Amidst the Taliban in Jalalabad: Anoja of the UNICEF

Anoja Wijeyesekera, in The Sunday Island, 8 May 2016, where the title is “Jalalabad”

Excerpted here is a chapter from Anoja Wijeyesekera’ recent book, Facing the Taliban, providing a fascinating account of the writer braving the challenge of heading the UNICEF office in Jalalabad during the height of Taliban terror. Anoja who retired from UNICEF in 2006, having been the agency’s Country Representative in Bhutan for nearly five years, was picked to be assigned to Jalalabad by the agency which believed that in the face of a woman anathematizing regime, an international woman officer was needed to ensure that its program for Afghani mothers and children actually reached them. The chapter reproduced here with permission from the author, deals with her move to Jalalabad.

ANOJA BookAs we neared Jalalabad, I could see canopies of delicate fir trees on both sides of the road. These trees formed an exquisite natural archway that extended mile after mile. In the good old days before tragedy struck this country, this was the grand entrance to Jalalabad, the winter capital of Afghanistan. The climate of Jalalabad being milder than that of Kabul, the rich retreated to their winter villas there to get away from the freezing temperatures of the capital city. During the golden era of King Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, Kabul, the administrative and. commercial capital that was modelled on Paris, was known as the “Paris of Asia”. It attracted many visitors from neighbouring countries and was a favourite stop-over for those who undertook the road journey from Europe to India.

At last after what was a very bumpy journey, we reached Jalalabad. The utter desperation and poverty of the people hit me as we approached the bazaar area of Jalalabad. This part of the town was crammed with men in Afghan attire. The clothes were of all shades of grey, beige, brown and black. All of them without exception had beards; mostly long and untrimmed. Those with black headgear were usually deemed to be Taliban. The centre of the town was thick with hawkers peddling wares which ranged from fruit, Afghan bread or Naan, nuts, plastic goods, shoes, vegetables, cooked food and sweets to condiments of various descriptions. Most vendors had hand carts in which they displayed their wares. The dried fruits varied from different types of raisins to dried mulberries, apricots and cherries.


The customers were predominantly of one gender, male. Women in full light blue burkas were seen only very occasionally, but by and large it was a concentration of men. Donkeys with loads that were as large as their bodies and camels and horses pulling carts jostled for space amidst the mass of men. Children carrying various items including live chickens were visible amidst the crowd.

Further along was the area where timber and wood was sold. This seemed to be an extremely poor part of the town. Men pulling carts and carrying large loads depicted a scene of extreme struggle for daily survival. Months later when I was travelling through this same area, Salem our Admin [Administration] Officer pointed to a banana seller on the road side. He said, “That person is a professor in the University.” “A professor’s monthly salary is only five US dollars. When converted it is Afs 125,000, which was a good salary prior to the depreciation of the Afghani. Now it is worth nothing. Therefore he has to sell bananas to make ends meet and put some food into the stomachs of his children.” I realised that normal activities that academicians engage in such as writing research papers could not be carried out here. There was no money in it.

The road was dusty and full of potholes and the general impression was one of going back in time to the Middle Ages where technology and modern conveniences were absent. The daily struggle for survival prevented people from reflecting on their situation or making the effort to try and change it.

At a time when the rest of the world was preparing for the dawn of the next millennium and technological advances had created a global village, here in Jalalabad basic amenities such as tarred roads, telephones, supermarkets and cinemas were non-existent.

Electricity was a luxury and so was TV. All forms of music and entertainment had been banned by the Taliban. What was traded in the bazaar were the most essential of items. In this setting, there was no room or demand for anything else, as life was at its most basic. For human beings, the struggle was to satisfy the most compelling needs, namely food and shelter. As for clothing, the majority were dressed in rags. Older people displayed a look of profound agony. They seemed completely crushed. It was as though their spirits had been drawn out of their bodies. Their faces were gaunt and their bodies looked cadaverous.

I took a closer look at the younger men whose faces were not so drawn. One by one, partially hidden by the beards, I noticed a young Rock Hudson here, a Pierce Brosnan there, a Peter O’Toole in his hey day and a Brad Pitt. “Wow!” I thought. “Hollywood should come here to find the heroes for their latest films!”

