The first three hundred minutes and counting

Photographs by Andrew Quilty 

This is an account of what you don’t see on the news after a suicide attack; the hours of standing in the dark and the cold, boredom and anxiety playing hacky-sack with your adrenaline levels.

This is my way of processing that sensory overload; an attempt to grasp why it didn’t feel so strange to be negotiating with a police chief about whether I would be his second wife, while simultaneously pushing for updates on the number of people murdered in the restaurant which lay just ahead on the street we wandered down.

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Outside my window today, the blue sky cuts through Kabul’s smog and a pigeon keeps watch on the fence behind our generator.

It’s exceedingly normal, really. Although I should caveat that by saying there’s 13 dead foreigners who have body bags and aircraft spots waiting to take them home. And there’s eight dead Afghans lying in the city morgue. Other than that, just your usual sunny Saturday.

But Friday, Friday was different. Friday was a day of firsts for me.

It was the first time I had taken a ride on a fair-ground pirate ship, its rusted pink metal seats and loosely hewn net veil the only nod to safety, the engine screaming on the down-swing like car tyres in a supermarket burnout.

It was the first time I had walked onto a part-frozen lake, far enough out that an unexpected crunch in the top layer of ice cracked a wave of fear through my body and made me laugh because I was too scared to cry.

It was the first time I’d been close enough to see the legs of a body lying prostrate across the pavement, almost concealed by the dark, and the cars parked with blown out windows bearing jewels of glass and shredded corrugated iron on their roof tops and bonnets.

And it was the first time I’d heard a gunfight and called a taxi so they could take us towards it, instead of locking the door and crawling in to bed like a normal person would.

But let’s begin in the rightful place: zero minutes.

It’s a snip past 7:15 in the evening and I’m reading about Hot Tamales on the Delta, absently pondering possibilities for dinner. Andrew has just lit the fire and is settling in with Ghost Wars. He’s about 60 pages in, up to the bit where they explain the real problem with Osama Bin Laden is that he was the 17th child of a man who fathered about 50.

From the corner of my consciousness I feel a bomb explode. It takes a beat or two to properly register.

We exchange looks. That one’s bigger than any I’ve heard so far, we say. My heart rate jumps, but still it’s quiet and warm in our room and there have been other innocuous bombings on and off since we arrived. Then gunfire rattles out.

Now that’s something different; something big. Shots pause, shots pause. Shots.

I’m off the bed and opening the window, thinking it’s got to be the fastest way to cop a stray bullet to the head, peering out into the dark scanning for signs of tracers or violence.

Andrew grabs his camera and is out on the balcony. The guesthouse manager is up the bamboo ladder trying to get a better look. Everything is quiet now. We’re told to get back inside, that it’s too dangerous to be out in the open. I smile politely. We’ll be right, sounds fine.

But it’s not. There’s a new wave of gunfire.

Fifteen minutes. We confer; weigh the pros and the cons of calling a taxi. I’m worried about the dark, and not knowing where the firefight is, or how many are involved. We call a taxi.

Eighteen minutes and we’re scanning Twitter, heart racing, excitement levels peaking. It seems the populace knows little more than we can ascertain. At last, confirmation it’s in the suburb next door. The cab arrives and we barrel in. ‘Hi, ah, we’d like to get as close to where the shooting is as possible, do you know where?’ (I gawph at the absurdity of what we have chosen to do for a living).

Street Fourteen, the driver replies, completely unfazed. I wonder how many times he’s transported journalists to the midst of crises. Later that night another freelancer says she used the same company. There must have been a congregation of private taxis at the checkpoint, like the congregation of press we eventually morphed with. Do they stop for a chat together, a gossip, a look around, like we all do?

I pull out the blue paper Foreign Ministry-issued press card, and shove it deep into my jacket pocket as we barrel past the first trucks and straggle of men blocking the street. Mad dogs and Englishmen, as the saying goes: they don’t even raise any eyebrow at the Westerners navigating the shadowy, potholed street in an attempt to get closer to the action, not that we have any clue about what, or where that action might be.

I see police with guns but that’s nothing unusual around here. The street is eerily empty at this end. A young Afghan in civvies keeps pace as Andrew and I stride into the dark. He casts surreptitious glances at me and I assume he’s a local journalist, but I don’t quite know. Throughout the evening, usually innocuous strangers who are not clearly press or police all take the guise of potential combatants. Ignorance heightens fear of the unknown: I can see it played out in micro between me and these strangers.

