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Letter from Ukraine I, 2011

Privet from Kyiv,

It takes 24 hours by bus to get to Kyiv from Prague. I was lucky — our bus was half empty and all passengers had two seats and some even had four seats as I did. This was great as it meant I could stretch my legs across the aisle and sleep all night. Well, almost all night. A passenger in front of me reclined his seat as far back as he could so I was fully pinned to my seat in rather unpleasant proximity to the man’s sniffing. I cursed the one who invented reclining seats and believe they may be the cruellest innovation ever invented for travel in comfort.

I politely asked man if he could put his seat back and he screamed back to me that he can do whatever he wants and strangely enough, only when he realized I was not Ukrainian he moved his seat back to a normal position.

I went to Ukraine by bus last year and all the passengers were polite and friendly. Something seems to have changed. The New Year’s Eve celebration on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv had an entirely different tone than the last year when people were dancing, singing and enjoying themselves. This year they stayed quietly on the square, opening their sparkling wine and sipping quietly. No one applauded when the Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovich, gave his New Year’s speech and no one seemed excited. The spirit rose a bit when the fireworks started and occasionally someone cried out happily in response to the lights and explosion.

The spirit rose a bit when the fireworks started.

One positive thing was that the weather was good – the thermometer was on zero. It seems to me that freezing weather in Ukraine is reserved for presidential elections and revolutions. The weather was great all week and on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) Ded Morozes (Grandfathers Frost), Snegurachkas (Snow Maidens), Zajchiky (Bunnies) and figures form different fairy tales encouraged passers-by to take photographs with them. They wanted Hryvnas 30 (USD 3.50). Children could ride on a Merry-go-round or in carnival trains for free. Or they could persuade their parents to pay for pony rides. Those parents who couldn’t afford any of the attractions at least bought a balloon or inflatable toy for their child for 10 Hryvnas.

Christmas Holiday on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

Christmas Holiday on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

On Maidan Nezalezhnosti the Christmas celebration was in full speed and in the metro underpass babushkas made the best of the holiday as well. More passers-by meant more chances to collect money for their medications. Others were also begging, such as a veteran from the Afghan-Russian war who asked me for money for alcohol. When I asked him about the war, he cried.

Not everyone was there with extended hands — some babushkas played the violin while others were singing. Some were selling Ukrainian’s art crafts and souvenirs.

A woman plays the violin.

Veteran from the Afghan-Russian war.

There was a demonstration in front of the Pechersky district court of Kyiv on January 5th where a criminal case has been opened against former Ukrainian Interior Minister, Yuriy Lutsenko. Yanukovich promised he will fight the misuse of power and impunity among members of the State apparatus. But it seems that criminal prosecutions are aimed exclusively at members of the opposition political parties.

About one thousand demonstrators, mostly pensioners, came to “support” Lutsenko. They held banners with slogans like “Today Lutsenko tomorrow you”, We want fair court of law. But these demonstrators were paid. They received about 30 -50 Hryvnas and the person who finds them received 30 Hryvnas and 5 Hryvnas more for each person he brought to the demonstration. Further, the organizer was paid 100 or even more Hrivnyas. Surprised? Don’t be, it’s normal in the Ukraine.

“Stop terror”

“Today Lutsenko, tomorrow you”

It was very cold this day with the therometer dropping to well below 0. The trial started at eleven in the morning and finished at about two afternon. While it was finished for Lutsenko at least that day, the demonstraters had to wait until six o’clock in the evening to collect their pay. The leader of the Batkivschyna Party and former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, also came to support Lutsenko. She was not outside with the babushkas, of course. And it was probably she who paid these demonstrators.  Surprised again? Don’t be, this is normal in Ukraine.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Maybe the young generation can change things; maybe the young generation will be more honest. But for now, it seems they are busy with something else.

Letter from Afghanistan V

Salaam,

I am still in Mazar-e-Sharif even though my visa already expired – on July 15. I sent my application to extend my stay for another month, but the process is very complicated and slow. I had to send my application with a copy of my school certificate; as well as a letter from the Embassy where my Afghan visa was issued. And I had to have invitation letters from the Czech NGO (Non Government Organization) People in Need from Prague as well as a formal request for my stay from my hosts in Afghanistan. All these documents were sent to the Ministry of Economy (PIN is registered there) a week before my visa expired. From there the application will be sent to Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A couple weeks ago, visas could still be issued in Kabul as well as in Mazar-e-Sharif and others large cities. Not any more. All foreigners must go to Kabul. The authorities make it very difficult for foreigners. They seem to want us out of the country. And I have no news from the Afghan authorities yet about my application, so I really hope I will get some news soon.

