Bomb disposal at the Sound of Music.

My wife and my daughter have been going to dancing lessons the last semester. I know that sounds out of place in Kabul, but several years ago, a woman from the US, mainly through vision and raw determination, set up the Kabul Dance Studio. In a context of war and violence and chaos, dancing seem to her to be a sign of hope and beauty. And for lots of the young girls and their mothers – Afghan and expat, it has become so.

Yesterday was the performance, and most of the day the dancers were all in doing final rehearsals. The performance was at the Serena Hotel – the most fortified of hospitality venues you are ever likely to encounter. At 2.30, we arrive, well in time for the 3.00pm start, and are directed through a chicane, where we are stopped behind heavy boom gates.  I produce ID and we are asked if we are carrying weapons. The car is inspected for bombs, and we then pass through the blast doors. We are then bag scanned and body searched, and finally permitted entrance. The Serena has been a target for suicide bombers in the past, and some parents refused to let their children do the dancing, or attend the show, on security grounds, but it is a risk we decide acceptable. You have to take fun where you can here.

We settle into the Grand Ballroom in the seats Julie has reserved. A few minutes later Pete notices a bag lying on floor near us. It looks to be a video camera bag. We joke that it might be a bomb. Haha, yes, a bomb. After another few minutes we look at each other, and Pete says, with a tone of nervousness, as though apologising for worrying about such things, ‘You know, maybe it is a bomb. We should check.’

He’s right that it is odd, that a camera be left there, with no one claiming it, minutes before the show starts. I take the bag and gingerly open it. It looks like a video camera. I speculate aloud whether if I turn it on, it will trigger the bomb. ‘Haha, yes, could be’, says Pete. Haha, yes, I think, not turning it on. I fiddle with it a bit, in a very uncommitted way, remove and replace the battery, and declare with a complete lack of conviction, that it is probably ok. But it is still making us fidget, and so Pete goes and hides the bag behind a large pillar, so that if it does blow up, the blast will go away from us all. That’s bomb-disposal 101 folks! See how easy it is!

The curtain goes up, and if you thought tap-dancing in Afghanistan was anachronistic, try watching the ladies and girls perform the Sound of Music in Kabul. Ballet, waltz, lyrical dance, tap, shiny taffeta dresses and make up like Spack-filler.  It is great though, and most movingly, the dance instructor has this season worked with half a dozen girls from one of the orphanages. Six girls, from ages four to eight, performed Edelweiss, and it was lovely. I can’t imagine a day in the life of a girl in a Kabul orphanage being much fun, but yesterday was certainly an exception.

The end to the camera bag bomb incident comes as Pete notices that a group of boys – my son included, are now hanging around the pillar where we have so cleverly hidden the bag. In a final decisive move, we take it outside and leave it on a table. The performance ends, the dancers are cheered off, no bombs, and we all eat icecream in the grassy grounds of the Serena Hotel as sunlight streams through the green mulberry leaves.

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A very loud bang and a lot of smoke.

That is what a suicide bomb looks like. It sounds like nothing else I have ever heard. An incredibly loud bang, that shudders the entire building. When a headline says, ‘Bomb rocks Kabul’, it is true. I am sitting at my desk and when the bomb detonates, I cringe. We scatter outside, trying to locate the explosion. It is not far away: maybe 300m, at the end of our street and a bit to the right.

We watch the plume rise and people flock towards the site: the voyeurs, the worried, the fascinated: the normal response that chaos and destruction brings. A few people are coming the opposite way: a young boy, accompanied by another who is holding his arm. The first boy holds his stomach, and it is only after he passes that I register that his shirt is soaked with blood. There is a medical clinic just down the road from us, though I have never seen it open. I hope it is today.

I phone Julie; she has been picking up the kids and they are still in the school corridor, just waiting a while, with all the teachers and students. Then I phone colleagues: again, everyone ok. Up the road from us is another NGO that we are close to, ideologically and in practice, and their director phones to make sure we are ok. Their windows have all been broken in the blast, again: there was a suicide bomber last year (that I also happened across – Good Friday’s suicide message ), that blew out their windows too.

I sit down and try to work and notice my pulse is high. I go into the next office. Karima, my colleague is staring vacantly at her screen. I ask her if she is ok.

‘I am ok, but my thoughts are not ok.’ Tears rise in her eyes. I don’t know what to say. I turn, then turn back: ‘Karima, go and sit with Suraya. Drink tea’. Suraya works with the other NGO that we share a compound with. Karima dabs her eyes, but as she stands up, she breaks and begins to sob. I try a sort of smile, and leave, and a moment or two later she walks heavily across the yard to Suraya’s office.

Nasir comes back into the office. His brother studies at the school, just in front of which the bomb detonated. His brother is ok, but Nasir himself had driven through that exact stretch of road maybe two minutes earlier, returning from the town. He sags in his seat.

I send all the staff home.

*

You can play a lot of whatiffery at times like this. What if Nasir had been late? What if I had been going out that way? What if it was a little closer? Or Julie had been taking the kids out? Or? Or? 

I leave the office and drive home, and by the time I reach the main road, the bomb site is largely cleared. Shattered windows the main evidence, and throngs of people, standing, talking, gazing.

I get home and find the diesel heater has flooded. There is several litres of gunky black fuel that I need to siphon out of the heater or we will have our own little explosion. An hour or so later, I have removed a small amount of the dieset and seem to have absorbed the rest of it through the pores of my skin and by soaking it into my good shirt. We can now light the heater and start to warm up. We need a bit of warmth and rest at this point.

Remembrance

This morning the electricity went off at about 4.30 am, and within seconds I was awake as the heat rose. Shortly after, the loudspeaker at the mosque crackled to life, and even in my semi comatose state, I could hear what was being said: the imam was reading a list of the names of people killed in the bomb at the Indian Embassy yesterday. The shaheed: those who died and are now witnesses to the Glory of God.

I have heard this before, back in the older days here, when the Taliban were in town. The imam reads the name of the killed person, and his or her family. It takes a long time to go through a list. Death permeating into life, a public remembering of those who have died.

I lay and listened in the heat.