Saturday, 28 August 2010

A hit off the action, a walk on the dark side.

Frequently I get asked about war and the people I meet in the course of my work in conflict or post conflict.  My heart, my prayers and empathy goes out to those who are caught up in wars, such as the civilian population, and those who have no choice such as conscripted soldiers, child soldiers; but the others ?

"Men and women who venture to someone else’s war through choice do so in a variety of guises. UN general, BBC correspondent, aid worker, mercenary: in the final analysis they all want to do the same thing, a hit off the action, a walk on the dark side. It’s just a question of how slick a cover you give yourself, and how far you want to go.. If you find a cause later then hold on to it, but never blind yourself with your own disguise,” writes Anthony Lloyd.

Author on the war in Afghanistan, Jason Elliot, goes to Afghanistan as an 18 year old English school boy during the Soviet occupation.
Photo: Jason Elliot.

In the winter of 1996 when the Taliban were bombing the little life left in  Kabul, (Jan-Feb) Anthony Lloyd stayed with me in my house. He and an English cameraman lived in the bunker in our house. We travelled  to Khord Kabul where the British were routed in their retreat from Kabul in 1859. This was the front line and we were with Masoud’s troops and could see plainly, Talban soldiers moving about with RPGs. Over 300 British troops had been slaughtered in this valley in 1859.

A few years ago, Lloyd published a book called “ My War Gone By, I Miss It So,  about the wars in former Yugoslavia. It's a remarkable book where a young misfit goes to war as a correspondent. He writes:

‘ Listen, said Peter, the Dutchman, ‘we don’t fight for the money, and we’re not in it for the killing. It’s about camaraderie and, sure it’s about excitement. Some are bullshitters, some are psychotics. We are neither. We are here because we want to be, and if there is a price to pay, then we are ready for that too.’

US Armed PCs during the Vietnam war. Photo: Bob McKerrow

"There was very little difference between them and anyone else who goes to war voluntarily. In their case they had taken a side and were ultimately prepared to kill. Though my reasoning for being there was still in flux, at its simplist I was there to watch, and that gave neither of us the higher moral ground. Men and women who venture to someone else’s war through choice do so in a variety of guises. UN general, BBC correspondent, aid worker, mercenary: in the final analysis they all want to do the same thing, a hit off the action, a walk on the dark side. It’s just a question of how slick a cover you give yourself, and far you want to go.. If you find a cause later then hold on to it, but never blind yourself with your own disguise.”


Sometimes I wonder why I have spent so much time in conflict or post conflict regions and the answer comes to mind when I read Nicolas Bouvier, a Swiss writer and artist, He said, “ My belief is that one must have passed through fire be able to sort out...the contents of those storehouses of sorrow, where fortunately we can also find, more often than we might have dared to expect...enough small miracles to motivate and encourage those in the field who are so often compelled, to quote a mediaeval Japanese poem, ‘to bear the unbearable and tolerate the intolerable.’

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Glaciers Retreating in Asia

Continuing on the theme of my last posting about glaciers, I have observed in my travels over the past 40 odd years - which have taken me to glaciated regions of  Antartcica, Arctic Islands, Andes, European Alps, New Zealand and most of the major mountain ranges in Asia; the Pamirs, Tienshan, Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalaya and many of the lesser Himalayan ranges - that many of Asia’s glaciers are retreating as a result of climate change.

This retreat impacts water supplies to millions of people, increases the likelihood of outburst floods that threaten life and property in nearby areas, and contributes to sea-level rise.

From the Caucasus to the Himalayas, these changes are being measured. Here is a panoramic photographic mosaic of several glaciers on the northern slope of Gora Elbrus, a volcanic massif in the Central Caucasus Mountains. The photographic survey was done by N. Nikulin in 1957 during the International Geophysical Year. Today, virtually all of these glaciers have disappeared.Photograph courtesy of V.M. Kotlyakov, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow.

The U.S. Geological Survey, in collaboration with 39 international scientists, published a report on the status of glaciers throughout all of Asia, including Russia, China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.

“Of particular interest are the Himalaya, where glacier behavior impacts the quality of life of tens of millions of people,” said USGS scientist Jane Ferrigno. “Glaciers in the Himalaya are a major source of fresh water and supply meltwater to all of the rivers in northern India.”

As glaciers become smaller, water runoff decreases, which is especially important during the dry season when other water sources are limited. Climate change also brings warmer temperatures and earlier water runoff from glaciers, and this combined with spring and summer rains can result in flood conditions. The overall glacier retreat and additional melt can increase the amount of water dammed in the vicinity of a glacier, and the added pressure enhances the likelihood of disastrous outburst flooding.

Talgar Peak in the Tienshan mountains, Kazakustan . Photo: Bob McKerrow

While most glaciers in Asia are in recession, some glaciers have been found to advance. Some of the advancing glaciers are surge-type glaciers, which move forward more rapidly than average in a short period of time. The reason for this is being studied by glaciologists, and is likely due to unique and local condition

Glacier studies in each area started at different times depending on accessibility of glaciers and scientific interest. For example, the earliest description of glaciers in China was in 630 A.D., while studies in the Caucasus area of Russia began in the mid 1800s and modern studies in Nepal started in the 1950s.

The time period for retreat also differs among each glacier. In Bhutan, 66 glaciers have decreased 8.1 percent over the last 30 years. Rapid changes in the Himalaya is shown in India by the 12 percent retreat of Chhota Shigri Glacier during the last 13 years, as well as retreat of the Gangotri Glacier since 1780, with 12 percent shrinkage of the main stem in the last 16 years.

Looking up the Spiti Valley to the high Pir Panjal mountains. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Glaciers in Russia and in the four republics once part of the Former Soviet Union have the largest area of glaciers in Asia, covering 30,478 square miles, which is about the size of South Carolina. The glaciers of China have the second largest area of glaciers in Asia, covering 22,944 square miles, which is about twice the size of Massachusetts. In Afghanistan, the more than 3,000 small mountain glaciers that occur in the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains provide vital water resources to the region.

Glacier in the Pamir mountains: Photo: Bob McKerrow
“This report was a collaboration between U.S. and foreign authors, the most knowledgeable glaciologists for each geographic region covered,” said USGS scientist Richard S. Williams, Jr. “The USGS published historical and modern data authored by local experts. Some analyses of past climate conditions were conducted by studying ice cores from high-mountain areas of Asia.”

This report is the 9th in the series of 11 volumes to be published as the USGS Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World. You can view other publications in this series online.

 Small debris-free plateau glacier with glacier lakes at Gangrinchemzoe Pass at 5,200 m, south of the main Himalayan divide, Bhutan. Image courtesy of Shuji Iwata,

If you would like further information you can click on the link below or read the preface to Glaciers of Asia posted below.

Glaciers of Asia

Edited by Richard S. Williams, Jr., and Jane G. Ferrigno


This chapter is the ninth to be released in U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1386, Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World, a series of 11 chapters. In each of the geographic area chapters, remotely sensed images, primarily from the Landsat 1, 2, and 3 series of spacecraft, are used to analyze the specific glacierized region of our planet under consideration and to monitor glacier changes. Landsat images, acquired primarily during the middle to late 1970s and early 1980s, were used by an international team of glaciologists and other scientists to study various geographic regions and (or) to discuss related glaciological topics. In each glacierized geographic region, the present areal distribution of glaciers is compared, wherever possible, with historical information about their past extent. The atlas provides an accurate regional inventory of the areal extent of glacier ice on our planet during the 1970s as part of a growing international scientific effort to measure global environmental change on the Earth’s surface.

The Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The chapter is divided into seven geographic parts and one topical part: Glaciers of the Former Soviet Union (F–1), Glaciers of China (F–2), Glaciers of Afghanistan (F–3), Glaciers of Pakistan (F–4), Glaciers of India (F–5), Glaciers of Nepal (F–6), Glaciers of Bhutan (F–7), and the Paleoenvironmental Record Preserved in Middle-Latitude, High-Mountain Glaciers (F–8). Each geographic section describes the glacier extent during the 1970s and 1980s, the benchmark time period (1972–1981) of this volume, but has been updated to include more recent information.

Glaciers of the Former Soviet Union are located in the Russian Arctic and various mountain ranges of Russia and the Republics of Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakstun. The Glacier Inventory of the USSR and the World Atlas of Ice and Snow Resources recorded a total of 28,881 glaciers covering an area of 78,938 square kilometers (km2).

China includes many of the mountain-glacier systems of the world including the Himalaya, Karakorum, Tien Shan and Altay mountain ranges. The glaciers are widely scattered and cover an area of about 59,425 km2. The mountain glaciers may be classified as maritime, subcontinental or extreme continental.

In Afghanistan, more than 3,000 small glaciers occur in the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains. Most glaciers occur on north-facing slopes shaded by mountain peaks and on east and southeast slopes that are shaded by monsoon clouds. The glaciers provide vital water resources to the region and cover an area of about 2,700 km2.

Glaciers of northern Pakistan are some of the largest and longest mid-latitude glaciers on Earth. They are located in the Hindu Kush, Himalaya, and Karakoram mountains and cover an area of about 15,000 km2. Glaciers here are important for their role in providing water resources and their hazard potential.

The glaciers in India are located in the Himalaya and cover about 8,500 km2. The Himalaya contains one of the largest reservoirs of snow and ice outside the polar regions. The glaciers are a major source of fresh water and supply meltwater to all the rivers in northern India, thereby affecting the quality of life of millions of people.

In Nepal, the glaciers are located in the Himalaya as individual glaciers; the glacierized area covers about 5,324 km2. The region is the highest mountainous region on Earth and includes the Mt. Everest region.

Glaciers in the Bhutan Himalaya have a total area of about 1,317 km2. Many recent glacier studies are focused on glacier lakes that have the potential of generating dangerous glacier lake outburst floods.

Research on the glaciers of the middle-latitude, high-mountain glaciers of Asia has also focused on the information contained in the ice cores from the glaciers. This information helps in the reconstruction of paleoclimatic records, and the computer modeling of global climate change.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Moving mountains - Tasman Glacier, New Zealand

How can I ever forget that day in 1991 when the top fell of the high peak of Mount Cook Aoraki. (see photo above) It was mid-morning on 14 December 1991 and  I was living at Franz Josef Glacier township running the National Park when Rusty Knight, a helicopter pilot, called me and said, "the bloody top has just fallen off Mt. Cook."

Rusty said he was taking off in a few minutes to have a look. Earlier that morning the height of the mountain was 12,349 feet (3,764 m). and was reduced by 10 metres (33 ft) when approximately 10 million cubic metres of rock and ice fell off the northern peak.

In disbelief I said yes and 20 minutes later we were hovering at 11,500 feet stunned by the awe inspiring few of a topless Aoraki Mt. Cook. As we flew down the path of the massive snow and rock fall we could see a huge dark path of debris going down the Hochstetter ice fall across the Tasman Glacier, and staining the snow clad slopes up to about 7,000 feet on the other side of the valley. Rob Hall had been climbing earlier that morning when it occured and he stood and watched, "frightened out of his wits" he told me later.

That was almost 19 years ago, and today the mountaijns and glaciers are still moving.

Thirty to 50 million tonnes of ice have broken off the Tasman Glacier, forming around 20 icebergs now floating in the Tasman Lake - adding more drama and spectacle to an already dramatic landscape.

The process began earlier this month when the terminal face rose 20 to 40 metres thanks to a rain downpour which lifted millions of tonnes of ice from the water across the entire 600m width of the face.

The Tasman Glacier, in the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, is New Zealand's longest glacier.

On August 18, a small section of that ice calved resulting in a massive and spectacular iceberg separating from the face. Sometime over the weekend, the rest of the uplifted ice broke away from the terminal face in the biggest ever calving (breaking away) in the lake's 35 year history.

The bulk of the Tasman glacier is massive in the middle, where the Rudolf Glacier enters on the right. The ever-moving mountain processes will ensure we will see more calving of ice bergs at the terminal face.Photo: Bob McKerrow

Glacier Explorers, which takes passengers on cruises on the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake, will resume operations on 3 September, one month ahead of schedule due to an early spring melt and to take advantage of the opportunity to see the magnificent new icebergs.

Denis Callesen, General Manager Tourism for Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village Ltd said the coming season promises visitors the most spectacular iceberg and glacier cruising season yet.

"The scale of what's happening here is just enormous. The biggest iceberg is about 300m by 200m and 40m high - and that's only the 10 percent of the 'berg that we can see. Ninety percent is below the waterline."

Callesen said the Tasman Lake is now full of icebergs with more than 20 that are 50m by 50m above the waterline.

"These 'bergs now take on a life of their own, flipping, turning and moving as natural forces take action.

Callesen said he and Glacier Explorers staff were "incredibly excited' about the coming season.
"We are expecting the most spectacular season ever here, with stunning viewing of nature in action. Visitors will be able to get out onto the lake from early September and they will be in for a trip of a lifetime with sensational iceberg viewing. The current calving will give us ice to study for the next two seasons at least."

The season will open with two trips a day increasing to five as the season develops.
For more information of Glaciers of New Zealand, go to Te Ara website:

Thanks to Stuff NZ /Ch Ch Press for permission to run the photos of the glacier cal

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The four New Zealanders who were killed in the NZ sector of Antarctica

Four New Zealanders have died in Antarctica as a result of accidents while working for the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programmes. I took the photo above a few days after my good friend Jeremy Sykes was killed in 1969, and I have always looked upon this photo as Jeremy's memorial. I call it 'Antarctic Ice.

On the upper Robert Scott Glacier with Jeremy Sykes on the far right under the wing, 17 November 1969. Two days later Jeremy died. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Those 13 months I spent in Antarctica so many years ago, seem but a distant memory. But from time to time I remember Jeremy Sykes and Garth Varcoe, people I could count as friends. I also think of those other two New Zealanders who died in Antarctica, Tom Couzens and Terry Newport, both men with interesting lives that were cut short. The deaths of these four people have been acknowledged to some extent, but Jeremy Sykes and Tom Couzens have received scant coverage. This article sets about to give four brave men, appropriate recognition.

Plaque to New Zealanders killed in Antarctica: Lieutenant Tom Couzens (19/11/59); Jeremy Sykes (19/11/69); Terry Newport and Garth Varcoe (13/10/92). It lies beneath the flagpole at Scott Base.

Tom Couzens

Bernie Gunn describes the day Tom Couzens arrived in Antarctica.
" Robb and I went out to the airstrip to pick up our replacement Cat‑driver, Lt. Tom Couzens, straight out of a Centurian tank in the Korean war. It was a whiteout and there was no sign of the C140 Hercules. I went into the Ops hut.
"Where the hell is the plane, has she turned back?"
"Naw, she's on the ground, taxiin' in by radar!"

Then I could hear the motors and as I stared, out of the murk, four propellers appeared, like the Cheshire cat's grin.

Presumably behind them was the rest of the 'plane! ."We went out to meet the plane there were not many passengers and we soon picked a tall, erect young man who could only be an Army Officer."

"Couzens? I'm Bernie Gunn."

"Thought so, bloody marvellous to be here, I've got all my kit, can we go?"

