Wednesday, December 19, 2007


I began today at Belgrade's very interesting Muzej automobila (automobile museum). Amongst other rarities it includes a Cadillac, Mercedes and motorcycle ridden by Marshal Tito. The Mercedes cabriolet has serial number 000001 - the Mercedes museum in Germany only has 000003. They also have a German WWII amphibious car ridden (more recently) by Michael Palin. I spoke with someone who I think was the director and collection owner, Mr. Bratislav Petković. The museum is clearly a labor of love and I was impressed.

Then I walked for MANY kilometres around town and along the river - I'd like to upload some photos but this computer does not seem to recognize my flash card reader. More soon.

Off back to Istanbul tomorrow morning. It'll take until late afternoon just to get to Sofia, and then I'll be back in Turkey the following morning.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


(SPECIAL NOTE: I'm uploading these pictures directly from my memory card in a Belgrade Internet cafe and have no opportunity to crop or manipulate them. I hope to fix them up eventually)

Half my Bucharest adventure was getting there. I took the overnight train from Istanbul and had a couchette to myself once the other occupant complained that it was freezing. (I thought it was roasting.) It was pretty comfortable and the scenery traversing Bulgaria was pretty impressive.

En route through Bulgaria from Istanbul to Bucharest.

En route through Bulgaria from Istanbul to Bucharest.

En route through Bulgaria from Istanbul to Bucharest.

The border crossings (first from Turkey into Bulgaria, and then from Bulgaria into Romania) were a little bit oppressive. The first one was at about 3am and the most complicated part was getting the Turkish exit stamp. Everybody had to climb out of the train, shuffle through bitter wind to the passport control office (which was only slightly warmer than the platform) and then line up for the sole officer to stamp our passports. Having done this I shuffled back to my sauna-compartment, only to face neighbor's begging for help at the duty free. The things I'll do for a pretty woman! We shuffled back to the platform and I showed my passport at the duty free kiosk and she bought three cartons of Marlboros and then I went back to my warmth. About an hour later we were shunted across the border and the Romanian officials were searching her couchette and all I could imagine was the interior of the Romanian jail where I'd have plenty of time to contemplate aiding and abetting a smuggler. Luckily it didn't come to that...

In fact the Romanian authorities were quite welcoming. They did search my compartment about three times (looking for Gypsies?) but at least they did the formalities on the train and eventually we set off across Bulgaria. Once the sun rose I found it to be rather like Canada. The train kept getting later and later and we finally got to Bucharest about four hours late.




I liked Bucharest but as I didn't really have a program there two days was enough. I bought some essential clothing and walked for miles and miles snapping whatever. A highlight was a couple of photo exhibitions at the National Theatre (and sneaking into the main concert hall during a setup) and general strolling around.

Bucharest National Theater.

Bucharest National Theater.





Following Bucharest - overnight to Belgrade.

Istanbul to Bucharest

Waiting room at Sirkeci Train Station, Istanbul

I'm writing this from Belgrade (with Alanis Morissette blaring in this Internet Cafe), which I think is in Serbia. I'll write about it soon but first I'll try to catch up by talking about Turkey.

I've only had a few hours in Turkey so far - I went straight from the airport to the station to catch a train to Bucharest. But I enjoyed my brief exposure to Turkey and look forward to getting back there in a few days. I'm going to meet a special friend in the south and we're going to hike and relax.

I guess I don't actually have much to report no Turkey so I'll send this and move on to Bucharest.

Monday, December 3, 2007

First Afghan snow UPDATED 2007 12 05

It's pretty difficult to compete with Ben-Bob's "weather geek" blog posts like this jewel about the recent Iowa ice storm (even though he does not apparently own a camera) because he's so good at describing stuff and because he's, *cough*, a weather geek.

But I'll try.

Yesterday we drove from Kabul to Mazar e Sharif which involved crossing the Salang pass (tunnelled by the Russians at 3,400m) after its second day of snow this winter.

This picture taken hundreds of metres below the summit shows a jolly Afghan householder relieving his roof of the burden of about 40cm of nice new snow.

I asked my readers (both of them) who could identify the roof construction material used on front edge of the roof?

The first suggestion was that the mystery construction material is toilet rolls - pointing out that toilet rolls are good insulators and surprisingly strong. Excellent suggestion but wrong.

Then I gave the hint that this mystery construction material is almost more common in Afghanistan than toilet rolls... at least that's how it seems...

