Rolling Stone pretends to be VICE in this article by my mate, Matt. Before you get the idea that Kabul was a pit of debauchery and casual racism, wallowing in troughs of cold, hard cash, my experience was a little more hand to mouth and a little less exciting. All my choice, of course.
While war raged across Afghanistan, expats lived in a bubble of good times and easy money. But as the U.S. withdraws, life has taken a deadly turn
In my earlier post, “THE GETAWAY”, the retreat in question was a perilous one, but nonetheless, I remember and write about it with a nostalgic mist of humour and fun. This is because, although my friend and I came close to losing our lives and liberty, we had put ourselves in that situation and had no-one else to blame for our misfortunes.
The story I’m about to tell still leaves me cold and fearful, even years after the event.
In 2009, I was only a few months into my Afghanistan experience. An opportunity came up to travel to Nuristan, a rather mystical eastern province of Afghanistan that only converted to Islam in the late 19th century. Formerly known as Kafiristan (land of the unbelievers), after its forcible conversion in the 1890s, it was named Nuristan (land of light).
The inhabitants are distinctive for their light skin, childlike features and often blue or green eyes. The Nuristanis also have separate languages and dialects from the common tongues of Dari and Pashtun. These languages are often so distinct that villages either side of a valley or mountain range within the province won’t understand each other. You only have to read Eric Newby’s 1958 book, A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush to understand how alien and foreign the Nuristanis were considered by other Afghans even as recently as the mid-twentieth century.
In 2009, the Americans had a small Provincial Reconstruction Team in the west-most part of the province. I was one of the last visitors to the base, which was closed due to the province not being considered worth development and investment. The base was later famously over-run by the Taliban. But that’s another story.
On the base, I happened to meet a young woman called Lisa Nooristani (her surname derived from the province). She was the CEO of her own construction company and was a trusted sub-contractor for the Americans. They awarded her money to build schools and roads in the district and in other provinces, like Jalalabad and Kabul.
I was working on a video series about female businesswomen and, although she spoke little English and I, at that point, little Dari, we struck up a liking almost immediately upon meeting. I did a quick interview with her, through a translator, in which she told me that the more successful she had become, the more death threats she had received, to the point that she could no longer live in Nuristan, safely. She and her husband had moved permanently to the city of Jalalabad in the province of Nangahar, closer to the capital Kabul.
She had the pale, porcelain skin of a Nuristani woman and almost European features. I asked about her husband; did he mind her running the business? No, but he had received his own threats, calling him “less than a man” for allowing his wife to work. I was keen to see Lisa in action, but was not permitted to leave the base without an armed escort, which would draw attention and danger to her. We decided to meet again next week in a different location - her home in Jalalabad.
The following week, I managed to fly into another American base - Forward Operations Base (FOB) Fenty. Known mainly for being the take-off point for Predator drones, it also has a small press division. This time I made sure I could leave the base. Working my way through a mound of paperwork to “unembed” myself, I signed my life away, making sure that if anything happened to me outside the base, it would not legally implicate my American hosts. Everyone was hospitably kind, but clearly baffled at my wish to leave the safety of the wire.
Early one morning, I passed through the razor wire and checkpoints of Fenty in conservative dress of a long skirt, long-sleeved tunic and a headscarf to meet Lisa and her driver waiting outside in a beat-up Toyota Corolla.
We were driving northwards, out of Nangahar province and up into Kunar, which was a more unstable province, used as a thoroughfare for insurgents travelling from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The plan was to briefly visit a school her company had built, get a couple of shots and then leave.
The way snaked through high and narrow mountain roads, without railings and often with only room for one car to pass. Lisa and I sat in the back and I looked down into merciless ravines, dropping straight down below us.
It was a good two hours before we arrived in Kunar and I’d started dropping off, much to the amusement of Lisa and her driver. Our destination was a small village school, empty at this time of the year, during hot summer. When we arrived, a wizened old groundskeeper opened the gate for us. He recognised Lisa, but looked surprised when he saw me. Lisa hadn’t called ahead for security’s sake - any inceptor on the line could have prepared an ambush for us - and the arrival of a six foot western woman was probably a first for the village.
But, he let us in and I started filming general shots around the school: childrens’ drawings; textbooks; empty desks. The construction was impressive, although the school clearly lacked a lot of basic supplies like stationery and furniture. However, just the fact this rural village had a modern building to serve its children was a big deal, doubly so being in a traditionally conservative area like Kunar.
