Yesterday morning we were driving into the city via Airport road. It’s a high-speed route that acts as a partial ring-road connecting the north and south of Kabul, avoiding the city centre. The wide lanes are not demarcated into sub-lanes and so vehicles constantly weave about like bumper cars, trying to get ahead. In the middle a concrete divider separates traffic going in either direction. There’s grass and trees planted along this narrow, raised barrier and men often relax there in the shade, unruffled by the motorised chariot races whooshing past on either side.
On a long, straight stretch, a lone Corolla came driving towards us in the wrong direction. I’m sure all four of us thought the same thing. It was just another example of the creative and deadly driving one has to be alert to on the roads at all times. However, within ten seconds, we saw another car headed our way, then another, and another. 200 yards ahead, the road had become a turning zone. I could see half a dozen trucks, taxis and family cars pulling U-ies, where seconds before, they’d been pushing 70mph.
As we slowed, it became apparent that over half of our fellow road users were now heading back to where they’d come from. The lane had become a two-way road, only it didn’t matter which side you drove on. They were figuring it out in the moment.
I looked ahead to where we should be heading and the where Kabul airport lay about a mile away, but couldn’t see anything unusual. No smoke rising, no tall military vehicles looming over regular traffic, inciting the mass turn-around.
The cars spinning around just ahead and on either side of our car were enough to convince us into the same course of action. We made a sharp turn right, reversed into a slot between two yellow and white taxis awaiting their turn to get the hell out of there, and accelerated into a smattering of on-coming traffic. Soon we pulled in behind a green Afghan National Police truck. Carefully, our vehicles trundled along on the hard shoulder, looking for a gap in the central divider to escape across to traffic flowing in our direction.
Looking now over my shoulder, I studied the horizon in the direction of the airport. I squinted to get a sharper focus in the smog. Still nothing appeared to explain the spontaneous panic. Often this road is closed for the arrival of important visitors by passenger plane, or the movement of military convoys in and out of Camp Phoenix, adjacent to the airport. But the high-tailing we’d just participated in felt sudden and urgent. I realised that we’d probably never get an explanation.
We were now driving towards the city centre, with its rush-hour traffic jams and checkpoints. More to the point, we were driving away from something; perhaps from nothing, perhaps from disaster. It didn’t matter. If people look like they’re escaping something in Kabul, your only concern is to abide by the mob mentality and do exactly the same thing.
In the city centre, we found ourselves in that heavy traffic, creeping past two gargantuan US Marine MRAP trucks (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected). They were stationed at a crossroads and had set up a loudhailer blaring orders in Dari. With no clue as to their intent, or that of the battle-clad Marines dotted around swaying their M16s from left to right, the journey past this spectacle felt sickening tense. Most frightening of all was the sight of the gun turrets atop each vehicle rotating like spasmodic robots. Even at rest, these appendages are a chilling sight. Now, it looked as if their operators were frantically tracking a moving target. Or perhaps they hadn’t mastered the controls and were at risk of squeezing off a few rounds at some poor bastard on his way to market.
Having cleared the hot zone we were still in the dark about both of the morning’s odd occurrences. We joked rather nervously about the frankly bizarre sight of US troops patrolling a main road in Kabul in broad daylight. It just doesn’t happen. Amidst a bustle of pedestrians and cyclists, a US Marine looming up in full body-armour and wrap-around shades, pretending to ignore his immediate surroundings. Even in this city, with its recent history, these chaps stand out like a sore thumb.
Thankfully, the morning didn’t get any weirder.