September 1996 – Koranic School in Pakistan In fact, in the capital Islamabad you can also live cheaply. The “New Capital Guest House” is the accommodation for my Turkish camera team and me. Ali and Orhan share a room, because there is nothing else available – I am lucky to be allowed to live in
September 1996 – Koranic School in Pakistan
In fact, in the capital Islamabad you can also live cheaply. The “New Capital Guest House” is the accommodation for my Turkish camera team and me. Ali and Orhan share a room, because there is nothing else available – I am lucky to be allowed to live in a single room. The two colleagues can hardly believe that Pakistan is officially a non-alcoholic country – even if there are always ways and means here, as in Iran or Afghanistan. If really necessary.
Ali and Orhan, that is my Turkish camera team. Whenever Kay, my German friend and cameraman, can’t be available at all or not fast enough, or if Kay is too expensive for the broadcaster, the two colleagues from Ankara have to go. Ali calls himself a “producer”, is a little older than me, has hardly any hair on his head and speaks fluent English and French in addition to his mother tongue. Orhan is like his student. He is in his mid-20s and without any experience abroad, happy about every camera job he can get. And he learns fast. In addition to Turkish, Orhan also speaks good English.We just want to stay in Islamabad for a few days. “Being on the Knocker” at the Red Cross and the United Nations. Only air planes of these two organisations fly to Kabul – and that’s exactly where we want to go. Commercial airlines no longer dare to fly to the capital of Afghanistan. ARIANA, once Afghanistan’s proud state airline, is largely on the ground, infrastructure and aircraft almost completely destroyed.
After years of fighting in and around Kabul, the Taliban fighters are now standing outside the city gates. Only the soldiers around the former Mujaheddin and later Defence Minister Ahmed Shah Mahsoud still hold the position. Still. The people in Kabul are starving, three quarters of the city has been destroyed. No electricity, hardly any drinking water, but rockets and artillery every night and anti-personnel mines almost everywhere. There hasn’t been a functioning telephone network in Afghanistan for years – mobile phones unknown.
We are still in Islamabad, but the morning after next we booked on a flight from Peshawar to Kabul on a Red Cross plane. Check-out is scheduled at the hotel. Hanif, our proven taxi driver, is already ready to bring us the 200 kilometres west to Peshawar. 200 kilometres here means that we will be on the road for at least five to six hours. I would also like to visit a madrasah, a Koranic school not far from Nowshera, on the way to Peshawar. Because of its impressive size, I had already noticed the school on earlier trips.
For this assignment it is a particular advantage to have two colleagues by my side who belong to the Islamic religion. Both know how to behave towards Muslim authority figures, which words and sentences are the right ones and who has to bow and when. And both of them have a lot of trouble briefing me. But it is also a comforting feeling to know that neither Ali nor Orhan take too seriously the religion into which they were born.
Ali I had already announced a visit to my “dream Madrasa” on arrival and the imam of a mosque near our hotel had promised him to register us here, about a dozen kilometres east of Peshawar, at the school. That seems to have worked out excellently. So good that from the first moment I have the feeling that we are shown a Potemkin village.
Three cheerful older gentlemen with grey turban welcome us already on the parking lot, which obviously belongs to the complex. A glass of juice is ready for each of us. In school: neatly divided classrooms and, in fact, also girls can be seen in a separate part of the madrasah. One class is obviously studying mathematics, another is reading out loud from the Koran. And biology is taught. Demonstration object: the simulated torso of a human being with organs that can be removed individually. Such a thing hardly exists in one of the many comparatively liberal Koranic schools in Turkey called “Imam Hatip Lisesi”. One of the classes even teaches something like English. However, I cannot understand the teacher.Education is so expensive in Pakistan that poor people cannot afford to send their children to a “normal” school or even university. The only chance that children from the huge underclass have are Madrasas. Not everyone is accepted – but if it works out, the school itself is free of charge and in addition the students are fed and accommodated. A huge relief for the families fighting for survival on the edge of the subsistence minimum.
Orhan shoots here and there – you never know if you can use the footage. A little later we are asked to the headmaster’s office, where hot, sweet tea is waiting for us. I’d love to do a short interview with him, but when one of the side doors opens, I feel breathless. Orhan and the headmaster jump up at the same time. My Turkish colleague reaches for the camera, the man with the turban stumbling tries to close the door as quickly as possible.
In the few seconds in which the view into the next room is free, it is clearly visible: There are 10 or 12 boys sitting on a large carpet. All of them between the ages of 12 and maybe 16. All blindfolded. On their knees lie AK-47 (Kalashnikov) weapons and it is obvious that, blind as they are through the cloths in front of their eyes, they practice disassembling and assembling the weapons.
September 1996 – From a Koran School to an Armoury
The noise is deafening, I think I can see the door frame shaking. The headmaster, his turban has slipped a little to the side, stands with his legs apart in front of the door, which he has just slammed shut with his own hand. His friendly smile is erased, as if a huge eraser had run through his face. Orhan didn’t make it. His camera, which is already a bit old, always needs 20 to 30 seconds “pre-roll” before he can shoot. Too long in a situation like this. All four of us saw what was happening in the next room of the headmaster’s office.
