The Explosive Black Toyota
Sunday, 8 June 2003
My colleague’s husband spoke to her from the hospital today, as she was not allowed to go there on account of intense security. The phone call was a great relief because on Friday we had heard he was in a coma and although I tried to push the thought away from my mind, it was worrying all of us at the office greatly. A visit has been promised for tomorrow, Monday, but we don’t know when he will be released.
I can now tell you that the young man was one of four occupants in a car that is said to have careered off the road about 30 kilometres east of Kabul, tumbled around several times and landed on its roof in a ravine. He was either thrown out of the car during the accident or opened the door and jumped out – I still don’t know the full details. He then got up, walked to the side of the road, got into another car and went to the hospital. One of the passengers had minor injuries. The driver and the other passenger seem to have survived unscathed.
At the hospital, my friend was still able to walk and talk to the medical staff, telling them to try his right arm after they fiddled around with his left arm without being able to find a vein for an injection. Afterwards, he was reported unconscious, with one doctor saying he was a in a coma. Late in the afternoon on Friday, though, his wife and his father visited him in the ICU and he responded to their words by opening and closing his eyes. Still, we were worried about his condition until this afternoon and are now hoping for his speedy recovery.
Meanwhile, another young Afghan who had been wounded in yesterday’s attack died in the same hospital today. He had only been able to identify himself by his first name – many people in Afghanistan are not used to the idea of a surname and will say it only after repeated questions. It might, therefore, be a while before it is known who this unfortunate young man was.
An undervalued identity is part of an undervalued life. I heard this sad anecdote in the Bush House Newsroom that in news value terms, the death of one Briton is equal to, say, five west Europeans, ten Russians, 50 Chinese and 100 Indians – something along those lines. I keep telling my journalist colleagues here that to make sure that Afghan lives do not continue to be as undervalued as they have been, they need to get as much personal information about their interviewees or the subjects of their reports – especially victims of violence – so they are registered as individuals, not as numbers.
Almost exactly two years ago, I had the same discussion with a Palestinian colleague reporting for the BBC from Palestine. I kept asking for the names of the people who were getting killed by the Israelis. To my friend, who would say it was difficult to get such details, I quoted the Jewish saying that, I think, developed after the Holocaust: ‘Every person has a name and every name belongs to a person.’ [This is in fact the first part of a poem by the Israeli poet, Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky (1914- 1984): Each person has a name / given to him by God / and given to him by his father and mother.]
One of the few things that has made me happy while I’ve been following the Palestinian people’s suffering is the fact that nowadays almost all victims of Israeli violence are identified with name and age and the names of places where lived and worked. By their systematic campaign to destroy the Palestinians society, the Israelis have in fact not only strengthened the concept of a Palestinian nation, but also that of the individual Palestinian.
We’re still some way from that in Afghanistan, as far as individuality is concerned, but at least the country’s regional diversity is becoming better known not only to the outside world, but also to many Afghans themselves. For the first time in many decades, Afghanistan is without a central government with the potential to mould all communities into one model, or suppressing the expression of a multi-ethnic mosaic.
With a central government whose rule is limited to parts of Kabul, all sections of the population have an opportunity to be culturally, socially and politically active. The local governors – some of them former ‘Mojahedin’, now called ‘warlords’ or ‘gun-lords’ – who have considerable power may either believe in this diversity or find it in their interests to be seen as its defenders.
Either way, there is now much more talk of the various provinces and ethnic and linguistic groups than there had been in the past. Given security and peace for - as [the former British Prime Minister, John] Major might have said - a ‘not inconsiderable period of time’, we may also see the development of the concept of individual identity and rights, and people might then find it easier to give their surnames to those they meet.
Whether this will happen and how long it might take depends on some global factors, first and foremost how the United States pursues its quest for energy. Internally, the formation and consolidation of ‘civil society’ would depend, among other things, on the balance of forces between Afghanistan’s central and local governments.
Last night, at the almost-all-male-but-pro-female cultural centre, I ran into an Afghan friend who many weeks ago had told me of his unhappiness with the present administration and its top layer of people back from the West, mostly the US. These people, he said, were so incompetent that abroad they had only found work as peshak-shour, or ‘cat-washer’, the Afghan concept for the lowest possible occupation, lower even than undertaking.
