News: The World's View of the US

The global view of the United States’ role in world affairs has significantly deteriorated over the last year according to a BBC World Service poll of more than 26,000 people across 25 different countries.
The survey reveals that three in four (73%) disapprove of how the US government has dealt with Iraq.
Across all 25 countries polled, one citizen in two (49%) now says the US is playing a mainly negative role in the world.
Over two-thirds (68%) believe the US military presence in the Middle East provokes more conflict than it prevents and only 17 percent believes US troops there are a stabilizing force.

Picture courtesy, Reuters, Kareem Raheem

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Rumble: Talking about other interesting sites...

Talking about other interesting sites: have a look at my blogrolling index in the right column. It lists all the sites I check daily myself: blogs and alternative news sites.

Also in the right column, you can now find some inspiration: videos from aid work, books and music I travel with. The books and music link with Amazon.

Last but not least (I spent a week to figure this one out! I tell you, I am a novice at this!): at the bottom of the right column, you will now see automatically updated feeds with alternative news made by bloggers (if you are tired of watching Fox, Sky, BBC and CNN all the time!), and several feeds with news and updates from the humanitarian field. Have fun. Remember, you can always find the latest structural updates here.

Oh, before I forget: within 30 days, my sabbatical is over. While I will continue to publish rumbles, stories etc when I get back to work and real life, I will have less time to work on the structure of this site. So NOW is the time to tell me what you like/don't like on the structure of this site, give suggestions, tell me about technical problems etc... Thanks!

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Rumble: Aid Work with a Different Flair....

One of the advantages of being an aid worker, is to come in areas where few people go. [Tine says that the places I go to, nobody in his right mind would want to go anyway! :-) ]
When I worked in Goma in a country then called Zaire, we once drove to the Virunga National Park to see the mountain gorillas. You remember, from the movie 'Gorillas in the Mist'. At that time, just after the Rwanda genocide, the whole area was off-limits for tourists, so we had the park rangers and the primates 'all to ourselves'. We sat for hours in the dense jungle surrounded by gorillas.
Last night, I tried to find the link to the Virunga Park, and stumbled onto a wonderful blogsite from Wild Life Direct, titled
"Blogs from the Wild". It is the 'mother' site to dozens of others blogsites, all with one common team: wild life and nature preservation in Africa. From blogs by park rangers to blogs of people working with communities in protected areas. From blogs about habitat conservation to the field blog of a Congolese warden working in the Virunga Park.

All blogs are really high quality, very well written and with masses of pictures and videos. Worth a look. It is a different read from what I normally write about. But it shows aid and development work comes in different flairs and flavours...

Pictures courtesy

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Rumble: 46 days, 11 countries and 37 flights later...

When 9/11 hit, I was based in Islamabad-Pakistan, and stood with one leg in a plane, ready to leave for a long assessment mission to Central and South America.. As we all knew it was going to be a busy time in Central Asia for the next six months, I cancelled my trip.
Mats has been my "partner in crime" at work since many years, so I called him to do the trip in my place. This was the story he wrote about his trip. A typical story of "us being on the road the whole time"...

Dear all,

I am on the final stage of my mission through our Central and South America offices in eleven countries: Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Cuba.

This mission was organised in less than a week following the Sep 11th bombing in the US. I was on my way to West Africa for another assessment mission when I got a call from HQ to re-prioritize, with departure... euh.. immediately.

I have been away for 46 days now. During those 46 days I have taken 37 different flights. I have checked in and out of hotels 20 times. In several places I woke up in the morning not recognising the hotel room, wondering what country I was in, not a nice feeling.

I have been travelling through a total of 16 countries to asses 11 of them and visited 20 different offices. 70% of the flights were before 07:30 AM, just to make sure I did not enjoy a full night's sleep or breakfast. Especially if you know that most airlines here require you to check in three hours before take-off. I guess I am now an instant "Frequent Flyer Gold Status" on TACA-airlines !

On one occasion in Honduras I flew for 30 minutes, takeoff at 0600 in the morning to arrive in San Pedro Sula to immediately continue in a car for 4 hours to reach Santa Cruz Copan. We stayed there about 30 minutes and then drove straight back to San Pedro Sula. The morning after I was back in the air heading back to Tegucigalpa. At 6 AM.

In the Dominican Republic I had a whole weekend for myself.. "Great", I thought.. Until I turned on the TV and found a hurricane was heading straight at us... So I got locked up in the hotel room the whole of Saturday!

In Dominican Republic there was no flight to Port-au-Prince as the airline was grounded due to insurance problems. So I ended up going by road from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to Cap Haitien, Haiti, a trip of about 6 hours total. The next day at 0700 I flew out of Cap Haitien to Port-au-Prince on a local airline. The morning after I was out of Haiti heading to Columbia.

In Colombia I flew to Apartado via Medellin. In Medellin you land at one airport and you have to transfer to another airport to take a small plane to get to Apartado (Apartado = far away!). Well, these airports are one hours drive apart(ado).

I lost my seat on the overbooked morning flight to Quito.. All my tickets got cancelled as I showed up as a no-show passenger on their computer... on the flight from Santo Domingo which THEY cancelled... I spent nine hours at the airport as the evening flight was delayed. Technical problems! When things go wrong they go WRONG! I could have gone back to the office but I had to spend almost two hours getting my booking for seats back on the remaining 15 flights I had on that ticket.

Heading out of Peru en route to Cuba via Panama the plane ended up doing an emergency landing in Quito as a passenger in business class had a fatal heart attack.

In Cuba I arrived with no visa.. Usually that is not a problem since I have both a UNLP [a UN passport] and a Swedish passport... But not in Cuba! Either you have a visa or you spend two hours waiting with no clue about what is going on... And they will make sure the people waiting for you in the arrivals hall do not know you are there...

In Cuba they changed back to winter time during my stay.. Well I didn't find out until almost a day later. No wonder there were no people in the restaurant at 0800 on Sunday for breakfast.. Because it was only 0700 for all the others?!
Once back in Managua it all ended up in a bit of a chaos as there were presidential elections and the security team decided to escalate the security precautions, demanding all non-essential staff to stay put.

A second Hurricane showed up during this final stage of the mission, killing at least four in Honduras before heading full speed for Cuba.

One day before my departure day out of the region I got the news that Sabena has filed for chapter 11 and Brussels Airport was on strike. Straight on my return flight route, of course! So all my return flights had to be changed to a different routing with yet one more ticket... That makes a total of 16 tickets. My travel expense claim will be interesting..

