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Memorial created 01-15-2008 by
Howard Yellen
Thor David Hesla
April 1 1962 - January 14 2008

Most of you know that Thor had been working overseas for a number of years doing something called “capacity development.” I spoke with him for about an hour the day before he was killed, and honestly I never did quite figure out what that entailed. Anyway, he had been angling to get a gig there with Bearing Point, the consulting firm he had worked with in the Balkans. The project was funded by USAid, and is discussed in this Bearing Point press release.

 

Kabul's "Skyline"

Thor got to Kabul around November 1st, 2007. I emailed him and asked for some color on what the situation would be like. He responded to my specific questions in the following memo-like fashion: What is the gig?

I am working on a USAID - funded project, doing "capacity development" for the government of Afghanistan. I do the propaganda. But USAID takes all the credit. When 10 Afghans are certified for FreeBalance, I write the press release, but put the name of the USAID press secretary on it.

How long?

The current deployment is 11 months, but that is a bookkeeping device to avoid being a long-term/permanent assignment. If everyone likes everyone, it could run several years.

How much are you getting paid?

Gentlemen don't answer such questions, but it is a very decent slice. The most I have ever made. I have opened a mutual fund via TIAA Cref. My plan is to stick most of it in there, and use this as the foundation for my retirement.

What is housing gonna be?

We have a corporate villa, in the heavily patroled part of Kabul where the embassies are. We have armed guards at the villa. We travel in dedicated (but not armored) cars, with shooters.

Our offices are guarded. We are only allowed to eat at certain restaurants, and patronize certain bars, which have -- you guessed it -- armed guards.

Think of my life as a series of moves from Green Zone to Green Zone. There is much less active penetration of greater Kabul than greater Baghdad. But the situation is deteriorating at present.

 

Serena Hotel

What was Thor doing at the Serena Hotel and what was life like in Kabul?
Thanks to Kate Head Was Thor living in luxury at the “Five Star” Serena Hotel Kabul? In a word, no. Nobody gets to stay at the Serena but a few Gulf State businessmen and senior diplomats. It was one of the few places to go to a gym, and Thor, like most long-term folk driven to distraction would go to work out as a change of pace from traveling from their office to their group house. It had serious security and was alcohol-free, but I it’s 5 star rating was a result of being in Kabul where there is almost nothing decent. It would probably qualify for a three star in most parts of Europe. All short and long term development groups, including Thor’s outfit, Bearing Point, billet people in group houses with 5-10 people, with shared bathrooms and group meals. The work week is six days for all of Afghanistan, and most Afghan holidays are religious or political and are spent in lock-down at the houses because of demonstrations and possible threats. (For example, The Shiite holiday, Ashara shut down Kabul’s development community for two days last week). Kate Head, one of Thor’s co-workers writes that “While in Kabul, I shared a house with economists, bankers and accountants who were all 55 to 70 years old and were work-focused. They were pleasant, but it was not a fraternity party. Although many describe the houses as villas or mansions, the buildings are hardly that glamorous. The food was casseroles and repetative with occassional bouts of food poisoning (you can imagine this as a group with shared bathrooms). The furniture was local and uncomfortable and sometimes so over-the top roccoco— think hand carved wood chairs straight up with elaborate designs on the back that are uncomfortable from your butt to your head.” Even the water is unpleasant, with a strong sulfer smell. The bathroom had to be aired out regularly because of the stench (from the sulfer, not the workers.) Kate’s friend Ellen’s hair turned four shades lighter and kept falling out from the minerals. This is the glamorous life in Kabul. The Serena, a few restaurants and cable television were the only saving grace. So the question is why are people there given there are so many other places that actually have an expat life? Where you can golf at country clubs (Egypt), go to parties (Bosnia) and head to beaches (Montenegro, Mozambique, Tanzania)? The answer is there are few places like Afghanistan where development work can have such a direct impact on the lives of the people there. There is so much to be done.

 

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