By the time we climbed into the Cat both Robb and I knew we had the kind of man we both wanted. We roared off into the drift with visibility a few yards, cracking jokes. The Hut Point road was flagged and marked with signs like, "Pancho Gonzales, he like hot Tamales!" but we soon left it and swung in a wide curve south and east round Cape Armitage. Only milk could be seen ahead but I could see Robb occasionally polishing the left window and could see a dark patch away on our left, the rocks of Cape Armitage.

"You know, I don't want to seem a complete fool, but how the devil do you chaps know where you're going?" asked Tom.

"Aw, y' know how it is," said Robb, polishing the left door window again. "When y' been here awhile like Bernie 'n' me y' get a sort of built‑in direction finder!"

One of the Sno-Cats from the 1957 Trans Antarctic Expedition` at Scott Base in 1969. Tom Couzen's used his tank driving skills to get the best out of these machines. This was the type of Sno Cat that Tom was killed in. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Later: In the morning the Cats refuelled, Tom gunned the big V8 engine of County of Kent and she spun round, snow flying and a track fouled a tow‑bar.

"God Almighty!" said Robb to me. "He got carried away, he thinks it's a Centurion! Tom!, Tom, y' bloody fool, that isn't a tank you got there!"

"Oh, God!" said Couzens winding down a window, "Sorry, I got carried away! I thought I was back in the old Cent!"
Couzens did have some absorbing tales. He swore the Cent was by far the best tank in Korea and once for a bet, shot his way through the Chinese lines, round a mountain and back home via the American lines. The latter were not impressed as he roared over all their communication cables and severed them!

The 1959 season got under way with an 80 day expedition setting out with two TAE Snowcats and three nine-dog teams, each pulling 450kg loads and driven by Antarctic veteran Bernie Gunn. Tom Couzens was driving a Snowcat. On 19 Novembver 1959, the party had crossed the Ross Ice Shelf and was near Cape Selborne when the rear vehicle went into a 30 m-deep crevasse. The driver, Lt. Tom Couzens was killed and Gunn and Lowery were seriously injured and badly frostbitten.

Bernie Gunn describes that tragic time:

I almost asked Couzens to let me drive, but reflected that the machine was his responsibility and did not want to put him in the awkward position of having to obey an order that he might do only reluctantly. We laughed and joked in a carefree way and then suddenly appeared to be precipitated into another dimension. We were falling, upside down, iron clanging off walls of ice. I had the slightest impression of seeing the right front drive pontoon shoot up in the air, of a roll to the right and a crunch of snow against the sno-cat body and a long fall. I had time to think, “Must be a crevasse !“ and then, “If we survive this one, we will be lucky !“ and then came a monumental crash.

It was about 10 oclock in the morning. I came to, pinned upside down in a cramped fashion in a tiny space between the seats and instrument panel. What had been the Cat roof was flattened to within a foot of so of the seats. My knees were in my face but I was able to wriggle into a more comfortable position.
“Now, think sensibly” I thought. “The others will come, sooner or later, don’t get frostbite, try to get out.” My balaclava had come off and my ears were already painful. I could not get a hand up but was able to wriggle it back over my ears, so I still have them. Lucky, that. I kicked at the crumpled door of the Cat, it seemed totally unyielding and in fact was hard against an ice wall and the jolt sent waves of pain up my mashed-up spine.
There was a groan and Lowery came to. He was pinned in more tightly than me but Couzens did not move and it later appeared he was killed instantly by the steering wheel. Above my head on the drivers side, light filtered in and ice gleamed a few feet away.

After they were rescued, Gunn wanted to bury Tom Couzens. On his website he explains that moment.

"Get Tom out and bury him here under a snow mound, got it? He’ll be in good company round here,” I said.

“Alright!” he said briefly, and I gather he did, but some bureaucrat over-ruled my order and had Tom’s body flown home in a rubber bag, an utterly gruesome thing to do.

So that was the first New Zealander killed in Antarctica, a talented young life cut short. The next to be killed was Jeremy Sykes, almost ten years later.

Jeremy Sykes

Jeremy Sykes was the Director/leader of a NZ Film Unit team comprising. Sam Grau cameraman, Kel Fowler Cameraman. and Graham Pomfret-Brown (sound recorder) that went to Antarctica for the start of the 1969-70 season.The photo above is one kindly provided by NZ Antarctica

I trained with them on a snow-craft course on Mt. Ruapehu in August 1969 and really got to like them during our week long training at the Waioru Army Camp. In fact I recall walking home with Jeremy, Sam, Kel and Graham from the officer's mess when we spied a tank. "We'll buy the bloodything and take it South" said Graham. Within seconds Graham had pulled a cheque book from his pocket and wrote the words One million dollars, signed it, and rammed it down the tank barrel. It was the start of a relationship I continued 2 months later when we flew to Antarctica on a Super Constellation, the first flight to Antarctica that season. As I was a mountaineer, I was asked to be a guide for the film crew as they filmed in potentially dangerous places such as in ice caves, crevasses and when they wanted to film in blizzard conditions.

On 17 November I accompanied Jeremy, who was Director of the NZ Film Unit team on a trip to drop off a NZARP field party at the Robert Scott glacier, 100 miles from the South Pole. I spoke a lot to Jeremy during and after that trip and got to know this highly intelligent, creative and sensitive man. He spoke of his wife, and young boy in Wellington with great love, and I came to admire a man, not your usual rough and tough Kiwi, but an artist with such a positive outlook on life..

We came back to Scott Base and I guided them during breaks in my work during the next two days. I was meant to accompany them on a trip to the upper Wright Dry Valley on 19 November, but as I was science technician in charge of seismology, geomagnetics and earth currents, I was unable to take the day off. I remember that day well. The helicopter took off about 8.30 am. Later that day I heard that Jeremy was dead when the engine failed in the helicopter.. I was in the laboratory at Scott Base when the news came through and I was stunned. Sam Grau received bad burns to his hands and. Tom Berg from the US Navy was also killed. Thank God that Jim Brandau, the pilot, was able to auto rotate the chopper down probably preventing everyone from being killed. The plane crashed in the Lower Wright valley. A US Navy website provides this information on the crash:

Crashed 19nov69 when the engine failed, LCDR Brandau auto rotated the US Navy H-34( sikorsky s-58 H-34)  down and it struck the side of a slope, slid down and caught fire. Two men were killed, Thomas E. Berg (USA) and Jeremy Sykes (NZ)

Bruce Willis, the winter leader at Scott Base, held a moving memorial service at Scott Base.

Terry Newport
Twenty three after the second NZ death in Antarctica, on 13 October 1992, New Zealanders Garth Varcoe and Terry Newport were killed in a helicopter crash 40 km from Scott Base. They were returning to McMurdo Station in a US Navy helicopter after rebuilding the hut at a summer research station, Cape Bird. The weather deteriorated during their journey and the helicopter struck an icy slope above a 10 m ice cliff. Varcoe, Newport and Ben Micou, a US Navy helicopter mechanic, were thrown from the helicopter and killed as it slid towards the rocks below. The pilot and co-pilot, also of the US Navy, survived but lay waiting for help, rescue efforts hampered by poor visibility.

Terry (Terrance) Francis Newport was born in Nelson on 21 Sept. 1961

He rew up in Nelson and attended Waimea College in Richmond. He then attended Nelson Polytechnic where he gained is Trade Certificate in Carpentry (75%) and his Advanced Trade Certificate in Carpentry (70%). Terry also did MOW courses in welding and gas welding. He worked in the building industry in Nelson for 11 years and in this time married Pauline; a marriage he valued very much. They moved to Queensland where he worked for a year and this was followed by a year travelling the world. They returned to Christchurch in 1991 where he found employment in the building industry and at the same time and looking to the future, he commenced studies with the Open Polytechnic for a New Zealand Certificate in Engineering.

