First Impressions of Kabul – Kabul, Afghanistan, Asia

Employee of CANCAP
In March of 2004 I went to live on an Army Base called Camp Julien in Kabul, Afghanistan as an employee of CANCAP, the sub-contractor which provided camp maintenance services to the Canadian Military. Most of the civilians at the base never went into the city as it was deemed far too dangerous. Because of this, few people saw Kabul. Those of us who did travel downtown out of necessity were heavily escorted. I was fortunate in that my work required me to go into the city occasionally. The following is my descriptions of what I saw the first time I went.

I jumped eagerly into the vehicle and listened attentively to last-minute instructions. We then set off at a slow pace, made our way towards the front gate by driving right through the camp, past the gym, maintenance hangars and vehicle lots. At the gate they waved us through. I held my breath as we turned the corner, excited and apprehensive at the same time. I didn’t know what to expect. I was not prepared for what I saw.

Not Prepared for What I Saw
To put it bluntly, the scenery in Afghanistan could best be described as post-apocalyptic. The barren desert landscape and the signs of total destruction were everywhere, witnessed in the crumbling, war-ravaged remains of houses and buildings, all combined to create a vivid first impression. We drove past Darulaman Palace, the beautiful old European-style structure built by the royal family in the 1920’s, next to and always dominating our view of Camp Julien. Up close, the damage wrought by the last civil war in the 1990’s was extensive, yet the fact that it had once been a spectacular building was much in evidence – almost obscene, like an animal barely alive with gaping and untreatable wounds. So much beauty, so senselessly wasted, all in the name of war.

Along the road were cars, bicycles, people walking, military vehicles, trucks, buses and three-wheeled carts piled with goods, jostling for space anywhere they could find it. Road rules in Kabul are laughably non-existent, anarchy reigns. Anywhere you go, there is just one wide roadway: no lines, hardly any signs, no directions and no bisecting barriers to indicate directional traffic. Nothing.

Road Chaos Exceeds Delhi and Cairo
I have been to other large cities known for chaos on the roads such as Delhi and Cairo, but in Kabul, there was none of the orchestrated madness that somehow works in those other places. Everyone was doing their own thing and going wherever they needed to go, as if they were the only ones on the road. Needless to say, traffic accidents in Kabul are appalling and frequent. The number of near-misses I saw in a thirty-minute drive alone was more than I have ever seen in all my years driving in Canada.

The congestion on the streets is incredible. Due to improvements in the roadways around Kabul, a flood of affluent people and migrants have poured into Kabul – all looking for a better life. As a result, the number of vehicles has increased – many of them not registered or licenced. The government simply could not keep track of all of them. The number of taxis alone is astonishing. To a casual observer, it seems as though every third vehicle on the road is a taxi. Everyone who can afford to get around in a vehicle probably has one. So who is using cabs?

Nothing Wasted
Driving towards town the fields gave way to more and more signs of industry, if you could call it that. The sole forms of industrial and merchant production in Kabul were scraps – of wood, of metal, of mortar, brick and rubber. Roadside stands not selling fruit and vegetables were trading scraps. Another reminder of war – people literally and figuratively picking up the pieces of their lives from what had once been whole entities, trying to put them back together again, attempting to make something useful out of the ruins. This enterprising nature was visible everywhere, from the roadside scrap sellers and makeshift canvas-covered markets, to the remains and destruction that had so obviously been picked clean of anything salvageable. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was wasted. Everything has a purpose in the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

I observed another tragic legacy of the decades of war – bullet hole-ridden signs stood proudly proclaiming a hotel, a school or business. Behind the signs were the remains of a wall, a crumbling foundation with no support – only devastation and a reminder of what had been.

Houses on the Hillsides

Houses on the Hillsides

Approaching the Centre of Kabul
As we approached the city, traffic was thicker. More roads converged onto the main one into the city proper. The closer we came to the centre of Kabul, the steeper the surrounding hills became. Houses were built using the traditional method of firing the local dirt and mud into bricks, they blend in well with their background. Their appearance was striking, first thing you noticed was how high up they went. My guess is that the more prosperous you are, the lower down your house is – to climb to the very top of a steep and rocky mountainside with water or the spoils of the day’s market would be grueling. There were certainly few if any roads up there, any pathways were not clearly visible, the way difficult and treacherous.

Chaotic Scenes
Downtown Kabul was a maelstrom of chaotic scenes that converged into an overwhelming whole. People were everywhere – shouting, working, selling, buying. There were a few buildings intact next to bombed buildings – sheer luck they were still standing. I saw huge billboards advertising everything from soft drinks to mobile phones (Afghanistan got its first cell phone network a few years ago, cell phones are the rage among those who can afford them). I noticed brightly coloured scarves and burqas flapping in the wind. Stalls were packed tightly together, peddling everything from freshly-killed goats to intricately woven carpets. Street kids were threading dangerously through the traffic selling newspapers. Shepherds were herding their flocks through the melee, the goats eating the garbage. Boys were sitting cross-legged on the tops of brightly painted buses, hitching a ride.

Downtown Kabul

Downtown Kabul

Funny Scenes
Within this mayhem were hilarious sights – a bed, completely made with fresh linens and pillows on the side of the road. Running down one alleyway was a child hauling a large net sack of footballs twice his size, off to a makeshift pitch for a little practice, a tea-seller squatting in the middle of a busy roundabout of traffic with his steaming samovar and dirty glasses. Everywhere were creative translated signs in Dari and English, such as the one in front of a butcher proclaiming the “marketing of meat and other animals".

Sad Scenes
There were also the sights that made me want to cry. This was, after all, Afghanistan. We frequently passed junkyards for old abandoned Russian tanks, stripped to mere shells. Casually sitting by the side of the roads were the burnt and twisted remains of both military and civilian vehicles. Many people were obviously landmine victims, missing arms or legs, hands and feet. There were signs of abject poverty everywhere, from the torn and inadequate clothing worn by the children, to the tiny makeshift shelters and the ruined houses where people squatted because they had nowhere else to go.

Many of the smaller children were playing in the rubble of the bombed out buildings, as if they didn't have a care in the world. The fetid ooze of the Kabul River through the centre of the city was a polluted and garbage-filled mess in which people were doing their daily washing. Burqa-covered women sat begging on the streets, having lost their husbands to the war and their assurance of survival. The stench due to the lack of any functioning sewage system was overpowering in many parts of the city.

Powerful Memory
My most powerful memory of this day, however, is of a moment that was brief and fleeting. We had come to a stop due to a traffic snarl. I happened to see an elderly man leaning on a crutch with the lower half of one leg blown away, undoubtedly the result of a landmine. He looked right at me as though he were looking into me. He had one of those gazes that go right to the core. He put his right hand over his heart in the gesture of respect and greeting that is common in Afghanistan, smiled at me. I made the same gesture and smiled back. It was over in a few seconds, but it touched me deeply. It was almost as though he were thanking the foreigners in his country trying to help get the place back on its feet. I felt as though I should be the one thanking him, for letting me see what courage and pride really meant.

All too quickly, we reached our destination. I went to complete my errand of obtaining an employee visa at one of the embassies, was then escorted back to camp. I was sad to return, feeling that I had only seen a tiny bit of what Kabul could teach me about what it means to struggle for survival.

People asked, "What was it like out there?" I found it hard to answer. It would have been easy to fall back on the simple and over-used descriptions of the third world – dirty, chaotic, smelly, dangerous. Kabul is far more than the sum of these adjectives. I was struck many times by the beauty destroyed and the resiliency of the people. As cliché as it sounds, it’s true that life really does go on – even in Afghanistan.


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