One of the first lessons I learnt on arrival in Afghanistan three years ago was that this beautiful country with remarkably resilient people is also one where you can easily find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time – often with fatal results.

Like Judith D’Souza, from the Indian city of Kolkata, who was kidnapped from Kabul last month, I worked in the development space there for two years. And despite the permanent threat of danger that prevails in any unsettled country, the abduction of an Indian aid worker is both peculiar and worrying.

The development sector has had considerable success in forging close links with Afghan people by delivering economic benefits and such kidnappings are a setback to the work of the many NGOs. Indians are particularly popular among the people of Afghanistan, which is why I have been playing and replaying the circumstances that led to D’Souza’s abduction a few weeks ago.

The price to pay

Kidnapping is, in itself, not an unusual affair in Afghanistan and functions as something of a cottage industry. The abductees’ identity and business, of course, determines their value in the so-called market.

For instance, in my first week in Kabul, the French Embassy announced that they would no longer pay the ransom for abducted embassy staff. Some of my French colleagues were actually pleased by this declaration – apparently their embassy had set towering standards by paying large sums of money previously, which only encouraged even those Afghans who had no particular interest in orchestrating kidnappings to suddenly try and lay their hands on lucrative Frenchmen and women to access easy cash.

When I asked the defence attache at the Indian Embassy what our policy was for Indian citizens, I was told that we do not have one at all. Cavalier though it sounds, this is actually the soundest position in Afghanistan, because all abductions are dealt with on a case-to-case basis. This has made it very difficult for locals with a predilection for kidnapping to determine precisely how profitable an Indian is in the larger scheme of things.

Add to this, of course, the fact that Afghans have a certain affection for Indians (a sentiment that we too warmly reciprocate). I was on numerous occasions offered a complete waiver of charge by an Afghan restaurant owner or taxi driver after they discovered my nationality. The same friendliness does not seem to extend to our neighbours in Pakistan who tend to be resented by most Afghans for a number of reasons that are better left for another article.

Staying safe

As the months passed, I understood that it was also safer working for a well-established NGO (like the Aga Khan Foundation where D’Souza works) than any agency with a history that could be construed as dubious in Afghanistan. For instance, the last time a kidnapping of an Indian national occurred was two years ago in Herat – I, coincidentally, was in the city at the time. The victim was a priest working for a Christian NGO and the circumstances of his work had primed him as a target. Father Alexis Prem Kumar had no business working for Christian organisations associated with conversions in a country as religiously sensitive as Afghanistan. It amounts to playing with fire.

The closest I came to an unpleasant experience was when a United Nations staffer showed up with an armed guard at one of our rural sites – we had to carefully retreat, since the village elders refused to allow us to continue with our programme. Suspicion, in a country as battle-scarred as Afghanistan, is ubiquitous. And it is safer (and wiser, frankly) to walk around without a gun or gunmen than to parade with the paraphernalia of security.

It also helps to strike a balance between being excessively friendly and going out of your way to make enemies. I realised that nothing I do or say can ever bridge the gap between their experiences and ours and it is best not to lecture them on political or social matters – people are easy to take offence, which has resulting in some expats being punished for impropriety.

In December 2013, for instance, a group of Afghans forced their way into a house down the street from mine that had a reputation for late-night parties. I had frequently been a guest at these parties, but had not known that the hosts had been warned several times to put an end to them.

Kidnapping an expat and handing them over to the highest bidder from a swarm of competing militias turned out to be one way of telling the expats to turn the music down.

I figured that the best form of security was a low profile and it worked for me. The real threat to Indians, as I understood, is being mistaken as Indian Embassy staff (especially one living outside its protected compound) who face a different kind of risk altogether from a section of Afghans patronised by Pakistani agencies.

Each of our consulates has been bombed at least once, and it serves the agenda of the perpetrators to keep embassy associates under active threat in Afghanistan. I am not sure what D’Souza’s relationship with the embassy was, but from experience, I know it is best to keep interactions with our own diplomats to a bare minimum.

Being mistaken for a spy sounds romantic and perhaps even flattering, but, really, in Afghanistan you don't need much more to end up dead.

Wrong place, wrong time

Expats across nationalities who live there have a catchphrase – TIA, This is Afghanistan! And all that D’Souza might have done wrong, so to speak, to have been kidnapped is perhaps to been seen too much around the embassy.

What is more likely, in my opinion, is that she was a victim of circumstances who found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was kidnapped with three others, and one of them could have been the actual intended. Given that D’Souza lived in Kabul for a year, she must have taken the usual precautions, and given the popularity Indian aid workers enjoy, it must have been something truly unusual that caused to her to be abducted.

I do hope she returns safely, not just to prove my theory but for the sake of the excellent work India and Indians are doing in Afghanistan with the appreciation of a very wide section of the local population.