A short scrabble in the Hindu Kush
It is an odd kind of excitement. One's mind ought to turn to the
politics of south-west Asia, the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, and
the likely timing of America's airstrikes. But the phone call I have
just had from London, telling me to go to Afghanistan and cover the
war for a bit, has my brain whirring on a very different level. There
are four all-absorbing practicalities. One is to get back to Moscow as
soon as possible (I'm in St Petersburg). Second is to get a ticket on
the two o'clock plane tomorrow afternoon to Dushanbe (the Tajik
capital which is the only jumping off point for opposition-controlled
Afghanistan). Third is to get an Afghan visa, and fourth is to get a
satellite telephone. Of these, the second is likely to be appallingly
difficult. The flights are booked up weeks in advance, and it takes
days of pleading and haggling to get a ticket. Tomorrow morning we
will have just a couple of hours. If necessary, I will go to the
airport and try paying the pilot direct. That sometimes works.
I have missed the last flight to Moscow, and I don't want to risk the
one the next morning being late, so I beetle off to the railway
station. Neatly-ever the seasoned traveller-I drop my wallet in the
gutter as I get out of the cab. Luckily I notice a few seconds later,
and I go back and find it, under the bemused gaze of two policemen.
Perhaps they were thinking of giving it back, perhaps of taking it
themselves. I'll never know. But if that's the only careless thing I
do in the next few weeks, I shall be lucky, and happy.
There are no tickets on any useful train of course, just a ``hard''
sitting place-the dreaded Platzkarte-on a very slow train that
trundles off at 0200: worse than useless. Luckily I am able to bribe
my way into a conductor's compartment on the express train, for a
hefty Rb3000 ($100), which is probably more than he earns in a month.
It was an interesting scam, with a nondescript chap in jeans hanging
around in the ticket office who then whizzed me through the crowds and
controls to exactly the right place. I was worried that having paid
the money, I would then be chucked off the train as an interloper, but
that didn't happen.
So I arrive at 0640, whizz to the office to get a few basics and then
home. The usual school run, with just Hugo as Johnny is ill. I feel in
rather a funk as I say goodbye to him. I am usually very insouciant
(perhaps too much so) about danger. I gaily fly on the worst sort of
aeroplanes, hang out with gangsters, carry very valuable items in the
midst of potential robbers, and hitch lifts in the middle of the night
with total strangers. I usually calm myself with statistics, and that
apart from once being beaten up (in Prague, by riot police, in 1989)
and a couple of car accidents, none of things I have done in the last
fifteen years has even scratched me.
But this time I am really nervous. I think it is because I feel so
ignorant. After nearly 20 years of hackery, I have a basic feeling for
how things work, at least between Tallinn and Skopje. But in
Afghanistan I feel I will be completely at sea. It's not disastrous. I
probably know more than some of colleagues do, and I can probably
rustle up some contacts somehow or other. But it is such a contrast to
the easy time I normally have. And of course it is a country at war.
Presumably there will be bullets flying about, land mines, appalling
food, dirty water, poisonous insects, etc etc. If the children
understood what I was doing, would they really think it was worth it?
Wouldn't they rather that I was an accountant. Or a pharmacist.
I brush these thoughts aside with a firm reminder that there are
hundreds of other journalists there, that I am under no pressure to go
anywhere really dangerous, and that the consequences of not going
would nag me for the rest of my life. To this day I still rather
regret that I didn't go back into Romania in 1989 after being expelled
just as the Ceausescu regime was crumbling.
Anyway, I have more practical things to worry about. If any one thing
goes wrong in the next few hours, I will be "late" --at least for my
self-imposed deadline. The trouble with having a good reputation for
providing just what's needed, on time, with minimum fuss, is that one
has to keep it up. And the better your reputation, the more effort you
have to spend keeping it shiny.
The first thing is to persuade the satellite phone rental outfit that
I need to collect one now, not at midday, which would suit them
better. I am ruthless when it comes to overcoming these sort of
obstacles. But I start wondering whether the same flinty resolve will
work in the crags of Afghanistan as well as it does in the bogs of the
former Soviet Union. Maybe the Afghans are more stubborn than the
Russians. On the way my assistant Natasha calls to say
that-hurrah--there is just one ticket for today's flight but I must
collect it at once. Cash only, it turns out, but providentially there
is a cash machine across the street and I can get out the $620 needed
for the return flight (double the going rate, but it's not my money).
Then off to the Afghan embassy where they have agreed to issue me an
instant visa, instant in this case meaning in about 30 mins, it turns
out. A few frantic moments because I don't have the letter from The
Economist with me, but just in time, my assistant Natasha faxes it
over. I must start carrying stamped and headed notepaper with me.
Another $40, and a painfully slow process of writing out the receipt
by hand, and copying all the details in a ledger. Who will ever look
at it again, I wonder.
It is odd to think of the official Afghan government, controlling only
about a tenth of the country, with all these embassies around the
world. It reminds me a bit of the Baltic embassies in Washington when
the Soviet occupation was ending, but not ended. Rather dowdy, a lot
of people hanging around with nothing much to do, a feeling of status
sustained by make-believe, a little work but rather more activity. I
could probably get an Afghan visa in Dushanbe, but I feel better
having one in my passport already-it's a practical sign that the whole
project really exists.
Then to the satellite place, which again turns out to take much longer
than I expected. The phone is huge and heavy-like carrying a couple of
bricks around. It turns out that I don't have the right sort of cable
to connect it to my equally bricklike laptop. And I don't have even
five minutes to spare to go to some electronics shop and buy one. I
hate this sort of stress. I could have done everthing quite calmly
with a bit more notice. But that's journalism.
Money is another problem. The platinum rule of these trips is to have
masses of dollars in cash. If you've got enough money, you can solve
most other problems. At least one can get hold of dollars in Moscow
now. I can get up to $50,000 on my credit card, but not all on the
same day. I have just had to hand $3,500 over as the deposit for the
phone (they take no credit cards, infuriatingly). I go to the bank on
the way to the airport and take out another $5000, which brings me up
to a barely respectable $6000. I really should have $10,000,
especially as I may end up there for months if things go wrong.
Well-organised correspondents have $20,000 in the office safe just for
occasions like this, I tell myself crossly. Also my money is all in
$100 bills, when what one really wants is lots of tens and twenties.
Natasha meets me at the bank with, at my urgent request, a roll of loo
paper (I have a sudden ridiculous worry that there may be none to be
had even in Tajikistan). I tell myself even more crossly to stop
panicking and fussing.
We have left it terrribly tight, but luckily the roads are clear, the
car is fast, and Konstantin the driver seems pleased to have something
exciting to do, rather than just ferrying me to lunch at the
Scandinavia, and the children back and forth to school. Domededovo
airport used to be a hell hole-filthy, dangerous, unreliable, rude. I
once thought that Strobe Talbott should be handcuffed to a railing
near the Spravochnaya [information bureau, notoriously horrible] for a
couple of days to give him a more realistic view on Russia. But now
the new owners (British libel laws prevent me from describing them as
fully as I would like) have modernised it so it looks better than
But there is still a frightful scrum at the check-in. There were two
British journalists there from a famous tabloid, loudly trying to get
on the plane, unbothered by their lack of tickets. One is wearing a
blazer, cream trousers, and a silk, paisley-patterned cravat. I hope
he has a solar-powered travel iron with him. There are lots of of
other journalists too. It is all like something out of Scoop! A
hackneyed comparison, but true. None of us knows anything about the
country we are going to. Our bosses (not mine, of course, but theirs)
are priapic with war fever, demanding victories, victories and yet
more victories. One chap quite seriously thinks he can be on the first
tank into Kabul. His ego is bulletproof, at least, but I worry about
the rest of him.
The plane is completely full, and hideously cramped. Very intrusive
Tajik neighbours, rather smelly, and very keen to tell me (in excrable
Russian) things I either know already, don't want to know, or strongly
disagree with. The reason for the crush, I discover later, is that the
Russian and Kazakh railway authorities have stopped the trains to
Tajikistan, so this plane is just about the only way home for all the
illegal Tajik gastarbeiter.
I chat to some of the other hacks-not about the war, of course, but
important things, like flights, hotels, sources and other
practicalities. The more I hear, the more I realise how much I don't
know. How am I even going to get into Afghanistan? The flights are
full; the land border is blocked. There are hundreds of other hacks
wanting to do the exact same thing. Not only that, my background
knowledge is so weak. In most countries I deal with I know the names
of all the main politicians, places, parties, companies etc. It's just
there, in my brain. I can visualise the whole Baltic rail system if I
need (a pointless achievement, but I am proud of it all the same). And
here I barely know how to spell the name of the president.
I solemnly open a new file on my Palm called "Afghan spellings", and
start copying down carefully all these new things I need to know. I
may not understand the story, but at least I hope I won't put people's
names back to front (like the ignorant visiting correspondent in the
Baltics, whom I invented for satirical purposes for my Baltic Outlook
magazine ten years ago. She used to quote people with back-to-front
names like Ivanova Natasha, and Vladimirovich Sergei)
The arrivals hall at Dushanbe airport is a bit chaotic, to put it
mildly. They give the impression that their main business is something
quite different-a military recruiting office or something-and that at
the last minute they have been told to handle some incoming airline
passengers, and are still working out how to do it. But we get through
in the end and I get a lift into town with my American friends, and
then to the flat that clever Natasha has rented for me.
It is huge, clean, and with a friendly owner who has had a journalist
staying before, a woman called Genevieve from France. I have never
heard of her. They assume that she must be a close colleague, so I
have to spend a bit of time making vague but comforting statements
until they are reassured that I am not going to steal their furniture
or whatever. They are basically decent people, but a bit unused to
renting to total strangers. Fair enough. But it is only $20 a day, a
fifth of the cost of the hotel and much nicer.
I swig some tea, which is the nicest thing about Tajikistan, and then
head back to the hotel. This has the important effect of making me
feel that I was very clever in getting a flat. It is a big identikit
Intourist-style hotel, with the only ameliorating feature being an
internet place on the ground floor. No hookers in the bar, but a nasty
smell everywhere, and too many other journalists. Over the next few
weeks I hear about more journalists getting food poisoning from the
hotels in Tajikstan than in the most squalid places at the front. When
I take a look at the kitchens, a few days later, I understand why.
I meet Quicksilver, a friend and colleague from Moscow whose mind and
tongue work faster than almost anybody I know. He is just back from a
trip to the border, where he was swigging vodka with Russian soldiers,
and also turning down an offer of heroin and impromptu sex (actually I
suspect the latter was aimed at his more comely travelling companion,
another journalist). We have a few beers, and then I go off to dinner
with another colleague. We are both impressed by how clean and safe
and friendly Dushanbe is. Not at all the way it is described, with
bullets, bugs and bandits everywhere. We have a lamb kebab, delicious
tomato salad, more beer, tea,. To my delight there are really really
hot peppers, which I crunch with everything, and put a couple in my
pocket for safe keeping. I like Tajik food, I decide.
To my chagrin, though, I have in my hurry left behind a few of the
most useful things in my emergency travel kit. I have almost no
marmite, no tea, no mosquito net, no water purifying tablets. Luckily
I do have nearly half a kilo of biltong, which looks alarmingly like
raw heroin in its shrink-wrap. It is ancient, a souvenir from the last
family holiday (in Cape Town, four years ago). But I am sure it is
still OK to eat.
