Afghanistan Postscript Part Deux
January 17, 2008

An American blogger in Turkey has a reference on one of her blogs to "Crapistan." Which can be anywhere in the world. I've certainly been there.

The word brought to mind this story, which I don't think I ever included in my blogs in Afghanistan:

In Afghanistan, all talk of the bathroom is avoided like the plague. You don't even say, "I cleaned my bathroom last night." It's considered *disgusting* to mention bathrooms. When I'd go into the bathroom at the office and there were Afghan women co-workers there and I greeted them, they would turn red and look incredibly embarassed to have been discovered having bodily functions.

Yet, one of our office bathrooms got converted into an office, and I swear to you, there was a sh*t splattered toilet in the hallway for TWO WEEKS. And no one referred to it. IT WAS NOT THERE. I finally said something to the guy who handled our facilities, saying it should probably be moved outside, and he had this look on his face like, oh no! She has referred to the unclean thing!! Yes, the reference was infinitely worse than the thing actually *being* there.

That's a light-hearted start to what is actually a very sad new postscript to my adventures in Afghanistan: I'm mourning a place I knew well... and a person I never knew... and, perhaps, an entire country.

With Lonely Planet Afghanistan and the world-wide success of The Kite Runner and so many improvements I saw with my own eyes, I was really hoping that Afghanistan could change for the better. The security situation had worsened in 2007, indeed, but my hope was that it was a last gasp by the bad guys, and all this positive attention would lead to continued support, more income for the country, and, eventually, less violence. Afterall, Kabul is NOT Baghdad -- not by far. And Afghanistan is NOT Iraq -- not by far.

With the bombing of the Serena, I have to say that it's a huge turning point for the worse. HUGE.

Everyone in Afghanistan knows the Serena. You may be in Kabul only for a day, and never go there, but you will know what it is before you leave. It's the only five-star hotel in the country, and maybe the only five-star hotel I've ever been in. I went by the Serena almost every day I was in Kabul. I used to joke that it had the only guards who looked like they took their jobs seriously: they didn't handle their guns in a casual way, they weren't standing there looking bored or distracted, they looked like they were ready for action at all times, all in contrast to the other private guards in Kabul -- even the Afghan police or army. We knew if there was someone important in town based on the number of SUVs and increased security outside the hotel's blast walls. We'd joke, "Oh, looks like another anti-hunger conference at the Serena!"

The Serena hotel was, for me, an oasis while in Afghanistan. I went there only twice, for brunch. Both times, I felt like I'd had a tiny and much-needed R & R. As you walk across the lobby, looking out the windows at the incredible mountains around Kabul, and you walk into the lovely main dining room that's as beautiful and well-stocked as any luxury hotel you've ever been in, you feel like, for a little while, that you are safe and secure and there is a chance for normalcy and Kabul can be like any other city anywhere in Asia. Not that I want the whole world to be luxurious and expensive. Both Afghans and internationals went there (no alcohol was served at the Serena), and there is an obvious sense of pride among the Afghan staff for the Serena.

The Taliban attacked the Serena. They killed people working out in the gym, among others. "We had to step over a woman's dead body. She was one of the gym people." Plaster came off the ceiling and glass was shattered everywhere as the explosions and gunshots sounded. "There was blood on the floor all the way to the kitchen. There was a lot of blood in the lobby." People huddled together, turned their phones on silent, waited. One women from Seattle said she contacted the U.S. embassy during the chaos while she hid behind a locked door, and she was told not open the door unless she heard an American voice. U.S. soldiers evacuated her.

The Serena. I just can't get my head around it.

The name of the American killed is Thor David Hesla. He was working out in the gym at the Serena when he was killed. He had come to Kabul only in November 2007 to work on a USAID-funded project. Like me, he did "propaganda": advising on public relations and outreach. Reading his online memorial is heart-breaking.

To quote carpetblogger:

In places like Afghanistan, there's a complicated mental risk assessment that makes life bearable and normal. You tell yourself that it's all about being at the wrong place at the wrong time (playing the odds). You tell yourself that other people -- Diplomats, dignitaries, police, military or Afghans -- are the targets, not you and your brunch companions. When things like this finally happen to people you know, or people who are like you, your first reaction is "well, that would never happen to me because I would never do X, Y or Z."

Well, I would never work directly for the US Government.

Well, I would never travel around in those annoying convoys.

Well, I would never stay in a hotel that's such an obvious target.

Well, I would never go the gym after work.

I did that all the time: well, I will never go outside without my headscarf, I never stay out past curfew, I never walk the same place three times, I stay away from such-and-such on Thursday nights, I go to restaurants where Afghans can go too... the reality is that your locally-bought clothes, your nationality, your cultural sensitivity and your 10 phrases in Dari and Pashto aren't any better protection than anything else in Afghanistan. Thor David Hesla wasn't taking any greater chance than any foreigner does in Afghanistan -- or local, for that matter.

The Afghans I've talked to are heartbroken about this. Absolutely heartbroken. They know what this means, and none of it is good for them.


If you have read this blawg, PLEASE let me know.
Comments are welcomed, and motivate me o keep writing --
without comments, I start o think I'm talking o cyberair.

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