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I’m here in Kyiv training journalists and programme-makers at UA:First, Ukraine’s relatively new public service broadcaster. The vast network of radio and television stations and channels used to be the state broadcaster, and is slowly being transformed thanks to a project funded by the European Union https://www.coe.int/en/web/kyiv/strengthening-freedom-of-media-and-establishing-a-public-broadcasting-system-in-ukraine .

Like all huge organisations, UA:First is finding such major change a challenge. One of the problems is a lack of awareness in Ukraine of the existance of the public service broadcaster. It was offically re-classified in 2015, but according to a survey carried out that year under the  EU/Council of Europe Joint Programme,  only 34% of the adult population had heard anything about the broadcaster’s launch  In addition, the survey found that only 16 % had seen any advertisement or promotional material about the public broadcaster.

The media landscape in Ukraine is dominated by commercial television channels, many of which are owned by powerful interests in the country. Since the 2014 revolution, the Ukrainian government has adopted a number of reforms, including laws on transparency of media ownership and access to information held by the state. But the organisation Reporters Without Borders says there are still a number of concerns.

“Physical attacks on the media, including journalist Pavel Sheremet’s murder in 2016, continue to go unpunished and concern is growing in the run-up to the 2019 elections. The separatist-controlled areas in the east are still no-go areas without critical journalists or foreign observers”.

In addition, the ongoing conflict with Russia also has an impact on the media. There is an information war with Russia, which means Russian media and Russian social networks are banned in Ukraine and foreign journalists black-listed.

But for the most part, I have been delighted by the standard of the programme-makers I am working with. Compared to the participants I was training in Russia 15 years ago, they have a good awareness of the principles of balance and objectivity, and enhanced skills in programme making and presentation.

 

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I’ve been riding the Metro here to get to the training location, which is around a half hour’s drive away from the hotel. In some ways it’s the same as any rushhour travel on public transport – hot, crowded, claustophobic. But the beauty of the Kyiv subway makes it worthwhile.

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I was surprised to read that the network was built in the 70s, 80s and 90s. To me, the marble lined stations, brass advertisement boards and elegrant chandeliers have art deco echoes.

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The two lines I travel on are among the deepest subway lines in Europe. They also include some of the city’s main stations – and as such, as are even more decorative. At Kreshchatyk station, these decorative tiles grace the platforms.

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While Voksalna station is lined with these huge brass plaques, which depict scenes from the past, in a truly Soviet style.

Kyiv is in a debate with itself about decommunising the city. There are discussions about removing statues and buildings associated with the Soviet union – and consequently the statue of Lenin in the city centre has long gone. Ukraine removed all statues of Lenin in 2017, and now street name changes are being considered. But could that de-communisation mean changes to the Metro? I hope not.

So, after a gap of 10 years, I am once again in the Ukrainian capital. A lot has changed, but a lot has also stayed the same. And that tension reminds me so much of returning to Belfast in 2005/6.

But let’s focus on this city for the moment.

One of the first things I notice is the insistence on the ‘new’ spelling of Ukraine’s capital. In actual fact the government of Ukraine adopted the Ukrainian spelling Kyiv in 1995, but last time I was here it didn’t seem such a big deal to continue to use the Russian “Kiev”. Now it seems rude and ignorant. And “Kyiv” is pronounced differently, more like “Kieeve”.

A city with two names, where have I come across that before??

And that duality continues. Kreschatyk, the main shopping street through the city centre, is still as impressive. The same elaborate lofty neo-classical apartment buildings rub shoulders with modernist Soviet post-war slabs, like the department store TSUM.

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Further along is Maidan Square (pronounced My-dan), where modern Ukraine was created during the 2014 revolution. In case anyone forgets that momentous time, the independence monument soars into the sky here, a 20-foot victory column topped with a gold female figure holding a branch of Guelder Rose, a plant with much significance in Ukrainian folklore.IMG_1994

Turn your back on the monument and look the other way, and you see an array of Soviet style buildings and hotels. But any confusion as to which decade you are in is soon dispelled by the sight of the McDonalds sign on one of them.

