BEIRUT: Nabila Hamade said she had spoken to her husband Kamal about his impending return to Lebanon the day before he was killed in the deadly Taliban-staged attack, which targeted his popular restaurant in the Afghan capital.
IMF official Paul Ross too had discussed work matters with his colleague, the fund’s representative to Afghanistan Wabel Abdallah, less than 24 hours before the blast would claim the latter’s life.
The 3,000 kilometers that separated them required the Hamades fill each other in on the goings on of their respective lives via online messaging services. “We would Skype regularly and give each other ‘the report,’” Nabila told The Daily Star.
“He asked about the kids,” she said, pausing momentarily to recall the last conversation she had with her husband. “And we discussed his plans to leave.”
Over Christmas Kamal had told his wife that it was high time he left Afghanistan, where he ventured seven years ago to launch La Taverne du Liban, a trendy eatery in Kabul known for its Lebanese cuisine and international clientele.
“He loves restaurants, loves cooking,” she said, using the present tense to describe her deceased husband’s great passion for fine dining.
A clatter of voices offering their condolences to Hamade could be heard while The Daily Star spoke to her over the phone. From organizing Kamal’s funeral, to finding a way to bring his body back to Lebanon – involving a circuitous route via Pakistan and “a lot of paperwork” – she has hardly any time to grieve her husband’s death.
“It hasn’t registered,” she said.
Through the years Kamal’s enterprising talents would see the Kabul restaurant grow not only in size but in status as well. “Of course he was concerned,” Hamade said.
Her husband was well aware that there were risks involved in operating a restaurant in a country plagued by Taliban-led insurgency, which is why she was never allowed to visit him there.
“He would always come [to visit Lebanon],” she said. “He would never let me go visit him because he thought it was too dangerous.”
He was planning to return for good in March. A friend was planning to show him a potential space in Beirut’s Raouche to open a new restaurant, and he was in the midst of finalizing a travel itinerary to inspect it. The cards had seemingly fallen into place for Kamal to start anew in his home country.
But his plans were cut short on Friday just after 7 p.m., when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the gate of his restaurant, clearing the path for two gunmen to rush in and fire on diners, killing Hamade and another Lebanese national, Wabel Abdallah, the International Monetary Fund’s resident representative, along with 19 others.
The attackers too died after exchanging fire with security forces for two hours. The incident, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, was described as one of the deadliest in Kabul in years.
Nabila was in her Ras Beirut home when she first learned that Kamal’s restaurant had been attacked.
“A friend who had heard about it on the news called me,” she said.
She then frantically called his Afghan number, to no avail. “I knew that was a bad sign.”
While Hamade tried reaching out to Kamal’s friends in Afghanistan, his daughters Mona and Tima were active on Twitter pursuing international correspondents and workers, anyone who might have details about the attack and, with any luck, news of their father’s whereabouts.
“i need to ask about my father who owns tavern. i can’t reach him. can you help?” Mona tweeted TOLO News, a television network in Afghanistan. “my father’s inside the Kabul restaurant. can u please update me on the evacuation. no one is answering phone” she asked the Guardian newspaper’s correspondent Emma Graham-Harrison.
Following Mona’s trail of tweets would ultimately produce Kamal’s death report, as an evidently weary Newswire reporter, Najeeb Rehan Hazem, would be the one to finally respond to her query: “i am sorry to say this. But he has been said ‘no more.’ I am very sorry again.”
But according to Hamade, BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet was first to inform the family of his death.
“She was the one to confirm to us that Kamal was a casualty,” Hamade said.
Doucet paid a personal tribute to the restaurant owner, and recounted how, at the time of the attack, he had grabbed his gun from his office in a heroic attempt to stave off the attackers. She would often see Kamal and his fellow countryman Wabel Abdallah musing over the Lebanon they left behind, Doucet wrote.
Ross had spoken to Abdallah the day before the attack from Washington, D.C. They had discussed matters related to Abdallah’s work representing the fund in Afghanistan. He was in the office when he heard that his colleague and friend of many years had been a casualty in the tragic attack.
“Some colleagues in Kabul went to the site of the attack and were allowed to enter,” he explained. They had seen Abdallah’s remains firsthand and directly informed the central bureau.
“I would say, as a man, he was very warm, very hospitable and very generous,” Ross said, speaking over the phone from Washington, D.C. “He had a nice sense of humor, which allowed him to make his points elegantly.”
Representing the face, and by extension the ideas, of the IMF in Afghanistan, Abdallah would routinely make recommendations to financial policymakers in the war-torn country with one, rather unenviable, overall objective: Rebuild economic institutions in Afghanistan.
In the five years he held his post, Abdallah would not only watch and listen to the views of country officials, but explain to them how to best navigate the country’s often challenging economic environment.
“He was of instrumental support to us when we were facing one of the most difficult times in Central Bank of Afghanistan, and in the country as a whole, when dealing with the collapse of Kabul Bank,” said a former colleague Shuja Rabbani, who worked at the Central Bank of Afghanistan. Reports of widespread corruption had almost caused the demise of the commercial bank in 2012.
“He has helped Afghanistan a lot,” said Ross, describing how Abdallah helped the troubled nation develop its own economic institutions, banking policy and be more effective in managing the economy. “He made a huge contribution, and directly helped the people of Afghanistan at a time when the country faced many hurdles.”
“One of the things that stood out about him was his strong desire to help others, he adored helping countries, he loved engaging with officials,” Ross said.
“Warmth and generosity was at his core – it made him more genuine and credible, and lent him the ability to explain things to people as though he was explaining his own beliefs,” he added.
Abdallah leaves behind a wife and daughter.
Of his personal attributes, Ross said he would remember Abdallah’s broad, toothy smile, the way his eyes would brighten every time they met and his phenomenal linguistic abilities and his love for his child.
“His daughter was very precious to him,” he said.
“He was the sort of person who walked into a room full of strangers, and made everyone feel as though he had known them for ages.”