March 2001 – Reception by the Taliban Anyway, they won’t catch us. I sign the “agreement” with the Taliban. A green-yellow sticker is stuck in each of our passports. Mine carries the serial number 000311 – a lot of visas can’t be issued here yet. It is valid for one month and expressly for journalistic
March 2001 – Reception by the Taliban
Anyway, they won’t catch us. I sign the “agreement” with the Taliban. A green-yellow sticker is stuck in each of our passports. Mine carries the serial number 000311 – a lot of visas can’t be issued here yet. It is valid for one month and expressly for journalistic purposes. The date of issue is indicated in the visa as ٢١/١٢/١٩. This is the 19.12.1421 of the Islamic calendar used in Afghanistan. According to our calendar, today is March 14, 2001. We have waited almost four weeks. If we’d get a flight to Kabul, we could start right away.
Four and a half years ago I had to fly from Peshawar to Kabul. This should be easier now, since there are regular flights from Islamabad to the Afghan capital. The United Nations operates a whole fleet of planes all over the world that transport relief supplies or people to crisis areas. All these planes are chartered and painted white, with the letters “UN” on the tail, under the wings and on the fuselage.
We had already checked their schedule. Three times a week there is a UN plane going to Kabul – booking in time is recommended. So directly from the Afghan embassy we’re on our way to the UN building. Today is Wednesday. Maybe there will be another flight tomorrow. On Friday, the Islamic holiday, definitely no UN plane will take off for Kabul. A good half hour in a taxi through the chessboard-like city. The driver knows the building of the United Nations, we ask him to wait outside the door. The flight office is quickly found and there is even a flight plan on the outside of the door. No connection to Kabul on Thursday and Friday. The first possibility is on Sunday, March 18th.
The young Pakistani woman behind the desk, completely without headscarf and with beautiful long hair, kindly asks us about our wishes. Sure, on Sunday there would be a few places left and we should give her our passports with the Afghan visas. The ticket would cost 250 dollars per person. One way. Not really cheap for a one hour flight. But of course there are no alternatives. Then she asks for our luggage and shakes her head in indignation when I tell her that we have about 80 kilos. Per passenger 20 kilos would be allowed, so we would have double that. The excess luggage wouldn’t cost anything – but they can’t guarantee that the pilots will take it with them. We take our chances.
Departure on Sunday at 08:00 o’clock. And then she asks if we know that we need new visas for the return trip to Pakistan, as the visa we hold are for single entry only. Deutsche Welle’s travel agency in Berlin had procured them and somebody had probably overlooked that we had to enter Pakistan twice, of course. Hopefully the Pakistani embassy in Kabul is operational!
The weekend goes by way too fast and yes, I admit it, I enjoyed the buffet at the Marriott Hotel very much these days. On Monday at 06:30 we get a taxi called from the reception and minutes later the yellow Suzuki-Mehran is at the door. A tiny car with at least five doors, built in Pakistan and surely the most popular car in the country. How we should store our luggage in it is a kind of mystery to me, but the driver smiles cheerfully. Kay opens the trunk for our two big aluminium boxes. But the boot it’s full. A large, round gas container takes up the entire storage space. “Yes, running on CNG”, grins the driver. CNG, that is “Compressed Natural Gas” and the predominant fuel here in Pakistan – only the tanks are normally underneath the cars. “No problem,” says the chauffeur and begins to load our luggage on to the back seat. The two boxes come on the roof. Not that there is a luggage carrier. A blanket underneath and a few ropes leading through the open windows into the interior to tie it up. Kay in front left and me behind. Everything fits. Somehow and only for very short distances.
There is a UN check-in counter and not even a queue in front of it. A team from TV5, an international television station that broadcasts in French, and three men who look like they’re working for aid organisations. The luggage is checked in and not a word is lost about the weight of our things. Pakistani passport control. With the exit stamp, our visas are indeed now invalid. Minutes later we walk along the edge of the apron. At the very end there is a Beechcraft King-Air. Dazzling white in the sun with blue UN emblems. All in. A few brief hints from one of the pilots and a little later we are on the runway.
The air above the Hindu Kush is crystal clear and the visibility is great. After a good twenty minutes we see the peaks of the mountains to our right and to our left. Especially on the northern slopes, which are away from the sun, there is still snow in many places. As almost always it is somewhat turbulent over the mountain ridges and the plane rides on the air currents like an untamed horse. On descent the bombastic prison “Pul-e-Charkhi” appears on the left and a short time later the pilots land the plane on the runway in Kabul. My first impression: nothing has changed here since 1996. Aircraft wrecks everywhere to the right and left of the runway. Dozens of overturned, blown up and burnt out helicopters. Some of the taxiways are interrupted by craters, into a particularly large one an all-terrain vehicle of Russian construction fell. Our pilots circle around potholes and cracks in the concrete track to get close to the terminal. A little to our left is a Boeing 727 of ARIANA, the state airline of Afghanistan, parked. Or rather I should say: it is lying. An undercarriage is bent and the right wing has drilled into the soft ground next to the asphalt of a taxiway.
Once again I stand in front of the terminal – or what is left of it. I think about the fact that Kabul used to be served by several international airlines. Among them was the famous PanAm, which also owned the Hotel Intercontinental, the largest and most comfortable hotel in town.
