Archive for February 2014

Letter from Afghanistan VI

Sent on 29th September 2010, in this letter our correspondent talks about being caught up in the fringes of the Bakhtar guest house attack which occurred shortly before the (cancelled) Presidential election run-off and returning to Kabul for the 2010 parliamentary elections.

Greetings loyal readers, your intrepid correspondent is back in Afghanistan for the parliamentary elections this time. Before I comment on current conditions and life in the Afghan capital, Kabul, I would like to return to last year. I penned a brief farewell letter to colleagues on leaving but did not say anything about the events leading up to a very abrupt departure. The reasons will become clear as you read on.

Doubtless many of you will have followed the news at the time of the presidential elections and read stories of “irregularities” in the voting. I will not cover that subject here as it there was more than enough media coverage and pronouncements from various pundits at the time. Not all of these statements were helpful to those of us working in the country and indeed some of the more inflammatory remarks were made by individuals as they were leaving Afghanistan. Thanks a bunch, guys.

Now to the events of Wednesday 28 October 2009, a long time ago you may think but not a date I will ever forget. At around 6am several Taliban/AGE (Anti Government Elements)/insurgents, attacked the Bakhtar Guesthouse with a combination of small arms fire, grenades and ultimately suicide vests. At the time I was in my guesthouse not very far away and awoke to the sound of automatic weapons fire and explosions to be shortly followed by an understatement of a text message announcing that there was a serious incident underway in Shar e naw district and that all staff were to report their location and stay put. For almost two hours a firefight ensued between the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the insurgents. During this time the majority of the inhabitants of the guesthouse managed to get to safety due in no small part to the courage and sacrifice of others, both international and national. I will not go into specifics, some of you reading this will have your own memories of that day and some were a lot more personally involved than I was. Throughout the attack I was in my room with the sounds of explosions and gunfire seemingly outside the gates of the house. Let’s get one thing straight I was terrified, I have never been through anything like that before and I hope I never do again, how the people who received phone calls from some of those trapped inside coped I will never know. Gradually news filtered through of fatalities and the enormity of the tragedy became clearer. Hearing that friends and colleagues had been killed in a brutal and senseless manner left me numb and shocked, the moment for anger and tears was still to come.

The UN declared a White City, no movement whatsoever. That night I slept fully dressed on top of my bed, boots, spectacles, the lot. The following morning I found out that an attempt was to be made to search Bekhtar and recover personal possessions of the former residents, many of whom had fled in their nightclothes or what little they pulled on prior to escaping. I decided in my infinite wisdom to volunteer to help with this task, anything was better than staying in my room. My offer of help was accepted and so mid morning on Thursday I was at the scene with a very few others including some survivors to begin the task of search and recovery. I have to say now that the ANP presence was a disgrace, not only was a senior officer’s son roaming around the fire gutted building but the majority of them were sitting at a table in the courtyard eating, seemingly oblivious to the evidence of events around them, bloodstains on the tiles and body parts in full view. After negotiations with the senior police officer we were eventually allowed to do what we were there for, a room by room search. As we went around the building it was obvious that there had been some looting, clean ash free places suggesting that an I pod, camera, laptop or mobile phone had been picked up by some vulture. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as there are always those who will want to profit from other people’s misfortune. It was a harrowing day but with its lighter moments, a fridge in one room that had been affected by the fire had burst open and whatever was in there had transformed an otherwise mundane household object into a Dali-esque work of art. On a higher floor the person in front of me unwittingly stood on a full, unopened one litre carton of chocolate milk. If there had been any justice it would have projected the contents straight up his trouser leg, instead the entire one litre shot backwards and covered my good self. All I could do was laugh.

As we were loading the cars and vans with a large number black rubbish bags containing the possessions of the Bekhtar inhabitants the assembled journalists would try to photograph the names on the bag labels, anyone putting a camera in my way was liable to get a very close up view of a moving bag, enough said.

After a whole day’s searching and packing we left in an escorted convoy for the main UN base some 15km outside the city where, at the base social club, survivors were reunited with their belongings. Well actually most of them were, due to the fire a few unfortunates were literally left with nothing but the clothes they wore. That night I needed a beer or three and in the company of a couple of friends I had several, I suppose I was trying to drink to forget, dumb idea, it doesn’t work I can assure you. That night I stayed away from my guesthouse with others from the project who were wise enough to recognise that I was in no fit state to go home, even with an escort. A word of advice, when someone tells you to make sure the water heater is switched on before you go to sleep try not to forget these wise words within a nano second. I do have an excuse, there was a fairly strong earthquake that night which produced a kind of fatalistic hysteria and I was drunk.

The following day saw all project members gathering at the office in town before heading out to the base for a memorial service. The social club was packed, not only were we all there but a large number of other UN staff attended. Someone had contacted the Italian embassy in Kabul and a senior Roman Catholic priest conducted what was for the most part a non-denominational service. Friends of the victims spoke as well as UN officials and especially the head of our project who alluded to my sleeping fully dressed, I don’t mind because I am sure other people did and it’s good to realise you are not the only one who felt like that.

Afterwards the survivors were taken to the airport for a flight to Dubai and deserved VIP treatment. Those of us remaining went back to our accommodation to reflect on events and speculate on the future. That Sunday everyone was called into the office compound and the steps to be taken were spelt out. A list was projected onto the conference room screen of those who would stay, mission critical staff, and those who would be leaving as soon as possible. When I saw that I was to leave there was an immense turmoil of emotion within me, I was going home but I was leaving behind friends and unfinished work.

There then followed what can only be described as organised chaos. Destinations had to be given and HR had to book flights for a lot of people. Everyone had to return to their guesthouse and collect belongings then get back to the office in double quick time. The original plan was to get out that night but it proved impossible to get the tickets for the flight to Dubai in that short space of time. Because of a very real threat it had been decided that we were going to at the office compound that night. A kind of end of term party ensued with the occasional drink and lots of pizza, eventually everyone fell asleep on thin mattresses placed on the floors of the conference room and some offices. Morning came all too soon and a queue rapidly formed for the one shower in the gents but somehow everyone got a soaking before drying themselves on items of clothing as no towels were available. At least we all started the various journeys reasonably hygienic. At 05.00 those of us heading for the early Dubai flight left in convoy after somewhat emotional farewells to colleagues leaving later. The boss said goodbye to us all, how she managed to look so good at that early hour I do not know, personally I looked and felt awful and the idea of a day travelling did not fill me full of joy.

Kabul airport is a peculiar form of torture, populated by staff whose sole purpose in life is to make the travelling experience as difficult as possible. With the police refusing to allow our convoy any nearer than 150m to the terminal and the interminable security checks it’s enough to turn Michael Palin into a reclusive hermit. Let me condense the next 19 hours into a few words, boring, delayed flights, airport lounges and wonderfully at last Heathrow and the most fantastic welcome home.

Fast forward to about three months ago, I was approached by a former colleague and asked if I wanted to come back to Kabul and do the same job as 2009. I had to think very hard about this but decided that I would and duly sent off my CV as my job had been taken over by another organisation. After a few weeks I was telephone interviewed and offered the post subject to medical clearance. Surprisingly passed the medical, details of the cholesterol count can be found in the 2011 Guinness Book of Records, and waited for a go signal. The beginning of August arrived and I found myself in Dubai applying for my Afghan visa, the consulate was remarkably efficient compared to the London Embassy and I was on my way to Kabul.

Arrived at Kabul airport and it immediately felt as if nothing had changed, basically because nothing had. However I have to admit that the meet and greet was very efficient, no wandering to the car park to try and find a white 4×4 in a car park full of them, then it was off to the office. The office was also accommodation and very nice it was, clean, smelt good and great food, what a change from the previous year’s guesthouse. The following day it was off to my place of work to see what had been constructed in my absence. I had already seen photos of the centre so was not too surprised when it lived down to all my expectations. All the alterations to the original plan had been ignored by the architect and not passed on to the contractors, trip hazards everywhere, emergency exit, hold that, what emergency exit? Ok it looked nice in an Afghan way, Pakistani wedding cake meets public toilet, but work has been needed to get it useable in anything other than a basic form.

I somehow knew that the comparative five star lodgings must be too good to be true and lo! After a couple of weeks it was announced that due to an influx of more senior and permanent staff some of those nearer the primordial soup end of the food chain were to be relocated to a supposedly decent hotel, so four of us packed our bags and decamped. Alright the web site promised a luxury life style but the reality is somewhat different. The first rooms we were given were actually more suitable to not very fussy hobbits. The shower in my room was not adjustable in any way shape or form and was level with my sternum. Likewise the front door was about bridge of nose height, god that hurt! After some weeks all of us now have reasonable rooms, I have been out and bought a fridge as the opulent lifestyle promoted by the hotel assumes you don’t want cold drinks in the room or to keep even basics like milk for tea fresh for longer than ten minutes in a Kabul summer.

