Monday, 27 October 2008
Friday, 24 October 2008
As we waited for our Paktek flight, the German PRT arrived at the airport to see off one of their planes. Great big hostile armour protected vehicles with guns mounted aloft ,stood just ahead of us. The men wore army uniforms and bullet proof vests and were heavily armed and I suddenly thought how bizarre it all is....there were we, totally unprotected and caught up in this little episode.
War and Peace - the tale of our visit to Afghanistan....so much love has been in evidence—the school kids, the teachers, the communities, drivers and guards we have known for years and of course, Gul Noor......then the murder of the girl in Kabul, the suicide bomb in Kunduz, the shooting dead by the Taliban of the education officer in Wardak.
The flight home brings us through the clearest skies and the view of the Hindu Kush is magnificent and spell binding until we are hit by turbulence just short of Kabul and in our little 8 seater I feel like a butterfly in a washing machine and grip the seat for dear life!
On arrival in Kabul, we took the vehicles to Camp Kaia—the military base at the airport. There we waited for our contact, sitting in our cars, surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers and high security. He came out and there were all our cricket bags and computers—fantastic! Unbelievably generous of them to have flown them out and we would never have succeeded without them.
Back in Kabul,we are guests of Rory Stewart’s at The Turquoise Mountain. The fort is lit by candles outside and looks idyllic. In total contrast with the North, we walk through the door,to be greeted by Rory and a large gin and tonic...which goes straight to my head after my 5 essential days of detox. The place is buzzing with interesting people. David and Lucy Tang have just flown in with Rory,General Riley is there and members of TMF.
For dinner, we climb up into the tower of the old fort and sit on the floor looking out on the lights of Kabul city. David Tang tells us wonderful tales of famous people and then goes on to discuss the market crash and the whole evening seems surreal. Rory is generous with his time and looks after us beautifully. This is a world of contrasts.
The Afghan team collected the cricket bag this morning and made plans for the training camps.the rest of the cricket gear is heading off to the schools. The computers from St Catherines are heading North to Sari Sang and I am in transit once again in Dubai.
When I was in Kabul airport, I sat next to a delightful black American helicopter mechanic,who hadn’t seen his 4 children since his last visit home in May. He has been in Afghanistan all that time.....yet he hasn’t met a single Afghan. He is shocked that I have been out in the field without armed security. He asks me a few questions about the Afghans....are they all really cruel to their women, are they all homosexual and other similar questions---he has heard that this is how all Afghans are ....and I just think, no wonder there is so much misunderstanding and hatred and ignorance out here when perceptions are so blinkered.
Now about to head out of this hideous transit and board my plane home ....another inspiring visit, no money in the bank account but so much to do! In Shah Allah, we will find funding as we always(somehow)have and keep going with our work ...
Thursday, 23 October 2008
Kunduz Rehabilitation for Afghans with Disabilities Centre - always my favourite school in Afghanistan. About 30 of the 45 students are deaf and the rest are mentally disabled or have special needs. They throw themselves into my arms and I am immersed in a mass of little bodies, all kissing me and hugging me and frantically signalling in sign language. It is humbling and emotional coming here and always leaves its mark as one of those very special places. The children are so disadvantaged and yet give so utterly. The teachers are gentle and dedicated and always greet us very warmly. One lives in Fakhar, near the valley where we have built 4 schools and says that everyone knows and supports our work.
We spend a wonderful morning with these children. We have brought sweets, biscuits and drinks with us for a party and blown up lots of balloons for the kids. We hand out all the cards and gifts from Arbour Vale Special Needs School and they are thrilled. The children here have made a beautiful wall hanging for us to take back to Arbour Vale.
I have bought a TV and video set for them so that they can watch special DVDs and teaching aids. We put up the film I took when I was last here and have the most wonderfulo hour sitting amongst the children, watching the sheer delight and joy as they watch themselves on the screen. It is such a happy hour for us all.
We go outside and join the boys and girls in their separate volley ball matches. We bought the equipment and shirts and track suits for them all on our last visit and they have looked after everything beautifully.
A feast is prepared for our lunch before it is time to say goodbye. This is always emotional and as the children climb on to the bus they cling to my hand and kiss me and hug me and beg me to take them with me back to England. They all lean out of the bus as they wave frantically goodbye and we finish our life changing visit to the North of Afghanistan....and one which has been truly inspiring and has made me even more determined to help these people.
