Afghan Kids - Kabul

Afghanistan 2003

Afghan Soldiers - Kabul

 

In August 2003 I was planning a trip to Chile for the following month. Then the opportunity arose to go to Kabul, Afghanistan, to work until the end of the year.. This was an opportunity I couldn't refuse, so with only three weeks notice, and after a crash course in inoculations, myself, Tim and two colleague flew out to Afghanistan at the start of September. Richard was to follow two weeks later.

This is not an account of the work we were doing which was that of advisers to Customs at Kabul Airport, reviewing their freight import procedures. The idea was that we could use our expertise to help make their freight operations more effective and thereby increase the import duties collected. En route to Kabul we spent a night in Dubai where to our astonishment we had been booked in advance for the night into luxury suites. Mine had two enormous bedrooms, a lounge with seating for seventeen and two bathrooms with gold taps. We were equally astonished the next morning when we found out that these hadn't been paid for in advance as they were meant to be. We eventually Park Residence Hotelhad to pay by credit card knowing we wouldn't be able to pay it off until we got back toKabul Airport from the Control Tower civilisation. We spent our evening in a local hotel bar in the mistaken belief that this would be the last whiff of alcohol we would taste till our return. The same seemed to go with the rest of the clientele - mainly rich Saudi Sheiks drinking large quantities of whisky and playing cards for even larger stakes.

We flew out to Kabul the next day on an aging UN flight. The airport at Kabul was chaotic; even with our relatively privileged status it took about two hours to fight our way to the front of the immigration queue to get our bags off the ancient baggage belt. Mind you we were lucky: about two weeks later the belt broke down forever; while I wasn't there to witness it when it stopped the baggage handlers took a sledge-hammer to the wall, knocked through a hole  (at roof level) then proceeded to throw the bags through the hole onto the heads of the passenger's below!

The next setback came when we found out that nobody had remembered to book us into Kabul Airport - Poster of the assasinated Mujahabin Leader Ahmed Massoudour hotel. We ended up in small anti-rooms for three days untilTypical dusty Kabul Street rooms became available. However these proved to be basic but very pleasant with our own bathrooms and electricity that only cut out occasionally.

I've been to some battle scarred cities in my time but Kabul had really suffered. Much of the West Side was almost completely destroyed with people still living in the rubble. The centre was in better condition although in a state of ongoing dilapidation. Street lighting seemed to comprise of forty watt light bulbs at the top of huge poles making walking at night very dangerous till you got used to it. Apart from the potholed pavements, the roads were bordered by rubble-filled storm-ditches up to a meter wide and two meters deep into one of which Tim fell one memorable night.

There were a number of reasonably good new restaurant around town; mainly Indian, Chinese and Thai, some even selling alcohol semi-openly provided you were a Westerner - although there wasBackstreet of Kabul the odd occasion where locals could be seen gorging enormous king prawns washed down with a bottle of JohnnyKabul Traffic Walker Black Label. There were also a number of pizza restaurants run by Afghanis returning from enforced exile in the West. For lunch we quickly ingratiated ourselves with the British military base at "Camp Soutar" where we would go most days for lunch.

Our first day at work involved visiting the Customs Office where the brokers presented their documentation. Unfortunately, the building was under siege from a couple of hundred very angry and excited shipping brokers, enraged because the office had run out of forms. Their repeated attempts to storm the building were beaten back by security guards with their rifle buts. Eventually we were able to make a run for the door where we were hauled through to safety.

Myself and Richard spent two weeks carrying out a survey, and drawing up a report on the condition of the main cargo storage areas. This had been fiercely fought over during the Battle of Kabul a few years before and no-one was quite sure whether or not it had Rush hour in Kabulbeen completely cleared of land-mines. SoFrustrated traffic cop being ignored by crazy drivers. we played safe by walking only on the tyre marks of lorries and dodging indoors whenever a RAF Hercules Transport Plane took off from the airport next-door; they had a habit of firing off anti-missile flares are they flew overhead.

Although it was technically illegal for civilians to own firearms in Kabul at least, this was unenforceable - not that anyone seemed to want it enforced anyway. Once, marooned in the Ministry of Finance by a crowd of disgruntled employees demanding a pay rise we heard a series of loud bangs from the street outside. We asked whether it was gunfire or fireworks only to be told "No, not fireworks. Fireworks are banned in Kabul. Too dangerous". Enough said!

