Sunday, November 22, 2009

Rocket Attack - Too Close for Comfort

Last night was quite a night. Deni ( the other SOLA teacher ) and I were invited out to dinner and were meeting our friend Vic in downtown Kabul. The traffic was horrendous from the onset. The taxi was almost 2 hours late with the excuse there was an accident or something. The driver wasn’t quite sure. He started off going a strange route, obviously avoiding the main drag as long as possible.

Traffic in every direction was literally at a standstill from the minute we set off. Bikes and pedestrians wove their way through the cars, even they made little headway. We had just rounded the corner in front of the infamous Serena Hotel when there was an enormous explosion. My first reaction – oh no. This isn’t good. I knew it was close to us (within 100 yds) and my immediate thought was – we need to get out of here, but how? I was quite sure it was a suicide bomb.Deni later confessed he actually saw the rocket come across in front of us and then saw the explosion and gunfire.

I looked out the car window and in front of us there was suddenly nothing. The street had cleared out. It was so strange. In a millisecond there were no cars where seconds before there was nothing but cars. It looked like a dark plaza – completely empty. I'm not sure where all the cars went. There we were, Deni in the front seat, me in the back, the driver looking stunned, Deni saying, rocket? The driver agreeing. And me really still hoping it was a suicide bomber because then I knew it was most likely over and there wouldn’t be a second attack.

My mind was racing – turn around? NOPE – not an option. Sit here? Hm…not a good idea since we were in the front row and so close to the attack. I thought to myself, we’ll never get out and what if there’s another rocket or more gunfire? Suddenly, with no warning, the driver gunned the engine and went full speed ahead right across the dark empty space which seconds before had been the scene of rocket fire and gun shots. I thought, oh no. Deni shouted, DON'T. But there really wasn't another choice. We all knew that. The driver, having been, we found out later, through three of these kinds of attacks before, knew what he had to do.

We got to the other side and stopped dead. The driver pushed the taxi as close as he could to the other cars, trying hard to wiggle our way into the traffic and get as far away as possible. I realized we were now on the other side but really not that much farther away. In a foolish moment I asked, “Should we get out and walk.” "NO" of course, was the instant reply. Really dumb idea on my part but I hated the idea of being paralyzed in the traffic.

The driver ordered us to get down. Deni pulled his wool hat down as far as he could and slunk down in the front seat. I ducked down in the back seat, pulling my headscarf over my head. Deni could see much more than I could. From then on and for the next hour I was only experiencing what was going on through the sounds I heard. I could hear a lot of men shouting which scared me a lot and Deni said later that policemen with guns were looking in every window of every car.

We crawled along for over an hour, moving hardly at all. The driver would edge forward with a jerk and then slam on the brakes, honking at every car. The voices finally calmed down, sirens quieted. The driver suggested he take us home but we had heard from Vic that the restaurant was still open. It was much closer and we both decided it was better to try to get there then head home. I really wanted out of the car. Besides, Deni has sent a text to Vic, who, once she heard what had happened, immediately said dinner was on her and a bottle of wine was waiting. We told the driver we wanted to go to the restaurant! Going home seemed crazy. Too far.

An hour and a half later we finally arrived at the restaurant and walked in, past the usual two metal barracades and 3-4 armed guards and once inside it was as if nothing had happened. I wanted to tell the guards at the door what I had just been through. But I realized they’ve been through hundreds of these attacks and probably wouldn't care. I wanted to shout to the restaurant goers– do you know where we just were? What just happened? How close we were to the rocket attack? But I realized that they too have lived through many moments similar to this one. They were happily wining and dining, aware there had been some “incident” but beyond that weren’t really concerned.

We finally got home, hours later and I was still completely wired. I found it hard to go to bed. I tried "Skyping" my family and finally reached my son. I was eager to share the experience with someone at home.

I have to confess that I really wasn't scared when I heard the explosion. Hearing the men's voices, shouting in the street did scare me. And at one point the driver actually opened the car door, got out and pounded on a car in front of him who was not moving. THAT unnerved me. He did quickly jump back in and lock the doors and I felt better. My back hurt from crouching down so long. I was disoriented and didn't have any idea where we were. I kept asking Deni and the driver. I was very happy to be out of the car and in the restaurant. We paid the driver 4 times the usual fare when we arrived at our destination safely and he seemed shocked but grateful!

Bad news travels fast here. Rauf heard about the rocket attack within minutes. He called me on my cell while I was still in the car. He was so worried and was considering trying to drive in, find our car and walk us to his car. Very sweet. Ted was beside himself.

Now it feels like maybe we made the whole thing up except Deni and I have each other as a witness and we each have similar stories to tell. We’re thankfully safe and sound and once we checked in with everyone here at SOLA, I did try to go to sleep. Not easily. I was pretty wound up for quite awhile.

Of course, today my email was filled with one message – “come home.” And, that I will–in 2 days. In fact, oddly enough, my original reservation was yesterday. Had I left as first planned I would have been in the “friendly skies” and missed the whole thing.

The point is, I can leave. I have that option. The Afghans, after 30+ years of this, must continue on. That incident was a blip on the screen for them – no more. Not for me. I think it will stay with me for some time. I leave with an ache in my heart for those left behind here, those just trying to get by. I want nothing more than peace for Afghanistan. It's been way too long.

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