Archive for July 2008
Canada is the biggest single donor to a project to unbury the ancient heart of old Kabul, writes Graham Thomson
Canwest News Service
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
KABUL – One of the more promising signs for Afghanistan’s future lies, perhaps, in its past, in the heart of old Kabul — buried under decades of filth, garbage and neglect. Two metres underneath, to be precise.
In the ancient commercial district of Murad Khane — in a project in which Canada is the biggest single donor — more than 200 workers are digging away dirt and debris in this labyrinth of mud-walled alleys and boxlike buildings. At places, the accumulated earth is two metres deep, choking old passageways and raising the floor level of aged courtyards so high that people had to stoop through doorways.
In a technique that would make recyclers smile in Canada, workers are using the recovered earth as the main ingredient in a traditional cement to rebuild crumbling walls of the district’s historic buildings. Murad Khane is rising like a phoenix from its own ashes.
Equally exceptional is that this program, supported by western donations, has no guards, no guns, no checkpoints. In a country where many westerners wouldn’t go out without a helmet and body armour, Murad Khane’s security is remarkably slim. The only protective gear is hard hats.
The project’s security might lie in the fact it is so discreet. In a country suspicious of outsiders, the project doesn’t look remotely western. Its heart might be foreign money, but its face is Afghan. The workers are mainly Afghan. Even the head architect, who was born in Germany and has an office in London, is of Afghan descent.
To help solidify support among the people who live in this rundown neighbourhood, the project operates an emergency repair program to help fix up homes that share the decrepit state of the historic buildings.
“The mission is to regenerate Afghanistan’s historic areas and revive the traditional economy,” said John Elliott, a spokesman for the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which runs the project. “We’re working in the middle of Kabul, the very centre of the centre and there’s just a chance that if you can give some kind of economic underpinning to Murad Khane — an economic purpose, an educational purpose — it might act as a catalyst for the rest of the city and the rest of Afghanistan.”
That sounds like a lofty goal for a program with a yearly budget of just $4 million, compared with billions being spent by western countries and aid groups. Turquoise Mountain thinks modest projects are the way to go.
“What we need is a patient approach to development here,” said Mr. Elliott. “I think it has to do with having smaller, more discreet projects. And if you could replicate that across the board, rather than having huge programs which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, having smaller, lower risk projects, then you might achieve something.”
Turquoise Mountain started out as something of an experiment in 2006 under the leadership of former British diplomat and author Rory Stewart. Since then, it has attracted attention, accolades and an increasingly long list of donors, including the Canadian government, which is providing $3 million over four years — making Canada the largest single financial supporter.
While Murad Khane is the most visible sign of Turquoise Mountain’s work, the core is a school tucked away in a corner of Kabul where master craftsmen teach apprentices the arts of Afghan woodworking, ceramics, calligraphy and jewelry making.
The Centre for Traditional Afghan Arts and Architecture has 100 students who spend three years learning their craft along with English and the fundamentals of running a business.
The goal is to graduate not only skilled workers, but entrepreneurs. Students are already turning out intricately carved support columns and decorative panels as part of the restoration work on the historic buildings. By doing so, they are also helping to build a new home for themselves. The centre plans to relocate to the refurbished Murad Khane district, making the Centre for Traditional Afghan Arts a prominent showpiece.
“If you look at this neighbourhood and other parts of the old city, it is absolutely important to keep and preserve these buildings, not just because they’re beautiful buildings, but there’s a connection between the people now and the people in (the) past,” said Sayed Majidi, the head of architecture at the Murad Khane site. “If you look at the history of Afghanistan, if you look at the culture that still exists and is expressed in these neighbourhoods, it is a quite important and serious project for all Afghanistan, not just for Kabul.”
The five-year project is halfway done and is proving to be symbolic of the country’s struggle to dig itself out of three decades of war, destruction and neglect. The work is done slowly, laboriously, by hand, one shovel at a time.
“We’re not taking on the whole world and not trying to change the world overnight,” said Mr. Elliott. “The only prudent thing to do is (to) take it one step at a time.”
