Sunday, April 28, 2013

An Idjit's Guide to Surviving the World's Hottest DevZones

Text and pictures by Blogger 

Friends and gatekeepers - young Iraqi men keen to contribute to building a new nation

Risk Management Consultants or Personal Security Details - by no means an 'optional extra' but a fact of life in conflict affected countries

This personal, tongue-in-cheek piece intends to ‘illuminate’ the often non-committal Rambo-esque; dry, compartmentalized and deadly serious side of development work (including ‘life support’ – the burgeoning safety and security industry that rolls on, as a necessity, from the Iraqs, Timors, Afghanistans, DRCs, and Sudans to others waiting in the wings) that most people on the 'outside' find so difficult to understand and relate to. It also aims to demystify many of development assistance perceptions that prevail …. Exotic locales; swanning around on the old man’s yacht; outrageous salaries; rip-roaring parties with wild women; endless, sun-drenched days with frosted glasses of amber brew; extended vacations …..

Good humoured South Africans never in short supply and always game for a tipple and chat

It’s the airport terminals and in-bound flights, to devzones, that are the most fascinating and telling. They are often characterized by a deafening silence, grim-faced men mainly and occasional women where one can sense the effort and see the toll that it exacts, especially on the ‘heart-on-the sleeve men’, as they steel themselves to change gear and persona. They become displaced persons, existing in a ‘transient twilight zone’ of fluctuating emotion, guilt, adrenalin and for the younger bucks - testosterone. Separation, from family and loved ones, ushers in its own anxieties. A very few quaff down their parting drinks knowing full well that the next few months will be pretty parched. Scattered thoughts, anchored in the future, mindful of missing important, upcoming milestones and those less so – preparing, again and again, for alienation from familiarity.

Rotations or tours of duty, that range from 6 weeks to many months on end – some as long as a year, surreptitiously sap the vitality and resolve of most. When one strips away the hype; false bravado and BS; idealism and romanticism; no matter what one says ….. it’s a tough and often lonely gig‼ One can only imagine how high attrition rates actually are… hard wearing in so many respects …..

In addition to the more obvious occupational health and safety (OHS) hazards including pesky insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever; stomach and parasitic ailments; respiratory tract infections courtesy of poor air quality/pollution; hair loss and greying; weight gain through inactivity and ever-changing eating habits; nagging insomnia; and the potential of physical injury particularly in conflict countries there are also the more sinister, psycho-social risks associated with abnormal environments. 

An extract from a previous posting Moving from Red to Green sheds some light on life-after-work in Baghdad's infamous Green Zone. For those so inclined, there is also a hectic ‘expat’ party scene rotated through various embassies and company compounds with copious amounts of alcohol and snack foods. They are aberrations as with men outweighing the fairer sex, every woman is in ‘red and beautiful’, has her night – day and way as they hold court over ambitious, restless and hungry hunters. Having attended a few of these events my fascination, for this side-show sub-culture, soon faded as ‘worn’ events, conversations and people began to roll into one. The Alpha-male set, with its own strict pecking order, ranges seemingly from: senior diplomatic staff / corporate life support managers / project directors and managers able to ‘keep’ women and/or offer employment opportunities for the ‘nomadic groupies’; to jaded, know-it-all senior citizen/geriatric consultants 60s plus – who are perhaps best placed spending time with their grandchildren; to Iraqi vets who seek to entertain and impress nubile and less so ‘newbies’ with their own brand of ‘war stories’ to blatant opportunists, and to the dull, wallflowers like yours truly.

Coping strategies that work for most include:  

  • Routine, routine, routine … conflict countries or environments are often fluid and dynamic, where routine and predictability are often disrupted by security concerns and restricted physical movement. Typically, a ‘laager’ or 'circling of the wagons mentality' best countered by developing your own personal routine which helps to ground and centre one in the prevailing reality;
  • Develop hobbies and interests, solitary or sociable, beyond work – a 24/7 work orientation is not sustainable and a healthy work-life balance is essential;
  • Refresh home-based relationships regularly using information and communication technologies - they are vital life lines that provide purpose and meaning in an often 'crazed' world;     
  •  Exercise is the narcotic/life style of choice and an important cure-all, particularly in the hottest devzones;
  • Keep your wits about you and heed the advice of experienced colleagues and security professionals;

Balls, baskets and blast walls in Baghdad!