This is such a complex place. Yesterday I saw the hospitality of the Afghans, we witnessed the desire for peace and education and such hope for a better future...we saw everything you would want to see to encourage you to believe that there really is hope for these people after the years of war.
Today I have heard that a young South African girl was gunned down in Kabul and killed by 2 men on a motorbike.It is heart breaking for everyone. In Sari Sang High School today, I asked the girls what they watch on television. They said they had stopped watching the news because all they hear about are explosions and death and fighting. It terrifies them. Their lives have been blighted by war. They missed 3 years of school when they fled as refugees and they fear that if the situation deteriorates their fragile stability and hope for a better future will be shattered once again.
A suicide bomb went off here yesterday and killed 2 German soldiers and 5 children. Yet as we walk around the classrooms and see girls studying in computer classes and discussing their lives with such intelligence and integrity,it seems this problem is thousands of miles from here. We spend hours talking with the grade 12 students. They are determined to get to University and become doctors and teachers and engineers to serve their country...but in reality, places at University are scarce, they need a male relative to accompany them and some of them are already married before leaving school.
Their twin school St Catherines, has sent them Geography and language field trip studies and the girls are enthralled by the photos of Spain and Iceland and the coasts of England and love all the pictures. Many of them can speak a little English. They also sent them cards and letters and the girls read them out and will write back individually to their new pen friends.
If only peace can hold and they can have the lives they so deserve and finish their studies and start the wheel of progress running ...these girls are fantastic and with enough of them being educated there could be such a wonderful new generation to replace the lost generations of professional, qualified Afghans.
Wednesday, 22 October 2008
Today in a very distant valley I was told that there is an Afghan saying, that those who work in education and help others to have an education are the luckiest people on the earth .....and that is how I feel tonight. It has been an extraordinary day.
We head off for my favourite valley beyond Takhar and towards the great Anjoman Pass, which crosses the Hindu Kush. It is a 4 hour journey along a track which takes you through the most spectacular and dramatic scenery, through massive gorges, beside a clear green river, through villages, mountains and fields, which from above, newly harvested and ploughed look like one massive quilt of contours and colours.
We go to Wahdat and stop at the school that Afghan Connection built with The Angus Lawson Memorial Trust. The boys are just arriving as we get there and it is wonderful to see the school swing into action. There are over 600 boys in the school.
We pass another AC built school on our way to Zouhruddin -Ledgei school, which houses 700 kids from the villages in the mountains around.
Zouhruddin Girls School is a school for over 1000 girls and we have funded 20 classrooms. The first block of 10 is completed and painted and looks amazing. The second block is underway. The latrines and outside wall are finished. As we draw up outside all the teachers are waiting for us. We have a warm greeting and are taken inside and then - whoos! the corridors come alive and the children swarm from all directions to greet me. There is clapping and cheering and the students rush up and put garlands around me and hand me flowers and throw glitter and confetti over me and virtually lift me off my feet. It is impossible to describe the noise and the screams of delight and the hands coming out to us and the colours of the garlands and flowers and the volumes of them so great that I had to keep passing them to teachers to hold. It was just overwhelming. Jane and I were presented with chalois chamise in bright pinks and blues to wear and we then went to the staff room to meet the Governor of Takhar who had cancelled all his meetings to see us. There followed a series of speeches, all of which said that I was now a true Afghan and would be in all the hearts of all the villagers for generations. They say that I have kept my promises unlike so many others and now there are 4 schools in the valley which we have assisted.
We are whisked off to the boys school where lines of children stand to greet us and again the clapping starts and as we walk down the path lined with children, they put garlands over our heads, shower us again with confetti and give us more flowers. We are building a new classroom block here, thanks to a donor who came to see the school in the Spring, and the boys are thrilled. More speeches and then back to the girls school.
This time there is a stampede in the corridor as all the younger children break line and surround us as they try to shower us with the confetti and garland us and bunch us....I am totally swamped by flowers and am terrified the children will be crushed as the whole corridor is jammed with children. All so emotional.
