What Living in Kabul Is Really Like

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What Living in Kabul Is Really Like

Afghanistan’s capital is not even half as dangerous as everyone thinks.

What Living in Kabul Is Really Like
Credit: Flickr/ Ninara

Report after report points out rising civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Insurgents overrun districts and rural areas, forcing people to flee; most of them to the cities. But even in the capital, Kabul, the Taliban (and more recently also the self-declared Islamic State) frequently conduct suicide attacks. News footage from the aftermath of such attacks shows dead bodies lying on debris-strewn streets between severely damaged or destroyed houses. Watching and reading the news, Kabul seems to be more lethal war zone than city.

That’s not how Kabul, my home for almost three years, appears to me.

Many might think that as a foreigner, I am protected from the daily life of normal Afghans and its alleged dangers. Most foreigners in Kabul, after all, live in large compounds, shielded by massive concrete blast walls and guarded by myriads of armed men. And the few times they leave the shelter of their compounds, they are driven in armored cars and wear flak jackets. Not all foreigners can afford such high security measures though. But even the ones that can’t usually take special taxis for foreigners. The streets, they say, are too insecure.

I am not like this.

I don’t live in a highly secured compound. When I move around town, I usually walk. Only if it is too far will I take a car, and then certainly not an armored one or one of the expensive taxis for foreigners. I almost exclusively use mutar-i laini, the local version of public transport, which are simply cars and minibuses that drive fixed routes and are shared with random other passengers who hop in and out along the way for a fraction of the fare (usually 20 Afghani, about $0.30, per person). I don’t eat in guarded, expensive restaurants as other foreigners do. I choose tiny, shabby local places, or carts selling food in the street. I live more or less like an average Afghan. So I dare to say that I have a pretty good image of the daily life in Kabul.

And I have never – not even once – been afraid, let alone feared for my life, in the Afghan capital.

Kabul is not the hellhole that people in the West imagine. It is a more or less normal city, not unlike other cities that I have seen throughout the region and beyond. Not beautiful; nothing special. But certainly no war zone.

Life is normal, for the most part, similar to other countries in this part of the world. In the bazaars, throngs of peoples push through the crowds, dodging the men that bring goods back and forth in wheelbarrows or haggling with a street vendor or shop keeper over merchandise that ranges from sheep heads to iPhones. Other shops are located in old “trade centers” – multi-story buildings made up of gloomy corridors and small shop spaces, often along balconies in an inner courtyard. Better situated Afghans go to the modern shopping centers, though, which they – like their U.S. allies or, depending on who you ask, invaders – call “malls.” These malls are also made up of corridors and stores, but everything is lofty, polished, and brightly lit. In at least one of them, there is a brand-new cinema. However, on second glance, the malls show small signs of decay, sometimes already visible even before they are completely finished (given the construction standards of countries in the region, this is nothing out of the ordinary).

Leisure activities are not as frequent as in Western societies (again, something that can be said about neighboring countries as well). But they certainly exist. There is an amusement park with a Ferris wheel and other attractions (the latest being a restaurant set into a decommissioned airplane), a zoo, several water parks (tiny, by European standards), cricket, football or buzkashi matches (the last being a traditional sport in which men on horses fight over a decapitated goat carcass), billiard clubs, water pipe (qaylun) restaurants and more. The many parks throughout Kabul are also popular – there, people play football, cricket, or carrombul (a board game); they have a picnic or are content with a simple cup of the ubiquitous steaming green tea; or they fly kites, which is beloved by young and old.

The most joyful events are probably the weddings, in which young couples have to spend a fortune (even average families spend $20,000 to $30,000, Afghans assure me) to host the huge party. Hundreds, even a few thousands, of guests are anything but uncommon. The ones that can afford it rent ballrooms in so-called wedding halls – monstrous buildings, with kitschy interiors and countless screeching blinking lights on the outside that would make any Western Christmas decoration blush. For such weddings, Afghans dress up. Shop windows in Kabul display princess-like dresses, all white for the brides and other colors for the other girls. Those weddings are also the reason for the high number of beauty parlors in Kabul, usually depicting huge photos of women wearing make-up – something that most foreigners probably would not anticipate in the Afghan capital. And lately I have noticed similar equivalents for men popping up in the center of the city: barber shops whose fusion of modern sleek style and old-school logos with twisted mustaches and cut-throat razors give them a hipster flair that appeals to the fashion-conscious Afghan youth. So do the fake designer jeans, T-shirts, and latest smartphones in the maze of many of the bazaars.

Those are, of course, only the good sides of the city. As any other city, also Kabul has its dark sides. The vast majority of Afghans living in Kabul are too poor to afford any of the above. The poorest live and beg on the streets, barely surviving. A large number of them are disabled; it’s not uncommon to see horribly twisted and deformed arms or legs. Children, many only a few years old, begging or polishing shoes all day long with their faces brown from both dirt and the sun, are also a frequent sight. The ones that are too young to even walk are carried by their mothers, who are hidden under the light blue, full-body veil commonly found throughout Afghanistan (while this veil is usually referred to as a “burqa” by foreigners, Afghans call it chodri). They sometimes come into restaurants going from table to table, begging.