Two photos above of Terry Newport summer chippie courtesy Pauline Newport and David Harrowfield

An outdoor man he enjoyed sea fishing; golf; skiing; off-road motor cycle riding and camping (with some tramping) in the weekends.

Terry had high work standards, was conscientious and paid attention to detail in a professional manner. He related to people at all levels, and had a quiet quirky sense of humour.

Former Scott Base Manager Dave Geddes (20.10.1992) said Terry who departed for the ice on WINFLY (his first trip south) 24 August 1982, "quickly fitted into life at Scott Base and was sensitive and considerate of his fellows feelings. If ever there was a job to be done, Terry was always the first to volunteer. He was a big man with a big heart. But he was also a gentle and compassionate man who always put others before himself."

 Newport,  a summer carpenter, had only worked in Antarctica since August that year - fulfilling what was reportedly a longstanding ambition.

Memorial service for the Mt. Erebus disaster victims at Scott Base on 2 December 1979. Left to right: US Navy Chaplain, Garth Varcoe, Bob Dunnachie (obscured), Father Creagh, Mike Prebble, unknown, Bob Thomson (superintendent of the Antarctic Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research), Captain Westbrook, unknown. Photo: Nigel Roberts.

Garth Varcoe (right) at Scott Base yarning to Art Brown in February 1990. Photo: David Harrowfield

Garth Varcoe

As mentioned earlier  Darth Varcoe was killed in the same helicopter crash as Terry Newport.Garth,

Garth, his brother Ian and sister Rae, were my  neighbours in Dunedin. Garth taught me how to make a crystal set when I was at Life Boys at the Mornington Presbyterian Church, and I did my first major tramping trip with his brother Ian, an Air New Zealand Pilot. Garth was a very active member of the Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club and I used to meet him in the hills regularly.

In 1989, Garth delivered to me in Levin, a scale model of a Nansen sledge
I had made at Vanda Station during the winter of 1970. When the station was dismantled, Garth thought of me and brought the sledge back to New Zealand.Garth cared about people and was a man who believed in fair play.

When Garth Varcoe was killed, it was his 37th visit. His first was in 1978 as the buildings and services officer of the Antarctic Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. In 1990 Varcoe was awarded the Polar Medal in recognition of his contribution to the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme.

The Wright Valley taken from near the summit of Mt. Newall. The 1969 helicopter crash which killed Jeremy Sykes, is in the lower Wright valley.

Garth and his wife Kath, did a lot of work for tramping and mountain communications. In 1989 Garth Varcoe from the DSIR Antarctic Division joined the Canterbury mountain radio service as a base operator and committee member. Garth proved to be a stalwart and made a marvelous contribution to the CMRS until his untimely death, . Kath however, continued on as an operator and member of the committee until 1998.

Garth  is remembered by a key feature on Ross Island as recorded by the New Zealand Geographic Board:

Varcoe Headland is a low [[headland]], 34 m, that marks the north entrance point to [[Horseshoe Bay]] in west [[Ross Island]]. Named by [[New Zealand Geographic Board]] (NZGB) after [[Technical Services Officer Garth Edwin Varcoe]], who worked in the NZ [[Antarctic Programme]] over a period of 15 years until his accidental death in a helicopter crash near this headland in October 1992. His expertise was in the mechanical and electrical areas and he played a leading role in the reconstruction of [[Scott Base]].

Garth Varcoe,  building and services officer NZARP at the  Midwinter rowing regatta barby at Kerr's Reach 1986. Photo: Gavid Harrowfield.

Their names have also been given to geographical features in Antarctica: Varcoe Headland, Newport Bay, Couzens Bay and Couzens Saddle, Sykes Glacier and their photos and name are placed in the foyer of Scott Base.

Monday, 16 August 2010

NZ involvement in torture in Afghanistan.

I have worked in too many conflict situations in Asia and Africa, seen and heard of the use of torture,  to believe the words of politicians such as  John Key's response to allegations that the New Zealand SAS are handing over prisoners to the Afghan secret police, where they are likely to be tortured?

My fellow blogger No Right Turn, an experienced analyist I respect says this:

"Mr Key said when New Zealand troops handed over someone they had detained they made sure that person would not be tortured later on.

+Where the New Zealand SAS worked alongside the unit in Kabul it was not the detaining force, Mr Key told NewstalkZB.

"In that instance, it's not our responsibility when it comes to those people that are detained."

"This is simply bullshit. Kiwi soldiers are helping to capture these people. Therefore we bear moral responsibility for what happens to them. We cannot simply wipe our hands of that responsibility by drawing an arbitrary box around it and saying "not our problem", says Right Turn.

New Zealand is a better country than this. Our response to Afghan torture should be to protect people from it, not enable it. And if the SAS cannot serve in Afghanistan without colluding in torture, then they should not be there. It is that simple

So what is the background on this issue ? Questions have been raised about whether New Zealand's SAS may have handed over prisoners to an Afghan unit that is believed to use torture.

SAS members on patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The British military has been banned from handing prisoners to the Afghan National Directorate of Security as it is so notorious for torture.

The Government has said the SAS worked with Afghanistan's Crisis Response Unit in Kabul, but was not directly responsible for any prisoners captured by the unit because it was not the head of the unit.

Prime Minister John Key said the SAS were not involved in torture of prisoners in Afghanistan.

If New Zealand troops detained someone there were clear written protocols about how that was done and those protocols honoured the Geneva Convention, he said.

The Geneva Convention sets out the standards for the humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war.

Mr Key said when New Zealand troops handed over someone they had detained they made sure that person would not be tortured later on.

Where the New Zealand SAS worked alongside the unit in Kabul it was not the detaining force, Mr Key told NewstalkZB.

"In that instance, it's not our responsibility when it comes to those people that are detained."

However, the SAS recorded the name of every person detained by the unit and those names were freely available to international agencies, he said.

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said the SAS worked with the unit to capture insurgents.

"It's likely some are [transferred to the Afghan National Directorate of Security], yes," he told the Sunday Star-Times.

He was understood to be looking into the situation.

Green Party MP Keith Locke said the New Zealand Defence Force had to share responsibility for what happened to insurgents it captured.
He supported the withdrawal of the SAS from Afghanistan.

"We don't want New Zealand's good name muddied by links for the torture of prisoners, which is reputed to include beatings, electric shock treatment, and sleep, food and water deprivation."

My fellow blogger No right turn at:
wrote this last Sunday :
"The Sunday Star-Times has a major news story this morning: the New Zealand SAS are turning over prisoners to the Afghan secret police. Those secret police are known torturers, who use amputations, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, starvation, beatings and burns to extract "confessions". So basically kiwi soldiers are turning people over to be tortured.

Our Defence Minister's response to this? The prisoners are "an Afghan responsibility". So he's basically washing his hands of the whole matter.

Fortunately, he can't. New Zealand has specific obligations under both international and domestic law to prevent torture and not turn people over in this way. The Convention Against Torture is pretty clear:

No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

While phrased in terms of immigration law, its application is wider, and applies to any transfer of any form. Domestically, the Bill of Rights Act affirms that

Everyone has the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, degrading, or disproportionately severe treatment or punishment.

The government's obligation to uphold this right is not limited geographically; it applies to any act or omission by any branch of the New Zealand government, whether it is done in Wellington or Kabul. If the SAS turns people over to an organisation which uses torture, or assists in their capture so they may be turned over, then they are violating it. That's exactly what the UK High Court found, under an almost identical provision in the UK Human Rights Act, when they banned the British armed forces from transferring prisoners to the NDS facility in Kabul - the same facility the SAS are sending people to.

If the government won't do the decent thing here, and ban the SAS from transferring any prisoners, then we will have to make them. The Bill of Rights Act gives us one lever for doing so. Amnesty or some other human rights group should bring a case.

