Leading Afghan Blogger Speaks

Despite decades of civil war, marauding Taliban and deadly military air strikes, Afghans have experienced some changes for the better over recent years. Health facilities, schools and roads have improved, and a fledgling media industry is finding its feet. Bloggers are off to a fast start, with Nasim Fekrat, also known as Afghan Lord, leading the way. This 25-year-old ethnic Hazara knows all too well the dangers of self-expression, but believes freedom of speech is vital if Afghanistan is to leave its bloody past behind.

When I was 11 years old my father pushed me to pray and I would not pray. One night my father raised his hands to the sky and said: "Please god, take Nasim. Kill him, take him back – I don't want him." He did this in front of me and my siblings and nobody said anything. That evening I couldn't sleep. I was thinking death would come right at that moment. I was so scared, thinking god would come to take me soon, that I kept moving my hands and legs to make sure I wasn't dead.

My mother was kind to me. After my father kicked me out of our house she gave me blankets and told me: "I can't help you, your father is very stubborn, but go to the roof and sleep there." Eventually I left and went to Kabul where a local family took me in. All I did after that was read books.

When I created my first blog I used a pseudonym – I wanted to escape my identity and to be neutral. I told people I was born in Afghanistan but that was it. I didn't want to be seen as one type of person or another. Now in my writing it's no secret: people know I'm Hazara.

I'm not a practising Muslim, I'm agnostic. Another blogger has been calling me out as a non-Muslim. I know people realise from my English writing that I don't believe in god, but in my Farsi blog I'm trying to keep that a secret. I'm not sure I'm succeeding.

In Afghanistan, when you write your opinion in the public sphere, you are labelled a racist. I've been receiving a lot of threats. Someone by the name of Coffin posted on my blog, saying "Soon I will find you", and I also received an email that said "Your days are numbered". People approach me from aid organisations that don't exist. But I've been dealing with this since 2004 when the police shut down the satirical magazine I had started, so these sorts of things are very normal for me now.

Our life, or our society, is completely different from in the west. I told my friends that as long as you have bread to eat here in Afghanistan, don't go to Europe; in Europe we are not treated as human beings. Our looks are different, our ways different. It takes a long time to match with them, to understand. When I went to Hamburg I asked two German people for directions and they completely ignored me; they turned and walked away. So I tell my friends, if you want to go to Europe, fine, just visit for a little while and come back.

Newspaper media is very new in our society. There were just one or two newspapers up until the Soviet era, which were only propaganda for political parties. At that time freedom of speech had little meaning. Now, with people coming back from Iran and other countries, Afghans are more educated, they are more interested in news and in reading. We now have more than 20 daily papers and 100 weeklies.

I don't read Afghan newspapers; most of them are not independent. They are biased towards a specific political party or organisation, or whichever donor is giving them money. We don't have a situation here in which very few people earn enough money to publish a newspaper.

All that I write is with a view to making an Afghan thinktank. I want to bring independent thinkers together who can talk about Afghanistan in a different way. I don't want a repeat of our history of massacres and tragedy. This has become my mission.

One thing I still don't know is how to deal with the past. Afghan history is full of genocide and bloodletting – and we still have warlords wielding power. So writing about the past, dealing with it, is kind of taboo in this society. It doesn't matter who you are – if you are Pashtun, Uzbek, Hazara, Tajik – whatever you write, somebody will attack you. People think we should just forget the past.

Nowadays when I see my father I kiss his hands, but he is not happy with me. He regrets what he asked god for, to take me. I can read that in his eyes. But I forgive him. Because at that moment I decided I wanted to be a man for myself, not for my father. It made me very strong and able to take care of myself. In my life, whatever I wished for, I reached out and grabbed it.

• Nasim Fekrat was speaking to David Lepeska in Kabul.

--this interview was published at http://www.guardianweekly.co.uk/ on October 17.

Sacred Fight of the Dongria

For a secluded tribe in the Indian state of Orissa, Niyamgiri Mountain is both home and sacred temple. Abundant natural resources have allowed the Dongria Kondh people to live an isolated and spiritual lifestyle on its slopes, disconnected from the outside world. But that way of life is now under threat, as an Indian subsidiary of UK-based mining giant Vedanta Resources plans an aluminium refinery on their land. Tribe member Jitu Jakesika, 21, explains why his people would rather die than let heavy industry onto their sacred mountain

For us, this is our sacred place. We worship Niyam Raja, which means lord of our lord. There are many gods, but he is the most powerful for us, so he is the Niyam Raja. Here on our mountain there is forest, wildlife and medicinal plants. We get all of our food here on Niyamgiri – everything we need, except salt. We can go for a month without having to travel down to the market.

We don't hunt very often, only around special occasions like the Meriha sacrifice. This is the most important festival for the Dongria. If our village wants to celebrate the Meriha we invite all the surrounding villages to join us. A lot of villagers come to see us, bringing axes, arrows and knives. They come to our village dancing and singing songs. The priest welcomes everyone.

Then we make a bamboo fence around a buffalo and when the priest says OK we start to hit him with our knives and axes. He gets angry and runs around. It can be messy and very bloody but we keep hitting him until he dies. I have done this two or three times in my life. I feel sad to see this strong animal die, but it makes our people very happy – we believe it gives us strength.