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Stroll back along Kreschatyk and you’ll see the same homogenised range of shops apparent in most international cities – here is a Mango, a Benetton, and a Zara. But the two-story store I’ve just bought the most beautiful coat from boasts that all its stock is designed and made here in Ukraine.IMG_2018

Many local people, especially the young, speak excellent English. But, despite the continuing war with Russia, there is also no antagonism towards using Russian, as I do, getting by with my five phrases!

So, different but the same? In some ways it feels that Kyiv has managed to preserve some of what was unique and distinctive, while still allowing modernity to flourish.

A new version of Chekov’s play The Three Sisters, re-imagined during the Troubles, might cause even the most avid of theatre-goers to balk. Re-workings of The Three Sisters are nothing new. But in taking up the challenge, the Northern Ireland novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell sets the production in the 1990s – the time of the ceasefires and the lead up to the Good Friday peace agreement. What emerges is a compelling comment on a society still in stasis now.

The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn has written that, spiritually, the sisters live in ‘exile’. Lucy Caldwell re-imagines the sisters’ dead father as an English Catholic army officer. They socialise with British soldiers, yet have Irish names. In terms of identity, they are in no-man’s land. These nuances fuel their inner turmoil.

Yet the use of colloquial language provided some light relief. The audience laughs when Orla, the sister based on Olga, complains that the weather is freezing cold, or ‘baltic’ in Northern Ireland parlance, and then asks “I wonder what people in the Baltic say when they are cold?”

For many in Britain, the details of the Troubles may be as remote as the Russian revolution. However watching the play performed at The Lyric Theatre in Belfast, it was clear that many of the references to the future, away from the claustrophobia of the play’s present, resonated on a deeper level with the audience.

We have delivered workshops to Afghan women via skype again! Only this time it was from the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, and I was with my esteemed colleague Professor Sinead Morrissey.

With the support of the School of English at Queen’s University, and the British Council offices in both Northern Ireland and Kabul, this was the third and possibly final stage of the Afghan Women Spread the Word project – teaching the participants creative writing skills. And who better to do that than an award-winning poet?

Sinead began by introducing the women to the haiku, the Japanese 17-syllable verse. But they were soon reading her their poetry and talking about landai, the traditional oral short poems, often recited by Pashto women.

The seminar even made it into the newspapers http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/helping-afghan-women-is-poetry-in-motion-31529952.html

But the most satisfying part of it was that it yet again a success. And Sinead was as captivated by the women’s enthusiasm as I always am.

I’m not sure where the project goes from here – but we have built so many links so far – between women from across Afghanistan – and between Afghanistan and Ireland, that I don’t think we can lose that.

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The Afghan women work on their interview questions

The Afghan women work on their interview questions

I have just delivered a two-day workshop on interviewing skills, for 20 or so Afghan women, from my home office in Belfast!  How was this possible? Through the miracles of modern science – and in particular, skype!

Let me explain.

It has been a long time since I have posted – too long. But my silence has partly been a reflection of my frustration at the delays in our project – Afghan Women Spread the Word.

The project is supported by Queen’s University in Belfast and the British Council in Kabul and Belfast, and its aim is ultimately to establish an archive of recordings and writings from women across Afghanistan. This will be hosted at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, (http://acku.edu.af/ ) and hopefully at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University. http://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/isctsj/ )

There are other projects working to give Afghan women the chance to write – and be heard. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project (http://awwproject.org/ )  is one of these, and has collected a wealth of written work from women.

But as a broadcaster, I wanted to hear women too, in their own languages.

The first step in our project was to bring women from across the country to Kabul, and train them to carry out audio interviews. This would establish connections between women from different ethnic groups, between Sunni and Shia, between rural and urban. These women were to be trained to use handheld recorders to collect oral histories from women in their area. These recordings would then be fed back to an Afghan colleague in Kabul who would select the best. (But they would all be retained for the archive).

Then a second workshop would bring the same women together again. Each will be allocated a recording from a different area of the country, from a woman with a very different experience – from a different ethnic, economic or religious group. This second workshop will concentrate on using the experiences and information in the recording as the catalyst to write a creative piece, a poem or story. Essentially, we are asking the women to put themselves in the shoes of the ‘other’ woman.