I can hardly believe it. Children are sitting there learning how to operate the AK-47, a assault rifle developed in the Soviet Union. Is this really a “teaching subject” at the big Koran school, here, near Peshawar? And how will the head of the school behave now that he knows what we know now? Ali reacts quickly – and apparently absolutely right. A few sentences from the Koran, which he probably learned during one of his rare visits to a mosque. A few movements with his hands on his head, bows and then a hand on his heart.
The director yells a few words. Doesn’t sound to me like Urdu, the official language of Pakistan. More like Pashtoo. Feels like ten minutes we are silent. Will he realise how hard my heart is beating? Then comes the tea, which he obviously shouted for. “Well”, the headmaster begins his sentence and then takes a long break. What we might have just seen there would be completely normal. It’s just a wild country here. We would still see that. And here the young pupils would also have to learn to fight. He doesn’t say “to defend themself”, he talks about the fight into which the children would have to move.
Even a person who is free of any cognitive empathy would clearly notice that the turban wearer behind the desk would now like to be rid of us as quickly as possible. Like two equal poles of a magnet, the school principal and we three journalists suddenly seem to repel each other. With a smile carved into his face, he leads us to the edge of the parking lot. Not even to our car – although that would have been courtesy. No goodbye. He turns around and goesback to the school without a word of greeting.
Looking at our driver Hanif, I get a guilty conscience. It seems as if nobody asked him into the house, so that he waited in the shadow of the car. It is certainly well over 30 degrees and he looks completely sweaty. Ali tells him about our school visit and Hanif is hardly surprised. Where all the weapons would come from, I want to know from him and he shows a broad grin – as far as it is possible with his almost toothless mouth.“They are made here, anyone can buy them here”. And then Hanif remembers that not far from here is a “weapons factory”. Those are his words. After a few kilometres to the west, in the direction of Peshawar, he turns right onto an unpaved road. We cross the railway line between Rawalpindi and Peshawar. Slowly, jumping from pothole to pothole, we sneak along the dirt road. After 15 or 20 minutes we have reached a river and a small settlement on the shore. Somewhat secluded a house, more like a hut with walls and roof made of corrugated iron. Exactly here Hanif parks our car.
Whining squeak of a tortured metal drill is the first thing I hear. A rhythmically singing metal saw and muffled male voices. Hanif means to us to wait, Orhan has already switched on the camera as a precaution to be immediately ready to shoot. Not a minute goes by and the driver comes back. “You can go in, but only without a camera.” Shit! But better than not being allowed to see at all. Maybe we can persuade the gunmakers a little later…
After the blazing heat outside it is a bit cooler even here, under the corrugated iron roof. A single, easily manageable room. Ten metres long perhaps, and five or six metres wide. Three men, in the traditional Shalwar Kameez. A bright, more than knee-length shirt, underneath a wide, flat trousers. The electric machines look as if they had been built between the world wars. The brand name “Fein” is emblazoned on one of the drills. A traditional German brand for power tools, with a long history.
On the opposite wall there are finished weapons. Ten or 15 Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles and three RPG-7 tank rifles known worldwide. A small, fat gentleman with a black turban greets us friendly. Broken English, but easy to understand. “Yes, this is a normal weapons factory, as you find it everywhere in western Pakistan.” And he only makes the two types of weapons that we could see here. “You don’t need more here either.”
The AK-47 is the classic among war weapons. Built almost unchanged since 1947, nobody knows exactly how many of these weapons are in circulation. Experts estimate that between 80 and 100 million AK-47 have left the factories. At least 60 states equip their armies with this weapon, it is built in dozens of countries all over the globe. Especially popular, as a mercenary in Somalia told me some time ago, are the AK-47s, which were produced in the former GDR. They are more expensive than others but also much more precise.
“What does such a thing cost?” I want to know from the small turban wearer. He crossed first to Hanif, then back to me. Waiting a bit until our driver nods. (What role does Hanif play here?) Yes, so if I would only buy one, then I would have to put down about 200 dollars, he explains to me. But if we took more than one, then there would be a good discount in it. Does he want to sell us something here?Suddenly he pushes one of the brand new AK-47 into my hand. “It’s not shot in yet, you can try it.” Nah, I don’t want that! If the thing fires backwards… And at all. Or do I want to? Years ago, in the Iraqi part of Kurdistan, I shot with a Kalashnikov. I remember the sharp and loud bang and the unexpectedly violent recoil well. To the astonishment of the PKK rebels, about whom we had made a report back then, I even hit the tin can they had set up as a target. Sure, I was pretty proud.
Well, I’ll do it then. For a journalist, it was actually an absurd thing. But now I’m the private person trying to get to know Pakistan. Over there, on the other bank of the river, are the remains of a rotten rowing boat. The turban determines that this should be my goal. Maybe 300 meters to that place – that should work. From a standing position and without hanging up. Then it crashes deafeningly loud and I am almost deaf.
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 14 May 2019. It’s title will be “September 1996 – Home of the Taliban”. 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