The scene at the Foreign Ministry the next morning is nightmarish,. A
dozen impatient journalists, in a queue going very very slowly. The
key officials behind closed doors. A man at a computer painstakingly
typing in all the data with two fingers, and then lovingly scanning
and trimming the passport photos (and touching them up to make them
look nice. This is the bit that he really enjoys, I think).
There seems absolutely no chance of getting to Afghanistan at once, so
I decide to ignore the bureaucracy for a bit and have a go at the
diplomats. I manage a nice cup of strong milky tea with the Pakistani
no 2. We both like cricket, so we talk about that, but not about
anything substantive. The ambassador is very good, supposedly, but my
personal recommendation from his counterpart in Moscow doesn't seem to
cut much ice. Preposterously, he claims to be too busy to see me. I
don't feel I am getting very far.
At the foreign ministry later in the morning the queue is even bigger
and a lot tetchier. Everybody feels under huge pressure from their
bosses to get their papers sorted out. ``I spent all day in a queue
for a bit of laminated plastic, and I will probably do the same
tomorrow'' does not impress cost-conscious, impatient foreign editors.
What can I do? I have no pull here. In other countries I would call
the foreign minister himself, or an important editor, or an MP, or
someone else and ask them to hurry things along for me. But here I
can't. I'm just one of the masses. Very good for me.
As usual when I am on an exciting trip, I almost completely lose my
appetite during the day. I haven't had any breakfast, or any lunch,
and don't feel the slightest bit hungry. I read up on the news in an
internet cafe (that would have been surprising a few years ago in
Tajikistan; now it seems quite normal). I have been so precoccupied
with logistics that I haven't really thought about the events
themselves at all. Luckily nothing much seems to be happening.
Then I go back to the MFA and it is miraculously empty. In a scene out
of Scoop! I hand over a $200 express fee for rather ill-defined
consular services, and find myself promised a double-entry Tajik visa,
extended for the next month, plus an accreditation that will
supposedly be ready by this afternoon.
Next is the Afghan embassy, a small tatty building, normally rather
sleepy, but now awash with journalists wanting visas, trips on planes
and helicopters, etc,. At first sight it seems very chaotic, but on
closer inspection I decide that the system works reasonably well in
the circumstances. I am always amazed that my colleagues don't make
any effort to be nice to people. They behave as if they are in Finland
or Germany or somewhere, and just announce their needs, expecting a
swift and efficient administrative response. I always try a few words
of the local language, even if it is only good morning, and ask
people's names, and tell them that I respect their work and am pleased
to meet them. I fix up to see the military attache at 1700 that day,
and move on.
I go with Quicksilver to see a western diplomat, quite an important
one. He is friendly enough, but looks terribly unwell, grey,
chainsmoking, and both agitated and unforthcoming. Nothing is
happening here, he cannot comment on the situation in neighbouring
countries,. and if you are interested in drug trafficking, then you
should speak to the Tajik authorities not to him. Thanks very much
sir. Your tax euros at work.
Outside the embassy there is a terribly agitated Dutch radio
journalist, with probably the world's most useless driver. Not only is
there no common language between them, but the car is a wreck even by
the demanding standards of Dushanbe. He is completely lost, and so is
the driver. (Most Tajiks' sense of direction and ability to map-read,
I am to learn, is even weaker than Russians'--and that's saying
something). The Dutchman has an odd, but presumably satisfying, way of
expressing his frustration. He moans, howls, and bangs the car roof
with his fist. Perhaps I should try that, rather than bottling it up
and pretending not to mind. Anyway, he wants to go to MSF, where he is
hoping to find a Dutch-speaker (any Dutch-speaker) to interview for
his radio report. A clever idea. Where else would you find a
Dutch-speaker in Tajikistan, if not at somewhere like MSF? We
push-start his car, before an appreciative audience of small boys.
At MSF I slip in past the receptionist with an insistent, muttered
excuse, and get straight to the charming Australian woman who is the
head of mission, and a veteran of Pakistan and Afghanistan. We
provisionally agree to have a drink tomorrow to talk some more about
the dismal public health situation. I am gradually feeling a bit more
comfortable. Despite my ignorance, there is a kind of journalistic
canniness and ingenuity that works in any situation, and gives some
sort of competitive advantage. I may not be able to name the members
of the Afghan cabinet, but I do know how to find useful people, and
get in to see them without appointments without annoying them (and how
to annoy them a lot, when necessary). The Dutch journalist is still
shouting, futilely, at the security guards when I emerge.
But I am already getting a bit panicky about where I am and what I am
doing. There is a story of sorts in Dushanbe, about a narcocratic
Russian client state adapting to the geopolitical earthquake now
underway (blah blah blah). But it is only really interesting for those
interested in Tajik politics. Nothing is going to happen without
Russian approval. What the world wants is big clear exciting lumps of
news from Afghanistan, preferably victories followed by peace.
Everything else just muddles the story.
My feeling about Tajikistan, based on perilously little knowledge, is
that there is a precarious compromise between islamists and old Soviet
nomenklatura types, glued together (or lubricated, depending on your
taste in metaphors) by lots of drug money. I didn't see any visible
drug taking in Dushanbe, but a lot of my more diligent colleages have
in their trips around the country.
At 1700 I have my interview with the Afghan military attache from
Moscow, currently in Dushanbe. He speaks fluent English and gives me a
blizzard of victories attached to placenames, none of which I know. I
have tried to buy a map during the day, but there are none to be had
of Afghanistan (although I get a monster map of Tajikistan which has a
bit of Afghanistan on it).
The line he is putting across is that the northern alliance is
stretching the Taliban by launching diversionary attacks in lots of
different places, preventing them keeping their forces on the Pakistan
border, whence an invasion is likely to come. This is the first time,
but by no means the last, that I hear an entirely plausible version of
the military side of the war that seems in retrospect to have no
bearing at all on reality.
There are a lot of rude journalists barging in during the meeting, but
I am fairly firm and keep the Q & A going. The press assistant is a
nice guy called Zereef, who suddenly makes the process of getting to
Afghanistan seem quite simple. Basically there is a regular flight to
Faisabad, which is the provisional capital, but helicopters to the
Panshir and other places are more chancy, because they are needed for
military purposes, and also ferrying tons of luggage for CNN and other
In the evening I manage to get hold of a British friend of a friend
who has actually been in northern Afghanistan as (really, truly) a
tourist this summer, so he gives me some advice. Another chum gives a
crucial satphone number for a top commander. It all suddenly seems a
lot more doable. If only I wasn't so infernally ignorant.
I have a nice dinner at a Persian restaurant with Quicksilver, who is
thinking of returning to Moscow because there is not enough news here,
and the change in Russian foreign policy is epochal. I am not sure
about this but reckon that this is a good time to go to Afghanistan
and I would be silly to change plans now.
The Persian dinner costs about $5 for two. They get beer for us, but
ask not to leave the bottle on the table because it is an Islamic
restaurant. Or possibly they don't have a licence. Tajiks speak very
bad Russian, I notice.
A 0600 start the next morning. I am at the foreign ministry at seven,
and am pleased to see that I am the only journalist there. I am like
the chap in Scoop!, whose success is all about getting up earlier than
the other fellow. Trouble is, he was always wrong and missed the big
story. I am a bit worried about the authoritative letters that I have
drafted, and emailed to the Economist in London and Moscow with the
urgent request to fax them to the Afghan embassy. The fax no there
doesn't work, and I have had them faxed to my driver's office instead
(he is a journalist when he is not being a driver for me at $40 a day)
. So he drops me off at the foreign minstry and goes to look for them
in his office. And indeed they are there.
These are the nuts and bolts of journalism. If you get yourself
properly positioned, with the right bits of paper in the right place
at the right time, then you can break down the huge lump of difficulty
into lots of manageable small bites and concentrate on the story. It
is getting lots of little simple things right. Like having the right
phone no with you. Knowing who to call and where to go, and what order
things must be done in, and always having enough of the right kind of
At about 0730 the nabob of the consular dept comes in, and after a bit
of rummaging finds my accreditation and visa. I come out with a bit of
the vranyo (bullshit) that lubricates life in these countries, and
tell him that the journalists had a meeting last night and we were all
most impressed with the helpfulness and efficiency of his office, and
of him in particular,. Vranyo is not meant to believed, it is is
understood as being not the truth, but the truth as it ought to be
(it's the difference between istina and pravda). He knows as well as I
do that there was no such meeting and no such resolution. But he knows
that I wish that it were so, because I am grateful to him, so he is
happy and will help me again (for a fat fee, of course).
Armed with that I go to the Afghan embassy, where there is already a
gaggle of nervous hacks, all of whom have been told by their desks to
get to Afghanistan asap and all of whom will find it embarrassing if
they have to admit that they are still somewhere else, after several
days of fruitless but expensive trying.
Zereef emerges and marches briskly off, but the amazingly skillful
Phil Sherwell of the Telegraph sidles up to him and I follow,
admiringly, and suddenly there we are sitting in a quite different
office, outside the embassy compound, and Zereef is writing out a list
to go on a helicopter to the Panshir, quite close to the front. I am
feeling a bit queasy about this, as I had really been thinking of a
gentle jaunt to somewhere a bit less warlike. Everyone is assuming
that the opposition will be advancing towards Kabul. But what happens
if the Taliban counter-attack? It seems churlish to raise the
possibility, and I resolve to develop a limpet-like alliance with CNN
if things get tough. This is not as difficult as it sounds. CNN has
terrific clout on the organisational side, but are often a bit weak
when it comes to brainpower. If you think up some clever story ideas
for the harrassed overworked producers (who spend most of their time
worrying about logistics and keeping their pampered correspondents
happy) then they are grateful. That's worked in the past, anyway.
Anyway, I say with the most confident voice that I can muster that
I'll certainly be going too. And there we are, with the list closed.
We beetle off to check that the the foreign ministry has really sent
over the latest list of accreditations to the authorities at the
airport, because yesterday they forgot to do it and several hapless
hacks were refused entry onto the plane.
It all makes me profoundly grateful to the Economist for being such a
patient employer, I can't believe how hard some of my colleagues are
pushed by their desks. Or pretend to be pushed. I think a lot of this
panic is self-induced. I remember the saying at the BBC that "you're
only as good as your last performance'' which always struck me as
remarkably stupid. And nothing's actually happening in Afghanistan
anyway, so why the rush? I suppose the answer is opportunity cost:
while we are kicking our heels here, we can't do other things that
might be more useful and productive.
Anyway we go round and inspect the list, and I see my name and Phil
sees his. So I am fairly sure that it is going to be all right. At the
embassy, it turns out that there is probably no helicopter to the
Panshir, so with a strong sense of relief, I get myself on the list
for the plane to Faisabad instead. Outside, there is an appallingly
rude Italian TV crew who have been waiting for days to get on a
flight. They are togged up in the most fantastic clothes, like war
correspondents from a scene in a rock opera. All identical, everything
different shades of black, except their red bandanas, with lots of
natty pockets and wrap-around sunglasses. I half expect them to break
into song at any moment, but they just stand around, aloof and
snarling by turns. I never see them again. Perhaps they were CIA
people in disguise. But then that explanation must be used sparingly,
because there are so many dodgy and implausible characters to whom it
could so easily apply.
