“When I came back in ‘96 I was deeply shocked, it was the closest thing to a moonscape, a completely smashed up city.”
My name is Michael Keating.
I am the Deputy Envoy of the UN to Afghanistan. I am responsible for coordination of the UN agency and humanitarian agencies; I am also one of two deputies in the political office.
My first memory of Kabul is spiralling down in a private jet in 1988 because the government controlled the airport and we risked being shot at by the Mujahideen.
I remember thinking what a lovely city Kabul was. Tree-lined, not too much traffic; everything was orderly and clean. There was a feeling of being somewhere very special; knowing you were in a city under siege created a sense of history and place and solidarity and strangeness.
There was a lively party scene among the expats, lots of parties. During all these parties there would be rockets coming in and out, the game was to figure out whether they were incoming or outgoing. Of course everybody was a self appointed expert on this.
Kabul at that time was a semi-westernized Central Asian city, which was such a contrast to the rural areas of the country – essentially Mujahideen, very conservative. I spent a lot of time in rural Afghanistan because the UN was split between the government and the Mujahideen. I worked with the Mujahideen commanders. We would tell the government where we were travelling so they wouldn’t shoot at us. I remember one incident when we were driving and suddenly a helicopter gunship started following us, of course the conversation in the car was ‘do we have UN written on the roof of the car or not?’ So we were frantically radioing Kabul to let the authorities know we were the UN and could they kindly, you know, not shoot at us.
When I came back in 1996 I was deeply shocked by how appalling Kabul was. It was the closest thing to a moonscape, a completely smashed up city. It was miserable.
There was a much smaller international presence. I remember going for drinks and feeling the whole thing was very illicit and underground. But the drinking didn’t last long because all the booze suppliers were taken by the Taliban and smashed. It was a very different atmosphere to the ‘80s.
Having said that, it was quite interesting dealing with the Taliban. They were very naive, I mean suddenly they were supposed to run a government and they were not equipped for it. Some of them were very, very well educated and knew what they were doing but others clearly didn’t. The impression was of a movement that found itself with the responsibility of running a country but didn’t have the wherewithal to do it.
Another memory I have of 1996 is of two lions at the zoo. One of them was blind, they were very sorry specimens. The guy looking after the zoo told me that his job was to somehow keep these animals alive, and lions need meat. There was no meat in the city for the humans let alone for animals. He was not very forthcoming on how they were surviving, but there was a slight hint that some of the meat was not necessarily animal meat, can you imagine?
In the last two years a lot of people have had to move from private houses to compounds that have become fortresses. The international community lives in a bubble world because of security restrictions. It is difficult to engage with Afghans socially; we can’t walk around or go Afghan shops or markets. It is very difficult to retain a sense of what reality is like for ordinary Afghans. For us to spend $40 in a restaurant is nothing, but that is a complete fortune for most of the families in Kabul. Being so close together and yet existing in these two completely different worlds makes it more dramatic. I am very lucky as I travel to different provinces for my job and I can get out and meet the local community. But I really am an exception to the rule.
The biggest problem here for ordinary Afghans is making a living. Other problems are pollution, traffic, lack of space. These are problems common to cities in other developing countries, but I suspect here that they are turbo-charged because of the conflict.
I think what’s good about Kabul now is its dynamism, there is a lot going on and there is the sense of people in a hurry getting things done; there’s hustle and bustle and entrepreneurship. The frustrating aspect is that I don’t get exposed to that too much as I get driven around the city in a bulletproof vehicle. I feel very lucky that I have been here before and as part of my work I spend time in the rural areas. Without this background I don’t see how I could possible understand Kabul, and what’s underneath all the restrictions we now face.