March 2001 – Measles and the Escape through the Desert Kay has to sit in the front. It’s the only way he can move his camera outside and shoot in forward direction. This morning everything was a little hasty. After breakfast we drove to the house where the staff of “Doctors without Borders” are housed.
March 2001 – Measles and the Escape through the Desert
Kay has to sit in the front. It’s the only way he can move his camera outside and shoot in forward direction. This morning everything was a little hasty. After breakfast we drove to the house where the staff of “Doctors without Borders” are housed. We were only able to talk to each other for a very short time, because Hanna, a nurse from Germany, was already on her way. In a village southeast of Kandahar the population is to be vaccinated against measles. The disease had broken out here and in nearby Pakistan and can be fatal in this region in up to 30 percent of cases.
Two off-road vehicles are ready and if we decide immediately, we can go along. We will. Ali, our driver, stays back in Kandahar, Mustafa our permanent companion will of course come along. We drive for about an hour. First on asphalt roads, a little later on dirt and sand roads. Shortly before reaching the village, we drive in the bed of a dried out river. Then, up the embankment, right into the middle of the village square. A man is quickly informed of our arrival. He must be the mayor or the village elder. He knows about the vaccination campaign and summons a few boys to help set up the tables and boxes brought on the roofs of the vehicles. At the same time someone walks through the village and calls out that all children and young people should come for vaccination. This seems to work surprisingly well, because 20 minutes later a queue has already formed in front of the folding tables that have been set up. Kay has already started filming and tries to follow the German nurse with the camera.
I had planned to talk to Mustafa face to face. I still don’t know what kind of guy he is. He has been appointed by the Taliban government. His task is above all to look after us and, if necessary, to put us in our place. Nevertheless, he listens to forbidden music and tolerates that we keep breaking the law and filming people. What kind of man is this? Here with Kay and the temporary vaccination station I can’t help anyway, so I ask our “guard dog” to take a walk through the village with me. And I have decided to be quite frank – at the risk that he might cause us trouble after all.
“Do you like the new government and its laws?” I want to know from him. He’s in his mid-20s, and he looks at me with wide open eyes. Takes a deep breath and explains to me that he is a true Muslim, that the Taliban brought peace and that things are now going to get better in Afghanistan, as part of the Islamic world. And then nothing comes for minutes and anyway, his short rant sounded as if he had learned the few sentences by heart. “And what about the forbidden music in the car?” Oh, that would be just a small sin and certainly not so bad. Again he is silent for a while. Again I am amazed at his polished British English.
After we have turned around another corner he quietly but very well understandable says: “This so called Government is incredibly bad for our country.” Now it is I who look at him with amazed eyes. Did he just say that the Taliban government would be indescribably bad for Afghanistan? And then he continues: “All these new rules and laws are setting us back centuries. “No filming of people, what nonsense, women have to stay at home, how indescribably backward!” Is he testing me now or is he being honest with me?
At the edge of the village we’ll sit on a sand hill. Kay will manage the measles vaccination on his own – Mustafa tells me his story in a few words. His father was Afghan ambassador to India in it’s capital New Delhi. Our interpreter went to school there. A modern family in a modern house and with liberal views. He later studied in London, met his wife and returned to Afghanistan with her and their two children for family reasons only a few months ago.
He works for the Taliban government because they offered him the job, he played the pious Muslim and could not find another job in the chaos of war. At least none that didn’t involve handling weapons. And finally, he assures me that he does not want to stand in the way of our work.
Slowly and silently we go back to where children are still being vaccinated. Kay and the camera stand in the shade of a tree but I would like to do a short interview with Hanna. The tripod is quickly set up, the hand microphone plugged in and levelled. I just took a breath of air to ask my first question to the German nurse, when a boy, shouting loudly, comes running down one of the hills towards us. A few short Pashtoon sentences and Mustafa translates for us. “A pick-up truck with men dressed in black is approaching the village. The men are armed and probably Taliban.” That’s all we need, for them to disturb the peace in the village. Hanna reacts immediately: “You take my jeep and get away. We meet in the evening in our house in Kandahar. When I’m done here, I’ll follow in the other car.” It takes less than half a minute and equipment, Mustafa, Kay and myself are sitting in the car. The driver has been briefed and hopefully he is on our side.
We leave the village in a frantic drive over the dusty dirt tracks, opposite the direction from which the supposed Taliban are approaching. ‘They must see our dust cloud’, goes through my mind. But what would be the alternative? Now Mustafa, the diplomat’s son, is sitting in front. Together with the driver, he seems to be thinking about the best route for us. It looks to me as if we are haphazardly speeding over hill and dale. But the driver seems to be calm and very concentrated. If the wind comes from the side and the dust is blown away to the other, I can look back. A cloud of sand in the distance, I cannot recognise a car. On a hill, for me right in the middle of nowhere, we stop and get out. There’s nothing to see. Not a house, not a car, not a tree, just some scrub on barren sand. Now I’d like to have a radio with me so I can call Hanna or the people at Doctors Without Borders.
The question is whether the Taliban, if there were any, are not already waiting for us in Kandahar. They certainly know which hotel we are staying in, and just as surely they know where the aid workers are staying. If they want to catch us, they’ll just have to wait calmly in the city. We shouldn’t stand a chance of escaping.
Translations done with the help of www.deepl.com
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 31 March 2020. It will be titled “March 2001 – In the Hands of the Taliban” 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!)