Rumble: Top Readings on The Road

Brindisi sunset...Sometimes you need to take the time to watch a nice sunset. Like tonight in Brindisi...
Anyway, what was it again I wanted to say? Oh yeah: to wrap up the retrospect of "The First Year of The Road to the Horizon", here are the most popular readings:

Top Five eBook Short Stories:
The Day I Got Deported From the US
From Sand to a City
The Day the Groom Got Deported From the US
How Cigarettes Once Saved My Life
250 Boats Facing The Same Direction

Top Five News items:
The War in Iraq - Happy Anniversary!
19 cents to feed a child for a day
The New African Genocide
Record Rain Causes Flooding in Dubai
Would you Not Pay US$10?

Top Five Rumbles:
So You Want to Be an Aidworker, hey?
Italian Men...
What Have You Done Today to Make You Feel Proud?
One Sort of Boobs Nobody Likes: ""Ha-boobs""!
In Need of Inspiration? Videos!

And for fun: The Top 10 Google searches:
italian men (eh?)
the road to the horizon (sure)
post video (and I thought that was easy)
alastair cook rome (Alastair is a famous guy, it seems!)
post a video (ok, that makes 'posting videos' the most popular)
african genocide (good. you should know about it!)
peter casier (hey, that is me!)
war in iraq (good. you should know about it)
herman (who?)
wild cannabis (aha...?)

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Rumble: Brindisi Once More...

Brindisi port, this morning. Click on the image to see our office on Google EarthI am back in Brindisi (previous posts). Has been since late September. Seems like yesterday. Time flies.
Anyway, what I wanted to say: the weather is cold, but with gorgeous sunshine. That, in combination of the sea (Brindisi has a beautiful natural port, see picture taken this morning), makes this heaven.
Oh, yeah, and I am here for work, not for holidays,... Remind me..! What I do for work, you ask? Right now, I am here to check the implementation of a warehouse management system, which will make the operations of the UN Humanitarian Response Depots more effective. Details another time! :-)

Our office is at the other side of the port, in the right back of the monument. Check it out with Google Earth...

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News: UN Peace Keeping in Darfur. A New UNStart?

A United Nations peacekeeping police officer, holds the babies handed to hear by two refugee women, while on patrol in the Abou Shouk refugee camp in North Darfur. The patrol was one of the first to re-enter Darfur's refugee camps since the United Nations took over peacekeeping in Darfur this month to try to end five years of violence. (full post)

I might sound largely cynical, but the way the UN Peace Keeping Operations works, with often a too limited mandate and an intrinsic bureaucracy, I would not be surprised if the same mothers would take a shot at the guy in the middle, one year from now. Mark my words.

Photo courtesy AP/Alfred de Montesquiou. Source: International Aid Workers Today

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Rumble: The Road.... One Year Later...

The Road to the Horizon is one year old (eh.. young). Hurray, Hurray...! A retrospect:

Early January 2007, we had a week holiday in Vienna. During that time off, I was playing with the idea of (at last!) publishing some of my short stories and an Dutch book I wrote back in 1994-1995 on the Internet.

I never published anything on the web before. I had a go with Dreamweaver on a test page. Found it too complicated to be flexible. Tried something on but that did not give me the features I wanted.

Mid Jan 2007, I ended up on "Blogger". The first blog went online with the Dutch Ebook about my three expeditions to Antarctica and the Pacific. In one year Verslaafd aan de Horizon ("Addicted to the Horizon") got over 6,000 visitors.

At the same time, I started "The Road to the Horizon". Originally meant as a web-platform to publish several articles and short stories I wrote for magazines, or had sent to friends... Little did I know that a year later -now- I would end up with over 90,000 visitors, from 181 countries. Average that per day and include the daily 120 updated via RSS and automated Email, we come to 400 visitors per day. Sometimes I gaze at the Clustermap below, with the red dots representing the visitors. And I wonder what did I start? Ha!

The Road to the Horizon's clustermap 29-01-08
Over the year, loads of things changed on The Road, but the core remained the same: all about aid work, travelling, adventure, and the world around us, in a mixture of short stories, news bulletins and rumbles...

In February I started another Dutch blog, intended as a Dutch translation from "The Road". And it still is, though the frequency of posting is far lower than the English version. It is still a mystery to me why this site has over 50,000 hits in a year...

In April, tired of having to read many different news sources, I started two automated humanitarian news aggregators: The Other World News (1,000 hits/year) and its Dutch brother Nieuws uit de Andere Wereld (1,300 hits/year).

Last but not least. Because I wanted a more flexible way to collect newspaper clippings, The Road Daily, and an aidworkers collective International Aid Workers Today" were born in December 2007.

So here we are today!

