Peshawar Diary: Good Haircuts and Shotgun Weddings

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Sigurd Hanson

Peshawar, a predominately Muslim town of about 2 million people, has been my home for almost three years. Saturday night, after yet another 18-hour workday, I couldn't sleep because of all the sound of gunfire in the neighborhood. I finally drifted off, but only after thinking over and over again about the consequences and the serious implications of the war on this region — continued bombing raids, hungry people, maimed children, angry mobs, civilian casualties, increasing displaced populations and refugees, anger at Americans and now some reported cases of anthrax.

Sunday morning, I learned that the gunfire was celebratory; there had been several wedding celebrations last night. Many families here still fire their guns in the air during weddings; they also shoot and shout joyously toward the heavens to celebrate the birth of a son.

Since September 11th, something seems to have changed, even with humanitarian assistance work. I am finding myself trying to hold on to parts of my life I had before. Sunday night, within a span of twenty minutes, I was on the phone to many people: my wife in Ethiopia (we have not been together since I left Peshawar for meetings in the U.S. on September 6th); my boss in New York City (a much-needed ear for my need to vent); my mother on a Wisconsin farm (as the past Tanzanian President Nyeri said, "you are always a child as long as your mother is alive"); and a journalist from a leading U.S. newspaper (I am quickly learning what to say and what not to say to a journalist).

What are we doing now, during this war? We do what we can offering humanitarian assistance to as many people in need as possible while remaining impartial, neutral and transparent. In our profession, we call such times "an emergency phase" as we carry out life-saving activities.

Today I am trying to focus more on peace and not war. I am trying to follow the wisdom of my Afghan and Pakistani colleagues and not give up. My schedule is full with many meetings and a haircut.

The haircut is from my favorite barber, a young Afghan man. He's from Jalalabad, a commercial urban center in eastern Afghanistan. More than 80% of its population has fled due to the continued bombing raids. One of the disadvantages of my profession is being forced to change barbers so often as we move from country to county. There is nothing more frustrating than a bad haircut.

Tension is high in Peshawar as bombing raids inside Afghanistan continue. Anti-American sentiment permeates the streets and alleys. My barber whispered to me that he would prefer to come by my office to cut my hair during these next few months, or at least until things calm down a bit more. He did not want me to risk walking down the alley to his barbershop. I agreed, and expressed my concern for him and his family.

Security is a top priority for our agency. We work for the security for refugees, and demand the best security for our staff. This last month an IRC compound in an area near Peshawar was burned and destroyed by protestors, the first time in our history in any of our global locations that one of our offices was burned. A dangerous period — but we intend to continue our work.

Yesterday, I met with several other heads of agencies to discuss planning and setting up refugee camps for the Afghan new arrivals in Pakistan's "tribal areas" — places where smuggling, gun-running and tribal feuds take place with little oversight and control from the central government. I also received a lengthy email about anthrax containing detailed procedures for handling threat letters.

Last night I attended a roundtable discussion chaired by a political leader from a western European country. Many people think they have the answer for the "new Afghanistan". I continue listening to my Afghan colleagues — and counting on my young Afghan barber.

Sigurd Hanson is director of the International Rescue Committee's refugee aid operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His diary will appear here several times a week. To contribute, see their website or call 1-877-REFUGEE