It is an area I know well. During my three years here, I have driven there hundreds of times, on my way to see friends, attend briefings at the palace or pick up groceries. It is referred to as the diplomatic quarter due to the many foreign embassies here. But outside the towering blast walls protecting diplomats, it is also one of Kabul’s busiest areas. Amid a cacophony of horns and cars defying road rules, throngs of pint-sized schoolgirls weave through traffic holding hands. Mobile card sellers hawk their wares for a few bucks alongside disabled beggars on crutches.
By the time I arrived at the site where a gigantic truck bomb had gone off – we would later learn it killed 150 people – it was cordoned off. Outside a nearby hospital, hundreds of crying women and men were banging their fists against the gates, desperate for news of their loved ones.
There was an awkward exchange of looks when a truck full of orange-clad street cleaners passed by. They were tasked with possibly the dirtiest job in town: to sweep away the blood and torn limbs of the same loved ones.
By afternoon, the streets were clean of broken glass and mangled metal. Bakeries were handing out steaming hot bread for the break of fast and barbers were polishing newly replaced windows. Just after sunset, four trucks arrived with gravel to fill up the crater.
Foreigners often marvel at the “resilience” of Afghans. This resilience should not be mistaken for apathy. Life goes on, not because Afghans don’t grieve their daughters and sons as deeply as people less exposed to violence, but because war is so pervasive, and there is no alternative in sight.
The bombing stunned an already fearful city, but the bloodshed continued. The following Friday, police fired at anti-government protesters, killing nine and sending the capital deeper into mourning. And it got worse. Next day, at a funeral for a protester, three suicide bombers killed up to 20 mourners.
After three years here, the city feels like home to me. But last week’s violence was an almost embarrassingly clear reminder that Kabul is not my city. I can up and leave any time. And at some point I will. Most Afghans don’t have that luxury of choice.
As if to spell out that fact, on Tuesday, as fighter jets traversed the sky and containers blocked the roads in preparation for an international peace conference, a plane returning 30 asylum seekers deported from Sweden, Norway and Turkey touched down in Kabul airport.
Last week’s bombing was the fourth attack in Kabul in less than two years to kill more than 50 people. With foreigners cloistered behind security barriers, and western troops withdrawn from the battlefield, insurgent bombs in heavily populated areas have grown bigger.
One consequence is that more civilians die.
Another is that foreigners will become even more insulated from Afghan society. After the bombing, a friend from the German embassy was evacuated with her co-workers. A colleague of mine – a competitor and one of my closest friends in town – was pulled out by her editors. Both were sad to leave. Many foreigners here care deeply about Afghanistan, even if employers restrain them from engaging as closely as they’d like.
This isolation, which is bound to grow, is deeply problematic. Decisions on whether to send more troops, allocation of aid or returning failed asylum seekers are heavily influenced by people who are not even allowed to stop the car to buy a loaf of bread.
If there was a silver lining last week, it was in the rare displays of international sympathy with victims of a war so never-ending that foreign observers have grown numb to it. On the evening of the truck bomb, the Eiffel Tower switched off its light in honour of the Afghan victims. Afghans noticed, and appreciated, the gesture.
However, it doesn’t change the prevailing mood of anxiety in Kabul. For years, the city was a relatively safe haven among provinces ravaged by war. But just over the past year, civilians have been murdered in what should be the city’s safest spaces: students slaughtered at a university, worshippers blown up in mosques and protesters bombed in a peaceful demonstration.
It makes you wonder how much more the city can take. On Facebook, an Afghan female friend of mine could muster four words:
“Broken, like my city.”