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News: A Visit to a Gaza Rocket Factory

The young man pulls the door of the taxi closed. He is wet. There is a light drizzle in the Gaza Strip. He turns around and greets the passengers in the back seat with a quick handshake. "Are you ready?" he asks them. "As of this moment, we could be going to paradise at any time." The other people in the car don't respond, and the driver of the Mercedes hits the gas. "I should have phoned my wife," he says after a while. "She should start to keep an eye out for a new husband." (full article)

Source: The Road Daily. Picture courtesy Der Spiegel

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Song of the Day: Gabriel by Lamb

On the beach in Fregene (Lazio-Roma)

I can fly
but I want her wings
I can shine even in the darkness
but I crave the light that she brings
Revel in the songs that she brings,
my angel Gabriel.

I can love
but I need her heart
I am strong even on my own
but from her I never want to part
She’s been there since the very start,
my angel Gabriel, my angel Gabriel.

Bless the day she came to be,
my angel Gabriel.

"Gabriel" by Lamb
from the album Café del Mar Vol.8
(text slightly modified)

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Rumble: New Short Stories

My friend "E" and I edited some of the previously published rumbles written by Cyprien, Enrico and herself into eBook short stories. By coincidence, all stories are about life in Sudan, but mostly about life as an aid worker. Enjoy!

This Man... (by "E" herself)
Murphy's Law in Sudan (by Enrico Pausilli)
How Deep Is the Deep Field? (by Enrico Pausilli)
The Pit Latrine? (by Enrico Pausilli)
Twenty-Four Hours in Aweil (by Cyprien Hiniolwa)
The Theory of Relativity (by Enrico Pausilli)
The Forces of Nature (by Enrico Pausilli)
The Perfect Balance (by Enrico Pausilli)
The Driver's License (by Enrico Pausilli)

Remember you can find a introduction and summary of each story in the eBook in the Readers' Digest.

Thanks again for all the good work, E!

Picture courtesy Ulrik Pedersen.

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News: 45,000 People Dying a Month in Congo

Some 45,000 people die each month in Congo as the world's deadliest humanitarian crisis has failed to improve despite five years of relative peace in the Central African nation, according to a report released Tuesday.
An estimated 5.4 million Congolese died between 1998 and April 2007 because of conflict, most from the rampant disease and food shortages stemming from fighting. (full)

Picture courtesy AFP

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Rumble: Did you see the moon this morning?

Drove into the parking lot at work, this morning. Was around 7:30... The sun was just coming up and the full moon just disappeared at the horizon. Aren't we lucky with all the beautiful things in our lives? Do we appreciate them enough?

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Rumble: A Lovely Day..

I can't believe this... Was in Kuwait last week, and it was 3°C. Chilling to the bone. Came back to Rome, and it was just over 20°C. Here is the proof! Middle of January, on the beach and 20°C !!!

The beach was deserted.. You would not recognize this place in summer! Another four months, and you will not be able to find a free spot to sit down. This weekend, there were just a handful of people...

The beach is just 200 meters away from where I live. I realize how lucky I was to find my apartment. Quiet, lovely neighbours, nice restaurant and coffee bar downstairs. Here is a view of my street.

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Rumble: Airport Security... Eh?

When coming back from Kuwait, checking in for our flight to Rome, we went through the first security control, at the entrance of the airport departures building. I put my bags through a large Xray machine, and stepped through the screening frame. It beeped, as I still had my mobile, wallet and coins in my pockets. I had not even taken off my heavy overcoat. The security guard did not blink, gave me a quick superficial frisk while was smiling at Liz, one of my travel companions: “Hey habiba, where are you from?” I could have carried an AK47, he still would have had more attention for my blond (female) colleague.
The second security point was just a check if you had a boarding pass, after which you got into the tax free shopping area. After immigration, came the second Xray check. I was about to take off my overcoat, and the security guy waved me through ‘Habibi, jalla, jalla!’ (My friend, fast, fast!). When he saw I hesitated, he smiled at me ‘Come, come. It is ok!’, referring to the overcoat I had half-pulled off. Of course the ‘thing’ beeped. This time, he did not even frisk me. Just smiled at me ‘It is ok, habibi!’
It seemed the real security check was to happen at the boarding gate where two guards with utterly bored faces, asked me to take off belt, shoes, and coat, but only gave the Xray screen an occasional look…
Hmmm… security is only as good as the people who have to enforce it.

Or maybe not… Maybe the machines also play an important role in the dis-security. I remember in Islamabad, Pakistan, shortly after 9/11, we had to push our stuff through a monster Xray machine as soon as we entered the airport building. The machine hardly ever paused, and the security guards seemed to enjoy to see stuff jammed off the belt at the end. A guaranteed mess, certainly as people there were not known for “travelling light”.
One day, I could see the screen of the Xray machine, reflected in the glasses of the guard. I thought I saw the screen flickering as if it were defective. I got suspicious, and while I was grabbing my bags from the pile, I bent forward to see the actual Xray screen. It was as I had expected: the screen did not work, apart from ‘snow’ it only had large horizontal stripes scrolling over it, like an old TV which had lost it signal. The thing was defective, and the whole security setup was only a show..!

