Nov 10, 2011

Paper Victims and Fraud

Not all people exist officially and not all people that exist officially can feel pain; neither can a dead man suffer much from a broken leg. This seems a very quaint or arbitrary piece of wisdom until you actually hear yourself saying: "according to my files you already died a year ago in a shoot-out, so I'm having trouble assessing how much discomfort you actually have from your leg being broken by the bomb-blast...I mean, you're dead so you weren't really using it anymore, were you?"

Now, it's not as sarcastic as it looks. The man in question and I had already established that he really had been injured in a recent incident and that his identity had been 'stolen' a year before by a Shura council-member to pocket an assistance-package (intended for victims of the war) by claiming him as his killed cousin; my remark was a light-hearted comment in a discussion about the Afghan war version of identity-theft.

a collection of REAL stamps
No internet-payments, credit card fraud or ATM-skimming needed: a photo-camera, copier and access to government-stamps will do. Afghan identity-papers (Tazkera) are as easy to make at home as a home-made thanksgiving card. As proofs of actual registration are not commonly checked, an afternoon of arts & crafts can create a village of people that allegedly officially exist. The hardest part is getting people to pose for a photograph, but anyone in a position of power or with promises of reward has no problem collecting those from total strangers or friends that will also be willing to present themselves in person with a fabricated story about a killed relative.

All of this is possible because we have no access to trustworthy sources who can verify someone's identity except for local-level officials, who are actually not necessarily that trustworthy at all, and no one in their right mind will say that the local official or his village elders are lying to assist an international organisation: we're gone tomorrow, he's here for the rest of his life. So when an incident (bombing, shoot-out, IED-explosion) happens in your area and you know there's an organisation who will offer support to its victims, why not inflate the number of victims and do your neighbors a pleasure. Especially if a Shura-member or district-leader that is in on the scam gives you a pile of official stationary and blesses your fake incident claims-document with a signature and stamp, you're all set to ‘officially’ become a victim. It's wrong, but not terribly strange. 

Unfortunately for them we've got our ways of snooping around and verifying people's stories, and our own database that rings an alarm-bell when the same names or ID numbers pop-up: of a man who supposedly died a year ago, but now has a broken leg, for example.

Recently we found (or indeed couldn't find) 27 people who supposedly suffered loss in a bombardment: the people were made-up of fake IDs, photos from random people and (real) signatures by district-level officials. We had to find these in a sea of literally hundreds of people who were genuinely affected, which is exactly what makes it so easy for people to fraudulently claim assistance: if there is a big incident and it's difficult to assess who was really affected, a lot of organisations will just take the loss. And if your fraud gets discovered there are no repercussions: we will still help those that were really affected and thus far no one that I know of has ever lost his government-job or council position because of this type of corruption.

There are doctors who will make-up prescriptions or sign a piece of hospital-stationary stating that someone underwent surgery; people showing you a fully healed amputation-stump and claiming they lost that arm a month ago; photos taken at the local car wrecking yard that supposedly show a car blown-up in yesterday's IED-explosion, etc, etc. Luckily though, there's also that moment when a member of staff silently puts a little dot next to someone's case, because he knows it's a lie or the bizarre moment when a man who 'lost' his ability to walk, walked onto our compound...confused about the injury story his father had made-up for him.

Sep 11, 2011

9/11 2011: View From The Afghan Field

Abdul Wali was four years old when he was hit by a bullet last week. The bullet came from a Talib who attacked a military patrol in bright daylight in a civilian area, the boy died. So what I did today on 9/11 2011, 10 years after the attacks on the Twin Towers, was putting my signature under the delivery of assistance to the boy’s father. Last Thursday I had already signed the incident investigation, thus 'officially' adding another civilian casualty to a maddeningly long list.