But as the security situation in Afghanistan has steadily worsened, so my chances of returning to Kabul have diminished.

All through last summer (2014) we waited for the deadlock over the Presidential elections to be resolved, continually moving the dates for our workshop, until we ran out of time, and it was October, and I had to begin teaching again in the School of English at Queen’s University. I was on holiday in Turkey, in a bar with a wireless connection, when I got the email telling me I wouldn’t be able to travel to Kabul. I sat crying into a cheap cocktail, wondering just when I would be able to return.

Then the plan was that I would go to Kabul just before Christmas – but I was ill and couldn’t join the security course I needed to complete before I was allowed to travel for the British Council. Then we tried again for dates after Christmas, but by that time things were so tense in Kabul, even with the security training, it was not going to be possible for me to visit.

So finally, in desperation, and after many telephone conferences with my resourceful Afghan colleagues at the British Council in Kabul, we hit on this solution. I would deliver the workshops via skype from Belfast.

I have to be honest – I was dismayed. I simply couldn’t see how I could effectively train women in the physical skills of recording, through translation, from thousands of miles away, and relying entirely on the vagaries of internet connections. (Not to mention the small fact that Afghanistan is four-and-a-half hours ahead of the UK at this time of year, and as the workshop would still have to be delivered in the morning, that meant a 5am start for me!)

But it has been an amazing experience!

Of course I have had the support of two fantastic Afghan women colleagues – one from the British Council and one from AEPO – the Afghan Education Production Organisation. (AEPO produces the long-running radio soap opera New Home, New Life, and you can read more about their work here: https://www.gov.uk/government/world-location-news/using-the-radio-to-bring-social-change-in-afghanistan ). Both of these women have ensured the workshop in Kabul has run smoothly, and that I understand what is going on.

And then there are the participants; women who’ve left their children and families, who’ve braved the scorn of in-laws and in some cases the rage of husbands, and who’ve overcome the weather and the difficulties of travelling in Afghanistan, to arrive in Kabul and take part.

As well as those challenges, for many of these women, interviewing each other and other women is far from being only an academic exercise. It has been estimated that up to 80 per cent of the population of Afghanistan is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and yet mental health services are almost non-existant. In such a climate, asking people about their lives, and recording them, can thrown up huge ethical challenges. One woman became increasingly distressed as she relayed what had happened to her, her husband throwing her and their three children out of the home, in order to marry the 14 year old cleaning girl. By the time she had finished her story, most of the group were in tears.

However, another woman inspired everyone with her life story. She and her mother had been left at the mercy of in-laws when her father died when she was four. Her mother had had to marry again to provide for her, and this meant she had many step-siblings. When she reached 13, her step-brother asked to marry her. He was 13 years older than her. In order to keep the peace and support her mother, she agreed. She had her first child at 14 and how has five children. But, she told us, she is very happy with her husband. He respects her and she is working for an international NGO. She is paid a fantastic wage for Afghanistan, she gets to travels outside of Afghanistan, and she now supports those in-laws.

For me, delivering the workshop from home has been a surreal experience. When I travel to Afghanistan, as soon as I arrive, and I meet up with my friends, I slot back into life there. But once I return here to Northern Ireland, it sometimes feels as if the whole trip has been a dream. I call it cultural lag – and it happens every time.

So imagine how strange it has been to leave the skype connected in my home office, as the workshop breaks for tea, and come downstairs to feed the dog, while above me I can hear the sound of 20 Afghan women happily chatting in Persian! It is as if I have been in Afghanistan-  and yet not – because of course as soon as we end the skype call, I am back  in Belfast.

In many ways however, what has been most gratifying is watching how my presence has become less and less important as the workshop has continued; how the women have developed links and friendships, and how my Afghan colleagues have gradually taken over the task of running the workshop.

What we are aiming to do is empower and train these women – and I believe that is happening.

There is still a long way to go to achieve our aims, but insh’allah , we will get there!

Today the Independent Electoral Commission announced the final figures for the presidential election. This is after they have taken into account all of the complaints made by the different candidates. As predicted, the front-runner, Abdullah Abdullah, has not reached 50 per cent plus one. So there will be a run off between him and his nearest rival, Ashraf Ghani, on June 14th.

