Snapshot -Afghanistan: When the Sky Falls

I woke up to the fading sound of the first call to prayer and glimpses of dawn light through the soiled white curtains in my guest room in Kabul, Afghanistan. My gut clenched, invisible daggers shredding my body. I probably should have gone to the doctor, but after a few uncomfortable visits to a local clinic, I avoided them at all costs. Only months earlier I’d successfully treated a case of amoebas through a WebMD diagnosis and a strong dose of Flagyl. I wasn’t sure there was anything to be done for E. Coli, however. I groaned slightly and reached for my cell phone: 4:30am.

I heard distant rumbling and then sirens sounded – many sirens of the type that I’d never before heard in Afghanistan. My head was hazy from sleep and fever. A text message pinged in my hand. I squinted, opened it and read:

“Alert: Complex attack on Kabul Airport by Armed Opposition Groups. Vehicle-born explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, small arms fire. Avoid area until further notice.”

I rubbed my eyes and sat up abruptly. The guesthouse was only a twenty-minute drive from the airport, and complex attacks were serious and could last for hours. It was June 10th, 11 days after an attack on a UN guesthouse that had blown the doors off the hinges of the house where I was staying now. I worked for a non-governmental organization, an NGO, and we could be targeted next. The attackers were sending a clear message: we want all foreigners out of Afghanistan, regardless of what they are doing.

Crawling out of bed and slowly descending the stairs, I paused in the front hall, cocking my head to the side to listen. I stared through the recently replaced double-paned glass windows. More rumbling. The sound was not like the slow, rolling crash of distant thunder. Instead, it was really more of a boom, boom, boom – like echoing fireworks. Then I heard the unmistakable tat, tat of gunfire mixed in.

The summer morning was chilly, but I was flushed and dizzy. Satisfied that everything was as safe as it could be in the guesthouse, I ascended the stairs and climbed back into bed. My phone sounded again. This time it was my organization’s Country Director, who was out of town visiting one of our regional offices.

“The Kabul airport is under attack. All staff to avoid any movements and stay put until further notice.”

I tried to fall asleep again, but couldn’t. I thought about my supervisor Rebecca, who lived next to the guesthouse and was undoubtedly listening to the attack as well. Or maybe she was lucky enough to be sleeping through it.

An airport attack certainly did not bode well for my flight that was scheduled for later that afternoon. I had been in Afghanistan for one year, managing a project that was helping recently returned refugees and internally displaced persons, and it was time for my annual home leave. There had been so many attacks on foreigners lately, and I really needed a break.

Any more sleep seemed impossible, but I couldn’t concentrate enough to read my book. In an uncharacteristic move, I decided to call my mother. We texted and emailed every day, but I tried to avoid calling her when something bad had happened. Some things were better left unsaid at least until they were far in the past, as they would only cause beleaguered parents more grief and worry. On this morning, I called anyway, giving in to my desire to be comforted.

She picked up after the first ring. California was eleven and a half hours behind Kabul, so she was just finishing up her workday. “Hi Mom,” I said quietly. “I’m still sick. And, I don’t want to freak you out, but I wanted to tell you that I may not get back to California when I’m supposed to.”

“Why is that, sweetie?” she asked. “Do you not feel well enough to get on the plane?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t care how bad I feel, I need to get out of here and there are better doctors in America.”  I paused. “But, the Kabul Airport is under attack right now and we don’t know the details. These complex attacks can sometimes last up to eight hours. I wanted to tell you before you saw it on the news.”

“Oh no, are you okay? I’m so sorry to hear that.” Her voice was equally calm. I was impressed. Maybe all my years away and stories of close calls, typically told after the fact, had toughened her up.

“I’m okay. I just don’t like that I can hear it. Especially because that other complex attack happened right near this guesthouse, and Rebecca was there for it.” I was letting it all out now. I had already told her about the other attack, but left out the important detail that it had happened in the vicinity of our guesthouse, and that Rebecca had experienced it.

My mother offered comforting words and I told her that I would keep her updated as the day progressed, slowly ending the call. I thought again about Rebecca. Our relationship was strained. She was overworked and I felt like she often ignored me when I needed her the most, then micromanaging what I felt were insignificant details

I looked at my phone again: 5:30am. Assuming that he was still awake after sending out the alert text, I sent the Country Director a message.

“I’m awake and okay here but I’m worried about Rebecca. Should I go hang out with her?”

 “She’s awake too. It might be nice if you go check on her,” he responded.

I got out of bed again, wrapping myself in a blanket to try and fight my fever chills, and made my way to Rebecca’s cabin.