When the girls reach maturity they don't like to sleep with their families any more, so they go to a dormitory. Every village has a girls' dormitory. Every week young boys from different villages come by dancing, drumming and playing instruments, and they sing of the mountain and the forest and the river, and declare their love for their girl. When I was young I did this many times. Sometimes we slept together. This is done without marrying, like girlfriend and boyfriend. We Dongria, you see, can love 100 girlfriends; it is not like in Indian culture.

Some get married at 15, others at 18, and some wait until they are even older. Once a couple is married the man is allowed to have girlfriends. That is OK, the wife never minds. But if the woman takes a boyfriend the husband would be very angry.

Already, the aluminium refinery has changed things here. Now when it rains there is dust everywhere, a white-coloured covering on our fields. Our crops don't grow so well. Also, the river is poisoned. I know this because five cows died when they went to drink water from the river. And some people who bathed in the river developed sores on their body.

Nobody came and warned us about this; we had to learn about it by ourselves. Now that I have learned I am telling everyone. Just today I visited three villages. When I arrive I call all the villagers and explain to them what is happening. I tell them how we will fight and that we have to remain strong at this moment. I have talked to different activists, and sometimes they come with me to help our people to understand what's happening.

We have to protect our culture. OK, we can be educated and developed, but these young children – we have to teach them about our way of life, our beliefs. What will happen when the older generation dies?

The government says that it will make a decision, but then it they delays and delays. It is still trying to convince us it will be OK. But our people don't want any development from this company, and we don't want money. Why destroy our nature? God has given us this nature – this is how our people think.

The company cannot take this mountain. It can try to plant trees and make a forest, but it can't remake it. The company says: "We’ll give you new houses, new land, a new village!" But all we want is our mountain. Every family, every young boy and girl, every person, wants to stay. Nobody wants to leave this mountain.

If the government decides to allow for mining, we will have to fight. This is our land; for generations we've been living here. They have money, power, guns; they can kill us in five minutes. So we'll tell the government: "Please kill us all and then you can have your mine. Because without Niyamgiri we cannot live."

• Jitu Jakesika was speaking to David Lepeska in Orissa.

This interview was published at http://www.guardianweekly.co.uk/, on October 20.

Indian sailors strike for action against pirates

DELHI // Tired of paying the heaviest price for piracy, two leading Indian seafarers’ unions went on strike this week. More than 100,000 sailors refuse to work until their government provides an armed escort for all ships passing Somalia and frees the 18 Indian crew members of the hijacked Stolt Valor.

They may be in for a long wait.

“It’s been five weeks and still my husband is stuck on that ship,” said Seema Goyal, wife of Prabhat Kumar Goyal, the captain of the Japanese-owned, Hong Kong-registered Valour. “I worry about him constantly and our three children don’t understand what’s going on.”

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has more than doubled this year, with 74 attacks and counting. As the increasingly bold and well-armed sea bandits have snatched one after another of the cargo-laden ships passing through the Gulf of Aden, Indian citizens at home and at sea have borne the brunt of the hostilities.

“Because they are skilled and speak English, there are more seafarers from India than from any other nation,” said Sunil Nair, spokesman for the National Union of Seafarers of India. He said more than 150,000 Indian sailors work in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. “Because of this, Indians are at more risk as a result of all this piracy than anybody else.”

On Tuesday, the Somali coastguard freed an Indian cargo ship with two Indian crew members that had been hijacked near Socotra Island a few days prior. Last weekend, Somali pirates released the Deyanat after its Iranian owners paid a reduced ransom. Three emaciated Indian crew members arrived in Mumbai after seven weeks in captivity and related tales of food shortages, constant death threats and drug-addicted captors. And in Salaya, a Gujarati port town, locals are waiting to hear from three ships carrying 15 local seamen who lost radio contact from the region this week.

Mr Nair estimates that 17 of the 30 ships hijacked near Somalia this year have had Indian crew members.

One high-profile exception: there are no Indian sailors among the 20-member crew of the Faina, a tank-laden Ukrainian vessel captured a few weeks ago.

On Sept 15, about 35 pirates stormed aboard the Valor, a chemical tanker, off the coast of Yemen. The hijackers stripped the 22-member crew and confined them to the bridge, according to crew members who have been in phone contact. More than five weeks later, progress has been minimal, even as the ransom demand has dipped from US$6 million (Dh22m) to $2m.

Critics, such as the Hindustan Times, a popular national daily, said Delhi has been “pussyfooting on the issue”. That, however, may not be the case.

“In reality, there’s little the government can do,” said Roger Middleton, senior fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, and author of a piracy study released this month. Mr Middleton said military force rarely works and that ransom ultimately resolves the majority of these incidents.

“It’s very possible that the Indian government is trying very hard to help negotiations behind the scenes,” he said. “We can’t know for sure, and beyond that, they can’t do much other than monitor the situation.”

A K Antony, the Indian defence minister, has repeatedly said India is unable to mount a military attack because it has no maritime agreement with Somalia – a point reiterated on Tuesday by the Somali ambassador to India. In the case of the Stolt Valor, armed aggression would be doubly risky because of the 24,000 tonnes of chemicals in the hull. And responsibility for hijacked ships falls first to the owner nation, then to the country where the ship is registered and finally to the country in whose waters the incident occurs.

“In cases such as this, it is normal for negotiations to take place between the proprietors of the ship and the hijackers themselves,” said Nagma Mullick, spokesman for the ministry of external affairs. “That’s what’s been happening here and our embassy has been working to facilitate those negotiations.”

