Kabul - a traveller’s modern eye witness report

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Kabul - a traveller’s modern eye witness report

Post by JnKln »

Good evening everybody,

I finally started rewriting, sorting, adding and adjusting my journal entries from 2 years ago. Since then Kabul has always been on my mind. I can say it changed both my perception of and perspective on this world.
There is more to come and it might possibly get published.
For those who are interested in Afghanistan take is as a first overview, a subjectively biased report. There is no way getting around making one's own experience to which I can only encourage you.
Names are abbreviated, many characters and their personal stories are deliberately left out.

This is dedicated to the people of Kabul - my deepest respect goes to them.

I wish you all very safe roads and a happy new year 2019!

Kabul - a traveller’s modern eye witness report

Kabul - Mon, 26th December 2016

Kabul - the city that has been calling me for the past two years. Afghanistans capital extends at the foot of the slopes of the Hindu Kush mountains on an elevation of 1800m above sea level. Kabul’s estimated 3.7 million inhabitants are of diverse ethnic origin.

A PIA Pakistani Airlines propeller aircraft brought me here from Islamabad. With a cruising altitude of only 18.000 feet we made our way from Islamabad towards Peshawar, crossing the non-accessible Federal Administered Tribal Areas, the infamous Khyber Pass into Afghan territory via Jalalabad into Kabul. The landscape between these two capitals is entirely without any vegetation, steep and wild. Here and there small settlements and villages appeared in the valleys, paths winding up their ways somewhere along the slopes. We overflew one of the remotest areas in the region and in the world. "How traditionally rooted life is down here, what a major und unquestionable role religion still plays, how unreachable their life is” was what came into my mind when I gazed through the window the inhospitable landscape passing by just 4km below.

At noon time we touched down in Kabul. Most aircrafts on the apron were military or heavy cargo planes and a row of abandoned Airbus A300s and Boeing 727s of Afghanistans once prosperous Ariana Afghan Airlines, now slowly falling apart. Hamid Karzai Airport consists of two terminals - one for international and another one for domestic flights. I disembarked, waited for my backpack at the only baggage carousel, got stamped in and stepped onto Afghan ground for the first time of my life. In front of the terminal buildings stood a row of flagpoles with motionlessly hanging Afghan national flags, two tremendous posters with images and quotations of Afghanistans national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud and a parking lot full of shiny new cars, preferably Toyota Land Cruiser Prados with darkened windows. The snow covered peaks of the Hindu Kush seemed to be within my grasp, clearly shining over the scenery just a few kilometres away.

I met my Couchsurfing host Z. on the parking lot, she came to pick me from the airport. The air was cold and the streets filled with a bright and clear sunlight as our car made its way from the airport towards Z.’s home in the southwest of Kabul.

In the first and second evening we met with a small group of friends at R.’s place who runs a small, half-private guesthouse for friends and acquaintances. There I also got to meet my good friend A. . It was cold, even though we lit the oven we had to wear thick socks, caps and scarfs inside. The atmosphere nevertheless was cosy, familiar and warm-hearted. We discussed about the past and present state of Afghanistan, Kabul and the Hazara community, the way to travel in Afghanistan, about overland routes to travel and No-go areas, and safety in Kabul.

Although being in Kabul Afghanistan feels far away. The places one can actually visit without a plane as a foreigner are limited. The only route that appears safe is the Salang Pass route between Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif and the road to the Panjsheer valley. If we can make it to Jalalabad and Bamiyan depends on the road safety. At the moment it seems to us that frequent Taliban activity in Wardak province won’t permit us to travel there by road from Kabul.
Whoever travels within Afghanistan needs to have accurate, confirmed, recent and local information to evaluate the risk one finally has to accept or reject before leaving. In the end Afghanistan is a place where one should expect anything to happen anytime and anywhere, few things like road safety are seriously predictable leaving one with an unknown remaining risk for every step, every second that has to be accepted to be here and experience Afghanistan first hand. Another golden rule is that every unnecessary attention may possibly be harmful. As much as I would like to trust everybody, hear their story and tell mine it is not recommended to tell anybody about set future travel plans except the very core of trusted and involved people. Keeping the circle small reduces the risk that information spreads and reaches people who may use it against you eventually.

