September 1996 – Kabul in rubbleThe signpost that brought me to prison in Afghanistan 23 years ago is still here. A little rustier, a little more flaked off paint, but still it shows us that it is 4,792 kilometres to Berlin, 3,577 kilometres to Istanbul, 3,368 kilometres to Moscow and 10,851 kilometres to New York.
September 1996 – Kabul in rubble
The signpost that brought me to prison in Afghanistan 23 years ago is still here. A little rustier, a little more flaked off paint, but still it shows us that it is 4,792 kilometres to Berlin, 3,577 kilometres to Istanbul, 3,368 kilometres to Moscow and 10,851 kilometres to New York. Moscow is probably still the closest… Everything else is not recognisable. The terminal building behind me doesn’t have a single pane of glass anymore, the facade is covered with holes of bullet holes and shell splinters, the forecourt can only be used if you run or drive around the craters in a slalom.
Immediately on the right, looking towards the city, there are wrecks of airplanes as far as I can see. A sea of white and blue. It is easy to see that this must be almost the whole fleet of the once proud ARIANA. The state airline was founded in 1955. Two years later the world-famous PanAm (Pan American World Airways), which has now been history for five years, joined the company and helped to procure modern aircraft. In its heyday, ARIANA flew to destinations including China, Germany, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey.
What I see now is scrap. A few Boeings, a few Antonows, a few Tupolews. All completely destroyed. Ripped metal, shattered windows, ripped wings and deserted aircraft seats. For aviation enthusiasts it’s probably an adventure playground – for ARIANA and civil aviation in Afghanistan it may be the end.
According to the motto “Size matters” we march towards one of the big Wolgas. Sluggish and probably a bit bored, the driver rolls out of his seat and opens the trunk. The car looks huge from the outside – we have difficulties stowing our luggage in the back. When Ali, Orhan and I sit in the car, we can hardly believe our luck: the driver is Turkmen. About half a million members of these people live in the northwest of Afghanistan. Officially Turkmen is a language of its own, in fact it is so similar to Turkish that there are no communication problems for us now. It might be a little more difficult to write. The Turkmen living in Afghanistan use the Arabic alphabet.We are heading for the Turkish embassy in the centre of Kabul. Ali had already contacted the Foreign Ministry in Ankara and announced our arrival. They would like to support us, was the message he brought from the ministry.
From the airport to the embassy in the Wazir Akhbar Khan Street it is only five or six kilometres and actually it always goes straight ahead. If the times were normal, we would have reached our destination after 10 to 15 minutes. But they are anything but normal. Kemal, as the taxi driver is called, can often only drive at walking pace. He curves around bomb craters and car wrecks. Stone piles lie on the road, sandbags are piled up at an abandoned checkpoint and dozens of destroyed Soviet military vehicles block the way in many places. I look around a little and wherever I look I see defective or destroyed tanks of the type BTR-60. Everyone who has served in the GDR army knows this four-axle infantry fighting vehicle and also knows its greatest weakness. It is the fuel consumption. The tank is powered by two petrol engines with 90 hp each. Altogether therefore ridiculous 180 hp with a vehicle weight of over 10 tons. The fuel consumption, as former NVA (“National People’s Army” of the GDR) soldiers have told me, should actually be around 60 litres per 100 kilometres. In fact, it had to be calculated with about one litre of petrol per kilometre. Kemal, our driver, tells us that the Soviet Army often confiscated all available fuel supplies, so that nothing remained for the needs of the Afghan population.
He also tells us a little about life in Kabul today, in September 1996. As far as the number of inhabitants is concerned, the city has become small. Hundreds of thousands have fled to Pakistan and Iran. Since the Soviet troops left the country head over heels in 1989, the various political factions have been fighting each other here in the capital. Shooting always takes place somewhere and large parts of the city are mined. Currently the Taliban are fighting against the militias of Ahmed Shah Masoud, who can still hold Kabul even though it is difficult. “Every night,” says Kemal, “Kabul is now being bombed. The Taliban attack from all sides with artillery and rockets.” Again and again houses collapse, people flee in panic to nearby mosques, which are sometimes destroyed as well. During the day one can move relatively safely. At night this is extremely dangerous. And then Kemal says: “Hopefully the Taliban will soon have conquered the city. Then peace is finally at hand!
After a little more than half an hour we arrive in front of the Turkish embassy. The flagpole is still standing, a flag no longer flies. Perhaps the embassy has long since been abandoned. A huge iron gate, a few dozen shots and the moon crescent with star, the symbols of the Turkish flag. A bell button all the way to the side, embedded in the wall. Ali presses long and sustainably. Nothing can be heard, nothing moves. Damn!
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 11 June 2019. It’s title will be “September 1996 – Locked up in a Bunker”. 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