‘Do you know what our people’s problem is now?’ he asked me last night. ‘They are stuck between two lots of undesirables: tofang-saalaaraan (gun-lords) on the one side, and peshak-saalaaraan (cat-lords) on the other. God knows when we’ll be rid of both.’ Perhaps he underestimates the skill and tough skin that are needed for washing cats.
Monday, 9 June 2003
The couple of days since the attack on the German soldiers have been tense, with most people on the edge, and arguments developing in places where ordinary conversation would have been adequate. No doubt this has to do with violence moving in from outlying provinces to Kabul itself. When our Afghan friends are quiet, they could be thinking of and planning for the trauma of another round of exile.
Today, there were armed Afghan soldiers on a couple of intersections and at the top of our road. But the poor young men look so under-nourished, ill-equipped, un-prepared and unmotivated that they could not be expected to offer much resistance to anyone determined to blow something or someone up, the attacker himself included. In fact, considering past experience, and the current appeals by the anti-government forces for soldiers and the police to join them, it is quite possible that at the crucial moment, some of the presumed protectors would side with the attackers.
Still, there is also good news. My colleague’s husband is due to be released from hospital in a few days – but he has to stay at home for two months until a fracture on his spine and a crack on his head have healed, and severe bruising on his legs has gone away. In the morning, the ISAF hospital that had been crowded with the German casualties, and my colleague’s husband had been told he had to go to another hospital for two months.
Scared of the limited facilities here, the young man’s family had contemplated, with great concern, airlifting him to Dubai or Islamabad. They then learned that because the German casualties had been transferred to Germany, there was less pressure on the hospital and he could have access to their treatment facilities, while staying at home.
There is also more information on the other two occupants of the car: one young man had a broken arm and some bruises, but the driver did not suffer any injuries. All four young men work in the same office, so their manager is now in a very tight spot.
Friday’s car accident is one of the very few I’ve read or heard about. I’ve only seen two since I came to Kabul. When I remarked on this a couple of days ago, I was asked by another ‘international’ colleague if anybody gets killed in car accidents in Kabul. I said I had not seen any, whereas I had seen people hurt in car accidents in Iran. While we were wondering why this was the case, our driver, Jameel, offered the simple explanation: cars here move very slowly, not only because they are very old, but also because there are so many potholes on the roads. A very good argument for not proceeding with the promised road improvement schemes.
On the constitutional front, there is now talk of the draft constitution, along with the people’s views, being published at least one month before the document is to be debated and voted on by the national grand assembly, the Loya Jirga, in October. The good news was brought by one of the women journalists with whom we have been working. Without the people being involved, she said, the government might just as well have picked any of the half dozen constitutions that were drawn up in the past, rather than spend millions of dollars on preparing a new one.
Tuesday, 10 June 2003
Following the deadly attack on the German soldiers, we have now been warned that a black Toyota Corolla, laden with explosives, has left the city of Khost, in the Pashtun heartland, right at the tip of the border with Pakistan, on its way to do something nasty to foreigners in Kabul. Even if it’s driven only at night, in the first gear, by now it should be very close.
We have been told to look out for the car, with two Pashtun occupants wearing white round hats – as worn by hundreds of thousands of men in Afghanistan. The fact that these men might change cars, let alone hats, somewhat diminishes the effectiveness of our watchful eyes. We heard about this vehicle first a few days ago, though I cannot recall where exactly it was meant to be then. Perhaps it has been circling the country.
Another security measure has been to ban cars from being parked within 25 metres of any UN compound. Since anyone planning a rocket or mortar attack would now have to increase the range of his weapon – the attacker is very unlikely to be a woman – this could be seen as an indirect incentive for the development of Afghanistan’s indigenous arms industry.
Wednesday, 11 June 2003
Rapidly changing weather, and perhaps stuff in food, water and/or air, have been claiming serial victims. I am the third person in the house to be affected. Since last night, my body has been aching all over, but I have not had a cough, sneeze, fever or anything like that.
