Thursday, 29 October 2009

A Breath Of Fresh Air

This Sunday I went to Margalla Hills. Only thirty minutes from my house, there you can find a small range of hills from which you can look out over the city. It is a popular outing for the Islamabadites at the weekend so we arrived early and took one of the trails leading up to the summit. At midday it was hot and portions of the trail fell out of the shade. My first real exercise since arriving it was a real pleasure to stretch my legs. What was more satisfying however, was the sense of freedom. Being able to simply walk without fear was fantastic. At the summit we paused to admire the view. No luck. It was hidden behind the cloud of pollution that hangs over the city. Breathing in the air deeply, it was a long time before we descended back down into the dirty air.

You can just about see the lake through the smog

Scammed by the children - I spent twenty rupees on a decoration and they wouldn't even give it to me! Fayzal, pictured below, was the guilty party.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Peshawar Troubled Again

I returned from Peshawar yesterday with no problems, unlike the last time when I was held there an additional night as the journey was deemed too risky. The region has been the consistent target of explosions every other day since I arrived in Pakistan, and has to be considered as one of the most dangerous places on earth right now for innocent civilians.

Today saw the largest blast yet with 118 fatalities and many more injured. The bomb went off in the middle of a crowded market and no one has claimed responsibility, including the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who is usually the proud culprit. Speculation of where the blame lies is rampant in the country. Popular theories of suspects include the government - keen to gain public support for the violence in Warziristan in the war of hearts and minds, and of course, age-old enemy India.

Whoever is to blame, their wrath is brutal and has once again instilled fear in our team.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

In Sickness And In Health

Ahhh, the joys of team life. Everything here happens in a communal sense. We do everything together 24 hours a day. For a girl of almost thirty years old, it can be testing even after years of sharing with flatmates but especially so since my recent experience of blissful cohabitation. In our home and office we share everything; joys and triumphs, obstacles, food, air and germs.

Some of my fellow team members do not have the strong stomach that I can boast of. Unfortunately, this means that our cook largely ignores my requests for local dishes such as dhal and biryani. He prefers to make pizza and pasta for their delicate tummies. In any case it doesn’t make much difference as the water still affects them. What the French affectionately term “la chiasse” is a regular occurrence that is passed around the group every week, with expat after expat falling ill at their turn. I cannot help thinking that a little of the local food may strengthen their bellies in the long run.

It will come as no surprise to my closer friends, but I have managed to find myself quite a buzzing social life outside of my work (a big Shukria to my new Pakistani friends!) even if the MSF old-timers would choose to keep everyone inside the vacuum. We do not have the right to a private life within MSF. For those who have spent twenty years hopping from mission to mission, they are quick to frown upon those who break away from the circle. They are here on short-term contracts, and do not have the same level of personal investment as those who are here for the long haul. I personally cannot express in words the marvellous feeling it is to make local friends, enhancing my understanding of their culture. It isn’t always easy to get away. Sometimes we are up to fifteen expatriates at a time in the one house, with only one car between us. Organising lifts can be a very frustrating game to play, as each individual fights for their chance to escape from the MSF organism. But I persevere and consider myself very lucky to have found my new friends. Zabardast!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Diplomatic Scene

I live in what sometimes seems to be another world. It can feel like the people here are also living in their own world, I think living in such a tense situation can do that to you. Around the dinner table in the evening, the subject of our projects and our internal politics never tires us. I am living and breathing MSF 24 hours a day, it would seem!

In pursuit of respite, and to receive some objectivity from outside of my organisation, I have been making friends who are outside of our vacuum. I have been lucky to meet some nice people, both Pakistani and foreign. One circle I have been mingling in is that of the diplomats. Friends of friends have kindly approved my membership to the British High Commission club, which means I now have access to fish and chips, an enormous swimming pool and of course, liquor to stave off the dryness.

