“Deadly pre-poll attack hits Kabul.”
Thus read the BBC News on Tuesday 18th August 2009. In the same article, four other acts of violence were reported. Two words jumped out at me: ‘Deadly’ and ‘Kabul’, because it was only weeks before that I had been there. “What on earth do you want to go there for?” was a question that I was confronted with by many of my friends. And how could I justify why I was willingly entering one of the most dangerous places in the world? Curiosity and opportunity did not seem like valid reasons. A leading company based in Afghanistan had offered me a three-month internship. Having opted not to take a gap year, I felt that I had missed out on an opportunity to travel, experience new cultures and maybe make a difference. Perhaps I was a naive nineteen year old for thinking that working in Kabul for three months would make a difference.
Afghanistan is not exactly a dream holiday destination so it was difficult to find helpful information. I shamelessly Google-d ‘going to Kabul’, and stumbled across a relevant forum. Someone had said that they had just got a job there, asking if anyone had any tips. There was one reply; “You’re bloody mental for wanting to go there.” This was not a good start.
Soon enough I was touching down in Kabul, captured by the mountainous views and the unscathed beauty. I was suddenly struck with sadness that such a picturesque country had to cope with so many challenges and hardships. As I was driven to the company’s main building I noticed that the streets were a strange fusion of the noise of Delhi and the potholes of Africa. Warmth filled me as people lined the pavements tending to their businesses, whilst children walked to school. Life seemed normal, whatever that is. Just before I left the UK, it had been confirmed that elections were to take place in August, and my internship was shortened to six weeks. Unsurprisingly, security was tighter than ever. All employees received security updates via text messages: ‘Protest in town. Do not leave accommodation without security approval.’ Additionally, every employee had a code name and had to call the security team every night. At first I found it exciting saying, “Beta 7 checking in”, but soon it became tedious.
‘Appearances can be deceptive,’ is definitely a phrase that applies to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Like most capitals it is vibrant and most surprisingly supplies a good nightlife! Whilst there may be no Oceana, there is the Atmosphere bar and restaurant, which is quite similar to Tiger Tiger. This was the haunt for expats experiencing withdrawal symptoms from Westernised life. You would never have guessed that there were any sophisticated, modern bars or restaurants in Kabul. The exteriors of these buildings are worn out and guarded by armed men; on entering into them, it’s like being taken through airport security. If you pass this meticulous check, you are then ushered into a room full of colour and music as you leave the monochrome streets of Kabul behind. Out of the public eye, female tourists remove their makeshift headscarves and the long sleeves that made the heat all the more unbearable during the day.
Experiencing the kindness of the Afghan people, and having learnt more about them, I felt a twinge of guilt that I was able to escape the imminent dangers of an election. The people of Kabul were aware and acceptant of what was to come. They were determined to improve the lives of future generations through education, determination and courage. We can all learn something from them – I certainly did in the short time I was there.
Afghanistan is full of beauty, if you dare to look close enough. As a wise Afghan once said, ‘There is a path to the top of even the highest mountain.’