Day 1: Kabul and the Welcome from Scheherazade

A surgeon describes arriving at the MSF Kabul compound and being warmly welcomed warmly welocmed by his Afghans colleagues who brief him for his onward journey to Kundaz.

After a day of fasting, I am eating everything from the previously well-stocked fridge. It's evening and I’ve had a hot (!) shower, although the stream was not very strong. I’m wondering if I'm on holiday, perhaps in an apartment somewhere in Croatia? I have to wash my underwear by hand in the sink, which is something I haven't done for a year and a half (the last time I was alone and had to handwash my laundry was on my second Haitian mission – I’m not saying that I’ve only had clean underwear once in the last 18 months). When I look at myself in the mirror with a grown beard, I think I look more Afghan than all those Afghans around me! So, am I in Kabul, or what? I am. I am reminded of this fact five times a day by the call to prayer from the muezzin, but also by American combat helicopters constantly patrolling over Kabul. When we landed, the airport was packed with military equipment: kilometres of land dotted with helicopters, dozens of jet fighters etc. Driving through the city to the base reminded me of Port-au-Prince. The same mix of smells: low- grade gasoline and diesel, dust, heat and rush hour. Only unlike Haiti, there is a military checkpoint every 200 metres. I call home, 108 Czech koruna per minute, thanks to the generosity of O2.

Scheherazade and the gardens of paradise

Arriving at the MSF compound is quite a surprise; I feel like an extra on a movie set. At the door, I am greeted by a real Scheherazade character. She’s a Belgian lady, originally from Egypt, garbed in the local dress, which she looks like she’s worn since childhood. Sorry ladies, but if I speak for the men, her outfit is really important to the scene. She definitely looks like a fairytale princess. Her job is to take care of all the international staff, among other things... But 10 minutes later I’m ruthlessly jarred out of the fairytale. This will probably be the first and the last contact we have. Everything is wholly pragmatic and professional. She has fired me over to the “Green House” – one of the guesthouses in the MSF compound. There are a number of guesthouses in the compound, plus the office building. To help you imagine it, it is a bit like a garden colony set in the middle of a city. At least it feels that way to me. There are fig and pomegranate trees among the houses; there are gardens and lawns. The house is decently equipped, there are no tarantulas or mosquitoes, there is electricity and Google – this is sweet!

First Afghan doctor

The next person I meet is a young Afghan doctor. After a minute of conversation, I am red in the face and embarrassed. We go through the mandatory travel vaccinations and I have no idea what each vaccine is good for, or how much or how often I gave them to myself. It was the same before going to Haiti, when I gave myself five vaccines at one time in my office. When I confuse several immunological terms, I realise I could run into some unpleasant difficulties. The doctor is a lot younger than I am and he looks pretty smart. He is spitting out all sorts of epidemiological data on anything and everything. I’m hearing all about what has happened in Afghanistan over the past thousand years – down to the smallest detail. I'm trying to enhance my reputation by asking an apparently intelligent question, but then I realise that in his eyes I will probably remain forever a stupid “butcher” (note: the author is a surgeon). The doctor makes a huge impression on me – he is absolutely calm, even-tempered and well informed. He embodies everything I’ve always imagined an Eastern scholar to be. And here I am showing my Western lack of knowledge… In the end I learn that, in terms of the frequency of disease among international staff, I can choose between diarrhoea and a cold – diarrhoea when it's hot, a cold when it’s freezing. We are just at the point when the seasons change. Well, as long as it's not AIDS, hepatitis or tuberculosis, I am ok with both at once. I end the day with the deputy head of mission – a tall, skinny Belgian guy of my age who, together with the head of mission, is in charge of nearly 2,000 MSF staff scattered throughout Afghanistan. He brilliantly and briefly tells me what is actually going on in Afghanistan and what my place is here. Voila!

I have nothing to wear

It didn't look like it from the airport, but here at the base, the climate is quite pleasant. My guess is 25 degrees during the day and 18 at night. This is exactly the kind of place to wear shorts and a T-shirt. But forget that; I have a pair of jeans and a functional shirt with long sleeves. But I am told that, going by local customs, a tight-fitting shirt is complete insanity. I will probably pull out my overcoat – but oh God, I don't have that either! People here are extremely friendly. My guess is that at the base there are more than 50 Afghans. All are smiling. They greet me respectfully, are willing to help and are ready to explain anything and everything. At home I knew that the media image invented by us Westerners – ie that Afghanistan means danger and death – was stupid. It probably has some accuracy, but not to the extent reported in the media. So, today I found out what the inspiration was for the Tales of the Arabian Nights. I learned that I have hot running water in my bathroom, that the local doctors are really well-educated, that I might as well throw out the clothes I have brought from home, and especially I learned that Afghans are really nice people – I hope that's how it is with the whole of Afghanistan. Tomorrow I'm going to my final destination, where I’ll be living among the people in the countryside – to Kunduz! Cheers!