One essential of life here is the can of mosquito and fly killer. The mossies are Taliban trained, and no more than six could probably drain the blood from a medium sized bullock. Unlike the ones at my last year’s lodgings these things are almost silent and hide until lights out when squadrons will appear to dive bomb the unsuspecting meal. The hotel restaurant is limited in its menu, again the web site description paints a picture of something approaching the standard of Le Manoir au Quattre Saisons whereas the reality is more burger van without the extensive menu or hygiene standards. Needless to say use of this stunning facility is kept to an absolute minimum especially since I foolishly decided to survey the kitchen and discovered amongst other things that the salads and veg are washed in the almost certainly contaminated tap water. We are existing on lunches at our place of work, deliveries and snacks in the rooms and that seems to be adequate for us.

Nothing much really changes in Kabul, it’s still dusty, smelly and hot, well hot at least for the present. The evenings have a slight chill about them now. Perhaps this is a warning of a harsh winter to come. Over the past few weeks I have met old friends and workmates, made new friends and tried to do my job despite the various difficulties.

And finally, as I finish this letter I am in my hotel room, we’ve been locked down for four days now because of security concerns. First of all it was because of the end of Ramadan and the Eid celebrations but now a loony tunes pastor from some hickville redneck church in rural Florida has decided to burn copies of the Koran in protest at the building of a mosque near the site of 9/11, the World Trade Centre in New York. Thanks to the intervention of the US president and the wonder of the internet this inbred preacher and his buck toothed banjo playing congregation, if you can call fifty a congregation, has stirred up trouble beyond his wildest imagining. Personally I don’t think you would have to go far to exceed this guy’s imagination but you know what I mean. There have already been protests in Afghanistan with shots fired during them. The actions of idiots like this alligator wrestling retard and his single cell followers are increasing the risk to troops and others working here but providing an excuse that extremists can use to wind up the general population who would normally be fairly benign where us foreigners are concerned. Let’s hope that this story drifts back into the obscurity from which it sprung and we can concentrate on the job in hand with just the usual dangers.

To one and all of you I send my wishes that you stay well and prosper and that I see you in the very near future.

Letter from Afghanistan V: The Potato Exchange

Sent on 31st August 2009, in this letter our correspondent talks about the local markets.

This past week has been almost normal, I mean that I have been getting up in the morning, going to work, coming home and eating the, by now, legendary bad food. Therefore I thought I’d try to paint in words a few pictures of life round here. Now there have been quite a few books written about Afghanistan in general and Kabul in particular but nothing beats living here for making you appreciate almost everywhere else in the world.

Yes the people are charming and hospitable but those characteristics disappear as soon as they get behind the wheel of a car. Then they are fearless warriors charging into battle on their steeds complete with flowing robes and flashing swords held aloft. Ok the steeds do tend to be Toyotas in various stages of decomposition bit they do have the robes and probably more than a few have the swords or some other armament tucked away. It seems that traffic laws, if they exist and even I can’t believe that a whole department of traffic police exist solely for the purpose of extracting al fresco taxes from the motoring populace, are merely an advisory including which side of the road to drive on, the correct way to go round roundabouts (traffic circles for my transatlantic readership) and that one way streets really should be one way and not just the one way that someone feels suits his planned route.

The net result of this is gridlock of the kind that totally belies the low percentage of car owning here but of course you can also throw donkey carts, horse carts and herds of goats into the equation. If this somewhat unstable mix is then given a good stir courtesy of the traffic police on point duty then anything can happen. A favourite trick of these guardians of the highway occurs when they work in teams at a complex junction the definition of which seems to be any choke point in the road system with the potential to cause chaos. Instead of working as a team they perform as individual prima donnas each with their own personal style. However the end result is always the same, each of them will wave through traffic supposedly under their control without even pretending to look at the other officers. No one stops to think that the other traffic is moving, they all rush to the centre of the junction and stop. There then follows some bizarre dance of the cars as the upholders of law and chaos attempt to move enough cars to create a gap, a bit like one of those little games where tiles are shifted around a grid with just one space. Eventually everything is sorted out only for the problem to shift somewhere else and life carries on.

Another aspect of driving here is closely linked with the lack of a proper sewage system in Kabul. Between pavement and road (sidewalk and pavement) there is in most places a gully . This gully or channel varies between 200mm and 400mm in width and around 600mm deep. The depth is a bit difficult to gauge as it is usually impossible to see the bottom on account of the contents. For the most part the channels carry some sort of liquid, I don’t know precisely what the mixture is and I don’t want to, if you then add the detritus that abounds in the city streets the resulting evil mix certainly makes its presence felt on a warm day. The thing that really amazes me is that I have never seen a car put a wheel down one of these things despite every available millimetre of road space being utilised. I have seen a motorbike in one but i think the stand was broken and the owner had simply parked it there in order to keep it upright.

Of course on some streets the kerbside is lined with stalls selling freshly squeezed lemon juice mixed with the bacteria laden local water or maybe fresh produce such as tomatoes or water melon. This brings me on to the next part of my letter and eventually the meaning behind this week’s title. The one product/service culture. I mentioned the stalls selling the lemon drink and tomatoes well this goes a lot further. Street traders invariably deal in just one product, in the case of fresh produce you will see whole stalls filled with apples, bananas, grapes, water melons or some not readily identifiable green stuff and this will be just the one item not a mix of produce.

This practice goes beyond street traders and stalls and extends to whole streets. The most famous ones are called Chicken Street and Flower Street. These are the actual names on the road signs, Chicken Street quite obviously sells chickens as well as a variety of other animal bits, the chickens are very fresh and in most cases are clucking until the money is handed over, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the other meats on display, very often hung up outside the shops. As if being contaminated with the bio hazard dust and used as a meeting place for flies wasn’t enough then the joint or carcass can cut up on the bandsaw in the street or put through the mincer powered by a car engine. Neither of these machines will have been cleaned in decades save for the half-hearted occasional wipe over with the all-purpose rag that five minutes before was being used to clean the car windows or another task which I will leave you to speculate about.

Flower Street sells flowers but even here things are not what you would expect. It’s all artificial flowers made of paper, plastic or cloth in some of the brightest shades never seen in nature. Everywhere you go you will find the most ornate and bizarre floral arrangements, indeed some of them on the tables in the guesthouse are so large it’s like trying to talk to the guy across the table through a jungle. There is another reason for the many shops selling the artificial flora, weddings. Now I have no idea how the wedding venues are decorated but cars taking the bride and groom as well as the guests to weddings are decorated in the most elaborate manner. This is all part of the service offered by the Flower Street shops and it is carried out at the kerbside thus reducing the available free road to one car width if you are lucky.

There are other streets which have a one product or service aspect, near to me is a preponderance of sari shops, further down the road it becomes what I have dubbed Toilet Street because every shop sells porcelain products. Think of a commodity and there’s likely to be a street full of shops dealing in it. Tyres, metal gates, rope, computers, you name it and I bet you’ll find it here. On the way to work we pass through a particularly shabby district which deals in vehicle parts, it is said that this is where the locals come to buy back their wing mirrors, hubcaps and other easily collectable spares which get collected by others at night.

About now you may be wondering what potatoes have to do with this week’s ramblings, well I will get to the point. At the foot of the hill leading up to the Intercontinental there is a partially completed road with a reasonably good surface, every morning a selection of horse-drawn carts are parked there along with drivers and several young boys. On the roadway are heaps of potatoes and onions which presumably have arrived on the carts. The boys seem to be picking over these heaps and sorting in what must be a crude grading process. The vegetables are then loaded onto carts and everybody goes away, there doesn’t seem to be any cash changing hands or any locals arriving to buy for home use merely an exchange of produce.

It was at this location that I witnessed the coming together of two of the subjects previously mentioned, the waste channels and the unidentifiable green stuff. This horse and cart driver was parked up near the potato guys with his load of greenery when i saw him take bunches of it and rinse it in the gully. I made a mental note not to eat anything remotely like that ever while I am here.

On that delightful thought I will round off this week’s letter, it’s been a quiet one by local standards at least in Kabul and I can only hope that it stays like this. Good bye for now and I hope it won’t be too long before I see some of you in person again.

Letter from Afghanistan IV

Sent on 14th August 2009, in this letter our correspondent discusses the final week before the elections

Yet another week has absolutely flown by. Your intrepid correspondent has not had time to put thoughts onto the screen before today which is Friday 21 August 2009.

