Working for the United Nations Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA)

by Nancy Hendricks
August 2002 (web site only)

A UNAMA technical expert–that is what my April 2002 contract with the Asia Foundation read. Initially I had been assigned as one of 27 international monitors to observe district and regional elections leading up to a grand Afghan Assembly in Kabul. Once in country I worked as information support to the UN and Commission spokesmen, then was asked to manage the Operations Center in the Commission tasked with convening the Emergency Loya Jirga (ELJ)

As I returned from a League of Women Voters meeting one night, the message light on my phone machine was blinking. “This is Larry Sampler, calling from Kabul, Afghanistan.” He was a UN employee in charge of logistics for setting up the Afghan government. “Ambassador Finn speaks highly of you. When can you come?” Two weeks later, I boarded Sky West in Pocatello, heading out to Afghanistan to work under short contract for the United Nations.

My Central Asian background had begun as the spouse of a military attache assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan from 1976-79. I learned to speak the Persian language Dari, and at one point could read and write it reasonably well. While leading tours for the Afghan Studies Committee of the American Women’s Association, I had come face to face with a marvelous bust of Alexander the Great amid Buddhist sculptures and wondered, “Wasn’t he that Greek? What was he doing in Afghanistan?” Upon my return to the US, I pursued that question at university, ending up with a master’s in Central Asian studies. From 1995-99, I’d worked in Tajikistan for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe as a field officer, speaking the Tajik version of Persian. Robert Finn had been the US Ambassador there, and when I heard he was assigned to Kabul, I e-mailed him that I was eager to compete for a job in Afghanistan.

When they heard where I was going, my children were elated. Audrey said, “Mom, take a picture of our old home.” Jeff wrote, “Mom, I know we’d both give body parts to be able to go with you.”

Those assigned to the Loya Jirga project were flown into Islamabad, Pakistan, given an orientation by The Asia Foundation office there, and then put on a UN plane to Kabul. For months, this had been the only safe route into Kabul, except for the badly cratered road through the baren Khyber Pass and the magnificently rugged Kabul Gorge. Recently, Ariana Afghan Airlines began flying into Dubai, but not Islamabad. Things were beginning to change.

Surrounded by 4000-meter high Hindu Kush Mountains, mile-high Kabul is shaped like a bowl with large barren hills in the center. The small 8-seater twin-engine UN plane topped the mountains and dived, circling down toward the Kabul airport as if on a roller coaster run. The airfield, only partially de-mined, was littered with the carcasses of war planes and airliners, marked Aeroflot and Ariana. Off to one side of the airport, the international forces of ISAF lived in tents on the blistering tarmac under the brightly colored flags of their individual nations. This was not a UN Peacekeeping force but a brave group of nations who volunteered to keep Kabul safe and conduct local civic education on the loya jirga process as Afghanistan started the process of nation-rebuilding. Currently under the command of the British, ISAF would be transferred to Turkey’s control in June, coinciding with the culmination of the Emergency Loya Jirga.

As my foot touched Afghan soil, Dari phrases filled my brain and I chatted with everyone I could. Afghans and internationals alike smiled back. We made a quick trip to the UN offices, then over to the Special Independent Commission for the Convening of the Emergency Loya Jirga. A jirga is an Afghan tribal council that has legislative and juridical authority. Specifically during times of national emergency, Afghan rulers convened a loya jirga, or grand assembly, of male leaders from all parts of the country to determine the national concensus.

The UN talks under UN Secretary General Kofi Anan’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Algerian-national Lakhdar Brahimi included prominent Afghans. The resulting Bonn Agreement[1], signed in Germany on December 22, 2001, gave just six months to set up the basics of a new government. An effort was made to incorporate familiar Afghan traditions, such as the loya jirga and as much of existing Afghan law and the 1964 Afghan Constitution as possible, with internationally-recognized human rights. The Agreement initially established the Interim Authority, comprised of Chairman Hamid Karzai, and 29 department heads (of whom 5 are vice chairmen)–which was to last only until June 22, 2002, when the newly formed government, the Transitional Authority, would take over.

The Bonn Agreement mandated that within one month the UN would assist in the establishment of the Special Independent Commission for the Convening of the Emergency Loya Jirga. It had final authority for broad-based seat allocation (women, internally displaced persons, refugees, nomads, Islamic scholars, traders, representatives of civil society organizations, and other prominent individuals), election monitoring, and procedures for the Emergency Loya Jirga. The Commission employed about 100 Afghans, 21 of whom were the Commissioners who had the final say. This was an Afghan show, with UN guidance and assistance. My job lay at the heart of this commission-its operations center, where I was the second international, after a Jordanian general named Mohamad Baghdadi, among 10 Afghans. Another dozen or so internationals joined us throughout the process to assist.

