Monday, April 23, 2007

Getting ready for work

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

Getting ready to go to work each morning, I have to pack up two valises of stuff, for my still camera, computer, cell phone, ID card, flash memory stick, glasses, notebooks, 3-4 sets of keys etc. I’ve set my pickup time by the Ariana TV driver for 7:30 AM, and he’s always on time. One of the guest house staff comes to my room and cheerfully calls “Meester Bob, car come.”

Out front, there is a small plywood shed, a guard house, that is home to 3-4 uniformed policemen who have been subcontracted from the Kabul Police to watch our guest house. They sleep and cook their meals in the shed. Each guard totes an AK-47. They are friendly, young and unassuming, jumping up and giving me a cheery hello as I walk out the gate to meet the car. If I ever take a walk down the street, one hurries up to follow me, AK at the ready. It’s kind of funny and seems more like a scene from a movie I once saw than my real life at the moment. I don’t feel any fear, but it’s not the kind of street you might like to stroll with its broken sidewalks, potholed streets and 8 ft. high protective walls.

My driver, Jawid, runs around the car to open the door, offers a slight bow and places his right hand over his heart as a gesture of honor. We shake hands, which is an important greeting, and which they appreciate from “a boss.” It’s something natural for an egalitarian American, but it is very special in Afghanistan to have a boss shake your hand. For security purposes, we always take a different route to the office, which is less than five minutes away. It’s safe to avoid a regular schedule on a regular route. It might give casual observers bad ideas. The driver is well-trained and seems knowledgable about defensive driving. After navigating the streets of Kabul, I’m sure he could be a NASCAR wonder boy.

Kidnappings are the big fear and an age-old Afghan occupation. Most are well planned by gangs seeking money. All kidnappings of foreigners, so far, happen at night when the streets are quiet. The victim has been chosen because of their regular schedule, route, lack of guard and familiarity in the community. The kidnappers drive in several vehicles that force the victim’s car to the side of the road using emergency lights and armed imposters dressed in police uniforms—which can be bought in any bazaar for a few bucks. Unfortunately, sometimes the drivers are in on the deal. I have been instructed not to be in any car after dark, and never take a taxi day or night.

We zip through the side streets from the guest house to Ariana TV. The station is on about an acre of ground, surrounded, like the guest house by 8 ft. walls crowned in concertina wire. 2-3 unarmed guards are out front and they frisk and use a metal detector on all people coming in (except me, the “American boss” to whom they give a snappy salute, which I return with a firm handshake). My second floor office, is more than twice the size of any one else’s, but I share it with my assistant, Ayoob. It’s used for frequent meetings on comfortable sofas and chairs that are almost never empty of visitors pitching something.

One wall has large windows with a view over a wasted area of the city. There were huge battles in this area during the 1990s civil war, and every building has had major damage, or is a pile of rubble. Makeshift workshops and stores made from shipping containers or chunks of lumber line the street. Walls are pock marks from hundreds of bullets and grenade explosions. But there is lots of reconstruction going on too, and I’m sure in a few years, all signs of war damage will be gone in the neighborhood. As I watch the traffic zoom by on Darulaman street, I note how easy it would be for a van to pull up, open its side door, and fire a rocket propelled grenade at my nice wide window. The first day I turned the desk around to face the window, wondering if I would have enough time to duck if one day an RPG round ripped through the sixty yards between me and the street. (to be continued)

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