Pictures coming out of the war-ravaged Afghanistan are scary, different from the ones loaded with normalcy and warmth a decade ago
My memories of Afghanistan, after two and half years in Kabul, almost a decade ago as a UN Advisor to the Afghan National Government, are mostly of warm and large-hearted people with smiling faces and cheerful demeanours who would go out of their way to be hospitable to guests but there are other images too of times spent cooped up in safe rooms and bunkers with a go-bag snatched hurriedly amidst gunfire and explosions.
Upon landing at Kabul Airport on a cold and white January morning in 2011, it did not take me long to get past the immigration, customs and labour inspectors who made a living pouncing on bewildered and clueless workers, mostly South Asian, lured by princely salaries of USD 300-400 per month with free boarding and lodging. My UN appointment letter saved me the embarrassment of paying a bribe on the first day of my first international job!
As we zig-zagged past the numerous checkpoints in and around the airport and drove down the wide roads that led to my guest house, buildings scarred by heavy gunfire and rocket launchers stared back from both sides. The bullet marks and holes formed an eerie and menacing graffiti on the walls each telling a story perhaps about the life and death of its residents and you almost expected the buildings to suddenly rise up and explode with one last gasp! I asked the driver if the heavy customized bomb-proof Pajero I was travelling in could withstand a rocket attack. He smiled and replied, "Let us hope we don't have to find that out!"
The cabinet minister I reported to was a matronly lady who did not speak much English but always welcomed me with green tea and biscuits. Behind her grandmotherly appearance was the pain and pride of a war widow. Then there was the deputy minister, a fortyish lady who had created much heartburn in the ministry with her aggressive and no-nonsense attitude. She had little time for slackers and even less for smooth-talking Western UN advisors who she would often dismiss with a curt: "Okay, I can see you don't have much to say that makes sense so let's move on, shall we?" I am not sure who were more alarmed by her — the Afghan males in the Ministry or the smooth-talking international advisors, mostly males, from the West. I too found her a bit overbearing at times but was compensated by the ringside view of her demolition act of the notoriously snooty Westerners. Besides, like most Afghans — ministers, bureaucrats, commoners et al — she always had nice things to say about India.
As I settled into the ministry, what struck me immediately was how much the Afghan bureaucrats resembled their Indian brethren. Acutely hierarchy conscious, those at the upper echelons like the director generals (joint secretary) and the chiefs of staff (hybrid of Secretary and PS to cabinet ministers) mostly served at the whims and fancies of the ministers with no fixed tenure. But this did not stop them, like their Indian counterparts, from occupying large cavernous offices with a plethora of personal staff serving tea and snacks and official cars ferrying family members to markets, schools and other such urgent duties. A DG was master of all he surveyed and the only other bureaucrat he or she was wary of was the all-powerful chief of staff who was the ears and eyes and often the voice of the minister. Even the deputy ministers found it difficult to manoeuvre their way past this office when they wanted an audience with the minister! And like back home, much of the time in office was spent wondering who had fallen out of favour and who was seen having tea with the chief.
Away from the office, there was another world in Kabul — a truly surreal one. The residential camp, that served as home for many ex-pats, was a huge fortress guarded by high walls, cemented barricades and multiple layers of security consisting mostly of ex-Gorkha soldiers. This was a bit of Americana crawling with Americans of all hues, uniformed and otherwise, Europeans, Filipinos, Indians etc. The last two, with a few exceptions, were mostly engaged in cooking, washing and manning shops and restaurants in the camp. During my stay there it was attacked twice but both times as we scampered into our bunkers, the Gorkhas, even as they suffered the loss of life and serious injuries, managed to thwart the suicide bombers. Within its high walls, you could stroll around small gardens with gazebos, sip cappuccinos during the day and in the evenings let down your hair at the poolside bar. And as you looked up at the night sky with a little bit of vodka sloshing inside you it was difficult to remember that the stars above were looking down at Kabul!
One of the main attractions for our little group of Indians was 'Namastey India' — a restaurant run by two Chinese sisters and their Indian partner in another part of the city. The food served in the camp mess was mostly standard continental fare, replaced at times by standard American fare, which meant there was no change. So, at every opportunity, we made a dash for Namastey India where the two sisters would reel off the menu with a sing song — "Soo u eeatah whatah today? Paneel kali, battle chicken, loti? Battle naana? Wanta have coldah beeyal, yes?" Thankfully, the actual food was prepared by an Indian cook.
As the present tragedy unfolds at Kabul Airport, I remember many faces — my Afghan friends and colleagues, the children in the crowded markets running after you with stacks of phone recharge cards, money changers with wads of currencies operating on the roadside, the young Sikh shopkeeper selling bangles, earrings and hair clips, the women in smart dresses rubbing shoulders with their veiled sisters and a lone cyclist trudging away on the highway with a huge stack of giant naans tied to the carrier — the staple food and sometimes the only food of poor Afghans.
But the image that will perhaps stay with me now is a new one: of a little Afghan baby cradled in the arms of 23-year-old Nicole Gee, an American soldier guarding Kabul Airport during the recent evacuations. Less than a week later, Nicole Gee was dead, killed in a terrorist attack on the airport. Yet another tragic footnote in a war nobody won but everyone continues to lose.
Views expressed are personal