Like war itself, war corresponding is long periods of boredom
interspersed by brief episodes of panic. Today was mostly boredom. I
did manage to get out for a brief lunch of plov, livened up as always
with the hot peppers from my pocket, in cheerful but rather insanitary
café round the corner. I hope I am building up some immunity for the
real thing, though in fact it turns out that the food in Afghanistan
is if anything a bit safer.
Finally we set off to the airport in a tearing hurry, only to have
another hour of waiting. Talk about "hurry up and wait". The airport
is partly a Russian military base, partly the civilian airport for
Dushanbe. Finally we are allowed in, and I was sure that I saw
ammunition boxes being loaded onto a big Ilyushin, There is one more
moment of drama, because the person compiling the lists of
accreditations issued has simply left out one number, between 1973 and
1975. The poor chap, a British journalist, was thrown off the plane
yesterday because of another bureaucratic snafu. He looks as if he is
going to cry. It is partly my fault because I didn't check his name
was on the list when I went to check that mine was. So I wade in using
the tried and tested advice of that greatest of all books about the
mindset in these parts, Negotiating with the Soviets.
This gives three options: bully, befriend or plead. I opted quickly
for the pleading, with a massive dose of inspired vranyo, saying that
the poor chap will be dismissed if he doesn't get to Afghanistan. And
I just keep going, and going, and going, regardless of how many times
they say that it's not in their power, come back tomorrow, get on the
plane, shut up, etc etc. The beefy Russian border guard is the first
to weaken, passing the buck to the Tajik KGB who were also there.
After a lot of spluttering, and a final burst of truly coruscating
Russian from me, they say OK. Meanwhile engines have started, and the
ramp at the back of the plane is closing which makes me very panicky.
I think of sitting on the ramp to stop it shutting completely, but
find the man winding it up is just laughing at me: there is another
little door around the side. I duck round and run along the fuselage
to stop them closing that.too. I look back, and to my horror my pal,
after finally having his passport stamped, runs straight into the
exhaust stream of the engine. I have visions of watching his head melt
in front of me. but luckily he gets away with nothing worse than a red
face and slightly frizzy hair.
The plane is pretty rough, just bare metal benches inside. It seems
reasonably well maintained, although there was a bullet hole, plugged
with some brown gunk, in one of the windows. Just a 40 minute flight
and a smooth landing.
Faisabad airport is spectactularly wrecked. The airstrip itself is
just metal panels laid by the Soviets. At the end of the runway there
are some burnt-out Soviet army vehicles. There are a bunch of ragged
peasants and a donkey, and the huge silver moon rising over the Hindu
Kush. A turquoise sky, huge sandy-brown mountains. The photographers
are happy already.
We bump into town in a clutch of jeeps, on an appalling road. I try to
show my sangfroid by telling everybody, jokingly, that this is
probably the best road in the entire country. Later this turns out to
be true. There are no old Afghan hands around. We are all
tyros--Brits, Japanese, Americans, and a sprinkling of others. All
trying hard to be laid-back. All knowing nothing, speaking no Farsi.
Faisabad (population, supposedly, 100,000, although I find that hard
to be believe) is extraordinarily scenic. Brown mud huts,
higgledypiggledy along a very fast-flowing jade-green river. A strong
scent of woodsmoke. The hotel is a bungalow perched on a rocky outcrop
above the river. We have a nervous shuffle between the rooms (six thin
greasy mattresses, on the floor, in each one). I end up with the
Telegraph (Daily & Sunday) and their photographer, which makes a
comfortable foursome. Interesting how the nationalities stick
The social dynamics are very interesting. A bit like a children's
party. People are interested in each other's toys. One chap has the
most marvellous satphone I have ever seen-just a little bigger than an
ordinary mobile. Everyone else has things like small but very heavy
briefcases. His phone is also an ordinary mobile, and has a thing that
tells you your latitude and longditude.
There is a meal-not a bad one, with rice and meat and the local flat
bread. I am realising that my few words of Tajik don't always work in
Dari, although the two languages are meant to be very closely related.
Thankyou in Tajik is Rah-mat, and in Dari they say Teshekur, which is
very like the Turkish Teshekurederim.
By now the sun has gone down and the town is completely dark, except
for a small red light on the television mast (the only one still
working in all Afghanistan). We have a generator, which is connected
to the circuit inside the hotel in a way that would make any western
safety officer fall on his clipboard in horror. There is a cable, with
two bare ends stuck into the socket on the generator, and the other
two bare ends pushed into a socket in the house. It keeps falling out.
After a bit, one of the Afghans jams a couple of twigs in the holes to
keep it in place. Then Julian, the Telegraph photographer, whips out
some of that marvellous black fabric tape that I am always running out
of, and tapes the whole thing to the wall. Every now and again the
generator stops. I don't actually have anything that I need to charge
up, but if I did, I would be able to, which is a comforting thought. I
call London, just to try out the satphone. It works beautifully.
Then comes one of my inspired breakthroughs. A thickset local chap in
uniform asks if he can use my satphone. I decide on the spur of the
moment to say yes, although I am very strict with him that the call
must be very short. He calls his son in Turkey. Afterwards he is
hugely grateful. He turns out to be the head of the presidential
security service, a chum of Dostum (a notorious opposition warlord)
and a generally very important and useful contact. Some of the other
journalists are amazingly rude to the locals, treating them all as
teaboys. I call him "Colonel" which I think is his rank, although some
time later I find out that he is actually a general. He doesn't mind.
He speaks Russian, about as well (or badly) as I do. We become
friends, in an odd way, even though I loathe Dostum and crooked,
beastly habits. He invites me back home to drink arak with him, but
much to my later regret, I decline. The invitation is never repeated.
Rather boldly, I say that I would like to go out and see the town,
though. He is very dubious about this, claiming that it is too late,
too dark, and that there is nothing to see anyway. But I insist,
politely, and in the end we get a group of five together and we march
through the dark streets until we find a tea-house. We go in, and they
are all watching television (powered by a car battery). The Colonel is
responsible for our security at the hotel, and doesn't want us to sit
down in the tea house, so we tramp back again and go to bed. I have
bought a horrid nylon sleeping bag for a ridiculous $50 in Dushanbe.
It is so badly made that I am cold but sweaty at the same time. The
others all have marvellous hi-tech ones bought in London.
I snore very badly, and like to keep my radio on all night. This
doesn't matter when you sleep on your own, but the others don't like
it at all. For the first time since boarding school, I am woken up
roughly in the middle of the night and told to stop snoring. Several
times. But they didn't fill my mouth with shaving foam, or do amusing
things with boot polish, or carry my bed out into the playing fields.
The next day I woke up very early and tipped a few buckets of cold
water over myself in the rather squalid washroom. The good thing about
having cold baths anyway (which I do) is that this sort of thing has
no terrors. Clean and scrubbed, I go back to the tea-house and have an
early breakfast of bread and tea. It is terribly frustrating not
speaking the local language. I haven't felt like this since I was in
East Berlin in 1984, not speaking German. People are friendly,
curious, probably informative, and the best I can manage is pidgin
Russian with one chap.
I also change some money. The local money is the Afghani. 10,000 is
the highest denomination, and there are 128,000 to the dollar. So if
you try to change $100, you get a huge piles of bricks wrapped up in
newspaper. I settle for $10 to be going on with.
The bazaar is wonderful. Little wooden huts, and a few bigger ones,
along a mile or so of winding rocky track. Lots of interesting smells.
I wish I were a dog, just for a bit. You can buy all sorts of useful
things that they don't sell in England any more, like big tin trunks.
Lots of second-hand clothes-tatty old Austin Reed suit jackets for
about $2. This is where things end up when even the Oxfam shop doesn't
want them. I spend a happy hour looking at the food (freshly butchered
meat, red carrots, garlic, raisins, onions, tomatos) and then, with my
appetite whetted, go back for a real breakfast. It is rather nice.
There is bread, boiled eggs, and a huge crispy cake like a kind of
sugared shredded wheat. Also local cream cheese, and the ubiquitous
green tea. And a sort of sweet crumbly cake, that to my depraved
tastebuds tastes rather nice with hot peppers on it.
I feel rather superior because all the other hacks are still grumbling
about the cold water and queuing for the washroom. I think it is
spectacularly beautiful. I like Faisabad, and am very glad I am here
not at the front, or at Khoja Bahauddin, with 350 other bored hacks
just across the border from Tajikistan.
The president's foreign affairs adviser arrives, called Nazeer, who is
our main route to the outside world. He writes chits, with which you
can get through checkpoints, visit commanders in their dens, etc. But
today nobody is going anywhere soon, because the President is giving a
press conference. This is very bad news for the Sunday Telegraph's
Phil Sherwell, who needs to get to the front-any front-in time to
bring the ``whiff of cordite'' (yes, they really do use phrases like
that) to the breakfast tables of the home counties. There is no time
to get south to the Panshir (two day drive) but he might just get to
the Taloqan front to the west of Faisabad. If so, he needs to start
now. But Nazeer won't issue the permission until after the press
conference. The Afghans can't imagine anything more interesting and
important than a meeting with President Rabbani, even if we can.
On the way in to see the president we are frisked very thoroughly. Not
surprising when you think that it was assassins disguised as
journalists who bumped off Massoud, only three weeks ago. The
interpreter has me in fits of juvenile giggles because he pronounces
"terrorism" like "tourism". This leads to sentences like "there is no
place in Afghanistan for tourism. Afghan people hate tourists.
Tourists come from Pakistan." And so on. Rabbani doesn't say much. But
he exudes a strong sense of disappointment. The hacks are all
expecting him to announce massive military support from the Americans.
But I can well see why it isn't coming. We dumped these people for a
good reason: they were quarrelsome, incompetent, too close to the drug
mafia, and with a pretty bad human rights record. Admittedly, the
Taliban are proving even worse, but at the time we thought the Taliban
might even be better. At least they stopped the fighting, disarmed the
population a bit, and so on.
I am always worried about demonising people. We demonised the Serbs,
and Saddam Hussein, and Khomeini, and the Soviets. And they were
awful. But it creates a very black and white world view, where you
don't even try to understand the other side's motivation, and just
write them off as power-crazed, mad, evil or whatever. Perhaps worse,
you start thinking that your enemy's enemy is really your friend. So
we never took the anti-Hitler Germans seriously, and thought that
Uncle Joe was wonderful.
Rabbani himself is softly spoken, ambiguous, wily, but not necessarily
very intelligent. His son interrupts at one point to correct the
interpreter. ``You mean strategic depth" he says, in perfect,
US-accented English. I try to grab him after the press conference but
fail. I want to meet him. He will know everything about this place,
and will be able to tell me in a language I understand.
After that I walk off to the bazaar, and end up across the river in
the "new town" where the NGOs are. I have a very good meeting with the
MSF people, who are the first real interview I have done. Then I meet
the head of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, who is also very
impressive-a local, very well educated agricultural engineer. I am
looking for the head of the ICRC, when I bump into a very charming
young man called Fawad. He speaks English properly, unlike the
worse-than-useless so-called interpreters who hang about the hotel
offering their services. So I walk back with him-a lovely route along
the irrigation canal, high above the river-and provisionally hire him
for the next day. I can't be absolutely definite, because I have also
provisionally arranged to hire another interpreter jointly with
another journalist, and I don't want to let him down (even though his
English is not as good).
Fawad is very well dressed, in a smart blue blazer and white slacks.
