Empty Pool – Empty Neighborhood – Empty Security
Day number four started with the sound of leaves being loudly raked outside my window. It was cold again and I wasn’t having much luck focusing my radiant space heater (which I was constantly afraid would burn down my room while I slept) towards my bed. Our day today would begin in yet another bizarre place in Kabul.
At 9 am we met at the top of yet another hill in the city. This one was about half as high as the TV Mountain we ascended the day before. We drove through a quiet neighborhood at the base of this hill. It was different than the more elaborate residential areas or the compounds off of the main streets which we had seen. The houses were still mostly behind walls but there were no guards stationed out front. They also appeared smaller in size overall. I think that these homes were used either by actual Afghan families or other NGO organizations for permanent residences. After getting lost and finally finding an unmarked dirt road at the base of the hill we switch-backed up the side of the hill passing the empty and stripped hull of a soviet tank until we reached the large flat plateau at the top. Here, was a very remarkable sight. Like a piece of sculpture was this solid concrete swimming pool, Olympic in size set in this large dusty plateau.
Aside from a few acrid puddles of god knows what at the bottom the pool was completely dry. It was such an anomaly. Built as a public pool by the soviets, this large public work apparently never functioned as a pool. In later years during Taliban rule it was used as a place of public executions. In contrast, the Puerto Rican artistLouis Berrios Negron pulled of an amazing architectural performance in the pool in 2006 where he transformed it by filling it metaphorically with water with the help of several arts students at Kabul University.
Visible from the hill was a neighborhood called Sherpur. Ajmal Maiwandi, an architect working with the Agha Khan Trust in Kabul was our guide and pointed it out to us. He made us note from our view a small corner of land, maybe two or three small blocks of mud brick houses huddled together at the base of the hill, sandwiched between a cemetery and obviously newer far more expensive houses. Ajmal told us the well known story of Marshal Fahim Khan who as the minister of defense appropriated the neighborhood of Sherpur and then redistributed it to his political allies and other cronies. It is a very visible and blatant reminder of the corruption which plagues Kabul. All but this small parcel of land is what remains of the original inhabitants. While they stubbornly cling to what they have left, looking around at the intensity which the surrounding area has been developed there seems like little chance that it will survive much longer. Ajmal suggested that fittingly it was the protection of the cemetery which was keeping them alive, an unsettling piece of irony to be sure.
The first thing you notice about the new construction in Sherpur is the distinct and repetitive style of all the houses built. I heard it described as a couple different things; Pakistani Style, Wedding Cake Houses and my favorite was Photo Houses. Imagine if you will two to three story houses maybe 2000 to 3000 square feet with flat roofs and distinct horizontal banding at each level. On top of this, every single surface of the building is adorned in the most gaudy ornament and coloring. Often this is done with ceramic and metallic tiles of all color. The term photo house was explained to me in this way; when you buy a digital camera they each claim that they pick up to 5 million colors visible to the human eye or something to that effect. If you take a photograph of one of these houses, it will actually use all 5 million colors of the spectrum.
These gigantic houses all of course exist behind the now stereotypical solid concrete walls and razor wire. One person in our group couldn’t help but notice that these huge houses looked more like prisons than places people would choose to live. As we walked through the neighborhood we quickly came to the realization that we were being watched closely. Keeping in mind that we weren’t exactly being discrete (it was a group of about 10 people with cameras and video cameras) there was a heavy security presence. Each walled house had a security hut outside and guards similar to what we saw in the heavier trafficked parts of town where the embassies and guesthouses were. Ajmal told us that this was essentially the ritzy area of Kabul. Anyone who was well to do lived here. It made for a mix of foreign government and non-government agencies, wealthy Afghani contractors, Afghani politicians and warlords. We were told that it was because of the warlords that the roads were not finished properly.