On Saturday, Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian foreign minister, reassured the captive sailors’ families that their loved ones would return home safely.

That same day India rushed a warship to the Gulf of Aden to protect Indian shipping interests in the region. It is the first time an Indian Navy vessel has been authorised to patrol international waters, a move the navy said was not incident-specific. The patrol comes more than three weeks after the navy requested authorisation to pursue and use force against the Stolt Valor hijackers, but was refused.

Somalia’s caretaker government, battling an Islamist insurgency, lacks the resources to combat the problem. Thus, a flurry of hijackings along the coast has in recent weeks attracted a clutch of foreign military vessels. Still the problem festers. The pirates are holding 10 ships and nearly 200 crew. Some of the $20m to $30m paid to pirates in ransom this year, according to Chatham House, is funding Somalia’s Islamist insurgency and possibly wending its way into international terror networks.

“Operating in an area full of rich pickings and with enormous rewards on offer seems likely to point to a trajectory of increasing ruthlessness,” Mr Middleton wrote. “It is likely to be only a matter of time before more people are killed.”

Such fears may be strongest on the subcontinent, where security concerns have led to the sailors’ strike. When Mr Goyal, the captain of the Valour, spoke to his wife last week, he said the pirates were becoming “increasingly hostile."

-- this story published in The National, www.thenational.ae, on October 24

Left Out in the Cold

CHAR-E-QAMBAR, Afghanistan- When the fighting came to his village in south Helmand, Abdul Rahman gathered his wife and seven children and fled to this bulging refugee camp on the Western edge of Kabul. Five months later the steely-eyed 35-year-old is questioning his decision.

"We are only getting food if I can find work in the city, which does not happen very much," Rahman says through an interpreter, scanning the mud walls and torn plastic roofing of his home away from home. "My children go to sleep hungry. We have no money and nobody is helping us."

Rahman is not an exception at Char-e-Qambar, where as a result of bureaucratic balderdash, minimal health care and almost no foreign aid an estimated 5,000 Afghans are struggling to survive.

Not a refugee camp?

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are about 250,000 internally displaced people in Afghanistan and 3.4 million Afghan refugees in Iraq and Afghanistan - the fallout of three decades of conflict. Those numbers are rising as the insurgency intensifies and insecurity spreads across Afghanistan and into Pakistan's tribal areas, from where 20,000 fled into Afghanistan in late September.

The village of Char-e-Qambar lies a dozen kilometers southwest of central Kabul. Here, on an open expanse of desert under looming mountains and a blazing sun, nearly 900 Afghan families have squeezed into a tight, ramshackle collection of tents, tarps and mud homes.

The first trickle appeared in mid-2006 but the majority arrived in early 2008, fleeing intense fighting between the Taliban and international forces in southern Afghanistan. More arrive every day, yet to UNHCR this is not a refugee camp.

"It's not officially a camp - it's a spontaneous settlement," says Nadir Farhad, spokesman for UNHCR in Afghanistan. "The decision to open a camp is totally the government of Afghanistan's. Then it can be backed by international organizations such as UNHCR and we would be responsible for the camp and be able to provide them with proper, monthly assistance."

An Afghan Ministry of Refugees spokesman says the government is conducting a survey to determine the status of camp residents - refugee, internally displaced, or other. But on several visits Devex failed to find a residents who had recently been visited by a government representative or filled out a questionnaire.

"To the best of my knowledge many are not really IDPs," Farhad says of the camp residents. "They are just squatters."

Either way, UNHCR's stance may be inaccurate.

"The government has the primary responsibility for the welfare of its people but UNHCR and other agencies have a mandate to respond to vulnerable individuals in situations of displacement," says Patrick Duplat, an advocate for the pressure group Refugees International, in an e-mail.

He added that the government does not need to make any official declarations for aid to move in - a view confirmed by a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan, and other aid outfits. Duplat, who co-authored a recently released report on the refugee and IDP situation in Afghanistan, has not visited Char-e-Qambar but is aware that many residents do not receive adequate aid.

"If people are suffering," says Duplat, "it's because the response has been poor at all levels, but it is not due to a bureaucratic impediment."

Darkness falls

Makeshift, multi-colored tents press up close to hand-packed mud walls, leaving foot-wide passageways in some spots. The stench of sewage and rotting food lurks around every corner. Gaggles of wide-eyed children, some with distended bellies, prawl dusty alleyways in torn clothes, looking to relieve their hunger-borne boredom. Housewives with little to do - there is no food to cook, no house or clothes to clean - peer out from behind tent flaps, scanning for their children or good news.

In the afternoon, long-bearded men retreat from the desert sun. In dark, windowless tents they speak in low, solemn tones, the phrase "Insh'allah," or god willing, never far from their lips.

"My daughter has been sick for two or three weeks," Abdul Rahman says matter-of-factly, sitting next to his 10-year-old daughter, who lies prone, moaning and occasionally twisting her rail-thin body. "Sometimes she gets fever, sometimes she gets sick in all her body, sometimes she's bleeding from her nose and mouth."

Rahman has taken her to the camp's clinic, to no avail. Run by the Education Health Bureau of Afghanistan, a small local NGO funded by the Dutch government, the clinic operates out of a tent near the camp entrance three days a week, offering consultation and free medicine.

