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Jane's armchair tour: Learning about Afghanistan & Kabul the easy way...

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Well, I'm busy typing up my chapter on Afghanistan for the book that I'm writing. I've got 19 pages typed. I've got 40 pages left to go. My fingers hurt! But here's what I've go so far, FYI. It's a lot of information about Afghanistan but I'm hoping that you'll be entertained as well as informed....

PS: I'm still waiting for my embed assignment to come through so that I can return to Iraq on June 16.

Jane's armchair tour: Learning about Afghanistan & Kabul the easy way...

February 14, 2006: It's Valentines Day. I gotta do something heart-felt this year. Nothing to do with chocolate however. I did that last year. Chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, chocolate candy, chocolate mousse, chocolate cream pie, chocolate brownies.... But Global Exchange has a trip to Afghanistan planned for this June. That sounds really heart-felt. Hummm....

March 18, 2006: The Oakland Tribune actually did an article on me. "Please help Jane Stillwater go to Afghanistan." It looks like I'm going for sure.

April 20, 2006: Well, the donations haven't been exactly pouring in, but one nice man called me all the way from Minnesota and offered to donate $500. Plus I set out a table at a political event last night and collected 17 whole dollars.

May 10, 2006: I called the Global Exchange rep. "I sent away for a new passport on April 4 and it hasn't come back yet! What if it doesn't come back on time and I can't send to Washington for my Afghan visa!" I was really panicked. I had already gotten my airplane tickets.

"It only takes a week, max, to get the visa," said the rep. "Don't worry. You'll be fine." Fine? Stuck in Dubai until it's time for my return flight to leave? Maybe if I win the lottery. But otherwise not. Dubai is expensive.

I'd gotten my flight to Dubai on Emirates Air and then will fly on to Kabul with Arianna Airlines. The tickets were pricy because I couldn't use my favorite travel connection, because they didn't sell Arianna tickets. But why would they? How many of your average tourists want to fly to Kabul?

I also went to Expedia.com and made reservations at the Meridien Hotel in Dubai. "Dubai is amazing," someone told me. "It's the resort of choice for Europeans right now and it's sort of a combination of Las Vegas and Hawaii." Wow. I leave on June 17 and come back on June 28. I spend two days in the air on the flight over, including a stopover at Heathrow.

I'm getting too old for all this flying to the other side of the world. Next time I'm just gonna fly to Los Angeles.

May 19, 2006: My passport came back from the State Department. Yea! And I sent it off immediately to the Afghan visa office. With fingers crossed.

May 22, 2006: My landlord just called. "We have a rug installation team available on June 1. Can we do your unit that day?" The good news is that I get new rugs which I desperately need. The bad news is that I have to move everything I own and all the furniture I've accumulated in the past 25 years out of my home.

May 28, 2006: I held a yard sale. I made $32! And I got rid of 25 boxes of junk. "How much is this comforter?"

"25 cents."

"How much is this chair?"

"25 cents."

June 1, 2006: The ruggers came today. They were amazing! They laid down wall-to-wall carpeting throughout my apartment in less than eight hours. Me and a young neighbor moved stuff like beds and desks and the piano like we were the strongmen at the circus. The whole thing was like having one's house hit by a cyclone. I don't want to talk about it any more.

June 3, 2006: My visa arrived! I'm all set to go!

June 5, 2006: No I'm not. They just had big riots in Kabul. "14 people were killed as rioting broke out all over Kabul." The general theme of the riots seemed to be, "Death to Americans". This is not a good thing. Not at all.
"We have our people in Kabul researching whether it is safe for you to go there," said the GX rep. I could always spend that time in Dubai instead. Flexibility is the key to travel. I made out a new will.

June 7, 2006: "Things are calming down in Kabul," said the GX rep. "I think it's still safe to go there. But we had to drop all our plans to travel to the north or to see the former site of the giant Buddha statues that were blown up by the Taliban." No sight-seeing jaunts through Taliban country? Oh well.

The internet has been filled with horror stories about how Afghanistan is falling apart. I just hope it can hold together until after I get back!

A friend of mine called. "Please, when you go there, don't tell anyone you are Muslim!" she said. "If you make any mistakes in your prayers, they will get really angry about it. It's better that you keep your mouth shut, Jane. I mean it."
The advantage of being a writer is that one can take one's anxiety out on the page. So I worked everything out on my blog. Here's the result:

Madame Jane Predicts: I will return from Afghanistan alive!

Three months ago, it seemed like going on a fact-finding tour of Afghanistan was a good idea. I wanted to see what an American colony looked like up close so I could point with pride and/or view with alarm. Nobody would let me into the jewel in America's colonial crown -- Iraq -- so I figured I would have to settle for Afghanistan, the Iraq wannabe.

I wanted to see, up close and personal, the money pit where our children's future is being eaten alive. And I also wanted to get a sneak preview of what America under the Bush neo-cons will look like in 20 years. Make that ten years.

But Madame Jane can't predict the future without a cheat sheet!

So. I happily applied to go off to Afghanistan with Global Exchange -- including a stop-over in Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Middle East.
Then, a few weeks ago, all hell broke loose in Kabul. "Hundreds of people have been killed in Afghanistan in anti-American riots and conflicts with the Taliban," internet blog headlines screamed (the mainstream press, of course, quoted Bush reassuring us that everything in Afghanistan is just fine -- and it is, as far as he is concerned. Bush loves violence and he is successfully bringing it on).

In the face of all this new danger, should I still go? Sure. Someone has to come back to tell America what is going on in Iraq, er, Afghanistan and how the Bush policy of killing everyone in sight in his colonies isn't working for the rest of us Americans because injustice always leads to resistance and true Americans are supposed to be opposed to injustice. It's a flag, Mom and apple pie thing. Bush would not understand.

