Hanging with Kabul’s ‘Invisibles’
Image Credit: Karlos Zurutuza

Hanging with Kabul’s ‘Invisibles’


‘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.

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‘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.’

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.

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