Pharmacist Asadrullah Siddiqui, 23, is overwhelmed with 60 or more patients per day. He has more than 100 medicines but is often unable to supply what residents need.

"The health is bad here because there's no clean water and no full meals," Siddiqui tells Devex. "It will most likely get worse during the winter."

Unable to find adequate care at the clinic Rahman went to a doctor in Kabul, who prescribed medicines costing 12,500 Afghanis, or $250. Rahman has no money, so he carries a prescription on a piece of paper everywhere he goes, hoping someone will help buy the medicine to cure his daughter.

Many camp residents are similarly desperate.

"The Americans, when the Taliban attacked our village, they just started attacking everyone," says Dadgul. The 25-year-old from Helmand, who like many Afghans goes by one name, barely escaped the fighting with his wife and three young children. "We haven't been given any food and I can't find work. This will be a long winter."

Sorgul Kasho, also from Helmand, has three children and is building a new mud room for his home, hoping it would keep his family warm during the winter.

"Sometimes we can find work and eat, sometimes we do not," the 36-year-old says. "Our children are crying for food, but we cannot feed them."

Dribs and drabs

Aid agencies and their backers have in recent months cut back their efforts because of targeted attacks and deteriorating security. Indeed, as Duplat points out in his report, refugees and the displaced have received less humanitarian aid as a result of increasing insecurity.

But Char-e-Qambar is on the edge of Kabul - headquarters for the international community and the safest place in Afghanistan.

"The ICRC concentrates its activities with regard to assisting displaced persons on the direct conflict zones," says Franz Rauchenstein, ICRC spokesman. "In Kabul and its surroundings other humanitarian actors, including the government, have access themselves."

Less than five miles from the camp, foreign workers sip frothy mocha chais and nosh on cheeseburgers at Chaila, a hip garden cafe in Karta Se. In the evenings, expat staffers and consultants kibbitz over cocktails with a foot in the pool at L'Atmosphere, a few clicks further east.

"I know they are living in a poor condition, it's very hard," says Farhad during an interview in his office at the sprawling, heavily secured headquarters of UNHCR Afghanistan. "Our preferred solution for the IDPs is to go back to their place of origin if security permits it. If the security doesn't permit it we do our utmost to provide assistance where they are."

Aid has trickled in since the spring. In July, UNHCR delivered "winterization assistance" - lanterns, blankets, small bags of coal and dozens of white plastic tarps, which can be seen underneath rags and cloth coverings on rooftops. The Afghan government delivered hundreds of 10kg bags of flour that same month.

"Still our tents are too old, we have no food, and the medical assistance is no good," says Noor Mohamed, a 26-year-old father of two from Uruzgan. "When they brought the bags of flour the police took more than half of them, to sell for profit. Please you must tell people to help us."

The Afghan Ministry says it handed out cash awards of US$100 to each family in May. Some camp residents say they received the hand-out, others complain that it was only given to the newer arrivals from the south. In August, soldiers from the Kabul headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force passed out Meals Ready-to-Eat, but only enough for a couple hundred families.

"The situation with the internally displaced in Afghanistan is of grave concern," says Duplat, from Refugees International. "The international community were not and are still not set up to respond to humanitarian crises. Rather, the emphasis is put on longer-term development and institution building, at the expense of humanitarian activities."

The lone aid group providing humanitarian assistance daily is a local outfit. Since spring, Kabul-based Aschiana has been running boys and girls schools in tents near the camp entrance. Six days a week Mohammed Wahid leads classes in Dari and Pashto before the children are fed a meal of bread and bean soup. At lunchtime, hungry families come to share their son or daughter's food, which often leads to fighting.

"Winter is near, and last year many children died due to cold weather," says Engineer Yousef, Aschiana's founding director. "If they don't receive any aid this year maybe children will die as well because the prices of food and heating have both gone up."

A bitter winter looms

In late August, an American air strike near Herat killed 90 civilians, including 60 children, according to the United Nations. This most bloody American attack added to 2008's record total of civilian deaths. The following week the British charity Oxfam warned that Afghanistan could be facing one of its harshest winters in 20 years, putting up to 9 million poor and displaced at serious risk. With drought, rising food prices and a renewed insurgency compounding the problem, the group urged the international community to act quickly to avoid a "humanitarian crisis."

Yet many aid agencies are short on staff and most have curbed operations in light of increasing insecurity across the country - particularly in the area immediately surrounding Kabul.

Duplat sees a broader, systemic problem. He acknowledges the insecurity, but says the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan's humanitarian branch "remains inadequately staffed." The result is poor coordination and few opportunities for advocates to raise humanitarian concerns. The Char-e-Qambar neglect may thus be of a piece with the international community's fitful progress in improving the lot of Afghans.

"Until there is a real humanitarian coordination both in Kabul and in the provinces," Duplat says, "delivery of emergency services - including responding to internal displacement - will remain inadequate."

-- posted to devex.com on October 13.

Former Street Child Offers Afghan Children Education, Better Life

KABUL, Afghanistan - Engineer Mohammad Yousef settled comfortably into a strong, cushioned chair before spitting out his coming-of-age tale all in a rush.

"During the civil war my father was killed by a bombing and people told my mother to go to the streets and beg but I didn't want that so I stopped my schooling," said the 39-year-old from Ghazni province, sitting in his corner office across from Shahr-e-Nau park in Kabul. "I became like a street child and earned some hand-outs to feed my mother, my sister and myself and then I noticed so many kids on the streets and I was thinking: Why we should not do something for these children? They want to become educated. They have the talent, they have the capacity and they want to become a good member of the community but the war has put them in a very bad condition."

