Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sick in Iraq - Dispatch from our correspondent

Unfortunately, I am sick again, and much worse this time. Had to go get the medics up last night to get some help. Feeling better this morning, but after I send off this email I'm going to crawl back into my cot and try to sleep this off.

The problem is that our battalion and the battalion that we are replacing are both here at the same time, so we're crammed into every little space imaginable. Living so close together is making sure everyone gets sick. Also, there's so many people, that there is seldom any hot water, so people aren't terribly clean and/or spend time very cold and wet every day.

We won't start patrols for a while, I'll let you know when we do. Our sector is one of the quieter ones, but is also very diverse. It includes a forest ( yes, a forest in Iraq!), a university,(oh boy...politically active young people with knowledge of chemistry and electronics), some ancient ruins (still respected to this day, although they occupy an area of good real-estate in the city they are only used as sheep and goat grazing grounds, even the insurgents seem to respect the area as out-of-bounds), and several city neighborhoods.

Oh, also a lovely section of a local river that has been known, for as long as the locals can remember, as "Shit Creek"....sounds picturesque. I'm not making that up about the creek, the intelligence officer said they've tried to get a different name for it from the locals so that the intelligence sergeants didn't get to say things like "the target is up Shit Creek" in their briefings...but no luck.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Dispatch from Kuwait-- Of Camels and Guns and MREs

From our diligent correspondent in Kuwait waiting to enter Iraq comes this story:

There are numerous training facilities in Kuwait, the initial staging area for many American troops who spend some time there acclimating themselves to the desert environment. The soldiers regularly train to keep in shape and maybe learn some helpful tips. In one exercise, the unit was bussed to an artillery range deep in the desert. The view was rolling sand dunes for 360 degrees.

Before practice firings could begin in earnest, a gun misfired. No one was hurt, but it required an expert investigation, which took several hours. Safely certified, they were ready to fire the first shots when a herd of camels appeared on the horizon, necessitating another stand-down. Firing range personnel dispatched a fleet of Humvees to hurry the beasts along. But camels it seems have little fear of puny humans or their machines, and it looked like a lunch break made sense while the round-up proceeded.

The soldiers hunkered down opening their MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) pouches, but were interrupted by a group of the dispersed camels who had developed a taste for MREs. Hopelessly addicted to meatloaf and gravy dinners, they began snatching MREs right out of the soldiers' hands. Again, camels have little fear of humans, whom they outsize 5 to 1, and whose teeth can cut a NY strip-sized hunk from an arm. The day promised to be quite long-- and was. The army does not cancel training.

Our correspondent has been asking me for a helmet camera, and with material like this, it's a good possibility. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Innocent bystanders killed by Mosul car bomb



In all the coverage I've watched about the attacks on Mumbai, the most thought-provoking was that when patrons fled through the Taj hotel kitchen, they were pursued by the attackers, who shot and killed kitchen workers on their way through.

In another report, of the 101 reported killed, only six were foreigners-- who were supposedly the targets. How many maids, cooks, bellhops, children etc. have been killed?

This morning, a bomb exploded near the U.S.embassy in Kabul killing four Afghan civilians and injuring dozens of others.

So, the greatest victims of these sorts of attacks are invariably the poorest and most innocent, and the perpetrators are the most ignorant, gullible, psychotic specimens of humanity imaginable. Take care Evan.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Meeting the Invisibles

I started teaching adult ESL classes at a local community college a few weeks ago. The biggest surprise was the diversity of the students—not so much because it was an ethnically diverse classroom, which it is, but diverse in the kinds of people I normally interact with. My students are the people who are usually invisible in my world. They clean houses and businesses at night. They decorate donuts. They landscape, build decks, lay tile, paint, or flip burgers. Some work in Wal-mart or stock grocery shelves—and they’re not bright faced teens working to pay car insurance.

Being in a college town, I tend to hang out with white anglo-saxon college-educated people. They are teachers, doctors, writers, high-level government workers, bankers, insurance agents, filmmakers, web designers. Those are the jobs you expect to hear about at local party chit-chat. Now that I spend a few hours a day away from this group, I see what a cultural bubble it is.

Though there was initial wonder at the “strange” professions of the students, they are engaging people, and the mysteries of fast-food prep, house cleaning, and immigration are just as interesting as any of my regular friends’ occupational stories—- probably, more so, given their adventure of leaving home country and family to make it on the mean streets of the USA. They are bona-fide risk takers. What they’ve done and why; their hopes and dreams are pretty compelling; their lives full of dangers unknown by me and most of my suburban friends.

You don’t think of that when you brush by the maid in the hotel corridor, or the painting crew having lunch on somebody's lawn. You don’t think about that when working late at the office, and a guy walks by pushing a vacuum.

