Dec 09, 2023
Dec 09, 2023
The Sentimental Terrorist - 3
Aram guesthouse, Shahr-e-Naw, Kabul
When they fitted me out, the medics told me that on a full charge my C-Leg would remain operational for up to forty-five hours. Depending on the intensity of use, they added. Of course I don’t wait for the battery to run out. Every night before removing my leg and going to bed, I plug a thin, black cable into an electrical socket and connect the other end to a charging port located on the front of my right knee joint.
While the lithium-ion battery charges, I find the old bitterness welling up inside me, just as it did in the early days following the surgery.
It’s all to do with my having found Amala, and wanting to spend the rest of my life with her. For, although I’m proud of what I did and have never regretted it for an instant, all the same it’s a handicap I could well do without. On the other hand, I tell myself I wouldn’t be working in Kabul today if I hadn’t had certain life experiences – including being wounded in battle. And then I would never have met her.
And now that I’ve met her I can’t bear to lose her. It worries me that her guesthouse could be a target for the terrorists. And while I’m not far from her – our residences are just a hundred yards apart – I often ask myself what if anything I could do to protect her, should an attack take place.
I know that Amala’s hesitation over my proposal has nothing to do with my injury, bless her soft heart. And to be honest I wouldn’t love her as much if it did. I’ve always been too proud to pester any woman by constantly pursuing her, but this time I’ve got it so bad that I haven’t been able to control myself. She’s got into my bones, even, I reckon, into that segment below my right leg which doesn’t have any.
After I lost my lower leg in the first Gulf war, the one started by Bush senior – I had just completed my officer training at Sandhurst after graduating from Oxford – I went to do postgraduate research on ‘War and Strategic Studies’. Then I spent some years with a think-tank in London before branching off on my own as an independent consultant.
I’m hired to write reports mostly to evaluate the security situation in conflict-ridden areas. I assess whether the problems are likely to get worse or better in the foreseeable future, what should be done to improve security, and what events are worsening the situation. Sometimes I’m commissioned by private companies who wish to form an idea about the safety of their investments, but more often I work for consultancy firms that manage or oversee developmental projects running there. I also periodically advise governments.
I wonder if it’s true what they say about me. That I’ve become a war junkie. Liberia, Somalia, Iraq and now Afghanistan. I think I’ve had enough now.
All I know is that I’ve finally found someone with whom I would like to walk away into the sunset.
If she will only agree.
Frankly, I see little hope for Afghanistan. I don’t believe we are winning any hearts and minds. Forget the country; we haven’t been able to do much even for the capital.
Back home they are surprised when they read my emails about the traffic problems here. I suppose they think of it as a war-torn city where only a few brave families live. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is said that a thousand families come to live in Kabul every month in search of a livelihood. The streets are a bustling, disorganised chaos.
The vehicles owned by the foreigners add to the chaos of course, but the real problem is that every two months following a suicide attack or bomb threat a new road in the city gets closed off. And when you start sealing off streets that house embassies, international organisations, the residences of VIPs – of which Kabul has one too many – you slowly but surely create havoc.
‘It’s fear,’ Barry says, ‘that’s really clogging up the streets, not so much the traffic.’
I tend to agree.
Not that the Afghans have got their own act together. Take a look at the sanitation. The municipality gathers up the garbage, but then places much of it at various points in the city as if by spreading it out in smaller quantities it’ll be less noticeable. Quite the contrary. The garbage, comprising a mishmash of rotten vegetables, cooked food, tins, bottles, huge quantities of plastic bags and toilet paper, as well as faeces from horses, dogs and goats, throws off a strong, unpleasant odour as you drive past. Long-haired goats can frequently be seen foraging through the rubbish for food.
They even dump the refuse at various places near the deep, open gutters that travel across much of the city, creating a hazard for pedestrians, who have to be careful not to stumble into them – especially in these winter months when fallen snow hides the potential for a disastrous plunge into slimy waters. Amala keeps reminding me to be careful while walking the streets and she’s right. A computerised leg is a fragile animal and I couldn’t afford one of those falls.
