Sleepless in Kabul
By Margaret Orwig
Waking up to your bedroom windows blowing out from an explosion at 6am is, to put it mildly, a very un-relaxing experience. One Saturday morning in 2009, this happened in Jalalabad. It is terrifying because you don’t know what has happened, where it has happened, or what will happen next. Only that whatever has happened, is too close for comfort.
As it turned out, a munitions depot had exploded through an unfortunate accident on a military base about a kilometer away from our house. We were not under imminent threat that day. But still, none of us could sleep any more that morning, or very soundly for several weeks thereafter.
It’s this uncertainty that fuels my fear every time there is an explosion nearby in Afghanistan. And so it was two weeks ago when several parts of the city came under heavy assault from Taliban forces.
It’s always interesting to see which news stories here make the headlines in Europe and the US, and which ones don’t. The attack two weeks ago was by far the longest and scariest fighting I have witnessed in five years here. While I know the Western news outlets did cover it, it seems they grouped it among other attacks in Kabul that have happened in the past—which is to say, par for the course during the spring, at least since 2005.
I have developed a kind-of personal monitoring system of how dire the news outlets have made any situation in Afghanistan sound; my system is dependent on the level of contact from my family in California. Skype note from my Dad? A mere mention on CNN. An email from my aunt? Possibly in the international headlines. Phone calls—especially from multiple sources—definitely a prime time story. This event merited just one phone call from my uncle in Sacramento. Serious, but not dire.
But these were not like any other attacks. The fighting started around 2pm; I was sitting in my office in Shar E Naw (basically downtown Kabul), and heard the rat-tat-tat of machine gunfire. I cancelled my afternoon meeting, and started googling ‘Kabul Attacks’ to see if I could find out more information about where the attacks were happening.
But, unlike in the past, it wasn’t just one incident. Suddenly, we heard explosions coming from different parts of the city and more gunfire. Then a few minutes of tense silence, followed by several booms— rockets fired into buildings. But whose rockets, was the question on all of our faces as we sat in the office, wide-eyed, listening and waiting.
I spent much of the evening with my neighbours—they have seven or eight children (never all in one place at the same time so it’s difficult to count)—and as we sat inside, watching the news and gauging with our ears how close the fighting was and whether we ought to be fearing for our lives, I thought mostly of two things.
First, that this is what the fighting must have been like during the civil war in the 1990s here. Constant explosions—a real battle—less than a kilometer away from where we were.
The second thing I thought about was these children—what do children who grow up in the midst of battles think? I tried not to show my own fear, and we spent several hours recording and playing back silly videos of ourselves on my Ipad—but the news was on, their parents were discussing the severity of the attacks, and they certainly heard all the explosions. The littlest, Marwa, explained to me in the kind of 2-year-old’s Dari that I can understand that there were ‘big explosions’ and that’s why we couldn’t play outside today, even though it was warm. What it must be like, I wonder, to have such memories, to grow up amidst such violence and uncertainty?
The fighting continued all afternoon and evening and well into the night. Around 11pm, the fighting paused, but started up again around 1am—and didn’t stop again until 7 in the morning. We heard hundreds of rockets echoing through the midnight city, and knew that ISAF had finally joined the fight when we heard helicopters circling overhead. These helicopters also brought a new sound of war for me—strafing fire, I read later in the online news—almost grazing our rooftops it seemed, their engines rattling our windows. Dogs barking and sheep braying at these night-time disturbances.
Around 7am the ANA stopped firing rockets and everyone could finally fall into uneasy sleep for an hour. We—all of my friends and I—called one another and sent texts to make sure everyone was accounted for, and to hear any updates that weren’t making the news. We all laughed because nobody had slept all night, but we hadn’t wanted to call anyone else in case they had somehow managed to rest amidst the rocketfire.
At least I know for next time—that the entire city is awake, waiting and listening; nobody is getting any sleep during the night, or very sound sleep for several weeks thereafter.
I know, because it’s 2am, two weeks after these attacks, and I can’t sleep. And, my ears tell me, neither can the neighbours. Or the sheep.