Friday, October 31, 2003

# Posted 5:43 AM by Patrick Belton  

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER LETTER FROM KABUL: Here's the latest from OxBlog's intrepid, and hard-working, bureau chief:
Ramazan is well underway; thankfully, the days are cool and short. P.'s [note: still not me - ed.] and my decision to join the fast has been greeted with general incredulity and the sly question, "Ah yes, but what time do you get up for breakfast?" In P.'s case, the answer is generally, "Not at all." I tend to drowse awake at 4:00 a.m., munch a couple McVitie's biscuits, down a liter of water, and fall asleep again. Z. initially tried to muster us for a proper pre-dawn breakfast, but then started sleeping through the alarm herself. Regardless, by the time dusk rolls around, we're all famished and ready to pack away a grand iftar dinner. One of these days we're going to see if the food at the shuttered, formidable-looking Croatian dive across the street is as good as its reputation.

Tonight (Thursday) I ended up taking iftar at the home of logistics assistant Aziz Ahmad, after a long afternoon of driving around the city discussing American marriage customs and the shelling of West Kabul during the 1990s. Aziz lives with his parents and seven siblings on the western outskirts of Kabul, in a tight-packed
neighborhood of small walled compounds. He hustled me and the reluctant driver, Ainodeen, through the door and into a cozy, carpeted dining room with long floor cushions. After allowing me to give cursory salaams to his flustered sisters, Aziz ducked out and drew a curtain across the doorway; it was the last I saw of his
family, with the exception of his brother and six year-old sister, who periodically brought in more food. We sat cross-legged around a plastic tablecloth, tore off chunks of the diamond-shaped, corrugated flatbread that accompanies (or composes) most meals in Afghanistan, and tucked into heaps of mashed potatoes (deliciously heavy on the garlic, oregano, and pepper), curd, and still-liquid fried eggs. Over a dessert of lightly salted pomegranate seeds, Aziz ruefully discussed how his family's persistent association with foreigners has cut them off from their traditional community in the south. "My father was in the military, so when we went back to the village five years ago, they called us all Communists. Now that I work with French and US groups for a few years, they call me a foreigner."

It was all rather a contrast with last Thursday, which I spent entirely in the company of foreigners. We had dinner and drinks at the Mustafa Hotel (favorite haunt of expat journalists), whose slightly claustrophobic barroom offers glitzy mirror-mosaic decor, Beck and Guinness on tap, and a decent chicken tikka pizza. The bar is up a narrow flight of stairs, past several doors and a couple clusters of guards. A sign on the wall informs all concerned parties that under no circumstances will alcohol be served to Afghan citizens. When we left (the women shrugging their headscarves back on), we drove over to a compound inhabited by a haggard, hospitable Dane and a cheery Glaswegian Scot who invited everyone in sight to tomorrow's rugby game. About ten other young aid workers from all round Europe and Australia were hanging out on the couches, deconstructing music videos over screwdrivers and G&Ts. I added my American twang to the symphony of accents, and we whiled away a cheerful half hour in front of the TV.

Then began the remarkable quest for Thursday night parties in a city without addresses. In a country littered with mines and mujahidin, I think my life was most in danger that night, hurtling through the Kabul streets after dark with a tipsy, expostulating Scot as chauffeur: "Love the Afghans. Couldna find a kinder, more hospitable people. But get them behind the wheel of a car, and forget about it! Game over!" None of us quite knew where we were going, though as we trawled the area where the ICRC party was supposed to be, we encountered two or three other cars following the same rumor. Finally our little caravan arrived at the right street. As with most expat parties in Kabul, this one was marked by (1) a surreptitious X on the door of the compound, and (2) a couple dozen inconspicuous white SUVs with NGO logos and patient Afghan drivers parked along the roadside. We found the marked door and walked past the impassive guards into a different world. A sign by the entryway mandated a tequila shot for all comers (the three bottles were long empty). The house was packed with aid workers from all over the planet, drinking, dancing, talking shop. A long table held an international array of booze, from Australian wine to Latvian vodka to a particularly unpleasant ouzo. There was a bonfire in the backyard, and (as a surreal complement) someone had rigged a projector to shine the "Fire" animation from Windows MediaPlayer onto the ten feet of UNHCR-logo sheeting that topped the rear wall of the compound. We left an hour or so later, with our Aussie friend seeking directions on her mobile: "Yeh, we were just at that party, but it's a bit crap. Is the Bearing Point party on Flower Street? Is there room to park?"

