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June 03, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, June 03, 2005

Letter from Kabul: Mission accomplished, but ... Letter from Kabul: Mission accomplished, but ... (June 03, 2005)

Violence, attacks on women make it difficult to stay

By Rosemary Stasak

I'm coming home. For now.

The beauty school class graduated, meaning 15 women will head off to jobs that in the best cases will support an entire extended family. In more modest cases it will help bring in enough money to keep a daughter in school.

In this whole dire country 15 women isn't much, but it's 15 women who will have a better life, and things are in place for many more to follow them. The next class will be held in a beautiful building that will be our very own for the next five years.

I'm leaving a Kabul that is so different from the one I've always known. On the one hand, I have a measure of independence I've never had here. Kabul is indeed a dangerous place. Not because of bombings or kidnappings, but because I'm now driving.

I jump in a car and swerve around the potholes and the donkey carts and the person carts and the zillion yellow taxis and the bikes and the guys in the middle of the street selling phone cards and the beggars sitting in the middle of speed bumps. I do it in a stick shift no less.

As I'm buzzing around Massoud Circle weaving and dodging and shifting and knowing exactly where I'm going I feel that I'm finally a true Kabuli. This despite the fact that I am quite possibly the only unveiled woman driving in the city. And if there are any veiled women driving I haven't seen them.

Workers fall off the back of their trucks to get a better look as I swing around to pass them. When I pass someone in slow traffic, they will always point and call out the Dari phrase for "foreign whore."

And I get a flat tire nearly every day. Not because of the destroyed state of the streets but because when I'm parking somewhere the police will see me get out of my car and punch my tire. They do it because I'm a whore: I'm a woman, unveiled, driving a car. That's not supposed to happen and it's perfectly appropriate to flatten my tire just for good measure.

Yet on the other hand I'm leaving a life that is more restricted than I've ever known. Our neighborhood, Qalla-E Fatullah, is the hip happening neighborhood for foreigners and the worst gang in the city has decided to wreak its havoc here.

There have been shootings, attempted kidnappings, violent burglaries, and a major drug bust right next door. The Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni, who's been here forever, was snatched from my street. Kidnapped at gunpoint on her way home from the yoga class I go to. Kidnapped at gunpoint at the same intersection I drove myself through at exactly the same time the night before. Word is she's being held right here in the neighborhood.

I've always looked askance at foreigners going into lockdown, where you don't leave your house for days or weeks at a time. What are you doing here if you're just going to sit in your compound all day and stare at each other? But now I have myself on my own little lockdown. Home by dark. Home by dark. No more running around with friends to bars and restaurants and then zooming home on the deserted streets dodging only the occasional stray dog. It breaks my heart to live in a Kabul that would give me fear.

So I'll come home for now. As always, I will leave my heart in Kabul. And it will be here waiting for me to come back.
Rosemary Stasek is a former Mountain View mayor. Her column has run monthly in the Voice while she served as the logistics manager for the Kabul Beauty School. More about her project and trips to Afghanistan can be found at www.stasek.com/alittlehelp.


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