I was keen to get Lisa on camera, talking about the school and was eager to find out whether girls were educated her as well. I took my camera and tripod outside to find her. She found me first. Running up to me, she grabbed my hand. In broken English and bits of Dari she explained that we had to go. Now. Right now.
Another younger man had turned up and spoken to the groundsman. They had then made a phone call together, in which she had overheard them telling someone over the line that there were two women here, one western, and if whoever it was hurried, they could catch both of us.
I was confused, but I let her lead me back to the car. The driver was asleep, his seat reclined back, but it only took a few words from Lisa to have him bolt upright and starting the car. Getting in, I felt the anxiety radiating off both of them.
We took off at a roar, dust scattering up. I saw the groundsman and another man running out of the school after us, but we were gone. On reaching the main road, back into the mountains, Lisa glanced out of the back window and said something in a low, but alarmed, tone to the driver. There was another car coming up behind us very fast.
We then set off on the most harrowing car journey of my life. Quietly, in that hushed tone of extreme fear, Lisa said that we needed to make it over the Kunar border into Nangahar. Then, whoever was following us would probably leave off. We drove through those mountains at breakneck speed, taking corners I thought we would fly right off. All the time I was watching Lisa, thinking how it was my fault that she was here in the first place, that my very presence, as a westerner, had put her in peril.
My stomach was clenched, my muscle were tight, the back of the driver’s neck was covered in sweat. None of us really dared look back. I couldn’t tell you how long we raced around those mountain twists and turns. Time seemed to be simultaneously slowed-down and super-fast. It was only when I began to see little dwellings that we slowed down. The driver looked behind us. No car.
We drove back in uneasy silence to Jalalabad and Lisa asked me to stay for lunch. Her house was a large 1960s building with vaulted ceilings. It looked almost colonial, although in severe disrepair. On entering, I heard a galloping of little feet. Six children, ranging from one around 12 years old through 9, 6, 4, 2 years of age to the little baby in the oldest’s arms, came to greet Lisa. There were four girls and two little boys, including the babe-in-arms. From cries of welcome the kids were shocked into shy silence when they clocked me,
Then, like a well-oiled machine, the girls put together lunch and served us, without being asked. While they were preparing food, Lisa got out an album of photos and showed me pictures of her wedding day. “I was fourteen,” she said pointing to a photo of her in heavy make-up, surrounding by family. “It was the saddest day of my life.”
She turned the page and showed me a picture of a handsome man. “Your husband”,” I asked. “No. He is my best friend.” She provided no more details. As she showed me more photos, a common picture appeared. The man she loved, she wasn’t allowed to marry. Her husband, thankfully, was a kind man, but much older and spent most of his time away from the house. Her children, her business were the loves of her life and I had nearly caused her to lose them.
We chatted all afternoon, before they drove me back to FOB Fenty. The next week, Lisa was in Kabul and called me. The line was bad and we had trouble understanding each other, but I said we should meet up the following day. But when I called her next, the number was out of service and remained so from then on. Perhaps she had a new death threat and had to change her number. I tried to find her many times over the next year, but I never met her again. I hope her and family remained safe.
It’s one thing to put your own life in danger, but to risk someone else’s and the future of their entire family, well, I made sure from then on I always thought a story through first. If there was any possible risk to the people I was with, I’d pull the story. It won’t make me a great journalist, but it might keep people safe. As westerners, we can leave risk behind, but the Afghans who help us have to live with the consequences.
Kimberley Motley speaks about continuing injustice for Afghan women
Kim Motley is a bit of a superstar. She takes on highly political cases in Afghanistan, often at great risk to herself. Now she’s backing a new documentary, “In-Justice”, by another mate, Sam French, who garnered a Oscar nomination for his last film, “Buzkashi Boys”.
The documentary follows two women, imprisoned for ‘moral crimes’ in Afghanistan. One of them is Gulnaz, whose case, unusually received great international attention when she was given the choice of marrying her rapist or spending her life in prison.
Kim speaks about her involvement with the case below and further below that is the Indiegogo fundraiser page for “In-Justice”.
In the days before General Stanley McChrystal came to Afghanistan, military bases were allowed to sell alcohol, which civilians and permitted soldiers could buy (US no, UK yes, everyone else big yes). The general rule was a 2 can limit, although whether that was adhered to depended very much on the status of the base. In ISAF’s HQ, it was rigorously enforced, while at the military wing of Kabul International Airport, they had around nine bars in business during my first year in Afghanistan, during which I lived in a container right next to the flightline.
