Return to Afghanistan

'Of all the paths in life you take, make sure at least one of them is dirt' - John Muir

 

“Turn the car around – we need to get out of here, now!”

 

I’m looking out of my side window and everyone in the market around us is looking in the direction that we’re driving. My heart starts racing, and my palms get clammy.

Everyone is running in the direction that we’re moving. As soon as my conscious brain can translate what my eyes are seeing; two ambulances and a police pickup overtake us and scream down the road. People are running down the road with their hands on their head, shouting.

 

There’s been an explosion...

 

London

It’s winter in London. Having cast away the safety net of a full time job for a second time, my re-entry into freelancing is much better planned but the reasons remain the same. As Anna McNuff beautifully puts it in her wonderful Ted Talk ‘But what if I fail?’ - I was tired of being a 50% version of myself'. I also knew that I couldn't sustain a normal 9-5 career that involved commuting to the busiest shopping street in the U.K. Don’t get me wrong; I like people – but not a million in the same square kilometre as me.

 

It’s 2 days after I’ve left my full time job and I'm in Northern Denmark, getting taught cutting-edge trauma medicine techniques. Lars, a paramedic in the German Army is imparting his extensive medical knowledge to all 5 of us multinational students; we’re 2 Brits, 1 Aussie, 1 German and a Dane – all ex-military. The training is tough, but I feel the fire for medicine deep in my veins. The course is intense, with most days ending in the early hours after I’ve finished revising. But now I must also prepare for a return to Afghanistan.

Practicing surgical airways.   Photo: Simon Buxton.

Following your passion

Last summer, I spent 5 weeks during in Kabul, training the staff of a large NGO to operate safely across the country. They took me under their wing and made me feel incredibly welcome in a country that I’d not previously visited. Telling me about the work they had been doing to stimulate development of the communities – it was immediately obvious they were having a good effect on the country, but were finding it hard to engage with the millennial generation due to the influence of the older leaders.

A few months later, and by chance I saw a video of mountain bikers performing tricks across Kabul. This is fantastic – I want to know more. Maybe I could reach out to this community and find out if I could help in some way. I forward the video out to some of the friends I’d made in Kabul and am surprised to receive a name and social media profiles of the riders within an hour. This happens again and again with different sports – skiers, skateboarders, parkour gymnasts and runners. Before I know it, I’ve sent a group message to friends to see who would be interested to come out and meet these inspiring individuals with me.

 

Virtually, reality

It’s now late February 2017 and I’m in Dubai drinking coffee in the sun with Jennifer, a Swedish events manager at a large hotel chain in the city.

A former skydiver and now world champion Flowboarder, she lets my videographer friend, Sandro and I crash on her couches as we do our final preparations to fly in to Afghanistan. In the evenings, Sandro and I cook dinner and we all eat outside on the balcony. Watching the cars drive around like a real life version of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ (but without the violence!); we all stay up late chatting about life, adventure and following your passion. These talks are hugely cathartic and reassure me that going back to an active conflict zone is the right decision.

The Dubai cityscape

This is Kabul

Sandro and I arrive at Hamid Karzai airport in the early evening. It’s 6 months since I was last here and I notice how much winter changes the city. It’s cold, and there is snow on the mountains now. The air is chilly and makes me reach for another jacket whilst we wait for our car.

 

Our route to the guesthouse tells me that driving in the city is just as chaotic as in the summer months - except the cold tyres grip the worn roads even less. Rows of giant illuminated wedding halls steal your attention as you compete to keep your place on the road between heavily armed security convoys, Police pickups and horse-drawn carts; it’s a wonderfully eclectic mix of modern and traditional that I can’t help but smile at. As stressful as Kabul is, it does remind you that you are indeed, somewhere special.

 

A typical day in Kabul.

A typical day in Kabul.

Explosions and gunfire

 

“Turn the car around – we need to get out of here, now!”

 

it’s the second day in the country and we’re travelling to meet the mountain bike riders. I’m looking out of my side window and everyone around us is looking in the direction that we’re driving. My heart starts racing, and my palms get clammy. Everyone is now walking, then running in the direction that we’re moving. As soon as my conscious brain can translate what my eyes are seeing; two ambulances and a police pickup overtake us and scream down the road. People are running down the road with their hands on their head, shouting.

 

Something big is happening. I tell our driver to U-turn and drive back the way we’ve just come. From my knowledge of hostile environments, I know you must trust your instincts – we’ve evolved them for a reason.

 

My phone rings and it’s our friends at the guesthouse; “Are you both okay? There’s been a big explosion in the area you’re travelling” Robs says, in his characteristically calm Scottish accent. I’m thankful to hear his friendly voice.

 

“Yeah, we’re looking at it” 

 

The explosion - seen from a different angle

The explosion - seen from a different angle

I respond, looking at a wispy grey mushroom cloud in the centre of the windscreen.  I know we need to get out of here, pronto: explosions in Kabul are like London buses – they rarely arrive on their own.

We later find out that the grey cloud was in fact a suicide bomber that had detonated a few minutes earlier at a police checkpoint, some 600 metres down the road from us.

 

Get us out of here!

 

We have to drive another 100 metres before we can turn around. My heart is now racing and my peripheral vision starting to disappear. I’ve felt this familiar sensation before – when adrenaline starts to alter your body chemistry. I know It’s there to help me, however I need to pull in as much information right now – not sprint away from a sabre-toothed tiger.

 

We get back to the guesthouse and find out that the suicide attack was the first in a series across the city. My heart sinks at the prospect of an early start to the annual ‘fighting season’, which will affect our filming plans.

 

It’s then I remember that the people we hope to film have to live with this insecurity day-in day-out and that I should be happy that my home country doesn’t suffer the same problem. We spend the remainder of the day drinking tea and playing table-tennis with our friends at the guesthouse, all the while thinking;

 

 

 ‘what if we had left earlier?’,

 

 

 ‘what if there had been less traffic?’,

 

 

‘what have we got ourselves into..’

Kabul city