Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Suicide Vest

This is a photo, taken over my shoulder, of a defused suicide vest at a news conference. A suicide bomber had been trying to board and attack an army bus, but he was spotted, kicked to the ground and arrested.

There was dramatic TV footage of him being held with his hands behind his back by one sole policeman, who kept peeking inside the man's shirt to see the vest and wires. Other officers in the area stood a good distance away. Then another policeman came to cut the wires.

During the news conference, as police were describing the mobile phone he could have used to detonate the bomb, the tell-tale tick tick and buzz of a mobile phone signal could be heard through the speaker system in the conference room. The sound nearly made me jump out of my seat and run out of the room, I was so worried the cops had failed to properly defuse the bomb.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Hiking the Panjshir Valley

Going out of town eases the claustrophobia of our cloistered lives in Kabul. I went with the roommates to the Panjshir valley, a few hours north of Kabul. After a brief meeting with men from the area, who were watching my roommates' road safety film (basically a public safety announcement), we had a typical meal of nan and kebabs, and then went for a walk by the river.

The tomb behind me is where Ahmad Massoud Shah, commander of the Northern Alliance, is buried. Massoud, who fought against the Taliban, was from the Panjshir valley. He was assassinated in a suicide attack on Sept. 9, 2001, by two Arabs posing as TV journalists who were interviewing him. It is said that the last question he heard was, "What will you do with Osama bin Laden once you have conquered all of Afghanistan?" Enormous billboards of Massoud, wearing a traditional wool pakol hat and looking as if he is earnestly contemplating something, are plastered around Kabul and the northern provinces.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Golfing in Afghanistan

Landry, kicking up a little dust, on his first time ever swinging a club.

The Kabul golf course, on the outskirts of town, is a dusty, desert course, with far more rough than green. The hazards in this course include the many toilets -- as Afghans and their sheep use various parts of the course to do their duty.

Alisa's first round of golf (well, seven holes) since the mandatory golf lessons she suffered as a pre-teen.

Our relaxing Friday afternoon on the course was disrupted by two helicopters passing overhead, while an abandoned tank -- not an uncommon sight in Afghanistan -- stood sentry over the course.

Each shot has to be teed up because there is no grass, and the plastic tees barely sink into the drought hardened land. The course was basically abandoned after the Soviets took over in 1979, and was outlawed under the Taliban. It opened again in 2004, and some friends of ours organize a Kabul Open tournament each year.

The so-called green is covered in a thin layer of black sand. Our caddies accompanied us through the seven holes we played, while the ball boys stand right in the line of fire to make sure we can find our shots. The other two holes were apparently being occupied by picnickers.

Green fee: $20. Tip for the caddies and the cute 9-year-old ball spotter: $20.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Young and In Love?

This is 3-year-old Sunam in her bridal gown and with her 7-year-old fiance/cousin Nieem.

I began working on this story about engagements when a friend told me about another woman, 22 years old, who has been trying for the past eight years to end her engagement. She has been beaten by her family, her fiance and his father, who are trying to force her to marry him; and the fiance has threatened to kill her if she leaves him.

At the same time, I heard about a female journalist who was killed, possibly for family reasons and an engagement. I chased this story at her workplace, but to no avail. I could not figure out why she was killed or by whom.

So as I was leaving the journalist's office, I asked her female colleagues if they knew of anyone who was engaged at a very young age -- a good finisher for the story -- and one woman told us of her neighbors who engaged their 3-year-old daughter with her young cousin. I got their address and went to their home, where the ladies of the home were wonderfully warm and welcoming, as Afghans are. Sunam and Nieem became the main focus of my story.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Our Little Neighbors

We decided to go for a short stroll outside our house to give you a glimpse of our lovely neighborhood. In a country where the average family has seven children, kids are everywhere and their little voices chirp constantly throughout the day.

In front of the gate of our house with our guard.

Landry plays ice cream man. The ice cream vendors usually have cute little jingles that they play as they pedal around the streets here, but one of them has the theme of the movie "Love Story" -- not the cheeriest ice cream music.

Popsicle girl enjoyed hamming it up for the camera.

A little neighborhood stroll -- a common sight around town.

Almost every evening and all day Friday (the Muslim holy day of Friday is the weekend here), we can sit in our yard and see dozens of kites flying in the air. It's mostly boys flying kites, at least on the streets. Here are three kites in the above picture, and below, one boy tries to launch his kite made of a simple plastic bag. It's not as easy as it looks -- my roommates have broken many a kite just trying to get them off the ground.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Home Sweet Home

We live in a two-home compound with about a dozen roommates, a lovely garden and two dear cats.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Landry's Sanity: Stop Motion Animation

Landry bought this Chinese-made doll set at a busy market in central Kabul. It was in a box labeled "Sumptuous Dinner." Click on the video link below to see how Landry busies himself at home in Kabul, where we're sometimes at a loss for entertainment around town.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Girls as Currency

My latest story stirred a lot of sentiment and an outpouring of generosity from dozens of readers wanting to help a teenage girl, Malia, who was given away in marriage because her father could not find the funds to pay back a loan of nine sheep.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Drug Widows

WIDOWS VILLAGE: While working near the Iranian border on a story about Afghan migrant laborers, I heard about a village that has hundreds of widows. Their husbands were killed during decades of war and strife, and by the latest plague to hit this village, drug smuggling. For lack of any other jobs in the area, the men in Bunyat turn to the lucrative, but extremely dangerous job of carrying drugs across the border into Iran. Several smugglers are killed each year.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Tales from Afghanistan

Some of my latest stories...

