Friday, November 20, 2009

Tribute to Sangar

A bright, witty fixer and colleague, Sangar Rahimi, provided comic relief throughout a week-long journey in remote Badakhshan province. So this is for him and for me, so I don't forget how much we laughed.

(Imagine a dry delivery with an Afghan accent.)

During a meeting with a group of 12 shura leaders, Sangar overheard a whispered remark from one of the men after New York Times staffer Sabrina Tavernise told them her age: "Look at your wife and then look at her."

While shooing away a crowd of gawking Afghan men from a market where I was shooting: "Come on guys. They are human beings just like you."

He told us later about the same group of staring men: "I heard one excited guy say to another guy, 'There is a show here.' "

"I worked with Adam B. Ellick [a New York Times colleague]. He is such a good guy. Adam B. Ellick was not happy with the internet, it was too slow. Have you ever worked with Adam B. Ellick?"

After a night in a terrible hotel with dirty sheets and tiny smelly bathrooms in Faizabad: "My bathroom, it was like a grave."

"I feel your pain."

At 6 a.m. one day, Sangar waited 45 minutes outside the only bathroom for a fellow guest house patron to finish. "When the man finally came out," Sangar later told us at breakfast, "he advised me, 'Go ahead, the water is very hot.' "

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Uruzgan germs

The next few posts will bounce back to Afghanistan, although I am now back in Cairo for a break.

The one and only embed I did in the entire three months was with the Dutch troops down in Tarin Kot, Uruzgan province, and I will forever remember it as the embed that gave me pneumonia. I started to feel under the weather the day Mark Magnier, of the Los Angeles Times, and I traveled to Uruzgan. It took a whole day (starting at around 6 a.m.) to get there via military transport flights.

The story was about how the Dutch are using development to improve security. We spent the following day with the Police Mentoring Team, as they conducted a traffic stop and training with local police. Take a look at Mark's story here: "Dutch troops' method in Afghanistan gains new prominence."

I admit I am a little divided on embeds. Some journalists spend the bulk of their time in Afghanistan embedded. While I think the military is a vital aspect of the story, it is nearly impossible to get to know regular Afghans while embedded. Some places are extremely difficult and dangerous to visit so hooking up with the military is sometimes the only way, and I admit I would not have been able to get to Uruzgan without embedding. I just try to take it as part, but not the whole, story.


I woke up with my throat on fire and feeling like my head was four times too large. Always a bummer when there's work to be done.

We left the base and convoyed through the provincial capital of Tarin Kot in these giant armored vehicles with little slits for windows. I guess they were similar to the U.S. Army's M-RAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle). From a safety standpoint, these are supposed to be more protected than a Humvee if an road-side bomb explodes nearby, which is great, but I couldn't see anything from inside. I asked one of the rear gunners if I could poke my head up for a few shots, but I also didn't particularly want to get in his way or obstruct his vision. Tricky.

The other downside is the vehicle doesn't take bumps well. At all. I could barely hang on to my camera.


Downtown Tarin Kot. Lots of men, kids, even some women out, all good to see. We were just passing through though to the other end of town. No time to stop and chat.


The soldiers parked in formation and got out at an intersection next to a gas station and across from an Afghan National Police station called Sar Sheykhil. Then the soldiers set up an impromptu traffic checkpoint so that the Afghan National Police could practice searching cars and people for weapons and explosives.


The idea was for the soldiers to mentor and supervise the police while they conducted searches, which is good since most of the police seemed to be unarmed.


It was a just another September day in Uruzgan: dusty and hot.


The foreign presence attracted lots of curious onlookers.


I like the eyes on the headlight. Classy.


Some people seemed to find the whole experience entertaining.


The police went inside the station to take part in a training on handcuffing and searching, so the Dutch soldiers continued searching the motorists and pedestrians outside.


These kids and their donkey walked by at least five times. (I have other photos of them.)


Inside Sar Sheykhil police station, Sgt. 1st Class Radjen Rampersad taught procedures for searching and handcuffing suspects. He also asked them basic civics questions, like "Why is it permitted for police to search and handcuff someone?" Most couldn't answer. They attempted the exercises with enthusiasm though.


The police don't have the tools they need to conduct their work, and they don't earn much money. This 40-officer station shares one pair of handcuffs. Most of the officers don't have their own weapons. Some don't even have proper shoes. Because of the complicated politics back home, the Dutch must get special permission to hand out arms. But, it's hard to figure out what part the Afghan government has in equipping and training them.

For their part, the police officers expressed frustration. They are starting from zero and they are putting themselves at risk for what seems like very little in return. Afghanistan is one of those places that needs so much it's hard to know where to begin.


That's the police station behind the HESCOs--the brown bunker-type things in the background. (Pretty sad I talk Army now.)

