Asia Pacific

Afghanistan: Kabul restaurants struggle weeks after brazen attack

Afghan security forces investigate the aftermath of a suicide attack and shooting in Kabul on Jan. 18, 2014.(Photo: Rahmat Gul, AP)KABUL, Afghanistan — In the weeks since the brazen attack on Taverne du Liban, Atiqullah Aslamy has barely slept and says he is afraid to leave home.
Aslamy was preparing kebabs at the restaurant the night of Jan. 17, when a blast ripped through the restaurant’s front door and gunmen killed 21 people, including 13 foreigners.
“(It is) a time that I will never forget in my life,” said Aslamy, who escaped unharmed. He and his wife are expecting their first baby and he needs a job to support his family, but he doesn’t want to work in another restaurant.
“At the first restaurant, I was saved,” he said. “At the second, maybe I won’t be saved.”
Aslamy isn’t the only one worrying his luck may run out. The attack on the Lebanese restaurant, a fixture in the heart of Kabul, is a game-changer for the capital’s expatriate community and the wealthier Afghans who frequent such places.
As a result, most international security providers have placed their expatriate staff on lockdown in Kabul. Only “mission critical” trips outside secured guesthouses and compounds are allowed, and the handful of heavily fortified restaurants that cater to expats are off-limits.
For many expatriates, working, eating and sleeping in the same place during this indefinite lockdown conjures the feeling of being a prisoner.
Before the attack, there was some freedom to move around the city to meet friends for dinner and while the list of approved restaurants was small, today that sense of freedom has disappeared.
Some have cited depression from being in one place 24 hours a day, and no one knows how long the lockdown will last. However, most expatriates don’t seem to mind the strict security restrictions as uncertainty looms ahead of presidential elections next month and with the potential for complete U.S. troop withdrawal by the end of the year.
Forgoing a restaurant trip is a minor sacrifice, some say, but the attack destroyed one of the last bits of normalcy in Kabul and eroded the fragile hope that existed in the city for a better future.
When Ismael Aarefi opened Everest Pizza in 2001, the Afghan entrepreneur thought, “This was my country, I am here to stay.” More than a decade later, he says he doesn’t see a future in Afghanistan and is considering leaving the country with his family.
The January attack occurred less than a half a mile from his restaurant, a popular hangout for young Afghans and expats. His monthly intake dropped by $15,000, and the number of customers dwindled. If the situation continues for the next two months, Aarefi said he will consider laying off staff. By that time, he doesn’t think he can afford to stay in Kabul.
Many others also worry about the future.
“Business is really down,” said Mohammad Azim Popal, the owner of an Afghan restaurant, Sufi, which caters to an expat and wealthy Afghan clientele.
Following the attack, Popal purchased two guns and built a safe room — a bunker where people can hide in the event of an emergency — inside the restaurant. Still, only about 20 mainly Afghan customers dine each day at Sufi, down from an average of 100 and resulting in a loss of roughly $2,800 per day as of last week. Popal had to fire two waiters and two cooks to make ends meet.
Some restaurant owners are trying to stay positive. Yousuf Rafik, the Afghan owner of Boccacio, an Italian restaurant a few blocks from Taverne du Liban, says it is just a matter of time for things to get better.
“I never thought for one second of closing (my restaurant),” he said. Since the attack, he spent $25,000 in security upgrades, including installing gates and reinforcing doors so international organizations could put Boccacio back on their slim list of approved restaurants. More than 15 NGOs, international organizations and companies obliged, placing the restaurant on that list.
While Kabul residents, both expatriate and Afghan, are resilient after years of sporadic violence, Rafik’s optimism could be tested. The attack was a chilling reminder to many in Kabul that security is at its worst after more than a decade of international involvement.
Nathan Obin, 24, a student development specialist from New Hampshire, was walking to Taverne du Liban to join his two colleagues the night of Jan. 17. The explosion occurred minutes before Obin would have arrived. His two colleagues, Alexandros Petersen and Alexis Kamerman, were killed.
Obin, who works at the American University of Afghanistan, has worked in Kabul for less than a year and says he isn’t likely to stay beyond 2014 if the number of bomb attacks keeps increasing.
“It hit home when our colleagues died,” he said. “It could have been anyone of us.”

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