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Ends Of The Earth

Paul meets Emma and Kathleen in Afganistan

Two New Zealand Women in Afganistan: Emma Sutcliffe & Kathleen Pearce;

They're very attractive, articulate, 30-something blonde Kiwi women living extraordinary lives in an Islamic state and recovering war-zone.

It's the last leg of a long journey to get to Afghanistan and flight that takes Paul and the team to Kabul - and a bombed out bunker also known as Kabul International Airport.  This episode show the public and private life of two expats in a country we've become familiar with in the news but hardly know what life is really like there.  Emma and Kathleen will have both laughter and tears, we'll be shielding ourselves from AK47s in Kabul and hunkering down for the night in remote villages that its taken us days by horse to get to. 

But first we're met through the gates by UN Development worker Emma Sutcliffe, UN vehicles and armed drivers.   This is the only way Emma is allowed to travel and en route from the airport she briefs us on what we should and shouldn't do, and what she can and can't do to avoid getting killed here in Afghanistan.

Emma has lived in Afghanistan for over a year.  Previously she worked in PR during the America's Cup for Louis Vuitton.  Her life couldn't now be further from that.  Emma's key three projects in Afghanistan involve the re-education of poppy farmers, disarmament of Mujahedin and women's rights.

And why is she here?  "Every day here I know I'm not dead.  In Auckland with a mortgage and talking about which café had the best coffee I think I would be."

Emma takes us through bombed streets, pointing out the sights of Kabul, the street and building names familiar from many news reports, where the potholes are the size of meteor craters.   But the landscape is different from the dry dusty images we normally see of Afghanistan.  Paul has come in the dead of winter, when temperatures drop to 20 below and heating and electricity are a luxury.

We eventually arrive at a locally run guesthouse across the road from the home Emma shares with an Albanian and an Italian aid worker.  The contrast between her life and that of the locals is immediately apparent - the house she rents is surrounded by gates and armed guards and her rent is more expensive than Manhatten.

The significant remnants of the Taliban are in the south of the country - along with a mass of coalition forces - but looking at the bullet-riddled and bombed out shells of buildings on neighbourhood streets doesn't immediately suggest we're in a safe haven.  Emma advises us to always, always keep eyes in the back of our heads, not least because in a city of 4 million Afghans and only around 2000 expats, we stand out. 

Rule Number 2 is to always wear a seat belt - not just because the roads are appalling, but because it's harder for someone to abduct you&  It's the middle of winter, however, and we've heard security threats aren't as bad this time of year - it's too cold for anyone to make the effort apparently.

"There's a lot to see, even if most of it is wrecked."

While Emma attends a raft of meetings reminiscent of an episode of the West Wing,  we tour the Kabul she's not allowed to visit - a stadium where the Taliban used to publicly torture people now home to Afghanistan's Olympic hopes.

That evening we meet back up with Emma and join her for an "upmarket" dinner at one of the five restaurants UN Security rules allow her to eat at.  Emma loves and loathes Kabul in equal measure.   What she finds most difficult are the restrictions the UN place on her freedom because of security concerns - this includes a curfew.  That's not to say, though, that there isn't an ex-pat "scene" here and that the rules don't get bent occasionally& And much as this is an Islamic country, it is also home to several international military bases and there, home-country laws apply - meaning the alcohol flows freely..  A melting pot of relatively young, predominantly single foreigners working for the military reconstruction projects, the UN or aid agencies, these ex-pats work hard in an often harrowing environment - and they play hard to make up for it.  Curfew be damned.

The next day we head to parliament as Emma interviews one of the youngest female MPs to be voted into the newly established government.  Then we're off to an unlikely luncheon appointment - a beauty salon and one of Emma's favourite spots in this crazy city. The idea of a group of well-intentioned Americans popping into Kabul to teach women about hair and pedicures may seem peculiar, but they did just that and the result has been a quirky business success story and a place where local women flock.  Emma and Paul sit side by side in the salon enjoying treatments while Emma recounts stories of her time here like being stoned by men in the street.

Sunday morning and the working week begins.  We board a flight to the far north region of Badakshan to meet another New Zealander Kathleen Pearce.  Kathleen is taking medical supplies to remote villages in the region and on horseback we join her, Paul putting his foot in the stirrups for the first time in his life.   Badakshan is part of the Hindu Kush and near the border with Tajikistan.  It's mountainous and a world away from the "metropolis" of Kabul. The plane takes us as far as Fayzabad, from there it's onto horses - the roads are impassable by vehicles at the best of times, impossible in winter.  Many local people are almost entirely dependent on foreign aid getting through if they are to survive the winter.

We spend nights under blankets in villages in a far-flung valley, encircled by mountains up to 15,000 feet.  Our hosts have next to nothing to give, but they are some of the most hospitable people you could hope to meet.  Kathleen helps us discuss the life under the Taliban, opium and hopes for the future of Afghanistan, and how she hopes she is helping change for the better.