Almost time to cut out. By now all I can think about is my pounding head, clogged sinuses and the bed in the container back at the base. And I am coated in sweat and dirt.


Go inside, little guy. It's too hot.


Much of Uruzgan is desert, by the way. Mountains, valleys, very harsh terrain. Very little infrastructure. Did I mention it's like an oven?


Yes that is a windmill. It's actually a coffee bar inside of a container at the base in Tarin Kot, FOB Ripley.

And, with that full day's work, I crashed in my bunk. It took three days to get back to Kabul, and by that time all I could do was lie miserably in bed.

Ah yes Uruzgan. I won't forget you, or your dust.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Decompression

I left Afghanistan on Monday, November 9. To help ease my transition back to Cairo, I decided to stay for a bit in Dubai, crashing at a friend's 17th-floor apartment.

Honestly, my main activities were sleeping and eating massive amounts of fresh salad for three days, until my body violently protested the drastic change in diet. I bought a humorous novel, watched T.V. and tried to forget everything. I had thought about visiting a spa for a massage, pedicure or haircut, but nope, nope and nope. Couldn't seem to muster the will power.

I did make it out to Jumeirah Beach Residence one afternoon, where all I could do was gape at the gigantic buildings and half-naked sun bathers. Culture shock, anyone?


The view of the pool, which I did not once visit, from my friend's apartment. I tried to go to the gym once, but the only shoes I had with me were hiking boots and flip flops. (I try to travel light for Afghanistan.)


It was a nice break. I am thankful to have understanding friends.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Vote, schmote

Just a small portion of fraudulent ballots at the Independent Election Commission in Kabul...

For anyone who hasn't been following this crazy thing called an election: we finally have a winner--Hamid Karzai. This is not a surprise, but a painfully slow conclusion.

In a nutshell, the presidential election was held August 20, yadda yadda yadda, Karzai wins.

The slightly longer version is the presidential election was held August 20, and widespread fraud was reported and investigated by the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, resulting in 1 million of Karzai's votes being tossed out. As this brought Karzai's total to under the 50% required majority, a runoff was mandated by the Afghan constitution. The date was set for a November 7 runoff, but Karzai's challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out of the race. The Independent Election Commission declared Karzai the winner the next day and canceled the runoff, to the relief of, well, just about everyone.

(The extremely long version that we have all been living and breathing includes an hour-by-hour account of all of the arm-twisting by foreign countries, the backstage deal-making between Karzai, Abdullah, the UN and the "Independent" Election Commission and well-founded fears of an even more fraudulent election the second time around. And don't forget the attacks on each person's credibility and integrity.)

Whew!


These ballots? Fageddabout it!

Anyway. Afghanistan's election is finally over, and so is my time here. At least for now.

I have been here in Afghanistan for three months--a record I may never repeat. Although, hmmm...never say never. I had some good luck, some bad luck and times when I didn't know what the hell I was doing here. (Good luck: awesome friends, some truly awesome assignments, amazing experiences, a constant supply of free alcohol. Bad luck: lost wallet/debit card/ISAF ID, a Ramadan dry spell, 3 weeks of pneumonia, dropping my camera and damaging a brand-spanking-new lens, a constant supply of free alcohol. I won't go into the "what the hell am I doing here?" category.)

I have at least four stories to post, but I have to wait for all of them to be published before releasing them on the ole blog.

Until then, I leave you with a wistful, April 2009 Abdullah at the site of Ahmed Shah Massoud's tomb in Panjshir, when he was but a young presidential-maybe-possibly-I-might-run-but-it-depends-on-what-the-polls-say Pashtun...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Backcountry ballots

I recently returned from working in Afghanistan's northern Badakhshan province with New York Times staffer Sabrina Tavernise and Afghan colleague Sangar Rahimi. We worked on several pieces together, the first focusing on preparations for the upcoming Afghan presidential runoff election between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah. Please read Sabrina's entertaining story here.

Badakhshan is one of the most remote, unreachable provinces in the country--large, mountainous and rural. There is one paved road in the entire province, in the capital Faizabad. When Afghan election officials talk of winter weather possibly impeding the runoff in some places, they are likely talking about Badakhshan.

Few people have cars: most people travel on foot or by donkey. And it is donkeys that are employed to bring ballots to some of the most tucked-away communities, places deep in the wilderness with no roads at all. Helicopters are used to transport ballot boxes to the district centers, then election workers use donkeys to transport the boxes further in to the backcountry.


We met Ezatullah while working on another story in his district of Baharak. He is a caretaker of a school we visited several times. On one of our visits, he was listening to an election program on the radio. He came out to meet our car, then brought us back to the room where he lives next to the school.


