Thu, Nov 25, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Fear now a daily facet of life for aid workers in Kabul


Before the kidnapping of three UN workers last month, Afghanistan's capital was beginning to build a reputation as a party town, but everything has changed in recent weeks.

Even after the jubilation at the release on Tuesday of the trio who were held hostage for nearly a month, Kabul remains a city gripped by security jitters and the whiff of hedonism which was discernible during the summer has faded.

"Over the summer I went to better parties here than I ever went to in London, but now I can't even walk on the street because of our security guidelines," said one young aid worker.

Before the Afghanistan's Oct. 9 elections, a burgeoning restaurant scene had emerged, fed by international aid dollars. Huge parties were held weekly in the gardens of aid agency guesthouses full of young professionals working hard and playing even harder.

New restaurants sprang up across the city offering Thai, Indian, Croatian or Chinese food and the piece de resistance -- a French restaurant that boasted a garden full of pomegranate trees and its own swimming pool.

Now, many of the restaurants are half empty because the UN staff are living under a curfew and many other foreign aid workers have to follow similarly strict rules.

"There never was really any semblance of security in this city, and now the militants have proved themselves with ambushes right in the heart of the military zone, an audacious kidnapping," said Nick Downie, of the Afghan NGOs Security Office (ANSO).

Annetta Flanigan, Shqipe Hebibi and Angelito Nayan were seized at gunpoint from heavy lunchtime traffic in Kabul on Oct. 28.

A week earlier a suicide bomb killed an American woman, a young Afghan girl and the bomber himself in Chicken Street -- an area that was once a mecca for 1970s backpackers -- shattering the fragile sense of security which had surrounded the foreign community.

"I think the honeymoon is over, and people are starting to realize what the marriage is really like warts and all are appearing now," Downie said.

Thursday night in Kabul used to be party night, as Friday is the Islamic day of rest, but a suicide bomb threat against restaurants and bars frequented by foreigners has left many people wary of going to crowded places.

A leaving party for Dominic Medley, long-time Kabul resident and author of the Brandt Kabul Miniguide was called off after the bomb threat last Thursday and diners were ushered out of the popular Elbow Room restaurant, where the party was being held, before they had finished eating.

"It was really scary. It's one thing to get these security reports on e-mail, and it's another thing to be ushered out of restaurant because of a bomb threat," said Lana Slezic, a Kabul-based photographer who was at the restaurant at the time.

With many UN staff and other aid workers barred from leaving their residences after 7:00pm, some people are talking about terminating their contracts.

"I won't renew my contract next year because I have to shuttle from work to home and back and I can't even go to a restaurant," said one aid worker who has been in Afghanistan almost two years and worked in conflict zones around the world.

For adventurous types who came to Afghanistan to explore and help the war-torn country back to its feet, the current security guidelines are hard to swallow.

"Cabin fever has truly set in. We are starting to feel like caged animals. When it happened initially I think people were very scared but now it's a real sense of frustration," said one UN worker.

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