(Another option is a complaint to the Ombudsman. This has the advantage that it is free, and if taken up would likely have the same result. But it would hinge on the questions of whether a decision to turn someone over to torture was "a matter of administration", and on whether anyone other than a victim of such mistreatment had standing to complain. And it would need more information than is contained in the SST story to back it up. But if any human rights group can build a case, I'd urge them to pursue this avenue as well).

Sunday, 15 August 2010

I met an elephant on the way to the super market!

I have lived over 30 years in Asia, and almost immune to the unexpected. But yesterday morning I got a delightful surprise.

After two weeks in a hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, we moved into a new appartment building on Friday. Ablai and I woke up yesterday morning, and we headed off to a supermarket just round the cormer. Somehow we turned right instead of the needed left turn, and the next minute we see a baby elephant grazing in the grounds of the Buddhist temple.

We spent the day unpacking boxes that had just arrived from Jakarta, and in the evening we walked down the road to have dinner with Manish and Monica Pant, friends from India. Manish and Monica are Indian doctors, and Manish  first starting working for me in New Delhi. He  moved to Suva about the time I left Delhi in 2006 where he became the regional health delegate for all the South Pacific Red Cross Societies. He is now working with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS). So it was a relaxing evening talking cricket and family.

On Wednesday last week Tissa Abeywickrama ( 2nd from right) was appointed to the position of Acting Director General of the SLRCS. Tissa had steered the SLRCS through a massive tsunami operation during the past five years. So I am looking forward to working with Tissa.

Al Panico right, with Naila. Al is my line manager. Al came over to join us for four days to deal with a number of high level issues pertaining to the tsunami transition process and the IDP programme for displaced people in the north of the country.

It's Sunday evening and I am compiling my Bi Weekly Management report and I am reading all the individual departmental reports. The enormity of the work we have supported the SLRCS on during the past five years is impresive, as is the work we are doing now.

The enormous scale and scope of the operation has meant that thousands of people are now living in stronger homes supported by a more sustainable economic and social foundation. More than 57,000 houses have been built or are being completed. Over 650,000 people now have clean water to drink. More than 94,000 households have boats, fishing nets, agricultural tools or have used cash grants to help them recover their livelihoods. The finishing touches are being put on 363 hospitals and clinics that are being built or rehabilitated. 161 schools have been constructed with a further 11 under way. In Sri Lanka alone, the Red Cross has built 94 hospitals and clinics. When I was in northern Jaffna in June I visited a 300 bed hospital we built there which was providing outstanding medical services. many of the patients displaced by the war in the north.

What is taking up a considerable ammount of time at the moment is raising funds for an emergency appeal  seeking USD 3.4 million or EUR 2,5 million) in cash, kind, or services to support the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) as it assists approximately 5,000 families (25,000 people) for 24 months;

So after two and a half weeks I am settling in and I hope I get more surprises on my morning walks.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

A detailed description of the Hindu Kush and other mountain ranges of Afghanistan

So many friends, family and colleagues of Tom and Libby Little, and the nine other aid workers murdered in Afghanistan, are grieving for these brave people who died serving humanity. During the past week I have had a number of requests about the mountains of Afghanistan, from people trying to understand where this tragedy took place. Here is an article I wrote many years ago on the mountains of Afghanistan that may be of help.

Climbing with Bruce Watson from Hokitika, in the Kohi Anjuman Range in August 1996. We were at about 5000 metres when I took the photo. Photo Bob McKerrow

It is a warm sunny day in Christchurch, New Zealand, the 15th of November 2008. I have been back in New Zealand for four days which has given me a chance to put together and publish a few articles I wrote when I lived, worked, trekked and climbed in Afghanistan in 1976, again from 1993-96 and visited in 2003-04 and 05. I also spent two years working in neighbouring Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan and was able to visit the Afghan borders and look into Afghanistan and study the complexities of the mountain systems. See map of Afghanistan below.

I was fortunate to be able to do some climbs in Afghanistan, as well as some mountain skiing between 1994 and 1996 and the article Various Short Walks in the Hindu Kush can be read on my blog:

The author on skiis in the western Hindu Kush an hour or so from the Salang Pass. January 1996. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Writers and geographers have wrestled with descriptions and the location of the high Hindu Kush. It has been called the solar plexus of Asia, the Pamir Knot and in the second century was thought to be the source of the Nile by the Greek geographer, Ptolemy. Afghanistan is roughly quadrilateral in shape, with the long finger called the Wakhan stretching east wards.

Afghanistan is a land-locked country lying between 29o 35' and 38o 40' northern latitude and between 60o 31' and 75o 00' eastern longitude on the mountainous and desert areas where the Iranian plateau borders with the mountainous systems of Central Asia.

The country is bounded on the north by the countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (9238km), on the north-east by China (96km) and India ? (102)km, on the south and east by Pakistan (2310), and on the west by Iran (925 km)

The cover of the book I wrote on Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The system of folded mountains is quite complex and erratic, but generally run north-east to south-west. The north-east and central parts of Afghanistan make up a huge highland area covering over half the country with an average altitude of 2000 metres. The dominant mourn-tain system in Afghanistan is the Hindu Kush which commences in the extreme north-eastern corner of the Wakhan corridor and stretches in a south-westerly direction for more than 700 km finishing at the Shibar Pass.

A satellite image of the Hindu Kush

On the western side of the Shibar Pass the Kohi Baba curves south-westwards and can almost be called an extension of the Hindu Kush. This huge mountainous region descends on all sides quite abruptly to flatter regions, except to the north-east where it becomes the Pamirs.

To the north the Hindu Kush falls into the plains of Bactria which stretches as far as the Amu Darya (The Oxus River). East it drops to the Indus basin, to the south is the dry deserts of Seistan and Garmsers and to the west, about 140km from the border of Iran the mountains de-scend into the steppes and Namaksars (salty deserts) of Herat province. The huge tract of land north of the Hindu Kush.

The boundaries of Afghanistan have changed dramatically in the last 200 years. At the start of the 19th century, Afghanistan stretched from Meshad to Kashmir, from the Oxus to the Satlej River and to the Arabian Sea. This greater Afghanistan was built by Ahmad Shah Durrani (1747-1773) and was known as the Durrani Empire.

The Parun Valley, Nuristan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Unfortunately, the British colonialists in playing the great game and wanting to feed their politician's paranoia of the Russians, placed a buffer between Lahore and the Afghan border. The north-west frontier province was carved out of eastern Afghanistan and was incorporated it into the Indian Empire. In placing this formidable barrier between themselves and Russia, they left the highest peak of the Hindu Kush, Tirich Mir in India, now Pakistan. As most Afghans still regard everything in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province across to the Indus as rightly belonging to them and knowing that the 100 year agreement (forced upon Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893) over the artificial border known as the Durrand Line has expired, they believe one day they will get back all their lands illegally seized by the British.

Early writers refer to the the area where the Hindu Kush abuts the Pamirs as the Pamir Knot. or the solar plexus of the mountain system of Asia. Lowell Thomas saw it thus:

The system of folded mountain ranges that spans Asia from east to west radiates out from the Pamir knot, " a region of wilderness, of rock and wind and dizzy peaks." Westward it extends from the Hindu Kush to the Elburz Mountains, south of the Caspian Sea, and to the Zagros Mountains that form Iran's southern frontier. Branching out from the Hindu Kush to the south and east are the four major ranges-the Karakorams, Himalayas, Altyn Tagh, and Kunluns, which continue into China as the Tsinling Mountains. To the north range the Tien Shan and the Atlai mountains, the latter extending from the Gobi Desert to the southern edge of Siberia

This photo shows what early explorers called the Pamir Knot. The coming together of the Pamirs, Hindu Kush and Karakoram Ranges

The English explorer Colonel Schomberg describes the meeting point of the world's great ranges.

