Sunday, September 21, 2008

War Lords, Poppies, Mercenaries and More - Life in Afghanistan Since the Fall of theTaliban

What would it be like for you to drive your car to the grocery and come out after shopping and find your tires slashed? You would automatically suspect gangs or young people doing pranks. Pretty frustrating, right? Well, this happens continuously to Rosemary Stasek, an American who lives in Kabul, Afghanistan and runs an organization called, "A Little Help".

"It's not gangs, like in the U.S., that are doing this," Stasek said, "it's the police."

Life for people in this country that is best described as the forgotten land is difficult and restrictive even since the fall of the extremist Taliban group.

"The Taliban are not the worst threat to life in Afghanistan," Stasek said at a recent Rotary Club of Morro Bay presentation, "I rank them about 4th."

Far more serious and life-upsetting are conflicts between area war lords, the drug trade, and finally the all-pervading corruption that exists at all levels of commerce and government.

War lords from the many tribal groups that live in this country constantly fight each other and these conflicts add to the already crumbling infrastructure.

The growing of poppies that supply the illegal drug trade enlarges daily since this is a ripe source of income for farmers who can get little to nothing for other crops.

But corruption is by far the most insidious and detrimental aspect of life in present day Afghanistan.

"Corruption is present from the lowest levels all the way up to Karzai's administration," Stasek said.

You can't blame them. For people who have nothing, any means to gain money becomes acceptable.

Life is at its poorest in this land that has been ravaged by one conflict after another for generations. The invasion by Russia lasted 10 years. Many of the fiercest freedom fighters during that era solidified into the rigid Islamic group known as the Taliban after an equally bloody and disruptive civil war that occurred after the Russians withdrew.

"When the Taliban first came into power, Stasek said, "They were welcomed because the standard of living arose and they provided security." At that time people could walk the streets unhampered. They had places to live and jobs. Food and water was plentiful. Now, all of that is gone. "Granted that life quickly became more restrictive under their rule and particularly so for women," she continued, "but it was safer. It is the security they provided that the people miss."

Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan and is slowly crumbling. At one time it was a city that could rival the capitals of Europe. Now life is at a standstill. Electricity is only available for three hours a day. This alone has to be crippling both government and commerce. People cannot use even the basic modern conveniences that we here in the West take for granted, such as refrigeration, television, computers, even the electric light bulb. Schools are often outdoor affairs and lack even pads and pencils for the children to write with. Medical care is scarce and in some areas non-existent.

Stasek's organization has concentrated on helping women and girls with the hope that bringing them into the 21st century may begin to alleviate the ills long brought about by a traditional male dominated society. In some areas she has been able to provide tents to be used in place of standard buildings for schools. "It's far easier to replace a tent," she said, "than it is to replace a building that is bombed."

Through her organization, "A Little Help," she has started income small income projects for women to participate in. She has gotten math, English language, and Dari textbooks, lab equipment, and mats for students to sit on at the tent schools. She has obtained medicines and surgical supplies for maternity wards, and construction materials and labor for a hospital.

The organization, in conjunction with other organizations, has supplied funds for piping and plumbing for running water to an orphanage, partial purchase of land for an orphans' farming project, and funds for a pharmacy and women's center in a rural province. Help has been given to women to train at the Kabul Beauty School so they can find lucrative, although non-traditional jobs. A knitting project was begun for blind women with a supply of knitting needles and yarn.

Stasek, who is also an accomplished food preserver, taught a class for Afghan women to make preserves that ultimately became an income-generating project.

Humanitarian work is also done at women's prisons in the country where not only are the women incarcerated, but their children are brought with them to prison.

The list goes on and on. Stasek said that much of what her group does is accomplished with small amounts of funds thereby giving rise to the name of the organization. "Every little bit helps," she said, "even $20 is a sum that can be utilized for a project."

While Stasek and her husband, Morne du Preez, originally from South Africa, now employed with security firms in the country, will continue to work to aid the people of Afghanistan, she is not sure how much longer they will be able to live there. "Things are definitely getting worse, particularly in Kabul," she said. "The major problem is coming from Pakistan." Stasek feels that the United States is going to have to come to grips with this situation and soon. When asked about Al-Qaida, she answered that this infiltration is from Pakistan, not necessarily from the Taliban in Afghanistan.

That the region is becoming more and more unstable daily is obvious even to us here in the States, although we are given only snippets of information from the media mostly concentrating on the Taliban. Very little is reported concerning the devastation wrought by the tribal war lords and the corruption growing like a cancer in civic and governmental sections.

Still, "a little help" can go a long way to make a difference in Afghanistan and hopefully help to bring them from the 7th century into a modern world.

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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Morro Bay is for the Birds!

It happens every year. Summer ends, the days become crisp and clear and the birds return to Morro Bay.

The National Audubon Society lists Morro Bay as a Globally Important Bird Area and it is also a part of the National Estuary Program. Fall and winter seasons bring thousands of migratory birds that make Morro Bay their winter home.

Shorebirds such as marbled godwits, willets, curlews with their long curved bill, and tiny sandpipers find a bountiful feast in the mudflats of the bay. Black brant geese migrate from spots on the Alaskan shore to feed on the rich eelgrass beds of the estuary. Fluttering terns, brown pelicans, graceful egrets and herons are also part of the seasonal mix.

One of the best ways to see the birds of Morro Bay is from the water. Outfitters located on the Embarcadero rent kayaks, canoes and electric boats.

For those who don't want to take to the water there are trails and viewing places surrounding the bay. An easy trail is located beginning at the rear of the Morro Bay State Park Marina parking lot and winding out along the estuary.

Morro Coast Audubon Society maintains two special birding locations. The Audubon Overlook is located in Los Osos on the south side of the estuary. From the small roofed deck you can sit comfortably and view the variety of waterfowl foraging in the waters of the back bay.

An excellent area for bird watching is the Sweet Springs Preserve. It is a 24-acre natural site on the southern edge of the bay consisting of one acre of freshwater ponds and marsh, 14 acres

of saltwater ponds, marsh and mudflats and nine acres of upland scrub. Wintering Brant geese and scores of ducks take up winter residence along its shores. There are trails, bridges and benches along the way and many locals make this area their daily stroll.

Another great viewing spot is at Morro Rock where peregrine falcons nest every year. Ospreys are often seen perching on top of boat masts in the harbor area.

A great way to see and learn about the 200 plus species that visit Morro Bay is to attend the annual Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival held over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. The festival offers guided field trips throughout the county, workshops on bird identification, photography, how to select binoculars and scopes and more. Special keynote speakers present entertaining and educational evening programs.

Morro Bay State Park Marina is located south of Morro Bay on State Park Road near the entrance to the Central Coast Natural History Museum.

The Natural History Museum is a great place to visit on your birding trip. The museum has a variety of interactive displays and exhibits and docent led walks.

The Audubon Overlook can be reached from South Bay Blvd. by turning west on Santa Ysabel at the traffic light and proceeding to Third Street. A right turn at the end of the street takes you to a small dirt road that leads to the parking area.

Sweet Springs Reserve is located in the 600 block of Ramona Avenue in Los Osos.

Morro Rock can't be missed from anywhere in the town and is accessible from the waterfront by Coleman Drive.

Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival information and registration can be done by logging onto or calling the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce at 805-772-4467 or 800-231-0592.