The loya jirga process included:

* Phase I elections were held in all districts of Afghanistan, selecting about 60 persons in each location.
* Phase II elections were held in 9 regional centers when safe to do so. The 60 selectees from Phase I elected their delegates to the ELJ in Kabul.
* Phase III was convening the 1501-delegate Emergency Loya Jirga in Kabul. Their duty was to choose a president, key leaders in the government, and the form of government-to be known as the Transitional Authority-by June 22.

Bound by international human rights and humanitarian agreements, this Transitional Authority had 18 months to conduct another loya jirga for writing the constitution, and two years in which to hold free and fair elections across Afghanistan.

Elections were in progress when I arrived on April 30. Commissioners and Afghan and international monitors conducted elections in over 300 districts, reporting each night to the Commission and the UN. Initially, I helped with the Daily Report to UN and interested embassies of our progress in elections and preparation of the loya jirga site. Then the Jordanian took over Air Operations and I took his job as manager of the Ops Center. Security of the monitors and those participating in the elections was a major concern. Half a dozen delegates were lost to hostilities, and large numbers of delegates had to be flown out of their regions as soon as they were elected for protection. Sure, there were incidents, but the amazing thing was that the process actually worked on schedule. No monitors were killed though they went unarmed often in cars rented from the bazaar into the midst of crowds to announce the election rules. Warlords sent in their underlings to disrupt elections, threatening people against participation. But in a comical twist, when threats did not work, they would announce something like this, “Well, if you do decide to participate in the elections, then vote for me.” In the end everyone wanted to be part of the process. And although it caused disgruntlement among international monitors to allow some of the warlords into the Loya Jirga, I could understand the reasoning. I’d seen in Tajikistan where certain opposition groups were driven into exile, gained strength outside the process, united, and returned to challenge Tajik authority. By bringing in the governors and local powers as delegates, it forced them all to work together, as Afghans will have to do in future. It went amazingly well, if one can remember where Afghanistan had been the previous year.

The first week in June, the Ops Center and the Commission’s secretariat moved to the other side of town onto the Loya Jirga site and I changed hats again to Women’s Liaison Officer. A German firm GTZ had been contracted to transform the Polytechnic University built by the Soviets in the 1960s into a secure site for 1501 delegates from all over Afghanistan to congregate and decide on their future. GTZ airlifted in a huge white tent and other smaller tents to be used for meetings, registration, and security. Six dormitories were whitewashed and furnished for housing the delegates-5 dorms for men and 1 for women. The women’s dormitory housed about 200 women, and one wing became the Joint Agency Operations Center where I worked during the three weeks of the Loya Jirga. In the three-story dorm, I shared the first room on the right with 3 ISAF officers (British, French, Spanish), an ethnic Tajik law student who translated and typed in the JAOC, and a German international monitor who assisted the election process inside the maintent. The men of the JAOC shared rooms over the dispensary nearby or slept in the office or in tents. The international press corps was housed in the Intercontinental Hotel overlooking the site.

A lot of effort was expended to ensure the full participation of women in the process. Seats were set aside for 160 women in different walks of life and 20 women were elected in their own right during the second phase or regional elections. The Minister of Women’s Affairs Sema Samar toured the site and, in addition to fulfilling the request for ministry women to conduct the security searches of women entering the site, she offered to send about 20 of her ministry women to conduct an orientation of the 180 women delegates. For the women who’d endured years of war, culminating with the strict limitations of Taliban rule, it was especially important to teach them how to participate in a grand assembly, to present their ideas and proposals in an understandable and acceptable way. The security women shared rooms next to mine and were a talented group of women who had conducted women’s groups underground for as much as the last 22 years.

It took three days to fly in the 1501 delegates on Commission planes and helicopters. The day the delegates began arriving, the young British ISAF Captain took two of the security women with her to the airport to receive inbound delegates. She reported no women on the first flight but the radio crackled when she reported, “We have 5 women on the second flight from Herat-and 6 children!” Initially stunned, we eventually set up a childcare facility on the grounds for the 21 children who arrived, with the aid of more ministry women. Male escorts could enter the compound with women, view the facilities, then were escorted out.

