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.

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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