Arne Strand tells the story of how he survived the Inter Continental terrorist attack in Kabul
Arne Strand has lost his heart to Afghanistan and its people. A few weeks ago, he was on the verge of losing his life.
For 30 years, Arne Strand has worked in, on and for Afghanistan. He is quite possibly one of the world-leading experts on the country. Not that he would call himself an expert. But for everyone else, it seems like a natural term for someone who possesses such deep knowledge of a country.
In the midst of unfriendly fire
‘Gunmen attack Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul; casualties unclear’, ‘Heavy casualties after overnight battle at Kabul hotel’, ‘Norwegian was staying in hotel that was attacked’. Those were the headlines in newspapers on January 20. The Norwegian was Arne Strand. He was in Kabul to assist an Afghan NGO in making a new strategy, to meet international donors and UNDP to discuss an anti-corruption workshop, and to get updates on political and economic developments from colleagues, partners and friends.
The stay at Intercontinental Hotel was based on a thorough assessment of the security situation in Kabul. Hotels have been a target for terrorists for quite a while in Kabul, but the majority of recent attacks had been in the city centre. Intercontinental Hotel was located outside of the city centre. It was also close to NGO and donor offices, and staying there would spare Strand from having to travel through the city centre, a risky zone in general, every day. The hotel also appeared to have very good security. Guarded by police officers and two sets of armed security guards with dogs trained to recognize the smell of bombs, metal detectors for baggage and visits and guards posted within, Intercontinental Hotel should be a safe option. There were security warnings of a possible terrorist attack, but no information whatsoever pointed to Intercontinental Hotel.
But the following events proved that you can never be totally sure. Working in a conflict zone, there will always be a risk, no matter how well prepared you are.
He was in the restaurant when he heard shooting from the reception area. Two Afghan men in the lobby had become suspicious of the men who entered the hotel with such determination. They questioned their intentions and were both shot and injured. Arne Strand later learnt that of these men who were the first to be injured, one was a UN colleague during the 1990s and later his MA study fellow, and his son. Upon hearing shots, he ran to his hotel room and barricaded the doors. All he could hear was shooting, and after a while the room started being filled with smoke from a hotel set on fire. As the Taliban insurgents rummaged the corridors hunting down foreigners, all he could was to seek refuge in the bathroom where he knew there would be some fresh air coming in through the airlocks and access to water.
He had then been in touch with the Norwegian Embassy in Kabul to report the attack. Afghan friends and partners called in, and CMI Director Ottar Mæstad was informed about the incident using his mobile as quietly as he could. The Embassy alerted the Norwegian special forces that are stationed in Kabul to mentor and assist Afghan special forces in protecting Kabul against terrorist attacks. They contacted Arne Strand to get his location within the hotel.
The room was so hot and smokey from the fires that the windows started cracking, and soon he passed out.
After a while, the heat decreased and he came to. Having been out of reach while he was unconscious, he got back in touch with the Norwegian special forces. He was told to go out to the terrace, and they managed to provide him with a rope that he could use to lower himself to ground level. But somewhere, because of damage to either the rope or the terrace caused by the heat from the fire, he fell between 7 and 9 metres and landed on concrete.
Adrenalin pumping, he could feel that his hip and his leg were broken, but did not feel the pain as he walked with the Norwegian special forces to their ambulance. Fighting was still going on inside the hotel as he was taken to the American military hospital. His lungs were severely damaged after inhaling smoke, and he was put into an induced coma before undergoing temporary hip surgery.
-Reliable sources say that the Taliban insurgents were let in to the hotel by hotel administration and/or the security guards. This just goes to show that you can never really trust any security measure. It also goes to show that politics, ideology and money are all part of the equation in Afghanistan, and you can never know which is the decisive factor. The agreement between the Taliban and the security company could have been a matter of receiving money to let them in, but it could also be internal political or business matters. It is hard to separate and tell in Afghanistan.
The most important thing
Surviving a terrorist attack does something to you. It can make you scared or anxious, and stop you from continuing your normal life. But it can also provide you with further insight and make you even more persistent in working for a cause. And for Strand, Afghanistan is more than just a country in which he does research. It has become a cause. He feels kind of uncomfortable all of a sudden being the one everyone wants to talk to. But he has decided to seize the opportunity to direct the focus towards something he feels is infinitely more important than the events at Intercontinental Hotel; the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and how political developments shape and influence young peoples’ lives.
