Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

Category Archives: Afghanistan

If the Bullets Don’t Get You, the Filthy Air of Kabul Will

There was an article in the paper this morning about air quality in Kabul, or more to the point, the lack of quality. According to scientific studies, government officials, and United Nations experts the air is so foul that more people die from respiratory illnesses than from the on-going war with Taliban and insurgents.

And while no one can track down the supposed studies that support it, there is a firm belief in Kabul that up to 30% of the air pollution is comprised of fecal matter.

At this time of year the problem is not quite as bad because the daytime temperatures are low.  But, during hot windy weather it is particularly acute and the reek of human waste brings tears to the eyes and deep hacking coughs to the lungs.

Bad and befouled air is frequently seen in the wake of wars, humanitarian disasters, and out of control capitalism. Relief workers and others succumb to what is known as the Rwanda Cough and it can last for weeks. And where there is war and disaster there is poor or non-existant sanitation.

Coughing can get so violent that it can result in pulled back muscles, and I’ve even heard it said, broken ribs. 

The air in Kabul is full of fecal matter because this is a city built for 1.5 million people yet there are 5 million (or possibly many more, no one is sure) crammed into it and the sewage system simply cannot deal with it all.  Then too, farmers use “night soil”, as it is politely called, to fertilize their crops.  It is quite overpowering to drive past the fields. I don’t know how the farmers stand it. They use it of course because it does work as a good and cheap fertilizer.

Personally, I won’t touch anything grown in Kabul.

The only fresh fruit and vegetables I will eat are those that I know have been flown in from Germany or Dubai.  Of course the local fatty-tailed sheep and cattle graze on this stuff but I figure that the danger of contamination from meat is a lot lower.

Yet, fecal matter in the dust is not the biggest part of the air pollution problem.  

Dusty Jalalabad Road east -- typical driving conditions

The Dusty Kabiul Jalalabad Road East — typical driving conditions

Most of the heating and cooking is done using wood fires.  All of the vehicles are diesel and most have not been serviced for a long time, especially the thousands of former Soviet trucks and cars which never had much in the way of emission controls anyway. 

The wood smoke and diesel fumes make breathing quite hard at times.  I have sometimes seen the pollution so bad that you almost need headlights at noon.

Things are not much better outside Kabul. 

On the east side of the city there are quite a few brick kilns.  Just about everything is made of fired mud brick and the whole eastern region is dotted with volcano shaped kilns, perhaps thirty or forty feet tall, vomiting pitch black smoke from burning waste oil, diesel, wood, or whatever the operators can chuck in to dry the bricks.  I would say it is like looking at the devil’s kitchen except for one other Afghan enterprise that I still cannot believe, although I have seen enough of them to leave no doubt.  There is no way the devil could put up with it, things are that bad.

Before I explain, let me say that Afghans are the hardest working people I have ever seen.  These ar

A typical day in Kabul. The smoke is from thousands of decrepit vehicles and countless wood fired furnaces and stoves. This is considered clear

A typical day in Kabul. The smoke is from thousands of decrepit vehicles and countless wood fired furnaces and stoves. This is considered clear

e not Kosovo Refugees waiting for handouts. These people get down in the dirt and work their asses off.  Absolutely everything is used to turn a profit.  I have seen men on the side of the road selling piles of dried cattle dung for use as fuel.  Coca-Cola cans are hammered into a bewildering variety of tin household goods, and there is very little trash blowing around because it can be recycled for a profit. Every kid seems to be a garbage collector.

So with that as a national characteristic perhaps it isn’t that surprising to learn that there are people who make a living by making home heating fuel, paraffin, diesel, and even gasoline by cooking crude oil in huge kettles.  And yes, the kettles can and do explode.

I’ve seen these home refineries in the Kunduz area in the north, and just south of here in Logar Province, and I have been told that they can be found in a lot of other places, especially near sources of crude oil.

The process of making stuff like diesel, gasoline, and the chemicals that make plastics normally requires huge sprawling refineries and very sophisticated technology.  But the heart of the process is very simple.  As crude oil is heated, various products evaporate at particular temperatures.  So, as you heat crude oil the vapours of such fuels as kerosene, gasoline, diesel etc are produced at particular temperatures.  All you have to do is collect the vapour at a particular temperature and cool it to get whatever.

And that is what the Afghan home refineries do.  Crude oil is heated in a big sealed kettle and a guy measures the temperature to know when to start collecting the vapour.  The trouble is that this is a very very dangerous business.  There are obviously highly explosive vapours leaking out all the time and the stuff that is collected in open drums is just as bad.  Imagine then the potential for hideous disaster when you have one of these heated kettles producing gasoline fumes and condensed gasoline liquid and you have an open wood fire roaring under the kettle.

Lethal accidents are so common that most of the operations are done in deep pits or underground which of course only helps to concentrate the vapours but does limit the blast damage.

And of course the fuel that is produced is not very clean which only adds to the air pollution when it is burned in cars, trucks, stoves and whatever.

A Memo From Camp Warehouse Kabul About Security Clearances

  In the early days of the Afghan Occupation Today I sat on the banks of the many years dry Kabul River and wept sad tears, not because of what has been happening, but because I do not have the necessary talent of an Evelyn Waugh or a Joseph to tell this comic farce. EverContinue

The Disaster Tourist – A Soon To Be Published Book

While I continue to work on my Adventure Thrillers such as Cobra Flight, I am also developing some Non-Fiction projects. In active development now is a quirky, irreverent, and most likely scandalous look at how relief workers and journalists conduct themselves in war zones and humanitarian disaster areas. It also turns a jaundiced and witheringContinue

How to Get Out of a Minefield

I’m often asked if I worry about getting shot when working in some of the places I go to. Not really.  I mean, it is something I am always aware of and something I try to be prepared for, but the possibility of getting shot is not nearly the nightmare that people assume it is.Continue

Driving in Four World Cities–Eyes Clenched Shut

  I cannot remember the last time in Calgary that I used my car horn. I am not even sure that it works. I do know that if I did use the horn here it would be taken as a deadly insult worthy of gestures and incoherent rage. This is in horn-less Calgary. Elsewhere, thingsContinue

Water is Life — and Quick Profit

Travelers, even the type that heads for a cosseted resort in a first world country, know to be careful about the local water.  But what do you do when you are in a country where there is no safe water? Buy bottled water you’d say. Most of the time that would be a good idea,Continue

How to Buy a Carpet in Afghanistan — it is not easy

I am not a carpet kind of guy. Left to myself I would be quite happy plodding around barefoot on the beaten earth floor of a Neanderthal cave, or scuffing through the dust floor of an Ethiopian tuqual. But others seem to find great pleasures in tightly bound and painted hairs ripped from the backsContinue

Torturers I Have Met

A few years ago I was splitting a bottle of Dewar’s Scotch with one of the most senior drug control police officers in the Afghan government, (drinking is an activity more common than you would think in that Islamic nation) when the conversation turned to torture. There had just been a sensational case involving theContinue

Afghan Soldiers Can’t See to Read

This week in Afghanistan (Fed 23, 2011) the NATO General in charge of training the new Afghan Army, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, said he would like to see all Afghan National Army soldiers reading at the First Grade Elementary School level by October of 2011. Think about that statement for a moment and be veryContinue

Life in Afghanistan Before the Taliban

I don’t know who took the first two pictures here but the story is that they were taken in 1968 by a British diplomat. If anyone knows who I can contact to see whether I can display these with permission I would appreciate the contact info.  And should the owner of these pictures want themContinue