Yours Sincerely,
(in an airport somewhere)

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Rumble: A "Blind Witness" Report of the Fighting in Kinshasa

MF, a dear friend of mine, works for OCHA in the Democratic Republic of Congo, based in Kinshasa. This is her story about the fighting last week, as described in an email to her friends:

Dear all,

I (we) have gone through “sheer hell” these past few days. We knew something was in the making. As I was driving to work on Thursday morning, I saw the UN Mission (MONUC) soldiers had reinforced their troops around Bemba’s house (he is the former vice president who also happens to have lost the first democratic elections last year). Bemba is also the man behind last August's fighting and the continued recurrence of violence last fall. Luckily for me, I had to go to the Chinese Embassy to get my visa for the big trip of my life. On my way back to the office, I realised that Bemba’s troops (we recognise them with their red bandannas) and the Government troops were positioning themselves to start fighting. It was eerie. People were fleeing, by foot and by the hundreds. I thought: "I am dreaming all of this!". I asked my driver to hurry home.

The heavy gun and mortar fire broke out just after I arrived home and it went on for a seven hours marathon. As the UN Secretary General mentioned: the civilian population was "seriously threatened by fighting in the heart of the city". Well, it just happens that the heart of the city is where both my office and my little bungalow are located. Charming isn’t?

There are many stories to be told; children stranded in schools, colleagues stranded in our building, and several friends and acquaintances stranded at their offices. All of us cut off from the world for a solid two days. Some did not have food but most had enough water. Since I am known to be a little squirrel, as I always leave food in my office, my colleagues could help themselves in my pantry!

I spent Thursday afternoon on the floor of my bathroom, as I felt my kitchen floor was not secure enough this time, as it has a big window. The sounds were unbearable, I tried to read, to write, to pray, to listen music… I just sat there, motionless. It sounded as if a constant fire works exploded but with an intensity difficult to describe to someone who has never heard such sounds. When grenades exploded near by, my little bungalow shook like a palm leave. I feared bullets landing inside my house, as it has been the case for several people.
I was in constant touch with friends and the MONUC soldiers. My cleaning lady was with me and she was very scared. I had to calm her down. This helped me to stay composed and alert. She and some 15 staff working in my compound stayed overnight. Luckily, I had enough rice to feed everyone…

Just as last August, I was the blind witness to a war. This one was worse, though. In fact, some told me that the fighting was the worse Kinshasa had known in 20 years! Casualties are heavy this time, some 700 persons were killed: 500 were soldiers and the rest are civilians. One young woman was sipping a drink at the bar of a hotel, another was killed watching TV and a colonel and his kids were shot dead when he was trying to bring them home from school prior to the start of the fighting! Homeless women were found dead with their babies on the street, as they were trying to flee for a secure shelter.

A friend of mine described how the streets were full of corpses by Thursday night. By dawn the next day and just prior to the start of the battle on the 2nd day (it started at 5h00 in the morning by the explosion of the oil reserves), the victim corpses were quickly dumped in the Congo river… That’s why official statistics only mention 160 losses!!!

There were many acts of bravery. Kids from a primary school had to be evacuated, as they were in the eye of the storm. Imagine little kids being transported in armored vehicles. They were repatriated at the French Embassy and were good as gold… For OCHA, our main casualty is a house converted into an office: it was damaged as shelling fell against the wall. Many windows were shattered and received bullets. I also found many bullets in my garden at home.

My neighbor received “lost bullets” in his living room and my other neighbor’s bedroom was cribbed with bullets. My UNICEF friend was evacuated by courageous Uruguachos during the battle as the building received some mortars shells. Luckily, they did not explode. If they had, both UNICEF and the Spanish Embassy staff would have been killed.

On Saturday, by lunch time, after 48 hours, just like all of us in Kinshasa, I finally ventured outside. Shops were full of people sharing stories and buying food. Yesterday, the boys and I ordered wine and made a toast to life.

Yes, I do thank God that I am alive and well and that I will soon be getting the hell out of here, as my old friend Tom ordered me to do! Enough of this life!!! I am off to motherhood in a peaceful environment…


Pictures: courtesy AFP

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Rumble: Know Your World!

Click to play video (Peter on his soapbox)

How well do we know our world? This video makes me doubt!
Some hints: Germany is NOT part of the Axis of Evil. Kofi Annan is NOT a drink. A mosque is NOT an animal. The West Bank is NOT in New York. And there is only one Eiffel tower in Paris!

So you think you know your world? Try this out:
a puzzle map of the Middle East .

(thanks for the link, Ekram!)

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Rumble: "Honey, I Forgot Something at Home!"

We once had a Canadian snow clearing team working in the real remote areas of Afghanistan. They were camping in tents, isolated from the rest of the world. Every day they would go up the mountains with snowscooters to clear avalanges with explosives, so the food convoys could continue to come through the mountain passes. One day, they emailed us this picture, with no text. Still the message was clear!

Picture: Jean-Philippe Bourgeois

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Rumble: The Atlantic, Chagcharan and Eva Cassidy

I dropped Lana at the railway station this morning, came back home, took a cup of coffee, and sat in front of the computer. Got some inspiration at sunrise again. Wanted to write a piece about 'how to become an aidworker', and about something in Afghanistan.

The iPod played some random music and stumbled upon Eva Cassidy. In a flash, everything around me stopped, and the music pulled me back four months when we were racing across the Atlantic delivering a sailing yacht, the Persuader Too, from the UK to the British Virgin Islands.

Eva Cassidy. About the only music both Pete, my watch mate, and I liked. Most of the other stuff I played on the boat -I have a weird music taste, I agree-, Pete did not digg. And vice versa... But Eva Cassidy, we did agree upon.

So often, when we had the sunrise watch, we became close friends with Eva. In thoughts... Her music playing through the speakers on deck. A nice stiff breeze filling our sails. The pitch dark night disappearing and the sun climbing up through the orange-red striped clouds, lifting the mystic veil of the night, and displaying an ocean of emptiness. A total void, filled with clouds, wind and water. And a yacht smack in the middle of this infinite splendor.
The stories of this Antarctic crossing, you find here. They are displayed in reverse order, so you might have to read them from the bottom up. It is strange, now that I re-read them, it seems the stories go from very 'business like' through a stage of happy-madness, to an almost mystical mood. That is what eight weeks on a boat does to you..
Four months ago it was. Seems a life time ago.

Anyways, here is the story about Afghanistan I wanted to share with you:
Often we put up our radio-boosters (VHF repeaters for the techneuts amongst you) in remote places. We pay local people to guard them, otherwise the equipment disappears as fast as we can put them up. These guys in Chagcharan (Afghanistan) took their job a bit too serious. We did not really mean they had to deploy an anti-aircraft gun to guard the equipment. :-)

Hey, I put some humanitarian news on bottom of the right column on this site. Tell me if you find it useful. Hopefully, it does not slow down the loading of this page too much. Let me know.

Afghanistan picture: Aramais Alojants. Picture Persuader Too arriving in St.Lucia: Tim Wright

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In Pace

Kabul. The Afghans pronounce it with a long, closed ‘o’, making it sound like ‘Ko-obel’. Most of the a’s are pronounced like an ‘o’ here. Ko-obel. Kabul. It is afternoon. The late-summer sun descends low over the horizon, giving the yellow scenery a golden glow with long exotic shadows. During this time of the year, the temperatures are nice. Really enjoyable. In between the battering dry heat of summer and the biting cold of the long winters, are those short periods which tourist brochures would define as a ‘moderate Mediterranean climate’. The tourist brochures for Kabul must date back to the fifties and sixties most likely.

