I was invited to visit a friend of mine in the UNIFIL—the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Area at its base of Naqoura, an hour's drive from the Southern Lebanese city of Tyre, which sits in a UN controlled zone on the border of Israel—on the firing line as my friend says. To enter the area you need clearance from UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army, the latter I only learned when I showed up at the check point and the Army guards questioned what my intentions were. Usually any guard will let you in without the extra clearance if you hold a UN ID. I had my UNRWA ID with me and so did my friend visiting from the UNAMA mission in Afghanistan.
It’s worth mentioning with Lebanese guards that all depends on the mood of the individual. Apparently that day, that guard decided I should not enter without an extra clearance. He was ranting about a big sign on the side of the road saying non non-Lebanese individual—in all honesty I had no idea what he was referring to. We sat and waited and pleaded and called numbers of people to try and get us through. Eventually a plain clothes officer came and asked what the problem was—we explained our situation, he looked at our badges and told us to wait a minute. 5 minutes later he came to us, returned our IDs and said we could enter—clearly this man was in a good mood and overturned the other guy’s moody decision. can enter the area without clearanceand then went to do some site seeing in the area. The drive into Naqqoura was gorgeous, winding along turquoise waters of the Mediterranean and touring the UNIFIL base was interesting and not at all reminiscent of the UNAMA base I had lived on in Afghanistan.
Afterwards we decided to drive on to nearby Qana for a visit.
Qana, South Lebanon
Jesus was rumored to have hid in Qana and this is the biblical site where he was said to have performed the miracle of turning water into wine. It’s a serene location on a hillside overlooking a valley of goat herders. A cave is tucked away and outside of it is an area where Jesus is said to have spoken to his disciples. Sites for Christians seeking refuge from persecution are spread throughout Lebanon, but it is rare that one should find a site for which a miracle and spiritual leader was said to have spent time.
Oddly enough, I stumbled across this site en route to something else Qana is known for—the 1996 massacre of 106 Palestinians seeking refuge in a UN compound operated by Fiji soldiers working with UNIFIL—the UN Peace Keeping Operation based in the South of Lebanon.
During what was known as, “Operation Grapes of Wrath”, Israel dropped bombs on Southern Lebanon in strikes against Hezballah. The conflict intensified and thousands of Lebanese civilians sought to flee the area and find safe refuge from the fighting. By 14 April, 745 people were occupying the United Nations compound at Qana. More than 800 were there on April 18.
Beginning with the second day of combat Israel had been retaliating within 10 minutes directly at any source of fire discovered by reconnaissance. This tactic was widely discussed in Israeli media, and well known to the Hezbollah fighters and Lebanese citizens.
According to report, on April 18, Hezbollah fighters fired two or three Katyusha rockets and between five and eight mortars at Israeli soldiers near the Red Line (the northern limits of the "security zone") from positions about 220 meters southwest and 350 meters southeast of the United Nations compound. 15 minutes later an Israeli unit responded by shelling the area with M-109A2 155 mm guns. According to the Israeli military, thirty-eight shells were fired, two-thirds of them equipped with proximity fuses, an anti-personnel mechanism that causes the weapon to explode above the ground. As a result of the shelling, 106 civilians died, with more wounded.
A video recording made by a UNIFIL soldier of Force Mobil Reserve (FMR) showed an unmanned drone and two helicopters in the vicinity at the time of the shelling. Uri Dromi, an Israeli government spokesman, confirmed there was a drone in the area, but stated that it did not detect civilians in the compound. The IDF initially and repeatedly claimed that no drone was flying in the area. The truth only emerged when a video filmed by a Norwegian UN soldier of FMR at a nearby hill clearly showed the presence of a drone. The Israelis were aware of their actions at a location which had been UN headquarters for so many years.
I had wanted to visit this site ever since reading Robert Fisk’s book, Pity the Nation. I feel that the souls of those lost to senseless acts of violence should be remembered in some way. Upon entering Qana, in addition to learning of the site where Jesus had lived, I learned of something else I had been ignorant of. Upon asking a man as to where I could find the site of the massacre, he responded, “Which one--the old or new one?” I had no idea there was more than one, so my taxi driver told him, the old one.
As we drove we came to a stone which had directions to the old and new massacre sites, all was written in Arabic. We first visited the new site, 25 grave markers and pictures of men, women and children killed in an Israeli air strike on a building in which they had been seeking refuge during the 2006 war.
Onwards we drove to the old site. Remnants of the UN compound stood and part of the black UN sign could still be read. A parked Israeli tank sat next to the remnants of a building. A man, who’s name was Jimmy (so he said), came with photos and a history of the tragedy that took place in 1996. After having lived through these events, people can become desensitized to what they are experiencing and it was clear that this was the case with Jimmy. He described in Arabic details of the shelling and fires and then showed graphic images of the victims—body parts and mutilations. As he showed the images I physically began to feel ill and tears came to my eyes without my even realizing I was about to burst into tears. He flipped through the photos and all I kept thinking as he showed how they had died was that these were people, these were mothers and fathers and children and they had deserved better. No one even seems to know what happened there and they died in such a manner that you would not wish it on the worst of your enemies.
I had to walk away to catch my breath. I’ve found that I’ve had to do that too many times here in Lebanon.
In May 2007, a three-month conflict between the radical militant group, Fatah Al-Islam, and the Lebanese Armed Forces at Nahr el Bard (Cold River) Camp (more commonly called NBC) in northern Lebanon destroyed the entire camp. Before the start of the shelling, the Lebansese Army ordered the residents of this camp out-- to pack their things and leave—to where no destination, only to get out within 24 hours. The refugees reportedly thought they would return back to their homes and left nearly all their possessions behind. Conflicting stories are told about the exact events of what happened during this time of chaos, but the end result was the same. Areas immediately around the camp sustained severe damage. It was the single largest act of destruction in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990. At least 27,000 refugees were forced to flee and abandon their homes.
