Quran burning in Kabul? What it's like for an expat in Afghanistan

During a lockdown, if you try to walk across the street to buy bread, your compound guards will not only deny you exit, they’ll reprimand you for being outside at all. It's all part of living in Kabul.

By , Contributor

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    Afghans shout slogans during anti-US protest over burning of Qurans at a military base in Afghanistan, in Ghani Khail, east of Kabul on Friday.
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I’ve gotten plenty of phone calls and e-mails from friends and family in the States asking me how I’m coping this week with the angry and deadly protests here over Quran burnings at a military base. I'm OK.

The barrage of concern directed my way whenever there is a flare-up of some sort here has become part of my normal security updates. Here in Kabul, those start with a text message or e-mail that reads like a military report.

A staff security director will explain that a situation is developing, and that they are monitoring it carefully, and that employees should stay tuned for further updates. 

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A follow-up message will inform you whether what they are watching is peaceful or violent, and whether it is moving or stationary.

Depending on the length of a given protest, certain sections of town invariably become off limits. The largest foreign organizations mark their cars and subsequently worry about being targeted, but many organizations here slip around the city in unmarked cars and local taxis, keeping as low a profile as possible. 

When you get the message that violence is expected, you are put on lockdown, known among expats as "White City" for the UN’s corresponding alert color.

A bizarre ritual sets in: You devour every bit of news being published halfway around the world about events happening within a few blocks of your house, though often you won’t see anything other than empty streets and shuttered shops.

Friends you haven’t heard from in months will check in with you, often with more current news than you have, and ask how you’re coping with the violence.

Because there are no foreigners traversing the streets, traffic is noticeably better. This is particularly so on Fridays, when most of the city sleeps in and goes to the mosque, and businesses are closed anyway. 

As I’ve learned in the 18 months that I’ve lived here, Kabul is no stranger to protests. The vast majority are peaceful. The crowds, ranging from dozens to a few hundred, are generally exercising their post-Taliban era right to assemble and demanding that this or that corrupt politician or governor be removed from office.

The demonstrations generally follow a fairly formulaic path: Protesters march down to this embassy, that military base, those mammoth international organizations. And the war correspondents who show up, looking for signs of conflict to report on, complain about the traffic and head home. 

Given the frequency of these lockdowns – every time there is an assassination, explosion, or protest, or often even the threat of one – an entire catering industry has formed to attend to the needs of those locked down expats stuck in their houses, bored and flush with cash.

And if you try to walk across the street to buy some oven fresh bread, your compound Kalashnikov-toting guards will not only deny you exit, they’ll thoroughly reprimand you, though they themselves will just switch their clothes at the end of their shift and walk home, disappearing into the city without a care in the world. 

In the end, this is all part of living in a city on the edge of a warzone.

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