Conrad Steenkamp
Conrad Steenkamp

Forgiveness in Afghanistan

Kabul airport was a run-down, high-security version of “Bloemfontein international”. It was dotted with military freight planes and helicopters, hidden behind concrete walls and sandbags. One’s baggage is scanned on the way into the country, the officials behind the counter eagerly confiscating the bottles of duty-free booze from Dubai.

In the arrivals hall outside I ask a grey-uniformed guard with a Kalashnikov over the shoulder where I should hand in my arrivals form. He screwed his eyes up and frowned at the document, then gestured that I should go back through customs. Once back inside, I discover an A4-size declaration stuck onto the back of a pillar: “Get your registration certificate here” — the valuable little piece of paper without which one could not leave Afghanistan without a nasty bureaucratic hullabaloo.

I followed my emailed instructions: left out of the arrivals hall, through “car park B” to “car park C”, where somebody with a sign from the department was supposed to be waiting. The security outside was all-pervasive. The arrivals and departures hall was cordoned off with hip-high concrete blocks, security fences and barbed wire. Dark-faced, Turkic types lounged about, the perennial Kalashnikov over the shoulder. This was definitely a country at war and the Sandton security industry still has some catching up to do, but it felt strangely reminiscent of home. Sometimes being a South African had its advantages.

A dozen or so Western soldiers waited behind the security fence at the exit to car park B. The flight from Dubai had been full of them: guys with thick necks, bulging shoulders and tattoos on their arms. The soldiers on the other side of the fence wore bullet-proof jackets and pistols in strap-on holsters. The Afghan guards let me through the gate and a milk-bearded American corporal barked at me: “What’s your unit!” It was vintage parade-ground style, all gung-ho and no respect; but yet again I felt that a stab of familiarity; just like in the old days. It was to get much worse.

I ignored the corporal and asked the closest soldier where the exit to car park C was. He responded in broken English and then mumbled something in Afrikaans.

“Oh, you speak Afrikaans,” I said in Afrikaans. “Johan” his nametag declared (okay, you caught me. I changed the name) and his handshake was as compact as the rest of him. This guy belonged on a farm in South Africa somewhere, not here.

“That your guy?” the corporal asked. Johan shook his head and the other soldiers grinned, as if the presence of more than one Afrikaner on the flight was something of an inside joke.

“So, how do we run into one another again?” I asked.

“Oh, I drift around between the bases,” Johan said evasively.

I entered car park C and headed toward a decaying public lounge through a crowd of Afghan men. They had blankets over their shoulders and turbans or Afghan caps on the head, queued haphazardly in front of counters, or squatted on the ground next to bundles of cloth and tatty suitcases. A man turned his chin to his shoulder and spat on the ground in front of me. There was not a woman in sight.

At the exit of the lounge a young man in a neat suit and cardboard sign in his hand waited for me. He smiled: Lutfurahman was his name or Lutf for short. As white as his teeth, so miserable was everything around him. The lounge, the pavement, the parking lot — everything — was crumbling, decrepit and grimy. The sky overhead was a uniform grey-brown and everything underneath it covered with a thin layer of fines.

I exchanged a few dollars for afghanis at a money changer with a dirty beard. He sat at a little table next to the pavement, thick wads of well-used paper notes protected behind a glass panel. Lutf and I got into a tired, banged-up sedan vehicle and drove off. An old Russian MiG stood at the exit of car park C, its nose aimed at the moon.

We passed through one security cordon after the other, shielded from the incoming traffic by a row of concrete blocks. There were machine-gun nests and soldiers, and an armoured vehicle nestled into a little bunker at the exit. A black-helmed soldier stood in its turret, his hands on a heavy machine gun. The barrel was levelled directly at the incoming traffic.

The main road into Kabul was a nightmare of rushing vehicles with fogged-up windows and dented doors. They raced at one another like kamikaze pilots, hooted, swerved and thumped through the potholes with what looked like utter disregard for pedestrians and cyclists. Battle-scarred buildings and crumbling, khaki-grey, lean-to shacks lined the road; little shops and stalls with faded, hand-written placards in Western and Arabic alphabets, and an endless supply of bearded men with blankets over their heads and shoulders, some wearing those distinctive brown Afghan caps.

A large twin-cab van rushed up to us from behind. The driver hooted angrily, gesticulated and flashed the lights. Our driver gave away immediately, a little convoy raced by, a black-windowed sedan vehicle in the middle. The rearmost vehicle was filled with cursing, gun-toting oafs. They shouted at our driver. “Kabul is faktap, really faktap.”

Lutf dropped me at a guest house with the incongruous name of “Park Palace”, saying that he would pick me up the next morning at eight. It was right next to the UN compound, a grey, concrete fortress with protective concrete walls two stories high, reinforced with special buffers and sandbags. All the entrances were protected by concrete blocks and red-and-white traffic booms. Guards in olive green uniforms peered over the sandbags. They were adorned with weaponry and looked bored and nervous all at the same time. Armed policemen sauntered about. The women wore blue burkas that covered them from head to toe.

