Monday, September 15, 2008

Rattling the Gates - Full Post

I thought I’d take a moment to post the full version of the VOLUME article from the spring, complete with full images. It appeared originally in VOLUME #15 and was edited by Lilet Breddels.

Rattling the gates; A guide through Secure Zones in Kabul

"Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises against all travel to Afghanistan. Canadians in this country should leave.", official Canadian Foreign Affairs website.

Despite receiving the usual concern from family and friends, ‘Isn’t that a bad idea? Don’t people get killed there all the time? Isn’t the situation unstable?’ and so on, I joined the RSVP trip to Kabul. To be perfectly honest, while the initial culture shock and visible poverty take a little getting used to, I was not uncomfortable, least of all afraid during my week there, except for a few hours one afternoon.

On the second to last day we met Anne Feenstra, a Dutch architect with a busy practice in Kabul. Anne had immersed himself in the ways of the city and the country at large. Among his many interests and concerns in Kabul was the prevalence of ‘security’ and the way it had destroyed Kabul’s public realm piece by piece. It turns out that Mr. Feenstra takes it personally when organizations set up their walls with blatant disregard for those around them, a practice taken very much for granted - so much so that most of the embassies and missions have completely ignored a decree straight from President Karzai to remove them.

Over lunch Anne showed us the impressive collection of security badges he had accumulated during his time in Kabul. I found one particularly interesting; out of frustration Anne and his office (AFIR) had created their own security badges to combat useless and meaningless checkpoints. The tag was an AFIR badge identifying himself as an employee of AFIR and stating that he had clearance to enter any secured area and had access to all information. ‘You wouldn’t believe how often this works,’ he told us.

Our plan was to pick a few areas in the city secured by various check-points and essentially off limits to the public and see how far we could get as a group of eight or nine with his security badges. Along the way we witnessed the extent of the city which had been cordoned off as property adjacent to embassies or government offices and 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 a gated check point along a road which led to the Canadian, Pakistani, Finnish, South Korean, British and 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 gates through which we were funneled by huge concrete pylons blocking the rest of the road. Three or four armed men in military uniform congregated by the first gate. This was a common sight in Kabul. We had been continuously filming from the van, carefully excepting secure areas and gated checkpoints. This became 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 a zone of eerie calm. A wide, empty street with a group of armored embassy SUVs were parked at one end; there was little sign of people. We drove the van up to the gates of the Canadian embassy, got out and started wandering
around. Although we had easily passed through, walking around this empty street was quite unsettling. Even as the only westerner I felt more comfortable walking through a busy street market than there. Standing in a canyon of reinforced concrete walls while having every move presumably watched really made me aware of my strategic disadvantage. During the entire excursion I felt pressure to leave, immediately.

Ironically, of all the places we visited I was unable to get into the one to which I was legitimately entitled; the Canadian embassy was closed for the weekend. 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 were curious about our presence as we didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. Given that we were in a secured area and wandering around with our cameras out it was kind of funny that 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 (with a Canadian flag tattooed on his arm). He was kind enough to stop and talk to us although when I asked if he could let me inside the embassy he told me he was the only one there. 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 down the road to another checkpoint. 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 open and what other businesses and families had been forced to close or relocate. This was something that would come up again in our tour that day.

The next gate 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 into a much narrower street. Other than the occasional government employee in business dress walking past us to the gate, it was deserted. 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 as at the Canadian or Japanese embassies but had been 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 that we reached our limit. Anne tried very hard to talk his way in to the point that the guards became visibly annoyed. Talking our way past armed guards at a security checkpoint was undoubtedly the most unnerving part of my trip. 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, but the simple change from credible passer-bys to potential threat was palpable. Knowing when to back off, we decided this was far enough and headed back the way we came. Anne explained 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 passed 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 larger concrete fortifications had been built. We spoke to a security guard at an adjacent site and he explained 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. DynCorp then left and the Asia Foundation arrived. As mentioned, all NGOs and embassies had been instructed to dismantle their fortifications by presidential order. The Asia Foundation obliged and what we saw was the pared down version. We were told that since they had done this the residents of the neighborhood felt much safer as by creating the outward appearance that they were trying hard to improve security, the compound still remained a target. This was a typical example of a kind of ‘security machismo’ which was rife in Kabul. I would guess that more than half the people we saw driving in big, armored SUVs were doing more harm than good 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 over strength any day.

Last on our stop was the Asian Development bank. Given the current situation, the bank had closed the street in front of it along 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 compound we saw all day. In addition to the original walls, massive concrete slabs stacked three high well above the height of the original walls had been added. We entered the compound through the small gate and checked in. We spoke to a representative who refused to answer questions even about how he personally felt about working in such a place. We left, ending our field trip for the day. Without embarrassment I can say I was glad to get back to the un-walled city, where I felt much safer.


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