July/August 1973 – Self-catering in Jail The cell’s full. Men sit on the floor and on benches attached to the wall Three of them sit on wooden boxes. Two Europeans or Americans, the rest, judging by their clothes, are Afghans. When the two uniforms push me into this dungeon, hardly anyone looks up. Some of

July/August 1973 – Self-catering in Jail

The cell’s full. Men sit on the floor and on benches attached to the wall Three of them sit on wooden boxes. Two Europeans or Americans, the rest, judging by their clothes, are Afghans. When the two uniforms push me into this dungeon, hardly anyone looks up. Some of the prisoners read, others talk to each other, some just stare apathetically. Completely helpless and close to the tears, I stand in the door that closes loudly behind me. It feels like a few minutes are passing, in fact it’s more like seconds until a “Selam” is coming from three or four different mouths towards me. In the back right from the corner, from one of the European-looking men comes a somewhat louder “Hi”. He makes me move in his direction. Carefully, to avoid kicking anybody, I balance into “the European corner”.

Kabul im Jahr 2010 Foto:© Marion Althaus

“My name is Willem, I’m from the Netherlands. This is Pierre from Canada.” The Canadian has a pretty strong French accent. He’s from Quebec maybe. Willem speaks German quite well, but the three of us will stick with English. Very briefly, I tell them why I’m here, that I was caught “in the act” photographing a signpost at the airport. Pierre allegedly travelled with a false passport and has been here for about a week. The Dutchman has been in Kabul for over a year, speaks a few words of Dari and was caught stealing. The two of them give me a brief introduction to Afghan prison life.

Guards bring something to eat twice a day. At sunrise and sunset. With every “meal” there is nan, the flatbread baked from sourdough. And they bring water with it. Nothing else. Sleeping is on the concrete floor, on woollen blankets, thrown into the cell in the evening. The toilet is the hole in the floor, in the far left corner, behind the curtain – undoubtedly the source of the smell in the cell. Next to it there is a water bucket that is filled up from time to time. There are no showers or prison clothes. Willem and Pierre tell us that almost everyone in here is additionally supplied from outside. Friends or relatives are allowed to bring food, books and drinks. Writing materials are forbidden, as are conversations. Usually what the relatives bring has to be left at the front guard. After the “commission deduction”, one of the guards then passes it on to the prisoner.

But how can Monika and Michelle find out where I am? “Do they know you’ve been arrested?” Pierre wants to know. Sure, the two were at the spot. “How good that they didn’t try to intervene, then they would be in prison themselves now.” Willem is confident. If they know you’ve been arrested, they’ll find out where you are. His tenor: wait, be patient, my friends were here for the first time after only two days. He’s an optimist, I think to myself and hope that the girls will at least manage to get in touch with me. I also hope that they went to the German Embassy and report on my arrest.

The first night is terrible. The flat bread is bloating – and not only with me. A dozen snorers in the room and constantly someone goes on the hole in the floor. I don’t mind the fact that it’s hard as concrete underneath my blanket. That’s fine with me. But the permanent restlessness and the oppressive narrowness bother me. A lot. We are really close together, a bit like the fishes in a can. A aged man with bushy eyebrows and crippled hands lies diagonally beside me. Every time he moves, I get a kick from him.

When in the morning another prisoner collects the blankets and distributes the bread, I’m not sure if I slept at all. My contact lenses are a much bigger problem at the moment. I have only had the hard lenses in my eyes for a good 24 hours, but they are already burning and Pierre confirms to me that my eyes are red. The lenses will have to be removed soon, otherwise there could be a severe inflammation. But where to put these little things? And: how can I cope without glasses? With my short-sightedness I can’t get very far without visual aids. Probably I wouldn’t even hit the hole in the stinking corner.

Marktstraße Kabul 2010 Foto:©Marion Althaus

Sometime in the course of the morning the cell door opens again. A two-metre-guy in uniform has a piece of paper in his hand and shouts three names. One of them sounds like mine and since only two other inmates are moving, I must be meant. “Interrogation,” whispers Willem. Still in the cell the three of us are chained to each other. A bit like in the Middle Ages or in prison films from the USA. Through almost endless corridors and stairs we are led into another room. I guess we are now on the fourth floor. With a gesture of his hand, the tall guy asks us to sit on the wooden bench. One of us three prisoners is taken off the chain, which is connected to the bench instead. To escape we would have to take the bench with us. The now “free” man is pushed into an adjoining room, the door slams shut. Chairs scraping next door, murmuring voices, loud shouts in a language I don’t understand. Shouting sounds from a high, almost nagging voice, moaning as an answer. I try to communicate with my neighbour – no chance, he speaks Pashtoo only, and to communicate with our hands and feet we both seem to lack desire. Heart palpitations.