At that time Kabul had about 10,000 street children and Yousef, then 20, went around the city asking everyone he knew and many he didn't know for funds to start a school.

"Most people thought I wanted to make an army with all these children so they wouldn't help me," Yousef recalled with a half smile.

Years of rejection passed until the American newswire Reuters offered a few thousand dollars in 1995. Yousef found a few abandoned offices, hired a couple teachers and chose the name Aschiana, which means "bird's nest" in Dari and symbolizes protection. Within a few years funding appeared from the Canadian International Development Agency, CARE International and the United Nations Children's Fund. It's been mostly smooth sailing ever since.

"Last year we had 10,000 students at seven schools and four outreach centers in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, and Parhwan," said Yousef of his organization, which now teaches refugee children as well. "So we're doing alright."

These days, an estimated 70,000 street children run loose in Kabul, hawking maps and newspapers, begging for change, and committing minor crimes at the urging of small-time gangsters. Tens of thousands more wrestle daily with hunger and idleness in cities and displacement camps across the country. For all of them Aschiana offers safety, shelter, nourishment and a sense of self, not to mention the possibility of a better life.

On a bright September afternoon sunlight streaks into a row of clean, narrow classrooms at Aschiana's Shahr-e-Nau school, where well-behaved youngsters sat rapt. In one, young girls stepped up to a blackboard and confidently called out a series of prime numbers with a pointer. In another, a rail-thin boy furrowed his brow and tucked his tongue over his lip while carving an intricate design on top of a wooden jewel box.

"I like working with wood," said 12-year-old Mohammad Balk'l, looking up. "Someday I would like to build a cabinet."

He's ambitious, not unlike the Aschiana curriculum: basic literacy, math, English, woodworking, computers, geography, physical education, arts and music. The students are aged 7 to 17, and Yousef recently added anti-drug and HIV/AIDS programs. Every student receives a full meal and must take Yousef's favorite course, peace education.

"Most of the time children learn violence, in the street, in the house; they hear about bombs," he said. "It is important that we are thinking about peace and safety and security in the future."

This year, however, Aschiana's future clouded. After months of delay in payment its main donor, the European Commission, told Yousef they were reassessing their donation. Aschiana had to scale back operations but Yousef hopes it's just temporary - in September the EC said it would release the funds soon.

Yet somehow the organization has been able to expand its reach - it's the only non-governmental organization working daily at the Char-e-Qambar refugee camp on the edge of Kabul. Since April, Aschiana has run seperate boys and girls schools there, feeding each student a lunch of bean soup and bread.

"I went and saw the situation out there and decided to work there, also hoping to gain attention of government and other NGOs to help," said Yousef, who noted that Aschiana required no special clearance because it has an agreement with the government to work in any part of Afghanistan. "These children are displaced due to war so if we can make them busy with some activities they forget the risks of war."

Aschiana is looking to grow. The life of street children in Afghanistan has taken a darker turn in recent years, with kids as young eight or 10 selling drugs and getting involved in kidnappings and even murders.

"In the future we will work with marginalized children to integrate them into the community," said Yousef. He has spoken with the police and plans to create a special class for child criminals and an emergency shelter for the most at-risk children. "There's a lot more we can do."

Yousef has begun looking outside Afghanistan for help. Only one Westerner works at Aschiana but the organization is seeking more English-speakers to contact donors and win funding, to handle the budget and communicate with international aid groups. Full-time hires as well as volunteers and interns are welcome.

"We need people with experience in development, education, psychology, management and IT," Yousef said.

Just down the hall sunlight streamed into a high-ceilinged gym, where boys in baggy judo outfits lined up to flip, kick and tumble on green and red rubber mats.

"I don't like being on the outside," said Ahmed as he paused to catch his breath. The 10-year-old from Panjshir has lived on the streets of Kabul since he was about 6. "This is so much better."

-- posted on devex.com on October 10.

Aid Workers Under the Gun

KABUL, Afghanistan-Taliban gunmen attack an aid vehicle outside Kabul, killing four workers including three Western women. An Afghan staffer for a French aid group is abducted and murdered in Kunduz. Insurgents kidnap and repeatedly shoot a Japanese agricultural specialist near Jalalabad. A United Nations convoy is attacked and two Afghan doctors killed in Kandahar province.

The steady drumbeat of brutal, targeted attacks over a single late summer month have put the Afghanistan aid community on high alert. Some agencies have pulled internationals, others suspended operations; the rest remain watchful, wary and concerned.

"Because of the attacks, because of the abductions, because of the killings," said M. Hashim Mayar, who's been working with non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan for more than 15 years, "this is the worst security environment I've seen."

Mayar is deputy director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), an independent aid coordinator that recently released a report revealing that insurgent attacks have increased nearly 50 percent this year. Total security incidents hit 983 in August, according to the United Nations, the hightest total since the fall of the Taliban. Through September, 30 aid workers have been killed - double last year's total - and in early October U.N. special representative Kai Eide appealed to Taliban leaders to allow aid distribution. Insecurity has spread into previously stable parts of north and central Afghanistan, encroaching ever closer to the capital.