We show the girls the film we took of them last time and then hand out all the gifts from the Twin school. They stand up and thank us in English and some sing a thank you poem.
Then off up into the hills for lunch in the Headmasters house. We walk up the river and through the fields and the tiny paths to the village, go through a wooden door and enter a courtyard full of apple trees and roses and overlooking the entire valley....including the school below. Jane and I sit with the women and the boys go in the room next door for their lunch - always awful being separated from the men as it means we have to eat far more - and today there was a mass of mutton, rice, salads, yoghurts, bread, curry and fish caught fresh from the river and no saying no to seconds and thirds. The generosity of these people is unfailing.
We say our goodbyes and the children rush out of the school to wave goodbye - next time we will come and stay in the village.We have promised we will and as I watch all the glitter and confetti fall off my clothes this evening,I know that I would be well looked after and could stay very happily with those people and would be safe.
The most wonderful day and one to inspire me - just wish people could see what we saw today and meet the Afghans who showed us such magnificent hospitality. It makes everything so worthwhile. We left at 6.30 and headed for Keshem, Badakshan. It used to take 4-5 hours,but with the new road we manage the journey in just over an hour. It takes you up into the dusty heights and out towards the Hindu Kush.We stop in Keshem bazaar to buy sewing machines for the school.
Jari Shah Baba is a school for 1250 girls, grades 1-12 half an hour down a dusty track from the beautiful city of Keshem. The track takes you through the adobe walled villages of Keshem district and is lined by water channels and poplar trees. With the snow capped mountains ahead of us, we make our way to the school. We pass the timeless activities of harvest and watch men,women and children casting the husks of wheat into the dusty air. Donkeys heads protrude ridiculously beneath huge thatches of hay, their bodies immersed, so that from behind it looks as if haystacks are trotting down the track.
Our greeting is splendid. Hundreds of girls are chanting beneath the trees, all our old friends are there to see us. We spend the morning handing out letters and cards form the twin school —The Holt— and giving the girls presents. We hold a ceremony to hand out the equipment – requested specifically by the students. They have asked for sewing machines for their tailoring lessons and cookery equipment so that instead of learning cooking from text books they can have demonstrations and cook themselves.
Also, teaching aids in Geography and History are coming from Kabul as well as Geometry sets. They desperately want more computers and to be helped to attach the school to the micro hydroelectric power in the village. I show them a film of their school that we took last visit and also slides of their gifts being handed to the UK students - its a wonderful sight watching masses of head-scarved girls staring at my computer screen and seeing these images and recognising themselves or their gifts arriving in England.
Outside I see our new buildings —funded by 2 donors, 6 large classrooms and 4 admin rooms and a surrounding wall, well and games pitch under construction and to be completed by the spring —then all the kids will be out of tents and from under the trees and into classrooms at last.
In the afternoon, we visit Mashad Girls School—a school for 2500 girls in Keshem centre. The eccentric, toothless, Nehru-hatted headmaster is there to greet us and clasps our hands and shakes them interminably whilst shouting welcome welcome welcome! Inside, I am presented with a beautiful tribal dress in pinks and silvers and told that I will be remembered for generations for building this school. The construction work is on going and we go and visit it.
There are few moments so rewarding as this - there are hundreds of workers in full action. Cement mixers, ropes, great tripods stretching into the sky to make a well, men working on bricklaying, cementing and plastering - just incredible and in total 19 rooms are under construction. It is also wonderful to think of the employment we have created, let alone these buildings which will mean that instead of being taught in 3 shifts, the girls will just have 2 shifts and therefore extra hours of education....and also they will all study indoors,whereas now there are 55 classes a day outside.
More girls will be allowed to school. I have a Walter Mitty moment and cant quite believe that we have instigated all this and managed to find a fantastic donor to fund it. I know in that moment too, that I don’t want to give this up.
We speed off up the most incredible off road route through desolate rocky, dusty, drought ridden land to visit a Community Based School, run by Swedish Committee. These schools – of which there are 300, are based in communities which are so far from the nearest school that the children remain uneducated. They are held outside or in Mosques and serve children of the villages aged 6-10.