One particular house which gave me particular chills as we moved past it was the palace of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a very famous figure in Afghan politics and war. A general who fought for the soviets, then against them, then against the Taliban, he was a very powerful figure in fighting for the Afghan people. He also is well know as a war criminal who committed atrocities against civilians during his extremely harsh rule. It should be no surprise that he was an ally of Marshal Fahim Khan. When we moved close to the palace as we walked along the street we were immediately shouted at by the guards. In a neighborhood where every house had a concrete wall, razor wire and guards this one stood out. It had a higher fence, more wire and honest to god gun turrets at street level armed with guards in full military gear (flak jackets, helmets, etc). Needless to say we didn’t push the issue or take any great pictures in fear of our safety, we quickly moved past and snapped pictures and video from a safe distance down the street.
After our experience of being shouted at by security from behind their walls we had the chance to get behind those walls. Posing as foreign NGO workers interested in renting one of the houses we were able to convince security of one of the vacant buildings to let us in to see one of them. In we went filing through the steel man-door in the gate of the thick concrete wall, we wandered through the three floors of this massive house. It was completely empty and felt very large. A large circular staircase dominated each floor as you went up. There was dust everywhere, as in the kind of a building that was just recently a construction site. The whole thing was tinted a salmon pink color by the windows in the building. This one hadn’t had them obstructed by corrugated steel like we had seen on others in the area. As we stood on the upper level terrace, looking out onto the front yard and the street we waited for a group of foreign tourists to pass by so we could shout at them to move along but sadly no one came.
As if we hadn’t had enough exposure to security forces for the day out next tour would surely satiate our appetite for irritating men with guns. We met again with Anne Feenstra for lunch and to head out for a “field trip”. Among his many interests and concerns in Kabul, the prevalence of “security” and the way which it had been taking away piece by piece Kabul’s public realm was one. It turns out that Mr. Feenstra takes it personally when organizations set up their walls with blatant disregard for those around them, a practice that is very much taken for granted (so much so that most of the embassies and missions completely ignore a decree straight from President Karzai to remove these blockages and walls).
Over lunch Anne showed us a collection of security badges he had accumulated during his time in Kabul which was an impressive set. One I found particularly interesting; out of frustration while dealing with local authorities Anne and his office (AFIR) had created their own security badges to streamline useless and meaningless checkpoints. The tag was an AFIR badge identifying himself as an employee of his architecture firm AFIR and stated that he was clear to enter any security level and had access to all information. “You wouldn’t believe how often this works” he told us.
Our plan was basically to pick a few areas in the city which were secured by various check-points and essentially off limits to the public and see how far we could get as a group of 8 or 9 with his security badges. Along the way we would witness the extent of the city which had been cordoned off as adjacent property to embassies or government offices and in general see first hand the often arbitrary and sometimes useless screening process at these checkpoints. My father had always told me that if you act like you belong somewhere you usually won’t be bothered. I had a feeling we were about to put this to the test in the most extreme way.
Our first stop was an area of the city known as Wazir Akbar Khan, an area home to quite a few embassies. Not surprisingly the US embassy is the largest and most heavily secured not just in that area but in all of Kabul. Our initial point of entry was at a gated check point along a road which led to the Canadian, Pakistani, Finnish South Korean, British and the Japanese embassies. We were stopped at the gate by Afghan guards who demanded our papers. To make our way into a secure zone we had to clear three actual gates which you are funneled through initially by huge concrete pylons blocking off the rest of the road. 3 or 4 armed men in military uniform congregated by the first gate. This was common sight in our day to day Kabul. Before this we had been continuously filming from the van with careful exception around secure areas and gated checkpoints. This was fine but a little difficult to do now on a tour of secure areas and gated checkpoints.
Once through the first set of gates we were stopped at two more checkpoints in succession before finally entering into a zone of eerie calm. Essentially a wide empty street with a group of armored embassy SUVs parked at one end there were little signs of any people. We drove the van up to where the gates for the Canadian embassy were got out and started tooling around. Although we had been easily passed through the feeling I had while walking around this empty street was completely unsettling. I think I felt more comfortable walking as the only westerner through a busy street market than there. Standing in a canyon of reinforced concrete walls while having every move presumably watched really made you aware of the strategic disadvantage you were at. The entire duration of our excursion I felt an unspoken pressure to leave, immediately.