It is a world away from how we live as volunteers and they too appear to live in their own world. They seem not to want for much and many have a lifestyle more comfortable that they would have at home. At times I am rather envious! They live under the same security pressures as us, however, and it is heartening to see that everyone shares identical worries, though we all carry on as if there was nothing to worry about.
Lazying down at the British Club on a Sunday afternoon

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Yes Means No

Something I have noticed about Pakistanis, is that some of them have real difficulty in saying no. At first I thought it was a language barrier, but my experiences with the most fluent of English speakers tell me otherwise. When asking for directions, work-related questions, or even just asking if something has been done, I am always replied with a yes, even when I know it is not the case. In the UK this would be a downright lie, but here it is far less sinister. My guess is that they are reluctant to disappoint and prefer to give a positive answer time after time. So there you go, in Pakistan , yes can mean no.

Friday, 23 October 2009

No Arms

We don't get out much in Pakistan. So when I was invited to a random party last Friday I jumped at the chance to make some new friends. Our group was the first to arrive and we were welcomed and shown to the terrace. Imagine my shock when I spotted a large gun on the table! I asked that it be put away and the host casually picked it up, pointed it at me, then told me it was a fake. Hence the photo. First I am standing in front of the no arms sticker at our Peshawar office, now look what I have become! In fact the gun was bought from the bazaar. I have been told that in the smuggler's bazaar in Peshawar it is possible to pick up anything. Authentic military informs, weapons, bomb recipes, and all kinds of drugs. I have even heard rumours that if you buy enough opium in bulk, you receive a free Kalashnikov. In any case, you would probably need one carrying that much dope, that is if you didn't have one already.

Evidently it is forbidden for us to visit the bazaars...

Thursday, 22 October 2009

My First Quake

Awoken last night, I felt a strange but strong sensation. As if the house was shaking vigorously. Half dreaming I wondered if it could be the impact of another explosion nearby. Everyone came out of their rooms, sleepy-eyed, and we learned that it was an earthquake. It was a very strong jolt, two large tremors. The result of a 6.2 quake of which the epicentre was in Afghanistan. What a bump in the night!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Paranoia Attacks Pakistan

After the explosion yesterday at the Islamic University in Islamabad, I officially declare that everyone is going crazy. People won't leave their homes, suspicions of being followed are common, and you can feel nerves are on the edge. Text messages are the main culprit, breeding fear in everyone by sending leaked details of alleged next bombings. There is a message circulating today that reads as if you will trigger a suicide bomb by pressing a key on your mobile phone...

All the education centres have closed for the week, what has this place come to when the children cannot even go to school? Security checkpoints are multiplying, and while waiting in a traffic jam today I truly lost it for a moment, scared at all the 'what if' scenarios that were filling my mind. I always thought I was attracted to danger and could keep my cool. Apparently not this kind of danger.

Luckily I have support here for that, and after calming down it is simple to calculate that the risk is largely exaggerated. I pity the local population so much. I can always choose to return home if the situation becomes too tense to bear. They, however, have their lives, homes and families here. Where can they go?

Monday, 19 October 2009

The War In Warziristan

The military operation in Warziristan that we have been expecting for months is well under way and we are unable to do anything about it. By now we were supposed to have rehabilitated the hospital and opened up our trauma centre, but because we do not have the authorisation to operate neutrally without army protection, we are helpless, just like the IDPs. It is now that we need to be present, not in a few months time.

I hope that when the head of mission returns from Lahore today, he will have the signed papers in his hand and it will be full speed ahead for our project. Inshallah...

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Pashtuns And Their Pashtunwali

Not all Pakistanis have dark features. Those from the northern mountain ranges and Afghani borders have fair skin, light coloured hair and green eyes. Often I believe I have spotted a rare foreigner on the streets, but their traditional dress sense gives them away. These are the Pashtuns, an ethnic majority, closely knit thanks to a clan system. They are governed not by the state but by a common code of conduct, the Pashtunwali. Their unique identity, reinforced by feudal systems of honour, makes them an interesting tribe to learn about and very nice people to meet.
Children collecting water to prepare chai for the gori (foreigner)