He is a refugee from Kabul, who studied English and computing in
Pakistan, and has come back to Faisabad to support his mother and
sisters. He is desperate to get to Europe, via Dushanbe, Moscow and
the people-smuggling route. I have a miserable vision of him stuck in
some ghastly holding camp in England, or being suffocated in a lorry,
or whatever. But what can I say to him. He is bored rigid. He likes
music, art, girls, the internet-all completely impossible in Faisabad,
where there has been no electricity for ten years, and practically the
only public building is the police station.
I really like him, and tell him to meet me at the ICRC at 0930
tomorrow morning, and I will give him a yea or nea.
The atmosphere in the hotel is very jolly now. The dailies have
something to file, because of the press conference. Some people have
been up to the TV station. The Sunday Telegraph have gone to the
front, hell-for-leather. We talk to them on their satphone and they
have lucked out-finding the forward field headquarters of General
Vahim, Massoud's successor. So they should have some sort of story.
Supper is rice and meat again. I have bought some garlic and peppers
in the bazaar, and some raisins. I am beginning to feel like an old
Afghan hand. I know ten words of Dari, which is nine more than anybody
else. The Economist is very pleased with me simply for getting there.
I have a brilliant interpreter for tomorrow morning. Everything is
going to be fine. Even better, there is a message that the president's
son is willing to see me, sometime tomorrow.
The day starts well, with a lovely 20-minute walk back to the New
Town, and an excellent meeting with the ICRC. I do admire that
organisation. I nickname it the "Committee to save the world". Its
officials are tough, well-informed, discreet, compassionate,
effective. And Swiss, mostly. I don't think I would be able to work
there as a non-French-speaking Brit. But it is a thought, if I ever
get tired of journalism.
Then disaster strikes. When I emerge from the ICRC at 0930, Fawad is
not there. I wait for a bit, and then march furiously back to the
hotel, hating myself, him, Afghanistan and everything. Why didn't he
turn up? He's desperate for money; I'm desperate for a proper
interpreter. The other ones at the hotel are useless. The only
half-decent one (whom I was thinking of hiring) has gone off with some
other people on a trip. What am I to do now? I have interviewed all
the English-speaking NGOs that I need for now. What I want is to be
able to talk to people in the bazaar. Particularly commanders,
merchants, money-changers and the like.
I hang about miserably at the hotel. Even worse, the president's son
turned up looking for me at about 0900, before I had got back from my
meeting. Now he has gone away to the countryside and will not be back
for a few days. Four weeks later, I read all about him in an. American
magazine. It is all maddening. As always, when something goes wrong, I
convene a ferocious mental court of inquiry, put myself in the dock,
and let my worst enemy be the prosecuting counsel. What have I done
wrong? What could I have done differently? How much of this could
reasonably be foreseen? Are there any mitigating circumstances that
really let me off, or are they just limp excuses? What undertakings
can I give that this will not happen again? How will my behaviour
change in future? Can I atone for what has gone wrong? A wonderful
I conclude miserably that I should have hired Fawad on the spot.
That's what a really good journalist would have done. Apart from that,
I must just make the best of a bad job. I try out a few of the other
interpreters, but their English is so bad that it is maddening. It's
not their fault. My French is like that. But they just can't formulate
questions, or give coherent answers. I feel like crying, but instead
resort to that tried and tested fall-back, picking the brains of the
There is one that I like very much, who has been there for a week or
so already. He works for a very grand American magazine, and I
nickname him the Sage because he is so erudite and well-informed (and
funny too, which you don't normally associate with sages). We have a
very happy discussion about semi-colons, spelling, house style, and so
on. All the things that make the Economist fun to work for. And he
likes them too. There is another American there too, too charming for
my taste. And a very dogged Czech photographer called Iva, whose stern
expression belies a very friendly character. We chat a little bit in
Czech. I also talk German to a German TV journalist. Aren't I clever.
But what I need is Dari. Or Fawad.
Suddenly, he turns up. Full of apologies. He had come to the hotel
early in the morning (after I had gone) and been told-quite
erroneously-by one of the nitwits working for the Afghan foreign
ministry that I had left town. So, quite reasonably, he had gone home.
Now everything is all right. We hurtle off to the bazaar. I give him a
crash course in the rules of proper interpreting (ask the question
exactly the way the correspondent phrased it; translate the answer
properly, don't paraphrase it; if you don't understand something, say
so, but don't guess).
We have a splendid hour with the top money changer in the market. I
want him to say something about the bombing of the World Trade Centre,
but he is curiously reluctant to talk about his feelings. Afghan men
don't. He just says things like "well they are human beings too, of
course I feel sorry". Suddenly I get what I want. "Do you sympathise
with them as a fellow-professional?" "Yes, 100%--we're in the same
business. I would like to have worked there myself". It is all
marvellous material for the short sharp article I want to write for
the finance section about the economy of northern Afghanistan.
I am feeling really buoyed up by now. I have got a real story in the
can. A proper Economist story, that nobody else would even think of,
as they bump off to the non-war on non-roads with non-English-speaking
It gets even better. Next stop is the telephone exchange, where there
is a pre-war manual pluggable phone exchange. Just 500 lines for the
whole city, they say (although it turns out that there are another 100
in the new town, too). And a shortwave radio, that connects to other
towns in northern alliance territory. This is how my money-changer
learns about the rates in other places.
We go and have some tea. I meet an adorable shoe-shine boy, who does
my boots beautifully. I talk to him (via Fawad). He has never been to
school, has worked as long as he can remember (now 13, but looks
barely 11). He supports his widowed mother and two sisters on his
wages, about a dollar a day. His brother tries to catch fish in the
river, but doesn't make much money from it. They are refugees, from
Taloqan. But he can read and write. A man called Engineer Habib taught
him. He looks like a really nice, clever, good boy. I think of
adopting him, smuggling him to England, with his family, giving him
all my money, or at least $1000 of it. Or a Meccano set. It is all so
hopeless. How can I really make a difference. Then I have a brainwave.
I tell him to come to the hotel the next morning and shine all the
I also have a hilariously misunderstood conversation with a commander.
I am asking him about his unit, their arms, etc, and it is all going
fine until he mentions that they have x guns, and y rockets and also
"an aircraft". How interesting, I think. What kind of aircraft. He
doesn't know exactly. Russian. How do they use it? It is on a truck.
But how can you fly it if it is on a truck? We don't. So what use is
it? Well (looking puzzled) we fire it. I have a lovely vision of a
derelict MIG-21 being towed round on a truck, useful only for its
cannon. Stranger things have happened. But I am really puzzled. I draw
a picture of a plane on a truck. Is it like that? Hoots of laughter.
It turns out that "aircraft" is an abbreviation for "anti-aircraft
gun". Which is what they have got.
Outside in the bazaar again, I have an interesting but very depressing
meeting with the people selling wood. The country is almost completely
deforested. The price of firewood is shooting up. People can't afford
it. This will be a good Economist story too. I am getting happier and
happier. Even more so when I come to the bit of the bazaar where they
sell weapons. For just 200,000 Afghanis (less than $2) you can buy an
old Lee-Enfield .303, made in 1918. Also unlimited quantities of
ammuntion, stamped 1942. I spend a happy few moments thinking how nice
it would be to bring that back to Somerset for the children to learn
to shoot on, but sadly discard the idea when I think of the scene at
Heathrow. Or Moscow.
Then I cross the river and go to the other phone exchange, where I
talk to the head of communications for the whole town. They have a
municipal satphone there, which is used two or three times a day.
Before the latest trouble started, they had a much bigger satphone,
installed by an Australian called Philip. That offered broadband
services, of a sort, with a bit of internet, e-mail, fax etc. But it
has stopped working. They are not sure why. So they have a brief-case
style satphone instead. The bill is paid each month by the Afghan
embassy, in London he thinks. Amazing how these things work.
I am baffled by the absence of government. This is supposed to be the
provisional capital. But there is no sign of any officialdom, apart
from forbidding looking police station, the phone exchanges, the TV
station, and the governor's palace which is also the president's
residence. Apparently all the ministers are in their home villages,
scattered across the region. Nobody seems to know when or how the
government meets. Perhaps it doesn't need to. Afghanistan, the
anarchist's paradise. Except that every single female after the age of
puberty wears a burqa, so that you can't even see her eyes.
I wander back, tired but happy. I pay Fawad a rather measly $30. It
really offends me when correspondents drive the prices up to a
ridiculous level. I could just as well pay $100, but then what about
some poor Polish journalist who arrives here and finds that he can't
afford a translator. And what about the NGOs who suddenly lose all
their staff to the hackpack? The man in the phone exchange earns $20 a
month. It's a difficult moral question. But the easy way out, of just
splashing money about, is wrong.
I am much too hot. I have assumed that winter is coming, and I am
wearing a thick tweed suit and a flannel shirt, with a thick tie. This
is good because it makes me look respectable. A lot of colleagues look
as if they were on a camping holiday. But I'd like something cooler to
change in to, at least. On the spur of the moment, I stop at a
tailor's and have myself fitted up for an Afghan costume, in a nice
shade of dark green. All of $17, and I am doubtless paying a premium
price. And I buy some presents: Afghan hats for the children, some
lapis lazuli souvenirs, and garish red dresses for my little nieces.
Faisabad mall: unbeatable value for money, breadth of choice, and
friendly service. I'd like to come back as a tourist, honest.
Things get better and better. That evening I meet an interesting guy
who is a former pilot and special forces officer, now a TV fixer. We
get on like a house on fire. I know his wife slightly, from BBC days.
He knocks on the head the highly unlikely story that all the other
hacks have been telling each other, that Faisabad airport has a
crooked runway. The story is that when planes are landing they have to
steer sideways in order not to hit the corner. I am sure that this is
nonsense and he confirms it. He was in a jail in Liberia for a few
weeks because he got caught making a nasty programme about the local
goons, and Nelson Mandela made umpteen phone calls to get him out.
He suggests sleeping outside, which is a brilliant idea. Why didn't I
think of it before. Much better than inside with smelly feet and
snores (other people's, not mine, which are quiet and tuneful). So I
take my sleeping bag outside, and enjoy a blissful night in the open
air, under the blazing stars.
There is also a couple of much less pleasant new arrivals. One is from
a British Sunday tabloid. I call her the Beast. She files a story, as
far as I can see completely fictitious, as she hasn't left the hotel
since she arrived. It is something about the SAS. She claims that she
has it from sources in Hereford. Ho ho. She also insists on sleeping
in the dining room, which is where the guards sleep. I try to tell her
that this is not really fair, because they will not sleep in the same
room as a strange woman. She simply won't or can't grasp what I am
saying. Even when I say that as I am sleeping outside she can have the
spare place in my room. She has a nice tough photographer with her,
whom I like a lot. So the Beast sleeps in the dining room, and six
guards have to sleep outside as a result. I feel ashamed to be
British, and ashamed to be a journalist.