No doubt the women would also be good-looking. Yet no one could admire their beauty. They were covered from head to foot and moved about like pale blue ghosts. They were as Thomas Grey described, the desert blooms that blossom only to fade away unseen and unsung.

Gazing on to the dusty drains and sides of the road, I saw beautiful little children who looked like dolls. The girls were dressed in bright colourful clothes; magenta, emerald green, ultramarine blue and orange. Black curls dangled by their rosy cheeks which gleamed in the bright morning sun. Their blue or light green eyes were bordered by dark kohl. Some of them even had lipstick. Out on the roadside, they had nothing to play with but sticks and stones. Yet they were children and they enjoyed their childhood despite the gloom and desolation that surrounded them. They ran everywhere and didn’t seem to have a care in the world. Each time a vehicle passed by they were totally engulfed in a cloud of dust.

I was happy that the children looked well nourished. Obviously the parents sacrificed their own well-being to ensure that the children were fed and clothed.

Nearer to the office, the drain by the road was full of water. The water cascaded out of an old ice factory that was still functioning. Months later in the summer when the temperature was in the mid 30s centigrade, I noticed that scores of children spent their time inside the drain bathing in this icy cold water. Girls and boys frolicked together in the water. At that age there was no gender barrier. This was a scene I watched with joy every time I passed the place, especially in the summer when it was warm and the children used it as a little pool, day after day.

Here I was in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. This was not a place where I knew anybody or had any familiarity with. The only familiar thing was the UNICEF logo painted on the car. But at no time in my entire four years in Afghanistan did I feel isolated or alone because of the exceptional kindness and charm of the Afghan people.

From the moment I stepped into the UNICEF Office, I felt the genuine warmth and generosity of the Afghan people. My Afghan staff greeted me with enthusiasm and I established a rapport with each staff member very quickly. They accepted me as the head of their office, without any reservation even though I was a foreign woman. I felt that this wholehearted acceptance was sincere – it was not merely put on because it was expected. As time passed, I -got to know each one better and we became a family within an office.

The first thing I did was to have an all staff meeting and introduce myself and have each one introduce himself: they were all Afghan males with long beards. In my little introductory “speech” I said that I have left my family and come here to Afghanistan and that now “all of you are my family.” This struck a responsive chord immediately, as the family is regarded as the centre of gravity in Afghanistan. Family loyalties are extremely strong and its honour is something they guard with their life. Soon some of the younger staff asked if they could regard me as their mother and I said, “Yes”. This was their way of bridging the huge divide that existed between men and women in this country. Culturally a man could operate without artificial barriers within the family. But with outside women, a man could not have any contact.

I also explained to my staff that they were experts on Afghanistan whereas I knew next to nothing especially about the cultural sensitivities and how to operate with the Taliban. I said that I would depend on them to guide me and advise me regarding this, as that would be very important for the successful implementation of our programmes. I went so far as to say to those who translated during negotiations, “Don’t be afraid to indicate to me without the Taliban noticing if I am off the mark and you also have my permission to put things across in a way that is acceptable, unless I specifically ask you not to.” This gave my staff confidence to take the initiative and looking back I would say that it was the wholehearted commitment of the Afghan staff that enabled me to deal successfully with the Taliban and not get myself imprisoned.

During negotiations and meetings where a translator was involved, I also learned to read the body language of the Taliban. The time it took for the translations enabled me to engage in the observation of their facial expressions which was of immense help to know how the Taliban was reacting to what I was saying. Most of the time, I engaged in subjects such as women’s access to education and health that were decidedly unpalatable to them.

Our office was situated in what could be deemed a residential part of Jalalabad and was the winter home of a rich Kabuli family. The house was bright and airy, had plenty of space and was set in the middle of a large plot of land that had its own orchard. It was a bright, cheerful place and the large room that had been designated as my office, had a blue wall to wall carpet (UN blue) and a large desk on one side, a little sitting area and a large rectangular table with chairs for conducting meetings. The room looked out into the orchard. and had plenty of daylight. I was very pleasantly surprised that I had such a lovely room.