And then the Weather Geek himself (also known as Ben-Bob) gets it right! (See his comment.) They're artillery shell casings. He probably recalls seeing them in Eritrea. They're a dime a dozen here too.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I got back yesterday from a few (one more than expected) days in Bamiyan. Although there were only dustings of snow in the surrounding mountains it was bitterly cold in the Roof of Bamiyan Hotel and the main topic of conversation was warmth, and how we would have enjoyed some.

I had dinner one night in the mess hall of the New Zealand 'Provincial Reconstruction Team' which was an eye-opener. A lot of people are critical of PRTs in Afghanistan and I must say that in this case one of their most obvious outputs is complete sets of paper and plastic plates, cups and cutlery thrown out after every person-meal. I would have thought that diswashing would create useful local employment.

Our work ended on Tuesday (our project will involve Monday and Tuesday training and panel discussions for 22 more weeks over the next year) and we expected to fly back to Kabul on Wednesday. We checked in at Bamiyan airport 'terminal' (which is in a shipping container) and then learned that the flight had been canceled due to a security issue in Kabul. Back to the Roof of Bamiyan.

I find our work rewarding but the best part is taking photographs. My colleague Saboor took us to nearby Dragon Valley which had wonderful scenery and fascinating bubbling geology. I also always like walking around, photographing people going about their lives. I've posted some photos here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Website down

My website - - is currently unavailable due to server problems where it is hosted. The company says it won't take much longer to fix. I'll update this blog entry when the site is visible again.

Housing in Kabul

I have been in transitory housing since August 18 and it has been tiresome but the end is in sight. On Thursday I will move into the communal guest house I expect to live in until the end of November 2008. Unfortunately I'll have to switch rooms a final time in a couple more weeks but stability is getting closer. The first thing I want to do when I really settle down is to stick up some nice photos I've been carrying around.

I can not say that I have not been in comfortable surroundings some of the time since August. When I arrived this time in Kabul (on September 2) I moved into a nice commercial guest house for a while. Now I am house sitting a colleague's house which is very comfortable.

Colleague's house. I walk back and forth across the garden and down the driveway for exercise.

Wonderful housekeeper Ibrahim.

Ibrahim's adorable children. His beautiful wives declined - cheerfully but predictably - to be photographed.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


Yesterday I watched a Buzkashi game in the suburbs of Kabul. Buzkashi is said to combine elements of polo and rugby but I would add that it also simulates Kabul traffic protocols - of which there are none. I had understood it to be a team game but at least yesterday it was everyone with a horse for himself, with the consequence that the object of the game - a headless goat carcass, spent most of the time being trampled under a scrum of horses instead of being pulled around a flag and dropped in a target circle. Amidst this pack of rearing horses the bravest players reach to the ground for one of the goat's legs. The game is tamer than it used to be - knives are now banned - but it is still pretty wild. An added feature yesterday was a bunch of daredevil photographers who tended to get close to the thick of things - I have one picture of one of them running for his life once a competitor finally got free of the gridlock with the carcass. I've grouped my photos here.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Back to school

I have been accepted into the M.Sc. in Sustainable Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in their distance learning programme. The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning.

This interesting snippet is from the Wikipedia article on that program which was the first in the world: "Because the Geneva Convention (1929) stipulated that every prisoner of war, in addition to being entitled to adequate food and medical care, had the right to exchange correspondence and receive parcels, many British POWs took advantage of this opportunity and enrolled in the University of London External Programme. The soldiers were sent study materials via the mails, and at specified intervals sat for proctored exams in the prisoner camps. Almost 11,000 exams were taken at 88 camps between 1940 and 1945. Although the exam failure rate was high, a significant number of soldiers passed their exams while imprisoned."

My part-time course begins in February and I intend to finish in four years. I'll sit next year's exams at the British Council here in Kabul.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Jean Charles de Menezes killing case in London

It seems like ages since I blogged. I've been SO busy and stressed by work but although I still have a lot of pending tasks, I can breath easier at the moment. For just a moment, anyway. I've got a lot of saved-up things to write about but tonight I'm most tempted by news that the Metropolitan Police (in London) have been found guilty in the Jean Charles de Menezes killing case.

Background: On 22 July 2005 armed police shot Mr de Menezes dead at Stockwell Tube station. It was a case of absolute mistaken identity and probable racial profiling. (A friend of mine was traumatized by the shots.) As I write this the BBC are rapidly updating coverage of their story, which includes this disturbing (but technically impressive) forensic presentation. [It's fascinating to watch the story updates - I've refreshed several times while writing this and read new quotes and facts each time.]

