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

Kabul's Unprecedented Day of Riots

Anger and frustration boils over in a day of violence in the Afghan capital.
By IWPR staff
The first reports came in early on May 29, but as is often the case in Afghanistan, there was so much rumour and exaggeration that journalists had to hunt down information like nuggets of gold.

The one undisputed fact was that a vehicle belonging to the United States-led Coalition military had collided with a number of civilian cars on the outskirts of the capital, Kabul.

From there on, speculation abounded - some television stations reported 30 dead and more than 60 injured, while others said 11 Afghan vehicles had been destroyed in the crash. Still other reports insisted that American troops had fired on an unarmed crowd.

The incident poured fuel on the already simmering resentment of foreign troops - all of whom are known as “American” regardless of nationality. The arrogant and culturally insensitive behaviour of some members of the military has fed the traditional Afghan touchiness about issues of honour and respect. This combined with the general sense of frustration at the slow pace of economic improvement to create an explosive mix.

People claiming to be eyewitnesses interviewed on the popular Tolo TV channel said American soldiers had been drunk and dancing around when their vehicle struck the local cars; others maintained that the Coalition convoy hit a string of cars over several kilometres.

News agencies published photos of demonstrators throwing stones at Coalition vehicles, and the BBC showed footage of the retreating Americans firing their weapons, although it was not clear whether the shots were aimed at the crowd or above their heads.

While some politicians appealed for calm, others seemed more intent on inflaming passions.

“The Americans came here to provide security,” said Haji Almas, a parliamentarian from Parwan province. “That does not give them the right to kill people.”

The United States army confirmed the collision, but said the casualties amounted to one dead, six injured - much lower than the figures being bandied about.

“We took those who were hurt to a local hospital,” said Lieutenant Tamara Lawrence, spokesperson for Coalition Forces. “Our troops shot in the air to disperse the crowd. Then we left.”

An investigation into the incident was still ongoing, she said.

The angry crowds that gathered in various locations around Kabul during the day seemed less interested in the facts than in expressing their rage.

“The Americans are killing our brothers!” shouted one demonstrator, inciting dozens of companions to riot. “Let’s go to the American embassy!”

Most did not make it that far, contenting themselves with smashing and looting everything in their path.

Shouting “Death to Karzai” and “Death to America”, and waving posters of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famous mujahedin commander who has achieved iconic status among some Afghans, the demonstrators set off for some of the more heavily populated areas of the city.

In the town centre, Shar-e-Naw, just a few hundred metres away from the interior ministry, demonstrators set fire to houses and buildings that were rumoured to contain foreign non-governmental organisations. In one compound, guards fired into the air from behind the door to warn off possible attackers. Some staff escaped over the rooftops.

“Look at them running!” one demonstrator was overheard to shouting. “Let’s kill them first, and then we’ll get the foreigners.”

Demonstrators attacked the office of Care International, and broke windows at the Kabul Serena Hotel, the capital’s lone five-star establishment. Several Chinese restaurants - commonly acknowledged to operate as brothels - were also attacked and burned.

Shooting could be heard in all parts of the city, although it was not clear who was firing.

Police seemed to be in short supply. One IWPR contributor saw policemen in riot gear trying to calm the demonstrators, but when that failed, they joined with the crowd, shouting insults against President Hamed Karzai’s wife, a grave offence in this conservative Islamic republic.

Another IWPR correspondent saw clusters of police standing far away from the rioters, making little or no attempt to curb them.

Ariana Television, a private Kabul-based station whose office is near parliament, came under attack near midday. A tense presenter in dark suit and red tie appealed for help live on TV, while the cameras interspersed his pleas with shots of the looters and demonstrators down below.

“It’s been over an hour, and we haven’t seen any police yet,” said the presenter. “Please - police, security forces, fire trucks – come as soon as you can.”

Down in the courtyard of the Ariana compound, cars were being set on fire and windows smashed. There seemed to be less a political than an economic motive for many of the rioters, as some stole bicycles and others pried spare parts from car engines before setting fire to the vehicles.

As the day progressed, the demonstrators’ rage grew. One group attacked a power station in northern Kabul, at least until more level heads prevailed.

“Don’t do that, we won’t have electricity tonight!” shouted a man in the crowd.

Throughout the city, shops were closed, cars were burning, and broken glass littered the pavement.

The violence raged for much of the day, dying down only towards evening.

Presdient Karzai, who had not been visible during the day, came on state television at night to appeal for calm.

“This was a traffic accident,” he said, adding that the American ambassador had visited him to explain what had happened.

Karzai said Afghanistan’s enemies were exploiting the traffic accident “as an excuse” for unrest.

The city went under curfew for the first time since the immediate post-Taleban period. Residents were told to stay in their homes from ten in the evening until four in the morning.

By the morning of May 30, the city was firmly in the grip of the police and army as a cleanup got under way. Some shops remained closed, and burned-out police security posts could be seen throughout the city. Army tanks stood on guard near some of the previous day’s worst trouble spots.

The question in many people’s minds was just how long this calm would last.