There is a posse of Afghan police waiting. The Americans have set me up for a fall. They dangled the freedom carrot and took it away. Bastards. The Afghan CID whisks me away to the Counter Terrorism Police office in Taimini District. It’s so close to home I can hear my dog barking. The place is a shabby collection of outbuildings that don’t look as though they’ve seen paint for decades. Despite the fact I don’t speak Dari very well we can communicate. Tea and cigarettes are shared and I am told to relax, all is cool. The whole ambience is so different I feel as though I am with friends. I spend the next two hours watching the Bruce Willis blockbuster Hostage on small TV with the volume at distortion level. Compared to my previous holding cell this is almost a sensory overload. I am also told that my partner in crime will soon be joining us and then we will be released. I give a statement that is hand-written in Dari with blue carbon copy paper. I cant read a word but sign it anyway and notify it with my thumbprint the traditional way – Ink pad and a thumb. It works better than the hi-tech machines at Camp Eggers. In fact the whole affair seems far more civilised. The dehumanising methods of the US obviously serve a purpose but for the life of me I cant think why you would want foster hatred from your captives.
At no point am I restrained. I am treated kindly. Maybe the Afghans could teach the US a thing or two about rule of law or maybe just how to be human. Not every detainee here is given special treatment. One kid in custody has robbed someone with a gun. He only looks about seventeen. He is given a few slaps, a couple of rabbit punches to the head but it’s no more brutal than leaving someone in pain for 18 hours without treatment. The Major in charge of my case looks pretty stoned and I think he wants to be mates. It seems like we have more in common than my previous captors. Can’t imagine getting high with Chuck and Babs.
As soon as my fellow activist arrives we go through his statement. It looks like we might make it to a barbecue tonight. Sausages and prison tales around the barbecue look on the cards. Free at last! And then they take it all away. We now have to go get processed at the central police station.
Central Police station
As we pull up outside the heavily fortified police station the barbecue looks like a distant dream. Only we cant get in because its past nine o’ clock at night. We need a password so we wait outside half an hour. Eventually we are led into the basement of an shabby building down a lime green corridor and into a room painted with what looks like nicotine, there are four threadbare sofas in a matching shitty brown and the springs are all poking through. Smoking is compulsory, as is shaking hands with every single person who enters the room whether it’s the chief of police or an axe murderer.
This is the waiting room to oblivion; all life’s flotsam and jetsam are here. There’s a 15 year-old kid who’s forged a school certificate who seemed so at home I mistook him for the detectives son, a man who stabbed his sister’s husband twelve times who is now accusing the husband of stabbing himself, two young men in Rupert Bear trousers accused of kidnapping who were countering with some ludicrous counter claim. Everyone brings the family along. It’s like Jerry Springer meets Judge Judy in Pashto. I have never seen so many ‘innocent’ people in one room! Including me.
There’s no booking process. We all sit down to chat. It’s so laid back I could be here to interview them. Most of the conversation revolves around my family or lack thereof, “Why no wife? Why no children?” I begin to wonder if this could be the main charge. “We charge you on eighteen counts of failure to spawn…. Send him down!”
This is a busy police station, an Afghan version of Hill Street Blues. In the corridors uniformed cops are holding hands, there are old-school moustachioed gumshoes playing chess and the young cool detectives are sporting revolvers and handcuffs tucked into shiny white Gucci slacks.
But it’s late; too late and we are not getting processed tonight. Around midnight as the place thins out, we’re told we can sleep in the office instead of the cells. Apparently the cells are worse than the toilets. So the two activists and a teenage forger divvy up the sofas. Within minutes the sound of snoring coming from the small boy is so loud I have to tear up my bandages to make earplugs. It’s a long night but compared to Hotel Eggers this is Five Star Châteaux Marmont
Better the devil you know
It’s eight in the morning and I haven’t washed, slept properly or cleaned my teeth for another night. My mate asks me, “Would you like breakfast?” I ask for the menu. He rephrases the question, “Kebabs and a can of Coke ok?”