It’s been a rather eventful week as many of you will already know with numerous incidents. I can’t say I really like the word incident when it’s used in the context of some of the happenings here but I don’t suppose the official report writers are allowed to use descriptions such as atrocity or mass murder. The week started with one such “incident”. A suicide car bomb got to within thirty metres of the main entrance to ISAF headquarters, how he got that close and through the other checkpoints is still the subject of investigation and much speculation. Anyway the bomber killed no foreign troops but did manage to kill and injure large numbers of his own countrymen, I just do not know what goes through the minds of these lunatics.

Then on Tuesday an ISAF convoy just off the Jalalabad Road was the target of another of these explosive laden Toyotas. This time a UN vehicle was caught up in the mayhem and two local staff were killed. Because military convoys are the main target of the one way taxis our drivers have instructions to stay at least fifty meters from ISAF vehicles to lessen the chance of becoming collateral damage. Personally I like the hundred meters version of this practice and would actually prefer to be a lot further away, possibly another country.

Throughout the week the saga of the audio-visual and simultaneous interpretation equipment has been running with all the allure and satisfaction of one of Kabul’s open sewers. All this expensive gear had been sat in Dubai for days and promised delivery dates came and went but nothing arrived. As you can imagine there was much shouting and screaming, and then we let the carrier’s local representative down from the rack. No, seriously we were e mailing everybody we could think of at the airline as well as the shippers but nothing seemed to happen except an ever-expanding list of excuses and a growing feeling that if this did show up it could be just in time for the 2010 elections.

On Wednesday we stripped out the small conference room we had been using so that at least we had a PA system, ISAF arrived with decent microphones and an interpretation system and we had promises of a lighting set from Afghan Television.

Thursday morning and imagine how I felt when I received a call from logistics that our man at the airport could actually see the aircraft and was driving towards it with trucks. Normally I wouldn’t welcome being woken up at 06.30 but I was definitely prepared to make an exception for this call. Christmas had come early and I couldn’t wait to unwrap the presents. It actually took another three hours for the shipment to arrive at the hotel and then a while longer to negotiate the security who, first of all seemed intent on making everything come in the long way rather than through the nearest entrance, then wanted to search all the boxes. I refused point-blank to open all this in the hostile dusty environment of the hotel car park so eventually a compromise was reached and a K9 explosives search unit wandered over the boxes, sniffed and went away. I suppose I should be grateful the dog or the handler didn’t hang around to mark out their territory.

As this was only three hours before the first press conference only basics were set up, audio distribution for the press and the projectors. Afghan TV arrived and in their usual style attempted to take over the show. I was prepared to be generous as they had at least turned up with the lighting so just this once they were allowed to place their own microphones.

Over Thursday and Friday we managed to rig the new loudspeakers and microphones as well as the interpretation system. This was a massive team effort and everything came together splendidly. At this point I have to say a special thanks to our ISAF liaison team. They joined in with the set up and provided good company and humour over the days they were with us. How they managed to do that after being stuck at the hotel over two nights because of the movement restrictions imposed on them I do not know but I shall always be grateful to them. On election day they even noticed that I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for most of the day and brought a pot of tea to me as I was working at the sound desk. Guys you know who I am talking about, thank you for everything.

As for the election it has been deemed a success in terms of voter turnout. Yes there were a large number of incidents across the country and Kabul experienced some small explosions and shootings, a bit like South London really, but here at the media centre we had the impression of being in the eye of the storm, a dead calm had descended on the place. Life was strangely normal, we sat down and had tea and meals and you could have been almost anywhere except for a couple of little hints that this wasn’t a normal setting. The car park was full of armed police and most importantly the service in the coffee shop was typically Afghan, at least an hour and sometimes more for a simple snack such as a burger or a grilled cheese sandwich.

I’ve had a few days staying at the hotel treating myself to the unaccustomed luxury of hot water from the shower whenever I wanted it, I didn’t care that the air conditioning didn’t work or that the television was dead, there was hot water. The other bonus was breakfast, alright there is no bacon or black pudding but the buffet had plenty of other goodies, enough to temporarily displace the memory of local bread and Happy Cow cheese.

The actual press conferences have been going well and the local staff are gradually getting the hang of the equipment, all I have to do now is convince them to pay attention and not miss microphone cues or play with open-ended cables thereby causing hum on the system.

Well that’s a week which commenced with the bombing at ISAF but which didn’t seem to produce the levels of mayhem that was widely expected. Nonetheless innocent people have been the victims as is usual in any country which is basically at war with itself. Casualty figures are still rising and more coffins are being returned home but if I was asked if this was all worth it I would have to say yes. The average Afghan is a nice person despite their propensity as a race for fighting and they deserve a chance to stay out of the clutches of the lunatics that ran this country back into the dark ages. All that will remain to be done is to convince the majority of the male population to start treating women as human beings and for the place to have a president who is strong enough to stop buying off warlords and religious groups at the expense of the ordinary people.

Letter from Afghanistan III – The Beer Seller of Kabul

Sent on 14th August 2009, in this letter our correspondent reflects on another week in Kabul and the human cost of the conflict.

Afghanistan is an Islamic republic and an unfortunate by-product of this is that alcohol is nominally not available to the citizenry but there are supplies to be had both from official and unofficial sources. On the legitimate side our source is the bar at UNOCA where as you already know I partake of the occasional beverage with my mate Dennis when we go shopping for supplies. If a person doesn’t have access to UNOCA then they are forced to buy on the black market in places such as Flower Street at a substantial premium or as required in their guesthouse or hotel. When a guesthouse sells someone a beer this can involve a house boy going to the beer seller and by the time it gets to your table not only is it warm but a $1.00 beer has become a $5.00 beer. The internationals at the Intercontinental are mostly confined there and anyway don’t have access to the UN base. This includes the European Union Election Monitors who are Brussels’ civil servants lording it around the place as if they were back home. As they seem to be mostly French I would not be too unhappy to find the place a smoking ruin when I arrive in the morning, well maybe just the top floor which appears to be the principle habitat of these refugee purveyors of onions. Anyway I digress from the main theme, one international elections observer asked if I could supply him with beer. As he was 1) English and 2) not from the EU delegation, I duly agreed. Once a case of Heineken had been purchased it was taken to the hotel on one of our usual press conference days, the recipient was phoned when we arrived and a rendezvous was arranged in the car park, unfortunately when he arrived he had forgotten to bring a bag or box with him, you just don’t walk into a government-owned hotel with a case of Heineken under your arm, so more waiting until he returned with cover for the contraband. Money changed hands and another happy customer wandered off to stock up his fridge.

It been just another standard week in Kabul, dust, flies and dire food have been in abundance. Luckily I have not been revisited by the dreaded Kabul stomach which afflicts so many of the international community here, possibly because I am tending to eat out or get a good take away at lunchtime and not having much at the guesthouse. Vegetables continue to be a very rare item in my diet simply because I don’t like them cooked in diesel for 10 hours before dinner. I’m not joking, as I left for work this morning I peeked into the kitchen and the rather unhygienic looking chef, he could have been the chief stoker off the SS Great Britain from the state of his clothes, was just starting to cook tonight’s dinner. The technique seems to be cook everything for the same amount of time, i.e. a lump of mutton is cooked long enough to render it tender but the cauliflower goes on at the same time. Once cooked to oblivion the food is then left to acquire a temperature somewhere between that suitable for a one year old child and stone cold. Of course on the way it has passed through optimum bug breeding temperature with its usual dire consequences. If a guest has the temerity to mention that the food is a bit chilly a member of staff will slink away and reappear with a small chemical fuelled heated to place underneath the food. Of course he will then need to refill it from a plastic molotov cocktail kept under the serving table so that the pungent odour of the fuel adds its own special something to that whole dining experience. He will then light this tin with the flourish of a magician producing a newly repaired sawn in half assistant and at the same time ignite the spilt fuel on the tabletop, his hand and the floor.

None of this is cause for concern to the staff who just wander off to watch some Bollywood movie or Afghan soap opera on the big screen television which dominates one wall of the room. Don’t get me wrong this is not a state of the art LCD or Plasma television, it is a massive cabinet of the projected television type that were popular a few decades ago before flat screen technology. It is constantly out of focus and has a sound system which would reduce Pavarotti to a George Formby sound-alike. Despite these technical failings I have more pressing reasons to dislike this intrusion into my senses. Firstly I have become used to relative peace and quiet during meals so that I can just eat or engage in conversation with my fellow inmates, secondly the staff will continually switch this monstrosity to a channel in a language that nobody except they understand. When asked for BBC or CNN or simply to switch it off they do so with as much bad grace and sulking as can be collectively mustered, a bit like the reaction to be expected from a child from whom you’ve taken away the crayons he was using to redesign a Pugin wall hanging or the look of puzzlement on a cat’s face when the feline finally realises that the small creature its been tormenting for hours has finally expired.