  • Develop and maintain an excellent sense of humour;
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff ….not to say that one should compromise on personal values, integrity, ethics and standards;
  • Maintain perspective at all costs;
  • Grab as much rest and down time as possible but at the same time WORK and PLAY HARD; 
  • Engage fully in the total environment with an emphasis on BALANCE;
  • Give, to local communities, as much as you take through any form of volunteerism;

Embracing frienships, national custom and tradition

  • Beware the expat curse and whereas it is wonderful, warm, fuzzy and relaxing to be ‘cocooned’ by all things familiar there is also the real danger of losing perspective by relying, too much, on the 'expat world' which is fraught with its own dangers and complexities. An expat, over-reliance often results in a 'separation' from the national context with an associated we-them orientation.  In so doing, one relinquishes opportunities to discover an entirely new world of relationships; cultural diversity and appreciation - depth and insights that are so integral to operating as an effective development practitioner. Maintaining a safe and professional distance, on the the relationship front, with country nationals as well as expats, is very prudent. This avoids relationships escalating into  'incestuous' interludes that only serve to feed the rampant rumor-mill irrespective of veracity. 

Ex-patting in moderation.....

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dili 2 Kabul

Words and pictures by Barry Greville-Eyres 
Dili - Baucau Timor-Leste - still so much unfinished work....
The contrasts and milieus could not be more marked and adjusting from a sub-tropical island paradise, with unfettered personal and physical movement, to a landlocked Asian, age-old frontier battle ground with real security concerns and severely restricted access requires a manual mind shift in more ways than one. The United Nations Integrated Mission to Timor-Leste (UNMIT) withdrawal was all but completed by December 2012, whereas the 2014 NATO/ISAF drawdown in Afghanistan is slowly switching into gear amid news reports and speculation that there will be a follow-up support facility of sorts.  
A prized pic - evocative and captivating at a recent meeting with members of the Lashkar Gah Provincial Council - Helmand

 With the onset of spring, after a relatively mild winter, the ‘fighting season’ is well underway. Many Afghan experts (if there is such a thing) paint a low road or worst case scenario post-2014. In spite of the lull before the proverbial storm, I revel in the ‘here and now’ and prefer to be blissfully miss or uninformed – speculative and emotive energies are best re-directed towards doing a meaningful and constructive job day in and out. We have our very own ‘patch’ to take care of and its important to do so remaining focussed, objective and ever hopeful. 

The cut and thrust of conquest - epic battles fought over centuries

Omnipresent is the staggering/monumental history of Afghanistan and the greater region – the cut and thrust of conquest – melange upon melange of marauding invaders painstakingly plodding across limitless lunarscapes or sweeping off the steppes on horseback or elephant. One cannot but feel breathless and humbled by the broader geo-political significance of the Middle East and Asia. From a western perspective, to marvel at how the puzzle emerges, with clarity and understanding, piece by piece. 

History, repeating itself, with systematic monotony

 Initial forays eastwards from civilization’s cradle, the Fertile Crescent – Mesopotamia and at the centre of it all and the primeval constant … the overwhelming desires to conquer and endure. Small tribes and communities ‘exiling’ themselves from the Silk Road, the infamous east-west thoroughfare, in flight and fight mode often retreating into mountainous refuges to be lost and re-discovered as a consequence of ever-changing alliances.

The Silk Road
From the benign spread of Buddhism (5th – 8thcentury AD); to Islamic ascendency and its exquisite accoutrements including poetry, arts, culture, music, infrastructure, agronomy with formal settlements, towns, cities, and mosques (8th – 12th century AD); to the Mongol invasion where sedentary, formalized settlements, places of worship and advanced, century old irrigation and farming systems were obliterated, following a scorched earth policy, from the landscape in totality.