On the first day, I rented one of the rooms on the upper floor of the building that had been prepared for me. Some staff members, whose families had shifted to Pakistan, also rented rooms upstairs.

After a night’s sleep, I awoke looking forward to a busy day. The security guard, Daud, who also doubled up as a cook, brought my breakfast on a tray. He was a bearded, turbaned man whose broad and commanding appearance was at variance with his gentle and polite manner. Months later I was to learn that the so called “guest room” I occupied that night was supposed to be haunted!


Later that day, I was told that there were some international UN staff occupying a house in an even more residential part of Jalalabad and that they may have a room that I could rent. Quickly I went to the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] office, where I met Jose Rodriguez, the Admin Officer. He was a very cheerful, dynamic young man, from Costa Rica, who greeted me in the most welcoming and friendly manner. He was one of the people occupying that particular house. He confirmed that there was an extra room which I could rent and took me to see the place. When I went there I found that this “extra room” was the whole of the upper floor of the house and was more like a penthouse suite. It had a fantastic view of the mountains. I said that I would take the room immediately. That very evening I moved into my new quarters. This was a bonus and I was delighted that I had a sitting area, a sleeping area, two little dressing rooms and a very large bathroom. My room opened out on to a very large balcony from where I could see the “White Mountains”. They were called the White Mountains because they had a perpetual snow cap, I gazed out and saw the sun setting in the west. It cast an orange-pink glow on the snow and looked breathtakingly beautiful. I felt elated.

Looking inside, I noticed that all the windows of my little “apartment” were painted over. To my utter dismay this blocked my view completely from inside. I employed a workman the very next day, to replace the window panes with clear class so that I would have an unobstructed view. Once the clear glass was put in place, the security guard of the compound who was also our domestic aid, Nazir, came to me with a message. He said that the Afghan neighbours whose compound I could see through my window objected to the clear glass, as I could now “view” their women! Previously, when a male UN staff member had occupied this room they had insisted that the windows be painted over, so that the man residing in my room could not look at their women! They said that I should re-install the old painted windows immediately. I told the security guard to kindly tell the neighbours that I am a woman and that Taliban decrees do not prevent women looking at women. I did not remove the clear glass and there were no further complaints.

Soon I converted my little apartment into a very cosy “penthouse suite”. I bought some potted plants and created a little garden on my balcony which was constructed with compacted mud. This was the traditional Afghan building material. Each night, I would sit on the balcony and behold a million stars. I had never seen anything like this before. The sky was so clear that every single star shone like the north star. The atmosphere created by this sublime beauty of starlight was so magical that I wished I could have shared it with my family.

The UN colleagues who lived in the same house were extremely kind and friendly. In addition to Jose Rodriguez, there was also Nabil Makki, a Lebanese, who was the head of UNHCR in Jalalabad and his wife, Dr.Win Win Kyu, a Burmese who was the head of WHO in Jalalabad. When we sat down to dinner each evening we would joke that we were having an UN Inter-Agency Meeting! We would entertain ourselves by sharing our comic encounters with the Taliban. Little did the Taliban realise that they were providing us with so much amusement and laughter.

Some months after my arrival, I was having my evening shower before going to bed, when I heard a loud noise. I thought that the water tank above was going to collapse. Then everything started to shake violently. Soon I realised that it was an earthquake. I had never experienced anything like that before. I thought that the only rational thing would be to run outside. How could I do that? If I ran out, clad only in a towel and was caught by the Taliban, the fate awaiting me would be worse than death. I decided to remain inside the shower cubicle and face whatever happened next. After what seemed an interminably long time, the shuddering abated. I was relieved that the roof did not cave in on top of me. I was to experience many such tremors during my stay in Afghanistan.

The next day, I learned that the epicentre of the earthquake was in a remote village in the north and that thousands of people had died when their mud houses collapsed. What would be considered a major disaster in another country was yet another tragedy that continued like a slow motion disaster movie, here in Afghanistan. The UN agencies assisted the victims with supplies of food, shelter and clothing. Soon this calamity gave say to yet another and another.

