Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Sunday, December 11, 2005
numbers are deeds
I have discovered that the real name of my temporary neighbourhood is not F6-1, but Shalimar!
When did this city become a series of coordinates? Why????Is this the fate of political capitals?
The numbers game has started with the aid effort. Well, the numbers and the blaming.
Why is it not better? Whose fault is it that it is not better? So much money and still the suffering continues. It always happens about now. If it were a Shakespearean tragedy, which it probably is, it would be Act IV. Or is it so elemental that it can only be Greek tragedy?
Emergency relief is not nor will ever be, perfectable. Think about Katrina and the struggle faced by the enormous resources of America to do what needed to be done. Here it's 30,000 square kilometers of the most difficult terrain in the world, huge areas of which look like a nuclear bomb site. And with winter on a mythic scale about to ice it over.
I do not mean to say that good management is impossible. It must be the best that can be done. And it must be based in reality, not data bases. Just because a village received a small amount of aid once three weeks ago does not mean that it can be declared "assisted" and that the people who live there will make it through the winter . Many of the remote villages are dependent on food aid from the military in ordinary winters. Now that roads are blocked and there are needs beyond measuring, it's hard to say what will happen when those valleys are sealed off by snow between December and February.
Kashmir is a different country, the Pakistanis say. From my first glimpse of Kashmmiri embroidery a decade ago, I surely knew that. Women embroider their landscapes and their lives. Kashmiri jackets and fine cashmere wraps are covered with the gardens of imangined Samarkand and the Moghul empire and ancient China. Chinna leaves and mangoes, lotuses and peonies all linked by trailing connected vines of green silk thread. I've wanted to see that landscape for a long time.
Sadly I am here to see only its ruined towns of Balakot, Muzaffarabad . I can still only imagine the astonishingly beautiful valleys high above those towns from which, we guess - perhaps 200,000 earthquake survivors have chosen not to come down to receive assistance. Perhaps no money for transport, certainly an unwillingness to leave the livestock on which their survival depends, or their land and what remains of their homes and posessions. But to choose actual shelterlessness is a fierce decison.
We drive between the towns on terrifyingly narrow roads falling away into bottomless precipes a few feet from the side of the car. Surely these will become icepaths soon?
My eyes are drawn back again and again to the places where the mountain sides have been sliced open. The colour of the newly exposed rock is utterly different from the blue and khaki abstract painting that ancient landcsapes like this often resemble. It's cream. Very pure looking. It creates an entirely new geometry - a new visual field. One can make these observations having not witnessed villages and farms slide off the mountain into oblivion.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
A molten period in the emergency response effort has led to bloglessness.
And extreme fatigue.
It marked the crossover period from the “race” against winter to the “knife edge” recognition that on the one hand, it has actually arrived and on the other, the race needs to continue. At least it continues when the weather allows the helicopters to fly. Otherwise it’s continuing by mule and on foot. People from the high villages are walking 30 kilometres each way to return up the mountain with a huge bag of grain on their shoulders.
As one official observed to the press the other day the words “winter,” as in Himalayan winter, and “tent” are not normally used together. This was in answer to the question, “why didn’t you get in winterised tents?” by way of explaining that there’s really no such thing. And besides, we have almost every available winterised tent in the world here now and it is not enough. It means a sturdier tent. The military and aid teams are working round the clock and it’s not enough to ensure that people will survive.
The press has reported the first 8 deaths from hypothermia and pneumonia among children. And that was after the first storm of the winter. A journalist saw people huddling for shelter under dried maize stalks. In one photograph a young girl was carrying firewood on her head in waist deep snow. A woman spoke of her greatest fear at this time of year normally being leopards.
I flew to Muzaffabarad in Pakistani administered Kashmir by helicopter with a full cargo of supplies, aid workers and visiting European officials seeing how their money was being spent. Opposite me were two young Pakistani Canadians. I could see the maple leaf on the IDs around their necks. They were heavily bearded, wore ultra traditional clothing and were muttering prayers through barely moving lips as they stared into the middle distance all the way to Abbotobad. They’re either good kids from expat families volunteering for the Red Cross who also happen to be passionate believers or they’re the kind you worry about on planes, I think to myself. Impossible to tell. One of them was reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
After touching down in Abbotobad to let people off, I am completely chastened. During our 15 minutes on the ground, I determinedly start talking to the scarier looking of the two boys, so I can figure out what they’re about. He turns out to be a young medic with a heart of gold, lovely manners and doing front line disaster relief high in the mountains. He had just come down to collect his colleague, he who wants more effective habits. They’re both interns at Toronto hospital putting in 80 hour weeks, but who’ve volunteered to come here as part of career plans in emergency public health. The scary boy had already served in Aceh, the Colombian mudslides and Katrina this year. Now he’s searching for old people too scared to look for medical help high in the Himalayas and is escorting them out, or if they refuse, is doing whatever he can for them where they are.
