Conrad Steenkamp
Conrad Steenkamp

Trust in Afghanistan

“Don’t trust anybody,” an old consultant told me one morning in the corridor of the government office, sotto voce and all that. “I mean — anybody.” He had been in the country for more than five years and I took note.

Each morning I wake up to the sound of a muezzin in the background, roll over and sleep further. Each morning a hired car picks me up and takes me to work, all the way through the soul-consuming traffic of Kabul. And then, Thursday afternoon before the clock struck four, all the young men were out of the office: tomorrow was Friday.

I decided to go to a restaurant or a club for a glass of wine that evening, but back at my “high security” compound a Norwegian man and Filipino woman cornered me in the dining room. Going out under any circumstances was extremely irresponsible: “There are bombers walking around outside looking for targets and for them your white skin is good enough”, the woman said. “Just the white skin.”

The man added: “We get security briefings on a daily basis. They tell us, for example, about a red car filled with explosives that is driving around looking for a target. And we have to SMS our security people every evening before we go to bed — every time we go anywhere. They must know exactly where we are at all times.”

I explained gently that I was getting so many contradictory views about security. The woman pulled her trump card with a flourish: she had been in Afghanistan for five years. Six of her friends had been kidnapped, one as she left a pub; all of them were held captive for at least three months and the last one was killed.

And why did one not hear about this through the media?

“Because the government doesn’t release the information. Whatever you do, don’t go walking around outside. The risk is too high. If they get you they’ll take their time killing you.”

“You must have a security escort”, the man added. “A government vehicle, a four-by-four. They get precedence at traffic circles. Always drive in convoy with armed security.”

“But I have no security whatsoever,” I said with some exasperation.

“How were you picked up at the airport then? Where did they pick you up?” the woman asked. She frowned critically as I told her about my pick-up in car park C. “That doesn’t sound good …” It felt like my matriculation exam all over again, that woozy sensation just after having opened the mathematics paper.

The man explained that the airport was divided into three security zones. Only some security companies were cleared to penetrate the inner circle, which had the highest security standards. Car park B’s security was a bit softer; car park C was really dangerous. “Eleven Italian soldiers were killed there recently. Lethal place.”

I began to wonder whether I should cancel my planned trip to the restaurant; yet the programme advisor had been so enthusiastic about a certain club (which shall remain nameless) as a meeting place, that I finally decided to go. I used a high security taxi company at $7 a stop, which was quite expensive for Kabul. When one books the trip one gets a security code that the driver is also supposed to know, which supposedly reduced the risk of being intercepted in the metre or so between the residence and the taxi door.

I travelled through the dark and shabby streets of Kabul to “the club”. It was hidden behind the by now familiar sandbags and double metal doors, armed guards lounging about. Once inside a young man body-searched me, perpetual Kalashnikov slung over the shoulder, and his hands found a notebook in my pullover pocket.

“You have a firearm?” he asked, trying to identify the item by its shape. “A knife …?” And then past a greying oldster through the third door and into a European space: a green garden behind high walls, a pub and restaurant with Parisian portraits on the walls. It had a Bohemian atmosphere with French, German, and English coming from all around.

I sat down with a glass of extremely expensive French red wine out of the box, the kind that tastes like hell and should be consumed only with a supply of Grandpa at hand. Just across the aisle a middle-aged man was chatting to a woman in strongly accented English. I asked him for his card: “Teuns Vermeulen”, bringing light to Afghanistan while darkness was falling back home; yet another electrical engineer that was no longer working for Eskom.

I quickly understood the programme advisor’s enthusiasm about the club. It was filled to the brim with attractive young women. A blonde with an interesting face sat down across from me, a cigarette dangling from her lips and a drink in her hand, and before long we were talking. She turned out to be French, but an absolute Anglophile; one of those souls that drift across the world from one exotic place to the other.

I asked her about the security situation, about which she had little to say. A friend of hers would come soon. He was a security consultant and knew much more. Not long thereafter the fellow turned up.