She welcomed me in, and I awkwardly reclined on her uncomfortable couch. The cabin had one bedroom and a small living room that also doubled as a kitchen. It was smaller than my house, but I understood that having the privacy of her own home was more important than the space she would gain from sharing the main house with all of the expats who were constantly passing through Kabul. Dusty light streamed through the tatty grey curtains as Rebecca boiled water for tea. We could hear the attack ongoing in the distance. I slowly sipped my tea and we made small talk, aware of the boundary between us, but accepting that we would both rather not be alone. As a distraction from what was going on outside, we played slow games of UNO.

Unable to stop myself from prying, I asked her if she was okay after the last attack, and wondered aloud why she hadn’t left Kabul, at least for a break.

“The crisis counselor told me that I should stay,” she said. “She said that people deal with trauma in different ways. Some might need to escape, but I’m better if I keep busy. Plus, I mostly only have good memories of Kabul, so she said that I should try and not let this one event change the way I feel.”

I paused, not knowing if I should ask, but really wanting to.

“Do you mind if I ask what happened during the attack?”

She opened her eyes wide, clearly reluctant.

“Sure,” she said, exhaling. “It was early on a Friday morning. I was sitting in my house reading and all of a sudden there was a giant blast. It broke all the windows and blew the doors off their hinges. I was the only one here, along with the guard, Aziz. We both ran out into the compound and into the main guesthouse, looking for somewhere to hide.

“I had been wearing a maxi dress with spaghetti straps. And you know how absolutely scandalous bare arms and shoulders are, so I grabbed the first thing I saw as I was leaving the house – my winter coat.”

Rebecca had been in Afghanistan for almost three years and had so thoroughly absorbed the rules of propriety that she had taken the coat with her to cover her shoulders, even on a summer day. I wondered if I would have had the same reaction. I imagined her and Aziz running around the house like the sky was falling. It was an inappropriately comical image to me, but sometimes in a crisis situation, the most misplaced reaction is what hits first.

Rebecca continued. “Mir Agha, the driver, risked his life for me. He had just taken the Country Director to the office when the attack started. He knew I was back at the house, and even though we didn’t know exactly where the attack was, he drove right back to get me and take me to safety… and I was so hot in my coat for the rest of the day, I almost couldn’t take it.”

The attack on the airport continued. Rebecca stood up as if to shake off the memories prompted by her story, rolling her shoulders up and down in pain. The counselor had said that she would likely get adrenaline-related discomfort in her muscles from anything that brought back the memories of her trauma. With the relentless booming and tat, tat, tats still off in the distance, and even though I was barely able to sit up due to my nausea, I offered to give her a massage. We sat there in silence as I pressed into the knots in her back with my thumbs: not friends, not together by choice, but together by necessity.

The cacophony in the distance continued for five hours, a relatively short complex attack when compared to others, and my organization decided to open its office in the afternoon. Even the airport opened early in the evening, and my flight was only delayed for several hours. People were so used to these attacks that they could easily revert to business as usual.

“Are you sure that you want to get on the plane? You’re so sick and this crazy thing happened today,” the Country Director asked me over the phone.

“Yes,” I said with exhausted conviction. “I really need to get out of here. Today.”

Even on a normal day, getting through the Kabul airport was an undertaking. Yet, despite the attack, all of the checkpoints seemed to be operating as if nothing had happened. I watched the large German shepherd sniff my bags at the first checkpoint, told the women where I was going in Dari at the second checkpoint, and consented to a manual pat down behind a curtain at the third checkpoint. The leering woman lingered over every curve of my body and ended with a spirited full squeeze of my breasts with both hands.

“Nice body!” she said in English, giving me a thumbs up. I felt so ill, I didn’t have the energy to be outraged. I just needed to get out of this country.

I finally made it to the departures hall, thanking my driver and slowly rolling my suitcase behind me, while I simultaneously tried to keep my headscarf from sliding off. The hall was packed to capacity with people trying to get out of the country whose flights had been delayed or rescheduled due to the attack. I had never before seen it so busy, and I grimly thought that if the armed opposition groups really wanted to achieve mass casualties, they would have attacked the airport again, right then. I stood in the back of the line, and promptly sank to the floor, leaning my head on my suitcase. The Tylenol was wearing off and my fever was back.

“I will get on this flight. I will get out of here. I will get better. Everything will be fine,” I said to myself, over and over again.

The terminal was also full, but I found a few empty seats and laid down on my side, awaiting my delayed flight that was further delayed by an hour. In Asia, it is rude to point your feet at people, but I was delirious and didn’t care. The rest of the row where my feet were pointing cleared out, and I drifted into a feverish slumber while I waited for my flight to start boarding.

From Kabul to Dubai, Dubai to San Francisco, I made it home mostly as planned, eventually recovering from my illness. I turned 28, and one week later, before I boarded my flight back to Afghanistan, I decided to that it was time to move back to the US and leave once and for all.

2 thoughts on “Snapshot -Afghanistan: When the Sky Falls

  1. Nice writing Em! I felt as if I were right there with you. And I remember when you were telling me about how sick you had become. Nice to see this documented.

    Like

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