In Islamic countries, it is customary to pay a Ramadan bonus, much like a Christmas bonus. It is usually equal to one month’s salary and is handed out just before the Eid celebrations.
The second year I was in Afghanistan, on the last working day before Eid we had issued the bonus to all the local staff, or so we thought; we were winding down for the long Eid holiday. I had been out of the office looking at a possible site for the new compound we were building, and as we were returning, we rounded the corner to the main gate and my driver muttered something and slowed down.
Before us stood a mob of nearly fifty people milling outside the main gate to the administrative compound. The only U.N. staff I recognized was the new chief of technical services, a large and imposing retired Canadian Air Force Colonel named Barry, and two security guards. I leaned out my window and Barry asked if I had any experience negotiating with mobs, which of course I did, from Somalia and elsewhere, and he knew it. The crowd appeared agitated but not violent, so I stepped out of the Patrol and through a translator asked what was going on.
One of the group, a young man who spoke passable English, stepped forward and explained that all of these men were local staff construction workers who worked for the engineering section. They had come to the main gate expecting to receive their Ramadan bonus like everyone else but had been told there was no money for them. As he talked, shouts from the back of the crowd grew louder and the mob pressed forward. They spilled into the street, closing it off, and horns blared as traffic began to back up. I was getting a bad feeling about all this.
I immediately told the young man to tell everyone that we would get to the bottom of this, but I needed him to act as a spokesman for the others. He needed to explain that to the crowd and get them lined up and out of the street. I turned to Barry and asked him to get more security guards but keep them out of sight inside the gate, just in case we needed to be rescued.
Abdul, the newly appointed spokesman, was having trouble getting the attention of the group so I jumped up on one of the large concrete barriers used to stop vehicles from ramming the gate and motioned for Abdul to join me on the impromptu podium. Now in a position where we could see the crowd, I had Abdul explain that I would find out when the bonus would be issued, but since I had just arrived they needed to give me some time. I hoped like hell the bonuses could be issued, or I would never dare show my face again.
Just then a side door opened, and I saw Raul, the chief finance officer, peering nervously through the opening. Raul, a long time U.N. staffer and very experienced finance man, had just recently been assigned to Afghanistan from a post in Asia. Raul and I went on to work together in several more assignments and became very good friends.
Calling me over he informed me that indeed these guys were supposed to be paid a Ramadan bonus, but that the Engineering section had failed to process the paperwork, and we were in trouble. Engineering had at least provided a list of the construction staff and his people were busy processing it now. It would be a couple of hours before they could start handing out money, and he hoped we had enough cash on hand. We agreed to start issuing the payments in groups of five as soon as soon as they were processed.
Calming The Crowd
I got back up on my makeshift podium and had Abdul explain how we would proceed. By now the crowd was calming down and the tension seemed to be easing. At least order had been restored, and I just hoped we could keep it that way until the bonuses were processed.
About this time, I noticed a very old man standing near the gate in a tattered coat and well-worn felt hat. Clearly, he was too old to be working, so I asked Abdul who he was. He smiled and said the old man happened along and thought he would try to get a bonus as well. I found this quite comical, so through Abdul, I asked him where he had been working. The old man replied he had been digging ditches, which got a laugh out of everyone.
I appreciated his spunk so I responded, “Yes, you do look stronger than I do,” which got a real howl. By now people were pushing forward to watch and I asked if he had any UN identification.
He looked up at me and through a gap-toothed grin he said, “No, sir, I lost it.”
I shouted for someone to get this man a chair. “We can’t have our father standing in line.”
The men around us had a good laugh. One of the guards came forward with a chair, which the old man took. Placing it at the head of the line, he sat down.
The crowd was nearly doubled over in laughter now, including me. On the spur of the moment, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the equivalent of five U.S. dollars in Afghani Pounds—a pretty good sum. Handing it to the old man I said, “Let me give you your bonus now and wish you Eid Mubaric (Happy Eid). But you be sure to come back to work next week.”
The old man smiled and took the money. He looked at it for a few seconds, stuffed it into his pocket, and wandered off to buy Eid sweets, or fruit, or cigarettes or something.
Just as I was wondering what we could do as a follow up to this, the gate opened. Raul motioned me over and handed me the first list of five names to be paid their Eid bonus. In less than a half hour his staff had worked a minor miracle and had the first group of bonuses ready to go. We read out the names and they stepped forward. After checking their identifications, a security guard walked with them to the pay window inside the compound.
In an hour and a half, we were finished, and everyone got their Eid bonuses and left happy, including the old man in the tattered coat.
I still have to smile whenever I think of him and how, in the true spirit of Eid, he helped quell a potential riot.
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