"As the traveller climbs up to the passes on the frontier, he gazes over an expanse of snow and rock. To the east are the Karakorams, the Kun Lun, and the Himalayas: to the west and north are the Hindu Kush and the down-like windswept Pamirs. To the south are the great snow ranges of gilgit and Kashmir. He has reached the solar plexus of the mountain system of Asia, baffling and most repelleFor the purpose of defining the Hindu Kush, I use Moham-med Ali's definitions, the the Oriental Hindu Kush and the Occidental Hindu Kush. Mohammed Ali was a former Professor of History, Kabul, and a prolific writer of books on Afghani-stan.

In deciding where the two divisions occur I amalgamate both Mohammed Ali's and Ludmig Adamec's dividing lines, the Khawak Pass. However Adamec goes further and divides it into three sections, the eastern from the Pamirs to the Dorah Pass, the central from the Dorah to the Khawak; and the western from the Khawak pass to the termination of the range near the Shibar Pass.

Hindu Kush ( Oriental)

The start of the Hindu Kush oriental. A view of peaks near Noshaq taken from the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Starting on the north-eastern extremity of the Wakhan corridor where the Pamirs abut from the north and the Karakorams from the south east, this is the meeting place of four countries: Remote, mysterious and seldom visited the countries of Tajikistan, China, Pakistan and of course Afghanistan meet. With its starting point in the Wakhan, the Oriental Hindu Kush con-tinues through Badakshan to the Khawak Pass in the Panjcher Valley, the graveyards of thousands of young Greek soldiers, who were led by Alexander the Great in the spring of 327 BC over the Khawak Pass. The soldiers died, frozen to rocks as they dropped from cold, exhaustion and frostbite.

It contains the highest mountains in Afghanistan. Noshaq, 7485 metres is the highest point, of the Afghan Hindu Kush.

In an area surrounding Noshaq are many peaks over 7000 metres. The highest peak in the south eastern limit of this Oriental Hindu Kush is Mir Samir, 5,800m, made famous by Eric Newby in his book "A Short Walk in The Hindu Kush," based on his eccentric journey in 1956 with Hugh Carless. Mir Samir is a magnificent peak, close to the Chamar Pass, and a two to three day walk from the Khawak Pass. I attempted to climb this peak in 1995 and climbed an unclimbed 5000 metre peak nearby.This is the upper part of the scenic Panjcher valley and contains the Anjoman Pass, 4200 metres which conects the Panjcher valley to Badakshan. This pass I have crosed four times and affords one of the most spectuacular views of the Hindu Kush, and the Tirch Mir can be seen in the distance in Pakistan.

A Lake in northern Badakshan near the Tajik border

A subsidiary range runs south off the Hindu Kush into Nuristan and another to the north the Khuajeh Mohammad Range with peaks up to 5,800 metres.

Hindu Kush (Occidental)

The road leading to the Salang Pass, which has the highest road tunnel in the world. It conects Kabul and the Shomali plains to the plains of Bactria. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The western section of the Hindu Kush starts at the Khawak pass and continues another 200 km to the Shibar Pass in a south westerly direction. Halfway between the Khawak and Shibar passes is the Salang Pass and the Salang tunnel, supposedly the highest road tunnel in the world. There is no peak over 5200 metres in this section, but what it lacks in height, it makes up with spectacular scenery and hospitable mountain people, particularly in the lower Panjcher valley.

The Hindu Kush occidental, was first named by Persians in their language of the Avesta, well before the coming of Alexander of Macedonia. They called it Paropanisadae, and means, a mountain loftier than the ceiling of even an eagle's flight. Alexander's men graecised it to Paropanisus. However it seems the Persian and the Greeks, were referring to the part of the Hindu Kush seen from Koh Daman, the plains north of Kabul, and is what we call, the Hindu Kush Occidental. The sheer size of the Hindu Kush is hard to gauge from a map. From 1993 to 1996 I criss-crossed the Hindu Kush countless times in the course of my work and the best viewpoint always was flying south to north over the Salang Pass at over 20,000 feet early in the morning. From the air, the Salang Pass appears in the middle of the mountain massif. To the north-east the Panjcher valley, narrow at the start and broadening later, dominates the low foreground. Thousands of peaks, increasing in height towards the eastern horizon dominate the jagged landscape. Two peaks are easily recognisable, Mir Samir on the southern side of the Panjcher and to the north, Kohi Bandak. As your viewing perspective nears the eastern horizon a jumble of indistinquisable high peaks merge into a mysterious white world. The width of the range is astounding, over 190 km including the subsidiary ranges.

To the west the Hindu Kush diminishes in height and later merges imperceptibly into the Kohi Baba which in turns spreads in all directions into the wild and desolate tablelands known as Hazarajat. From the air the snowcovered tablelands look as though the concave mountain faces have been shaped by an ice-cream scoop. Standing alone to the west-north-west is the Turand-i-Turkestan, isolated. impressive and clearly separate from any other range, except for a spur running south-east, named the Hesar Range.

The author wearing a turban at a wedding ceremony in the mountainous Panjcher valley. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Kohi Baba

Starting 25km south-west of Bamian, it extends in an westerly direction for 120 kilometres miles, curving like a boomerang. From the air its looks like an extension of the Hindu Kush with its highest peak Falodi 5135 metres prominent in the centre of the range. South and south west of the Kohi Baba is a very mountainous plateau area from which various tributaries of the Helmand river starts. To the north-west of the Kohi Baba is a mountain range from which the fist trickles of the Balkh River start. The peaks reach 4555 metres in height and appear from the air as a continumn of the Kohi Baba.


The Kohi Baba is in the centre of a region that early Afghan geographers described as the Central Block of Hazarajat. A number of explorers and geographers have likened it to Tibet. Mohammad Ali's description cannot be bettered. "This is a vast table land extending from Herat to Kabul and from Ghazni to Bamian. It is a high, bleak, and intensely inhospitable country, where snow lies for a greater part of the year, and where little or no fruit is grown, and the cultivation is confined to the narrow banks of rivers and streams. This irregular table-land has been scored and eroded for centuries by river action. From here emerge some of the greatest rivers of Afghanistan. To the north the river Khulm (Tashqurghan) and the Balkh take a hurried start for the plains of Bactria; westward the Hari Rud streams off to Herat; south-ward extend the long curving lines of the Helmand, Harut, Khash Rud and Arghandab, and eastward flows the Kabul with its various branches. A rugged mountain mass, called the Koh-i-Baba and Firoz Koh, the lineal continuation of the Hindu Kush."

Camel trains carrying loads in the Central Hindu Kush, near Hazarjat. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The southern extremity of Hazarajat are Shah Massoud and Kafar Jar Gah ranges which run along the southern border of Oruzgan provinces.

Firoz Koh

To the west of the Kohi Baba is a twin range named the Firoz Koh. It runs parallel to the Tir-band-i-Turkestan, which lies to the north. The northern branch of the Firoz Koh is called the Safid Koh (the white mountain) and the southern branch is called the Siah Koh (the black mountain) It lies within the Hazarajat region.


The name Parapomisus is a confusing name and it pops up in history books going back as far as Alexander the Great. One writer says " Continuing meanwhile his own advance, Alexander arrived at the foot of the colossal mountain-barrier, the chain of the Paropanisos, which separates Kabul from Bactria.

The natives designation was Parapamisos, or, as Ptolemy more correctly transliterates it, Paropanisos. "(J.W. M'Crindle) In the course of time this range gets shifted to the west. Ali describes it as " a small range lying to the the extreme west, between the districts of Herat and Badghis. Its local name is Siah Babuk.".

