KABUL AT NIGHT
Kabul at night. It was the first time I had been out driving at night. These were the “danger hours,” when westerners were sternly warned to stay off the streets. Three Afghan colleagues had invited me for a pizza dinner in a place that secretly served wine and beer. What could go wrong? Well, two weeks ago an Italian woman had been dragged from her car and kidnapped.
It was ten PM, and the usually packed city was deathly quiet – no lights, shops closed, sidewalks deserted. Dark buildings leaned over the street, making uneven cut outs in the thick blanket of stars above. Our tiny beat-up Mazda, jerked to avoid deep potholes in the street, like a tilt-a-whirl at a county fair.
As we entered a roundabout lit by just two acid-yellow lights, one of Kabul’s mini wind storms blew a cloud of dust and paper across the street. Dim figures emerged, just silhouettes at first. It was 4 or 5 guys, in police uniforms, AK-47 automatic rifles in hand, waving at us to stop. It was a concern, because police uniforms can be bought in any bazaar for a few bucks– AKs too.
I looked over my shoulder from the front passenger seat, looking for assurance from my friends in the rear, but they looked as scared as I felt. An armed guard, with his own uniform and AK-47, was usually back there. On this trip, out to a late dinner, we had decided it wasn’t necessary—and there wouldn’t have been room anyway.
Great, this was the exact opposite of what I had been told not to do ever, since setting foot in Afghanistan– riding in a car, without a guard, late at night. I was toast. As the driver eased to a stop, rolled down his window, and snapped on the interior light, I instinctively laid my hands flat and open on my lap.
A policeman, or the guy dressed like one, stuck his head through the window. After a long stare at the four of us, he asked for the driver’s permit. I was the only westerner. He motioned at me to open the glove box. Thankfully, nothing was inside—like a gun. He stepped back and waved us on. The driver floored it and the police disappeared in a swirl of yellow dust and crumpled papers. I swore to myself that I’d never do that again. But I did. (to be continued)