But, despite all the violence in Afghanistan, I will be perfectly safe on this trip. Why? Because I'm a female and I'm older and no one ever notices me. (If they did, I woulda become a famous writer and been invited to the "Yearly Kos" convention -- and to George Bush's trial for treason.) So. I'll be okay.
I'm going to Afghanistan for the last two weeks in June. And I'll bring back a story. And I'll send it to you.

But just in case my prediction is wrong (I'm never wrong!), I did re-write my will. "I want to be buried in the back yard." With my DSL connection by my side....

June 8, 2006: "We just heard from Kabul," said the GX rep. "The trip is on!" Good. I've been really bored with my daily routines lately. Going to a bomb-torn country that hates Americans should get me un-bored really fast.
"You are only supposed to take 20 pounds of luggage on Arianna," said the rep, "but usually there's so many people trying to get on the flight from Dubai that the airline tends to be fairly flexible about this." That's okay. I never travel with more stuff than I can carry for six blocks by myself in luggage without wheels. Only wimps use wheels.

June 15, 2006: My neighbor came over to see me. "I'm bored," I told him. "Bored." He sighed. I sighed. "Let's paint my kitchen." And that's how the true story of how I ended up with a yellow, orange and red kitchen and why I am leaving for Afghanistan in two days with paint on my hands.

Just two more days. And I will no longer be bored! Especially if I get shot at.

June 17, 2006: I'm on the road at last! Or at least at the Ashby BART train station. I've really felt under pressure for these last few days. I don't know why. I've traveled before. It's never been this bad however. I keep getting e-mails from people saying, "Don't go to Afghanistan! It's really really dangerous over there!" But is it as dangerous as staying here and dying of boredom? Who knows. I don't.

"Want to go to the movies with me before you go?" asked my son Joe three hours before I was scheduled to leave for the San Francisco airport.

"Sure!" We went to see a comedy something to occupy my mind so I'd stop stressing out. And it worked! We went to the movie theater where my daughter Ashley works because it was the one with the right starting times. I'm still hecka angry with Ashley for quitting college and running off with her cheesy boyfriend who hates me.

"Do you mind that Ashley is working at the movies today?" asked Joe. Nope. I was going to wear a disguise. Shades and a watch cap. I looked like a gangsta. Ashley would never recognize me.

I had the gangsta walk. I had the gangsta talk. I made gang signs. It all went well until I bought my ticket and said, "One senior ticket please." Ashley was working at the candy counter and I was able to sneak past her with no trouble. "What up, mon!" I'll fit right in with the warlords.

9:00 pm: Every time I get off a BART train, I always look back to see if I left anything behind. Wouldn't you know that this one time I didn't look back, I left something. Something really important! "I left my jacket on the train!" I wailed to the station agent. "It's my favorite jacket! I've worn it every single day for the last six years!" It's like a part of me.

The station agent was a jewel. "This train will be coming back this way in 20 minutes. You can catch the train, walk through the coaches until you find it and then get off at the next station in time to catch the next airport train. No problem." A plan! We had a plan.

I caught the train going away from the airport. I started to search the cars. Three cars, no jacket. But then the fourth car's door was broken! I couldn't get through. I had to get off! If I didn't, I'd miss the next train to the airport, I'd miss my flight to Afghanistan and I'd have to go back home and paint the rest of the freaking kitchen! I got off the train. The train pulled away from the station. And as the cars flashed by, there it was! I saw my jacket.

"Noooo! Stop the train!" The train of course didn't stop. Sigh. There went my little jacket, happily riding on BART. Sigh. The airport train arrived from the other direction and, broken hearted, I got on. Well at least I got to say one last goodbye to my jacket. Sigh. And there's still time to catch my plane. This trip is not starting out well. It's a good thing I'm not superstitious.

I coulda gotten that jacket! If only the freaking door had worked.

June 18, 2006, 6:30 am, New York time: I love airports! They are always full of people that you can watch; people from all over the world; people who are going places. And every time I fly, I treat myself to a paperback book from the news shop on the concourse. But this time I couldn't find anything I wanted to read and I was reduced to reading the inflight magazine.

But there is one thing I hate about airports: Automatic flushing toilets. Modesty demands that I don't go into details on this particular point. Use your imagination.

On the flight to New York, the guy next to me put his yarmelke over his eyes, secured it with his glasses and slept like a freaking log for the entire trip, locking me into my seat for five whole hours. And after around three hours, even access to an automatic flushing toilet would have been a welcome relief.

As usual, my boarding pass had the dread "SSSS" written on it selected for special security screening. "I always get this," I joked with the screener. "It's because I'm a Democrat." She laughed. Every single flight I have taken since I started blogging six years ago has had the dread "SSSS" stamped on my boarding pass. They take me to a separate room, search through everything I own, send me into a little closet that sends out puffs of air what's that about and wave little pads through my purse. Then they put the pads in some machine that can apparently detect gunpowder. I passed all the tests. That's me. Safe as houses.

I am an American patriot. Why would I want to hurt Americans? It's absurd. Just because one is a Democrat doesn't mean one is a mad bomber. I'm just in a grouchy mood because we just landed in New York and I got no sleep last night. It's 7:30 am. And I still have 24 hours to go before I land in Dubai. For me, sleeping on airplanes is almost impossible. I envy the man in the yarmelke.

June 19, 2006, 5:00 am: OMG, Emirates Air has individual digital movies 150 of them! I've already watched five entire movies plus parts of three more and we're only over Scotland. Wow! I love Emirates Air! If you can't sleep on planes, it's nice to be able to fry your brains with movies for 12 hours.

OMG! Now we are flying over Kiev and the Caspian Sea! I never been to the former USSR before. OMG! Now we're flying over Turkey! Are we gonna fly over Iraq? Yeah. And Iran too. Who sez I've never been to the world's troubled hotspots!

June 19, 2006, 3:30 pm, Dubai time: I've already found an internet cafe. It's in the Dubai City Center mall. "It's over in the bowling alley," said the person at the information counter. "You can't miss it." And it was run by some guy who also sold Movenpick ice cream. I wrote an article for my blog. Here it is:

Lost luggage: Was I in Iraq this morning or not?