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Why We Are Here

I visited one of our projects. A basic health unit tucked away in a village near Peshawar where IDPs arrive daily for treatment. I was thrilled to mix with the community, and interacted with the children using my pitiful Urdu mixed with the occasional word of Pashtun. The nicest part of the visit was when an elderly man came to pay his respects and thanks. A refugee from Khyber, he had walked eight miles to obtain healthcare, with only one hundred rupees (less than £1) in his hand. Upon asking what he could receive for that amount, he was delighted to discover that his treatment would be comprehensive and free. Although I couldn’t understand him, his smile spoke volumes. This moment added a real feel-good factor to the day!
Children receive health education to improve hygiene standards while their mothers are treated in the clinic.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Peshawari Transport


Peshawar. The name evokes romantic notions and now I see why. Strategically positioned near to the Khyber Pass and the now closed roads to Afghanistan, it remains an almost ungovernable town. The British couldn’t capture the region back in the days of the empire and neither could the Pakistani government after independence. It is hard to say who rules the town even now. After Islamabad it is where I spend most of my time supporting and auditing the fieldwork.

It is a crazy place; blasted day after day life goes on for the locals and judging from the traffic there are not many who are hibernating in their homes. I am not allowed to explore the town, nor walk freely. Movements are limited and we travel hidden behind curtains, the standard office to house, house to office, office back to house routine. As I peek out through the curtains, I sometimes ask myself the question if I am looking at a member of the Taliban, for their presence is unquestionable in this town. The atmosphere is tense, military planes fly overhead every few minutes on route for some more air strikes.

Culturally the area is much more conservative than Islamabad. Female flesh and hair are not part of the sights on offer and most of the women wear the full hijab or burka in public, but of a kind I have never seen before. A tent-like chaddar that covers the body and face completely, they would have diffculty finding their way if it were not for a small grill of holes from beneath which they can peer out. It comes in a variety of colours and you can tell which region a woman comes from by the colour of her clothes.
Congestion is impressive, with an amazing array of vehicles and modes of transport on the streets. The buses are my favourite. Hand painted in assorted designs, they are bright and colourful with bells and trinkets attached so that they jingle when the vehicle moves. People hang from the sides and the back and often passengers find it more roomy to sit on the roof. Taken from the safety of my car, the next post shows some examples.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

My Source Of Inspiration

Everyone has their source of inspiration for doing certain things in life. And at times when the going gets tough, I rely on mine. As one reader will indeed recognise, I sometimes rely heavily on mine! You know who you are, and I thank you for being just inspiration.

Monday, 12 October 2009

A Belated Eid Mubarak

I have to say that what has most impressed me about the Pakistanis, is their devotion to Islam.

I arrived during the period of Ramadan (or Ramazan as we say here) when our national employees were fasting during the hours of sunlight. Neither water nor food passed their lips during the entire day, they continued to plod along in their work without complaint in heat of up to 40°C. I would hear them rising at 4am to feed under the moonlight and regularly see them heads bowed in prayer, sometimes in the most peculiar of circumstances - on the side of the motorway or guards facing east during their break at a checkpoint.

I tried myself to fast for one day. I allowed myself sweet chai and water so effectively I was cheating, and it was still difficult! Admittedly tempers began to fray towards the end of the period, as everyone looked up optimistically for sightings of the moon in order to break the fast, but the strength of their belief must be incredible to endure such a test for a whole month. I have enormous respect for anyone who can manage this based solely on their love for Allah.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Shalwar Kameez

Almost all women in Pakistan, including us expatriates, wear the Shalwar Kameez daily. Consisting of a tunic dress worn over baggy trousers, it is complimented by a long shawl-type scarf that can be draped over the upper body in a variety of fashions. (Photos to follow shortly, I promise).
It is quite a pretty garment, despite being designed to conceal our feminine curves and can come adorned with all sorts of beads and decorative embellishments. It has the added benefit of being comfortable and I do not have any problems wearing it…

