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"If I can turn the light on, I've still got my arms"

In Kabul last week, an American friend working there as a freelance journalist told me he’d dreamed the night before that his arms had been blown off. John Wendle said he’d woken up in a terrified sweat and turned on his bedside light. If I can turn the light on, he told himself, I’ve still got my arms.


In early December, he had been at Kabul’s Abu Fazal Shia shrine when a suicide bomber killed more than 50 people. A lot of friends were there, including AFP’s photographer Massoud Hossaini.

Massoud’s picture of a girl wearing a bright green dress and headscarf for the Shia Ashura ran on front pages worldwide.

It captures the moment that broke John’s sleep – the teenager is mid-scream, her clothes splashed with blood, hands splayed, face contorted with shock, terror, disbelief.

At her feet are bodies of men, women and children, many of them her relatives. There’s a bloodied baby sprawled across the back of his mother’s neck; she is face down, dead. Another girl, wearing black and on her knees, is crying. Blood runs down her cheek.

The picture is so graphic one can almost hear the screams. Massoud still hears the screams. One of his hands was injured; he’s not sure what lodged in it, but at first thought it might have been a bit of bone from one of the dead. Or even the bomber.

When I was AFP’s bureau chief in Kabul, Massoud and our other photographer, Shah Marai, used to wipe the blood and flesh and bone off their shoes when they came back from covering bomb attacks.

Massoud says he’s having nightmares and suddenly bursts into tears. He had to stop doing follow-ups, he said, like going to hospitals to photograph survivors.

John has seen a counselor; she told him he is doing ok. “I know I am. But I worry it’s going to happen again. And more people will die,” he said.

There will be more attacks in Kabul and more people will die, needlessly, pointlessly. The Taleban have long been inside the wire and there’s a belief they’ll make their presence felt ahead of any peace talks.

I've just spent a few months as media adviser to the EU’s Kabul delegation, and the experience has shaken my confidence in the durability of the international project in Afghanistan.

Many young and capable Afghans do have faith in a peaceful, prosperous, secure and free future, and they're prepared to work hard for it. Many others are scrambling to get themselves, their families and their money out before 2014, when foreign combat troops will withdraw. 

And for the foreigners? “It’s a fight without a fucking point,” as one friend, an NGO official, put it to me soon after I returned in October.

A TV reporter told me his fin de siecle moment came at a ball in Kabul when a senior military officer was so drunk she could only stay upright by holding onto the back of his dinner jacket. “That’s when I thought: ‘We’ve lost this’,” he said.


For me it was last week, when I heard tales from a party at a UN compound in Kabul where at least two Western ambassadors were said to have stripped to leap into the pool.

The pretence of victory in Afghanistan is dropping as fast as a vodka-fuelled diplomat's boxer shorts and now the imperative is to say that at least we, the West, didn't lose. Just as it ever was, the losers will be the Afghans.