I am writing this from an internet cafe/bowling alley in a shopping center in Dubai while eating sushi and Movenpick ice cream. The last 48 hours have been rough -- most of it spent on airplanes watching in-flight movies. Emirates Air had a choice of 150 movies. I was in hog heaven.

But as we flew over the former USSR, a handful of Central Asian Republics and the Caspian Sea, my thoughts turned to oil. Then, on our way to Dubai, there came a point in time when I realized that we could be flying over the airspace above Iraq. Then I know that we spent a long time in the airspace above Iran.

How bizarre -- to think that commercial airliners are that above-it-all. At 30,000 feet, it doesn't really matter to anyone on our plane whether or not there's a war going on down below and people are getting blown up even as I watch Big Mama's House 2 and Memoirs of a Geisha and Failure to Launch....

PS: Somewhere between Delta Airlines and Emirates Air, my luggage got lost. But EA gave me a free toothbrush.

After my adventures at the bowling alley/internet cafe/ice cream parlor, I went back to my hotel and ate the best Middle Eastern food I've ever had in my young life. They even managed to make pita bread taste good.

And did I mention that I got lost? "Which way is the Meridien hotel?" I asked 20 different people. And managed to get 20 different answers. Finally I just took a cab. But he went in about five different directions to just stretch out his billable milage. But it was worth it. He gave me a lot of good information. "The education system here is good and there are a lot of jobs but the pay isn't very high compared to the rents. The cost of living here is really high." He also said that gas was about a dollar a litre. "And this is the off-season. There are many more tourists here in the winter. From Europe."

I asked the driver where Michael Jackson lived but it was too far away. And it turned out that my hotel was only two or three blocks away from the mall and I had been walking in circles in 90-degree heat for an hour for no good reason.

7:00 pm: When I got back to my hotel, one of the members of the tour was there. "I am the mother of two children and a doctor," she told me. That was surprising because she looked more like a college student than a mom. She and I went down to dinner and then I logged in on the hotel's computer and happily checked e-mail until bedtime.

June 20, 2006, 6 am: "There is no room left on the plane and they don't have our reservations listed in the computer." Welcome to the way things are done in Afghanistan? The doctor/mom performed some sort of magic on the ticket agent. I think she gave the agent her one-two combination doctor/mom intensive stare or something. I don't know what she did but suddenly all of us two more people had joined us from our tour group were booked on the flight.

"You understand," said a British contractor security guard returning back to his job in Kabul, "that when the gates open, you forget all about your seat assignment and run for the plane. This isn't America." Oh. So that's how the seats suddenly became available they've opened them up to battle-by-combat-on-the-runway. Cool.

"Are you one of those security guards," I asked the Brit, "who works for Blackwater and does all those torture thingies?"

"No. I'm not that kind." Good. He seemed like a nice chap.

At the airport, there was a small mosque and I was really glad. I needed to slow down and catch my breath. Me and this other lady were having trouble figuring out which way was Mecca but our hearts were pure. She prayed toward the airport. I prayed facing the street. Afterwards I saw a sign pointing toward Mecca. We were both wrong.

Everyone at the gate lounge looks very, er, Afghan. This is it. We're finally going to Kabul.

"Back in the States, I met a man from the US embassy," said Dr. Mom. "He is going to give us a tour." Getting a tour of the U.S. embassy is a really big deal. I'm really glad we finally got our tickets. If I wanted to hang around Dubai for another day, I could go to L.A. or Las Vegas instead and get the full effect.

In the waiting area, after I got my latte, we met a young couple who had lived up in northern Afghanistan for three years, working for a NGO. "We only came back to America to have our baby," the wife told us. The aforementioned baby was four months old. "I work as an organizer for a women's sewing collective. I love it there." They had no fears about going back and appeared to be ready to spend the rest of their lives in Mazar-i Sharif. I hope that they can.

"We've become addicted to solar power," said the husband. "And we have a generator." Then another couple joined us. They too had an interesting story.
"Both our parents were missionaries in Nepal and we met each other again by accident about three years ago. Now we work with an NGO. I used to work in the south but now I work in the north. The warlords fight each other occasionally there but in the south the Taliban are getting much more active." Then the guy said that he had actually read my blog. Wow!

9:00 am: Ha! We got on the plane and after all that talk about the booking being full, there were a lot of empty seats. What was that all about? We immediately started flying over rows and rows of eroded mountains, the kind you see through plane windows passing over the Rockies or the Himalayas. I want a window seat! The bathrooms were jankity but the toilets worked. And they served chicken kebabs for breakfast too.

Now we are flying over flat, barren terrain. Desolate. Miles and miles of desolation. Sand dunes and rocky out-croppings. Escarpments. From up here I can't see any roads. Just lots and lots of shades of tan. One or two empty river beds, erosion. Then a big helping of desert. Afghanistan seems to be very isolated, hard to get to, hard to invade. I don't know if that's Pakistan or Afghanistan down there but either way if anyone lives there, it's gotta be a hard-knock life.

"Is that Pakistan or Afghanistan," I asked a man standing by my chair waiting to use the restroom.

"That's Iran." So. Iran owns a desert the size of New Mexico? Or Texas.

This flight has no inflight movies! And the mountain ranges have started up again. And there's more flatlands. Look! There is actually a road! Then more tan flat stuff. Out in the middle of nowhere, this is truly the land before time. Then more tan rows of mountains. If we have crossed over into Afghanistan by now, this is obviously not the poppy-growing region!

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to begin our descent into Kabul. The weather is 33 degrees Celsius." They gots a major city out in the middle of all these mountains and all this sand? Then, like a ribbon, a patch of green began to run through the tan landscape. It was divided into farms. And like an arrow, it pointed toward Kabul. The airplane followed this green strip through the desert and wasteland for 50 to 100 miles. And as we approached the city, one other major feature stood out. Everything from farms to houses to industrial sites to army bases was surrounded by high walls, usually concrete or adobe.

