March 2001 – After 28 Years back in the Passport Office The journey to Kabul is, at least by present standards, going completely normally. Another overnight stay in Ghasni, again meat on the spit, again dozens of road checks, mainly looking for newspapers and audio cassettes. Mustafa is highly nervous, but cannot or will not
March 2001 – After 28 Years back in the Passport Office
The journey to Kabul is, at least by present standards, going completely normally. Another overnight stay in Ghasni, again meat on the spit, again dozens of road checks, mainly looking for newspapers and audio cassettes. Mustafa is highly nervous, but cannot or will not say why.
In the evening of the second day after our “release” from prison in Kandahar we check in at the Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul. It is very clear here that we were expected. One room each for Kay and me. One with heating, the other with toilet. Mustafa says again that he would rest in the lobby and wait for us so that we can go to the passport office in the morning to get our exit visa. The night is restless. Noise in the lobby that penetrates into the rooms, shots very close to the hotel, a heavy explosion in the distance.
Around seven o’clock breakfast with Mustafa. There is of course flat bread, sheep cheese, honey, tomatoes and green tea. “Now a piece of liverwurst, I think to myself… It won’t be long before we are back in Europe. For the afternoon I plan to set up the satellite phone and call the editorial office of Deutsche Welle. Mustafa doesn’t speak a word, is depressed and when I ask him if he has already been to his family here in Kabul, he just answers a meaningless “no problem”.
A little later Ali, our driver, shows up to take us to the passport office. Mustafa still does not talk to us. The streets are full. A big flock of sheep blocks one of the most important main connections to the city centre, so Ali has to take a long detour. To our right is the Kabul Zoo. Certainly the saddest zoo I have ever visited. A few caged shepherd dogs, three or four bears, chickens and other birds, small cats of prey. Not much more. Nobody wanted to feed the animals when people hardly had enough to survive.
There is a strange story about the last lion in the zoo. Legend or truth? I don’t know: a few weeks after the capital was conquered by Taliban troops in 1996, some of the Taliban warriors were celebrating their victory at the zoo. One of them must have felt particularly strong and heroic and came up with the idea of climbing over the high fence and into the cage of the last Kabul lion. Big surprise: the cat must have been hungry and saw that her meal was on its way to her. When the lion attacked the intruder, the danger for the comrade was visible on the other side of the bars. A hand grenade was pulled off and thrown at the cat. When the gunpowder was distorted, it became clear: the lion had been torn apart. The hero too.
No queue at the passport office in the Shar-E-Naw district. No signs either. Mustafa asks his way through for us. We have to get to the exit visa office. It’s an extremely chaotic office. Files on the two desks, on shelves, on the windowsill and on the floor. Two bearded men dressed in black with black turbans. Not a good sign! And here, too, people were waiting for us.
A few words go back and forth between the two officers and Mustafa. Both get up from their desks as if on command, take our interpreter. One turns his arms behind his back, the other cuffs him with a pair of handcuffs. Mustafa is not frightened. “I knew it”, he whispers to us. He must have known what was waiting for him here. Kay and I are absolutely not prepared for a situation like this. Seconds pass and the translator, who had become our friend in the weeks we had, is draged away by one of the “black”.
The other one barks a “Passport!” at us. One minute he flips through the pages with the stamps, finds the visa of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and presses another stamp next to it. “Go to airport now!” comes from him and we’re out of his office. Driver Ali rushes us to the hotel, we pack all our stuff and pay.
It’s almost noon in Afghanistan, early in the morning in Germany. I quickly set up my satellite phone to tell my colleagues at Deutsche Welle in Berlin that we are on our way back. I’m in such a hurry that I can’t immediately find the right direction to the satellite – but after a few minutes the connection is established and I call the editorial office in Berlin. The first colleague I spoke to is completely surprised and thought I was in Turkey. The department responsible for us hadn’t even noticed that we hadn’t been in touch for days. Yet it is an unwritten law in working in areas of crisis that the reporter should report once a day.
In any case, it seems that nobody at Deutsche Welle is prepared for reports from dangerous regions. It is true that they would like to play in the league of the big international news channels – but already during my first reports from Afghanistan, in 1996, the channel was not able to provide me with “bulletproof” protective vests for my camera team and me. We had to get this perhaps most important piece of equipment ourselves…
When would the station have been alerted? How long must employees in crisis areas be missing before something is done?
In a hurry, from hotel to airport. “My” sign is still on the terminal forecourt. The sign that first brought me to an Afghan prison in 1973.
Is there even a flight out of Kabul today? Shouldn’t we have booked? When? How?
Actually, there’s a Red Cross Beechcraft 1900 aircraft. Our passports are only briefly checked, our luggage is not checked at all. About one and a half hours later we land in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Free, alive, with all the video cassettes.
But what about Mustafa? We try to get information from the German and Afghan embassies. The Germans listen to our story thoroughly, but obviously can’t help. In the Afghan embassy they are not interested.
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 9 June 2020. It will be the beginning the fourth book titled “Politics is a dirty Business”. The name of the first chapter is “August 2009 – Training according to old German Rules” 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!)