Salaam Afghanistan

Health and Ethnic Conflict.

My first visit to the Heart of Asia -- Reflections and Photos.

My Photo
Location: Mbarara, Uganda

Internist and Pediatrician with a passion for international health.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Minister of Planning: Where are all our cars?

We had planned to spend the day "walking the wall" on the highest peak in Kabul. But, I needed to buy some more traditional Afghan clothing, in anticipation of my visits to the field to interview Afghans about their beliefs, thoughts, opinions, ideas about where a woman will deliver her child.

We went to the Intercontinental Hotel, where a local store called Dacaar was having an exhibit. I didn't find anything, but we did enjoy some coffee there. Thing is, we use company cars to get around everywhere, and are sharing 10 cars among all 150 of our staff. This Friday, there just weren't enough cars available. After waiting for an hour, we walked back down to the highway and took a cab. Easy. Fast. Cheap. We were back in Shar-e Nau in ten minutes.

A typical Kabul weekend, with not much to do, we wandered up toward the DVD store, where we bought three boot-leg copies of movies. We got Starsky and Hutch, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Spiderman 2. The little boys on the street pushing their magazines, maps, and books waited patiently outside. When we came out, they quickly picked up with us again, urging us to buy. One little boy always works this part of the street, right in front of the DVD place and the Western-style supermarket with U.S. products. He has some form of dwarfism, which makes the tiny hand that he thrusts into yours even tinier. He doesn't let go until you walk too far away from his beat.

It was a slow day of watching movies, playing cards, some ping-pong, and that's about it. Next day, I went down to the Roshan City Tower -- a five story "mall" with sequined clothing and western styles that no Afghan woman would ever put on in public. Kind of bizarre, really, to have this mall in the middle of downtown bombed out Kabul. No food court, though, and no movie-plex. Is that even a word?

From there, I went back to LeMonde and waited for the car that was supposed to take me back home. It never showed up. Finally, we called and were told that our cars were being impounded and there was a security meeting called and we would be notified when everyone knew what was up. Had a car been stolen? Was there some sort of security threat? Did they decide to ban SUVs like we heard they were doing in Paris? We weren't called back, but after another hour, we called again.

We were told to stay put. Turns out that the Minister of Planning, who is staunchly opposed to the foreign NGO presence in Afghanistan but fully supportive of foreign funds and equipment, decided to start impounding all vehicles with NGO plates. Out of the blue. No warning.

Who does that? We finally got our cars back around 4pm that afternoon. No additional word. No additional information. No apology. No guarantee that it won't happen again.


Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Afghan Women Change, But Burqa Stays

New generation pushing boundaries in traditional style

Hasiba, 9, center, sits with Afghan women clad in burqas in front of the presidential palace in Kabul, on May 8.
Emilio Morenatti / AP file

By Kiko Itasaka
NBC News

Updated: 12:17 p.m. ET July 06, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan - The burqa, a symbol of Taliban repression of women, remains a common sight in Afghanistan, nearly three years after the hard-line government was ousted by U.S. forces.

In Kabul, more than half of the women wear burqas, while outside the capital virtually all women are clad in head-to-toe covering.

For Westerners, it is an astonishing sight. As American health worker Raquel Reyes noted, “It was the first thing I noticed when I arrived.”

“All these women in burqas. I thought things had changed and that there wouldn’t be so many any more," said Reyes. “I was so pleased to see girls, little girls, going to school.”

When the Taliban took over the country in 1996, girls were forbidden from attending school. Now they are receiving education along with the boys, though they remain covered up in long black shrouds, with white headscarves.

Women’s role has changed, but burqas still prevail

Yet the status of women has improved since Taliban times. Women can walk around, unaccompanied by males, and they are allowed to work. They are free to roam in public without fear of being arrested or beaten for wearing high heels or seeming to walk in a provocative manner.

Yet the burqa still prevails and for some women, it is a form of protection.

They recall the time before the Taliban when the Northern Alliance took control of Kabul in 1992. It was a time of violent crimes, many of them committed against women. The burqa, they believed, protected them from unwanted male attention. Now with the backing of the United States and international forces, many members of the Northern Alliance are once again in positions of power.

