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Journal from Kabul

Jemima Montagu
Jemima Montagu
Kabul, Afghanistan
for the Politics Show

The balloon man in Kabul

It's 7.35am and a thin autumn light spreads across the city.

The car lurches to a halt in the usual tangle of traffic during morning rush hour in Kabul.

Out of the window, I see sights that no longer surprise me: a man stripping furred skin from a hanging calf, blood pouring into a pool on the uneven road.

On a table nearby lie a neat row of severed, yellowing, animal hooves.

The beaten-up car in front of me bulges with cauliflowers, stacked high in the boot, on its way to market.

But if I look up, I see the majestic mountains that encircle the city, already dusted with the first snows. The mountains reach around the city with a protective clasp, perhaps holding in this expanding metropolis, perhaps trying to hold back the erupting violence.

In less than two weeks, there have been more than two abductions of foreigners from the very heart of the city, the murder of a young British woman on her way to work, the shooting of two DHL employees in a criminal attack, and a suicide bomb at the Ministry of Culture, as well as countless other acts of crime on ordinary Afghans.

These frightening events are happening all around me, and there is an increasing sense that it could be me, this time, next time, another time. Soon.

How far am I from the film-sequence that we all imagine and dread?

Yet I remain sanguine.

I grew up in London and I know that the underbelly of all big cities seethes with crime and violence.

Although foreign deaths and fears steal the headlines, the impact of a corrupt and almost lawless state is far greater on the Afghan people, who are trying to rebuild their lives yet again.

Despite foreign billions, the electricity sputters on and off, unpredictably, across the city, and most roads are rubble and holes.

Accomplished drivers enjoy the slalom.

Jemima Montagu in Kabul

There are police check-points at almost every central interchange, but nobody has much faith in the local police. They'll take your money quicker than protect your money.

And not far away, less than 15 miles out of the city, there is a war, or several wars, in which many foreign troops, including my compatriots, and far too many Afghans, are dying daily.

It's Remembrance Sunday, and yet the British parades, sombre suits and respectful radio monotone of David Dimbleby seem so far away from here.

People talk of war memorials and remembering the dead in new peace-building and reconciliation initiatives, but here it's hard to memorialise the dead when death lurks around every corner, and every morning there is somebody new to be mourned.

Instead each day rolls forward, chaotically, with cauliflowers in car boots, sheep sifting through rubbish heaps, traffic jams and hot tempers, observed by the still mountains, Kabul's immutable witnesses.

And if I am lucky I will suddenly see the balloon man glide by, an unintentional symbol of hope.

A man on a bicycle, bobbing along the road, one arm holding a cloud of brightly coloured orbs, framed by the clear blue sky.


Jemima Montagu works for the British charity, Turquoise Mountain Foundation.

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