As we approach the final few days before the election speculation is rife as to what will actually happen. Rumours abound about possible violence before polling day, the Taliban have threatened to block roads and otherwise disrupt the electoral process but yet another rumour says that they are going to take a step back and let the various political factions start all the trouble.

Obviously organisations such as the UN have to make contingency plans for any eventuality which could range from a peaceful election to full-scale civil unrest. One worrying sign is that our office is now stuffed with bottled water and MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) aka US Army rations also known as Meals Rejected by Everyone. We have yet to be informed as to if and when these will be distributed and I for one will be happy to see them. For the senior members of my readership who remember army “compo” rations these MRE’s are a whole different ball game, each pack contains one main meal plus cake/cookie, crackers, jelly (jam in english) and beverage, coffee. The main meal is in a sachet and can be eaten cold but these ration packs come with a heater bag for each main meal. The heaters are simply activated with water which starts a heat-producing chemical reaction, main meal bag is placed inside the heater bag and hey presto 10-15 minutes later you have a hot meal. I’ve yet to figure out how to make tea with this system but there will be a way I’m sure.

Before I go I must add a few lines with a more sombre tone. Almost every day you folks back home will be seeing accounts of yet more UK casualties here, sometimes you will also see reports of US ones as well. It’s easy to forget that several of the other forty countries involved in ISAF are also losing members of their armed forces. Amongst these are the Germans, Canadians, Poles and Australians, smaller contingents than the UK and US admittedly but still having people killed and injured, however the units taking the most casualties are the Afghan National Army (ANA), and the Afghan National Police (ANP). The ANP alone is losing on average 120 members a month to enemy action.

These elections will not bring an end to the troubles here and indeed may cause more in the short-term but one thing is certain, British and other forces will be here for a very long time and it is up to all of us to make sure our government, whatever its political complexion, gives our fighting men the equipment and back up they need while they are here and provides the best possible care for the injured on the battlefield and when they return to the UK.

Last but not least let us not forget the families of those killed and injured. They deserve the goodwill, compassion and support of the whole community, let their voices be heard above those of the so-called anti-war brigade. If the families wish to criticise our country’s involvement here they have every right to do so, just as if they wish to support it but let’s stop giving air time to those who know nothing about the situation here and have no idea of the personal sacrifices that take place on a daily basis.

I sincerely hope that these last few paragraphs have made sense to you, with any luck the coming week will be a quiet one and I will be able to report from here with more of the funnier side of life in Kabul.

Letter from Afghanistan II

Sent on 7th August 2009, in this letter our correspondent talks about trying to get the media centre ready ahead of the election.

This week I have tried to structure the jottings from dust bowl central into something approaching chronological order, always assuming I can work out what day of the week it is. The new week dawned on Saturday and, after a party Friday night, I stayed in bed till 7am when, thanks to various wild swipes at the alarm clock, I could no longer reach it to hit the snooze button.

Saturday itself contained no surprises and even less work. Highlight of the day was going to be a meeting with the architect of the new purpose-built media centre hereinafter referred to as the MC. Despite being contacted a week ago and me sending him a list of suggested alterations to his vision of Versailles in Kabul, there had been no reply to confirm that the meeting would actually happen. Wafa, as he likes to be called, remained elusively silent. So imagine my surprise when I was called to the gate to vouch for this gentleman. Our meeting was by Afghan standards short and to the point, although the ritual tea, without which no meeting is complete, was consumed before business commenced.

Bearing in mind I am no architect and have the artistic bent of an aphid, between us, we came up with some sensible alterations to the building design which is in a style known locally as “Pakistani Wedding Cake”. Apart from some very necessary technical changes, Wafa agreed that emergency exit doors to complement the one entry/exit in his design would be a very good idea, we also managed to lose a row of small windows 6m up the side walls which were supposed to be supplementary air conditioning, but said daylight intrusion to me.

Sunday it was supposed to be a regular press conference at 10.00. Today all concerned had a shock when it actually started at 10.30 and was conducted in a fairly orderly manner. As it was approaching lunch, it was decided to head for the main UN base for a pizza. Unfortunately, before reaching there, the driver was called and told to turn round and head back into the city, as there was some sort of problem on the road near the base.

I will now assume that my readers are not that familiar with Kabul and its environs. UNOCA, the main UN compound, is on the Jalalabad Road, which is something it has in common with a lot of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) facilities. At one time this road was considered to be one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan due to the frequency with which roadside bombs were detonated. But in recent times, the Taliban effort has headed out into the provinces. On returning to base the full story of what had happened was related to me by a security guy. Apparently, a local child had been knocked down and killed by a white 4×4 and initial suspicion fell on the UN, although it was subsequently discovered that the vehicle belonged to an NGO.

The ramifications go a lot further for all of us working here. As far as the locals are concerned, we all go around in white 4×4’s and it doesn’t matter to them if it says UN, FAO, WHO or any one of a dozen other acronyms on the side. It’s going to be very likely that aggrieved people with AK47’s are going to be taking pot shots at vehicles travelling that stretch of road and unlike our department a lot of other staff are not using armoured vehicles. Maybe common sense will prevail, but no one’s holding their breath on that one.

Monday and another media event, this time to demonstrate the indelible qualities of the ink used to mark voters fingers. Organisation of the show was absolute chaos but the demonstration was a hit. After testing various solutions – from nail polish remover to bleach on several volunteers – it was generally agreed that the only certain method of removal was amputation, although nobody came forward to help test this theory. Technically, this was not a bad day apart from one intellectually challenged member of the press, who managed to unplug the projector from the wall socket in order to charge his camera.

The drive back from the Intercontinental to the office was by my usual mad driver who today had an attack of Mr. Grumpy, so the maniac driving was laced with a severe dose of black looks and monosyllabic grunts as he tried to mow down everything in his path from elderly men on even more ancient bicycles to donkey and cart or herds of the mangiest goats you have ever seen.

I shall begin Tuesday with an open letter to The Taliban.
“Dear Mullah Omar and friends, if you must fire rockets at the American Embassy, the diplomatic quarter in general and Kabul Airport, would you please not do so at daybreak but wait until at least 07.00, 09.00 on Saturdays. I have just started to sleep through the call to prayer and the cockerel and now you lot start. So, unless you want serious trouble, I suggest you let me get my beauty sleep”.

This attack even had a snooze facility. Just as it seemed sleep was possible again, another one went off.

I should say that one child was injured and there was damage to one house, as for the rest nobody really notices any more potholes in the roads, it’s just another hole in the road and in a few days drivers will be swerving to avoid it without remembering what caused the damage. The general feeling is that this attack was long overdue and was really just the insurgents making their point that even the capital isn’t beyond their reach.

Because of this unwarranted intrusion into my slumbers, the US forces decided to spend the rest of the day flying Apache attack helicopters and Blackhawks around the city with such frequency that it was like sitting on the set of MASH or Apocalypse Now. All that was needed was a bit of napalm or a volley of air launched rockets in the air to complete the illusion.

And so to Wednesday, I really do hope this is going to be a no event day and the next thing that I write about is the feeling of an ice-cold Heineken in my hand. Managed to meander through the day without really thinking about anything except how much I miss being at home. I get like this every so often. Anyway, beer is in hand and I am at peace with the world, be even better if certain elements out there were at peace with me. Looking forward to a good night’s sleep now.

Got up Thursday morning feeling quite good, don’t know why considering where I am but there you go. Another normal Kabul day: the usual manic drive to the Intercontinental, a press conference that started a mere fifteen minutes late and was mercifully short, then back to the ELECT compound to try and make some sort of sense out of the procurement process.

In the past 24 hours it’s been decided that simultaneous interpretation is needed, something I was asking about six weeks ago. Now I could go down to the market and buy some of the Chinese copies of virtually every brand of electronics in the world, all with a three-day warranty if you’re lucky. As I want this system to still be functioning in the course of time, I put it into the permanent MC. This approach has been decided against. So now I am putting potential suppliers under pressure to send back quotes in the time that most French companies spend over lunch, needless to say none of them are getting a look in. Lets see what happens and hopefully come Saturday we will have a chosen company to fulfil this order.

Headed out to the main UNOCA base for a beer run in the evening in the company of a very jovial Ugandan called Dennis. The plan was simply to buy some cases of beer to take away and get back in the car. However once we got there it seemed silly not to have a couple of Becks and so we dismissed the driver with instructions for him to come back in two hours. Now the bar has all the charm of a supermarket booze aisle but there’s conversation to be had and its all we’ve got so beers were consumed, friends greeted and a good evening had by all.

