Cards in Kabul

We sat in a loose circle in the dark living room we all shared, playing cards and pretending everything was okay.  “Hit me,” Jignesh said, and whoever was playing the dealer that night gave him another card.  Stefan passed, I passed, and Aleksandar asked for a card.  Paul, the only other fellow American, tried to crack a joke, but all he got was a couple of pity chuckles. 

It had started in Jalalabad the day before.  First angry but peaceful protests in the streets, then larger mobs that rose up like blisters of a heat rash.  Our international aid agency had a couple buildings along one of the main streets.  They had hit the women’s center first.  Hundreds of men in white and beige and pale blue long pants and shirts, barreled down the street with smaller groups that splintered off to throw the literacy teaching guides off the shelves, and torch one classroom, then another, then the room with all the wool and tapestries of traditional Afghan designs.  By the time the mob got to the office, the police had thinned out the crowd a little, so less men were there to throw the furniture out the windows and tear down the signs that proved an international, foreign presence was there.

Our organization was there to help improve literacy rates, support local teachers and train women and poppy growers in new means of securing income.  The programs were not perfect and they were not home grown, and during those tense days in May of 2005, they must have represented the oppression of the west, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the disrespect of Islam.  News had just broken of U.S. soldiers allegedly desecrating the Quran by throwing the Muslims’ holy book in the toilet in Guantanamo Bay, and the anger was being released halfway around the world.

 My coworkers and I sat in our guesthouse, enclosed by tall walls and metal gates topped with barbed wire, worried about our coworkers in Jalalabad further east.  We knew that both cities were not at the top of any “safest places to live” lists, but riots and burning buildings heightened our need for caution.  Jalalabad had given way to anger and violence quickly, it was a rational fear that Kabul would fall next.

Bam!  There was a loud knock at the gates.  Steel on metal.  Urgent.  We had guards outside and we were inside, and for a brief moment everyone just stopped.  But one person, still holding his cards, ran and the rest of us scattered.  No quick group discussion, no instructions from our security officer, no pre-plans followed.  We all just moved.  As I jumped off my seat I grabbed my laptop bag, device inside, desperate for any type of shield I could get.  I looked around for a hiding spot but all I saw was open space.  I heard heavy footsteps and low, strained voices.  I ran into the kitchen, grabbed the biggest knife I saw, and waited.