Personal Journey Through War-Torn Afghanistan: A First-Hand Account of Life in Kabul
In his blog post, Andy McGinlay shares his personal journey and experience in Afghanistan, a country synonymous with war, poverty, and corruption. Starting with his visa process in Kuala Lumpur, where he was extorted by an Afghan consular official, he continues to recount the chaos at Hamid Karzai International airport, and the anxiety of waiting outside with no communication. However, he finds solace in the unlikeliest of places, the Iraqi embassy, where he stays for the night. Throughout his time in Kabul, he meets his guide, Akbar, and experiences the dangers that come with being a foreigner in the city. Andy takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery and highlights the reality of life in Afghanistan and its ongoing struggles. Here is the part-1:
For a year or so I’d been watching their gruesome beheading videos online with morbid curiosity, these poor souls caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have been me. Having spent time in Syria and Iraq just prior to their black-flagged, bloody colonisers bulldozed in, I often wondered if Afghanistan would be next. Then on an overcast April morning outside a busy bank in Jalalabad, a suicide bomber detonated killing 35.
IS had officially arrived. Three days later I was in Kabul.
Afghanistan is synonymous with so much that’s wrong with the world: war, women’s rights (or lack of), poverty, opium production and severe corruption. The list plumbs a veritable depth of despair. My first contact with the country began at its Kuala Lumpur embassy in a stale old room furnished with two worn-out leather sofas and a decaying, smoke-stained picture of some Hindu-Kush river that timidly suggested: Visit Afghanistan.
I had all the correct paperwork for my visa but within two minutes of entering the room, a moustached Afghan consular official was shaking me down for a $50 bribe on top of the normal $50 fee. The poppy seed doesn’t fall far from the flower.
“Where is your government letter of approval? You cannot get the visa without this,” he said, scratching his stubbly chin with yellowed fingers.
“I phoned this office three times to check, double and triple check the documents you wanted, why didn’t you tell me this before?” We both knew what was happening, we just didn’t call it what it was: a big, fat, stinking bribe.
“There must be something we can do, sir, please.”
He disappeared into a back-office and returned saying it had magically been approved, just as soon as I pay the new fee – $100.
Traversing Hamid Karzai International airport was chaos. Note the usual suspects: long lines at immigration, needless officialdom, well connected queue-jumpers, crying babies and broken air conditioning. Once through I had been promised to find a man standing in the throng of families waiting outside with my name on a card – this was very important for my peace-of-mind and security. Of course, he wasn’t there.
There was no Wi-Fi or pay-phone outside and my SIM card refused to work. To add to the tension, all the reassuring white faces from the flight had disappeared with their security details. Even the Afghans had gone, leaving me alone outside the airport, lost and incommunicado.
The late afternoon sun was warm, and under pressure, burdened with baggage and escalating mild panic, one tends to sweat a little. Out of the blue I saw a face I recognised coming towards me from the car-park, but how could this be? I didn’t know anybody here. It was the BBC’s man in Kabul, Shazed Jillani, whom I’d seen on TV reporting the Jalalabad bombing just days ago, catching a flight upcountry.
“What agency do you work for?” he asked.
When I told him I was just a tourist his jaw nearly hit the asphalt. “Well, good luck, and stay safe!”
After an anxious hour of brow-wiping and fruitless waiting, I entered the Emirates Cargo office in the waiting hall and explained myself to two bemused employees whilst offering some nice Belgian chocolates I’d gotten off the flight. It worked. One lent me his mobile to call my guide and within 30 minutes, vamoose! I was in a white Chinese sedan racing through the dusty car-choked streets of Kabul.
Choosing a safe place to sleep in Kabul can be tricky. The many guesthouses that accommodate peacekeepers and NGOs have been attacked with almost as much frequency as top-end hotels. The Taliban typically hit soft targets with suicide bombers first, followed by a marauding gun attack in which foreigners are invariably the target. So I was oddly relieved to learn I’d be staying in a room in the Iraqi embassy compound of all places – surely pretty far down the terrorists’ list.
My young guide was a short, softly spoken 24-year-old Hazara man called Akbar. He wore a khaki jacket with a blue scarf and army-green trousers. He shaved his beard and didn’t wear the local pakol, the pushtun cap many Afghan men wear, so his thick black hair and boyish smile gave him a kind of pop-star look.
“There are many bad guys here, mostly Taliban and sometimes they attack cars like ours,” he volunteered as we left the sanctuary of the compound for the erratic, slow moving afternoon traffic. “A foreigner was stabbed sitting in the backseat of a car, much like you are now. He died later. And another person working for the New York Times was stabbed in the head. He died too. This was all Taliban.”
“Are there Taliban guys in Kabul?” I asked, peering sheepishly out the window at a sea of unfamiliar eyes and beards.
“Of course, they are everywhere, at all levels. You can see them outside now, they have long beards, usually. I get harassed because of my job, they even threatened to kill me.”
“Because of the foreigners. My job is to guide foreigners and show them my culture, my country, but the Taliban don’t want you here. They are very bad for business. They even threatened my brother. But I like my job and I think it’s important that foreigners come and try to understand that not all Afghans are Taliban. We have many more good people that you don’t see on the news.” I felt terrified, humbled and impressed all at once.
Our white sedan crawled along medieval-looking streets, past raw sewerage, open-air fruit and vegetable stalls, skinned and hanging animal carcasses, headless chickens; their blood collected in stagnant pools along the pot-holed road.
“You can’t walk the streets here, it’s too dangerous,” Akbar said.
“What about expats, don’t you see them out and about?”
“No, not walking around. It’s not safe. But at nighttime they like to hang out in restaurants or in private garden parties.” In 2014, a popular Lebanese restaurant was bombed, then Taliban gunmen attacked, killing 21, mostly foreigners. We drove past what remains of Taverna Du Liban in the up-market Wazir Akbar Khan area of Kabul, now just an empty villa. It’s impossible not to imagine the events of that night, just as it is for tourists at ground zero in New York not to look up in the air and envisage people jumping from towers.
In conclusion, Andy’s journey to Afghanistan was filled with both excitement and fear, as he encountered various obstacles and challenges that tested his resilience. From the consular official who tried to bribe him, to the missing man who was supposed to pick him up at the airport, to the dangers of staying in a safe place in Kabul, Andy’s trip was far from a walk in the park. However, through it all, he had the support of his guide, Akbar, who shared with him the reality of life in Afghanistan and the dangers that come with it.
Despite these challenges, Andy’s adventure in Afghanistan was an eye-opening experience that provided valuable insights into the country’s history, culture, and current situation. He encountered friendly and hospitable people, who showed him the beauty of their country despite the difficult circumstances they face every day.
This story is only the beginning of , the COO of Holiday Swap, Andy‘s journey to Afghanistan, and it will be continued in part-2, where he will delve deeper into the country’s problems and share more of his experiences with us. Stay tuned!