On our days off we took to driving to the US Air Base at Bagram, about a 50 km drive North of Kabul. This was a really scenic drive on a good quality road. After crossing a mountain pass the road followed a straight line across a flat desert plain, with MIG Fighter outside museumrugged mountains to the right. Our driver always made sure heWestern Kabul drove very straight as the plain on one side of the road comprised the biggest unexploded minefield in the world - the plain on the side comprised the second biggest. At one point, with about 10 km of flat, featureless road in front and behind, and no sign of life as far as the horizon you hit the world's most pointless and possibly isolated speed-hump in the world; why it had been built nobody knew but it was big and solidly constructed and quite capable of taking your front axle off if you hit it at speed. According to local legend some enterprising Afghani had once opened a small refreshment booth on the site but no-one ever stopped. So he built the speed-hump to make them stop. Whether or not this was true I don't know, but while the kiosk had gone the hump remained.

Actually we never had much luck with that road. On one occasion some colleagues got a flat tyre; when they got out to change it, Taliban started firing rockets at their vehicle from a hideout in the mountains. Another time we almost hit a camel that mysteriously appeared in the middle of the road. On yet another occasion we got a flat battery at Bagram airbase itself, and not wanting to risk a breakdown on the way back we arranged for a couple of jeep-The road to Bagram AirbaseloadsCheckpoint at the King's Mosoleum of Ghurkhas to escort us back to Kabul. However on the way back we were buzzed by a couple of USAF "Huey" helicopters who apparently wanted to check us out. Up to this point we were doing fine; however the dust storm caused by the downdraft from 4 rotor vanes directly overhead in a desert almost drove us into the minefield.

Back at the airport, the broken baggage belt was eventually replaced, an event deemed so important that there was an high profile opening ceremony, attended by top government dignitaries. At the same time a new x-ray scanner was being installed to x-ray passenger's bags. This was delayed, after being dumped on the concourse it took a fortnight before someone discovered there were retractable wheels underneath it to allow it to be moved. I was rash enough to admit I was trained in its operation - the foreign contractor who was meant to provide the training having decamped to Abu Dhabi - and was co-opted into provide training for the operators. In order to do this I needed to find different items to x-ray in order to help the operators with identification of different types of legal and illegal goods. I borrowed different machine parts from the British Army Base, and the police promised I could x-rayMyself and escort their guns.Tim and pop-gun Substitutes for drugs was slightly problematic - I was going to use bags of salt as substitute for heroin until I was told this was unnecessary - they would get whatever REAL drugs I needed - "No problem - you want heroin, opium, hashish? We get it for you down Chicken Street". Needless to say I stuck to the bags of salt.

Collecting import duty on goods being imported was another problem. It would have seemed common sense that the authorities would have preferred payment in hard currency, especially US dollars, but there was a snag. For some reason the central Afghanistan Bank seemed lacking in the facilities to accept US dollars in hard currency  over the counter. They would only accept Afghani's (local currency). This meant that whenever someone paid duties in US dollars the Customs Officials had to change it into Afghani's with the money-changers in the street before they could pay it into the national coffers. At least they would have got a better exchange rate.Karga Dam - outside KabulRichard tryimg to pass as a local

Alcohol being illegal in Afghanistan (unless you were a registered alcoholic when your doctor prescribed it) it was commonly confiscated by Customs although how it was finally disposed of was anyone's guess (i.e. anyone could guess correctly). At one point we ended up pursuing a Westerner who had been found with a 5 litre bottle of whiskey out of the terminal and across the car-park. Many arriving Westerners after consuming as much drink as they could on the plane arrived in a considerable state of intoxication including one American who after downing a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream on the plane had to be helped through Customs covered in his own vomit! X-raying the baggage of passengers leaving the country also produced some odd things including the US citizen found with two land-mines in his suitcase which he was taking home "as a souvenir".

Power cuts were commonplace - often up to half a dozen a day although this situation improved when our hotel had a generator installed. Afghani toilets were pretty dire also, although the ones in our hotel were fine. The one at the cargo-terminal where we often worked were fairly reasonable also, which wasDemonstrating the New Airport X-Ray Machine just asKabul - King's Tomb well when I got locked in one for an afternoon after the lock fell off in my hand. Attempts to install Western-style sit down toilets instead of the traditional squat-down type at the airport were only partially successful as users insisted on standing on the seat then squatting down, causing a few injuries and no amount of broken porcelain. I first noticed this when using the toilets one day and being surprised to see apparently eight feet tall Afghani men towering above the cubical doors.

