March 2001 – In Taliban’s prison I wonder if Karin, the German doctor in the hospital, noticed that we were arrested and tied up outside the door? In any case, we have an appointment for the evening – hopefully she will see the right conclusions if we don’t come. Next to us on the loading
March 2001 – In Taliban’s prison
I wonder if Karin, the German doctor in the hospital, noticed that we were arrested and tied up outside the door? In any case, we have an appointment for the evening – hopefully she will see the right conclusions if we don’t come. Next to us on the loading area are two men. They have their Kalashnikov AK-47 on their knees. One of them looks sleepy. Again and again his eyes seem to close. The driver is in no hurry. Floating along with the few other cars on the road, we first pass the bazaar and then head north. After about 20 minutes the Toyota Hi-Lux stops in front of a closed gate. After a short honking, a small hatch opens, a man looks out, the hatch closes and the wings of the wooden gate swing open. A courtyard, around it low buildings made of bricks and clay.
After a few gestures we jump off the loading area. Kay with the camera in his hand, I try to drag along the backpack with cassettes, batteries and microphones, Mustafa already has the tripod in his hand. One of the men jumps up like a fury. Obviously everything has to stay on the vehicle. A little aside, under a corrugated iron roof, on the floor, four bearded guys are sitting. One of them in a police uniform. That’s where we’re led. Sit down! It’s a gesture. The one in uniform starts to speak, Mustafa is obviously supposed to translate it for us: “The three of us would be accused of breaking the law. We would all be accused and put on trial.” Our camera and the cassette in it would be examined and then we would see what happens. Do we have anything to say?
Oh, yes, we do. We would like to know what we would be accused of and we would also like to get in touch with the responsible German embassy in Islamabad. The men’s group confirms Mustafa’s translation with a smile on their lips. They would now show us our cell and then we would see how it goes on.
Actually it is an almost schizophrenic situation. Our official guardian was arrested with us and is also going to jail with us, but at the same time he is the official interpreter of the authorities here. Like Kay and me, he also gets two blankets in his hands and we are led along a short open corridor into a room with a floor space of about 3 x 4 meters. The heavy wooden door falls into the lock behind us. The floor consists of stamped, light brown soil, the walls seem to be bricked up and the ceiling, at a height of about four meters, is made of straw. A naked light bulb dangles from a wooden beam. There is no window. Mustafa has tears in his eyes, tells us that he would think of his wife and the two children.
The blankets stink as if they had never been cleaned. When I put one of my two on the ground, I see small brown spots moving on the blanket. Tiny bugs. Carefully, I try to shake out the threadbare rag. On the light bulb an insect bursts with a hiss. Perplexed, sad, thoughtful and also angry the three of us sit on the folded blankets and brood over our situation. None of us knows what’s waiting for us now, none of us knows what the holy warriors out there have planned for us. At some point I must have dozed off. I won’t wake up until the door to the outside opens. It’s already dark. We don’t know what time it is. None of us have our watches on today. We were afraid our watches would be stolen at one of the checkpoints.
Two men led us outside, to the bathroom. One at a time. I’m last. There’s a hole in the floor of a wooden crate. It’s a classic outhouse, but the Oriental version. To stand over the hole. Next to the shed is a tin sink with a tap. At least I can wash my hands and freshen up my face a bit.
Back in the cell a yellow 5-liter motor oil canister is waiting for me. “Shell Helix”, says the inscription. Now there is water in it. “Drinking water, they said”, Mustafa moans. Carefully, he tastes the water. It seems fine, after a few strong swallows he passes the plastic canister to me. Finally it’s Kay’s turn. There are five litres, that should certainly last until tomorrow. Will it be possible to sleep? I don’t know, but I want to try. There are lots of quiet noises all around us. Someone moans, soft snoring can be heard, coughing and now and then soft footsteps, outside the door. Other sounds are coming from the right and left through the wall. I wonder if people are locked up there too. Whether this is a real prison at all, or a police station or something completely different? After a while I hear the calm and steady breathing of Mustafa.
How nice for him, he’s already asleep. The constantly burning light is disturbing and so are the little monsters that fall from the straw ceiling every now and then. As long as they don’t hit me…
Eventually I wake up because my stomach is growling painfully. So I must have slept until the hunger woke me up. Mustafa is still asleep – or asleep again? Kay is awake and would like to know what time it is. So would I. Except for a few muffled noises around our cell, it’s quiet. It is depressing to have to sit here idly and brood. I wonder what they’re doing with our camera and the other equipment. If the experts outside break the camera, it could mean the end for Kay and his company. The way it’s standing out there somewhere, the equipment cost about a hundred thousand marks. Of course the camera is insured against damage and theft. But unfortunately Afghanistan is explicitly excluded from this insurance. The regulations say that damage or loss is not insurable in Afghanistan.
When the door to our “dungeon” is opened, it is glaringly bright outside. It must be around noon. All three of us have to sit down on the floor again in the courtyard under the tin roof. In the middle is our camera. I am indescribably hungry. They obviously come straight to the point and Mustafa translates. “They want to see what we have on the video cassette. If we have only broken the law, we will get away with a light sentence. But if we have something negative about the Taliban and the government on the tape, we should be severely punished.” I ask our interpreter to explain that we have not done anything forbidden and that the film we are making is not about the Taliban or the government of Afghanistan.
The men interrogating us here are desperate to know what is on the cassette. They want Kay to play it, then they would decide on a formal charge. Our cameraman is as cool as I’ve never seen him in all these years. “With this camera you can record, you can film, but you cannot play it back. You need the right video player to watch the footage,” he says, And Mustafa translates. What only Kay and I know is that on the way from the hospital to the prison he managed to adjusted the camera, with which one could very well play back, so that it is now impossible. One of the Taliban policemen starts turning buttons and playing randomly at switches. Nothing happens – presumably the battery in the camera is also empty now. For a few minutes the men whisper to each other and then let us know that they would find a way to prove our violation of the law.
Quickly we are back in the cell and “among ourselves”, Mustafa reports what they whispered about. “They have a real problem now,” he says, because they would like to get a video player. But television, hence videos as well, are forbidden by law. So anyone who admits to having a video player is liable to prosecution.” We are curious to see how they solve this conflict and discuss it, until after a few minutes the door opens again. One of the men, without a firearm but with a club on his belt, brings a plastic bowl with potato slices and puts it in the middle of the floor. Roughly speaking, that’s four or five medium-sized potatoes, sliced and cooked. He adds a new oil-can with water and a flatbread. The man says something and Mustafa translates. That would be our food for today and there would be something like this once a day now. Hours later we are led again individually to the toilet house.
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 28 April 2020. It will be titled “March 2001 – Is this the way to teach people praying?” 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!)