If you want to know more about both candidates read this interview with Abdullah Abdullah by former BBC journalist Kate Clark, who now runs the Afghanistan Analysts Network – http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/2014-elections-18-the-abdullah-interview . Or look at this profile of Ashraf Ghani from the BBC http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27142426 .

But talking to my friends here, may of whom know the candidates from their childhood or university days, gives a different perspective. One friend told me he had little time for any of the candidates, but went out to vote as a protest against Taliban intimidation and to show his support for democracy. Another former colleague said corruption was still an issue – but war lord candidates were no longer stuffing ballot boxes with false votes in their favour, but now bribing whole villages to support them – a much harder thing to prove.

So now it starts all over again, with the two candidates fighting face to face.

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So I’m back in Kabul – in 2014 – the year the wheels are supposed to come off Afghanistan.

So how is it?

Well, there is still no new President, there have been rocket attacks in the city, and legislation outlawing violence against women is even further away (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/04/afghanistan-law-victims-violence-women ). But the sky is blue, the sun is up and the city is as lively as ever.

This time I am staying in a hotel, which is pretty much like the last Kabul hotel I stayed in – lovely garden but dodgy plumbing and electrics. But even here there are changes – the food is amazing; the staff speak English; I haven’t seen any mice or cockroaches and every room has, albeit slightly unreliable, wi-fi.

In  fact, it seems that after living a decade with westerners in their city, many of them British and America, Afghans have really embraced the English language. I have been taking taxis from the firm that is security approved, and their drivers all speak English. This means they can argue more effectively with you as to why your taxi fare is $15 – an outrageous amount of money here – but it also means you can explain where you want to go without having to ring someone else who can speak Dari and pass the phone over. (In fact, they’re better at knowing where they’re going than the taxi drivers in Belfast!)

But it’s not just firms that cater almost exclusively for westerners. As I have scoured the shops for scarfs, jewellry and nockle (the delicious Afghan snack of sugar covered almonds)  I have discussed the prices with Jamil, my faithful shopping partner, and the shop keeper has butted in, in English. However, I still need to learn Dari!

But one thing is definitely the same- the crazy driving!

 

 

 

So I’m back in the decompression zone of Dubai – the never never land of the adult. It seemed I had only just finally come to terms with the fact I was back in Afghanistan, after so many years of dreaming of being there, and then I was leaving again.

Yesterday I spent a morning crushing the results of my shopping trips into my case, and wondering how it is that even the stuff you bring always seems to grow in size while you’re away, phoning and texting people to say goodbye, and shaking hands and, in private, hugging my good friends and promising to be back before another seven years elapsed, insh’allah.

And then I was in a car driving through those vibrant streets, snapping photos of everything, because now I don’t know when I will be back again, on the way to airport.

Getting out of the country was possibly harder than getting in.

We had to stop the car to be searched and scan the luggage at the start of the road to the airport. As I hefted my case onto the waist-height scanner, the guard was so busy watching me he totally missed watching the screen as my bag went through the x-ray. He only looked back at the screen when I asked him “sais?”, “Okay?” , and of course by then it had gone through. Then I had to be searched by one of the women guards, whose idea of a body search does not exclude any areas!

Next, we were allowed to drive into the airport car park, where we went through the whole process again. Then I was on my own, wheeling my luggage through the midday heat for the 10 minute walk to the airport building, past another three guards.

Once inside, another scan and search and then another long wait to go back through immigration, to have my exit visa stamped. And then finally one more scan of the luggage and we were allowed to sit in the departures lounge.

Eventually we were on the plane and then everything settled into the pattern of retracing your steps. The flight seemed to take ages – I read an entire novel – and then we walking into the warm soup of the Dubai dusk and joining the endless lines at immigration. Dubai airport is like a people factory – but as there is free wi-fi  I spent the time in the queue checking my email, so the 30 minutes passed fairly quickly for me. But we did seem to be moving very slowly and eventually a cultured Scottish voice called down from behind me to the Arab guys on the desk, complaining about the wait.

There then ensued a argument – “Why have we been waiting so long?” “This is not your business!” “It IS my business, we have paid to come here to Dubai”.

Behind me, a tall guy with an American accent sighed and said, “I don’t think he has helped at all. I think now they are going to slow down deliberately.”

We got chatting and it transpired we were both passing through Dubai – but he was on a flight out to Iraq that night. He didn’t say to do what, but he said he didn’t know when he was coming back. And he was hoping to get into Dubai before he left. “Do you have friends here?” I asked. “Actually my wife is here,” he said. “Oh well you should go to the front of the queue!” I replied. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m having sex tonight!”

We laughed as he explained how he literally had two hours to get to see his wife, do the deed and get back to the airport. I really felt for him. Despite my sadness at leaving Afghanistan, at least I was on my way home to see Mutley. Last I saw he was chatting to the guy at the desk. I hope he made it.

I have been living a low key life here in Kabul; being driven in a normal saloon car; not walking on the street; not really going out at night. I’m not under any illusions that I am really living like an Afghan, but I’ve been spending more time with Afghans than with westerners.

But I have also been invited into the ‘western zone’ – I’ve visited two embassy compounds and one of the main military camps here.

There is no doubt it’s tough living in Kabul – even if you are a cosseted visitor like me, living in a luxourious clean house, being cooked for and driven around. The air quality is abysmal and it has definitely got worse since I was last here. The years of drought meant soil erosion has affected much of the country so the air is always full of dust. During the civil war and Taliban time, people were so desperate for fuel, many of the trees in Kabul were cut down. And now there has been a huge jump in the number of vehicles on the road – up to 650,000 according to some estimates, many of them old and badly maintained. I’d been here just three days when my nose started bleeding.

The commute home, Kabul style

The water is still not safe to drink – or clean your teeth in – and eating local food is a game of Russian roulette – partly because of the water, partly because animals are slaughtered on the side of the road and then their carcasses hung up in non-frigerated shops to be sold, at the mercy of the heat, the flies and the dust. And as there is no real sewerage system, the dust is not just mud…

It’s still hard to find reliable statistics on Afghanistan but some estimates put 70 pc of the country, some 25 million people, living in poverty. Many of them will be in the rural areas, but the average national income per capita is just $410 a year – that’s about 256 quid – a year!

 And yet, it is expensive to live in Kabul. Rents can be astronomical – £300 a month for a flat; medical care is hard to come by and expensive; while the new private universities which have sprung up everywhere cost up $6000 a year to study at.

The new smart living in Kabul

But, go behind the ever increasing walls of the western zone and it’s a very different story. The food is flown in, so no chance of the Kabul Kraps for these people; the military hospitals are on hand if something does happen; and the air conditioning and plush furniture mean these buildings are literally a home from home.

It’s different again for those living on the military camps of course. There a woefully small container can be home to two men, for a year at a time. But they still have uninterrupted electricity, unlimited wi-fi, a range of restaurants and shops, and medical facilities.

So what’s my point? Well if you have come from Europe or America, and are working here for months on end, it would be hard to expect you to live like an Afghan – not to mention dangerous. And a lot of the closeting of westerners is partly about security.

But the fact that Afghans do still have to live without many of the basics of life, is, I believe, part of the problem when it comes to security. In Kabul many Afghans are employed by the NGOs and western organisations – so even if they don’t live like those people, they are at least receiving some of the money they bring in.

But in places like Kandahar, that pay off simply doesn’t exist. There, people living in rural villages, with no electricity, only see the huge city that is Camp Bastion, with its clean water, electricity, safe food and medical facilities. The military has of course also spent millions on ‘hearts and minds’ projects in these areas, but not all have been successful.

But perhaps the strangest thing is what happens to your own perception of where you are, when you step foot inside these compounds. After passing through checkpoint after checkpoint, staffed by armed guards, whose English becomes better and better the further in you go, you start to feel as if you are indeed in a war zone.

And yet,  as I drive around the city in the back of my driver’s white Toyota saloon, waving to kids and nodding ‘salam’ to adults, I don’t feel in danger at all.

I’m not sure which feeling is the right one – but it adds to the fascination of being here.

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