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All Quiet in Western Kabul

It’s an ordinary summer night in western Kabul. Or so it seems to me on this ten-day “Reality Tour” of Afghanistan.

The brilliant adolescent moon pours out light above the ruined habitations, bombed out
mosques, and twisted wreckage that testify to 24 years of war here. The stars pulse against a cloudless sky swept clean by the night breezes. The mountains seem to hug the horizon on all sides, and there seems to be a settled tranquility in the neighborhood as if it were deep in the countryside. Perhaps it is the lack of electricity.

Abdul Amid, a tall twenty-something Afghan with gentle eyes, a moustache, and a shock of
thick black hair, sits on the back patio of the guest house cradling his AK-47 rifle. He scans the perimeter of the six-foot high wall with its four rows of barbed wire. At the far corner of the dusty back yard is the neighbor’s latrine, where the grandmother, the three sons, daughter, and three grandchildren traipse as Nature dictates. Midway between the patio and the latrine is the water pump, which the cook had been priming earlier this evening. To the far right sits the ancient truck engine they use as a generator. Tonight it had been loudly running and pumping fumes into the yard.

Abdul Amid’s eyes light on the scruffy circle of green spinach that the cook has been
irrigating. There’s a black and white rabbit hiding somewhere around the house; he comes early in the morning to nibble on the leaves. Abdul Amid is hoping to catch him for dinner and has put stones at the rabbit hole at the side of the house. Food is very expensive these days.

He sighs. We don’t know what he is dreaming; he is too young to have experienced Kabul
before the war, before this spectacle of frozen bombardment stared back at him from the
adjoining houses. Next door there is rubble, an empty kidney-shaped swimming pool filled
with broken bricks and rocks, a small cave with a unexploded rocket that the neighborhood
kids play with. Beyond the back fence the roof of another dwelling collapses over the second story, where children climb and play during the day. All these tumble-down houses, ruins with corrugated tin thrown up for roofs, have occupants, families with gaggles of small children, chickens running about, and occasionally a dog. At some more pacific time, decades ago, they may have been dwellings of happy families, professionals and business people.

In the quiet, Abdul Amid’s eyes are drawn beyond the barbed wire and neighborhood rubble to the surrounding mountains and, briefly, to the stars.

He wears a dark blue vest with the words “Security” embroidered on the pocket and a sheriff’s badge imported from the U.S. His job is to protect the guests, a group of six Americans on a ten-day “reality tour” of Afghanistan. He wonders what they are talking about. They seem to laugh all the time. One of them, Ben Tupper, a former National Guardsman, comes outside and talks animatedly in a tongue that is foreign to Abdul Amid, but he can understand a few words and Ben is good with sign language. An hour later, they are disassembling the AK-47 and cleaning its parts together by the light of the moon. The other guests, like me, are inside reviewing the events of the day, a visit to the mine museum, where rockets have been turned into flower pots, and to the Red Cross prosthesis unit, where one-legged children and a few old shepherds, victims of landmines, were waiting to be fitted with artificial limbs.

Inside the spacious, three-bedroom house, Wahid Omar has just turned off the generator,
climbed the stairs and gone to bed. He is a tall, pensive man in his forties, a professor of
French literature at the University of Colorado. His wife and children are back home in the
States, but that home is an exile’s home. Wahid is here for the summer to teach French at
Kabul University, oversee the guest house, lead the group tours for the visitors, and work on his many projects as educational director for Afghans for Tomorrow. They have built several schools already in Kabul and in outlying provinces. Hundreds of children – including girls – are being educated again, some teachers have good jobs, and more Afghan professionals have been attracted to return to the country or to share their professional skills in the task of reconstruction.

Many things trouble Wahid tonight. He has explained to the group that the war is not over.
The real war continues: armies of lawless warlords, poppies, poverty, ignorance. The money for reconstruction and security has been diverted to Iraq for no good reason. Meanwhile, the Taliban and armed vigilantes regroup and terrorize citizens in their efforts to register to vote. Mujahedin have shot and threatened Afghans carrying registration cards. UN aid workers have been killed by car bombs, two Swiss tourists have been killed in Kabul, eleven Chinese highway workers were shot in their sleep, foreign doctors have been killed, and the U. S. Embassy has just sent emails warning that kidnappings and car bombs threaten the security of foreigners. Even Chicken Street, the usual shopping district for foreigners, is not safe.

Earlier in the day, a young Afghan woman had been speaking to Wahid over tea at the dining room table. She is setting up a radio station in a southern province, despite death threats from the Taliban. Two days ago, someone fired a rocket at her car. It caused minor damage but did not deter her.

