Thursday, December 4, 2008

Very last note

As you might suspect from all these "last" in my recent updates, I am not intending to continue writing on this blog. I have actually just finalized quite a long piece, a somewhat collection of some final thoughts, which you can find below the pictures. You guess rightly, that I have left Afghanistan, mainly due to some personal reasons which I might share another time. So much far now: they are of entirely positive nature!

Thanks to all of you around the world for following this blog, and stay safe whereever you are :)

Kabul - kids and the kites - this one still has to find its way up into the air
My favorite carpet seller. I don't remember one single time when I left his shop wihtout a carpet
Spring time also brought some rain. Here few of us during a weekend walk around Lake Qarghai
And one of my favorite pics, the girl of a colleague of mine on one of these super funny swans that you can rent on lake Qarghai

Last pictures - spring time

Something that astonished me in Afghanistan was how harsh winter can be, and yet how surprisingly fast it is forgotten by the millions of flowers that flower everywhere in Kabul from March onwards..

Last pictures - Hirat

I guess Hirat is the place which I enjoyed most in Afghanistan, for a number of reasons. The above and below picture was taken in a community not far from Hirat.
I guess one reason why I liked Hirat are the many historical sites. Among others the Friday mosque which is a puzzle of millions of hand painted tiles

Last pictures - Jalalabad

There are two cities in Afghanistan which I visited quite often, and both of which I enjoyed a lot spending time in: Jalalabad and Hirat. They are completely different from each other, one being in the east, the other in the far west of the country. But they both have their individual charm. Above two kids a little bid outside Jalalabad
Afghan men during a closing ceremony of one of the training activities which we implemented
Women and girls during a meeting in a camp close to Jalalabad
My colleagues and I during dinner in the most famous restaurant of Jalalabad, the restaurant next to the river. It serves excellent fish, but be aware of the bones...

Last pictures - the beginning

My first couple of months in Afghanistan were marked by a urge for discovering the city and the country. Though discovery tours of course were limited from the beginning by security restrictions, I was at least able to visit some places in Kabul such as the old soviet swimming pool above and below...
... a helicopter flight (the first one I ever did!)
... some strools through Babur Gardens...
... and a walk up the old city wall...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Some last thoughts

Don't worry dear Reader, I have no intention to make this last johannistan update a sentimental review of my 13 months in Afghanistan. In fact, I have left Afghanistan without many tears last week on Monday. The little water that popped up in my eyes when I took off a last time from Kabul International Airport was mainly due to the dry air in the plane, and memories of my friends and all those others who were not as lucky as me to leave Afghanistan in the passanger cabin of a plane.

Yet, even without sentiments, I think everybody who has followed this blog over the past months has some right to know about my departure, to read some conclusions, and to get a glimpse of the adventures I am planning to embark on from now onwards (just as much in advance: they will be of quite a different nature ... ;) Otherwise, people might continue asking "when do you update your blog again", or - as many of you did over the past few months - recommend me to leave Afghanistan as long as I am still able to do so... This entry and some best-of pictures will actually be the last update of johannistan.

As always when getting ready to write, I wonder were to start from. When I was younger, and when computers were still something people had only vaguely heard of, writing would start with staring at a white paper. The result of this staring succeeded to fill an entire bookshelf in my room. Nowadays, writing seems to start with millions of stimulating (but often also creativity-robbing) messages and images from the web, popping up on the screen in front of me. While waiting for an inspirational hub, I tend to check emails, click on refresh to see if there are any new messages, send out some hellos through skype, just to end again at the empty window of my blogger account. Sitting in the dust-free kitchen in my parents home, with the smell of snow from an earlier walk through the forest still in my nose, about to make some pizza, the rough voice of cat power coming out of the speakers, makes it not necessarily easier to gather concluding thoughts on my stay in Afghanistan, and on Afghanistan in general.