I eat and go back to sleep on my sofa. Nothing seems to be happening with our case. The place is buzzing, the shaking of hands and inquiring about everyone’s health is like some time-lapse blur. By midday we manage to procure a mobile phone and then spend the next hour trying to remember someone’s number. Once we get word out to the outside world we will be rescued. The ex-pat network will kick in, the journalists, the lawyers, the embassies will be storming the police barricades. My Afghan mate is calling all his security contacts it’s only a matter of time now.
Only we seem to be stuck in some Kafkaesque situation. No one knows what to do with us. Scorpion tales abound. We hear that the Americans want us kept locked up. The Chief of Police needs to sign something. Rumour is followed by counter rumour. The day drags on and on. Then we are told a new official interrogation process needs to take place. Get out the carbon copy paper! My mate’s now acting as official translator.
They write a question, he translates, they write my response. It’s excruciating. All is going well till they pull out the posters. Can you tell me what they mean? “Well its art innit”, I reply. They raise eyebrows and look confused. “That’s not going to work,” says my Afghan co-conspirator.
The ‘art’ in question are ‘Chinook Chandelier’ posters from UK art duo, STATIC. A double-headed version like the Roman god ‘Janus’, able to look forwards and backwards from past to future, (something I think the US military could use?)
If art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions we’ve succeeded, however the spooks at Camp Eggers have given their own twisted interpretation. They have told the Afghan Police that the spray cans are IEDs and each can represents an ISAF nation, also that the word ‘Static’ means ‘bomb’ and the chandelier is dripping blood. They have also slipped in for good measure that if you turn it upside down there is a picture of the devil. Fuckers!
In truth, the ‘Chinook Chandelier’ is supposed to be more a symbol of amity and optimism, rather than bringing a threat or danger. The spray can pattern was created to imitate bricks not bombs and was turned into screen-printed wallpaper for STATIC’s show ‘New Ways of Seeing’. Where the devil bit comes into it leaves us all baffled, but does go to show that any art is open to the interpretation of it’s audience and misinformation can be a dangerous thing.
The pendulum swings one more time. My mind is racing. Renowned graffiti artist Banksy wrote in his book that you should, “Try to avoid painting in places where they still point at aeroplanes”. He’s right, they don’t know what stencil art is, they don’t even know what spray cans are. We manage to convince them to take us to a computer with internet. A bizarre half-hour follows trying to educate the Kabul CID department about urban art. Slowly total confusion turns to tacit acceptance as we go from AOG sympathisers to peace campaigners.
Statement sorted. Only the Americans it seems are up to something. They are still meddling. It doesn’t work. Operation Enduring Incarceration fails. The Afghan Police say there are no charges. They decide. We can go. Saying goodbye takes around half an hour with lots of hugs and handshakes, it’s like leaving my family. It’s the absolute antithesis of our US departure.
I collected my possessions the following morning from the base and was simultaneously bawled out by some brick shithouse of a lieutenant colonel. He said they would have been perfectly within their rights to use deadly force. You know what, he ‘s right. Looking back it was a stupid dumb ass thing to do. But that’s all. The overwhelming use of force by the Americans is their default setting to anything they don’t understand. They certainly don’t take dissent lightly as we brutally found out. I’ve not made any friends within the US military but hopefully they’ve got bigger issues than to continue any vendettas on some over enthusiastic peaceniks. Maybe they are reading this now. Maybe they hacked my computer and have read it before it went viral. I watched the Men Who Stare at Goats recently so anything is possible.
But I love Kabul and I think street art and peaceful dissent has a place here. I will continue to encourage and foster this medium and try and encourage other people to get busy with it… We all have the responsibility to be good citizens, which means becoming involved. Passivity endangers democracy but for now I might just leave one of the most heavily tooled up army bases on the planet to get on with itself.
Watch this space.