27 January 2009

Beauty still visible through the chaos

Despite the heavy security required to work at the AUAF and the madness both actual and potential outside, the small campus offers some beautiful views of the nearby mountains on a clear day like Tuesday.

I know some of you are curious about the security situation I am facing in Kabul, so let me give you the nickel version of the briefing given Monday to new faculty members at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). The security manager, a Brit with experience in Iraq, said the biggest threat to our safety is from individual thugs and criminals gangs that are flourishing as a result of the chaos and pervasive poverty. The threats can range from theft of a cell phone or camera to kidnappings.

Kidnappings, even of Afghans, have become a lucrative source of criminal income and the Taliban is increasing contracting with these groups to do the abductions for them. Any Westerner is presumptively wealthy here and, even if you or family meet the ransom demand, your embassy is likely to be have a stake in your safe release.

There are also the more purely politically motivated acts on members of the Karzai government, U.S and western diplomats and military personnel, member of the influential NGOs, or symbols of Westernizing influence , like the five-star Serena Hotel, which was attacked a year ago this month. Then, or course, there are acts of simple terror designed to frighten, intimidate or anger the entire populace. The targets in these cases are less important than the fear and panic they create and the dead or maimed often includes Afghans.

To deal with that, AUAF faculty are shuttled by university vans back and forth to campus and for virtually every other reason we might have to leave the four “guest houses” in which we live. Each of these living quarters has 24/7 security, with at least one person with an automatic weapon; each is walled and ringed with razor wire or its equivalent. We are told to go nowhere alone and cannot walk anywhere, not even, in my case, to the “French Bakery” two blocks away. Each of the quest houses is also scheduled to get a designated “safe room” with a lockable, solid metal door in case the shit really hits the fan. There is also a plan for a full-scale university-wide evacuation.

So how do I exercise given these restrictions? A couple of the guest houses have a few pieces of exercise equipment and we have been told that we will be able to run or walk the perimeter of the fenced, 43-acre site of the proposed new campus, as long as we are driven there and back and accompanied by an escort.