We are sitting on the stairs of Kabul airport, facing the tarmac looking over the airstrip. Kabul International Airport. There are a bunch of us, all relief workers and reporters. Two from a Pakistani camera crew for the Deutsche Welle, a tall blond Danish demining expert, an Australian water drilling expert from Unicef, a Bangladeshi seed expert from FAO and myself. We are waiting for the UN plane to pick us up. And the plane pretty much has its own time schedule, defined by the “Chaos Theory” dominating Taliban air clearances, weather patterns and the number of people getting stuck at immigration each time the plane lands.

Immigration. The Immigration Counter… All speaks straight to the core of one’s imagination. The airport is heavily damaged. Probably already since twenty or thirty years. Traces of shrapnel and grenade explosions. Bullet holes in windows and walls. Some of them nicely lined up as maybe one of the last Russian soldiers emptied his AK47 while sinking through his knees, shot in the back of his head, spraying the bullets in a nearly perfect curve over the wall. War graffiti. As if saying ‘Alexander was here’, and ‘Alexander was here and never left’. ‘Sacha’ for his friends. ‘Alexej’ for his wife, who will never see him alive again. ‘Alexander was here’, 20 odd bullet holes in a row. The last ones disappeared in the ceiling, where most of the off-white square cardboard tiles have gone and one can see the building skeleton through the aluminum frames of the false ceiling. Cables run left and right in metallic gutters, now rendered useless as it has been many years since Kabul International Airport had its last spark of electricity.

That is probably why everything is so quiet. It calls for religious silence. Respectful silence. Or are sounds just absorbed in the vast empty space which is now left of the airport? It seems people do speak more softly, move more discretely through the different parts of the airport which are now nothing more but ‘remains’. The remains of the rubber belt which once delivered luggage. Torn up, cuddled up in a corner. Remains of counters, half removed, half torn apart. The most inspiring I found the remains of the mechanical displays above the check in counters, and the large display in the entrance hall. You know the kind which click-clack showing the flights, one small metal plate for each letter. What was the last regular flight which left Kabul International Airport? The flight 1203 at 10:15 to Tblisi, it says in Cyrillic on check-in counter 5. I am sure it is counter 5, but the display is dismantled, and two wires stick out of the metallic tube. Wonder if it was shot off or someone just took it with him. Maybe one of the last Russians leaving here has it on display in his living room in St.Petersburg or Kiev, as a war trophy: a plastic yellow square with the black number ‘5’ on it. Would any of his friends believe this was the ‘5’ of the Kabul check-in counter ‘5’, leaving for Tblisi at 10:15 somewhere in a dark past?

Through the entrance hall windows, you gaze onto the main space in front of the airport, filled with rubble. Stones, sprouts of yellow-dry grass. A shot-down primitive watch tower made hastily of metal rusty frames, probably once was the seat of the referee at the tennis club at the Kabul Intercontinental. In the corner, on top of a pickup truck, a guy leisurely rests his arm over a heavy machine gun, bolted onto the roof of the car. Some low scrubs of trees survived the third year of drought, and decades during which people had other priorities than the esthetics of the vegetation at the airport entrance.

Some Taliban officials sit outside the door of ‘Gate 2’, through which we came. One of them, I recognize. He has a turban with Scottish tartan squares, and a sleeveless vest over his long traditional coat and pants. He has the most amazing friendly blue eyes. Many Afghans have. Or green. Many have a light skin and ‘European’ features. My guy talks German, I remember. ‘Der UN Pilot has kein Uhr’, he smiles at me pointing at the sky. ‘The UN pilot does not have a watch’. He is a hydraulic engineer, and studied in East Germany many years ago. He traveled around a fair bit of the world, and right now, he is a ‘Taliban’, watching over the immigration procedures at Kabul International Airport. He cracks some jokes with the custom officials while putting his thumbs in the small watch pockets of his sleeveless jacket, once a part of a stylish Western suit.

He shouts a few words at the two Taliban guards, who are laying on their side on an iron bed frame on the side of the stairs, a bit further up. They are young men in their late teens or early twenties. In deep brown traditional clothes, with a dark gray-brown turban. All their turbans have one long end hanging down from the back over their shoulder up to their waist. Rather attractive. I honestly bet you it will come up one year in the ‘haute couture’ shows of a fashion designer in Paris. Their AK47’s loosely lean against their shoulders. - of the Taliban soldiers that is, not of the Paris models. -. Many of these guys live, eat and sleep with their gun. It looks like it is part of their dressing code, almost part of their body. Most of them actually grew up with their gun, to help protecting their tribe, their herd, their family, and now their nation. The gun is worn out, no more varnish on the wood pieces. The dark spray paint on the metal parts, is rubbed off by the constant handling. But like an old car, it is probably a reliable piece of machinery.

Golden yellow, golden brown, like a picture on a postcard. Remains of summer, a beautiful early fall evening. The mountain range around Kabul is dry. Not a single tree, just some yellow bushes. ‘Amazing’, says the demining expert. I agree. While sitting on the stairs right at the apron, we have a 180 degree sight of the landing strip, taxi runways and hangers around the airport. With the dry yellow mountains, under the fading yellow sun, with small yellow dust devils whirling up small yellow tubes of sand and dust here and there, in between the wrecks of literally hundreds machines of war. Shot down, missed the runway, blown up, or just dumped and stripped of spare parts. MIL-8 Russian helicopter gunships with big dark ragged edged holes in their light yellow and green camouflaged side. Pieces of old artillery and tipped over radar equipment. Antonov and Ilhutsin cargo planes sticking their tail or wing in the air. Hangers with caved-in roofs, with crashed fuel and supply trucks underneath their vast concrete weight.
Three Boeing 727’s from Ariana, the official Afghan national airline, have their cockpit windows covered with a large cotton sheet, and their engines are closed off with red orange shutters. These are the last remains of the Afghanistan national fleet. They still fly within the country, but maintenance and spare parts becomes a pain. The sanctions do not allow the import of plane parts, nor do they allow international commercial flights. A few times per year, one international Ariana flight is allowed to transport children for treatment in Frankfurt, if I remember well. I met the German orthopedic surgeon who accompanies the children on these trips. Was it Frankfurt or Munich? A long flight, he said. And adventurous! But a good opportunity to have maintenance done on the plane while on the ground in Germany.

