Sunday, October 05, 2008

Moving web journal

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Monday, April 21, 2008

A Friend of mine talks about security here...

A West High graduate, Jason met Kelli at Montana State University in Bozeman. Kelli is from Spokane, Wash. They both served in the Air Force and wound up in Boston. Before starting a family, they said, they wanted to volunteer overseas. They considered the Peace Corps but ended up in Afghanistan. Now visiting family and friends around the country, they're considering job options and where to live. Their families supported their decision to go to Afghanistan but worried about security in a country still thick with foreign fighters.

"We were talking to them on Skype (an Internet telephone program)," said Debbie Reinhardt, Jason's mother. "Jason said, 'Just a minute. Hold on.' He was gone for a few minutes. He came back and said, 'Oh, there was a car bombing.' After that I said, 'Just don't tell us any more. You've told us enough scary stories.' "

Jason and Kelli say security in the country is worsening, but infrastructure and daily life have improved. American forces have opened schools and clinics, and the Kabul airport went from rubble to operable in the year they were in Afghanistan.

"The newscasters want to show on the evening news just scenes of poppy and battle, but there are lots of clinics and schools that the military is funding," Jason said. "The Afghans want as much help as we can give so they can get back on their feet, and then we can go home and they can go on living their lives."

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Something to think about

Recently a friend of mine was asking me some questions about living in Afghanistan and our motivation for moving here to help the poor. Those are always interesting questions. One of the questions he asked was, “How do you reconcile the fact that statistically your chances of dying in Afghanistan are significantly higher than in the U.S.?”
The question itself represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what is happening here in Afghanistan and has likely been influenced by the media and a constant stream of negative news about the Afghan people. I don’t really blame people like my friend. We all tend to be the victims of the information that we are fed. The situation is further complicated by the fact that U.S. involvement in Iraq is frequently lumped in with that of Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, it is seldom communicated that the climate and mood of these two countries is drastically different. For one thing, Afghanistan is not having a religious war or a civil war. There is no Shiite vs. Sunni Muslim battle here. There is no Kurdish minority opposing both the Shiites and Sunnis. In Afghanistan, about 90% of the population is Sunni, with only a small 5% minority in Bamyan Province that are of the Shiite faith. Though there may have been religious-based conflict in the past, this is no longer the case. What affects the U.S. viewing public the most is the news of an occasional terrorist bombing of one type or another somewhere in Afghanistan. Living here in Kabul, we don’t hear of these bombings from the news media.
We often hear them from our house. Many of our expatriate staff members have been in the close vicinity of a bombing over the last three years. Many have also found themselves having passed by a particular location that a half hour later was the scene of a suicide attack. These kinds of things can make you stop and think. In the U.S., few of us have ever had any close connection with acts of terror unless we happened to be in New York City in September of 2001 or in Oklahoma City a few years ago. Hearing about suicide bombings from places like Afghanistan makes us angry and prone to generalizations based on fear.
The truth of the matter, however, is that the Afghan people are not in a religious or civil war, and in fact, are tired of war. They want better jobs, better housing, better education and health, and a hope for the future. They WANT what we have to offer. In general, this extends to the farthest reaches of this rugged and remote country. The “enemy” here tends to be small groups of radicalized religious zealots who easily blend into most villages. Some are from the remote mountains of the border with Pakistan, and some come from organizations such as Al Qaeda. In a city of 3.5 million people such as Kabul, this amounts to only a handful of people.
However, the very nature of terror is that a small number of people can potentially exhibit some emotional control over thousands or millions. The nature of our mission here is to overcome evil with good. We have no intention of doing pitched battle with the Taliban. I’d just as soon not ever come in direct contact with anyone with the Taliban agenda. But I will continue to come in contact with thousands of Afghans who are looking to improve their crop yield, receive better maternal care and find an adequate educational facility so their children can have better opportunities than they had, or simply improve their lives. Yesterday, there were two suicide bombings in Kabul. I don’t know of any foreign aid workers who jumped on the next plane out of town. That’s not in our nature.
In the end, I answered my friend that I reconciled his question by simply not agreeing with it. I really don’t think that statistically my chances of dying in Afghanistan are significantly higher than in the U.S. Consider these statistics:

1) U.S. Homicides in 2004 – 17,357 – that’s 47 per day!
2) U.S. traffic fatalities in 2006 – 43,300 – that’s 118 per day!
3) Suspected cases of medical malpractice fatalities yearly – 120,000 – that’s 329 per day!
4) U.S. smoking-related fatalities in 2006 – 438,000 – that’s 1,200 per day!
5) U.S. cardio-vascular disease related fatalities in 2006 – 876,000 – that’s 2,400 per day (or one every 37 seconds)!
6) By comparison, in 2006 there were 2,943 terror related deaths in the entire country. This includes both Afghans and foreigners (a very small percentage) killed. That’s just 8 fatalities per day (on average).

