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A road in Afghanistan

Gap year in Afghanistan

Most people's idea of a gap year between jobs involves beach-hopping in exotic locations, or working their way around bars in Australia. Rob Pavey's idea was to spend nine months living in a garage in Kabul, negotiating with Afghan warlords over weapons amnesties, and disarming abandoned tanks and anti-aircraft missiles.

The role

Having spent seven years in the army, Rob had already experienced a variety of different cultures and living conditions, but nothing quite like his placement in Afghanistan, working for the Halo Trust. "I was immersed in a sprawling city of mud-brick homes with an influx of refugees," explains Rob. During his time in Kabul he met warlords, drug barons, Taliban and Al Quaeda remnants, and tribal bandits.

Being placed in charge of 200 Afghans in a weapons disposal unit comes about as close as you can get to being thrown in at the deep end. There was a large problem with minefields and abandoned weaponry following the withdrawal of first the Soviet troops, and later the Mujahedin.

Despite having all his shoes eaten by wild dogs, which kept breaking in to his wardrobe, he still managed to dispose of around 20,000 tons of ammunition, which could otherwise fall into the hands of terrorists. This could be found dumped in places such as schoolrooms or garages. "Tanks were often left exactly where they were abandoned, scattered about former battlefields," says Rob.

"During his time in Kabul, Rob met warlords, drug barons, Taliban and Al Quaeda remnants, and tribal bandits."

So how are westerners viewed in Afghanistan? "In the villages and even some towns, the five-year drought which ended with the Taliban's fall was seen as divine disapproval of the Taliban," says Rob. "When the Americans came, the rains started, the mines started being cleared, the crops grew, and people were allowed to listen to music again."  People are so enthusiastic for the newly established democracy that "they love voting - sometimes they even vote three times!"

Returning home

So after surviving the dangers of weapons and ammunition disposal - not to mention the health risks of living in a massively overpopulated city with only occasional rubbish collections and water drawn from unpurified muddy wells - what is next for Pavey? A career in teaching.

The move to teaching languages in inner city London schools could seem like a huge leap or a perfect place to put in all that 'training', depending on your perspective.

"A class of 30 adolescents is a lot harder to deal with than an Afghan warlord," Rob laughs. "My work there was backed by the UN and the might of the Americans, which made straight-talk and negotiations easier. It's not always in a teenager's interests to learn French."

Updated: 14/01/2009

Written by Jo Flood

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