Talking about pre-flight security. The funniest was in Teheran-Iran, where during one visit, I had to take national flights regularly. The pre-boarding screening was done manually. You disappeared, with a guard, in a small cubicle, with curtains at two sides, and the guy would frisk you. It seemed it was always the same guy, who frisked me. And he did it very… eh… thoroughly. He clearly liked the body contact, and would hold me really close when frisking my back, standing in front of me – rather than having me turn around… The last thing he always did, was softly squeezing my private parts, while giving me a wide wink and smile. Hmmm…

Anyways, on the flight from Kuwait to Rome, the view from the plane onto the remote areas in Iran was astonishing. Some were like we were looking at the world, from a space ship.. A sample I wanted to share with you...
Iran from the airIran from the airIran from the airIran from the air

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Rumble: For Safer Roads in Kuwait

Another story my Kuwaiti friends told us: As there are so many road accidents in Kuwait, they considered to make the light poles flexible. This way, the impact would cause less damage and casualties. Here is a video of that 'pole' technology.

It would of course be better, if they did something about the cause of the high accident rate. ;-)

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News: Record Rain Causes Flooding in Dubai

Talking about the weather in the Middle East, and "what people do not know about the Gulf": It DOES rain here. Sometimes it really pours for a long period, specifically around this time of the year.
Below some pictures Mats sent me from the flooding in Dubai after the heavy rains the last days. The main roads were blocked, with cars floating around, some of them even with people inside, like the white car in the middle picture. (see also this news article).

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Rumble: Is Kuwait's weather state-controlled?

We had dinner in Kuwait City last night and talked about the cold weather here. Our resident hosts, told a funny story:
There is a law stopping all outdoor work when the temperature rises above 50°C (120° F). This means the country's construction and road works would come to a halt most of the summer, if it was not that the official temperatures are never "registered" to be above 50°C, but rather "hover around 49°C". Even though often temperatures climb up to the mid 50-ies.

I thought our friends pulled my leg, and looked it up on the Internet, to find a Human Rights report from the US State Department registering this rumour. Some bloggers joked about it, and the Webster Online Dictionary mentioned it too.

So would Kuwait be the only country where the weather is state-controlled?

Picture courtesy Wikipedia

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Rumble: In Kuwait and it is cold!

One of the many things people do not know about the Middle East: They see pictures of deserts and palm trees, but forget it gets cold here in winter too! I am in Kuwait and it is colder than in Rome! 6°C or 43°F (with the windchill, it feels like 3°C or 38°F). That is cold!
And as most of the houses and public areas do not have heating, often we get chilled to the bone... Oh well, summer is just around the corner..!

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News: Did Bush Forget to Tell Sarkozy What the Deal Was?

What would the deal be? Sarkozy:'I am going to sell them technology, Russia is going to sell them nuclear fuel, and how about George.. Why don't you then encourage an embargo on them?'Today, French President Sarkozy starts a three-nation tour of Gulf Arab states eager to share France's expertise in civilian nuclear technology with the Arab world.
On his first trip to the region since taking office in May, he will visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), three states interested in developing a civilian nuclear programme despite their oil and gas wealth.
Sarkozy will land in Saudi Arabia as US President George W. Bush tours the region to rally support for his policy of isolating Iran over its "controversial nuclear activities".
Apparently, the UAE has already signed the deal with France, making it the third Arab country to do so, after Algeria and... Libya. (Full Post)

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Rumble: In Kuwait

Kuwait by nightFlew to Kuwait today.. Crammed Air Kuwait flight. If you are a frequent flyer, you know how often the inflight entertainment systems fail. This one was no exception. The movie restarted three times and finally aborted.. Sometimes I ask myself the question if they can not get a simple system like that to work, how the hell they manage to take off and land. Those systems must be much more sophisticated than an inflight entertainment system, no?
We are staying in the Kuwait Ramada. Question asked by the receptionist: "We ran out of rooms, would you and your colleagues mind sleeping in one room?" Answer: "Yes, we would mind. We are all married to other people, you see..." ;-)

Picture courtesy Tomi in Kuwait

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News: Go Belgium Go!

Destroyed champagne -eh- sparkling wine shipmentCNN reports Belgian authorities have destroyed a shipment of more than 3,000 bottles of California-made sparkling wine as part of a New Year's crackdown on illegally labeled Champagne. (...) Most countries around the world -- including Nigeria -- respect the rules granting exclusive use of the Champagne label to the French producers. (Full Post)

This REALLY makes my day!

Picture courtesy AP

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News: FreeRice is Yahoo's Find of the Year 2007.

Click to playIn November we reported on, a free, innovative and addictive online vocabulary game. FreeRice donates twenty grains of rice to development projects each time you nominate the correct synonym. In it first three months, the website visitors have assembled a total donation of 13 billion grains of rice! And the website has been nominated Yahoo's Finds of the year 2007 winner in the charitable class.

