KABUL — At 6:30 Wednesday morning, I left my cat snoozing on the windowsill and headed off for what promised to be a rare, pleasant departure from the depressing grind of covering warlord politics and insurgent attacks.
Two hours later, I was gazing out over a marsh of rippling green reeds while an Afghan wildlife ranger pointed out a variety of migratory birds that were stopping to rest there. It was a bucolic scene on a breezy morning — and a small sign of progress for the long-abused Afghan environment.
Suddenly, a powerful boom shook the ground and a cloud of gray smoke rose beyond the marsh, which meanders along the southern edge of the capital. We all knew it was a bomb, an especially big one. And I knew my brief escape was over.
I thought back to an autumn morning in South Africa years ago. I had been happily following a park ranger into the bush in search of white rhinos when my cellphone rang. Something terrible had happened in the United States, my colleagues were saying through the static. I had to return right away. It was Sept. 11, 2001.
As we drove back to Kabul, we heard snippets of news but did not realize the enormous tragedy that awaited us. The explosion had occurred in the heavily guarded district where I live, usually resenting the barbed wire and barricades and body searches. Now, I was grateful for the armored car that the U.N. environmental office had insisted I take to visit the wetlands site.
I immediately called my three Afghan office colleagues. Two were at home, far across the city because it was still early. The third, Sharif Walid, had gone to the office early to do some personal work. He had been half-asleep at his desk when the large window a few feet away blew inward and shattered.
“At first, I thought it was an earthquake, and wanted to escape outside. Then I felt the pieces of glass flying toward me,” he said later. “I put my hands over my face. I thought I could lose my eyes. Later, I thought that it was a miracle that I didn’t.”
Sharif suffered a glass cut on his hand, and he was able to have it treated. He mentioned that most windows in the office had shattered from the blast. I remembered that my cat had been napping by the window, but I tried to put it out of my mind. There was a larger, human tragedy awaiting me.
I spent the next four hours wandering through a city in shock. All traffic had stopped, so I walked. I followed wailing sirens to a hospital where ambulances were disgorging body after body, some burned black by the blast, others streaming blood. I had no interpreter with me, but the looks of horror on every face, the words of grief and anger people muttered, were enough.
As I walked past stores and offices with shattered windows, I saw shopkeepers and travel agents who greeted me almost every day, and none of them smiled. I saw parents snatch up their children and hurry. I saw policemen cradling their heads on their rifles. Eighty people were dead and about 460 injured. There had been many other bombings, some even deadlier. But this time, it felt like the collective burden of a society at war had suddenly become much heavier.
Finally, I headed toward the site of the blast, wondering whether I had taken a wrong turn. The traffic circle I had rounded a thousand times since first coming here 19 years ago was gone. The two-story building behind it was now one story. The bank to the right was a pile of steel and rubble. Charred cars were frozen in odd positions, some with their doors ajar as if the drivers had run away. It looked like Aleppo or Fallujah, not Kabul.
When I eventually got back to my office, passing through the guard posts and ringing the bell to a steel door surrounded by sand-filled barricades, I was strangely relieved to see that the rose garden was still in bloom, although glass now covered the lawn.
I looked up and saw that the glass in my windows was indeed gone, and I steeled myself to ask about my cat, a scrawny creature with little to recommend her except that she was always there waiting for me after a hard day. Someone said they had seen her wandering around after the bombing, and I burst into tears.