Oh, what's that? I just saw my first major bombed-out ruin. Army vehicles, construction vehicles, trucks. Walls. Lots of walls. This place is different, slightly off. It's like finding lots of lawn furniture or library shelves in someone's front room. And there are rows and rows of helicopters at the airport. I've never seen that before.

We've landed. We're here. Something tells me this trip is gonna be real different. "Almost all the people on this flight are men," I commented.
"That's because they go to buy, sell and work in Dubai and then come back. Oh, and after you leave the arrival area, keep a close eye on your luggage," said a woman who now lived in London but who had come back to visit her mother. "I tried to get my mother to move to London but she won't because all of our extended family lives here."

The luggage carousel was a madhouse. I got shouldered out of the way by a lady wearing a burka. I saw my first burka! She kept adjusting it and it was clearly obvious that she couldn't see out through the eye screen. I expected to see her start cursing it out at any minute.

"You know that Kabul is at an altitude of around 5,000 feet." I didn't know that. "And you know this place has been invaded on a regular basis for the last 5,000 years." Why? What exactly would they expect to find here? What would be so important to fight over? Not a clue.

We were met outside the airport by our Kabul guide. "How many people live here?" I asked him.

"Around five million." We drove past some tents. "That's a school for girls." It looked really hot in those tents! The buildings looked like the poorer parts of Tijuana one-storey buildings made of adobe and concrete. Dusty. And the traffic was disorganized and chaotic.

"In this area are many embassies," our guide said a mile later. "Japan, Turkey, China, Britain, Germany, the United States." The area was surrounded by walls, sand bags and accordion barbed wire.

"Here is the economic and foreign ministries." Lots of lawn behind barbed wire. "Next is the downtown." Again, a few ladies in burkas are on the street but mostly we see boys and men.

"During the Taliban years, women were not allowed in the mosques at all. But now they are legally allowed. But the women still pray at home because they don't feel safe yet. But it is getting better."

We passed the burned-out shell of a large movie theater. "The Taliban blew it up." You can see the kind of bricks there that most of Kabul is built of: Adobe. Then we pulled into a side street, drove into the gate of a walled compound and arrived at our guesthouse. Once inside, the temperature was cooler. Why? Two-foot-thick walls.

"During the civil war after the Russians left, around 1992, this house was hit by two rocket grenades and also the whole block was demolished. Now, after we built again and the neighbors saw that our NGO was here to stay, they decided it was safe for them to re-build too."

Then our host riffed on Arianna Airlines. "The pilots are very good which is reassuring because the planes are old and not very reliable. We call them the 'Inshallah' airline." Our host is a historian and he has been out collecting stories from the far corners of Afghanistan. "We were up in the northern mountains recently -- not like the sand mountains around here. They are very green. They grow opium up there."

"Did Afghanistan traditionally grow opium?"

"No. But now they grow it everywhere." There is also a land mine program here. "But they only set off the mines once a day, at noon so people won't be scared by the noise because there is an old Kabul tradition of firing a cannon at noon." Then we had lunch naan bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, an eggplant casserole and some dill-flavored yogurt. Delicious!

So far Kabul does not seem dangerous at all. "But there is a lot of tension just below the surface." Our host also lectured us on security. "The State Department says that if anything happens to you, they are not going to come and rescue you. They warned you that Afghanistan is unstable. And they won't take responsibility for you. My suggestion is that you keep a low profile." What? No happily tripping down the street getting lost and asking people for directions like I usually do?

"Try not to take photos conspicuously or do anything else that will draw a crowd. We have two guards at the guesthouse, so it is fairly safe here." He said that going outside the city was definitely not a good idea. And apparently there are a lot of checkpoints on the roads. "Last month when we were driving outside the city, we were stopped and offered $4,000 for one of the American women in the car. And there are long stretches of open road outside the city and the police are corrupt. People get kidnaped. There are bandits out there. We don't feel comfortable outside the city, in circumstances that are uncontrolled."

The security situation doesn't look good for now. "We hope it's going to get better but we are not holding our breath." There are many reasons why. "People had hopes for Afghanistan four years ago but hope is wearing rather thin these days because the money and the job sources are drying up. So Afghans, especially government officials, are vulnerable to corruption. And people are unhappy because the government is becoming so corrupt."

4:30 pm: A female member of parliament from a nearby province just arrived at the guesthouse. "There was an attack near my house last night," she said, "with guns and rockets, for 40 minutes. I woke up, heard the noise, figured there was nothing I could do to stop it and went back to sleep."

Our house has a garden. I am sitting in the garden, waiting for someone to go to the internet cafe with me. Women can't go anyplace alone. I'm bored while I'm waiting. But at lease I'm not home in Berkeley painting the kitchen. But as one person said, "These imposed restrictions give you a chance to experience what Afghan women experience." What? The feeling that I'm under house arrest? Okay. I've experienced it. Now let's move on.

8:30 pm: We went to the internet cafe! Imagine the most slow modum dial-up internet from 20 years ago and you pretty much got a picture of how fast my connection was running. Two minutes between screen changes. The "save as draft" function didn't work. And there was no "reply" feature at all. It took me two hours but I finally got an article out to my favorite online magazine. Here it is:

The Taliban did it: If anything goes wrong in Afghanistan, we know who to blame!

We left Dubai this morning and finally arrived in Kabul after flying over a desert as big as New Mexico and a mountain range as big as New Mexico too. And for two whole hours, everything we flew over was either khaki-colored or tan.

Kabul itself is like that Sesame Street "What's wrong with this picture" game. Kabul is just like the other cities except...except for the occasional bombed-out building, the tall thick razor-wire-topped walls that surround every home, the grinding poverty and the absence of women on the streets. Little things are missing or seem out of place. Good roads are missing. People are missing a leg....

Otherwise the city looks pretty much like Tijuana -- one-storey buildings made out of concrete or adobe bricks. And the whole place, like the mountains around it, is tan.