This is a magical moment. Italian opera music with a full mezzo-soprano voice plays in my head. ‘In Pace’ by Sarah Brightman. Try it, and then picture this scene from what will once have to be part of a movie: ‘In Pace’, ‘In Peace’ playing with nothing but the soft wind on the background, the camera makes a slow, very slow panoramic 180 dgrs pan. A gracious gesture of cinematographic perfection, starting at the left from the hangers and the few MIG fighters left intact, over the yellow specks of grass in between the runways, slowly over dumped or crashed Russian trucks, helicopters, planes sticking out of the low scrub bushes like a mechanical war grave yard, all covered with the yellow dust. The camera moves over the tarmac and in between the soprano voice, the microphone picks up the very remote and soft roar of the white Beechcraft UN aircraft approaching. The camera pans slowly over the old Ariana Boeing 727, with the edge of the cotton window cover sheet softly waving in the wind. The camera slowly slowly zooms out to show the emptiness of the apron, the voidness of the airport, the absolute acknowledgement of existence and persistence in this war torn airport, in this war torn capital city of this warn torn country, which is the center of a war torn region, terrorized by draught and the playing field of the big international powers-that-be.

The camera zooms out, and from the left of the screen, one can hear a noise. Weet-..-weet. Very softly but sharply. Weet-..-weet. A repetitive metal squeak. Slowly. And as the camera continues to zoom out, a Taliban with his Khalashnikov over his shoulder, on an old Chinese bicycle rides into the left of the picture. Weet..-..weet. He has a bundle of hay on the back of his bicycle as he slowly cycles off the runway, over the apron, between the parked MIGs, the Ariana planes, and the taxi-ing UN plane. And at his own pace, the cyclist moves out of the picture, but the sound, you can still hear for a while. Weet-..-weet-..-weet. The plane neutrals the pitch of its propeller blades and shuts off the engine. (I always found that an appealing noise) ffffff-rrrrr-wwaaaaaaattt.. And before we know it, the plane has integrated into the yellow scenery, of a perfect afternoon in Kabul. The soprano voice fades out, and so does the picture. In Pace. In Peace…

Exactly one week later, at almost exactly the same time of day in Kabul, the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center.

Top picture courtesy of Carl De Keyzer , Taliban picture courtesy of Hashmat Moslih

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon's Ebook, jump to the Reader's Digest of The Road.

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News: Fighting in Kinshasa. Again...

They're at it again in Kinshasa. Read this interesting blog, written from the midst of the shooting and the looting.
Picture: AFP/CNN

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Rumble: So You Want to Change the World, hey?

It seems my 30-line post, comparing the cost of the war in Iraq with the cost to feed a child, raised a bit of a stir. About 8,000 people came to read it, after it was posted on ... On Digg only, there were almost 300 comments (here).

The comments are an interesting read.. It makes me think "we still have a long way to go",... if we want to change the world !...

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News: From Al Salam - Darfur

MSNBC's video news service on Darfur, showing the Al Salam refugee camp here .

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The Adventures of Little Herman in Kosovo

Story subtitle: First impressions are often right…

Pristina, Kosovo. March 2000.
For months, we have been looking for a qualified electrician, to maintain our generators in this ‘land of no electricity’. We finally found an excellent resume via the
UN Volunteers Programme: an Indian fella, called Herman….
First impression: “Kinda funny name for an Indian. Hmmm..”

Second impression: He did not show up for his first day at work. Last week, we received an email from the UN office in New Delhi stating “We have a person called Herman here, who was to report for duty in your office. We regret to inform you, he was denied access to the Swissair flight out of Delhi. He will try again tomorrow”. Hmmm..

Today he finally arrived. He is a skinny guy, our Herman. He speaks in nervous chunks of English, with a heavy accent. I mean REAL heavy. I thought for a minute I misunderstood him when he mumbled this was his first time ever outside of India. The resume we received from UNV, stated that “Mr. Herman ” had worked for the UN in Rwanda in 1994 and 1995… Hmmm

So I get Rosemary involved. She is our head of logistics, who worked for years in Rwanda. Rosemary asks Herman where he was stationed in Rwanda. Herman simply states “Oh, I never worked in Rwanda. This is my first time out of India.”. Hmm.. I had not misunderstood him, then. He looks at the resume we thought was his and sighs: “Oh, yeah. But that is my brother”, and gives the paper back to me, with an air of “Ok, now, let’s move on”… A brother with the same name, hey? Hmmm…

For security reasons, everyone in the office has a handheld radio, a walkie-talkie, so all can stay in contact with each other at any time. I hand Herman a handheld, asking if he has used one of those before.
He looks at it front to back: “Of course!” and holds it to his ear like a mobile phone and starts shouting: ”Allo, allo, can anyone hear me? Allo, this is Herman..”.
He hands it back to me with a grin: “Does not work, you should check this one, Sahib”..
I send him off to the radio room so they can explain him the difference between a mobile phone and a walkie-talkie…

The same evening.
As usual, everyone is still in the office, working late. As most security incidents happen this time of the day, we all keep our handsets on our desk, volume up. I hear Herman talk on the radio.. Apparently, he is in some kind of trouble. The driver dropped him in front of his guesthouse and Herman is complaining to the radio room his key does not fit. I hear the radio room advise him to ring the door bell. After that the radio remains silent. Guess that worked…
Still, after half an hour, I get a hunch maybe I’d better check he is OK. I call him via the radio. He confirms, in his funny English:
“No, not to worry, Sahib. I got into the apartment.”
“How?”, I ask.
“Oh, I just kicked in the door… “
I think I misunderstood him, and just let go of my worries… He is in his apartment. Safe for the night.

It only takes a couple of minutes before we get another radio call from Herman. He is shouting in his walkie-talkie. We hear all kinds of commotion in the background of his transmission.
- Herman: “Allo, allo, help, help..
- Radio-operator: “Who is this? Identify yourself?”
- Herman: “This is Herman. Help, help, allo, allo!”
- Radio-operator: “Herman, your callsign is PW361- I repeat Papa Whiskey Three Six One. Use your proper callsign! What is your message?”
- Herman: “Yes I understand. You are Papa Whiskey. But I need help” (we hear shouting and cursing in Albanese in the background).
All of a sudden, it gets real quiet in the office. By now, everyone is attentively following the conversation on their own handheld radio. With a wide grin on their face.
- Radio-operator: “Okay, PW361, what is the problem?”
- Herman: “My neighbour is chasing me. He is very mad at me, Sahib.”
- Radio-operator: “Why is he mad at you, PW361?”
- Herman: “I kicked in his door! I kicked in the door of my neighbour’s house!”
- “…”

Our Own Bollywood Star.
And that was just the first day of Little Herman’s Adventures in Kosovo. It went on, day by day, by day... He became the mascot of our office. Every time he ‘appeared’ on the radio, everyone stopped whatever they were doing, just to hear what kind of trouble PW361 got into now.

As time went by, he kinda developed his own radio code. In the morning, we would hear him call "Good Year! Good Year!" on the radio. That was 'his code' for "I need a pickup from my apartment to the office". He lived next to a Goodyear tire shop, you see. And normally the radioroom - in their typical dry humour - would then answer: "PW361, we wish you a Good Year too".