Ludwig Adamec in his Historical Dictionary seems to agree with modern maps: He spells it Paropamisus and says" the name given by Western writers to the Safid Kuh and Band-i-Baba, the range bounding on the Hari Rud (q.v.) valley on the north." A number of cartographers, particualrly the Polish during the Soviet occupation, leave the name off the map altogether and stick to the more specific ranges, the Safid Koh and Band-i-Baba.

The Paropamisus is specatcular when driving from Qala-i-Nau to Herat. It takes on the appearance of the Italian Dolomites with it sheer-sided pinnacles. The Sabzak Pass is the main pass and is usually cut off in the winter.


This impressive range forms a mountain border between southern Fariab and Sar-e pol and the northern border for Badghis and Ghor provinces with peaks reaching up to 4161 metres. Approached from the north, the Turband -i-Turkestan breaks the lunar-like landscape of Fariab province by providing a stately-white mountain range that dominates the high south-ern horizon. A number of villages at altitudes of 2000 metres are inhabited by mountain Tajiks who plough and plant the treeless mountainsides with a hardy variety of wheat. Pockets of Hazara and Uzbeks families also live in the villages at slightly lesser altitudes. The Tur-band-i-Turkestan is frequently racked by earthquakes, and is situated on an active faultline. At its eastern extermity an outlying range, the Hesar mountains run south easterly where the bor-ders of Ghor, Sar-e-pol meet Bamian province. The highest point of this range is 4539 m.

Lowell Thomas writes about the early history of the geography. "The source of the Nile and the location of the Mountains of the Moon were two of the earliest geographical enigmas. Both puzzles lasted into the nineteenth century, for not until central Africa had been penetrated and mapped did it become possible to solve them. ..... In the second century AD., Ptolemy, with the accumulated wisdom of the astronomer, mathematician and geographer, was more positive.In the fourth century BC., Alexander the Great had consulted the oracle of Jupiter (Amen-Ra) in the Siwa oasis of Egypt about the success of his expedition into the East-and about the sources of the Nile (which he thought he had found in the Hindu Kush mountains of Asia, near the headwaters of the Indus River.

It's a wonder Alexander knew where he was at the time, because he referred to the Hindu Kush as the Caucasus. On later maps they were referred to as the Indicus Caucasus. Probably, "Caucasus" was bandied about in the same way the name "Alps" is to-day, Aristotle further confused the issue by calling the Hindu Kush the Asiatic Parnassus. According to Babur, founder of the Mogul Empire, Hindu Kush means "Dead Hindu." Today we render it "Hindu Death."

Kohi Paghman

Possibly the most photographed mountain range in Afghanistan for from most parts of Kabul the north-west skyline is dominated by Kohi Paghman, a jagged range with summits reaching almost 5000 metres. Kohi Paghman forms part of Kohi Daman, Daman meaning skirt, a skirt of mountains that circle the north of Kabul. On a winter's day there is cannot be a more impressive capital city view in the world than standing in the mountain Lion capital Kabul, looking at the ring of mountains in all directions, the most prominent being Kohi Paghman.

Bushkashi, the mountain metaphor. It is a wild game played on horseback where a goat is used as a ball. Photo: Bob McKerrow

From the village of Paghman a main river valley leads up and forks, one valley leads into Parwan and thence, Bamian, (a well known packing route) the other into Wardak province.

This was the favourite region of the first Mogul Emporer, Babur. Here he wrote his poems, held wine parties, visited friends and soaked in the beauty.

Speen Gar and Safed Koh

This is an off shoot of the Sulaiman range. Sikkaram, its highest peak, is 15,600 feet.A magnificent range when cloaked with winter snow and from the air and ground it dominates the landscape of Nangahar provinces and acts as a divide between Nangahar, Lowgar and Paktia provinces. There is a discernable pass between the eastern Speengar and the connecting range, the Safed Koh, (not to be confused with the Safed Koh in the Parapomisus, which divides Nangahar province from Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. The Safed Koh curves from its predominent west-east direction to the north east as it descends down to and finishes at at the lengendary Khyber Pass.

Kashmund Range

When flying from Jalalabad to Kabul's Bagram airport it is possible to see the Speengar and the Safed Koh to the south and to the north a craggy range running from Assadabad in Kunar province to near the town of Metarlam in Laghman province. The south-western end of the Kashmund range drops into the southern end of the Alingar valley which leads to the high peaks of Nuristan. Further westwards is the fertile Tagrab valley which has an impressive un-named twin peak with a spot height of 4420 , trees cling to its steep sides up to 3,500 m. In winter the twin summits look similar to New Zealand's magnificent ice peak, Mt Tasman and its lesser peak of Silberhorn.

Sulaiman Range

This range is the barrier between the Indus basin and the Helmand River. It starts in Paktia Province at the Shutur Gardan pass 11,200 feet and runs in a south-south-easterly direction where it takes on additional names, the Mangal and Jadran hills. The highest points reach up to 12,000 feet. It is likely the mountain range got its name from the Sulaiman Khel Ghilzais, the name of the tribe whose land it passes through. There is another range of this name which runs along the Baluchstan-Punjab border.

The bones of thousands of over-ambitous conquerors and their followers lie strewn across the heights of the Hindu Kush as they tried to take Afghanistan, but few were able to hold the mountain lands for long as the Soviets found out in the 1980's. This current war, like so many earlier ones against Persian, British and Russian armies, will be decided in the mountain valleys and passes where fanatical warriors momentarily put aside tribal feuds and joined together, displaying a unique brand of mountain guerrilla warfare which is based on hawk-like instincts, circle, swoop and loot. The spoils of war provide important resources. Of all the mountain passes in Afghanistan, the Khyber pass has a long history of conquests and death.


There are thousands of significant mountain passes dotted throughout the country and it is not possible to name them all. However, the important ones have been mentioned in this article already.

The road winds up to the Khyber Pass, Landi Khotal and Torkham.

The most famous of them all is the Khyber Pass as it is weakest chink in the great chain of mountains stretching across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan is the most famous of all passes in Asia, the Khyber Pass. Lowell Thomas describes the Khyber's strategic importance:

"The fabled Khyber cuts through the mountains south of the Hindu Kush, west of the Pamir Knot, connects the northern frontier of West Pakistan with Afghanistan, and links Turkestan in Central Asia with the subcontinent of Hindustan."

Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass became the nineteenth century's legendary Northwest Frontier, patrolled by British military units like the Bengal Lancers. Campaigning through the "hills," their deeds of glory provided colorful material for Rudyard Kipling. In his "Arithmetic on the Frontier," Kipling paid tribute to the price paid by those early "few" with slightly racist overtones, not uncommon of that ear.: "

With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,

The troopships bring us one by one

At vast expense of time and steam

To slay Afridis where they run.

The "captives of our bow and spear"

Are cheap, alas! as we are dear

Landi Kotal Cemetery

A reminder of the huge loss of life can be seen today, when you head towards the Khyber Pass you pass the Landi Kotal Cemetery where soldiers of the British Army, mainly from 1879-80 (Second Afghan War) and 1898 and 1919 (Third Afghan War), are buried. Many regiments and battalions are represented here. Two stone obelisks stand in the middle each bearing a plaque. The inscription on one is almost faded and the other records: "Sacred to the memory of the British soldiers of all ranks who lie buried near this spot 187 of whom died at Landi Kotal from the result of wounds received in action and from disease during the Afghan Campaign of 1879-80 and the remainder since the reoccupation of the Khyber in 1898"

Wherever you are in Afghanistan it is impossible to escape the influence of the mountains. The success of crops depends on adequate winter snows, millions of sheep, goat and cattle rely on the lush summer alpine grazing for their survival, the country's economy depends on the gemstones lodged in deep mountain recesses, transportation is reliant on the condition of the alpine passes, avalanches, spring snow melt and the resultant floods can wipe out a village and its total crops with a flick of its icy tail.

