March 2001 – Travel permit for the trip to Mazar-E-Sharif So this is what the famous Hotel Intercontinental looks like now. Still an ugly concrete block on a hill south of downtown Kabul. The facade is full of scars from the war. Small holes from rifle ammunition, larger ones from light artillery, balconies torn down
March 2001 – Travel permit for the trip to Mazar-E-Sharif
So this is what the famous Hotel Intercontinental looks like now. Still an ugly concrete block on a hill south of downtown Kabul. The facade is full of scars from the war. Small holes from rifle ammunition, larger ones from light artillery, balconies torn down by rockets or mortar fire. The large swimming pool is empty, the light blue tiles broken or fallen off.
Ali, our driver for the next few days, dropped us here. Abdul, the man from the hotel, who was already introduced to us at the State Department, had driven ahead in his own car. Mustafa, interpreter and probably also a watchdog, spy and brakeman, is of course with us and has the order to be permanently nearby.
In the lobby a stained, dark green carpet with huge burn holes. There seems to be no electricity, the reception is in semi-darkness. Our passports and the freshly issued press cards are examined, the data is transferred by hand to a kind of index card. The two men behind the counter are wearing thick padded jackets. It is bitterly cold and the fire in the fireplace at the end of the lobby does not manage to warm the huge room, of course. Kay and I each get a single room and a piece of paper with the room number. There are no keys. We are supposed to have a few minutes of patience until we can go to the rooms. A boy brings us near the fireplace and comes back a few minutes later with hot green tea. In a niche on our right, five men in dark grey traditional dresses are seated, the obligatory turban on their heads and the Kalashnikov between their knees.
The sound of a diesel engine can be heard from outside and then the lights go on. The generator is running. Now we don’t even have the chance to drink our tea. Mustafa and a person in hotel uniform pick us up, takes us and our luggage to the elevator next to the reception. The doors of the elevator close in a scraping motion and with a low hum we are transported to the third floor. A long corridor, left and right the room doors – like in almost every hotel in the world. Some of the doors are open, some are ripped out of their hinges. Sockets hang loosely on the cables from the wall. The air conditioning outlet grilles on the ceiling are missing. Rooms 315 and 317, right next to each other. They are for us.
From my room there could be a beautiful view over Kabul. If it wasn’t for this cloudy plastic sheeting. Because there are no more window panes. The foil flutters in the wind. It looks much better with Kay. He has windows – but the toilet bowl in his bathroom is missing. Stolen or simply destroyed. In both rooms there is an electric radiant heater, which reminds me of the “heating suns” that were found in many bathrooms in the sixties of the last century. With translation help from Mustafa, the hotel boy explains that there is electricity for two hours every morning and evening, that the restaurant on the ground floor is open all day and that our rooms have an intermediate door so that Kay can use my toilet. Having electricity on a regular basis is good – after all, the camera’s batteries have to be charged again and again. And when I think about the work in Somalia or Iraq, we have lived in a colder and worse environment.
I take a few things out of my luggage, Kay takes care that the batteries are put into the charger again and then I have to rest for a while. Mustafa promises to sit down in the lobby and be available for us at any time. “Dinner at six,” we agree.
The restaurant is actually open. There is a fire burning here, too. Mustafa insists on sitting in the lobby. He strictly refuses our invitation for dinner. We just have we taken our seats near the fireplace, when the waiter, decorated with lots of gold brocade, puts the menu on our table. Not bad, the selection! All prices are in US dollars. Various hamburgers for three to six dollars, pizza between five and eight dollars, steaks, chicken fillet, soups, salads. The most expensive dish (fillet steak with chips and pepper sauce) is said to cost $12. I want chicken fillet and a salad, Kay decides on the pizza with seafood. After we told him what, a discussion with the waiter develops for minutes: “Sir, I’ll have the chicken breast and the garden salad please”, Kay asks for his pizza. “Oh, I’m very sorry, gentlemen, we are out of chicken and seafood pizza today.” Well, it can happen – especially in times like these. We both decide on a steak and a mixed salad. “I’m sorry, we don’t have steak in stock today.” All right, hamburger it is. “Sorry sir, the kitchen can’t make hamburgers today.” Yeah, but what’s on the kitchen menu today? “We have Qabuli pilaf today – and unfortunately no salad.” And what else? Nothing else.
All right, then, Qabuli pilaf. It’s something like the Afghan national dish. Steamed lamb with rice, carrots and raisins. Sometimes also with chopped nuts. As a drink I order a mineral water, Kay wants fruit juice. The pilaf comes after two or three minutes. With it two cans of cola. With the cans the excuse. Today there would only be Coke, tomorrow maybe something else. The food is really tasty and very, very plentiful. The night becomes restless, my plastic window rattles in the refreshing wind.
We want to go to the north of the country, to Mazar-E-Sharif, capital of the province Balkh and only about 50 kilometers south of the border to Uzbekistan. The city was taken by the Taliban only two years after they had conquered Kabul. Now the Islamists consider it a “modern figurehead” and an Islamic sanctuary. We would like to shoot there to be able to describe the situation to the viewers. We inform Mustafa, our permanent companion, about our wishes. “We must apply to the ministry.” That’s his short answer. Anyway, he looks totally fresh and well rested. Did he spend the night in the lobby or did he get to go home? Maybe he has a room in the hotel.
After breakfast, this time with Mustafa, so back to the ministry. Driver Ali is already waiting in the hotel parking lot. How do they do that? There is no phone in Kabul. In the Ministry Information Department is again the head of the department. Today in a wide, flowing robe. “So you’re going to Mazar-E-Sharif?” “Yes, we would love to leave tomorrow morning. With an overnight stop en route, we could be there the day after.” His answer comes like a shot of a gun: “No, it’s not possible!” Mustafa and the head of the department are discussing something in Dari. I only understand the words “Mazar” and “Ariana”. Then the chief apologises and disappears into the room next door.
A few minutes later he reappears. “No, you can’t go there by car. But you might be able to fly from Kabul to Mazar-E-Sharif.” What a pity, I think to myself, almost 30 years ago I have already driven the route over the almost 4,000-metre-high Salang Pass and through the tunnel. It was an exciting adventure. I would love to be on the road there once again.
I would like to know why we are not allowed to drive. “Because it is not allowed”, I am told. A few minutes to think it over and then I agree to fly north. Late in the afternoon, they say, we are to pick up the tickets for Mustafa, Kay and me at the office of the state airline ARIANA.
The tickets are only available in the Ariana building, in the middle of the city. Not at travel agencies and also not at the airport. As foreigners we have to pay in US dollars. From Kabul to Mazar-E-Sharif and back it’s almost 100 dollars. Could be worse… A classic flight ticket is issued with several copies and filled out by hand. How could one issue an electronic ticket if there is neither a computer nor regular electricity.
In the room where the tickets are issued there are 12 desks, behind them only men. There is a lot of activity, although ARIANA only serves four routes in Afghanistan and no longer flies abroad. Our “clerk” asks for passports and press cards and collects the money himself. So to speak, everything from a single source. At the end of the procedure, when all three tickets have been completed, the airline employee grabs a thick felt-tip pen, turns the three tickets over so that the back is in front of him and paints a broad, black serpentine line over the picture on the back of the ticket.
Outside the door, of course, the first question to Mustafa, our attendant and guard: “What was that with the felt pen?” The interpreter hesitates a little and then explains: “Well, the photo on the back of the ticket shows one of the Buddha statues of Bamiyan. They are not only an image of the human being but also un-Islamic. So they have to be made completely unrecognisable.”
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 07 January 2020. It will be titled “March 2001 – A clear break of Law” 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