The father of eight children said he planned to vote for Abdullah in the runoff election. In our unscientific poll, Abdullah had a commanding lead in the province. He perhaps owes some of his popularity in the region to his time working with famed Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud--Badakhshan was after all a front-line province during the mujahideen's battle against the Soviets.


A dated election advertisement in Faizabad encourages women to register to vote.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"The Daily Show" of Kabul

I don't think I've ever seen a more lovely blond mullet wig on a man.

Afghans don't celebrate Halloween, but in the spirit of my favorite dress-up holiday, I decided to post some photos from a political satire television show here in Kabul that I visited with Laura King from the Los Angeles Times. (Read the LA Times story here.)

The show is called "Zang-e Khatar," or "Alarm Bell," and is styled after shows like Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" and nighttime talk shows like Letterman and Leno. Kabul's Tolo Television airs the show. Afghanistan's election fraud scandal has provided ample material for the lead comics on the program, Hanif Hangam and Ghulam Nabi Sakhri.


The cast gets ready to tape the wildly-popular weekly show. Sakhri, second from left, and Hangam, second from right, write almost all their own material.


Hangam, the show's director, jots down a script just before taping.


Sakhri dons sunglasses during the opening monologue. Like Ed McMahon did for Johnny Carson, the main role of each person on the end of the table is to laugh at the jokes.


The taping studio's equipment is not the worst, nor the best available.


Instead of a New York skyline, the digital image of a Kabul slum at night provides a backdrop for Hangam's satire and commentary.


During the Taliban, television was banned, as were most forms of entertainment. And, of course, dissent was out of the question.


Sakhri watches as crew members arrange props for the next segment. The props are rudimentary, consisting of battered furniture, cardboard and understated costumes.


Sakhri and Hangam prepare to tape a skit spoofing Kabul's waste disposal department. In the skit, the actors made fun of people going to the bathroom in the streets--surprisingly frank for Afghanistan's more conservative culture. Like satire shows in the U.S., almost nothing is sacred.


I am glad that Afghans still have a great sense of humor and can laugh at themselves. I wish I could understand the language so I could laugh along with the jokes, some of which certainly make fun of foreigners like me.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Medic! (Cough, cough)

My bedside table is full of drugs. Antibiotics, steroids (not THOSE kind of steroids) decongestants and expectorants. Yes, that is an inhaler. (Gasp.)

Almost three weeks ago, I went on a short embed in Uruzgan province for an assignment. The day I traveled to Uruzgan, I came down with a cold. No big deal. I wasn't at my best, but just carried on as well as I could, shooting the assignment, then hopping military and commercial planes over the following three days back to Kabul. I was exhausted and sick, but tried to get lots of rest and drink fluids. A cold is not normally something I worry about and I just thought I'd get over it in a couple days. Plus I was hoping to avoid seeking medical treatment in Kabul.

Afghanistan had other plans. It's not a good place to get sick. Dust, air pollution, stress and lack of sleep would be enough to make one ill anywhere, let alone here. I finally went to the nearby German Clinic and learned that I had pneumonia. Awesome.

Two doctor visits and two weeks later, my health is steadily improving. The illness has brought work to a standstill, but I hope to be well enough in a week or two to get back at it. Until then, I'll be sleeping, drinking tea and taking all my drugs.

(More on Uruzgan coming up soon...)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dushanbe-distracted

Sometimes it's necessary to get out of this place, even if it's just for a couple of days. A couple of friends invited me to come with them to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, shortly after the Afghan presidential election. It was a nice break. We could walk around or ride local taxis freely, the city was clean and orderly and I didn't have to wear a scarf. We spent the time exploring, eating good food and taking pictures just for fun.

Above, a boy tries to stay warm while drip-drying after a swim in the Varzob River.


My friend Jon sits in the Soviet-esque apartment the three of us rented next to Secret Police headquarters, after one of our long jaunts around town.


At night the streets of the city are nearly empty, except for impromptu police checkpoints, where officers try to shake-down passing motorists for bribes.


The language is Tajik, very similar to Farsi, but they use the Cyrillic alphabet to write. Dushanbe feels like a capital still in transition: a strong Soviet presence and infrastructure with a developing Tajik identity.


A fruit vendor rubs her eyes at the Green Market.


In a park near the Dushanbe Opera.


The Soviet seal at a monument for those who died during World War II.


People know how to drive in Dushanbe. They even stop at red lights.


Tajikistan, a former Soviet Republic, has maintained close ties to Russia culturally, economically and politically, and I sensed a bit of nostalgia for the days of the great empire. Now Tajikistan is just a small under-developed fish in an ocean.


This is the back of the apartment block where we stayed.


I like this picture best. She has an interesting face.


A group of dudes hanging out by the river after a swim.


The saddest bear I have ever seen at the Dushanbe Zoo.


I'm not sure if the billboard photograph of tulips is to help prevent road rage or just to beautify the city, but I like it!