The Met is protesting the verdict. While I am confused by the specific charge ("failing to protect the public from the risks posed by a suspected suicide bomber on the loose" - I think the case is about failing to protect an innocent man) I am glad they have been found guilty.

Whereas I would not hold a police force criminally guilty for failing to 'get their man' (this is a cliché associated with the RCMP) I do find the organization (perhaps if not the shooting officers) highly guilty of this killing.

I don't blame the shooters. I think that if the officers were positive that Jean Charles de Menezes was about to explode a bomb there can be justification for shooting - probably even for shooting to kill. (Those who know me will not be surprised that I support no other justification for anyone or any institution - any at all - ever killing an unwilling person.) I do not doubt that the shooters felt this way and assuming they grieve for the mistake they have my sympathy. I think the responsibility lies with the Met for the set of circumstances and mistakes that allowed Jean Charles de Menezes to become the victim of a prolonged and lethal case of mistaken identity.

True, the killing was the day after a potentially devastating suicide attack failed, and another non-white person had been traced to Jean Charles de Menezes fault. But I believe that this is no excuse for error - I believe that at any crisis one of the main and most urgent concerns of police should be to prevent a mistake.

I understand the stress facing the police and I am never one to forget that the police have a difficult, dangerous and normally thankless job. But I am riled by a remark by Sir Ian Blair, Met Police Commissioner, before the trial began "that a guilty verdict would have profound effects on policing. He said officers would be left in a difficult position of not being able to use their judgement in emergency situations, out of fear of breaking the law." I can not accept this. I believe that police officers should always fear breaking the law - not least in moments of stress.

I am only glad the case has received so much scrutiny. I think that the 'war on terror' has authorized far too much careless and casual vigilance. Shooting the wrong people (when some police knew de Menezes was not a suspect) is not going to stop the real perpetrators from terrorizing. It will only jeopardize the credibility of the institutions we hold above the terrorists. The police are literally responsible for being careless.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lame-o Five

Have you heard of the newest fad in the blogosphere? Listing the five things you do, did or like that some may consider “totally lame,” but that you are totally proud of.

I'm on to this raging fad because of El Beño.

Not to be left behind...

FIRST: I never buy or watch pirated DVDs and I do not own pirated music. This self-righteousness has not made me new friends but I will not dither. As an artist who has made very very very little money from art I sympathise with those who need to protect their work. I heartily approve of artists who give their work free, who encourage sharing knowing that they will benefit in the end, and those who offer their work for any price (yeah, Radiohead) but I also strive to protect those who put their work up for sale and do not expect to be robbed. I am not swayed by arguments that "that [artist's name] is already so rich". The problem with this is that some friends stare at me strangely and necessarily don't invite me to their movie nights. And I have to pay a lot more in the short run.

SECOND: I am a rabid Greg Keelor fan. Greg is one of the singer/songwriters in Blue Rodeo and my favorite musician. I have a story about Greg stopping a song to ask me if I'd told him to shut up. He was starting to sing something a cappella (was it 'Diamond Mine'?) in Philadelphia and some drunk Canadian women in the audience would not stop talking. I yelled 'Shut up' at THEM and Greg stopped and said "Did you tell me to shut up?" He understood and was joking but I was devastated. Later I managed to say "I didn't mean you" and he grinned and said he knew. Special note to Jim Cuddy fans: Jim is awesome too and I'm not interested in arguments about who is better. Greg is only my favorite musician in the world but I admire Jim very much. (And he's a lot friendlier with strangers like me than Greg is. Only Jim would have noticed that I was following Blue Rodeo around the British Isles and dedicated a song to me half way through the tour.)

THIRD: I like railway (/railroad) locomotives, rolling stock (but not long German four-wheelers), tracks (especially), signals, couplers (but not buffers), schedules, crews, maps, history, pioneers, museums, stations, yards, tunnels, bridges, crossings, legends, models, games, fiction, archeology, policy, advocacy, politics, passengers and TRAVEL.

FOURTH: I buy and wear used clothing whenever possible.

