My initial, very first impressions:
One, what has been most striking about Afghanistan is the terrain. Our flight took us over rugged, stunning snow-capped mountains. At first they started as a sheet of white-not that distinguishable from clouds. As we drew nearer to Kabul, etchings started to emerge out the white sheet, and then shapes and patterns sometimes taking the form of scribbles. At once I was reminded me of Cy Twombley’s art work–of his infantile scribblings, which I have never much appreciated in the Houston-based Menil Collection. But these natural scribblings and patterns in the snow were remarkable. I wonder if Cy Twombley
ever gazed over snow capped mountains from 30,000 feet above ground? Suddenly I found myself with a newfound
appreciation of some of his infantile works. As we drew nearer to Kabul, dips, scoops and depth began to emerge and grow, and gradually we came upon large mountains as we descended.
Kabul is a valley surrounded on either side of its boundaries by these tall wondrous mountains covered in snow. The Kabul airport, with one main airstrip
(so far as I could tell), is also tucked in between two mountains making for a memorable landing experience. Left with the reality of the terrain, it is quite amazing to me that people live here.
My first thoughts were, wow, and this is where the the US and NATO have been leading their efforts to curb
the Muhjahadeen, and just how many hiding places there must be for them in this country.
A second impression–I’ve never been in a place so barricaded before. Granted, this is my first time in a conflict zone, but I believe there is a line of security for the main security guards at my residence. While I was in Liberia in December—which we in the development community now be lump into the post- conflict category—there is no comparison. From the number of police at the airport, to the unmarked, armored vehicle that picked us up and the barricades, barbed wire, concrete, and M-16s that guard our office buildings–the reality that conflict might erupt anywhere, and you always feel on high alert.
Third–poverty–not unlike any other low-income South Asian experience, there are beggars, poor children, and people suffering in need. Despite the extreme cold, many wear thin layers alongside the street all day. Some are quite entrepreneurial selling phone recharge cards, changing money, or selling other materials. Even our driver offered to have his friend come to bring carpets for us to buy if interested. There is no shortage of entrepreneurial spirit, but it is not harnessed in noticeably collective ways.
I have not had too many interactions with Afghans yet–only some exchanges with security guards, a few men inside the “Finest” supermarket where I stopped to buy (elaichi and tea for chai), and drivers. So far everyone has been charming, with a quiet disposition and genuine curiousity.
That said, my interactions in the airport, and watching body language in response to my presence–from outsiders waiting in traffic for instance, have also indicated that I am not that welcome here.
Do I feel safe? I would say on the whole, yes. Risks of walking into conflict are greatly minimized. At the same time, it is easy to sense the deep mistrust between Afghans and the international community. No where was this more obvious than in my morning security briefing than when the head of the security team referred to Afghans as “magpies” in warning us not to put our bags down anywhere, because “they’re just waiting and will steal everything.” Puke.