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Safety and Safety Belts

November 4, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

The most unmistakable aspect of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, is that it's overcrowded. "It is a city built for one million people, but has four million people living here," said Farhad Zalmi, our guide and Mercy Corps' PR and communications officer here, as we tore down the highway dodging pedestrians, bicyclists and dozens of other autos.

And it's not just the traffic. Thousands more Afghans line these busy streets, many with their faces covered by scarves to fend off the dust and exhaust that is thick in the air. Most are manning makeshift kiosks and corners shops hawking everything from vests and boots for the coming winter to stacks of flat bread and huge butchered lambs.

I have to resist the urge to get our driver to stop so I can purchase something and hopefully speak to one of the shopkeepers - many of whom are clients of Ariana Financial Group, the microfinance institution that Mercy Corps helped found in Kabul. Just today, one block from Ariana's main offices, a French aid worker was kidnapped outside his home.

So, understandably, we will only be able to see much of Kabul out of the window of a car. And one of the few restaurants we will be able to visit in the city is an ex-pat friendly place protected by huge walls, razor wire and two armed guards.

Miguel and I aren't concerned about our safety for a moment of this trip, though. The security staff at Mercy Corps' offices take extensive measures to ensure our safety: never driving in the same car, tracking our movements via radio communications and, most importantly, hiring a group of vigilant and hyperaware drivers whose eyes and steering wheels are constantly on the move.

It even comes down to the little details of our travels through the city, as Miguel and I learned as we were on our way to visit Ariana. A few minutes into our journey, our driver, wending his small Toyota through along one of the city's many rocky, unpaved side streets, starts making what sounds like a very important point to Zalmi.

"He was saying that because it is suspicious driving around with foreigners," Zalmi explained, "we don't wear safety belts. Because that is one of the first things these criminals look for is the cars with Westerners wearing seat belts."

Miguel and I exchange a quick look, both silently acknowledging the irony of not wearing a seat belt for safety reasons, then unbuckling as inconspicuously as possible.