Kites and Thieves: first days in Kabul

It’s a funny old place, Kabul.

Within a week you stop noticing the razor wire and the profusion of bored men with guns*. You grow bold enough before breakfast to venture out on your own for fresh, warm, salty sweet bread from the man down the road, all the while thinking: “hmmm, wont be able to do this for breakfast every day. Must avoid forming habits. How many minutes have I been outside the compound. Must walk different routes as much as possible. Why is that guy looking at me funny. Is my phone charged. Wow that’s a big gun. Bit smoggy today. Shit the temperature’s really dropped overnight. I wonder if it’s safe to walk to the army disposals store for a quick look. Will we have time to see the Turquoise Mountian bazaar before the embassy party tonight. What am i going to wear”.

Panic ensues. It seems, as the war winds down, the greatest concern is not personal safety but personal grooming.

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AQ and I arrived in to Afghanistan for the first time late on Tuesday. I’d like to say, so far, we’re having a blast – but that would be in poor taste.

On Wednesday morning, the Taliban had a crack at an Germany convoy entering the Airport, detonating a few explosives but without any success.

On Thursday, something went boom very close to the US Embassy. Close enough that a contact who was inside for a meeting at the time said flack jackets were donned, to the sound of loudspeakers proclaiming “This is not a drill. Duck and Cover. Duck and Cover.” It turns out that an electrical fault had ignited a store of confiscated explosives in a government compound next door to the embassy. It didnt help that the confiscated stash also included stockpiles of ammunition, which by all accounts went zinging round the place for quite a few minutes afterwards, giving the impression of a first-class firefight. Welcome to Afghanistan.

Had we not been around other journalists, we wouldn’t have know about any of this. The city rolls on, weary; oblivious.

As journalists, particularly freelancers, we have huge amounts of freedom, by Kabul standards, to venture where we want. But until we realised this, the first days were incredibly frustrating, not being allowed to just walk outside and wander the city. Trusted taxis or drivers must be used to get anywhere further than a couple of blocks away. You’re not meant to go out on your own. You cant just meander down the shopping strip. Every outing should be taken with a view to how long you’re away from a point of safety (ie the compound), how quickly telephone calls could be made by strangers alerting their friends to your presence on the street.

It sounds awful, doesnt it. But we’re the lucky ones. Embassy staff, international aid workers and military all basically exist in the city under house arrest. Some make an irregular habit of ‘jail breaking’ to play sports or have a contraband drink with friends, but some have normalised to their circumstances. When we asked a british contact if they were sick of staying within the compound, the response came “oh, no it’s completely fine. I mean, I guess I havent been out since I got back but that was only two weeks ago.” Two weeks without going out into the streets, interacting with the locals. Taking part in life outside the confines of five metre high concrete blast walls. That is not normal.

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The same contact who was inside the US embassy on Thursday was talking about the normalisation of this insular living. A female friend, they said, was an analyst and policy implementer for one of the US government’s Afghan civilian programs in and around Kabul. “You know,” she told this contact, “It would be really great to actually meet a young Afghan civilian. I’ve never met one.”

There’s a few other things that aren’t quite normal, like being out at a bar (drinking in an Islamic state is incredibly easy for expats, and happens every night, judging by what we’ve been involved in so far) and watching the clientele streaming in the door, stripping off their coats and scarves and dropping them on the couch near the entrance. Amongst the crowd, one guy walked in and peeled off his flack jacket and dumped it on the growing pile. Seriously. What kind of place are you in where people coat-check body armour before having a drink? No-one even blinked.

It’s a strange feeling to have the city so tantalisingly close and yet, just out of reach.

The skies have been a brilliant, cloudless blue, and the temperature – up until last night – that invigorating mix of crisp and intermittently warm. There’s snow on the hills and at night, lights blink through the smoke of hundreds of wood fires burning in homes and bakeries around the city.

On Fridays, Kabul’s Hash House Harriers – the self proclaimed ‘Drinking Club with a Running Problem’, give expats an opportunity to get out in a bunch and run, or walk, the streets of the city in relative safety. We joined them yesterday and it was a revelation. Up on the hills kids are playing cricket and soccer, young boys are playing with wooden hoops, kites are flown and groups of teenagers sit around chatting – or staring at the expats wandering by. “There’s a lot of theft up here, it’s actually quite bad, so just be careful”, we were warned.

I get the feeling that everything here comes with a caveat.

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*Q – What do you call a budgerigar with a gun?
A – Sir

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