kites tangled, but flying. kandahar

In the past days a number of people have asked me whether 10 years ago I expected to be in Afghanistan today. The answer is a very obvious ‘no’: on 9/11 2001 I was at my student association spreading hay over the floor (…), thinking that a tiny sports-plane had hit the WTC in Amsterdam with no serious consequences. That the consequences of what really happened were grave enough to now have me living in an international compound in the former Taliban capital (Kandahar), investigating and assisting families of civilian casualties of fighting between International Military Forces and the Taliban did not exactly cross my mind. But, as I’m here…

In the past 15 months I have put my signature under incident investigations representing close to 1,000 dead, injured or otherwise affected (bombarded houses) Afghan civilians. That same signature has also been put under assistance packages for about 700 families. At the moment less and less of those killed or injured are a result of the international military forces which is a positive development in itself. It may show an increasing understanding of how not to lose a war (no one wins a war). For me, in the last months the number of civilian casualties by international military went up somewhat due to cases where civilians came close to convoys or ignored stop-signs: troops were nervous about the immense destruction caused by Taliban’s suicide bombers during this “fighting season”, and it showed (a bit).

The numbers that are up, skyrocketing almost, are Afghan civilians that have been killed or maimed by Taliban or other AGE (Anti Government Entities). The Taliban is clobbering the Afghan population like a piƱata at Osama Bin Laden’s welcome-party in hell. The big difference, and worry, at the moment being that the stick to beat with isn’t solely provided by the Taliban’s senior clergy in Quetta anymore, but by undisciplined and irregular gangs of younger fanatics that are not interested in politics or negotiation. Any optimistic reports on talks about peace-negotiotations or preliminary talks-to-discuss-to-talk-about-talks should be appreciated with the mental picture of Madrassa students willing to blow themselves up for eternal life, in the back of your mind. The ages and the mentality of the suicide-bombers that are currently caught before they can act don’t lie.

I am optimistic about the future though: the insanity currently displayed by the Taliban, combined with some very cautious advances in education and economy in parts of the country are enraging and empowering those Afghans that have thus far remained the real fabric of society: caring and loving parents that will indeed speak up if their sons’ and daughters’ glimmers of hope are trampled upon again, whether by the country’s politicians or the Taliban.

9/11 and its aftermath in the form of the Afghan war are as unwelcome as any other form of human suffering and the world has not become a more beautiful place because of it, but there are too many truly beautiful Afghan minds and people that yearn to wander and roam for us to now just say “we tried, but failed”. It's not about us: let’s allow them to try, and decide not to fail them.

Jun 10, 2011

Afghanistan: In Loving Care

A tricycle-motor is coming down a desert-road in the province of Uruzgan. A man in his thirties is driving and in the load-bed a 28-month-old seriously ill boy is wrapped in blankets. The man is the boy’s uncle and bringing him to hospital. The uncle halts for a quick roadside talk with people that an overhead drone (unmanned aerial vehicle) identifies as Taliban. 15 minutes back on the road the tricycle gets a direct hit from special forces, the uncle dies on the spot. the boy sustains lethal injuries and dies some days later.

The drone crew and the special forces never detected the bundled-up boy on their video-images. A terrible incident, but it hides a further story.

Upon investigation (to establish whether we could assist the boy’s family) we found that the boy’s parents hadn’t been able to bring the boy to hospital themselves as both the father and mother are mentally disabled. The couple and their children live with their extended family who look after them in an isolated village known to be a Taliban hotbed. The killed uncle had indeed been a Talib, other family-members actively assist and host Taliban fighters in their houses.

The exact extent of the parents’ disability is unknown; there are no psychiatrists or psychologists in Uruzgan who can properly examine them or offer any hope of treatment and professional care. Neither is there any way to provide children whose families engage with the Taliban with a safe alternative. Otherwise healthy adults can choose to support the Taliban, whether that is a completely free choice or a forced decision depends on background, culture, religious convictions, economics and geography. Who definitely don’t have a choice though are the mentally disabled couple: they do not live with the Taliban out of any choice and their 28-month-old son was not being transported by an active Talib by free choice, however loving their family and the visiting Talibs may be.

