A City of Sandbags and Armed Men


Drop someone off at the airport here and you’ll be searched three times before getting into the parking lot. Kabul is a city of sandbags and armed men, both on foot and in big, shiny, assertive, urgently-honking vehicles. In Kabul much life is lived opaquely — behind barbed wire and thick metal doors and high walls.

Early on we are told that, according to the Red Cross, the area is enduring the worst security situation in 30 years. Those with a stake in how things are dread the talked-about (and fanciful?) departure of international forces – of the invaders and occupiers — for fear of civil war. Some seem to prefer the devil they’ve come to know this past excruciating decade to other devils harder to predict, harder to identify.

Our little delegation is severely restricted in our movements – we keep a low profile: we don’t linger outside those high walls. We stay inside until our driver arrives and then quickly hop in the van. We may not even be able to get beyond Kabul – a tan, dusty, decaying, sprawling town with what must be some of the densest, scariest, least regulated traffic on the planet. (Not once in our two weeks here have we stopped for a red light.)

Do we avoid venturing forth from the clipped lawns and rose gardens of our guest house compound? Hardly. We are blessed with our unflappable driver, who with preternatural reflexes plunges us into the swirling traffic. And, especially, we are blessed with our interpreter and mentor, “Hakim” – the Singaporean physician who for years has worked among Afghan refugees and the rural youth of Bamiyan province.

Together with our driver and Hakim and often with some of those youth, we visit a primary school, a hospital, an orphanage, and a displaced persons camp. We sit down with filmmakers, journalists, editors, social entrepreneurs, and with the staff of various NGOs — internationals, Afghan-Americans, Afghans young and old, Afghans high and low. Between Hakim and delegation coordinator Mary Dean, both working their cell phones, we somehow manage to have two, three, sometimes an exhausting four, hastily arranged but often extended encounters a day, day after day.

Whether guarded or candid, perplexing or illuminating, depressing or inspiring, each provides a piece (a figment?) of the puzzle. We glimpse complexities and contradictions – and tragedies — perhaps beyond our sheltered imaginations.

Ed Kinane is an activist with Voices for Creative Nonviolence.