"This is a new and recent tactic on the part of the Taliban," said Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. First it was suicide bombs, he explained, and then isolating districts and provinces - now they've moved on to humanitarian agencies. "They see aid workers as furthering the government's agenda, and so they are enemy targets just like the U.S. and the Afghan army. The general security situation has never been worse, and until the military forces combat the Taliban, aid workers must learn to adjust."

Tactical shift

The ancient Persians called Afghanistan "the land of the unruly," and for the 21st century aid worker it is still no picnic. Some question what the insurgents accomplish by targeting people trying to help Afghanistan.

"In some cases it's because we're easier targets," said Ciaran Donnelly, country director for the International Rescue Committee, which suffered the vehicle attack that killed four staffers. "In some cases it's to instill fear in communities and in our staff and in the general population that nobody is safe, to create a heightened sense of intimidation."

In some cases, it's working. Shortly after the killing of 31-year-old agricultural specialist Kazuya Ito, Peshawar-Kai, which for 25 years provided medical aid and alternative livelihoods to Afghans along both sides of Pak border, pulled its 8 Japanese staffers out of Afghanistan. Several other Japanese aid organizations - including the Basic Human Needs Association and the Association for Aid and Relief - have done the same.

"Aid agencies play a crucial role in strengthening Afghanistan and helping its people," said Rahmani. "Losing them would be a major blow."

Facing greater insecurity

For the moment, most are planning to stay and continue much-needed, if circumscribed, operations.

"One very clear decision that has been made is that IRC is not leaving Afghanistan," said Donnelly shortly after the attack. IRC, which has been delivering aid in Afghanistan for 28 years, suspended operations after the attack but plans to slowly restart work by October.

"The situation is so fluid in Afghanistan these days that really to implement programs in any part of the country you have to be extremely flexible and reactive to a very fast-paced and dynamic operating environment," he said, citing plans for fewer field visits by staff and a quick trigger on suspending operations when necessary. "Any sign of threats to our staff and we'll be able to hopefully pull back in again."

Nigel Pont, country director for New York-based aid group Mercy Corps, offered a different perspective.

"The situation is worse than it's been in quite a while, across the board," Pont said during an outdoor lunch at one of Kabul's handful of high security, expat-friendly restaurants. Mercy Corps has been in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, working in agriculture and microfinance across eight provinces. "But we're confident because our national security management teams are very good."

Those teams meet regularly to make security decisions for operations across Afghanistan - about which places are safe, what precautions to take, and what time of day to move around. Like most aid organizations, Mercy Corps employs a low-profile approach, which essentially means going under the radar: no organizational signage and minimum security; unmarked cars with private plates that are used on a rotating basis and take a variety of routes to and from work; no razor wire, flags or armed security at the office; predominantly Afghan staffers who live in local housing, wear local dress and travel sterilized, without work identification, cellphone or any incriminating documents.

Some organizations go even further. Employees of the Afghan Health and Development Services, a Kabul-based aid group, travel without any paper or writing tools, thinking the Taliban assume that if you are literate, you must work with an NGO. The Spanish-funded Association for Cooperation with Afghanistan bars staffers from moving more than 10 kilometers outside the western city of Herat. Several of the female Afghan employees of Arghand Cooperative, an NGO run by former National Public Radio reporter Sarah Chayes that sells soaps and oils made from local products, have been prodded by greater insecurity in outlying districts to move into Kandahar.

The debate over low-profile operations continues apace. The attacked IRC vehicle and U.N. convoy bore identifying stickers and signage, but no protection. The Afghan government has recommended that all NGOs travel with armed escorts, while ACBAR advises all NGOs and aid organizations to operate with a low profile.

"We want overall security so that our NGOs can move freely, so that they don't need to be escorted," said Mayar. "The first goal of the [NATO-run] provincial reconstruction teams and the military forces is to bring stability, security, and that's what they should do."

In late August the civilian and military actors in Afghanistan signed a new set of guidelines, laid out by the United Nations, intended to prevent the blurring of lines between humanitarian agencies and the military. Many are hoping the new agreement will improve aid worker safety, but it may be too late.

"The Taliban, they are spreading these night letters now that whoever works for NGOs, they are spies and they should be punished," said Mayar. "They will not believe in us anymore."

But local communities might. The majority of aid workers in Afghanistan are Afghans: IRC has 550 national staff and only 10 foreigners; Mercy Corps has about 400 nationals and 10 foreigners; and the worldwide conflict zone and reconstruction staff of the United Nations is nearly 80 percent local nationals. Particularly in hostile environments, a reliance on local communities - to help guide projects, address security concerns and communicate new developments - can make or break aid efforts.

Around the capital, the noose tightens

For the first time since the Taliban left eight years ago, Kabul is becoming one of those hostile environments. A series of fierce attacks - a Taliban assault on Kabul's finest hotel, the Serena; an April assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai; the Indian Embassy bombing in July, which killed 40; a massive insurgent attack that killed 10 French soldiers not far from Kabul - has residents feeling under siege.

"Day by day the attacks are closer to Kabul," Rahmani said. "If not inside Kabul city, the Taliban are certainly active very near and around Kabul. If they are not pushed back they will come to the capital."

Further, crime has been on the uptick along with a profusion of small arms. Kidnapping, murder, theft and other violent crimes have increased steadily in Kabul over the past year. As a result, security restrictions on international staffers within the city have become extremely tight.

"When I first arrived we were able to walk around, but now it's different," said Richard Nash, a development consultant who spoke to Devex in September.