Every nation had their own bar. The Czechs played dour-faced pool over Budvar, the Belgians drank Stella and danced to Euro-techno, while the Nordic bar had been over-run, for some reason, by Americans from the southern states. Being new to the place and eager to sniff out stories, I spent my evenings as many a journalist has; being a bar fly. I would hit all nine bars in a usual crawl, but I would usually end up at the Nordic.
Although US uniformed soldiers weren’t supposed to drink, you’d usually find some lurking in the shadows, being hospitably ignored by the rest and left alone to nurse their cans. Otherwise, the rest of the Americans two-stepping with one of the few girls on camp, playing pool and darts or just rowdily swapping war stories of various veracity were contractors. Usually military, these hardened characters had found they weren’t much suited to civilian life and had joined up with private companies to do logistics, training or IT in warzones for eye-wateringly high salaries.
These southern boys didn’t have much regard for my nation (“How’s the United Queendom, these days, Ruth?”), my profession or my liberal feminism, but if we kept away from sex, religion or politics, they were probably the best drinking buddies I’ve ever had.
Many of them were pilots or aviation mechanics and were helping train the Afghan National Air Force to conduct missions. The ANAF’s air assets consisted of a few helicopters left over from the Soviet occupation - the MI-35 attack helicopter and the MI-17 transport helicopter - and a sad old, non-functioning L-39. The Americans wouldn’t step inside the MI-35s (they had Czechs and Lithuanian soldiers to do that), but they did fly around in the MI-17s.
After a particularly rowdy night, I woke up with a banging hangover to my phone beeping. I checked it out to discover that one of the boys, an English language instructor to Afghan pilots from Oklahoma, was following up on what I had assumed was a drunken invitation to fly that morning. Apparently we were still on.
Shaking off my headache and donning combats and polo shirt - the unspoken uniform of contractor acceptance - I trundled downstairs to be picked up by him and his Afghan interpreter, who we shall call Aziz.
Although the Afghan wing of the military airport was alongside the ISAF base, there was so much mistrust of our Afghan allies that we had to drive our armoured Land Cruiser through a baffling network of checkpoints and roads before we reached the Afghan side. It probably took 30 minutes of driving to advance a quarter of a mile.
We drove to a hangar, where American mechanics were doing pre-flight checks on a MI-17. There were no Afghans to be seen. “It’s Friday, their day off”, said my friend. They were at the mosque and with their families. “No war today”, he smirked at me.
The mechanics nodded gruffly at me without interest. I was motioned onto the MI-17. At this point, I thought it was probably a good idea to ask where we were going. I’d brought my camera to get some aerial shots to use in future stories, but if there was going to be an actual story, then that was a bonus. I asked the nearest crew member to me - a young-looking gunner in civilian clothes, who was fixing a long belt of rounds to the door-mounted machine gun. He sussed me out and said, warily, “test flight. Maintenance.”
It seemed that was all I was going to get. I plonked myself down on one of the seats that ran along the inside of the aircraft and pointed my camera out the window as my friend and Aziz climbed aboard and the pilots fired up the engine.
Aziz looked pale and unsure. “First time on a helicopter”, my friend shouted to the gunner. They both laughed, knowingly.
We took off and were soon over the mountains encircling Kabul, flying worryingly close to the peaks. Having spoken to a few pilots about this technique that is suppose to make it harder for rockets or small arms to hit, many said that the margin for pilot error or loss of power at that height creates far more accidents than being shot down. At that early point in my Afghanistan career, I just thought flying that low was great fun and brilliant for camera angles.
Once over the mountains we started descending. I craned my neck and caught sight of a behemoth of a military base up ahead of us. It rose like a beast from the desert. Only a few minutes out of Kabul - it must be Bagram, the home to 20,000 US forces and many more auxiliary workers and contractors. I motioned with my head towards my friend. He misunderstood and thought I wanted to move up into the cockpit. Before I could shake my head, he’d spoken to the gunner and I found myself seated uncomfortably in the engineer’s seat between the two pilots. Awkwardly placing a radio headset on my bonce, I tried to make idle chatter. “Is this Bagram, then?” They looked at me as if I were an idiot. “Yep,” said the co-pilot. “And that’s where we’re going to land.” Again, the look of pity and disgust, “yep.”