This is so vividly depicted by Sergei Bodrov, in his epic film Mongol - Temujin, which renders a rousing account of the life and times of Genghis Khan – founder, Great Khan, and emperor of notorious Mongol empire (1162 – 1227). A Mongolian proverb - Do not scorn a weak cub; He may become the brutal tiger – immortalizes the legendary Genghis Khan.

Spring time in Kabul with bio-physical barriers blighting the urban landscape - blast walls and barbed wire in the foreground and surrounding snow-capped mountains behind

Tagged as the 'Graveyard of Empires' Afghanistan remains at the mercy and epicentre of regional warmogers including Russia, Iran and Pakistan. A brief interlude of Afghan peace and prosperity (1929 - 1979) was shattered by an all out Soviet invasion numbering approximately 80,000 troops. What followed was a ludicrous attempt to exert power and control over the centre - Kabul and over  20,000 diverse and isolated villages populated by battle-hardened freedom fighters resisting an other-worldly ideology, imposed by nonbelievers. Toss into the mix US-backed mujahideen forces and what resulted was a conflagration in which over a million Afghans lost their lives mainly due to land mines. This was followed by the 1990s Afghan civil war, the rise and fall of the fundamentalist Taliban government and now, the ongoing UN Security Council-ISAF/NATO concocted Operation Enduring Freedom.

Renewal, reconstruction and economic development feature prominently as hopes and expectations, of the Kabul government for 2013 and beyond, by many Afghans

The agricultural sector needs to be restored to its former glory - the economic engine that powers, nurtures and drives life in Afghanistan
Celebrating success and progress in Kabul - recently contructed high rise, high density accommodation units

Snow-struck in Kabul's Green Village - one of the countless compounds providing secure accommodation for the posse of civilians working in the capital city
Kabul-based compound accommodation

Gypsy Kings and Queens in Kabul

Kabul 2 Dili brace yourself......


Dollar Beach - Timor-Leste premier snorkeling site with pristine coral reefs on the outskirts of Dili
Old stomping ground and drinking hole on the Dili waterfront ..... unforgettable!


Old tramping ground - iconic Cristo Rei made to look infinitesimal when viewed from the ring of mountains habouring Dili and surrounds

Sheilas and blokes that made up Dili's vibrant expat and development assistance community

Stairway to health, happiness and heavenly Cristo Rei!


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Afghan Gems - Bamiyan & Band-e Amir National Park

Pictorial by Barry Greville-Eyres

Bamiyan the site of the famous Bhudda statues, monasteries and caves inhabited for centuries
Bamiyan, the capital of the Bamiyan Province, is located in central Afghanistan also known as the region of Hazarajat, approximately 240 kilometres north-west of Kabul. It was the site of an early Hindu-Buddhist monastery from which Bamyan takes its name, roughly translated as ‘The Place of Shining Light.’ Many statues of Buddha are carved into the sides of cliffs facing the town. 
Friends foremost and work colleagues on arrival at Bamiyan on mission

Aerial view of Bamiyan and surrounds illustrating mosaic of cultivated, agricultural land within valley confines

Anyone for a close shave?
Local transport catering for environmental conditions complete with saddle bags and hand/arm warmers

Bamiyan street scene - a relaxed and safe town with many local eateries and tourist friendly shops plying curios, arts and crafts, carpets, dried fruit and nuts

 The Bamiyan valley marks the most westerly point of Buddhist expansion and was a crucial hub of trade for much of the second millennium CE. It was a place where East met West and its archaeology reveals an amalgam of Greek, Turkish, Persian, Chinese and Indian influence. Since Bamiyan is situated on the fabled and ancient Silk Route, much of the trade between China and the Middle East / Western World passed directly through it via endless and timeless caravan processions.  