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Rumble: A Must Read: Khaled Hosseini - A Thousand Splendid Suns

A couple of months ago, I posted a review of the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. In 2007, he published a new novel: A Thousand Splendid Suns. It is the best book I have read since... well, since the Kite Runner... As far as I am concerned, this is "The Book of 2007".

Hosseini takes his title from a 17th century poem by Saib-e-Tabrizi, which sings the praises of the ancient and cultured city of Kabul: “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” The lines are chanted by one of Hosseini’s characters as the bombs of the mujahideen are destroying Kabul. (Does this remind you a bit of the bitter contrast between war and poetry I described in "Lost Connection"?)

The book starts in the 1970's Afghanistan, and tells a story of Mariam and Laila over a period of three decades. In the background Afghanistan struggles from the rule of King Zahir Shah, via the Sovjet invasion, the civil war during the mujahideen, the ruling of the Taliban and finally the US invasion.

Initially, both main characters start with their own individual story.
The first story is about Mariam, Nana and Jalil's extramarital child (a harami). Mariam is only fifteen when her mother commits suicide. She is sent to Kabul to marry the troubled and bitter Rasheed, thirty years her senior, desperately hoping for her to bear him a son.
The second story follows Laila, born around the time Mariam moves to Kabul. Laila grows up as a beautiful and intelligent young girl, finding love with her childhood friend, Tariq.
As the Mujahideen start their battle for Kabul, tragedy strikes. Tariq flees to Pakistan and is thought to have died on the way. Laila's parents are killed in a bomb attack leaving orphaned, fifteen-year-old Laila, no other option but to marry Rasheed, as his second wife.

Here the two stories become one powerful stream of conflicts, love, violence, fear, shame and hatred. Laila and Mariam start off on the wrong foot, but slowly find consolation in each other, mainly rooted in what they have in common: their hatred and fear for their husband. With the passing of time comes Taliban rule over Afghanistan, and with it, life becomes a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality and fear. The women's endurance is tested beyond their worst imaginings. Yet love can move a person to act in unexpected ways, and it is love which leads them to overcome the most daunting obstacles.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" is a jewel. An absolutely wonderfully told, heart-wrenching story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely bond and an indestructible love. It took me in from the first page until the last, and I just "could not put the book down". Khaled Hosseini's story-telling skills which I discovered in "The Kite Runner", blossomed and bloomed in this new book. I have lived and worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for several years around 2000. I could just pick up the smells and sounds as I read through the story. An example:

Mariam had never before worn a burqa. Rasheed had to help her put it on. The padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull, and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen. She practiced walking around her room in it and kept stepping on the hem and stumbling.
The loss of peripheral vision was unnerving, and she did not like the suffocating way the pleated cloth kept pressing against her mouth.
“You’ll get used to it,” Rasheed said. “With time, I bet you’ll even like it.”
They took a bus to a place Rasheed called the Shar-e-Nau Park, where children pushed each other on swings and slapped volleyballs over ragged nets tied to tree trunks. They strolled together and watched boys fly kites, Mariam walking beside Rasheed, tripping now and then on the burqa’s hem.
For lunch, Rasheed took her to eat in a small kebab house near a mosque he called the Haji Yaghoub. The floor was sticky and the air smoky. The walls smelled faintly of raw meat and the music, which Rasheed described to her as logari, was loud. The cooks were thin boys who fanned skewers with one hand and swatted gnats with the other.
Mariam, who had never been inside a restaurant, found it odd at first to sit in a crowded room with so many strangers, to lift her burqa to put morsels of food into her mouth. A hint of the same anxiety as the day at the tandoor stirred in her stomach, but Rasheed’s presence was of some comfort, and, after a while, she did not mind so much the music, the smoke, even the people. And the burqa, she learned to her surprise, was also comforting. It was like a one-way window. Inside it, she was an observer, buffered from the scrutinizing eyes of strangers. She no longer worried that people knew, with a single glance, all the shameful secrets of her past...

But it is not only in the long impressionistic descriptions that comes the full flavour of the book. It is also sometimes in passages, short and sharp as a razour:

Nana put down the bowl of chicken feed. She lifted Mariam’s chin with a finger.
“Look at me, Mariam.”
Reluctantly, Mariam did.
Nana said, “Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.”

If you are still not convinced, read chapter one and chapter 11. (courtesy

Update Jan 10: "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is Amazon's Book of the Year 2007.

As a note of interest:
Khaled Hosseini is an Afghan born son of a diplomat and a teacher who now lives in the US. In 2006 he was named a goodwill envoy to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. An author with a mission. Have a look at the video he made from a visit to the refugee camps in Chad.

More recommended books from The Road.

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News: RSF's 2007 Press Freedom Overview: 86 journalists killed

Picture courtesy World Press Freedom DayReporters without Borders (RSF) published their 2007 Press Freedom Roundup.

