In the early weeks of August this year, Kabul was hit by a series of attacks, which killed more than 100 and wounded scores. Three weekends ago, I spent hours in the Baron safe-room and each subsequent blast, instead of being easier to process, became more difficult. The fact that they became familiar was more terrifying, not less.
I read an article recently about the moral complications of disaster rescue, in terms of socio-economic ability. Basically, if you have money, you are evacuated. It is a harsh reality. As I arranged to leave Kabul, I thought of my privilege as an American to board the plane, leaving the country and its unique troubles miles away.
As those bombs blared, my mind and heart focused on Kabul’s residents. For them, a truck detonating a bomb, leaving a crater almost 30 feet deep in the road is their life. This is their existence; they know nothing different. The time I spent there was like stepping away from real-life back in Washington, D.C.
Sure, the consequences of my activities or actions against me were 100% real, but I always knew, that if things became too terrible at the Baron, I would be evacuated. My time in Afghanistan had an ‘expiration’ date. Unless something singularly awful happened, I knew I would be on a 6pm flight from Kabul to Dubai on August 15 and I was.
But I also know there is nothing remotely ‘fair’ about that. I have the benefit of living where warfare, like the Taliban, or foreign invasion is not part of my country. An event like 9/11/2001 is so isolated, nothing close to it has occurred in nearly 15 years. Contrast that with Kabul proper, which was hit by a truck bomb and three suicide bombers in the space of 72 hours three weeks ago. The Afghan police, security services and military thwart militant attacks almost daily there.
There was another result to living there with the specter of violence; everything became more real. An attack was no longer a statistic or an event in some remote part of the world. Those attacks happened and I could feel and hear them.
After we received the ‘all clear’ from Baron security after the airport attack, my room key card no longer worked and I went to the reception office to get a new one. The woman behind the counter was focused on Dari news, showing video of the unfolding event, with tears streaming down her face. She said her father worked at the airport, often drove into town for lunch and she had yet to hear from him. I listened with concern and said I hope he’s fine, but those words were formality and I had no idea what to say. I returned to her office later that to ask about her father. He was safe.
It is one thing to read about terrorism and watch video about militant activities. It is quite another to be sitting in a garden, enjoying an evening with friends and a glass of wine, when suddenly the ground shakes beneath you and the glass moves across the table’s surface on its own, because of the explosive repercussion. A few times I awoke in the middle of the night, because I thought I heard a boom and could feel my room’s walls slightly moving. The emergency alarm blared two seconds later confirming my suspicions.
In talking with local program staff, I heard their tales of bloodshed, and war. Almost all have personal narratives of escaping on-going attacks or leaving an area, minutes before one occurred. Some had accounts of being kidnapped by Taliban or other militants for ransom. Most had friends or family affected by the Taliban and some even knew Taliban members.
Those were the stories of people I consider friends. When I heard a blast or felt the ground shake from a bomb, my thoughts turned to them and their families. I tried to communicate with them immediately, ensuring they and others I know were ok. I found out two days before leaving, a colleague’s car was damaged in the airport suicide attack. Thankfully everyone was unhurt.
A local jeweler visits the Baron on occasion, selling his wares. We talked about his family after the recent spate of attacks. He explained that the roof of his mother’s house collapsed from the massive truck bomb. He said his business was failing because it’s too dangerous for people to go to bazaars and his store. His sole business now was from Baron residents. I saw the pain in his eyes and heard the resignation in his voice. ‘This is Afghanistan,’ he said, those three words summing up his entire mindset.
Everyone’s life is affected, if not personally, then within one degree. There are none unscathed. Afghans bears the emotional, if not physical scars of years of war and instability. I asked returning staff on Sundays (Friday and Saturday is their weekend), how their weekend was, a common answer I heard was, ‘we took our children to the park, they have to get out of the house, but it is too dangerous to go to the markets or walk around on the streets.’
As I prepared to leave on Saturday, August 14, the security team was working on an alternative travel route to the airport. They wanted to skip the checkpoints outside the terminal, which I wrote about here, and instead drop me off inside the airport parking lot via a bus from a US military base.
Eventually the plan fell through, and I voiced my surprise to my security guard Craig. I asked him if he thought it was safe for me to risk the road checkpoints. His response: ‘well mate, the Afghan locals do it every day, so we should be okay.’ He is right. As a foreigner I could try a complicated work-around solution to the road checkpoints, but Afghans do not have that choice.
I only left the Baron two separate times during my six weeks in Afghanistan. Afghans have to drive the roads, or walk in the streets for work, for school and for daily life. They do not have the luxury of having the decision made for them or deciding to burrow away in their houses, waiting for a safer time as I did. There is no safer time for them. Kabul is their home.
I am back in the US and thankful as a US citizen I’m given so many choices most of the rest of the world only dreams of, including the option to visit a war-torn country, staying only for a little more than a month.
Afghanistan is far away, and soon I will return to my normal routines. My mind turns to my Afghan friends, for whom their day-to-day activities are fraught with danger and risk. I wonder if they are ok, and hope their families are safe because Kabul is dangerous. I should know – I had the privilege to leave.