God it must be difficult to be a young man of Arab, or in this case, South Asian, appearance in the world now.
Sunday, November 20, 2005
pomegranates and what I learned in the field
Song of Solomon moment.
I have been to the Hotel Serena.
I drank pomegranate juice there.
It looks like crushed gem stones – a very regal shade of purple.
And full of life affirming goodness as well.
I think we should all grow pomegranates.
Just as I went into the garden this morning to wrestle a policy paper into
submission thinking it needed sunlight, the kindly aging guard at the gate
who was intently trimming his beard with a small piece of mirror, leapt to
his feet to salute me. Quite a military culture, this.
As I sat there plumbing the depths of managing camps for the displaced
when chaos is all around, I looked up and saw a dove flying overhead. I have
never seen one before, at liberty. I do hope it’s an omen for world peace
and everything else I can think of.
Yesterday the international donor conference for earthquake reconstruction
was held in Islamabad. Security lockdown. No sipping pomegranate juice
at the Serena that day.
There were a lot of statements of support and a lot of financial pledges made.
They are not quite marital vows. Sometimes only 50% of the pledges
materialise. Perhaps they are like marital vows. A big chunk
of these commitments were in fact soft loans.
There are a lot of smoke and mirrors involved –money already spent,
creative book keeping, contributions in kind. All good sounding,
but let’s see what comes. For us, what counts is the relief
component, which they say will need $40 million a month to keep people
alive and cared for during the winter. Only then can reconstruction begin.
Excellent article on this in today’s (London) Observer, Money, not excuses, by
Alex Renton. And for the cynical local perspective, there is Iqbal
Mustafa writing in the (Islamabad) News on Sunday : Donor Conference:
Filling a leaking bucket.
What I learned on my field trip.
On Friday I flew by helicopter to the northwest of Islamabad to
Mansehra to see camps for the displaced in North West Frontier
Province, which apparently has a new Taliban style administration.
We flew over the blue Margalla Hills- by Australian standards very
significant mountains indeed. In his fine essay on the madrasas of
Pakistan in the New York Review of Books, William Dalrymple
called these hills “jagged dragons’ backs.” Indeed.
Mansehra was a 19th century Sikh garrison town, now emergency
humanitarian hub for the middle Himalayan valleys. Full of
Pashtuns, Punjabis and Kashmiris. It’s a dusty wild west of a town
in a permanent traffic frenzy. The colleagues are living and working
on the main street in what was a hotel now an office and dorm. They’re
begging for earplugs so they can get any sleep.
The roads they drive on to do their daily work are beyond serpentine
and fall away into sheer precipices. You would fall hundreds and
hundreds of feet. The dangers are so extraordinary, and the traffic using
the roads so crazy, that a certain cavalier quality in the drivers makes
some kind of sense. Nerves would not help, and caution would be
The already snowy peaks of the high valleys are a long way off.
Here today it’s very warm and dry, with dust swirling everywhere. Then
you remember that many survivors walked this incredible distance down
the mountain carrying whatever they could retrieve in huge plastic bags
and less often, battered suitcases circa 1945. Lots of eiderdowns
being carried down.
Some families had paid for or hitched rides down and were deposited by
the side of the road clearly dazed and having no idea what to do next.
I learned that so far, only the most impoverished have turned up in the
camps. Less than 1/3 who’ve come down. The rest go to friends or
relatives or to live in tents scattered randomly throughout
the area in groups of two or three, sometimes hundreds if they’ve
been built by local charities who then drove away having done their
good deed. They are higgledy piggledy random. Frighteningly
these spontaneous settlements have no services of any kind.
The chances of disease and fire breaking out are huge. That’s what my
paper is about. What to do about them.
Clearly the mountain people are proud and independent and don’t
want to be “coordinated.” I well understand this impulse. But this is
a matter of survival.
