Thursday, April 19, 2007

Driving through Kabul at night

Kabul at night. It was the first time I had been out driving at night, during the “danger hours,” when westerners were sternly warned to stay off the streets. I had gone out to a nice dinner with 3 colleagues from the station at B's wood-fired pizza, which was a very good, if deserted western-style restaurant. Two weeks earlier, an Italian woman had been dragged from her car and kidnapped, and I might have known better. But I didn't want to look like a fraidy cat American to these Afghans.

Just ten PM, and the usually packed city was deathly quiet – no lights, shops closed, sidewalks deserted. Dark buildings leaned over the street, making uneven cut outs in the blanket of stars above. Our tiny beat-up Mazda, cruised down the streets, jerking to avoid deep potholes in the street, like an tilt-a-whirl at a county fair.

As we entered a roundabout lit by two acid-yellow lights, one of Kabul’s mini wind storms blew a cloud of dust and paper across the street. Dim figures emerged, just silhouettes at first. It was 4 or 5 guys, in police uniforms, AK-47 automatic rifles in hand, waving at us to stop. That doesn’t mean much, because police uniforms can be bought in any bazaar for a few bucks.

I looked over my shoulder from the front passenger seat at my friends in the rear, but they looked as scared as I felt. An armed guard, with his own AK-47, was usually back there. On this trip, out to a late dinner, we had decided it wasn’t necessary—and there wouldn’t have been room anyway. As the driver eased to a stop, rolled down his window, and snapped on the interior light, I instinctively laid my hands flat and open on my lap. Great, this was the exact opposite of what I had been told not to do ever since setting foot in Afghanista-- riding in a car, without a guard, late at night.

A policeman, or the guy dressed like one, stuck his head through the window. After a long stare at the four of us, he asked for the driver’s permit. I was the only westerner. He motioned at me to open the glove box. Thankfully, nothing was inside—like a gun. He stepped off and waved us on. The driver floored it and the police disappeared in a swirl of yellow dust and crumpled papers. I swore to myself that I’d never do that again. But I did. (to be continued)

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