In this desolate, poverty stricken area, we are greeted with great warmth by hundreds of villagers on our arrival. We are led through a wooden door in the Mosque wall, to the area within. This houses 160 children in 5 classes with 5 teachers. Some study in tiny rooms, huddled on the floor. Others sit under the trees or the open sky. We hand out gifts and balloons and the kids become totally overexcited. Everywhere we go we are surrounded by a mass of villagers. They have managed to set aside a plot of land to build a school. They are trying to get primary school status from the Ministry of Education and then they can extend the age group they can educate and want us to build a school.
They serve us tea and almonds outside and bring us melons and apples to take home. All the kids and villagers then take us off to the plot of land set aside for the school. The kids stand in a line where they need the school to be built, I take a photo of them standing there on that desolate hillside which could promise so much for their future - and say a little prayer that the next time i come they will be standing in front of a new school..........
Tuesday, 21 October 2008
Sitting in Taloqan, Northern Afghanistan, waiting for the sun to go down and the electricity to come on! I have been here so many times now, feel I know it very well. Flew up on the Paktek Beechcraft-8 seater. A journey of 13 hours in the past is reduced to 2 hours, but I miss arriving by road and crossing the great Salang Pass. Nevertheless, there is something exciting about taking off from Kabul airport in a tiny plane, flying over the warplanes and helicopters and up and over those idiosyncratic Afghan hills. Feel strangely vulnerable and insignificant in that small aircraft flying over such vast, uninhabited and hostile terrain. Then we land in Kunduz and step out into its dusty airfield to be greeted by “sarahfan”and drivers I have known for years...
Tried to call the children and managed to talk to all of them just before they set out to South Africa for their father’s wedding. But in one of those classic communications chaotic moments, I failed to hear what Antonia had lost....all I could here her repeat was that she had lost something and I was desperate to hear exactly what in case she needed it badly .....at last over the crackling airways, as my anxiety and her exasperation with me were escalating, I managed to hear the word “tooth” !!!
Sunday, 19 October 2008
Friday, 17 October 2008
Friday in Kabul and everyone has a day off. The streets are lined with market stalls and Kabul is alive with people and donkeys and buses and colour. The Kabul river, which I saw so recently in flood, is now dry and thirsty.
Went to the Babur Gardens for an exhibition of Contemporary Iranian, Pakistani and Afghan art run by The Turquoise Mountain. It was held in the Harem palace overlooking the entire city of Kabul. Beneath the palace, all spectacularly restored and breathtakingly beautiful, lie the gardens of Babur - also lovingly restored and full of Afghans, sitting beside the glorious full bloom roses in magnificent bursts of colour, enjoying the gardens of Kabul as in the days of peace,which must seem so far in their past.
I wish that the world could see this - what can be done in Kabul and how life can be in Afghanistan. Their hertitage restored, hundreds of Afghans flock to these gardens and buildings today and visit the wonderful exhibition. It is almost more amazing and fulfilling to watch the Afghans at this exhibition and how they admire the art, than the art itself, which is stunning.
As we walk out of the exhibition,we walk through an arch which frames the Kabul hills, with their tapestry of mud houses climbing and clinging to the slopes and the clean blue sky above, dotted with kites. It is a scene depicting the might have been and the fragile possibility of what could be in the future and also the beauty of the present moment. We met some of the Turquoise Mountain staff and had fascinating conversation with them.
The afternoon was bizarre - had a meeting with Sophie Swire,who is an amazing woman who has built schools in Pakistan and run an import business in pashminas and also in cashmere spun in Nepal and has now set up a gem cutting woprkshop in Turquoise Mountains fort. Our meeting took place at the Serena Hotel - Kabul's top hotel which recently underwent a ghastly attack and expates and Afghans were killed. I have never been to somehwere so heavily fortified this 5 star luxury hotel with spa and gym ringed by concrete, metal, barbed wire and fear. Huge steel doors and barriers to cross and then you enter this haven of luxury and once again find it all so bizarre. Our meeting thoiugh was fascinating and we also met up with Sam Akexandroni, from the New Statesman, who will travel with us tomorrow.
Tonight we will meet and have supper with Catherine Day at the Embassy and then tomorrow, at last to the Hills!
Thursday, 16 October 2008
Pictures of School Consultants receiving gifts are also posted - scroll down to see! Here we see the Afghan Cricket Team and some of the beautiful work done by the potters at the Turquoise Mountain, Paula.