Thirty three minutes: conveniently, I have run out of credit on my phone. If there’s a time you need it, it’s now. I kick myself and leave the pack of young police officers I have been loitering amongst.

It’s a considered move because they were providing me human shelter as close to the front line as anyone could get, next to the huge police truck with mounted machine gun, and near the guy holding the RPG and the body armour that made him look 30 kilos heavier than he should have been.

“Don’t worry Miss”, a young guy tells me in his broken English. “If anything happens the Police Chief said he will put you in his car personally.” I look to my left and a shortish, greying man with a stout hat and shiny lapels is grinning up eagerly. I’m not entirely sure I wouldn’t rather brave whatever was in store on the street.

Thirty four minutes: A woman and her daughter are doubled over, using an open car door on their white Corolla for support. She is wailing, the daughter is dumbstruck. Two boys hold them by the shoulders. They were on their way to the restaurant when the attack happened. Their family is inside, our driver tells me as I look around the carpark for the usual boys selling phone credit tickets. I decide to run back and tell Andrew. There are no other journalists around. Here is an image of the human side of this disaster, an immediate reaction, unkept emotions. I hate myself as I run back to get him, but I don’t stop.

Forty six minutes: I’m back close to the police pack when there’s movement and a bunch of officers round the corner. It’s not immediately clear what’s going on until in the light we see them supporting a man, face bloodied, weak kneed, stunned. Is he a bomber, is he a civilian, was he in the restaurant? I have no Dari, and no idea. The language barrier makes me want to scream.  The police mob steer him towards the tray of a parked white Toyota truck and motion for him to get up. As he turns, his back catches the glare of a TV camera. It is torn apart, flaps creating shadows like the scales on a fish. It takes a moment to realise it’s the beige lining of his brown leather jacket, not his skin. He’s unable to muster strength or sufficient focus to get on the truck tray. They steer him around and half walk, half drag him away down the road.

One hundred and fifteen minutes: Still no clarity on fatalities, or even what exactly has happened. Complaints about not being able to get closer are met with news that in fact, the police aren’t entirely convinced that the area is clear of attackers. They have sent men in to scour house to house, looking for shooters who they think could be laying low – hiding or waiting for a chance at a second round. Oh, I think. Exciting. Drama. I am insane, at least for now. This is a different version of me, but I like it. At least for now.

One hundred and twenty minutes: a blonde woman who’s been wandering around with a flak jacket marked Press is corralling her cameraman into the middle of the road. She’s Al Jazeera, I learn later. I see her preparing to file to camera. She zips the blue flak jacket up higher, and adds on the thick collar, making her look like a serious reporter in a serious war zone.

Another British reporter with an equal dose of humour and skepticism is standing next to me in a fox fur hat and white shirt, smoking a cigarette. She’s much closer to the norm for the press contingent that has arrived. Many have come from parties, or dinners out at other restaurants with similar security provisions as the one that just got hit. ‘God it’s freezing,’ she says. ‘I think I’ll go home and put a hip flask ready in my grab bag for next time’. I think if it was me I’d be putting something larger than a hip flask.

One hundred and sixty minutes: We’ve been herded back down the street to a spot where prying eyes can’t get such a good look at the schermozle that is the police and military response to the disaster.

We’re standing precariously by one of the deep gutters that characterises the Kabul street sewerage and garbage collection system. “I had been thinking that I’d jump in the gutter when it all went wrong,” a fellow Aussie journo quips as he wanders up to say hi. “But shit, I’d have to seriously think about it now.” He looks down at the grey, part frozen liquid that has congealed in the long pits at this end of the street. It’s gross. I laugh, but think he’s got a good contingency plan and make a note to stay close to the gutters. Just. In. Case.

Andrew and I decide to cut free and nip round the back of the block rather than hang with the rest of the journos in the designated press area. It’s a successful ploy and we come out where it all started, amid a group of police who don’t look too troubled to see us breakaways. We stand for a while, the cold seeping into our feet and our hands.

