When A Suicide Bombing Claims a Friend

The New Yorker, May. 2, 2018

Rush hour is unpleasant the world over but in few places is it as deadly as the morning commute in Kabul. On Monday, a bomb went off in downtown Kabul, killing four passersby. A dozen members of the Kabul press corps rushed over to document the bloodshed that had become a routine part of their job. Forty minutes later, a second attacker, carrying a camera to blend in, detonated explosives that killed twenty-five people, including nine journalists, and wounded forty-five others, making Monday the deadliest day for Afghan media since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began, in 2001. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

Among the dead was Shah Marai, of Agence France-Presse. Marai began driving cars for AFP twenty-two years ago, and worked his way up to being the agency’s chief photographer in the country. Over the last two decades, Marai took over eighteen thousand pictures, images that helped shape how America and the West see, and perceive, Afghanistan.

I met Marai at the wake of a common friend, Ahmad Sardar, a journalist who was killed with his family during the Serena Hotel attack, in 2014. (That is another strange thing about these spectacular attacks—how myself and others used them to mark the passing of time.) Marai had taken to organizing the funeral and the rest in the aftermath of Sardar’s death, a duty I remember him performing with passion and grace.

Last night, I spoke to another mutual friend of ours, who had introduced me to Marai at the wake all those years ago, the former New York Times reporter Habib Zahori. In recent years, Zahori and many other Afghan journalists have left Afghanistan for North America and Europe, where they cash in dignity and status at home for safety and menial labor abroad. They drive Ubers and work as security guards now, because “in Afghanistan knowing how to use a computer and speaking English were skills. Here a kid can use a computer. Everyone speaks English.” Zahori, like Marai and scores of other Afghan journalists, were autodidacts who took great pride in their trade, which they understood as bearing witness. The growth of the Afghan media were among the few success stories of the country’s post-9/11 years; it was free, it was independent, and it set a new standard in a region—Pakistan, Iran, the Gulf—that ranked poorly on press-freedom indexes.

Habib and his friends in the Afghan diaspora often spoke about returning to Afghanistan and to their old lives once they got their papers, but, after Monday, it wasn’t clear if anyone could still be committed to this now seemingly deadly plan. It was jarring, as we spoke, to measure the distance between the living and the dead, and to realize that the distance was much shorter than we cared to admit. “When a tragedy happens, it’s not only the loss of a friend that hits you. It is also something else. You think about your own death,” Zahori told me. “That’s what we’d do, you remember, whenever there was a bombing, we would rush off. That could have been any of us.”

That math is what had eventually persuaded me to leave Afghanistan, in 2017. When I returned to Kabul, this past winter, I was struck by how much more violent the city had become. Things I used to do without ceremony—going shopping at the nearby market, taking local taxis, exchanging pleasantries with neighbors on the street where we lived—now seemed like impossibly foolish acts.

I was struck even more by how increasingly challenging it is to measure and report on that very distance, between violent death and a life in which you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, in a country that is slipping further and further into disorder. The Afghan government, meanwhile, refuses to admit that it is unravelling. It needs to sell the story of success in order for it to continue to receive foreign funding, and this makes it famously unreliable when it comes to basic facts, such as who had died, by what means, in which attack—the bloody accounting that makes up so much of conflict reporting.

There is great need for that accounting now, as the past winter has been a season of carnage in Kabul. On January 22nd, six gunmen besieged the Intercontinental Hotel, killing twenty-two people, according to the unreliable government count, or forty-three, according to unofficial and unverifiable local media estimates. Among those killed in the thirteen hour shootout were four Americans, including a public-relations spokesman for the former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. Two days later, a Save the Children office in Jalalabad, ninety-five miles east of Kabul, was stormed. In a pattern that has become depressingly familiar, suicide bombers affiliated with the Islamic State drove a car bomb into the compound gates, killing up to six people and injuring dozens more. Three days after that, on January 27th, a Taliban insurgent drove an ambulance through a cordoned-off road in downtown Kabul, and detonated a bomb, killing a hundred and three. The following day, a military academy was attacked by Islamic State militants with rocket-propelled grenades. Eleven Afghan soldiers were killed. A total of a hundred and ninety-seven men, women, and children—Afghans and Americans, Hazaras and Pashtuns, commercial pilots, soldiers, and pedestrians— were killed or injured in a single week. After a lull, on March 21st, the first day of the year in the Persian calendar, a suicide bomber detonated near a shrine where families had gathered to mark the coming of spring. The blast killed twenty-nine people and injured fifty-two. Then, on April 23rd, another major attack killed fifty-seven Afghans lining up to register to vote.