The couple have other sons as well, but one or two of these boys will likely end up on the other side of the border with Pakistan in a Taliban madrassa. As one of my staff explains: the family feels an ‘urgency’ to have at least one of the boys ‘serve the faith’ for his blessed parents. ’Blessed’ being an interesting choice of word as the family went on complaining about the huge burden upon them…With hundreds of very young children populating the Taliban madrassas of North Pakistan where they are promised flowers raining down from heaven and eternal life after detonating themselves as suicide-bombers, it is a very sad promise this boy’s future holds.

Concepts of freedom and choice when it comes to the Taliban or other Islamist groups are a laden topic and it is impossible to know how the parents may have chosen if healthy. It is heart-rending though to realise how trapped those weakest in this fight for survival so often really are.

Apr 9, 2011

A burning sensation

One of the staff at my Kandahar office has an 11-year-old daughter who loves going to school. School is where her friends are, where she writes her stories and where she tries to understand why the teacher says her handwriting needs to improve (she vehemently disagrees). School is also in the centre of town, where the recent week of violent protest made it impossible for her to go there.

The actions of a marginal Florida pastor apparently enraged so many so much, that UN staff had to be killed and many more Afghan civilians ended up dead or wounded. One of the protesters said that he ‘had to defend Islam and their dignity’.

I may be wrong, but what I saw did not look like defending anything, nor did it look dignified. It looked like random violence, attacking people, setting cars on fire and destroying livelihoods. In the process more Qurans were burnt in the torched shops than any unhinged pastor ever did. The protesters apparently did retain the moral high-ground though, as it would be impossible for them to maim, molest or murder for anything than the highest Good, or so we were told by President Karzai.

With most other Muslims occupied with protests in the Middle East that were actually dignified and constructive, Karzai must have been relieved that clerics chose to focus on the Quran-burning and consequently the people of Afghanistan were still not gathering in front of his presidential palace or the provincial Council in Kandahar to address the eye-watering corruption and endless impunity that is orchestrated from there on a daily basis. So he ‘understood’ that they had to set the streets ablaze and tied his own hands by sitting on them.

An 11-year-old girl that wants to go to school has enough to be frightened of on the streets of Kandahar without self-serving hotheads, be they president or protester, making it worse. If you are not planning anything positive with your protest, then leave your banner and lighter at home and instead demonstrate dignity by allowing a little girl to go to school. Now that will prove a certain pastor wrong.

Mar 31, 2011

Blood on your hands

Would you drink tea with a man who is responsible for the death of more than 100 civilians? Do you consider the man whose militia controls and tyrannizes tens of villages as a partner for peace? Is the family that has earned millions of dollars over the backs of their fellow countrymen by exploiting their suffering a table partner?

Preferably not, but the answer to these questions is always ‘yes’. When I was working in the west of Afghanistan I could still largely ignore the ‘black side’, but now in Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul and Daykundi it is quite impossible to implement the program without a friendly smile for people who, under any other circumstance, should face trail in The Hague.

The small examples are the local strongmen who can provide my staff save passage though certain areas, or not. They and their men have been fighting for the last 30 years for every conceivable side and have not always behaved like perfect gentlemen, which I use as an understatement for having gallons of blood on their hands. You know that the guy sitting opposite from you is from a family that until very recently slowly strangled their opponents with glass-covered kite-line, today, however, he makes it possible for our staff to do incident investigations in a village where no one has been for the past two years.

One of the most interesting men to ‘cooperate’ with is the strongman of Uruzgan, Matiullah Khan: warlord and Pontius Pilate in one. The Dutch army had some rather interesting encounters with him during their Uruzgan tenure for ISAF and most of the international projects in the province would not have been implemented if it weren’t for his blessing. Without any official deal or handshake he allows us to use his secure convoys for free and protects our staff and office. Recently, the head of the Uruzgan provincial council stole assistance we had provided to some of our beneficiaries and ‘arrested’ our local coordinator. If that is the way the head of a governmental council behaves, who can you go to…but a certain local power-holder.