The neighbouring UNRWA compound – which housed schools, health clinics and relief offices – lay in ruins, as did homes, commercial properties, mosques and community facilities. All roads and water and sewerage networks were also badly damaged or destroyed.
Nearby Beddawi refugee camp bore the brunt of the crisis. As families desperately sought refuge in the first few days of the fighting, Beddawi’s population swelled from 15,000 to 30,000 almost overnight, with displaced refugees occupying UNRWA schools and community buildings. The massive population influx placed enormous stress on UNRWA’s services to the camp and on the Beddawi residents themselves. The selling population instantly overcrowded the already cramped living conditions. Palestine refugees with any family sought refuge with friends and family who had homes elsewhere.
The Army’s justification for the attack came from their accusations that the radical Palestinian faction, Fatah al Islam, was hiding weapons inside the camp. To my knowledge, no proof of this was every given. It sent a clear message to the Palestinians as to what the Lebanese opinion of their existence in the country was thought to be and what the consequences were for anyone stepping out of line. According to residents, the perpetrators of Fatah el Islam were not residents in the camp. They were using the camp for their own selfish purposes and in the end, thousands suffered.
A donor unit was created by UNRWA in order to raise funds for the rebuilding of the NBC and has achieved some success in its reconstruction efforts. Unfortunately for those afflicted by the crisis, other world events took precedence over the world stage. Soon after the NBC tragedy occurred, the Tsunami hit and the world’s attention became focused elsewhere and has remained focused on other issues ever since. Rebuilding of the camp has begun, but there is a lot to do and not enough money to do it. This is a common problem with UNRWA-too much to accomplish without the funds to do so.
A visit to NBC
In July, I traveled to NBC in order to hear a presentation by a consultant gender advisor on the findings of the situation of gender issues in the North. The North is approximately 1 hour to 1.5 hours to the north of Beirut, outside of Tripoli. This trip depends on traffic and the degree of suicidal speed your driver decides to use. That day, we made it in one hour exactly-which means we were flying and had a few near death accidents on the way.
The talk was interesting and I commend my colleague for overcoming some fundamental roadblocks for the presentation—the power was cut and the temperature was soaring. Power cuts are the norm in every area of Lebanon, including the glitz and glamour of Beirut—people fail to pay the taxes and it’s my opinion that corruption is involved. The difference between Beirut and a refugee camp is the ability to run generators to compensate for the lack of power. Amongst other things found in my colleague’s investigations and audit, it was found that women have increasingly become the breadwinners of the family, but due to conservative views are sometimes not able to work due to negative pressure by their family.
After the presentation, I was able to tour through the camp and visited what are referred to as ‘the Barracks’. These are tin, prefabricated containers with 6 people put inside them to live—peering into the container it seemed 3 people could comfortably live-6 seemed impossible. There are three sets of them spread over the camp, each sub-human in living and vary in their poorness of quality. They consist of a large living space with two beds, a tiny kitchen and toilet. In the 40+C (100+F) heat of summer, these containers become virtual ovens. This combined with power cuts prevent even a fan from bringing some form of relief.
As a result, refugees choose to sit outside to keep cool in the shade—seeking comfort outside rather than inside their home. Still, the refugees extended invitations for a coffee or to come join them. And yet, as I walked through these horrendous containers I was repeatedly offered a coffee or water or a motion to join them in their sitting circles. Arab hospitality that permeates from the Palestinians continue, even when they nothing to offer except conversation.
The people living in these barracks are those who lost their homes from the destruction of the Lebanese Army in 2007. Their families have been refugees since 1948 and now again, since 2007; they are refugees living like sardines in hot ovens during the summer and then freezing in the winter—waiting for their homes to be rebuilt.
We then took a tour to see the old site that had been demolished—I had seen pictures, but the reality of the mass destruction that occurred was shocking. I was also shocked to learn that the Lebanese Army is able to patrol inside NBC; this is strictly forbidden in any of the other 11 other refugee camps, where the Lebanese Army has to sit on the perimeter—the Palestinian factions are in control on the inside. This is not the case in NBC.
My tour continued on to another camp nearby, Beddawi. I accompanied my friend and colleague to a carpenter’s shop, where we interviewed a married couple working together in the profession. It is a progressive idea to have a woman working in a field such as a carpenter, which is almost always dominated by men. UNRWA wanted to write an article on the woman’s activities. I helped assist with translation of Arabic to English and observed the wood crafts the couple produced. It was quite inspirational to see how a woman blazing a trail for her family and other females in the camps to understand that women can work and help bring in extra income for the family.
Murals, drawing and graffiti are common in the camps. One in Beddawi caught my attention and made me smile. On a main street in a Beddawi, a large mural depicts the familiar incident of the famous shoe thrown by an Iraqi journalist at then US President George W Bush. There have been increasing numbers of Iraqi refugees found in the camps alongside the Palestinians; there fore it was not entirely surprising that the shoe incident struck such a chord with the Beddawi residents.
I tried to dream of home, but it has become a tangled memory for me. The normal life I knew of the past has changed and my childhood home is as foreign as the lands I’ve traveled to. My comfort zone has changed. People no longer ask when I’m coming ‘home’, rather they ask when I’m going to return…as I’ve proven I nearly always do.
I came back to the Mid East and felt comfortable again and happier than I have in years. I had thought it would be that way when I returned to the USA, but alas time has changed both me and the people who live there. I don’t understand why things are they way they are there and I don’t remember who I was when I lived there. I remember wondering what the Mid East was like…now I know and I can never go back to my naïve self.
