Speaker by Various Artists

Kabul Revisited

by Marianne Elliot

Only hours after we published Marianne Elliot's cautiously optimistic report from Kabul (see previous post below), the city was consumed by violence. Now read Marianne's first-hand account of the riots, and her reflections on the bravery of ordinary Afghans, written at Kabul Airport while on the way home to NZ for some R & R.

After saying only a week ago that Kabul is fairly stable and that I don't worry too much about my safety here, we've since had a day of riots and looting - ostensibly directed at the international presence in Kabul. So was I completely ignorant? Is this city bubbling with anti-international sentiment?

I'll start out with a very personal account of events on Monday as I experienced them, then tell you more about what I've learned since. I probably have had access to much less media over the past week than anyone who reads this. So my impressions are a combination of first hand observation and analysis provided by friends and colleagues.

On Monday itself I was in a HRRAC Board meeting and we got a call from one of our Board members - the representative of Oxfam - to say that there had been a security incident in northern Kabul and he would not be allowed to leave his office to come to our meeting.

Throughout the meeting various Board members continued to receive phone calls with updates - and we learned that some ISAF vehicles had been involved in a road accident on the outskirts of Kabul, towards Shomali province. The initial reports were that someone had been killed in the accident and that when the crowds had approached the ISAF vehicles the situation had escalated until shots were fired and more people killed.

Angry about these deaths, people began to demonstrate. However, the reports we were receiving indicated that the situation was escalating rapidly and that large mobs of angry young men were moving about the city looting and destroying property.

The meeting broke up and we were dispersed by back roads to our homes or offices. I was with my Afghan driver and two Afghan colleagues, plus my colleague Jake from the USA. Our Afghan colleagues arranged us in the car so that Jake was seated in the centre of the back seat, as far out of sight as possible and I put on my head scarf and tried to look inconspicuous.

They dropped us off at our guesthouse and went back to the office to collect their things and our computers. By the time they got there the mob was in the street of our office and they had only minutes to get into the building and grab all the laptops. They called to say they would come back past my house to drop off the computers.

That was the last we heard from them - at about midday - until after six in the evening. It was a horrible afternoon. Apart from wondering what had become of our colleagues, I had a friend who had just flown in from New Zealand for a short tour and visit. He arrived just in time to spend the day holed up in our building, listening to hours of gunfire in the surrounding streets, watching the huge black clouds emerge from neighbouring buildings as they were burnt.

At the worst moment of the afternoon we were hiding in the back bedroom while our unarmed, grey-haired gardener held out against the mob. They had smashed out one of the panels of our front door and the frame itself was buckling under their pressure. He held his ground, and with the support of our neighbours convinced them that there were no foreigners in this house. They moved on.

Take note of this - it is only one of many examples of Afghans acting to protect their international friends, neighbours and colleagues on Monday. I think it is an important point, that by far the majority of Afghans in Kabul were not involved in the riots and in fact many of them acted decisively and bravely to avert further damage and violence.

Najiba - the 19 year old woman who cleans our house - produced a burka for me and told me that if there was more trouble I would put it on and go with her to her mother's house. I didn't like the idea of leaving Jake, Andrew and the two dogs behind, but also knew I wouldn't be of any help if I stuck around, so I was happy to have a possible escape route. Jake was busy instructing me that once I had the burka on I could not run: even if the mob was on my heels I had to crouch on the ground against a wall, hopefully in an excellent impression of an Afghan woman.

Throughout these long hours our phones were out, we had no radio, no television, no idea at all what was going on outside our four walls except what we could hear and see. From the clouds of smoke we correctly guessed that there was a fire at the UNICA guesthouse on the corner of our street and at the Dutch Embassy one block over.

At about 6pm the phones started working. We managed to call some friends and learned that the Oxfam office had been looted, the CARE office destroyed, and the guesthouses of several of our friends looted and burned, with all their belongings either stolen or destroyed. One friend who works at CARE lost everything in her office and her home.

Our Afghan colleagues were responding as well - some were shocked, some sad and some just mad that organisations like CARE had been targeted. Many of us had stories of brave Afghan friends, colleagues, employees and neighbours who had put themselves at some risk to protect either people or property. At our house we were inclined to think Murat, our gardener, was a genuine hero and all his other flaws were rapidly being forgotten.

The phone calls were only sporadically connecting and it was far too late for me to think about calling NZ, so I had to hope that my family either had not seem anything on the late news or would assume that I was safely tucked away.

Our night guard Ahmadullah arrived in the early evening and set about bringing his battered guard box in off the street. It was possibly the guard box that attracted attention to our house in the first place, since it is mostly only internationals who have guards. Ahmadullah is also unarmed and really just keeps an eye on the front door rather than providing any serious security.

The events on Monday have stimulated many conversations this week all across Kabul. In classrooms children have debated whether the riots were in response to the US military presence or the offensive lifestyles of infidel foreigners who are supposed to drink and fornicate their days and nights away. Others have suggested the anger and frustration were directed more at destabilizing the Government.

Within days, the Commander of Police had been removed and replaced, along with a number of other senior officers. I couldn't help thinking of Timor, where I have also worked a lot, and where the sacking of the FDTL soldiers appears to have triggered the current conflict.

We internationals discussed our different security arrangements. Those of us who live well outside of the big institutions and who have no armed security and very low profiles have generally felt ourselves to be more safe than those who have to drive about in large white 4x4s with armed guards. But on Monday we found that being low key doesn't guarantee that you escape attention.

Everyone was waiting for Friday, anticipating the possibility of further "demonstrations" which could again deteriorate rapidly into riots and looting. The Government imposed a "white city" curfew across the whole of Kabul, and apparently (this comes second-hand from the guy who has a carpet shop I like to browse in) issued stern warnings that if people rioted, the police would be ordered to shoot to kill.

Excessive and concerning as that warning was, it seemed to have the effect of keeping the city quiet on Friday and by Saturday many of us were venturing out of our houses again. I have, until Monday, walked about in the streets. But on Saturday I asked my driver to deliver me door to door and wait for me wherever that was suitable.

We all feel more conscious of our security. Many people are predicting more instability over the coming 18 months and the possibility of a general deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan overall. I hate to think that this is inevitable, and hope that strong leadership and some carefully planned (and effectively implemented!) "successes" in the national development project could help forestall further mass demonstrations of anger and frustration.

But others who understand the power dynamics in this country better than me are more pessimistic. They point out that the forces who want to destabilise this government have huge resources at their disposal, and access through national networks to people at all levels of the community. If they find a vein of anger that can be tapped for their own ends then people doubt they will hesitate to use it.

My own reflection as the days go by is that despite loss of numerous Afghan lives (including two members of the family of one of my colleagues, a 22 year old father and an 18 year old youth) and reasonably wide spread destruction of property associated either with international organisations or foreign residents, there have not been any reports of international fatalities or serious injuries. Either this tells us that our security arrangements basically worked or, as I am currently more inclined to think, the rioters never really intended to hurt or kill foreigners. Perhaps I'm simply trying to comfort myself with this thought, but I can't help thinking that they would have managed to kill or at least seriously hurt some of us if that had been the real intention.

Meanwhile, I'm heading home to New Zealand for a long break, with an even longer list of shopping to help restock homes and wardrobes. I have a feeling my family are happy to have me home right now, and I will be looking forward to the chance to walk out my front door to the local dairy without worrying about being targeted.

Marianne Elliot can be reached at melliottabroad@yahoo.com.au