September 1996 – Home of the TalibanA dull feeling in the stomach, singing deafness in the ear and a breast swelling with pride. I hit it. The Kalashnikov, which was created here, in this “factory”, obviously shoots straight ahead and even forward! And then the arms manufacturer actually comes up with an offer. He would
September 1996 – Home of the Taliban
A dull feeling in the stomach, singing deafness in the ear and a breast swelling with pride. I hit it. The Kalashnikov, which was created here, in this “factory”, obviously shoots straight ahead and even forward!
And then the arms manufacturer actually comes up with an offer. He would sell us three of these weapons. “I give you a very special price.” With a discount. For the three AK-47s, which we could even select ourselves, he wants to have 400 dollars. Somewhat frightened I look at him. “O.k. Because you are very good friend I give you three AK for only 300. Last price.” Is this guy crazy? Not only that he should know that journalists are never armed; does he seriously believe that tomorrow, in the plane to Kabul, we are allowed to take weapons so easily? I ask him that. “Oh, my friend, no problem. You give me half price today, I send guns to Kabul. You pay half price when you get guns in Kabul.” Smuggling guns into Afghanistan still seems to be easy. Hanif, who obviously would earn his share from this business, supports the small turban wearer to the best of his ability. “Without weapons you are not safe in Kabul!” he hums with a grave voice. As if we were safer there with weapons…
How do we get out of this thing without leaving a grudge? Without hard feelings and with a still reliable driver?
Hanif is a bit grumpy as we cover the last kilometres to Peshawar. To the right and left of the road there are a number large refugee camps to be seen. Afghans, who fled from the Soviet troops and the chaos of war in their homeland. Exact figures are not known, but according to the Pakistani government, the country has received more than 3 million refugees. There are no regular schools in the camps, says Hanif. “But hundreds of Koran schools ensure that the children of the refugees at least learn math and writing. I would like to visit one of these camps on the way back.
One more night here in Peshawar, then it’s off to Kabul. We had already reserved three rooms at the Hotel Pearl Continental at a travel agency in Islamabad. Allegedly the best house in Peshawar, brand new, super chic and expensive.
We drive through the suburbs of the city. Still at home I had read in the travel guide that Peshawar is one of the oldest cities of the world. And about 100 years before our time this was the seventh largest settlement in the world, with almost 120,000 inhabitants at that time. Now, with almost a million people, Peshawar is the bustling metropolis of West Pakistan, a gateway to Afghanistan and China, the terminus of the railway – and an important hub of the Islamist Taliban.
Actually the word “Talib” means as much as “pupil” or “seeker”. For almost two years it has also been used for the Islamic holy warriors who are trying to take power in Afghanistan right now.
On the one hand, the militant organisation emerged in dozens of Koran schools in this area, in the west of Pakistan. Lots of their followers are refugees from Afghanistan. On the other hand they also come from the loosely holding Mujahedin, who between 1979 and 1989, with massive support from the USA, waged a guerilla war against the Soviet occupation troops. Most of the weapons supplied by the Americans in tons are now in the hands of the “Koran students”.
The Taliban first came up in southern Afghanistan in 1994. In the autumn of that year they appeared in military formation and in November brought the city of Kandahar under their control. Until the end of the year they controlled the important province of Helmand with the capital Lashkar Gah, on the main road between Herat and Kabul. The Taliban also succeeded in conquering other provinces in the south and west of the country that were not under the control of the central government. Kabul, our destination, is not yet dominated by them.
September 1996 – A border that is not a border
Early in the morning the call of the muezzin from the nearby minaret wakes us up. It is extremely difficult to get out of bed in the luxury hotel here in Peshawar. At eight o’clock we should be ready to leave to the house of the ICRC. These four letters stand for “International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement”. Breakfast in the restaurant before we start.
Hanif, our driver drops us off at the Red Cross. For him the job is done. He’s going back home now, to Islamabad, hoping for the next job or waiting for our call. Together with us there are about ten more passengers waiting for transport to the airport and the flight to Kabul. Passports are copied, tickets issued, luggage weighed. After about an hour, a truck with the symbol of the Red Crescent – the equivalent of the Red Cross in Islamic countries – arrives. Luggage is loaded and passengers also find space in the loading area. The airport is only a few minutes away – it is located on the western edge of the city centre.