The vague memory of my Friday nights involve making plans for a Southside Crawl and wondering if I could hold strong and make it to Bar 11 for the obligatory Long Island Iced Tea. Even a weathered Irish man would be astonished by the amount of alcohol I consumed. O Fries and Primanti Brothers sandwiches were a treat. Visiting my grandmother was a weekly tradition and fighting with my mother seemed to be a mandatory daily occurrence. Having to drive a car to work from 9-5 was the norm; paying $20 for a good meal was not such a bad deal. I supported the goal of my best friend getting married and promised I would be there for the wedding day. I never broke an arm, ran marathons and was always happy to have health insurance coverage from either my family or job. I spoke with a Pittsburgh accent and dreamed of the day I would finally leave the ‘City of Bridges’. The Middle East was a location on the map, a place of violence, wars and hatred towards the West.
I thought that Islam was scary. I thought it was a religion based on violence and wanted to hurt the West. We were to be either with or against the enemy, who was Al Qaeda—no wait, Osama Bin Laden—wait, no better yet Saddam Hussein—or was it Taliban? Did we ever figure that one out??? War for me was men fighting in trenches—and like the action movies I saw on TV. I had never been exposed to how fragile life could be and how in the blink of an eye everything can change.
I have fallen in love with the Middle East—its culture and history so rich and diverse that it has taken years for me to really understand how much there is to it and how much I still have to learn. Islam is anything but scary. It’s full devotion and the basis of the religion is on peace. I really don’t understand why the United States believes the world is out to get them, when in reality many parts of the world feel the exact same about the United States.
Years of living in the Middle East has made me realize and that it’s not just a location on a map; rather it’s an intricate mix of people, cultures and languages brought together in the same geographic location. I see the violence and wars just I saw them in the United States, on television. Except of course in Afghanistan—but that’s a different story all together. My image of hatred has been replaced by experiences of relentless hospitality and curiosity of who I am and where I am from. Being American is identified by a passport, and explaining why I think a certain way is lost in translation.
Fridays involved hearing the local Imam at the mosque with the call for prayer and there is no Southside, let alone alcohol. Beer drinking and Long Island Iced Teas were replaced with sheesha smoking and in Yemen there was always the Qat. Friday became the Sunday in that the work week begins the next day on Saturday. Unless of course you’re in Lebanon, where the Christians are the majority and adhere to their work week.
Visits with my grandmother live now only in my memory along the rosary beads I took from her funeral. If I have the chance to fight with my mother it happens at the most once a week and involves dialing international—sometimes we don’t even know enough about each other’s lives to argue. Planning for my best friend’s wedding was done through emails and phone calls and ended with a falling out when I was not able to attend her special day. I have no car, and I would have a suicide wish or masochistic desire if I were to drive here—except for when I took to the wheel in Bahrain and I was worse than the others. I would seriously flip if I were to pay more than $5 for a decent meal. I have some crazy pseudo-British accent from time spent with foreigners and not speaking English.
Here in Lebanon, I have to worry about my clothes, what I look like in public. In Afghanistan, I worried I revealed too much. In Yemen, I would wake in the morning and conceal my pajamas with my abeya when I left the comfort of my air conditioned home. It didn’t matter if my hair was clean or dirty; styled or un-brushed; long or short; because it was always wrapped in a headscarf, hiding it from the public eye. Women’s legs, arms and faces were concealed in sheer flowing cloth, even on the most blistering of heat days. Yemeni men wear skirts, those of the Gulf wear long dresses and no one blinks an eye, nevertheless if one were to wear shorts a line of curious spectators would form wondering why they would choose to wear that.
I now know what trauma is both in a physical and mental sense. An injury to my back left me in unimaginable pain led me to go under the knife in Taiwan. My limited Mandarin led me to be in tears and also taught me how precious friends and family are int times of need. A near death experience in the sea near Somalia left me with a shoulder that will never be the same. Consoling my colleagues following attacks in Afghanistan and trying to understand the waste of life that occurs on a daily basis is something I may never truly understand or process.
CNN has been replaced by Al Jazeera. Fruits and vegetables are bought by the kilo at a corner produce stand, sometimes at 2 am; no more Farmer’s Market waxed apples bought with a two for one special at Giant Eagle. A caffeine fix is a complimentary Turkish coffee served in a porcelain cup, so much richer, yet so much more basic than the double soy grande skim latte that cost $5 and is served ‘to go’ in a foam cup. Regardless of fixed price tags, the price can always be negotiated.
Aside from Lebanon and Syria, church bells do not ring, even if they did they would be drowned out by the five daily calls to prayer reminding everyone that Allah is greatest and the Prophet Mohammed, his messenger, has written this for us in a sacred book. Praying does not occur privately or just on Saturdays or Sundays, praying here happens everywhere whether it is in a mosque, in a home or on a prayer rug in the corner of a grocery store.
So I ask myself, when did it all become normal and when did I lose touch with my own native home? When did I stop comparing myself to others and realize that I was one of them? When did a language so unfamiliar and cryptic become easy to understand? I love it. I’ve changed. If I compared myself to myself ten years ago, I would not know her. I have come a long way since that time not so long ago when I was a curious teenager living in the Northeastern United States. The experiences, people and places I have had the opportunity to encounter can not be expressed in words nor replicated on film. They exist only in a continuous movie played only in my memory.
As I gain more of these experiences I am beginning to realize that life is a series of events meshed together in a bittersweet symphony that no one will ever be able to capture in shape or form.
And so I continue to live and absorb these experiences, for what purpose I am still attempting, if ever, to comprehend…
Celebration. I was surprised to get in as it is invite only and the list
had been closed for weeks...however, a fellow American at UNRWA pulled
The Embassy in Beirut is tucked away and I was glad to have my trusted and
reliable taxi driver Imad take me there as any other taxi would try to
charge an arm and a leg. Taxis in Beirut-and most of the Mid East for
that matter, do not use meters. It's a system based on negotiation and
understanding of distances while computing prices. Eventually, we found
the embassy and after passing through three layers of security I was on
American soil abroad. The Embassy sits up on a hill overlooking the
Mediterranean Sea. The view is gorgeous--as it should be considering that
all Embassy staff working there are confined to its compound and are
allowed out only twice a week with armed guards.
I have often debated if I would want to work as Embassy staff and after
meeting the employees in Beirut, it became strikingly clear that it would
not 'fit' my interests and lifestyle. I love being abroad--I've traveled
to 40 countries and lived in 5 extensively, however, the reason I enjoy
being abroad is experiencing the culture and meeting new people. Working
for the US government does not allow for much of this, especially in the
ares of the world I'm interested in working.
The party included an open BBQ buffet, a Native American tribal dance, men
in cowboy hats with lassos and to top it off a mechanical bull borrowed
from a place called El Rancho located in the mountains of Lebanon. For an
hour there was a bull riding competition to see who could stay on the
longest and the only indicator that we were still in Lebanon was the 4
minute blackout that occurred--Beirut has rolling power cuts that involved
a generator kicking into gear when the power goes out.
We could see fireworks in the distance and one of the staff told me that
the US is able to save money on fireworks in Lebanon as there is always
some Lebanese setting them off. So very true. Once I had some kids
setting off full out fireworks underneath my bedroom windown when Brazil
won a match for the World Cup.
I've been overseas for the 4th before, but this was by far one of the most
random and enjoyable.
and is participating in a series of activities for 8 weeks as part of a
summer camp. This is a pilot program and, if successful, will be used in
the future as an after school program. I am tagging along to observe the
activities which begin at 3pm every day.
I was able to go last week to the Ein El Helweh Camp in Saida,
approximately 45 minutes south of Beirut. Ein El Helweh is probably the
most famous camp in Lebanon as it has representatives from all of the
Palestinian factions based inside the camp. It is also the most densely
populated and makes for sensory overload when walking through it.
Something I found to be shocking was a bullet hole next to the inside
entrance of the boy's school that we were visiting. The Fatah
Party--completed with decorations of Yasser Arafat photos--is neighbors
with the school and when there is a dispute with the party and outside
Islamic extremist groups, they often battle it out with fire fight
shootouts between each other--the school is the middle ground.
A colleague of mine who lives in this camp had to be on lockdown for three
days in January when a domestic dispute erupted into what sounded like all
out war fare in the camp including rocket propelled grenades being
launched. So, it makes you wonder, where does a refugee seek refuge?
The day I entered Ein El Helweh, I used my UNRWA ID to pass the Lebanese
Army checkpoint outside the camp. I could hear popping noises in the
distance and my escort told me this was normal there to hear gun
fire--made me a bit uneasy.
Inside the schools I observed the artwork of the children--most of it
focused on the Palestinians history, their hope for a right to return and
the situation in Gaza. I enjoy looking at children's artwork as it
conveys the honesty in what the people feel without the need of
censorship. The drawings I saw were ones depicting the hope that allows
them to endure the suffering they experience on a daily basis.
The children seemed to enjoy the activities very much--laughing and
playing. They liked that I could speak Arabic so that they could talk to
me--this is a skill many of the International Staff lack and the kids love
the opportunity to speak to foreigners who understand them. I attended a
meeting with an Operational Support Officer and Head Master of the school
to discuss issues surrounding the activities and found that there was an
issue with paying for electricity in addtion to funding for supplies. It
seems that all problems are related to money.
Currently I'm tasked by the Protection Officer to collate observation
reports for the Protection Office related to the findings of all 5
recreation locations and is what will keep me occupied for the next coming
days in addition to assisting with a training for all Head Teachers at the
Hariri Canadian University on Thursday and Friday. Originally it was to
be on Saturday, but due to the Ayatllolah's death in Lebanon there was a
day of mourning yesterday that affected the schedule. I must admit that I
am happy to not have to do a 6 day work week!
work that UNRWA does. UNRWA-the United Nations Relief and Works Agency-is
based in five locations--Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, West Bank and Gaza--it
provides the primary relief and assistance needed by Palestine Refugees.
It suffers from a severe lack of funding and as a result, nearly all the
programs that UNRWA supports suffer.
I had applied for an internship in both Damascus and Jerusalem, but it was
with personal contacts that I was offered the position in Beirut.
I'm working as an ombudsperson--a link between the camps and front office
in additiont to work as a protection officer. It's overwhelming to say the
least. As an intern I have found myself staying at the office until 6 at
night and sometimes being required to work on Saturdays. The Agency
depends on all individuals to the full extent--therefore, this is a very
'hands on' way of learning.
I've also made several trips to the camps--Borj al Barajni, Shatila, Sabra
and Ein El Helweh. It is shocking when you first see them and I sometimes
forget that the colleauges I have at work return to them on a nightly
basis to live. For me, I can enjoy the life that Lebanon has to offer--for
them their reality is confined to a camp with little hope for the future.
the summer in Beirut. Images of war torn times and descriptions of Tom
Friedman's book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, were in their minds.
Reality is, Beirut and Lebanon are more like Europe than the Mid East.
Beirut is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world and the people
who live here take the time to be as well groomed as possible-looking like
they stepped out of a spa at 6 am in the morning. Women are obsessed with
heels. I went hiking with a group of Lebanese and we had to stop en route
to buy proper shoes because one of the women showed up in stilettos. No
I'm not joking.
Things are quite expensive, as they are in any major city. Getting out of
Beirut in the summer is the norm...Beirut sits at the base of mountains
and once you go up into them you can get a break from the heat and
humidity that is constant.
The New York Times ranked Beirut as being one of the top travel
destinations in the world...I'd believe it. This country has made a
rebound and is only going to be getting better.