It’s my turn. The one who has just been questioned takes my place on the chain. In the next room a table, two chairs. Nothing else. The man opposite me is young. Twenty perhaps, maybe a few years older. My age then. He wears civilian clothes, but something like a police badge on his shirt. And, I can hardly believe it, he speaks English. “Who are you spying for in Afghanistan?” is his first question. I try to explain, but I am interrupted after the first words. I would have photographed the airport, who would pay me for it. I shouldn’t even try to talk me out of it, the police had known for a long time that I had entered as a spy. Again I explain that I only photographed a signpost and nothing else. He does not believe me. “I’ve never heard of anyone photographing an old rusty sign.” Can’t have gotten far yet, the young man, I guess. We turn in circles, he claims that I am a foreign agent, I declare that I am a foreign tourist. His last words: “You will stay here in prison until you confess.” What a nonsense. It sounds like I’d be released in freedom if I just confessed. When he sends me out, I try to explain my problem with the contact lenses to him. He claims to not understan, I guess he is just not interested.
Sometime in the afternoon I am back in “my” cell. On the chain-clinking way through the corridors, I saw that there are several other doors that look exactly like the door of the cell I’m being thrown into. It seems to be something like a remand prison. Again and again men are picked up and brought back after a few minutes or hours. In the late afternoon, two new prisoners arrive, both of them from Afghanistan. So it gets even narrower in the cell where not everyone has enough room to stretch at night. Willem has had visitors. A new book and a bowl of rice and chicken were brought to him. It amazes me that he can eat completely in peace. Others here in the room must be very hungry, but no one tries to dispute his food. After bread and blankets were brought into the cell, a group of five men was picked up. Nobody knows why, everyone is happy about a little more space on the floor. My eyes are burning like hell, I ask Willem for a piece of paper from his book, tear it in half and carefully wrap my contact lenses in it. A piece of paper for the left lens, one for the right. That makes me almost blind tonight, but hopefully I can wear the lenses again tomorrow.

In the night I must have slept, I wake up relatively rested, when blankets are collected and bread provided. The bread is fresh and it is still warm – but so is the water. Shortly after the meal and after thoroughly rinsing my mouth with the water, I wet my contact lenses with spit by carefully moving them back and forth in my mouth. Then I put them in my eyes. How good that I have been doing this for many years and no longer need a mirror for it. It works! I can see normally – but of course this is not a permanent solution, because the little things have to be disinfected every day.

It is pretty warm now, which does not really reduce the stench in the room. Around noon, I guess, the giant comes again and calls my name. This time it doesn’t seem to go to the interrogation but to the guard, where I had to leave my fingerprints. This time it is a rather pleasant occasion. I got something like a parcel. It is a small cardboard box with a book and rice wrapped in aluminium foil with onions and lamb. No letter. From the man in charge I want to know who brought the box for me. He just grins and makes a few lewd movements. Thank you! I thought it was a woman. Only which one of them?

Back in this stinking prisoner storage room, I squeeze myself into the “international corner” to Pierre and Willem and immediately start eating the rice. I’m not hungry but I feel like “real food”. With the help of aluminium foil and my fingers I shovel the still warm rice with meat and tomatoes into my mouth. Very tasty. It would taste even better together with the girls. The book is by Günter Grass. The English version of “Katz und Maus”. Where did they find it? And (everything else would have been astonishing), a narrowly described note falls out of the book. The writing of Monika is quite clear – I probably wouldn’t recognise Michelle’s writing yet. Immediately after my arrest they drove from the airport to the embassy. Everything was recorded there, but they didn’t get much hope. The only positive thing: “Foreigners are usually released after a few weeks because of such trifles”. The consular officer also recommended that it would make sense to bring food and daily necessities. A lawyer can only be called in, when I have been officially charged. Monika writes that they will try to find out more about the procedures in such cases that they will provide me with food, reading material and underwear, keep their fingers crossed for me and of course miss me very much. Both signatures at the bottom of the sheet. For a few minutes my thoughts wander out of the cell to Michelle and Monika. I’ve been with Monika for a few years now and we’ve mostly enjoyed it. At the thought of Michelle I get heart palpitations again. I have never before met a woman who is mentally and physically so agile, nimble and at the same time so attractive.

The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 01 January 2019. It’s title will be “August 1973 – From now on: Everything in accordance with the legal rules and regulations“.
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

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