September/October 1996 – A school like in Germany and again the fight against mines There are still loud discussions in the hall. Then doors slam. Hashmat, Waslat’s brother, returns into our room. Outside it seems to be quiet again. “Religious police”, he says, “they supposedly wanted to know whether everything is all right with us.
September/October 1996 – A school like in Germany and again the fight against mines
There are still loud discussions in the hall. Then doors slam. Hashmat, Waslat’s brother, returns into our room. Outside it seems to be quiet again. “Religious police”, he says, “they supposedly wanted to know whether everything is all right with us. I could get rid of them”. If the men of the Taliban police had come to us into the room, they would have been able to tell by the beads of sweat on Orhan’s forehead that something was “wrong”.
Nobody has the nerve to continue the interview with the student. The risk for everyone involved would be far too great. We pack up, and Hashmat gets two more taxis. Kemal, our driver has waited nearby and is called in. From outside, through the garden window, Waslat waves us good bye. Now she has a burka on and the face veil lifted far enough to make her face visible to us. Still wearing jeans and a T-shirt under the “robe” she has to wear by law. Tears in her eyes.
In the morning, at breakfast with Necmettin, the caretaker of the Turkish embassy, we consider whether we should move to a hotel. In the bunker it’s safe but quite uncomfortable. Not only that the beds, at least for me, are clearly too short, it would also be nice to have a “real” toilet and shower again and to be able to look out of a window. And to have a hotel room for oneself is not bad either…
Today we want to shoot at the school Waslat went to before her studies. The Amani-Gymnasium is in the middle of Kabul, in the district of Wazir-Akhbar-Khan. Just around the corner is RTA (Radio Television Afghanistan) and the Hotel Ariana, one of the largest in the city. The Ariana cinema is within a stone’s throw. Largely destroyed and what wasn’t already broken, has surely been crushed by the advancing Taliban. Film screenings are forbidden under penalty.
By Afghan standards, the school is huge. Certainly much larger than grammar schools in West German district towns. The fence is largely rolled down, window panes have been smashed or destroyed by explosions. Nobody far and wide as we drive our car to the schoolyard. Kemal parks in front of one of the entrances leading into the building. The wooden double doors are wide open. Could the building be mined? Even here, in the middle of the city, the number of anti-personnel mines is probably unmanageable. “Hello,” I shout as loudly as I can. Once again: “Hello, anybody here?”. In fact, an old man comes shuffled down the stairs. He’s wearing a formerly white shirt and a suit that was certainly tailor-made for him 15 or 20 years ago. On his head is a hat, just like my father wore it 30 or 40 years ago. “Salam Aleikum”, he greets Kemal, our driver. Orhan and Ali feel immediately addressed and in the trio they give their “Aleikum Salam” back to the old man.
Kemal introduces us, explains that we work for Deutsche Welle television, that I am German and that we would love to shoot in school. The man in the suit, almost two heads smaller than me, looks at me, smiles and falls around my neck. “How nice that you are here!”, in almost perfect German. “I am Dr. Najib and used to be a teacher here at school. Come on, come on, let’s have some tea.” Slowly he climbs up the stairs. It seems to be causing him problems. On the first floor the typical view of a school building. Long corridors to the left and right of the staircase and, leaving the corridors, dozens of classrooms. Even the smell reminds me of my school days.
One of these classrooms seems to have been furnished by the former teacher. A few carpets, a sofa, table and chairs, in the corner a simple gas stove. At the back, on the wall, there are still a few school desks stacked on top of each other. Ali and I sit on the sofa, Orhan sets up his camera. Dr. Najib disappears for half a minute and comes back with a tin can filled with water. Does he agree that we film the conversation with him? No problem, he is happy when he can tell the world what life is like in Afghanistan in autumn 1996.
A few minutes later the aromatic green tea is ready. “We haven’t been able to teach properly here for a few years now. Every now and then a few students but nothing that would work regularly.” In between the old man sips his steaming hot tea. “Many of our children fled with their parents, a few died during the fights. For a long time parents here in Afghanistan have had more worries than the education of their children”. Then he keeps silent for minutes – and I don’t ask any questions but translate what he said into Turkish for Ali and Orhan.
“Yes, and now everything is over for us and many, many other schools. Girls are no longer allowed to be taught at all, and the new Taliban government probably prefers boys to go to a Koranic school rather than to such a modern elite institution as this grammar school.” I want to know from him whether he can remember Waslat. “Yes, of course! She was so big and so cheeky. But a particularly intelligent student. She wanted to study in Germany.” “No, Dr. Najib, that didn’t work out. She started here at university, but of course she’s not allowed to study any further.” Again he looks sadly. Then he asks us to take him on a tour of the school. Mines, he says, don’t exist here – although many, many buildings in the city have been mined.
The gym looks as if it had been flown in directly from Germany. The classic wall bars, climbing poles and ropes, bars and horse in the corner and from the ceiling still hang the rings with their leather sheaths. There are two large holes in the ceiling. Grenades, says the ex-teacher. Directly under the impact holes the wooden floor is swollen and torn. Classrooms are down here as well. Most of them still have the school desks – some may have been used as firewood. The Amani School has always been particularly proud of these combinations of table and bench. They were imported from Germany and were pure luxury in a country where the majority of pupils would probably have to sit on the floor or on a wooden stool.
Dr. Najib asks us if we don’t want to drink another tea after all. We do have an appointment this afternoon, but promise that we will visit him again.
From the city centre we drive south, towards Darulaman Palace. Shortly behind the youth and sports center, which was built during the occupation by Soviet troops, we have an appointment with a group of mine seekers. They are different people than a few days ago when we accompanied the Sonja the German shepherd. Today we are going to search in a housing estate. Many of the buildings are destroyed and the inhabitants want to repair them or rebuild them completely. But of course this is only possible if all the mines are removed beforehand.
What we are looking for here are not artillery shells or mines against armoured vehicles. The search is mainly for anti-personnel mines and jumping mines. Mines are certainly among the most insidious weapons man has ever invented. The “Valmera 69” manufactured in Italy and sold all over the world is one of the worst. It belongs to the so-called jumping mines, has approximately the shape and size of a one-kilo tin can, from which five finger-long “thorns” protrude. The mine is placed so that only the “thorns” look out from the ground. Very thin and therefore hardly visible trip wires are often attached to the “spikes” and stretched just above
the earth’s surface. If one of these “stings” or one of the wires is touched, the mine is shot out of the ground to a height of approx. 100 to 150 centimetres. Only then, when the highest point is reached, does the actual detonation take place, in which hundreds of steel balls or splinters are fired within a radius of up to 140 metres. Normal anti-personnel mines are designed to injure the person stepping on them and render them incapable of fighting. With luck “only” the lower leg is destroyed. A jumping mine not only injures the person who triggers the mine, but the steel load can also hit and kill many people at the same time or injure them severely. Search dogs do not consider the wires of the jumping mines dangerous or cannot recognise them. That is why they are not used here.
The men tell us very clearly where exactly we are allowed to move and from where we should film. And then they go to work. Again with protective clothing, again with a long knife. Carefully and bit by bit, the floor and the remains of the wall are scraped off. For hours. As the sun slowly sets, they find three small plastic mines. Nothing more. It is assumed that up to a thousand mines were laid in this block of houses alone.
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 23 July 2019. It’s title will be “October 1996 – Living corpses and lack of personnel”. 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