At dinner, Wahid again instructed the guests to keep the drapes drawn upstairs and down.
Taxed with the responsibility for their safety, he strictly confines us to the house whenever we are not out touring in the minivan. Another guest and I, eager for exercise and for adventure, have been chafing at the confinement. We have begun to wear down Wahid’s patience with a proposal to put on burqas and explore the neighborhood. But tomorrow Wahid and his driver, Daoud, will take our group out of Kabul into the Shamali Plain, where the land is green with vineyards, there are gardens and flowering trees, and another school built by Afghans for Tomorrow.

On the way, we will pay a visit to a newly rebuilt mosque. After our planes bombed the original mosque, an American church group and a mosque in New York raised the money to construct a new mosque and minaret. Chloe Breyer, asleep in the next room, has shepherded this project. She’s an ordained Episcopalian minister, a feisty, attractive young New Yorker who knows how to grapple with the big-bellied contractor, who will doubtless demand more money when they meet up tomorrow.

As Wahid falls asleep in the darkness, images of the Kabul of his recollection – a thriving,
modern metropolis of 700,000, where women dressed in Western fashion and the people
were prosperous and well-educated, where he learned to love Zola, Hugo, and Sartre at the Francophone school – may visit him and give relief to the reality he confronts by day: a dusty, choking, treeless city where three and a half million post-war Afghans crowd together in the search for work, water, and safety.

Across the street on this quiet night is a tiny booth painted pink and blue, shut up tight. It
faces Wahid’s house. By day it is the equivalent of a 24/7 convenience store, with its dust-
covered cans of soda, crackers, candy bars, small paper containers of mango juice. From before daybreak until the stars come out, the proprietor sits patiently inside, like an omniscient ticket taker, and watches the neighborhood as if it were a theatre. Perhaps he had also watched the theatre of war years ago, before he fled for safety to Iran.

He is the actor Khoja Mohammed Najeer, a white-bearded, swarthy Afghan with noble wrinkles and a far-away expression. He played the role of the old man in the film, Osama, and earned $40 for his performance. Now he nurses a severely blackened and swollen right foot, injured from another movie set when he had to keep it in freezing water for a long period of time. But Khoja Mohammed is sleeping now, dreaming perhaps of the money that should have come to him from his performance in Osama. And of the fame that is due him. Tomorrow he will rise before 4 AM, heed the first muezzin call, and open his little booth for business. He keeps a watch out for Wahid and worries about him if Wahid does not come home at his usual time.

All through western Kabul, the streets are dark, the houses illumined only by candles or with the help of generators, which are expensive to run. This part of the city is also home to Kabul University, one of the places to go for relief from the merciless blaze of the Afghan sun. On this night the moonlight falls over the university’s quiet lawns, trees sweep their leaves in the wind and the ardent songbirds are now asleep. In the afternoon, students had lazed here after class, the young women in their headscarves sitting together in a grove of filtered light among the trees and reviewing the lessons of their literature class. Some had practiced their English on the American visitors and eagerly got their photos taken. Some had pulled back with a shadow of resentment in their eyes. Many wonder about their future.

Over a year ago, there was a student uprising here about living conditions and not enough
food; two students were shot to death by Karzai’s police. Rumors are that Taliban adherents among faculty and students have shaved off their beards but have not discarded their ideology. Professors, if they have been paid at all, earn about $50 a month; sometimes their wives put on burqas and go begging in the streets. Often the professors sell used clothing which they drape over railings to display in the busier parts of town. What resentments brew here are hard to calculate.

Among students, there are many questions. Why is the US backing a corrupt government that capitulates to the warlords? Why hasn’t the US followed the Bonn agreement and disarmed the warlords? What happened to the promises to rebuild the city and its destroyed infrastructure, to resupply electricity to the rest of Kabul? Why have 65,000 people been killed since 2001? Why did the US give $5 million to the Taliban in the first place? Who gave bin Laden his power and money? Why are the Americans promoting a culture of impunity with torture and sexual abuse in the prisons? Where are the promised security forces? Why does the American army fire on civilians and bomb wedding parties? Do American people know that what Bush is doing is not good for the people of America?

These are the questions that plague some Afghan minds by day and that disturb their sleep at night, even as the stars twinkle indifferently overhead. They have not been questions that seem to disturb the sleep of Americans, even if the Taliban and al Qaeda were once the terror of our daily consciousness. If indifference is a celestial attribute, perhaps it is understandable that we mimic it. What can be said, on this velvety night in late June, 2004, is that all is quiet on western Kabul’s front – for the time being.

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