Conrad Steenkamp
Conrad Steenkamp

Fear in Afghanistan

I had moved to a new guesthouse which looked and felt like a death trap. I had to travel even further to work and the first morning, just to complicate matters further, there was a demonstration at the University of Kabul. We took a circuitous route to the government compound: up and down narrow alleys past roadside vegetable stalls, small shops that sold bread and roughly plucked chickens, people crowding around taxis, and goats and children feeding off rubbish dumps.

As we skirted past the university I asked my driver what was behind the demonstration.

“American soldiers burnt the Quran,” he said, none too friendly.

“No, what happened,” a colleague next to me said “is that Americans soldiers tried to capture a couple of Talibs, but they fought back and the building caught fire. That is how the Qurans were burnt”.

“Something’s going to happen,” the colleague sitting next to the driver said. He had heard of a vehicle, packed with 50kg of explosives, that was driving around looking for a target and that there were 40 suicide bombers in the city.

“We are going to have trouble.” The driver interrupted; he had had dinner with a relative in the Afghan army who said that a would-be bomber had been shot and another caught. He didn’t believe that there were 40 of them: normally the Talibs just sent in a handful, then said that there were more just to scare people. Despite his excellent intelligence the driver took care to avoid the roads normally used by the military, just in case.

The student demonstration lasted three days and all the UN people and the big-shot consultants from the big companies were restricted to their compounds. “White City” they called it. The demonstrations, a younger colleague told me, were actually about the export of water to Iran; another said that it was because George Bush and Bin Laden were making a movie in the US for which they needed more footage — serious-faced explanations all — and conspiracy theory abounded.

I took a day off to complete some other consulting work at home. Around the dinner table nervous consultants told me the story about a “red vehicle packed with explosives” driving around and every bit of information was on “good authority”. As usual I woke up with the early morning call to prayer, long before dawn. Sometime later I heard shots in the distance and the wail of sirens, but slept further. When I went for breakfast I found the dining room chock-a-block: “lockdown” — nobody was allowed out. Helicopters droned by; more sirens.

“There was a bomb in the city centre and some shooting,” an ex-South African told me. Shortly thereafter the office called me to find out whether I was okay. Gradually it dawned on me that I should not have taken the day off, because I would have had to have stayed here anyway. A few minutes later somebody else phoned to ask after my well-being. The guest house in which an Indian colleague of mine was staying, had been attacked. The people at the office had spoken to him and he was unharmed. The shooting continued; according to the BBC the UN did not know how many people there were in the guesthouse. Was it a hostage situation?

Before long six people had been reported dead; two women had jumped from the third floor, breaking their legs but surviving. More bombs exploded, in Peshawar this time: 19 people dead. The consultants and aid workers nursed their coffee cups; they watched BBC and swapped scary stories.

“I’m glad that I’m flying tomorrow,” a Dutchman said. Everybody hung around and twittered nervously. Even the handful of guest house staff looked edgy — an observation that worried me far more than the fears of a bunch of scared expats.

To kill time I played pool with the ex-South African and a Ukrainian policeman.

“Did any of you do a perimeter check?” I asked. “Did you see the back entrance?” The guards at the front entrance were armed to the teeth and stood behind several metals doors, but the bloody backdoor was just a layer of thin planks covered by a single sleepy guard: a stunningly obvious weak spot that became superfluous only with the recent closure of the guesthouse.

“It was the first thing I did when I got here,” the policeman said. “Checked the perimeter, especially the back door.” He had been in charge of a police station in Kosovo and knew what he was talking about.

“Yes, the back entrance is a weak spot,” the ex-South African said. “All you have to do is ring the bell and they open it.” He was yet another consultant with a military background; first as an officer in the Royal Navy and then as naval adviser in Saudi Arabia. “And if they hit this place it would be from two or three sides simultaneously. Now previously there was a tree next to the wall over there. One could skin up and over in no time, but they’ve cut it off. Now one would be trapped.”

But I had worked out long ago how to get out. In the event of an attack I could be in the street in a minute flat.

The next morning in the dining room I heard that the UN people and most of the others were still in “lockdown”, but my cell phone rang and to my surprise my driver was waiting at the front door. I grabbed a coffee and a handful of nuts, and jogged out with my computer bag over the shoulder and into the streets of Kabul again. The air had been cleansed by the light rain that had sifted down overnight; motor vehicles hooted; women in blue burqas crossed the busy road without looking left or right.