Others, mostly men, also make their situation worse on their own: in many parts of the city, but especially under certain bridges and on the bank of the rubbish-strewn Kabul river, addicts dressed in rags huddle together to smoke their next portion of opium or heroin. But they leave people alone – or at least I have never had an issue with one of them and I walk almost daily past some of them. Also in general, I have never encountered any sign of street crime, and I not only walk around during the day, but also frequently return to my place in the dead of the night. But maybe this is because no one would rob a man like me who walks around instead of going by car, as such a person can hardly have anything of value.

Unemployment is rampant. And even the few that have work – at construction sites, car repair work shops, restaurants, or offices  – get nowhere. Most salaries are meager and often have to support not only the large immediate family, but also extended relatives that easily amount to dozens of people. In fact, unemployment is so bad that most Afghans who want to flee or have already done so indicate the lack of any work opportunities than the war as the main reason for their decision. And while the deportees that I have met often talk about the danger of attacks and the war, during the conversations it becomes clear that also they are seemingly more worried about the lack of economic perspective.

This is not to say that violence is not a problem in Kabul. Yes, there are suicide attacks. And yes, these attacks are horrible. However, there isn’t an explosion or a firefight on every street on every day, as many Westerners seem to imagine. In fact, the reality in Kabul is completely different. One important thing that people abroad apparently don’t grasp is that Kabul is so huge that one is virtually never affected by such attacks, even if one occurs just in the adjacent neighborhood. As an example: the numbers of attacks that has happened in Kabul during my stay here, must be in the (very) low hundreds – but only during a handful, probably not even ten, did I notice more than the distant boom of an explosion, if anything at all.

The truth is that even after a close attack, life continues on. For example, the huge truck bomb that exploded close to the German embassy on May 31 (and led several European countries to suspend deportations of Afghans) was only about a five to ten minute walk away from the place where I live. The explosion was loud; the blast wave slightly damaged a door in the house I live. Other houses in the neighborhood saw all their windows broken into smithereens. But only hours after the blast, many had already installed new window panes and swept together the shards of the old ones – the neighborhood dry cleaner, which was closer to the explosion than my place, did not even shut down and continued business almost as usual. Many other shops in the vicinity did the same. Life is back to normal minutes, if not seconds, after such horrible events.

There is, of course, the possibility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, I myself don’t think much about that possibility. On the day before the bomb exploded near the embassy, I had walked over the very spot where it later detonated. Two days after the blast, I again began to take the same route. I made my way through a small group of demonstrators, who were protesting against the government’s inability to provide security, and then the riot police who, only hours before, had clashed with the demonstrators, killing least five people. Neither occasion worried me.

The blast site of a huge truck bomb; deadly clashes between demonstrators and police: it all sounds dangerous. But apart from the second that a bomb goes off or the few moments of shooting, those exact places are quiet, without any feel of danger in the air. One could also be killed in an attack in Paris, Brussels, or London (as the recent past has shown) – but does this mean that you don’t go to those places anymore, let alone say that the danger is unbearable there?

Such an analogy is, of course, oversimplified and does not do justice to the significant differences that exist. Yes, attacks in Kabul are much, much more frequent than in Europe. But how significant are those differences in the end? How many more attacks are there in Kabul? Tens? Hundreds? And – most crucially – how does this affect the overall risk? The last question is hard to answer, but the German Federal Department for Migration and Refugees has quantified this: according to their calculation, the risk of being killed or wounded in attacks or armed clashes in Afghanistan is 0.074 percent (the number derives from the total population of Afghanistan and the total number of civilian victims of the conflict as of 2014). To put this in context, the same authority set the threshold for too high a risk at 0.125 percent – almost double the risk calculated for Afghanistan.

This calculation was widely criticized. It is most likely indeed flawed – no one has exact figures for the population of Afghanistan for starters, and it is debatable how far such a calculation accurately depicts the risk. I don’t know whether the figure is exact or to what extent it makes sense. But I do think that it sets things into the right perspective. Yes, there are attacks in Kabul; but the risk of being killed in such an attack is so small that I don’t worry about it. It simply does not seem relevant to me that the likelihood of being killed in a terrorist attack in Kabul is several times higher than in, let’s say, Paris, if the overall risk is only a tiny fraction of 1 percent. Honestly speaking, if I had to point out the greatest risk to my life in Afghanistan, I would say it would be the possibility of being killed in a traffic accident.

Is Kabul a nice place to live? The answer is clear: No, it isn’t. There is hardship nearly everywhere, and no one knows what the future will bring. But that is different from feeling one’s life is in intolerable grave danger in Kabul, or from questioning whether it is possible to live comparatively safely here. For me, it is easily possible, as I prove every single day living like a normal Afghan. And I am neither brave nor otherwise special. And while it is true that for me things are sometimes different, clearly sticking out as a foreigner while walking through Kabul certainly does not make the city safer for me than for Afghans.

In the end, the problem is that – when in comes to Afghanistan – an atmosphere of irrational fear seems to cloud the view of reality in the perceptions of most people. This reality, that I have seen for almost three years, is that Kabul is not even half as dangerous as everyone thinks.

This article has been originally published in Swedish by Blankspot.

Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan. He writes on a broad range of topics, but focuses on security and military issues. Follow him on Twitter: @franzjmarty.