My dream with journalism is to travel to the frontiers and send their stories to breakfast tables thousands of miles away. Join me for my first chapter, in Afghanistan, summer 2006. These are my letters to you.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Dust of Kabul on my Feet

A French soldier walks past an Afghan woman in burqa on the streets of Kabul. (Marai Shah, AFP)

It is not widely encouraged for a foreigner to walk through Kabul alone. Make it a daytime habit and you risk becoming a target of the insurgency. Go at night, and you take your life in your hands.

As a result, most foreigners zip through the capital in hired cars, with Afghan drivers. Some even consider the local taxis suspect. At night, a car speeding through the city with foreigners in it need only stop for a second at the roundabout checkpoints, where armed policemen nervously keep guard. The driver rolls down his window long enough to say "khareji," the Dari word for 'foreigner,' and then speeds off again. The image of the policemen gripping their guns in the deserted streets is, strangely, one of acute loneliness.

But come sunrise, the roads of Kabul are alive and well, bursting with mango and watermelon carts, gear-grinding buses, UN Land Rovers, and tan, tinted-window Afghan National Army pickups. The air is thick with the smells of diesel, grilling kebabs, and raw sewage. Skinny cats scamper through the alleyways. One lies dead and decomposing in a corner. Hole in the wall bakeries churn out hot, meter-long naan (flatbreads) that are carried away by the dozen. Children, now - after the Taliban - girls as well as boys, march to school in smart uniforms in the mornings. Metal shops bang away, turning scrap metal into wheelbarrows and chairs.

In a way, it is just like any other South Asian city; with a distinctive rhythm of vibrant chaos. But walking in Kabul as a foreigner feels different. There is something unsettling in the air. Your eyes will meet as many blank stares as the Afghan greeting of touching your hand to your heart.

There are whispers of it in the rubbish heap in the corner, where two brothers of about four and five dig through the waste to salvage what is left. One finds a discarded can of Pepsi, and raises it to his lips to drain the last remains. Another finds an unopened pack of gum and tries to sell it to me for a dollar. I took their picture instead. It's more than money that this place needs.

A policeman getting a shave at a street-side barber calls me over to chat. I ask him how his work is, and he says it is good. I ask him about last week's riots in Kabul. After a U.S. military vehicle's brakes failed and it crashed into a traffic jam killing several, a building tension in the residents of Kabul hit boiling point. Over a thousand took to the streets, burning, looting and shooting, shouting "Death to America," and "Death to Karzai." The policeman told me that the violence happened because people are angry that they have no jobs. The situation is improving, but when people are without work it is difficult to see the silver lining.

A young law professor from Herat that I had talked to earlier explained how joblessness added fuel to the Taliban insurgence in the south. Without opportunities for education and employment, many align with the Taliban who promise to protect their opium fields from the government's eradication program.

"The Taliban's religion is poverty," he told me.

Ironically, Kabul is awash with money. The only rub is the color of the fingers that handle it.

Tucked away in a little corner of the Shahr e Nau district of the capital is a thriving gathering place for ex-pats. The French-owned L'Atmosphere has no sign announcing its existence, only a dozen odd SUVs parked out front, and two Kalashnikov-wielding guards at the gate. On a Thursday night, the start of the Islamic weekend, a couple hundred foreigners gather here amongst the candle-lit garden tables to swim in the pool, smoke, and knock back imported booze. Meals go for around US$10 a plate - roughly half a month's earnings for the average Afghan, according to International Monetary Fund statistics.

It is an unlikely mix of people. Aid workers, businessmen, soldiers and journalists mingle and drink to unwind from the stress of living in a war zone. Each one has a story of why they are here. For some it is simply the money. Private sector consultation is a huge industry in Afghanistan at the moment, and there seems to be no shortage of salary benefits. For others, it is a love affair with the country that they find difficult to describe, and an urge to see it emerge into a successful, safe nation. There is the expected mix of cynicism and idealism, often sadly proportional to the time spent here.

Among them, quietly getting drunk on French wine, sits a man of Afghan origin, an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) translator and consultant. He tells me that Afghanistan needs the West, but also needs to know that the West is here for the good of the Afghans, and that they are committed to the long term.

"The way to get Afghans on your side is to be true to them," he said. "It's so easy. But Afghanistan has always been left. Used and then left."

I asked him what would happen if the Afghans began to feel that the U.S. intervention was another attempt to use Afghanistan. His answer envisioned catastrophe.

"You can bring all the B52s you want," he said. "It doesn't matter. You will not crush these men and women. No one ever has."

I remembered walking through Chicken Street in downtown Kabul that afternoon, and seeing Soviet army belts for sale in the antique shops. Is it equally possible that the shops of a future Afghanistan could be selling U.S. military paraphernalia?

Eleven years ago on the streets of this city, I remember seeing bullet shells in the dust at my feet. Like any boy would, I started a collection until my bag couldn't hold them all. Now there are none to be found in the dust of Kabul. But look up to the mud and straw walls of the city and you will see that the bullet holes are less easily cleared away.


Blogger Liz said...

Hi Jacob! I hope you're well and as safe as you can be. Me and Adam (who's in Croatia now!) are keeping up with your blogs. Kabul sounds absolutely fascinating - I'm extremely jealous! Keep safe, Liz xx

1:22 PM

Blogger Traut said...

Your descriptions do more than just paint a picture in my mind. I feel like Im kicking up the dust beside you. Can't wait to read more!!

Nate T

5:13 PM

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