Like most foreign workers, he is barred from walking outside, even a few hundred meters. And although the banged-up white-and-yellow Corollas are ubiquitous, cheap and generally safe, public taxis are off limits - transport is strictly via armored SUV.

"All the organizations seem to be cracking down more and more," Nash said, "especially over the last few months."

Most agencies have instituted phased arrivals at work or no-movement zones outside their offices in the morning, when most attacks occur. They maintain a very short list of safe cafes and restaurants and keep close tabs on their workers via mobile phones and radio networks as well as a strict curfew. Thus most expat staffers live their lives sealed inside high-riding vehicles and air-conditioned homes and offices, cut off from the very people they've come to help.

Field work in the surrounding area is nearly impossible. Provinces close to Kabul, such as Wardak, Ghazni and Logar, were easy to visit even last year. But the Afghanistan NGO Security Office has since summer been urging journalists and aid workers to fly to Bamiyan and Jalalabad instead of taking the increasingly dangerous roads. On September 12, Logar Gov. Abdullah Wardak was assassinated near his home in the town of Paghman, about 20 kilometres west of the capital.

"I'm from Wardak, right close to Kabul, and I can't even go home," said Mayar. "Last year I could, but now the road is just terrible because of the Taliban."

Roads going out of the capital in every direction but one - north, to Panjshir and the stronghold of the Northern Alliance - are now off-limits, effectively cutting off access to the central and eastern regions of the country.

What's at stake

The escalating violence has kept aid groups from many of the most needy, forced the closure of dozens of schools and health clinics and impaired vital development projects. And the timing of the aid attacks couldn't be worse; a terrible harvest, a drought, and predictions for a harsh winter have left up to 9 million Afghans facing a food shortage, according to the British charity Oxfam, which is warning of a "humanitarian crisis."

It's not just in Afghanistan. Aid workers working in conflict zones have always been aware of the threat of kidnappings and violent attacks. But the problem has doubled in the past five years, in direct relation with the need for aid and development assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some 1,000 have been killed worldwide in the past 15 years, according to some estimates.

For every aid worker injured or killed, thousands of locals are left without assistance. After the killing of several Medecins Sans Frontieres workers in Somalia this year, aid agencies cut back their programming severely, further endangering the estimated 3 million hungry Somalis. Rahmani and other observers worry that if the attacks continue, the humanitarians will pack up and go home.

"People say this all the time," said Mayar, of ACBAR. "'If the security gets worse the NGOs will leave Afghanistan,' but it's not the case. The NGOs know that if they leave the insurgents will be very happy - and that's not what they want."

Either way, aid work in Afghanistan will require more safety - and courage - than ever before.

-- posted on devex.com on October 10.

Down But Not Out in Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan – Skateistan is a media darling. The nonprofit organization teaches young Afghans to skateboard and has been lauded in dozens of major radio, video, print and online outlets across four continents.

Still it teeters on the brink.

"We spent the last few months doing a lot of press and the attention is really great, but the fact is, we're broke," said Director Oliver Percovich in September, sitting on a shabby couch in the sparsely furnished Skateistan headquarters. "Getting funding is not easy, especially when you don't have a great deal of experience at it."

Ever since Percovich and Sharna Nolan, his girlfriend and a fellow Australian, first dropped their skateboards on a Kabul sidewalk in early 2007, they've been swarmed with interest - from local kids, the press and, more recently, potential donors. But turning those good vibes into money - and establishing Skateistan as a stable and valuable organization - has been a stickier proposition.

Dancing with donors

Kabul is home to an estimated 60,000 street kids. Illiteracy is rife, along with crime and drug addiction. In an effort to improve some of those young, precarious lives, Skateistan has been offering free skateboarding lessons several times a week at an empty fountain not far from central Kabul. But no funding and minimal equipment limits what it can do.

Thus Percovish and Nolan are trying to build an indoor skate school that offers free skateboarding and that will expand into personal health education, English-language courses, computer skills classes and arts instruction. The duo prepared a few polished funding proposals and has since mid-2007 been knocking on the doors of nearly every major donor - from the United States and Canada to England, Germany, Australia and several arms of the United Nations.

"Everyone expresses interest," Percovich said. "But when it comes to donating even $10, it's been a lot more difficult."

Nolan has been spearheading Skateistan's fundraising efforts, wielding the knowledge she gained during a year working for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank, and on a rural project funded by the U.N. Development Program. She put together a proposal requesting $45,000 to build an indoor skate school and submitted it to the U.S. Agency for International Development via a friend - a consultant working under USAID's Assistance to Small and Medium Enterprises Development project. Nolan had come across consultants of ASMED, which funds locally-driven business projects with up to $50,000, while working with UNDP in Herat.

"They have millions and require minimal reporting and supervision, which was perfect for the Afghan management in Skateistan," Nolan said via e-mail from Darwin, Australia, where she is working on a government-backed community water project. "They deliver funds much faster than major donors and can be more flexible in their outlook. The only catch was that they needed an economic component to the proposal which we thought could be filled with merchandising."

Skateistan failed to quickly put together a compelling merchandising component and the proposal was turned down. A representative of USAID, which tends to fund much larger projects, told Devex that Skateistan "doesn't really fit into any of our objectives."