It seems journalists had even a rougher time than aidworkers, in 2007:
86 journalists were killed around the world last year, a sad figure steadily rising since 2002 - from 25 to 86 (+ 244%). This is the highest casualty rate since 1994, when 103 journalists were killed, nearly half of them in the Rwanda genocide, about 20 in Algeria’s civil war and a dozen in the former Yugoslavia. More than half those killed in 2007 died in Iraq.

Some sad statistics:

  • 86 journalists and 20 media assistants were killed
  • 887 arrested
  • 1,511 physically attacked or threatened
  • 67 journalists kidnapped

And more on press freedom itself:

  • 528 media outlets censored
  • 37 bloggers were arrested
  • 21 bloggers physically attacked
  • 2,676 websites shut down or suspended
Check out also their 'Press Freedom Predators'

Link found via Jackfruity. Picture courtesy World Press Freedom Day

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News: Crisis in Kenya Impacts Whole East Africa

Readers of Aid Workers Today saw we have been rather worried about the wider and longer term post-election violence in Kenya. Not that I underestimate the shame of hundreds who died in violent street clashes, including dozens burned alive as they sought refuge in a church. But there is more to the conflict than what one can actually see on television.

First of all, an estimated 250,000 Kenyans are now estimated to have been displaced by post-electoral violence, which, in many places, has an ethnic dimension to it. Some 5,400 Kenyans sought refuge in neighbouring Uganda. The UN estimates between 400,000 and 500,000 people have been affected by the conflict. That in itself constitutes a new and major humanitarian crisis aid agencies are scrambling to deal with.

The direct cost to Kenyan economy is figured at $31 million USD a day, according to Vice President Moody Awori, due to many businesses having to close during the unrest and foreign governments advising their citizens against travel to the usually tourist-friendly nation. Hopefully this will have a rather short term impact, if the riots stop soon.

The sudden outbreak of violence may then have sparked a humanitarian crisis, but there is also a much longer term economical impact: Only a few weeks ago, with fears mounting of a global economic downturn following the US sub prime mortgage crisis, Africa was being viewed by some investors as a relatively safe bet for the first time in recent decades. The end of major wars in western and southern Africa, a string of non-violent elections and decent if not spectacular economic growth figures across a string of countries was sparking new interest and optimism. "In some ways, we are where India was in the early 1990s," African Development Bank President Donald Kaberuka said in mid-December. "We are at the point where Africa is no longer an object of just pity and aid." Kenya was regarded as central to this process. Sadly, the recent violence has potentially jeopardised that, investors said.

The conflict also affects regional trade. Kenya's port of Mombasa is the largest and most important entry point for supplies in East Africa. The Mombasa-Nairobi road is the only way into Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, eastern Congo, southern Sudan and most of northern Tanzania. So no wonder the economies of the whole region are directly and immediately affected by the Kenyan crisis. Due to shortages of supply, petrol pumps are running dry in Uganda and Burundi and rationing is imposed in Rwanda.

At last, but not least there is the issue that directly concerns us, aid workers: the violence in Kenya has blocked aid shipments to the rest of the region. Traditionally, just like the commercial trade, aid agencies are heavily relying on the port of Mombasa to bring in relief supplies transshipped to Somalia, Southern Sudan, Uganda, Eastern DRC, Northern Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Most of WFP's food shipments to east and central Africa are now stuck in Mombasa port leaving trucks stranded and contractors refusing to move without armed escort. That by itself, can snowball into one big regional crisis.

Sources: Reuters, UN News, AFP, The Other World News and International Aidworkers Today. Pictures courtesy Reuters and AFP

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News: Bangladesh Not Recovered from Cyclone Sidr

Cyclone Sidr left many without a homeCyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh on November 15 last year, causing massive flooding in the world's 7th most populated country. After the initial response, this emergency disappeared from the world's TV screens, as emergencies often do. And they should not. The effects of natural disasters like the flooding of this size are far more profound than merely the dead to be burried, the homeless to be sheltered, and the sick to be cured.

Homeless after Cyclone SidrA massive amount of farmland was flooded (553,000 hectares to be exact) by the surge waters and rains, a large part of the rice crop was destroyed. Rice being Bangladesh's staple food, the "real emergency effects" start to surfice now through the food shortages. Rice prices have shot up. Aid agencies are bringing in over half a million ton of rice.

But this time, I don't want to talk much about these massive aid operations. I wanted to show you one thing that I found while browsing on the topic of Cyclone Sidr: how one individual tried to make a difference, with the tools he has at his disposal, answering the question people often as us, aid workers: "How can *I* make a difference?" Well, here is an example how one can:

An article about Sidr's relief efforts I found in Globalvoices, pointed me to Vlogger Shawn's Uncultured Project. Shawn is a 26 year old former graduate student from the University of Notre Dame. After a presentation about the "This generation's home work to end poverty", he was inspired to go to Bangladesh for a self-funded project to see what difference HE could make in helping some of the world's worst off under the motto: "Are we doing enough to make a the world a better place?" Here is his video story:

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News: Floods At Start of Southern Africa's Rainy Season

Mozambique flooding one year ago... A repeat waiting to happen in 2008?Floods in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia are affecting at least 16,000 people, possibly of thousands more. We are only at the start of Southern Africa's rainy season, which typically lasts from November to April. This year, as happened in 2007, floods are occurring earlier than usual in some countries. Let's hope we are not heading for a new regional emergency as happened one year ago. (full report and news article)

Picture (2007 Mozambique floods) courtesy BBC. Source: The Other World News

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Rumble: Book review - "Inside the Jihad"

One of the better books I read over Christmas: "Inside the Jihad" by Omar Nasiri.