Their transgressions are in the past, but not entirely forgotten. Change comes slowly in a country ravaged by a series of wars, and a culture deeply rooted in tradition.

Subtle changes
The female dress code has changed in ways subtle to foreigners, but revolutionary to many Afghans.

Underneath their burqas, many women wear high heels, and they daringly put on brightly colored nail polish, details that may not please the conservative religious leaders who remain influential.

Another breakthrough will occur in Athens this summer when Robina Muqimyar represents her country in the 100 meters race at the Olympics. She and one other judo wrestler will be the first women to represent their nation at the Olympics.

Not all their compatriots will be cheering on their behalf. Islamic mullahs have criticized Muqimyar, saying it is wrong for her to display her face or body to non-Muslims in a public setting.
In a compromise, Muqimyar will compete in a tracksuit, a decision made by the Afghan Olympic Committee, and will not be showing her legs.

She and her fellow female competitor are part of a new generation of young women who are lifting the veil for their nation.

Mohamed Haroon, owner of a burqa stall in the bustling central Kabul Mundawi market said he’s not worried or offended by these modern women.

Sales are thriving he said, and even if more women are shedding their blue robes, they are still in the minority.

“They still come here to buy. Maybe not always from Kabul, but from the countryside,” said Haroon.

Prices are still high by Afghan standards. A good burqa costs anywhere from $8 to $12. With the average salary at $40 a month, it is a major expenditure for Afghans.

Haroon said he’s convinced there is a good future in burqa sales, but with true entrepreneurial spirit, he’s exploring other options. He’s branched out and in addition to burqas, he now sells bras.

Kiko Itasaka is an NBC News producer on assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Monday, July 05, 2004


This weekend was one of the best weekends I have ever had in my entire life. It was amazing.

On Thursday night, I went over to the “Beach Party,” which was fine. I met a bunch of new people, including a couple of other Harvard folks, a few South Africans, some Frenchies, some Aussies, Brits. Putt-putt golf, barbecue, beer, dancing. It was fun, but I left feeling extremely frustrated at my overwhelmingly expatriate life here. I feel like I live in bubble-world, observing from car windows, never really touching the people or the culture. I move from my American household to the backseat of a car where I am driven to my expatriate-laden work environment. When I go out, I go out with other expats. I am so tired of it! The weekend was exactly what I needed.

We left on Friday at around 9am, and drove for three and a half hours to the Panjshir Valley. I have never seen a more beautiful place. The drive was full of interesting sights as well. On the way out of Kabul, the air starts clearing and the concrete subsides into grass and mountains and so many tiny communities, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, of new and rebuilt mud-brick square dwellings mixed among the remnants of houses destroyed by 23 years of war. Here and there are old military tanks, artillery forts, graves marked with green flags. You know by the red and white rocks that there is a “sidewalk” that has been cleared of mines (the white half of the rock) adjacent to a field still full of active landmines (the red half of the rock). Children still play in the fields, and women and men still work in the fields. Way up in the mountains, you can see the zig-zag of switchback roads that lead to small communities.

We passed through a couple of really cute towns on the way. I was so pleased that when we got out at the first bazaar to buy refreshments, the children were so excited to pose with me in photos. Actually, even a couple of the adults were excited to pose with me!

The kids in the bazaar. Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

I have to say, the Afghan people must be among the most consistently beautiful people I’ve ever seen. It is rare to see an Afghan who is not striking. So many cultures and ethnicities converge in this place – I’ve been told by several Afghans that I look like I belong, which I find extremely flattering! A few people have even mistaken me for an Afghan. Light eyes and blonde streaks and all. Even my round features seem to be consistent with some of the various ethnicities here.

Once we reach the Panjshir Valley, it is still a six hour drive before you get to the other end. We only drove for another 2 hours in. The Panjshir is an oasis in this desert country. The river flows down through the valley, and you can see where the water stops diffusing out beyond the shores – dry, sandy soil meets green vegetation in a clearly demarcated boundary. Kind of strange, really. The mountains are huge and beautiful, and the mountain road tiny and treacherous for anyone who is not a native Panjshiri. All of the drivers who work for MSH are, fortunately, Panjshiris. And, as I mentioned in the preview last time, there are tens of abandoned soviet and Taliban tanks throughout the valley.

