This is an update to a post I wrote in 2011, when Kabul was suffering frequent suicide attacks.
Aside from what to pack for Kabul, the most frequent question I’m asked is, “How safe is Kabul?”
The boiled down truth is that Kabul is not safe. It is the capital of a country at war, and coming here is a risk you need to seriously weigh against the good you think you can do. Staying safe is largely a matter of luck. People who do all the right things still get killed, while many reckless expats live on physically unscathed. The war in Kabul is like slow-rising floodwater, not a tsunami. This is what journalists mean when they refer to a rising tide of violence. It is overtaking every aspect of life, gradually, unevenly. Kabul experienced frequent attacks against civilians targets from 2009 through 2011, with Taliban suicide bombers taking out soft targets –shopping malls, supermarkets, and guesthouses. 2012 was eerily quiet, but now appears to have been an aberration as attacks are picking up again.
The longer you stay, the more likely it is that you will experience a spectacular attack firsthand. If you’re in the city for several months straight, you can count on being around for some kind of violent event; this is one of the grim mathematical truths of Kabul. Three weeks into my first year, Taliban commandos attacked a few blocks from my house. The massive car bomb jarred me awake and I lay on my bedroll listening to the ensuing gun-battle while my journalist housemate rushed into the mayhem, cameras in hand. You’ll never forget your first bombing — the sound of it and the indescribable change in the air in the moments immediately after the explosion. A friend of mine drove into an attack on a shopping mall during the summer of 2011. Before her taxi turned around, she saw a bloodied man being dragged away from the scene and a dismembered leg lying on the road. It was her first bombing.
But bombings are not how you will experience insecurity on a daily basis. Instead, you’ll experience insecurity in the subtle changes in the behavior and speech of your friends and colleagues; the shorter tempers, the depressed lethargy of your Afghan friends, the offhand remarks about not going for picnics at Qargha anymore because it’s not safe, and the tight faces of your fellow shoppers at the supermarket. You’ll feel the deterioration in the grumbling of restaurant owners pacing their near-empty establishments, the exodus of your fellow expats to Burma and Mali, and the shifting landscape of security barriers and checkpoints.
Expats here are always searching for the right combination of security measures, that elusive, magic formula that will absolutely ensure safety or, at the very least, dampen the post-tragedy “she/he was asking for it” talk that is so toxic within the expat community. You should follow your employer’s security rules or, if you’re on your own, take the advice of long-termers seriously, but short of sealing yourself off from ordinary Afghan life entirely there are few ways to better your odds. Your odds are still pretty good –most of your days will be blissfully quiet and boring– but if don’t think you can cope through occasional days and nights of surreal mayhem, you should consider working elsewhere.
Practical advice for the freewheeling newcomer:
Low profile is the name of the game. This means avoiding large, well-known guesthouses. Ask around before you arrive and stay with other expats in an established, out-of-the-way house, or, even better, with a combination of expats and young Afghan professionals. Look for a house with high compound walls, set back from the street, and located in a mostly Afghan or mixed Afghan-expat neighborhood.
Use reservation taxis if you need to use taxis. Avoid yellow taxis unless you are with a group of three or more people, including at least one large man and a Dari-speaker.
It is simply a matter of time until a suicide bomber blows up one of the high-end restaurants frequented by foreigners and Afghan civil servants, but you don’t have many other options if you want to have a social life.
Do your grocery shopping after dark. Suicide bombings are typically carried out in the morning and afternoon, and almost never happen at night. Avoid shopping on Fridays. The majority of all suicide bombings in Kabul happen on Fridays. Don’t shop alone unless you’ve lived in Kabul for several months. I’ve also found that, as a woman, it is a good idea to carry a baton of knife in an easy-to-reach pocket. Busy shopping malls, crowded streets and stairwells are the favored lurking sites of Kabul’s many bored, predatory teenage boys and men.
Follow it. If a situation appears benign on its face but feels sinister, get out ASAP. Your subconscious is picking up on something.
Very few roads are paved and Afghans drive aggressively. Wear your seat belt at all times. If your office’s cars don’t have seat belts complain until they do. Steer clear of traffic accidents, especially on the main roads leading out of the city, as these can quickly escalate to bloody brawls involving dozens of people and weapons. If a taxi driver is driving recklessly, complain to the dispatcher.
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Interesting to get the perspective of another aid worker in Afghanistan, however, I must disagree with some of the premises of your safety advice. I think aid workers here really need to acknowledge that the majority of people killed either by suicide bombers, armed groups, or military (international and national) are Afghans. Afghanistan is by far most dangerous for the Afghans themselves – not for the aid workers. Further, there is a notion that aid workers in this country are people who are interested in noble work for the betterment of humankind – that they are here for selfless reasons, because they believe in democracy, progress, equality, etc. I think this could really not be further from the truth. I think that the vast majority of aid workers are here for career advancement and monetary gains, and thus are willing to take the “risk” of working in Afghanistan. Also, these same workers are treated like elites – getting driven around everywhere, their homes cleaned, their clothes washed, their meals cooked – all expenses paid. There is also the unspoken way expats are engaged with, as if they are the most important people in any situation – their treatment of workers whether they are house cleaners, food delivery workers, drivers, security personal is appalling and would undoubtably be considered racist in their home countries. Whilst I also think that this attitude is really a reflection of the systematic and discriminatory power relations rampant in this country, and reinforced by the international community. Sometimes it feels that the lessons learned by the anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles the world over seem lost on otherwise intelligent, educated “aid workers”, who take no responsibility for their behavior or the elitist treatment they receive citing “security needs” or “that’s just how it is.” Whilst, I am also an aid worker, and also receive this treatment I do my utmost to challenge these norms as much as possible. I also break away from my security “requirements” whenever possible so that I might have a better idea of what this country is like for the majority of its people.
I think there needs to be a major change in the attitudes and perceptions of Afghans. International security premises its policies on this idea that every Afghan is a potential threat, which is a really impoverished way to approach the immensely important work and potential present here. I think aid workers should reassess why they are in Afghanistan, and structure their lives/work not around their personal security – but around the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of a people who have suffered 30 years of war. Perhaps, this is best done first by listening.
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