We were not stranded on the side of the road. Akhtar called his son, Mohammed, who spoke English and was at home with his wife enjoying the day off. When John explained where we wanted to go to Mohammed, who then translated for his father, Akhtar’s rheumy eyes shone with amusement.
“The hill with the huge billboard,” John said. Akhtar didn’t need any more instructions — he peeled away from the curb the moment the sliding rear door had closed.
I’d seen this billboard — advertising, of all things, Coca-Cola — from the top floor of our crew house, along with other obvious landmarks: TV Hill, a pin cushion of antennae and satellite dishes, and the Old Kabul Fort, a medieval looking structure built atop a natural sandstone mound. But this was the first time we had collectively left the confines of the guarded house, and headed somewhere other than the airport.
We went through an upscale neighbourhood called Wazir Akbar Khan, an area of palatial mansions surrounded by high walls and iron gates. Bordering the other side of the road was a massive terraced rose garden that seemed lush and tropical in this bleak, desert landscape. The narrow roads were ribbed with speed bumps, which caused the drivers to rapidly accelerate and brake in between the humps. I wasn’t sure if this was their normal style of driving or if they were making a point for making them work on a Friday.
At last we turned up a steep and crumbling dirt track that lead to a hill above the rose garden.
“This is Swimming Pool Hill,” announced John. A gritty, earthen taste of airborne dust hung heavily in the air, and a thin veil of smog hovered over the city.
Built by the occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s atop this 500-foot arid mount in the centre of Kabul was an actual Olympic size pool, complete with multi-tiered concrete diving platforms and a panoramic view. Wedged between the dizzying heights of the Hindu Kush Mountains along the Kabul River, the city stretched out across the valley. Built at 5,900 feet above-sea-level, most of Kabul’s three million inhabitants lived in single level homes surrounded by mud-brick walls. It looked like a gigantic labyrinth.
At least two-dozen boys of all ages had watched us approach and now stood on the narrow edge of the pool, dressed in a mix of western-style clothes and traditional Afghan pants — loose pantaloons clasped close to the ankles. The bold ones reached out and asked for “baksheesh.” Others leaped down into the dry shallow end of the pool to avoid us, and the dozen or so boys who splashed and floated in the murky waist-deep water that had collected in the deep end paid us no attention at all.
The occupying Soviet forces, likely posted on the hill to watch for approaching Afghan mujahedin, had levelled the apex of the hill and perhaps had even constructed a temporary encampment, but they could not get water to flow up such a steep slope. And the huge Olympic pool had never been used for swimming.
The Taliban, however, had found a unique use for it.
While they ruled during the 1990s, they conducted bloody and violent public executions in the stadium in the centre of town, and used the swimming pool for secret and political executions. Blindfolded and hobbled, accused homosexuals, intellectuals and political criminals would be forced to climb to the top diving platform, where Taliban zealots would recite some verses from the Koran and then push the offenders off the edge to watch them plummet onto the cement floor of the pool some 50 or 60 feet below. If they survived, they were deemed innocent, and I assume allowed to go free.
Of course, according to free-fall research, “people very seldom survive falls from heights of 100 feet or more, and mortality is high even at heights of 20-30 feet.” Whether this knowledge was known amongst the Taliban mullahs or not, they must have been delighted with their judicial results, rarely executing an “innocent.”
We had also been told that “undesirables” had been herded into the deep end of the pool and summarily executed by machine-gun, and the tell tale round cement patches speckled the tall walls of the pool. I imagined if a list of “undesirables” had existed, it would have included intelligent freethinkers, doctors, women and anyone who had the audacity to cherish the least bit of optimism left to an oppressed people. I would have been one of the first to be executed had I lived there.
The Taliban had roamed the streets in small Toyota pick-ups and were quick to whisk away a man who did not have the “regulation” length beard (that of a clenched fist); they punished people for appearing happy, for expressing any joy in their meagre lives, and if a woman was found walking down a street not completely concealed by a burqa, then a public stoning seemed an appropriate punishment.