Just before the session began, three vehicles carrying powerful warlords now part of the government refused inspection, pushed aside international security at the front gate and forced their way inside. They drove about 50 miles an hour up the narrow lane to the open air tents opposite my office, exited the black-windowed SUVs with armed bodyguards and jubilantly addressed the delegates who had poured out of their dorms. Women delegates joined the crowd and sat among them. From the JAOC, we monitored the situation. After about 20 minutes of speeches and hurrahs, I wandered out to listen. A lone woman stood among the seated men, talking to one of the most powerful men in her country. A short time later they disbanded. This was the day after the women’s orientation to political activity. Later I was told the woman delegate had asked why she would want this man to help lead her country, detailed his crimes, and then outlined her ideas for the future. The man had nothing to say, looked at his watch, announced it was time for prayers, and they left as rapidly as they’d come. Afterward, I noted a number of male delegates hanging around the front of the women’s dormitory, and learned they were asking women to initiate discussion on subjects they wished addressed.

Behind the scenes the JAOC worked nearly 24 hours a day. After a week I succumbed to dehydration and spent two days in bed. As discussion heated up in the big tent, the translators we’d hired were transferred back to their former jobs for their own security. Delays in decisions frustrated many of the delegates who came highly motivated to move forward. When the ELJ began to consider changing the name of Afghanistan to an Islamic Republic, human rights monitors came to the JAOC with requests for copies of the Bonn Agreement. Realizing the delegates had none, I quickly made a few copies and taped them to the outside windows of each dormitory. Power plays were made-a young executive assistant in the Commission secretariate was arrested by the Ministry of Interior as he stood at the entry gate to announce the 50 visitors to be allowed in for the final session when Chairman Karzai was to announce his cabinet. Through the offices of Chairman Karzai and SRSG Brahimi, we got him released within 90 minutes. He and the 50 invited guests had missed the final session.

Shortly thereafter, most of those involved in the set up of the site departed and we transported the delegates back home, moved our equipment from the Polytechnic University buildings, and returned to the Commission. Over the next month, the major task was to retrieve equipment used in the first and second phase of elections so that it could be inventoried and used again in future loya jirgas and elections. Laptops, radios, desktops, thuraya and Afghan wireless phones, vehicles, and office furniture were requested back. UNDP, in charge of finances, tried to schedule payment of salaries after return of the inventoried items.

A sad post script came in the deaths of two prominent Afghans-the former queen suffered a heart attack as she packed to return to Kabul after 29 years in exile in Italy and one vice president from Logar diedin a hail of bullets the day before my departure. American coalition troops out in the countryside were lead to believe they were under attack and fired into an engagement party. Several participants in the loya jirga process were placed under UN protection. But as long as people of good will continue to work toward the goal, there is hope of a success.

In the end the ELJ did accomplish its job in an amazingly short period of time and created a governmental framework for the future. There is so much more to do-convening a loya jirga to write a constitution followed by fair countrywide elections. With time and the help and goodwill of all nations, Afghanistan can return to the status of a respected independent nation.

Q&A on Afghanistan

I’m often asked if I was ever afraid or in danger. Before going there, I did wonder about the current situation. I’d been there when war first started. Back in 1978, I had witnessed the bloody communist coup against President Daoud when thousands of Afghans killed each other on a single weekend. Daoud had exiled his relative, the king, Zahir Shah five years earlier in 1972. I’d seen the arrival of hundreds of Soviet advisors for the new communist government, the abduction of the American ambassador who subsequently died. The Soviets invaded six months after my departure. Now Afghanistan had come full circle-back to a working effort toward peace. Many internationals were working there successfully-if they could do it, I could. The leading cause of death is due to traffic accidents. Knowing I could just as easily get hit by a pickup truck in Pocatello, Idaho, as in Afghanistan, I decided to do what I wanted.

As a woman, what did I wear? I chose not to wear the veil, the Afghan chaudri (mistakenly called by media the burka, which is worn in other Muslim cultures). Since the departure of the Taliban from control, Afghans are free to listen to music and to watch videos. They see foreigners in film, more so than even the pre-Taliban Afghans of the l970s whom I’d known. One day I wore a Pakistani salwar-kameez (long dress over baggy pants) to work. Afghan women smiled and commented favorably, but the others-whether Afghan or international-looked away. I found it hard to get my work done that day and decided to save the local female dress for social outings. I was most comfortable and effective in my conservative business jacket over a blouse and slacks. I came home with suntan only on my hands, like little brown gloves.

How did the men treat me? Understanding the culture was magic. When a wall of tough looking tall staring Afghan men were walking toward me on the street, I would smile, put my hand over my heart, incline my head slightly and say, “Sa-lam a-lai-kum. Sho-ma chi-toor?” (Greetings, how are you?), they would melt into toothy grins and return the greeting. Young boys riding on the back of bicycles would yell at me in English, “How arr you, Sirr? Ware arr you frum? What tiz yur name?” It was a joy to see how much English is spoken on the streets of Kabul compared with years ago. If anyone spoke a foreign language in the 1970s, it was French.