Once we landed, in a far away corner of the runway, it was a long, long walk to the main base. I followed in everyone’s trail, trying to understand where we were going and what mysterious mission had brought us here. I passed huge cargo planes, evil-looking attack helicopters and sexily slim-lined jets. We walked and walked. Finally, we passed off the flightline and turned right onto a main road, which a large street sign proclaimed was called Disney Drive.
I looked around at the scores of uniformed soldiers driving up and down in golf carts, walking in pairs with flourescent belts tied round their middles licking ice creams from the DFAC and stepping aside for US Marines in tiny PT shorts running to cadence. It seemed almost delightfully cynical that they should name the main drag of this mega-base, this detention centre of Afghans where waterboarding is not a sport after the theme park. Imagine my disappointment much later when I learned it was named after a dead soldier.
Disney Drive is so long that it has several bus stops along it. It is also a window display of the international contingents posted to Afghanistan. We walked past an Egyptian field hospital, a South Korean clinic, Jordanian soldiers, a Polish barracks and several Filipino workers giggling amongst themselves. Another sight was the intriguingly named, “Tuna Bridge”, a tiny walkway over a ditch, named after the incorrect detection of an IED, which turned out to be a tuna can.
After a good 20 minutes of trudging, we suddenly turned off and into a ramshackle outdoor mall, where Afghan shops sold crummy trinkets and soldiers could choose from an impressive (for Afghanistan) array of fast food - Burger King, Orange Julius, Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen.
But none of these were part of our mission. The boys made a beeline for the last shack in the line - Popeye’s Fried Chicken. The queue was immense and, when we finally reached the counter, the boys ordered pretty much the entire stock.
The pilot and co-pilot, who had ignored me to this point, finally acknowledged my existence, by handing me four bags of fried chicken.
Loaded with thousands of greasy calories, we marched back Disney all the way to the flightline. I was still intrigued as to our mission, until we boarded the helicopter and the crew started pre-flight checks again.
I turned to my friend, “the chicken was the mission?”, I asked, incredulously. “Yep,” he grinned. “Enough chicken for the whole of their division”.
And it was a mighty pile of chicken. Boxes upon boxes sat in the middle of the MI-17, lashed down with straps. The smell was unbelievable. Part hot, partly rancid grease, mixed with dead flesh with a little of old crotches thrown in. I have a famously strong stomach, but even I sat myself near the open window of the gunner. Poor Aziz looked even more pale and miserable than before.
Around ten minutes after take off, as we were once again passing over the mountains, the gunner motioned for me to put on a radio headset. “Hey, wanna shoot the gun?” He motioned to the large machine gun in his hands. I replied with the answer that got me to Afghanistan, got me on this flight and in most of the trouble/fun I’ve experienced throughout my life - shrugging nonchalantly, “yeah, alright then”.
I sat down on a small stool and placed my hands on the handles. The gunner guided my finger to the trigger, placed the belt across my lap and told me to take care of the spent cartridges flying back into the aircraft. That was the extent of my instruction. I had never fired a weapon before. Not even a fairground rifle.
I drew on my only experience with any sort of gun, my late night Call of Duty sessions. Aware of the horrible irony - soldiers frequently mock civilians who ask if battle is like the popular video game - I aimed the sight at some large rocks and squeezed the trigger.
The gun juddered into life and a ribbon of dust flew up from the mountainside. I let go. This was easy. There was no recoil, no resistance. I fired again, longer this time, at the same enemy rocks. The sandy plumes where my rounds hit seemed to be utterly dislocated and isolated from my actions. I forgot I was on a helicopter, I forgot I was in Afghanistan. To my shame, I started to believe I was playing a video game.
The gunner told me the pilots were going to circle for a while for me to really destroy the offending metamorphic protrusions. However, after the fourth short burst (even I was not so gauche as to use up the entire belt), I signalled that I had finished. In my first outing with a gun, it seemed classier to shoot in moderation with a blase air of having done it all before. I’m sure nobody was fooled.
Sitting back in my seat, the scent of gunpowder reached my nostrils, mixed in with chicken grease and another new, acrid scent. I noticed the gunner was laughing. Turning round, I saw poor Aziz finally lose his stomach into the nearest receptacle he could find - a Popeye’s Fried Chicken box.