Of course the bullet riddled Holiday Inn looks like a massive tombstone
serves as a reminder of how bad things can get. Apparently the Amer of
Kuwait owns the property and just can't decide what to do with the
A colleague of mine in Afghanistan had been the first to inform me of the work that UNRWA does. UNRWA-the United Nations Relief and Works Agency-is based in five locations--Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, West Bank and Gaza--it provides the primary relief and assistance needed by Palestine Refugees. It suffers from a severe lack of funding and as a result, nearly all the programs that UNRWA supports suffer.
I had applied for an internship in both Damascus and Jerusalem, but it was with personal contacts that I was offered the position in Beirut.
I'm working as an ombudsperson--a link between the camps and front office in additiont to work as a protection officer. It's overwhelming to say the least. As an intern I have found myself staying at the office until 6 at night and sometimes being required to work on Saturdays. The Agency depends on all individuals to the full extent--therefore, this is a very 'hands on' way of learning.
I've also made several trips to the camps--Borj al Barajni, Shatila, Sabra and Ein El Helweh. It is shocking when you first see them and I sometimes forget that the colleauges I have at work return to them on a nightly basis to live. For me, I can enjoy the life that Lebanon has to offer--for them their reality is confined to a camp with little hope for the future.
If you are ever getting on a helicopter when the blades are already rotating, make sure to have the pilot give you the signal to board and never approach from the rear. This was one of the many pieces of information provided to me in the Security in the Field Trainings that UN Staff members have to take prior to or upon arrival in their duty station. Other information included pertinent information as to how to use your VHF (very high frequency radio) and how to use your watch as a compass. Other is relative to survival and one would hope to never have to actually use the training for avoiding mine fields, surviving a kidnapping, hostage situation or the correct questions to ask a caller informing you that there’s a bomb in your office.
I remember taking the online course thinking it would be a waste of my time until I actually did encounter mined areas and was told that I would be traveling by helicopter to a remote region in the Central Highland region of the Hindu Kush mountain chain, where my new duty station was located. Outside the main cities in Afghanistan—and often times inside the city themselves--there are terrible roads full of bumps, dirt, concrete and sometimes just an open space with some past tire marks. Highway systems do not exist--dirt paths and windy mountain roads are all that the country has and serves as mother nature's natural protection for anyone who wants to seek shelter in the mountains. In the south, it's vast desert roads--open roads leaving travelers sitting ducks for ambushes, which happen with relative frequency to military convoys.
During the winter, many parts of the country are inaccessible and the rate of suicide attacks and insurgent ambushes drop due to the lack of mobility. Locals in the coldest parts are reduced to walking in order to travel and limits how far they can go. Schools often shut as a result because children are not able to walk the long distances in snow from home to school--gives a whole new perspective to your grandfather's story of walking to school up hill both ways. Due to the logistics involved with Afghan travel, helicopters are the most efficient and effective way for many internationals to travel and access remote areas Afghanistan and I had the chance to travel frequently in them. Most of the NGOs and businesses do not have the chance to travel by them, but ICRC, diplomats, spies, UN staff and military are always jetting around the country.
I’m not sure if it was out of total error or lack of flights, but the first helicopter flight I ever took was VIP. I flew with ten other high level UN officials who were traveling to the region for a series of meetings and a short day visit to the Band-e-Amir lakes. They traveled with a Romanian close protection team—translates into men with big guns—and I had to wait until they safely boarded the flight to then get on. We sat in one line on one of the two metal benches lining the inside of the chopper. All the luggage is put in the middle and then tied down with mesh and rope. It's recommended to have an Ipod and definitely to wear the ear muff headsets to drown out the noise during the flight. As soon as the propellers start up, you can hear nothing but the drone of the engine and then after waiting for some time, doing some test starts, the helicopter ascends vertically in the air and you're on your way.
The helicopters operated by the UN are ironically old Soviet choppers. Markings on the inside of the helicopter are marked in Russian and some words in English. The pilots themselves are Russian and I think their English vocabulary equaled about 10 words. I once tried to engage the one in conversation. He smiled back at me with the majority of his teeth being gold plated. You seriously were in the hands of Allah most of the time in the sky.
After I began in my duty station I commuted twice weekly to a remote province named Daikundi in the town of Nili. I have mastered the art of sleeping in nearly all moving vehicles and helicopters proved to be no different. If I did manage to keep my eyes open for the duration of the 1.5 hour flight over the Hindu Kush, I would admire the sharp peaks and beauty of the mountains that passed by underneath.
The thrill of a helicopter ride beats the hell out of commuting by bus any day.
My boss, who shall remain nameless, was a Brazilian woman I’m assuming was in her fifties and severely unstable mentally. She did look good for her age, though I believe she secretly loved Botox. She always wore revealing shirts showing off her obviously enhanced chest saying, ‘It’s a like dat Looreen, they’re real! Everyone thinks that they are fake, but it’s a like dat, they’re real!’ Every bizarre thought she had would always be preceded with her waving her hands saying in a think Brazilian accent, “It’s a like dis…or, it’s a like a dat…"
Unfortunately, she suffers from extreme insecurity and takes it out on her subordinates. Your guess is as good as mine as to how she got to be in the post she’s at and making the salary she does—as a senior manager put it best when he was asking me about her, ‘what a f@!*%ing waste of money.’
I tried to not judge her before first meeting her. I even tried not to judge the fact that she wore completely inappropriate low cut shirts in front of Afghans. I even tried not to judge her when I would be stuck in her office listening to endless ramblings of her thoughts which included her berating other staff members, love for her cat, talk of Moses on a hill, theories on life and death, her passion for Portuguese men and her praising herself for how great a manager she is—going as far as to tell me that most of the staff at UNAMA wanted her as their manager. But I did have to judge her after what she put me through during my initial months in Afghanistan.
