Shattered Idyll in Kabul
Text: Amie Ferris-Rotman
KABUL Jan 24, 2014
Photo: Michael Foley Photography (Flickr)
Last July, as I prepared to leave Kabul after a two-year stint as a journalist for Reuters, I visited La Taverna du Liban, a small Lebanese restaurant a few blocks from where I lived and worked.
There was no electricity that day, and the waiter shrugged politely when I mentioned it. I wasn't a regular at Taverna--this was my third visit--but I frequently ordered its takeout. I was saying goodbye to three Afghan friends, and we ate falafel and homemade
hummus, served with warm bread and mint lemonade.
We sat in semi-darkness, chatting about their futures. One of them, a woman in her mid-twenties, is university-educated, speaks impressive, self-taught English and has an unwavering devotion to Che Guevara. She grew flustered when I asked her why she resists the temptation to seek a new life abroad, as some of her relatives have done. "How can Afghanistan get better if there are no good Afghans living here?" was her
Her words, already poignant, are now amplified.
The Taverna was brazenly attacked by the Taliban last Friday, killing 21 people. It was the deadliest attack on foreign civilians since the U.S.-led war started in late 2001. Thirteen of the dead were non-military foreigners, including three Americans; eight were Afghan, including a newly wed couple. A suicide bomber blew himself up by Taverna's gate,
killing the restaurant's guards. Two more insurgents then barged in and massacred diners in a spray of bullets. As BBC journalist Bilal Sarwary wrote on Twitter that night, "Kabul is bleeding. So is my heart. Attack was too close to home."
The Taliban swiftly claimed responsibility for the attack, which targeted a place with "liquor in the plenty," but later changed its tune, saying the killing spree was payback for a deadly NATO airstrike on Afghan civilians.
The names of the dead foreigners read like an invite list to any of the get-togethers or parties regularly held in Kabul and attended by members of the international community. They included a senior U.N. official from Russia who focused on peace talks with the Taliban, a Lebanese citizen and local head of the International Monetary Fund, a 27-year-old American woman who had come to teach Afghan girls, a Pakistani citizen from UNICEF. All the foreigners were in the country to help the Afghan people. An
outpouring of grief soon followed for the slain Lebanese owner of the restaurant, Kamal Hamade, who was much-loved for his kindness and commitment to a country growing more dangerous by the day. There was even some online commotion about the whereabouts of his dog.
Unlike other attacks in Kabul--and there were many during my time there, but we could usually bounce back--the Taverna aftershocks are still reverberating a week later. Restaurants normally abuzz with
affluent Afghans and expats say they are suffering from almost no trade. American journalist Courtney Body tweetedon Thursday, "Had lunch at another empty Kabul restaurant undergoing major security fortifications." A popular French restaurant sent out an email canceling its fashion show on Friday "due to security issues." My friends at global organizations in Kabul tell me they are having sweeping security reassessments. Some are still on "lockdown," when all but essential movement
As expats in Kabul, we often wondered why the Taliban generally left soft targets alone. The thinking on the ground at the time, by both U.S. and Afghan officials, was that the Taliban need the non-military, foreign community for "later." If the group is to regain any power, it needs the international community's support, aid money and press coverage.
We all knew, of course, that Kabul
was a dangerous place. Most foreigners live in barricaded compounds; others make sure to have at least barbed wire and a guard. But we would hop about merrily at night, visiting friends and attending parties. Friday, the holiest day of the week, is a holiday in Afghanistan, and most foreigners enjoy a day off. Much-anticipated Thursday nights are a frenzy of movement at restaurants, embassy bars and guesthouses, which brim over with diplomats, NGO workers and journalists. The black market for alcohol thrives,
surreptitiously making its way into the white teacups of restaurants, but also openly poured.
It is a strange world where adrenaline, nerves and excitement swirl about. Friendships are formed quickly, providing much-needed mirth in an environment punctuated by stress and cabin fever. Escapism can turn into hedonism, and from time to time, we danced until the first call to prayer.
Friday nights, too, would
sometimes be cause for gathering, like Sunday in the Western week. Winding down the short break was what the diners in Taverna had most likely planned on doing.
Occasionally, our idyll would shatter with a shocking blow from reality--for instance, in November 2012, when a French aid worker and amateur photographer was kidnapped, plucked off the street where friends of mine live. He was new to Kabul, and many of us met him at a pizza party a week earlier (he later escaped).
Another wake-up call came a few months later, in April, when U.S. diplomat Anne Smedinghoff was killed by a suicide bomber while delivering books to a school. The 25-year-old was well known to journalists.
But we moved on.
The attack on Taverna, however, feels different, because almost every foreigner in Kabul knew someone who was killed. This was an attack that struck at the very heart of the expat community.
Without the parties, the restaurants--those small and compressed outlets of joy, relief and, at times, chaotic excitement, living and working in Kabul would undeniably become so much harder.
The Taverna attack's message is loud and clear: The party is over. Get out.
Article originally published by Politico. To view original click here.
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Amie Ferris-Rotman © 2015