While we wait for our luggage to be unladen and which we have to carry to the terminal by ourselves, I watch a man in long, traditional clothes and with a pilot’s helmet under his arm approaching a fighter plane. It is a MiG-21 built in Russia. A design from the fifties, which was flown since 1962 also by the air forces of the GDR. The aircraft seems to be fully armed. Under the wings hang two bombs and in front the machine gun is clearly visible. A few minutes later the windows of the terminal would be shaking – if there were any left. With a shrill screech of the engine, the fighter plane rolls to the runway, gets louder again and takes off after a few hundred meters.
From the inside, the terminal building looks as if it could collapse at any moment. Ceiling panels and struts hang down, cables dangle above our heads. A little perplexed we stand with the other passengers on fragmented floor tiles, some also directly on the loamy ground. About 50 meters away from us, about in the middle of the terminal a fire is burning. A few men in Afghan clothes with black turbans sit around the flames and warm themselves. Here, almost 2,000 metres above sea level, it can still be very cold in March. Even now, shortly before noon. I am glad to have put on a warm jacket.
A young man with a very sparse beard comes up to us, asks in perfect English for the people from German television. Kay introduces me and himself. The man’s name is Mustafa and he comes from the Afghan Foreign Ministry. He was sent to pick us up and asks for some patience as there is still a check on our luggage and passports. No problem, we sit quite relaxed on our tin boxes for 15 or 20 minutes. The plane with which we arrived on is already loaded again, a few passengers board. In about an hour they will arrive in Islamabad.
Again the screeching of the MiG’s jet-engine. Clearly quieter now. The plane is still on the runway, three minutes later it is at the end of the terminal building. The pilot peels himself out of the ejection seat and takes off his helmet. The bombs are gone. Combat mission apparently ended after a good half hour. Slowly the pilot trots through the crumbling arrival hall. The men at the fire call out to him “Allah U Akhbar”.
Finally, men in uniform arrive. Baggage control. The French camera team begins to open boxes and suitcases, while “our” Mustafa talks to ta guy in uniform. He asks for Kay’s and my passport, checks the Afghan visa, pulls a stamp out of his pocket and presses his seal into the passports. “Come on, let’s get these things in the car,” Mustafa asks. And the baggage check? “No, no more checks”. The French and other passengers are digging out their toothpaste tubes for inspection. Who is this Mustafa?
With our belongings we climb over torn out concrete slabs and around deep holes. There is no exit door any more, the facade is partly only held together by the iron reinforcements in the concrete. Outside, on the forecourt, a dozen cars. Still mostly Russian models, two or three Japanese. One of them is “ours”. A silver-grey Toyota Corolla, Mustafa introduces us the driver as Ali. No gas tank in the trunk, the luggage fits in. Right in front of us on the right side still the huge airplane cemetery – especially with destroyed passenger planes of the state airline ARIANA. No matter where I look, everything looks destroyed. Hardly a stone still lies on the other. Walls have fallen or been shot down, houses have become ruins. The road is not much more than a string of potholes.
But obviously the SU-22 survived the fights. A fighter plane built in Russia, which is mounted on a pedestal at the entrance to the airport. Dozens of these machines, at that time ultramodern, were delivered to Afghanistan in the eighties, during the time of the Soviet occupation.
There is very little traffic on the roads. The number of destroyed, knocked over and burnt out vehicles seems to exceed the number of moving cars. Ali tries to avoid deep potholes – it doesn’t always work, because the roadway consists only of craters in places. In the distance, machine gun fire can be heard: “We go to the press department of the foreign ministry,” Mustafa explains. “Everything will be discussed there, you’ll get press passes and then we’ll take you to the hotel.”
The Ministry is not a single building, but a whole complex. Almost everywhere on the facades of the houses there are traces of impact from rifle or light artillery projectiles. The press department is, as in 1996, on the first floor of one of the smaller buildings and we are expected here as well. I have the feeling that the way we are going to be treated is pretty much planned. A very fat man in a very tight fitting robe greets us with an opaque mine. “Welcome to Kabul”, in perfect English. “I am the head of the press department. You know the rules of conduct, but to be on the safe side I would like to remind you that you are only allowed to leave Kabul with our permission and that filming and photographing people and animals is strictly forbidden”.
We hand in passport photos and a few minutes later we get Afghan press passes that we can’t read. Then it’s about money. The press officer introduces the interpreters and drivers once again: “So this is Mustafa, he translates and organises everything for you while you are in Afghanistan. He will be with you 24 hours a day. For him you have to pay 100 dollars a day.” Gosh, that’s a good start, I think to myself and look for alternatives in my thoughts. “Here’s Ali, you already know him. He is at your disposal with his car. For every day you need him, you have to pay 100 dollars.”
From the corner of my eye I see another person approaching us. I have never seen such a beard before. Long and dense and pitch black. On the head an equally black turban. The press man introduces him, too. His name is Abdul and he comes from the Hotel Intercontinental. There are two rooms reserved for us. 100 dollars per night. For the first week everything has to be paid in advance. Right now. My brainstorming didn’t help. I see no alternative to what is going on here. 2,100 dollars change hands and I even get a receipt – which I unfortunately can’t read. At my request to write a receipt in English, the head of the press department gives a clear answer: “No sir, this is the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, not England or the US.”
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 24 December 2019. It’s title will be “March 2001 – Permission for the trip to Mazar-E-Sharif” New chapters will follow fortnightly – more than 60 will be published in total. Please scroll further down for subscription.
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