Most Afghans blamed the bloodshed on their government, its Western sponsors, and their collective incompetence, on a scale that they saw as a kind of complicity. An Afghan coffin-maker who gave his name as Saeed said that the animus he felt for his governing élites is such that, if they all died tomorrow, he would not cry for them. “May Allah destroy all of them,” he told me this past February, when I visited his shop in north Kabul.

“I campaigned for him,” Saeed said, referring to the Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. “Now he is supporting the foreigners.” Saeed, who is forty-three, spoke to me through an interpreter for nearly an hour, but spent most of that time laying out why he did not wish to speak to me, a foreign reporter and a woman. “All foreigners are the same. They came here to destroy and they do not give profit to us.” Saeed had been sitting outside when we had come by. His dilapidated space heater and stainless-steel flask were the only sources of heat against the still harsh February cold. He used to make coffins with wood from eastern Afghanistan, Saeed explained, but, after a logging ban in 2006, he, like others, began using timber imported from China. The cheap shine of laminated wood stood bright against the dust-colored storefront as we spoke.

The ambulance bombing is what had brought me to Saeed. In lieu of official statistics, reporters look for alternative measures of violence, and the number of coffins sold seemed like an indicator as good as any. Twelve years ago, when Saeed first opened up shop, there were just two other coffin-makers on his row, he told me. Now the street is lined with scores of shops selling coffins, among the few growth industries in the country. Saeed had a contract with a government hospital, as did others on his street.

Saeed hadn’t always felt so strongly against the Americans, he told me, but he had since had time to consider the fact of the war, which anyone could see had not been going so well for a while now. The only good thing America could do now is leave, he said.

The security situation in the Afghan capital has been worsening for years, but the particular violence of the winter months penetrated the minds of the city’s expats because the sites of carnage were familiar to them. Many had spent afternoons on the tennis court at the Intercontinental and had attended parties hosted by the European Union or the Nordic embassies located on the road the ambulance had driven on.

Some expats argued to me that the violence last winter did not exceed previous levels, but the attacks’ proximity to one another fuelled a new feeling of terror. The spectacular and bloody attacks sent a message to the Afghan public: the U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani could not protect them, and that task now fell to the people themselves. Afghans mourned for the past, when bloodshed was largely limited to the fighting season, which usually meant the summer months. Now fighting bled into the pomegranate season, then the citrus season, and never really seemed to end.

After promising to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, President Donald Trump deployed a few thousand additional troops,, expanded air strikes, and dismissed peace talks. Analysts told me that Trump’s contradictory approach—a token troop increase combined with a refusal to negotiate —will result in the war grinding on. Ordinary Afghans continue to suffer. Ten thousand four hundred and fifty three Afghans were killed in 2017, according to the U.N., an already conservative estimate. Sixty-five percent of them were killed in attacks by the Taliban, Islamic State affiliates, or other anti-government forces. The U.N. also reported that civilian casualties from U.S. and Afghan government air strikes went up seven per cent in 2017, with two hundred and ninety-five civilians killed.

During our phone call, Habib recalled a local version of a funereal refrain. “God takes away good people from us because he likes them too much, and he doesn’t want them to stay for a long time and commit sin,” he told me. “I didn’t believe it when I heard it, but I am starting to believe that now.”

Read at The New Yorker.