Posted by Hello

At one point along the road, there is a huge live munitions stockpile, and a cave full of weapons, just in case another force should try once again to take the Valley. And all along the way, there are mountain villages. How do these people get in and out? Where do they get their food? How do they build these lovely homes? How do they get their work animals in? And a question always on my mind when I see isolated communities, where do they go for health care when they need it? Amazing.

We stopped along the way to visit Massoud’s shrine. Massoud is adored here more than any other figure. He was a very well-respected fighter for the freedom of the Afghan people. He was a great general. He was assassinated during the Taliban times. His shrine is on a hill that looks over great valleys and mountains on either side. People make pilgrimages here.

Massoud's memorial. Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

We stopped on the way at a minister’s home to picnic along the river. What a decadent experience! Two large Afghan carpets were laid out under a 300 year-old tree, right on the bank of the river.

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

We lounged on pillows and were served sweets, tea, beer, bread, and really awesome fresh-off-the-grill, fresh-killed kebab. You should see the skewers they use! Huge metal lances – nothing like our little sticks. Oh, amazing. And fresh melon, and berries. Wonderful. Here I am contributing to the preparation of the kebab:

Posted by Hello

I played with the children – chased them around, took their photos – I think people were surprised to see an adult woman doing these things, but I asked beforehand, so I know no one was offended.

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

After some more lounging and napping,

Posted by Hello

we set out for our next destination, farther into the valley.

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

Two of our security officers are from the area, and are extremely well-respected. People along the way would stop to salute them. Baba Jan and Assad were instrumental in the wars against the Soviets and the Taliban. They were brilliant tacticians, and hard-core fighters, apparently. They know and have traversed all the best paths over the mountains. This is their land, and they have fought to protect the land and their people.

Assad was our host at the next two stopping points. First we stopped at one of his uncles’ house, where we ate dinner and slept outside right on the banks of the raging river. More palaw (the rice dish), kebab, lamb stew, salad, fresh naan, a traditional okra dish, beer, yoghurt, berries, peaches, apricots. Such amazing food. And sitting around talking with the local people, listening to them sing, laughing together, eating together, resting together. Wonderful. I slept peacefully with the sound of the river rushing by.

In the morning we awoke early to head to our next destination, another uncle’s house farther into the valley. Here we had fried bread stuffed with cheese, dipped in home-made fresh fruit jams (mulberry and apricot), warm milk with chai, fresh yogurt. More relaxing on pillows under trees, then up the road (that Assad’s uncle built) high up into the mountains. What an awesome vista!

Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello

It was exactly what I needed – to be outside, breathing fresh air, meditating on such spectacular beauty, climbing among the rocks. Cristi and I swam in the icy-cold water (I swear it must have been 33 degrees) – it was actually a bit painful. And, I guess to be exact, we didn't really swim. We dove in and swam out as soon as we could. We were very pleased with ourselves because many of the men were afraid to dive in as we did and as women it was assumed we would not dare to brave the currents of that ice water. We ate fresh yogurt (“very fresh--it’s from that cow over there”) and fresh cherries from the trees. We laid out on the rocks in the sun. We lounged on pillows under trees.

Then, back again for lunch of more kebab, traditional okra specialty, naan, salad, fresh fruit, boneless lamb. More stories from our impressive hosts. More lounging. Picking some mulberries fresh from the trees. I didn’t want to come back to Kabul.

Posted by Hello

It was so great. So great to be among the Afghan people, great to eat traditional, home-cooked foods, great to be in such a beautiful place. Ahhhhhhh. I was very happy. Two of the best days I’ve ever had.

Now I am back at work, trying to keep things going. I am very hopeful about the project and looking forward to it!

I will post some photos of the weekend soon. And I will be in touch again with more news when I have more to share.

Love and hugs.