Of course, no matter how you look at the numbers, the thought that someone is actually “targeting” you for death is a bit disconcerting. But am I MORE likely to die over here than in the U.S.? I don’t think so. Is it likely that I might die somewhere this year? Well, maybe so. But that’s a matter that all of us have to deal with internally and between us and God. So my return question to my friend was simply this: “Regardless of where you may live, are you personally ready to die today?”

Friday, March 07, 2008

Our Work in Orphanages

Marnie Gustavson:
A Friend to Afghan Women and Children
by Colin Hume

I sat behind her, a middle-aged American woman, in a conference room at the Ministry of Martyred and Disabled in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was amazed at the poise and confidence with which she addressed the Afghan officials and leaders of several important international organizations who were sitting before her. This remarkable meeting had been coordinated by Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan (PARSA), for which Marnie Gustavson serves as executive director. The importance of the day’s topic, conditions in the government-run orphanages across the country, was not lost on any of the attending Afghans and internationals. Gustavson’s focus was on the living conditions in the national orphanages where more than 8,000 children live. She was trying to get the children the care they deserve. And she was putting her professional reputation on the line.

A social worker and Seattle native, Marnie Gustavson has been working in Afghanistan since 2003, following the fall of the Taliban, and living there with her husband, Dr. Norman Gustavson, since 2004. After starting an educational and well-being program in the large Alluhoddin orphanage in Kabul the previous fall, Gustavson and her Afghan staff members found conditions so upsetting that they began a movement to overhaul the inner-workings of government-run orphanages.

This day’s meeting was presided over by the deputy minister of Martyred and Disabled. In attendance were leaders of at least five other domestic and international organizations that work with orphans, including Save the Children and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The meeting came about in response to the circulation of a report Gustavson had written which detailed what she and her PARSA staff members had found in their six months of working in Alluhoddin. The conditions described in the report were distressing: inadequate access to hygienic facilities and medical treatment, allegations of abuse by staff members, and a lack of night-time supervisors in girls’ dorms were just a few. Once circulated, the report and the conditions described in it could no longer be ignored by Afghan officials.

The report achieved exactly what Gustavson wanted: A hearing before the ministry. After officially welcoming the meeting attendees in English, her colleague Mahbouba Seraj presented the findings of the report in Dari. Seraj is the once-exiled granddaughter of King Habibullah, a progressive Afghan king who reigned at the turn of the century, and her presence lent weight to the findings. Finally, Gustavson and Seraj acknowledged that the report was unofficial, but that the findings warranted further investigation by the ministry. They asked that a committee comprising domestic and international representatives already working in the country’s orphanages be formed to preside over an official investigation into government-run homes for children across the country. And they wanted continued oversight by this same committee to ensure long-lasting systemic changes.

After listening to supporting statements by other representatives in attendance, the presiding minister acknowledged the report. He agreed to the recommendations and promised to form a committee. He then went on the defensive and began attacking the allegations that had been made, calling into question the integrity of Gustavson’s organization. He stated that as PARSA had not been given permission to write a report, the problems documented had no concrete basis.

After listening for 15 minutes, Gustavson interjected. She stood up and stated that the meeting had begun to turn in the wrong direction. She was unwilling to defend the work of her organization or the veracity of the report, as it would shift the meeting’s focus. She thanked the deputy minister for agreeing to the formation of a committee to undertake an official investigation into the conditions of the government-run orphanages. She stated that she expected the minister to abide by his word and with that, walked out of the meeting.

As I followed Gustavson out of the conference room, accompanied by her husband and Mahbouba Seraj, I looked back to see the stunned faces of the deputy minister and other Afghan officials. Though not diplomatic, Gustavson had certainly made her point. As we found out later, the report she had circulated almost got her expelled from Afghanistan for the stir it raised. I had never felt more proud of my mother. It was the spring of 2007 and I had just arrived in Kabul for a month-long visit with her and my stepfather.

