New Internationalist

A 10-car pile-up and scars to be proud of

I had an accident. (Actually, I want to shout that I almost died!) I was being driven from Mazar e Sharef in Northern Afghanistan to Kabul and we got caught up in a 10-car pile- up. There were three of us in the car: the driver, my brother and me. None of us got too  badly hurt. In our vehicle the main casualties were my laptop, which broke in half, and our mobiles which got nicked as we ran for safety, expecting an eleventh car to smash into ours.

People were surprised to hear that this was my first accident. Having lived 25 years, I was expected to have been in at least a dozen collisions by now. In Afghanistan car accidents are a fact of life and people proudly show off scars they've sustained in their accident-prone Afghan existence. There’s that scar on my brother's wrist, and that one on his friend Attaullah's forehead. Now I too have one on my forehead, which everyone was very keen to inspect. I was quickly told my scar looked exactly like the logo of the Afghan Wireless mobile network. There were suggestions that I email a photo of my scar and attempt to claim a free sim card. They saw the funny side, more than I did – but I did appreciate the empathy.

Every accident anecdote was followed by a sobering recollection, with gory details of course, of the relative/neighbor/friend that was savagely butchered on the road. This was followed by a collective sigh of relief that I was safe. And of course theories of why I was safe, including the fact that I had visited the shrine of last Caliphate of Islam in Mazar city just before the accident and obtained a silk scarf from there. Then same suggestions about what to do next: kill a sheep and buy twelve huge Nan breads and distribute them to the poor, to thank God for keeping me safe.

The two details of my accident in which people were most interested were: did the driver managed to get away from the scene of the accident and did I think that it was the driver who had nicked our mobiles. My answer to both questions was – yes!

Everyone sympathized with the driver for running away: there are endless tales of police detaining drivers and imprisoning them for months even if they were totally innocent. And they would sympathize with him for nicking my phone – he needed to feed his poor kids. There’s a Robin Hood mentality that’s quite understandable in an anarchic place like Afghanistan, where there is no welfare state, no insurance, no alternative employment for the driver while he repairs his car.

There is no data on the number of road accidents either, but anecdotally it seems like there are a great many. There are various reasons for this.

First, Afghanistan's roads are unsafe, most of them are unpaved and those that are paved are too narrow or are inappropriately built for Afghanistan's mountainous regions. Road- building is a large, corrupt business where contracts awarded by the Government are sold on and roads are finally built with a fraction of the money that the Government originally paid. The result is roads that can't withstand Afghan extremes of heat and cold and which get distorted within a year. Our driver showed us bumps the size of tennis balls due to heat on the road leading from Pul e Khumri to Kabul.

Second, Afghan cars are unsafe... vehicles that have failed safety tests in other countries are exported to Afghanistan. One of my relatives, who lives in Germany, is involved in this business. More dangerous still is the import sub-standard tyres, which happens in bulk. Cars are also modified in unsafe ways, especially ones that are imported from Pakistan where, unlike Afghanistan, people drive on the left-hand side of the road. Sometime the ‘Pakistani Side’ cars are never modified to suit Afghan roads – particularly awkward when overtaking on the country’s narrow roads on which no speed restriction is imposed.

Third, Afghan drivers are unskilled! Driving licenses are issued to anyone who pays a few hundred dollars, therefore most people on the road don't have basic driving skills. This has created a distinctly careless Afghan driving culture... where wearing seat belts or keeping distance between cars is for cowards and maintenance of brakes is exclusively for cars  belonging to institutions like the UN.

What can one do in such a situation? Maybe police could be better trained to impose the traffic laws; maybe corruption could be curbed; or maybe people could be better educated and imports be more rigorously checked for safety. One thing is for sure: Afghans love driving and no-one can stop them. Maybe the best way, for a Western Afghan like me, to cope is to develop a sense of blind trust in fate and God and take pride in my scars...

Off  I go to the bakery to buy some bread to give to the poor to thank God for keeping me relatively safe and alive... of course I'll be in my brother's heavily modified Honda.

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