Kabul, Afghanistan (2007)
I was going through my old photos on Google and Flickr and realized that I had enough pictures from my trip to Afghanistan in 2007 to create a blog post. Looking back, going to Afghanistan for a graduate school thesis research was probably not the best idea–I admit it, Mom–but it was an exciting and eye-opening trip that I will always remember. In the winter of 2007, Afghanistan (at least Kabul) was generally at peace. The Taliban insurgency had not yet gotten out of control, and the capital, Kabul, was for the most part, safe. Bombing incidents were rare and NATO seemed to have a lid on things. There’ s no way in hell that I’d go to Afghanistan today, even being strapped to the hilt with weapons and body armor.
Why did I go there? I was researching for a graduate school thesis on Afghanistan poppy production with two classmates, Kaj and Clea. Poppy is the main ingredient in opium, and many Afghan farmers, with little other alternatives to make a living, grow it and sell it to drug runners who supply the world with the stuff. Our graduate school, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, provided us with a grant covering our flights and accommodations for our nine-day visit.
Though the fighting seemed to be on pause, we wanted to take extra safety precautions by moving around the city under the radar. We hired an Afghan “fixer,” who served as a sort of guide/translator. He and a hired driver took us around the city in a van and helped set up our meetings with several Afghanistan government officials and international organizations.
We stayed in two different hotels in Kabul, first at the Hotel Intercontinental Kabul and then at the more luxurious Serena Hotel. While there were no incidents during our visit, Taliban suicide attackers struck the Serena in 2008 and again 2014. They attacked the Intercontinental in 2011, resulting in 21 deaths.
The Intercontinental is a cold-war era hotel on a hilltop in the Karte Parwan section of the city. There were two separate checkpoints leading up the hill from the main commercial road at the base of the hill. The hotel was mostly empty, and it reminded me of that creepy hotel in The Shining. It was comfortable enough, but the rooms and common areas were very cold. The air outside was crisp and a distinctive smell of burnt ash wafted up the city, probably from trash burning or wood being burned for heat. The first morning in Afghanistan, I woke up in a cold, sparsely decorated room that hadn’t been updated since the 1980s. I looked out the frosted window and saw the vast city of Kabul sprawled out across the valley floor. To the right and left, huge foreboding snow covered hills towered above the city. Ancient walled ruins crept up and down the hillsides, flanked by countless shacks.
I wasn’t a dummy. I knew that an attack could happen at any time. I tried to not let my guard down whenever I was out and about on the streets. At the same time, I didn’t want to be overly cautious and let my concerns prevent me from meeting the Afghan people, who in most cases turned out to be so friendly, warm, and happy (at least in front of us foreigners).
For the most part, we conducted interviews during the day and relaxed at night, going out to restaurants and expat bars around the city. We definitely were not the only Westerners in Kabul during; these hangouts were full of Europeans and Americans from the UN, World Bank, charities, and the like.
We spent a morning at a children’s performing arts school called the Children’s Circus in a quiet neighborhood of Kabul. Behind 12 foot-high concrete walls, some benefactor(s) had put together a safe environment in which selected kids could go to school during the day and learn a performing art like music, dance, or theater.
I don’t consider myself kid-crazy, but I had a great time with them. The kids, who were 7-13 years old, were all so excited to meet us and had fun practicing their limited English. We played games and they all had the biggest smiles on their faces. The girl students put on one of their performances, a signing and dancing act. I wonder what those kids are doing nowadays, almost ten years later. I remember seeing a little Afghan girl with Downs Syndrome intently watching the performance. What happened to her?
One afternoon we visited the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, an NGO started in the UK to spur urban regeneration and education in the arts. We met its Executive Chairman, a Scot named Rory Stewart, who had written a best seller called The Places in Between and subsequently became a Member of Parliament. What Turquoise Mountain had done was really impressive. Dozens of Afghans received room and board and a safe place to learn and practice trades such as ceramics, painting, wood or metalworking on the compound. We took a tour of the property, getting a chance to view the Afghans in their daily work. Stewart’s charisma was reflected in the many European and American expats who worked there. We enjoyed a nice dinner with him and his staff in a second story room, Afghan style, sitting on the floor in front of a nice spread of Afghan food.