-All of a sudden, I get a lot of attention here at home simply for being the Norwegian who survived a terrorist attack in Kabul. But there is absolutely nothing special about me, neither in an Afghan nor a Norwegian context. Afghans live with the threat of being killed or injured in a terrorist attack every single day. They cannot escape, they simply adapt to the situation as well as they can. After Utøya, many young Norwegians also know the feeling of terror and of not being able to escape. Many of them still suffer from the consequences of the terrorist attack, he says.
Well aware of the risks of accusations of mixing research and politics, Strand has not been able to stay out of the discussions about the many young Afghans who have fled to Norway and live with the threat of forced return to Kabul. He has had enough experience and seen so many atrocities that he has understood and sympathized with their fear. The attack on Intercontinental Hotel has changed and somehow strengthened his perspective.
-Experiencing something like this enables you to reflect upon the situation differently. I have talked to so many of the young Afghans here in Norway about their fear of being sent back to Afghanistan. The fear they describe used to be somewhat of an x-factor for me, something you can sympathize with, but not really fully understand. Now I know what they fear. They know that they might not be so lucky that special forces come to their rescue from dangerous situation they might find themselves in, he says.
He strongly feels that the knowledge he has about political developments in the country and the vulnerable security situation need to be part of discussions in Norway. We provide 700 million NOK yearly for development assistance, we have soldiers at the frontlines in Kabul, NGOs working throughout the country and, we are among the European countries returning most Afghans. And that as a researcher, it is your duty to tell the world what you find and share your knowledge, and contribute to the debates that help shape policy in Norway and beyond. That is, actually, what Christian Michelsen envisaged when he wrote the statutes for the CMI more than 70 years ago.
Strand started working in Afghanistan three decades ago, first as a representative for the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee, then as an employee in the Norwegian Church Aid. He had travelled and worked all over the country long before he became a researcher. Throughout those years, he built an impressive network of friends and colleagues. He still meets up with friends from back then when he goes to Kabul now very soon 30 years later.
Ever since he started working in and on Afghanistan from the perspective of a researcher in 1997, he has been there at least two or three times a year. He has seen and heard enough to know that even seemingly more peaceful times are fragile in Afghanistan. And he has experienced being caught in threatening situations while travelling as NGO worker and as researcher.
Still, Strand has never doubted that it is worth the risks when all efforts are made to analyse and reduce risks.
-If you as a researcher are to say anything credible about developments in Afghanistan, you have to actually spend time there. And you have to spend time with people, to listen to their stories and value their diverse perspectives. Only by being there can you understand often contradicting developments and provide well-founded insights or advise, he says.
Precautions are important though. Before every trip to Afghanistan, he has depended on his colleagues, partners and friends to provide him with information about the security situation and any developments. And during every trip, he has been very aware of every single choice he has made about which route to travel and when.
Someone else who is very capable of assessing risks and valuing the knowledge you gain by being in a country is his wife. The commitment to Afghanistan is what brought them together. She also worked for the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee and later Swedish Save the Children. They had met briefly back home, but started working closely in Afghanistan in 1989. It has been a few years since her last visit to the country, but her contextual knowledge has made her a crucial conversational partner.
But even with the best information available, the risk is there and unforeseen incidents can occur. And even with the best-functioning and most knowledgeable support team on earth, you are inevitably left to make your own judgements about life or death choices for those frenetic moments where you decide whether to run to your room, to try to get out or to barricade yourself.
Thanks to support from family and colleagues, conversations with the hospital priest at Haukeland, and debriefings with a psychiatrist with experience from Afghanistan and military staff involved in his rescue, Strand is ready to continue his work on and in the country.
The attack on Intercontinental Hotel has not scared him from going back. Afghanistan and Afghans are too important to him. But something is different. He will not go back until his family gives him thumbs up.
-I will go back to Afghanistan, but not until my wife and children feel comfortable with the security situation and the risks. Something like this makes you realize the strain on family members when you go to a conflict zone, says Strand.
By Åse Johanne Roti Dahl