Ever since we arrived at Camp Dubs, we have all been fascinated by the Queen’s Palace, Darulaman. Perched on a steep hill overlooking the camp, she stands a shattered symbol of the dream of Afghanistan. Several times since we’ve been here, someone was going to make coordination with the ANA for us to go up and tour the old Queen of Kabul, but somehow it just never seemed to get coordinated.
Yesterday morning, after working in the TOC (Tactical Operations Center,) my time-filler job until the new mission starts sometime this week, my fellow driftees and I had made plans to ascend the big hill for PT. In the meantime, one of our number made the outrageous claim that coordination was being made that very morning for us to tour the palace. Not having faith in any such nonsense, the Green Mountain Maniac and I decided not to forego our planned ascent and proceeded anyway.
We walked up the hill, which we do at a rapid pace, then back down… it’s about 3 miles or so all told, and a 500 foot plus elevation change upwards. Then we got coordination to go up to the Queen’s Palace, which was a welcomed shock. The hill the old Queen sits on doesn’t look so high, but it is probably about 150 feet or so, and really steep. We had to put on all of our “battle rattle,” which is our body armor, helmet, holster, and all of our weapons and ammunition. Like I’ve said, about 70-75 lbs worth of stuff, and then we climbed that hill.
After climbing the big hill, my legs were already tired. The much shorter, steeper hill was just what I needed! I’m not sore, but my thighs were just about to reach muscle failure going up that thing!
Upon our arrival at the top, we had to let the ANA who guard the place know that we were there so that we wouldn’t be inadvertently shot while touring the old landmark. We found five jovial ANA waiting for us with the traditional greeting… chai. Chai is the ubiquitous green tea of Afghanistan. We were presented with glass cups (whose last time being thoroughly washed with detergent and clean water was probably when the palace was still occupied by a monarch) full of steaming pale green chai. It is an insult to decline the chai. We were made guests and we could not refuse the hospitality of our hosts. As we sipped the sweet chai, we did the best we could to communicate with our ANA hosts. I’ll spare the struggles, but the gist of it is this: chai good, Afghanistan good, Pakistan bad, Osama in Pakistan, Osama in Islamabad, a hand-gestured demonstration that we should bomb Islamabad, and American snuff makes their heads spin. We were pleased with our ability to communicate without an interpreter.
We presented our hosts with gifts of Coke, Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper, and Sprite, and took our leave over the chai-swilling protests of our hosts to tour the ruined palace. Just then a Navy Commander rolled up with a terp in his Ford Ranger.
“Hey, I was going to give you a ride up the hill, but you guys had already taken off!” he announced. My thighs mumbled dirty words to me as we laughed.
The palace was really interesting. It was completed in 1931 and a German engineer was in charge of it. It is absolutely massive, and I can’t tell you how many rooms it had. Very little of the interior hadn’t been stripped. It was apparent that everything had been looted over the years. The walls were bare… and by that I mean that the marble, tile, or whatever had been removed… and even the electrical wires had been pulled out. Most of the stair railings had been removed, too. People will take any kind of scrap metal to sell. The marble floors had been torn up, with only remnants remaining, and in one bathroom all of the tile had been removed along with the bathtub, which had to be incredibly heavy, judging by the ones that remained.
In the center of the building there was a small courtyard, the palace surrounding it with glassless windows. It was ghostly, because of all the life that had once been there.
Some of the rooms were enormous, columned rooms that were large enough for the ANA guards to kick around a soccer ball, having a good time. The walls were bare concrete, the low-aggregate concrete having been used in construction like plaster. The only decorative features were the nicely poured concrete columns, much too massive to remove. Here and there some of the marble coverings survived.
She is a lifeless hulk now, stripped of even its wiring. Concertina wire fills some of the stairways, and sandbagged bunkers occupy what had been beautiful open balconies. There is dramatic evidence of huge blows to the building.
The sturdy construction of the building was violently exposed in one room by the impact of some type of high explosive projectile. Five layers of brickwork were penetrated, a hole about four and a half feet wide open to the air. Inside the room was a pile of shattered brick. The force of the explosion had been so great that brick material was blown onto the opposite wall like mud spatters, firmly adhering to the concrete wall.
With a little imagination it is not too hard to imagine the former majesty of this great edifice. It still bears a ghostly dignity, even as a matriarch of battle; a testament to the fact that no matter how hard this country is battered, it still stands, bullet holes and all. She may seem lifeless and bleak, but as long as she stands on the hill overlooking Kabul, there is hope she will be restored. Kabul teems with life, struggling to rebuild, but this dowager queen stands patiently on her hill, and life will not fill her halls once again until Kabul is restored first.
She is a fitting symbol of Kabul, and of Afghanistan.
It rained today for the first time since we’ve been at Camp Dubs. This was preceded by a fierce dust storm that lasted only long enough to clog the eyes and noses of those who were not quick enough to get to cover. The rain was sorely needed. Afghanistan is in the grip of a drought of several year’s duration.
The rain was accompanied by a brilliant lightning show. The lightning shot across the sky and around the mountain top, adding to the imposing presence of the mountain.
Three of us had just come down from a 500 foot foothill of the mountain, which we had climbed for physical training. We were grateful that our timing had been so precise that we had arrived back within the Hesco walls of our tiny fort scant minutes before the pelting dust slammed into the camp.
After the rain I noticed that half of the graveled floor of our enclave looked dry… not a neat division, but spots here and there. That was really strange. Then I gazed up at the angry gray sky that framed the Queen’s Palace, and there it was… a rainbow.
It was quite a sight; the war-ravaged Queen’s Palace, perched on its hill like a forlorn dowager overlooking her shell-torn city, overcast by the angry rain clouds, with a partial rainbow set above it like a tilted crown. A small promise of hope above the war-pocked Queen of Kabul.
I thought to run for my camera, but knowing the nature of rainbows, and seeing how this one was fading, I opted to enjoy the vision laid before me, to live in the moment. It was good for me.
Speaking of the promise of hope, I had mentioned in a previous posting that Afghanistan has a horrendous infant mortality rate and a stupefying maternal mortality rate in childbirth. Well, another rainbow… the infant mortality rate has dropped by 18%. It is down as of 2006 to 135 per 1000 live births from 165 in 2001. It seems that the Taliban were not so good for babies, either.
The rate of maternal mortality is still second only to Sierra Leone.
It was a partial rainbow. But it was still a rainbow.