We left Kabul for one day to visit a poppy farm in the countryside. We headed towards the famed Panjshir Valley, about two hours drive from the capital. The terrain was very foreboding, jagged, snow-covered mountains sprung up in the distance. The barely paved roads were muddy from the snowmelt and rain.
Our driver took us further into the mountains along the Panjshir River on our way to our first stop, the tomb of Ahmed Shah Massoud. He was the celebrated anti-Soviet fighter and later head of the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban for control of Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s. An Al-Qaeda linked suicide bomber posing as a cameraman killed Massoud during an interview two days before September 11th, 2001. Non-Taliban Afghans have extreme respect for Massoud’s tomb. They treat it as a shrine. We saw about ten Afghans there paying their respects. Under the domed roof, the tomb was bedecked with flowers, candles, and photos of Massoud. I had read a lot about the man before getting to the site, so I understood the tomb’s significance.
Next we drove to the poppy farm, farther up the valley. The owner of the farm, came out to meet us and brought us around his fields and showed us what the poppy flower looks like. He said that he knew his poppy crop would ultimately be made into opium, but knew of no other way to make a living. His employees stood around and listened as we interviewed him. One offered me a smoke of hashish. I politely declined.
The food in Afghanistan was great, but came with its dangers. Aside from the food we at the two hotels, we ate most of our meals on the floor, cross-legged alongside each other in front of a big spread of food laid across a blue tarp sort of thing. I remember eating a lot of roast chicken, lamb, and bread. We ate with our hands for the most part. I went the first week without getting sick. Then I ate some street food at a food stand. I spent the next two days in the hotel with a 102 degree fever, headaches, dehydration, and you know what else. I lost almost five pounds in as many days, but suffered in luxury in a posh room in the Serena Hotel.
Kabul was an interesting city to say the least. At night, much of it was shrouded in darkness, as streetlights were scarce. The sidewalks were full of people during the day, but after dark, nobody was out on the street. During the day, the streets were snarled in traffic and the intersections were without stop lights in most places. Blue-burkha-clad figures scurried along the sidewalks, some even walking up to our van and asking for money. I’m sure they noticed our foreign-looking faces through the windows.
One day I stopped in a Kabul bookshop. A little girl with brown hair, about ten years old or so, greeted me in English. “Hello sir.” I turned and saw her smiling back at me. She was very cute and had a look in here eyes that seemed to be of someone much older. It was strange to say the least, this cheeky little girl holding a fluent conversation with me in English. I don’t remember how she had learned it, but I think about her sometimes when I read of a bombing or whatever in Kabul.
We saw American military convoys driving through the city, which was weird to see since I was still in the inactive Army Reserves. The soldiers looked understandably on edge, given that the Taliban insurgency, while at a lull, was still active. On the way back from dinner one night, a group of armored Humvees sped past us. Up ahead there was commotion at an intersection. Armed Afghan policeman were running about, yelling, waving their hands. We knew something had just happened. We told our driver not to stop, just to keep going. I turned around and saw a few policeman pick up the limp body of a man and put him into the back of a car. The next day, in the same intersection, we asked a policeman who was standing there what happened. He said that as the Humvee convoy went by, the American started shooting and hit a policeman. I don’t know what to believe.
All in all, the trip was a success. We stayed safe and interviewed everyone we set out to interview. We saw a lot of Kabul and even went out into the countryside. We wrote a paper that was well received by our professors. And most of all we got to meet some amazing people. I came back with an appreciation of how well we have it in the United States. I’ve been to a few poor countries before but Afghanistan definitely topped the list. Would I go back there today? Of course not. The country will probably fall back to the Taliban shortly after NATO pulls the plug, whenever that may be. Kabul could fall. From the look of the Soviet armored personnel carrier laying upside in the Panjshir River, Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. It’s sad we didn’t learn our lesson.