March 2001 – 12 hours in the car for 150 kilometres Just back in Kabul we apply for a new travel permit. We want to go to Kandahar, a little less than 500 road kilometers southwest of the capital. Down there, two German women work in a project of the aid organisation “Doctors without Borders”.
March 2001 – 12 hours in the car for 150 kilometres
Just back in Kabul we apply for a new travel permit. We want to go to Kandahar, a little less than 500 road kilometers southwest of the capital. Down there, two German women work in a project of the aid organisation “Doctors without Borders”. One of them is a doctor at the city hospital. The other is a nurse and is probably trying to set up a vaccination campaign against measles. Mustafa, our interpreter and chaperone, applies for us to the Taliban ministry. However, we are not allowed to leave for Kandahar early next morning. Departure only the day after tomorrow, because “something still has to be organised”. They also want to reserve a hotel for us. Above all, the authorities in Kandahar must be informed. Since there is no fixed telephone network in Afghanistan and of course no mobile phone network, communication between Kabul and Kandahar can only be done by messenger. Or should the Taliban have satellite telephones and also be able to pay the immensely high fees? There is no discussion about transport this time. We are to be driven by Ali, our “official” chauffeur.
I look forward to Kandahar. I know it from the past and have had some interesting experiences in the region.
I’m curious if there will be anything else than Qabuli Pilaw in the hotel today. Anyway, I am very hungry. Ali drops us off at the Intercontinental, Mustafa stays in the lobby again, Kay and I want to go to our rooms. It is freezing cold in the hotel, once again there is no electricity and therefore no heating. The open fireplace still doesn’t manage to warm up the huge room. Without thinking, we strive with our equipment towards the elevator and are intercepted by a hotel employee in burgundy uniform. “No power – no lift,” he explains. And he is right, of course. “Come, I show you”, and with a gesture of his hand he asks us to follow him. He even carries the tripod. Through a side door and a wide corridor we enter the hotel kitchen. Golly! I am impressed. The hotel is now more than 30 years old and has experienced several wars and battles. The hotel kitchen still looks as if it is on a modern level. You can clearly see the labels on the stoves, steamers, swing pans, hot plates and refrigerators: All these appliances were made in the village of Gaggenau, in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Unfortunately, the appliances do not work because they are all electrically operated. On one of the massive stainless steel surfaces, bricks have been built to form a fireplace. A wood fire burns in the brick square. Above the flame, a tin pot with Qabuli Pilaw. So this is now the hotel kitchen – probably 24 hours a day, because with the relatively small generator I saw outside, it will hardly be possible to run this energy-hungry kitchen.
A quiet day follows. Wrapped in woollen blankets we look at the material we shot in Mazar-E-Sharif. It looks good and in retrospect we are very grateful for the support of the self-confident Sami from the mayor’s office. What “our” Mustafa is – and how he will behave in case of doubt – is still a mystery to Kay and me. After all, he has not intervened so far, even though we have clearly broken the law. Maybe we will get to know him a little better on the trip to Kandahar. His father was the Afghan ambassador to India, we know that much now. He himself went to school in Delhi and consequently learned his English there. The man seems to be exceptionally well educated – he has not yet spoken about the Taliban. India, I can’t help thinking, has publicly declared the Taliban as “enemies”. Pakistan, on the other hand, seems to support the militant Islamists massively.
Departure for Kandahar in the morning at six. well before the time I really wake up. No breakfast at the hotel, but Ali, our driver, came with fresh, warm flat bread, sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds. Mustafa sits in front, next to the driver, and has a paper that is supposed to be our travel permit. Stamps and fingerprints are at the bottom of the document, which is handwritten on pashto. Before departure our guard asks if we have music cassettes in our luggage. They are forbidden and there might be Taliban police checkpoints on the way. We do not. First we head west and then we turn southwest, onto the road that has been called the “Kabul-Ghazni-Highway” for ages. After a short time we have to cross the Kabul River. The bridge is largely destroyed. A narrow lane for cars is available. Only in one direction. Trucks cross the river a few dozen meters away at a ford.
