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The unexpected hazards of life in a war zone

It is most inconvenient to take a shower wearing a flak jacket and helmet, but that may have to be my new morning routine. I was at the Kabul Serena Hotel today when two mortar rounds interrupted my post-workout ablutions.

The mind plays strange tricks in times of crisis, and I was determined not to believe that I could really be caught at such a delicate moment.

“It’s just the pipes acting up,” I thought when I heard the boom. “Or perhaps thunder.”

I should have been prepared: The Serena had been attacked once before, in January, 2008. That time was much worse — suicide bombers and gunners gained entry to the hotel itself, killing at least eight, before the police managed to kill or capture the perpetrators. Today it was just mortars, which killed no one and caused little damage.

But I did not know that when an Afghan employee stormed into the locker room and screamed at me to “come, right now!”

I was reluctant to leave the warmth and relative safety of the women’s spa area. In the 2008 attack, it was the one part of the hotel that the insurgents did not invade. The possibility that they might see a woman in dishabille was apparently too daunting for the murderous gunmen who shot people dead as they worked out on the treadmill.

But the woman was insistent, so I quickly threw on some clothes and followed her. Luckily, I had my mobile phone in my hand as I left.

The gym’s reception area was filled with acrid smoke, and I glanced around uneasily, expecting to see the Taliban storm in at any moment.

We ran down into the basement, where about 100 of us huddled in the employee cafeteria while waiting for news.

Those who lived in the hotel had been evacuated from their rooms, and most of them were better prepared than I was. I glanced enviously at their iPhones and body armor, while I flicked my wet hair and wondered nervously what was happening to my documents and other belongings upstairs.

Everyone was in a jovial mood once we learned that nobody had been killed. Most of us had been in Afghanistan for years, and this was all in a day’s work. The biggest inconvenience was the lack of brewed coffee — the employees’ cafeteria could manage only instant.

But the atmosphere turned somber as details emerged of the attack on the U.N. guest house across town. A compound that housed international election workers had been attacked at 6:00 this morning. First we heard that three people had been killed, with several hostages.

The death toll rose as the gun battle continued. By the end we knew that at least six were dead. Many of my co-evacuees were elections workers themselves, and they spent the 90 minutes of our captivity frantically sending and receiving messages, trying to ascertain which of their colleagues might be involved.

By noon I was at my office, located just a few blocks from the U.N.’s besieged guest house. My Afghan colleagues shrugged off the attacks with their customary nonchalance, born, I suppose of years when such things were an everyday occurrence.

“It’s just the beginning,” said one.

He is probably right. We are facing a second round of elections in just 10 days’ time — a poll that few believe in and no one, it seems, really wants. The first round was a shameful charade, and most observers expected little better from this one.

The Taliban have threatened to disrupt the poll — no idle boast, it appears from today’s events.

The war has come to Kabul. I am not sure how much longer it will be before we either have to leave or acquire the hardened carapace of my Kabuli co-workers.

In the meantime, I’m packing my armored vest in my gym bag.

http://www.globalpost.com/notebook/afghanistan/091028/the-unexpected-hazards-life-war-zone