Pavel Přikryl – Following up on People in Need’s Afghan mission one year on

Pavel Přikryl

One year ago this month we brought you a special series on the work of Czechs in Afghanistan, primarily the efforts of the charity organisation People in Need, which works in some of the most remote corners of the country. Our guide in many of those places was Pavel Přikryl, a business consultant and specialist in international relations, who left for Afghanistan 13 months ago to run PIN’s food facility projects. The base for those activities is the northern centre of Mazar-i-Sharif, the scene of a brutal mob attack last week that left seven UN workers dead, and that was all the more shocking because of the decade of relative peace that the city has enjoyed. I met with Pavel Přikryl upon his return to the Czech Republic to follow up on the last year, and began by asking him if there had been signs of growing tensions in Mazar-i-Sharif before the attacks.

Pavel Přikryl
“Well not really, frankly; as you say, it was shocking for everyone, not only for us as People in Need working there but also for the local people. I spoke with some of my friends in Mazar-i-Sharif yesterday and they are also shocked, and not only them but the community or society as such, and even the mullahs have condemned the attacks of a few days ago. So it was really shocking. You know, Mazar – unlike Kabul which is fortified and a lot of barbed wire and everything – is a really peaceful and normal town, you can walk around and nothing has ever happened there, so it is really very shocking.”

There are reports that the violence was spurred by only a handful of extremists who were among the several thousand demonstrators. Have you had any experiences of growing provocation among extremists in the last year?

Not really in the city as such, but the truth is that the north as a region is becoming a little bit less stable, and there are groups infiltrating from the outside and sort of radicalising the region, so the situation seems to be destabilising a little bit. And for sure, Mazar-i-Sharif is a very big city, it’s one of the most important cities in Afghanistan, it has always been stable and has been given as an example of how things can work in Afghanistan, so naturally it is something of a bounty for these people who are trying to create instability. So from this perspective you can say that it is obvious, or inevitable, that eventually they would try to do something within Mazar-i-Sharif.”

And it’s also your main base of operations, so how does it affect the work of People in Need when these kinds of security situations arise?

“We have pretty strict security rules and if things are getting tense then we have a set of processes to follow, starting with not leaving the compound and ending with evacuation.”

And how did the compound react to Friday’s attacks?

“On Friday we evacuated to a safe-house, but since then we have returned and are working as normal at the moment. The situation is currently stable; as I told you, the general community seems to be even ashamed of what has happened, so we don’t think there should be any more such problems.”

Did you feel safe in the year you spent in Afghanistan? Were there moments when you felt particularly unsafe?

“Well you never feel entirely safe when you are in Afghanistan, given the fact that when you are on your way there you already have in mind an extremely unsafe country and what you see is the international media sort of predetermines the feeling you arrive with. On the other hand, once you arrive you realise that it is not so intense, yes, things are happening but not necessarily around you, so you grow accustomed to the situation, and secondly you realise it’s not so threatening on a daily basis. On the other hand I must say, the longer you stay the less secure you feel, which is strange but it is said that this is the way expatriates’ feelings in Afghanistan normally evolve, probably because you get the feeling that the probability of something happening is rising, and over the year you see one incident happening here, one incident happening there, and you think ‘okay, this might just be my own good luck, but eventually something may happen.’ But frankly speaking, the situation is not as if there was shooting every day. And because all the organisations have so much focus on their security, you live in this environment in which you are constantly evaluating what is going on around you and where you have many rules, and so it’s a part of your life, and probably one that creates a feeling, especially towards the end, that I should be getting out of here.”

Which of those incidents that you mention were the real low points of the mission? Was People in Need ever attacked?

“We were attacked once during the time I was there. One of the field offices was attacked [with a rocket] by a group of local warlords. And of course it influences your work to a great extent. After this incident we completely shut down our operation in the area and it forces you to restructure the whole project. So it is very difficult at the end of the day. Even though nothing happened to anyone in this incident, it forces you to completely change all of your work. And it’s a feeling of having prepared something for a long time, putting a lot of effort and money in to it, and then something like this just destroys the whole thing in one night.”