Friday and the sun was well up by the time I stirred, just for once getting up late didn’t mean that all the hot water had gone. Hmm, the day’s going too well, I thought. I met some friends and new folk at the Serena Hotel for brunch and proceeded to pig out on delicacies, such as smoked salmon, trout, marinated vegetables and sushi for four hours. It’s a bit of an indulgence, but it has to be done.

One of today’s diners was, wait for this one, an US navy helicopter pilot. It seems he’s either very adventurous or upset somebody because he has been condemned to sitting behind a desk at ISAF headquarters in Kabul for seven months. A really nice guy, although I do think turning up in body armour and armed for brunch may have been a bit over the top.

I’ve been going over the e mails that have appeared since last night, I didn’t checking them earlier in case it spoilt my day and how right I was. Most of UNDP/ELECT are being told to stay in their residence between 17 and 24 August, with the exception of key personnel on the list attached to the message. Yes you guessed it, yours truly is on the list.

Letter from Afghanistan I

Sent on 31st July 2009, in this letter our correspondent talks about life in Kabul whilst he was living and working there. Bazz was in the city before and after the Afghan presidential election on 20th August that year.

To those of you who have not received this before Letter from Kabul just started as a few random thoughts and a sometimes slightly cynical look at life in Afghanistan and in particular from a personal view. I suppose now I should give the usual health warning and say that the views expressed herein are solely those of the writer, as if anyone else could come up with some of the ramblings that follow. So enough of this and on to the main feature.

Yet another week has gone by in the dust bowl of Afghanistan’s Slough. Hard to believe I’ve been here five weeks already, only another 8 to go. Been told to stop marking the days and weeks on the walls of my cell – sorry, “luxury guesthouse suite” – as its confusing the cleaners. They think I’m trying to leave instructions for them.

Also, had to cut down on the use of fly spray, as its being mistaken for a chemical weapon of mass destruction by the detectors on the roof of the US embassy 3km away.

Chatting with people from various UN agencies over what is jokingly referred to as dinner, we decided that there are really only 2 styles of cooking: one – everything is cooked to death in a red oily gloop; in the second version, they use a yellow oily gloop. These methods seem to be applied to most foodstuffs, with the exception of rice and fruit, although I am waiting to see if water melon gets the gloop treatment one night. A high point at dinner yesterday was the arrival of oranges, so the Red Cross parcels must have got through at last. All we need now are the escape route maps printed on silk and hidden in cigarette packets. Please note: no files to be sent in cakes – by the time they get here, I will need a file to break open the cake.

Work progresses albeit slowly, but I eventually got to spend $60,000 on a load of new equipment which if we are lucky will arrive before the elections. Getting anything done here requires lots of signatures, which is difficult because the culture seems to be along the lines of “if I don’t sign, I can’t be held responsible; and if I do sign, it must go further up the food chain, so a higher pay grade can sign and take responsibility”.

Having said that, there are a lot of UN staff here, both national and international, who are very good at their jobs and dedicated to making at least the elections project a success. Press conferences and meetings with candidates continue in the haphazard fashion that passes for organisation round here, as you can imagine time is a bit of an abstract concept. One meeting over ran by such a margin that by the time the VIPs finished talking, the buffet of kebabs, samosas etc. had been well and truly munched by security guards, drivers and the audio-visual staff.

Since we are talking about staff, I have now acquired two Afghan guys from the IT department. Both are very competent and pleasant and should do well. At a press conference on Thursday, one of them, who sports a permanent 3 day beard and an eye watering mantle of sweat, turned up resplendent in a suit of a colour I can best describe as lavender with matching shirt and tie. Predominant fashion round here tends to be shiny suits and very long pointed shoes.

Security tends to be a subject on everyone’s minds, but thankfully for us in Kabul the militants are at present concentrating their efforts on the provincial cities. Unfortunately, this is putting pressure on friends and colleagues working in those areas. We are still awaiting clarification of arrangements for late working over the election period, but for now all journeys by our department are in those nice new 8 ton Land Cruisers, which appear to have one design flaw: yes, they have armour that will stop up to a .50 calibre shell and give good blast protection, engine fire suppression systems, run flat tyres and a selection of sirens and blue lights, but nobody thought to upgrade the hand brake, so the drivers have a hell of a job doing hill starts or even getting the thing to stand still when we are parked on the slope at the hotel security point. (BAe Systems please note)

It’s Friday, the weekend, and please note this is a one day weekend. Went out last night to the main UN base for a few beers and to stock up the fridge with essentials, like wine and Heineken It was a very pleasant evening in the company of two very jovial Ugandan guys from UNDP/ELECT and we all left loaded with enough supplies to see us through the week. Stockpiling and hoarding will begin fairly soon, I suppose, as the rumours of lockdowns over the election period persist. Nobody wants to be stuck in their room without booze, crisps, chocolate and pot noodles.

I’m going to sign off now, wishing you all a safe week to come, and I will be back with more confused jottings next week.

Letter from Libya IV – Looking Back

Sent on 10th July 2012, in this letter our correspondent mentions previous trips to the country, meeting some well-known (but now deceased) individuals and more about the job and life in Tripoli.

A request has been received from a reader of this infrequent publication to start this contribution to world education with an explanation of a term I used in the last episode. “Murally dyslexic” is derived from mural, a wall painting, and dyslexic, a reading disorder, and basically means unable to read the writing on the wall, in other words didn’t see something obvious on the way. Ok with that out of the way on with the story.

This might be a good time to reflect on previous visits to Libya when himself was still in charge. I have been here on two assignments before. On the first one back at the end of the last century I saw hardly any of the country except the airport, for far longer than I would have liked to, and desert. The project, of which I had a very small part, was to build a temporary theatre so that the Colonel could entertain the leaders of other African nations attending a summit with the story of the Great Man Made River (GMMR) Project. This was to be a rather cheesy audio-visual presentation depicting this son of the desert standing up in an open top Land Rover charging across the desert leading a horde of mounted warriors in flowing robes. The purpose of this was to portray the aforementioned Leader as the saviour of Libya who discovered an immense wealth of pure water in aquifers under the Southern Sahara. I believe the truth is a bit more mundane in that companies drilling test boreholes looking for black gold instead found water, and lots of it. Now water is pretty much near the top of the must have list along with oxygen and a decent Merlot, or maybe a Pinotage to show some solidarity with my South African readers, but was to these guys a very big disappointment so up came the drill bit and the hole was capped. Several years later somebody had the bright idea that maybe this water could be useful in improving the lives of the Libyan people.

Now the project itself was the sort of thing that generates statistics beloved of statistics nerds. You know the sort of thing, trucks travelled so many times the distance to the nearest star, how many millions of standard elephants were equivalent to the weight of concrete used and a whole host of equally useless facts. The GMMR is in itself an amazing feat of civil engineering and does deliver pure clean drinking water to virtually every Libyan household but there has to be a downside. Is the water coming out of the aquifer system faster than it went in. There seems to be the same sort of profligate use of this precious resource that the UK succumbed to when, unlike the Norwegians, oil was being pumped ashore and sold as fast as possible. There’s nothing particularly wrong with using intelligent watering systems to keep well-tended public spaces green but does it make sense to water patches of ground which may have been parks before but are now just ad hoc rubbish dumps.

As a footnote to this I have to say that after all the work setting up a huge temporary structure and all the associated technology in the middle of one of the biggest sand traps in the world the guest of honour never turned up, In fact the only people not associated with the project to witness the spectacle were a bunch of unfortunate locals roused out of their beds to act as an audience for Libyan TV to film the event.

Visit number two was some eight years ago to provide some technical support for a webcast of a panel session between Gadhafi and two economic academics with Sir David Frost acting as moderator. The recording took place in Sebah which is in the south of the country and the team flew from Tripoli on a scheduled internal flight to be met at the airport by a fleet of brand new white Mercedes. Having set everything up and rehearsed to death the arrival of the head man was preceded not with a fanfare but with the jamming of the mobile phone network lest his movements were reported or some enterprising soul dialled a number connected to that well-known Czech product, Semtex. The session went well enough and I have to say that meeting Sir David was a real pleasure, an absolute gentleman albeit very frail.

Bizarrely I was asked to meet the Colonel afterwards, I presume it was so the local press could feature a downtrodden citizen of the Great Satan’s poodle receiving words of wisdom from the author of that best seller, The Little Green Book. I can’t even remember what he said, instead I was struck by his posture, that world-famous far away stare, never looking directly at anyone. For all his psychotic reputation I couldn’t help thinking that he looked like a camel with bad indigestion.