© The Ottawa Citizen 2008
* $100 per barrel crude oil cap proposed for oil marketing companies
* ECC to consider banning maize export
By Sajid Chaudhry and Zafar Bhutta
Daily Times (Pakistan) / July 30, 2008
ISLAMABAD: The government is likely to impose a regulatory duty of 35 percent on the export of diesel for NATO forces in Afghanistan in the meeting of the Economic Co-ordination Committee (ECC) of the Cabinet being held today (Wednesday), sources said.
They said the duty would be imposed to discourage subsidised diesel exports and to avoid diesel shortages in the country, adding that the committee was also likely to approve a new oil pricing and margin mechanism.
As per special authorisation of Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, Finance and Revenues Federal Minister Syed Naveed Qamar would chair the ECC meeting. Sourced said the ECC planned to reduce local duties and margins of the oil marketing companies (OMC) and dealers of petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) products.
They claimed that Pakistan was suffering by the export as well as the smuggling of diesel to Afghanistan where the price of diesel was Rs 95 per litre and 15 percent of the total requirement of Pakistan was being smuggled to Afghanistan.
OMC: According to the proposal, a cap of OMCs’ margins on diesel and motor spirit at $100 per barrel of crude oil is to be imposed as against the existing practice of allowing margins on import value of the oil.
The ECC is also expected to cut the margin on diesel from Rs 1.55 per litre to Rs 1.13 per litre and from Rs 2.12 per litre to Rs 1.60 per litre on motor spirit.
Dealers’ margins are also likely to be lowered from existing capped margin of Rs 1.77 per litre on diesel and Rs 2.43 per litre on motor gasoline.
ECC may consider a proposal for reduction in Deemed Duty from existing 10 percent to 5 percent to reduce the gains of oil refineries of the country, the official added.
Maize export: The ECC is also likely to consider a proposal submitted by the Ministry of Commerce for imposing a ban on the export of maize to reduce poultry feed prices. Due to the increase in poultry feed in the country the prices of farm chicken and eggs have registered a sudden increase in the month of July.
The government has recently allowed duty-free import of maize to save locally produced wheat, which was being used as poultry feed at an estimated quantity of 1 million tonnes annually.
However, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock (MINFAL) is set to oppose the move by the Commerce Ministry for a possible ban on maize export.
MINFAL authorities fear that a ban on maize export would severely hurt the crop’s sowing in the next season and farmers would be left with no option but to convert to sowing sunflower instead.
New York, 30 July (AKI) – The United Nations Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan (UNMACA) has announced plans to clear a total of 1,800,000 square metres of land in the historic city of Bamiyan that is contaminated with mines and unexploded ordinance (UXOs) by October.
Bamiyan contains a number of Buddhist monastic ensembles and sanctuaries, as well as fortified edifices from the Islamic period. It is also where the Taliban destroyed two standing Buddha statues in March 2001.
The mine-clearance project will exclude four sites which have been declared as cultural heritage sites by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and need to be cleared with the cooperation of archaeologists.
“After receiving authorization from the Ministry of Information and Culture we will start clearing the four cultural heritage sites,” said Abdul Qader Qayoumi, the head of UNMACA in Bamiyan.
Nearly 500 de-mining personnel, most of them from Afghan Technical Consultants (ATC), an Afghan non-governmental organization (NGO), are working to clear Bamiyan from landmines and UXOs.
Since the beginning of April, 104 anti-personnel mines and 169 UXOs have been found and destroyed.
Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, and more than four million Afghans are living in mine-contaminated areas.
As a party to the global anti-landmine treaty, known as the Ottawa Convention, Afghanistan has committed itself to clear all of its landmines by 2013. With the help of the UN, some 65,361,363 square metres of land has already been cleared across the strife-torn nation.
Qayoumi said the Mine Action Programme for Afghanistan (MAPA) – which comprises UNMACA and other partners – will start de-mining work in three other districts in Bamiyan province, namely Shibar, Saighan and Kahmard.