"Thee million people live here. And the place has constantly been invaded for the last 5,000 years." What for? If you had a choice, wouldn't you want to invade a place that was more accessible? And more green?

"I heard that the Taliban killed 30 people last week," I told my Afghan friend.
"The Taliban?" he replied. "They blame everything here on the Taliban. There are warlords, corrupt officials, tribal fueds, drug lords, bandits and private armies all over Afghanistan but whenever anyone gets shot at or blown up, Bush and the American media blame it on the Taliban."

So far, the "Taliban" doesn't seem to be a problem in Kabul. I've been here eight whole hours and haven't seen anyone gunned down or blown up yet. "But there are a lot of tensions running just below the surface here," said one Afghan.

Another Afghan stated, "But there is a lot of hope here too." Which road will the future Afghanistan go down? The road of hope? Or the one we will have to blame on the Taliban....

PS: Just at this moment, a member of Parliament who lives about an hour away from Kabul rushed in the door. "The police station near my house was attacked last night. Guns and rockets hit it for about forty minutes. At first I was trying to figure out what to do and then I realized there was nothing I could do to stop it so I went back to sleep."

"Was it the Taliban?" I asked.

"There are very few Taliban left in Afghanistan," said the MP. "You want a message to America? Tell them this! Don't help Pakistan. Pakistan trains the people who attack us. Pakistan arms the attackers. Pakistan finances the attackers with money it gets from America. The people who attacked the police station last night were NOT Taliban. There are very few Taliban. These people also burned down an orphanage. Who are 'They'? 'They' are the Americans. The Americans did it -- by giving money and support to Pakistan. Please tell people in America this -- and ask them to stop!"

I'll try.

10:30 pm: We had a fabulous dinner tonight. The guesthouse chef is a jewel. We had greens grown in the backyard garden. And a wonderful pilaf. After dinner, some American guy who is staying here sat me down and tried to explain Pakistan to me. "The country itself was formed by war. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan which scared the Pakistanis. Then Iran had that big revolution. Then Iran started fighting Iraq. At this point the Taliban offered to help Afghanistan to stabilize, which they did. But then thugs took over the Taliban and they got out of hand, scaring Pakistan even more." Then I lost the train of thought. But I think that what he said was that Pakistan is now funding thugs who call themselves Taliban. But in current times, the thugs are growing poppies and burning down orphanages. That's not Taliban behavior. Apparently, at this point in time, whenever there is confusion in Afghanistan, Pakistan benefits.

"But," said the guy, "I still have hope for Afghanistan. The people here seem to know what to do to survive whether they have leaders leading them or not."

June 21, 2006, 5:30 am: It's the world's most beautiful morning. The guesthouse has a well-tended vegetable garden that actually produces the food that we eat. Imagine that. "Kabul is the pivotal point, the bottleneck, on the Silk Road," said someone last night. "You gotta go over the Khyber pass to get to China. Period." Oh. That's why Afghanistan was always being invaded. It certainly wasn't for its lush greenery although the vegetable garden seems to be doing quite well.

There's a lot of rebuilding going on here on our street. The buildings on both sides of us are new. To the rear of us are piles and piles of bombed-out ruins. The guesthouse itself was flattened during the civil war after the Soviets left and before the Taliban took over. In Kabul, history is right in your face!
Well, I shouldn't be sitting out here in the garden in my nightgown. But it is such a lovely morning and I am the only one up so far. Or maybe not. I can smell that someone inside the house is making coffee.

I should write about the Afghan guy at the internet cafe next to me viewing serious pornography but if I do, I'm worried that excited uber-Muslims might blow up the cafe or -- more than likely -- make a run on it and occupy all the terminals so that I will have to stand in line and wait while they check out the naked girls.

"In Afghanistan, everything works by kinship extended families. That's why gossip spreads so rapidly here. For instance, a teacher arrived at the guesthouse and within the hour, 50 potential students showed up at the door."

9:00 am: "This is the women's ministry," said our guide. "The head of the ministry was the first woman to run for President and lost to Karzai by a surprisingly small amount of votes." Next door to the relatively small ministry was a large bombed-out building. "That was another cinema." Strange when operating a cinema has become a revolutionary act.

Then we met with this living legend but only after having been body-searched twice. "We want positive change in the lives of Afghan women better health and education, less oppression and violence. Women need to be able to live like human beings with their rights respected. This takes resources." The ministry needs a special budget for these purposes and it is just not there.

"Let's be frank. We can easily find out what the problems of women are but the men are the strong ones and they get the resources from the national budget and those who are weak cannot get them. Therefore we need a special budget just to help women." Women in Afghanistan are hurting so much. This really needs to be done!

"The ministry's annual budget is $57 million." This is not very much because 50% of it goes just to salaries. And the fact that Afghanistan has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world shows that not hardly anything is being done. "If we had unlimited funds, we would first get communications services up and going so we could work more closely with the provinces." And then go from there.

I commented that the Bush bureaucracy only cares about making money for its friends and that weapon sales make money. Solving women's problems does not. The Bush bureaucracy doesn't even care about American women let alone Afghan women. "Can you think of a way to make the Bush bureaucracy want to give money to Afghan women?" I can't.

"Zagat, the Muslims' obligation to give to charity, needs to go to women too." That's a good idea. Despite all the tightness of money, the women of Afghanistan still really support the idea of advancing the conditions of women here. Right in the middle of "Taliban" country, women's groups are forming right and left; all done on a shoestring. "If we had money, we could do so much more. Hundreds of thousands of women would come together in these councils." The women of Afghanistan are ready to step up to the plate! Any money given to Afghan women will bring much more bang for the buck.

I started to cough and suddenly someone appeared with a glass of water for me. This is the kind of attention to needs that the Minister is famous for. I was very touched.