Did I complain about weather in the last letter? I did, didn’t I?  I guess it was too early; it was only 42 Celsius, nice and cool weather compare with what it is NOW! Believe it or not:  it has been 48°C the last three days, yes, forty eight in shadow. Our thermometer only registers until 50 Celsius…..it’s crazy.

It has been 48°C the last three days.

It’s not good to stay in the compound all the time, because you’ll go a bit nutty if you do. So I was lucky to have the opportunity to go on another field trip; even it was just for one day in the Toqay district, one and half hours from Kabul.  Uzbek people live there, and women (most of them) do not mind being photographed.

A pregnant woman.

The Afghan parliamentary election is scheduled to take place on September 18th (postponed from May 22nd).   The campaign which kicked off at the end of June will be a major test of Afghanistan’s political progress and security. Depending on how it’s run, the Sept. 18th balloting could be a major advance toward stability; or, if there is fraud on the scale of last year’s presidential elections, a big step backward.

A campaign billboard for candidate standing in the 2010 Afghan parliamentary elections.

In Balkh province my “mission” for the Czech NGO People is finished. In Kabul, I will document a teacher’s training and hope also to document the parliamentary election campaign. My last shoot was in the Toqay district, the ISNA (Income Stability in Afghanistan) beneficiaries: a beekeeper, agriculture nursery and wool processing.

A beekeeper

So goodbye Marghzar, goodbye Zare and Kishindeh. Goodbye  Mazar-e-Sharif, goodbye Balkh.  I am off to Kabul on Saturday.

iva

PS. And I have almost forgot, my visa application is already at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I will have an answer about my status in couple weeks.

Letter from Afghanistan IV

Salaam,

The security situation has worsened in Afghanistan. It probably has to do with the upcoming elections. The Taliban are coming out, visiting rural areas and recruiting new members, especially young men and boys.  I couldn’t get around freely on my last trip to Zare because rumour had it that the Taliban was present. It is the same situation in Kishindeh and in the other parts of Afghanistan. We worry that the situation will only get worse as the elections draw closer.

Five people have been killed by suicide bombers attacking the office of a US AID-funded organisation in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. In Kishindeh, one Pakistani and two Afghan engineers were abducted, were released after a few days.

We keep our heads down and consider our every movement, but continue our work. In Zare, a new farmer’s cooperation now has their new tractor with a drop-side-truck and wheat thresher from People in Need (PIN). A big ceremony was held, speeches were delivered and the wheat thresher was use for the first time.

A big ceremony was held.

Farmer’s cooperation now has their new tractor.

Wheat thresher was use for the first time.

Everybody was happy. We were happy that the tractor, drop-side-truck and wheat thresher arrived safely at its destination and that members of this new farmer’s corporation were happy having their new machines. It took seven minutes to thresh one bag of grain, whereas normally it would take one full day of driving several donkeys or cows in a circle to thresh this amount of grain.

A boy driving donkeys in a circle to thresh grain.

Husk must be separated from the grain.

The weather continues to be unbearably hot.  Our two dogs live during the day in our bathroom cooling themselves on tiles. In our office, an air conditioner works sporadically. It’s an endless struggle.

My feet are becoming like Afghan feet – heels dry and cracked from just wearing sandals in the hot weather and there is a constant thin film of dirt. I wear scarf, well, I am trying to wear a scarf. It always slides from my head and my hair is unveiled — not good in the rural areas. Ah! If I use safety pin, I look like Russian babushka.

Scarf always slides from my head and my hair is unveiled.

I wear also a long dress with long sleeves because women must cover their arms fully. I borrow one dress from a friend, and the second one I had sewn here in Mazar-e-Sharif.

There are three genders in Afghanistan: women, men and foreign women.  Foreign women have more privileges than Afghan women. They do not have to wear burqas, just a scarf. They do not have to hide their faces. They can eat together with the men, talk to them and even joke with them. And Afghan men have a great sense of humour.