Ironically, of all the places we visited, I was unable to get into the one I was legitimately entitled to. The Canadian embassy was closed for the weekend when I tried pass through the gates. I’d have to come back tomorrow I was told by the guard. I returned to the group who were now talking to two young afghan boys on bicycles adorned with Canadian flags. How they managed to be there I have no idea but they were the only other human beings in this deserted street and seemed as though they often were. They tried selling us maps and books and told us how much they liked Canadians (most likely because they sensed a sale). They seemed curious about our presence there as we didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular like most people I assume they met. It was kind of funny that given we were in a secured area and wandering around with our cameras out, the most attention we received was from these two 10 year old boys.
After making a right and being denied at the Japanese embassy we ran into a middle aged Canadian man (this we were sure of as he literally had a Canadian flag tattooed on his arm). He was pleasant enough to stop and talk to us although when I asked him if he could let me inside the embassy he told me since it was Friday that he was basically the only one inside. I thought this a strange admission to make given the paranoia about security. After my suggestion to storm the Canadian embassy was quickly turned down by the rest of group we moved on down the road and found another checkpoint. During this stretch we noticed a sign advertising a restaurant on the block which no doubt was there before the area was cordoned off by makeshift concrete walls and nervous guards. I wondered if the restaurant was still alive and what other businesses and families were forced to relocate after their newest neighbor was a foreign embassy. This was something that would come up again in our tour that day.
The next gate we arrived at was the first check point for the South Korean and Finnish embassies. This time on foot, we were forced to wait a little longer before they accepted Anne’s UN credentials. We were led through a single gate flanked by concrete walls and into a much narrower street. There was the occasional government employee in business dress walking past us to the gate but otherwise no public of any kind. This street also felt different. Because the street was narrower you could tell that many of the walls facing the street were not original to the compounds like at the Canadian or Japanese embassies rather they were added after the South Koreans moved in. Also evident were crow’s nests where guards could see into the street from above the walls. At the end of this block was another gate, staffed with afghan guards. It was here where we reached our limit. Anne tried very hard to talk his way in to the point where the guards were getting visibly annoyed. This was undoubtedly the most unnerving part of my trip, provoking armed guards into letting us past a security checkpoint. As Anne persisted, asking to speak to supervisors, the guards at the gate became increasingly suspicious of us. It’s not as though they became hostile towards us but the simple change from credible passer-bys to potential threat was palpable. Knowing when to draw the line we decided that this was far enough and headed back out the way we came. Anne explained to us that the South Korean embassy backs onto the American embassy which is why it was more difficult to gain entry.
Leaving through another street we did pass a heavily fortified gate which looked like a bunker due to the 12 foot high concrete walls built around it. We were told that this was an entrance to the American embassy, we didn’t slow to look.
Second on our trip was a block which was home to the Asia Foundation, an economic trade group. Anne pointed out the standard compound walls and the marks on the sidewalk where there had been larger concrete fortifications made. We spoke to a security guard at an adjacent site and he explained to us that prior to the Asia Foundation occupying that site it was home to DynCorp, an American security company. During that time a car bomb had been detonated next to it and done severe damage to the neighboring area. Afterwards DynCorp left and the Asia Foundation arrived. As mentioned, at the universal order of President Karzai, all NGOs and Embassies were supposed to take down their fortification. The Asia Foundation obliged and what we saw was the paired down version. We were told since they had done this the residents of the neighborhood felt much safer since by creating the outward appearance that they are trying very hard to secure themselves, the compound still remained a target. It was a typical example of a kind of “security machismo” which was rife in Kabul. I would guess that more than half of the people we saw driving in big armored SUVs were doing more harm by calling unnecessary attention to themselves. I felt perfectly safe for the duration of our stay in our small unassuming Toyota van. I’ll take stealth any day over strength.
Last on our stop was the Asian Development bank. In this situation the bank had closed the street in front of it for the entire block. At each end of the block were gates surrounded by huge concrete pylons. We made our way through the check-point to the middle of the block in front of what outwardly was the most heavily fortified looking compound we saw all day. In addition to the original walls they had added massive concrete slabs stacked three high in front of the walls well above the original height of the walls.