A great day and much achieved. Met up with Raess, from the Afghan cricket team. He had been man of the match in the finals in Tanzania when the Afghan team won the trophy.
Leslie Knott, who is making a film on the team (see www.outoftheashes.tv) had recommended that I contact him as he is determined to use cricket as a means to help the people of Afghanistan and has already organised cricket camps for kids in Northern Afghanistan.
He was born in Pakistan, where his parents were refugees. He grew up and saw the Pakistan team doing well in cricket and decided he wanted to be a great cricketer. He played in all the refugee camps in Pakistan and popularised tennis ball cricket. He remembers coming across the border back into Afghanistan in 2003 and being shocked at the devastation of his homeland and deciding he wanted to be a part of the rebuilding of his nation.
We met at the Intercontinental Hotel,which stands proud on the hills overlooking Kabul and was a bastion of the troubled years, often housing journalists during the Russian war. I remember seeing it in 2002 when the ceiling was coming down - now it has been done up and is pretentious and rather hideous and sterile-soul-less would describe it well! Outside the security is incredibly tight and at the door there is a large notice saying no guns allowed.
We discussed the possibility of arranging cricket training camps. Raess will get 6 members of the Afghan team to come to Jalalabad in the Spring and give coaching to 300 of our kids from our twin schools in that region. They will be supplied with clothes and cricket equipment and given coaching and play in matches. If it is a success we will plan other camps across Afghanistan on Peace Day 2009 and will also get all our Afghan, Swedish and UK schools to play cricket that day - a challenge in Sweden!! We will also fund cricket in as many schools as possible. We will try and harness these camps to health issues.
After our talk he took William and me up to the big celebration where hundreds had turned out in a large tent to celebrate the victory in Tanzania. Spivvy camera men packed the stage and dignitaries walked up the red carpet. I met up with the team, which I had met already in Dubai and they video recorded messages for Alex to thank him for his support. So,one step nearer our cricket goals.
We then had our meeting at The British Council. Security tight and so was a joy to sit out in beautiful manicured gardens with the British Council cat on my knee for discussions. Heard about the BC projects in twinning here and we discussed what we are doing, there are many avenues where we can cooperate and a very useful meeting.
Then off to The Turquoise Mountain foundation, where we had a tour. It is like entering a different world. From the chaos of Kabul and the streets choked with traffic and beggars,you enter a haven of peace and beauty and architectural delight. Crafted from the earth it seems, this beautiful early 19th century fort has been restored lovingly and the gardens are awash with roses, geraniums and vines. Peacocks strut across the lawns and Kabul seems a world away and instead you can imagine it as it was centuries back.
Met Sophie Swire who used to build schools in Pakistan and we have been trying to meet for years, so planned a meeting for tomorrow. Went round the workshops in calligraphy, woodwork and pottery. The pottery is based on the famous ceramics from Istalif — a beautiful hilltop town off the Shomali plain. When I visited 5 years ago I found a town — which was once famous as a retreat and picnic spot for Kabulis and lies on a river,totally destroyed - every building razed to the ground. The famous ceramic workshops had been destroyed too and since then Turquoise Mountain has been working to restore this craft to the region and apparently Istalif is slowly reemerging to its former glory.
It is wonderful to watch people so skilled in these crafts of pottery, woodwork and calligraphy—their work utterly beautiful.
Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Inside you find smoke filled rooms with bars serving any drink you care to have and French food is served at candlelit tables. There is a swimming pool out in the lanterned gardens, empty now for the winter, but just weeks ago any expat could come and swim here.
Just an hour away, you find roads blocked by the Taliban in Wardak and outside on the streets today our car was besieged by young street urchins, begging at our windows. I find it all very bizarre and long to leave Kabul and head for the North.
Sarah spent a frustrating hour with poor and intermittent generator power and finally managed to get this to me - pictures have now arrived as well!
Today we had meetings at SCA offices on the notorious Jalalabad road, affectionately known as Suicide Alley. It is a road lined with military bases and often clogged with heavily armed military vehicles and tanks - a stark reminder of the battles being fought across the country. Sadly these peacekeeping forces in Kabul have been the target of suicide attacks and hence the name of the road. Most vehicles desperately try to avoid being holed up beside these military vehicles and in their panic stricken attempts to avoid them probably cause far more accidental casualties than the attacks themselves.