In office, I had “one-to-one” meetings with each staff member and got to know the details of UNICEF activities. We had regular staff meetings and I encouraged open discussion on programme matters plus any other issues of interest. I created opportunities for this regular interaction and established an atmosphere of complete transparency and honesty. From the very first day, I decided that I would sit with the staff and have lunch with them. Daud, the security guard, prepared some food and we ate in the office lunch room. There was no possibility to go out as there were no decent restaurants or eateries. We all contributed towards the purchase of the raw materials. It was a simple but wholesome Afghan meal that I partook each day with my staff. We developed a real team spirit and the barrier of my being a woman was completely removed.

During lunch, I suggested that we should only speak in English, as this would be a good way for the Afghans to improve their English. I pointed out that it was considered rude to talk in another language, when one person could not understand. The staff readily agreed that this would be a good practice. Since lapses were very common, we all agreed that we needed to impose a penalty. We decided on a small fine for each lapse. A small till which we called the “Bad Boy” was placed on the table and those who did not follow the rules had to “feed the mouth” of the “Bad Boy” with an Af 5,000 note: the lowest currency note. This became a game as each one tried to catch the other! We all roared with laughter when a person was caught out.

Periodically we would open the “Bad Boy” and I would also add a generous contribution and we would have a treat! These were some extra fruit or some better cuts of meat or the delicious Afghan summer drink made out of butter-milk and cucumber called “Dogh” or “Afghan beer”. Although it was totally non-alcoholic it was supposed to be soporific. It had no such effect on me and we enjoyed it on hot summer days. These were simple ways of entertaining ourselves which everyone enjoyed. I continued this practice of eating with the staff throughout my stay in Afghanistan. It proved to be a successful strategy for information sharing, honest dialogue and team building. [See Plate 6]

In the first three months after my arrival, which were the winter months, we ate cauliflower every single day, as this was the main vegetable available. It was cooked with onion and tomato and tasted very nice with the rice that went with it. The rice was cooked with a large quantity of oil added to keep the grains separate. I tried to influence the cook to eliminate the oil but he considered the oil to be the best part of the dish. After a while, I taught the cook a few other simple dishes that could be made with inexpensive local vegetables with either less or no oil. Since we all contributed to the meal, we kept the cost very low. Meat was in short supply and the cook always bought very cheap cuts in order to keep the cost down and affordable to all staff. During my stay in Afghanistan, I decided to be mostly vegetarian. Fruits were plentiful and cheap. After lunch we always ate some local fruit. They were sun ripened and the flavours were out of this world — pomegranates, different varieties of grapes, apples, peaches, apricots, mulberries and melons. Nowhere else in the world have I tasted such sweet and delectable fruit. In the summer, we also had the good fortune to eat the best mangoes from Pakistan.

During the mulberry season, our office orchard was full of berries. We would hold a sheet under the tree and shake the tree and all the luscioussun ripened berries would fall into the sheet. They were absolutely out of this world. One lunch time when we were engaged in this activity, a visitor from another UN agency arrived early for a meeting, that was scheduled immediately after lunch. When he saw us standing under the mulberry tree with the sheet, he galloped up to us, roared with laughter and said, “Now I know what all you UNICEF people do all day!” We shoved some of the fruit into his mouth and he stopped teasing us.

Afghanistan had over seventy varieties of grapes. The best was the seedless variety called “Kelke Arouse” or “Shudorkhanee” meaning “Bride’s finger”. They were long and slim like a bride’s finger. Ripened on the vines and sold on the road side, they provided us with sustenance on long field trips. We would stop by the road-side bakeries where Nan bread about half a meter long would be taken straight out of the oven and sold to the public. The wonderful fruit straight off the trees and the Nan bread hot out of the oven staved off hunger and kept us in high spirits on our trips to the remotest corners of Afghanistan.

***  ****

ALSO SEE Michael Roberts: “Where In-fighting generates Fervour & Power: ISIS Today, LTTE yesterday,” 21 jULY 2014, courtesy of Groundviews where some prejudiced and one-eyed commentary has already been set in train

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