September 1996 – Locked up in the bunkerAli won’t give up. After a few fist attacks on the Turkish Iron Gate, a small sliding window, embedded in the gate, moves crashing to the side. A wrinkled face, covered by a snow-white mop of hair, comes slowly through the window. Ali sings a friendly “Merhaba” to
September 1996 – Locked up in the bunker
Ali won’t give up. After a few fist attacks on the Turkish Iron Gate, a small sliding window, embedded in the gate, moves crashing to the side. A wrinkled face, covered by a snow-white mop of hair, comes slowly through the window. Ali sings a friendly “Merhaba” to the man and the face becomes friendlier. “İyi günler, biz Türk Gazetteciler,” says Ali. So we are Turkish journalists. But the sentence seems like a secret key. The gate opens, Kemal, the taxi driver, is even allowed to drive in with the old Wolga-Taxi.
The old man with the white hair is Turkmen, and is called Necmettin. Something like the janitor, the guard and maybe even the administrator of the estate in one person. Apart from him, only one other person lives in the huge embassy building. With the exception of the chancellor of the embassy, all other diplomats have already left the country. The fear of the advancing Taliban militias is too great.
Necmettin walks us into the Chancellor’s office. Completely lost, the diplomat squats behind a huge desk in a huge room. He immediately knows that Ali and Orhan are his countrymen. But he wants to know who I am. I introduce myself, say that I am a German journalist, but live in Turkey. The diplomat puts his forehead in impressive folds: “I know you want to sleep here for a few nights. That is not a problem for the Turkish colleagues either, but I am not allowed to accommodate a foreigner here.
That, however, is dramatic. I don’t know of any other safe place to spend the night. The German Embassy has been closed for a long time, hotels are extremely insecure and mostly bombed. The German Club, with tennis court, pool and bowling alley, once the place to go for all Germans in Kabul, has long since become a target for artillery rounds and rockets.
With selected courtesy I present my official Turkish press card on the table of the embassy’s chancellor. After all, the small card is issued by his Prime Minister’s office. And that suddenly changes everything. Broadly smiling, he invites me to consider the diplomatic mission as my home. He would travel to Ankara tomorrow, but I and my camera team may stay here as long as we think it is necessary. He is serious. Audience ended.
Ali talks briefly to the taxi driver outside, pays him and asks him to pick us up again tomorrow morning. Maybe, he tells him, he can work with us for a few days or weeks. Necmettin, the caretaker, comes with a rather special message: “There’s no way you can sleep in the embassy building. It’s much too dangerous anyway – and when the Taliban first realise that we’re accommodating journalists, then we’ll even more become the target.” In the middle of the garden there is a small warehouse, there he goes in, we follow. Through a massive steel door, then down several steep stairs. We are in the bunker of the embassy. Three meters of soil and concrete above us, says Necmettin.
Down inside, six bunk beds, twelve mattresses in total. There is a toilet and a washbasin and on a long wall German EPA boxes are stacked up to the ceiling. EPA, everyone who has ever been in the Bundeswehr knows it, is the so-called “one-man pack”. A food package that a soldier can feed on for at least a day. The Americans call it MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) The rations are all at least five years old, but with a little luck the meals in the small cartons will last for 10 years. Everything is in German, of course – and I intend not to tell my colleagues that pork is also included in the rations. The small “document elevator” is important for me to be able to work from the bunker. Down here, deep in the earth, a metal door in the wall, behind it a kind of hand driven elevator in which not much more than a small suitcase could fit. At the top, almost five meters higher, an iron flap, solidly built to withstand possible explosions. For me the connection to Germany. I lead the antenna cable of my satellite telephone through the shaft. Below, in the bunker is the phone, the size of a briefcase, powered by the power socket, above and outside the antenna, which establishes the connection to the outside world via the Inmarsat satellites. From here I can call any telephone connection on earth and also be called. As long as there is electricity.
Necmettin warns us: “Never leave the bunker at night! The Taliban have been shooting into the city from the north for days after dark. Near here is an artillery position of the troops defending Kabul against the Islamists.” Clearly, the Taliban are trying to destroy the artillery positions. Precision weapons they will hardly have…
Then Necmettin tells us that he will switch off the power in a few minutes. The public power grid collapsed a long time ago. If you want electricity, you need your own generator. The electricity generator here in the embassy is only switched on for a few hours in the mornings and evenings. Diesel is scarce and expensive. So we have to find another solution for the satellite phone.
Only a few hours later the first detonations shake the area around the embassy. Very quickly we learn to distinguish between “incoming” and “outgoing” artillery by the sound. The whole situation here is horrible for the population. We are hardly endangered so far – nevertheless I like the outgoing fire much more. Until four o’clock in the morning it cracks, only interrupted by short breaks in the fire. We roll around in our beds, cannot sleep. Of course we are also scared. Who knows whether the bunker can really withstand a direct hit. Orhan, the cameraman, has never experienced such a situation before. With every explosion he flinches and holds on to the frame of his bed. Hopefully he will hold out, I think to myself. For Ali, the war outside should not be new. He was a cameraman in Vietnam from 1970 until the end of the war and until the escape of the Americans in 1975.
Sometime in the morning we are awakened by Necmettin. Our driver was there and when we would finally come? It is just nine o’clock, I could have slept a few more hours. I don’t like to remember that we are here to work. We have to have breakfast before work. It’s quiet outside, as if nothing had happened all night. The smell of explosives still hangs in the air, perhaps I’m just imagining. Kemal takes us to a kind of café. It smells wonderfully like freshly baked bread and the driver translates to the host that we would like to have breakfast. After barely two minutes the green tea is on the table. We want to bridge the waiting time for breakfast by making a plan for the next days. Filming in Kabul would be important, a few interviews with businessmen and people from the population and very gladly we would make a piece about the mine sweepers who work almost everywhere in the city. We would also have to buy some groceries to avoid “stealing” the Turks their emergency rations. Also a few bottles of drinks – it seems to me that Orhan can’t survive without Coke. Kemal offers to organize everything, but makes us not to shoot/film too conspicuously, that would be the last thing the Taliban want – and their spies are already everywhere.
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 25 June 2019. It’s title will be “September 1996 – Masoud’s troops must flee – we’ll stay”. 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