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A blog by Paul Bettings

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Afghanistan, 2 Days in Kabul

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

From the moment I got to Pearson International Airport in Toronto and had to mention that my final destination was Kabul, Afghanistan I received second glances from all airline and airport staff. “Are you military?”, they would ask – “no, humanitarian” was my response. Back in 2012 when this trip took place, the flight path from Toronto was through Dubai, upon boarding the flight to Kabul I was surrounded by soldiers and military personnel from the several countries, journalists from the world over and a few local dignitaries from what I could gather. Strangely, the item that first struck me was my choice of footwear, most of the people on the plane (with the exception of the dignitaries in suits) were wearing durable boots that had obviously been put through the ringer, I was wearing white sneakers – probably not the best choice given the environment I was entering.

Our approach into Kabul was not the usual fly in, we banked left, then right, accelerated then decelerated, I assumed we were weaving through mountain ranges because mountain ranges are what I saw when I looked out my window. I was told later that the approach is based on safe passage related to Taliban activity. As I looked out the window, I saw snow peaked mountains and a landscape that I had seen on the news many times over. Eventually we landed and went through customs, which was controlled mostly by the U.S military, we were picked up by the local staff and got in our vehicle that would take us to our compound. At the time, Kabul was relatively safe but there was a constant reminder of how quickly that could change. U.S military were everywhere, there were manned gun turrets on half constructed buildings throughout the city, buildings were sprayed with mortar damage from battles gone by and checkpoints with intimidating soldiers and armoured vehicles were everywhere. In this environment it seemed that the local population were continuing their lives as best they could; markets were open, people were sitting at restaurants drinking tea, women in burka’s crossed the street with their children in tow and I saw people selling and buying livestock. I had never been to Afghanistan, so I was not 100% sure what normal looked like, but I was hoping this was somewhere on the spectrum of normal.

We were to fly out to the province of Herat in the coming days, but for now we were based in Kabul and the relative “safety” of our time there was a surprise to me. Yes, every building we entered was very secure, our hotel had 25ft blast walls surrounding it and we had to go through two gates upon entry, there were plans, protocols and safety procedures for everything from going out to eat to going shopping on Chicken Street, the local strip known for its shops full of items left on battlefields around the country. Every meeting started with with an explanation of our primary and secondary options for escape in the case of an incursion. But, the fact was that were able to go to a restaurant for dinner, and we were able to walk down a street of shops, we were able to sit in meetings with a group of people – this I was not expecting. And with the unexpectedness of this came a feeling of hope for the country. Maybe something was working in this battle for Afghanistan?

But that feeling of hope was constantly put to the test. In one such moment, I found myself walking down a main street and some street children came to me and asked for money. I slowed down slightly and put my arms out and said "sorry, I have no money on me". The children continued to follow and more children joined, the scene started to attract the attention of the people around me who were going about their daily chores, people were stopping and looking, laughing - I began to get nervous, I didn't want to attract attention and I immediately regretted my decision to walk down this particular street. I ducked into the pedestrian entrance of my hotel and, after taking a moment, wondered if I could borrow a couple dollars from the billions that were poured into the country and give it to those children. Would it have helped at all? Maybe not. But, there was a tangibility to the idea that seemed to make sense in that moment.

I don’t pretend to have too much authority regarding the situation we find ourselves in when it comes to Afghanistan. There are people who have dedicated their lives to this country, and I am sure the people who live in Afghanistan have have many thoughts they would love to get out to the masses. But, what I can say is that, after following this war on news channels and websites for almost 20 years, seeing the photos of prizewinning photographers as they worked to document the fighting, the destruction and the people, hearing from the local population during my time in the country, seeing the lives lost of soldiers from around the world, I find it saddening that we seem to be back at square one after so much loss.


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