Searching for the Normal in War-torn Kabul

Searching for the Normal in War-torn Kabul

researcher

Ahmad Shuja
researcher

1 / February 2018 | 0 Comment

It’s been a tough start to the year in Afghanistan. Scores of people have been killed in devastating attacks that highlight the nihilistic disregard for humanity that characterizes an intractable war.

The most horrific roll call of death includes more than 100 killed when suicide bombers detonated an ambulance in downtown Kabul on January 27. This was the third horrific attack in a week, after 22 people were killed at the capital’s Intercontinental Hotel on January 20. And six died a few days after that in an attack on the Jalalabad offices of the Save the Children charity.

What the hell is to be gained from targeting a charity focused on helping children? If pseudo paramilitary groups gauge success in forcing an organization that’s been working in Afghanistan for more than 40 years to shut down operations, even temporarily, then it was a job well done.

Indeed, well done to all those responsible – extremists and terrorists; drug runners, criminal gangs and opportunists; fighters of all sides legitimate or otherwise — for prolonging a war in which more than 30,000 civilians have been killed since 2001.

More than 100 killed when suicide bombers detonated an ambulance in downtown Kabul on January 27 / AFP

More than 100 killed when suicide bombers detonated an ambulance in downtown Kabul on January 27 / AFP

There has a been a widespread welcome for the new policy of the U.S. President Donald Trump to put pressure on Pakistan, where much of the militant violence in Afghanistan originates. This spike in violence and death is the expected reaction to the U.S. led military effort backed by that policy to bomb the terrorists into talking.

As skeptical optimism greets news that the main protagonists, the beleaguered Afghan government and the murderous drug barons of the Taliban, might be getting closer to talks for a political settlement, an online magazine called The Diplomat recently published a screed, widely read in Afghanistan, by a European journalist who lives in Kabul, in which he describes the Afghan capital as a “normal” city.

Aside from the backdrop of an incessant war, perhaps he hasn’t noticed the towering concrete T-walls that line major roads and stand outside government offices, charities, businesses, schools and universities, U.N. agencies, restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, and the homes of the rich and powerful, sometimes in double rows. True, there has been an attempt in recent years to adorn some of the the walls with stylized graffiti to camoflage the brutalist landscape. But a blast wall, painted or not, is there for one reason – to protect against attack.

Maybe he doesn’t sit in the choking traffic jams, exacerbated by armored military vehicles that move in convoys, clog the narrow roads and put the fear of God into everyone nearby because they are obvious targets of suicide car bombers.

Civilians coffins killed by the ISK in Ghor Provence. they were all farmers and shepherds / Social Media

Has he ever asked why all the roads must be closed whenever the president decides to leave the confines of his palace deep inside the “green zone” – the only part of the country over which he holds any real sway?

Has he thought about his limited choice of places to go – to eat, to drink, to shop, to meet with friends and contacts – because cafes, restaurants, bars and hotels are being bombed out of business? Or that lingering anywhere for too long risks the attention of kidnappers for whom crime is a matter of survival in an economy that offers no jobs and attracts no investment?

None of this is normal. Yet the writer declares that he walks freely around Kabul. Even after a massive truck bomb in May last year, which killed and injured hundreds of people, he bravely walked past the yawning crater that it left by the city’s embassy district.

No matter that residents don’t know if they will ever again see loved ones each time they say goodbye, our correspondent writes that life in Kabul returns to “normal minutes, if not seconds, after such horrible events”.

There is no such thing as normal in Kabul, where the ever-present threat of violence barely leaves anything untouched. Indeed, we believe Kabul is one of the most dangerous places on the planet. For most of the city’s 4.5 million residents, every boom – and there are many of them — brings the dreadful questions: Is anyone I know caught up in whatever that boom was? Where is every member of my family, my friends, my colleagues? Where was the boom? What was the boom? Was it a car bomb? Was it the start of a prolonged siege?

Social media, hugely popular among Afghans for keeping in touch in a country lacking modern infrastructure, help residents answer those questions. The simplicity of Facebook’s “Safety Check” has been useful, though in recent years it just hasn’t been enough for the industrial-scale frequency of attacks. So these days, people in Kabul use every tool they can, supplementing phone calls with Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Twitter to check on their loved ones. Are you okay? Are you safe? Where are you? Where was it? How many dead?

That’s not normal.

Journalists rush to the scene of every attack, bombing, siege, falling into familiar patterns as they swing into action: grabbing flak jackets, coordinating with fellow reporters, pinpointing the site. How big was it, how many affected? Injured? Killed? They take notes, talk to survivors, try to squeeze information from police and hospitals and a paranoid, incompetent government.

And they return to their offices, wipe the blood, bone and flesh of the dead from the soles of their shoes, and get on with reporting, in words, photographs, video footage and live reports to television and radio, on yet another story counting the dead in yet another attack.

In Shia neighborhoods, which are particularly vulnerable to deadly attacks, many residents are now avoiding the mosques and community centres that have been central to their lives, fearful of getting caught up in targeted violence. Shias, a minority in Afghanistan, have been hit so often by Sunni extremist groups, and have buried so many of their mangled dead beneath green flags in hillside cemeteries, that their resistance to attempts to secularise this war, turning Muslim against Muslim based on flimsy differences in creed, is threatening to crumble. Many are hunkering down, afraid of what the next hour, day, week will bring.

That’s not normal.

True, as the writer says, Kabulis re-open their shops, emerge from their homes, return to work and get about their business again once they know an attack is over. This might appear brave, but it’s indicative of the adjustments and compromises they must make in order to get on with their lives in the midst of unpredictable and unrelenting violence.

Sakhi Shrine, after ISK attack

Families are now forcing their children to spend as much time at home as practicably possible. Youngsters are ordered to go straight to school, to arrive on time, not to hang out with friends before or after classes, to come straight home. Not to play in the streets, not to go to parks. It’s difficult to keep children tied down, but there is little alternative for keeping them safe.

The sight of little girls in black shalwar kameez uniforms with white head scarves walking together in groups to and from school has long been a happy symbol of the success, since the Taliban’s fall in 2001, of getting girls into education.

But this, too, is threatened by parental concerns that each day they are waving a permanent goodbye to their precious daughters. Will the day come when parents stop sending their girls out to learn, just to keep them alive?

That’s not normal.

Nor are the platitudes that must be told to the terrified children who scream in their sleep, who will never become inured to the explosions and gunfire, who have lost relatives and friends throughout their short lives, who have known nothing but war, who know the boom is bad.

A man carries a wounded child at Jamhuriat Hospital in Kabul on January 27, 2018 after an ambulance packed with explosives blew up near the old Interior Ministry building / AFP

“It’s nothing,” the children are told as their parents hug them close after another bomb has rattled the windows or blown out the glass. “Nothing will happen to us. It’s all good. See? The bang is gone.”

These are the lies that Kabulis tell themselves and their loved ones every day. It’s how they spin cobwebs over those recesses of their minds where they know anything could happen to anyone at any time.

That’s not normal.

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Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian writer and journalist, currently based in London. She was bureau chief in Kabul for Agence France-Presse and The Associated Press new agencies between 2009 and 2016.

Ahmad Shuja, formerly a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan, is studying public policy at Georgetown University, in Washington DC.

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