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Flying home with ‘insurgents’ on the back seat
I have just returned from Afghanistan, my first trip back to my homeland in three years. When I boarded the plane in Dubai last week, I was more than a little apprehensive about the changes I would see. When I left at the end of 2005, suicide bombings were still unusual and there was a sense of hope that the just-elected parliament would put the country on the path towards security and prosperity.
As I mulled over these thoughts, the plane landed in Kandahar for a brief stopover before heading to Kabul, its final destination. I thought it would take me days to get under the skin of the latest developments, but my introduction to the new Afghanistan was jarring and unexpected. The first passengers to embark were four Afghan men, wearing shalwar kameez, the traditional baggy trousers and shirt, and rather oddly, they appeared to be holding hands.
Then a Canadian man came and sat next to me, looking tense but excited. “They just brought four insurgents onto the plane,” he whispered. “Those are the guys handcuffed in the back.” I craned my neck to have a better look. The men had dark hair and light skin and sat very still. One of them was missing an eye. Of course … they weren’t holding hands but were handcuffed together. My fellow passenger – who, it turned out, worked for the Canadian army – said that a Canadian soldier had been killed and Kandahar was in lockdown, with no foreigners being allowed to leave their high-security compounds. It wasn’t clear if the four at the back of the plane were connected to the soldier’s death, but they were being flown to the capital to be interrogated by the Afghan intelligence agency. I hoped that they had been carefully searched. Suicide bombings happen all the time in Kandahar and these four didn’t have anything to lose.
No one else on the flight was aware of what was happening. In the seat ahead of me a baby cried on its mother’s lap. When I looked back again, I noticed another man who appeared to be a Westerner sitting in between the arrested men. The Canadian next to me read my quizzical expression. “He’s an Australian journalist visiting Kandahar,” he said with a grin. “We thought it would be fun to put him there.” It was good to see people’s black humour remained intact during tough times.
Hitting military targets may be the goal of war but anyone who believes this insurgency is a noble struggle against a foreign occupation should consider the following story related to me by a Canadian source. The Canadian army captured a would-be suicide bomber in Khost, which is a Pashtun province in southern Afghanistan battered by the insurgency. The Talib was in a car loaded with explosives, and soldiers caught him before he detonated the bomb. But this fighter was no battle-hardened veteran of the Soviet jihad. He was a 14-year-old orphan from a madrasa in Miran Shah, Pakistan.
When he was caught, he cried and said that he had wanted to see his dead mother because he missed her so much. The mullah at his madrasa had assured him that if he drove the car into the market he would see his mother. He did not know what a suicide bomb was. What is almost as heartbreaking is that he had never driven a car before until the madrasa taught him how to do so in preparation for the trip “to see” his mother.
While the south and east slide back into chaos, in Kabul, attaching the word “Dubai” to anything gives it a stamp of all that is modern and cool – whether it is relevant to the product or not. Many Afghans are in awe of the emirate. There is the Kabul Dubai Mandavi market and the Kabul Dubai Wedding Hall, complete with flashing lights and glass windows. The hall was packed most nights I drove past it.
There is even a song dedicated to Dubai and played often on the radio stations. Could this be a chance for UAE businessmen to invest commercially more in Afghanistan, a fellow Muslim nation that needs their help? Certainly the signs from the Afghans are positive. The Afghans are also good at making the best of a bad situation. The restaurants in Kabul are struggling to attract patrons because expatriates, most of whom are flush with money, are rarely allowed to leave their residences. When a bomb is set off in the capital, foreigners end up staying at home for days or even weeks until the situation calms down.
A young Afghan who grew up in Germany saw a great business opportunity in this. He started up Easy Food, which will deliver food to your door from a selection of 10 restaurants. You ring the Easy Food operator and place an order from your favourite restaurant. The company sends out its drivers to pick up the dishes, thus eliminating the risk – for the diner – of venturing out to satiate that curry craving.
The Easy Food brochure’s introduction begins with a great sense of understatement: “With the constant ups and downs of the security situation in Afghanistan, it makes it difficult to maintain a healthy balance of work and down time …”