When you fly over the jagged peaks and see the hamlets they live in
clinging to cliffs, and the zig zag paths up sheer mountain faces
which are their normal means of dealing with the landscape,
you get a small glimpse of the temperaments of the people. On your
own and straight up. Also very conservative and set in their ways
born of isolation. Tribal but not communally inclined.
All this requires a careful hand from the internationals, who
haven’t exactly had cultural orientation training.
Though I watched a young Cambodian colleague in action that day, dealing
one after the other with the local military commander in charge of the camp,
whom he was tasked with “advising,” an overeager Guinean site planner
needing direction and a group of displaced families illicitly tapping
into a water pipe they believed – I’m sure correctly - to be carrying
their own spring water down from the mountains.
They preferred it to the highly suspect expensive trucked in
water from the verifiable source in the big blue UN water containers
in the camp.
Each of these encounters required a different operating “language.”
Happily, deft interpersonal skills can get you a long way.
In the case of this young Cambodian, who had been forcibly recruited
by the Khmer Rouge six months before the war ended, they have
equipped him to talk himself out of some remarkable situations
and into others, including this UN job, which he is doing so well.
He is trying to coordinate 178 sites in his area – of scattered tents
full of proud and independent people with no water or sanitation
facilities, by mobile phone to his staff.
My favourite reconstruction assistance story of the day. Disasters which
leave huge numbers of people homeless and desperate for shelter
always attract kind hearted architects who have been experimenting for
years with their own designs for cheap, easy to assemble dwellings,
to be produced on a mass scale.
Today’s paper covered the launch of the newest offering to the homeless
here, space age moulded fibre glass domes.
The mind boggles at the image of the fibreglass domes being carried the last
few vertical miles by mule to be delivered to the astounded mountain
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
day in the life
A convoy of UNHCR relief supplies crawls up a
precipitous mountain road in Pakistan-administered
Kashmir. A snapshot of aid and impediments high
in the Himalaya
MERA KALAN, Pakistan, November 15 (UNHCR) – A typical day starts at 6 a.m. And
while this day will not end as it was planned, that in itself is typical in this massive
operation to provide shelter across a region devastated by last month's earthquake. It's
an operation that presents daily
challenges and lessons in
After everyone has emerged from
their sleeping bags and stirred
themselves with a quick cup of
coffee or tea, we load ourselves
into a small four-wheel-drive
pickup. Our destination is the
district of Mera Kalan, about 50
kilometres away, and 1,800 metres
above sea level.
The area is remote, with few roads.
In the coming weeks it will be
covered by up to three metres of
snow. But like so many people in
Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the inhabitants of the small villages carved into the
hillsides are reluctant to leave their land, preferring to construct temporary winter
shelters next to their shattered homes.
The mission is led by Mohammed Musa, a long way from his normal base in Karachi. He
has been a part of UNHCR's earthquake relief operation from the beginning, working 14
hours a day, seven days a week.
We meet up with our four trucks on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad and form a convoy
along the road which weaves through the Jhelum valley. Until recently, most of this
road was closed by landslides. The heavy bulldozers of the Pakistani army have cleared
nearly all of the blockages, but many sections are only wide enough for one vehicle to
pass at a time. In places the asphalt hangs precipitously over the void left by the
slipping earth. Stones are used to warn drivers not to get too close to the edge.
The trucks are carrying 150 tents, 4,500 blankets, 500 plastic sheets as well as
hundreds of kitchen sets and jerry cans. The supplies arrived 24 hours earlier from
Islamabad, but the process of getting them to these communities began thousands of
kilometres away at UNHCR's warehouse in southern Turkey and has involved more than
70 sorties by NATO aircraft.
Two hours later, the convoy turns off the main road and begins the long, steep climb
up to Mera Kalan. The road here is a mixture of rocks and dirt, which the overnight
rains have turned into mud. On the higher peaks the rain has fallen as snow – a sign of
how quickly the weather is changing.
After a few switchback turns, the wheels of the lead truck are spinning in the mud and
progress comes to a halt. Musa sends Nader, who recently arrived from UNHCR's office
in Quetta, to the nearby army camp to borrow a couple of four-wheel-drive trucks. The
idea is that by off-loading some of the supplies onto these vehicles, our trucks can
continue their climb up the mountain.