After the show he put a private 727 at our disposal for the flight back to Tripoli. The plane was fitted out like DFS showroom, (a cheap and tacky soft furnishings company in the UK) but without the taste and refinement, big chairs, marble coffee tables and gold-plated seat belt buckles. Plus side of the entire trip, getting to see Leptis Magna, the Roman city 120km east of Tripoli. Three of us spent the best part of a day there just walking around at our own pace without a guide or minder. So, surrounded by all this history what do audio-visual technicians head for, the amphitheatre, to be duly impressed by the acoustics where the occupant of every seat could hear an actor projecting his voice from the stage. I hope to go back but probably not during this assignment.

I have to admit that Tripoli was a lot safer when I was here before, very few weapons were in circulation and walking round the Medina at night was a pleasant experience. Indeed it seemed that mere possession of a spent round was enough to earn the offender slightly more than a severe talking to. Even so I was rather surprised when one of the youngsters who have been providing security at the centre, before the recent arrival of large numbers of army, pulled a small semi-automatic pistol from the back of his jeans. Seeing my interest the conversation soon got round to the subject of what weapons the lads had managed to acquire and keep hold of during the revolution. It transpired that all of them had the obligatory Kalashnikov assault rifle but some had gone beyond that. Amongst the assorted weaponry were hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), machine guns and one chap proudly announced that at home he had a pick-up truck with an anti-aircraft cannon mounted in the load bed. There was even some talk of an enterprising youth who had secreted away a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS).

If I return to the country I have an invitation to go to a firearms range and have a boys toys away day with an assortment of instruments of war. The picture I want for the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association magazine, Pull, is of me in the driving seat of the anti-aircraft cannon and caption it “Extreme Skeet Shooting”.

As is usual when working in potential hot spots there has to be a series of plans to fall back on if the security situation deteriorates. These range from being aware of potential threats, to packing and carrying the Go bag, to actually leaving the country.

There are three options, first option is to head for Tripoli Airport and by air to Cairo, second by ferry to Valetta and third by road to Tunisia as the border is only two hours drive away. Some genius has decided that Cairo is a safe haven, I sometimes wonder if they are looking at my world or a parallel rose-tinted universe. I would not regard Cairo as a safer destination than Valetta and given the closeness of Malta and the wide choice of flights from Luqa to the UK then Valetta would be my preferred option. A further plus is that I have good friends there who I am sure would afford me a warm welcome, thrust a beer in my hand and then ask me what I was doing lowering the tone of their country.

Some time ago I used the phrase “Curly Colonel” to refer to the now interred former despot. When using that same wording in conversation with local colleagues I noticed that a few smiles were creeping into the conversation so eventually I decided to ask why. It turned out that the inner circle of hangers-on and grovelers decided to imitate their slightly off centre leader. In Iraq this took the form of immense moustaches in order to pay homage to Saddam, although it’s a reasonably safe guess to assume that anybody sporting a more luxuriant growth than The Moustache himself would earn a 9mm employment termination notice and a quick trip to the River Tigris, there to join the rest of the detritus flowing out of Bagdad. In Libya the worship took the form of curly hair styles similar to that favoured by the leader. Those indulging in this particular version sycophantic idolatry quickly became known as Curlies.

In a previous episode I described some of the features of this rather opulent conference facility. Today I will take you on a tour of a part of the building which was definitely not open to the public. Just off the VIP are with its grand furnishings is a small suite of rooms. Entered via an ante-room where an aide would greet visitors and security detail would wait to deal with any threat there is a small but expensively furnished hexagonal lounge about five metres across. Moving on brings you into a bedroom of a similar size with a huge bed and fitted wardrobes that definitely did not come from IKEA. Interestingly this bedroom was constructed with the only bullet prof window in the building. Finally on to the crowning glory of this pied-a-terre, the bathroom. This is approximately the size of a reasonable apartment boasting a basin that has the look and feel of a piece of Lalique glassware, huge walk in shower of the type with numerous jets from both sides and above, touch screen control in the shower itself for water temperature, pressure and sound system and, in slightly dubious taste, a light fitting around the shower head that changes colour. The toilet is furnished in a similar subtle style with bronze sink, soap dispensers, and a marvellously ornate mirror enabling anyone interfacing with the porcelain an opportunity to examine in detail their facial muscle control.

I suppose it’s fairly obvious who was intended to be the principal occupant of the suite and although we do not know if he was here during the revolution one of his sons certainly hid out here before popping up in the Rixos hotel next door much to the amazement of the journalists in the five-star siege conditions there. Rumours abound about secret tunnels ranging in size from barely big enough for an average man to underground railway networks. I haven’t found a tunnel here yet but I’m still looking, there is one locked steel that won’t open unless the correct finger is scanned. Now if this was you know who’s private exit the only way we might find out what lies beyond is to go and dig up a former dictator and remove a digit or ten, if don’t know which finger he favoured it doesn’t make sense to just take the one and have to go back if the first choice is wrong.

And finally, I was on the way to work last week when, as the car came to the top of a highway flyover and central Tripoli was spread out before me looking for all the world like a bumper bucket of Lego bricks thrown onto a garbage dump, I saw that a cloud had drifted in from the sea. The weather was quite clear but this particular cloud could only manage to get a third of the way up the 15 floor Radisson Blu hotel. Typical I though, even the bloody clouds round here can’t be bothered to get up in the morning.

As I am looking at a late finish on what is now election day I will say goodbye and lean back in the chair for a snooze.

Letter from Libya III – A bit about work

Sent on 28th June 2012, in this letter our correspondent talks about finding somewhere to do the job he has been asked to do.

So far I haven’t said much about work, largely because it’s been a slow process, first of all to identify a suitable venue to hold press conferences and then to actually get anything done.

One of the places we were shown was the Welcome to Islam Centre, a massive complex in Tripoli with, we were assured, a perfect hall on campus which could be made available. An appointment was made to survey the proposed auditorium and on the due date and time we turned up at the Centre. The Welcome in the Centre’s title was clearly a sentiment that was not embraced by the on-site security team provided by one of the many militias in Tripoli. This bunch of children with guns had decided to make the Centre their turf, which they marked out in the traditional manner (No, not peeing up the lampposts). This was accomplished by parking pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft weapons mounted in the load bed, the vehicle of choice for the young “man about town”, by the once imposing arched entrance. On entering the administration building it fast became obvious that this was probably not going to work out. After being asked to sit down in the smoke-filled lobby and wait, we waited, and waited and waited until eventually a militia member deigned to escort us to the magnificent quarters that had been identified as suitable for our purpose.

One of the pre-requisites in the selection criteria for a media centre is that it should be in an area which promotes the country in a positive manner. Unfortunately while this area shows a fairly average view of Tripoli the pictures of burnt out cars, semi demolished buildings and rubbish filled streets do not really promote the sort of image that you want to go out of your way to show the world’s press. This theme is continued within the walls of the Centre and augmented by the militia children dressed in their desert camouflage trousers set of with designer T-shirts and the latest products, possibly genuine, from Adidas and Nike. Add to this a liberal selection of the latest toys from “Guns R Us” and you get an idea of how long it will be before Thomas Cook is featuring this place.

Our escort/guide proudly showed us what was obviously his pride and joy but was in effect a small town theatre without the plush. A small stage at the front with tiered seating for an audience of maybe three hundred was the limit of the facilities, no space for broadcast media to set up their tripods, no projection facilities, no air conditioning, no chance. Although the decision process took Nano seconds for the sake of politeness, an essential habit in a place awash with weaponry, we looked around, feigned interest, and asked seemingly pertinent questions. Then, with a round of handshakes, left as fast as decently possible.

Onward to the preferred choice, the Tripoli International Convention Centre, TICON. At this stage I could pad out this week’s offering with a whole host of facts and figures concerning tons of concrete and steel, square metres of glass and kilometres of wiring. Instead I will offer just one quite remarkable piece of information. This whole place was constructed in just two hundred and sixty days. To judge for yourselves just how impressive this feat was you will have to Google and read more there. [Or just follow the link, Ed.]

This imposing edifice is a cathedral of marble floors, immense one-off designer light fittings, over the top furniture and enough technology to refit Starfleet in its entirety not just the Enterprise. This must have been one of those projects where the client said “State of the Art” without saying how much or more importantly wondering how it was all going to be maintained once the various construction teams and specialists had gone back to their huge houses and by then even bigger bank accounts, in Turkey. The client was the previous regime which really just means himself or immediate family, all well-known for their grandiose ideas but not for thinking things through logically.

Things may well have worked out differently had it not been for the revolution of 2011. On two separate occasions that year a team from Istanbul turned up to carry out the required training for the audio-visual technicians that had been appointed to the centre. Only the first two weeks of what should have been a total of two months in-depth knowledge transfer was actually accomplished. I can only assume that the Turks were a bit nervous in the build-up to actual civil hostilities and not being murally dyslexic they decided to bug out.