What was so real even one week ago suddenly seems to be a tale of another world. But truly, travelling in 12 hours from Kabul to Munich was like travelling between two planets: at the beginning of the 12 hours I am putting on my cloths in darkness, as there is no public power lighting up homes and streets, then I make coffee with purified water from the supermarket, only to say good bye to my watchmen all wrapped up in traditional patto blankets, pass some heavily armed private security guards on the way to the airport, and fly out in a plane where russian security leaflets tell the origin of the plane, and where I am served chicken kebab as breakfast. Twelve hours later I land in Munich, I am blended by all the lights, Christmas songs threaten to burst my ears, my parents' hug smells after persil washing powder, and back home I take a long sip of water straight from the tab. Even though these are by far not the starkest differences between Afghanistan and Europe, these are some of the first differences which I instantly noticed Monday night after arriving back home.

After few days of being outside Afghanistan, the images of Kabul's streets, garnished with heavily armed guards and concrete walls which popped up like champignons all around the city over the past thirteen months, seem absurd, bordering to sick. But more so than the images, it was our own way of refusing to take notice of these signs of insecurity and themselves threats, which makes it feel really sick. During the first few days back home, I would raise my head when small snow avalenges fell off the roof of my house, making a hollow sound when touching the frozen ground. Even now, I still turn my head and tremble slightly when I hear an unusual noise.

But having been home for almost two weeks, with tons of white snow dipping the landscape around me into an ocean of harmony, the fear and tension have calmed down, and only come up in my dreams, when I am suddenly caught in a fire exchange or kidnapping. Even though these dreams tend to seem super-real, I have never in reality been in any situation close to the ones I am dreaming of.

But these are the night dreams.

During the day, my thoughts and memories of Afghanistan are of a more peaceful and positive nature. Indeed, there are many moments when I miss Afghanistan, and many moments in which I only have to close my eyes and I feel like having people I worked with or simply spent time with suddenly very close to me again. Sometimes these day dreams are so real that I feel if I would only reach out my arm I would be able to touch somebodies shoulder. When I close my eyes during these daydreams, the landscapes of the Afghanistan I believed in and the Afghanistan I enjoyed living in appear again.

One such landscape is the IRC office in Kabul where I spent uncounted hours. It's an old building, with some cracks in the walls, and I am afraid that one day it will become a victim of an earthquake (there are indeed many earthquakes in Afghanistan!). In winter, bukharis, old fashioned diesel stoves are our best friends in the offices, in summer it is the fan. Afghanistans' extremes are reflected in all parts of the office. And yet, despite the buildings' age, its my favorite office building in Kabul, with dozens of adorable and hard working people moving through its corridors. Lunch in the garden, enjoying some rays of sun who managed to fight their way through the smog, was another small pleasure which I shared nearly every day with one or more of my colleagues. Some things like the grease-dripping food from the cantina and the smell of the toilets I never quite got used to, but overall, I remember the time in the office with joy.

Another landscape is a visit which I once paid to rural communities in Western Afghanistan. It was at the end of winter, but the wind was freezing cold, so cold that you would only have to run from the car to the house and you would have already lost all feeling in your legs. But once inside the houses, we would all hide our legs under a huge blanket, and cling our hands to a cup of hot green tea, and even though nobody would talk for some time, it was such a warm atmosphere. I always regrettet that towards the end of my stay in Afghanistan, I wasn't any longer able to visit communities where our projects are implemented, due to worsening security.

More an image than a land scape are the millions of kites that decorate the skies above Afghanistan's cities. Sometimes they are so high up that one would think they have gone lost, but than, just in the second when you are about to turn away your gaze, they make a sharp turn into another direction and that's when you know that they are completely under control. Afghan kites are of quite a simple nature, not as these modern stuff that you get in Europe. Few chops, razor-thin paper, and an endless cord. For training, its a normal cord. But for tournaments, this cord is covered with tiny fragments of glass, allowing the competitors to cut the cords of other kites. I know, these sentences must remind you of the book "kite runner", and I wouldn't want to take that book through a careful reality check, but at least the kites in the sky are real.