View of the historical and archaeological Bhudda site a stone's throw from the renowned Silk Road Hotel  

Friends enjoying traditional Afghan cuisine in one of the many Bamiyan eateries

 Because of the cliff of the Buddhas; the ruins of the Monk's caves;  Shar-i-Gholghola ('City of Screams / Sighs', the ruins of an ancient city destroyed by Genghis Khan during the siege of Bamiyan); its spectacular local scenery; relative peace and stability;  its close proximity to Afghanistan’s first declared national park – Band-e Amir, Bamiyan is one of the most visited places in all of Afghanistan. The area also boasts huge eco and adventure tourism potential.    

Shahr-e-Gholghola - City of Screams depicting the turbulent history of Bamiyan

Remnants of the fortified city of Shahr-e-Gholghola, strategically located on high ground, conquered by Genghis Khan in 1221 

The Shar-i-Zohak mound or Red City, located 16  kilometres south of the valley, is the site of an antiquated citadel that guarded the then and more recent approaches to Bamiyan. Atop the ruins of the ancient acropolis are gun emplacements and rudimentary bunkers, the legacy of a decade of country-wide Russian occupation, demonstrating clearly that Afghanistan and its indomitable fighters have exclusive bragging rights as the graveyard of successive empires.

War detritus - remnants of a decade of Soviet occupation

The blogger atop the Red City or Shar-i-Zohak citidal that once protected the approaches to Bamiyan

A gun emplacement from the Russian occupation era commands a bird's-eye view of contested mountain passes and the approach to Bamiyan along the road to Kabul
Poplar woodlots cultivated in the valley areas adjacent to Shar-i-Zohak

Crumbling remnants of the Red City


Cultivated floodplain which, in all likelihood, sustained former inhabitants of the ancient Red City

Bamiyan is the cultural centre of the Hazara ethnic group of Afghanistan and is cradled between the parallel mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush and the Koh-i-Baba. The main crops grown, on the well-watered and fertile valley floor in spring, are wheat, barley, mushung and baquli. When crops are damaged by unusually harsh weather, residents herd their livestock down to Ghazni and Maidan Provinces to exchange for food. Mountains cover ninety percent of the province, and the cold, long winter, lasting for six months, ushers in bitterly cold conditions with temperatures ranging from three to twenty degrees Celsius below zero.

Green, growing - agriculture at the heart of Afghan existence

Local produce on display
On the cliff face of the sandstone mountain nearby, three colossal statues were carved 4,000 feet apart. One of them was 175 feet (53 m) high standing statue of Buddha, the world's tallest. The ancient statue was carved during the Kushan period in the fifth century. The statues were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001, on the grounds that they were an affront to Islam. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas became a symbol of oppression and a rallying point for the freedom of religious expression. Despite the fact that most Afghans are now Muslim, they too have embraced their past and many were appalled by the destruction.

The statues were destroyed by dynamite over several weeks, starting on 2 March 2001, carried out in stages. Initially, the statues were fired at for several days using anti-aircraft guns and artillery. This caused severe damage but did not obliterate them. During the destruction, Taliban Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal lamented that, "this work of destruction is not as simple as people might think. You can't knock down the statues by shelling as both are carved into a cliff; they are firmly attached to the mountain." Later, the Taliban placed anti-tank mines at the bottom of the niches, so that when fragments of rock broke off from artillery fire, the statues would receive additional destruction from fragments or sharpnel that set off the mines. In the end, the Taliban lowered men down the cliff face and placed explosives into holes in the Buddhas. After one of the explosions failed to completely obliterate the face of one of the Buddhas, a rocket was launched that left a hole in the remains of the stone head.

Valley views across farmland and the town of Bamiyan with snowy high mountains in the distance

The then director general of U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Koichiro Matsurra called the destruction a "...crime against culture. It is abominable to witness the cold and calculated destruction of cultural properties which were the heritage of the Afghan people, and, indeed, of the whole of humanity.” Limited efforts have been made to rebuild them, with negligible success. The Buddhist remnants at Bamiyan were included on the 2008 World Monuments Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Fund.

