March 2001 – In the hands of the Taliban Only after nightfall do we dare to go to the house of “Doctors without Borders”. After our escape through the desert, the driver of the aid organisation dropped us off directly at our hotel. Now Ali, who was assigned to Kay and me with his car

March 2001 – In the hands of the Taliban

Only after nightfall do we dare to go to the house of “Doctors without Borders”. After our escape through the desert, the driver of the aid organisation dropped us off directly at our hotel. Now Ali, who was assigned to Kay and me with his car by the ministry, drove us to meet Hanna, the nurse, and Karin, a German doctor. And no, no Taliban policeman is waiting for us at the organisation’s house.

I have already worked with “Doctors without Borders” several times in the context of my reports. Especially in Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Rwanda. The organisation was founded by doctors and journalists in France almost exactly 30 years ago. That’s also the name of the organisation: “Médecins Sans Frontières”, abbreviated MSF. The staff are active in almost all crisis areas of the world and primarily provide medical aid. But food and water supplies are also organised where necessary. MSF first became active in Afghanistan in 1980. Here in Kandahar, MSF has two German and several Afghan employees on site.

A young Afghan boy, bundled against the cold

In the evening I can finally thank Hannah for her active help. After all, she spontaneously made her car with driver available to us as an escape vehicle. “That was really something like Taliban police what came”, she tells us. “And they weren’t happy that I was unveiled, let alone working with men.” In the end, however, it turned out that the turban-wearers dressed in black had heard about the vaccination campaign and wanted to get their “shot”. After everyone had had their injection, they would have left again. I wonder if they weren’t even after us?

A little later we also meet Karin. She is a general practitioner and tropical medicine specialist and helps in the local hospital. It is the largest hospital in the city, belongs to the state and was rebuilt by the Red Cross in 1995 after several war damages. “Actually”, says Karin, “it’s the only “real” hospital in the whole of southern Afghanistan.” Not only patients from Kandahar province but also from several surrounding provinces such as Oruzgan, Helmand, Zabul and Ghanzni come there. “Some patients take a day or two to reach us.” We have an appointment with Karin for tomorrow morning at the hospital. She wants to introduce us to the director and show us the hospital and her work there.

At eight o’clock sharp the four of us will be at the hospital. Ali waits outside with the car, Mustafa, Kay and I take our equipment and report inside, at the admission. Karin had probably already announced us – in any case we are expected and asked to sit down for a few minutes. It’s full here, new patients are coming all the time, people in white coats walk back and forth, there are calls, telephones ring, doors slam. It seems chaotic to me, but the staff seems to keep the overview. We just found a place to sit down when Karin comes around the corner in a flowing white gown. “Come on, let’s introduce you to the director and ask if you can shoot.”

The hospital director’s office is right next to the emergency room. It’s quiet in here and the man seems completely relaxed. There’s tea, raisins and nuts. He speaks a little English and gives us some figures about the clinic. About 350 beds, two functioning operating theatres, X-ray, own pharmacy, own kitchen. Especially the kitchen is remarkable, because in many hospitals the patients are self-catering, so they have to have food brought by relatives or buy it from flying vendors. The fact that we film in his hospital is completely okay for the director. Two conditions: we are not allowed to film in the women’s ward and we are not allowed to do any interviews with women at all, except with Karin. No problem and absolutely acceptable.

Karin will show us around the house to give us an overview. It’s packed everywhere. The rooms are so cramped that you can hardly move between the beds. Beds with newly arrived patients are in the corridors, often besieged by relatives of the sick. Kay is filming in the rooms, I am amazed that here, unlike five years ago in Kabul, there seem to be no wards. There are no more than six beds in any of the rooms. One patient, obviously with a leg injury, speaks English quite well and we do a short interview. A little later we stand at the dispensary window of the hospital pharmacy. It is only a little more than a hatch through which prescriptions are handed in and medicines are handed out. Basically it is the relatives of the patients who are responsible for the procurement of the medicine. The attending physician issues a prescription, tablets, drops or infusion solutions are bought at a pharmacy in town and then taken to the hospital. The in-house medication dispensary is only responsible if it is an emergency or if there are no relatives.

The pharmacist also speaks some English and would like to give us an interview. He does not want to let us into his work area, but he does not want to come out either. Questions and answers therefore through the sliding window, which measures only about 30 x 40 centimetres. At least it is open. Kay has to experiment a little with the camera, does without the tripod, but gets the difficult position under control. In front of our camera, the pharmacist, who according to him studied in India, complains about the supply of medicines. Since almost all of Afghanistan’s international relations have been broken off since 1996, medicines are hardly available from abroad. Apart from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, no country has any relations with the Taliban government. Medicines that used to come directly from Europe, India or Iran now have to be procured with great difficulty. “We have plenty of simple painkillers,” says the pharmacist, “but narcotics for general anaesthesia are now completely lacking. As a substitute and despite the dangerous side effects and the danger of explosion, ether or chloroform must be used again. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are also now hardly available in Afghanistan. “Those who have money,” the pharmacist continues, “go to Iran or Pakistan to buy the necessary medication for relatives in here.”

To conclude our work here in the hospital, we have an interview with Karin, our doctor. With the door to one of the operating theatres in the background, I ask her a few questions to find out why she works here, what the working conditions are and how the current government treats her as a woman. In reply to this last question she says very clearly: “they need us, also to patch up their own wounded, otherwise they would have kicked us MSF women out long ago”.

We’ve been here at the clinic for a good three hours. It was definitely worth it. We’ve been able to shoot good scenes and get good interviews. I’m very optimistic about the finished film. Everything is quickly packed up, Mustafa shouldering the heavy tripod. Ali will be waiting for us in the car in front of the exit. We’ll go to the hotel and have a bite to eat.

There is indeed a car right outside the door. But it is not Ali’s. Five men get out, come towards us. All dressed in traditional Pashtun clothes. Which, however, is mostly in light beige or grey tones. These men are dressed completely in black, each with a black turban on his head. One of them says something to Mustafa, it sounds more like a bark. Two of them are now standing in our backs. Mustafa translates: “These men are from the police. The three of us are under arrest.” It takes only seconds and Kay, Mustafa and I are handcuffed. I’m trying to find out what’s going on through our interpreter. There is no answer. Instead we are pushed, with our camera equipment, onto the loading area of the pick-up truck. Mustafa whispers: “They say they will take us to prison and…”, then he is curtly interrupted and obviously silenced.

The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 14 April 2020. It will be titled “March 2001 – In the Jail 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) (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

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