A Canadian profile in courage

By Robert J. Galbraith on May 1, 2008

While most Canadians are sitting back at their breakfast tables, drinking their morning coffee and kissing their children on the cheek as they head off to school, others are living in a far off corner of the planet, sacrificing their security and time with their families—to build a better world.

 One such unsung Canadian hero is Grant Kippen, who acted as a Commissioner with the Electoral Complaints Commission in Kabul, Afghanistan. Kippen is a simple man, who’s only reward at the finality of an endless day, was a phone call; hearing the voice of his beloved wife, Lisa, a world away in sleepy Ottawa town. “My life is like the Bill Murray movie, ‘Groundhog Day.’ Everyday you get up to more of the same, but it is never dull, nor ever boring,” says Kippen, a fifty-year-old native of Ottawa.

 Kippen explains that the role of the Complaints Commission (funded by the United Nations) is to adjudicate on complaints arising from the Afghanistan Parliamentary elections, when Afghans voted twice; once for a provincial candidate in the lower house of the national assembly (the Wolesi Jirga, or House of the People), and one for a representative in the provincial council.

 Under the election law, there were certain eligibility criteria. “The problem was that there were too many individuals with less than good credentials that intimidated the electorate, through the use of guns, and we tried to level the playing field as evenly as possible. Anyone affiliated with illegal armed groups were not eligible,” he said. “In the past number of years, there have been different phases of disarmament. These programs allowed individuals in these groups to integrate into the community as farmers, trades people etc. But some of these groups still exist, and we are giving them an opportunity to get rid of their guns. After the deadline, the government will go after them,” commented Kippen.

 “This won’t change overnight, it’s been a long process, although the elections were very positive. It is not about who you know, it’s about using the process, and letting people know how to use it.”

 Election protocol dictated that there be complaint forms at each polling station. If anybody has a complaint, they fill out the form, which is then put into a sealed bag included with the ballot boxes. If there is a serious offence, such as fraud, the entire box of ballots was put aside until the issue was worked out.

 Commissioner Kippen says there have been over 2000 complaints since July of 2005. He is realistically optimistic that they will receive between 1000-5000 real complaints, from a total of 26,500 polling stations covering 12.5 million registered voters. “People asked, weren’t you overwhelmed? But we were the entity that took care of it. We were not there to be filters, we were there to hear and address people’s complaints,” he said. “There have been lots of unsubstantiated allegations. Part of the reason for this is that people don’t know about the electoral process. This a country where there has been no democracy in decades (the last national elections took place in 1969), but the electoral process went well.” 

 Kippen says that a small portion of voters’ complaints weren’t well-founded. “Someone says a person is a criminal, or in another case, we had one guy say a candidate ran off with another guys wife—but we’re not a criminal court! We have a very narrow mandate.”

 Seventy-five-percent of the people who work for the Commission are Afghanis. “This I am very proud of,” says Kippen. “We’re not just a truckload of internationals, we are teaching the local people, who will be able to be involved and take ownership of the elections in the future. This is the way it should be. The most stimulating part of this job is working with the international staff,” he says. “I always tell the staff that they’re living history, that they’re in a period which they will be able to tell their grandparents and kids about. We are being asked to do a pretty big job in a short period of time, a very compressed time frame.”

 Many of the Afghanis who stayed in the country over the last 24 years of war (through the Soviet occupation, civil war and the Taliban regime), feel they are being left out of the well-paying, UN-funded jobs that have arisen since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

 “I know that there is a bit of tension because some who have stayed for 20 years, and others who left as refugees. They (the refugees) were able to gain technical skills, which weren’t available to those who stayed and stuck it out, and some feel they should be first in line for jobs compared to those who left. This is an issue that any transitional society goes through, but we don’t handle the administrative parcel” says Kippen. “The UN is not ignorant of this, but we’re at a point in time where there’s that disparity.”

 In the short term, Kippen believes that employment opportunities will change.“ It’s only been  several years since the fall of the Taliban and the educational system can’t crank them (educated Afghanis) out that fast. That’s why it’s really important that there is a long time commitment from other nations, as the Canadian government has committed to. There are so many similarities between Afghanistan and Canada,” says Kippen. “We’re both bilingual nations, we’re multi-ethnic, we have challenges in respect to transportation. So we’ve got a lot to share.”