When we arrived back, the timbre of the crew towards me had changed. Apparently by carrying chicken and shooting a machine gun, I had earned some sort of acceptance. They patted me on the back and asked me for some of my aerial footage before dropping me back at my hooch. They even offered me some of their fried chicken. I politely declined.
That wasn’t the only time I shot a gun, but it was the only time that involved a helicopter, fried chicken and vomit.
In late 2010, I found myself freezing to death in eastern Afghanistan. I was embedded with a US army unit, charged with moving out into the villages around a provincial capital, which had not seen coalition forces visit them for several years.
This was due to the caveats, or conditions, laid down by the eastern european forces, who had previously taken charge of the capital. They had taken the idea of putting the Afghan National Security Forces in the lead so seriously that they rarely left the base. This meant that, apart from a small area directly around the city limits and their base, the rest of the province was ruled by Taliban shadow governors. The Taliban provided law courts, schooling and even delivered food to needy families.
The new US army unit didn’t have the same caveats. Since arriving a couple of weeks before I joined them, they had gone out on foot patrols every day and, usually, at least one of their platoons had come under fire.
The commanding officer was a captain, previously enlisted, who was greatly respected by his men. He was the sole of hospitality and brought me into his “rock drills”, as I recorded in my journal of the day (actually ROC - rehearsal of concept, but quite often they use actual rocks to illustrate positions, so you can see why I originally wrote this).
After the drill, I was asked whether I’d like to join A, B or C platoon. Looking as much like I knew what I was talking about, I chose the middle option, B.
The next day, we gathered at 0400 in a typical case of rushing about to then wait around until the sun rose. For the first few hours the patrol was uneventful. We went from unfriendly village to unfriendly village, occasionally questioning men and occasionally taking them in for questioning at the bidding of a shady looking Afghan, who was a member of the NDS - the Afghan equivalent of the secret service.
Girls cried as we led their fathers and brothers away. Some women openly berated the American forces.
Around 1400, we were walking from one village to another across some fields. During the morning there had been a few people around, mainly young boys playing and a couple of men on motorbikes. All of a sudden I noticed it was very empty and very quiet.
When the bang came, we all stopped in our tracks and looked around sheepishly at each other. It was pretty far away, but still awfully loud. Without any idea of what it was or who it had hit, there was no point standing still. We continued to march along in single file.
I sidled up to the nearest guy with a radio. He told me that 2 “clicks” (kilometers) over, C platoon had hit a roadside bomb. He knew nothing else.
We came to yet another field, this time squeezed between a set of abandoned mud houses, their walls crumbling. By this time, the soldiers in our platoon were huddled together. The situation has become slightly worse. Apparently C platoon had come under fire and a young soldier had been shot in the face. They were extracting themselves from the area. We had to do the same. Quickly.
I can’t remember when we started to hear actual gun fire. It quickly seemed like it had always been there. Unlike some encounters with firearms in my life, there was no sound of close incoming fire (like a mosquito’s whine) or little puffs of dirt on the ground as rounds hit. However, I didn’t have much time to reflect on where fire was coming from. I had another problem. I had to run.
I had come to a stop in the middle of the field and, in probably one of my most stupid moves, let my camerawoman instincts take over and turned the camera back on the soldiers behind me to get the shot of them advancing on me. Only, I hadn’t noticed that they were running. This probably means I should too.
There’s a piece of camera footage somewhere in my archives that sees the lens swiftly drop towards the ground, while an American voice shouts in my direction, “it’s a fucking infill! Fucking run!”.
I whip around to where the head of the patrol used to be. They are swiftly running towards a wall ahead of us, one by one jumping over and sheltering behind.
I am roughly 60 kg/132 lbs. I am carrying around 20 kg/44 lbs of equipment, 7 kg/16 lbs of body armour and a camera. I am not what you’d call athletic. I mean, I’m not fat or out of shape, but the last time I jumped over a wall, even unencumbered was…I’ve never jumped over a wall.
I start running towards the wall. As it approaches, or, rather, as I approach it, it seems to double in size. There is no way I’m jumping over this thing. A mad, desperate idea forms in my mind. The wall is made of mud. Dry, crumbly mud. Maybe if I run towards it with enough speed and force, I might be able to run right through it, like Wile. E Coyote. At the time this seems a perfectly reasonable and, indeed, my only option.
Gathering speed I screw up my face for the imminent collision. At the point just before the wall hits, there is a large bang and, simultaneously, I feel a hand connect with me from behind. The surprise is so striking that I jump a foot in the air. The hand grabs the seat of my trousers and lifts me further into my sudden launch from Earth.
