Friday, July 25, 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008

Topo maps of the Hindu Kush Mountains

As I was planning my upcoming field mission, I became distracted when seeing the topographical maps of the area. 7455m! that's over 24,500ft! too bad I won't be able to visit Nowshak (written in Russian as Нушак ), the highest mountain in Afghanistan. The black/red dash line is the international border with Pakistan (The Northern Areas, a region of Kashmir) south (below) of it.

And speaking of, noticed everything IS written in Russian? Yep, these are 1:200,000 scale Soviet issued topo maps of Afghanistan.

The Hindu Kush is the westernmost extension of the Pamir, the Karakorum, and the Himalayas. The name, Hindu Kush means 'Hindu Killer', some believe it's due to the history when Indian slaves were dying as they were being transported across the range to slave markets in central Asia. (there is some crazy history in this area.)

This area is where I know some of are schools are located. I need to match them up with our GPS coordinates on record. We have a database with all of the school's GPS coordinates, roads and other landmarks and will plot them out on Google Earth, it's pretty cool. But because this mission is in such a rugged terrain and so few people go to, our security manager requested more detailed maps of the area, hence why I'm looking up topographical maps. The black/red dash line is the international border of Pakistan (North-West Frontier Province) to the right.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Small Earthquake

Just felt a small 4.7 earthquake, enough to have the glass cabinet doors swing and rattle.

and yes, you can tell the difference between it and a car bomb going off.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ball is finally rolling

Just got word the USAID Building Forensic Task Force was formed (sounds military-ish) and I was put in as the lead for the technical side of it (with the help of an architect and database admin for the massive about of data that will be collected). There are hundreds of existing buildings, from health clinics to schools to community centres that needs to be organize and prioritize based on type of construction, occupancy, earthquake zone, to name a few. And with this prioritized list, we can then start heading into the field and conducting, as what USAID likes to call it, forensic engineering assessments. Now I see why they shoved the word "forensic" into my job title.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Nuristan (also spelled Nooristan) is a fascinating and beautiful land. A province in northeastern Afghanistan, but so unlike the rest of the country.

(None of the photos in this one post were taken by me, as I have yet to visit the area. I've included them to give you a better feel of what the area and its people are like.)

A US soldier, part of the NATO commanded International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), on patrol in the mountains of Nuristan

The land is covered in rugged mountains and one of the few places in Afghanistan that is wooded. The province hugs the border with Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Before the present name of Nuristan was used, it was known as Kafiristan, "Land of the Kafirs (non-believers)", due to their resistance to convert to Islam over the centuries.

The people look different, more European, many people have blond or red hair and blue or green eyes. Some people believe they are descended from a wave of Indo-European migration from Central Asia. If that is the case, it happened a long time ago, as Alexander the Great reported the same view as he was crossing the Hindu Kush Mountains on his way to conquer India in 300BC. Alexander was also amazed when the locals claimed their main town of Nyas was founded by Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The people showed their grape vines and locally made wines to prove it. Plans for DNA testing have never materialized, and until then their background remains a mystery. However, they are very closely related to the also mysterious Kalash of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

Children of Nuristan

A 19th century explorer wrote about his visit to the area:
The houses of the Kafirs are often of wood, and they have generally cellars where they kept their cheeses, clarified butter, wine and vinegar. In every house there is a wooden bench fixed to the wall with a low back to it. There are also stools shaped like drums, but smaller in the middle than at the ends, and tables of the same sort, but larger. The Kafirs, partly from their dress and partly from habit, cannot sit like other Asiatics, and if forced to sit down on the ground, stretch out their legs like Europeans. They have also beds made of wood and thongs of neat's leather: the stools are made of wicker work.

Their food is chiefly cheese, butter and milk, with bread or a sort of suet pudding. They also eat flesh (which they like half raw); and the fruits they have, walnuts, grapes, almonds, and a sort of indifferent apricot that grows wild. They wash their hands before eating, and begin by some kind of grace. They all, of both sexes, drink wine to a great excess: they have three kinds, red, white and dark coloured, beside a sort of the consistency of a jelly, and very strong. They drink wine, both pure and diluted, out of large silver cups, which are the most precious of their possessions. They drink during their meals, and are elevated, but not made quarrelsome, by this indulgence. They are exceedingly hospitable; the people of a village come out to meet a stranger, take his baggage from those who are carrying it, and conduct him with many welcomes into their village. When there, he must visit every person of note, and at each house he is pressed to eat and drink. The Kafirs have a great deal of idle time; they hunt a little, but not so much as the Afghans; their favourite amusement is dancing. Their dances are generally rapid, and they use many gesticulations, raising their shoulders, shaking their head, and flourishing their battle axes. All sexes and ages dance.