All of these men, whether they are now in official positions or running the show with support from their private militias, say that they only steal from you to redistribute it more fairly; they only skim off salaries to help the poor, and; they only behead someone because he stands in the way of an Afghan paradise being established. If this is your choice for partner, who do you tango with? The most important consideration isn’t really whether someone is a war criminal, but whether you further legitimize him by cooperating with him and if that is actually a bad thing for Afghanistan and its people.

I choose to ‘use’ a man with more blood on his hands than I ever held for possible, whilst the other option doesn’t carry any less responsibility for human suffering. You’ll have to choose…or just do nothing at all.

Aug 25, 2010

Can I have that one in a white please?

“You can paint it any colour, so long as it's black”, Henri Ford apparently said. With that attitude Farah would have been one big Ford Co. bankruptcy waiting to happen: cars are white, everybody knows that. Cars are white and that’s the law of Corolla, Toyota Corolla. I am looking for a new car and driver, and is turning out to be a rather one-sided affair: imagine yourself at the paints counter in your local DIY-store with a colour-range consisting of 10 whites, the one just slightly dustier than the other.

In Kabul I always use taxis and in Herat I’m driven around in one of our armoured Landcruisers, but in Farah I thus far used the car of one of my staff, a white Toyota Corolla. Obviously. Unfortunately, more and more people in the district are starting to ask him why he is driving around with me next to him, something that is making him increasingly nervous. I understand his anxiety, but even if I do not use his car anymore he will still be working for my programme and thus qualify as an infidel in the eyes of some. Nevertheless, a new car and driver combo is needed.

Now, I have got two un-armoured (soft-skin) white Landcruisers, but just about anyone in a warzone knows that white Landcruisers are used by international organisations and should either be left in peace, hi-jacked or blown-up: you only drive in a white Landcruiser if it’s an armoured Landcruiser. But I don’t have one of those and no one is planning to give me one. Lesson: when driving around in un-armoured vehicles you have to blend in and drive the car everyone has: a white Toyota Corolla (product-placement or what?!). I still dream of my own Landrover Defender of even one of those huge American 4X4 trucks, but it’s all unadvisable (in other provinces it might be a different story).The Corolla also has to be at the least pre-2003 and dented.

In order to pretend that I have any control over my own life left, I have now come up with three simple wishes that nevertheless make my Corolla very special and much more expensive. I want a functioning air-conditioning (it’s 47 Celsius out here); a certain legal document that allows the car to go from district to district or pass the provincial border (seems handy), and: (tadaa) a license-plate. Hardly any cars currently have a license-plate and the last police clamp-down on unregistered cars ended in one death and a mass-demonstration, so I’ll just –in-case-that-you-never-know-and-such. Am I asking for too much? Apparently: the car has to come from another province.

Corolla dealt with! Now find myself a driver...can’t be difficult: he (she’s are not allowed) only has to speak English, Dari and Pashto; be from a family or tribe that has no quarrels or blood feuds anywhere in the province; have no criminal record; have no known ties with ‘certain’ groups, but has to know everyone; be lenient when it comes to prayer-times; I need to like him, and; he needs to be self-effacing / destructive enough to drive around an international. O yeah, and have a drivers license...pretty exotic.

Jul 28, 2010

Wikilieaks wonderings

destroyed house in Bala Baluk district
Some thoughts

“Supposedly the biggest leak of military information ever”, appropriately summarizes the response by the likes of CNN, Al Jazeera and Euronews to the leak of military logs from Afghanistan on Wikileaks and in three international newspapers. Over 92000 incidents have been ‘made available’ for public scrutiny and paint a clearer picture of the daily intensity, insecurity and pain involved in this conflict.