On our days off (apart from trips to Bagram) we did as much sightseeing in and around Kabul as possible although the sights were limited. Kabul Zoo was both tragic and comical. Tragic due to the sorry state of many of the larger animals and comical due to the absurd labelling of some of the inmates. Thus a caged parrot was labelled (in English) as "A BIRDE" in large, red letters painted onto a piece of broken crate. What was unmistakably a pink farm-yard pig, complete with curly tail and a brood of piglets was Kabul Menlabelled "WILD BOAR - DANGEROUS!" presumably so as not to offend Muslim dietary sensibilities.King's Mosuleum Interestingly enough, a second sign proudly announced that the pig had been presented "As a gift from the Government of the Peoples Republic of China". It was also interesting to note that a charity had been set up in Britain to provide food for the unfortunate animals.

We also took trips out to the Karga Dam on the outskirts of Kabul which was surprisingly very scenic and also the only place in the country we ever say any sizable body of water. We did try driving further one day but turned back when we noticed some sort of unofficial check-point, manned by large men with AK-47's ahead. The Babor Gardens were also interesting: despite having been almost destroyed during the Battle for Kabul they were being lovingly restored. Above the gardens were the tombs of the first Mughal Emperor and his wives. These had been mainly destroyed too, but were being restored to their original glory by the German Archaeological Institute. In fact work had been delayed as more ruins had been discovered underneath the known tombs. Inside the tomb complex we found a wall which had obviously been used as the backdrop for firing-squads in the not so distant past. Up the road from this was an even Bullet-pocked wall inside the King's MosoleumDestroyed artlilery gunmore interesting palace whose name eludes me but it had been extensively damaged by shell fire. Over shadowing the West of the city was the famous Bala Hussar Palace which at the time was home to packs of wild dogs and unfortunately closed to visitors which was a shame; it was the only place in Kabul I'd ever heard of before arriving in the city. It should be noted that all of the above were peppered with innumerable gun-shot holes.

We also stopped of in a Kabul suburb where for some reason a passenger aircraft lay in a state of destruction. From the wreckage it must have crashed or shot down and the houses rebuilt around it although we were never able to establish the circumstances.

Half way through our tour we got two weeks leave (on medical grounds after it was found that the thick coating everything in Kabul was 90% powdered human shit blown into the city from cess-pits in the desert). Rather than return to the UK I went to Dubai and Baku in Adjerbegan on what seemed to be the oldest jet passenger aircraft still in circulation. On the way out it turned out my seat had been removed to build a (never installed) toilet. On the return journey, knowing they were returning to a "dry" country, the Afghani passengers drank every drop of alcohol before we were even off the ground. Approaching Kabul Airport all the passengers crowded round the windows on one side of the aircraft to see the mountains causing loss of stability. While the harassed air stewardess finally managed to get then to sit downCrashed aircraft in Kabul Moghul Tombsfor landing non of these alpha males were going to put on seat belts! I strapped myself in tight, we hit the runway then a succession of potholes in the tarmac causing all the Afghanis to fly wildly about the compartment. Even some of the seats burst from the floor and flew about the cabin! Later that evening I returned to the airport and had a look inside the cabin; the dislodged chairs had been reattached to the floor with nails!

Possibly the best place to visit was the "King's Mausoleum" (Mausoleum of Nadir Shah) situated on a hill in the centre of Kabul. Getting past the check-point sometimes took some persuasion and usually ended up with an armed guard - I was never sure why, for despite the place being heavily damaged during the war, and the large amount of destroyed military equipment and even the odd burnt out tank or artillery gun, the place seemed safe enough during the day and had been thoroughly de-mined (or so we were told).

We also did a fair amount of shopping. There were a few western-style shops selling western groceries and toiletries (at above western prices) however the best place was Chicken Street, where you could buy almost anything imaginable (except chickens) and was a great place for out of the ordinary gifts and souvenirs, especially cheap jewellery which we later found was worth considerably more back home. If you wanted meat you went to grisly Butcher Street, flowers were bought on Flower Street, money-changers were found on Money Street and so on. We did once drive Kabul - Entrance to Chicken Street.up to the Hotel Intercontinental to seeAfghan Kid what it had to sell: five minutes after we left someone set of a bomb disguised as a shrub in the flower-bed outside reception. The first we knew about this was when we drove round the corner and were rammed by a German Tank.

Eventually after four months it was time to return to the UK. By the last day only Tim and I were left. I will  always remember the last night, two o'clock in the morning, sitting in the hotel garden, writing our last report, sipping from our Coca-Cola cans (not that the contents were Coca-Cola, but nobody cared) while nothing broke the silence except the occasional dull rumbles and flashes in the distant sky that indicated the Americans were bombing the South again.

Next day Tim and myself flew back to the UK for Christmas. We had hoped to return again in the New Year but unfortunately our Government gave up the contract. So I took my holiday to Chile after all.

 

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