…Aside from the technical problems it can cause. The scarf, usually several metres long, can be quite a tricky obstacle to manoeuvre in and I find myself constantly flicking it back over my shoulder or head from where it has slipped. I have had to learn how to perform a range of daily functions while wearing it. Not only have I almost strangled myself by getting it caught underneath the wheeled chair at my desk, or trapping it in the door of a moving car, it also very easy to trip over just while walking. Not to mention the challenge of avoiding dipping it in the toilet bowl every day!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Old Versus New

Islamabad is a modern city. Apart from the power cuts, of which I don't feel the pain due to the generator, one tends to feel that life here is of a modern age. Urban planning has been well thought out, and when driving along the roads armoured jeeps and other new cars imported from Japan are common sights. There is not so much to see out of the window that will tell you that you are in South Asia.

The town of Islamabad has an older sister called Rawalpindi that is what I would consider as much more authentic, only a few kilometres away. Going there is forbidden for us and this makes us even more curious to visit but sometimes we do get to see the traffic headed in that direction from the Margalla hills.

Tonight on our way home, we passed a donkey driven cart doing just that. With a family of seven on the cart travelling somewhere with what looked like almost all of their wordly possessions, it made me aware of where I was. A small but pleasant reminder that I am in South Asia after all and that not everything has been lost to modernism!

Monday, 5 October 2009

Insecurity Increases...

Bad news. The Taliban are supposedly united and strengthening; they are looking to cause trouble. And trouble they have caused. In just two weeks they have shook the country with daily bombings, five of which cannot be considered insignificant. Two with a direct impact on us.

The first, in Peshawar, led to the loss of one of our drivers who was off-duty that day and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I need not write much about the huge dent in the morale of the team, and his wife left with two children to feed.

The third in Islamabad occurred today in my neighbourhood, all too close for comfort. We felt the blast through our upstairs windows and heard the sirens wailing past at full speed. It was the first time that I knew of something that wasn't yet on the BBC website, and our team crowded round the radio operator's desk to watch footage and listen to the local news.

Never before have I felt so close to danger than today, despite my being safe and not in much personal danger at all. During the rest of the afternoon I had difficulty concentrating, and my heart did beat a little faster than usual. The strikes continue, we expect explosions at any moment, but thankfully we are not considered a target.

However, business as usual for our team, while keeping our heads down we avoid taking any additional risk, and continue in our work as always.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

How The Hail Took Us By Surprise

I cannot lie and say that it is not hot in Pakistan. It is more than hot, it is extremely humid. I am now used to sitting at my desk with both a manual and automatic fan simultaneously, still damp in my clothes. It is supposed to be the monsoon season here right now, but we haven't had any rain to cool us for about three weeks.

This Saturday we were forecasted rain. The sky appeared doubtful and I sat outside during the evening. Little by little, the temperature rose to a near-painful level. It was finally going to rain. It must have been about 35° but it felt like 50°. Suddenly the winds picked up; fresh air blew our way as we sat back to enjoy the storm. The rain fell down hard. And pounded harder still. Leaves and bins span around, the iron gates swung open and the noise on the roof became deafening. The air cooled but the wind and rain did not relent; only picking up momentum. Never have I seen anything like it before in my life. It began to hail. But not the hail I know. Huge golf-ball sized chunks of ice literally fell from the sky in their masses. The kind of snowball that could knock someone to death! Everyone blinked in amazement, at the strength of the elements. Impressively powerful, oh-so violent, and very refreshing...

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Soundtrack To My Mission

Aside from listening to the regular calls to prayer, I keep my ears pricked for sounds of danger, especially when on the field. Explosions can't be the prettiest of noises, and I already know that gun shots aren't. However, music really does come to my ears late at night when, after inspecting my mosquito net for any unwlecome buzzing guests, I get into bed, turn out the lights and listen.

An array of tunes, tweets and songs can be heard. I don't know what insects and birds are out there beyond my windowpane - they certainly don't exist in my home country, but together their choir produces a veritable melody. In the dark when I can't sleep I try to pick out the different calls one by one as they chant to each other. It is one of the calmest moments of my day, and I relish it quietly.