It is estimated that at any one time, two thousand monks meditated in caves among the Bamiyan sandstone cliffs. The caves were also a big tourist attraction before the long series of wars in Afghanistan. The world's earliest oil paintings have been discovered in caves behind the partially destroyed colossal statues. Scientists from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility have confirmed that the oil paintings, probably of either walnut or poppy seed oil oil, are present in 12 of the 50 caves dating from the 5th to 9th century. Possibly, the paintings may be the work of artists who travelled on the Silk Road.

An elevated view of Bamiyan from the Bhudda site

The caves at the base of these statues were used by Taliban for storing weapons. After the Taliban were driven from the region, civilians made their homes in the caves. Recently, Afghan refugees escaped the persecution of the Taliban regime by hiding in caves in the Bamiyan valley. These refugees discovered a fantastic collection of Buddhist statues as well as jars holding more than ten thousand fragments of ancient Buddhist manuscripts, a large part of which is now in the Schoyen Collection. This has created a sensation among scholars, and the find has been compared with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A winter wonderland en route to Band-e Amir National Park

Contrasting badland scenery en route to Band-e Amir National Park
Band-e Amir National Park, declared in 2009 as the first such park in Afghanistan,   is a series of six deep blue lakes separated by natural dams made of travertine, a mineral deposit. The name literally means "Commander's Dam" which is a reference to Imam Ali, the first imam of the Shia Muslims and the fourth Caliph of the Sunni Muslims. The individual lakes have exotic and imaginative names including: Lake of the Slaves; Lake of Caliph Ali's Slave; Lake of Grandiose reported to be the biggest and the deepest of the six, with an average depth of approximately 150 meters; Lake of Cheese; Lake of Wild Mint; and Lake of the Sword of Ali.

Band-e Amir National Park in all its early winter splendour
Band-e Amir is situated at approximately 75 km to the north-west of the ancient city of Bamiyan, close to the town of Yakawlang. Together with Bamiyan Valley, they are at the heart of Afghanistan's tourism, attracting thousands of tourists every year and from every corner of the world. The lakes are primarily a late spring and summertime tourism destination, as the high elevation central Hazarajat region of Afghanistan is extremely cold in winter, with temperatures reaching as low as -20C.

Moods, hues, lunarscapes ... all at the heart and soul of Band-e Amir

Pride, hardship and resilience etched on the faces of Hazara field ranges from Band-e Amir NP. Bamiyan Province is dominated by ethnic Hazaras, who make up 9% of Afghanistan's population and are followers of Shia Islam

Iconic Band-e Amir National Park!

The lakes were created, over eons, by carbon dioxide rich water oozing out of faults and fractures to deposit calcium carbonate precipitate in the form of travertine walls that today store the water of these lakes. Band-e Amir, elevated at approximately 3000 m in the Hindu Kush Mountains, is one of the few rare natural lakes in the world which are created by travertine systems. As a consequence, Band-e Amir was nominated for recognition as a  UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. The site is described by some as Afghanistan's Grand Canyon.

One of the six lakes at Band-e Amir National Park with a natural, travertine dam wall retaining the water and a heavily degraded area in the foreground
Problems facing prospective visitors to the lake system include harsh terrain, rocky plateau,  lack of basic facilities and mined unpaved roads. The surrounding roads were heavily mined by the local militias and the Taliban during their respective reigns. Only a thin track is clear from mines and is in use by traffic.

Important mountain catchment and water basin areas that replenish the lake system annually with life giving snow melt

Due to lack of attention and the absence of any management authority, increasing visitor numbers pose a threat to the ecological balance of the lakes which include unregulated grazing and uprooting of shrubs which can result in serious soil erosion and even landslides. Unorthodox fishing techniques including the use of electricity from mobile generators and explosives such as grenades have damaged the aquatic ecosystem. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has been instrumental in bringing a semblance of natural resource management and community based tourism to the area, much of the park's wildlife has been lost. Due to lack of funding for waste management, human waste and trash has led to increased pollution. In 2008 the Afghan government banned the use of boats with gasoline engines on the lakes.

Yet another gem in the crown of the Band-e Amir National Park