I’ve grown to love my silver and blue leg, but sometimes a rude thought disturbs my daydreams about my lady love. Will she like it, if we ever get that close? Should I invest in a natural skin lookalike makeover?
Right now, the closest I’ve got to her was on her birthday, two weeks previously when she invited me up to her bedroom to eat some sandesh, a Bengali sweetmeat that a friend had brought over; we mostly sit in her guesthouse lounge. When we meet elsewhere or go out to eat, she doesn’t even let me hold hands. I know this is because she has too much regard for local sentiment.
But on that day, I held her, kissed her, embraced her again, even succeeded in pushing her gently back on the bed and kissed and caressed her for all of two minutes; and it took all my self-control to allow her to push me away. From her hurried breathing and half-closed eyes, which suddenly snapped open, cruelly ending that beautiful sequence, I knew it couldn’t have been easy for her either . . .
My guesthouse is a kind of oasis in the midst of all the noise and dust. The large garden that rings it is the reason I chose it over others. Every morning as I take some exercise on the walkway, the flower beds that run parallel to it give off a profusion of scents from white-flowered geraniums, vermilion and powder-pink fuchsia, and all kinds of roses. I could never have imagined that such large, luscious red roses grew here. In the far corner of the garden, near the tall wooden box that seats the blue-uniformed guards, stand a couple of apple trees and a weeping willow.
There is evidence that the city has seen quieter, less tumultuous times when the population was smaller and roads were organised according to merchandise – Chicken Street, Flower Street, Butcher Street, the last of which still has animal carcasses hanging outside twenty-odd shops. But now it’s all a dilapidated mess, despite the billions in development aid that have come in since 2006.
There is a great deal of mineral wealth in this country, and were there to be peace and stability I don’t doubt that foreign investors would come here in droves. The Chinese have set up a hundred-bed hospital here, and, despite their good intentions, I’m sure they have an eye on developing alternative sources of supply for minerals they currently buy from Australia.
Not so long ago, there were also a hundred-odd Chinese prostitutes in Kabul, but the government got rid of them even before they made plans to set up a Ministry of Vice and Virtue.
Barry, my guesthouse companion and countryman, who works with the security apparatus, has been in Afghanistan for several years now but he hasn’t allowed the news of casualties among British soldiers or civilians, and the general grim atmosphere, to affect his equanimity or sense of humour. He always manages to make me laugh.
Take, for instance, the way he compared extremist Islamist organisations dispatching suicide bombers with non-governmental organisations implementing development projects, after a suicide bomber had set himself off not far from the American embassy, killing several passers-by.
‘It’s been after almost a month, innit?’ he remarked. ‘So I guess it was to be expected.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘These people, these terrorists,’ he explained. ‘They’ve got to have their set goals too, haven’t they? They need to convince their donors that they’re doing good work. And they probably have their targets. At least one bomb a month in Kabul.’
I began to understand what Barry meant. If a couple of weeks passed by without a single violent incident, we all started to anticipate that something was due to happen soon.
‘I’m sure,’ he continued, ‘that they’re not much different from us in terms of methodology. Just as we have our targets – say, so many thousand wells to be dug in the southern region of Afghanistan – they’ve got theirs too, innit? We appoint independent monitoring and evaluation experts to make sure the work has been done as claimed, and so the people who donate money to the Taliban will conduct their independent assessments of their activities. We prepare our PowerPoint presentations and our videos of actual work done on the ground, and these terrorists are probably doing the same thing.’
I don’t know about PowerPoint presentations, but it’s true that in recent times matters have become so ghoulish that there were rumours that a second party armed with a video camera was accompanying the suicide bomber to take video footage of the Taliban-sponsored suicide attacks. The theory was that it would help their planners to ‘inspire’ more jihadis to become martyrs and cause more deaths and suffering.
It’s nearing twelve, but I can’t get to sleep. I feel tense tonight. I wonder if it’s because no serious act of violence has taken place in Kabul for two weeks. I just know something is going to happen. Something big. Maybe they will finally hit an important target in the Presidential Palace.
More by : Rajesh Talwar