FIFTH: I declared all my earnings when I was a restaurant server in Montreal. More self-righteousness. I get very impatient with members of the artist / bohemian crowd (who made up the staff where I worked) who demand government services (especially to artists and bohemians) but who do not pay their share of taxes. I wonder if this was an indirect cause of my sacking - the stated reason was shabby dress (see #4 above?). Restaurant serving was the job I think I've done best in my whole life and which I've enjoyed the most.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Islamabad and Rawalpindi 2004

I'm refurbishing some of my 'Souvenirs' albums on my website. (It's amazing how they somehow seem to get stale. Part of the problem now is that my friend Jacqueline taught me how to adjust the levels with PhotoShop and now I hate all my old photo formulations.) Here's stuff from Pakistan in 2004.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Capital Punishment in Afghanistan

Despite all the troubles in Afghanistan I thought until today that at least this country and its struggling government had the integrity to maintain its moratorium on capital punishment, a practice I find abhorrent and wrong for so many reasons. (Readers may remember my fervent blogging over a threatened execution in Liberia last year.) Sadly, this morning I read about an official execution of 15 Afghans two days ago.

Here is Amnesty International's statement. I agree with all of it except that I personally do not choose to emphasize most of their points in the sixth paragraph because I believe capital punishment is equally and morally wrong in all cases - I could not have advocated the execution of Hitler or Pol Pot... though if I'd been in charge they would have wished for it.

Amnesty International condemned the executions of 15 people on Sunday 7 October 2007 in Afghanistan. The 15 men were executed by firing squad at the Pul-i Charkhi high security prison outside Kabul. They had been charged with a variety of offences including rape, murder, attacking security posts, robbery and looting.

Amnesty International particularly regrets these executions at a time when there is a real global momentum towards the abolition of the death penalty. A total of 133 countries from all regions of the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice and there is an overall decline in the number of reported executions. On 10 October, World Day against the Death Penalty, people around the globe will be protesting against the use of the death penalty, and later this month the UN General Assembly will be voting on a resolution calling on all governments to support a global moratorium on executions.

These executions mark an end to a three year moratorium on executions in Afghanistan, and comes shortly after the Taleban executed a 15 year old in southern Afghanistan.

Amnesty International considers the death penalty as a violation of the right to life and the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. As the world continues to turn away from the use of the death penalty, the execution of these 15 men is an anomaly. Such state sanctioned killing is all the more unacceptable where, as in this case, there are serious doubts about the fairness of trials.

The last execution in Afghanistan was that of Abdullah Shah in April 2004. At the time of his trial in October 2002 the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, following her observance of his trial proceedings, stated there were concerns “that the safeguards and restrictions according to international standards for imposing capital punishment cannot be observed at this stage.” In 2003, the UN Commission on Human Rights called on the Afghan government to "declare a moratorium on the death penalty in the light of procedural and substantive flaws in the Afghan judicial system."

The death penalty is often discriminatory in its application, used disproportionately against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities. It is often imposed after unfair trials, the risk of executing the innocent has been persistently demonstrated, and executions have never been proved to have any unique deterrent effect against crime. Amnesty International believes that executions are brutalizing, dehumanising those that carry it out and devaluing the worth that society places upon human life.

Amnesty International again calls on the Afghan government to immediately impose an official moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Kabul security

I've had a few people write to ask about the security situation here in Kabul and where I'll be travelling in Afghanistan.

The facts about abductions are interesting and not as bad as people seem to think.

In Afghanisan so far in 2007 there have been 142 abduction cases involving 350 people. Twenty seven of those people have been foreigners but 23 of those should be discounted. Those 23 were the special case of the South Koreans who were traveling in a known dangerous area with few security precautions, illegally evangelizing their Christian faith, and in the country without the blessing of their own government. (The Afghan government is also to blame for giving them visas.) I am extremely sorry that two of them were killed and relieved that the others were released but we can discount them from the representative statistics. In 2007 there have been four other international abductions - all of whom were released (although one died of a heart attack).

My organization is being careful not to provide a fifth victim. I think our rules are very appropriate - neither over reactions or carelessness. We do not have a curfew because it would not be relevant - the problems seem to happen in the daytime. We are not allowed to walk around Kabul and are not allowed in taxis. (We rely on our own driver or a reliable minicab company.) The rules in the other towns I've been to vary by situation - I was free to walk alone around Bamiyan but not Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat or Jalalabad. We get excellent reports and alerts from both a private security company and an international agency. We are careful but realistic - we need to be able to breathe to do our jobs.

I am touched by all the caring messages and encourage everybody not to worry. I'm enjoying my work and life and I'll be safe.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Crackbook photos

Like zillions of people and many of my friends I have succumbed to Crackbook (also known as Facebook).