It was loads of fun, and you can't deny all those hardworking expats a little festivity in a city as dry as Kabul. But the disconnect between the normal world of Kabul and the behind-heightened-walls party scene was striking; and naturally there are frictions. The UN has implored its staff to keep a lower party profile on a number of occasions. One of the previous hangouts was a pub established (brilliantly) across the street from a mosque, eventually forced to move due to bomb threats. As we were arriving last Thursday, a group of partygoers who missed the X on the door accidentally roused the unamused Afghan family across the street from their dinner. And the sight of the Afghan drivers waiting up til all hours to drive their drunken masters home was a bit distressing. Of course not everyone's comfortable walking home from parties (as P. and I ended up doing around 3 in the morning), but more efforts could be made to carpool.

Now, one similarity between expat life and Afghan life is that both are generally lived behind high walls -- which I found interesting, having heard plenty of criticisms in other countries of the comfortable "gated communities" in which aid workers isolate themselves. But in a culture as modesty-conscious as Afghanistan's, the gated compound is the norm, and mutual isolation in private life is a powerful social principle (though I hasten to add that hospitality and kinship are even stronger ones). Driving out of the city, I was struck by the walls everywhere -- high, narrow barriers of packed mud along field boundaries, brick walls parceling off empty blocks of mountainside. I commented that barbed wire would surely be a more effective way to keep the sheep out. "Sure," a friend responded, "but you want to be able to send the women to work in the fields. They can't do that effectively in a burqa." The daily trip from home enclosure to work enclosure isn't only an expat routine.

Our trip north of Kabul also brought the effects of the war into full focus. As we drove through the arid, misnamed Dih Sabz wasteland ("Sabz" means "green"), we kept passing the rusted wreckage of Soviet tanks and troop transports. Slowly the desert gave way to trees, walled fields and homes... with large white checkmarks painted on the mud walls, and lines of white stones along the roadside. "White means the deminers have been through here," a friend explained. "If you see red stones, stay the hell on the road. If you don't see any color stones, stay the hell on the road. If you see white stones, ask yourself seriously whether you have a reason to leave the road." As we turned onto the Bagram airbase road, our driver Basyir informed us that this had been the line of control between Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Taliban after the latter conquered Kabul. Both sides of the road were beautifully green, and clearly good farmland; both had been mined into uninhabitability by the rival armies over the years, and were only now recovering. In a bleakly appropriate coda, just as we finished discussing the rehabilitation of mined lands, a one-legged man on a bicycle pedaled gamely past our car.

But more than the mined farmland in the Shomali Plain, West Kabul is by far the saddest thing I've seen in the country. It was literally caught in the crossfire when the mujahidin began killing each other after driving out the Soviets; Aziz and Ainodeen laconically pointed out the specific surrounding mountains from which Gulbuddin, Massoud, and Dostum shelled each other and the city below. Thousands of civilians died. Hundreds of homes were leveled. And today, even after years of reconstruction, West Kabul is still a skeleton of a city. The giant Soviet-built grain silos on the highway have great scorched dents on the side where the shells hit them. The walls left from the bad old days are plasterless, pocked with bullet holes and shrapnel scars. The road in front of Kabul University has been fixed up a bit, but most of the other streets are still deeply pitted from bombs and barricades.

In Kabul it's common to see big metal shipping containers lined up by the side of the road; people keep them after shipments are delivered (perhaps because they choose to, perhaps because there's just not much to ship out of Kabul) and use them as shops or even homes. Along the main roads in West Kabul, you see bullet-riddled containers everywhere, and some are warped, convex, with jagged blast holes. I assumed they had all been used as barricades in the bloody street fighting of the civil war. Today I was told that the warlords had packed the latter containers full of prisoners and fired rockets into them -- execution, not war. Every time I begin to think my imagination is adequate to what happened here, I'm proved wrong again.

In general, please don't imagine that my mostly car's eye view (no pun intended) [ed: get it, Karzai? Joel shares the OxBloggers' taste for kabbalistically obscure puns...] of Kabul is adequate to the reality. There's more going on here than I could possibly pick up in a few weeks. I'll end with one of the things I saw in West Kabul that I found poignantly hopeful: a completely gutted warehouse whose ground level (extending for half a city block) was being used to store new bricks, stacked from floor to ceiling. The city is rebuilding. Kids are going to school in droves, including cute little headscarved girls. The only guns I've seen on the street have been carried by police and soldiers.

But it's clear from all reports that Kabul's relative stability and recovery aren't shared throughout Afghanistan, and Afghans continue to seek refuge in the capital for that reason. The ISAF armed forces here have been key to Kabul's recovery (notwithstanding the disgruntled banner hung from a wall near the heavily barricaded US Embassy: "Honorable International Societies! Have you come to Kabul to block our crossroads and roads?"). The sooner NATO achieves its stated goal of extending ISAF to the major regional cities -- not just Kunduz, though that's a good start -- the better.

And the sooner I get to bed, the better... it's only a few hours till breakfast...
For earlier Letters from Kabul from our worthy Afghanistan correspondent, see if you will here and here.
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