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Letter from Kabul

Despite a spate of deadly attacks on westerners, life in the Afghan capital goes on. But, as I discovered, a visitor quickly learns to stick to their own tribe

By Thierry Kelaart   December 2008

L’Atmosphère is what used to pass for a hot night spot in Kabul. It attracted the war-zone junkie crowd: aid workers, thrill seekers, medics and mercenaries. It was where you went to catch up with journalists; even the odd diplomat popped in for an after-work drink en route back to their armed compounds.

At least that is how it was before a suicide bomber blew himself up in the lobby of Kabul’s Serena Hotel on 14th January 2008. Until then, Taliban attacks were mainly confined to government and army targets. But after that attack the Taliban said its fighters would “target all these restaurants in Kabul where foreigners are eating.” The party stopped.

When I visited L’Atmosphère in October, just getting in was a lengthy procedure. Four doors, five guards, a passport check and a frisk later I was ushered into a large wood-panelled room furnished with leather sofas and a roaring fire in the middle. Although nearly empty, it was cosy, and you can still have a drink—if you’re willing to pay $38 for a bottle of vin très ordinaire. But it isn’t the high prices that are keeping the punters away. L’Atmosphère tops the city’s risk list: it is both the least secure of all Kabul’s night spots and the most likely to be attacked.

I had come to Afghanistan to see the work of Turquoise Mountain, a charity set up by the writer and adventurer, Rory Stewart. One day I went into the centre of town with a young Afghan boy, Akbal, to look for carpets. We explored the Bush bazaar—so named as everything in it has been “acquired” from American soldiers, and the bird bazaar, packed with cages of sparrows, partridges and cockerels. After taking tea with the owners of a cedar driftwood stall, I asked Akbal where exactly we were. He pointed to the “no-go” area of my security map. “But this is the Taliban district of the city,” I protested. “The edge of it, yes” he replied. We laughed and it didn’t seem a big deal. The next day, the British-South African aid worker, Gayle Williams, was killed on her way to work, and I realised how naive I had been.

That day, I woke at 5am to drive to the village of Istalif, about 20 miles northwest of the capital, leaving early to miss rush hour (streets full of stationary cars are a magnet for IED roadside bomb attacks). Our visit was to the famed Istalif potters, whose turquoise craft has been revived by Turquoise Mountain’s work. It was there, having sat for an hour in a small mud house watching an old pashtun deftly throwing pots, that I emerged into the sunlight to feel my phone vibrate with a text: “Good morning. An international has been shot dead in Karte Char. Stand by for updates.”

Mobile phones were only introduced to Afghanistan a couple of years ago. But they have quickly become a mainstay of security, and the bearer of grim tidings. After the initial message sent at 8.26am I was continually updated: 9.36am “An international woman has been shot dead in a drive-by in Karte Char. The gunmen may still be at large. Keep clear of the area. DO NOT WALK ON THE STREETS.” And at 11.43am, “Confirmed that this morning’s victim worked for an NGO and was walking in the street. The assailants are still at large. Travel in pairs, vehicles only, limit movement.”

Following Williams’s murder, security was stepped up. My NGO told me not to take local yellow taxis, only to travel with trusted car firms. Foreigners are now advised to vary their routes to work on a daily basis. Embassy people continue to drive conspicuous cars, but now send their close protection teams to scout out bars or restaurants they intend to visit. Lower profile organisations travel in unmarked cars and hope for the best. My usually stubborn friend, Olly, currently in Kabul building composting toilets, stopped riding his bike to work.

A visitor to Kabul quickly learns to stick to their tribe. You are part of an institution or NGO first, then your nationality, then the foreign community. These divisions are clearest when one tribe is attacked. Hearing that 27 Afghan civilians had been beheaded on the way to Jalalabad the month before I arrived, I felt shock, but detachment. The news about Williams, however, was much closer to home.

But life in Kabul continues. Bars like L’Atmosphère may not be as vibrant as they once were, but they still play host to those seeking a gin and tonic, or a game of table tennis, after a hard day at the sandbagged office. Tennis tournaments at the weekend, and salsa evenings on Wednesdays, are popular. Foreigners still hold dinner parties, but they end at 10.30pm to ensure everyone is back for the 11pm curfew that many NGOs impose on their employees. Things plod on elsewhere, too, literally in the case of those who continue to go for an early morning jog. Despite living in a city thick with smog, with rubbish-strewn pavements and dangerous streets, there are some pleasures the decadent westerner simply will not forgo. At a high school compound, I watched aid workers limbering up in old PE kit. Exercise is a rarity; a week’s worth is packed into a couple of hours. But, in Kabul, the small routines of daily life seem oddly reassuring.

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