Before I departed for Islamabad, I met our new auditor. There are always auditors coming and going. They all look alike. White shirts. Dark trousers. Thin ties. Dark rimmed spectacles (sometimes with green-tinted glass). Time sheets. I assign someone just to fill out forms, because I don't have time to do time sheets, but I do have to keep the auditors happy.
Off to Islamabad, now (unfortunately) the center of gravity for most Afghanistan operations and meetings. I endure this three-hour trip a few times a week. Before September 11th it was a couple times a month. Actually, it is not that bad a drive. Scenic countryside. A few rivers and canals. A backdrop of hills and mountains. Some camels led by young Kuchi men (a nomadic tribe roaming areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan searching for construction jobs). A two-way motorway is always under construction. Busses driving too fast present the most serious threats. I notice a school signboard: SAFE HANDS SCHOOL. We are forced to slow down by raised speed bumps, referred to as jumps in Pakistan.
The emergency coordination meeting at the U.N. office drew over 100 participants, as compared to the normal 10 to 15 attendees. Emergency situations attract more money, more relief-type agencies and more journalists. As a result, lodging is in short supply. At my hotel, every room is booked. Journalists crowd the lobby, mostly TV people maneuvering with jagged gear.
I stopped at the IRC's resettlement office. When a person is forced to leave his or her country, our agency plays a role in either facilitating their return home, helping them stay in a country of first asylum (in this case Pakistan), or resettling them to a third country that accepts refugees (some people cannot return home and need protection). Last year the United States opened its doors to more than 1,500 Afghan refugees.
I nod to an Afghan woman who is being interviewed by our refugee legal adviser. She left Afghanistan seven years ago, after her house was hit during a rocket attack from heavy fighting between warring Afghan "Mujahadden" factions. Her husband was killed instantly.
She was engulfed in the fire that followed, permanently scarring her face. She traveled to Pakistan with her children, who have never been able to attend school because she could never afford to send them. She worries. Child labor is still happening with alarming frequency here. Women without male protection also face sexual harassment.
In Islamabad I pound the streets, making the rounds of government and institutional donors that have emergency funds. Money is a problem, whether you have it or whether you don't. For most aid agencies it is the latter. My mind is on the scarred woman, now my visual stand-in for the other 2.2 million refugees still in Pakistan and the 5.5 million individuals about to face starvation inside Afghanistan.
Last night I had dinner with several Americans. My own tribe. As often happens among aid workers, we discover our commonalities: three of us grew up within a hundred mile radius along the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. Also split loyalties: Packers or Vikings. A war I understand.
Sigurd Hanson is director of the International Rescue Committee's refugee aid operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His diary will appear here several times a week. To contribute, see their website or call 1-877-REFUGEE