At this point I will relate an interesting and very relevant little story. The natural tendency of a population rising up against the incumbent regime is to go on an orgy of looting and wholesale destruction particularly against facilities which represent those that they are in conflict with, for example the Gadhafi compound in Tripoli with its fortifications, grandiose accommodation and network of tunnels. This has been comprehensively trashed by the populace with not a little help from NATO aircraft. So TICON would have been a very tempting target both for those intent on liberating furnishings, lighting and plumbing fittings, carpets etc. and the by now heavily armed citizenry wanting to loose off the odd magazine or three from their recently acquired AK47’s.

In normal revolutions the vast acreage of the convention centre’s glass frontage would have been an overwhelming temptation, a bit like a greenhouse or cold frame presents itself to a schoolboy with a catapult. However the damage has been minimal and no looting occurred at all thanks to the actions of a small band of young local guys who had been employed there. They formed themselves into a committee with the intention of preserving the building, its contents, and hopefully their jobs. During the course of an at times very violent and bloody revolution/civil war these guys persuaded the various armed groups and individuals that the centre was an asset that now belonged to the Libyan people and as such should be left intact for the benefit of the people. Amazingly enough they were listened to even when one lunatic turned a heavy calibre truck mounted weapon on a corner of the building and caused significant but localised damage. Some credit has to go to the designers and builders, the steel and mesh part of the decorative support on the outside of the building absorbed a fair bit of the punishment being handed out and the toughened/layered construction glass, while not being bullet proof, did not fall apart on receiving the first round.

So back to the main theme, the technology in this building is extremely complex and, apart from the audio-visual systems, there appears to have been no training on the building services. Large segments of the air conditioning don’t work, plumbing is being neglected and mere mention of the building data network and CAT5 structured cabling produces some of the blankest stares since British Members of Parliament had their expenses claim procedures and rules explained to them. However on the initial and several subsequent visits the staff were at great pains to point out that everything worked, especially the four vast video walls in the main circular auditorium. Most of the systems do work but only in a reduced capacity, the video walls have maybe fifty per cent of the LCD units working on a good day, a bad day is when someone has really been playing with the control software and then nothing works. Either way it’s not a good position to be in.

So I greeted the news that the original Turkish installation company is about to send a specialist team over, not only to correct the faults but also to train any newly employed would be audio-visual technicians with a goodly amount of joy tempered with a healthy sprinkling of pessimism. At the time of writing no definite date has been given for the arrival of the Turkish techies, I will wait and see.

I won’t be giving an inch by inch description of the centre as the sheer scale of the decoration and fittings would occupy an entire volume. Suffice to say there are designer light fittings, one-off pieces, in all spaces and rooms some of which are just huge and all cost tens of thousands of dollars. Even the restrooms get the treatment with solid bronze sinks and fittings and mirrors that would not be out of place in Versailles. Having said that, looking for loo paper in this place is a fruitless exercise and carrying your own roll is the only answer.

In due course I will talk more about some of the features of the complex but for now I shall move on to something else.

I had to go to the bank a few days ago to cash an expenses cheque. Now the bank is a monument to procedures and form filling. Not only is a form of identity required for cashing but they have to take a copy of your passport, the cheque has to be signed in red ink, a colour traditionally reserved for my bank account statements, and only hundred dollar notes are kept at the tills, other denomination involve the teller disappearing into the bowels of the building to reappear some time later clutching the smaller denominations.

However I digress, the real purpose of this segment is to describe a part of the route that we took to get there. We passed through an area which seemed to be composed of lots of little establishments best described as combination stock yard/abattoir/butchers shops. Pens of very worried sheep sit next to a slaughtering area. Therefore the animals in the pen are witness to one of their mates being picked out, hung upside down and having the full halal routine done on them. Eventually the carcases are moved into the shop proper but not before collecting a dose of traffic pollution and serving as a restaurant for assorted insect life. It’s almost enough to make one go veggie. Please note I only said ‘almost’ although chicken may be off the menu again when I get home. I’m already planning the five hour stop-over in Rome airport to include as many different pork products, salami, ham, whatever, as I can find and will certainly buy some carry out pig in one form or another for the Rome-London leg of the trip just in case the in-flight snack contains chicken.

With the happy thought that the time taken to write this has brought me a bit closer to going home I shall bid you all a fond farewell until the next time.

Letter from Libya II – Tuesday Market

Sent on 12th June 2012, in this letter our correspondent reflects on the local market, the closure of the airport by a militia faction on the 4th of that month and visiting the British Military Cemetery.

Hello to my devoted fans, well I can dream can’t I? I looked at the calendar today, we use those here unlike on a previous assignment where the days, weeks and months were scratched on the walls of the less than luxurious dwelling I was stuck in, and discovered I have been here for more than three weeks so I thought to myself that the folks back home deserve another dose of life in the sand pit screaming “You’ve got mail” from the in box.

So here is issue 2, read on and enjoy. On second thoughts, pour yourself a large drink of the alcoholic variety, sit back and get mellow before taking your imagination on a roller coaster of discovery, or a rush hour trip round the M25, whichever metaphor you feel best describes what follows.

I have previously mentioned that the supermarket here in Club Med de L’Afrique du Nord is a trifle expensive and also limited in choice. Most shopping is now being done at Tuesday Market, a slight misnomer because this large supermarket is open every day except Friday, as yet I have not been able to find an explanation for this and I’m not going to waste time looking for one either. Whilst I describe this emporium as a supermarket the main sales area within the building it’s not Sainsbury’s. The shop carries most of the things you would expect to find but there are a few exceptions. These commodities are sold from smaller traders located at one end of the main mall.

  • Fresh fish, the word fresh is used in this context to differentiate from frozen and does not imply still dripping wet and wriggling despite being a couple of kilometres from the coast.
  • Meat, generally not too bad but cuts vary from back home and the only really recognizable bits tend to be chickens, and offal. Lamb chops are difficult to come by and are usually full of bone shards because of a butchery technique learned from really bad sword and sandal epics or over enthusiastic use of a blunt chain saw. The end result resembles a road kill where bones are involved and strange shaped lumps of flesh where no structural integrity has been left.
  • Fruit and vegetables. Choice is not that wide and quality varies immensely. When buying a lettuce for example be prepared to throw away at least half. Carrots are miserably small and not firm but I reckon the prize for most disgusting example has to go to avocados. These are most often so over ripe that a prod of the fruit starts it wobbling, the insides are liquid, totally yuk. This is not confined to avocados, mangos, kiwis and bananas can also be found in what I consider to be a state of self-contained liquefaction. It is possible to find acceptable produce but a diligent search operation has to be conducted.
  • Bread. Libyan bread is great, flatbreads, wholemeal rolls and pittas are all freshly baked on site for the bakery outlet at Tuesday Market along with a selection of Danish style pastries, what’s not so good is the ersatz western sliced loaf which is dry when fresh and tasteless. There is also a section selling Arabic pastries in various forms but mostly based on sugar syrup, coconut and pistachios and all completely delicious. So much so that visits to that counter have to be strictly rationed.

Apart from the demolished buildings of which the Gaddafi compound is a shining example there is not too much in the way of fighting related damage to be seen. Compared to other places I have been to Tripoli got off fairly lightly, even glass fronted structures seem to have largely escaped the attentions of Kalashnikov wielding youths. So I was quite amused to pull up alongside a pick-up truck in the morning crawl to work that had more holes than metal in some of the panels. As my driver explained, this had been used by one of the militias during the revolution and had attracted more than its fair share of 7.62mm air conditioning technology, either that or the truck had been left parked across someone’s driveway. I suppose the driver tells tales of daring do when asked why he is behind the wheel of this motorised colander, could be he customised the vehicle himself just to impress but enough speculation and on with the rest of this less than epic saga.

Last week Tripoli airport was closed by a militia from a town some 80 km from the city. They were protesting about the alleged kidnapping or detention of their commander who was on his to Tripoli. The story goes that he was stopped at a police checkpoint and it was pointed out that he did not have a permit for his firearms or for the two tanks in his possession. Not unreasonably he was detained by the police for these infringements. To this point everybody is in agreement with the story but from here on things get a bit hazy. The official version is that he was sent on his way after his toys were confiscated; however he hasn’t been seen in public since being taken into custody.

There are two theories being promoted, firstly that he’s been deep sixed by the authorities but where is the body, plenty of building sites around but none of them are working so becoming part of the support structure isn’t possible, lots of desert but what with shifting sands and all that means a good chance of later discovery. Of course there is the tried and tested method beloved of Idi Amin of feeding the presidential crocodiles. While there is no presidential saurian pool here I have been assured by various locals that the departed Leader was not above taking unwanted friends to the zoo for a private tour after hours so who knows, maybe it’s become a tradition.