Also I did judge when she told my colleague to have all the most important items in her grab bag—passport, money, medications and condoms. The logic of including condoms with the other obviously necessary things is understandable unless she was thinking stress sex would inevitably be needed in the case of evacuation. The fact that I can even attempt to analyze the workings of her mind scares me.
After nearly two months into my time in the country, it was finally decided that I would be deployed to Bamyan. Upon my initial acceptance, I was to be deployed to Mazar e Shariff in the north, very close to the Uzbekistan border—after my shoulder surgery I delayed going and that assignment was given to another. I was later told Bamyan and it was Bamyan that I had originally been told I would be based and was the location I had mentally prepared myself to go to; however, upon arrival in country my boss informed me that I would be going elsewhere—to Gardez. If you paid attention to the news and heard of the suicide attack killing seven CIA officers in a place called Khost then you are aware of where my boss intended to send me. She also told me that she did not have a map to show me where it was located—merely waved out the window saying the helicopter went that way—yes, she was in fact crazy.
After Gardez, I was told I was going to remain in Kabul. I was fine with this until I was then told that I would be going to Herat—a beautiful city on the border with Iran. People were calling me from Herat and asking when I was arriving—everyone was asking except my manager. When I went to her office she informed me that I was not going to Herat, oh no, in a very thick Brazilian accent she informed me, “it’s a like dis Looreen—you are going to Kan-da-har.” I honestly think the floor dropped out from underneath me. Kandahar is the spiritual home of the Taliban, in the thick of the fighting and is NOT the place to be posted, especially as a female, especially as an American and especially as a UN Volunteer making half the hazard pay of an international employee. And especially since in my interview I was specifically told I would not be sent there—I raised this question to her and she waved her hand, “things change Looreen.” What’s changed? I didn’t change. The situation in Kandahar didn’t change. Obviously it was her decision that changed.
She assured me that we would go together—in her own words, she told me that we would go and stay for a couple days and share the same room-toast each other with wine and then I would realize that Kandahar really isn’t such a bad place to be. Of course she herself having been in the country had never been there for herself. To top it off, she then told me I had to go and if I didn’t want to then I could go to Gardez or if I was still would not go then I could pack my bags and go to the US. Mind you there was another English teacher and friend of mine who, upon arrival in country, told psycho boss she actually wanted to go to these places…crazy pants boss told her, “We don’t send women to places like that.” I guess I was different. Honestly, I think she kind of wanted to kill me in some sick passive-aggressive manner.
I did pack my bags and was about to board a plane the next day, not for Kandahar, but for the USA. My awesome friend and neighbor and emotional rock in Kabul learnt what was happening and had an intervention with me and basically told me to go to every high level UN official who would listen to my case and raise hell. And so I did. First to my sympathetic UNV manager—she got the worst of it because I had kept so much bottled up that it came out in a stream of profanity and tears. She herself had suffered abuse from the boss I had.
She then walked me to the boss of my boss (in retrospect, the bureaucracy of it all was quite funny). He is a very understanding man, American and a converted Muslim. Despite the amount of craziness he encounters in the mission he is able to remain calm and understanding. It drove my boss crazy I’m sure.
I sat and first apologized that I was too upset to be diplomatic and for the next five minutes let out a monologue of all that I had endured with my boss. I’m leaving a lot of the details out, but it was complete abuse of authority and, as I reflect, I realize it was close to harassment in many aspects. At one point he sat rubbing his temples saying he did not know how to professionally respond. What was my response? “Well that’s all understandable, but I just thought it best to let you know why I have packed my bags and am ready to depart Kabul tomorrow morning.”
He then called in a colleague of his, they documented what had occurred and it was agreed that my boss was to be reprimanded harshly. I also added in this meeting the fact that I was being harassed into going to the South of Afghanistan, a place I was not willing to go as a UN Volunteer, but there was a volunteer who did. It was agreed that the solution to this was simple—and I would be swapped with the volunteer who wanted to go to Kandahar.
And so, after being told my duty station would be Mazar-Gardez-Kabul-Herat-Kandahar…I was deployed to Bamyan. The place from the beginning I was to go to. As bad as my boss was to me, I kind of feel impervious to office politics now. I mean, I don’t think it gets much worse than your boss doing a smear campaign on you and attempting to send you into the line of fire because they are on some power trip or in some state of mania. If it does, let me know.
I arrived in Bamyan in September and remained until December. Unfortunately for my colleague sent to Kandahar, she arrived and was then evacuated out of the country five days later due to a horrific Taliban attack that resulted in a large number or UN staff to be relocated outside the country.
Recently I began an internship with another UN agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency, in Beirut, Lebanon. Second day on the job I met the training officer who was asking me of my time in Afghanistan. She then asked me if I knew a Brazilian woman working in training there—I couldn’t help smiling when she gave a perfect description of my ex-boss. “Yes, she was my manager.” My colleague gave me that all too familiar look of people who had encountered my boss, “What’s wrong with her? She’s kind of crazy, isn’t she?”
Yes,she truly is.
The ruins of Shahr-e-Gholgola are one of the first things you see when flying into the picturesque Bamyan valley located in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan. From Persian (Farsi) it translates into the 'town of noise'. I have heard it referred to as both the Silent City and Screaming City. The hill it sits on has the remains of what was once a prosperous city from the 5th to 7th Century AD. In 1221, Genghis Khan's grandson was killed in the area and Genghis did what any other blood thirsty Mongol ruler would do in an event that a family member was murdered--he sought revenge and by this I mean blood bath.
Genghis Khan invaded the region in 1221 AD and vowed to kill everybody including every man, woman, child, bird and animal in the valley and, true to his word, he did just that. The scream that accompanied the final massacre gave the citadel of the city the name by which it is often referred to today. The Mongols thereafter referred to it as the Mao Balegh or 'cursed city'.