Also in Bamiyan, the efforts of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to promote crop diversification and new seed varieties was on display during an event on 26 July attended by some 250 farmers and the Governor of the province.
The programme aimed to showcase practical results in the field, including experimental testing of 200 potential wheat lines and 14 potato lines, which are in the advanced stages of screening for the release of new varieties in the near future, according to FAO.
The participants were also able to visit a newly-constructed modern potato storage facility and a tissue culture/virus testing laboratory nearing completion at the Mullah Ghulam agricultural research farm, which hosted the event.
FAO has been working with Afghanistan to support agricultural and environmental rehabilitation and assist the country to achieve food security.
CHAGHCHARAN, 30 July 2008 (IRIN) – The UN World Food Programme’s (WFP’s) food-for-education programme has been adversely affected by recent attacks on aid convoys: Some 300,000 primary school children, mostly in southern provinces, have not received vegetable oil and fortified biscuits over the past four months.
The aim of the food-for-education programme is to promote education and ensure children’s – particularly girls’ – access to formal schooling.
WFP has been distributing 4.5kg of cooking oil to 450,000 girls every month; and a snack of fortified biscuits to about 1.5 million schoolchildren in food-insecure areas every day.
The education department in Ghor Province, central Afghanistan, said that of the 150,000 students in the province 80,000 were entitled to benefit from the school feeding programme, but no aid had been delivered since March 2008, the beginning of the academic year.
Eid Gul Azem, deputy head of the education department, said delays in the school feeding programme and high food prices had adversely affected school attendance.
“Recently about five percent of schoolchildren have failed to turn up regularly,” said Azem, adding that most of the absent children were from “very poor families” and had been forced to work to help feed their families.
“Previously my children were bringing wheat and oil home but this year there is nothing. Food prices are very high and we are very poor, so my children are working to earn a piece of bread for us instead of going to school,” said Bibi Gul, 55, a mother of three in Chaghcharan, Ghor’s provincial capital.
Schools closed in south
“We have not distributed vegetable oil and fortified biscuits to some 300,000 students in southern provinces,” Ebadullah Ebadi, a WFP public information officer, told IRIN in Kabul on 29 July, adding that insecurity and repeated attacks on aid convoys were the main cause of the delay.
Meanwhile, hundreds of schools, mostly in volatile southern provinces, have been closed down due to attacks, thus depriving tens of thousands of schoolchildren of both education and food rations.
The need for school feeding programmes has soared in the past few months as food price inflation and severe drought have pushed millions into high-risk food insecurity, say officials and aid workers.
WFP has requested funding to feed 4.5 million highly food-insecure people, in addition to its current programme.
Food aid convoy attacked
On 24 July unidentified armed men attacked a convoy of 49 trucks in Balabolok District, Farah Province, southwestern Afghanistan. The trucks had been hired by WFP to transport food aid from Kandahar to Herat.
The attackers set two trucks ablaze and stole eight others, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said. Over 320 metric tonnes of food, enough to feed about 38,400 people for a month, was looted.
“We have a message for those responsible – shame on you. Such attacks dishonour the Afghan people and the generosity of the international community, they are unacceptable and must stop,” said Aleem Siddique, a UNAMA spokesman.
WFP said such security challenges would not deter it from continuing humanitarian food deliveries.
Source: International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
July 29, 2008
By Ali Hakim, IFRC communications officer in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan
A harsh winter followed by a hot and dry spring season has multiplied the challenges and hardships of villagers in north Afghanistan.
The lack of rain and drinking water are taking a toll on precious livestock, farming lands have gradually dried up and many farmers have lost their harvest. For these reasons, many people in the Alborz district have abandoned their homes and travelled many kilometers to reach Cheshma-e-Shafa, 34 km south-west of Mazar-e-Sharif city.
Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) volunteers and its emergency mobile unit (EMU) were the first to arrive in Cheshma-e-Shafa to meet these internally displaced persons (IDPs) and respond to their needs.