The Afghan government wants really badly to shut the ministry down. However, "Giving strength to women is giving strength to the community."
The minister then told us about some of the things women go through on a day-to-day basis torture, abuse, starvation. Not a pretty picture. "In many houses in this country, women are treated like slaves beaten, insulted, killed. No one knows what goes on between four walls but these things happen here. A lot." They need laws to make maltreatment of women illegal. The meeting was a big success even despite the inadequate air conditioning.

Then I found the cutest little lapis shop next to where we went for lunch and our guide bargained for me. "Two pairs of earrings for $8 each. And $5 apiece for the lapis stones. Okay?" Okay! The earrings had a silver and lapis heart design and the stones were large chunks with gold flecks in them; as large as a tablespoon with a huge scoop of ice cream on it! Perfect. Now all I need to buy is my burka.

2:00 pm: Our next stop is an interview with the Minister of Health. "And he'd better not talk for two hours," said someone in our group who was in a big hurry to get somewhere else. But I wouldn't mind at all. There's air conditioning! In this hot weather, that's definitely a big plus. But it didn't matter anyway because the Minister was running late and we only got to see him for a few minutes.

"We are helping to start up a clinic for women," said Dr. Mom, "and we would like it to go under the Ministry of Health's umbrella. Is that possible?"

"I suggest that you meet with the provincial director of the area where you want the clinic," the minister replied. "One of the goals of our ministry are to reduce the high maternal mortality rate by at least 15% by 2010. The infant mortality rate we would like to reduce by 20%. Also inoculations are important and also we want to improve the basic package of primary health services, including mental health. And the mental health problem in Afghanistan is huge. 70% suffer from the results of war, poverty, etc. There is much depression here and suicide is all too common. Treating these problems is one of our very top priorities." Good. Fine. In and out in five minutes. But it was a very effective and productive five minutes. And his aides brought us tea too. Goodbye, air conditioning.

Our NGO host's father used to work for the Ministry of Health back in the 1970s and he told us about coming to visit here when he was a little boy. His father's photos are still in the archives. We also saw a map of Afghanistan on the wall. "Look," said someone, "Here's the site of the Buddhist statues. That's not too far away."

"It's supposed to be 100 miles."

"But we were told that it's not safe to go there. That's really sad that it's not safe to travel 100 miles outside of Kabul." Yep.

3:30 pm: We went to see the roses at a local women-only park. "Doesn't that big plant growing in the middle of the roses look like marijuana?" I asked.
Everyone said no, of course not. But someone later said, "It was hashish." Oh. There's a difference?

At the internet cafe, things got interesting when the power failed and everyone lost what they were working on. "Will someone please move their car," said the proprietor. "It's blocking access to the generator." Power failures are quite common in Kabul. Here's my dispatch:

Nightmare in Kabul: The Soviets, dysentery and dial-up instead of DSL!

I arrived in Kabul three days ago. Last night I came down with dysentery. Not a pretty picture. Very undignified. Not since I was a hippie in Mexico in 1965 have I had such a memorable relationship with a bathroom.

But the worst part of all was that I couldn't just pop down to the internet cafe.
On April 28, 1978, the Soviet Union ruthlessly invaded Afghanistan. It was just like Pearl Harbor here in Kabul -- lots of shock and awe. Then after the dust subsided over the rubble, approximately 12,000 of Afghanistan's teachers, doctors, engineers, judges, writers, lawyers, etc. were marched off to Abu Ghraib, er, I mean Pul-e-Charkhi prison where they were tortured and buried alive in long, narrow pits because the Soviets didn't want to waste bullets on them.

At first I took Po Chai pills Hong Kong's equivalent of Alka Seltzer for my "dilemma". It usually works at home but would it work here? Nope. No luck.
Pepto-Bismo? Imodium? Nope.

The Soviets ruthlessly hurt people here in 1978. It was like they had an unstoppable thirst to inflict pain. Not just your run-of-the-mill mass slaughter. They wanted to hear their victims scream first. These people were the evil Hell-spawn from Hell. What's with that? No wonder the Afghans resisted. You would have too.

"Drink plenty of water, Jane." Yeah right. It was the freaking water that did this to me in the first place. 3 am. 4 am. 5 am. Yikes!

For ten long, brutal years, the Soviets slammed Afghanistan with an iron fist, finally leaving the country in shambles, with its excellent base of educated professionals and its high-quality infrastructure totally destroyed. Then there was civil war. Then there was the Taliban. Then that idiot George Bush thought it would be a good thing to hit what was left of the rubble with Shock and Awe. Good one, George. Ignore the fact that the Taliban who hid Osama bin Ladin came from Pakistan and just join the line of blood-thirsty bullies waiting to kick Afghans while they are down.

Finally, around 5 am, I broke down and broke out the Ciprofloxicin that I'd brought from Berkeley just in case. Dr. Lovett? God bless you! Now I'm finally well enough to stumble off to the internet cafe!

Afghanistan today is a sad place. How the people here have survived 25 years of absolute horror and can still walk and chew gum at the same time is a mystery to me. 80% of the country can't read or write and yet there is hope. The people here have a tremendous work ethic, an contagious enthusiasm and a drive to make their lives better and to find a future for their children if not for themselves.

You cannot believe how slow the internet connections here are. I can play half a game of Free Cell solitaire between each screen change. Like Afghanistan itself, the internet connections are slow. However, the connection is being made!

PS: You don't have dysentery," said an American staying at our guesthouse. "You merely have 'The Taliban's Revenge'. But dysentery is a major problem here, especially for babies. The mortality rate for infants in Afghanistan is 16%. And the maternal mortality rate is 16.7%.

"One in ten Afghan mothers die in childbirth? "With over a one-in-ten chance of dying in childbirth, why would anyone even want to get pregnant?"
"Jane, sometimes they don't have any choice." Oh. Right.

4:30 pm: "We need to rush home and see if we are on the news," said our guide. Apparently we were filmed at the ministry of Women's Affairs, especially the part where I declared on camera that George Bush was a corrupt crook. Works for me. "But Jane, we are supposed to be keeping a low profile here -- not inflaming the populace." Oops.