Passport and customs control takes only minutes. With the Pakistani exit stamps in the passport, the group walks to the airfield, where a dazzling white plane with the Red Cross and Red Crescent logo on its tail is parked. It is a Beechcraft 1900, a short-haul aircraft for up to 19 people. As the crow flies, it is only a good 200 kilometres to Kabul, but shortly before landing it is necessary to pass over mountains up to 3,000 metres high. Luggage is loaded and we few passengers quickly disappeare into the plane. One of the pilots gives safety instructions and minutes later we are ready to take off. Planned flight time: less than 30 minutes.
The landscape below us is wild and jagged. Uncovered high mountains alternate with green valleys. After about five minutes we have crossed the Khyber Pass and thus the border control post between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Below us lies a border drawn by human hands, which in its form is absurd, superfluous and life-threatening. A border that crosses ancient tribal areas without any ethnic consideration. It is the “Durand Line”, a demarcation line that has not been recognised by Afghanistan to this day.
At the end of the 19th century London had to deal with fear. The completely open border between British India in the east and the emirate of Afghanistan in the west, as the United Kingdom feared, could tempt hordes from Tsarist Russia to invade the British crown colony. Mr. Henry Mortimer Durand, Foreign Minister of British India, gave the order to draw a border in the middle of the Hindu Kush mountains. On order, this border was not only to separate Pashtoon tribal areas inhabited for 2,500 years, but also to be led through villages and settlements in several places.
Only a part of the 2,250 km long Durand Line is marked with border posts. In many places the course of the line is only very imprecise. The surveying of the demarcation line took several years and its course was partly described with primitive means and without technical knowledge. First, the northern border of Afghanistan was defined in the so-called “Pamir Agreement”. A British-Russian commission described the border as follows: Approximately 23 miles south of post XII in the Sariko mountain range, the new border begins. It then heads south over the Wakhjir Pass. There the actual Durand line begins, whose documentation gives the impression as if the British surveyors had worked less with instruments than with a sense of proportion. This border could never be controlled. Neither by the British nor later by Pakistan or Afghanistan. On the Afghan side, the Durand Line was repeatedly described as the “hated border that stands like a wall between brothers”.
Landed. The airport building looks like a ruin and a little later we see that it really is. The roof must have been hit by several grenades, there are no more glass panes, the baggage carousels are torn from their anchorage, on the taxiways there are bomb craters. Wherever you look, there are plane wrecks all along the runways and in front of the destroyed hangars. It is mainly Russian aircraft, military planes as well as passenger aircraft. Ali, Orhan and I carry our luggage ourselves. There is no customs control, but our passports are thoroughly checked. Clinbing over rubble we reach the forecourt of the airport.
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 28 May 2019. It’s title will be “September 1996 – Kabul: Reduced to Rubble”. New chapters will follow fortnightly – more than 60 will be published in total.
Dieter Herrmann, the author of this Afghanistan diary, lives in Australia, reports from there for German television stations and is editor-in-chief of the only German-language newspaper in Australia. He is known as a media trainer for radio and television stations all over the world as well as media trainer for senior managers, officers and pilots. To get in touch with the author and for further information on media training by Dieter and his crew please use the “contact”-button or send an email to dieter(at)australia-news.de (please replace the (at) with the @-sign!)
My first trip to Afghanistan started in the early summer of 1973. Since then I have been to the country at the Hindu Kush more than 100 times and in total have spent several years in Afghanistan. I got to know all political systems from the kingdom up to the today’s Islamic Republic. In about 60 chapters, based on diaries and memories, I describe my experiences in the country, which has not come to a rest since 1973. Among many other experiences, I was arrested and imprisoned twice during this time, had to live temporarily in the bunker of the Turkish embassy and had an amazing interview with Mullah Muttawakil, the personal spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Omar and later Taliban Foreign Minister. I describe my personal feelings and doubts as well as political and human events, movements in the population and developments in the country. Nothing about this manuscript has been invented or added – however, to avoid endangering anyone, I left out some of my experiences. I changed some names to protect friends and informants. Whether the last chapter will ever be finished is questionable. I was supposed to be back in Kabul in 2018, but the security situation is so bad that my clients are unlikely to get me into the country. “German media trainer murdered by Taliban” would be a catastrophic headline for everyone involved. Dieter Herrmann
Translation from German to English with the help of www.deepl.com