One hundred and seventy five minutes: I’m in the midst of a discussion about whether I would possibly consider being the girlfriend of one of the police men that we are waiting with. His friend is translating for him, and I get the feeling he is taking liberties. Obviously, if I wanted to, I could be his second wife, but I’d already suggested that wasn’t my bag so he’d suggested friend, with a view to upgrading. It wouldn’t be the first time over the evening that a bored cop would make the effort to flirt, via a translator. I was charmed. How could I not be? There were at least three, possibly more, dead just a couple of hundred metres up the road but here we were dealing with the big issues.

Strangely though, amidst it all, I was enjoying myself and the absurdity of it.

The trouble is, you want to keep these guys on side because they’re the ones that give you access. You can flirt your way into, or out of pretty much any situation in Afghanistan. It’s a handy trick I learned on the first day when the guys at the airport tried to tell me I’d brought too many bottles of alcohol through customs. I find it hilarious, the ease. The amusement everyone gets. We’re all on the same page. We all think it’s a bit of a laugh, pushing boundaries. It’s a game that people get to practice on big occasions, like this one.

One hundred and eighty five minutes: An American journo standing near me gets chatting. She tells me how she’d just been screamed at by fellow Westerners, the first time it had happened in as long as she could remember. She was really rattled by it. What on earth happened? I ask.

She’d seen a EUPOL white 4WD parked on the street and noticed bullet holes in the side of the cabin. She was photographing them. Turns out the vehicle had taken fire possibly, possibly, she says, by the Afghan response team and there was a generally high level of sensitivity about it. Why am I not surprised? I should be. We should be.

One hundred and eighty eight minutes: boredom has well and truly taken root. We’ve been standing in the cold watching people wander about seemingly aimlessly for quite some time. We aren’t getting any new information – or any real information for that matter and we aren’t being allowed any closer to the blast site. Almost instantly that changes. There’s a young female Afghan photographer standing in close proximity, and the police chief (yes him with the earlier offer of safety in his nice car) points to her and motions her down the street towards the restaurant. If she’s going, we’re going. The American and I push forward, beaming smiles. We want in. Although to be fair, if it’s only one journo going in we’re all voting that it be her. It’s tough enough being a woman in this place, but trying to be a news photographer into the bargain? She can have all the breaks she wants.

But it turns out there’s room for all of us to walk down towards the action. We’re chuffed. The others are still back in the press pack corral. Ultimately it’s too dark to see much and even the police chief’s power is guzumped by the NDS boys when we get close. I see a guy with a video camera and I protest that if he’s allowed in, we should be too. Turns out he’s the NDS forensics guy filming a dead body lying on the other side of the car we’re next to. Oh right. We all laugh. Hilarious. Not a news camera at all. Fine. Carry on.

The police chief graciously marches us back from whence we came. I’m a bit disappointed. I wanted to get closer. I hadn’t really contemplated what I might see if I’d been allowed in. Hindsight kindly tells me it was a good thing we were stopped. I’m walking with the chief and his bodyguard has fallen behind. He’s trying to pronounce my name – Claire – It’s harder than it seems for most Afghans. Missing some consonants or an extra syllable or something. He starts reciting his phone number and makes me say it back, over and over. I get another offer of marriage for the evening. It’s been a bonanza. We arrive back in the midst of the cars and junior officers. I feel weird, but Im still having fun. Sort of.

Two hundred and two minutes. Andrew and I call it a day. We’ve seen ambulances arrive and disappear into the blast site vortex. It’s cold. We’re ready for home and the driver (poor guy) has been patiently waiting back at the carpark.

Three hundred minutes: Lying in bed, I’m half conscious that my pillow is damp with angry, quiet, tears.  No one has said much about the Afghan guards killed. I realise they were probably the same ones who shepherded us in and out of the restaurant on Monday. I can’t remember a single face.

I say this to Andrew. He’d already thought about it. He remembers them, or some of them. He remembers the one in particular who walked out onto the road with us, and was congenially counting off the number of people in our party to make sure we were all present and correct before we departed ways into the night towards our respective cars waiting, engines idling.

He opens his book and the makeshift bookmark floats onto the doona. It’s a 15 per cent discount token for our next meal at La Taverna.

Adrenaline is seeping out and the impact of the chaos, so invigorating only a few hours earlier, has taken its toll. I wont sleep for a few hours yet. Imaginings of what it would have been like inside the restaurant keep swirling, making me feel physically sick. It dawns on me that those gunshots we heard, they were killing people. I’m not sure why that seems like a revelation, but it is.