In the evening, it was "Dardania, Dardania", meaning "I need a lift back home". The area he lived in was called "Dardania".

I did not know what to do with him. He certainly was a danger to himself touching our big generators. So I passed him onto Mick who tried to use him for some administrative work. Mick passed Herman over to Rosemary. Who passed him onto Frank. And Frank, our beloved Kiwi, got stuck with him. Once we heard Frank ask Herman over the radio: "Where are you? What is your location?". And Herman answered "I am on channel 3"... Frank still hates us for it. I am sure even up to today he still has nightmares about 'PW361'.

Three months later.
Herman went for his first R&R to neighbouring Macedonia. For a weekend. The next Monday morning, he did not show up for work. We called him on his mobile phone and found out he did not go to Macedonia. During the weekend, he flew to London and got married. Out of the blue, it seems. He never came back to work.

There is something to be said about ‘Trusting your first impressions’..

Top and bottom picture credits: Joe Kelley
(Joe's excellent blog about his stay in Kosovo, you can find here)

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon's Ebook, jump to the Reader's Digest of The Road.

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What Have You Done Today to Make You Feel Proud?


Don't read this post, unless if you are either:
- a dreamer
- an idealist
- a sentimental fool
- a humanitarian aid or development worker
(Hmm, I guess I qualify for all of the above).

Are you ready for this? Ok, here we go...

1. "Have You Made a Difference Today"?
I once had a boss in Uganda, who said: "Every day, we -humanitarians- need to ask ourselves 'Have I made a difference today?' Unless if your answer is 'Yes', it was a lost day."
This stuck to me. Not only for work, but also for life in general.

2. Even More So:
Life gives us a lot. It is my belief we need to give back at least as much as we get from life. By changing or influencing the lives of those around us. Not just family, friends. Not just our loved ones. Add our colleagues at work. And people we meet occasionally. We *can* have a positive impact in the lives of those we interact with. Even if it was just a little. Even if it was just for a second. But it does make a difference. Even if it was just a well-meant 'Thank You' to the cashier at the supermarket.
[By now you probably think I am some sort of wool-socked retired hippie on a 30-year-long high. I can tell you, I Am Not High.]

3. The World Gave Me a Present Today
This morning, I uploaded some videos onto YouTube. The system automatically displayed some 'Related Videos'. One of them was labeled 'Kenya Floods Air Relief Operation'. Caught my eye. It was a three minutes video about an airlift operation transporting food for the North Kenyan flood victims.
This video sent shivers down my spine. In its simplicity of pictures combined with the music ('What Have You Done Today to Make You Feel Proud?'), it sent out several messages. Messages that reminded me of the two points above. And a message the author was clearly engaged with the work he did.

4. A Chat with Alastair.
The author turned out to be Alastair Cook, a WFP logistician working in Kenya. I did not know him, so I looked him up.

Here is his story:
I work as a consultant specialising in logistics in WFP. I basically do short term assignments anywhere in the world where staff is needed at very short notice (usually emergencies). I started with WFP in Malawi and have performed tasks related to School Feeding and HIV/Aids projects. Recently I worked here in Kenya for both the drought and the flood emergencies.
I make the videos because when I return home to New Zealand, people ask me 'What was it like?'... Of course that is an almost impossible question to answer, so I say: 'I can't really tell you but I can show you'... After the video they usually ask more meaningful questions!
I make the videos because I usually work in very remote locations and I find it a very rewarding pass-time during the long evenings... My best work is the two videos about the impact of HIV/AIDS in Malawi. We presented them to the Gates & Clinton Foundations, and they pledged $1m to the project!
Talking about making a difference... Alastair's other videos, you find here

5. And If That Was Not Enough of Inspiration For Today...
Here are the lyrics of the song in Alastair's video:
"Proud" by Heather Small

I look into the window of my mind
Reflections of the fears I know I've left behind
I step out of the ordinary
I can feel my soul ascending
I am on my way
Can't stop me now
And you can do the same

What have you done today to make you feel proud?
It's never too late to try
What have you done today to make you feel proud?
You could be so many people
If you make that break for freedom
What have you done today to make you feel proud?

Still so many answers I don't know
Realise that to question is how we grow
So I step out of the ordinary
I can feel my soul ascending
I am on my way
Can't stop me now
And you can do the same

What have you done today to make you feel proud?
It's never too late to try
What have you done today to make you feel proud?
You could be so many people
If you make that break for freedom
What have you done today to make you feel proud?

We need a change
Do it today
I can feel my spirit rising
We need a change
So do it today
'Cause I can see a clear horizon

What have you done today to make you feel proud?
So what have you done today to make you feel proud?
'Cause you could be so many people
If you make that break for freedom
So what have you done today to make you feel proud?
What have you done today to make you feel proud?
What have you done today
You could be so many people?
Just make that break for freedom
So what have you done today to make you feel proud?

Yep, you can call me an idealist, a dreamer and a sentimental fool. But hey, if I wasn't that, I wouldn't be an aid worker, probably... Now off you go, and do something good in this world...

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Rumble: The Adventures of Rageh in Iran

Talking about Bagram airport in my previous post... One time I met this guy at Bagram. His face was familiar. Even when he introduced himself as Rageh Omaar, that did not ring a bell... Until I saw his companion pulling out a camera with the BBC logo on it... (Sometimes I am hopeless, ha!). He is one of those guys with a very open face, and a very positive aura around him. Something you can not say about all TV personalities and anchors unfortunately.

Here is an excellent BBC video from Rageh about life in Teheran. Take a cup of coffee (make that an Xtra Large Latte with sugar for me, please!), or tea, sit back, relax and watch this video. It lasts for 90 minutes, but it is worth it. Views like a movie, I find....

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, the movie tonight is about "Life in Teheran, in Iran, slightly behind the scenes, but surely behind the Western news headlines". Enjoy.
(no, I said Xtra Large please!)

It was nice to hear this Persian accent again. It has been such a long time. Feels like I kinda missed it.

PS: Duly noted how the BBC links this video:
Sometimes, we just can't help it.. It is too deeply entrenched in us to categorize things in the world into boxes labeled by religion... This video hardly touches religion, though.

Thanks for the video link, Gina!
Picture courtesy of Shahram Razavi

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Rumble: The Russians Are Back in Afghanistan!

(Shortly after the Northern Alliance chased the Taliban from Kabul)

We are driving in a convoy from Bagram airport to the capital. There is a huge traffic jam, as one of the bridges on the road was bombed, and a tank is stuck in the middle of the by-pass. There are probably twenty Russian military trucks in front of us. I get out of the car, and see they are all from Emercom, the Russian Emergency services.

I find their convoy leader and joke: "So, you Russians are back in Afghanistan, hey? Let's hope you will be more successful than last time you guys were here! Hahaha".

They did not think it was funny.

