I heard about it first, from my father, very worried, on the phone from Delhi. “Hi, are you okay?”
A very sleepy me, content with the story I had just filed the night before, now woken from a deep sleep answered: “Yes, why?”
“Well the news on television just flashed that there’s been a rocket attack on the international airport in Kabul. How far away from the airport are you?”
“Very far, Pa,” I said and then began to find out what had happened. At 4 a.m. Kabul time, seven rockets were fired into different parts of Kabul city. Most reports said the Taliban had claimed responsibility for these attacks. Two or three people were slightly injured. No one was killed.
Two weeks before the presidential and provincial elections in Afghanistan, the country had become a tinder box. Every part of the country, even areas in the north of Afghanistan, not Taliban strongholds and therefore deemed safe, were exploding in gunfire, rockets and suicide bombs. Kabul was waiting to explode.
For many reasons, the Taliban needed to show how weak the government really was. And how ineffective the international forces were with their 100,000 troops, anti-aircraft missiles, drone attacks and America’s renewed interest in the region after Obama.
Off I went with Bairali, in his taxi, to find all seven rockets and hear at least seven different versions of what happened.
Enter: A dreary grey block of flats, built in the 1980s, when the Soviets had occupied Afghanistan.
Four men were whiling away their time under a compound tree. Six kids were playing football. It was a perfectly normal day.
“Rocket? Rocket?” Bairali gesticulated from behind the wheel.
“Oh that? There. Turn left,” said someone mindlessly.
Out I came of the car, with my weapons—a still and video camera.
Suddenly everything changed. The atmosphere was now charged with the possibility of fame, and a simple but highly engaging pastime—how to get on camera.
“I’ll tell you! I saw it all!” a gleeful boy grinned and came running up to me, pointing at a wet patch of mud.
“There,” he said proudly. “That’s where it fell.”
“Then the police came and took it away.”
“Also, see,” he said, gauging that I may not find the wet mud enticing, “that car also got smashed.”
Indeed it had. The windscreen was smashed.
“And upstairs there,” he said pointing at a window above.
“An old man got hurt. Want to see?”
An old man staring blankly into space was peering out of the window. His son motioned to me to come up. I read their expression as ‘oh, another media person who we politely have to take through the routine. Fine, bring her on.’
The grandfather’s head and neck had been grazed by a piece of rocket that flew through their bedroom window early that morning. They’d been living in that house for 20 years and this was not the first time the house had been visited by a rocket.
“You’re from India,” said Mohammad Khan, noticing that I couldn’t speak Dari, but looked Asian.
“Yes I am.”
“I am an army man and I studied at the Indian Military Academy,” said Khan.
“I see, really?” I said.
“Do you know Mr Shukla?”
I couldn’t believe it! My friend in Delhi, ex-army and colleague at the TV channel we’d both worked in, who’d covered Afghanistan extensively!
What are the chances of running into a friend’s friend because a rocket flew through their bedroom window! Now I was the one excited!
A dusty gully in a slum area. Very poor part of Kabul. Mud huts with a drain in the centre of the unpaved road. Two blue veils peered into the car window and smiled.
This time, the evidence was a hole in their mud wall.
And shattered glass. A tall lady stood in the middle of a muddy courtyard, dramatically pointing her hand at the ceiling. This was too farcical to be tragic. Or was tragic because it was farcical? It wasn’t the rocket she was concerned about. She wanted me to listen to her stories of bad loans, poverty, the big bad world out to get her... I thanked her quickly and left, to look for rocket 3.
This was in the vicinity of rocket 2. A genial old man offered to show me the patch of mud in the gully where the shrapnel had fallen.
“No injuries, I hope?” I said, gesticulating, trying a mix of Hindi and Urdu.
“Yes, there was this...” and the rest didn’t make sense to me.
“A pigeon?” I said since I’d been told some birds had got hit. “A hen?” I croaked.
The man shook his head in exasperation. And then took a stone and drew in the mud. It was a donkey.
A wheat field close to the international airport. Excited farmers came up to me, saying: “Oh, we’d buried pieces here in our field... but then Naayyytoow (NATO) came and took it away.”
Then, seeing how disappointed I was, to find yet another patch of scorched mud, a strapping young Afghan boy pulled out a shovel. And dug. Another looked around the wheat field for the evidence.
“Here,” he beamed helpfully. Two torn out pieces of metal. Job done. Girl happy. He could’ve been Clint Eastwood, but he was Mohammad Azad.
Another field. Radishes and the smell of fresh coriander. Another dig. And out of the mud emerge bits of still-smouldering iron. I withdraw involuntarily to the great amusement of the village kids. “Shooom, shooom,” one of them shouts behind me, and I start obligingly.
“Why have you come so late?” a farmer demanded.
“Now all the kids have picked up pieces of the rocket and are playing with it.”
In the heart of Kabul. The house of the General Director for Police Education. A large pink house. With a rocket hole in the front wall. The owner, Mr Ahmadzai, politely shows me the hole. And introduces me to his son, a young man studying in the police academy.
“I think they were targeting the American embassy just behind us,” Ahmadzai says helpfully.
“Tell me honestly,” I turned to his son, “are you scared or excited.”
“Excited...” and then correcting himself on some remote cue, “...scared, scared.” This is an educated boy and he must give the right answer.
Rocket 7 couldn’t be found and Bairali was now tired and asked: “do you know which part of the city it fell in?” Neither of us had a clue.
He drove me back to the safety of my guest house. It’s a place I’ve now spent many a frustrating evening wondering why I’ve been subject to such strict security restrictions by the international NGO that is housing me here. Why I’d been unable to walk the street at all. No walking. Period.
Only allowed to order a car sanctioned by the NGO. Cars with blast-proof glass. To a list of restaurants, offices and places cleared by security. And why every house on every street has a high wall and barbed wire. And a series of check points and holding rooms before you actually get to the house.
But that is life in Kabul these days. People looking over their shoulders all the time. Trusting no one. Waiting for the next rocket to land.