Instinctively, I hold out my hands to brace for the impact. Hands from the other side of the wall reach out and grab me. In an undignified pile, I fall in a mess of limbs, camera and dust. Other soldiers hop effortlessly over the wall and skip around me.
Once everyone’s over there is silence. Sitting quietly for few minutes, I try and make sense of what just happened. It’s only when we all get up and start walking back home with, apparently, no further worries about attacks, that a young soldier approaches me.
"Er, you, er, jumped a bit early there. I just thought I’d give you a push, know what I mean?" He looks meaningfully at me.
"Yeah, yeah", I gratefully agree, "thanks, man."
The rest of the patrol is uneventful and quiet, as I spit dust out of my mouth and recover my composure. I never found out what we were running from or to. I never got the chance to ask. The young chap who had been shot later died. I retired to my little tent and resolved to stay out of everyone’s way.
Now I’ve left Afghanistan, I’m going through my journals and remembering certain events I didn’t discuss at the time, because I thought they were too close to the bone, damaging to those around me or, maybe, I was just too busy getting on with day to day stuff to write them up. Anyway, now I have a moment to pause, I’d like to share some of them. The following is all true.
The area of Taimani, a district of Kabul popular with ex-pats, who couldn’t afford/didn’t want to live in heavy fortified and guarded compounds. Here, we lived mostly without problems side-by-side with our Afghan neighbours, who didn’t complain too much when we had loud parties and cheerfully shouted good morning, as we stumbled with hangovers to our local greasy spoon (which catered almost exclusively to hungover ex-pats).
But during 2013, Taimani was shaken by a number of kidnappings and burglaries, where ex-pat households were specifically targeted. Although Kabul may strike most of the world as a dangerous place, the ultra-conservative version of Islam practiced here meant, at least, that muggings, robberies and burglaries were virtually unheard of. The Afghan home is sacred and to violate its walls without invitation is probably the greatest affront to their values. Just think of the stink regularly kicked up about night raids.
Therefore, the news that foreigners were being attacked in their homes, often with horrible stories of torture or rape thrown in had got people very afraid. A friend of mine, learning that I was living alone with no guard, my flat-mates being on an extended holiday, came round one day and offered me a temporary loan of a gun.
Now, although one is surrounded by guns in Afghanistan, it doesn’t mean that they’re perfectly legal. Actually, it is legal for each household to have a shotgun, which is available on the black market for around $100. Shotguns are classed as “non-lethal weapons”. Make of that what you will. However, this weapon was not a shotgun. It was a 9mm Taurus handgun - a PT609 Pro, to be precise. Small, girl-sized, but with enough punch and accuracy to discourage any intruder. I accepted the loan, but there was one problem - I’d never shot a gun in my life.
My benefactor came up with an idea. Instead of finding a range that would take me, a civilian and not in possession of any Afghan, American or international paperwork that would permit me to have such a weapon, we would drive out to a deserted piece of land and practice firing the gun.
So, one Friday afternoon, he drove round with his motorbike and I packed my Taurus, his Norinco, some bottles of water and a roll of cash in a backpack and hopped on the back.
We drove outside of Kabul city and on the new road to Bagram air field. The road is surprisingly well-kempt and, on a Friday, which is traditionally a day for prayers and family, pretty empty. We drive until we find a piece of wasteland, all rocks and dust with absolutely no-one around. The occasional truck sweeps by.
We turn off the main road and drive around 100 yards into the wasteland. Parking the bike, we start piling up rocks as a target and loading our weapons. Standing at a distance of around 50 yards, we spend an enjoyable 20 to 30 minutes blowing the said rocks to pieces, pausing only to crouch down and reload. Being that this is my first time firing a gun, there are a lot of tips and notes to take on board, so it’s not surprising that we’re both so engrossed (and half-deafened by repeated gunshot) that we don’t notice the three Afghan policemen hiking over towards us.
We’re reloading for the fourth or fifth time, when my companion looks up and recognises the distinct grey uniforms of the Afghan National Police. “Oops, the police. We’d better stop.” Eager to be good citizens, we head back to the bike, climb aboard and slowly trundle to the main road to explain ourselves.
On reflection this was a bad idea. To their eyes, here were two foreigners - one bearded and unkempt and one, seemingly a woman, but dressed in combats, shirt and a beanie - shooting high-powered handguns without any regard for or prior notification of local police. In Afghanistan, foreigners are generally bad news. Foreigners out of uniform with weapons are probably terrorists.