There is also a man from Moscow, a freelance. He has a massive chip on
his shoulder about something. I nickname him the Mizz. I offer him one
of the spare places in our room, with the proviso that if the
Telegraph hacks get back in the middle of the night, he will have to
make way for them (I have promised to keep their places in case they
get back that day). Instead of being pleased that I am saving him from
sleeping in the corridor, the Mizz kicks up a fearful fuss, mainly
because he doesn't like Phil Sherwell. I make a couple of mild
comments in Phil's defence. After all, he is Sunday Telegraph's star
foreign reporter, and this is the foreign story of the decade, so it
is fair enough that they would send him to cover it. As a former
freelance myself I know that it is quite galling if outsiders come and
trample on the turf, but Afghanistan is a reasonably long way from
Moscow, so it is hardly a direct insult
This does not calm him down. In fact he seems to be almost in tears at
the hurts inflicted on him by the Telegraph, Sherwell, etc etc. I say
firmly if untruthfully that Sherwell is a very old friend and I don't
think it makes sense to continue the argument; we should just agree to
differ. But he's not having it, and rants on and on. It is absurd.
Here were are in the middle of Afghanistan (or a corner of it, anyway)
and two grownups are having a totally pointless and increasingly
heated argument. I say very sharply that I don't expect to convince
him, and that he won't convince me, and I suggest we change the
subject. The Mizz carries on, moist with bile. I say it again, with
exactly the same words, inflection etc. This is called the broken
record technique, and works pretty well. He collapses into a sulky
heap, polishing his glasses furiously. I think he is actually crying.
Later he apologises profusely. I am so lucky to have an equable
temper. I only get annoyed when I want to. I can't imagine what it's
like having incomplete control of my emotions. It would be horrible.
It would also be horrible to mind about discomfort. I am really
surprised by how much some of the colleagues seem to object to cold
water, smelly lavatories, monotonous food etc. I suppose I am lucky
having been to boarding school. In fact, it strikes me that northern
Afghanistan is quite like boarding school: no girls, cold water,
inadequate heating, boring bad food, no drink, lots of strange rules,
mostly based on a doctrinaire form of religion, a feeling of repressed
violence. But with land mines. I go to sleep worrying about boarding
schools, both the effect that mine had on me, and what it might do to
my children, if they went there, which they probably won't. But here
it is an advantage, because almost any discomfort produces positive
feelings when you overcome it. I really do understand why pilgrims put
dried peas in their shoes.
I wake up the next morning. The shoeshine boy turns up, and I hustle
the other hacks into having their shoes shined. They have no idea how
much to pay him, and just hand over fistfuls of small denomination
notes in different currencies and he collects nearly $30-more than a
month's wages, in just one morning. He looks so happy, I want to hug
him. I'm very pleased with myself, too. He can do this every day now
(I notice that he has wisely given all the guards a free shoe shine,
so he should be able to come back even when I am not there).
Suddenly I decide that it is time to go home sooner rather than later.
I have got several stories in the can now, and I am worried about
what's happening in Moscow. Quicksilver will be filling his paper with
this supposed huge shift in Russian policy. I don't believe it myself,
but I think I ought to go. Bad news. Nazeer says there is a plane
leaving today, but it won't go to Dushanbe. It will go to
Kurgan-Tyubeh, a Russian military base that the Afghans rent. No
passengers allowed. There will be another later in the week, but the
same route. The only way out is to drive 10 hours or so to Khoja
Bahauddin, the military headquarters, and try to get on a helicopter.
I lose my cool a bit. I don't want to go to Khoja. I don't like the
idea of pleading to get onto a helicopter. I don't like being mucked
around. I don't like the other journalists here much either. The Sage
has gone on a trip. The obvious stories for next week are done. I
can't file easily from here because of the satphone not working with
the laptop. And I want to be home by Friday when it is my turn to look
after the children.
While I am chewing on this, there is a new development. The Beast has
appendicitis. Or at least she says she does. On the one hand I think
this a disgusting and manipulative tactic. On the other, it suits me
if it means there is a flight. After a couple of hours haggling, we
are told that if we pay $900, the plane will drop us off at Dushanbe.
That sounds like a good bargain in the circumstances. So we go to the
On the way, there is a terrific kerfuffle. We see a military fort on
the other side of the river. When we ask about it, our utterly useless
minder says that there are three hundred American soldiers there. He
knows, because he interpreted for them. We are most excited. The
photographer stops and takes some pictures. When we get to the
airport, we start arguing. I want it as an exclusive for the Economist
website. The Beast wants me to sit on it for a week until her Sunday
paper comes out.
I win the argument, but after a bit, I start getting uneasy. What
uniforms were these Americans wearing. What were they carrying in the
way of weapons? It is all a bit unsatisfactory and vague. I ask the
useless minder how they got in from the airport. In a bus, he says.
Huh? There aren't any busses in Faisabad. I press him a bit. Turns out
he means jeeps. How many jeeps. Seven. Seven jeeps, each with four
passengers. That would mean they each made ten trips, to carry 300
people. No sir. One trip. Turns out that there were thirty, not 300
Americans. All the same, it is interesting. But the more I push, the
more the story disintegrates. I try talking to the eye-witnesses at
the airport, the peasants who work in the fields near by. Yes they say
they saw the Americans arrive. But by now some important Afghans have
arrived, and there is lots of heated conversation in Farsi, which I
don't understand at all. It is terribly frustrating. If this was
Russia I'd be at the bottom of it by now.
The version that emerges is that these visitors had a) no guns b) no
uniforms c) didn't actually stay at the fort, just looked at it and d)
weren't necessarily Americans, just foreigners. Sadly, I decide that
it was probably just a bunch of journalists. But some doubt remains.
Maybe I have just missed rather a good scoop, but I don't feel
confident enough of it any more to risk writing anything. A classic
example of facts getting in the way of a good story.
Idiotically, I have forgotten to take any water. It's very hot.
Eventually, after a six-hour wait, the pilot and others arrive. They
try to extort a further $900 from us, but we refuse, and after a bit
of argy-bargy we fly back to Dushanbe. The Afghan embassy car meets
us, wanting to take the Beast straight to hospital. She says she wants
to go to the hotel instead. So we go there. I drop my bags with
theirs, and head off to a press conference given by Dr Abdullah, the
Afghan foreign minister. It is hugely late-nearly two hours. To my
amazement, after about an hour I see the Beast skulking at the back.
She is better. The whole thing was a ruse. I challenge her, rather
angrily. She says she has a doctor's appointment for the next morning,
and is just killing time. I get really cross. What will the Afghans
think if they find out? What about the next journalist who gets really
The press conference is quite interesting. One of the speakers is the
UN special envoy to Afghanistan. I do a bit of fast footwork as he is
leaving and get an interview with him for 1900. There is huge pressure
to see Dr Abdullah. A real scrum. But I manage to get in earshot of
him and mention the name of a mutual friend, a Polish politician with
longstanding ties to Afghanistan. It works like a charm. ``That I
cannot refuse,'' he says grandly. The other journalists look
satisfyingly cross and puzzled.
I scramble along with his entourage, who are swatting away the hacks
as if they were malevolent insects. I can't get close enough to him to
fix the time and place. One of his flunkeys says "come to the embassy
at 0700 tomorrow morning". That doesn't sound very promising. "But he
says he'll see me now!" I protest vainly. The only thing to do is to
follow his car and catch up with him at the other end. I leap into the
first taxi outside the hotel. "Follow that big Mercedes" I say, only
to watch with horror as a very sleepy taxi driver pulls some wires out
the ignition and starts fiddling with them. It is hopeless. By now all
the other hacks are streaming out of the hotel, and there is no other
free taxi. Abdullah's Mercedes is already pulling away from the car
Finally, the engine splutters into life, and we lurch forward. But it
is no good. I am screaming at the poor taxi driver. "Get into third
and put your foot down" But he barely understands Russian, and the old
rattletrap keeps stalling and stopping. We are left hopelessly behind.
I try the Afghan embassy-no good. Then the presidential dacha, just in
case he is being received there. I stink, and I am exhausted. I go
home to the flat and have a hot shower. Then I remember, to my horror,
the interview with the UN special envoy. I rush there, but get there
too late. He has just left. Rather crossly, the receptionist says. I
scribble a mortified note of apology. It was the only interview he
gave during his trip, and it didn't happen. Aaaaargh.
So I go off for some beers with various other hacks and try to forget
all about it. But the mental court-martial is in full swing. This is
the second time in twelve years that I've screwed up by taking a
non-roadworthy car. (the other time was in 1990 when I flew to Minsk
on my way back to Vilnius from Yerevan, and tried to save the
Independent some money by going in a Zhiguli not a Volga, and it
swerved off the road and hit a metal bar that smashed through the
windscreen and I had to drive all the way to Helsinki to have my eye
checked for glass splinters).
There is an interesting man in his forties at the hotel who speaks
excellent Farsi. Unfortunately, none of the Tajiks understands him. He
knows an awful lot, but is tiresomely combative, and really very rude
to delightful Indian journalist at the same table. In the end I just
say politely that I find his tone of voice rather tiring, and could he
try to be less argumentative. He collapses completely. This is the
sort thing I never used to be able to do. Now I am older, I can. And I
do. Hurrah for being nearly 40. The atmosphere at the table livens up
a lot, and we polish off a bottle of vodka.
Then I have to retrieve my belongings. The Hotel Tajikistan is
amazingly badly run. If you want to know a room number, they just
grunt at you, scan a handwritten ledger, and then say that the person
you are looking for doesn't exist. It takes me about 40 minutes to
track down the room. When I go up there, I have to persuade the
concierge to give me a key because the room is locked. This requires
some effort, but I manage. I don't think that would work in a western
hotel, just turning up as a non-resident and getting access to
somebody's room when you know only their Christian name, and then
taking a few bags away.
The next morning, Monday, I try marching in to the embassy, announcing
that I have an appointment with Dr Abdullah, just to see what happens.
This often works quite well (the worst they can say is that he's not
there), and this time was a beautiful example. Not only is he there,
but they usher me right in to see him, and he shows no surprise-almost
as if I was indeed expected. I get an unhurried hour with him, which
gives me a most useful overview to go with the stuff I got in
Faisabad. It couldn't have worked out better. Had I seen him last
night I would have had only ten minutes between his other engagements.
And now his plans have changed, he has a meeting in the afternoon, and
plenty of time to spare for me in the morning.
On the flight back the next morning I sit next to a BBC journalist,
who through sheer ingenuity and persistence has got one of the best
stories so far: a British POW held by the northern alliance. The chap
has been in a POW camp for three years, knows nothing about what is
happening in the world. It must have made great radio, because they
had his family on live after the interview. He was born in Burnley in
a Pakistani family, and was sent back home to sort himself out after
being in trouble of some sort. But he got into worse trouble,
recruited by the Taliban and then captured by the other side. I
suppose they will exchange him eventually. But what a pickle to be in.
I spend the next ten days in Moscow, mainly building Meccano models
with the children, but also writing four or five stories. The Faisabad
money changer runs very nicely. The big piece about the northern
alliance gets melted into something else, but I am quite happy with
the result. And I do a rather sour piece about the authenticity of
Russia's shift to a pro-western foreign policy. And something on the
banking system, and something on Georgia. But my thoughts are mainly
with Meccano. It is such fun being with the children.
But the call soon comes to go back to Afghanistan. I had just got rid
of a painfully acquired ticket and it proves impossible to get it back
again. So there is the usual mad rush, bribing my way to a ticket for
an extortionate $500 (normal price $170). I had badly wanted to spend
the whole of Friday at home with the children and in the end I was
away from breakfast until bedtime. That's what I really mind about all
this, not the danger, stress or inconvenience.
