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Kabul : Life in a submarine

Jean-Michel Marlaud - Kaboul, Afghanistan - 17 mars 2014

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A few days ago, I was contacted by a journalist who was preparing an article on Embassies located in "high-risk" countries and who wanted to substantiate her story with a true account of life in such circumstances. As her title, she used a sentence which I had uttered : “Being in Kabul is like living in a submarine”. But when I saw my words in print, I had second thoughts. After all, one only has to glance upwards to contemplate the snow-capped peaks of Afghanistan’s capital, 1,800 metres above sea level. How could that image of a submarine have crossed my mind ?

The submarine

And yet, it really is like living in a submarine. Just as a submariner alternates between time underwater and time on the surface, we follow a very set rhythm : 10 weeks in Kabul, with no real opportunities to relax, followed by a break in France.

Professionally, things are almost normal, as we attend meetings and meet our Afghan or international partners. But how can we experience real life in Afghanistan when we can only travel in armoured vehicles and when it is impossible to take a stroll or head outside on a whim ? Rules put in place following a recent attack further heightened this feeling of imprisonment : all non-work-related trips are now prohibited, or are under high security if we need to go out to buy essentials.

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L’ambassade sous la neige
Photo : Ambassade de France à Kaboul

Captain Nemo

This situation leads to a sense of frustration, and all the more so because those lucky enough to leave Kabul in order to view projects or meet local authorities can appreciate both the beauty of the landscape and the remains of Afghanistan’s magnificent past, such as Herat, the ancient capital of the Timurid dynasty, Mazar-e-Sharif and the tomb of Ali, and the Panjshir Valley, made famous by Massoud. Our submarine is not blind and just as in a Jules Verne novel, we can peek through the portholes and see the wonders which surround us but which we cannot explore. Also clear to see, however, are the struggles of the Afghans, who after 30 years of war and then Taliban obscurantism are still suffering from violence and poverty.

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Vallée du Panchjir
Photo : AFP

And the final similarity with a submarine : the lack of privacy. For security reasons, we all live on two quite pleasant sites, with plenty of greenery. Space, however, is at a premium, and the unlucky ones have to make do with converted shipping containers. Meals are eaten together. In this environment with no spouses or families, in addition to the risk of disputes with neighbours, there are the typical workplace difficulties.

The victims or the privileged ?

So in that case, what are we doing here ? How do we find volunteers ? Each person has their own motivations, but everyone agrees that for every restriction, there is a benefit.

The first is the Afghans themselves. Despite all their ordeals, they have preserved their traditions of hospitality and generosity, as well as the beauty which has fascinated travellers and photographers alike. While we regret the standardization of our planet, here we are faced with a radically different world, which continually forces us to strike a balance between respect for this otherness and upholding our values. This conflict is no doubt sharpest with regard to the status of women in Afghanistan.
And how can one not be fascinated ? Afghanistan is at the crossroads of several worlds. Behzad honed the art of “Persian” miniature paintings in Herat ; Babur, the first Mughal emperor, is buried in Kabul ; Mawlana Rumi, the founder of the Whirling Dervishes movement in Turkey, was born in Balkh ; the Afghan Turkmen arrived in the 1920s, fleeing the Soviet advance...It was then that the term “The Great Game” was coined, during the conflict between the British and Russian Empires. The period we are now living through is unprecedented : 12 years after the fall of the Taliban, a new chapter will soon be opened with the Presidential elections which, all being well, will result in the first democratic transition in the country’s history and the end of NATO’s intervention in its current form.

Finally, the risk of conflict between colleagues has so far been more theory than reality as everyone is helping to maintain a friendly atmosphere. This personal observation concurs with the conclusions of the psychologist sent by the human resources department.

Of course, Kabul is not a unique case. Other colleagues around the world have experienced this type of situation, and they would doubtless agree with me that we owe a great debt of gratitude to our spouses and families for allowing us to work in these unusual circumstances. It is they who let us travel abroad, sometimes with great anxiety, while they must get on with their daily lives, from which we are largely absent, despite Skype and the Internet.

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