A crowd of men has gathered around the stalled convoy and one of them, an elderly
man with a striking white beard, is telling Musa that his village at the top of the hill has
received no assistance. The delay gives us time to assess the situation. The village,
Naker Darian, is not connected to any road, so we walk up narrow tracks. The elderly
man, Abdul Rashid Shaida, says he's "about 70" but strides up the slope effortlessly as
we labour in his wake, panting and making frequent pauses to catch our breath.
Most of the houses in the village have been damaged rather than destroyed. "Given the
condition of the houses and the fact that they receive such heavy snowfalls, tents are
not the ideal solution," says Musa. "By providing people here with plastic sheets,
blankets and other supplies, we can support their efforts to build temporary shelters
using materials from their damaged houses."
Asked why the residents of Naker Darian remain in such a harsh and isolated place,
Abdul Rashid answers simply: "Our land and houses are here. Where else will we go?"
The transfer of part of our supplies into the army trucks is nearly complete by the time
we have climbed back down to the road. Now considerably lighter, the lead truck takes
another run at the slope, and this time makes it across the troublesome stretch.
Inspired by his success, the other drivers follow behind.
It's now late afternoon. The light is fading and the road conditions are getting worse.
We're about an hour from our final destination, but some of the drivers are expressing
misgivings about continuing. Nothing will be distributed after dark and the safest option
is for the drivers to spend the night at another army camp a little further on, and for us
to return to Muzaffarabad and start again early tomorrow.
We arrive back in Muzaffarabad 12 hours after leaving; then retrace our steps next
morning, after setting off at first light. When we arrive at Mera Kalan, a queue of men
has already formed at the distribution point. News of the supplies' arrival has spread,
and there are more family representatives than we had expected. All of the tents,
blankets and other items are distributed, but there is clearly a need for more. The team
reassures the men they'll be back.
Additional supplies arrive almost daily from Islamabad, and another 500 tents will be
set aside for this area. A combination of damaged roads, poor weather and the sheer
remoteness of the area has meant it has taken 48 hours to complete this relatively
small delivery. At the same time, the team has discovered additional needs in yet
another village even more cut off and difficult to supply. For Musa, Nader and the
thousands of other aid workers, soldiers and local people struggling to provide relief to
more than 3 million affected people in the earthquake zone, the near round-the-clock
work schedule looks set to continue.
Monday, November 14, 2005
As I am flying to Islamabad to try to be helpful to humanity, I confront my country’s distinct lack of helpfulness to its own. The only article on Australia making it into the International Herald Tribune tells me that Canberra has issued an edict: if bird flu mutates into human form, if I understand correctly, Australian travellers may not be able to come home from a number of Asian countries, including the one I happen to be transiting. These stranded Australians should not, the article says, count on support from their embassies and should have their own medications stockpiled as well as their own evacuation plans in place. To where? Of course it mainly applies to Australians living in those countries. Bad enough. But for the global travellers with no actual home in which to self quarantine at that point- what next? A new kind of refugee living in airports?
I later read that the Health Minister says that the Government would do “all it could” to bring Australians home. Which is it to be?
The momentum of the trip gathers in a jet lagged kind of way on the plane to Dubai when I look around the plane and see the usual suspects for such times and places – diplomats, donors (lots of Japanese), media hacks and aid types, even some over 40, looking very tired.
My first glimpse of Dubai at 2.30 am, always a fine time for new experiences, was a giant bronze hand rising into the night sky. An emphatic moment for Mohammed, I wondered? No the hand was clutching an equally huge mobile phone. It was the God Samsung.
As I sit at my first Dubai meal in transit, the raddled, crisis addicted TV crews, Keith Richard types over 50 in backwards baseball caps – are circling the buffet.
Here in Dubai, they’re killing their chickens, before they make it onto the buffet table.
Spend Halloween in a torrid and unexpected bus trip across the Arabian desert at night between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Despite the confirmed flight of my itinerary, it was a bus ride. Me and twenty or so Arab men yelling into their cellphones all the way to make themselves heard over the deafening middle eastern disco musak accompaniment. The visual experience was surreal- starting with the raw new money towers – towering towers - of Dubai - high rises and malls as far as the eye could see - followed by sand and more sand then more technicolour spires as we lurched into Abu Dhabi. Someone said that Dubai is where the malls of the world go on holiday. Why a bus I will never know. Thence to a killer all night flight – I have mentioned that I'm over travel? Arrived in Islamabad at dawn - to wrestle with the inevitably lost luggage requiring you to stay till the bitter end of the conveyor belt before you can legitimately complain.
