In August, I had the opportunity to spend a month in Kabul, Afghanistan, working with an international non-governmental organisation to improve the safety of their operations.
As it was my first time in Afghanistan, I didn’t know what to expect: would this be a city cut off from the rest of the world? Or would I find something more?
It turns out there is a lot; Kabul is a bristling, busy, lively and interesting city. Surrounded by the beautiful Hindu Kush mountains, the capital city experiences more than its fair share of security incidents: there were two major attacks in the 30 days that I was there.
However, it felt like a city trying to regrow from the ashes of the previous few decades; the city has supermarkets with all the same Western food you can get in your local one (actually, the range of gluten-free options would put a lot of UK supermarkets to shame!). Further, amidst the burka-clad women are also those who walk around with loose headscarves and high heels. And far from being disconnected, large swathes of the city have 3G network coverage.
Outside of the kidnap and car bomb threat, the most dangerous activity in the city is definitely the driving.
Kabul has some incredibly packed roads by Western standards (although I’m told not as bad as India or Bangladesh). The general concept is that if you can ‘own the space’ then you have right of way. Simply, this means utter chaos when you arrive at a roundabout, junction, or turn. Drivers routinely drive on any or either side of the road and take whichever seems to be the path of least resistance (whether that’s across your direction of travel or overtaking within millimetres either side of you).
If this doesn’t stress you out, the ineffectual traffic police*, deep and frequent potholes and security convoys will ensure that cortisol finds its way into your bloodstream!
The trip introduced me to some real characters; I had a wonderful opportunity to meet a 58 year-old Canadian guy, a former military man who now runs ultra-marathons around a 380-metre loop inside his compound to raise money for local charities. Running the equivalent of a double marathon and contending with the 1800 metre altitude is not only be incredibly boring, but also extremely demanding; just getting the oxygen to sustain the run is a serious challenge.
The NGO and diplomatic community is both warm and welcoming. A dynamic, ambitious yet sometimes strained bunch, they work on the fringes of safety and security to help those most in need. Everyone has stories of close calls and near misses from their time in the city, and it’s clear who has spent the longest there from the look in their eyes.
The community is close knit and everyone knows each other. News travels fast, especially during security incidents. One evening, during a big attack, everyone’s phone lit up with the same question:
‘Are you okay?’
Despite being in different organisations, countries and cities, everyone checks in and checks each other. Panicked phone calls sometimes follow if someone hasn’t been seen or heard, but this well-worn procedure has become second nature to everyone. It’s heart-warming to see genuine concern for each other when things turn dark – I can’t wait to come back to this place and help more.
*Upon further reflection, trying to control oncoming traffic with a baton is hard enough; trying to control a cacophony of heavily armed vehicles vying for right of way with only a baton is an exercise in futility!