Is it safe?

This is an update to a post I wrote in 2011, when Kabul was suffering frequent suicide attacks.

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Cartoon by Matt Bors for Cartoon Movement. Yes, that’s supposed to be me.

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:

Housing

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.

Transportation

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.

Restaurants

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.

Shopping

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.

Your intuition

Follow it. If a situation appears benign on its face but feels sinister, get out ASAP. Your subconscious is picking up on something.

Roads

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.

Four walks at night

Walk 1.

May 1, 2010. Yakawlang district, Bamiyan province. Excerpt from a never-finished travel series.

The minibus stops in front of a river. A low yellow moon hangs above. I can just make out buildings. A young man who introduces himself as Salim, another AHRDO theater trainer, helps me carry my bags. I follow Bisharat, Salim and several others over a footbridge and through woods. We reach a dirt trail leading up a mountain. Bisharat points to lights high above. “That’s the Yakawlang Shohada  guesthouse, let’s go,” he says.  We hike up a mountain in the moonlight. The air is so clear it stings my lungs, which have for months been choked by dust and diesel from the streets of Kabul.

In the guesthouse, I find several men sitting on the floor of a livingroom dimly lit by a single fluorescent lightbulb. Yakawlang has a few hours of weak electricity at night thanks to a small hyrdo power station the valley residents built when they realized no one was coming to help them.

I sit down and Salim pours me some tea.

Walk 2.

September 14, 2010, four days before Election Day, from a journal entry titled “The fear.”

It is after midnight and I am sitting alone in a bright hotel conference room, typing a report that speaks to the corrosive effects of leaving killers in power for reasons of political expediency.

My phone rings. I pick it up. The question of who could be calling so late briefly flickers across my consciousness. Garbled Dari mixed with English. I can’t understand the words, but I understand the tone. I hang up.

Ringing again. Same number. Finally it disconnects. I turn back to the screen, to deleting the last two letters in a name that, when Googled, returns accounts of captives being crushed beneath tank treads. I replace the name with my favorite Afghanistan euphemism: “local powerbroker.”

Ring. Ring. Ring. The same number again, ending in 28.

I leave the phone. There’s no connection between the calls and what I’m writing. To think otherwise would be silly.

Josh walks into the room. I tell him I’m getting harassing phone calls again. He arches his eyebrows and asks, “Again?“

Checking my email inbox, I tell him about the calls, and about the time I received a text message from someone threatening to kill me by knocking out all my teeth and letting me bleed to death.

Josh tells me we will take taxis to work while he is in Kabul. The office carpool is fine, I say. He asks me how I can trust the drivers.

For a moment I puzzle over the question.

I just do, I tell him, shrugging. I have trusted them for months. Josh tells me that’s a poor justification for trust and the conversation ends.

It is nearly 2 am when I walk the 1/4 block home, alone. The street is dark when I leave the hotel. The faint light of a guard hut illuminates a soldier’s shape.

The soldier begins walking in my direction. No one else is around. My heart pounds. I reach for the comforting handle of my knife, and then remember that I gave it to my housemate.

The soldier picks up his pace. I freeze in the alley that runs alongside my compound. From probably 60 feet away, the soldier calls out, “No danger! No danger!”

My key tuns in the lock and the heavy gate opens. Hands shaking, I throw the deadbolt and run to my front door.

Walk 3.

October 2, 2010, from a journal entry titled “24 years; blood and vodka.”

My red scarf clings tightly to my face, showing only my eyes and the tips of my bangs, as I hurry through the nighttime streets. Passing cars honk, and guards call to me in singsong voices and then laugh heartily amongst their compatriots.

The dark hours belong to men in this country. A woman’s presence on the streets after sunset is treated as both an infraction and an open invitation.

I try to ignore the leering and whispers. Then a van swerves and slows next to me. Young men open the door and call to me. I leap clumsily across the open sewer and slide into a pile of rubble. The van drives on.

Waiting outside the gate of the UN guesthouse, I feel tacky wetness under the toes on my left foot. I look down and see my shoe covered in dark blood.

Walk 4.

January 4, 2011, Adams Morgan, Washington, DC.

A and I linger in the diner after Solmaz leaves. We finish the last of the cider and get the check. The air outside is full of cold and electricity. We decide to stay out a while longer. The apartment I’m subletting is at least a mile away, but I don’t mind walking, and neither does A. I see it as such a luxury now, I tell him. He gets that.

We leave the bright lights behind and hope we’re headed in the right direction. I have the urge to skip along the sidewalk like I did as a child. I want to twirl in the crosswalk. I love these benevolent streets. My luck at being able to call them my own is incalculable.

What to wear in Kabul

The updated guide is here.

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A lot of expats stress over dressing for their first stint in Kabul. Well, fear no more, first-timers! I’m here to take the stress out of putting together your wardrobe.

