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Afghanistan’s parallel existence

by Archives February 12, 2008

The following is the re-telling of a Canadian university teacher’s experience in Kabul, Afghanistan. The information is extracted from her e-mail correspondence with her family in Canada. Her name has been changed for security purposes.

The world’s newswires were on fire the morning of Jan. 15, 2008 with another story of death and destruction in violence-stricken Afghanistan. The Serena, a luxury hotel in Kabul, had been stormed by the Taliban the previous day, leaving seven dead. Grenades, guns and a suicide bomb attack against foreigners had taken place. Had it taken place two weeks earlier, Claire Dean may have been among the casualties.
A native Montrealer and Concordia alumnus, Dean, 56, arrived in Kabul to teach English at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in August 2007. Afghanistan was just another exotic teaching location to add to her list of travels, which include Korea, Kuwait, Morocco, Nunavik, Nepal, Oman, the United Arab Emirates. AUAF, Afghanistan’s first-ever independent university, was founded the previous year with the strong endorsement of United States First Lady Laura Bush.
Kabul was quiet that August, but war was only 150 kilometres away in Kandahar, where fellow Canadians and NATO troops train Afghan soldiers to resist Taliban attacks.
Once in the city, Dean took up residence in the university’s compound, a haven of luxury and peace, four houses protected by four-metre-high walls crowned with barbed wire.
The backyards aren’t what one would expect to see in Afghanistan – almond, plum and apple trees, hundreds of roses, all surrounded by a lush blanket of grass. Every house has its own stone terrace with vine-covered roofs and ripe green grapes falling at eye-level. Dean’s sole complaint about her lodgings is the sporadic availability of electricity, which makes satellite Internet use difficult.
On Aug. 9, 2007, 600 tribal elders gathered in Kabul to hold a peace jirga with neighbouring Pakistan. The conference ended with talk of closing Taliban camps in Pakistan, but Dean reported that locals were convinced that Pakistan was planning to invade and conquer their fragile country.
All the international teachers at the university suffer from isolation and confinement: the walls of education shield them from the chaos of war. They are ghosts in the city, traveling with no form of identification, trying to disappear for their own security. Still, some do not respect the rules and venture out of the compound alone, choosing to ignore the threat of being kidnapped by Taliban militants.
Once a week, Dean can leave the compound with the other university guests and run her errands in a protected car, escorted by plain-clothes bodyguards. One bodyguard enters the store with the shoppers, while others protect the car from bomb threats. Others patrol the neighbourhood to make sure everything is “normal.” The shoppers get to visit five or six stores each trip. They all buy the same types of things – food, soap, shaving cream and hairspray.
Sometimes they visit the bazaar, full of Afghan carpets and precious stones. Between the silky fabrics and antiques, one can find two or three dollar DVDs containing anywhere from nine to 26 movies. English, Australian and American soldiers walk up and down the alley, secretly guarding the shoppers and merchants. Nobody seems to notice.
On Aug. 18, a German Christian aid worker was kidnapped from a restaurant on the street next to Dean’s compound. The woman was freed the next day.
Two days after the kidnapping, school orientation began and Dean was assigned to teach classes from three in the afternoon to 7 or 8 p.m. The university uses modern computer programs to teach, such as Power Point, Excel, Outlook and the Internet. The students are polite and hardworking. Still, there is always the threat that one could be a Taliban militant, so Dean must remain cautious, even in her classroom. Her students also run a great risk. On Nov. 15, a 16 year-old boy was shot dead by a Taliban militant in south-eastern Afghanistan for teaching English to his classmates.
Despite the security measures, everyday life for foreign staff at AUAF is still comparatively luxurious. Three days before Christmas, Dean invites 12 of her students to her home for a DVD party, complete with pizza and hamburgers. On Dec. 24, the students reciprocate by inviting Dean to a chic hotel for supper. On Dec. 29, with half an inch of snow covering the yard’s grass, Dean’s most fortunate student comes bearing gifts – three leather coats, a hat and slippers, roses, chocolates, perfumes, a wireless mouse and food.
Outside the compound walls, Afghans are starving and beg in the streets. Dean gives money to child beggars when she ventures out, but the demanding flow is endless. Scores of children come running to the armoured car, knocking on the windows with tears in their eyes. Women with babies in ragged blankets cry and pull on Dean’s coat. The security officers push them away.
In December several bombs were detonated near the university. Civilians were killed. When suicide bombers and explosions became the daily routine in her neighbourhood, Dean went out and bought giant Alaskan crabs from the local fishery – a luxury to take her mind off the danger. There was no more notion of saving for the future.
A far cry from crab, Afghans can barely buy vegetables which are very scarce around Kabul this winter. Afghan fields were bombarded the previous summer and autumn, leaving the country dependent on shipments from Pakistan. Dean says that Afghans are very reluctant to buy Pakistani vegetables because they come in cases with hidden weapons for the Taliban. The people of Afghanistan live between starvation and invasion.
On Jan. 14, with six days to go before second-term classes at AUAF, Dean receives confirmation that she has gotten a more lucrative contract developing an English program for bank employees in Qatar. The job promises a private driver, an air-conditioned apartment and a $17,000 expense account. Dean shares the good news with her roommates over Russian vodka and oysters.
The vodka glasses were raised too early. That same day, the Serena Hotel where Dean had been celebrating the holidays with her students, was attacked by the Taliban. Despite being at the compound on the day of the explosion, Dean’s group is sequestered for security reasons. She remains in lock-down as of print time.

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