Sadly in 1896, the region was finally brought down to their knees and forced at gun point to join what was then the Kingdom of Afghanistan and convert to Islam. Since then, their ancient tradition of wine making has disappeared. They do still retain some of their traditional habits, like putting their dead in intricate wooden carved coffins above ground, a lingering mark of their pagan past.

However three valleys did escaped the forced conversion to Islam because they happened to be located east of the Durand Line and laid in what was then British India, present-day NWFP of Pakistan. Among the three valleys are the Kalash people.

Nuristan has always been resistant to governments. They were one of the first to fight off the Soviets, then the weak Afghan government that followed. Even today, there are plenty of US military firefights in the area. When, or even ever, this place opens up and becomes safe for travelers, it can be a trekker's paradise. Until then, it will remain isolated as it always has been.

What does this area have to do with me? There is a good possibility that I will be able to visit the area. USAID is trying to see if it is possible.

A number of schools were built after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but they were built quickly and without thought and now they are already starting to fall apart. In fact one had already collapsed. USAID is very disappointed with the implementing partner organizations that built them and is wanting their own structural evaluation of schools before the implementing partner could hand them over to USAID and then on to the Ministry of Education.

The rebuilt school in Gaverdish, Nuristan. The original school building collapsed under a heavy snow load in the winter of 2004-5. The school was rebuilt in the same fashion. A structural evaluation needs to be done before it is handed over to USAID and the Ministry of Education.

The original Gaverdish school while under construction and before the exterior plastering was done exposing the traditional 'Timber Laced Stone Masonry' method of construction.

This type of construction done in Nuristan is called 'Timber Laced Stone Masonry'. It's the traditional building method of not just Nuristan, but that of Kashmir in northern Pakistan and India.

I've been in touch with a number of people who have done extensive research on this type of construction from Berkeley, California to Switzerland. And they all say, if done right, this type of construction is safe for high seismic zones. I agree with them that it is more ductile than conventional concrete buildings. But I'm having a hard time accepting it works without a method to calculate the behavior or the results of some kind of testing. It's not clear to me how overturning forces are transferred to the ground. The heavy floor and roof loads, which are covered in gravel, scare me.

A PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team, a unit of ISAF) makes its way into the Titin Valley, Nuristan, Afghanistan

It's an interesting task and I hope USAID finds a way for me to further investigate this by allowing me to visit the area. Not to mention it would be a fascinating opportunity to visit this mysterious and isolated land.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Typical Thursday night

Morwari just sent me these, they're from a few weeks ago during a BBQ on the rooftop of Global's main house. See, life can be normal here.

Though this is pretty typical for a Thursday night (which are like our Friday nights, since Fridays are the off day and we work Saturdays and Sundays).

Monday, July 07, 2008


quite disturbing images on yesterday's bombing.

Washington Post

SVBIED (Suicide Car Bomb) killed over 40 this morning

Taken from my office balcony, smoke rises just 3km away from the massive explosion that rattled windows all over the city center just after 8:30 this (monday) morning.

My office-mate stepped outside on the balcony to chat on his cell phone, then BAM!! all the windows shook, he immediately walked back in solid stiff while still holding his phone against his ear. I took my headphones off and asked him "was that what I thought it was?" - "oh yes" he replied. I walked out onto the balcony and saw everybody on the roof or other balconies watching the smoke rise.

The bomb ripped through the area in front of the Indian Embassy and Ministry of Interior killing over 40 people and injuring a further 141, many of whom were waiting in line for a visa. Others included people on the street and nearby shopkeepers. My office-mate's friend who works at the embassy said his office was 'destroyed', luckily for him, he wasn't there at the time. The walls were completely blown out from the blast.

It's a little scary, one of our local Afghan women working here was just talking to my office-mate yesterday about getting a visa to India (my office-mate is an Indian National). Sometimes things get too close.

First time witnessing such an event. They said it was the worst bombing in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. And up until this morning, the year has been unusually quiet.

Photos from news sites:

(Photo: Associated Press)
it looks like that police officer is holding a RPG launcher

(Photo: New York Times)
Scene on the street near the Indian Embassy and the Ministry of Interior.

Washington Post

New York Times

BBC World News

didn't really do much work for the rest of the day.

F.Y.I. SVBIED stands for Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device, a more specific version of an IED.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Blown Away

Red indicates members that are completely blown apart/missing.