I did not have lunch and had a very light supper before coming to my room to rest and gain the strength to write these words. At first I wanted to avoid writing about my health, lest you get worried. But hard as I tried I realised I could not write about anything else.
Although I did go to work, write a few pages, teach for two hours, organise a TV interview for two of our colleagues and do a few other odds and ends, my mind failed to register much by way of other interesting daily details that I could share with you. So here you are with a ‘sick note’.
Thursday, 12 June 2003
This has been a day filled with memorable sounds, most of which I heard in the early hours of the morning, lying in bed. During the day at the office, my muscles were in better shape than yesterday and I could concentrate on work. But once again, the mental ability to record fine details escaped me. I should be back in form tomorrow.
Having slept early last evening, I woke up at 3:15 in the morning to the sound of a muezzin at our local mosque calling the faithful to prayers. The poor man had a poor muffled voice and also coughed or cleared his throat a couple of times. I have seen no more than ten people – most of them very old - in that mosque during the day and wonder if their numbers are increased, at dawn, by the type of call that woke me up today.
No sooner had my friend started than he was joined by another, more melodious, colleague of his from a mosque slightly further away. Only if they could swap places, or have an intercom so the one with the better throat could do the job for both mosques. Our local muezzin reminded me of Sa’di’s tale of a man who was reciting the Qor’an ‘with the ugliest sound’. ‘What are you doing?’ asks a passer-by. ‘I’m reciting the Qor’an for God’s sake’, replies the man. ‘For God’s sake,’ says the passer-by, ‘don’t’.
By around 3:30, I heard a sound which, in my slightly delirious condition, appeared to belong to seagulls. The joyous image of finding myself at the seaside quickly disappeared when I realised that the music was actually being produced by a donkey. The dawn chorus become more complex by 4am when sparrows started going to work, or whatever you call their going out to get food for their chicks.
Between 4 and 4:30, Radio Azadi, the Afghanistan-directed branch of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, was running a youth programme, including a long interview with the publishers of a film magazine, Honar-e Haftom (The Seventh Art), and a report on the harmful effects of smoking. It was most intriguing, because it is difficult to imagine that large numbers of young people would rise so early in the morning to listen to such worthy material.
One interviewee in the anti-smoking segment was a man who said he was himself a smoker and wanted to warn other people against ‘this filthy habit’. One result of smoking, he said, was his inability to speak for any length of time without coughing. He was either exaggerating or any coughs he may have made during his eloquent oration had been edited out. Either way, his testimony cannot have been a real deterrent for those interested in the ‘filthy habit’, most of whom must have been deep asleep anyway.
At around 5am, a truck zipped through our area, horns blowing, just as some Moussa-koo-Taqis started their shift. By 6 o’clock a military plane was flying by, a reminder of the reality on the ground in Afghanistan today: daily deaths in the Pakistani border area and up in the North of Afghanistan, as well as increasing attacks on the international military presence in and around Kabul.
On our way to the office at 0730, Hamed's tape machine was playing the saddest Afghan song I had ever heard. When I remarked that the singer sounded as if he really had a broken heart, Hamed explained that this was a remake by Ostad Sarahang, or Master Maestro, of a sixty-year old song, originally sung by a female artist, grieving over the disappearance of her 14 year old daughter, Nessa. The story sounds credible, because the sorrow in this song was personal, rather than romantic.
Back at the guest house, 12 hours later, the very popular Radio Arman, or ‘ideal’, was playing a sensuous Hindi song with the female artist producing evocative sounds that made the knowledge of the language redundant. The radio’s young presenters speak in colloquial Kabuli dialect and crack jokes, sometimes at the expense of their audience or callers to the station - similar to local radio in Britain.
Since this is not London, what may be said safely in private could provoke a strong reaction if repeated in public. A few weeks into its launch, the station is being criticised by some newspapers for ‘insulting Afghanistan’s people and culture and debasing the Persian language’.
So far, there has been no comment from clerical leaders. Perhaps they are too busy calling people to the prayers to listen to pop music on Radio Arman.
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