Back at the guest house, our host sprayed our room with nerve gas, er, bug spray. The place now smells like the San Quentin gas chamber. And I'm really tired.

June 22, 2006, 1:00 am: Suddenly we heard rocket fire and screams. This is it! We're under attack! We're all gonna die.

"Relax. It's only a party next door." Whew.

9:00 am: We're off to visit a school sponsored by our NGO hosts. You couldn't tell it was a school from the street. All we saw was a high wall with a bullet-pocked steel door. "The first location of the school was damaged by an earthquake and then we moved here. We have a director, a principal and 11 teachers. It is a school for older girls who were not able to get an education under the Taliban." The girls' ages ranged from seven through 18, with some as old as 20. They are taught Dari, Pashtun, art, geography, mathematics, the Qur'an, etc. as specified by the Ministry of Education but also English, computers and some vocational training.

"This school receives a lot of applications from government school students because the level of education is better here but we just cannot take all of them. Some students here occasionally drop out because their families move away but mostly students start here at the first grade level and stay until their sixth grade graduation. After sixth grade, they go on to government secondary schools. There are currently 162 girls at this school but the class sizes are small. After they graduate, the job prospects are poor due to the economy but they are trained for whatever jobs are available." And apparently the curriculum is intensive in order to catch the girls up quickly.

"We really need computers. We used to have eight but power surges from the generators burned out seven of them." The school is funded through private funds, the UN and the NGO, which goes around begging for money any place that they can.

We talked with one of the students who had been injured in one of the wars. "I have three brothers and two sisters. I live at the edge of the mountains." She looked very nervous but was a real trooper, facing all of us gamely. "I was injured during a mortar attack in the civil war when I was a baby; at the end of the civil war." There was nerve damage in her leg and one leg was now shorter than the other. "I like studying English and computers. I want to become a teacher when I grow up." She looked like she was about 13 years old, but had only started school here three months ago and has never been to school before. Talking with her made the terrible damage caused by war more personal. She gave a face to war.

Then we went to a classroom with seven students in it. The room itself was small but airy and you couldn't help but love the girls. They looked really sincere. The classrooms were the size of a small bedroom and there were four classrooms downstairs, four classrooms upstairs, a vegetable garden and a volleyball court.

We went to four or five more classrooms and it was very moving because we all knew we were seeing the future of Afghanistan before our very eyes. This is a school that is truly serious in its attempts to educate girls. The buildings might be old and funky with the most basic squat toilet latrine I have ever seen, a one-holer shared by all 162 girls but some serious learning was going on here. Bravo!

"Every morning we assign one girl to check all the backpacks for bombs." No comment.

Also childhood obesity is not a problem here and neither is tooth decay. No one can afford sugar.

Then we drove through "Old Kabul". Wow! There were all kinds of on-the-fly stores made out of old container-ship boxes; selling used tires, used tools, used bicycles, everything you can imagine made out of metal. And scrap metal like you couldn't believe! It looked like the ultimate flea market. I loved Old Kabul! And right in the middle of all this was another school run by our host NGO. It is the custom in Afghanistan to always offer guests tea but this school offered us Fanta. Yea!

One of the students at the school had a crippling disease and begged us to send him to Germany so he could be cured. I felt really bad that we couldn't help. Another student asked for a ceiling fan for the classroom. "It's 12:45," someone said. "Weren't we supposed to be meeting with the US-AID rep at 12:15?" Yeah. That's stupid. Getting that appointment was like pulling hens' teeth. I was really angry about that but probably it was just that we were all really tired and hot.

On the way to the US-AID office we passed the stadium where the Taliban had held their executions. That was a chilling experience.

Next chilling experience: The US embassy. Major barrier blast walls. Lots of sand bags, parapets and barbed wire. Impressive. Our tax dollars are really working hard here. The AID office was in its own compound across the street from the embassy. "No photography. Violators will be apprehended."

Once inside the compound, it was like stepping back into America. I took off my headscarf. I had a wonderful conversation with a US-AID program administrator. "I was here during the Taliban, working for an NGO, and I've been here ever since. We try to strengthen social, educational and community networks." Go you. I was very impressed with the programs the rep talked about.

"Only 40% of Afghans are able to read and write. This is one of our top priorities as well as improving mental health by giving the people things to do with themselves getting men jobs and getting women out of the house."
And apparently the Bush bureaucracy wants to solve all these problems by giving money to American contractors for fixing the roads; continuing to do the same thing that has been going on throughout the world for the last 50 years -- foisting roads and power off on countries that don't need them.

We heard a lecture from the health specialist. "The maternal mortality here is 60%." 60%? Holy cow! You wouldn't even want to get pregnant at a rate like that. I must have heard her wrong.

"There were only 400 midwives in all of Afghanistan under the Taliban. We've gotten it up to 900. But we need 4,000. The Ministry of Health is excellent. They are really working hard to end the polio problem." Polio? "Yes, polio. It comes over from Pakistan."

And lack of clean water is also severe problem. People are dying because of the contaminated water supply. "Another problem is the six-year gap in women's education. "We have to teach women to read and write before we can teach them midwifery, etc." Thousands of villages even now have no schools. And the demand for educating women far outstrips our ability to fund schools. 90% of women are illiterate; 60% of men."

In 2000, three million students went back to school, including many accelerated learning programs for the children who are behind. "Imagine a village with no literate females yet girls over age 13 can't be taught by a man. What can you do?" Girls, women and young men who have just learned to read love to turn around and teach others.

"One big problem here has been the fractionalization of Afghanistan by war. How do you get people together who have spent years trying to kill each other." Grassroots empowerment of local people through local councils has been helpful. There are now over 12,00 local councils.

There is also a new youth volunteer program, sort of an Afghan AmeriCorps. "Afghanistan is really different from most countries in the world. It is the fourth or fifth poorest and has the second most unstable government. Only Somalia is less stable." Plus the HIV epidemic is about to explode due to the heroin drug trade.