For the womenz

Don’t

Tell yourself:

A) “It’s Afghanistan. They don’t care about fashion. I can just pile on some baggy old things and be good to go.”

Um, no. Afghans, even poor Afghans, care about fashion as much as people of any other nationality. And Kabul, being the capital, is actually pretty fashion-conscious.

B) “It’s Afghanistan. I will be wearing a burqa or a niqab or a chador over an abaya all day.”

No, you won’t. And you definitely, seriously, really do not need to wear a burqa i Kabul. Probably ever. If you even try, you’ll never live it down. Unless your office is unusually conservative and difficult (in which case, attire will be the least of your concerns), your Afghan colleagues will make fun of you if you overdo covering.

Do

Cover your hair. A hijab will suffice just fine, and it can be styled a number of different ways.

I generally go with the look on the right while moving about the city during the day, the style on the left while traveling at night, through checkpoints and in unfamiliar neighborhoods.

A lot of the time, though, I end up with this.

Cover your butt. Your shirts and jackets should be at least long enough to reach mid-thigh. Knee-length or calf-length is even better.

Cover your arms and chest. Shirts, tunics and jackets should not be low-cut and sleeves should reach your wrists.

Cover your legs completely. Skinny jeans are in fashion right now among young Kabuli women. Wide-leg trouser jeans are popular with female expats. You can also pair a maxi skirt with a long top and a jacket.

Other stuff

Shoes are also your call, but keep in mind that Kabul’s streets are rutted, unpaved, and dusty. And when they aren’t dusty, they’re muddy.  If you won’t be doing much walking, just bring the shoes you would wear at home. Strappy heels, flip flops, platforms, pumps, boots and sneakers are all permissible.  If you will be walking, make sure your shoes are sturdy and have enough of a heel to keep your skin above the mud, broken glass and polluted water. Bring rainboots!

Office Attire

Most offices are casual, but you will need at least one dressy outfit for formal meetings. A pair of dress pants and a dark sweater dress over a white tunic is a pretty standard coordination/donors/diplomatic meeting outfit.

The woman in the photo below is an American designer, but her outfit is the kind of thing younger women professionals wear in Kabul.

Winter (December, January and February)

Kabul rarely dips below freezing during the winter, but few offices and houses are well-heated.

Essentials:

  • Lined, waterproof boots
  • Wool tights or thick leggings to go under pants
  • A knee-length winter coat

Dressy coat.

  • Fleece pajamas
  • Warm sweater dresses

Wear this over a long-sleeve top and pants, with a pair of ankle boots and a warm pashmina. Ta-da! Your Monday morning outfit

  • A fleece bath robe for around the house

Spring (March and April ) and Fall (October and November)

Muddy, clammy, unpredictable.

Essentials:

  • Rainboots
  • A lighter coat

Summer (May, June, July, August and September)

Hot, dry, dusty.

Essentials:

  • A woman’s shalwar kameez is your best friend

You can buy a shalwar kameez in any of the bazaars in Kabul, or at shops in the malls, Roshan Plaza, The Gulbahar Center, and City Centre. Or, you can pick one up at an Indian or Pakistani shop at home before you leave. These outfits are light enough to be comfortable during the hot months, but you will need to get them tailored to fit you. Kabul is full of tailors.

  • Light tunics and manteaus

These women are Iranian, but the same style is popular in Kabul. A light manteau is a summer wardrobe staple.

  • Cotton pants
  • Sandals
  • A light cotton robe for around the house and over pajamas

Beyond Kabul

If you are heading out int rural areas, consult your Afghan colleagues about what to wear. They will give you helpful tips, and might even offer to take you shopping or let you borrow something from their own closets. In general, rural areas are more conservative, but different rules apply in different areas of the country. For example, you might need to wear a burqa (some of the time) or an abaya, or at least a bigger, longer scarf,  if you are traveling in the rural south, but you don’t even need to cover your hair in the far northeastern Wakhan.

For the menz

Guys, you will have an easy time dressing for Kabul.

For formal meetings, a regular business suit or a pair of dress pants and a button-down shirt will do.

For the rest of your stay, go with jeans and long-sleeve t-shirts. Shorts aren’t socially accepted and few Afghan men wear t-shirts in public. That said, t-shirts won’t get you into any kind of trouble in Kabul, while shorts will ensure you are the center of attention –in a bad way.

Bring a pair of flip-flops, a pair of study sandals, and a pair of sneakers.

If you are heading into the countryside, you may need to dress differently. Always, always, always consult your Afghan colleagues about local and regional dress codes.  If you do need to wear something you didn’t bring, ask an Afghan friend or colleague to help you shop for it in Kabul.  There are many shops in the Shar-e Naw area where you can find what you need, and Chicken Street is a reliable place to find a low quality, overpriced shalwar kameez and accessories in the pinch.