We picked up a colleague at another guesthouse; he and the driver chatted away querulously in Dari until I insisted that they translated. It emerged that his guesthouse was right next to the one that had been attacked. He got up at five in the morning to pray — just then the first shots rang out. Somebody shouted: “Help me! Help me!” It was a man on the balcony of the neighbouring building; there were shots and he fell. Eight foreigners were dead, not six as reported in the media; five guards and three policemen. Somebody in a neighbouring room who had watched the fighting through his window was also shot in the head. Bloody Americans! Bloody Pakistanis! The Pakistani secret service was behind this! The Taliban was their creation! Iran! Pakistan! They were all here and it was the people of Afghanistan that suffered.

My Indian colleague, Selim, I heard for the first time, had been in the targeted guest house. Fortunately his bedroom was separate from the main building. He hid under his bed and sent SMSs to the office and the security people were able to come in and save him. My Afghan colleague actually saw Selim shortly after his rescue, but the fellow was so shocked that he did not recognise him. At the office I was told that Selim would henceforth be working remote from India and I thought: what the hell am I doing here … ?

A female colleague called me to her desk and showed me a video clip on her computer, a woman in a burqa kneeling on the ground in what looked like a sports stadium. It was taken from quite a distance and her back was turned to the camera. Another burqa-clad female shape came and squatted down next to her, head turned to her as if talking; then she got up and left. The kneeling woman turned and looked after her, or perhaps she was looking for something else.

A man in traditional dress, a white beard and a string of beads in one hand came to stand momentarily next to her, before he too turned away. Then another came and put a Kalashnikov to her head, all very casually, and a gout of dust exploded from the ground in front of her. She toppled over onto her face and a van pulled up; four men grabbed her by the arms and legs and tossed her onto the back.

“Look!” My colleague said. “According to the sharia they may not touch her.” The titles ran down the screen and finished with Rawa: Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan. I subsequently found the video clip on the internet: her name was Zarmeena and she had killed her husband. The founding leader of Rawa, Meena, had also been executed, but by the Pakistani government. Not long after showing me the video, my colleague disappeared and nobody could tell me what had happened to her. She was just gone.

“It happens in Afghanistan,” a colleague said.

Back at the guest house the high-security crowd was still living in “White City”, like in a time-warp. They still sat where I had left them that morning, in the dining room watching the TV news. The ex-South African told me that he had received “intel from a contact in the Gurkhas”. Six of the Talibs involved in the attack on the guesthouse had been caught. After some “rigorous questioning” by Afghan security people they confirmed that our guesthouse had been on the list for a follow-up attack, one which had been planned very carefully, just like the first one. Definitely the Pakistani intelligence people, he said. The Afghans would not have been able to manage something as complex as this on their own.

“They are supposed to be America’s allies against the Taliban,” an American consultant chipped in. The Pakistani government had neglected to build schools, the ex-South African continued. Then the Wahhabis came with Saudi money and built mosques and madrasas all over the country. The young men that had been educated and radicalised by them were now in Pakistan’s army, often in high positions. “If you meet them they still look very pukka, all British army, but they are something different … ” That was why the Taliban was being fought and supported all at the same time.

The next day also the ex-South African was gone. I sat in the little garden with an American Afghan who worked as a bodyguard. He had torn his knee ligaments and was staying in the guesthouse while recovering. I strongly considered a visit to my favourite club, but he dissuaded me. He did not move around during a “White City” unless it was absolutely necessary. Did I not rather want to order some beers? To my amazement one of the gate guards delivered a six-pack within five minutes flat.

“You’re South African,” he said after a while and it turned out his boss was called “Gert”. I called “Gert” on his cellphone and found out that he and a couple of “boere” were watching rugby.

“No, kak man! Everything is orraait. You can go out and have a lekker night out. There’s nothing to be worried about any more.” But the consultants at the guesthouse did not agree. With the Afghan presidential election about to take place, everybody was expecting trouble and they wondered: were they targeting only UN people or Westerners in general? And the next morning those little suitcase wheels clattered over the tile joints, so that the joint sounded like a busy railway station.

Yet that evening it was “Green City” again, by which time only the independent consultants like me remained behind. A group was holding a farewell party on the second floor of the guest house, empty bottles of wine all over. Some had been here for a long time, others just for weeks, but they all looked equally relieved to be going.

“How could one escape from here should there be an attack?” a woman asked. Everybody was interested in this question and I showed them my own escape route: through a bathroom window, onto a roof and then into a tree on the other side of the wall.

The next morning at breakfast somebody told me confidentially about “the escape route over the roof”. If anything happened now, I realised, I would have to wait in a queue.

* Note: All names and places changed or obscured.