in Afghanistan. We live in a world where we expect and it is expected of us to get our task done.

 

Here everything is just the opposite for the most part. There is electricity in Kabul (but at a large cost) but not in most parts of the country. The roads have improved but the road is long, new hospitals and clinics have been built, water is still questionable but more is available for crops and village life. We have just scratched the surface here and it will take another decade or two to get this ship moving on its own. We forget that they have had 30 years of wars that the locals did not want or ask for and with that we have a population that is considered 25% literate and I am being generous with that figure.

And after 10 years of observation I have grown tired of both sides (Afghans & International sect) complaining about the other and their lack of progress. I am especially tired of both sides saying

“But this is Afghanistan”

 

I am also tired of us focusing on the military to measure our success here in Afghanistan. They have done their part and done it well with one arm tied behind its back. If the development sector had been put under the same microscope as the military we might have had a clearer picture of what really needs to be done to achieve the stability we are looking for.

 

Is it stable here? You see the headlines but then headlines are made to sell papers, advertisements. As Peter said the other night no one writes about the good things is just doesn’t sell. Unless of course someone like Greg Mortenson goes off track a bit and a school closes, or he makes too much money from his book do we take that opportunity to bash him down.  Best to keep my head below the radar.

 

But what about the salaries of the head of the various branches of the U.N. or our own USAID? Why doesn’t Steve Croft spend some time looking into that Fiasco. That’s where the true problem lies. In the development sector. The UN, the E.U The USA they have made this problem and let’s not forget the media who like sheep head for the copter with a helmet and bullet proof vest to be transported to the next hotspot. You can’t really get a sense of things from 10,000 feet.

 

Do I have hope? Of course I do. You don’t think I really like coming here do you? It’s hard here the way I live, no driver, no vehicle, no security, cheap hotel rooms, and questionable food and water. You feel like you are being watched, and maybe I am, but that all doesn’t measure up to the Tashakors I receive from the people, the real people like you and me. They give me food, shelter, security, give me advice and a hot cup of tea. And that is where my hope lies, with the people.

 

My hope is that over time, one by one, family by family, the lives will be improved and the literacy rate will grow and the people will determine what needs to be done. But like Jeddy use to say it will get done when it gets done. In other words it will take time, and when I say time I mean decades, generations. This problem will not be solved with a 30 second sound bite and the snap of our fingers.

I hope all is well in your world, all is well in mine

Peace

Jonathan