“President Obama plans to send 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan…”
Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan has been the hottest news for the last three days. Everytime I watch the news on TV, the above quote has always been the headline news of the day.
Speaking about Afghanistan… It reminds me to my experience living in Kabul back in 2003-2004.
I never thought that I would spend one year of my life in Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous countries in the world where bombs and rockets are exploded almost everyday with additional experience – being robbed in the first month of my stay. I went to Afghanistan to work with United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). When I received an appointment letter I was a little bit shocked because I never thought that I would be sent to Afghanistan. I still remember the first time I set my foot at Kabul airport on October 20, 2003. My first impression about Kabul city was ruined and cold. It was the first time in my life I could really feel how to be in the war zone area; from the airport on the way to town I saw so many buildings were collapse and ruined because of bombs and rockets explosions. Kabul is the largest city in Afghanistan with approximately three millions of population. It used to be very modern and popular as economic and cultural centre. Unfortunately the war which began in October 2001 between U.S. military operation and al-Qaeda, an Islamic extremist which is led by Osama bin Laden torn the city apart and left it ruined and wasted. After two years of war, people were trying to do their activities in town like normal but I could feel that they were still filed with fear and anxious. I could see people were walking on the street with eyes looking down it seemed they were afraid to look at the strangers and very reserved. Most women were still wearing burqa: it’s long blue veil to cover their face and body. This made Kabul seemed very cold and unwelcome. This impression was confirmed after I was being robbed at the Chinese restaurant three weeks later.
In the first two weeks I was put into a guest house in the middle of town. I recall the guest house was very modest such as the building was very old and the furniture was incomplete. I had to pay USD$35 per-night including breakfast and dinner but still I considered it was a little bit expensive. On the third week I decided to move out and rent a house together with five of my colleagues, three females and two males. It was nearly a week after my housemates & I moved into the new house when the robbery happened. It was seven o’clock in the evening when we, the female residents, came home and the electricity was off. We just moved into that house so we still tried to organize our house such as to bring in some furniture and to have proper kitchenette therefore we were unable to cook for our dinner. “Let’s have dinner in the nearest restaurant, I saw there is a Chinese restaurant just a cross the road,” my housemate, CS, suggested. Somehow we all just agreed with her idea without giving a second thought whether this restaurant was security cleared by the UN security. At that time security situation in Kabul was unpredictable and unsafe therefore we must not go to any restaurant which was not security cleared by the UN and there were only six restaurants allowed to be visited by UN staff. These six restaurants were cleared because they were within safe zone area; near UN office, so if something happened it is easy for security to evacuate us. We knew that this restaurant was not cleared by the UN security and we were also aware that this wasn’t a good idea but because we were very hungry so we thought that a quick dinner across the street would be fine. As soon as we came to the restaurant we ordered a big bowl of hot sour chicken soup as appetizer before we went for our main course. The restaurant seemed nice and quiet with Chinese decoration style such as a golden dragon was placed on top of the gate, a panda and bamboo painting and red lanterns were hung on the wall. The Chinese waitresses were also very friendly even though they could hardly speak English. They came to our table with big smile and tried to communicate with us as best as they could like they gave us the menu list and pointed out some numbers which I understood straight away that they wanted us to order the food by pointing out the menu numbers. Besides us I saw some Indian gentleman who also had dinner on the table next to ours.
When we were almost finished our soup we were shocked by screaming and yelling from outside restaurant. Suddenly there were eight Afghan gunmen came into the restaurant, they covered their faces with scarf but I noticed from their language they used which was Dari, a daily language which is used by locals. For a second I couldn’t believe what I just saw, “We are being robbed!” that was I whispered. I’m not that good in distinguishing any type of gun so what I can say is these robbers had long armed guns, one of my housemates said that it was AK-47. They wore light green military uniforms but I wasn’t sure whether they were really military. I was frozen like ice cube, I could not move myself. I was trying to make myself believe that this was just a bad dream but it was not… It was real! We were all pushed into the kitchen and one of the robbers yelled at us, “Dollar, dollar, dollar!!!” He took all of our money, I still remember I had USD$10 in my pocket and I took it out straight away and handed it to the robbers but my housemates got robbed USD$100, USD$150 and USD$900 each! The robbers also asked for our mobile phones but this time I didn’t surrender mine. I put my mobile phone into my inside pocket of my jacket and I insisted not to give it up voluntarily. Luckily none of the robbers touched me so they didn’t know that I had one. At that time my phone was on and I really wished no one called because it would have been disaster for me if it rang!
The robbers forced us to sit on the floor to watch them beating and looting the Indian gentleman. I was terrified to witness the Indian gentleman being beaten brutally. From the appearance I assumed that this Indian was a rich businessman: he had a lot of money in his wallet and he wore Rolex watch, big gold necklace and bracelet. The robbers just didn’t waste their time they took everything from the Indian, his money, watch, necklace, bracelet and mobile phone. Basically this Indian gentleman was left with nothing but wounded and injured especially his head. I held my breath when I saw one of the robbers hit the Indian’s forehead with his gun over and over. “Oh God, I just came to Afghanistan and I don’t want to die like this,” that was the only thought in my mind. I didn’t even dare to look at the robbers directly and all of us were silent not any single word came out from our mouths. Some of the robbers went to the restaurant bar and took all liquors, wines and beers. They also grabbed all the money in the cashier. Finally after they got everything they wanted, they locked us up in the kitchen, threw the key away and left. We didn’t make any single move or sound until we heard nothing outside. As soon as we were sure that the robbers already went away we broke the door and four of us ran away back to our house. I was in the deep shocked and so were my housemates. We thought that we were going to die there or at least shot or injured. “It was like an action movie but this one was real!,” that was my housemate, MA, recalled. I felt like just waking up from a nightmare. My other housemate, IV, couldn’t make any comment because she was the one who was robbed USD$900 and we couldn’t get our lost to be reimbursed by the insurance because that Chinese restaurant was not cleared by the UN security.
Indeed we were unfortunate: we came to the wrong place at the wrong time; we came to the restaurant which was not on the UN safe list which we should have been aware that we were not allowed to go there because anything bad could happen at anytime in Kabul. But this taught me something meaningful which I have valued it since. I learned how to appreciate life more especially if we are living in a tough country like Afghanistan: our lives are put at risk everyday. Today I’m alive but tomorrow I might die because of bomb, rocket or gun shot. Today the town where I live is peaceful but tomorrow there may be a fight between government soldiers and rebels. Maybe I’m just having dinner at home instead of restaurant but suddenly there is a rocket shot and blown my house. I have become wiser to live my life and I have also become more careful and precautions on surroundings. I never know when I’m going to die but when the time comes at least I know that I don’t waste my life for nothing like ignoring the security advisory and going to the place where I shouldn’t go.