In recent weeks, I documented the People in Need (PIN) mission, the Cash for Work (CFW), Food Facilities (FF), and the Water and Sanitation (Watsan) projects. Cash for Work gives payment to people who build roads. The Food Facilities program was building granaries and flood barriers. For Watson, I photographed pumps and the construction of water reservoirs.

A group of boys fill canisters at a water pump supplied by the NGO People in Need.

I am trying to extend my visa, but it’s a long and difficult process. I need a diploma from my school, a work permit, an invitation…..and I need lots of patience. I decided to apply only for exit visa.  Hopefully I will get ten days extra. My visa expires on July 15th so with these additional ten days, I will have to leave on July 25th.

I still have to photograph beneficiaries of the Income Stability in Afghanistan (ISNA). And I would like to go to Herat (city in western Afghanistan) to see Fraidoon, my Afghan friend. Still, many things to do in a short time, eh? Time is flying here; it seems to me I just arrived a week ago.

Letter from Afghanistan III

Salaam from Mazar-e-Sharif, salaam for the third time.

Weather is hot and hot and hot. The mercury in thermometer rises to the sky; today it stopped on 40 Celsius, tomorrow will climb to 42. Hot water is coming out of both taps. Potatoes are cooking under the ground and chickens are laying hard-boiled eggs. Ok, I am exaggerating, but it feels this way. And we sweat and sweat and sweat. OK. We shouldn’t comp-lain. Or I shouldn’t complain. What about Afghan women who wear the burqa over their normal clothing? The burqa is the blue, white or green huge piece of cloth where the air circulation is very poor and where women can barely see the pathway. They must be boiling under this synthetic cloth. And imagine, some burqas are even black.

I had to wear a burqa too. On my third trip to the field, we were passing a small town where a bazaar was in full swing. The street was busy with men on motorcycles, sitting in front of their shops, selling nans (nan is the national bread of Afgha-nistan. It is a flatbread and can be oval or rectangular), selling sheep or just wandering here and there. The streets were crowed full of men and we were only women there. Well, we were in a car, but still our drive driver gave the order: “Put burqas on!”

I was the last one who put it on. I was fighting with this unfamiliar piece of clothing – I couldn’t find front and couldn’t find the top. The ladies tried to help me; more hands were touching this blue monster and making it more difficult to put on. Finally (we already hit the street full of men) we managed it. I was under the blue burqa. There was just one mistake:  I wore it inside out.

Cooperation training for farmers

In Zare, I documented the cooperation training for farmers organized by the People in Need – Food Facilities.  About ten respected bearded men attended this workshop. The workshop was for five days, and this new cooperation will get            a tractor, a drop-side-truck and wheat thresher from People in Need (PIN).

From Zare I went to Marghzar, where Marghzar High School was officially opening with a big ceremony where officials like Mullah, the minister of finance and others as well as the PIN engineer, the PIN program coordinator, and other PIN members were there. And of course there were students, pupils, and teachers there too. After all, this school is for them.

Official opening of Marghzar High School

Pupils and students lined up in front of their new school where the ribbon was cut and speeches were delivered. The heat was so strong, one pupil threw up; my head was spinning and the students‘ too, I’m sure. After couple unbelievably long speeches they sat down. No water was offered to them.

Official opening of Marghzar High School

Marghzar is a beautiful place surrounded by incredible mountains. People are very friendly and you can walk freely everywhere. So I continue with my portraits using this pictorial landscape as the background.

A father and son.

A boy wearing a Pakul hat.

Two young men stand together holding hands, a traditional gesture of friendship in Afghanistan.

I was all week in Mazar working on my pictures. I also have a new web-show of the pictures. If you are interested, here is the link:

http://galleryprint.com/gallerymain.html

On Monday I am off again, I am going back to Kishindeh and to a new place:  Chakana.

Iva

Letter from Afghanistan II

Salaam from Afghanistan again.

My second field trip was to the village of Kishindeh. The road was very dusty due to construction. A new highway is being built; it will connect Mazar-e-Sharif (Balkh province) and Darae Souf (Samangan province).

New highway is being built.