Airport arrivals in developing countries feature casts of thousands all behaving badly. A shock to the system after my sleepy home town where people have so much space in which to express themselves. The nice young man from the Marriott Hotel counter takes pity on me as I desperately try to get my phone to work to call the office and tells me I can sit and wait in the bank, which is clearly more of a lounge area for the lucky than an actual commercial premises.
Hallucinate my way through an office day including a security briefing. There were a number of truly brave youngsters ( aid workers are now all 25) heading up to the two main UN centres for relief work in the mountains, or “upstairs, ” Muzaffarabad and Mansehra, where they, like every body else in the area – the survivors of the earthquake - will be spending the Himalayan winter in a tent. Ten to a tent and hovering over stoves in the evenings, if they're lucky. There are some three million affected by this earthquake in landscape that could not be worse for access and with the snows coming in three weeks.
Day two November 1st
After a bad Italian meal in one of the only two restaurants serving wine -also bad – with three other new arrivals, two Uzbeks and a Ukrainian, I sleep like a child in a truly disgusting Adams family guest house devoid of bathroom hygiene. The Hotel Serena it is not. This latter establishment shimmers with five star amenities in the distance wherever we drive in Islamabad. Tragically out of reach even if our salaries could afford it, it is so opulent by this city's standards as to be unseemly for aid workers, even if it were not full, which it is. Everywhere is full. It's become a ruthless game trying to move one rung up the accommodation ladder. I personally have moved forward one step to the Islamabad Best Western, way out of the way and about thirty years past its prime, or in the case of its bathrooms, respectability. But a long way ahead of last night's horrors. I hear that the Jasmine Guesthouse is the one to aim for. Tragically triple booked at all times.
My tattooed Mancunian ex oil rigger now telecoms expert office mate Michael is my accommodation adviser. Also my technical adviser, always a good thing. He can't stop talking about his little boy and his second wife, a former Georgian beauty queen, who are back in Manchester and whom he hasn't seen for 7 months. This life is not good on families. When she rings, he calls her “'chicken,” and goes outside to smoke and pace.
The office runs on Liptons tea. Fortunately the green tea is also delicious – fragrant and made with cardamom. The house used to belong to the Australian mission – some warehouse and secondary offices with garden -- and it's completely surrounded by gum trees. I sit in the small courtyard and inhale the eucalyptus. The days are mild.
Haven't seen a crisis like this one before. Usually, well optimally, it's a clear and finite relief and assistance phase followed by the reconstruction people and money moving in. This is a long drawn out life saving operation. It will last all winter – until March or April. Hundreds of thousands of people will be spending the winter in tents, as many of them winterised with stoves as possible. At the moment that's not many, as UNHCR emptied their warehouses when this happened and what those warehouses were full of were tents suitable for Africa where most refugee crises happen.
The plan to try to get materials to people who can salvage one room of their homes that could be made warm and to try to keep them in their homes and villages is going into overdrive as it becomes clear that some people will not come down. Getting to them will depend on getting the roads clear to get materials through. At the moment it's camps being set up “downstairs” and everybody who can get out coming down to get help. People are going to be paid to clear rubble – for survival money and therapy as well as land clearance. Rubble clearing in deep snow even if you had heavy equipment would be some challenge. At least NATO now has the full military machine engaged with road clearance. There are European soldiers staying in this faded hotel. They don't sleep in barracks any more?
Still no luggage.
Yesterday was Diwali in India – muted after the Delhi bombing. Here Eid is coming. Everyone who can go home is going home. It must be a special torment for those made newly homeless.
There's a funding crisis for the UN's relief efforts for earthquake victims. Samir, a Jordanian colleague working here has suggested that we turn to Al Jazeera and MBC, the Middle East Broadcasting Commission to seek donations during Eid. Apparently charitable acts during this time throw open the gates of heaven. The celebration of Eid depends on the moon cycle, and could fall on either Wednesday or Thursday... a moveable feast.
The diplomatic compound here in which we are located is surrounded by razor wire and many many guards. Even the median strips in this part of town have their own barbed wire.
Still stuck at the past its best Western though trying all avenues to get to a guesthouse.