When the Red Crescent personnel arrived, they found that the area was covered with hundreds of small and large tents. Though the hot weather and dusty winds were making their lives miserable, these IDPs had no choice because nothing remained in their villages.
‘It was 10.30pm when we arrived in Cheshma-e-Shafa,’ said Dr Mohammad Rafi Hakimzade, ARCS regional health officer for the northern region. ‘Yet, as soon as we made our first medical camp, there was a rush for assistance among the IDPs.’
Initially, four camps were established to cater to the massive needs of the IDPs. ‘Malnutrition, acute bloody diarrhoea and sunstroke were among the top widespread health problems,’ he added.
Khoda Rahm Ziyai, a community-based first aid (CBFA) trainer, and volunteer Mohammad Navid Behroz, together with 19 others, worked around the clock.
‘We noticed an obvious lack of awareness about sanitation techniques among the people. Therefore, we decided to send volunteers to the area to teach sanitation methods. We even went to the IDPs’ home villages, in Alborz district, to teach those who had remained,’ added Behroz.
Traders and the local community in Balkh province contributed food and medicines worth more than 122,000 Swiss francs to the affected people. This warm welcome allowed ARCS to speed up its assistance to the vulnerable people.
‘We get our drinking water from remote areas which take something like seven or eight hours to reach. Earlier, we used donkeys as our means of transportation but unfortunately, due to the lack of food and water, they have been lost as well,’ said 55-year-old Abdul Qader, one of the IDPs in Cheshma-e-Shafa.
‘Here in Cheshma-e-Shafa, the ARCS has taken up the responsibility to protect our health and we feel that their aid is vital to our wellbeing.’
After nearly one month of a challenging operation, the government and other humanitarian agencies have begun to help the IDPs in their original locations, which has made it possible for some to return to their homes. In total, more than 2,126 patients have been treated by the ARCS EMU team, its clinic doctors and volunteers.
In response to the drought, which has spread across many parts of Afghanistan, the Afghan government and United Nations are launching an appeal for more than 413 million Swiss francs. The priorities of the appeal are food security, nutrition, water sanitation and hygiene, health, agriculture and protection. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is involved in the technical committee as an observer, and the ARCS will be one of the implementing agencies.
By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Nangarhar province
Tuesday, 29 July 2008
On a hot summer afternoon in the chaotic border town of Torkham in eastern Afghanistan, Mohammad Younas is counting the money he needs to bribe local customs officials.
Torkham, in Nangarhar province, is one of the busiest crossing points between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Every day, hundreds of trucks and cars, laden with passengers and goods, pass through.
The 35-year-old Afghan truck driver is carrying 15 tons of tomatoes he picked up in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.
Trials and tribulations
However, before driving towards the city of Jalalabad Younas has to wait an hour to get to the front of the queue.
One Afghan customs official checks his papers and gives him the green light, but then asks Younas to wait until his papers are “cleared”.
After a few minutes of waiting, Younas pulls out 5,000 Afghanis ($108).
”You see this bribe? If I don’t pay now, they will make me wait here for hours. The tomatoes will be spoiled in this hot weather.”
Younas has agreed to let me ride in his truck so I can see for myself the trials and tribulations faced by the average Afghan transporter.
The tall, blue-eyed driver hands the money over to the customs official and is finally allowed to leave Torkham.
”We have better roads these days. We can play music and have more independence. But look at the level of corruption,” he says.
Younas began work in the transport industry shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
His village, Samarkhel, was caught in the fighting between Soviet and Mujahideen forces. Like millions of other Afghans, he took refuge in Pakistan.
“I was a young boy then. We fled and lived in a refugee camp. I started as an assistant truck driver and after 16 years I learned how to drive. For all these years I have been driving mostly between Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Younas chooses a Pashto music cassette to play as he steers his massive truck on one of Afghanistan’s busiest roads. ”I am an experienced driver,” he assures me.
As we barrel down the Torkham-Jalalabad highway, Younas complains about corruption and the “rude behaviour of Afghan police”.
We arrive at a check post in the Daka area and a uniformed police officer asks Younas for his documents.