A story from the other side of the world

A Twitter link led me to Blog-a-stan, the blog of an American Ph.D student doing her dissertation research in Kazan, Russia. Immediately, I was hooked by the author’s dark humor and storytelling. And when I came to the half-way point in a post titled Sud’ba (“Fate”) I stopped, and shivered, because I knew the story already.

Read, and then I’ll explain.

Tanya was sitting wrapped in a goat fur blanket rocking herself back and forth. It was only 8pm but they seemed to have already finished off a bottle of vodka and Valeria was now opening the second. “Leslie, come, sit, eat with us” she said. “Oh I just ate” I said but sat down for conversation. Tanya was moaning and crying and Valeria began to explain that her only daughter had just died. “It was a stomach illness. They did an operation but 100 days later, two days ago, she died. She was 37 years old.” Tanya sobbed and shook. I said how sorry I was to her, my eyes wide, slowly becoming conscious of the fact that I was rocking back and forth on my own chair empathetically. “Sud’ba” Tanya shook her head, “Sud’ba,” she sobbed as she tightened the goat hair blanket around her. I tried to remember the word, which I knew I knew but couldn’t find in my head at the time, only to look it up in the dictionary later and remember it: “Fate.” Valeria explained that Tanya’s husband had died five years ago of cancer so now she was all alone in her house. And she continued, hesitantly, touching my arm as she explained, “Tanya can’t sleep at her place any more. It’s just too sad for her there. Would you mind if she stayed here with us for awhile?” For a moment, and I know this is awful, but for a moment the thought crossed my mind that the dead daughter was an elaborate ruse and that they were together and felt they needed to come up with an excuse for Tanya sleeping over all the time. “Of course I don’t mind,” I said with the utmost sincerity, whichever story was true I was happy to have Tanya stay. From then on I became accustomed to walking in to find Tanya with Valeria at the table, a bottle of vodka by her side that they would stay up late drinking rocking back and forth and talking about “Sud’ba.” Valeria too is a victim of Sud’ba at the moment as her ex-husband is currently insisting she sell the dacha she uses on the weekends and there’s nothing she can do about it. Both situations strike me as things we would deal with not just emotionally but practically through lawyers in the States to regain our control over the situation. We would find a pretense for suing the hospital for the botched operation, take the husband to court to insist on our right to half the property, maybe even the whole thing. And while this wouldn’t take the pain away, particularly in the first case, it would at least give us a feeling of some agency over this damn Sud’ba.

Yes, I know this story, with some slight differences. My version has loose leaf tea instead of vodka, an old comforter from Bagram Airbase instead of a goat hair blanket, and a young Afghan man in the place of a middle aged Russian Tatar woman.

But the grief-stricken rocking, and the wide-eyed American, and the very real, physically wrenching absence of justice, the rule of law and human agency are the same. So is the sud’ba.

Investigation into Linda Norgrove’s death launched

From the New York Times:

Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday that a British aid worker killed in an American rescue raid in Afghanistan last week may have been killed by a grenade detonated by a United States special forces unit — not by her Taliban captors, as the American command in Afghanistan originally announced.

A grim-faced Mr. Cameron appeared at a news conference at 10 Downing Street to say he had learned of “this deeply distressing development” when the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David H. Petraeus, contacted his office early Monday. “General Petraeus has since told me,” the prime minister said, that an American-led review of the raid to rescue Linda Norgrove, 36, “has revealed evidence to indicate that Linda may not have died at the hands of her captors as originally believed.”

He added: “That evidence and subsequent interviews with the personnel involved” — believed to have included a Navy Seals unit specializing in hostage rescues that that has participated in numerous special forces raids in Afghanistan — “suggest that Linda could have died as a result of a grenade detonated by the task force during the assault. However, this is not certain and a full U.S./U.K. investigation will now be launched.”

As I wrote before, ultimate responsibility for Norgrove’s death rests with the men who kidnapped her. But emerging evidence that American soldiers might have accidentally killed the woman they were trying to rescue just lends more credibility to the argument that armed rescues in Afghanistan are likely to end in tragedy.

Kidnappings are an evil. They foist wrenching choices onto those who care about the victim, even when armed rescue isn’t a possibility.

The realtors who helped me find my current house were kidnapped by the Taliban in Ghazni and tortured for two months. The abuse inflicted on them was obvious even months later. One realtor limped from having his feet smashed, and both were partially deaf from beatings and missing most of their teeth. They were freed when their families paid a staggering, ruinous sum to the kidnappers. The payment of that ransom saved two lives, but undoubtedly encouraged subsequent kidnappings in the same area, many of which have ended with bodies dumped in ditches.

Don’t rescue me

Today, kidnapped British aid worker and DAI employee Linda Norgrove was killed by her captors during a rescue attempt by international forces.

