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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 July 2006, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Refuge from the real Afghanistan
By Paul Vickers
BBC News, Kabul

An Afghan woman buys gold jewellery at a Kabul gold market
It is easy to forget the poverty affecting the rest of the country

Some 10,000 US-led coalition forces have been engaged in a large-scale offensive against Taleban fighters in southern Afghanistan, where around 700 people have been killed in the last few weeks.

But in the capital, Kabul, the upper echelons of society appear to have forgotten the horrors on their doorstep.

Just a few days ago now, a grand party was held at the US Embassy in Kabul, a redoubt as impregnable as any crusader castle reinforced deep in the heart of a city still described by hardy optimists as the capital of Afghanistan.

The US Ambassador, Ronald Neumann, made an upbeat speech reminding the guests (dress code: lounge suits or national dress) of the thousands of Afghan students educated thanks to the generosity of the American people; of the schools and courthouses built, and of the roads rolled out by provincial reconstruction teams stretching far into the deserts and mountains.

There was some polite applause and then the guests made a bee line for the dance floor, the band of the 10th Mountain Division, still wearing their desert camouflage, struck up and churned out a few more Gershwin classics.

Kabul scene

This was a typical social event, tailor-made for the elite in Kabul; aid workers, journalists, diplomats, military top brass and the odd rough diamond - the Northwest Frontier's new Raj - all eagerly swapping business cards and networking with the same people they had met before at the last, equally lavish cocktail and canape melee.

In fact, the same faces and the same frocks turn up over and over again at this embassy or that - at the British Council perhaps.

There is even a magazine here called Kabul Scene Magazine that carries a people section with Tatler-style photos.

It is easy to forget that you are in a war zone when you graduate to this exclusive social set.

If you fancy a change there is l'Atmosphere, Kabul's premier French restaurant, where by day you can lounge by the pool, or play petanque and by night you can dine under the stars, eating steak frites, ending the evening with a brandy, or one of the best mojitos in town.

Gary, an American military contractor, told me over a cold beer that the street outside l'Atmosphere is known as "Abduction Alley".

It is especially busy at night, when well-oiled partygoers who have forgotten that they are in a war zone set off into the darkness hoping to find their Landcruisers.

And it is easy to forget that you are in a war zone when you graduate to this exclusive social set. It is easy to forget the poverty too.

Chicken Street

A very glamorous French woman with ruby-painted toenails bent my ear about her shopping trip to Chicken Street.

"I have bought everything I need for my apartment," she said. "All I want now is to find somewhere in Kabul that sells enough bubble wrap so I can fly it home."

A quarter of the children born in this country still die before reaching the age of five

She had spent more than most Afghans earn in a year on carpets and traditional furniture.

And she complained: "I hate the military here. All they do is follow orders.

"Most of the private contractors are nothing more than murderers," she said. I thought of my friend Gary, the contractor.

Had this murderous band of soldier contractors not been here, I suggested, the shopping trip might well have ended with a bag over her head ... or much worse.

She silenced the discussion with a brisk flick of her hand.

But the last time I was here, a local man strolled up to a Western shopper - just as though he was greeting an old friend, his beard dyed scarlet with henna, his eyes ecstatic.

He embraced the shopper and then detonated the five grenades tied around his belt. That was Chicken Street not so long ago.

No future

The only Afghans that many of these people meet are the ones circulating with the trays of Chardonnay or Merlot at parties.

But once they have collected the empty glasses, they go home to a rather different Afghanistan - the Afghanistan that their guests are supposed to be reconstructing.

A quarter of the children born in this country still die before reaching the age of five.

In provinces like Helmand and Zabul, those fabled schools have been taken over by mullahs who have learned to hate the West

If they live longer than that, they can expect, on the whole, to find little healthcare, no safe water, no sewage system, no jobs, no security and no future.

The roads that the American ambassador boasts about all too soon enter Taleban strongholds.

In provinces like Helmand and Zabul, those fabled schools have been taken over by mullahs who have learned to hate the West and its values and who firmly believe that their classrooms are no place for girls.

Outside l'Atmosphere, I chatted to one of the guards, a friendly old chap whose name I will withhold.

He was cradling his AK-47 and smiled at me, with his set of yellow and broken teeth. I had got to know him a little, stopping at the guard hut for a chat when I had time.

"I earn $47 a month," he said, "and I work every hour I can for my three sons and my wife."

He gestured towards the entrance to l'Atmosphere: "Do you really think that if the Taleban came, I would stay and fight?"

Not for $47, I said. "No," he said, "I would take off my uniform and join them."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 15 July, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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