The second possibility being put around will certainly delight international conspiracy fans. I am reliably informed that a foreign government, USA, UK or France, through their spy agency, CIA, SIS or DGSE, lifted the commander on his release by the police and spirited him away to some dark and distant hole in the ground with the intention of having a chat over a cup of coffee. Evidently he is/was supposed to have some knowledge regarding the location of a Gaddafi son who has not yet been located or who may indeed be a guest of this particular militia while he is asked politely about bank account numbers and other mundane matters pertaining to missing millions.

While all this has been going on the commander’s men have decided to stage their idea of a non-violent protest at Tripoli Airport and set off in convoy from their home town. Not only do they drive a convoy of some sixty heavily armed, and in some cases armoured, vehicles some 80 km along the main highway without anyone in the police or official military wondering what was going on, they then drive straight onto the runway and surrounding areas simply by bypassing the guarded entrance and driving through the perimeter from scrubland. All that was needed to complete this attention seeking exercise was to park a truck equipped with an anti-aircraft cannon under each plane parked on the tarmac and point the muzzles upwards towards wing fuel tanks. Instant airport closure and suspension of flights was the obvious reaction of the authorities.
Eventually the sort of forces of law and order arrived, the majority being a militia who seemed to take control of the situation convincing the aggressors to depart peacefully, albeit taking all their weaponry with them to use as a bargaining tool in the next round of discussions, such is life.

As some of you will know I sometimes take time to become a bit serious and contemplative, I’m not all humour and cynicism and I’d like to relate a recent experience to you. A few days ago I had the humbling experience of visiting the British Military Cemetery in Tripoli, a monument to some thirteen hundred commonwealth and allied servicemen. Access is via the now disused and largely overgrown grounds containing an Italian cemetery and various scattered graves and memorials to other nationalities and religions. As I approached the steps leading up to a low metal gate I really did not know what to expect. Before coming here there had been reports in the media of mindless vandalism at the British cemetery in Benghazi so I had no idea what scene would greet me. Imagine my surprise as laid out before me was an immaculate vista of lush green lawns and simple white headstones interspersed with low growing flowers and shrubs. A central cross rose into the clear blue sky on a day when the weather could not have been more perfect for such a visit.

I wasn’t looking for any particular names amongst the fallen, this was more a time for reflection, contemplation and peace. It was so very hard to believe I was in a city which had been involved in a very recent violent and bloody civil war, rebellion or revolution depending on your outlook. Although the walls are not particularly high the traffic seemed very far away and muted, the loudest sounds were the water sprinklers and the clipping of the shrubs by the three gardeners working quietly but efficiently to maintain the appearance of this oasis. Those of you who have visited the cemeteries of World War One in France and Belgium that like Tripoli are part of the estate looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would find no difference in the standard of care and attention to detail between the massive memorials to the dead of the trench warfare that characterised the Battle of the Somme and this far smaller reminder of another conflict.

Here there aren’t the rows of stones with the same regimental crest on them from when whole platoons, companies or even regiments were decimated in a single engagement. You might find four or five Royal Air Force aircrew possibly from the same aircraft, or headstones bearing the Royal Armoured Corps badge where comrades in the same tank died as they had fought, together. There are Merchant Navy and Royal Navy seamen, men from The Africa Pioneer Corps and Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers & Miners. A wide spectrum of religions is represented here; alongside the Christians are Jewish soldiers, Hindus, Moslems and Sikhs, at peace together, what a difference to the world outside those gates.

I am grateful not only to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who are responsible for the upkeep of these cemeteries in sometimes some not very friendly parts of the globe but also to my driver for finding his way to the only entrance and also to my interpreter, both of whom gave me the chance to walk around alone with my own thoughts. A final observation, this cemetery contains the graves of service personnel who died in the region post 1945 as well as some British citizens, one as young as ten months, makes you think doesn’t it.

With that picture in your mind I will finish this episode with a fond farewell and goodnight everybody.

Letter from Libya I

Sent on 26th May 2012, in this letter our correspondent describes his arrival in Tripoli on May 17th 2012 ahead of the election of the first post-Gaddafi parliament (eventually held on the 7th July that year) to work on a contract fitting out the media centre.

This latest communication from your globe-trotting scribe comes from the city of Tarabulus Al-Gharb, a thriving port and home to some 2.2 million inhabitants. With the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea breaking gently upon the beach this idyllic location……..Hang on, who am I kidding, even giving the place its Arabic name cannot change the fact that I am actually in Tripoli, capital city of Libya, home of the late and little lamented Muammar Gaddafi/Qadhafi/Gadafy.

You may ask what I am doing in a country that has only just decided to become a democracy after a fairly bloody civil war spiced up with a fair amount of air delivered explosive ordnance courtesy of the UN Security Council and several members of NATO. Couple of reasons not the least being a well-paid contract doing some audio-visual consultancy, the other being it’s been a while since I’ve worked anywhere out of the ordinary and away from the normal environment most of us find ourselves in on a daily basis.

I arrived here on 17th May to be given the sort of welcome that I have come to expect as a result of two previous visits to work on projects instigated at the behest of the former camel faced ruler. This by now traditional arrival ceremony involves forgetting to send the car to pick me up at Tripoli airport. My sense of humour becomes seriously strained after almost two hours of fending off taxi drivers and flies, equal in numbers and tenacity but personally I think that the flies win on personality. Eventually I was retrieved from the oven of the arrivals area and taken to what is to be my home until whenever my work is completed.

I suppose now would be a good time to comment on the local driving. The most common style seems to be to follow the lane markings as if there is some optical guidance system under the vehicle to keep it centred on the white lines where these exist. Overtaking and undertaking are done with the minimum of clearance and in such a way that a fusillade of car horns and possibly firearm waving would be the inevitable result in many countries. Here such behaviour is accepted and everyone just carries on with minimal comment and barely a sideways glance. Where no lane markings exist such as on some of the multi-lane freeways driving can only be described as extreme freestyle, anything goes including using what I assume is supposed to be the hard shoulder to undertake at top speed despite the very good chance of a 17 seat taxi bus being stopped to pick up or set down passengers. Traffic calming seems to consist of stripping off the top five centimetres or so of tarmac for about ten metres to encourage cars to come to a virtual stop before hitting the gas again. As is common in a lot of the more anarchic countries traffic lights are considered an advisory device especially if no traffic police are present at the intersection and parking can best be described as abandonment, even if it reduces the road width by fifty per cent.

Enough of what has become an almost traditional comment on the driving habits of a country when it is featured in my jottings, on with the story. After leaving the airport it was decided that I would go to the place where I would be staying. I honestly did not know what to expect and generally I expect the worse but am ready to be pleasantly surprised. Well, surprised I was. The car came through an efficient checkpoint and entered what I can only describe as a holiday village development of the sort seen in Spain or the Canaries. A central piazza with blocks of apartments is surrounded by neat villas, laid out in such a way as to avoid a feeling of being crowded, on a gently sloping site leading down to a rocky coastline. The villas are equipped to a very high standard with all the appliances necessary for an extended stay, good size bedrooms, air conditioning and lounge with a satellite TV system.

The villas are shared and I’ve been lucky enough to have a housemate that not only do I get on with but he’s also a very good cook. We try to take turns cooking dinner which stops us getting bored with our own cooking as well as being a far more efficient way of using time and resources than trying to cook separately.

The first few days have been spent meeting the people I will be working with, some new but also a goodly collection of familiar faces from previous assignments in strange places. Although I’ve worked in Libya before I never really spent much time in Tripoli, just a couple of days at the end of one show and then I took the opportunity to visit the Roman city of Leptis Magna approximately 130km along the coast toward Benghazi rather than hang around in the capital. Hence I have been trying to get my bearings and get an idea of how the city is laid out and where the buildings and places relevant to my job are located in relation to one another, the GPS on my phone is extremely useful in this respect although when first fired up it was convinced I was in Northampton.

As we only have limited transport resources shopping is a bit of a problem and sometimes the on site supermarket is the only solution. In common with captive audience shops everywhere the prices are a bit high although there is an adequate variety of foodstuffs and household goods. The one commodity I will not be buying there is western chocolate. Mars, Kit Kat etc. are fairly exorbitant but for sheer cheek the prize has to go to the guy who priced up the Christmas sized tin of Quality Street, sold for around £5.00 in Sainsburys, here the local price translates to approximately £24.00, absolutely no chance of that going in the basket I can tell you.

As I finish this first communication on a very pleasant early evening I can look out across the Mediterranean from my chair and reflect on the fact that this is by no means the worst place I’ve ended up in. I hope by the time I manage to put together the next poorly crafted missive together that things are still relatively peaceful here and that there are no dramas to report or comment on.