Most provinces, however, stay out of reach due to heavy Taliban and/or military presence. And notably in the recent past and present the security situation of Afghanistan’s north becomes worse and worse whereas the southern city Kandahar - a Taliban stronghold for many years - had been cleared and more or less secured recently. Even Kabul has gradually experienced more and more Taliban attacks, especially after the double bomb attack on the Enlightenment movement in July 2016. Just one month ago on November 21st 2016 Z.’s father was inside a Shia mosque opposite their house when an attacker suddenly entered through the main entrance and detonated. The explosion left 32 dead, Z.’s father was one of the 80 wounded and was driven into a nearby hospital. Those, she said, were the most terrifying hours of her life when she tried to call her dad but nobody picked up the phone. Many times the telephone network simply collapses due to an overload in the aftermath of an attack. It is those moments of uncertainty that make one’s imagination go wild, make one be overwhelmed by the greatest fears and die an inner death. A few hours later she found out that he was fine, suffering only minor injuries and being taken care of by the hospital staff. He was lucky to be in the front rows while the attacker blew himself up near the entrance in the back of the tiny mosque. When I arrived to Kabul five weeks later its windows were still damaged, the door closed - a symbol of a human abyss just 500 m away from our home.

The second morning I left the house for the first time.
The feeling that overwhelmed me when I first walked the streets of Kabul is incomparable, the atmosphere unique. With a mixture of childish joy, eventual fulfilment, vibrating excitement, deep interest, overwhelming uncertainty and irrational anxiety I made my first footsteps into this unknown world.

Most expats in Kabul working for governments, international NGOs or militaries never have this chance to leave their secured compounds and rove through the city they live in. If they leave the compounds they are locked into armoured vehicles that are often accompanied by a police escort. In this regard I picture myself having an enormous opportunity to wander around Kabul relatively unseen in my newly purchased, dark brown Perahan Tunban - the traditional monochrome dress consisting of wide trousers and a knee-long shirt with a collar. I was also given some old Afghan leather shoes, bought a cap to cover my entire long, blonde hair, wore an Afghan scarf around my neck and a black second-hand coat over the Perahan Tunban. But one doesn’t have to be too optimistic to not be seen: My walk, my light blue eyes, my pale complexion and last but not least my glasses quickly unveiled my foreign origin to anybody who took a closer look.

When I walked next to my Indonesian friend A. we faced a different problem that nobody of us would have seen coming. Although Indonesian origin A. would easily be taken as a Hazara girl when walking alone due to her facial features and the cloths she wore. More importantly also nobody in Kabuls streets would ever expect a single foreign women to walk alone, nobody would ever approach an unknown woman and talk to her. Not even in a taxi a woman who refuses to talk to the driver is a rarity so that women travellers can go through unseen more easily compared to male. The non-expectancy seemed to pass on to us and help us cover up. What finally turned out to draw attention on us was the fact that a young man who tried to look like a Pashtun walks next to a young woman who looks like from the Hazara community. A combination that can hardly ever be seen in Afghanistan where tribal segregation largely prevails.

Kabul - Monday, 16th January 2017

Kabul - a rough city. For 16 days I have been wandering through its streets and alleys. What I faced is not a classical beauty but nevertheless I felt tantalised, paralysed, unable to resist, like I am constantly being absorbed by Kabul. No other place on earth unfolds such an attraction, such a spell on me like Kabul. Its special atmosphere is present in every corner, in every second. Iranic, Central-asian, partly Russian and Subcontinental elements merge together only to create something astoundingly unique. Kabul is raw, hectic, chaotic, colourful, confused, anonymous, contrasting, inhomogeneous, paradox, almost surreal, always in motion, resistant, resilient, and in the winters cold, dark with no spark of hope. Kabuls citizens hard-working, enduring, their daily struggle written all over them. Every single body can tell a story of life, war and peace, hope and despair. People here conceal emotions like they were wearing a mask - a fact that is symptomatic for a city full of mistrust. The faces appear reserved, showing not a single emotion, only tired absent-mindedness. Seeing a Kabuli smile in the streets feels like a tiny drop of rain on the desert rock.

