The name of Kolola Pushta, an upmarket residential area in Kabul, means "round hill". The term refers to a small peak visible on the horizon of the neighbourhood, with a fort on top. It is a pleasant sight, especially in spring when the dust of Kabul is briefly washed away by the rains, and the silhouette of the peak shimmers against a blue sky. When I first came to Kabul in the spring of 2006, I arrived at a small guesthouse in this locality. The place where I spent my first few weeks getting to know the city was close to the Park Palace Guesthouse, the target of last week’s horrific attack that killed 14. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack as part of their annual “spring offensive”, a spate of fighting since April after the relative calm of the winter months. In the past three weeks, “Operation Azm” (meaning "resolve" or "determination") has unleashed five major attacks on the embattled capital.
Kolola Pushta has been an elite neighbourhood since the 1970s – a quiet, leafy quarter that housed the city’s wealthy. When I first saw it, many of these old homes had been rented out to various embassies and offices for European missions and agencies. Back then, it was possible to walk down the main road of the locality and get a glimpse of the lush lawns and gracefully proportioned buildings that lay behind tall walls, sheltering them from the street.
My own guesthouse had been the Austrian Embassy in the 1970s. It had been converted after 2001 with an eye on the lucrative market of accommodation for the influx of expatriates by its owner, who had returned to Kabul after years spent abroad. The room I lived in had been built around a courtyard that overlooked a different hill. Cats lounged in the warmth of a sitting room that had been remodelled as a dining area. A short while into my stay, the trees in the garden began to burst with lavish blossoms, pink and white. All the other guests at this residence were also foreign workers, usually arriving and departing too rapidly for me to exchange greetings. In this first house in Kabul, I got an early glimpse of the rich history and sophisticated culture of the city, as well as the nature of its post-2001 development.
A few weeks into our stay my husband and I moved to the top floor of a house just down the road, where we were tenants of a retired commercial pilot who occupied the ground floor with his family. Our rooms had a view of the hill that anchored our neighbourhood. In December 1928, the Kolola Pushta fort had been the site of key events in a tribal uprising against the then ruler, King Amanullah, widely seen as a response to his measures to “modernise” Afghanistan. These had included discouraging the veil and polygamy, as well as reforms in education and the army. The march to Kabul was led by Habibullah Kalakani, whose humble origins gave him the name “Bacha-e-Saqao”, or “Son of a Water Carrier”. Kalakani, writes historian Nancy Dupree, “advanced on Kabul with 1,000 men. Successfully capturing the fort at Kolola Pushta, which was fully stocked with arms and ammunition, they bombarded the city until it fell to them...” Kalakani went on to be “Amir” for a brief period before being defeated and executed in Kabul in 1929. While there were paths leading to the fort, we were advised to avoid walking up the hill for fear of landmines.
Reminder of home
Next door to our place was a large compound that accommodated Indian workers who were employed by an upmarket hotel in Shahr-e-Nau, a glitzy commercial area not far from Kolola Pushta. On Fridays, which is the weekly off in Afghanistan, they would play cricket and the afternoon peace of the holiday would be rent by their curses and cheers. This was not the only reminder of home I encountered. At the time the city experienced regular power cuts, and I would watch from my balcony as people switched on generators and batteries so they could watch the Indian TV show "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi". The dubbed version in Dari, that was usually simply called “Tulsi”, had taken the nation by storm.
A short walk down the main road was the iconic gueshouse of the United Nations International Community Association, the boozy heart of the city’s expat community for close to 50 years, known simply as the UNICA Guesthouse. Thanks to the club’s somewhat-diplomatic status, it had been possible to get a drink at its bar even during the Taliban years. In 1993, it had been the unlikely location for an improvised aid programme, when it was closed briefly to dole out food and tea to an influx of refugees. After 2001, its swimming pool and Thursday night parties drew lively crowds. It was finally forced to close in 2010, not by war or security threats, but when the property was bought over by a developer. We walked past the UNICA gates on our way to go shopping at Shahr e Nau, or to the smaller stalls nearby. Each time we ventured out we would be invited by shopkeepers to share their meals and have a cup of tea, and be told how much they loved and admired Indians, who were friends of Afghans and creators of magical Bollywood films. Each evening we would walk to the nanbai (baker) on our corner to buy bread for dinner, which we carried home wrapped in newspapers. Its smell was heady enough to speed our steps home.
The transformation of Kolola Pushta coincided with the changes across Kabul, as suicide bombings and attacks led to tightening security norms across the city. When I visited our old landlord over trips in 2009 and 2010, it was a challenge to find my way around the neighbourhood. The embassies and offices had vanished behind concrete walls that took over the pavement with their sprawl and were topped with hurricane wire. Most of the guesthouses that dotted the streets had also changed hands and been through various security revamps. I tried to find the place I had lived in. The lone security guard at the gate had been replaced by several armed men, barely visible behind sandbags and barriers.
But it was not just insurgency that transformed Kolola Pushta in lasting ways. It was also recast by Kabul’s real estate bubble, that caused rents and property values to jump to eye-watering heights. A small house in the area was likely to cost around $200,000 at the time, and rents were anywhere between $1,000-$1,500. Old homes were replaced by “modern” apartments, with shiny steel and glass façades modelled on structures seen in Dubai or Pakistan. These were sold as aspirational living for Kabul’s new elite, as well as investments. Ironically, they proved to be extremely difficult to live in, as they froze in the Kabul winters, and were warm through the summer. As property became valuable almost overnight, many places were torn down and open construction pits and boards announced new projects. By 2013, with the withdrawal of US troops in sight, several of the apartments had slid into decay. Large pits that had been carved in the heart of the locality remained open and raw, a relic of the many kinds of violence that unfolded in Kabul.
Since the attack on Park Palace guesthouse, there have already been two other major attacks in Kabul – one near the airport, and one targeting the Ministry of Justice. The attack on an establishment frequented by foreigners is part of the strategy of the Taliban aimed at getting the attention of the international press, and playing up the glory of their fighters. As analysts have pointed out, the attack shows the disturbing blurring of distinctions by the group between civilian and military targets by dubbing all foreigners, regardless of nationality and occupation, as “invaders”. The attack also saw five Afghans killed, dismissed as “hirelings” by their attackers. This is not the first such attack on a guesthouse used by foreign and Afghan civilians, and is unlikely to be the last.
Each year I spent in Kabul I read news reports detailing the spring fighting. The count kept mounting each year, and is increasing now. (According to UNAMA, 25% more civilians were killed in the conflict in 2014 than the previous year. That number is likely to rise this year.) The majority of the dead, both civilian and military, are Afghans. Yet after each attack that saw foreigners killed, Afghan friends would tell me, “This is not us. This is not our culture.” Perhaps that was their way of mourning their own city. The latest spate of attacks are yet another instance of the blurring lines of the battles being fought across Kabul, from its streets and ruined forts into its courtyards.