Entry 1

Flying into Kabul

From the airplane window heading into Kabul, you see three hours of sand, interrupted occasionally by squat, ugly rocks. There are no settlements and no roads; no evidence of life. I missed my UN flight a day earlier, so I sat, belted into my bright orange seat on Ariana Afghan Airlines, staring at the desolation.

Kabul itself is in a valley surrounded by stunning snow-caps. The plane lurches violently toward the airfield (someone has claimed the lurching is related to iron ore in the mountains, but we don’t trust him), and as you descend, shapes slowly congeal from the mud, becoming houses, houses, and more houses. There is no visible industry, no smoke-stacks, no gas-tanks, no chemical domes—none of the furniture that surrounds other cities. 

The airport itself is simple but leaps and bounds ahead of where it was four months ago, when I first arrived in Kabul to work for the U.N. A stretch of unemployment, conveniently coinciding with the World Cup, had led to me to tell a friend that I’d like to work in a failed state setting, doing some hands-on development. He took me literally, and I’m returning to Kabul after a brief and surreal holiday in the lands of hot water and power showers.

In the airport there are windows now and semi-organized queues (although, in a sign of the international presence, half of the two booths are reserved for diplomatic passport holders). Still no heat, though I did see a new heaterlike object wrapped in cardboard lurking menacingly in a corner. There is only one luggage-hauling truck, so it took two solid hours for our baggage to arrive.

The airline graveyard

As you leave the airport you pass by an airline graveyard—727 bodies and noses, assorted helicopter fragments, and several charred lumps of metal. It’s almost an encouraging sight when you arrive—you feel great that your plane has made it over the mountains. As people prepare to leave, however, a sudden religious urge seems to come over many as they contemplate how many planes lie here in peace.

As we left the airport there was a minor demonstration going on against the ministry with which I will spend much of my time working over the next six months. I should have taken this as a sign of the return to chaos.

After the airport, I went straight to my new house—a place I’ve rented with four friends in order to get away from the U.N. accommodation. I walked in the door to see two men tinkering with an engine, which proved to be from a Toyota truck. They assured me that this was on the instructions of my roommate and that somehow it would produce electricity. Outside, I found a guy digging a hole in the garden, which he explained was for our new football pitch. At least that’s what I think he said.

We are required by U.N. security to have blast glass on our windows. So, we asked the blast-glass window people to do just that. When I looked at the windows I realized that the curious half-tint wasn’t a wonderful way of protecting us from shrapnel while maintaining our view; they’d just done the top half of the windows.

Since home wasn’t working so well, I figured I should go to the office. The next sign that I was back in disorder was when they told me that my office had been moved to the roof. Then, my computer had vanished; my mobile-phone had been lost; my radio assigned to someone else; and my files purloined. Also there was no heat, but that’s more normal.

Being useless without a computer, I sat in on a meeting to try and figure out mechanisms for supporting this ministry. There’s a tension between capacity development and output delivery—helping the ministry build itself up and develop the skills it needs versus needing to satisfy the protesting proletariat with real services. Getting the balance right is the most rewarding part of the job—you help people in a tangible way while building something sustainable. Getting it wrong is perfectly frustrating.

The meeting went on for a few hours. When I got back to my new penthouse suite, I discovered that someone had cleaned out my desk drawers. Actually, they’d just taken the $500 I’d left in there for a few hours so I could run to my meeting but had courteously left some old candy wrappers.