Life in the Field - The Way of the Samurai

"Show me the way to the next whiskey bar. Oh don't ask why. Oh don't ask why."

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Spring in Mudistan

In Doshte Lali recently, three eagles (the size of a 12-year old with a serious vitamine deficiency) were flying overhead looking for some lovely fluffy prairie dogs for breakfast. At the same time, a few miles away, some commanders' supporters were organising a riot in the dry and warm air of Maymana, at a day that was neither made too cold by the snow, nor too warm by the deadly summer heat. As you will have guessed, it is clear by now that spring has returned to Mudistan.

Now I have to admit, I'm being a little unfair in qualifying these parts of the world as Mudistan when, in fact, Mazar is so much worse. This said, given that our rides back and forth in the desert involved more sliding than it did driving, making it unclear where Mudistan stopped and Fuck-all-end-of-the-Worldistan started, I have decided to settle for this label to qualify most of the northwest of this lovely country.

Anyhow, in its millenia-long history involving mostly grazing sheep, donkeys and camels traveling with bearded men to the bazaar and a few commanders, Maymana managed against all odds for the first ime ever to make it to the headlines of BBC and CNN! Now that is no reason for rejoicing although part of me remains amazed it could ever happen. (What a let down, though, that AFP, which was so prompt to publish its first release on the subject did not have at least a photograph in the field to have a few souvenir shots...)

Anyway, it all started on a sunny Tuesday morning on which, we were told, a few people would demonstrate against the Danish cartoon. How unexpected...

Everything is, on that day, so sunny and peaceful and pleasant by 10 o'clock that everyone assumes it is merely going to be some small gathering. Everyone also wonders whether any of the women's tailoring classes will have been effective enough and internet sufficiently fast to have people bringing up their own brand new Danish flags to burn down at the demonstration...

At a time when things are still quiet, in spite of the odd firework, we are informed that all local UN staff have been sent home as a security measure. Quietly, we proceed to do the same, with the exception of a few senior staff who prefer to continue working. Shortly thereafter, it appears a vehicle, in fact a PRT vehicle, is burning. At which time all the senior staff are in the garden, looking at the not-so-remote smoke with a kind of grin, half amused half nervous, on the face. Marco, my Italian colleague, and I consider checking from the roof the demonstration, however in the face of strong requests from some staff to come down, we settle for being in the courtyard too and let for a while the sunshine in, while sipping tea.

Now enjoying the sun is all good and well, but since I've had to cancel my field trip, I decide I could at least be doing some work and therefore return to my computer. By that time though, it very clearly appears the fire works are in fact weapons being fired at the PRT, the ANA and each other by some commanders' militias. [Note: since this is neither an academic paper nor a proposal, I let you google the abbreviations...] Surprise surprise! Within minutes of the demonstration starting, it has been hijacked by some local groups pursuing no other interest than their own and who have decided to turn this day into a show of strength by daring each other to do more damage to PRT assets and to each other. I have to say, I am to some extent fascinated by the passion that frequently inflames Faryab. I mean it is not an essential trade route. In fact, trucks that reach Maymana city may be too damaged to ever cross the desert again. Local production mostly consists of carpets and, primarily, agricultural produce. People are on average rather poor, outside the odd local commander. Most people are marked by a life involving hard labour and long distances to the bazaar or the well. At the same time, even Maymana has the quiet feel of a countryside village, where things go at the pace of donkey carts. I am told there is some small drug trafficking ongoing at stage, but I cannot fathom how even that would be of sufficent importance to have people fighting over what is, frankly, just a lot of hills, dust, donkeys and a few men. Anyhow, every few months, some armed groups in Sherin Tagab, Khwaja Musa or Almar somehow find it entertaining to fight, so as to decide who will establish their power over what plot of land. In between, the quiet life is only interrupted by the odd robbery, to raise funds for the former.

Now according to some of our staff, what turned into a riot last Tuesday involved some religious extremists from one specific village, an armed band that was considering doing a bank robbery and some commander's militia, determined to kick the ANA out of the province. With various agendas and personal goals, these three groups ended up not only confronting authorities and PRT, but also each other. This resulted in the odd morning fire turning into some exchanged fire involving automatic weapons. To add an air of warfare to the day, a military supersonic plane flew a couple of times overhead at low altitude shooting flare rockets. Although the 500-strong crowd was only a few hundred yards from our compound, we had so far been confident that things would eventually quiet down. However when we were told that they were planning on coming to the UN and NGO offices, a news followed shortly after by the announcement that the UN were evacuating their handful of expatriate staff, and given that with the exception of a German family, the expat NGO population was made up of merely 4 people, we decided to follow suit, just in case. Ensued an escape at high pace (the driver's decision), after a two-minute packing operation, to catch up with the UN convoy that had already left the city. Given how close Maymana is to everything, this evacuation involved driving at night in a treacherous desert, which all drivers mastered however unusually well. I will not drag on the odd punctured tire of the police vehicles escorting us, nor on their getting stuck in the mud on four occasions within ten minutes because that would be both easy and unfair. - Suffice to say we considered abandoning them in the desert but civility naturally prevented us from going ahead. - At the moment, the evacuation felt like the human equivalent of rats jumping off a sinking boat, even though local staff seem reassured to know we were going. In hindsight and following concurring testimonies from local staff, it seems however it helped difuse the situation inasmuch as demonstrators had indeed decided to attack some of the offices, but felt it had become pointless after expats had fled.

The other conclusion of that day was that, just as I would assess of other countries, events of the day were not remotely related to Denmark or to any cartoon. In fact, any opportunty could have been seized giving way to the exact same result. All it reflected was the persistence of groups that refuse the 'new' Afghanistan and insist on returning the country to its old chaos. I have the feeling this is not only true of good ole' Maymana, but also of demonstrations in Kabul, Helmand and even Baghram. If anything, I find it rather interesting that the country was plunged on such short notice into perfect chaos for a couple of hours, demonstrating again just how fragile peace remains. This calls if anything for a heavier international presence in the country, while the ANA continues building its strength. In Faryab province at any rate, an additional 100 to 200 men would probably be sufficient to bring an end to local power fights, the fundraising robberies and the like.


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