Friday, July 3, 2009

I am not afraid (…… that's obviously a lie)


I guess when writing about Afghanistan you don’t get around a blog about security. The reason why it’s so late is that I didn’t really care to actively delve in all the threats we are surrounded by. Then yesterday we were briefed that, with elections coming up, there have been new concrete threats on our organization. So yesterday we had a security exercise and there’ll be more to come. The fear of something happening is omnipresent, though even an easily frightened individual like myself, learns to blank it out after some time. Here some noticeable things:

Work Rules:
You are taken everywhere by an official work car with a driver. They take you to work, sports, restaurants, everything. For those who like the idea of a chauffeur it rocks, for those who like to cycle and be as independent as possible, it, well, takes some getting used to (and around). As a female staff I am not allowed to walk outside alone. I must be accompanied by either one international or two national staff and can walk maximally 150m (no joke). Shopping is only allowed in certain places and you must be taken there by car. You are only allowed to sleep (or go to) houses which meet security regulations (razor wired security wall, guards, a bunker or safe room). There’s a curfew between 11pm and 6am. The city is divided into parts, and you need permission to leave the area marked the ‘security box’. You are issued a radio and must check in every night (and in theory tell them wherever you go should be recorded) – this is cool in the beginning because you get to say stuff like “alpha kilo 775 to base” and you finally get to use the word “roger” – a life’s ambition).

Play Rules:
Ignore all of the above restrictions and just be cautious is pretty much the first rule everyone teaches you. Depending on the person, some appear to stick to more to the Work rules, many others just try to stay alive while living an acceptably normal life. There are some very good private car services (more reliable than any Western taxi service I’ve seen a million times cheaper) which take you safely wherever you want to go. People figure out very quickly, that you are much more visible (and stared at) when in a UN car, than on foot. I’m usually thought to be Afghan or from Pakistan at work, so the further from internationals, the safer you feel sometimes. But every time you want to do something like go to party (which never end at curfew time), go somewhere fun outside, walk to a shop, buy a mango yourself, or even just walk a street to take in the air --- always a judgment call.

Fear:
The scary stuff is very real here. The first day I arrived my housemate lost a colleague to a road side bomb (it had been his last month on duty in Afghanistan). Last week a Philippine colleague lost a good friend from the UNICEFstaff to the same. The gym I go to (the only one available to women or internationals) is in a hotel that was target of a major attack just a year ago. They bombed themselves through the gate, then the next bunch of them ran into the hotel, its gym and sauna and killed eight people. Two weeks ago there was a memorial service for a Norwegian journalist who was killed there. Each time I sweat away on the treatmill I think of where to run should something happened. Have now reduced my visits there to once a week because as elections are coming up, the risk level of that place is going up (last time I was there, there was a high profile ministerial celebration in the garden—just screamed TARGET to me). Everyday you read or hear of someone or something that reminds you of why this place is not only fascinating, beautiful and inspiring but also downright scary.

Fortress:
Any place that Westerners go to will be somewhat fortress-like. Most have 1-3 rooms (or walled off areas) you have to go through and be searched in before you enter. Only guys get body searched, women just open their bags. All restaurants have signs reminding you not to bring in guns and they always check through a little barred window in the door whether you are a crazy person or a customer.
At work it’s a real fortress. You first drive into a gated area with a huuuugge fat security wall (was recently built due to the heightened threats). The car is searched thoroughly with mirrors etc. for bombs and everyone shows their IDs. Upon leaving they then check all the car doors are locked and that the windows are tightly shut even if it’s burning hot. The compound has several Gurkha and Afghan guards and a watch tower with more armed guards. The glass of all windows of all the buildings in the compound has been removed. Super ugly, but safer I am told… There are signs pointing out the bunkers and security assembly points everywhere.
And as said, we practice the various If-scenarios: suicide attack, intruders, compound evacuation, country evacuation, etc. Still, anyone who’s experienced an attack here –and among the national staff the number is scarily high – tells you there’s not much you can practice… it just comes down to luck.

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