These people are not invisible to me now. I make an effort to say hello. Talk about the weather or something and recognize their existence as more than a piece of furniture without much effect on the world.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Life of Luxury

I stayed at a 4 Diamond hotel for a few days last week, and it was nice, but excessive to the point of discomfort. My travels in the past year have led me to a number of similar big name luxury spots, mostly at rates where $300/night rooms were discounted to $60-- not much more than the smelly Comfort Inn with the grinding AC under the window.

I've found that the more expensive the room's rack rate (usually $250-350), the more the hotel nickels and dimes its customers; like charging $10 a day for Internet, $6.50 for the bottle of European water in the room, a laughable $3.50 for a 50 cent snickers from the mini-bar, $25 for a room service continental breakfast, $15 for a movie, and a paltry list of cable channels.

I'd rather stay in a Holiday Inn, where Internet, parking,bottle of Dasani, and HBO are all free, and a decent hot breakfast buffet is $10.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Help bloggers in Afghanistan

You can make a donation to this group that is doing important work promoting free speech in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Young Afghan journalist sentenced to death for discussing the Koran

Note: I just received this sobering message...

"A bad news from Parwiz's brother.

Kamran Mir Hazar
Exiled Poet, Writer, Journalist and Web Master
Email: &
Web: &

----- Forwarded Message ----
From: yaqub ibrahimi
To: kamran Mir Hazar
Sent: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 6:16:50 PM
Subject: Parwez is sentenced to execution
Dear Kaamraan jaan, the fucking balkh primery court without inform anyone sentenced Parwez Kaambakhsh to execution,

The case of Parwiz Kambakhsh, a reporter for the local newspaper, “Jahan-e Now,” and a student at Balkh University, requires the urgent attention of journalists and activists for freedom of expression. Kambakhs was accused and has been unlawfully detained for three months for possessing an article, which discussed controversial verses of The Holy Quran regarding women’s rights.

We believe that the government of Afghanistan and his Excellency president Karzai has an important responsibility to secure free speech for journalists, especially in the area of religion, like the world’s leading democracies.
We pledge our support for and call on Mr. Karzai to work for the immediate release of Mr. Kambakhsh. He has strong support among those who care about freedom of speech and democracy, and they are distributing the facts of this case world-wide.

Show Your Support asks you to show your support for Parwiz and free speech in Afghanistan by posting a comment below. Your comments will be automatically esending an e-mail to Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, his spokesperson. Include your name, occupation, country of residence, and a comment asking for the release of Parwiz Kambakhsh.

E-mail your support to and

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A million dollars embezzled from Kabul hospital construction project?

1,000,000 USD is unaccounted for in UN, Intersos, Ahyaye Mojadad Char Dehi (an Afghan construction company) joint humanitarian aid effort

Note: Afghan journalist in exile, Kamran mir Hazar, prepared this report, including evidence, two years ago when he was head of the News Department at Kabul’s Radio Kleed. Unfortunately, the Attorney General’s Office of Afghanistan has not acted to arrest or question the accused people, even after being contacted repeatedly and provided with documents and other evidence.

This report indicates the level of difficulty working in a developing country. Much of the U.S. leadership contends that infrastructure cannot proceed without a military "victory," however, as this article reveals, often the greater enemies of advancement are large bureaucracies with dishonest or lax oversight that cost millions of dollars and sow great mistrust for authority. This is one small example.

Mr. Gary K. Helseth, former General Director of the 600 million USD-a-year United Nations Office of Project Services-Afghanistan(UNOPS) who had worked in Afghanistan for over 20 years, left the country two months after this report was first published. His U.N. e-mail addresses are not functional, and so far, we have been unable to contact him for additional information.

The Project
In 2002, the Ministry of Public Health of Afghanistan asked UNOPS to add 50 more beds to the 52 bed Khairkhana Hospital. UNOPS accepted the project. The Italian Government Foreign Office then committed funding up to 2,200,000 USD for the project.

After the funds were delivered to UNOPS- Afghanistan, they were released to the global Italian aid organization, Intersos-- less 270,000 USD of the original amount, which apparently was taken by UNOPS for internal expenses. Intersos is a corporation operating as an NGO in Afghanistan and has an office in Shahr-e-Now, Kabul. It was organized primarily by the Italian Trade Union Confederation in 1992, and its current annual budget is approximately 30,000,000 USD.

Afghan Government Investigation

Intersos oversaw the project, but what was the result, and how much of the 2,200,000 USD was actually spent on the project? Mr. Samadi, Director of Criminal Investigation Department of Attorney General Office responds:

The Intersos Corporation did not work on the project but signed a contract with another Afghan Corporation, Ahyaye Mojadad Char Dehi, led by Engineer Amin for 920,000 USD. Where did the balance of 1,010,000 USD go?

Mr. Samadi adds, "we asked the hospital personnel and the employees of the Afghan Corporation who worked on the project with the Intersos organization, and eventually found that Ahyaye Mojadad Char Dehi had some secret arrangements with Intersos. Based on our evaluation and inventory, they did not spend more than 250,000 to 300,000 USD on the project."

