Conflict & Justice

Essay: You can take the reporter out of Afghanistan…


Afghan boys fly a kite on a hill overlooking Kabul.


Paula Bronstein

CAPE COD, Massachusetts — Seagulls cawing, song birds chirping, salt breezes blowing — I am about to go mad. The sun sparkling on the water gives me a headache, and I have developed swimmer’s ear from my daily dunks in the Atlantic.

In the month since I left Kabul, I am starting to remember why I have lived outside the United States for the past 20 years.

Getting my television hooked up was a major trial, since I had no idea what an HD-DVR was. I have had to mortgage my house to buy health insurance, and the domestic political debate inspires alternate fits of hysteria and depair.

Now my eagerly awaited exit from Afghanistan is beginning to look like the expulsion from Paradise, albeit from an Eden with a serpent behind every bush.

Since my departure at the end of June, all hell has broken loose. There was a coordinated attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, the most powerful man in the south was assassinated, and a man I met at a dinner party a few months ago was gunned down in a private residence, along with a close aide to the president.

(GlobalPost in Kabul: In search of a good time in Afghanistan's capital)

As any jaded journalist will tell you, the worst feeling of all is being left out of the story. Under the azure skies of beautiful Cape Cod, I might as well be on the moon. While tragedy and mayhem swirl around my friends and colleagues in Kabul, I bite my nails, go for long walks on the beach and comb the internet for news.

The only time I have felt comfortable in the past few weeks was during Fourth of July celebrations, when the rockets and firecrackers finally made me feel at home.

I guess it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for.” I had burned out badly on Afghanistan, and could not wait to board my plane for the flight home. Over the past seven years I had gone from euphoria to despair, following the trajectory of most of my Afghan friends.

In 2004, when I first arrived, the future seemed unfailingly bright. Afghanistan had just held its first direct presidential elections, and the country seemed tremendously proud of its accomplishment. Aside from a few hiccups — “indelible” ink that easily washed off with water or spit, ballot boxes transported by donkey that never quite made it to the polling stations — things went pretty well.

Hamid Karzai won handily, gaining three times the number of votes of his closest rival. Afghanistan, we were told, was well and truly on its way to stability, prosperity, and democracy.

I used to walk all over Kabul, shopping, daydreaming, sightseeing. I took yellow city cabs, alone, and hesitated for only a few minutes before donning a burqa and driving from Kandahar, in the south, to Kabul, in the winter of 2005.

None of those activities would be possible today. Foreign women walking alone in Kabul frequently have stones thrown at them, and too many of my friends have been kidnapped for me to dismiss the danger of road travel in the south.

I stopped taking Afghan yellow cabs after I was groped by a driver, and my daily workouts at the Serena Hotel gym were all too often interrupted by rockets attacks or gun battles.

In some ways, however, Kabul has improved. An energetic mayor has repaired many of the roads, there are numerous restaurants and bars, and one can easily find an ATM to get cash. There are well-stocked supermarkets, and several “safe taxi” firms now exist to ferry foreigners around.

Food delivery was a welcome addition; on any given night, I could call Easy Food or Meals 2 Go and order pizza, Chinese food, a Lebanese feast or a mountain of Pad Thai. Even alcohol, which is officially banned, could be had for a price: an enterprising pair of brothers started a company improbably known as “Alkidrop,” and deliver bottles of really bad wine for really high prices.

But ultimately I found that fast food and ready cash could not take away the constant stress of being in a country where I could no longer understand what we were doing or why we were there.

My Afghan friends are growing more and more cynical. “Democracy is a joke” has become a common refrain, and the hostility that many of them feel toward the foreign troops in the country can no longer be masked.

(GlobalPost in Kabul: The myth of Afghan democracy)

When the president’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was gunned down in his Kandahar home last week, one of my erstwhile colleagues advanced the theory that it must have been done by the U.S. forces. Nothing, it seems, is too shocking too be blamed on the Americans.

Another friend tried to convince me, with some success, that the country would be much better off if all of the foreigners just left, and the Afghans were forced to fight it out on their own.

These are young, highly-educated, well-traveled city boys, most of them working in international ventures of one sort or another. I cannot begin to imagine the stories being spun in the remote, insurgency-ridden provinces, where illiteracy can reach 90 percent and where many locals see the foreigners as no better than the Taliban.

I have covered civilian casualties that made my blood boil, and have run out of patience with apologies and cover-ups. I know that the insurgents kill many more civilians than the international forces, but somehow I find that of little comfort when reporting on pregnant women shot in botched night raids, or small children gunned down as they gather firewood. I thought we were supposed to be the good guys?

My hope for the future was gone, and my tolerance for the present was rapidly wearing thin. So, yes, it was time for me to go.

But the pull is still there. My first day back in the United States coincided with the Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel, which is just a few blocks away from what used to be my house.

I immediately called a friend in Kabul, with whom I had shared an office. At 1 a.m., he and some friends were camped out in the remnants of my living room, monitoring the action by phone, Twitter, and personal observation.

(More from GlobalPost: It's been a bad year so far for Afghanistan)

I desperately wanted to be there, in the front row of the action.

Some of my friends shake their heads in dismay. “You have to learn to let go,” said one. Another old Afghanistan hand, who has just recently left, sent me what I’m sure was intended to be a reassuring message on message on Facebook: “I don’t miss it one little bit,” he said.

But others understand. A good friend with whom I shared adventures and brandy in Helmand province reacted soothingly to my angst. He himself has been a bit of an Afghanistan boomerang — as soon as he leaves he seems to land a job that necessitates his immediate return.

“You’ll be back,” he wrote me.

I suspect he is right.