I tried going without the white head scarf, worn around the neck by many international women working in Afghanistan. When there were no repercussions, I continued to dress in a conservative business coat over blouse and slacks-coming home with only suntanned hands. I did hear a debate over my gender once and turned around to assure them in Dari I was female. I’m not sure if the surprise on their face was due to my language ability or my assertion of gender. They smiled and seemed pleased to accept whatever I said.

Occasionally, when I walked to work or had an errand on the street, I looked into the faces of women for their reaction to this foreign woman among them, dressed respectfully but not in Afghan tradition. Women raised their heads and smiled to get my attention, often waving and pointing at me. Occasionally, a woman in chaudri would wave under the chaudri, moving the material back and forth near her face. There was a special bond, as if they appreciated the freedom this foreign woman among them represented and perhaps some time in future they could express as much of that freedom that was comfortable to them without fear of repercussion. I didn’t get that female connection when I lived there in the 1970s-I was ignored or stared at by men and women alike. Today Afghans feel a special connection to the internationals in their midst.

How do people feel about Americans over there? I was occasionally mistaken for French, Iranian, or German. When asked my nationality, I would say, “American, is that okay?” I watched for a reaction and never experienced a negative response, which may be partly due to Afghan respect for visitors in their country. Usually, people were filled with gratitude and admiration. Admittedly, my survey group was small (taxi drivers, office workers, people on the street, returning refugees, local UN workers, hotel employees and guards), but everyone expressed appreciation for what America had done in removing the Taliban. The faces of Kabul citizens appeared calm as US military vehicles drove by. When I asked, they said without the Americans they couldn’t be out on the street. Nationality is usually an accident of birth-no need for pride or shame.

How is life over there now that the Taliban is gone? During Taliban times, few parked on the street, few went out even during the daytime. They were arrested for possession of music cassettes, whether they were playing them or not, and for trimming their beard. Women were required to have their male relative escort on the street. When a couple was caught out on the street, the police would interrogate them on opposite corners to make sure they were in fact related. Now one can see Afghans venturing out to enjoy life-Hindi music fills the air, shopkeepers and customers cluster around TVs watching foreign videos, men wear only a moustache or a beard trimmed to the one-week stubble look, men wear slacks and shirts as frequently as Afghan dress, young people leave the office to attend class, some women on the street go without chaudri or with it flipped back. Remarkable changes occur every day. Yet there is a conservative fear that if or when things revert to a Taliban-like atmosphere again, those who changed will be remembered as the ones who accepted foreign ways and therefore punished. They hope the US and the UN stays till the job is done-till Afghanistan is a stable country. And I believe Afghans see this as their one chance to shake off war-I doubt if they’ll let it escape–not just leaders but the average woman or man in the street.

Will it work? As time goes on and innocent Afghans are killed by coalition forces, the good will toward Americans could very well turn-there are certainly forces that would like to see this happen. It is important that the stability arrive in accordance with international law, gently, and quickly.

Would you go back? “In a heartbeat,” is my consistent reply.

*****

Further sources of information:

There is so much to keep up on with regard to Afghanistan. I would suggest watching a good international news channel on TV (Newsworld International, BBC World, CNN International), subscribing to an international newspaper or magazine (International Herald Tribune, World Press Review, Washington Post National Weekly Edition), and listening to NPR or BBC on the radio. In addition, the internet offers access to reports by international organizations (UN, OSCE, Amnesty International, Helsinki Watch). For a complete English version of the Bonn Agreement, go to: http://www.uno.de/frieden/afghanistan/talks/agreement.htm.

Libraries and bookstores get new books on Afghanistan each day. The following are some of my favorites:

* Adamec, Ludwig W. Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan (2002). Details historic and current players and institutions.
* Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan (1973). The “answer book” on history and culture of Afghanistan.
* Goodson, Larry. Afghanistan’s Endless War, State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban (2001). (one of the most recent books-look for future writing from this author)
* Grousset, Rene. The Empire of the Steppes, a History of Central Asia (1970). A classic for understanding Afghanistan’s patchwork of cultures through early history of the entire region)
* Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game (1970). Reads like a novel about the actions of the British and Russian Empires as they rushed toward each other in Asia, eventually creating the buffer state of Afghanistan so their empire would not touch.
* Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban (2001). Amazingly well written who’s who in the Taliban by a Pakistani journalist.
* Skaine, Rosemarie. The Women of Afghanistan Under the Taliban.
* Zoya. Zoya’s Story (2001). An unusually candid inside view of courageous women’s resistence under Taliban.

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