More stories on this site related to Afghanistan, you find here.

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News: The War in Iraq - Happy Anniversary!

This week, we celebrate the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq. I still remember the start very well.

Time for a calculation.

1. The newspaper today states one minute of war in Iraq costs US$380,000. A calculation made by Joseph Stiglitz, a US Nobelprize winning economist.
That is almost double the cost of the war in Vietnam.

2. According to WFP, the UN's food aid organisation, it costs US$0.19 to feed a child for a day. Nineteen cents.
20,000 children die of hunger every day. The time it took you to read this post, already 15 died.

3. Taking those two figures together, one minute of war in Iraq would feed 2,000,000 children for a day.
One day of war in Iraq would feed 8,000,000 children for a year.

4. There are 800 million hungry in the world. Three-four months of war in Iraq would feed all hungry in the world.
Three-four months of war, we have done before. Many times. But we have never fed all the hungry in the world.

I do not understand. Somewhere the calculation does not make sense. Otherwise all intelligent people in the world would have cried foul. Wouldn't we? ...Wouldn't we?

Photo credit: Robert Kasca. Picture taken after the bombing of the UN building in Baghdad.

Update March 18: I received a lot of queries about "the 19 cents/day" it costs to feed a child. Here you find more detailed info.

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Reader's Digest of the Short Stories

As you know, this website contains both typical blog entries (the 'rumblings') and short-stories. In the Reader's Digest of 'The Road the to Horizon', you will find a summary and a snapshot of all stories.

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News: The Warmest Winter Ever!

Hey, I was not wrong with my observations in my rumble about climate change! News got out this has been the warmest winter ever. Globally!
NOAA's National Climatic Data Center reported that during the past century, global temperatures have increased at about 0.11 degrees per decade. But that increase has been three times larger since 1976. NOAA said the combined land and ocean temperatures for December through February this year were 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit above average since record keeping began in 1880...
You watch what that will do to developing countries who are already struggling with drought and flooding every year!

Maybe now is time to think if that
Kyoto Treaty should not be signed after all!

Foto credit: WFP/Mahamane Goni Boulama. For updated humanitarian news, check out The Other World News.

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Rumble: What's In a Gesture?

Even though, we are all trying to be culture-sensitive, there are sometimes situations where we, the "Foreigners", the "Falangs", the "Muzungus" come out rather embarrassed... Here's one of those, the first time I entered Dubai.

I present my passport at the immigration counter. The immigration officer does not speak much of English, and for a couple of minutes flips the pages of my passport over from the left to the right, and back again, and again, and again. He attentively reads all the different visas, and mumbles to himself. He looks up, as to check where his supervisor is, does not see him, and goes back to flipping the pages.

Me: "Excuse me, anything wrong?
Him: He answers with the (gesture): the fingers folded together, pointing upwards, and slowly moving his hand up and down.

I often go to Italy, and that (gesture) means as much as "what the ^^%%** are you talking about?" or "What the ^^%%** do you want?". So I get upset, right? I mean, it is rather rude. I raise my voice a pitch.
Me: "Excuse me, I am asking you if there is anything wrong with my passport?"
Him: (Gesture) again. He mumbles something in Arabic, which I do not understand, and continues to flip through the pages.

Me: "Now hold on a second. Why are you doing this (i mimic him)? Hey? A bit of respect would do, ok?"
I raise not only the pitch but also the volume of my voice.
Him: yet (gesture) again, but now moving his arm up and down in a very articulate way. He says something in Arabic, which I do not understand. The immigration staff at the other counters look at us and laugh.
Me: "OK, this is enough, I want to speak to your supervisor. You can not do this (gesture)(gesture)(gesture) at me. You know damned well what I am talking about."
I look around for a senior officer. One comes speeding at us from the office behind a one-way mirrored window.

Super: "What is the matter, sir?"
Me: "I am not sure, but your friend here clearly does not know what to do with my passport! And on top of that, he is rude. "
Super to the officer: "Rakakatakatak" (something fast in Arabic)
Officer to super: "Laaaaaaaa". And he shakes his head.
Hey, I understand that, it means 'No!'
Me to the super: "How can he say no? He is rude, he just stands there and goes (gesture) (gesture)(gesture) all the time.
The supervisor smiles, takes my passport, and asks me to follow him.

Super: "So he did like this (gesture), hey ?"
Me: "Yeah, but that is really rude. That guy insults me!"
Super (smiles): "Sir. Over here, this (gesture) means 'Please Wait' "

This was the first Arabic gesture I learned. The hard way.

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Rumble: The Things that Are Important to Us

I was writing in the living room last Sunday when Hannah, our youngest, came to show me a story and a drawing she made:

Little Rumble and her hamster.

Once upon a time,
there was a little girl.
She was called Little Rumble.
She had a hamster who had the name ‘Rock’,
because the hamster liked rock music.
It was not a normal hamster,
as it spoke Dutch too!

One day,
Little Rumble did not find her hamster anymore.
Because ‘Rock’ liked music,
the girl sung in a soft sweet little voice:
“Oh my sweet little hamster,
Where are you now, where are you now?
Oh my sweet little hamster..”

And what did she see?
“Look”, she cried out, “There comes Rock!”.

And from that day,
Little Rumble called her hamster:

She is nine.. They keep on surprising me, my girls. It made me think. Within seven weeks, my sabbatical is over. I don't know yet where I will be posted for my next assignment. We change duty stations every two to four years. My assignment in Dubai is over, so up for the next one.
It does not worry me where I will be posted. Timbuktu, Darfur, Bogota, Dushanbe... It does not matter. Don't get me wrong: work does matter a lot to me, but where is not important.

You know, often people write to me, saying they envy my way of life, the travelling, the adventure... It is not all gold that glitters though. One aspect is a continuing challenge. And it is not the hardship of a duty station, not the fact that every two to four years we have to start up a new life again at the other side of the world. No matter the fact that often 'life in the field' can pretty rough and often has an aspect of danger to it. What is important and a continuous challenge for many of us, though, is how our family copes with all of that.

So many people in 'our line of work' have problems finding and keeping a partner. And later on, building and keeping a family. Either the family stays at home (like mine does most of the time), or they travel along from duty station to duty station. For some of us, our partner has the same kind of job. Him working somewhere in South America and her somewhere in South-East Asia. The kids shuttling in between, or in a boarding school.
So many families, marriages, relationships break up over this 'remoteness'. That is the biggest challenge.

And my biggest happiness is to have found a way to balance my crazy lifestyle with that of having a family.

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The Jihadis - A Close Encounter with the Terrorists

‘The Jihadis’ is not their real name. I also censored the name of the country this all happened in. You never know…

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, our office in [a country in the Middle East, not so very popular in the West] was solely run by female staff. They were a dynamic bunch, and each time I went on mission there, we had loads of fun. You would not think much of them when you saw these ladies on the street, all scarf-ed up, or even veiled up, with dark dull-coloured overcoats. But boy, once indoors, the veils, scarves and all depressive moods stayed at the front door, and they were the most amusing and dynamic bunch.