And, with the heavy deforestation and overgrazing up to the snowline all year round, local eco-systems and the biodiversity have been so impacted that the mountain habitat is degrading so quickly that landslides, flooding from bursting natural dams caused by blocked rivers, have wreaked havoc in mountain regions. Local mountain inhabitants complain that changing weather patterns are affecting their lifestyle. The result is a major ecological disaster occuring in the Hindu Kush.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Why and where ten aid workers were murdered in Afghanistan.

SACRIFICE: The ten civilian volunteers who were killed in Afghanistan on August 5 - Glen D Lapp, Tom Little, Dan Terry, Thomas Grams, Cheryl Beckett, Brian Carderelli, Karen Woo, Daniela Beyer, Mahram Ali, and Jawed.

The first sign of danger was the crackle of gunfire over their heads. Ten gunmen, their faces covered, rushed toward terrified humanitarian workers and began shouting "Satellite! Satellite!" - a demand to surrender their phones.

Moments later, 10 of them lay dead, including two women hiding in the back seat of a car the attackers hit with a grenade, according to an Afghan official familiar with the account the sole survivor gave police.

It is the first detailed narrative of the slaying of six Americans, two Afghans, one German and a Briton on August 5 in remote northern Afghanistan. They were ambushed and shot August 5 after journeying about 100 miles - much of it on foot and horseback - through the Hindu Kush mountains, giving eye and other medical care to impoverished villagers.

Afghan and US investigators spent at least four hours this week questioning the survivor, a 24-year-old father of three named Safiullah. He was employed as a driver for International Assistance Mission, a nonprofit Christian organisation that has worked in Afghanistan since 1966.

Safiullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, told investigators that the killings occurred around 7.30am or 8.30am, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose details of the ongoing investigation.

The Parun Valley, high in the Hindu Kush, where the aid workers had been conducting eye and health clinics for two weeks before they were murdered. Photo : Bob McKerrow

The official, whose information has proven reliable in the past, said Safiullah, who is being held but not behind bars, gave the following account of how the killings unfolded.

At the end of the trip, the team spent their final night in a village. The next morning, riding in four-wheeled drive vehicles, they encountered a river swollen by heavy rains.

An Afghan man in the area offered to help the team as it was trying to cross the river. Two members of the team - including leader Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, New York, who had worked in Afghanistan since the late 1970s - rolled up their pants legs and waded in to find a spot shallow enough for the vehicles to ford the river.

After successfully crossing, the team stopped to take a break in a forested area at the side of the road, which ran through a narrow valley. They wanted to get ready for their long journey back though Badakhshan province and on to the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Libby and Tom Little in their home in Kabul

The Afghan man who had offered to help the group left. Then came the attack.
The gunmen rushed in, firing bullets over the medical team members' heads.

"What's happening?" Little shouted.

A gunman struck Little in the head with the back of an AK-47 rifle. Little fell bleeding to the ground. When he tried to get up, the attackers fatally shot him in the torso.

Two of three female members of the team had jumped inside one SUV to hide. The attackers tossed a grenade at the vehicle, killing them both. Then, one by one, they killed the rest of the group - except the driver.

Safiullah told investigators he believes the lead gunman was Pakistani because he yelled "Jadee! Jadee!" - a word used in several regional languages that means "hurry up." It is more commonly used in Pakistan and India than Afghanistan. He said all the attackers understood Dari and Pashto, the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan, but conversed in Pashaye, a local dialect used only in parts of the northeast corner of Afghanistan.

Safiullah said he doesn't know why he survived while two other Afghan members of the team were killed. He said he raised his arms in the air and recited verses from the Islamic holy book Quran as he begged the gunmen for his life.
The official said Safiullah speculated that the gunmen might have shot the team's Afghan cook, who was lying under one of the vehicles, because they thought he was armed. Safiullah said they might have killed the second Afghan, a guard employed at International Assistance Mission since 2007, because he was wearing a head scarf wrapped in a style favored by northern militias.

A fourth Afghan on the trip, Dr. Said Yasin, left the group a day before the killings, saying he was tired and wanted to take a more direct route back to Jalalabad where he has family. Dirk Frans, the IAM executive director, said Yasin told the team he was suffering from a kidney ailment and asked permission to leave on his own.

"He is fine now," Frans said about Yasin. "He's OK. He is well - of course extremely sad that all but one of his colleagues are gone."

After the killings, the gunmen took Safiullah with them on a seven- or eight-hour hike through a forest. During the journey, one of the gunmen spoke on a radio with a high antenna, saying, in Pashto, "Everything's finished. We killed them," Safiullah told investigators, according to the official.

The attackers stopped to pray in the evening, then continued on, walking toward a flashing light that Safiullah said was meant to guide them to a village near Barg-e-Matal, scene of heavy fighting in recent weeks between government forces and militants who crossed over from Pakistan.

There, they met up with another group of people, who asked Safiullah if he was a Muslim, his father's name, how many children he has and how he got a job working for foreigners.

The gunmen told Safiullah that he could leave, but he told investigators he feared he would be shot in the back if he did so. He said he dropped to his knees and began hugging the legs of one of the men. Eventually convinced that they had no plans to kill him, Safiullah said he started running. He said he rested by a large rock, and then despite extreme fatigue began running again.

An older man he met along the way let him briefly ride a donkey. Safiullah said he eventually found his way back to the town in the Kuran Wa Munjan district of Nuristan province where the group had left their three four-wheeled drive vehicles and rented eight horses at the beginning of the trip.

The high Hindu Kush that stretch through Nuristan and Badakhshan where the 10 aid workers travelled. Photo: Bob McKerrow
The group had assembled last month in Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan, and then drove south, according to Safiullah.

They left their vehicles in Kuran Wa Munjan and then trekked nearly half a day on foot and horseback over mountainous terrain to reach the Parun valley. The valley is a harsh, isolated area about 9500 feet above sea level where an estimated 50,000 people eke out a primitive existence as shepherds and subsistence farmers.

Safiullah said he was not aware of any threats to the team during the two weeks they spent walking from village to village providing medical care.

The Taliban said they carried out the attack because the team members were spying and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. IAM said it is registered as a Christian organization with the Afghan government, but does not proselytize.

"IAM would not be invited back to villages if we were using aid as a cover for preaching," Frans said in a statement. "This specific camp, led by Tom Little, a man with four decades experience in Afghanistan, has led eye camps for many years to Nuristan - and was welcomed back every time."

The bodies of four of the Americans, escorted by FBI personnel, were flown to the United States on Wednesday aboard US military aircraft, according to Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Kabul. "In accordance with their families' wishes, the remains of two American citizens will remain in Afghanistan and be laid to rest here, in the country they selflessly and courageously served for so many years," she said.

I have been discussing the murder of Tom Little and his team with friends  worked with in Afghanistan and one letter that I would like to record here, is from Jason Elliot who wrote a remarkable book on Afghanistan, An unexpected light.

Kia Ora mate,
I remember Libby's pancakes too, and I remember Tom as an incredibly brave and dedicated man - one of a tiny number who stuck it out during the darkest days in Kabul. As you well know, that took a special sort of person.

His character did the talking and he had no interest in prosletysing. He was one of the humblest and bravest men I ever met. I am sure too that after all those years of having cheated death, he went to his Maker with a tranquil heart. I hope he was able to give some comfort to the others with him. He toa taumata rau.

A pity we could not have sent a hundred thousand men like Tom to Afghanistan instead of soldiers.

Let's catch up soon,