Despite the fact that Percovich and Nolan are Australian, making contact with their own government has been a long, strange trip. In early 2008 they applied for a direct assistance program. Months later they were turned down. Then Percovich, after dozens of calls and e-mails, wrangled a meeting with the Australian consul, who told him the Australian government was considering pitching in - not with money but with free shipping assistance.

Other governments have been more accessible. The Canadian aid arm expressed interest for months without settling on a funding amount. In September the Deutsche Entwicklungsdienst, the German aid agency, expressed its desire to pay the wages of one full-time Skateistan employee. A recent visit to the Norwegian embassy was promising.

"The Norwegian ambassador gave me an hour of his time," said Percovich of a meeting set up with the help of a friend of Nolan's. "That was really fantastic of them. They expressed interest, support, but what that will mean in the future I have no idea."

The Afghan government promised a free plot of land if Skateistan wins funding to build their skate school. In May, Percovich found an ideal spot in Wazir Akhbar Khan, an upscale, heavily patrolled neighborhood popular with embassies and expats. The Afghan government was supportive until August, when they gave the plot to the government of Kuwait.

"I'm guessing they represented a good deal more money than we do," Percovich said.

For the major donors, Nolan believes Skateistan's size has been a disadvantage.

"As there is the same reporting requirements no matter what they give, it's to their advantage to give larger grants rather than smaller ones to save on administrative costs and paperwork," Nolan said. "Two people with big hearts and the support of dozens of kids and the broader community often can't compete against the big giants on paper."

A bit of good news

The tide may be starting to turn. In August and September Skateistan raised nearly 2,000 euros from the sale of skateboarding photos and t-shirts and two fundraisers, one in Germany and another in Australia. More recently a private Austrian donor pledged another 2,000 euros. Weeks later Electronic Arts, the American video game giant, did the same.

As of early October the pledges had yet to arrive.

But donated goods have poured in. An Australian sporting goods firm donated safety equipment. Titus, a chain of sporting goods and skate shops in Germany, will donate to Skateistan all second-hand boards sold by customers to the store from July to November. DHL has pledged $15,000 worth of shipping fees to transport goods from Germany to Afghanistan.

In late September, Percovich began to receive offers of assistance from the type of international NGOs - People in Need and Mercy Corps, namely - that USAID tends to fund. Representatives of both organizations told him they'd help find funders.

And finally, in early October, a breakthrough: the Canadian International Development Agency donated $15,000 and the Norwegian aid arm promised $30,000. Percovich was ecstatic as he left for several charity events in Germany.

"I've learned that the people who've been here three, four or more years are really impressed with what we've done because they know how difficult it is to get anything done here," Percovich said. "It's a matter of getting to the right people and hopefully we'll get there."

Still, total costs have exceeded $15,000 and Skateistan is barely scraping by. A web of charity and Percovich's personal savings keep the organization afloat. Tired of working for no pay, staffers have begun to leave.

"It's not exactly the easiest thing for an Afghan to be a volunteer on this type of project," Percovich said. "The employees we have at the moment - I don't know how long we can keep them without pay."

Costs will rise during the coming Kabul winter. Outdoor skate venues will freeze. And relationships will be strained. One already reached the breaking point: Though they remain friends and working partners, Nolan and Percovich broke off their three-year relationship this summer.

A sustainable vision

Some have questioned Skateistan's sustainability. On this issue, Percovich and Nolan still speak with one voice.

Both admit that the whole plan hinges on building the skate park. Once that's done the school would require about $1,200 per month in donations to operate as they envision. The school would be run by Afghans and a couple international volunteers. Kids would sign up for sessions and borrow equipment, all without charge. They would be required to take care of the space and the equipment, which many already do at the current space, an empty fountain in north Kabul.

"We are confident that the Afghans can manage things pretty much themselves," Nolan said. "A lot will fall on the shoulders of the project volunteers. We have no shortage of students who are keen as mustard to volunteer. The kids already sweep the fountains where we skate and are caring for the boards - it's part of the life skill training."

Percovish and Nolan hope donor interest will at some point come to fruition. Dozens of Afghan students, teachers and artists have offered to help, in various capacities. Photo and t-shirts sales represent a slow-growing revenue stream.

"There are some other ideas for business development but first and foremost is the development of social capital that allows youth in Kabul to create opportunities for themselves and solve their problems," Percovich said. "Money hasn't solved many problems in Afghanistan and it is high time to try another approach. Aid has focused on providing money when a simple link with the right person would have sufficed. Intangible assets in society are frequently ignored or undervalued simply because they are hard to value. They do make a hell of a lot of difference, though."

An uncertain future

Inside a nondescript warehouse in Melbourne, 40 new skateboards, 50 pairs of sneakers and a variety of skating supplies sit shrink-wrapped on a palette because Skateistan cannot afford the $1,200 shipping costs.

On a late afternoon in September, meanwhile, a couple dozen Afghan children made do with torn sandals, no kneepads and two beat-up skateboards. They laughed, smiled and tried out a few new tricks, but some grew frustrated with the long wait for their turn.

Kids drifted off in twos and threes as an egg-shaped, red-orange sun sank low. A couple of girls lingered, one pushing her friend across the sidewalk on a skateboard. "Could I have the board back?" Percovich asked, reaching his hand out.

The girls pushed away from him, laughing. He and an assistant chased them down and gently took the skateboard as the girls whined playfully.

With that, darkness fell on Kabul.

-- posted on devex.com on October 20.