I buy a ridiculously expensive sleeping bag (for temperatures up to
-15 degrees) for $100, and a rubber mat for $20, but the camping shop
was so rude and incompetent that I didn't get anything else much.
However, Quicksilver is coming too, and has gone to London to shop. He
is going to buy me an Iridium satphone. It looks like an overgrown
mobile. I hope it works. It is second hand, so the whole thing is only
about £500 including spare batteries etc. I wonder if I shouldn't get
something that I can test in Moscow first. But there isn't time.
I have a lovely time with the children on Saturday, and on Sunday
rather sadly say goodbye and head off for the airport again. The usual
scrum, much fewer journalists this time. I have a really insufferable
neighbour. Bad breath, drunk, smelly, affectionate, loquacious. I am
trying to learn Tajik, and he keeps on slobbering over me in Russian
and wanting me to come and stay with him. I am afraid he is going to
be sick all over me. He goes to sleep with his greasy great head on my
shoulder, dribbling. He is something important in the Tajik KGB, it
seems. It is a three-hour flight. But the chap behind me is very
nice-a teacher of Uzbek, Tajik and Russian, who has been working in
Moscow on a building site and is now on his way home. I like him a lot
and get his address.
It is very nice being in the flat again. I go to the hotel and meet
some other journalists whom I last met in Faisabad. They have had a
wonderful time, riding horses over mountains. It sounds like an
adventure holiday. With land mines.
Monday I spend sorting out paperwork (more money for the Foreign
Ministry) and trying to make sense of Tajik politics. It is not easy.
Almost all the intelligentsia are in exile. I can't blame them. On
Tuesday I go out into the countryside and visit my teacher friend, who
lives in grim village about an hour from Dushanbe. Water once a week,
electricity a couple of hours a day. Not a book in sight, and the
children are barely literate. Still, he is thrilled to see me, and it
makes an excellent (and rare) bit of human interest in an Economist
I am discovering that I have got a painfully useless driver. He can't
drive, doesn't know the geography, and his car is always breaking
down. Also he is full of wrong information. He tells me that
Quicksilver's flight from Munich will be getting in at 0300. So I get
up at 0245 and trog off to the airport, only to find that it doesn't
get in for another hour or so. I am furious, because I have a very
long day ahead, and this is not a good way to start. The driver is
absolutely unrepentant, claiming that the airport gave him the wrong
information. I am now realising that he is quite deaf, and also
stupid. And smelly. There is worse to come.
However I make the most of things by befriending a policeman, who for
a small consideration helps me to find Quicksilver, to short-circuit
all the queues, and even to retrieve his baggage direct from the
baggage cart. This is fun, because it involves jumping on to the
moving conveyor belt in the baggage reclaim area and being whisked
into the nether regions, like an unclaimed suitcase. I have always
wanted to do this, ever since seeing it in A Fish called Wanda. The
scene at the baggage hall is really spectacular. People are literally
punching each other to get in and have first pick at the bags. It is
hard to imagine that this happens several times a week.
But it is 0600 by the time we get home. Quicksilver has had a real
shopping spree, so we look at all the toys. There is a solar panel,
which allegedly is powerful enough to charge anything that can be
connected to a car lighter. There is an inverter, to turn a car
lighter into a mains socket. There is the most expensive pair of
gloves I have ever worn. There are splendid maps of Afghanistan, and
books galore. There are even tiny walkie-talkies, which supposedly
will make life easier, but prove not to work much further than
shouting distance. Only the cleft sticks are missing.
Who should I see, a bit later on, in the huddle of hacks outside the
Afghan embassy, but the unmistakable figure of Sanday Gall. I whisk
him off to the the little impromptu cafe that the wily Tajik ladies
have seet up in the dusty pavement opposite, and when our friend
Zereev, the chap at the embassy who handles the press, finally
appears, I start trying to explain that they have a famous guest, but
there is no need. As soon as I mention the word Sandy Gall he leaps
across the road to shake the great man's hand. "I have read your book
sir" he says, and they launch into animated conversation about mutual
friends and old times.
Everyone thinks that it is Sir Sandy Gall, or possibly even Lord Gall,
but I find out later that it is a mere CBE-Commander of the British
Empire. He seems to be bringing some spare clothes (shirts are
mentioned) for the Afghan foreign minister, It turns out that he had
asked the Afghan embassy in London if there was anything that he could
bring, and they had said warm weather clothes for the foreign
minister, please. Also apparently lots of money for the hacks who have
run out of cash and are desperate for replenishment. Although
Afghanistan is just about the poorest country in the world, it is also
one of the most expensive for journalists, with a jeep to the Panshir
valley, close to the fighting, costing about $2000 from Khoja
Bahauddin, aka Mediastan, where most of the hacks arrive.
There was a plane to Faisabad on Tuesday, and in retrospect I wish I
had taken it, but I wanted to write a solid piece about Tajikistan,
and that needed a couple of days. Also I was waiting for Quicksilver.
Trouble is, there is no plane today,. There were meant to be two. The
alternative is to go overland to Khoja Bahauddin which is a gruelling
15-hour trek with lots of Russian checkpoints and bureaucratic
difficulties, and nothing much apart from other journalists when you
get there. But I am not in that much of a hurry.
So we spend a peaceful day packing and repacking. But it is the same
story on Thursday, and on Friday, and on Saturday. You turn up at the
embassy as instructed, at 0900. The weather is fine. At about 1000,
the embassy people turn up. By then the weather is getting cloudy. The
plane flies without navigation aids, so the weather has to to be fine
all the way. They tell you to come back at 1200. And at 1400. And at
1600. Then they say that they will tell you if there is any news. Then
they say come back tomorrow. I don't mind, really. You just sit around
drinking tea and chatting. It is good to learn to be patient. And you
meet new people. But I am worried that Quicksilver will have a nervous
breakdown if this goes on. He is muttering wildly about retiring.
We do have one rather good interview at another bit of the Afghan
embassy, which is responsible for briefing foreign journalists. They
are doing something wrong, because nobody has heard of them. It is
only when I suggest to someone at the embassy that they could
profitably fill the wasted time by giving us a daily briefing that
they say "oh but that is what Aria-Press does". This turns out to be
an information agency set up by Massoud, and run by the no 2 at the
embassy. Massoud's youngest brother also works there, who is a shy
young man with excellent, Indian-inflected, English. We get a lucid
and convincing briefing, which would be splendid except that it seems
to contradict almost everything I have been told by other Afghans. And
later, most of it turns out not to be true. This agency is supposedly
in touch with commanders all over northern Afghanistan by shortwave
radio. But I doubt it somehow. Even if they are, they are just pooling
exaggerated claims and rumours. It is much better the way they do it
at the Pentagon, where it is mostly untrue but at least the story
stays coherent day by day.
On Friday I finally sack the driver. I am the world's worst manager,
because I am always very optimistic when I hire people, and then very
bad at communicating what I want, and then I get very fed up and just
end up doing the job myself, but without the strength of character to
fire them. But this is too much. For a start he has been late. Then he
cheats us out of a pathetic sum of money involving the purchase of a
compass. And finally, when we ask him to take us out to a deserted bit
of countryside so that we can play with our satphones and pretend to
be in Afghanistan, he is incapable of finding anywhere deserted. We
drive for ages and end up in a farmyard. When I say for the umpteenth
time that I want a large empty space with no people in sight (mainly
because I don't want crowds of curious children) he sighs and drives
us back to the centre of town. When I fire him he proclaims undying
love and says he wants to work for free.
The next day, we actually go to the airport only to be told at the
last minute that the plane is almost certainly cancelled. Everyone
stomps off in a huff, except Sandy Gall, who clearly has something
cooking. While I'm away trying to get permission from the border
guards to go to Afghanistan by land, Quicksilver manages to inveigle
the ITN crew into agreeing that we can go on his helicopter if there
are any spare seats. This is not going exactly where we want-it's
going to Khoja, but that is still Afghanistan and only a day's drive
Then there is another bizarre journalistic squabble, with two
Americans, who I call the Grumps. They have had the same idea, but
have negotiated with the Russians who run the airport, not Sandy Gall.
And now they think we are out to cheat them of their places. I think
all this sort of thing is just fair competition. Who knows, there may
be places for all four of us. Although they are furious, and refuse to
speak to us, in actual fact their chances are better than ours at the
moment, because they were able to slip their passports in to be
processed, while ours were still with me at the border guards office.
It is all too silly to be cross about. There is a huge scramble around
the entrance to the chopper, with Sandy Gall's producer wrestling back
the Grumps' formidably burly driver, who is trying to manhandle their
baggage into the cabin. But in the end we worm our way on. It looks
fearfully overloaded and decrepit. I ask the head of airport security
if he would fly on this machine himself. ``Of course I would, it's
Russian'' he says nonchalantly. But then he isn't flying, and I am.
There is a bullet hole in the windscreen, just about where the pilot
sits. I wonder what happened to that bullet.
Khodja is pretty bleak. Flat, mud huts near a slow-flowing river
(which means the drinking water will be bad). Very dusty, which I
hate. Full of miserable journalists. One of them solemnly warns me not
to go outside our compound, for fear of getting lost ``All these
buildings look alike'' he says. In every way, it is not as nice as
Faisabad. We have a farcical struggle trying to put up Quicksilver's
tent in the dark. I resolve to brave the scorpions and sleep outside
too, rather than in the horrid, dirty, overcrowded rooms of the
foreign ministry guesthouse. It was in this building that Massoud was
assassinated by terrorists posing as journalists. The room where it
happened is now a store room for NBC, where they keep thousands of
litres of drinking water.
The main thing is to move on as soon as possible. There is very little
story here, and it has been well-excavated by everyone already. So
there is a lot of haggling with drivers. Very unsatisfactory because
we don't speak the language, or know the real prices. Also the Grumps
don't trust us, which doesn't help our collective negotiation. In the
end we find a decent Toyota for $1000 which will take all four of us
to Faisabad, with a 6am start the next day. There is a meal of sorts,
and then I make friends with a charming clutch of American
journalists, who have things like coffee and water melon. Life looks a
Sleeping outside is fun, although maddeningly dusty. I see four
shooting stars, including one very spectacular one. I listen to the
BBC World Service all night, and think deep, rapidly forgotten
The journey the next morning is nine hours, uncomfortable but fun.
Quicksilver decides to sit in the back of the jeep, and I join him
after a bit. It is terrifying seeing the sheer drops a few feet away
as the "road" snakes through the mountains, and a bit worrying going
over a large metal lump in the road that the driver laughingly tells
us is an old anti-tank mine. He is a cheery soul, with pidgin Russian,
so we can talk to him. The radiator boils easily, so we stop every
half hour and douse it with river water. I jump down beside the river
to wet my shawl. Only afterwards do I remember that this is exactly
the sort of place that you risk stepping on a landmine. But I was
following in our driver's footsteps, so I suppose it wasn't that
dangerous really. We pick up various hitchhikers, and Quicksilver and
I get so fed up with the Grumps that first he, then I, move to the
back of the pick-up. There they try to teach him sentences in Persian,
which he parrots back. I am pretty sure that they are actually
teaching him to say "my mother's face looks like the female genital
organs of a donkey" or something similar, because there are hoots of
laughter, and words that don't appear in the phrase books. But it is a
harmless way of passing the time.