My response: are people really surprised? Surprised about the high numbers of civilian casualties; the hunt for 2000 AQ leaders; or the mechanical descriptions of loss of human life and goods? I do wonder, because I’m not surprised and find it hard to understand that there is astonishment…but I also do understand that not everyone is here in the field on a daily basis and that indeed people do not have to be thinking about it over breakfast (because, please don’t).

I immediately spent some hours going over the log entries for my province and recognised a number of the incidents described. About an incident described as having happened at a bridge at this or that latitude in which LN 7 KIA and LN 5 WIA, I know that those 7 killed (KIA: killed in action) were in fact children and I have pictures of the wounded (WIA: wounded) on my laptop, as well as of the burned out auto-bus and the surviving relatives.

Obviously I recognise the reaction from a number of journalists and maybe the general public that the logs are extremely mechanical in dealing with human lives, but that is the way it is and there is no other way. Logs are not meant to convey an opinion or a feeling. Next to that it’s not always possible for an army to go and visit the village they air-struck the night before to assess the damage, so numbers and acronyms are what we are left with.

What can be done is making sure that information is forwarded whenever an army suspects civilians have been caught in conflict, this happens, but not in all cases; not by a long shot. I (very) regularly receive army-made short descriptions of incidents with a date, maybe a place, numbers of KIA and WIA and an explanation of the action. With these short descriptions I can send my team to the field to further investigate. My team coming back and their information being typed-up is often the moment that names, ages and families are added to the numbers and acronyms you see in the logs, if they weren’t known yet.

The information we receive from the troops is often incomplete (understandably so) and from the responses I get from these troops I know that they appreciate the human story that we assemble from our investigations. Not just for information, but also because they know this means that an organisation that can provide assistance is working on it. No human lives can be brought back or blown-off legs replaced, but for the troops and international politics it means: “we hit civilians, we won’t make any statements concerning that, but we know that either compensation or assistance (my work) is in the pipeline, which might stabilise this community again.”

The information isn’t always correct either. I’ve had a man that supposedly died at an army hospital, but was still very much breathing and talking. Nevertheless the information I get from troops, however incomplete or flawed, is often more reliable than the information we can get from afghan civilian sources. Village-councils happily keep people off victims-lists if they have no ‘interest’ in specific victims’ tribes or families; one family will accuse another of Taliban relations on absolutely no grounds whatsoever; an elder declares with his hand on his heart that a certain person has never existed; and another one damages his own house, that escaped a bombing, so he can get compensation. Even during meetings at my office victims will argue about who has suffered most, or should have suffered more. Human behaviour? yes, in all it’s indescribable, unrelentless and shadowy glory.

The fog of war, that’s what we’re collectively in and anyone you meet will tell you to go and search either left or right, but never under his roof. In this fog shocking mistakes are made and horrifying numbers of lives are lost. But who is guilty when you can hardly make out friend or enemy, or more appurtenant, who is innocent and innocent on what account? When an American rocket hit’s a family-car, if a soldier never returns to his family due to a Taliban IED, if a donkey is turned into a mobile explosive device which blows up a marketplace, if a NATO missile can’t distinguish between the children’s’ bedroom or the explosives workshop under the same roof…

The fog of war is never an excuse though...

Jul 22, 2010

short notes from the log

Short notes from the log

In addition to popular ‘knowledge’ that the UN and NGOs bring fraud or waste to a country, cats are to be considered as the next threat. The international compounds in West Afghanistan seem to have a cat-population explosion, which is why as a matter of redistribution, I have brought two little kittens from the UN guesthouse in Herat to the compound in Farah. After 4 hours in the air and a first day of reconnaissance of their new home, including ridiculously hot balcony and their first bath, they accept their fate. I have named them Bala and Buluk, after one of Farah’s most violent districts: Balabuluk. The district can do with some good PR, or should I say good Purrrrrr.

After a couple of weeks in Herat and Kabul, it’s good to be back in Farah: The balcony now has sandbags as well, the blast-walls are higher and we now have a car-slalom, to reduce the speed of approaching cars. Good investments? Yes: we’ve had a prison break, hostile take-over of checkpoints, RPGs and a couple of grenades.