These extremists were still out there, infiltrating the Afghan Police Force wearing stolen uniforms; they placed roadside bombs anywhere they pleased; they convinced young men to strap explosives around their waists and blow themselves up in a crowd or near a convoy; they roamed the far-reaching scrub desert and mountains and expressed their desire to kill all infidels. Tolerance was not a governing quality.
The sultry mid-day heat pried the sweat from our skin, baked the tops of our heads, and made me wonder how soldiers could endure hour after hour of desert patrol, weighed down with armoured vests, their rifles, extra ammunition, grenades, water and rations. I was thankful for being a civilian.
The young Afghan boys followed us around and wanted their picture taken — for a dollar. I watched these boys, some with light skin, blue eyes and straw-coloured hair, laugh and splash and chase each other, having fun just as children should anywhere in the world. A few climbed up to the diving platforms and stood on the edge looking down. They climbed barefoot up the rusted steel hangers still attached to the cement stringers — the metal stairs long gone — and I wondered if they knew someone who had been executed in this way: an uncle, a father, a favoured teacher.
I hoped they wouldn’t jump in desperation. I couldn’t imagine letting my own 13-year old son go near such an icon of evil, let alone swim in what had to be infectious mucky water. Had a water truck dumped its precious liquid into the pool? Had there been a rainstorm before I arrived? It seemed a mystery not only why the Soviets built the pool, but why was there no drain, no sign of any filtration system? Just a concrete hole in the ground.
Along the sides of the steep hill were thousands of shallow graves, many marked by a green flag — the colour of Islam, which indicated that the man had died in battle. A forest of flags stretched out below me.
I wondered if the Taliban had just rolled the bodies down the hill after the executions, leaving them to be buried by family, distant relatives or even strangers unable to rest with victims strewn about the hill. Would that have been considered death by battle? Or was this a place of honour to be buried?
After some time, the young pilots complained about the heat, and they were anxious to drive to the Kabul Café, a small restaurant that served hamburgers and shakes. Their empathy and recognition of what the pool and the endless graves represented had not yet set in. But the strange aura and stillness atop Swimming Pool Hill that day reminded me of the day I landed a UN helicopter near an abandoned battery factory in Srebrenica, Bosnia during the summer of 2002.
Like the hill in Afghanistan, an eerie silence hung in the air like thick fog. There were no birds chirping, no stridulation of crickets or rhythmic cicada song. Even the morning breeze funnelling down the green valley seemed faint as a whisper.
It was here that over 7000 innocent men and boys had been massacred. I had sensed the palpable nausea of evil weighing heavily on my chest. I didn’t have to see the mass graves, the rotted corpses and bones to understand the fear and the resignation these fathers and sons felt in their final moments. Whispered words of contrition, silenced by the clatter of machine-gun bolts, still hung in the air like wisps of hope.
At that moment beside the pool, I needed to feel hope. I wanted to believe that I had gone to Bosnia and East Timor and Haiti and Afghanistan to help each of these struggling nations, that the people wanted us there, that we’d done something, or were doing something, worthwhile.
It was a naïve thought.
Most Afghans regarded us with indifference. When one young boy at the pool that day asked in faltering English what was my name and what did I do, I replied I fly a helicopter. “But not a military helicopter.”
I wanted him to understand that I was not a warrior; that no matter what atrocities he’d endured in the past, either at the hands of the Soviets, mujahedin, Taliban or the Coalition armies, I had not been a part of it.
But he didn’t care — we were all the same to him. Soon I would learn that what we did in Afghanistan didn’t matter one bit, a fact this 11-year old already knew.
He shrugged his shoulders and struck a pose. All he wanted was his picture taken with our digital camera.
KABUL, Afghanistan-Children play as the British Territorial Army, 4th Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment, conduct an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrol around Kabul, Nov. 16. ISAF is assisting the Afghan Government in extending and exercising authority and influence across the country, creating the conditions for stabilization and reconstruction. (ISAF Photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Laura K. Smith)(released)
Afghan youths dive at a swimming pool on Wazir Akbar Khan hill in Kabul on June 24, 2008. ((SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images))