Sunday, April 29, 2007

Day 5 in Kabul

from a journal written when I spent five weeks in Kabul during the summer of 2005 consulting with an Afghan company that was developing an educational TV network

I just spent my fifth day in Kabul, Afghanistan. Sights and events are becoming more familiar. I finally met some other Americans and found a grocery with familiar products, so I am now more assured that I wasn’t plucked up by an alien space ship and dropped into a strange parallel universe.

The first views of Kabul as you approach by airplane are incredibly forbidding mountain ranges, wave after wave of 12,000 ft.+ snow-covered peaks and barren desert valleys. The plane, (a sketchy c. 1970 Boeing 727) weaves through a last few peaks and quickly drops onto a runway marked by wrecked skeletons of bombed out planes and a few mine removal teams. A short walk down the outside roll-up staircase, takes you into the terminal. Kabul has a population of about 1.5 million. The airport has one baggage claim carousel. That’s a small airport.

You exit through the waiting room with beautifully detailed wood paneled walls and ceiling that if restored could be one of the most stunning airport lobbies in the world. A crowd of people 5-6 deep hangs outside the gates. No parking garages. No drive up. No snack bar. You carry your bags 50 yards to the gate, hoping your driver will spot you.

A dozen guards anxiously grip their AK47 automatic rifles. This will become a familiar sight. The AK47 is the Afghanistan billy club, and quickly becomes a comforting object, though always still slightly shocking. Many Afghans have body guards who carry AKs so you see them a lot. Ariana TV, where I work, has several armed guards who come and go.

My favorite is General Nabi (Afghan Army retired), who watches after the CEO, an Afghan-American, visiting this week. The General is ultimate cool. A relaxed, stocky 30-something guy with a blood-orange goatee and mop top of curly hair, he sports a custom bullet-proof vest with 20 pockets holding who knows what. A cell phone headset hangs from one ear. With a 9mm pistol strapped to his right leg, he carries his AK with the aplomb of a Hilton Head Island tennis player toting their racket.

He has the friendliest, impish smile, a Bill Clinton handshake, and always stumbles through a few kind English words. In 2001 General Nabi led a battalion of Northern Alliance troops into Mazar-i-Sharif, where they smashed the Taliban. If I’m ever faced with a violent event, I want to be around General Nabi.

On the subject of violence. Kabul seems to be surprisingly a very calm, very friendly place. Foreigners are vulnerable, because they are visible, which is the reason for the guards, who are superb deterrents. But on the other hand the person on the street is happy to have foreigners here (especially Americans, it seems). All guests are honored, and they go out of their way to smile, show me something, include me, and offer assistance.

There has never been a violent event in the company in the four years of its existence. Though there was one murder three days ago, it was a huge exception; the first in a year or so, and a very shoddy deed by a mad man. A native pointed out that in Sao Paulo, Brazil, there are at least 40 murders a night, in Washington, D.C. 3-4 murders a night. The one a year in Kabul makes international headlines for days. Go figure.

Though not reported in the news in the US, the Afghans hate the criminals, they love the coalition forces for freeing them from the Russians and then the Taliban, and are constantly cooperating with the police, informing on gang activity, threats, etc. and with very few exceptions, it’s working. Kabul appears safe, if not safer than any city in the world of its size, because of the peaceful attitudes of its citizens.

The Russians, the Afghan civil war and the Taliban were horribly, viciously cruel to the people here, and the Americans and coalition allies have provided them with peace and safety unknown for a generation. The Russians, warlords and Taliban destroyed the country’s infrastructure for thirty years; water, electricity, roads, libraries, schools, hospitals, theaters, nearly everything of value. They murdered one or more members of nearly every single Afghan family. The scars run very, very, very deep here. They are on every street corner.

The Afghans lived through a debasing horror most Americans simply cannot grasp. And so the Afghans are deeply and humbly and optimistically grateful. Don’t be swayed by the scare stories in the media. The last thing the mass media wants to report is a nice quiet night in Kabul, which the vast, vast majority are.

The real story here is how the poor cope with their destroyed society and work with almost nothing to re-build lives, to recover from three lost decades and a million and a half loved ones. It will take much, much more than the occasional murder to slow them down. And if the US really wants to bring peace, freedom and justice to these countries, it cannot bolt and run at the first gunshot on the other side of town. I will not allow myself to feel that fear. If I did, I would be too deeply ashamed. The people I have met here have endured so much. The least I can do is stay and help. They have shown so much hope, faith, respect, warmth, welcome and joy to me.

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