Letter from Afghanistan VI

Sent on 29th September 2010, in this letter our correspondent talks about being caught up in the fringes of the Bakhtar guest house attack which occurred shortly before the (cancelled) Presidential election run-off and returning to Kabul for the 2010 parliamentary elections.

Greetings loyal readers, your intrepid correspondent is back in Afghanistan for the parliamentary elections this time. Before I comment on current conditions and life in the Afghan capital, Kabul, I would like to return to last year. I penned a brief farewell letter to colleagues on leaving but did not say anything about the events leading up to a very abrupt departure. The reasons will become clear as you read on.

Doubtless many of you will have followed the news at the time of the presidential elections and read stories of “irregularities” in the voting. I will not cover that subject here as it there was more than enough media coverage and pronouncements from various pundits at the time. Not all of these statements were helpful to those of us working in the country and indeed some of the more inflammatory remarks were made by individuals as they were leaving Afghanistan. Thanks a bunch, guys.

Now to the events of Wednesday 28 October 2009, a long time ago you may think but not a date I will ever forget. At around 6am several Taliban/AGE (Anti Government Elements)/insurgents, attacked the Bakhtar Guesthouse with a combination of small arms fire, grenades and ultimately suicide vests. At the time I was in my guesthouse not very far away and awoke to the sound of automatic weapons fire and explosions to be shortly followed by an understatement of a text message announcing that there was a serious incident underway in Shar e naw district and that all staff were to report their location and stay put. For almost two hours a firefight ensued between the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the insurgents. During this time the majority of the inhabitants of the guesthouse managed to get to safety due in no small part to the courage and sacrifice of others, both international and national. I will not go into specifics, some of you reading this will have your own memories of that day and some were a lot more personally involved than I was. Throughout the attack I was in my room with the sounds of explosions and gunfire seemingly outside the gates of the house. Let’s get one thing straight I was terrified, I have never been through anything like that before and I hope I never do again, how the people who received phone calls from some of those trapped inside coped I will never know. Gradually news filtered through of fatalities and the enormity of the tragedy became clearer. Hearing that friends and colleagues had been killed in a brutal and senseless manner left me numb and shocked, the moment for anger and tears was still to come.

The UN declared a White City, no movement whatsoever. That night I slept fully dressed on top of my bed, boots, spectacles, the lot. The following morning I found out that an attempt was to be made to search Bekhtar and recover personal possessions of the former residents, many of whom had fled in their nightclothes or what little they pulled on prior to escaping. I decided in my infinite wisdom to volunteer to help with this task, anything was better than staying in my room. My offer of help was accepted and so mid morning on Thursday I was at the scene with a very few others including some survivors to begin the task of search and recovery. I have to say now that the ANP presence was a disgrace, not only was a senior officer’s son roaming around the fire gutted building but the majority of them were sitting at a table in the courtyard eating, seemingly oblivious to the evidence of events around them, bloodstains on the tiles and body parts in full view. After negotiations with the senior police officer we were eventually allowed to do what we were there for, a room by room search. As we went around the building it was obvious that there had been some looting, clean ash free places suggesting that an I pod, camera, laptop or mobile phone had been picked up by some vulture. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as there are always those who will want to profit from other people’s misfortune. It was a harrowing day but with its lighter moments, a fridge in one room that had been affected by the fire had burst open and whatever was in there had transformed an otherwise mundane household object into a Dali-esque work of art. On a higher floor the person in front of me unwittingly stood on a full, unopened one litre carton of chocolate milk. If there had been any justice it would have projected the contents straight up his trouser leg, instead the entire one litre shot backwards and covered my good self. All I could do was laugh.

As we were loading the cars and vans with a large number black rubbish bags containing the possessions of the Bekhtar inhabitants the assembled journalists would try to photograph the names on the bag labels, anyone putting a camera in my way was liable to get a very close up view of a moving bag, enough said.

After a whole day’s searching and packing we left in an escorted convoy for the main UN base some 15km outside the city where, at the base social club, survivors were reunited with their belongings. Well actually most of them were, due to the fire a few unfortunates were literally left with nothing but the clothes they wore. That night I needed a beer or three and in the company of a couple of friends I had several, I suppose I was trying to drink to forget, dumb idea, it doesn’t work I can assure you. That night I stayed away from my guesthouse with others from the project who were wise enough to recognise that I was in no fit state to go home, even with an escort. A word of advice, when someone tells you to make sure the water heater is switched on before you go to sleep try not to forget these wise words within a nano second. I do have an excuse, there was a fairly strong earthquake that night which produced a kind of fatalistic hysteria and I was drunk.

The following day saw all project members gathering at the office in town before heading out to the base for a memorial service. The social club was packed, not only were we all there but a large number of other UN staff attended. Someone had contacted the Italian embassy in Kabul and a senior Roman Catholic priest conducted what was for the most part a non-denominational service. Friends of the victims spoke as well as UN officials and especially the head of our project who alluded to my sleeping fully dressed, I don’t mind because I am sure other people did and it’s good to realise you are not the only one who felt like that.

Afterwards the survivors were taken to the airport for a flight to Dubai and deserved VIP treatment. Those of us remaining went back to our accommodation to reflect on events and speculate on the future. That Sunday everyone was called into the office compound and the steps to be taken were spelt out. A list was projected onto the conference room screen of those who would stay, mission critical staff, and those who would be leaving as soon as possible. When I saw that I was to leave there was an immense turmoil of emotion within me, I was going home but I was leaving behind friends and unfinished work.