As we draw level with the road, we hear a shot. For a moment, we pause, one tyre on the road, one still on the dirt. Then it sinks in. The police have levelled their AK-47s at us and are about to open fire. “Shit!” says my companion, “Fucking go!”, say I. He kicks the bike into gear and hauls it away from the direction of the police. They, in turn, let loose. I hear crack after crack, some with the unmistakeable mosquito-whine of incoming fire that’s really too close for comfort.
All I can think is, “I’m on the back. It’s me, who’s going to get shot”. I try and make myself as small as possible, hugging into my companion. I really hope the ANP are as bad a shot as I’ve heard. We roar up the Bagram road, easily reaching 100km/h. The shots die off. I muster enough courage to look back and see they’re not following in a vehicle.
A short pause of relief before I think the next terrifying thought. The road to Bagram - the most populous and notorious centre of American activity in Afghanistan - is highly protected. This means that there’s more than likely to be a police checkpoint up ahead and all it will take is for the guys behind us to phone up their mates and tell them to be on the lookout for a couple of foreigners on a unhelpfully distinct white Honda.
I shout this in the ear of my companion. He goes silent a while before taking a wrenching turn left, off the road and careering across bumpy wasteland yet again, only at a much higher speed this time. I hold on for dear life. After ten or so minutes, he explains, shouting through a mouth full of dust, that there’s an old road parallel to this one that will eventually take us in a circle back to Kabul.
The next half an hour is the most anxious of all my time in Afghanistan. I am convinced we’re about to be picked up and locked in Pul-e-Charki prison for all eternity. In an unbelievable example of pathetic fallacy, as I’m having this thought, the heavens open with huge, golfball-sized chunks of hail. Now we’re bruised and wet as well.
Miraculously, the road is completely empty and, as the gates of Kabul approach, I give myself a little sliver of hope. Mistake number two.
Going through the gates of Kabul, there is a police checkpoint. I’m not too worried about these guys, as they probably aren’t aligned with the out-of-Kabul cops from before. However, after an hour of dust, hail and fast getaways, we look highly unusual and are pulled on sight for a shake-down.
I am suddenly keenly aware of my backpack - full of two unlicensed weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. My companion is doing his best to chat to the police chief and two of his minions, but one young fellow comes around to me and asks, in Dari, for my ID. Due to the dust, my face is covered with a scarf and, with my beanie pulled down, only my eyes are visible. He asks for my ID again and pats my backpack roughly, asking what’s inside. This time he attracts the attention of the police chief, who joins him. Bugger.
There’s only one way out of this - I’m going to have to dazzle them. I pull down the scarf and whip off the beanie in one swift move, my hair breaking loose onto my shoulders. Smiling my best smile, I turn to the police chief and, in terribly broken and ungrammatical Dari, I say hello sir, how are you sir? I’m from England, this is my husband. We were having a picnic today and now we’re going home. Isn’t the traffic bad today, sir?
Having gushed all of that out in one big, messy sentence, there is a palpable pause. The police chief looks at me in bafflement… then claps his hands and laughs a big belly laugh. “She speaks Dari! Isn’t she cute!” He thwacks my companion on the back. “You have a very nice wife! But she should wear a headscarf.” With this, he waves us on. It’s a bloody miracle. “Don’t question it,” I tell my companion, “just go.”
We go. About 10 feet. Then the engine conks out. To my everlasting astonishment, the very police, who were unknowing inches away from throwing us in jail for the rest of our lives, help us push the bike to the nearest garage and give us a friendly wave goodbye.
The journey back home is pretty hazy. We were both too tired for words or to really discuss what had happened that day and how close we’d come to death or incarceration. I do remember I went home and made myself a really strong cup of tea that day.
Check out my friends from District Unknown in this MTV special on young Afghan creatives in Kabul.
Rebel Music Afghanistan shares the real story of Afghanistan, one thatâs much more than just a war-torn media headline. Though the Taliban leadership was overthrown during the 2001 American invasion, their restrictive influence still persists throughout the country. As young students and artists risk their lives in pursuit of free speech and equality, they give audiences an inside look into a rich culture evolving under intense pressure.
As with all issues in Afghanistan, it’s more complicated than it may seem. And it already seems pretty complicated.