Tourists can visit the ruins, but it is imperative to have a guide for safety reasons. Unmarked landmines are in the area and the threat of stepping on one is very real.
I saw Gholgola daily in the distance when I lived in Bamyan, but I never did make it to the top of the ruins. Once I, along with three others, attempted to visit Gholgola and had a an unexpected experience. As we began our ascent up the hill, we were intercepted by a very rude Afghan tour leader who seemed to appear out of nowhere--his loud voice and angry tone earned him the name Mr. Scream. He yelled at us in Dari that we needed to buy a ticket and told us we should leave the ruins, go to the tourist office--located a fair distance away--and then return. We had no car and asked why we could not just purchase admission there--for some reason he inisted on us going to the tourist office.
The tourist industry is obviously just starting in the Bamyan valley and there are tickets you can purchase at the tourist office just opposite the Buddhas. The idea is that a tourist buys the ticket and then gains entry to all the sites in the Valley including the Buddhas, Red City and Gholgola. However, the Afghans have not put into practice this procedure and there seems to be no cooridination or instructions posted anywhere informing you of this process.
Randomly, a pious man who spoke Arabic just happended to be hanging out on the hill and after seeing Mr. Scream act like a moron came to us to see what was the matter. Given my basic Dari did not convey my frustration created from the Afghan red tape I was facing, I explained to him in Arabic that I merely wanted to pay admission and could not understand why I had to go all the way to the tourist office. He attempted to negotiate with Mr. Scream, but Mr. Scream was adament on following the procedure of going to the ticket office. The end of the argument involved the arrival of three ex-Mujahadeen fighters--really not sure what there job was, but I believe they were guards at the top of the ruins to ensure everyone had a ticket--whatever they were, they had big kalashnikovs and agreed with Mr. Scream that we had to go to the tourist office. At that point, it was obviously futile to continue attempts at entry--angry looking men with guns was Mr. Scream's trump card.
The Arabic speaking elderly man accompanied us down the hill from Gholgola and he repeatedly apologized for his fellow country men saying all of Afghanistan is a problem. His soothing words and understanding nature soon made me forget the anger I felt from Mr. Scream's ignorance and the mujahadeen's guns. He told me of the countries he had visited while seeking refuge abroad--his beautiful Arabic, which he spoke in a the classic form, was a result of thirty years he had spent living in the Gulf. He eventually separated from our group and walked on, gently counting his prayer beads as he silently reciting a name for Allah for each bead he held between his fingers. Arms folded behind his back, he sauntered off towards his home in the distance. Though he lived near to my guesthouse, I never saw him again. Problems are everywhere in the world, but it's people like him that give you faith that there are good people out there--and can appear unexpectedly when you give up hope of finding them.
"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your God like a soldier."
Recently, a modern-day British soldier re-wrote the famous Kipling poem. I think it's worth sharing as it gives a pretty good account of the war today, which I don't believe Kipling could ever predict.
When the 'arf-made recruity goes out to the East
'E acts like a babe an' 'e drinks like a beast,
An' 'e wonders because 'e is frequent deceased
Ere 'e's fit for to serve as a soldier.
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!
Now all you recruities what's drafted to-day,
You shut up your rag-box an' 'ark to my lay,
An' I'll sing you a soldier as far as I may:
A soldier what's fit for a soldier.
Fit, fit, fit for a soldier . . .
First mind you steer clear o' the grog-sellers' huts,
For they sell you Fixed Bay'nets that rots out your guts --
Ay, drink that 'ud eat the live steel from your butts --
An' it's bad for the young British soldier.
Bad, bad, bad for the soldier . . .
When the cholera comes -- as it will past a doubt --
Keep out of the wet and don't go on the shout,
For the sickness gets in as the liquor dies out,
An' it crumples the young British soldier.
Crum-, crum-, crumples the soldier . . .
But the worst o' your foes is the sun over'ead:
You must wear your 'elmet for all that is said:
If 'e finds you uncovered 'e'll knock you down dead,
An' you'll die like a fool of a soldier.
Fool, fool, fool of a soldier . . .
If you're cast for fatigue by a sergeant unkind,
Don't grouse like a woman nor crack on nor blind;
Be handy and civil, and then you will find
That it's beer for the young British soldier.
Beer, beer, beer for the soldier . . .
Now, if you must marry, take care she is old --
A troop-sergeant's widow's the nicest I'm told,
For beauty won't help if your rations is cold,
Nor love ain't enough for a soldier.
'Nough, 'nough, 'nough for a soldier . . .
If the wife should go wrong with a comrade, be loath
To shoot when you catch 'em -- you'll swing, on my oath! --
Make 'im take 'er and keep 'er: that's Hell for them both,
An' you're shut o' the curse of a soldier.
Curse, curse, curse of a soldier . . .
When first under fire an' you're wishful to duck,
Don't look nor take 'eed at the man that is struck,
Be thankful you're livin', and trust to your luck
And march to your front like a soldier.
Front, front, front like a soldier . . .
When 'arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch,
Don't call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch;
She's human as you are -- you treat her as sich,
An' she'll fight for the young British soldier.
Fight, fight, fight for the soldier . . .
When shakin' their bustles like ladies so fine,
The guns o' the enemy wheel into line,
Shoot low at the limbers an' don't mind the shine,
For noise never startles the soldier.
Start-, start-, startles the soldier . . .
If your officer's dead and the sergeants look white,
Remember it's ruin to run from a fight:
So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
And wait for supports like a soldier.
Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!
I arrived in Kabul four days later than initially expected. Actually four months later if I want to go back to the delay involved in shoulder rehabilitation. But it was the actual day of my departure that was the most frustrating.
