Czechs in Afghanistan, Pt. I: Four outsiders making changes from within

Mazar-i-Sharif, photo: author

Outside of political and military circles, there is only a handful of Czechs living and working in Afghanistan. They are for the most part the workers of People in Need, the Prague-based charity foundation that has been organising Afghan relief for nearly a decade. In this part of our special series on Afghanistan, Christian Falvey introduces the Czech humanitarian workers who are on the ground helping to rebuild a faraway country in tatters.

Humanitarian aid comes at a great price, financial, physical, and emotional. The monetary cost is shared by many, but the rest is paid by just a few. Of the Czech citizens working for People in Need, that means about a dozen people working in and out of an inconspicuous home on a Kabul side-street, and a similar one in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Jan Štěpán
One of the things that adds to the financial expense of humanitarian aid, is that most organisations look for – and pay well for – the most experienced workers. Most of the Czechs working long hours in the un-air-conditioned offices of the PIN compounds are neither experienced in the field nor well paid. People in Need banks on young blood, brightness and capability, all of which is evinced in 29-year-old Jan Štěpán. Jan worked as a business consultant in 17 Central European countries before he applied for a deputy position in Afghanistan last year. People in Need instead chose him to head its largest mission.

“First of all I really wanted to go into development and try and see if I can actually do a job like this on a mission in a third-world country. Secondly, I also considered it a professional challenge, because the kinds of issues you deal with in Afghanistan are different – even though the general management approach you take can be the same, the issues you deal with are a lot different. And thirdly, I really wanted to see what kind of work we could do for the people, and how good it could be. I really wanted to see it for myself and experience it myself, and talk to the people we are helping. So that’s why I decided to do it.”

Referring to the People in Need’s “Czech” humanitarians is perhaps unfair to Petra Weissová, the 32-year-old Slovak woman in charge of educational projects in Afghanistan. With her first two months in the country behind her, she told me why she had decided to come.

Petra Weissová
“Well, it’s actually not an easy question, because I’ve been involved in the non-governmental sector for the last five years, but usually I was in the United States or in Prague and was therefore based at the headquarters. And at some point of course I started to get the feeling that it would be great to go to the field and get this first-hand experience, because after a while being at headquarters you may not feel so in touch with the developing countries anymore. So I started to think where I could go and, well, somehow… It was not an easy decision, I actually thought a lot about whether or not to go to Afghanistan, and my first thought was ‘no way’! But finally this was the decision I made and I’m quite happy about it.

How did you feel when you got here, in the first week?

“Actually great it was much better than I’d expected – even though after about the first ten days I had my first interesting experiences three nights in a row: the first night there was an explosion in Kabul, the second night I found mice in my bed and on the third night there was an earthquake, so I thought ‘ok, I hope this is the worst that can happen and that everything is over now, just focus on the local people’, and I got much more into the work. But it was really nice when we came to the country and I started to work with my team, and I was really impressed with how kindly people are. I had come to the country thinking ‘oh my god, I’m supposed to lead this six-member, male team; will they respect me? How is this going to work?’, and actually it was so smooth, so easy. In a way I think it was even easier than it would have been in Europe.”

Women obviously arrive in Kabul with more concerns on their minds than men, but as Ms Weissová told me, there are three genders in Afghanistan: male, female and foreign female. Markéta Novotná is the project’s chief financial officer, and also a long-term employee of People in Need in Prague, and she told me how she felt when she arrived in Afghanistan almost a year and a half ago.

Photo: author
“It takes some time, but I expected it would be harder. I felt very good here from the very beginning, like, among the people, in work, in communication and with the staff. It was quite easy. You need to accommodate for the environment, but it was quite easy. It’s not like being in a war when you work in Afghanistan. When I came here everybody was asking me why I was going into a war, but I’ve never felt afraid to go out in the streets or to go anywhere by car, and we have security rules which, if you follow them, make things quite easy.”

Even starting an orchard can be a business opportunity, and Pavel Přikryl is in Afghanistan to make it one. The food facilities project which he runs is the biggest project the Czech Afghan mission has ever had. It means food security for village farmers and families, struggling to feed themselves in some of the most remote areas of the country, high in the mountains and where there is little water.

“My academic area is international relations, it’s what I studied and continue to be involved in at the university, but I was mostly focused on the United States and Europe and relations between them, and obviously if you study the foreign policy of the United States in recent years, then you come into contact with Afghanistan. But I was not really following what was happening inside the country in great detail - just what you normally see on the news and in the newspapers. And the picture is really quite different, to be frank, between what you see here and what you see on the news, because the only thing you see on the news back in the Czech Republic or in Europe, in general, are the bomb blasts and the terrorists and the Taliban, and if nothing like this happens then there is no news at all. So it’s very hard to follow what is happening in Afghanistan in the Western media.”

Kabul,  photo: author
Well what is the news from your perspective?

“Well it’s more at the human level. You don’t see how the people here are very nice, very generous, that they are actually very funny. You don’t see what it looks like on the street, what people do or what they eat… So there’s a completely new perspective obviously once you come here.”

But also obviously not very newsworthy.

“It’s not newsworthy, yeah, that’s true.”

So if you had your own news programme – which in a sense you do at the moment – then what side of Afghanistan would you like to show people that is newsworthy, in terms of, say, reconstruction and redevelopment, that you want more attention paid to?

“Well I’ve been really quite surprised by how the country is, at the bottom, sort of booming. You go around the city and you see that people are trying to start new businesses, trying to construct new houses and so on, and it seems that the only problem still is governance as such, and the security situation, which can jeopardise all of this inside movement. Because if you speak to any Afghan – or any Afghan I’ve spoken with – you get the feeling that they now really believe in the future of the country, and the future of their own existence.”

At the end of the day after all, humanitarian work is a lot less stacking bricks and handing out food than it is ordering bricks and teaching people to farm. Afghans are benefitting from Czech business sense, learning it and customising it as they rebuild their country.

Mazar-i-Sharif,  photo: author
“Coming from a business environment, you have to get used to things that are quite obviously different than in, let’s say, a big international company in Prague. So you have to adjust your time plans a little bit, make them longer than you would normally expect. You have to get used to the fact that you don’t set up meetings, you just go and see the person. But it also works the other way around: people who want to see you just appear in the office when you’re in the middle of another meeting. So there are little differences.”