Anything which stands in the way of the construction must go. Hills are leveled, houses are demolished.  Shahib Nazar’s house for example will be devoured by the highway. Shahib told me he has to move in two weeks. He should get a new house from the construction company, but so far no one has told him where it will be. He is worried that he will lose his house and will not get a new one.

Shahib Nazar’s house

While the big highway is under construction, small roads are being created as well. These roads are made from rocks that the construction crew brings by hands. Shovels and pickaxes are used instead of big machines.

Roads are made from rocks that crews break with sledgehammers.

Rocks are brought by hands.

Afghan women didn’t want to be photographed. Actually, their men forbid them to be photographed. I was told by them that Islam religious doesn’t allow women to be photographed. I assume I could take a pictures but without their faces visible. So I did.

A woman totally obscured by a veil stands holding her unveiled daughter.

A widow, dressed in a white burqa, in the village of Bachaley.

A woman spins wool.

The harvest season has begun. In Afghanistan, men usually harvest grain manually with a sickle, a scythe is unknown here. Tractors are rarely seen.

A man harvesting wheat.

I went to two schools; one was built by an NGO and the second is a state school which has one small room with one window and a blackboard. Pupils sit on the floor; there are neither tables nor chairs.

State school

A school built by NGO

I think that schools, whether without or with tables, are good. It is good children go to school at all. But some do not like Fauzya (12), for example, and she is not alone; she doesn’t go to school, she doesn’t know how to read or write. She studies only the Koran in a mosque.  I was told that she will be married to some old man when she is 15.

Fauzya

Bye for now

Iva

Letter from Afghanistan I

Salaam everyone,

I am back in Afghanistan, a totally different Afghanistan than I have ever seen before: the dry and dusty land I remembered is surprisingly green. There has been enough rain this year so the hills are carpeted with grass and grain, farmers plow their lands, goats and sheep happily jig around. It looks idyllic.

Farmer plows his land.

Burkhas are still used. The rural areas have no electricity yet and security has worsened.There are more clinics, but few medicaments available for the sick or injured. Serious cases must be treated in the cities. And renting a car is expensive.

Burkhas are still used.

Clinic in the village of Marghzar, Balkh province

I am staying with the Czech NGO People in Need; their main office is in Mazar-e-Sharif but their projects take place in rural areas. They have funds for work and livelihood projects, agriculture workshops, and the construction of new schools and granaries in these rural areas.

Men are building a road. This is a short-term intervention used by People in Need the Czech NGO to provide temporary employment in public projects, such as repairing roads, clearing debris or rebuilding infrastructure.

The funds for work projects, for example helps farmers with cash until a new crop will be harvested. Livelihood projects provide workshops for men as well as for women in different skills.

An agriculture workshop for women

I also continue with my own work. I continue with the portraits series, but I am not using my “portable studio”: the background is so pictorial it would be a shame not to use it.

A husband and wife stand together in a glade of trees

A boy proudly displays his digital wristwatch

Two Afghan National policemen

A farmer uses a scythe to harvest wheat

I am off in couple minutes to the field so I will continue when I am back in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Iva

Letter from Ukraine 2009

Hello everybody,

I came to Ukraine to document and witness the 2010 presidential elections. To feel the atmosphere I came a month before the elections, and as grim year was ending, voters were getting to pick their president.

My last visit to Ukraine was at the end of the year 2004 – when the Orange Revolution was in full spin, where Victor Yushchenko was vaulted to power, when national self-esteem enhanced and hope was raised.  But the democratic coalition fell apart and paved the way for revolution villain Victor Yanukovich to possibly win the 2010 presidency.

I kicked the New Year with thousands of Ukrainians on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), sipping Ukrainian beer and freezing my feet and hands. The party was organized by the Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the 18 presiden-tial candidates.

Celebrating the new year on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

People were cheerful and I think they didn’t worry for one night who will be their next president. Anyways, everybody knows there will be second round. Why to worry about the first one. There were 18 presidential candidates, 13 of them minors. A rumor says they are on the payrolls of front-runners and that their candidacies exist to steal votes from top rivals of a leading candidate.

People were cheerful.

Assessments by political analysts show that each presidential candidate will have to spend at least US $150–200mn to promote himself; this includes buying story lines in the media, visual advertising, canvassing, printing political material and, work with electoral commissions.

A billboard with a picture of Victor Yanukovich (Party of Regions), one of the candidates running in the 2010 Presidential elections.