MIGRANTS DEPORTED: At one border checkpoint between Iran and Afghanistan, I met several Afghan migrant laborers who were being forcibly deported from Iran. Many complained of abuse at the hand of Iranian authorities _ one guy said he was beaten, thrown into the trunk of a car, then held at a detention center before being kicked out a week later.

WOMEN UNDER FIRE: Farida Nekzad began receiving menacing calls on her cell phone a half hour after arriving at the funeral of a fellow female journalist assassinated by gunmen. "'Daughter of America! We will kill you, just like we killed her,'" the caller told her as she stood near the maimed body of Zakia Zaki, the owner of a radio station north of Kabul. Part of Zaki's face was blown away by three attackers who entered her home and shot her seven times with pistol and automatic rifle fire in front of her 8-year-old son this month.

And a bright color story on BURQA FASHION: Some women have decided to doff their burqas for more comfortable, lightweight scarves, but many families still want their women covered _ to maintain the family honor, lest she is seen by a male stranger.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Go West

In the western city of Herat.

A village on a plateau near the border with Iran.

Porters at the Afghan-Iran border wait to assist those coming home.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Going Native: My First Burqa

Some may find the material below offensive,
in which case...
don't look.
Otherwise, click on image below to see larger version.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Climbing Day Trip

We went with some friends on a little day trip, about 40 minutes from Kabul, where we went on a short little walk along a river, had a picnic and then tried our climbing feet.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Kabul Wall

Last week, we went on a one and half hour hike along the Kabul wall, which provides majestic views of the city in the valley below. Kabul is surrounded by mountains and its residents seem to have filled every square inch of the valley with buildings and houses -- most of them made of mud and thatch, which is why the city looks brown from above.

Note that I'm properly dressed -- bum covered with my long bittersweet brown blouse -- even for a hike. It was a warm day, but I kept the black scarf so that I could cover my hair when we descended into neighborhoods.
Along the way, we passed boys bringing water to their home. Donkeys are a common sight in Kabul, even on the streets below. Young boys and men will ride a donkey, urging it along with little kicks of their heels. Many homes lack plumbing and water, so Kabulis have to walk good distances to get their water supply.
Our roommate joined us on the hike, but stopped along the route to take photos... or was she knackered from too many cigarettes?
You cannot see it too clearly here, but we were disturbed to see Kabul covered by a thick, mucky haze. Sure, cars are always driving through a thick cloud of dust -- kind of like Pigpen on Charlie Brown -- and everything in our house is covered in a layer of dust despite Landry's weekly vacuum-cleaning raids.
As we descended into the valley again, we entered neighborhoods where more children did their daily chore of fetching water. Kids come from all the houses with their plastic buckets to the neighborhood source, where they pump the water. They then lug the buckets home -- with a donkey's help, if they're lucky.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mulling Beauty: Universal or Relative?

I took a day trip to Jalalabad recently, about 45 minutes away by helicopter. I was fascinated by the view from this flying bus, which lifted off the ground and just hovered. It's a strange feeling for those accustomed to flights -- that association of speed build-up with lift off! Not so with a helicopter -- it can be just a still hover. The sound is so loud that I was lulled into a still, meditative state.

The landscape from Kabul to Jalalabad is breathtaking, with rolling green hills that change into gray boulder outcrops, then to a large river-carved gorge that resembles a mini Grand Canyon. My mind wrestled over the concepts of beauty and love -- universal or relative? Looking upon these sights, my heart told me universal. Remembering the women I've met and heard about -- beaten, killed by their families -- my mind says it must be relative.

Part of the trip was to witness opium poppy eradication -- Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium poppy in the world, with a crop of 6,700 tons last year, enough to make 670 tons of heroin. That's more than 90 percent of the world's supply and more than the world's addicts consume in a year.

Poppies are beautiful flowers, and with the vast fields of white and pink flowers around me, I wondered how difficult it was for the police and locals to go chopping them. The field of white flowers behind me in this photo are all poppies. The men behind my right shoulder are carrying out the dangerous task of eradication, much-loathed by the farmers and militants.

A young boy playing in the destroyed field over my left shoulder handed me this flower.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Passing time

Our friend Nico draws Landry.
Here's more of Nico's work.
Landry makes Alisa dolls.
(When we were apart for 3 weeks in January.)

Friday, April 06, 2007

Afghan alarm clock

Another boom wakes us up. I look at my clock: Exact same time as the earthquake. Synchronized quakes? Suicide bomb this time, on the other side of town near the Darul Aman palace. At least five dead.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Another Rude Awakening

Our bed shook, and I thought it was Landry tossing and turning. "What was that?" I got up and looked out the window, at which point we were shaken again. "Earthquake, of course! Let's go!" Landry said, grabbing my hand and running downstairs, outside into the yard. Our cook, the guards and drivers were all standing outside, waiting for the house to fall. Fortunately, it didn't.

6.2-magnitude quake, 260 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Kabul. Here's a list of the world's earthquakes from the past week.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The King's Stables, Then and Now

King Zaher Shah's horse stables outside Kabul, 1968.

Now, after decades of war.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Out Around Town

Police help boy climb wall at new year celebration.

Afghan biker dude -- scarf, shalwar kameez, red rug on the seat.

Alisa in the great outdoors a few kilometers from Kabul.