It is lovely being in Faisabad again. The Sage is there, with a solid
beard by now. Quicksilver and I get a room to ourselves, but I want to
sleep outside. It is a bit awkward that we are competitors. I don't
mind, but he does. (I later learn that he thinks it is exactly vice
versa). He worries that if he knew what I was writing, he'd want to
use it for his daily. The journalists there have had a strike, because
conditions were so bad. Now the generator has enough petrol, so it
runs for a full six hours a day, and the food is a bit more varied.
It's a Sunday, and I suddenly find myself longing for a chance to go
to church. I expect some of the NGO people have a bible-study or
something on a Sunday, but it's too late to start find out about it
My main worry is finding Fawad again. When I do, there is bad news
(for me, not for him) He's been signed up by a BBC film crew for a
juicy $80 a day, and is about to leave for the Panshir with them. He
promises me that he will provide a friend, just as good. I am a bit
sceptical of this, and rightly so. The new chap proves so bad the next
day that I have to sack him after a morning. He calls me sir, even
when I tell him not to. And he just doesn't understand English. Worse,
he is too deferential to say that he doesn't understand me, so he
guesses, frantically. It gives me stomach cramps.
But I have a good time at the World Food Programme, where the local
boss is just off to Argu, a nearby town, to inspect some cooking oil
distribution. This town has the only long-distance phone line in the
country, connecting it to Faisabad. It is interesting to watch the
poles snake over the hills. The phone is in the military commander's
office. I interview him, and learn that he is against the American
bombing. I arrive back for lunch feeling very superior, having shed
the useless translator.
In the afternoon I go to the bazaar. I want to write about the
miserable snow leopard that is stuffed and on sale in the souvenir
shop. That will make another story. So I already have two, including
deforestation, or three including the interview with the commander.
It is such a luxury working for a weekly. My colleagues on daily
newspapers really do live on their nerves, as do their bosses. "The
Daily Bugle is at the front already. Where are you, you useless
idiot?" Later I met a photographer who had been told to go to Mazar e
Sharif, an enclave in northern Afghanistan completely impossible to
get to without crosssing the front line twice and spending several
days in Taliban controlled territory. I think even a fluent Farsi
speaker from MI6 would find that a challenge. Do it, or we cancel your
contract, he was told.
Actually, newsdesks are not that unreasonable (and he didn't go, and
wasn't fired). But it is in both sides' interest to create this
atmosphere of hectic paranoia, because that's the electricity that
makes things happen. There is also a tendency among reporters to
pretend that they are in places that they are not--"near Kabul" is a
notorious example. And that heats up the competition.
It's gladdening to see how much one's productivity rises once you know
a place a little bit. I have a good mental map of the bazaar now, and
know where the people are who speak English or Russian. There are
several things I want to do but probably won't have time for. One is
to make a phone call to Dushanbe via short-wave radio. In principle it
is even possible for someone in Dushanbe to call me. They would have
to call the Afghan radio office there, and then get through to the
operator in Faisabad, and then have them put the call through to the
hotel. In fact, London could call me (if they spoke Farsi). In fact,
given enough patience and luck, I could even get on the Internet. I
should have brought my Meccano.
I'm also keen to find my little shoeshine boy again. I'm miffed that
he wasn't at the hotel this morning. One annoying change since my last
trip is that the children have started begging. They used to be
friendly, and shout "Hello Mister what's your name". But thoughtless
colleagues have been handing out sweets and money, and now they assume
that all westerners are going to give them things. It's a classic
example of how lazy moral thinking makes things worse. I suppose it's
inevitable. I wouldn't mind handing over hundreds of dollars to them,
but the whole thing is wrong. . Much better to give the money to
Afghan Aid, but some people can't be bothered to think through what
they are doing. But I never find him again. Perhaps he has made enough
money to move on.
Sunday night it is raining, so I have to come inside. I snore
andQuicksilver bellows at me to shut up. An evocative, and not very
pleasant, reminder of school. Somehow, we have the room to ourselves,
and everyone else is crammed in. We also have some whisky in his water
bottle, which we gulp furtively. I don't really approve, but now we've
got it, we might as well drink it.
The next morning Quicksilver has a wash, and splutters and swears
about the cold water. "It's all right for you public schoolboys, but
we state school lads like hot food and hot water", he grumbles. From
the way he talks I always thought he went to Eton or somewhere, but in
fact it was a state school in Doncaster. Funny how the English class
system is always there at the back of one's mind.
I spend the morning writing up my notes from the day before. The great
snare in this sort of trip is that the work ethic drives you to do
more and more interviews, but in the end they are all a blur. The
self-discipline to "waste" a morning writing things out properly has
taken me ten years to acquire. At the back of my mind is the feeling
that a proper journalist would fill his notebook with beautiful
ready-to-use material. But I've almost never met anyone like that.
After lunch, a clean-shaven and rather nervous chap clutching a
dictionary turns up offering to be my interpreter. His English is
miles better than anyone else's (more literate but less fluent that
Fawad's). So I hire him on the spot. Trouble is, he turns out to be
working for the Sage, Iva, and a couple of others. They are furious.
Quite rightly, because poaching other people's translators is a
heinous breach of ethics. An added awkwardness is that he has also
offered his services to Quicksilver, without telling the others. So he
is peeved too. Eventually I am able to persuade them that it was all a
misunderstanding. Particularly as I can show them that I don't
actually want a full-time interpreter-half-days suit me much better.
So they can have him in the mornings and evenings, and I'll have him
in the middle of the day. He earns more, we're all happy. Phew. This
place is stressful enough without bad blood between colleagues..
I go to the bazaar with Hamzi, who turns out to be obsessed with
western sexual mores and the iniquities of Islam. I think he has gone
a bit mad, which is understandable given that he is a well-educated
man marooned in the middle ages. We interview a top commander-head of
security for Badakshan province. The interview goes quite well, but
with a fairly testing quiz on Christian-Muslim relations at the end.
"We recognise Jesus as a prophet, so why don't you recognise Mohammed
(PBUH)". Although our commander claims to be a moderate, there is a
pretty rigid attitude to women. How can it be that in the West a man
can go to a friend's house, even WHEN HE IS NOT THERE, and talk to his
wife? Surely the temptation for adultery is overwhelming? It is so
difficult to bridge this sort of gap, that I almost can't be bothered
to try. Actually they are not really interested in what you say, they
just want a chance to chunter on about how wonderful Islam is and how
unfairly they are treated. There are a couple of useful dodges,
though. One is to say that the Koran is very hard to translate, and
that very few people in the west can read it in Arabic. This is
something they all know, but like to hear coming from us. Actually,
somebody told me, it is not that hard to translate (no more difficult
than the bible). I don't know if that's true or not.
The main thing I take away from the interview is that the bombing is
not very popular among supposedly pro-Western Afghans. And in fact
they are pro-western only in a fairly opportunistic way.
Then I have a long talk with Hamzi in a tea house. One of the main
things about having an interpreter is that you can quiz them about
everything from atheism to zoophilia The former is very rare in
Afghanistan, the latter endemic. There are lots of rude words to do
with the sexual orifices of a donkey.
My radio has been stolen. I stupidly left it in the garden for a bit
when I was playing scrabble with Quicksilver yesterday evening. It is
the very expensive little Sony, and I am very fond of it. No chance of
replacing it in Faisabad. I buy a radio in the bazaar, but it is
almost useless for getting the BBC in English. I am very upset,
because I am neurotic about listening to the news last thing at
night-I just can't get to sleep if I don't know what's happening.
Even more upsetting is that the laptop and Iridium just won't work
together. There is some bug deep inside the laptop that makes it crash
whenever the correction drops. This happens a lot because the
mountains are too high to keep a satellite in constant view. It
wouldn't matter otherwise. So I have to type my stories on my laptop,
and then retype them on Quicksilver's when he has finished filing.
Then I send them as an e-mail from his account. It is maddening to be
let down by technology like this. I just don't know what I could have
done differently, though. I have tried to change this laptop before,
but nobody in London takes my whingeing seriously. I suppose I should
have just smashed it, concocted an excuse, and demanded a new one, but
I can't bear to break a piece of machinery deliberately, even if it
will be to my advantage. But at least I can file, thanks to the
kindness of my colleague/rival.
On Tuesday I spend the morning writing, and then go to the New Town to
interview the MSF chap who I saw last time. He tells me that I am the
first journalist to come to see him twice. Then I talk to the
Norwegian Committee for Afghanistan, about forestry. This is really
interesting-much more than the war. I love stories about the way in
which countries work. This whole place depends on firewood, and
there's very little left. Then to the ICRC. He has been in Kabul, so
he's very informative about how the Taliban work.
In the evening there is an exciting new arrival-a jeep of exhausted,
frightened journalists who have just come from the Pansheer. The
Anjoman pass that they have travelled over is as high as Mont Blanc.
Winter has started, it is snowing hard there, and they nearly didn't
make it. They are all pretty tough chaps, but can hardly conceal how
shaken they are. They plan to set off at 2am to try to be back in
Dushanbe by tomorrow evening. I don't think this is a terribly good
idea, given that the roads are pretty bad even by day. But given what
they have been through, they probably don't worry about it much. It is
by far the most dangerous aspect of this whole war, actually, the
dreadful driving on dreadful roads. If any journalists get killed,
that will be the cause, not stray bullets.
One of them has done a truly courageous thing, cleaning out a really
revolting turd-infested loo in their rented house so that everyone can
have a more or less civilised bowel movement. I think that's much
braver than going up to the front line. Personally, I'd have paid $100
to have someone else do it, which reflects the influence of the
Economist world view on my moral fibre.
On Wednesday there is an interview with the president. The form is
more interesting than the content. He has one of the few decent houses
in Faisabad, with a lot of trees in the garden. The security is pretty
incompetent and the search misses several of my inside pockets. We
hang about for a bit, then get about an hour, myself and Quicksilver
firing questions in turns. Rather more interesting is a talk with his
interpreter, who has studied international law in Malaysia. Most
interesting of all is a long discussion with Nazeer. He has this
annoying but revealing trick of saying "please give some advice. Why
do you western journalists always portray us like this. What can we do
to create a different impression". Fair enough, but as soon as you
start making a few practical suggestions, you just get a long harangue
about how prejudiced you are. I've had this all over eastern Europe
too, and I now know that the only safe exit is to ask questions but
not reveal your own opinion, beyond generalities.
In the evening there are more interesting visitors-a truck, full of
equipment from an American television company, that needs to get to
the Panshir. They have lots of nice toys, including a really small
light generator (Honda, of course). But they are in an impossible
position. The four who got out yesterday only just managed. I don't
think they will make it all, more than 24 hours later. But the
producer is under ridiculous pressure from New York to push on. His
boss tells him "sometimes, Rod, you just have to do as best you can
and then trust in the Lord for the rest". The danger is that they will
get completely stuck in some small village between here and there,
unable to get out until the spring. Or that the lorry will simply roll
down the side of the mountain, killing them.
I have filed all my stories-six in all. I don't know how many they
will use. I am beginning to get a bit twitchy about the route back.
Suddenly, a whole bunch of new journalists arrives. A plane has come
in from Faisabad. They include some of the people we used to wait with
outside the Afghan embassy. They have simply been cooling their heels
there while we have been gallivanting around inside Afghanistan. I
feel very superior and give them lots of patronising advice about
where to shop etc. Someone produces a bottle of vodka and Quicksilver
and I have a very enjoyable game of scrabble. With supreme
consideration, he has leant me his shortwave radio, as well as the
partial use of his laptop. So I am staying relatively sane.
