Proof of Life – Contemplating Mortality in Afghanistan

The majority of my readers will never spend a month in a conflict zone.

I’m in Kabul, Afghanistan until mid-August for work, closing down a USAID community stabilization project. I’m staying at ‘The Baron’, a secure compound a few minutes drive from Kabul International airport. Barbed wire, armed guards of various nationalities, bomb blast walls and lookout towers dominate the landscape.

The US government and most other nations strongly advise against traveling here. The US State Department says on its website, ‘the security situation in Afghanistan is extremely unstable, and the threat to all U.S. citizens in Afghanistan remains critical.”

When I arrived on June 30, I underwent a security briefing that included orientation about safe rooms, underground bunkers and various other mitigation procedures in cases of direct or indirect fire, bomb blasts or suicide bomber invasions.

It was sobering. I rarely think of my mortality, but being here, I still feel uneasy sometimes. I think most folks do, but we never discuss it and talk about attacks and security problems in abstract terms.

We are in a war-zone. The Islamic State is fighting the Taliban about three hours away and many think it is just a matter of time before their particular brand of horror visits Kabul city proper. The hell of the Taliban insurgency constantly rears its devilish head in the form of suicide bombers, car bombs and other instruments of destruction.

We know that our compound is a target because it is full of foreign contractors and those associating with them. I receive a security briefing email daily, which lists in slightly vague language, intelligence snippets that my security team received in the previous 24 hours of possible attacks and suspicious militant behavior throughout Kabul and the surrounding environs. Constant targets include, foreign compounds, guesthouses and the Kabul airport.

The feeling of insecurity is always just beneath the surface. It is a weird feeling. I do not walk around scared, yet my senses are peaked and I am vigilant. I have my day-to-day routine here, but complacency and belief in a false sense of security is dangerous.

I am not allowed to leave the compound. I cannot even go close to the main gates here.

The Baron has never been directly attacked. But can I really take comfort in that? For sure, it would take a coordinated military undertaking to breach this compound, but just because it has not happened so far, does not mean it will never happen. The Taliban or ISIL would be ecstatic to receive notoriety for assaulting this place.

As part of the security training during the first few days I filled out paperwork, one of which was a Proof of Life form.

The form required me to write three questions and answers that only Sasmita and very close family would know. I also had to sign my full legal name four times and then write my initials four times.

In another section I wrote free-form text, and then repeated the same text in all capital letters in the next box.

One question asked if I had a distinguishing or unique physical characteristic. How do I answer that? Is there a part of my body that is just so distinct it could offer reinforced proof that I am who say I am, confirming that I am alive or dead?

The questions were jarring, making me imagine terrifying scenarios of forced abduction, being taken as a hostage or something else similarly awful.

Thankfully those thoughts are rare, and everyday life is pretty normal save for the look of the surroundings. I cannot be captive to negative thoughts.

As I sit in my nicely appointed, air-conditioned room and write this post I feel pretty safe. And then see across the room my personal protection equipment below


and I remember that I am in Kabul, and safe is a relative term, even at The Baron.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *