For a split second the room seems to vibrate under the pressure of the shock wave. Ears ring, heads retract, and muscles contract. Your mind jump-starts: Did the explosion sound big or small? Where did it come from? You hesitate, wait for another sound, but hear nothing. You jump to your feet, grabbing a camera on the way to the terrace.
Barely a half-mile away, the cloud of debris billows into the sky. The air fills with sirens, and people pour into the street, climbing on top of otherwise never-used pedestrian bridges, craning to make out something in the distance. A pickup truck piled with bloody bodies passes by from the site of the explosion as the cloud slowly descends, losing its shape and covering the city with a new layer of dust and sand.
This is Kandahar, and no one is surprised anymore. Seven times during the past year, blast waves from huge car bombs have ripped through town, shattering windows and throwing up similar clouds of debris. A few weeks ago, a bomb targeting a police convoy tore a huge crater into the street just outside our door. Not long after that, a massive car explosion devastated downtown Kandahar, killing more than 40 and wounding dozens. It was 20 minutes after the call to prayer, when everyone in Kandahar was sitting down to break the Ramadan fast. The blast blew out our windows, shaking plaster from the ceiling and sending glass flying through the room in thousands of pieces. Gunfire ensued. Once the dust settled, you could see the bomb site, just three blocks from our house, streaks of flames shooting into the night sky.
This is our life, and as the only two Westerners living permanently in Kandahar without blast walls and intrusive security restrictions to protect us, it has been a mix of isolation, boredom, disarmingly potent realizations, and outright depression in the face of what is happening. In our 18 months here, we have witnessed up close the ruinous consequences of a conflict in which no party has clean hands. We have spent countless hours talking with people of all persuasions in Kandahar, from mujahedeen who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, to guerrillas who fought alongside the Taliban in the 1990s, to Afghans who fight against the Kabul government and foreign forces today. And we have learned that Kandahar defies simple categorization; far more understanding is necessary before we can appreciate how (and how many) mistakes have been made by the Western countries waging war here, let alone begin crafting a vision for the future.
Our Kandahar has many faces, though, not all branded by conflict. Life here is also about swimming in the nearby Arghandab River, enjoying the cool caramel taste of sheer yakh, and sitting among the branches of a friend's pomegranate orchard. It's listening to tales of the past 30 years told by those who directly influenced the course of history, and it's watching the traditional atan dance at wedding celebrations.
Still, violence affects most aspects of life in Kandahar now, and the city has become used to the bombings. For smaller attacks it takes less than an hour for things to return to normal; the people absorb violence like a sponge. After the recent blast that blew out our windows, one of our Afghan friends turned to us and said, "There are those Afghans who migrated to the West who say they miss Afghanistan." He burst into laughter. "This is what they are missing!"