Afghanistan now stretches out below me like an old brown blanket, little patches of squares hinting at villages made of those clay walled square compounds. We have quickly left the snow capped ramparts that surround Kabul. Two months ago the city was captive to blue white, but the rising temperature has quickly melted that away. Now only the highest peaks, and those slopes facing north are softened by it.
As a I walked down the ramp to the Emirates flight texts on my phone alerted me to the attack on the front gate of the Ministry of Interior. At least five police dead. The sun sparkled over us and a vibrant blue hummed spring across the heavens. I looked at the ground crew doing their thing. Looked at the older Afghan grandmother in front of me clutching a brand new passport up to her face with both hands. Glanced back at the Russian contractors clearly happy to be leaving town. Then across the city towards TV hill. Just this side of that hill people are picking up body parts of friends and colleagues. And at least five men are not going home tonight. I shuffle forward, my passport is examined by a kid in winter uniform who does not know what he is doing and soon (quickly) I forget what has happened in the city as I stow bags and get settled into my seat. It’s all we can do really.
I don’t have a sense of jeopardy in Afghanistan even when walking the streets. Mind you I don’t take any unnecessary risks either. Keep the exposure to a minimum and all that. But as my eye caught the clock on the wall of my office this morning and I realized it was nearly time to catch my flight my gut twisted in anticipation. The road to the airport has been targeted and we know the threat. That is the trick – to know the threat but take action anyway. Trust your judgment and be ready to move quickly if you have to. In the event the worst I have to contend with was a seven year old boy perched on the counter of the small shop selling coffee in the airport – he had a pen top charged and ready to fire at me from its rubber band propellant entwined around his fingers. Yet even his boyish prank drew nervous laughter as I made to duck out of his line of fire – pointing projectiles at anyone in this town is little reason to joke.
The last few days have been reflective, the more so for my team working from home. The risk of commuting past election offices or polling booths is just not one I want to trifle with this week so there is no commuting. But the office becomes a cool and silent tomb (okay, poor word choice but it’s set in a basement so it could have that feel to it). And in that quiet I am testing my motives for being here. A creative outlet in my work to be sure. But there is more to it than business, leadership, business development, team building and all the other things that ring my bells. The truth is that there is an allure to Afghanistan that I find very hard to ignore. So much raw history, recent and ancient. A remarkable people. I connected with Yemenis, the Saudi, the Algerian, the Sudanese and the Iraqi. You get the idea. And those friendships shape up so quickly and in a couple of months here there are strong, even emotional bonds. That is part of it. Part of the appeal.
But there is another drawcard to which I have to confess. It’s the sense that this part of the world, in which Russia and Britain played ‘The Great Game’ still has an element of ‘the game’ in it. There was a slightly perverse pleasure in being in Iraq during ;the surge’, something I find hard to plumb in myself. Yet there is something akin that happening here in Afghanistan. People talk of it being a most interesting time and I fall for the same sort of euphemisms. Yet it truly is the most interesting time and I want to say that I witnessed something of it. To be woven into it in some way no matter how minuscule and insignificant. To be on the field in this modern ‘Great Game’ being played out by the Afghans themselves is far better than watching it from the safety of a lounge in Australia. Or from behind the blast walls of the compounds around here. Which is no witness at all.
And if I am to be completely honest with myself I enjoy being where others do not want to be. The mere mention of this place conjures up images of barbaric people and behavior, a mostly unsafe environment and a complete, mystified incomprehension about why anyone would want to come here. What others perceive and what is actually on the ground are of course two different things. I try and convey that through the photos I share but the overwhelming media flavour is one of pain and death. I am questioned ‘why are you there?’ And I have to answer “Because you are not’.
My cynical friends, and there are many for which I am grateful, suggest I am wanting to prove myself. Twenty years or more ago I might have agreed with them. But life took me through places such that I know beyond any faint shadow of doubt that this is not the case. Since then I have tackled everything thrown at me knowing that I do not have to prove anything to anyone, including myself. Living and working in Afghanistan keeps me alert and alive. But it barely flutters the needle against those earlier stressful and life changing experiences.
No, its more the sense of not wanting to miss the game. Not wishing to have a unique opportunity pass me by. Of wanting to taste the dust of this strange, exotic and historic place, to look the locals in the eye, to share something of their adventure and journey. And because so few others want to do the same. I don’t live isolated in a secure bunker but in an ordinary house in the suburbs. It’s more risky but it puts me shoulder to shoulder with these people. That, in the end, is what being in this country, and enjoying it, is all about.
Diary 2 April 2014
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