Cable from Kabul

All Frontline Club members have some connection to Afghanistan it seems. The former members of the Frontline TV Agency cut their teeth in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. So it seems fitting that Kabul is rapidly becoming a second meeting place for club members.

Peter Jouvenal established the Gandamack Lodge in early 2002 and it fast became the safe haven for visiting journalists and long term Kabul residents. At one stage the Gandamack Lodge, reputedly home to Osama bin Laden’s fourth wife and just down the road from the passport office, was the de facto Canadian Embassy with former Canadian Ministers of Defence wining and dining. Gandamack Lodge was the home in Leicestershire of the 19th Century fictional a la James Bond cad Harry Flashman. The village of Gandamack also saw the slaughter of some 16,000 British Empire troops and camp followers in 1842, something British troops deploying to Afghanistan are remembering and should be reading up on now.

Peter has now moved the Gandamack Lodge to the centre of town location just across the road from the Iranian Embassy. In the basement is the Hare and Hound pub, with fixtures and fittings straight out of an English pub in the Home Counties.

In the attic is the usual Jouvenal collection of weapons, some dating from the 19th Century and World War Two. Signed copies of the Frontline book by club member and the BBC’s David Loyn are on sale (and my own!): “For the real story of the founder of Gandamack Lodge.” David was in town earlier this year checking on how international aid money had been spent; it had some in the donor community worried (I’m still getting requests for copies of his Newsnight film).

In my four months back in Kabul this year (I worked here from the beginning of 2002 until the end of 2004 on media development projects and running the city’s popular Afghan pop music radio station) I’ve hosted three imperial dinner parties at Gandamack Lodge for some 60 people complete with white table clothes, six sabres down the centre of the table, silverware and Union Jacks. When TGI Thursday arrives Friday is something to look forward to so why not live a little and relive the old days.

So who’s in town now? Frontline members’ numbers are regularly boosted by those coming in and out of Afghanistan, but there are a few of us who stay the long course. Tim Albone from The Times, Tom Coghlan from The Independent and The Economist, and Alastair Leithead the new BBC reporter are regular correspondents from Afghanistan. Ariane Quentier is a Strategic Communications Advisor for Afghanistan’s New Beginnings Programme, the UN project to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate former soldiers and in the last year to disband illegal armed groups. Ash Sweeting, a freelance Australian photographer recently joined the club due to friendly pressure in Kabul. He signed on the dotted line when visiting Norfolk Place the other week.

Visitors have been numerous recently. Former Frontline Forum Manager Elsa Weill popped over from for four nights shopping and sightseeing from her new base at Al Jazeera in Doha. BBC Journalist Paul Vickers made his third trip to Afghanistan for Radio Five Live. Paul also stayed at the legendary Mustafa Hotel, haunt to many journalists++  over the year, my home for ten months in 2004, and favoured drinking hole of “Jack”, the American bounty hunter currently serving a sentence in Kabul’s notorious Pul-i-Charki prison for running his own private prison in the centre of town. Others I know who have passed through include photographer Kate Brooks and producer Najib Razaq with his Ali G sunglasses and East London accent.

Club member Christina Lamb from The Sunday Times came under sustained Taleban fire for two hours in Helmand whilst on a British patrol with her photographer Justin Sutcliffe (soon to join the club I hope!). Christina’s blog site Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs received a lot of attention in Kabul. One contributor wrote: “I’m here reading your blog in the garden of Kabul’s French restaurant (a hotzone), L’Atmosphere, surrounded by expats drinking booze and hitting on each other, and I’m just daydreaming that maybe I’ll get the energy to write about this place, inside these high walls, rather than the poverty outside on the supposed ‘streets of lost dreams’. Forget it, there’s a pretty girl over there, I think she’s with the US Embassy or USAID or UNAMA or Oxfam, aw, who can tell, they’re all the same? Oh, too late, that guy there from the BBC is already buying her a drink… Be safe, lady, down south, not that the troops would let an RPG actually fly close.”

A further blog contribution from the same writer added: “Christina, dear. Heat and dust? I don’t feel no stinkin’ heat. I don’t see no stinkin’ dust. Both are dealt a mortal blow by a quick dip in the newly refilled swimming pool here at L’Atmosphere. What a pleasant way to spend a Kabul Monday afternoon. Send a gin and tonic to that blonde over there lathering Hawaiian Tropic all over herself. No, hold that, wait; that damn BBC guy’s beat me to her, already bringing her a drink. One more thing, Christina: I’m wondering what the hell you’re doing toting a sleeping bag to Helmand province in the summer.”

I’m not sure if the writer is accurate on the reference to the “BBC guy” as Alastair Leithead was down in Helmand most of the time. It could have been club member and documentary producer Sean Langan, who made the film about women drivers in Afghanistan. But I can also tell you that the blog contributor works for the Lincoln Group (remember they paid to have articles placed in Iraqi newspapers) so I’m not sure what he’s here for. This is a city of conspiracy theorists after all!

Dominic Medley is a Founding Member of the Frontline Club. He’s a co-author of Kabul: The Bradt Mini Guide and co-founder of the Afghanistan Foreign Press Association.