Checking into my flight to Kabul in Delhi, I chatted with an Afghan gentleman behind me. He asked me: ‘Which hotel are you staying in?’ I told him the name and then he continued: ‘I own a hotel in Kabul too.’ I thought, as my reservation wasn’t firm, I could stay in his hotel instead. He shook his head. ‘You can’t. It was bombed two months ago.’ Ohh! ‘But, it will ready in two weeks if you return.’
My hotel may not suffer the same fate but there’s no guarantee. The approach road has a steel barrier and a gunman #1 who checks my reservation. The road leads up through high blast walls to Gunman #2 also at his barrier. Finally, Gunman #3 does a security check on the car and signals for the steel gate to open before I reach the hotel’s reservation office. Taking a morning stroll after signing the exit register and reading the note that informs me the hotel is not responsible for anything that happens to me, I pass the palatial homes of Wazir Akbar Khan district protected by blast walls and their own gunmen. Some even have two as if they’re status symbols, and the weapons of choice are 9mm machine pistols, though here and there are the familiar AK47s. The roads are so damaged that I have to pick my way past, even as the SUVs (vehicles of choice) wallow towards me. Later, when I enquire who lives in these house, I get an ambiguous answer ‘Commanders’. Commanders? Military, police, drugs, warlords, and some of the poppy palaces even have a gunman perched on their roofs.
Earlier, I had climbed on my hotel roof to view the city. High above is a watchful eye, a tethered balloon with a 24x7 camera. Strangely, apart from a few sparrows in the hotel garden, there’s not another species of birds in the sky, not even the ubiquitous crow or a kite, not a parrot or a pigeon. Over the years, every tree was cut down and the birds fled to more habitable locations. I did finds birds Fa Karushi market in old Kabul. The fighting doves and finches are in elaborate cages and quite costly.
Kabul nestles in a valley, surrounded by anaemic green hills and I think that Kabulis have never seen the endless horizon that surrounds other cities. It must limit their imagination of the world, enclosed in this private space. The hills, like Sheer Darwaza to the south, also have the ruins of fortress walls along their spines but, despite the natural defences, a thousand invaders have over run this city and country. Hills also divide the city into sections, with narrow passes through which the city flows to connect up with its other parts. Behind my back, a hill rises steeply and, crowning it, as proof of Imperial Idiocy, is an Olympic-size swimming pool with many diving boards but not a drop of water. The Russians built and abandoned their folly, as they did the country in 1989. Old Kabul, the original city, rises on either side of the Kabul River. From my vantage point Kabul looks an easy city to navigate as my first meetings are to the south, in and around Kabul University. But, I discover, this is also the grid lock city of the world. We average 45 minutes to cover a kilometre and, sitting in these jams, I hope we won’t stop opposite a police station or alongside a military convoy. Those are favourite Talib targets. However, we do have a cultural connexion with Afghans – they are as bad drivers as Indians are. The blocked, high security roads passing the US and Indian embassies, NATO and ISAF compounds cause the grid locks. They are impassable and the traffic is diverted onto jammed roads, most of them badly damaged with deep pot holes.
Without a doubt, the Afghans are the most courteous, the most hospitable, gentle people I’ve come across. They enjoy conversation with their glass cups of green tea and biscuits, served whether you want it or not. But, their conversations also needs to be carefully interpreted as often it’s what they are not saying which is more important than what they do say. Professor Abdul Waste, a tall, thick-set man, clean shaven, hesitates a long moment on my Taliban question. We’re in his spacious office on Kabul U campus and there are three others in the room. He lived in Kabul during their regime and with President Karzai opening a channel to the Talib, they could be back in the city like a bad dream. He says finally, ‘They forced us to grow beards and we had to pray regularly…but it was a very safe country under them. There was no crime, no murders and we could leave our doors open.’ I point out they had a very bad human rights records. ‘People tell many stories about the Talib. Under them we were safe.’ I believe he won’t be too critical of the Talib, hedging his bets that if/when they return there will a record of his comment somewhere. Maybe reported by one in the room. Others also tell me how safe it was under the Talib, the way some Indians nostalgically remember how everything worked smoothly during Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule. Fear is a good disciplinarian and makes people duck and weave in their thinking and speaking.
The Talib are not alone in the field of continuous wars. The mujahedeen are also prowling and some of the men I meet claim to be mujahedeen, and proclaim the Afghans would be better under their rule as the Talib are Pakistani, and not true Afghans. ‘The Talib are also Arabs and Uzbeks,’ I’m told and definitely Pakistanis. How far does Karzai’s government rule extend outside of Kabul? Omar Khan (name changed) works for the Ministry of Finance and his village is in south east Afghanistan. ‘The government has no power in my area. We can go to them to solve our problems but they do nothing. So the Talib solve the problem and everyone in the area obeys the Talibs. Yes, we’re Talibs because we cannot say anything else. They’ll kill us if we do.’ On the morning BBC news (yes satellite channels when once they only had Radio Shari under the Taliban) I heard that five American soldiers were killed that day. Omar shrugged indifferently. ‘Americans are killed every day.’ In this harsh, dusty land of mountains and defiles I do wonder what those boys from the 21st century make of this 15th century country. Omar adds. ‘It’s not always the Talib. There are mujahedeen killing too.’ Like the many other young men I spoke to their driving ambition was to leave the country and live legally (not with a smuggler’s help) in Canada, Australia, the US, anywhere safe.
Those blue burquas floating on women are not that common, except in the old city. Kabuli women dress fashionably in Shalwars, high heel shoes and hijabs lightly covering half their heads, more as symbols to their culture. They wear lipstick and eye shadow and paint their nails. Under the Talib if a woman painted her nails, a finger was chopped off!! And everywhere I saw school girls in their black trousers and jackets, with the white hijabs, loaded down with books. They are the fortunate ones as girls schools are only in Kabul. Or the unfortunate too, as should the Talib return their schools will be closed, and they will be confined to their homes.
‘The men had it much harder than us,’ Hanifa (name changed) a career woman says when I mentioned the compulsory burqua for women. She too lived in Kabul during the Talib rule. ‘It took some getting used to wearing the burqua but men had to grow beards, pray five times and go to the mosque. They were beaten if they didn’t.’ Other women I spoke to echo her defence – a hard life for the male. Najibia Ayubi, manager of programming of the Khillid group of radio stations, says, ‘It was a very depressing time for us all. We had to keep our mouths shut and survive the best we could. So many women were forced to leave their jobs as teachers, office workers, and professors and stay at home. If they didn’t have any men in the family they ended up begging in the streets. But the Talib allowed the women doctors to continue working.’ She laughs. ‘Their women needed medical help too.’
The city is undergoing a building boom – independent bungalows, high rise flats, massive wedding halls and shopping malls. And kilometers of new roads laid. Construction companies, financed by American aid and poppy money, are booming. A cynical Afghan told me, ‘To put up a building for the Americans costs around four lakh Afghanis (Re1= 1 Afg) but they charge the Americans four lakh dollars. That’s how they make their money.’
But Kabul is encircled by heart breaking poverty, bad as ours, as Afghanis escape their villages looking for work in the city. Children scavenge in the rubbish and push the carts through dense traffic. I never saw these children smile and nowhere did I see them playing, as do Indian children with gully cricket, marbles or other games.
‘What will happen when the US withdraws its troops?’ I asked everyone I met.
‘Civil war,’ they replied and didn’t want to think any further on their fragile future.