Once while I was on mission to [that country], the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited the key people in our office for a formal evening dinner, and our staff asked me to come along.. You need to know I always dress very casual, and of course, I had no suit nor even decent shoes with me. ‘No problem’, said the lady who invited me, we will find you something. So in the evening I attended the dinner with a borrowed outfit: shoes from a colleague, shirt, tie and jacket from someone’s husband and a pair of trousers from I-don’t-know-where. I looked formal. Like a formal vagabond.

The dinner was held at the palace from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was an astonishing building, almost straight out of the movies. Beautiful carpets, lavish furniture, and luxuriously decorated walls in the huge banquet halls. While chatting over our after-dinner tea, out of the blue, the people from the Ministry asked if I could give them a presentation on emergency and disaster preparedness systems we use in our organisation.

A few weeks later...

I am both nervous and excited. It is the first time, the government reached out to us, asking for assistance. They even arranged the needed paperwork for me to bring the ‘sensitive equipment’ needed for the demonstration, into the country: Radios and modems, and all kinds of stuff that would normally get confiscated the moment you step off the plane.
I am used to get slightly harassed going through their customs check, even with UN papers, but this time, I give them a set of papers the government sent us. I can not read what was on it, but they all go a bit pale while looking at it, and for once, I get the red carpet treatment...

The day of the presentation itself, our staff set up a nice conference/meeting room in a fancy old-style hotel. Our meeting room is at the end of a long corridor. On the left side of the corridor, large windows overlook the hotel gardens. On the right, there is a line-up of doors all leading into meeting rooms similar to ours. All meeting rooms are separated with curtains, so if there is a bigger meeting to be held, they draw the curtains open to create a bigger space.

We have mobilized all our local staff for this important happening. The ladies prepared a long table with refreshments (all non-alcoholic of course), and kosher food (eh.. well not really kosher, I guess, but you know what I mean: ‘politically correct and culturally sensitive’ food)… The interpreter and all the electronics for the real time translation of my speech are tested and ready for our esteemed guests... Who are of course fashionable late. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, half an hour.. I start to wonder if all preparation efforts are going to be in vain, and no-one is going to show up. I walk to the entrance of the long corridor and see some pretty official looking guys stepping towards the meeting rooms. They all look very serious. They have some heavy looking dudes with bulky stuff under their jackets, behind them. “These must be our guests”, I think to myself, and walk towards them, holding out my hand, to greet them. I hear one of our local staff rushing in behind me, whisper-shouting “Peter!?”. At that moment, one of the bulky-jacket dudes leaps forward, pulls me by the hand I held out, and pushes me firmly onto the side of the corridor. I just stand there, perplex, while the whole official delegation rushes past me. The one huge dude keeps standing in front of me, drilling his dark reflective Ray Ban sunglasses deep into my eyes. Nobody else thinks I am worthy of a look.

All fifteen or twenty of them walk straight into our meeting room, and take a seat. I still think I should go in and greet them, even though I don’t not understand what just happened with the ‘huge dude’. Our local staff, rush in behind me and pull me back. ‘Peter, Peter, don’t!’, she says. ‘Why not?”, I reply, “I should go and say hello, no?”. She lowers her voice even more, and whispers in my ear: ‘No, you can not’. She adds only one word which explains it all: “[Jihadis]’. Eh? Of course I know of [the Jihadis], what they are and what they stand for. They are always all over the news when it comes to conflicts in the Middle East. All Western governments label them as a terrorist organisation. “Euh.. and what are [the Jihadis] doing in our meeting?”, I ask?. “I don’t know”, she replies. She is as confused as I am.

It only takes two minutes before the delegation stands up, walks out of our meeting room and rushes into the meeting room next to ours.. None of them blink an eye, except one of the ‘huge dudes with a bulky thing under his jacket’, who says a few snappy words in the local language to one of our staff, as he passes her. “The guy said they were in the wrong meeting room.”, she smiles.
Soon enough our government delegation (the real one!) arrives, and we start. It was a bit difficult though as the curtains separating our meeting room from the one next door are not insulating the noise very well, to say the least. It is almost like I am standing in the midst of the heated discussion they have in the next room. I wonder what they are talking about… My audience understands exactly what was happening amongst our neighbours, but all through my presentation they never blink an eye.. Neither do I. But I keep on thinking how many of the people in the room next door would be on the ‘Top 10 Most Wanted’ list of any Western government.. I wonder if they would have liked my presentation?

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon's Ebook, jump to the Reader's Digest of The Road.

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Rumble: "They Heard You !"

Does this happen to you: You are daydreaming and end up with a thought, an idea or a memory and you think "How did I get here?" Do you then try to trace back what associations your mind made to end up with that final thought? Amazing, hey, the speed of the human mind?

Well several things started my train of thoughts, inspiring today's Rumble:

  1. In one of my previous posts The Intelligence of a Human Being - Part 2, I rumbled jokingly about "Do you think 'They' are monitoring [this blog]? You know, 'Them' ?

  2. I had just re-read another rumble about how we form our opinions. How dependent we really are on how the press presents events to us.

  3. Both got me to think about freedom of speech, the privacy we have as individuals in the age where Google Earth shows how we sunbath (in monokini?) in our backyard?

All of that brought back a memory where "an organisation" demonstrated us an automated intelligence system gathering data from all over the world, analyzing keywords and automatically indexing it in web format, flagging 'suspicious activity'. Somewhere they were trying to sell the system as 'important for the humanitarian world to make use of it'.
I tried to trace back the name of the system on Google, but found similar interesting stuff (all in the area of 'How much privacy have we left?'):


Ever heard of ECHELON? Well I am sure ECHELON surely has heard of you! "According to some sources ECHELON can capture radio, satellite, telephone, fax and Email communications, and other data streams nearly anywhere in the world and includes computer automated analysis and sorting of intercepts."


Similar technology is used to monitor TV and radio broadcasts worldwide:

"Effective collection, exploitation and dissemination of high-value information are critical during a crisis. [..] Virage [...] will seek to address these challenges by providing the following technologies:

  • eViTAP - A fully automated, real-time, multilingual, broadcast news and video VoIP monitoring system [used for] live Arabic, Mandarin, Persian, Russian, and English news sources.

  • IDOL-based TransMedia Crisis Index (TCI) - A sophisticated tool that adds new intelligence capabilities, enabling organizations to automatically make conceptual and contextual associations between disparate pieces of data."
The same article states: [...It is an] effective means of delivering life-saving humanitarian relief and rapidly deployable communications systems in the wake of major disasters.

Don't you just love it when they give military intelligence systems a 'humanitarian' spin? Damnedright disgrace if you ask me. I wonder how much of all of this is really going to help the humanitarian cause in a world,
where one child dies of hunger every 4 seconds. That is over 20,000 per day. Every day! How can we sleep at night?