Will your beneficiaries be affected by situations like the one on Friday?

“I hope not, because this is a slightly separate incident for us. It was not targeted at us, it may influence our movement around the city itself, let’s say, but our beneficiaries are in different locations, we work mostly – or rather the proper field work is done by our local employees and the expats go to monitor things, say, once or twice a month, so I don’t think it will change anything for our beneficiaries. But of course, if there is an incident in a location that forces us to leave, then at the end of the day that is the biggest problem for the beneficiaries. Regarding this attack in one of our districts, it happened just before we were supposed to deliver many things to the beneficiaries, we had trainings going on, and since we retreated from that location these people are now without help. And since we were the only organisation there, it means they are without help altogether.”

How do you rate your own success over the last 13 months that you have been in Afghanistan? Are you happy with the success of the projects?

Pavel Přikryl
“I have to say I am quite proud of what we are doing there in general, and even what I myself contributed to this. It is a long process; the development of Afghanistan will take many, many years, and you when you look from the bigger picture you can ask yourself if what you’re doing makes sense, especially in terms of these security incidents and so on. But when you go to the locations where we work and you speak with the people who we help, you have a strong feeling of satisfaction and a strong feeling that this is the way forward. So, yes, I myself am satisfied and I am satisfied with what People in Need and other organisations do there.”

When I was in Afghanistan with you we visited a lot of your food facility project beneficiaries and saw how they lived and how the projects were helping them, can you tell us how some of those families have been doing since then?

“Well, I believe we visited some families to whom we distributed improved wheat seeds, so I can tell you that a few months after you left there was a harvest and we conducted quite a detailed study of the results, and on average these farmers had a 50% better harvest from their fields, which means, at the end of the day, that they will be much better able to feed their families, it means that next year they will have better seeds of higher yielding crops to plant again, and it also means that some food reserves for the most vulnerable in the community. So, this is what I was talking about before, that you see the real benefits. And this is just one example out of many. I see the graphs of the productivity of the people who we have taught and given productive input in, say, beekeeping, poultry management, carpet weaving and things like that, and you see that the charts are going up, that the people are now able to satisfy their basic needs much more easily than before.”

Photo: Christian Falvey
How many people do you believe have benefitted from your projects?

“In all these projects you have direct beneficiaries, people who you work with individually giving them input or training or things like that, and obviously with every activity it’s different, I think in total we would have like 4 to 5,000 of these individual beneficiaries in these two projects I was working on. But also there are activities that are targeted on higher levels of society, either towards business enterprises, like agricultural cooperatives, or towards other levels like natural resource management, on which we are quite focused, so we teach the communities and institutionalise some rules on how to manage natural resources. So ultimately we are targeting not these 5,000 people only, they are kind of the most vulnerable, but we are targeting the society as a whole, which means tens of thousands of people in these locations.”

What are the goals for the future? Is the mission going to simply continue with the tasks it has already set for itself, or will there be new projects?

“Well, People in Need has been working in Afghanistan since 2001, really since the beginning, and obviously the focus is always shifting a little bit. Basically now the biggest focus is on two areas: one is agriculture connected with ensuring food security and livelihoods – so development of agriculture and bringing new income generation activities. And the second area is agriculture education. We already have a big programme that has been running for a long time which is focused on high schools. This is a programme where you don’t see the immediate results, you are helping the schools to have better curricula, to be more focused on practical work, and the goal of this is basically for the students who come out of these schools to be able to modernise the whole sector. That’s a very long-term goal, but it makes a lot of sense. Since Afghanistan is a country, a big proportion of whose GDP is created from the agriculture sector.

After a year in Afghanistan, how do you feel back in the Czech Republic after being away for so long?

“Well it’s always great to come back home after some travels, and especially when you come home from Afghanistan you appreciate the things that we have here and you tend to overlook the small, petty problems that we are usually discussing in politics or in general. So of course I’m very positively tuned at the moment and I’m glad to be back home. At the same time I’m a little bit sad that I’m not back in Afghanistan, but it’s nice to come home."

Photos: Christian Falvey