Between 1994 and 2000, Omar worked as a secret agent for Europe's top foreign intelligence services - including France's DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure), and Britain's MI5 and MI6. From the netherworld of Islamist cells in Belgium, to the training camps of Afghanistan, to the radical mosques of London, he risked his life to defeat the emerging global network that the West would come to know as Al Qaeda.

In his book, Nasiri shares the story of his life -a life balanced precariously between the world of Islamic jihadists and the spies who pursue them. As an Arab and a Muslim, he was able to infiltrate the rigidly controlled Afghan training camps, where he encountered men who would later be known as the most-wanted terrorists on earth: Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, Abu Zubayda, and Abu Khabab al-Masri. Sent back to Europe with instructions to form a sleeper cell, Nasiri became a conduit for messages going back and forth between Al Qaeda's top recruiter in Pakistan and London's radical cleric Abu Qatada.

"Inside the Jihad" is well written, reads fluently as if it were a novel, despite its gruelling contents. As almost a case study by itself, the story shows how a "up to no good", drinking, womanizing, profiteering and drug dealing Moroccon youngster comes in contact with people supplying arms to an Algerian terrorist cell. What started as a profitable adventure, little by little, he gets drawn into the intrigues, and almost haphazardly, ends up going to the Afghanistan Al-Qaeda training camps, as if he had little choice.
Slowly, he gets a purpose in life, finds true camaraderie and despite his criminal and no-good past, he constantly swings between sympathies for "The Al-Qaeda Cause" and his conscience.

He ends the book with a rather insightful message:

I believe there are wars worth fighting for. I believe there are countries worth fighting for. But I also believe in laws. Maybe more than any other religion, Islam has strict laws about when and how to go to war. I learned these laws myself in the Afghanistan training camps. And I learned that these laws make us superior than the Americans, French, Germans, Russians, English and no matter who. They kill where possible. They throw nuclear bombs and kill millions of people in gas chambers, extinguish millions of people to get land and property. They kill women and children, and shrug about the collateral damage.

That is right, they do such things, and have done so for centuries. But we are Muslim, and the Koran does not allow to behave like this. This is the true Islam, this is the Islam I was thought in the training camps, all be it in theory. What I learned in practice was different.
This is the reason why I wrote this book. I did not tell the story to protect the West against terrorists, it never was my goal. Above all, I wish to protect Islam against the terrible excesses and new thinking.

(..) The fact that the Muslim world has become so degenerated that we were forced to fight wars with the weapons of our enemy has always bothered me. But what happens now is even worse: we fight our wars with the tactics of our enemy. Once we, fight our wars as they do, in other words as YOU do, then there is nothing left for us to fight for.

That is my Jihad..

Enjoy this book. More of my favourites, you can find in my online library.
More recommended books from The Road.

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News: 2007 One of the "Deadliest Years" for UN staff

At least 42 United Nations staff members were killed on duty in 2007, with the killing of 17 staff members in Algiers on 11 December capping off one of the deadliest years ever. (full post)
And that is just UN staff. There must be at least that many for the other humanitarian organisations.
Even only this week, there was a USaid staff member killed in Sudan, and an ACF staff murdered in Burundi.

Picture courtesy BBC World. Source: The Other World News

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Rumble: Horse shoes and New Year's luck

We flew back to Rome on Saturday. And we were late for our flight. Very late. At the last moment, we got stuck at customs with three security officers bending over the screen showing Hannah's bag. I looked more closely and saw the clear shape of ... a horse shoe.

I asked Hannah: "Why did you take a horse shoe with you?" With tears in her eyes, she said: "But daddy, I forgot it was in there... You know this is actually my school bag. So when last week, we had exams, I took the horse shoe with me for good luck."
I told her: "Well, honey, at least I hope it brought you luck with the tests?"
"No, I don't think so", she sobbed.
Ahhh.. Kids! How can anyone be mad at them...

Happy New Year to everyone!

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Rumble: Darfur Now! - The Full Movie

Here is the full 1h37m "Darfur Now!" movie. This .wmv version is 426 Mbyte so - you need a highspeed Internet connection, and a bit of patience as the file downloads.
It requires the ActiveX plugin for your browser and is best viewed with Firefox.

Be patient as the file downloads! It might take up to 10 minutes before you see anything in the videoviewer

Movie courtesy

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Tips & Tricks: Matching Colours on Your Blog

I had a lot of trouble matching backgrounds of frames, widgets etc.. to the background of my website. I could only find matching colours after hours of trying... Until I found this free tool: Colorpic.


