Return to Kabul

Autumn 2016
Naseema Noor ’06 in dry Afghanistan landscrap

Naseema Noor ’06 is living in Washington, D.C., while she decompresses from her time in Afghanistan and plans her next steps.

By Naseema Noor ’06

It’s never a good sign when your parents don’t want you to go home.

But home can mean different things, and here it refers to homeland; in my case, to Afghanistan, where I was born during the jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. During the Russian occupation, my family left Kabul to escape the conflict and pursue a better life in America.

In 2012, shortly after finishing graduate school, I decided to move back to Afghanistan for work. My parents discouraged me because they were worried about my safety and puzzled by why I wanted to return to the hardships they left behind. But having studied international relations, including at Colgate, I was determined to see and understand more of the world. One reason I selected Afghanistan was that I knew I had a good chance of finding a job there; the country was receiving a lot of international assistance, which opened up job opportunities. Additionally, I thought I would learn more about my heritage.

I initially got a job in Kabul as a freelance writer and editor, and continued doing similar work later for a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor. Over the next few years, the security situation and my freedom in Kabul deteriorated drastically. In the beginning, I walked to work, as well as to nearby shops and vegetable stands. By 2015, I could only travel in an armored Land Cruiser accompanied by an armed guard.

Part of this reflected my employers’ different risk thresholds, but it also reflected the reality that Kabul was becoming more dangerous. In my first year, when there was a terrorist attack, my expatriate friends and I often didn’t know who or what was targeted. By 2014, when presidential elections were held, the attacks had increased and seemed to be getting closer. The night before Nowruz, the Persian (and Afghan) New Year, the city’s Serena Hotel was attacked. The next day, I got the shocking news that an Afghan friend of mine, Sardar Ahmad, a journalist for Agence France-Presse, and his family had been gunned down there.

My perhaps inevitable close call with terrorism occurred in December 2015, when terrorists attacked the Spanish Embassy, next door to where I both lived and worked. That bewildering evening, I was reading in bed when I heard a dull thud and felt the room shake. Dust crumbled down from the ceiling. My immediate thought was earthquake. But then I recalled that earthquakes don’t make noise. Car bomb. I jumped out of bed and scurried up to the roof of the guesthouse, the security protocol in case of an emergency. It was only after my colleagues joined me that I looked down and realized I had forgotten to put on shoes.

As I came to learn on that roof, people who experience life-threatening situations have drastically different reactions to them. One colleague — a consultant who had recently arrived in Kabul — was hyperventilating and praying at the same time. I barely knew her, but she clung to me as we ducked low and listened to the gunfire a few hundred feet away. Another co-worker became irate after calling authorities for help and finding out they couldn’t determine our location. He cursed while bullets whizzed by.

In contrast, I discovered that I can be eerily calm when adrenaline kicks in. I remained quiet and focused during the attack. I repeatedly checked my cellphone, responding to text messages from concerned family and friends. I left a voice-mail message for my parents that an attack was underway, but told them not to worry too much because we didn’t seem to be the target. A millennial, I even updated my Facebook status to let everyone know I was safe. But, at one point, when the gunfire got so loud and seemed so close, I — despite not being religious — unconsciously uttered, Allah.

Luckily, because my company employed international security consultants, we had armed staff who advised us throughout the evening.  They had us put on bulletproof vests and helmets and moved us from the roof of the guesthouse to the next building, farther away from the Spanish compound, where we would be safer. As we rushed across the courtyard, I saw Afghan security forces holding position in case the attackers managed to make it over our walls. Afghan Special Forces had also positioned snipers with night-vision goggles atop neighboring buildings, according to our security personnel.

We were in for a long haul. Terrorist attacks in Afghanistan typically begin with a car bomb to breach a gated building; then terrorists rush inside to kill as many “foreigners” as possible. After the killing spree, they hole up and wait, sometimes many hours, to fight until they become, in their eyes, martyrs. Throughout that night, long moments of quiet were punctuated by sudden gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades as security forces cleared the embassy’s compound of terrorists. We hunkered down in someone’s bedroom, trying to fall asleep, but found it impossible with the continuous fighting. I must’ve fallen asleep around 5 a.m., after the last round of gunfire ended and the last terrorist was presumably killed.

Two hours later, when we were cleared to go outside, my colleagues and I walked around inspecting the damage. Most of our windows had been blown out by the impact of the car bomb; broken wood and shrapnel were strewn across the compound. My cat, the only apparent casualty on our side, had disappeared (he returned the next day, still jittery). I was too weary and numb to react. I wandered aimlessly, then returned to my bedroom. I noticed soot on my bed, but climbed in anyway and fell asleep. I didn’t care. Sometimes home is not hospitable.

The close call persuaded me to return to my other home, the United States, and I’ve been back since July 4. Even with terrorist attacks casting a long shadow over the time I spent in Kabul, I don’t regret the experience. By taking myself out of my comfort zone — or, literally in this case, a safety zone — I learned as much about myself as I did about my homeland.