Winter is also a problem here. Schools get cold in the winter. Plus there is the lack of latrines. "There is a negative influence coming to Afghanistan from Pakistan, bringing instability and lack of security. The reach of the central government down into the southern provinces is not very long so these areas that are most vulnerable are not getting the services they need to make them more stable."

In Afghanistan, the improvements need to come from the bottom up. "The US-AID programs now emphasize development to promote stability." But the Bush bureaucracy's new military emphasis now makes NGOs and aid programs into targets for the first time. "US-AID's mission has always been to represent the U.S. government as compared to NGOs such as CARE. But US-AID is still trying hard to bring basic services to the people of Afghanistan."

And I politely refrained from adding, "despite the blunders and blood-thirstiness of Bush and his friends."

According to the US-AID person, dire poverty is the major problem in Afghanistan. "A farmer may say something like, 'I can't think about making my wife's health better when she gives birth five months from now. I have to think about feeding my children today."

Here's my next dispatch from the slow but steady internet cafe:

Opium in Afghanistan: Nobody wants to talk about it...except me!

In Afghanistan there are some things you talk about and some things you don't. For instance, the government just issued a press release stating that the newspapers must stop calling warlords "warlords". Very clever. The "warlord" problem can now be safely talked about because it has just been eliminated with a stroke of the pen.

Theses guys must have either been taking spin lessons from the White House or George Orwell.

In Afghanistan everyone talks about the next major earthquake. The Kabul valley is surrounded by mountains that seem to shoot straight up from the valley floor. And each of these mountains is covered with adobe-brick huts, clinging on to the mountainsides for dear life because this is the only area where the ultra-poor (Afghanistan is something like the fourth poorest nation in the world) can afford to build. "The precariousness of this housing is very much like last year's pre-earthquake situation in Pakistan," one Afghan explained to me. If the Big One ever hits here, 100,000 people could be killed.

Everyone in Afghanistan talks about corruption. It's becoming a way of life. "Government employees are paid rock-bottom wages, only a few dollars a day. Common laborers sometimes get paid more than we do," an Afghan friend in the Interior Ministry told me. As a result, corruption is rife.

"They have 'ghost workers' here. And in some departments, as many as 20,000 to 30,000 imaginary employees are on the payroll."

Apparently, poor Afghans are as honest as the day is long and seem to have the same approach to morality as Americans back in 1910 did. "I dropped my cell phone on the street," said one American, "and someone ran after me for a whole block in order to give it back."

It's only among the rich and powerful here that theft and corruption are rampant. Hey. That sounds like America in 2006.

Everybody talks about Condoleeza Rice's new policy for Afghanistan. The US-AID program here has been totally successful in winning the hearts and minds of Afghans by funding local schools and health clinics. But Condi has other ideas. "We need stop all that and put our money into roads and hydroelectric construction." Looks like she's been reading "Confessions of an Economic Hitman" again. Money that goes to the betterment of Afghans doesn't go to Halliburton, Bechtel and KBR. Forget about hearts and minds! Taxpayers' money that's not going to Bush's friends is money wasted. Period.
Corruption in Afghanistan? "Imagine Enron times ten."

Everyone here in Afghanistan talks about Pakistan. Everyone here loves to talk about Pakistan. "Pakistan is falling apart. Its four regions are in conflict and it's always fighting with India! It's just a matter of time before Pakistan fails as a state. But it thinks that if it can seize Afghanistan, it will gain 'strategic depth' in case of a war with India," said one diplomat I talked with. "Pakistan has been working to destabilize Afghanistan for decades for this reason. Everyone in Afghanistan hates Pakistan."

People here like a lot of the things that US AID and various American NGOs are doing here. But universally and to a man Afghans hate Pakistan as far as I can tell.

And while there is not hardly any of the hatred of America that I thought I would find here, Afghans hate all the money the Bush bureaucracy pours into Pakistan.

In addition, Pakistan's policy toward Afghanistan is the same as Israel's policy toward Palestine -- subtly undermine it, destabilize it and then, when things fall apart, go for the land grab. Also Pakistan's policy toward the various Afghan tribes is the same as America's policy toward the Shi'a and Sunnis and Israel's policy toward Hamas and Fatah: Get them fighting among themselves and then just stand back.

Everyone in Afghanistan talks about all this other stuff going on but nobody likes to talk about opium, the country's major source of revenue. Even George Bush doesn't talk about it. Why should he? Opium production has sky-rocketed here on his watch.

American drug companies don't talk about it. Why should they? If all the opiates in Afghanistan were sold as a legal medical cash crop, the drug companies wouldn't make all that money by selling morphine.

The "Warlords" who make more money from the drug trade than you or I will ever see in a lifetime even if we won the lottery once a week for a month -- they definitely don't talk about opium. They are too busy growing, packaging and shipping the stuff.

In the Northern Alliance region, opium poppies grow everywhere -- on the farms, in the schoolyards, in the park. And 25% of the North is strung out.
The Russians and Iranians don't talk about heroin -- which needs to be processed from the raw opiates grown here. Why should they talk about it? The Russians and Iranians own most of the labs.

The people of Kabul don't talk about opium either. At least not to me. "What about opium?" I keep asking officials. Dead silence.

"Can I buy some here in Kabul? How many people use opium here? Is it illegal? What does it look like? Is it a problem with the young people? Where is it processed? How much does it cost?"

Shut up, Jane. No one wants to talk about opium. No one. Yet it is Afghanistan's largest source of income. It's the elephant in the living room that must be talked about if you want to understand anything going on here.

3:00 pm: We're off to the Land Mine Museum!

[Sorry but this is as far as I've typed on my poor bleeding, numb fingers...]

 

Stillwater is a freelance writer who hates injustice and corruption in any form but especially injustice and corruption paid for by American taxpayers. She has recently published a book entitled, "Bring Your Own Flak Jacket: Helpful Tips For Touring (more...)
 
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