It is a simple and free Windows program that lets you zoom into any area on your screen - including into your browser window. With a magnifying glass, you go over an area, and it tells you the hex value of the colour on that spot of your screen.

Matching colours became a breeze for me.

Have fun.

More Blogging "Tips and Tricks", you find here.

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Tips & Tricks: How to speed up your blog

Speed up your website!Just like many blogs, The Road to the Horizon grew from a blog with a simple plain template to what it is now: a site combining pictures, links, widgets and text.
Came a time, a few weeks ago, I realized it took almost 30 seconds to fully download the homepage of my blog, on an ADSL or cable connection. Around the same time I travelled to Addis Abeba in Ethiopia, and was surprised to see it took over two minutes to download my page when one had more limited connectivity.

Why is speed important?

Many visitors will come to your blogsite “by accident”, through a referral link or more commonly, through a Google search. In just a few seconds, these “incidental visitors” will decide whether your site is interesting or not. In just a few seconds, they will decide if they will stay, or not. We also have just a few seconds to turn him from an occasional (or unique) visitor to a regular ‘customer’, someone who will come back, bookmarking your blog, or even post it on social networks.

A couple of factors are important in this ‘flash’ decision “will I stay or not”:
1. the overall appearance or impression of the site (which they will evaluate on what they see on the top screen without even scrolling down), and
2. the download speed.

The download speed became even more important when Internet Explorer versions 7 and 8 seems to ‘block’ for seconds, while in the middle of download if they need to wait for certain widgets to complete.

So, I had to improve my download speed. Here is what I have learned:

1. Benchmark your site’s speed

Measure the speed before and after you make the improvements. Try (which specifies if a page doesn't load within 5-8 seconds according to their benchmark you will lose 1/3 of your visitors.) or or for a more in depth analysis, use

Each time you change something on your site, measure what difference the change made.

Two good tools to find out what specific parts (widgets, images, scripts,..) are slowing down your site, two great tools are Firefox Firebug and the Chrome Developer tools .
Firebug is an add-on to Firefox (download here). The Chrome tool comes built-in (goto menu>developer>Javascript console and click on Resources).

2. Slow items go last:

Have a look in what sequence your blog loads. E.g. in the case of The Other World News, the sequence is:
1st the header
2nd the left column
3rd the middle column with the posts
4th the right column
5th the bottom banner.

In the case of The Road, the sequence is:
1st the header banner
2nd all blog posts with the pictures
3rd the whole right column (darker grey), item per item.
4th the bottom banners (darker grey)

This means, if I would put something in the banner or in any of the blog posts that would not work properly, or would be slow, the rest of the page’s download will slow down.

An example:, I had a widget which often had speed problems, as one of the first things to download on The Road’s right column. It often kept the whole download of the rest of the right column on hold for at least 10 seconds. I moved that widget to the part of my page which loads last (the bottom), for visitors not to notice the delay.

Recommendation: ensure you put the slower widgets, or those taking a long time to load, at the end of your download cycle.

3. Compress your pictures.

Most people think because they use small pictures, these automatically take little time to download. Not necessarily so. It depends on the data-size (kbytes) of your picture.

Check your pictures by right-clicking on them and select ‘Properties’.
A typical 400 x 300 pixel picture should not take more than 20-40 kbyte. Often people use > 100 kbyte. A couple of those pictures and your download speed will be a killer.

I posted before about ShrinkPic, a tool I used to compress pictures, but lately I use Picasa, a free picture library and processing tool that lets you export pictures with predefined pixel size, quality and compression rate. The visual quality of compressed Picasa pictures is very good (and much better than with ShrinkPic tool I used before.

Pay particular attention to your banner: because banners are often larger than normal pictures, and is the first thing your page will download (and the first thing the users will see), compressing it is critical (The Road’s banner is 12 Kbyte, as an example). There is nothing as frustrating for a user than to sit and wait for a banner to download.

4. Limit your widgets

This has been a killer for me. I loved to add little gimmicks – “widgets”, that showed the ‘latest visitors’, or “the weather where I am”, or “the latest comments”, or “all countries of the latest visitors”, etc..

That killed my speed. I could see so, when using Mozilla’s Firefox to download my page, and to observe what Firefox was waiting for (check the bottom left of the Firefox window)…

a. Limit the number of of gimmicks and widgets
b. Delete those widgets which are slow
b. Those which are slow, and you really really wanted to keep, put at the bottom of your page (or whatever part of your page which downloads last – see point two).

5. Store widget and badge icons on your picture server

Often, widgets or badges (like this one ) come by default with the “img” link to an icon stored by the service you are referring to.

I had a lot of these on my site (e.g. in the syndication part at the bottom of my page), and found out that in average at least one of these services would be down or slow, thus slowing down MY page…

The remedy is to store these icons on your trusted image server (e.g. Picasa or Flickr).
1. You rightclick on the icon as you have it on your page
2. Choose ‘Save as’
3. Then upload that image to your picture server
4. In the "IMG" tag, replace the URL of the picture with the one on your picture server.

