Privet from Kyiv again,
Victor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian president, wishes a Happy New Year to all Ukrainians. Hopefully, it will be better than the last one. But Ukrainians are not so optimistic. Many young people would like to leave the country and each month it seems there are more pensioners and veterans who beg on the streets.
It’s warm and raining and lamb’s tails are sold on the streets. And we’re only in the middle of January. There was a little snow left on the hill of the Park of Eternal Glory last week. A few teenagers tobogganed under a twenty-one meter obelisk tower which is over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These kids hope that the snow will continue; winter is no fun without snow. I also hope it will snow before the 19 of January, which is the day in of the festival of the Epiphany which would be much better with snow.
Mikhaylina Kotsyubinskaya, the Ukrainian patriot, literacy critic and the fighter for the Ukrainian language died. She was 79 years old. Friends and colleagues gathered to say goodbye to her on January 11th at Teacher’s House. Yulia Tymo-shenko came too. Then a mass was held at the church and then the last goodbye took place at the cemetery.
At the House of Teacher’s a letter of condolences was read. It was full of appreciation for Mikhaylina Kotsyubinskaya’s work, appreciation for her fight for the Ukrainian language and culture and much more. I do not remember all as it was quite long. The letter was signed by Victor Yanukovich. As the letter was read, the hall rustled uncomfortably and some people screamed “shame”. I was shocked too. It is true that Yanukovich lobbied in Ukrainian language during the presidential elections, but his first presidential speech was in Russian. One might suppose that Michajlina was turning in her grave.
I went to the village of Buyarka on an overcrowded train. It was terrible, we were packed like sardines so I thank God, Buyarka is just five stops from Kyiv. While there I visited three young girls who opened a business with horses. They have eight of them, and if you would like to learn how to ride a horse or just have a ride, then Buyarka is the place to go, but perhaps in summer, when it will be more pleasant.
The horses had to be brushed, their ankles tightened and then we could ride to the field. Those of us who joined the activities on foot had to run after the horses. It was very windy and we were freezing even though it wasn’t below zero.
I should mention I have started a new photographing project called Living Rooms. Here are some images I photographed so far:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
So goodbye Marghzar, goodbye Zare and Kishindeh. Goodbye Mazar-e-Sharif, goodbye Balkh. I am off to Kabul on Saturday.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
On Monday I am off again, I am going back to Kishindeh and to a new place: Chakana.
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).
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.
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.
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.
The harvest season has begun. In Afghanistan, men usually harvest grain manually with a sickle, a scythe is unknown here. Tractors are rarely seen.
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.
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.
Bye for now
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am off in couple minutes to the field so I will continue when I am back in Mazar-e-Sharif.