My new life in a fractured land

Al Jazeera’s new Afghanistan correspondent on arriving in Kabul and learning some local ways.

Kabul is a veteran compared to most conflict zones [GALLO/GETTY]

I was still eating my small square of black forest gateaux as we made our final approach to Kabul International airport. It seemed so normal. The planeload of square jaws, gold braid and weary looking Afghans did not bat an eyelid as they did their seatbelts back up for landing.

It could have been a runway in Athens or Istanbul if it was not for the extensive military hardware parked along the tarmac. But not much is ordinary about this place.

I had been given plenty of advice before moving to my new home but one suggestion was mentioned repeatedly: Do not hail a taxi off the street – you will be taken straight to the Taliban. An hour after clearing immigration we were bumping along the back streets of Kabul in a cab from the rank.

The rules go out of the window when your driver has got stuck in gridlocked traffic on the way to meet you. The traffic police, the human traffic lights here, had gone on strike after one of them was beaten up by a warlord. He reportedly did not like being kept waiting by the man in uniform.

I am struck by the everyday things twisted by conflict here. I used to think a blimp was an innocent enough looking hot air balloon that improved the TV coverage of England cricketers’ latest defeat against the Aussies or Real Madrid losing to the mighty Manchester United.

Not here. In Kabul the security blimp is the all-seeing eye watching over this fractured city 24/7. Westerners complain about too many CCTV cameras on city centre streets. Here big brother has his own aircraft.

It is a few days before the sound of conflict reaches the guesthouse I am in. A heavy distant explosion raises the odd eyebrow of my lunch companions. The reaction is routine. Sounded quite big. Make a check call. Controlled explosion. Starters anyone? Another day in Kabul, another bomb.

I have been in war-ravaged cities before. There is not a lamp post in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, that is not strafed with bullet holes. But Kabul is a veteran compared to most conflict zones. There are glimpses of life before the numerous invasions.

We had headed to the Darlaman area in the west of Kabul to do some filming with the ruins of the palace as a backdrop. Up until 1991 this magnificent building housed the ministry of defence. Then it got caught in the crossfire.

Buildings, streets signs, blast walls – nothing has survived untouched. Inside the Isaf compound, with its miles of concrete barriers and haphazard security checks, a few dusty trees stand defiant – bearing witness to decades of violent change. If trees could talk ….

Someone described there as being three sexes here: Men, Afghan women and Western women. Not all Afghan men can quite bring themselves to look me in the eye or shake my hand but I am not invisible. I remember reading a letter from an Afghan woman where she described how we all lived under the same sky but were separated by 500 years of evolution.

On a more basic level I miss the camaraderie of women here, those sideways glances or raised eyebrows that often form a common language amongst the female fraternity. There is no such communication through the burqa’s blue mesh.

People talk about being seduced by Afghanistan. The road from Kabul to Jalalabad will do just that, if it does not kill you first. One-hundred-and-fifty kilometres of road cut into the hillside by the Americans 50 years ago, this main route to Pakistan has a fearsome reputation. The drops are sheer and the driving is combative. We saw the aftermath of two horrific crashes in the space of two kilometres. I do not think they have a word for blind corner here.

But the journey takes you sky high through raw, rugged terrain and past moon sized craters of water.

Security wise it is fairly safe. It is in the interest of most parties, be they Nato, warlords, traders or the Taliban, to keep it that way. Cut off this major trade route and everybody suffers. But that could change in the blink of an eye.

But my camerawoman and I sat in the back of the car with our heads covered looking at our feet as we went through the police checkpoint leaving Kabul. It only takes someone at the checkpoint to make a call to say there are Westerners travelling towards Jalalabad in a certain car for our safety to be put in jeopardy. Sometimes it pays to learn the local way if bowing your covered head and avoiding prying eyes gets the job done.

Sue Turton is Al Jazeera’s new Afghanistan correspondent.

Source : Al Jazeera

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