A picture in a metro station of Yulia Tymoshenko (All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland”), one of the candidates running in the 2010 Presidential elections.

A billboard with a picture of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (Our Ukraine party), in the build-up to the 2010 presidential elections.

One wonders why Ukrainians have their presidential elections in winter. Weather is cold, it snows a lot, and streets are not clean from snow or ice. Maybe this is a tactic; maybe top guys think not many people will go to vote in this kind of weather.

Commuters on their way to work walk past St. Sophia Cathedral, as snow falls over the city.

Well, some people love this freezing weather; they even take a pleasure of swimming in Dnipro River.

Well, some people love this freezing weather; they even take a pleasure of swimming in Dnipro River.

The first round of the 2010 Presidential elections took place on January 17. I can not guarantee that I will continue in my letters. When the presidential elections will start, there will be a very little time for writing.

Selam from Ethiopia

Selam from Addis Ababa,
I’m already three weeks in Ethiopia and I witnessed an election campaign, rallies and democratic polls. All went very peacefully. However, today May 21st, it’s going to be announced the result of the election (Addis Ababa region) and already the army of the ruling party is patrolling with heavy guns the streets. Two days ago all foreign Embassies had a meeting and made an evacuation plan. If anything happen we are in the zone two and we should evacuate to the French Embassy.

A man explains to voters how to fill in their ballots for the election.

Supporters of the opposition party CUD (Coalition for Unity and Democracy) wait for their leader to give a speech at the rally in Addis Ababa during the election campaign. There was a power failure and no speech was delivered.

I live at the Czech NGO house in Addis, and I do lots of photos in the streets. People are generally very nice, but you have unbelievable number of beggars here, they are from small children to old folks. It looks like the most popular job in Addis and whole of Ethiopia is begging. There are also many crazy people on the loose here, it happened to me twice that a lunatic picked up a large rock and was ready to throw it at me. I wasn’t hit thanks to nice people around me who protected me.

Ethiopian veterans remember the liberation of Addis Ababa from the Italian occupation (1936-1941). They entered Addis Ababa on 5 May 1941 and, joined by the Allied forces, forced the Italians out.

It seems to me that nothing is working properly in this country. Faucet when turn on and off comes away in your hand, lockers stopped working after few days, doors cannot be close properly, the sink is leaking, not mention our phone doesn’t work already for three weeks and nothing, nothing is happening. It looks like that it will not work for another year. That means for us no mail at home and we have to go to the public internet – pain in the ass.

On the other hand I love their juices, just for two Birr, it’s so thick that spoon could stay straight like soldier in it. The best one is from avocado, but mango, banana and another tropical fruits are not bad either.

Everybody told me that the worst of everything is to get some permission, an accreditation or any kind of papers from any ministry. I must say it took me two days to get an accreditation for the election period. And it took me also two days (one day I had applied for and second day I had picked it up) to get another one so I can shoot in their provinces (regions). Not bad, eh? I think that the Canadian passport helps a lot.

Children returning home from their classes. Many of them live quite far from their school and have to walk an hour or two, some even more.

I have decided to buy a mobile phone so I can be reached if there will be some jobs. My father always says you have to invest to make money. And as usual he’s right. The problem is you just cannot go and buy it. It takes time as everything else here. So it makes me frustrated, finally I have made my decision and want it immediately. Impossible task, ah.

There is a plenitude of fleas, dog fleas, cat fleas, human fleas. You killed three and ten you will get. Any closer approach to a farmer, a beggar or a homeless, there is a guarantee that at least one will jumps on you. I am bitten all over my body and will be until I will leave Ethiopia. I guess I have just to learn to live with it/them.

A boy feeds marabou storks with peaces of fish at the fish market.

I have to make a confession, today, when I left the Ministry of Information, I bought a ceramic bowl with my last money (it was so cheap I couldn’t resisted, just 6 Birr) and didn’t have one birr on me (have lots of at home) for minibus to get back home. So I begged on the street. One guy gave me one Birr, but he was so confused and couldn’t believe that a white man is begging. He said that he has never seen in his life “ferenie” who begged. Not nice from me, yah, but I didn’t want to walk about six kilometres.

So, I will try to send this letter today, or Monday if we will not have to be evacuated.

Iva