I HOPE SOMEONE'S HOLDING THE LINE
Trip Start ??? 06, 2001
10Trip End ??? 07, 2001
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Trepidation,affection,irritation,relief,sadness,frustration, boredom and disappointment are all there.It is left to the individual as to which is strongest in their heart when the moment comes to depart,but surely nobody leaves without being affected by the time they have spent in this city as it struggles to recover from two decades of civil war.
Initial impressions are of a bustling metropolis,surprisingly at ease with itself.Cars fill the streets,including many Corolla taxis,painted in their distinctive yellow and white livery.Pedestrians spill over all too frequently from uneven pavements into these broad avenues,most of them wearing traditional clothing that seems almost medieval to the Western eye.All but the youngest men stride about in traditional Pakol hats and shalwar kameez,and women,very much in evidence on the street,are mostly clad in the blue burqas with mesh over their faces,that became a famous symbol of life under the Taliban regime
Noticing this,one could be forgiven for a moment of cynicism about the British Government,who,with all their usual "spin",used the plight of women in general,and their enforced dress code in particular,as a major justification of the invasion in 2001.The fact is that women's place in this conservative society was established long before the Taliban,and persists after they are gone,driven by tradition more than politics.The burqas may hang a little looser now,and reveal at least a glimpse of women's ankles or jeans,but most cover up pretty much as before.
The Burqa was,of course,only one symbol of alleged Taliban opression,even if it was over emphasised by the Blair regime in an attempt to influence misunderstanding western minds to support the Allied invasion.There is little dispute that everyone,including women,were subjected to harsh conditions under their former masters.And signs of change are there if you look hard enough.
Conversely,most war widows,often seen begging on the streets,are almost always covered from head to toe.Sadly,too many people have been left without state or charitable assistance since the invasion,and many resort to desperate means to survive.Their garments help to preserve a little dignity in the face of much male derision at their very public plight.
Obviously then,Afghan society can be exceedingly cruel,with or without the Taliban
One visible symbol of liberation is the flying of kites.Banned under the Taliban,they are now being hand made in the city centre again,and are an almost constant sight in the skies over Kabul.The owner of the most famous city centre kitemaker's shop,blind in one eye,related how,like millions of others,he went into exile in Pakistan during the five years of the Taliban regime.As he patched up the material on a broken kite,he lamented on the difficult years.His work colleagues and helpers gathered round to display their wares with pride.Hand carved wooden reels,produced in an adjacent woodworking section,dangled from the ceiling of their combined workshop and store,and bright coloured fabric was stretched between balsa wood rods.These traditional workers asked me how things were in the West,and whether we had such things.They looked a little dejected when I described the mass produced plastic kites available in Europe,apparently pondering the increased profit margin if such technology and materials were available to them,but anyone with any soul would appreciate the human touch that has gone into their creation,just one example of the innovative talents of an impoverished people.
Walking into Kabul Zoo,past the statue to the famous Lion that was blinded by the Taliban,one can find an elderly bearded man making a living by selling "goes" on a home made race track game,a kind of Afghan version of "Scaletrix" and "Escalado".These kind of things make up much of the charm of the city,along with those many folk who are friendly and keen to be photographed.Most people still display genuine hospitality,especially in the old world communities
Kabul society,like many in the Third World is split between those who live in the traditional, sociable but antiquated way,where people come first;and the modern progressive,more europeanised sectors where values are based more on wealth and independent thought.
Over chicken and chips in the only fast food take away in Afghanistan,I met two young men from Leicester,who commendably went back to their home country and started a business,now that times were safer.A beggar woman came in and,as I was just finishing eating,asked for my leftovers.She then sat herself down on the paverment outside the shop door and proceeded to picnic,with two small children,on what little I had not consumed.
I sent the waiter out with a small donation for her.There was no denying that her need was greater than mine.
The proprieters don't have it easy,either.They described to me their need to carry firearms,not because of warfare with the Taliban,but because of disputes with business rivals.
One Saturday night I met some off duty British Asian military translators here,and was intrigued to see that they were getting ready for a traditional Saturday night out,as if they were still at home.There are certainly many clubs and restaurants that cater to this western lifestyle,but at a price considerably higher than the local norm.
Many have been established by foreigners although few soldiers are allowed to visit them,as the Force Protection policy consigns the majority to barracks.Occasionally one does see an off duty plain clothes western soldier in the city,complete with a small sidearm (and usually a girl on the other arm,presumed to be family members visiting from Britain,and getting the guided tour)
One surprise was how few on duty NATO forces were to be seen patrolling the streets.The vast majority of work has now been handed over to local army and police forces,who direct the traffic and keep some semblance of law and order,as well as protecting sensitive locations,such as aid agency HQ's and Embassies.There are many such buildings in the centre of the city,with barbed wire,sandbags and watch towers a common sight,although they are usually lightly manned.
The most heavily protected area,unsurprisingly, was the President's Palace and the military bases around it,much of which form an L shape heading east along the north side of the Palace,then north between the NATO HQ and the US Embassy.
In this district,U.S soldiers in full body armour scurry from one base to another,through enlarged entrances of steel drums and meshing,walking just a few paces on the street then scurrying into the extended entrance of the next base.They appear relaxed,and occasionally pause to buy chewing gum or newspapers from small boys,but they take few risks on the streets of Kabul.
A British soldier appeared to frown down at me from the lookout tower of the Coalition HQ,as I circled it's perimeter.Perhaps he thought I was supposed to be holding the Line,and was surprised to see me in Kabul
Undeterred,I walked on to the U.S Embassy.
When I needed money from a cashpoint,I had to visit a bank right next to it,and approaching from the backstreets,I came across security that put one in mind of World War II or the Berlin Wall.
One crossroads had been converted into a multitude of sandbagged military posts,chicanes,barbed wire,and trenches.Behind a fence that ran down the middle of the road,two American soldiers constantly patrolled up and down this strip.
One block away is a music shop that caters to the western people who have come to Kabul in ma