I live in a house just off the Darul Aman in the western outskirts of Kabul. I had just finished lunch and was about to head out and do some errands in the nearby shops. A stream of emails pinged my way and held me back. As I sat replying my phone also pinged into life, a Country Alert SMS advising of multiple attacks in Kabul, stay on 'Lock Down'. Within seconds the first of many blast exploded nearby, followed immediately by the sound of machine guns, the call sign of AK 47's the weapon of choice for the Taliban and the Afghan Security Forces. I began to email family and friends to notify them that I was safely inside our compound, I knew they would be watching the news, they always do.
This week I have spent time in Mazar e Sharif in the north of Afghanistan, and as we drove back yesterday I said to my translator, "something big will hit Kabul soon, it's been too quiet for too long, the city is too calm:. He replied "do you think so boss?" "Of course" I said.
As we spent time in the outlying City of Balkh, some 20 km from Mazar, we had met a Kandahari Pashtun. He invited us into his house for tea, I agreed to go. He had the perfect face and I wanted to get that perfect portrait. We were ushered into a tiny room in a little back street, a mud compound, empty and void of life and possessions, not a home. A small boy was seated on a carpet, our Pashtun friend disappeared and we sat silently waiting for tea to arrive. There was an 'oddness' about the situation that was vaguely chilling. I took photographs of the child, a boy with a haunted look in his eyes.
After 10 minutes or so my translator spoke to the boy and he nervously replied. "Boss" he said, "We have to go. This child lives here alone, his father is dead, he has never met this man, he doesn't know why we are having tea here". A setup? It seems possible. I grabbed my cameras and shoes and we left as fast as we could along the passageway that led back to the city. As we did so the Pashtun was heading our way, without tea but with a mobile phone in his hand. He looked angry. "Where are you going?" We replied that I had received an urgent phone call and had to leave. He continued his angered protestations but we eventually got away, ran to our car and left. In all of my time here, it was the moment that I have felt the least safe - something was up, it was all wrong, it felt like a kidnap situation, it felt worse. We breathed deeply on our way back to Mazar.
There was a definite tension amongst many Afghans that I met last week, a palpable sense of 'something'. It is why I uttered those words of concern to my translator. And it's why, when we were waved through checkpoint after checkpoint as we entered Kabul's famous 'Ring of Steel' yesterday evening, I thought how easy it would be to attack at will. An obvious portent to suggest.
After the first explosion hit nearby this afternoon, the gunfire commenced a constant rattle. News started to filter through about multiple attacks across the City, the places I spend my days in, the places where my friends live. Another SMS alerted us to an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) attack on or near The Golden Key restaurant, just off Street 15 in Wasir Akhbar Khan. We eat there regularly, my team tries and fails to win the Monday night Quiz night, an evening to pit your wits against the international community in this land of blood and dust. As I did so a massive blast hit close by, the house and windows shook violently. I shook in momentary shock! An RPG had landed just two houses away, too close, a salutary sign of the randomness of conflict. The tone of my afternoon was set.
The next 30 minutes were spent trying to locate all the various Afghans that I live with in this house, make sure they were safe, get them home, whilst RPGs thumped and crumpled nearby. I wandered up to the roof of our house to take a look, have a listen, to see what I could see. One of our guards was already stationed up there, an AK 47 in his hand, patrolling back and forth, watching as the streets below filled with members of the APF, the Afghan Police. I have had my run in with these guys before, but it was good to see them in such abundance, so near. As we stood there, bathed in spring sunshine, the gunfire and the sound of RPGs was a constant and disturbing backdrop. I counted 20 explosions in a little over an hour. Somewhere on the Darul Aman road, just across the houses in front of me, mayhem was in motion. It's what coalition forces calls 'kinetic', it's what I would call 'war'.
It's now 17.13 pm, late in the afternoon and as I type these words, another round of gunfire has smashed the relative peace of the last hour, it's still going on, and it will continue to go on, and here is why. When we, the coalition, announced that we were to begin our drawdown of troops in 2014, we sent a solid and clear signal to the Taliban, we provided the perfect ingredients for an opening up of Afghanistan to a long and bitter internecine war. The Taliban aren't a spent force, they are quiet, brooding and growing strength that can hit at will, wherever they choose. And today they chose the street I live on, and many others across Kabul and Afghanistan. And tomorrow, and next year and...
The face of fear. A child living through war, the child that could have been an unwitting part in a kidnap.