In Kabul, U.N. workers cope by cooking

KABUL, Afghanistan — When Susan Marx was awoken before dawn last month with word that United Nations colleagues across town were under attack, the 32-year-old human rights researcher did the only thing she could think of to calm her nerves: Bake.

With ominous, conflicting reports streaming in, Marx and her husband, United Nations program manager Chris Serjak, retreated to their kitchen to bake pumpkin muffins with walnuts, cinnamon and semi-sweet chocolate chips.

"When bad things happen: Bake," Serjak, 34, wrote later that day on "Foodie in a Warzone," a blog the couple writes on their efforts to cultivate their culinary passions while living in one of the poorest countries in the world.

"I hope our readers will understand that while cooking and good food may seem a trivial concern on such a tragic day, it really is our form of coping," Serjak wrote. "A bit of normalcy in the midst of lunacy."

That quest for normalcy has grown more difficult in the weeks since militants killed eight people during the assault on a United Nations' guesthouse in Kabul.

Seasoned aid workers like Serjak and Marx worry that Kabul could become "another Baghdad," with more attacks aimed at the UN eventually forcing the vast network of international aid groups to close shop and leave Afghanistan.

That would undermine a critical cornerstone in the shaky international efforts to transform Afghanistan into a stable democracy.

Things in Baghdad deteriorated rapidly after a suicide bomber hit the U.N. headquarters in August 2003, killing 22 people, including the head of the mission, Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The U.N. dramatically scaled back its presence in Iraq, and it was four years before it began beefing up its staff again.

Plenty of people view as overblown the concern that Kabul could become "another Baghdad." Still, in the wake of the guesthouse attack, the U.N. moved rapidly to scale back what had been its largest political mission in the world, with 1,100 international aid workers doing everything from overseeing the nation's elections to building housing for refugees.

Hundreds of "non-essential" staff were sent to Dubai and other nearby locations. Many others who were on vacation outside of the country were told not to come back to Afghanistan.

Those still working in Kabul now are being relocated from guesthouses and homes to austere, better-protected, U.N. compounds. The U.N. has imposed new travel restrictions limiting where its staff can go around town.

The War Zone Foodies worry the changes could mean this will be the last Thanksgiving they're able to host in their temporary Kabul home.

The couple — who met more than a decade ago outside a bar in Palo Alto, Calif. — first became War Zone Foodies in Baghdad, where they worked on development projects.

Known for their meals, they convinced private security contractors to regularly escort dozens of Omaha steaks from Baghdad's airport to their compound in the Green Zone.

In 2006 — their first Thanksgiving in Iraq — the couple helped cook a half dozen turkeys for more than 50 people.

They took up their current assignment in Kabul in 2007, and have found themselves with much more freedom to go out, have friends over and to build a comparatively comfortable life.

Preparing for Thanksgiving in a country that doesn't celebrate the American holiday is always a challenge. So the Foodies spent weeks plotting, preparing and planning.

During one recent break in Dubai, the couple filled a refrigerated travel bag with fresh cranberries, sweet potatoes and, because they could, avocadoes. They will use celery from their garden to make the stuffing. And friends at the U.S. Embassy are providing them with fresh turkeys to feed dozens of friends and colleagues.

Marx, a South African by birth, said she nearly lost her marriage one Thanksgiving when she blithely suggested to her American husband that they serve rosemary roasted potatoes instead of traditional mashed potatoes.

"Food is a glue for community," said Marx. "It's extraordinarily important to take pause and say, 'It's a rough mission, but we're all here and what brings us together is our togetherness.'"

The morning of the guesthouse attack, Marx said cooking in the kitchen with her husband seemed like the most natural thing to do.

"We were together in the kitchen, it's warm, you could smell the pumpkin," she said. "Comfort food it what it is. Comfort through food."


Foodie in a Warzone blog


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