We just have crossed the Kabul city limits as we’re stopped by some wild looking guys. One of them has an American M-16 assault rifle over his shoulder. A weapon that’s been in use since the early 1960s. All the others are carrying Kalashnikov AK-47s. The men are standing under an almost bare tree, which is covered all over with audio tapes, which were obviously pulled out of music cassettes. Ali stops at a temporary barrier built from an old fence and opens the window. Before one of the armed men can say anything, Mustafa hands our travel permit past the driver out of the window. This seems to pose a small problem: it looks like the man standing next to our car can’t read. “This is one of the checkpoints where they search for music and video cassettes,” Mustafa whispers to us. The man with our travel document has meanwhile gone to the other men and one of them is reading the contents of the document falteringly. Then they discuss under the tree. After a few minutes one of the Kalashnikov bearers comes to us, returns the travel permit and says something in Pashto. “All right, we can go on,” translates our guard from the passenger seat.
The road gets worse from kilometre to kilometre. There is really nothing but a “highway” here. Obviously most of the road damage is caused by bombs, mines and grenades. Small craters, deep cracks and a complete lack of asphalt surface demand walking speed again and again. A deep crack goes across the roadway like a crevasse or a break after an earthquake. The road surface looks as if it had simply been pulled apart by half a meter. Thick wooden planks bridge the gaping abyss. Heart beats not only for me, but also for the three others as we cross the gap. According to my rough calculation, we have covered the distance since Kabul at an average speed of about 15 to 25 kilometres per hour. There are still considerably more than 400 kilometres to go to Kandahar.
Another seven or eight checkpoints in the course of the day. They all look the same. Video and audio tapes flutter on trees, on the road and above the tollgates. Several checkpoints are set up where the wrecks of military vehicles are blocking part of the road anyway. During the last check, the document that Mustafa presents each time made no impression. We had to get out and the vehicle was searched. Under the seats, in the engine compartment, behind the backrest, in the trunk. The box in which we packed our video tapes for filming was not opened. After this last checkpoint, Ali is obviously upset. He grumbles like a reed mackerel, nesting somewhere under the dashboard. Mustafa explains that he is angry about “these needless checks”. After a few seconds Ali unearths a music cassette. Into the player and happy Indian music fills the car interior. Mustafa tips his foot, Ali drums on the steering wheel. What is going on here? Do they dare? Are they testing us? Is this where the anti-Taliban revolution begins? A few minutes later the music is turned down again and the two of them obviously arrange something in case a checkpoint suddenly comes into sight. Two checkpoints are still to come, everything goes well. It is dark when we reach Ghazni. We’ve only done 150 kilometres since we left Kabul. Apart from the checks, we have made two short breaks along the way. We will spend the night here.
Mustafa knows that the ministry has reserved beds for us here. He knows the name of the hotel but does not know where it is, so Ali has to ask around. It’s pitch black now. There seems to be no electricity, here and there petroleum or gas lamps can be seen. At the roadside several fires are burning, but there is almost nobody to be seen. Ghazni has been a city of art and science for centuries, producing poets, composers and scholars. Babrak Wassa, conductor and choir director, has lived in Germany since 1980. He is one of them.
It seems that Ali found the hotel. How he did it is a mystery to me. There is no sign and in front of the door only two blue-black blazing kerosene lamps. And really, the message arrived here during the course of the day, saying that two foreign journalists and two companions will stay here overnight. The note with the official looking seal is on the table at the entrance. The host presses a stack of blankets into our arms and shows us the way, with a lantern in his hand. It is cold and here, at an altitude of over 2,200 metres, there could well be frost at night. There are fires burning in the courtyard and the smell of roasted meat. “Dinner in half an hour,” says the hotel owner and leads us into a kind of dormitory. The individual “rooms” are about the size of the bundle of straw lying on the floor and are separated by cloths. If there are not too many small animals in the straw, I will sleep well. I am tired to death.
There is such a thing as a toilet – a mud hut with two holes in the stomped ground. So you could shit in a duet. In front of it, a kerosene lamp, which you probably need to hit the hole. A few steps away, a pump that delivers ice-cold water. For washing, not drinking, they say. Under these circumstances, evening hygiene is quickly taken care of – and there is the tempting smell of fried food.
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 18 February 2020. It will be titled “March 2001 – In Mullah Omar’s Homeland” 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