There then followed what can only be described as organised chaos. Destinations had to be given and HR had to book flights for a lot of people. Everyone had to return to their guesthouse and collect belongings then get back to the office in double quick time. The original plan was to get out that night but it proved impossible to get the tickets for the flight to Dubai in that short space of time. Because of a very real threat it had been decided that we were going to at the office compound that night. A kind of end of term party ensued with the occasional drink and lots of pizza, eventually everyone fell asleep on thin mattresses placed on the floors of the conference room and some offices. Morning came all too soon and a queue rapidly formed for the one shower in the gents but somehow everyone got a soaking before drying themselves on items of clothing as no towels were available. At least we all started the various journeys reasonably hygienic. At 05.00 those of us heading for the early Dubai flight left in convoy after somewhat emotional farewells to colleagues leaving later. The boss said goodbye to us all, how she managed to look so good at that early hour I do not know, personally I looked and felt awful and the idea of a day travelling did not fill me full of joy.

Kabul airport is a peculiar form of torture, populated by staff whose sole purpose in life is to make the travelling experience as difficult as possible. With the police refusing to allow our convoy any nearer than 150m to the terminal and the interminable security checks it’s enough to turn Michael Palin into a reclusive hermit. Let me condense the next 19 hours into a few words, boring, delayed flights, airport lounges and wonderfully at last Heathrow and the most fantastic welcome home.

Fast forward to about three months ago, I was approached by a former colleague and asked if I wanted to come back to Kabul and do the same job as 2009. I had to think very hard about this but decided that I would and duly sent off my CV as my job had been taken over by another organisation. After a few weeks I was telephone interviewed and offered the post subject to medical clearance. Surprisingly passed the medical, details of the cholesterol count can be found in the 2011 Guinness Book of Records, and waited for a go signal. The beginning of August arrived and I found myself in Dubai applying for my Afghan visa, the consulate was remarkably efficient compared to the London Embassy and I was on my way to Kabul.

Arrived at Kabul airport and it immediately felt as if nothing had changed, basically because nothing had. However I have to admit that the meet and greet was very efficient, no wandering to the car park to try and find a white 4×4 in a car park full of them, then it was off to the office. The office was also accommodation and very nice it was, clean, smelt good and great food, what a change from the previous year’s guesthouse. The following day it was off to my place of work to see what had been constructed in my absence. I had already seen photos of the centre so was not too surprised when it lived down to all my expectations. All the alterations to the original plan had been ignored by the architect and not passed on to the contractors, trip hazards everywhere, emergency exit, hold that, what emergency exit? Ok it looked nice in an Afghan way, Pakistani wedding cake meets public toilet, but work has been needed to get it useable in anything other than a basic form.

I somehow knew that the comparative five star lodgings must be too good to be true and lo! After a couple of weeks it was announced that due to an influx of more senior and permanent staff some of those nearer the primordial soup end of the food chain were to be relocated to a supposedly decent hotel, so four of us packed our bags and decamped. Alright the web site promised a luxury life style but the reality is somewhat different. The first rooms we were given were actually more suitable to not very fussy hobbits. The shower in my room was not adjustable in any way shape or form and was level with my sternum. Likewise the front door was about bridge of nose height, god that hurt! After some weeks all of us now have reasonable rooms, I have been out and bought a fridge as the opulent lifestyle promoted by the hotel assumes you don’t want cold drinks in the room or to keep even basics like milk for tea fresh for longer than ten minutes in a Kabul summer.

One essential of life here is the can of mosquito and fly killer. The mossies are Taliban trained, and no more than six could probably drain the blood from a medium sized bullock. Unlike the ones at my last year’s lodgings these things are almost silent and hide until lights out when squadrons will appear to dive bomb the unsuspecting meal. The hotel restaurant is limited in its menu, again the web site description paints a picture of something approaching the standard of Le Manoir au Quattre Saisons whereas the reality is more burger van without the extensive menu or hygiene standards. Needless to say use of this stunning facility is kept to an absolute minimum especially since I foolishly decided to survey the kitchen and discovered amongst other things that the salads and veg are washed in the almost certainly contaminated tap water. We are existing on lunches at our place of work, deliveries and snacks in the rooms and that seems to be adequate for us.

Nothing much really changes in Kabul, it’s still dusty, smelly and hot, well hot at least for the present. The evenings have a slight chill about them now. Perhaps this is a warning of a harsh winter to come. Over the past few weeks I have met old friends and workmates, made new friends and tried to do my job despite the various difficulties.

And finally, as I finish this letter I am in my hotel room, we’ve been locked down for four days now because of security concerns. First of all it was because of the end of Ramadan and the Eid celebrations but now a loony tunes pastor from some hickville redneck church in rural Florida has decided to burn copies of the Koran in protest at the building of a mosque near the site of 9/11, the World Trade Centre in New York. Thanks to the intervention of the US president and the wonder of the internet this inbred preacher and his buck toothed banjo playing congregation, if you can call fifty a congregation, has stirred up trouble beyond his wildest imagining. Personally I don’t think you would have to go far to exceed this guy’s imagination but you know what I mean. There have already been protests in Afghanistan with shots fired during them. The actions of idiots like this alligator wrestling retard and his single cell followers are increasing the risk to troops and others working here but providing an excuse that extremists can use to wind up the general population who would normally be fairly benign where us foreigners are concerned. Let’s hope that this story drifts back into the obscurity from which it sprung and we can concentrate on the job in hand with just the usual dangers.

To one and all of you I send my wishes that you stay well and prosper and that I see you in the very near future.

The correspondent has had the dubious pleasure of knowing MG for several years and she counts him as a close friend. During a lifetime of trying to earn as much as possible for the minimal amount of effort he has been taught to cook by the army, fooled lots of people into thinking that he knows what he is talking about when it comes to AV installations and toured the globe. Now firmly into middle-age, he can occasionally be found slumming it in various exotic locations courtesy of the UN.

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