Another image which I will never forget is young Afghan men posing in front of flowers to take romantic pictures for their beloved ones. Believe me, this is a really common picture in Afghanistan! It's what you see on a nice Friday in spring time happening everywhere where there are at least two roses next to each other. Afghans, which are often portrayed as fierce warriors, just seem to love these romantic pictures. I always thought what a contrast it would be to publish a series of these pictures next to the war-and-destruction pictures which are usually published in conjunction to Afghanistan. A friend of mine, actually one of the best photographers I have met so far, has attempted something like this with his project of 1001 faces of Afghanistan. You should check out his site if you want to see really good pictures of Afghanistan!

Of course, the landscapes of Afghanistan also include the occasional Thursday night party, brunch on Fridays, swimming in the afternoon on weekends, and - as long as security allowed - strolls through the city, walking up the old city walls, looking through thousands of carpets in the numerous carpet shops of Kabul... I know, there are still people out there who blame aidworkers for celebrating too much, for showing disrespect to local cultures during weekend parties, to drink alcohol in islamic countries, and so forth. Not that I would per se disagree with these allegations. But after having worked for over three years in Somaliland and Afghanistan, I also know of the value of having a "normal" social life in a country where working is truly not an easy task. Somehow some people think that all development and humanitarian workers should be angels that only believe and pursue the good in the world. While there are no angels, many do try to improve living conditions and to ensure basic rights for people accross the world. But to cope with all the mess and misery that often surrounds as, and the simple fact that we live in countries which are not ours, yet which often even are 180° different from the countries we grew up in, does require some social life that is at least in its basics similar to the social life we would have at home (which does not necessarily imply excessive drinkin... or are we doing that at home all the time?)

But enough of these landscapes. If I continue, I will defenitely get sentimental at one point. Even though I haven't lived in Afghanistan for long, I could definitely see some changes in the country over the past months, especially in the area of security, which has gotten worse with every week passing by. The UN no-go map is nowadays a nearly complete red dot, red standing for the places that are off limits. Also for us NGO folks, movement got severaly restricted over the past few months: by the time I left, Kabul city had become a golden cage, and cities which we would previously reach by car had been reachabe only by air. Worsening security also affected and still affects my national colleagues, who sometimes for weeks cannot reach out to certain districts and communities as they remain off limits. On certain days, we would receive up to ten security updates on incidents that happened in various parts of the country. Try to do successful development work in such a place! It's a Sisyphus task, and yet I still believe in that it's necessary to try.

Afghanistan has tought me a lot of things, same as my afghan colleagues. For instance, that a successful meeting has to start with a cup of tea. Or that signs of appreciation can be hardly visible and yet mean more than the loudest thank you. Afghanistan has also taken away some things. For the first time in my life I have experienced the loss of people whom I was close too, and who were about my age. It still hurts tremendously when I think of them, and when I think of the few seconds and bullets which it took to take away their lives. I try not to think what would have been if, but sometimes I just can't help it. While that was the greatest loss, there have been losses of other nature, too. For instance a loss in the believe of the development industry. I have mentioned above that I still believe in the necessity to try to change things for the better, but I have lost all trust in that the current set up in Afghanistan will lead to any good outcome. Behind even the smallest project funded by bilateral, multilateral or independent donors there seem to be an agenda that is other than altruistic, clearly visible in the hundreds of conditions and restrictions that are part and parcel of funding opportunities in Afghanistan. And I mean, seriously, look at all the money that has been invested into Afghanistan over the past seven years, and where the country stands today? Something has gone wrong.

But as I am generally more somebody who tries to look at the bright side of life, I don't quite want to end this entry with comments on the state of Afghanistan. While it has taken away a lot, the thirteen months have also given me a lot. Plenty of professional experience, lots of new contacts, and the friendship of wonderful people whom I am sure I will meet again in life, some day. Being able to walk alone, in midst of people I don't know and yet don't fear, feels good, though even that simple act of everyday life in Europe is something I appreciate like a gift after having lived according to rules and borders for 13 months.

Damn, and now I nearly have to cry, even though I was not planning to become sentimental when writing these last toughts! But despite all, or exactly for what it is, Afghanistan is a country which does offer reasons to cry, for both the good and the bad. I herewith correct my statment from the beginning of this entry :)