“John”, he introduced himself with an authentic drawl. “Previously a lieutenant in the United States army, Special Forces,” but actually “just a farm boy from Arkansas”. He tightened his arm muscles, “Just look at these arms — from baling hay!” He worked as a security manager for a large company in Afghanistan. “Been here for five years and haven’t lost a single worker.”

“Everybody tells me I should be moving around in a convoy inside an armoured vehicle”, I said. What did he think?

“The security companies have a vested interest in keeping their clients scared, but the security situation changes all the time. Six months ago the main street was the most dangerous place in the world with kidnappings and all that. It’s not like that now.”

Would he walk around in the streets?

“Sure …”

Would he bring his wife and children across?

“You crazy! There’s a war going on here in case you haven’t noticed!”

Before long my corner is taken over by a group of exuberant people and the beers just continued to come, regardless as to whether one had ordered not; somebody always paid. Very exuberant, these expats, and really enjoying Kabul. My eyes burned from the cigarette smoke and I tried unsuccessfully to turn on an extractor fan against the wall.

“Lets go to Oggies,” John suggested, his drawl more pronounced than before.

“Oggies?”

“Another pub.”

I went along in John’s four-wheel-drive. He had a driver and two armed guards in the back.

“You ever drive?” I asked.

“What! Haven’t driven in five years! Don’t have to drive. My driver is the son of the *****. My bodyguards are from the National Guard. Nobody will fucking stop us. Nobody can arrest us either. And I spend a hundred thousand US on all my security.”

“But why do you spend so much on your security when it is supposed to be so safe?”

“Because he’s high profile,” a guy on the back seat interrupted. “Everybody knows him, so he’s a target.”

John’s best friend was some or other high official. He saw to it that they had dinner at least once a month. “I don’t fire any workers. I just tell my friend that this or that guy is not shaping up or that I don’t trust him. He does the firing. In return his son works for me. We keep it all in the family.”

I was rather impressed by the un-American way in which he had adapted to the local modus operandi. “And how did you figure all this out?”

“The hard way …”

“Oggies” turned out to be something of an expat shebeen in a block of flats. There was a braai place with a thatched roof outside, the walls of which were decorated with field souvenirs like old Kalashnikovs and an ancient blunderbuss.

A rather sozzled young man from Pakistan had arrived with us. He stood next to me with a bottle of beer in the hand.

“Couldn’t you get into trouble?” I asked him. “Or are Pakistanis also exempt from the law?” Only foreign nationals were allowed to indulge and alcohol was otherwise prohibited in Afghanistan.

“He’s not exempt”, John slurred. “Pakistan, Afghanistan, no fucking difference. The same tribes. Just because some or other British general drew a line between them doesn’t mean that the people are different.”

“Alcohol is illegal,” the Pakistani said, “but everybody is doing it. I’ve often sat drinking beer with the Mullahs, beards and all.”

“The social life here’s second to none,” a guy called Hector interrupted. “How old are you? Thirty-eight?”
“Forty-nine…” I said, feeling flattered.

“Jesus Christ!” he said and I realised that he was only in his late 30s. The pleasures of expat life had already exacted a heavy price.

“He has a special international expat club,” the French girl said. “Here in Kabul we meet every Friday and go on a walk in a different part of the city. The people really appreciate it when one goes walking around without security. Then afterwards we go and do something crazy.” She pointed at the American. “John’s coming along tomorrow. You want to come?”

I could not, as government departments worked on Saturdays as well. It was also time to go and I called for a secure taxi.

The Pakistani joined me and we waited behind the armoured gate for the taxi to arrive. It took its time and after a while the guard opened the gate, so that I could step out and look for it.

“Better come inside,” the Pakistani said after a while. “Its dangerous to wait outside.”

“You mean at night?”

“Yes, during the day you can walk around, because there are police everywhere.”

The next morning at breakfast the Philippine woman told me that a whole a truck-load of police uniforms had been stolen. “Can’t trust anybody,” she said.

  • Names of all people and places changed or obscured to avoid recognition