Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Disaster Strikes Downtown Kabul

Merchants fear a downturn after a suicide attack on a street frequented by foreigners.
By Abdul Baseer

Last weekend’s suicide bombing on Chicken Street, a busy commercial thoroughfare in the centre of Kabul, was more than just the latest in the series of violent attacks that have racked this capital city for more than two decades.

For the merchants whose livelihood largely depends on the foreigners who frequent their shops, the bombing also served as a deadly reminder of how precarious daily life can be in this capital city, even in the wake of the successful presidential election held last month.

At around 3:30 pm on October 23, an attacker detonated several grenades in front of a carpet shop on the street, killing a 12-year old Afghan girl and a 23-year-old American woman, in addition to himself. Several others, including soldiers from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, were injured.

Officials suspect that the ISAF soldiers were the probable targets of the attack.

"Terrorists have made a priority of targeting foreigners, because they want to remove foreign influence," said General Noorulhaq Ulumi, a retired Afghan general and a military analyst. "But as a consequence, Afghans have become victims of their attacks."

Meanwhile, three foreign election workers were kidnapped on October 28 in Kabul. Two of them are women – one a British-Irish national, the other a Kosovo Albanian. The third hostage is a Filipino.

Officials said it was still unclear if they were targeted because of election links, or just for being foreigners.

Chicken Street, in the heart of Shahr-e-Naw district, is Kabul's main tourist thoroughfare. Once the location of a poultry bazaar - hence the name - it was a popular destination for backpackers in the Sixties and Seventies before Afghanistan fell off the tourist map.

Slowly, the tourists have started to return. According to wire reports and US newspaper accounts, the American victim, Jamie Michalsky, was working as a Russian-language interpreter in Uzbekistan, and was in Afghanistan for a short medical visit when she decided to go on a shopping trip in Kabul.

The Afghan girl, named Fariba, was one of the street children who sell books, tour guides and trinkets to foreigners.

Ajmal, 25, runs a handicrafts shop there that has been in his family for 35 years. The grenades exploded in front of his shop.

"I was busy with my customers when three bombs went off within the space of one minute," he said. "All the glass shattered and the store filled with smoke."

Ajmal's customers were two senior ISAF officers. The bomber had tried to enter the shop and was stopped by security personnel. Then the grenades went off.

Ghulam Seddiq, 62, another shopkeeper on Chicken Street, said he had no revenue other than what he earns from the store. According to him, foreigners flocked to the bazaar before the blast, but it now seems likely that they will stay away.

"Much as we are scared, foreigners are also worried about the physical danger," he said.

"The foreigners really light up the bazaar, but after the attack, business could really fade," said another man called Ajmal, 22, who runs a goldsmith’s shop on the street. "We rely on God's will."

Ajmal said the government should take steps to ensure the security of the commercial district, and suggested that the authorities should keep beggars off of Chicken Street. In fact, he said, the city should remove all beggars from the streets and put them in shelters, as was done under previous governments.

Prior to the attack, private security consultants had warned foreigners away from places like Chicken Street, as well as other locales frequented by peacekeepers.

Najibullah Najib, spokesman for Afghanistan's interior ministry, said security measures were already in place to protect areas frequented by foreigners, particularly on Chicken Street.

"Security is in place all over Afghanistan, not just in Chicken Street," he said. "This bombing doesn't mean police security is weak, but there's no 100 per cent guarantee we can stop suicide bombings."

Hafizullah Gardesh is an IWPR editor in Kabul. Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada and Abdul Baseer Saeed are IWPR staff reporters in Kabul.