* The reports of SF harassing Wardak locals seem to be true. The Country Director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (who is, full disclosure, also the drummer in my band) has issued a public complaint as part of the Afghanistan Alliance of Health Organisations against SF operating in the area. The report says that ISAF helicopters have landed at night and Afghan men in military uniform have tied up their workers, smashed windows and equipment and occupied their clinics, which is, they say, in breach of the Geneva convention, which states that healthcare facilities are to be regarded as neutral crowd.
He has told me, also, that his doctors often complain of Afghans, claiming to be special forces, entering on their own, without ISAF and demanding to see patient details or forcing doctors to sign papers for “driving licences”.
* No-one seems to know who these Afghan “special forces” are. Afghan special forces, such as the Crisis Response Unit, based in Kabul, do exist and have done exemplary work in the past, responding to complex attacks in the city. They are mentored by ISAF special forces, in Kabul these are New Zealand and Norweigan forces.
However, in Wardak, it seems murkier. As no ISAF operation is permitted to happen without Afghan Security forces partnering, US special forces in Wardak would have to have Afghans working alongside them. However, there have been accusations of the US hiring Afghans to work with them to provide a credible face, rather than being bona fide special forces, accountable to the MOI or MOD.
These Afghans could also be NDS (National Directorate of Security) aka the “Afghan FBI”, who are known for not caring too much about asking permission first or the concept of human rights.
* It’s also no secret that Wardak is a cradle for Taliban and Hekmatyar’s men. Most attacks on Kabul are staged from this province. Karzai is surrounded by Hek members in his government, being as it also operates as a political party. If Karzai wants to put forward his candidate for President in the next elections, he’s going to need Hek support. If the SF operations in Wardak have been too successful, he may have received pressure to ease up operations in the province.
* There’s also speculation that ISAF isn’t behind all this at all, but it’s the work of the CIA. Of course, in a country that thrives on rumours, this is not only par for the course, but, naturally, impossible to ascertain.
ISAF promise there will be a full investigation, but where they might start and what they might dig up remains unmistakably murky.
Hey Ruth, I am just dropping a quick hello from Canada. You interviewed me in Kandahar and your Cpl Tuck piece on Christmas Sweaters is a cult classic in our unit. I just checked out your site. It is awesome. Hope all is well. Major Steve MacBeth
Steve! Great to hear from you. Just dropping you an email on your hotmail adress.
In short: yes. Stay within cultural boundaries, take sensible precautions like you would in any third-world city (or first-world, in many circumstances), like not walking alone at night. Also, listen to advice from other foreigners and, more importantly, Afghan friends. You’ll be fine.
Hey there! I absolutely love your blog! There are too few blogs that look at the Middle East through a cultural lens, and yours is amazing! I'm following it now! I just posted an interview with a development worker in Afghanistan and I touched on the media misrepresentation of Kabul as well, though you might appreciate it! It's Listen Girlfriends! on wordpress, and I just tweeted you :)
Thanks for the support! There’s been so much going on recently, I haven’t had time to update. Will try and put stuff up this week. Talking about media misrepresentation, do look at all the positive stuff coming out about the Sound Central festival, which I was lucky enough to participate in. That’s Afghan-sprung, non-NGO real shit happening there!
That’s the phrase I’ve been hearing a lot this week, along with “game changer”. Having lived in Afghanistan for four years, I have a healthy cynicism when it comes to sweeping proclamations such as these, but even I must admit the events of the last few weeks are too significant to be ignored.
Only this morning, a (yet to be confirmed) female suicide bomber drove a car into a minibus carrying the South African flight crew that operates USAID flights. Hezb-i-Islami claimed it - a group that was hoped to be the most “moderate” and also willing to participate in political and peace processes.
This week ISAF announced that joint patrols with Afghan soldiers would effectively cease. What they said was that it would be up to the discretion of each commander, but which commander would put his men at any risk unless he had to?
This was in response to three separate “insider attacks” in the last week, in which 6 ISAF soldiers were killed by their Afghan partners. Partnering is the strategic backbone for the withdrawal strategy. There is no plan b.
Then there was the incredibly sophisticated attack on Bastion, the largest airbase in Helmand. They managed not only to penetrate the heavily fortified base in the middle of a desert, but also destroy 6 harrier jets and killed the US Marine squadron commander.
The reaction against the anti-Islam film was just a footnote with only a few protesting, although it stole the media headlines.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems worth marking this point in time.