If you believed only the headlines, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Afghanistan is a country at war and that nowhere is safe. These days that simply is not the case.
There are countless villages across different regions and districts where families live a perfectly mundane day-to-day existence and the most violence they witness is the occasional spat with their neighbour over livestock.
On the streets of the capital there may be more of a military presence than we are used to at home, with checkpoints policing access to the so-called ‘Green zone’ – the district that houses embassies and some of the ISAF camps – and armed guards outside key government buildings. But it’s also a colourful, bustling city with rush hour traffic that would drive even the most seasoned London cab driver round the bend.
And it’s at rush hour that the streets really come alive. On Ahmad Shah Massoud road, elegant ladies in delicately sequined headscarfs wend their way gingerly around the cars across the dusty road. As drivers career onto the roundabout with no obvious right of way, the traffic cop under a large awning advertising a fresh yoghurt drink and the Afghan United Bank tries – to no avail – to get the ever-increasing gridlock moving with frantic arm movements.
Further down, the road splits into a dual carriageway where cars jostle in and out of imaginary lanes honking their horns and narrowly missing the odd horse and cart piled high with watermelons. Every car, motorbike and minibus is packed with as many passengers as it can hold; suited men heading home from work, families visiting friends, and people heading to the huge neon-lit Afghan Cash and Carry.
It is noticeable how many more women there are out and about on the streets. Even a couple of years ago when I was here last, they were few and far between – and then most wore the eye-catching blue burkha. It’s striking how many now feel confident enough to express themselves more freely through their choice of bright and colourful clothes. One pioneering female journalist I met recently told me women feel safer and more enpowered now – and that they will not be giving up their hard-fought freedoms and ambitions. The next generation is clearly relishing the opportunity to learn and dream of careers too; at the end of the day swarms of girls in crisp white headscarves with blue uniforms chatter their way out of the school gates in pairs with their books under their arms.
There is of course still a security threat even on the streets of the capital and for every cluster of Toyota corollas – seemingly the car of choice on the roads here – there is an armoured SUV carrying a foreign official, a military commander or representatives of one of the many charities working here. But you no longer see the military foot patrols I went out on as recently as 2010 and military convoys are few and far between.
It is a shame that these bustling streets only seem to make the international headlines every few months; when they have been devastated by a violent attack or a suicide bomb. Because over the years I have been visiting, life in Kabul has changed; shopping malls have popped up, construction and parks projects have been completed, schools have reopened. And in between the horrific attacks, millions of Afghans refuse to be cowed and carry on with their lives. Street vendors sell their flatbreads, young men join the police force, kids look forward to the Eid holiday and like clockwork the rush hour traffic grinds to a halt on the Ahmad Shah Massoud roundabout.