Today's meeting was to allow me to meet up with students and teachers from all the schools where poor security means I cannot visit. It was incredibly humbling. Some had travelled for hours to be here and had brought beautiful gifts for their UK twin schools. One group had been too afraid to bring the materials in case the Taliban stopped and searched their bus. Another group had taken a 7 hour detour to avoid Taliban road blocks in Wardak. But they were all determined to be here and we spent the day discussing problems and challenges in their schools, the security situation and the good things too - like new buildings, University graduates and the twin school links and what they mean to their children.
Some schools had been visited by the Taliban and subjects Like History and Geography had been bannned because The Taliban found they had been heavily criticised in the text books and wouldn't let them be used - there must be some compromise where their part of history can be played down until times are less sensitive - then at least the students can learn the rest of Geograpy and History.
I showed them our twin school film and they were very moved by that as they could see all the work we have done in Afghanistan and hadn't realised how much we had done - one man then wrote me a poem and read it out, thanking me for my courage in helping Afghanistan. Jane and I were presented with gold and silk tribal Afghan dresses, trousers and scarves, heavily embroidered and beaded and in beautiful colours. We had to wear them and caused much joy - and hilarity.
I gave out all the twin school gifts and cards - Schools twinned to St Gabriels, Brookfields, Moulsford, Elstree, Home Farm, Marshgate, Brighton & Hove, Guernsey Grammar, Ryeish Green, Ellingham and Churchdown were there and I handed over all the UK twin school gifts and just as they were about to leave for their provinces, my bags appeared from the airport like one massive miracle and everyone praised Allah and I handed out all the missing gifts JUST FANTASTIC!!!
William Reeve, one of Afghan Connection's Trustees, and on this visit with me, had known Bridget and Sherard since his Oxford days so it was all very relaxed and also a very interesting insight into what is happening across Afghanistan.
After dinner we sat in a room lined with photographs of Royals and politicians alike, Robin Cook, Gordon Brown, Prince Charles and others all graced the Kabul sideboard. As we sat, we were served the most delicious seeds from ruby red pomegranates sent from Hamid Karzai in person....quite the most delicious fruit I have ever tasted.
Tuesday, 14 October 2008
I was greeted by the wonderful Gul Noor who looked after me in the Taliban times and prepared me delicious food when I returned from Afghanistan under the Taliban, a stone lighter than when I left.
As I battled my way through the transit queue at Dubai International Airport, the call to prayer echoed across the cavernous corridors - such a mix of West and East, capitalism and religion - one vast melting pot, where thousands of souls are in transit. Different languages compete to be heard, exotic scripts line the walls offering directions to bewildered passengers, bodies lie sprawled in restless, homeless sleep and solid gold palm trees soar above one of the biggest duty free shopping centres in the world. I feel very alone, but not uncomfortably so in this strange environment between two lives.
My bags have arrived, but I am not allowed to get them. They will, I presume and hope, be picked up and put somewhere until 4am, when I have been told by a Mr Sayed, that I can check in for Kabul and my bags will be plucked out of the ether, labelled and sent to Terminal 2 to join me on the last leg of my journey - Insha Allah!! I have a vision of them going round and round the luggage belt unclaimed and lost forever, but am powerless to act.
Monday, 13 October 2008
Posted by Paula after dropping Sarah at Heathrow on Monday morning!
Still not packed up and its very late. In the hall 3 computers and 3 bags of cricket kit, as well as a box full of gifts for the twin schools await collection by a wonderful company which is flying it to Kabul for us free of charge where I will meet it! Yet more good will.
Set off at 5am tomorrow (Monday 13th October) and will reach Kabul on Tuesday morning. Carrying bags full of the most wonderful gifts and letters and projects from the UK schools for their twin schools. Also Wellington Bear - given to me by Home Farm Pre Prep school… they would like me to take photos of him all through my travels and so he will feature in each blog I hope. His first visit to Afghanistan and my 12th. Security much worse this visit and so travels will be restricted to Kabul and the North, but I will meet teachers and students from all our twin schools as they will travel to Kabul and Kunduz to meet us.