Because of all that and due to the now finished international Kabul Conference we have been living under security status ‘White City’, which means that no one is allowed in or out of the compound. My staff has thus been working from another location. Compared to Kabul we should actually always be under ‘Red City’, one level up, but we’re tough guys.

Had a meeting with 8 village elders from Balabuluk district whose villages were bombed one year and one-and-a-half years ago, resulting in wounded, dead and sizeable property damage. The elders say that the Taliban used their village as a hide-out and launching pad, against their will…but how to prove that? Apparently, my predecessor wasn’t sure either and just ignored their further calls and requests. After the meeting and an investigation by my team, I am sure that they are victims though and have started the procedure to provide them with assistance, which they should now receive within the month. I apologised on behalf of my organization to these men of whom some had lost wife and children, what an embarrassment to keep people waiting this long.

The airport security guard that defied common sense and opened the box with my kittens is now walking around with very bright red scratch-marks. He did provide a service to humanity by using almost a whole role of tape in closing the box up again: dangerous cats.

In 3 separate incidents: driver of one of our transporters beheaded; 5 trucks of goods stolen by Taliban; 8 beneficiaries kidnapped and the goods they received set on fire.

Had tea with the guards from the Afghan police, something that we’re not exactly advised to do..but hey…although we could hardly understand each other is was fun.

Sigh, ok….better and real story next time….soo busy

Jul 9, 2010

may the best pictogram win

In September Parliamentary elections will be held here in Afghanistan, something that is increasingly seeping into daily news and life. With people whispering that they might be delayed, might be held earlier, or not at all, all bets are off. The most visible sign of what is to come are the candidates' election posters though: Kabul is increasingly looking like one giant billboard and even every taxi-van seems to have a favourite candidate.

The printing bazar, with tens of shops that can print anything on anything, is working overtime and every shopwindow proudly shows the election posters printed on their presses. I have not yet seen National Party teddies or Progessive Party teamugs, but I'm sure they are being ordered.

One of the most interesting features on the very colourful and already chockablock posters are the candidate's pictograms. In order for illiterate people to more easily identify or remember who to vote for, the election committee has come up with different illustrations that will be on the ballot paper next to name and photo and should be used by candidates on their promotion materials. The pictograms have already been used in the Presidential elections and are a clever initiative in a country where substantial numbers of people have difficulty reading. But...

Every candidate is allocated a pictogram / illustration by the election committee according to a simple system: the candidate blind-picks 3 illustrations from a box and chooses the one she/he likes best / dislikes least. If you are lucky enough to pick 3 illustrations that you like and can then pick your favourite from that set, you're gonna be a happy campaigner, but I just don't think there are too many of those as the illustrations are rather 'divers' to put it diplomatically. A short overview might clarify what I'm talking about. Illustrations: a candle, a parachute, a laptop, a typewriter, a stove, a motorcycle, 2 or 3 frontdoors, a birdbassin, 3 neckties, globes, a tape-cassette, a lock, cherries, a bulldozer, a pencil sharpener, the buckle of a belt, a box of matches, a fridge, a staircase, a ceiling fan, an iron, an empty table with tablecloth, a tankwagon and a well. That's just a small selection of a very wide and diverse range. The creative civil servant must have also been very inspired by his working environment judging from illustrations depicting a desk, a deskchair, a desklight, a pencil, a stapler and a teapot.

Potentially problematic is that not everyone understands what the illustrations are all about and that they do not have any meaning or intended message in themselves. One of my drivers is convinced that the laptop-illustration shows that the candidate wants to invest in technology, whilst the butterfly depicts a green candidate. There are candidates that have a prayermat or a book, so they must be very devout, right? I wonder what people make of the flatiron, ruler and 3 ships: candidates with policy on housework, mathematics and a navy (Afghanistan remains land-locked though), maybe?