Gustavson’s love of Afghanistan stems from the four years she spent there as a child from 1964 to 1968, during the “Golden Years” of relative calm in that historically turbulent country. Her father, looking for adventure, had packed up his wife, three daughters and cat, and accepted a teaching position there. “As a child, Afghanistan was wonderful, mostly because there was such a sense of community and relationship with Afghans and other internationals,” she recalls. “We made our own entertainment, and I enjoyed a wonderful childhood of adventure and learning in an amazing culture. I still enjoy living here because of the sense of close relationship with people that we don’t have in our own culture.” The experience shaped each member of the family in lasting ways. Exposure to the lives of the truly poor and vulnerable at such a young age clearly left an impression on the 9-year-old Gustavson, who has since spent much of her adult life as a social worker in Seattle.

Married with two children by age 25, Gustavson began her social work career in her early thirties in Seattle, becoming the executive director of the “youth at risk” program Steps Ahead at Rainier Beach High School. In 1991, she cofounded Washington Works, an organization that specialized in helping welfare mothers transition back into the workforce. In 1996 she cofounded Creative Economic Opportunities, which focused on helping the most “hard-to-serve” people, including addicts, the mentally ill, teenage mothers and the developmentally disabled integrate into their communities and find employment.

It was not until the Taliban regime fell that Gustavson fixed her attention on Afghanistan. The living conditions of women and their children are especially important to her. Since returning to Afghanistan she has worked for a number of organizations, including Refugee Women in Development and Equal Access Radio. At the helm of PARSA, she directs work on issues such as the development of economic capacities for widows, education for women, as well as physiotherapy and rehabilitation of war wounds.

In a report on the conditions of the Alluhoddin orphanage as of this fall, Gustavson had this to say: “….we made a difference in Alluhoddin ... you wouldn’t recognize the place ... kids are clean, have uniforms, TV in every room, kitchen brand-new ... some toilets work ... “
People always ask my mother why she has chosen such a difficult place to work. Her response is, “In spite of how hard it is in Afghanistan ... I believe in the Afghan people and their ability to make their country right ... and my work reflects that. Most people just go around the Afghan government. I challenge them because I want Afghans to run this country well ... and I believe they will do it ... and last week that man I walked out on invited us back to work in the orphanages ... we are now good working partners.”

For more information about PARSA, visit

Colin Francis Hume has volunteered in Russia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan and has been a wildlife researcher for various government agencies in the U.S. He is also a top-ranked snowboard instructor

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Honoring an Afghan Leader- by Mahbouba

Afghan woman radio head shot dead
Daughters and relatives of Ms Zaki weep by her coffin
Daughters and relatives of Ms Zaki weep by her coffin
A female owner of a radio station in Afghanistan has been shot dead.

I met her a month ago in Jabal-Seraj ( north of Kabul in the Shamali plains, Parwan Province) a very beautiful area of Afghanistan, green and gorgeous. She was an amazing lady she had so much light and beauty about her, strong , kind and full of laughter and energy. I first heard her radio station broadcasting great programs in the Kohband District of Kapisa Province, the name of her radio station is "Radio Peace" a great station, with wonderful programs. She is originally from Badakshan Province, she came to Jabal-Seraj and got married there. She has 7 children. All of her life all she has done is work for the women and the people of this country, getting their voices and concerns out to the community and authority, all she ever has done was to love Afghanistan and like so many other courageous women of this country she loses her life for it. It is so unnecessary it is such a waste and it is so so SAD. I don't know what to do about this yet, but I know one thing : we should do everything in our power as the women of this country and the world to stop this. The people who have done this should be brought to justice, we can't be indifferent about this, they are killing all of us, anyone who wants to do something for the good of these people gets punished by losing their lives. This is not acceptable this is wrong, we should not let Zakia's death go unnoticed and her Shahadat in vein. We need these women, Afghanistan needs them, we should not allow some ignorant thugs whoever they are kill them, just because they can, and because there is no justice in this corrupt system and they know they can get away with it. I am so sad and so angry.... My heart is breaking , all I can do at the moment is to pray...... Mahbouba Seraj
From BBC News.....

Zakia Zaki was shot seven times, including in the chest and head, as she slept with her 20-month-old son at her home north of Kabul, officials say.

The governor of Parvan province, where the attack took place, told the BBC he did not know who killed her. No one has admitted carrying out the attack.

Her murder came just days after a woman newsreader was killed for reasons which were described as "family-related".

'Act of terror'

The Parvan governor, Abdul Jabbar Taqwa, visited the scene of the killing in the town of Jabal as Siraj, about 70km (40 miles) north of the capital.