The muscles in my legs ache from weary tension. A light filters through the thin cloth curtain onto the wall. My mind traces the single tear as it travels a liquid path down my nose. I make no effort to brush it away: more where that came from.

And counting: This is what I’ve learned in the days since Friday, when we re-visited the site and began talking, in grabbed, sombre phrases, to people around town about it.

  1. That blood in a puddle looks more brown than red. That your brain will scour for an alternate explanation (red brake fluid? Strange coloured petrol leak?) rather than process the reality of the puddle, puddles – plural.
  2. That shock means you can walk around in the frigid air in a leopard print night gown and not feel the cold. This was Nadjia, whose home opposite the restaurant was now considered the public property of every journalist who wanted a look at just how awful it must have been (us included).
  3. That a bomb will blow out your front windows, but it will also blow entire doors clear off their frames all the way round the back of the house as well.
  4. That a dog, alone with its owner in the midst of a massacre will sit so close he is almost on top of her as they huddle behind flimsy curtains in the back room, keening and licking her feet as if, she tells me, to say ‘it’s ok, we’re in this nightmare together, it’s you and me’.
  5. That the two bodyguards shot dead outside her gate were young, funny boys. One had a three year old child. They were shot here and here, she tells us, pointing to her temple, then to her left cheek, just beside her open mouth.
  6. That the young girl who rode to the restaurant in a taxi with her colleague from the American University spent the trip good naturedly but unsuccessfully trying to convince him to have dinner at an alternate local haunt, The Gandamack.
  7. That I am embarrassed by my naïve bravado and ashamed at my egotistical complacency.
  8. That I can force myself to remember what this city felt like a week ago, but everything looks just a little bit different now.
    ImageA mix of Afghan army, police and US CRT (Crisis Response Team) men storm down Street Fifteen towards the restaurant cross road. They did this intermittently during the night, always making the waiting crowd of press jump with excitement. To no avail.

ImageWe still have no clarity on exactly who this was, we assume it was a pedestrian or possibly driver. He was dazed and unwittingly being paraded through flanks of press and bored police officers.Image

The narrow streets were jammed with an assortment of police vehicles, humvees and private cars belonging to government employees who’d arrived to take stock of the scene. This guy was heading back up Street 15 away from the cross street of the blast site.

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This is as close as the NDS would let us get early on in the night before they’d done a good job, as one resident said, of washing away the evidence and making the place look nice again for the press. You can see bits of metal fallen on the ground near the car that looks like it’s been in a head on collision. In the background on the left is La Taverna.

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Kabul police on the roads around the scene. ImageThe windows of the house opposite the restaurant blast site, at dusk, on Saturday.

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6 thoughts on “The first three hundred minutes and counting

  1. Great writing, again. But take care of your mental health over there. Sounds very heavy – no need to get PTSD on your first tour…

  2. To say this story is crass and unsympathetic to the people and country you are in would be an understatement. You are in Afghanistan! Not downtown Soho! How about you start writing like it instead of making us believe you are in some episode of Sex and the City.

    P.S. typos galore!

    • Coming from a stable country like Australia, I find that the article is written from a viewpoint that I can understand and empathise with, obviously as a native of Kabul you have a different viewpoint. And you must have some post-doctorate in English Literature if you can extract a ‘galore’ of typing mistakes – I assume that is what you are referring to with the use of the colloquial term ‘typos’.

    • On the one hand, I understand writing a stream-of-consciousness piece focussed on impressions. On the other, I did find her tone disagreeably glib and almost morbidly gleeful at times.

      Honestly, I think it’s the difference between being at the scene of a tragedy that affected others and being at the scene of a tragedy that affected you.

      Ordinarily, I’d have found an article like this distasteful but forgettable. But since I have spent the last few days I have been speaking to the families of two murdered friends and arranging memorial services for them, I actually find it pretty upsetting.

      And yes, I too have a 15% off voucher for La Taverna in my wallet. Isn’t it all terribly IRONIC?

    • “Darren” in the interests of free speech i have left your comment on the post, but I am at a loss to understand why you are fraudulently using Sydney Morning Herald editor Darren Goodsir’s old email address as your identifier. I contacted the real Darren, and he confirmed you are not him.

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