Park Palace was “UN-approved”, which meant that it was supposed to have good security. It was like entering a mediaeval castle. Four armed guards stood at the front entrance, a big metal door. Next to it was a little prefab guardhouse reinforced with a wall of sandbags. The guards greeted me with great friendliness, then knocked on the iron door. A spy hole clanked opened and a pair of eyes and hairy eyebrows appeared. Once inside there was another reinforced steel door and the same procedure; more guards with Kalashnikovs behind the sandbags.

Squeezed in behind the high walls were several double story buildings, each floor divided up into tiny rooms, just big enough for a single bed, cupboard, toilet and shower. They were arranged around what had been a comfortable suburban home in British colonial times and a pale-green garden with picket fences.

I was hungry and went looking for some food, managing to find some coffee in a dimly-lit dining room. A couple of aid workers sat around talking. A German who was working for the GTZ, the German development agency, complained that his driver had dropped him off a hundred metres from the guesthouse. This was “verboten” and one could lose one’s insurance cover. The GTZ would send him home immediately if they found out.

“I want to go,” a Dutch woman on the other side of the dining room was telling her friend. “But where am I going to get an armoured vehicle this time of the day?” It was a couple of notches up from your average Johannesburg security chatter.

My room was filled with the smell of cooked chicken and I opened the curtains to identify the source. There was another naked brick wall only a metre away and the little alley below reverberated with the clattering of pots and male laughter. My room was right on top of the bloody kitchen, immediately above a row of enormous gas bottles. They were lined up like naval artillery shells and just waiting to explode. But at least I would know in advance exactly what I would be getting for dinner each evening. I sat down on the bed and switched on the TV. It was DStv and Frik du Preez was busy commenting on the final moments of an epic Western Province-Blue Bulls battle.

The next morning the driver picked me up at eight to take me to work. He drove down the dusty streets and into bumper-to-bumper traffic. Pedestrians and cyclists squeezed through the stagnant stream of vehicles. Hawkish children filed by, selling cellphone cards. Bearded beggars shuffled about, angry old men that scratched at the windows and became aggressively insistent when they noticed that they were dealing with a Westerner.

We drove past high walls with barbed wire and security cameras; fortified towers with mounted machine guns. Every major intersection sported a green police van, or armoured vehicle with a masked, grey-helmed soldier on top and a heavy machine gun levelled across the roof. Military convoys bullied their way through the traffic, the mounted machine guns manned and ready. It took a whole hour through this god-forsaken landscape before we reached the government compound on the other side of the city.

The offices had the standard three layers of security, including a body search. I met my Afghan colleagues, other consultants and settled in with my laptop. Later that day the lanky Western programme advisor gave me a “security briefing”.

“There are three great risks in Afghanistan,” he said. “The most important of these is disease”. The place was rotten with easily contracted hepatitis, diphtheria, yellow fever, meningitis and a range of unmentionable plagues. One had to get the full range of inoculations. “Your next greatest risks are car accidents or to be shot in a pub by a drunk South African security consultant.”

“Are you serious about the South Africans?” I asked.

“Of course … ” He was not smiling.

Bombings came further down on the list. Every now and again there was a rocket attack or a kidnapping, but the latter mostly involved the children of local businessmen who did not want to pay protection. Most people paid up and the police was involved in more or less everything. Often there was little difference between a policeman, a Talib, drug smuggler, politician, crook or al-Qaeda. Fluid boundaries.

The road from the airport was particularly dangerous, he told me, and there have been several attacks in recent months. The targets were usually Afghan politicians or the army. But I had little to be worried about. There was an abundance of valuable targets in Kabul and people like ourselves were not a high priority. I just had to maintain a low profile and try to avoid routines. Routines like being picked up at eight every morning, I thought, but said nothing.

Most attacks took place before noon. This was because the promise of Nirvana and the virgins expired at about lunchtime and the suicide bombers then had to repeat all the preparatory rituals. Psychologically this was a drag if you had been so committed to blowing yourself up. If they had missed their main targets, they therefore often went on a walkabout to look for secondary ones, just to make the deadline.

“Could one walk around outside then?” I asked.

“Sure, but you must know where you are going — and not at night.”

The girl that had been assassinated was British-South African, it now emerged. No, he had not heard the story about the photograph on the website, but it was clear that she had rubbed somebody up the wrong way. Perhaps one of the staff members of the NGO was a fundamentalist, he speculated.

“Perhaps she did the wrong thing at the wrong time,” the adviser continued.

“Such as propagating the holy word or criticising Islam.”

Perhaps she was a fundamentalist, I thought and felt immediately guilty. Poor thing.

Her parents came to bury her in the British cemetery in the centre of old Kabul. They said that they “forgave” her murderers. The adviser snorted: “That is one thing the Afghans do not respect. You are supposed to swear revenge.”