 Kippen related a story of a recent meeting with a local man, that reveals the admiration most Afghans hold for Canadians. “I met a man the other day. When I told him I was Canadian, he started telling me he lived in Winnipeg for 7 years. He said he never felt so welcome as he did in Canada. He told me that what was amazing, is how people accepted him for who he is. There are places in Afghanistan where he wouldn’t go because of his ethnicity. But what really impressed him was the ‘Folkarama Festival’ (held in Winnipeg), where all cultures melt. He said you could get different ethnic meals, and that was absolutely fascinating to him. He told me, you (Canadians) don’t hide ethnicity, you celebrate it. So it goes back to what I said earlier, we have a lot to contribute to the world, we’re tolerant, and that goes a long way in Afghanistan.”

 With this in mind, Kippen commented that, “Most Canadians don’t realize how well-off they are. When I returned to Canada last December, one main topic in the news was health care. In Kabul, there are people laying out in the streets outside hospitals, and they aren’t going to get any help. Some who have simple injuries can’t get the help they need, and they become invalids or come down with major sicknesses, because they don’t get first aid for simple injuries that turn into major illnesses and injury. We’re a pretty privileged nation.”

 The silvery-haired, medium-set NGO worker explained why he left a lifestyle of security and normality, for the challenges that most men, or women, would not even consider contemplating. “I got to tell you Rob, I was growing increasingly frustrated with the nature of work I was doing, and I felt, Hell!, am I going to do something with my life? Doing what I do is a way of feeling I am making a contribution to something amazing and rewarding.”

 The walled-off , barbed-wire-topped Kabul compound where he worked is a prison rather than an office. Private security guards, each with his own AK47 Automatic Assault Rifle, keep a constant vigil round-the-clock, for those who would wish to attack the half-acre-compound and harm him and the other UN employees.

 When the workday ended he was driven the two kilometer distance, through the dust chocked streets of Kabul, by armed escorts to the iron-gated guest house which houses in mock sanctuary other UN personnel. Visitors have to provide adequate identification and are frisked by security personnel (each with his own AK47), then a metal detector is swept over the body to make sure the visitor is not carrying any concealed weapons or explosives.

 This is an existence that many Canadians are unaware of, or would be unwilling to partake in, and can only be re-lived each day by a special type of person—one with nerves of steel and priest-like dedication. Staff are only allowed outside their protective cocoon to visit UN sanctioned businesses and restaurants, and once again, only with heavily-armed escorts. This type of lifestyle is not a vacation, it is the reality of survival where, pedestrians and the occupants of any passing vehicle, be it a motorcycle, bicycle, or car, may blow themselves to bits, along with the UN employees, to reach martyrdom for their religious zealously, and the fanatical leaders they follow.

 This reality, of the clear and present danger did not fall short on Kippen’s wife, Lisa Robertson, who works for a health consulting company with the federal government in Ottawa. Nor does it on their two sons, David and Jamie.

  “Concern about safety weighs heavily on the family, as well as with friends, and while family and friends are very interested by his work , it is sometimes very difficult to explain the context within which the work was conducted, as most media reports from Afghanistan talk about the violence and conflict there, as opposed to the many positive developments that were, and are, taking place on a daily basis,” says Lisa. “I think we both try to support one another. Like any couple, we listen to how the other is dealing with whatever challenges are before them, and offer any support we can. Most of the support comes in the form of listening and offering morale encouragement.

 The security factor is just one of the sacrifices men like Kippen, and the nearly 300 other Canadians who work for the UN in Afghanistan, undertook and accept every waking day. “There was no downtime,” Kippen explained.

 I first met Grant in the inner square of the well-manicured lawn of his guest house sipping on a refreshing German beer, a CD blared-out former-Beatle, John Lennon’s, ‘Give Peace A Chance.’ Kippen stared into the white foam of the brew, telling me, “I celebrated my 50th birthday  in Kabul, away from my family.”

 But Kippen is very proud of his family and their support. He said, “My family is very supportive, and my wife has been phenomenal. I miss my two sons growing up and I hope I can give them something in their lives. They’ve been incredibly understanding. There is no doubt, I have given up something—it was difficult.”


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