6. Limit or speed up RSS feeds

I RSS feeds to show the latest news bulletins or to display the latest comments on my blog. Feeds take some time to download, and not all servers are fast.

The speed of my site increased quite a bit when I moved the feeds onto Newsgator, a free feed service. They are fast and reliable. You can quite easily combine your feeds with free Yahoo Pipes.

Have fun!

Check out more blogging tips and tricks on The Road.

Picture courtesy

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Tips & Tricks: Displaying Special Characters

You probably had instances where you need to display a piece of HTML code 'as is' on your blog, or where you need to use special characters like '<' or '>' etc..
Internet browsers easily get confused and often interpret these special characters as HTML code, resulting in goobledegoock displayed on the screen.

You might have discovered already that, to display special characters, you need to replace these with a code, prefix-ed with '&', called 'encoding'.
So if you want:

<a href=""> The Road to the Horizon</a>

to be displayed as is, on your page, it would have to be encoded like this:

&lt;a href=&quot;;&gt;The Road to the Horizon&lt;/a&gt;

Check out this reference article listing all the special characters.

But, this becomes really cumbersome if you want to display whole lines of HTML code or a piece of text with a lot of these special codes in it. Here is a tool I use often to translate those coded passages with special characters.
Just cut and paste your text, as you want to have it displayed in the browser of your visitors (including all those special characters) onto the form in this page, and hit 'encode'. Copy and paste the resulting special code into your blog. Et voila! Finished!

Hope this helps.


More Blogging "Tips and Tricks", you find here.

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Aid Links

No time to read it all? I automatically summarize each update on all these sites in "For Those Who Want To Know".

Resources for aidworkers:

Aid Info
Aid Worker Daily
AWN - The Aid Workers Network
Development Initiatives
Development through enterprise Recently added to this list!
The Chronicle of Philanthropy
Getting Humanitarian Aid Right
Global Humanitarian Assistance
Humanitarian Info
Humanitarian Practice Network
NGO Security
Patronus Analytical
People in Aid
Positive Communication
Zen & the Art of Nonprofit Technology Recently added to this list!

Blogs about aid, development and social issues:

Africa Unchained
African Wanderings
Blood and Milk
Black Looks
The BoPreneur Recently added to this list!
Cause Global Recently added to this list!
Chris Blattman's blog
Design in Africa Recently added to this list!
Development Drums Recently added to this list!
Dying in the Dust Recently added to this list!
Emily's world Recently added to this list!
Forced Migration Blog
Fair trade
Global Voices
Stop Global Warming
Stop Genocide
Have fun, Do Good Recently added to this list!
How I Changed the World Today Recently added to this list!
If you only read one thing this week
In an African Minute
Kiva News Recently added to this list!
MicroFranchising Recently added to this list!
My Heart's in Accra
Natural Disasters in Indonesia
Non-for-Profit blog exchange Recently added to this list!
Peace in the Middle East
Inside Peacekeeping in Darfur Recently added to this list!
Poverty News Blog Recently added to this list!
Questions in Development
Riches for Good Recently added to this list!
So What Can I Do?
Social Entrepreneurship
Tactical Philanthropy Recently added to this list!
Threads of Genocide Today Recently added to this list!
Timbuktu Chronicles
TrackerNews Blog Recently added to this list!
Vigilante Journalist
War and Health Recently added to this list!
White African
WildLifeDirect (Africa)
Women's Rights
Wronging Rights

Organisations have their fieldstaff blogging:

DFID (UK Dept. for Int. Development) Recently added to this list!
IRC (International Rescue Committee) Recently added to this list!
Kiva Recently added to this list!
MSF (Doctors without borders) Recently added to this list!

Social community and bookmarking for a cause:

African Loft
ChangeMakers Recently added to this list!
Kibassa Recently added to this list!
Witness Video Library


Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group
Center for Global Development
Child Soldier Relief
International Crisis Group
Just Give Recently added to this list!
Kiva Recently added to this list!
One World
Water is Life
Women for Women
World Changing Recently added to this list!
The World Water Council

Sites with a cause:

Committee for refugee women&children Recently added to this list!
The Hunger Project Recently added to this list!

On Darfur:

Blog for Darfur
Darfur Awareness
Darfur Consortium
Darfur Daily News Recently added to this list!
Darfur: A Hell on Earth Recently added to this list!
Darfur Wall
The Darfur Rehabilitation Project Recently added to this list!
Eyes on Darfur
Globe for Darfur
Making sense of Darfur
Save Darfur
The World is Watching Darfur Recently added to this list!
24 hours for Darfur

Keeping a critical eye on aid and on the UN:

Inner City Press
The Gstaad Project
UN Dispatch
UNDP Watch
UN Forum
UN Watch
UN Staff Union

Other interesting links? Let me know!

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