No luggage yet. They have found it though.
The time is short to try to achieve anything on Ramadan days. I guess to make the fasting bearable, the work day for locals is only six hours long. There's quite a party in the office everyday when the fasting ends: dates, pastries and very strong coffee. The evening then becomes the main time for socialising. An awful lot of gaiety. The office drivers and the relief convoy drivers are working through the Eid Holy Days over the weekend to help the earthquake victims.
I read today about a remarkable people who seem to embody the collisions of time in this part of the world which this earthquake has exposed. The Gujjars are`nomads who live incredibly remote lives in the mountains in huts made of wood. Unlike everyone else, because they live such elemental lives, they have already rebuilt their homes and are now working for money to aid the reconstruction efforts. What a curious boom time for them.
In Uri village, as in so many others, the people are choosing to live in tents even though their houses are intact because there are half a dozen aftershocks every day. These cause landslides, the most dangerous aspect of the aid delivery by road and mountain track.
This is the most clearly defined work I have done in a very long time. Up to three million displaced needing shelter within three weeks before the snow comes. Food, water, sanitation, medical treatment for their wounds. Life services. It must be profoundly disturbing and disorienting for these remote mountain people, living privately in small villages, largely operating outside the twenty first century to find themselves in huge refugee camps where everything – cooking, bathing – is communal and without privacy of any kind. And being dependent . Because the terrain even at these lower levels of the mountains is still restrictive, there is little or no space between the tents as the basic safety requirements of humanitarian assistance would require. This is much more dangerous – for sanitation, waste clearing and the potential outbreaks of fire and disease. No one is mentioning cholera. Only the government is allowed to announce a cholera outbreak.
In this country where rape and the kidnapping of children is common, the protection of the camps, the security of their perimeters is critical.
There is a measure of order – despite the hazards and overcrowding – in the camps set up by the military with help from UNHCR. The thousands of spontaneous settlements are another matter. The lucky ones are helped by the Islamic relief organizations of which there are many. There are others, by the side of the road, clinging to hillsides, or in the rubble of the survivors' own homes, where they are completely on their own. The internationals are trying to map these settlements and are sending out emergency teams to vaccinate against the inevitable diseases in situations like this – measles, tetanus, diphtheria, bring in food and water and to set up basic latrines to try to keep people alive.
For the tens of thousands above 5,000 feet where it's already raining and the snow is starting, and where for a variety of reasons people do not want to leave, there is a huge race to get them the supplies they need to create the one warm room out of their destroyed houses, with corrugated iron, nails and tools and whatever materials can be recovered from the wreckage. Must look like a stage set for Waiting for Godot set with Shangrila in the background.
The army - 78,000 troops -- seem to have done an astonishing job in clearing roads, building the camps, making their way to the most inaccessible of places at the ends of ancient Kashmiri valleys – Kaghan, Neelum to find survivors. NATO and US troops are out in force. Though I hear reports that your average soldier finds peacekeeping efforts emasculating, it still gives me, a child of my generation. particular joy to see those Vietnam era Chinooks being used to deliver aid. As the system comes together, there are fewer of them flying over Islamabad. They're now flying out of the two big relief hubs, Mansehra and Muzafferabad.
The Allai Valley is defying all efforts to reach thousands of people. Unimaginable.
In villages that have been cut off, people are signaling helicopters carrying relief to come to them, with pieces of broken mirror.
No one knows how many people will still come down from the high altitudes. How bad will it have to get for them to leave their land and livestock, their treasures and their work, which they fear they’ll lose. Many men are staying behind and sending their families down. There was CNN footage shown the other night of people who had been evacuated by helicopter – and at that point alone joining the twenty first century – only to be put down on the edge of town, unreceived, and walking into the urban traffic of the present day looking utterly disbelieving and confused. I remember when the Roma came into downtown Sarajevo after Dayton had been signed in donkey drawn carts which kept getting stuck between cars and amazing the locals. These cultures in extremis keep exposing such amazing fault lines where time melts. I think that is a mixed metaphor.
Looking at the appearance and bearing of some of these Himalayan survivors, it's as though this earthquake is propelling them into globalization from some quite other time and place.