While I agree with British foreign secretary William Hague that “Responsibility for this tragic outcome rests squarely with the hostage-takers,” Norgrove’s death is a good illustration of one reason why, if I’m ever kidnapped here, I do not want to be rescued.

Afghanistan isn’t Hollywood; hostages are likely to be killed in armed rescue attempts.

The other reason I don’t want to be rescued is the sad fact that rescue attempts, even when they succeed, can and often do result in collateral damage.

The cost of rescuing New York Times correspondent Stephen Farrell last year was the lives of at least three innocent Afghans, Farrell’s Times colleague Sultan Munadi, a civilian Afghan woman and child (members of one kidnapper’s family, but surely blameless in the kidnapping), and a young British commando.

Farrell will have to carry that burden for the rest of his life.

I don’t want that.

So, no rescue. And no ransom payment. If I am unlucky enough to fall into the hands of people who intend to harm me or use me for political ends as a captive, by all means engage them in dialogue. Please, try to talk them down, but pay them no money and raise no weapons in defense of my life.

Those are my wishes, now in writing.

Getting sick in Kabul

I’ve been out of work for two days.

On Wednesday morning, I woke up and was sick to my stomach. Then, my head began pounding. Unable to muster even the energy required to towel dry my hair, I crawled back into bed and lay there until my driver called. I couldn’t move. Something was really wrong. After being ill for months and having my sickness come in waves, allowing me good days and ok days in between the hellish ones, I could no longer ignore the fact that I was falling apart physically. And I couldn’t put off getting treated until my R&R in late December.

My friend Nafi drove me to the German Clinic in Shar-e Naw, one of two high end clinics that serve foreigners and affluent Afghans. (Everyone else goes to the public hospitals and dubiously accredited private doctors –if they’re lucky).

Nafi waited as the doctor examined me.  My pallor and slow, woozy reactions alarmed her. I was dehydrated and anemic, and when she pressed on my stomach, I winced in pain. I was sick, she said, very sick.  Why had I not gone home to the US? I muttered my excuses: work, the elections, money worries, not wanting to upset my Afghan colleagues. The doctor tsk tsked disapprovingly, and expressed surprise that I was still on my feet.

Tests later confirmed that I had two bacterial infections, one of which had been let go so long it had riddled my stomach with ulcers to the point I was no longer able to digest anything. It was as if I had barely eaten in weeks, and had been on a crash diet for months. No wonder my hair was falling out. The doctor gave me five prescriptions and instructed me to rest, eat soft foods, and take lots of liquids.

Not content with breaking my heart a thousand times over, Afghanistan had to break my guts as well.

On the bright side, my guts will make a full recovery.

Who wants to move into a frat house in Shar-e Naw?

The Survival Guide to Kabul is a bulletin board for foreigners living in Afghanistan’s dusty capital. It functions like a kind of primitive Craigslist for expats. People post housemates wanted ads, request recommendations for fixers and hotels in different parts of the country, inquire about gear rentals, and consult the expat hive mind with “is it safe to…” questions.

Occasionally, the Survival Guide provides a sad example of expat assholery. The following actual post is one such example.

2 Long Term furnished rooms for rent in a quiet MOSS compliant shared Republican American home in Shar-e-Naw. Full time electricity and Internet. Garden, balconies and a back deck with interior parking for 1 vehicle.

Cowboys, party animals, aid workers, TCN’s* or journalists need not apply. Contractors and builders welcome.

$1,200USD per month.

*For those of you not familiar with the lingo, TCN means “Third Country National,” and usually refers to aid/development workers from the global south.

Rich, foreign jerk

Work refunds my airline tickets to Afghanistan. I ask for small bills, and all Afghan currency. N gives me a wad of American hundred dollar bills.

It’s dark by the time I get back to the house, so I ask Max to walk with me to the grocery store. As we pass the vendors chatting and roasting nuts and families strolling to the mosque together, I feel extremely foolish. What am I afraid of? Why did I drag my housemate away from his movie to babysit me while I shop for canned soup?

Because you don’t want to to be kidnapped, I tell myself.  Because walking with a man at least ensures you will have a witness the courts in this country will take seriously. Because you don’t want to be alone.

I throw my groceries into the red plastic basket and bring them to the register. The  teenage cashier rings them up and I reach into my bag. The hundred dollar bills. I hesitate and grimace as I hand one of them over. The boy gives a little sigh and pulls out his calculator. I bite my lip.

To the Afghans watching, I know what this must look like: another rich, foreign jerk, lavishly salaried for easy work, rubbing her dirty money in the faces of people who will work themselves into early graves without ever handling such sums.

“Don’t worry about it, ” Max tells me as we leave the store.

Beggar children gather. I don’t have change for them.