Now I am uploading my snapshots of my crackbook friends. Here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

From my Afghan photo archives part I

Young teacher in Hazarajat, in the central highlands of Afghanistan at her school. June 2005.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Optimum population

I recently read this article in The Guardian. I've reproduced it without permission, but I don't think they would mind and I'm sure the author wouldn't.

The main point, which I really embrace, is that population and population growth is a dangerously neglected aspect of the world's troubles. The author does not directly mention peace and conflict issues but I think they are as worrisome as the environmental issues he describes.

If you find this interesting you might like to follow the link at the bottom to the author's affiliation. I'm glad I did.

The simplest truths are sometimes the hardest to recognise. According to the UN the world population will reach 9.2 billion by 2050. The economist Jeffrey Sachs devoted this spring's Reith lectures to a planet "bursting at the seams". Meanwhile the Gaia scientist James Lovelock has been warning about ecological collapse and world resources able to support only 500 million people.

In the midst of all these alarms is a very quiet place where the green lobby should be talking about human population growth. You will not see any of the big environment and development groups mounting a campaign on population. Indeed you will be lucky if they even mention the P-word. Earlier this year Nafis Sadik, the former director of the UN's population fund, berated such non-governmental organisations for being more concerned with fundraising than advocacy. Their silence on population, she observed, was "deafening".

So why isn't the green movement talking about population any more? In its early days, back in the 1960s and 70s, population growth was a mainstream concern. Groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FoE), WWF and Oxfam took well-publicised positions on population issues, endorsing the Stop at Two (children) slogan, supporting zero population growth and publishing reports with titles such as Already Too Many (Oxfam). These days, Greenpeace declares that population is "not an issue for us" and describes it as "a factor [in] but not one of the drivers of" environmental problems.

FoE last year tried to answer some "common questions" on the subject, including: "Why isn't Friends of the Earth tackling population growth?" Oxfam, which as recently as 1994 published a report entitled World Population: The Biggest Problem of All, now does not list it among the "issues we work on", and nor does it figure in the "What you can do" section of WWF's One Planet Living campaign.

The green lobby's main argument is that numbers do not matter so much - it is how we live and consume that counts. FoE even remarks that "it is unhelpful to enter into a debate about numbers. The key issue is the need for the government to implement policies that respect environmental limits, whatever the population of the UK". It is a statement that seems to treat population and environmental limits as entirely separate subjects.

There are two powerful counter-arguments. One is common sense: that consumption and numbers matter and that if a consumer is absent - that is, unborn - then so is his or her consumption. The second is the weight of evidence. Sir David King, Britain's chief scientist, told a parliamentary inquiry last year: "It is self-evident that the massive growth in the human population through the 20th century has had more impact on biodiversity than any other single factor."

The increase in global population over the next 40 years, for example, is roughly what the entire world population was in 1950. The UK, which currently numbers about 61 million people, is on course for 71 million by 2074, by which time England's densities will have outstripped those of South Korea, which, by some measures, is currently the world's second most-crowded country, after Bangladesh.

Ironically the world now views climate change as the greatest environmental threat but sees the solution in primarily technical terms. Yet expert bodies routinely identify human numbers as one of the main engines of climate change. Of the various social and technical factors involved, for example, the UN says: "The link to population is clearest: the more people there are, the higher emissions are likely to be."

Many suspect other motives for the green lobby's neglect of the population issue. It is a sensitive subject, bound up with issues on which the progressive left, with which most environmental groups identify, has developed a defensive intellectual reflex. These include race and immigration, reproductive choice, human rights and gender equality. Calls for population restraint can easily be portrayed as "anti-people". It is far easier to ignore the whole subject.

This often involves intriguing verbal contortions. The 70s organisation Population Countdown, having morphed into Population Concern, in 2003 rechristened itself as Interact Worldwide, under its former name, consultants told it, its funders, and future, would dry up.

How to categorise such reactions? Pragmatism? Cowardice? Sensible tactics? Or an overdose of organisational self-preservation? Whatever the reason, it is infectious: the media (and politicians) take many of their awareness cues from NGOs so the silence on population becomes society-wide. As a result family size is seen as an exercise in individual lifestyle choice: few people consider the consequences for the planet of their fertility decisions. That means fertility rates in the UK rise, and the population keeps on growing.

It was Mark Twain who observed that those who refused to share vital information with others were guilty of a "silent lie". The green movement needs to start telling us the truth.

David Nicholson-Lord is a research associate for the Optimum Population Trust

Monday, September 17, 2007