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'There's Something Here' -- The Expatriates Sticking It Out In Afghanistan

  • Frud Bezhan

Nancy Hatch Dupree: "My husband used to say [Kabul] is a virus you can't get rid of. You keep coming back for more."

Nancy Hatch Dupree: "My husband used to say [Kabul] is a virus you can't get rid of. You keep coming back for more."

KABUL -- The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan drew in a huge wave of international aid workers, diplomats, and security contractors to Kabul. But the capital's "Kabubble," as it was known, burst when most international troops pulled out at the end of 2014.

Despite fears that the withdrawal of international troops would leave a security vacuum that could lead to a rise of deadly attacks, a small number of foreigners have committed to riding it out in their adopted home.

We spoke to three longtime expatriates about the enduring appeal of life in the Afghan capital.

Nancy Hatch Dupree, Afghanistan Center, Kabul University

For 50 years, Dupree's life has been closely tied to Afghanistan. Since first arriving from the United States to Kabul in 1962, she has seen the overthrow of the monarchy, a communist coup, the Soviet occupation, the rise and fall of the Taliban regime, the U.S.-led invasion, and the international withdrawal in 2014.

Dupree met a young Osama bin Laden, wrote the first English-language travel guides about Afghanistan, and spent years traveling through the country with her late husband Louis Dupree, a well-known American archaeologist and anthropologist.

During the civil war of the 1990s, she helped save the national museum's treasures and helped Afghan refugees in Pakistan. After the toppling of the Taliban, she returned for good and opened the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University.

Now, at the age of 87, she has had to scale back on some of her work because of ongoing health issues. But she has no intention of leaving Kabul, a city she describes as "full of spirit and vibrancy."

"There's something here," says Dupree, who is affectionately known by many as the "Grandmother of Kabul." "My husband used to say it's a virus you can't get rid of. You keep coming back for more."

"[In Kabul,] everybody makes a fuss over me," says Dupree. "It's good for your ego. It's nice to be included and for people to think you have something to say. I wouldn't get that in my own country."

Dupree, with a wide grin on her face, believes she will be remembered by many in Kabul as "that busy old lady."

Despite the ongoing conflict, Dupree's optimism for the future has not dimmed.

"People say the country is going to collapse, but I don't believe it," she says. "Afghans are too strong for it [to happen]. Now, one of the differences is that young people are speaking out. Now they have found their voices. It's the same with the women."

Philippe Gauffreteau: "I want to help the people."

Philippe Gauffreteau: "I want to help the people."

Phillipe Gauffreteau, Agronomist, French Government

A native of France, Gauffreteau came to Kabul in 2002, just months after the U.S.-led invasion. He has led agriculture projects funded by the French government across Afghanistan, trying to revive the important sector after years of war and drought.

"My friends cannot understand why I'm working in Afghanistan," says Gauffreteau, sitting in a garden at a guesthouse in Kabul. "They think I'm crazy, but I like my life here."

Gauffreteau has no intention of retiring or leaving Afghanistan anytime soon.

Gauffreteau admits Afghanistan is a "hard country" to live in. But he considers it his adopted home.

"I have a good feeling [with the people]," he says. "The majority of the people want peace. I want to help the people and see what we can do for them."

The 65-year-old Gauffreteau is involved in crop production and soil management. He advises Afghan farmers on how best to use their land and water resources, and how to maximize their production.

His work has taken him to the perilous plains of eastern and southern Afghanistan to the green valleys in the north.

Gauffreteau says Afghanistan has a lot of potential. It could be self-sufficient in several things, he says, singling out rice, wheat, and fruit.

But the agriculture sector, which has traditionally been the driving force behind the economy, has yet to make significant strides over the last decade. Gauffreteau blames poor planning and mismanagement by foreign governments.

Gauffreteau says "every mistake we could have made we did in Afghanistan."

He notes how Western countries often competed against each other. Rather than sustainable development, many projects were about how much money was spent, he says.

Despite the lack of progress and the growing security fears in the country, Gauffreteau is optimistic about the future.

"You now have this young generation who are well-educated and want to help their country and they're really working for their country," he says.

Hiromi Yasui: "This is my home now."

Hiromi Yasui: "This is my home now."

Hiromi Yasui, Restaurant And Hotel Owner

Yasui, who is from Japan, first came to Kabul as a photojournalist in 1993 to cover the devastating civil war. She left when the Taliban took control of the capital three years later, only to come back in 2001 after the Taliban was toppled. She has lived in Afghanistan full-time ever since.

She met her Afghan husband in 2002 when they began to "date in secret." Because of taboos against relationships outside of marriage, the two soon tied the knot. Yasui even converted to Islam, although she admits she is not a "very good Muslim."

Yasui went on to open a hotel in the city of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, and has since opened a Japanese sushi restaurant in downtown Kabul that is popular with expats.

"This is my home now," says Yasui, as she busily prepares food in the kitchen. "Every time I go to Japan I miss my home in Kabul."

Kabul is a world away from Yasui's hometown of Kyoto, a city she calls "peaceful" and "relaxed" compared to the "craziness" of the Afghan capital.

She says living in a war zone has become "tiring" but something she has gotten used to.

The international withdrawal has been cruel to her business. On this day, only a few customers are in her restaurant eating lunch. Her hotel, she says, is also mostly empty.

"I sometimes miss Japan, my family, friends, and especially the food," Yasui says with a wide grin. "But I won't leave here."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org. 

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