Death of aid worker evokes Afghanistan's dangers

KABUL, Afghanistan – Toothpaste, towel, burqa, flak jacket … I review my packing list with a critical eye. I am setting off for one of the more volatile southern provinces, requiring a bit more gear than I would prefer to tote around. I tentatively lift my bag, realize there is no way I could carry it more than a few feet. Out goes the flak jacket.

I normally travel "unembedded,"  meaning on my own, by private or commercial means, without inserting myself into a military operation. This allows greater freedom of movement and more immediate contact with the country and its inhabitants, which is good for the story, and for bragging rights on a Thursday evening in Kabul’s expat watering holes.

But independent excursions have become a less attractive option in the wake of the tragic death of Linda Norgrove, a British aid worker who was kidnapped by insurgents in Kunar province last month. She was killed during a failed rescue attempt, sending shock waves through the foreign community here. Linda was a Kabul fixture, and many of us knew her from various gatherings.

Linda was traveling, as so many of us do, “under the radar” in an unmarked, “soft-skin” (non-armored) vehicle with just two drivers and one bodyguard. She was, we are told, camouflaged in a burqa.

Her parent organization, DAI, an international consulting company, has a multi-million dollar contract with a security firm, Edinburgh International (EI). It is unclear why Linda was not surrounded by EI equipment and personnel on her trip along one of the more dangerous stretches of road in Afghanistan, from Jalalabad in Nagarhar province to Asadabad, in Kunar.

Perhaps it was her own choice.

I have been in situations like that — when I absolutely had to get from one place to another. In December 2005, when things were just starting to heat up, I was stuck in Kandahar one day before my flight to the United States for Christmas. I was determined not to miss the plane, but my UN flight to Kabul had been unexpectedly cancelled.

Desperation won out over good sense. Rather than stay another day in Kandahar and reschedule my string of flights, I insisted on taking a taxi home. The security situation was not good, although nothing close to what it is now. But there were reports of Taliban on the roads, buses being stopped and searched, explosive devices set to target international convoys and government personnel.

For “protection” on the trip I had just one very unhappy Afghan colleague, Aziz, who sent someone to the market to buy me my very first burqa. The headpiece was too small, meaning the mesh that was supposed to cover my eyes was stuck somewhere on my forehead. I could not see, breathing was a chore and I felt depersonalized and demeaned by the garment.

Most indicative of the burqa’s power was the change in Aziz’s attitude towards me. We were friends and colleagues, and had worked together for over a year. But once I was enveloped in my blue nylon shroud he began to bark orders at me as if I were a dog.

“Just get in the back and for God’s sake don’t say anything,” he snapped. “And hide your hands. How am I supposed to say you are my mother if those stupid white things are hanging out?”

Luckily it was winter, and I was wearing socks. I kept my hands carefully enveloped in the burqa all the way home.

For six interminable hours we rode along the Kandahar-Kabul highway, being stopped at numerous checkpoints by various bodies ranging from Taliban to police to private entrepreneurs looking for a toll. Whenever anyone looked in the back, Aziz would snarl, presumably claiming that I was his relative and could not be disturbed.

I sat silent and all but invisible through it all. The burqa, despite its discomfort, provides an illusion of safety. But as we saw in Linda Norgrove’s case, it is a flimsy barrier indeed.

Once we had cleared Zabul, we breathed a bit more easily. I was even allowed to throw back my burqa for awhile to eat a kebab somewhere in Ghazni.

We arrived in Kabul at nightfall, frazzled but safe.

It was a stupid risk and I would not do it today. But many of us old-timers have grown a bit too comfortable here. “Nothing will happen to me,” we think. “I’ve been here for years.”

I now have a whole band of friends and acquaintances who have been kidnapped by insurgent groups. Most, fortunately, have been released physically unharmed. I loyally buy their books and sympathize with their suffering, but I have no wish to join their ranks.

Linda Norgrove did not get to write an account of her ordeal. Her life was snuffed out in a country she loved, a place she never thought could bring her harm.

Believe me, it is Linda whom I will be keeping in mind on my upcoming trip. I may stay a bit closer to home base than I otherwise would, but at least I will have a reasonable expectation of coming back unscathed.

We will miss you, Linda.