Mohammed Sangar Ahmadzai is about as gentle and soft-spoken an Afghani as you'll ever meet. His dark hair is cut short and he's wearing a white and blue Benetton T-shirt as I sit down next to him and his friend Ali at the Delhi airport while waiting to board my flight to Kabul. The two of them are to study IT in the Indian capital soon and are returning home to get a 3-year student visa. They ask if I've got a ride at the other end and I explain how my driver-fixer-interpreter took a job in Kandahar at the last minute, leaving me without a friend in one of the world's more dangerous cities. "You don't want to take a taxi," Sangar advises. "You might get kidnapped."
We land and the three of us hop into a cab. They take me to the high-security neighborhood of Wazir Akhbar Khan and drop me at my guest house. Refusing payment, Sangar gives me his business card and invites me to lunch at his home the following day.
"I had done really well in my exams and this led to an offer to study IT in India, in Delhi," he begins, shortly afer we've put away our fair share of kofte, pulau, bread, and chaka, a thick, creamy yogurt with something of a bite. "This was a couple months ago, and I was very excited. But my father told me, 'No.'"
He pauses to take a bit of rice. "Then one night I worked late at the office and I was coming home, this was after 9pm, and I came home and as I was getting out of the car I was jumped by three men. I tried to stop them but they had guns and they kidnapped me."
Sangar says this so matter-of-factly, in such a light, straightforward tone that I think he's either kidding or insane. Turns out he's just a Kabuli, as familiar with kidnappings as Midwesterners are with snow.
The men tossed Sangar into their car, covered his eyes with one of the black and white scarves that are ubiquitous here and took him to an empty warehouse. His hands and feet were tied and bound together in front of him and he sat on the ground for five days while the kidnappers negotiated payment and release with his father. He thought they might poison him or put something in his food, so he drank only water and juice, losing nearly 15 pounds from his small frame. His aunts, mother and seven siblings gathered every night at his home, hoping for good news but fearing the worst.
"Finally one night they put me in the car and drove and drove and drove while I was blindfolded. They stopped near a field at the edge of the city, put 250 Afghanis in my hand, took the scarf from my eyes and told me to go and not look back at them or they'd shoot me. I got into a taxi and I told the driver to go to my neighborhood and gave him the money; I didn't look back," he says. "When I got home everybody was happy and they'd made food for me but I couldn't eat. My father came to me and he told me, "You are going to school in Delhi.'"
With lingering poverty and rising insecurity, crime is up in the capital. The Afghan Criminal Investigation Department reported 130 kidnappings from April through August, but the real number is more than double that; fearing the kidnappers will kill their loved one, most do not report the crime. And only about 10 percent of kidnap victims are foreigners, so it's Afghans like Sangar that are taking the brunt of it.