Most bizarre are the illustrations that depict items that are not necessarily widely recognised by the Afghan public like the tennis-racket and the binoculors, or illustrations that depict a different version of the same item. I'm sure that the big teapot and the smaller tea-kettle will cause a row; the 4 different types of lamps and lightbulb a riot; and the laptop-computer and desktop-computer a stand-off between two candidates of which one has a flexible office-space policy...

My favourite is a comb, as a co-worker jokingly said: "that's because more people need to dress well"..sounds like a policy to me. I wish all Afghan voters the best of luck in the run-op to 18 September.

Jun 30, 2010

art for art's sake

A free day in Kabul can be extremely boring, spend pleasantly lounging around a pool at a bar for internationals or discovering the city. The third option can only be done properly though if you're not all too important: the more important you are, the less freedom of movement you have without arranging for a motorcade and security-detail first. Since I'm just a lowly provincial rep. I can traipse around as I please and actually walk through town, for example (although we are regarded as insane for doing that by just about everybody else). I decided to spend my free day going to the National museum, until a bomb exploded at the Ministry of the Interior and a call from my security-manager decided that I wasn't going there, but the much closer by National Gallery.

Some 15 minutes later I pass the ministry of the interior anyway, but I didn't know that and as my driver keeps smiling I won't protest.

Upon arrival at the National Gallery, staff is just leaving for lunch, but the director agrees to return to his office and sell me a ticket. I'm the only visitor and two ladies who apparently aren't invited to lunch are sent off to find the English-speaking guide. The very dusty old mansion is completely dark and, naively, I think that they just turn off the lights to save energy when there are no visitors. Of course no lights are turned on: there's no electricity for them. This obviously does not facilitate my day of culture and neither does the fact that the paintings are just about everywhere, including on the floor, leaning against the wall and so high up somewhere in the dark that you can't actually make out what is supposed to be enjoyed on them. After looking at a number of quite nice paintings, I am reprimanded in the friendliest way by the 20-year old guide/art student: "you have to start upstairs".

upstairs there's more light which makes it abundantly clear that most paintings could do with a spa-treatment and some pampering. They look dirty, tired and are almost all damaged due to looting and creative carving by the Taliban who ripped apart painintgs that represented living beings. Absolutely not allowed according to their strict interpretation of Islam. Nevertheless, the room with the oldest paintings (1800-50) has some really nice Northern-European style mountainscapes in familiar style: the painter was indeed trained in Germany. On the floor some really, really nice small ones could be hung next to the Albert Cuyps in London's National Gallery: the quality isn't the same, but the style, light and atmosphere in which the cattle, little streams and lush grasslands are painted bring me home to Holland.

The love for German-Dutch-Flemish scenery in art is widespread in the Middle East (and here as well then): in Gaza I once found an embroidery 'painting' in someone's livingroom actually depicting Hanzel & Grettel: weird, but in a nice way.

Whilst the guide is doing a nice job telling me about the painters and I keep trying to find the pearls inbetween the..well..uhm..lesser stuff and things that really shouldn't be here, I ask why some really good small paintings aren't hanging, but standing on the floor. The answer is as honest as expected: eventhough some of the big ones are bad, they're still big and big is impressive.

There is a moment though when all slightly sarcastic criticism ebbs away from you: in the upstairs corridor there is a big glass box filled with ripped and ruined paintings; ripped and ruined by the Taliban and these paintings are beyond repair. At that moment I wanted to place floodlights in the museum, add a glorious description to every painting and call in any Afghan child I could find in the streets and say to them: "draw, paint, sing, dance and never ask whether you're allowed to; never ask whether it's good enough; and never apologise, because your art will always be more precious and more important than the thoughts of the man who tries to stop you."

One of the last and biggest paintings in the gallery depicts the Amsterdam flowermarket, it's potentially really good..maybe the Dutch embassy can offer to get it cleaned and repaired? A bunch a flowers and hope for a well-lit and restored gallery.