Features | Society | Central Asia

Hanging with Kabul’s ‘Invisibles’

The attack this week on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul is a reminder of the daily dangers expat workers face. Aid groups aren’t taking any chances.

‘Never walk down the street, and avoid routines on the way to work.’ ‘Never walk into a store unless you can park in front of it.’ These are just a couple of the security tips given to workers of the Agha Khan Foundation (AKF) – an influential private development agency whose founder claims to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

‘We also receive constant security updates via SMS or e-mail. I’m starting to get paranoid about everything,’ complains administrative assistant Rosa (whose name, along with others in this article, has been changed to protect their identities). She says that despite having lived in the city for three months, she has only walked along Kabul’s famed Chicken Street, to buy Afghanistan’s star souvenir: the burqa. ‘Mine is made of steel and concrete,’ she jokes.

Security protocols for UN staff based in Afghanistan are even more draconian. There are, though, those who have found ways to get around the restrictions. Robert, a 40-year-old UN worker, is one of them.

‘We’re only allowed to leave the compound for the Kabul Serena (the only five star hotel in Afghanistan). I often tell the driver that I’m going to the swimming pool inside, so he drops me at the hotel entrance and picks me up a few hours later at the same place,’ Robert says.

‘In the meantime, I go for a long walk across the city. That’s my only chance to explore Kabul,’ he explains over a meal at the Herat, a restaurant popular with locals. ‘If they catch me, I’m on the first flight home.’

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UN security protocols were tightened still further after the Taliban killed five of its employees in October 2009. The attack against the guesthouse that hosted their staff prompted the organization to reduce its workforce stationed there by half, and to move the rest of the staff to Green Village – a compound on the outskirts of Kabul with its own gardens and avenues, cinema and shopping centre, all protected by high concrete walls and security contractors.

‘Green Village is an obvious target of the insurgency, but nothing has ever happened. Many here believe that the owner has negotiated a truce with the Taliban,’ says Kate, a UN worker on her first incursion into ‘hostile’ territory.

‘White City’

International workers are used to receiving eerie text messages such as ‘High risk of attack in Shar-e Naw’ (an area in downtown Kabul), or more cryptic ones, such as ‘White City.’ The latter is common during summits in Kabul, as well as during elections, such as the one that took place last September. A ‘White City’ alert is aimed at deterring foreigners from going to work, shopping, and even from swimming at the Serena hotel’s pool.

But expats like Michael, a Canadian civilian pilot working for UNAMA, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, will never receive a ‘White City’ alert. He has flown over almost every single rugged valley in the country – from Herat to Jalalabad, from Kunduz to Nimroz – yet his view from ground level is far from panormamic.

‘We fly from airport to airport, and once we’re back in Kabul we’re picked up by an armoured vehicle that takes us to Green Village,’ he tells me as he waits to refuel at the Kandahar airport runway. ‘I’m about to complete my six month rotation in Afghanistan, but I haven’t even had the chance to see anything of Kabul, not even from a car!’

Yet not every foreign organisation is as strict. Naomi is in her second year as a French teacher in Kabul and shares an apartment with other expats. She flags down local taxis and, unsurprisingly, has become an expert at haggling thanks to the Dari (one of Afghanistan’s two official languages) she has picked up while shopping in Chicken Street.

‘The French embassy can sometimes be very strict, but in our case, everything is our own responsibility. If we break the recommended security guidelines and something happens to us, they won’t intervene,’ she says.

‘Thursday night fever’

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On Thursday evenings, a time for religious gatherings in Muslim countries, ‘High risk of attack in L'Atmosphere’ text messages are regularly sent out to Kabul-based internationals.

The staff of the NGO Save the Children couldn’t care less, as their ‘curfew’ starts at 19.00. But what about all the other foreigners?

Run by a Tajik from the Panjshir valley, L'Atmosphere is one of the international community’s favourite bars in Kabul. Like the Gandamak, the Boccaccio, or other popular  meeting places, the ‘Atmo’ is also protected by high concrete walls and private security.

I am told, though, that the SMS alert is far from an overreaction, as the popular venue has been a target in the past. Its garden – where live music is performed between a swimming pool and a set of terraces – and proximity to the main street make it an easy target for a mortar or grenade attack. But neither the disturbing text messages nor the high prices – $6 for a can of lager – prevent the ‘Atmo’ from seemingly repeatedly breaking Afghanistan’s record for foreign workers per square metre.

‘I did receive the SMS, but if I don’t come here at least once a week to drink and dance I go mad. This is Kabul!’ explains a stammering Australian after calling his company’s taxi.

The driver will be waiting outside in no more than 10 minutes – right outside the entrance to the club, of course. With even hospitals now apparently legitimate targets for the Taliban, it’s probably just as well.