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.

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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