The Attorney General’s Office claims that they have concrete evidence and documents regarding the project. They are looking for Engineer Amin who they suspect may have embezzled some funds, but he cannot be found. Mr. Samadi says that Engineer Amin once phoned the Attorney General’s Office and threatened them, if they investigated this case.

Mr. Samadi, further stated that Intersos allocated 80,000 USD for the demolition of just two old rooms at the hospital’s main gate. When I asked why he did not summon and investigate the foreign people involved in the project, he answered:

“The Legal and Consulting Board of the Office of President sent us a letter in which it indicated that it is within our jurisdiction to make a claim against Intersos in an Afghan court. We then contacted the Italian Embassy and said that if they refused to assist us with this case, we would take it to the World Court in The Hague through our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UN. This is too large an amount of money for poor Afghanistan to just let go missing, and possibly embezzled.”

No Prosecution

The question remains: Do the foreign people involved in this project deserve political immunity from prosecution? It is clear that the Attorney General can prosecute foreigners based on domestic laws. Only Ambassadors, Diplomats and C and D grade foreign officials of the UN have political immunity, so all of the Intersos people involved in this project may be legally prosecuted.

While the Attorney General’s office did not know Intersos’ Kabul address, I found it in Shar-e -Now (New City) Kabul. I visited the office and found a Mr. Marco Rotelli, who did not answer my simple questions but referred me to UNOPS. I tried to contact the responsible persons at UNOPS in Afghanistan. Eventually, I made an appointment with the spokesperson and the Director of UNFPA, Mr. Gary K. Helseth.

Interview with Gary K. Helseth
Mr. Helseth firmly rejected the possibility for any kind of embezzlement in this project. He said that the project was very successful and they were satisfied with its completion. He added that they had employed an Afghan Engineer and a foreign engineer for this project and all the contracts had been already signed in New York.

Regarding the amount of 2,200,000 USD, he said that Intersos Corporation received 2,000,000 for the project, and 200,000 USD was spent on travel expenses and salaries of experts and employees. He added that the Intersos Corporation had been introduced to UNOPS by the Italian Government.

When I asked Mr. Helseth why Intersos did not do the project itself but instead signed a contract with Ahyaye Mojadad Char Dehi, he answered, "It is not true!" He added that Intersos signed a contract with a different corporation, and the money was spent by that corporation. He said they have documents that show this project was completed properly.

Regarding the term of the warranty for the completed building, Mr. Helseth said that theproject was guaranteed for one year . “A few years ago we could not guarantee a project for a year. Most projects in Afghanistan are guaranteed for just three or four months.” He agreed that the amount of 80,000 USD was too much for the demolition of two old rooms in the hospital and said he would check the documents.

"Mr. Helseth, please count and check this project penny by penny and kindly give me the documents to see when ready," I said and he agreed to do so.

A few days later, I received a call from Mr. Helseth. He happily said he had some ten kilos of documents on the project showing that it had been completed successfully, and added I could pick them up at his office. When I arrived, he was photocopying them, and we agreed that he would send them to my office in Radio Kaleed.

After they arrived, I sought out several experts to review these documents.

Experts Disagree With UNOPS Accounting
The experts who accepted my request did want me to reveal their names. One of them still works with the USAID and has completed many projects with that organization. He determined that the total cost of this project was 646,900 USD. Compared to the budget of 2,200,000USD, this leaves about 1,550,100 USD is unaccounted for. This expert emphasized that the budget was written in 2002 and current costs were higher.

Another expert who also wished to remain anonymous estimated the project cost to be 776,280 USD, leaving 1,423,720 USD unaccounted for. He explained that for 776,280 USD “we can build a hospital of about 2,587 square meter (20,000 sq. ft.) to a global standard.” This was the size of the Intersos and UNOPS Khairkhana Hospital project. He added that “even if we ignore the real amount spent, the maximum amount shown in the project reports is still 1,035,000 USD which shows the possibility of embezzlement of more than 1,000,000 USD on this single project.”

Now we should ask Mr. Gary Helseth, former Director of UNOPS in Afghanistan how he defends his organization and Intersos in this project.

Claims of Shoddy Construction at Khairkhana Hospital
While making this report, I went to Khairkhana Hospital and met some of the staff. Asked if the hospital met global standards, Mr. Mohibullah Nejat, the Director, said; "The main problem with the new building is its plumbing system, which was to some extent repaired by the coalition forces about four months ago, and is a bit better now.”

“The building built by Intersos does not have proper ventilation or medical waste systems, which are required for a medical complex. Medical complexes need special engineers, who know about these things,” he added.

Unfortunately when carefully evaluating other completed projects in Afghanistan, we discover even greater numbers of possible embezzlement. It is the responsibility of the government to oversee the operations of the NGOs and corporations. The Attorney General’s Office also has a legal duty and responsibility to prosecute the people who steal from society.