Quicksilver would quite like to make another trip somewhere, but I am
all for taking the chance of the plane back. We have bought huge tin
trunks for our stuff, and make a final shopping expedition. I am
rather cross that we spent too long shopping in the bazaar, and missed
the chance of a guaranteed ride back to Khoja with the friendly
journalist from VOA, who for reasons I don't quite understand has
driven all the way to Faisabad in order to spend less than a day here.
We did get some good souvenirs though (shades of Corker and Pigge).
Quicksilver has a real eye for a bargain. I don't. I pay too much for
things I don't really want.
In retrospect, it is a good thing that we miss the lift. But at the
time I am rather peeved, and Quicksilver even more so. Especially as
the plane is looking a rather chancy prospect as the day wears on.
Some say it is going to Iran. And the weather is bad (heard that one
before). So we hang about and play Scrabble, a threesome with the
Sage, helped by Czech-Canadian Iva, who turns out to be brilliant. I
would be pathetic in any other language, as opposed to being
pathetically competitive in English.
Finally we are told to go at once to the airport. We are four people:
Quicksilver, the Sage, Iva and myself. I fear there will be a long
wait, and we have a sweepstake about how long it will be. Quicksilver
bets an hour. I say 100 mins, the Sage says 120, and Iva an optimistic
30. We meet some more people there who have been waiting for several
hours already. Quicksilver is afraid that is is the Grumps, but it
turns out that they are very friendly NGO people, who have been doing
a needs asssesment. One of them likes Kipling, so we have a few
minutes on that. But she hasn't read the Light that Failed, which is
my favourite at the moment. After about an hour, the pilot has turned
up, and a bunch of 30 skinny taciturn men who look as if they were on
their way to a training course somewhere.
As indeed they are-they are part of the presidential security service,
who are going to be trained in Iran. Plus there is a little boy with
some hideous growth on his face, who is going to have medical
treatment abroad. I'd like to go and play with him, but he is with his
burqa-clad mother, and I don't think I can handle the cultural
I win the sweepstake with by a minute. I have also won the Scrabble,
which is very bad for my ego. The Sage gets quite cross because he is
not winning. I suppose he is used to being the most erudite, literary,
person around. Scrabble is rather a brutal and narrow test of one's
vocabularly and suppleness of mind, but it is a test all the same. And
I keep winning. The Sage gets even crosser because I get a glance at
his letters, and immediately see that he can do p-i-q-u-e going down
from the opening p-o-n-d-s. He is cross that I have helped him (my
word was much better than what he was thinking of doing). I think of
making a silly joke that pique has piqued him, but decide that now is
not the moment.
The plane is pretty alarming. It seats 25. There are 30 presidential
guards. Four journalists (myself, Quicksilver, the Sage and Iva).
Plus the little boy and two grown-ups. Plus a couple of Afghans along
for ride. The engines are just starting when there is a frantic noise
outside and four more people burst on board. I am rather cross
(because I am scared) but when I hear their story I can see why. They
have just come on an exhausting three-day trip from the Panshir,
including several hours going over the Anjoman pass on foot. Thick
snow, and their bags carried by some helpful Afghan fighters, wearing
plastic sandals. They had just arrived in Faisabad and thought of
trying the airport on the off-chance that there might be a plane.
Somehow, they have persuaded the pilot that when we are this
overloaded already, four more don't really matter. Perhaps one reason
is that two of them are devastatingly elegant (despite everything)
Not that this helps much after we take off. After a bit, the pilot
asks us all to huddle up at the front of the plane so that he can get
the tail up. It is quite a squash, but you can really see the plane
coming to a more comforting angle. I have always been rather
contemptuous of Soviet technology, but having seen what the UAZ jeep,
the Kamaz truck, the MI-8 helicopter and other workhorses can do in
extreme conditions, I am rather more impressed.
The fun really starts when we land-at the wrong airport. Turns out
that Dushanbe airport is closed because of bad weather, and we are at
a Russian military airport instead, where there are no facilities for
processing foreigners. I try some opening vranyo, but it is clear that
this is a pretty serious problem. Serious, that is, in that we may
have to sleep in the plane (the trainee security guards have all
disappeared somewhere). I don't really mind but I would like to be
back in peace and comfort now that I have finally made it back to some
sort of modernity.
I have a very short and very hard think. The first thing is to block
their plans. Then to make one of our own. They want us just to take
the things need for the night and leave the rest on the plane. I
insist that we take all the bags off. If we have our luggage with us,
we can physically leave the airport. If it is locked up in the plane,
and the crew has gone home, then we can't.
So we manhandle all the bags onto the tarmac. That's our first
defensive line. Now what.
Sheer pleading is not going to work. A French colleague suggests a
large bribe. But I don't think that will work. The Russian commander
looks pretty solid to me. It might make things worse. And there are so
many witnesses, we can't bribe them all. And I hate bribery anyway.
The thing to do in these situations is to show that you are friendly,
second that you are powerful, and thirdly that you are trying to find
a way out that suits everybody. Friendly is easy. I hand out
cigarettes to all the Russians (Quicksilver bought 40 packs of
Marlboro with him from Munich, and we still have lots left), and chat
a bit, apologising for having put them in an inconvenient situation.
While doing that I get a feel for who is who. There is a nice young
uniformed Russian called Zhenya, who seems to be the number two. There
is a friendly, patriarchal English-speaking plain-clothes Afghan, who
is clearly the top person on that side (the Afghans rent this airport
from the Russians); but he won't have the clout to get us in. There is
a plain-clothes guy with a moustache from the Tajik KGB. But he defers
to the Russians too. Then there is the solid-looking Russian in plain
clothes who barks out a summary of the position and stomps off.
He won't let us out of the airport without written authorisation from
the Russian borderguard command post in Dushanbe. It is already after
office hours, so there is very little chance of getting hold of anyone
important. He can't call Dushanbe from the airport because his phone
only makes local calls. The only thing that might help is if our
embassies get involved, and make a formal request, either in Dushanbe
or Moscow, to let us into the country.
This is a slender straw, but worth grasping. Luckily we have no fewer
than two Americans. And even more luckily, we have lots of satphones.
Luckily too, I have the out-of-hours number for the American embassy
in Dushanbe, which has just reopened. So I get the Sage to call them
and explain the situation. Meanwhile I call the border guards' press
centre. But they have gone home. I have the home number for the deputy
head of the press centre, but he is not at home. That may be the last
resort for later on then.
The Sage has got through to the American military attache. I pretend
to the Russians that we are talking to the ambassador. The top Russian
comes back, just as the American hangs up because his ambassador wants
to use the phone. The Russian's name is Major Zekirov. I tell him (not
quite truthfully) that we have just had the ambassador on the phone,
and the embassy is working on the problem. This may seem trivial, but
it is actually just the right tactical move. It now gives him an
incentive to solve the problem before the procedural equivalent of an
American airstrike lands on his headquarters. People in countries like
this are strangely deferential towards embassies, ascribing them
vastly exaggerated powers (it is because their embassies abroad
exercise so much power over their own diaspora, I think).
I then grab my satphone and walk back with him to his office, running
through a range of possible solutions (eg we leave our passports with
him and they take us to Dushanbe under escort). I suggest that there
must be a 24-hour control centre at HQ, where the senior officer would
probably be able to issue the right sort of authorisation. Yes, he
admits, there is. Do you happen to have the number? Yes he does. So I
whip out my satphone and try it. Unfortunately the connection is very
bad because by now we are inside his office. But he manages to get
through a couple of times, to the point that his interest is now
engaged. The other Russian suggests some more numbers.
I then suggest that we go back and try on one of the big satphones, so
he comes back to the disconsolate group of hacks who are still sitting
on their bags next to the plane. We try calling the numbers, and get
through. He starts explaining the position. I am beginning to get more
optimistic. Most of the others don't speak Russian, and I decide not
to explain in too much detail what's going on in case it doesn't work.
Meanwhile a couple of other problems have cropped up. The Sage and one
other journalist, who have been in Afghanistan for ages, have expired
Tajik visas. And some of the humanitarian lot don't have any sort of
Tajik accreditation. But by now the bigwigs in Dushanbe are trying to
solve the problem too. I think he has told them that the American
embassy is involved. Thank goodness for a friendly superpower.
Actually, I don't think the Americans have done anything at all yet,
but the incantation alone has some power.
I overhear him asking what to do about the expired visas. They stay
just stamp them anyway. It is clear that we are going to be all right.
He puts the phone down, collects all the passports again, and goes off
to his office. I come with him, chatting gently all the way. When we
get there, I say very politely "so we will be sleeping in our own beds
tonight?" "Absolutely, no problem" he says. I walk back to the plane,
whistling the Beatles' "I've got a ticket to ride" so everyone will
know it is OK as soon as I am in earshot.
It still takes another hour or so to do all the formalities, during
which we have most of another game of Scrabble (interrupted by our
departure, which is sad as I was winning). Another complication is
that the Sage is on deadline, desperate to check the final draft of
his piece. I have never seen him rattled before. I have got the
patriarchal Afghan to find him a powerpoint, but it is under a canopy
outside, where the metal struts prevent his satphone from working. But
he does have a nine-hour time difference with New York, so it isn't
really that bad.
Eventually the bus comes, and we sling all our stuff inside.
Quicksilver wants his revenge, so we have another game of Scrabble.
But while trying to retrieve a dropped tile, he gashes his hand, and
then covers his trousers with iodine while trying to disinfect the
wound. Later on, the same trousers are washed together with my white
T-shirt, which then goes a bilious shade of yellow. Still, a Scrabble
injury is pretty classy.
There are a couple of farcical notes to end on. One is that our bus
gets lost in Dushanbe, and we spend 40 minutes driving around trying
to find the Interior Ministry, where our guard has to register our
arrival. Late that night, I am downing a cold beer in the hotel, when
I am accosted by a buxom and slightly deranged prostitute, who is
trying to proposition an Italian cameraman. He is teasing her,
pretending that he doesn't understand what she is saying (her English
is pretty bad, almost Afghan-interpreter level ). So I get dragged
into the conversation. It proves very amusing. He says "Ah, so you are
suggesting $50. I normally charge $100, but for you my dear, only
$50". She is baffled by that. He elucidates. "You see, I am Italian.
You will remember one night with me all your life--$50 is nothing for
that". She gives a really cacophonous laugh at that, and I find myself
quite liking her, despite her being fat, smelly, with gold teeth and
very ugly fat boots. The photographer then suggests a "zero option".
But she won't have it, and is still hooting with laughter at the idea
that a man might charge a woman for sex.
Suddenly another man plucks my arm. "Could you ask her if she would
come back to the Hotel Dushanbe with me?". Suddenly the ridiculousness
of the situation penetrates the tired, alcoholic fog in my brain.
``I'm the Moscow bureau chief of the Economist'' I snap with drunken
pomposity. ``I've just come back from Afghanistan, and I'm not here to
act as some sort of pimp for you''. He looks stricken. ``I do read the
Economist'', he says placatingly. ``It's a really serious magazine''.
I dissolve into uncontrollable giggles, quite close to hysteria,
really--fuelled I suppose by all the repressed anxiety of the past
week--and head happily home.
Friday, November 02, 2001