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.

The correspondent has had the dubious pleasure of knowing MG for several years and she counts him as a close friend. During a lifetime of trying to earn as much as possible for the minimal amount of effort he has been taught to cook by the army, fooled lots of people into thinking that he knows what he is talking about when it comes to AV installations and toured the globe. Now firmly into middle-age, he can occasionally be found slumming it in various exotic locations courtesy of the UN.

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