In today's One on One, Pavla Horakova's guest is Pavel Vesely. Pavel has spent a year in Afghanistan, working as the head of a mission run by the Czech humanitarian organisation, the People in Need Foundation.
Pavel, can you recall one single moment when you really wished you were back in Prague in the safety and comfort of your own home?
"Well, these times come and go on a regular basis. It is a difficult time when you leave everything behind and all your friends, your family, all the good habits of going to the cinema and theatre, and now you have to accommodate very fast to quite primitive conditions Afghanistan is actually able to offer these days. I think that the most difficult period is when you come to Afghanistan, the first month when you have to accommodate to the new conditions while still performing the tasks expected from you.
"If I can recollect one moment that was difficult, that was definitely before the loya jirga constitutional convent that took place in Kabul and before the loya jirga attended the convent we had to stay closed in our offices, we had to hibernate for 72 hours and at times I just recollected the nice moments - how it would be back home."
Let's leave unpleasant memories for now. What, on the contrary, surprised you most in the positive sense about post-Taleban Afghanistan?
"The most pleasant moment for any foreigner coming to Afghanistan is meeting the local people. Afghans, despite their pitiful history that actually only consisted of continuous wars, they managed to keep their optimism and they are always well-tempered. I found the nation probably the most hospitable of all I had met till then. So I find it very likely for me to come to Afghanistan some time soon to see all my friends."
Pavel, what makes a young man like you, with a good job, plenty of opportunities opened up, leave all that in exchange for a sleeping bag, a lot of uncertainty and very real danger?
"For me it was definitely a huge challenge and I wanted to push my horizons a bit further. I also find it very very important for Czechs that were entrapped in communist Czechoslovakia for such a long time to see what the world around is like in reality. Because the picture we get from the media is often very different from that you see when you actually are somewhere."
When we say "a humanitarian mission" - what does it actually entail? What did your job entail?
"Well, as a head of mission, your movements are restricted within the Kabul city which is a very unlucky position, I might say. So anybody who considers travelling on a humanitarian mission anywhere, I would suggest then that they prefer staying on a programme basis that actually enables you to travel all around the country, that you meet many different people and you actually experience the countryside.
"The countryside in Afghanistan is beautiful. Kabul is far from what you might call a pleasant modern city, so my "job description" was basically taking care of the ongoing projects, trying to get some more projects for the future and keeping all the partners, all the stakeholders involved, informed on what is going on.
"For us the mission was clear. We were trying to improve the educational standards. In Afghanistan, People in Need basically focuses on helping children, both boys and girls, to have an easier access to education. Within the last two years People in Need was active in Afghanistan, about 75 schools were either newly constructed or reconstructed. We organised a number of trainings for teachers, we did some trainings for widows, some skill-building and, a few times we also intervened in other areas, such as returns of refugees, that was the initial one year when the Afghan refugees returned for Pakistan and Iran. Later we tried to specify our focus only on the education, only on the new generation of Afghans."
Do you think your team did a good job, that it was worth it?
"Definitely. I might say that the four of us were running projects worth a total of 3 million dollars a year and it's a hell of a job, indeed. We tried to focus on the rural areas that might have been omitted by the big humanitarian organisations, such as the Red Cross and the German AgroAction. So we tried to fill in the gap that was left and we did our best to achieve the goal."
Were you actually in touch with other humanitarian organisations and missions in Afghanistan?
"All the time. I might say that as opposed to the commercial sphere, among the humanitarian organisations there is very little rivalry, there is a lot of cooperation because it is human lives that we are talking about. And for us it was definitely the main issue to try to maintain good relationships with other organisations. We travelled together to the regions, we operated together mainly for security reasons and we divided up the tasks to be fulfilled in a very fair manner, I might say."
And what is your next destination?
"My next destination has already been decided. I started working for the experimental space Roxy in Prague. But I have the chance to choose another time, I would definitely like to come back to Afghanistan and continue in the work started some two years ago."
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