A diner or drinker in Kabul is able to choose from various culinary cuisines ranging from: Lebanese, French--this on complete with a lit up Eiffel tower--, Mexican, Chinese, French, Italian, American, Afghan, Thai and others that I was only learning of when I left. These establishments were well stocked with booze when I left in December 2009, though I have learned that there have been several raids on alcohol in the early period of 2010. A handful of these restaurants are 'cleared' by the UN's MOSS (Minimal Operating Security Standards) and foreigners living under lock and key are able to go without the added stress of violating their security protocol. MOSS standards include buildings having a barricades and checkpoints into the establishment, a safe room to go to in case of attack, armed guards, blast walls, and a minimum of 8 foot walls along the perimeter.
If someone wants to 'risk it' and, and they very well do, their options open up to even more non-MOSS compliant locales.
There is also a five star hotel, the Serena, boasting a weekend brunch with sushi. Swimming pools (clearly only for the summer months), restaurants and bars are scattered in Kabul. In the early days of the US led operation in Afghanistan, you could visit places without the security measures in place today. Since 2005, a steady stream of suicide bombers trained in Pakistan, have been sent over the border succeeding in their missions and, as a result, the situation has steadily deteriorated and doesn't appear to be changing anytime in the near future.
While no Western equivalent of a fast food chain exists, there are the local versions of AFC (Afghan Fried Chicken) and KFC (Kabul Fried Chicken)--this one even has the Colonel on display though Kentucky no longer exists for KFC Kabul style.
I never tried them so I can't comment on the quality!
Kabul was once lined with green trees with orchards on the outside of the city full of delicious fruits, juicy apples and plump almonds. Then the Russians came and decided it was more important to use those trees as firewood. Kabul today is a dust bowl of urban sprawl in an arid and dry climate. Respiratory illness from the dirt and pollution is common.
Kabul International Airport is located near downtown and its entry way is decorated with a fighter jets and the remnants of a rocket attack. From my time that I spent there, the amount of security at the checkpoints continually increased and you are now greeted far from the airport by men with guns and a tank.
After you leave the secure barricades of the city it's a patchwork of life. Bikes dodge through lanes of traffic that change in number and direction quickly. Streets are lined with shops selling goods and many shoes always seem to be for sale on the sidewalks. Women in burkha walk by as do women with only veils--both seem to like to wear heels. Men and boys run through traffic and play in dirt piles and all seem to be wearing the chalwar kamiz dress. And there are several men wearing sylish, pointy Italian shoes with shiny polyester shirts complete with uber amounts of hair gel.
Stalls of fruits and vegetables are on the sides of the road--when I was there there were always melons. Big melons that never seemed to go down in quantity. Go out at 2am and you'll find a guy selling a hundred melons--that or big hunks of naan bread. Naan is round flat breads baked fresh and can vary in sizes from 6 inches to 2 feet of goodness. Bread shops always have a man furiously kneading dough and taking the breads out of the oven...they are stacked in the windows to be sold or hung around the windows of the shop. The going cost of a 2 foot piece of naan will cost you roughly .50 cents.
Afghan cars are unique in that I believe it to be the one place in the world where you find cars with with steering wheels on both the left and right. That's not to say that a car has two steering wheels, but you will see some cars going by with one or the other. I suppose it's whatever they can get into the country. Given that there's barely a functioning government, I think that the placement of a steering wheel is the least of the country's worries.
After passing the shops you begin to see very high concrete walls lining both sides of the street. These are blast walls, built to withstand bomb detonations. Often the top of these walls will be complete with large loops of barbed wire and the rule is for the walls to be a minimum of 8 feet in height--making it difficult for anyone to jump them.
Upon entry into buildings frequented by Westerners you also have to pass through several security checkpoints. If driving, you may be stopped far outside a building in a little garage surrounded by sandbags while your ID is scrutinized, the bottom of your car is evaluated for any bombs along with under the hood of your car. If you pass that, then you go through several barricades before going through another two sets of security screenings complete with men with guns watching you from above in guard towers, just in case.
Mind you, these are the places where 'hard targets' work and live. For the rest of Kabul, you can enter with relative ease and if it's an Afghan establishment, the security restrictions do not apply.
What about the war? Yep, there's fighting, but it's mainly isolated in the Southern regions of Helmand, Kandahar and along the Eastern border with Pakistan--listen closer to the news reports when they announce where incidents take place and you'll notice a trend. All these places are where the Pashtun tribe is dominant. The lines of Afghanistan are drawn by outsiders in order to contain and govern the country. Afghanistan itself is tribal. That line between Afghanistan may as well be drawn with chalk or invisible ink for that matter given that the Pashtuns in Afghanistan are the same as the ones in Pakistan. But they are aware that by crossing the borders they are exempt from the governance 'laws' of the country. It's a tribal system that exists and always will.
Afghanistan is, in fact, one of the most breathtaking places a traveler can ever imagine. The hospitality of the Afghan people and readily available, potent hashish brought long haired hippies in droves back in the 70's while they wanderlust took them on a path for their Shangri La in nearby India and Nepal. For the record, the hotels from the past are still operational and waiting for the day when visitors return once again.
The Band-e-Amir Lakes are one of the hidden gems in this country. Local folklore gives a history as to why these lakes exist in the middle of the mountainous desert they are found. The lakes are inaccessible during the winter months. Band-e-Amir translates into the the Lakes of Commander--a reference to Ali, the first Imam for the Shia sect of Islam. The six lakes roughly translate in to the following:
- Band-e Gholaman (slaves)
- Band-e Qambar (Caliph Ali's slave)
- Band-e Haibat (grandiose)
- Band-e Panir (cheese)
- Band-e Pudina (wild mint)
- Band-e Zulfiqar (the sword of Ali)
This is not to say that there are not limitations or difficulties to traveling in Afghanistan--there most definitely are. But there also is a possibility of visiting a fascinating part of the world known to the West only as war.