Last Tango in Kabul
In the heart of Kabul’s heavily guarded diplomatic district, down a quiet side street, sits a dilapidated two-story building fronted by a beige boundary wall topped with razor wire. Its front entrance is a gaping hole blocked with corrugated iron, and its windows, missing their glass, have faint scorch marks at the corners, like raised eyebrows above sightless eyes. The alley to the right is pocked with bullet holes. The place is abandoned now. These faint signs of violence are all that’s left to mark the 21 people who were murdered inside last winter.
La Taverna du Liban. It was a popular restaurant that I had visited often over the past six years I’ve lived in Kabul. Restaurants like this, along with private homes and guesthouses, comprised the hidden archipelago of expatriate social life in the capital. They always had a bit of a speakeasy feel to them. Alcohol is illegal in Afghanistan, but places that catered to foreigners were allowed to serve it to non-Muslims. There was rarely any signage, though the sandbags and heavy steel door were a giveaway. You’d knock and a little metal grate would slide open to permit a once-over. The door would swing open and you’d be admitted into the vestibule for a body and bag search; if you were a young Afghan male – or looked and spoke like one, like I do – you might face some questions about your business there. Finally, you’d be let into the restaurant proper. Most of these places look like a cross between a backpacker cafe in Thailand and a World War I bunker; La Taverna, with its reed mats and Christmas lights lining the walls, was pretty much par for the course.
I’d never seen it empty. It was one of the few expat restaurants in Kabul whose fare would have justified its existence anywhere else: tart tabbouleh, falafels that arrived crispy and steaming hot, baba ghanoush made with eggplants that had been roasted to the proper point of smokiness, and a constant supply of fresh, fluffy bread to scoop it all up with. The Lebanese proprietor, Kamel Hamade, liked to hang out in the corner, where he’d keep an eye on the waiters and send over complimentary appetizers and desserts to guests. You always left stuffed.
It was also one of the diminishing number of places in the city where you could get beer or wine, served discreetly in teacups. And because it was in the heavily guarded Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, it usually kept its place on the constantly changing “green” lists of sites that those who worked for embassies and NGOs were allowed to visit. And that meant business, especially on a Friday night.
On the chilly evening of January 17th, a couple of weeks into what President Barack Obama had promised would be the last year of America’s war in Afghanistan, a man walked up to the entrance of the restaurant and, as diners sat down to their meals, blew himself up, killing the guards and caving in the front door. Two more attackers followed, weighted down with ammunition and carrying assault rifles. There was nowhere to go. Some of the Afghan staff managed to jump from the roof, but everyone else was massacred at their tables, including Hamade, who tried to put up a fight with the pistol he kept in the restaurant. The whole thing lasted nearly two hours before the attackers were killed by the police. Among the dead were two young Americans who worked at the American University of Afghanistan, Lexie Kamerman and Alexandros Petersen. It was Petersen’s fifth day in the country.
The attack shook the city’s expat community; pretty much all of us had eaten at La Taverna. One of my housemates had been planning to go that night, but had canceled at the last minute. It could have been any of us, and it made personal the anxiety that surrounded the impending U.S. and NATO troop withdrawals. Despite what you heard on the news, the city, until now, had been reasonably safe for foreigners. We all wondered: Was this the end of the Kabul we knew?
The massacre came at a time of growing hostility toward foreigners in Afghanistan, some of it fueled by Afghan politicians who have blamed the West for the country’s problems. Outgoing president Hamid Karzai, in particular, has been increasingly venomous, drawing parallels between U.S. airstrikes and Taliban attacks on the capital. On March 8th, at an International Women’s Day event, Karzai, whose administration has been marked by controversial prosecutions of women for “moral crimes,” made a gibe at the foreigners’ expense. “Afghan men shouldn’t test their strength against the women,” Karzai told his audience. “If they’re so strong, they should go test it against America.”
Three days later, a Swedish reporter named Nils Horner paid a visit to the burned-out shell of La Taverna. Fifty-one years old, with snowy, receding hair and a mellow demeanor, Horner had been in the capital for only two days, on one of the few short trips he made each year as the Asia correspondent for Radio Sweden, the country’s public broadcaster. The day he landed, he had gone to meet a local journalist named Sardar Ahmad, who ran his own media company, Kabul Pressistan. Horner wanted to do a story on the attack, and Ahmad set him up with a translator and a driver. There had been a cook who had survived the massacre; hoping to find a way of contacting him, they went to another Lebanese restaurant nearby.
Around the corner from La Taverna is the main road, called Street 15, a bustling avenue lined with embassies and foreign-media offices, patrolled by armed guards. It seems like the last place you’d expect trouble. But as Horner spoke to a guard at the second Lebanese restaurant, a man approached him, raised his pistol, and fired a single shot into his head. Horner crumpled to the ground as his driver and translator watched in horror. The assailant, along with a companion, sprinted away. Despite the fact that there were guards along the street, no one stopped them. The murder was never claimed by the Taliban, and remains unsolved. “He didn’t do investigative reporting,” Caroline Salzinger, Horner’s editor, tells me. “Not the kind of stories where anyone would have taken any offense.”
It seemed a clear message to the internationals: You are not safe on our streets. You are not safe in our restaurants. You are not safe in Kabul. But the La Taverna massacre was just the first in a series of escalating and baffling attacks against civilians, of which Horner’s own murder would just be the next in sequence. The blows came one after the other, like a hammer setting a nail: six attacks in four months. By the end of April, more foreign civilians had been killed in Afghanistan this year than foreign soldiers.