Monday, 24 September 2012

Kabul Diaries

(Originally on 13 August, 2012.)

When he learned that I was about to move to Afghanistan, my professor suggested that I should keep writing Kabul Diaries, telling some of what I can tell. About life in a country that is one of the world's poorest (on a level where its company is shared mainly just by countries of Black Africa), one among if not the most conservative Muslim country in the world, and perhaps also one of the world's most feared places, at least if one believes in news reports. Of course one shouldn't always believe. Yet it must be confessed that Kabul is not quite your average idyllic holiday destination.

There was an air of some nostalgia about my return to this place. It is namely here where my international career in a way started, ten years ago in 2002, when the seven years of Taliban tyranny in Afghanistan came to an end, and enter the latest of the many consequent phases of wars and power struggles in the history of this South and Central Asian nation.

Back then I was a student boy filled with enthusiasm and curious like a Mars rover, my wallet empty but compensated with lots of creativity in finding the cheapest ways of transport and accommodation. My hometown back then was the neighbour's capital Islamabad. There I lived in the attic of a civil society activist, sharing my studio with rats and cockroaches, with the flying foxes hanging in the tree behind my only window. Islamabad was a pleasant place for a naturalist, surrounded by lush gardens, the green Margalla Hills, and the wetlands of the Rawal Lake. But for a restless soul Pakistan soon appeared too calm, and therefore I couldn't resist the call of my first mission in Afghanistan.

I still vividly recall the first time when my plane descended into the valley where, surrounded by mountains, Kabul is located. One runway had been cleared for civilian airplanes, but scattered all around it you could see the remains of blown-up airplanes. Parts of the airport were still mined.

In many other ways, too, Kabul has changed from what it was ten years ago. Back then, only one road was paved with asphalt - the one that leads from Kabul eleven kilometres to Pul-i Charkhi, where the camps of the international troops were located. Back then, most of Kabul's buildings were damaged or ruined. The half-empty, echoing and Soviet-styled Intercontinental accommodated most of the foreigners, but as a poor guy I preferred to stay in the central Hotel Mustafa near Chicken Street. Seeing the Chicken Street last week gave me an eerie feeling of familiarity with my past life.

Otherwise it's hard to recognize Kabul as the same city it used to be. Streets are asphalted. The city centre is full of modern commercial buildings, shops and markets. There are illuminated advertisements in the roundabouts and there are traffic jams all over, because return migration has made Kabul a metropolis of five million inhabitants. Unfortunately that can also be felt in the city's pollution level, which together with the dust storms blowing from the highlands makes my eyes tired and nose sniffy.

The rhythm of life in my current job is quite different from ten years ago. Even though back then Afghanistan was in ruins and much less stable than now, I used to walk around in the city, take local taxis and minibuses. My interpreter was a college student who had recently returned from a refugee school in Pakistan, but he spoke better English than hardly any of the adult population of Afghanistan.

Now it's a city filled with various international organizations, UN agencies, peacekeepers, embassies, missions, aid organizations, NGOs, entrepreneurs, security companies and delegations. They're all moving around in armoured vehicles with armed musclemen, distributing money left and right, but keeping isolated from the Afghans and their society and secluded in their own compounds, closed streets, guarded quarters and expat scenes, where Westerners gossip with other Westerners. Everything has become so much heavier, so much more expensive, and so much more difficult. Security hysteria dominates all actions on an outright absurd level.

Thus, for at least the two first weeks here, I've had to forget about strolls in Babur's Gardens and views from Balahisar. Instead, I've battled for days to make electronics work, and used my creative talents to arrange things so that now the internet works so-and-so (as you can see from this blog), and at evenings I can watch Indian and Arab satellite channels showing American movies and soap operas and Japanese cartoons, like any television stations anywhere in the world.

So far I have to forget also about my ornithological hobby, until I find ways to go out to the countryside without causing anyone a heart attack. At least there's a small yard behind the window of my tiny office room, and there I can see Tree Sparrows, Palm Doves, Common Mynas and Brahminy Starlings. When the dusk falls and the chawkidars of the street get ready for their iftar, the Common Mynas and Rose-ringed Parakeets, which are common in the city, fly screaming to their roosts. The city gardens are in fact among the few remaining gatherings of trees remaining in this part of Afghanistan. Some mountain forests may still persist in Kunar and Nuristan, but the central highlands are desolately bare and overgrazed.

Next weekend there's the Eid al-Fitr, the feast ending the Ramadan. The leader of the Taliban Mulla Omar has at least announced that attacks to Afghan civilian targets are then considered haram and against Islam. Unfortunately another extremist group, the Haqqani network, seems to have promised paradise for those who strike against foreigners during the Eid. On a daily basis somewhere in Afghanistan a roadside bomb goes off or a shooting rampage takes place, the number of casualties has actually gone down with fifteen percent compared with last year. It's evident the extremist groups have shifted from guerrilla tactics to targeted attacks.

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