A Car Explodes in Kabul
25 September 2007 | Esquire
There are soldiers standing about the riverbed, straining to seem calm with their machine guns and body armor, while hundreds of eyes stare down at them. An Italian soldier leans against a car, trying mightily for nonchalance. Others light cigarettes.
Around them, blood stains the dust. The people say one man was cut in half, legs and torso distributed many meters apart. Another man caught fire. The remains of a sedan that was thrown into a ditch have just recently stopped burning, and a nearby taxi looks as though it was left overnight in Camden—its doors flown open, its interior gutted, and its outside paneling beaten in. In front of a Renault armored vehicle, there is an unidentifiable chunk of twisted metal.
The gathered Afghans are watching it all in silence. This is theatre: warriors guarding the carcasses of automobiles, the riverbed a coliseum floor. It’s also the last six years played out on stage. The West watching Afghans, Afghans watching the West, all at a considerable distance maintained by conspicuous weaponry.
My driver and I stand and watch with everyone else. We are on the road to Ghazni, fifteen minutes from where the Taliban jumped a bus full of Koreans, we are told. It’s through this place that IMF accesses the southern provinces to rumble with the Taliban, so it has become a flashpoint. It’s been bombed twice this summer alone.
The road leads to a bridge that we all stand on for a better vantage point, but the section in front of us has collapsed. There’s something particularly post-apocalyptic about a folded bridge, even for a city that has its share of palaces and theatres hollowed by rockets.
Though this bridge didn’t fall because of the years of war, or because of what happened today. It was a development team that didn’t really understand the way things work here, and couldn’t quite comprehend how a bone-dry dip in the earth would, when spring came, become a river powerful enough to wash away a structure not built accordingly.
So today this development project isn’t promoting growth, and it isn’t allowing Afghans to cross between provinces and commerce and commune and buy and sell themselves into peaceful prosperity. Instead, it’s been requisitioned by the people as a grandstand on which to watch the latest violence in their home.
The bombing happened on the outskirts of Kabul province, not only the crossroads between the relative calm of the capital and the insecurity of the southern regions, but also a staging area for the miscegenation of modern commerce with ancient culture. A huge billboard for a telecom outfit stands in stark contrast to a hill overrun by mud brick houses, built by squatters in the same style that’s been used here for centuries. Shopkeepers peddle the same goods they’ve peddled for years, but they do it out of decommissioned shipping containers previously used for overland commerce. And just next to the botched bridge project, an ancient livestock market still flourishes. In a few months this place will be overrun with people browsing animals to buy and then sacrifice for the Muslim holiday of Eid.
The first ever Eid, so says the story, was celebrated after the prophet Mohammad defeated the army of a wealthy pagan civilization.
The explosion this morning was so powerful it turned an armored vehicle over, ignited a sedan and launched it off the road, destroyed a taxi thirty meters away and blew the windows out of a bus. A French soldier was killed, and a still-unknown number of Afghans injured. The latest reports say eight, but the security people know never to trust the numbers.
There are inconsistencies regarding what happened next, contradictions borne from the natural propensity in this country to exaggerate, and NATO’s inclination to suppress potentially disastrous publicity. Last May, Kabul caught fire under similar circumstances when an American military truck lost its brakes and ploughed into a crowd of civilians. Stones were thrown at the vehicle and warning shots fired, and word spread that Americans had shot into a crowd. Roaming mobs took to the streets, starting fires, destroying buildings, and engaging American troops in firefights. American embassy workers went into bunkers, the U.S. military headquarters was locked down, and civilians were killed and injured.
So a few thousand hearts skipped beats when reports started circulating that frantic French soldiers had opened fire and shot a boy. Then the story evolved so that it was an Italian medi-vac that had killed the boy. The Afghans on the scene confirmed that a boy had been shot, so I went with my driver to ask one of the soldiers still guarding the perimeter.
Rows of silent Afghans watched us approach the soldier. I had dressed in traditional Afghan clothing so as not to be identified as American in case of further violence, but I was now forfeiting my anonymity. Just before reaching the soldier I stumbled on a loose rock and stepped on my driver’s shoe, and he turned to shake my hand. In Afghanistan, he later explained, this is what you do after bumping someone, as a way of saying “we are not fighting.”
When we reached the soldier I tried to ask about the boy, but he grabbed at my driver’s walkie-talkie to make sure it was turned off, then turned and walked away without answering. For their part, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) made no mention of a boy being shot in their official press release, and by early evening the news cycle had been effectively nudged off the suicide attack, and onto a fresh set of operations that had F-15s and A-10’s dropping bombs on Taliban positions in the South.
You will not find a more welcoming people than the Afghans. They will go out of their way to help you, and if they find out you’re a foreigner, they will insist you take their food, their tea, their chair. When armored personal carriers charge through the streets of Kabul, taxi drivers and motorcyclists move aside to let them pass, and then everyone carries on as they were. But if you ask, you will find it’s not just militants who take issue with this trespass. Its humiliating to watch a soldier leaning out the gopher hole in his armored vehicle to wave you out of the way, or to swing a machine gun at you two-handed as if you were a threat just by virtue of the fact that you’re not one of them. At night they blast cars with high-powered spotlights, blinding drivers and forcing them to stop their vehicles in the middle of the road, and they often emit jamming frequencies so when they drive by your radio screeches and your cell phone goes dead.
And now, next to the sight of a shortsighted infrastructure project that so far has failed in its attempt to connect Afghanistan and spur development, solders securing the scene have blocked the alternate route. So despite the ideas twitching in the minds of the men with guns, the Afghans aren’t gathered to start a riot. They’re there because they have nowhere to go.
Found in: Afghanistan