Winterly Kabul is a hard, cold, uninviting environment. Nevertheless it is full of life, full of colours, full of stories - and that’s what called me here for the past two years, making Kabul for me one of the most interesting places on earth.
Everyday A. and me would leave Z.’s house with one of the plentiful minivans towards Kot-e sangi and change there to a laynee - a shared taxi serving predefined routes to various places all over town. Our radius of action usually lay in between Wazir Akbar Khan to the north, Baq-e bala to the west, Shahr to the east and Darul Aman in the south. We quickly learned how to move from place to place in this tremendous tangle of roads, junctions and traffic jams.

In Kabul my mind feels as crystal clear as the cold air I am breathing.
Navigating, walking, even being in Kabul is draining and exhausting. The mind is permanently checking, evaluating, worrying, fearing but also fascinated, stunned, electrified and continuously asking, thus in a state of high awareness.

Notable also is the people’s clothing. Men, no matter if young or old, almost entirely wear monochrome Perhan Tumbans with a simple jacket over it, usually made out of dark leather. Older men can here and there be seen with green and dark purple striped overcoats made out of silk - the famous Uzbek Chapans. Almost all wear a patterned Shal around their neck and half of the men are wrapped in a thick Patoo, something that can be considered a poncho-like over-coat. Among the women one third wears a Burkha, in Afghanistan mainly in blue with square-like grids in front of their faces to not be seen. Some women, especially of turkic descent like the Uzbek or Turkmen, can be seen with traditional colourful costumes next to young girls in jeans, coats, rouge on their cheeks and loose veils showing long, dark strands of hair.

Kabuls population is young, 70 % of all Afghans are younger than 30 years of age. On the streets one usually sees men or children, women can almost always be seen in the company of husbands, fathers, brothers or cousins, barely alone.

One passes by sellers loudly promoting their goods, men who collect plastic in wooden carts, begging women in Burkha, one-legged men walking on crutches, others crawling through the crowds of people on the pavement begging, others again on heavy, old bicycles, children helping to carry heavy bags, women using public water pumps…

Walking through the dirty, often muddy, congested, chaotic-colourful streets of the bazaars, through clouds of kebab smoke and perfume, hearing the traffic noise, jarring music from the CD sellers, the cries by the bus and taxi boys interfered with the call of the Muezin, then you are feeling Kabuls pulse and it is easy to vanish in it.

No less part of the very essence of Kabul are its security personnel and facilities. Meter high walls with barbed wire line the streets protecting ministries, embassies, restaurants, malls and private houses. Their entrances guarded by heavily armed soldiers, police or security. Police jeeps and military vehicles patrol the avenues, junctions being managed by overtaxed policemen. VIPs rushing down the streets with 70 km/h, escorted by four police cars through the blocked roads, aggressive sirens filling the air.

The most popular car in Kabul is by far the Toyota Corolla and the Landcruiser for the wealthy. Trucks, few overland busses, minivans, motorcycles, bicycles and carriages pulled by either persons or donkeys additionally add traffic volume to the streets. Over the roofs of the city low flying helicopters flit across the grey, smog filled skies like bumble bees, bringing high rank personnel from place to place while avoiding the risk of traffic jams and attacks. Two white US American surveillance zeppelins can be seen anchored in different corners hence hovering above the city and set up to observe the happening below. Between all this pigeons and kites make their circling ways through the cold, thick air.

When the night falls and in Kabul the power supply regularly fails people light gas lamps or activate generators, their humming can be heard all over the city. Women are entirely gone and Kabul seems to belong to the men only. On the bazaars sellers keep on shouting the prices of vegetables and fruits through megaphones, drug addicts start searching the waste containers for eatable leftovers und some light small bonfires on the pavement where people stop and gather to warm up. After 9pm the streets empty astonishingly fast and leave behind a frighteningly empty, dark and cold city while the fog is steadily creeping in. Till the next morning all life hides from the streets waiting for the first rays of the sun to hit the peaks of Hindu Kush. Only to let the daily struggle for life begin once again.

Kabul appears to me like an ill-treated organism heavily breathing under the burden it needs to carry.
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Re: Kabul - a traveller’s modern eye witness report

Post by steven »

Thanks Jan, very interesting read! Do let me know if it ever gets published in a language I can read (French, Dutch, German or English)
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