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We’re welcoming a lot of new fans to the White City gang right now and the biggest question we’re always asked is about our experiences in Afghanistan. We love the country, the people, the passion despite years of war. We know that people are at risk of fatigue hearing about Afghanistan, but we’re hoping that our music, in some small way, will help keep Afghanistan on the radar and in people’s minds. In support of that, we’ve decided to start sharing some experiences with you. Some are funny, some are sad, some are just unusual. All are but one tiny detail in a rich, bewildering and beautiful tapestry that is Afghanistan.
First up, here’s Ru with a re-post from her blog DryMouth with her story about an afternoon motorbike ride that nearly went very wrong.
The area of Taimani, a district of Kabul popular with ex-pats, who couldn’t afford/didn’t want to live in heavy fortified and guarded compounds. Here, we lived mostly without problems side-by-side with our Afghan neighbours, who didn’t complain too much when we had loud parties and cheerfully shouted good morning, as we stumbled with hangovers to our local greasy spoon (which catered almost exclusively to hungover ex-pats).
But during 2013, Taimani was shaken by a number of kidnappings and burglaries, where ex-pat households were specifically targeted. Although Kabul may strike most of the world as a dangerous place, the ultra-conservative version of Islam practiced here meant, at least, that muggings, robberies and burglaries were virtually unheard of. The Afghan home is sacred and to violate its walls without invitation is probably the greatest affront to their values. Just think of the stink regularly kicked up about night raids.
Therefore, the news that foreigners were being attacked in their homes, often with horrible stories of torture or rape thrown in had got people very afraid. A friend of mine, learning that I was living alone with no guard, my flat-mates being on an extended holiday, came round one day and offered me a temporary loan of a gun.
Now, although one is surrounded by guns in Afghanistan, it doesn’t mean that they’re perfectly legal. Actually, it is legal for each household to have a shotgun, which is available on the black market for around $100. Shotguns are classed as “non-lethal weapons”. Make of that what you will. However, this weapon was not a shotgun. It was a 9mm Taurus handgun – a PT609 Pro, to be precise. Small, girl-sized, but with enough punch and accuracy to discourage any intruder. I accepted the loan, but there was one problem – I’d never shot a gun in my life.
My benefactor came up with an idea. Instead of finding a range that would take me, a civilian and not in possession of any Afghan, American or international paperwork that would permit me to have such a weapon, we would drive out to a deserted piece of land and practice firing the gun.
So, one Friday afternoon, he drove round with his motorbike and I packed my Taurus, his Norinco, some bottles of water and a roll of cash in a backpack and hopped on the back.
We drove outside of Kabul city and on the new road to Bagram air field. The road is surprisingly well-kempt and, on a Friday, which is traditionally a day for prayers and family, pretty empty. We drive until we find a piece of wasteland, all rocks and dust with absolutely no-one around. The occasional truck sweeps by.
We turn off the main road and drive around 100 yards into the wasteland. Parking the bike, we start piling up rocks as a target and loading our weapons. Standing at a distance of around 50 yards, we spend an enjoyable 20 to 30 minutes blowing the said rocks to pieces, pausing only to crouch down and reload. Being that this is my first time firing a gun, there are a lot of tips and notes to take on board, so it’s not surprising that we’re both so engrossed (and half-deafened by repeated gunshot) that we don’t notice the three Afghan policemen hiking over towards us.
We’re reloading for the fourth or fifth time, when my companion looks up and recognises the distinct grey uniforms of the Afghan National Police. “Oops, the police. We’d better stop.” Eager to be good citizens, we head back to the bike, climb aboard and slowly trundle to the main road to explain ourselves.
On reflection this was a bad idea. To their eyes, here were two foreigners – one bearded and unkempt and one, seemingly a woman, but dressed in combats, shirt and a beanie – shooting high-powered handguns without any regard for or prior notification of local police. In Afghanistan, foreigners are generally bad news. Foreigners out of uniform with weapons are probably terrorists.
As we draw level with the road, we hear a shot. For a moment, we pause, one tyre on the road, one still on the dirt. Then it sinks in. The police have levelled their AK-47s at us and are about to open fire. “Shit!” says my companion, “Fucking go!”, say I. He kicks the bike into gear and hauls it away from the direction of the police. They, in turn, let loose. I hear crack after crack, some with the unmistakeable mosquito-whine of incoming fire that’s really too close for comfort.
All I can think is, “I’m on the back. It’s me, who’s going to get shot”. I try and make myself as small as possible, hugging into my companion. I really hope the ANP are as bad a shot as I’ve heard. We roar up the Bagram road, easily reaching 100km/h. The shots die off. I muster enough courage to look back and see they’re not following in a vehicle.
A short pause of relief before I think the next terrifying thought. The road to Bagram – the most populous and notorious centre of American activity in Afghanistan – is highly protected. This means that there’s more than likely to be a police checkpoint up ahead and all it will take is for the guys behind us to phone up their mates and tell them to be on the lookout for a couple of foreigners on a unhelpfully distinct white Honda.
I shout this in the ear of my companion. He goes silent a while before taking a wrenching turn left, off the road and careering across bumpy wasteland yet again, only at a much higher speed this time. I hold on for dear life. After ten or so minutes, he explains, shouting through a mouth full of dust, that there’s an old road parallel to this one that will eventually take us in a circle back to Kabul.
The next half an hour is the most anxious of all my time in Afghanistan. I am convinced we’re about to be picked up and locked in Pul-e-Charki prison for all eternity. In an unbelievable example of pathetic fallacy, as I’m having this thought, the heavens open with huge, golfball-sized chunks of hail. Now we’re bruised and wet as well.
Miraculously, the road is completely empty and, as the gates of Kabul approach, I give myself a little sliver of hope. Mistake number two.
Going through the gates of Kabul, there is a police checkpoint. I’m not too worried about these guys, as they probably aren’t aligned with the out-of-Kabul cops from before. However, after an hour of dust, hail and fast getaways, we look highly unusual and are pulled on sight for a shake-down.
I am suddenly keenly aware of my backpack – full of two unlicensed weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. My companion is doing his best to chat to the police chief and two of his minions, but one young fellow comes around to me and asks, in Dari, for my ID. Due to the dust, my face is covered with a scarf and, with my beanie pulled down, only my eyes are visible. He asks for my ID again and pats my backpack roughly, asking what’s inside. This time he attracts the attention of the police chief, who joins him. Bugger.
There’s only one way out of this – I’m going to have to dazzle them. I pull down the scarf and whip off the beanie in one swift move, my hair breaking loose onto my shoulders. Smiling my best smile, I turn to the police chief and, in terribly broken and ungrammatical Dari, I say hello sir, how are you sir? I’m from England, this is my husband. We were having a picnic today and now we’re going home. Isn’t the traffic bad today, sir?
Having gushed all of that out in one big, messy sentence, there is a palpable pause. The police chief looks at me in bafflement… then claps his hands and laughs a big belly laugh. “She speaks Dari! Isn’t she cute!” He thwacks my companion on the back. “You have a very nice wife! But she should wear a headscarf.” With this, he waves us on. It’s a bloody miracle. “Don’t question it,” I tell my companion, “just go.”
We go. About 10 feet. Then the engine conks out. To my everlasting astonishment, the very police, who were unknowing inches away from throwing us in jail for the rest of our lives, help us push the bike to the nearest garage and give us a friendly wave goodbye.
The journey back home is pretty hazy. We were both too tired for words or to really discuss what had happened that day and how close we’d come to death or incarceration. I do remember I went home and made myself a really strong cup of tea that day.
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