After a 30-minute wait, it becomes clear that the police officer wants money or else we will wait here forever.
After much bargaining, Younas doles out 600 Afghanis ($13).
“Nothing gets done without money these days. During the Taleban days, we didn’t have to pay bribes,” he says, visibly angry.
For about 45 minutes, Younas is quiet and the Pashto music blares as we travel in the scorching heat. I try to engage Younas, but in his frustrated state he is not interested in conversation.
As we get close to the Mohammand Dara district, a passing American convoy orders all traffic to halt and Younas finally begins talking again.
“This is a joke – the road is blocked again!”
We wait for another 30 minutes before we get the green light from the American soldier waving from his humvee.
Minutes later we arrive at another police check post. This time, the police demand a crate of tomatoes. Younas orders his assistant to give them a rotten one.
‘We will all die’
Younas refuses to be photographed for fear of retribution. However, most of his fellow drivers are keen to be photographed and to have their voices heard.
Take Mohmmand Nader: “I leave Peshawar and we start paying bribes. Once we cross into our country, we start paying bribes. We have got used to it by now.”
Nangarhar police spokesman Ghafoar Khan is defensive: “We have in the past sacked corrupt traffic policemen and other police officials, we have also prosecuted them. If these drivers help us with some evidence, we will sack the corrupt officials. We are very serious about this.”
But drivers like Mohammad Ebrahim accuse the Afghan government of turning a blind eye to what he calls robbery.
”If we don’t pay the traffic police or the customs official, they will make us wait for hours. And we can’t afford to wait. Corruption is everywhere,” he says while waiting outside a customs checkpoint on the outskirts of Jalalabad.
My journey with Younas on the 74-km Torkham-Jalalabad highway took three hours and 45 minutes.
We stop for lunch at a Jalalabad restaurant. Younas is soaked in sweat and visibly tired.
“Corruption in Afghanistan is like Aids – if our government doesn’t punish corrupt officials, we will all die,” he says, before we say our farewells.
By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Kabul
Tuesday, 29 July 2008
The authorities in Afghanistan have detained a prominent journalist after the broadcast of a documentary which was critical of members of the cabinet.
Mohammad Nasir Fayyaz was detained, released and has now contacted the BBC to say he is in detention again.
Mr Fayyaz is the presenter of an investigative programme called The Truth, which recently strongly criticised two government ministries.
Officials say they are “working hard” to secure his release.
In a recent edition of The Truth, Mr Fayyaz criticised two cabinet members – including the water and energy minister – of under-performing in their jobs.
His programme featured a performance graph which showed how well various government ministries were functioning.
Many people in government are not used to such critical analysis – Afghanistan does not have a tradition of investigative reporting – and it is thought that is why the journalist has been detained.
Mr Fayyaz also appears to have upset some members of the government.
Water and Energy Minister Ismail Khan recently accused Mr Fayyaz of corruptly asking him to ensure power was provided to his residence 24 hours a day – a request which Mr Khan said was refused.
Mr Fayyaz has denied the minister’s allegations.
The journalist was initially arrested by intelligence officials on Monday, but now appears to have been detained again after giving an interview to the BBC.
He said that he is currently being held by intelligence officials in a locked bathroom.
Afghan intelligence officials have refused to comment on his case.
However a spokesman for the ministry of information and culture, Hameed Nasery Wardak, told the BBC that officials are working hard to release him.
”We are trying to free him and I am 95% sure that he will be released very soon,” Mr Wardak said.
Meanwhile, Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament from north-eastern Afghanistan, has strongly criticised the detention.
”When people voted in the elections, they did so because they believed in democracy and freedom of speech,” she said.
“Our government shouldn’t be arresting reporters. If some ministers think that this reporter said something which was not based on truth and against the norms of journalism, than they should have launched a compliant against him.”
Colleagues at the TV station where Mr Fayyaz worked have called for his immediate release.
“This man has done nothing wrong except do his job. He does not deserve to be in detention,” one told the BBC.