We had to delay the start of this year’s residence carol service. The Taliban attack on the Spanish Embassy guesthouse took place only a few hundred yards from the UK Embassy. The shockwave from the blast was felt across the mission and shook the walls of the residence. UK staff and our military colleagues at the NATO mission needed to help respond to the attack. It was a stark reminder of the dangers of life in Kabul – and we had a discussion about cancelling the carols. On balance we decided to go ahead.
It was the right decision. When the carol service got underway later that evening, we sang traditional carols, enjoyed a selection of readings from the Bible, an Afghan refugee’s account of her exciting first Christmas in the UK, and various versions of Twas the Night Before Christmas.
To accompany the carols, we were lucky to have talented embassy colleagues play the flute, trumpet and the residence piano. This piano – which has a beautifully soft tone - must have participated in many such carol services over its almost 100-year life. It used to be in the grand Imperial British Residence built by Lord Curzon in the 1920s and now owned by Pakistan. Somehow, it survived the Taliban occupation and came to rest in the hesco-and-concrete archipelago that is now the British Embassy Kabul. Its upkeep is paid for by donations from embassy staff. Amazingly, it is still tuned by the same family, and the grandson of the original tuner believes he may be the only piano tuner in Kabul. This dedication provides a touching reminder that so many embassies around the world depend on the remarkable loyalty and service of our locally engaged colleagues.
Celebrating in a British way
There will be over 100 staff in the mission for Christmas, including our life-support and close-protection colleagues. Colleagues from more than 10 departments and agencies will be working through the holiday season, away from their families. There is a huge diversity of staff here in Kabul, reflecting the full diversity of Britain today. We celebrate the values and spirit of Christmas in an inclusive, ecumenical and inter-faith – in short, British – way.
We now have wi-fi in the compound, so there’s a fair amount of excitement about watching children open their presents in UK, even if by Facetime. Almost as gratifying: no washing-up – because of the security situation, sewage trucks can’t get in to empty the embassy tanks, so it may be disposable crockery all round… and worse.
In the compound, we try to create a special Christmas feel. Christmas trees and decorations have appeared. Colleagues have been bringing back baubles in their luggage as they return to Kabul from their breather breaks. To ensure future supplies of real Christmas trees, we have planted a mini-pine grove. The resourcefulness of the Christmas Organising Committee knows no limits.
Christmas Day itself falls on a Friday, when the mission is closed, as it is the Islamic day of prayer. The canteen will serve Christmas turkey with all the trimmings, and no doubt the bar will do good business. All sections of the embassy are pitching in to organise activities. DFID are running a families event for our local staff. Anticipating indulgence, an Afghan colleague has been energetically organising a cross-embassy volleyball ladder: so far, the leaders are our in-house labouring team, beating the military and the close-protection operatives.
The Mission Sports Day on Boxing Day will be a chance to redress that, or at least to demonstrate that what we may lack in prowess we make up for in enthusiasm. It’s also a chance to use up some adrenalin – because of the attacks on Kabul in recent months, travel around the city, even for our local colleagues, is quite constrained and the risk of cabin fever is ever-present. And there’s another angle: fund-raising. In other embassies where I’ve been posted, it’s usually possible to have a day of activity supporting a local charity – painting a school or clearing a park. Security-wise, that just isn’t an option here, so we look to other means.
Some embassy colleagues, for example, mentor the recruits at the Afghan National School of Music in their spare time. My biggest wish is to clean up the Kabul river – no fresh water flows through the city because of all the rubbish blocking the flow.
Business as usual
But other than these two days, it will be business as usual for the mission. We will be back at work by Sunday, 27 December, pushing forward work on the peace process, economy, development and stability, helping the Afghans modernise their country, and ensuring it never again becomes a haven for international terrorists and other threats to our security and values.
My Afghan friends say it’s likely to snow in Kabul at this time of year, so I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. We can see the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush from the mission. In all the reporting of Afghanistan over the past 15 years, the sheer beauty of the country is hardly ever mentioned. We see it every day, even through the high walls and blast protection – and the pollution – around the mission. And, at a recent festive reception at the residence, an audience of ministers, businessmen and journalists were captivated by the screening of a video my Green Zone neighbours had made of their stunning rafting trip down the source of the Oxus River, in the north-east tip of Afghanistan.
At this time of year, our thoughts will be with all the victims of the continuing violence in Afghanistan - including the victims of the attack on our Spanish neighbours last week, and of so many other attacks this year. We will also be remembering the families of all 456 British servicemen and women who have given their lives in Afghanistan since 2001, and the two members of the embassy community killed by a vehicle bomb last year. Our thoughts will also be with the families of the 12,000 Afghans who have lost their lives this year, fighting to defend their country, and the many other victims of continuing insurgent attacks in Kunduz, Kandahar and Helmand.
Celebrating Christmas in a devout Muslim country can require a delicate balance. Our compound and Pod-land (upmarket shipping container accommodation) are festively but not religiously decorated. Regardless of one’s faith, though, most of my Afghan contacts would agree that the universal message of Christmas is particularly powerful in this beautiful but troubled country, which has suffered nearly four decades of conflict.
And so, on Christmas Day here in Kabul, there will be a particularly strong resonance to the words that capture the essence of Christmas – “on earth, peace and goodwill to all”.