Imagine a building as impressive in size and scale as Buckingham Palace. But with the crap blown out of it. You literally can’t see the floor as it’s covered in a dense carpet of fallen masonry. Every square inch is covered in flakes of plasterwork; every step you take resounds with a crunch.
The ceiling is peppered with holes where the rockets came through. There’s graffiti on every surface – pictures of tanks, of dive-bombing planes, of explosions – all drawn in charcoal. This is the Darulaman Palace in Kabul.
In the early nineties the palace was a Mujahideen base. During the violent civil war it was a missile magnet. Now it’s a ruin.
We crunch, crunch our way down a destroyed staircase. At the bottom, our fixer Humayune is waiting, pointing to a hole in the marble floor. It’s about the size of a wash-basin. Now he points up the walls; there are two large whooshes of what looks like black paint.
“A fortnight ago, there were two terrorists in here, who were planting a landmine. To kill tourists. As they were putting it here – it blew up.” Suddenly I feel very Western, very poncey and very vulnerable. I point to the whooshes of ‘paint’. “Are those what I think they are?” Our translator shrugs. “That was the terrorists.”
To be honest there aren’t many tourists in Kabul. Judith Chalmers isn’t likely to wander into the Shamali minefields to present a feature for Wish You Were Here...? - more’s the pity. In this city, the average ‘tourist’ is an aid worker with a day off – and there aren’t many of those. It’s conceivable that we were the only tourists to visit the site within the past fortnight. It’s also conceivable that if the landmine hadn’t blown up the terrorists, it might have blown up us. That mine had our names on it.
Humayune wakes me from my musings. He is casually waving what appears to be a piece of biltong under my nose. He’s not squeamish so I fear the worse. “Take it, take it,” he smirks. “What is it?” I quail. “Human cartilage.”
It’s then that I start to scan the floor properly. There’s not just fallen masonry. In this corner – a piece of charred rag. In that – a clump of hair. I say: “whoever cleaned up after the explosion didn’t do the precisest of jobs.” “No-one cleaned up,” said Humayune. “Then where’s the rest of the bodies?” Humayune doesn’t reply; he merely smiles. He doesn’t know the word ‘vapourised.’
Back in early summer 2003, the Americans were pulling down the giant statue of Saddam in Baghdad. The papers were only talking about Iraq. About Saddam’s dead sons, about American casualties, about killing Saddam. Nothing about Afghanistan any more. The Taliban, Mullah Omar, the liberation of Kabul - they seemed distant memories, buried by the bombing of Baghdad.
That’s when I started writing ‘Finding Bin Laden’, a tragi-comedy set in Kabul. Its theme: how the West looked away from Afghanistan. In my mind, I am writing a Catch 22 for the twenty-first century. In reality, I am writing a play for the Edinburgh Festival.
I show my friend Sam a first draft. Sam, who’s a television director and photographer, makes the point that if I am going to slag off the Western media for looking away from Afghanistan then I shouldn’t look away from Afghanistan myself. In fact, really, I should see it in the flesh. So two weeks later we’re on the plane to Kabul.
The plane bounces twice as we land. Through the window, bomb-damaged planes: a plane with its tail missing; a plane with its wings missing; a plane with the centre ripped out; half a plane. Incredible. And then the sign above the airport, in blood-red lettering – “Welcome to Kabul.” What were we thinking of?
I was convinced I was going to step off the plane and be shot. After all, the only time you hear about Afghanistan in the news now is when Westerners get murdered.
So, in the shimmering heat of Kabul airport, I imagine a terrorist, a murderer, an extremist fanatic in every face. Within seconds of arriving a ‘terrorist’ takes my bag. He turns his fierce eyes to me and mutters through his bushy beard: “Porter.”
Our fixer meets us at the gate. Humayune. He’s a dashing guy in his 30s. Humayune tells us this isn’t his usual job. Usually, he’s a doctor. As a medic he earns around thirty dollars a month; as a fixer for Western news crews he earns almost three times that amount – a day. He’s driving us to Western Kabul, scene of some of the greatest war damage.
A man overtakes us on a motorbike, his hair slicked back, looking every bit like an Afghan Marlon Brando. His girlfriend – or perhaps his sister – sits on the back, dressed in a burka. This surprises me. Watching Western television, I’d got the impression that all Afghan women had taken off their burkas when the Taliban lost power. Not true. Humayune explains that women now wear the burka through choice. I glance at the people on the sidewalk and estimate about half of women have chosen to wear the garment.
We arrive in Western Kabul. It reminds me of those pictures you see of Hiroshima after the bomb. Buildings collapsed like cardboard. Stumps of walls. A burned-out cinema. Bizarrely, many of these wrecks are still inhabited; a washing line can be seen, hanging inside one treacherous looking building; a campfire burning in the next. We get out of the car to look around.
The depressing mark ‘UXO’ is seen everywhere, even on walls close to the city centre. The abbreviation means ‘unexploded object’ and has usually been chalked or painted on for the benefit of bomb disposal experts. We’re told that many cluster bombs didn’t explode; and unfortunately, as the cluster bombs were the same colour as food packages, children have been known to pick up the explosives, thinking they were meals.
Appropriately, our next stop is an ortho-centre for landmine victims. Mr. Nahik, who is making plastic feet when we arrive, tells us he lost his leg in the early nineties, walking home from work. He got caught up in Mujahideen crossfire and was shot in the thigh. It took him two days to get hospital. He shows us a lane of parallel bars where peasant kids are learning to walk again. They’d stepped on mines in their fields. One lad, who can be barely more than twelve years old, is struggling. He has nothing below the waist. His legs - two metal poles.
I’ll be honest, I’m an arty-farty ponce who reads about the horrors of the world through the papers. This is a bit much for me to stomach. Struggling to keep myself together, I can’t look Sam in the eyes. He’s been in the media for 25 years, as a TV director, cameraman and press photographer. He’s seen it all. I don’t want to let the side down. When I’ve just about got myself composed, I look over at Sammy. He is in tears.
More horrors in a refugee camp on the outskirts of the city. The camp director complains that he’s received no food aid for eight months. There must be two hundred people living in this complex of tents. I say ‘tents’ – but really these shelters are made of polythene bags, rags and old sheets. Sam begins taking photos; soon a gang of kids start gathering around him, fascinated. He takes a photo of three kids beating a rhythm on an aid tin. It says: ‘USA’ on the side. Symbolically it’s empty. It seems to sum up the situation.
We’re packing up, ready to leave the camp when – an almost supernatural event – a small girl slowly walks up to us with a baby in her arms. The girl has a weird glassy stare. The kids surrounding Sam back off. They’re scared. The girl walks in a slow, measured fashion - an agony behind her eyes. Coming closer and closer towards us. The baby’s not moving, screaming or crying.
She’s just a couple of yards away now. Slowly, sadly. the girl holds the child up to us. What does she want us to do? Does she want us to take it? We’re frightened now. We too start backing away. It’s too painful to bear; too painful to look at. As we back away, still the girl stares – and we never ask the question - “Is the child alive or dead?” Typically for Westerners, we hurry away.
Back home, armed with anecdotes and photos, I rewrite the play, and Sam puts on an exhibition in Edinburgh’s Gilded Balloon. On the launch night of the Festival there is a big piss-up in the room where Sam’s photo exhibition is hanging.
People are carousing, drinking, having a good time. I am in mid-pint – enjoying myself thoroughly, when I look across the room. I catch the eye of one of the photos. It is the girl. In the refugee camp. Proffering the baby. Still the girl stares. I put my pint down. And leave.