Zakia Zaki
Ms Zaki (centre) was a rare female voice in Afghanistan

He said the attackers were three men armed with pistols and rifles, who broke into Ms Zaki's house and got into the bedroom.

An older son, aged three, was with her at the time of the attack, but none of her six children was injured.

The Interior Ministry condemned what it called "this act of terror" and said it was trying to track down the perpetrators.

Zakia Zaki, was 35 years old and worked as a reporter and a schoolteacher.

She was one of the few female journalists in the country to speak out during the Taleban's rule.

She had also headed the US-funded station, Radio Peace, since it opened after the fall of the Taleban in 2001.

The BBC's Charles Haviland in Kabul says that at times Ms Zaki criticised the former mujahideen, some of who have been implicated in war crimes.

Observers say that the motive behind the murder is far from clear, and a massive police operation is now underway to identify and arrest the killers.

'Freedom of expression'

Zakia Zaki started her radio career eight years ago. At the time Parvan province was one of the few areas in the country to be controlled by anti-Taleban forces.

Journalists protest in Afghanistan

The Independent Association of Afghan Journalists has condemned the murder, describing it as an example of how difficult the working environment has become for journalists and especially for women.

"She believed in freedom of expression, that's why she was killed," the association's head Rahimullah Samander told Reuters.

The group said she had received threats in the past but had no personal enemies.

The killing comes six days after the shooting dead of another Afghan woman working in journalism, a 22-year-old newsreader from a private television station, Shakiba Sanga Amaj.

According to senior police sources in Kabul, her father has blamed two male relatives and one person has been arrested.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Jabal Seraj- The mountain of light-and a waiting palace

Mahbouba and I stopped before lunch to interview the local "Wali" or governor of the city. We were ushered into a narrow cool room and Mahbouba introduced herself. The Wali asked about her family and she described herself as King Habibullah's granddaughter and King Amanuallahs' niece...we rarely get into this in our work but our experience when we do is that we usually recieve a very warm welcome-and stories about her family. This gentleman launched into a detailed story and I was left on my own to translate for myself. The jist of the discussion was that King Habibullah built a beautiful palace in Jabal Seraj (which was intact when I was a child as I remember it). The war came and it was destroyed but he never let anyone do anything to the palace grounds as he has been waiting for the family to return to Jabal Seraj. He courteously welcomed her and asked if she would like to see it. The Wali's father lived to 106 and was able to tell his son many stories about Afghanistan and this royal family which was displaced in the 1930's.Mahbouba did not know this and it was such a treat to see her delight as she encountered this dear man and his appreciation for the contribution her family made to Afghanistan. Here are pictures of our tour.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Back on the road- North of Kabul-Jabal Seraj

Mahbouba and I are working with Equal Access Radio this week to finish up an evaluation and monitoring project we started a year and one half ago....Radio is an excellent tool to access the provinces and from our survey we are discovering that the Afghan communities are very engaged in the programming and interested in giving us feedback. This is Radio Peace at Jabal Seraj, North of Kabul. They say that they have an audience of 1,000,000 in three provinces. Their comments: The programming training people in their rights is going well with one exception-the country doesn't quite have the infrastructure to support these rights. An example given is that Afghans are now entitled to an required to have ID cards....should take twenty minutes -at the most 2 hours....The call-in radio shows are full of callers complaining about it taking a month to two months-and bribes to get what is their right and obligation as a citizen. (See closet of letters from readers) This station is doing a great job of setting up conversations between the citizens and elected political leaders. The journalist describes being "set up" by a group of religious leaders and sent to jail for a year for an unpopular article...but he is back and undeterred....this country is full of people with these stories of perseverance and wisdom as democracy begins to take shape.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Ghor Province....

On Survey in October we flew to Lal ancient world and where the Minaret of Jam resides...

Our Afghan women parliamentarians...

Mahbouba and I have come to love these remarkable women...

Update March 2007

I have been working here in Afghanistan now for two years. I stopped writing during my nine month contract with UNIFEM conducting a leadership training. The work was too difficult and too high profile and I didn't feel that I could be candid enough to provide an authentic journal. Mahbouba and I did not resign our contract in October. She left for short trip to the US and I completed our survey with Equal Access Radio. Pictures here are from my work in Bamyan Province. I am delighted with our new course of work which is to focus on the small NGO PARSA and to be very selective about what projects we work on. I have come back online with this journal because it is a delight to write about my journey again.