Photo credit: Wikipedia, WFP-Peter Smerdon

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Rumble: Sunrises, Inspiration and Human Rights

Lana and I get up at 6:15 am. I drive her to the railway station at 7 am. This ten minute ride, just around sunrise, is always good enough to give me inspiration to write for the rest of the day...

Two things caught my eye in the newspaper yesterday:
  • OESO congratulates Belgium on the efforts towards economic recovery. Quarter front page, plus full page 3 and 4 about the report, the excellent progress etc..
  • The just published annual Human Rights report classifies Belgium as 3rd worse in Europe. On page 10 of the newspaper. Total of three lines, 20 words....

Cracks me up. Anyway, it was a nice sunrise this morning!

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News: An Alternative to Famine: Get an Insurance!

Famine in Third World countries generally follows a grim script: first the rains fail, then aid agencies issue dire warnings, and finally the United Nations scrambles to raise money and send food aid as journalists write stories of horror and tragedy. In the worst cases, real alarms don't go off until the starving appear on television screens. Even when peasants are spared death, they often lose everything they own—including animals and seeds.

Does it have to unfold like this? Here is a radical new idea: famine insurance. (Full story)

Picture: courtesy WFP/Goni Boulama. For updated humanitarian news, check out The Other World News.

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News: Iraq and Lebanon

Iraq: Killings Drive Women to Become Suicide Bombers:
Um Abdallah, 41, has a difficult task ahead of her - she has to learn how to use a gun and begin preparing for a day she believes is going to be one of God’s forgiveness and revenge against foreign forces occupying her country. (Full Story from IRIN)

Lebanon: My Sheep Were My Life:
Muhammad Zein el Abidyn Jaber is a 72-year-old farmer who lives with his family of five in the small Lebanese village of Maroun El Ras, on the border with Israel. During the July-August 2006 war between Israel and the armed wing of the political party Hezbollah, he fled his town and left his sheep and cattle behind. When Muhammad returned a few weeks later, he found they had died of hunger and thirst. In addition, his tobacco plantation was heavily damaged by the bombings and he was unable to harvest the few olive trees he made a living from because hundreds of unexploded cluster bombs were strewn on his land. (
Full Story from IRIN)

And I am sitting here, looking out of my window. A glorious sunrise this morning. Are we grateful enough for the fortune we have in our daily lives?

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Rumble: GPS Navigation for Dummies

1. Tine wants me to buy a GPS for the car.

You know one of those gimmicks that talks you through to a destination point. And she wants me to buy it fast, as in one month's time we will be driving from Belgium to Italy for our annual family skiing holiday. Each year we have one peak of sweat, blood and tears (and fierce discussions), when -once again- I miss an exit on the highway, or make the wrong turn, or just 'loose it'. I am terrible in finding my way around. Somehow I always get to where I have to be - I guess I have a built in compass like the pigeons- but most of the time it is with a big detour, though ! I am just terrible. I have travelled to the world's most deserted and most remote places, and still, I loose my way in our village, where we have lived for 20 years.

I guess my mind only has limited storage capacity (The staff in Afghanistan always thought it was funny when I wore my Tshirt 'Fatal error - Run out of Memory' with a Windows pop up screen). My mind can only store so many things at a time, and I guess I concentrate on the most important stuff. Remembering how to find my way from point A to point B, I do not consider important. Once I have driven a road, the memory is popped from my brain stack, and forgotten. Even if I drove it ten times..

Like the other weekend, I was driving to my brother's home, and had to call him to ask directions. Wouldn't be so bad if I had not been there ten times before... The proof of the not-importance was right there: I was driving to his home, to help him move. So you see: the driving instructions would have been irrelevant memory information, as one day later, 'he would not live there anymore'.

It is embarrassing, though.. Sometimes, in our town/village, people give me driving instructions, by using landmarks or the names of big squares.. I never remember those names. So most of the time, they have to scroll back and first give me driving instructions starting from:
"But what places *do* you know then?"
"Euh, the railway station?"
Soon follows by the question "You just moved here or what?"..
Then I have to blush and confess: "I moved here two decades ago".
The expression on their faces each time reminds me of Tine: 'Buy a GPS!'. And now it became a hot item again, this GPS, as the skiing road trip is coming up again.

2. The Navigation Voice

You know, you can download the voices for the GPS navigation. 'Turn left at the next turn', 'Take the next exit within 500 meters'.
John Cleese's voice is one of them. They just released that of 'world famous' (yeah rrrright) Belgian TV personality Paul Jambers. I heard him being interviewed, the other morning when driving back from Hannah's school (yep, I can find my way back from her school easily now!).

Mr Jambers mentioned the voice they recorded was not his, but that of an imitator. Asked if he did not mind, he answered "No, because that must have been a lot of work. Imagine having to record all directions for all the Belgian roads. That is a LOT! And imagine if you have to do that for the whole of Europe!". Proves my point you don't have to be intelligent to be a TV personality.

3. Machines Take over Our Lives

A friend of mine just bought a GPS, and drove through the Alps. By accident, he had put the GPS setup-preferences on 'The Shortest Route'. He said he thought something was wrong, when he branched off the highway and started to drive through hardly-paved roads. He *knew* something was wrong, when the machine lead him onto roads which split farmer's barns and outdoor loo's.

4. Other Uses of GPS navigation

I wonder what the GPS navigation system in the Humvees of the foreign troops in Iraq have on them:
  • "At the next building, looking like a tall tower, with a balcony, where a guy shouts 5 times per day, you turn left"
  • "This leads you into sniper alley, where 15 of your comrades died over the past year". "Let me update that: 16".
  • "Now turn right, as on the road ahead the wrecks from last weeks bomb attack have not been cleaned up yet".
  • "You now pass the house which was raided by ten US troops last week. They arrested a fourteen year old girl. The rest of the story, you can read on CNN."
  • "If an angry crowd awaits you at this market place, take a left".
  • "You are now driving by a landmark we knew had no WMD's stored in them. Even though we told the UN security council the opposite."
  • "You have now arrived at your destination. The sites to admire here are the prison cells famous for their video shots of prisoners leached like dogs and forced to have sex with each other".

5. More of the Same

What would Al Queda's GPS navigation systems say?

  • "You are now driving by an excellent target, available when you have time for a suicide attack"
  • "At the Embassy of the Infidels, turn right"
  • "You have now arrived at your destination. Knock three times and give the password 'F**k the Infidels'. Fusing mechanisms are on sale this week."

6. Irish joke

It all makes me think of the joke my friend Pete once told me: "I was in Ireland and asked a guy directions to the next supermarket. The guy answered 'Sirrr, if I werrrre you, I wouldn't be starrrrrting from herrrrre !' "

What do you think, should I buy a GPS navigation system?

Tine paid me $5 to put the following advertisement:
"Tell him to buy a freaking GPS! "

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