Accommodation triumph! I have made my way up the ladder to one of the nicer guest houses- nobly called Grand Mansion. Not exactly. But the room is a generous traditional Pakistani room with windows that open, reading lights, a table to write on and – fundamental – a clean and relatively modern bathroom. The bonus is a garden with chairs on the grass, and in these closing days of late, late autumn – post monsoon- when it's still about 22 degrees everyday in Islamabad and the light is a kind of soft moist pale gold – it's balm in the down moments to sit in the garden. There's bougainvillea weaving its way through the barbed wire on top of the garden wall, and I'm on smiling hello terms with the armed guard to whom I am personally grateful.
There's a slightly enchanted quality to the guest house service. It is utterly personal, and fits in with when people come and go – mostly at crazy hours. It means that you hardly ever see any other guests, so when you are asked when you would like your breakfast, you come out into the pleasant foyer area where the eating happens, to find all that you asked for set at the table for you alone, as if by magic. Being ex- British, it's all tea cozies and marmalade. My fresh fruit salad this morning was sprinkled with luminous pomegranate seeds. The family lives behind the guest house, so there are children playing outside my ground floor window and a sense of life going on. Birds in the trees – the usual healthy population of crows. Even butterflies. Thanks to my time in New York I cannot remember the last time I saw a butterfly. Fortunately the endemic mosquitos seem to be somewhere else.
My luggage has arrived. Joy. One always fears one will never see it again.
The Office was officially closed today for Eid, with all the local staff away. They went to their home villages for family gatherings – like Thanksgiving in the States. Wish we had a festival like that in Oz, one that was only about reunions, feasting and thanksgiving, with no commercial aspect except a new frock and lots of bangles. But as with the muted Diwali in India after the bombing, after the earthquake here there was a gravity to this observance. There has been so much loss, so much death, but an extraordinary outpouring of compassion from ordinary people as well.
The emergency team I'm working in is bonding. The core members are Sudanese, Italian, Australian and American. Good people.
This is my first quiet exposure to Islam on a daily basis. I still remember with great intensity the extreme version I encountered in Iran during the Kurdish crisis of 1991. So far a gentleness, courtesy and a certain gracefulness in treatment of others is what I see. It certainly seems to be a faith that emphasises respect and an inviting in of the stranger. But this is very superficial. I know nothing.
From what I saw, Eid had been very secular in Bosnia, big on the feasting , dressing up and taking everyone flowers---very good for my friend Sejo who managed to keep a flower shop going during a war when the city was under siege and on rations. Here the observance of Ramadan was universal.
I learn from another expat who had stayed there that he had suffered food poisoning at the Hotel Serena.
Islamabad is like Canberra with mosques – somehow a little more graceful, with its lush subtropical gardens, climbing vines and bougainvillea. But identical in its absence of city centre. Unlike Burley Griffin's concentric circles which leave the newly arrived driving round and round for days on end, here it's squares – called F6, G1 and the Blue Zone. (for diplomats of course.) Each square sensibly has its shops in the middle of the square. I got seriously lost in squares driving home with my office mate, Michael. He revealed – too late for this expedition – that he suffers from night myopia – which means that he does not recognise anything that he passes by. Everything he passes is unrecognizable and in vacuo. That tree is the first tree he has ever seen. A profound disorientation, but only at night. During the day he is perfectly normal. On this occasion, his newly arrived passenger who knew nothing was no help, but even I knew we were seeing an awful lot of F7
The week has been dominated by the arrival of rain and snow upstairs and the outbreak of acute watery diarrhea in the camps. The good news is that all of the roads are now opened except for the Allai valley.
The emergency fundraising part of my job has seen me brief the Italians, the Brits and the Qataris, with the
Irish, the Saudis, United Arab Emirates and Tunisia this week. Many more to come. The big reconstruction conference is happening at the end of the week, with Kofi Annan arriving. Hope it means more press. Only the honourable BBC has stayed with the story, the biggest natural disaster in modern history. There is the occasional CNN special and the local press are being vigilant and reporting well.
Due to the accommodation crisis I have moved rooms four times this week, all within the same guest house. Just when they say I will have to move out due to some viperish pre-booking, I beg and a miracle happens and I get another room for a few more days. This new one is a bit gloomy. Bathroom a bit of a set back, but at least it’s on the ground floor and the formerly functioning nee doesn’t have to struggle up the stairs. (otherwise it’s fine). The biggest trial I find is learning new bathrooms, particularly those with baroque plumbing.
The weather hasn’t broken here yet.