Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Day 1 in Kabul

A long way from the yurt in Slough, though further in miles than it is in ideas...

Hindokosh Mountains - West of the Himalayas

The plane from Bahrain looked to be fairly empty when I did the online check-in , but when I was the last one to board it (being a bit other-worldly at what should have been 5am) I found it was completely full - and most of the occupants seemed to be lively and inquisitive children. A whole family of them were occupying the seat 
I had chosen, and I had lesson one in 'go with the flow': when I showed the resigned-looking air stewardess the seat number on my boarding card, she gave a big shrug and an even bigger smile. However, one of the bigger boys, who spoke good English, took the situation in hand - and moved some younger members of his extended family out of their seats and offered me a very good place next to the window just behind the wing - hence some spectacular views of the just-snow-tipped mountains in the last half hour of the flight, and then a city emerging on the plateau.
Northern Kabul

My phone leapt into life while I was in the immigration queue, and Yousuf was was telling me that he couldn't quite believe I had arrived. But I still had to get past the rather sinister-looking passport and visa inspection cabins - almost quaint-looking in dark wood, but with large mirror windows and inscrutable immigration officers. But it took less than 30 seconds for him to wave me through, and the baggage reclaim just like you'd expect anywhere (except for several colourful soft random-looking items ties up with layers of knotted string).
And who is he under the arch?

Walking out of the exit was a little wierd, as I was expecting people there at a barrier meeting the passengers with signs scrawled on pieces of paper - and when I stopped to look around for them, I was very quickly ushered towards the outside door by a polite uniformed official. And just in the other side of that door was Yousuf - with the driver and security man. Apparently, they shouldn't have been allowed out of the car park (some way away) to meet me - and I should have been bundled on the bus to he-didn't-know-where. But a small offering to the airport staff unofficial benevolent fund had ensured that he was able to wait for me by the door...

A quick phone call home was prevented by the UN vehicle in front, which had a large thick ariel on its roof - this, the security man explained, being a mobile signal jammer, effective up to 50m, to prevent mobile phone activation of roadside bombs. He thought it was probably for somebody for the American Embassy.

The slow lane
The roads and driving were amazing. And I thought it was exciting when I was last in Rome! This made even the most random and chaotic of Italian driving seem like a quiet Sunday in a genteel English town. But we soon arrived at the Kabul Headquarters of the NGO running the project. 
As we drove through Kabul, my hosts pointed out the high walls and razor-wire fences round all the ex-pat buildings, as they would be easy AOF (Afghan Opposition Forces) targets otherwise - for suicide bombs, kidnappings, ordinary theft and burglary, and so on. The IMH was similarly in a concrete enclosure, and Yousuf exlpained that new 3+m high concrete blocks with wide bases have been appearing everywhere recently - and there is probably a concrete trader somewhere who is doing very well out of it all. But as we went past the ones outside the Parliament building, we said it not that different to Westminster - except the ones there are shiny, a bit smoother, and painted black. Inside IMH, antique tables with modern PCs , and an elegant sweeping wooden staircase with a huge satellite dish on the roof gave a hectic workaday feel in a setting of well-faded grandeur.
An excellent opportunity for concrete block manufacturers

The basement bunker was my first appointment, with the recently-arrived head of country security plus our own house's security guard. I was expecting a simple powerpoint presentation, a few dos and don'ts, and good night. But after a few warm-up slides with lists of facts and figures about the country, it was down to the hard stuff. The polite chit-chat was over, and it was like the moment that you decide it's probably better not to make a joke when they ask at the airport if you packed all your own bags. First 'this might happen to you' followed by several things you never even think about as even being possible to somebody like you, then 'this is where it's happening at the moment' with extraordinary detailed maps with arrows showing which directions they're moving in, and coloured in to represent the threat level (we're currently just shy of the one where nobody is allowed to move anywhere, which is one below the 'lock yourselves in the windowless room on the left of the front door with the steel plate door firmly bolted'). 

Following that, we had 'this is when it last happened and to whom' (a couple of days ago, to several people) and cheerfully supplemented with 'there's less than a quarter of all this that you every get to hear on the news', and finally 'this is what you can do to minimise the risk'. That involves keeping the car windows up, doors locked, seatbelt on and never getting out of it until you're at you destination with the gates shut behind you - including the 100 yard trip from the house to the hospital. Also, we have codewords for each of us and each building, and they phone round everybody twice a day to check that we are safe, and that we are where we are meant to be - but only using the codewords. From the news, it's probably not surprising that Kandahar is considered the worst at the moment - and an absolute no-no for the likes of us - but as I'll only be doing the 100 yards to and back from the hospital, I won't need to worry about that one. 
Now I'm not usually much of one to worry - and indeed I felt sensible about this, but a few minutes ago as I sat at my desk to write this I noticed that the thick net over the window was tucked back, so I could see into the street below. Normally, I would have thought 'what an interesting view' (which it is), 
Interesting view - with a hole in the head
but I unthinkingly pulled the net right across and then consciously thought ' with my head visible from the road, eyes glued to the laptop, and this obviously being an ex-pat house, I'd be a sitting duck for a bullet if anybody nasty and armed walks past. And there's a lot of nasty and armed people in this town'.
The living room in our 8 bedroomed house with air conditioning, wifi, resident drivers, security guards, and cook. 

Because one of the others in the house was leaving and because I had just arrived, the four of us decided to go out to a restaurant to celebrate. It had to be one on the 'safe' list, and we had to be back by the 7pm curfew - which was a problem as by the time we assembled to go out it was 6.30pm, and we had to do all the faffing about with the cars and gates business. But the duty security officer was surprisingly helpful: he checked with the security chief, and allowed us to extend the curfew to 7.30, as it was in an area which was thought to be very secure (just by the bus stop where Yousuf used to wait for his school bus 40 years ago, in fact). Now the security men at Grendon wouldn't have been like that, I thought. Thank goodness that people are allowed to exercise a bit of discretion!

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