Vignettes | observations

A Wake-Up Call


It happened so quickly, as these things are wont to do.

One moment I was on the phone, trying to get the last leg of directions to a friend’s house, and then the next, three punches were colliding with my face.

The man grabbed my phone, but I held on. I must have screamed because the next thing I knew, he was running away. The group of young men – boys really – that stood, watching, on the opposite street corner ran after him. In my muddled state of mind, my immediate thought was that, as good Samaritans, they were in pursuit.

And then I stopped thinking, and I too ran.

The night before the failed mugging, I sat in N and M’s living room and we discussed the lack of petty crime in Kabul. An older couple, they had lived in Afghanistan for the past six years. N worked in Russia and Kosovo previously, and M joined him at some point from China.

“The currency changers stand in the streets all day with a thick wad of 1000Af bills in one hand and 500Af bills in the other, and no one touches them,” N said. “It’s because they’re part of the community.”

“And in the meantime,” I added, “You have a higher chance of getting shot in some neighborhoods of Chicago than you do here.”

It was a strange irony about life in Afghanistan’s capital city. Plenty of things were potential threats, from kidnapping to traffic accidents to harassment by the security forces to the occasional suicide bomb and large-scale attacks. But mugging? Not something that we worry about on a daily basis.

I would remember this conversation later, taking deep, shaky breaths after I had stopped running.

I can’t decide if the young men that attacked me were true criminals or teens that jumped on an easy target.

They were terrible at their attempted burglary. There were six or seven of them, and yet only one of them came for me. He punched me – two times to the left of my face and then once to the right – and grabbed the hand that held my phone, but when I didn’t immediately let go, he fled.

It could have been much, much worse.

He could have punched me again, or broken my wrist to get at the phone. He could have pulled out a knife. He could have had one of his companions, or all of them, join in the attack. The closest one was only ten feet away, and I would have been helpless then, 1 against 7 or even 1 against 2.

Instead, I yelled into the phone, “Oh my God, I’m being attacked!” and he ran.

I was in shock and not entirely sure what shocked me most:

  1. That this happened less than 100 meters from the NDS guards on 24/7 watch outside of Asaddullah Khalid’s guesthouse (where the NDS Chief was wounded last month.)
  2. Or that, somehow, I still had my phone in my hand. (And a good thing too – that I wasn’t completely alone was the only thing that kept me from going to pieces.)

There’s another thought that I’ve been turning over in my mind.

Maybe they were criminals and they targeted Afghan women. Maybe they thought that I would be another easy victim. Maybe they were surprised that I did not fall to the ground upon the first blow. I hate this thought, and I hate that they are still out there, but the more that I think about it, the more likely this seems. After all, there were some weird moments leading up to the attack.

Two boys walked past me as I was on the phone in front of what I thought was my friends’ house. (“You’ll know you’ve found our house when you go XXX past the the NDS jeep,” my friends had said, “you can’t miss it.”) The boys stopped not five feet to my left and, after a few moments of listening to my conversation – in English – they made a call themselves. I remember hearing one of them saying “Bya, hala bya,” to an invisible someone on the other end of the line, “Come, come now.”

At that moment, the parked jeep that I had mistaken for the NDS vehicle started up. It revved its engines and blinded me in its headlights, and then it sped away.

As if that was their cue, the two boys split up. One of them stayed behind me as I walked away, and the other walked a little ahead of me and to my left. It was around then, I think, that the attacker came up from behind and started hitting me.

He must have been the one that they called.

As I write this, it is the morning after and I’m back home, safe and sound with nothing but a throbbing jaw to show for the incident. Thankfully, there aren’t any bruises yet, though I suspect they might make an appearance later.

I am incredibly lucky that nothing else happened. I run through the scenarios in my head – if they had been smarter, or more prepared, or had more sinister intentions than the smartphone that I had in my hand…

This incident served as a much-needed wake-up call. I’ve been too lax about security, and though I still believe that Kabul is not an inherently dangerous city by mere virtue of being in Afghanistan, and that petty crime is uncommon here, I need to be more careful.

Eileen GuoA Wake-Up Call

Related Posts


When I came to Afghanistan in October, I was irrationally and, perhaps, naively head-over-heels in love with every day and every experience here. Upon my return in January, however, I had a hard time readjusting. But thanks to moments – and people – like these, I gradually began to remember what it was about this

A Kabul Night

When it is night in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul, you forget for a moment that you are still in Afghanistan – or at least, Afghanistan as it exists today. The streets, paved and numbered – a rarity in Kabul – are empty. Here and there a security guard stands sentinel outside of

Security and Insecurity in Kabul

“From your street, go to XXXXX XXXX.  Go straight through the circle and then take the first right onto XXXX Rd. You will pass a large military compound (XXXXXXX) on your right.  The next road on the right will be blocked, but then the following road on the right will be open and unnamed. It


Join the conversation
  • Ted - January 16, 2013 reply

    Great post – compelling writing. Glad you survived to tell the tale. 🙂

  • royan lee - January 16, 2013 reply

    Glad you’re ok!

  • Eileen Guo - January 18, 2013 reply

    I’ve had so much support via Facebook, Twitter, and email after writing this and, in case anyone that stumbles upon this post has been in a similar situation, here are some great tips that a friend – former military – sent me in response. Hope it’s helpful to someone!

    1. Vary your vision when walking around outside. Don’t just look straight ahead; focus your eyes out like a camera lens and use your peripheral vision, then focus back into tunnel vision when necessary. That’ll help you sense lateral movement better. Make a game of observing things when you’re strolling around. (Remember the Terminator robot? Do that.)

    2. When you’re out and about, concentrate only on movement. Don’t multitask. Stay off the phone unless it’s necessary. Listen. Smell. Observe. Feel.

    3. Always be looking for escape routes. Fighting won’t usually be an option. Also, be aware of who you’re around, and whether they would be allies or adversaries if you are attacked.

    4. In an enclosed room, make every effort to sit with your back to the wall facing entryways, so you can see who is going and coming. This helps facilitate tip #3.

    You’ll get better at all this stuff with practice. Don’t think of it as security per se — at least not in the sense of fighting. It’s more important for you to improve your situational awareness if you want to do the work you’re doing well. Staying alert means staying alive….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *