I have never penned the story of how I landed up in and got involved with Afghanistan. The closest I can get to describing the feeling I have for this battered country is of a mother to her child. She bears incredible pain at childbirth, yet the love after the birth, even if the child is stone-dead ugly, remains eternal. So I do it now, some fourteen years after I first set foot on this badbakth country.
It is a cold, bitter day in December 2005 and the unheated terminal at Kabul airport is very little comfort. I am a nervous wreck already, as the ancient, whining Ariana Air aircraft I took from Dubai is so beat up, I had to pinch myself hard to ensure the thing had landed indeed. The immigration officer who inspects my US passport is so surprised that a non-military firangi is visiting his country, it takes him a couple of long pulls from a smoldering cigarette (under a battered No Smoking sign) before he gives me a sympathetic lopsided grin and lets me enter his country.
The entire area outside the terminal is as desolate as the tundra, except heaps of plowed iced snow. I stamp my feet in several failed attempts to get the freezing blood circulating; I panic. Where is the guy who is supposed to meet me and take me to Herat? When I cannot take the cold no more, I try and go back into the terminal, but the Kalashnikov-clad security hunk will have nothing of it and waves his weapon menacingly to shoo me back out again. When I am about to curse the man who convinced me to come to this badbakht country, I see a lone man with his face covered in a paltoo make his way towards me. He is Mohammed Nabawi, the manager of a boys orphanage in Herat, an air-hour away west of Kabul. He speaks no English; I speak no Dari. Never mind, I am so relieved to see him, I hug him as if we are long lost twins uniting. We maddeningly communicate mostly with hand gestures for the next 5 days.
Turns out the airport in Herat is closed under a blanket of snow. Nabawi took a freezing bus to come to Kabul for me, braving two uncomfortable days drive through Taliban controlled territory. When we go to the offices of Kam Air, the only airline that flies to Herat, they tell us they have no clue when the airport will reopen; we spend the next two days in Kabul. We are holed up in a zero-star hotel by the name of Insaaf, except there is very little justice served here. The room is heated by an open flame from a sour smelling gas cylinder, there is scalding hot water after 9PM only, but no cold water to mix it with and the toilet is installed backward, so taking a dump is a mighty delicate, tasking affair. I sleep attired in my parka, beret, and sneakers. I find the standard fare lamb Kabooli pulav rather strong and Nabavi cares not for pizza, the one alternative I can stomach, so we compromise on one each on alternate days.
The weather relents in Herat, the snow melts some and the airport reopens. However, airplane seats are going at a premium, since there is a huge backlog of wannabees wanting to fly there. The airline lady who we have been pestering the last two days caves in and issues us the tickets in a huff; she just wants to see the back of us, I suppose. Kabul airport resembles the fish market at Kariakoo in Dar es Salaam, except this one is freezing and filled with cigarette poison; it’s a riot, nobody has an idea about anything. Nabavi somehow gets our boarding passes issued, except the counter staff cannot confirm if and when the aircraft will arrive. By the time the antique aircraft lands, every part of me is frozen, I feel no pain. There is a surge towards the locked gates and the security guards battle to contain them. I can’t tell when the flight is called eventually, but the guards let go and the crowds run towards the aircraft. Nabavi warns me to join the mob while he throws himself into the scrambling crowds; being a tall and lanky Afghan, he has certain advantages. When I eventually enter the cabin, I nearly puke at the blast of BO that hits me. I eventually find Nabavi, hair disheveled and clothes in tatters, clinging to two seats, fists at the ready for anybody who would dare to occupy them.
The next couple of days are some of the most miserable in my life. I meet about 70 boy orphans in Herat; they tear my heart to pieces. They do not interact, talk or smile at me, even though I spend two days in their dungeon-like damp and chilly home. Two miserable squatting toilets for them all; young ones with weak bladders let go standing in line for their turn. They eat the most basic food; beans and rice or macaroni. Meat or chicken once a week; some have never tasted fish. I ask them if they want chocolate or ice-cream, but all they want are bananas. I go to the local market and buy two cartons of the treat; the boys finish them off quick as lightning; I smile while shedding uncontrollable tears; they finally smile back, baffled. Nabavi and I return to the market and I purchase 5 more cartons; they are gone by the time I depart the next day.
With my due diligence complete, I return to Kabul in a much-refined manner this time, accompanied by my guardian Nabavi. The Ariana flight to Dubai is canceled for the day (technical reasons) so we end up in a hotel again, this one with better justice than Insaaf Hotel from three days ago. I can’t wait to return to the warmth of Dubai. Afghanistan is not for me; I can’t take the pain and despair the now defeated Taliban have left behind, especially with orphaned children, some who have witnessed the rape of their mothers and sisters, the murders of their fathers or brothers and the pillage of their homes. I’ll let the sponsor of this visit ask someone else to manage the care of them; I’ll stick to safer and more familiar India. My mind is made up; it’s a plan.
However, I plan and Allah plans, except He is unmatched in planning. The next day, I have several hours before I need to be at the airport for my flight. The rugged mountains that surround Kabul look intriguing; I can see activity today, although it was eerily dark last night. So, I ask Nabavi about it. He informs me that there are about 30,000, mainly Hazara refugees, that have made their homes in the slopes of these hills called Chandaawal. They managed to escape the killings of the Taliban in the central regions of Afghanistan and many now lived without their guardians, all massacred by the Taliban. Nabavi agrees to take me to meet them. He advises me to dress warmly.
So, I do. A warm parka, beret, thick gloves, thicker socks snug in warm sneakers and a scarf to boot; I look a sight; you’d think I was going ice-fishing somewhere in Minnesota. The start of the climb is easy enough, until a light but incredibly icy wind starts blowing down on me from the icy tops. Halfway up and I’ve had enough; I want to go back. The wind is biting, even through the paraphernalia I have on. The sight of young kids totting and struggling under the weight of barrels of water inching their way up is horrifying; I am huffing and panting barehanded. The stench of an open sewer is overpowering. The ground is icy at several places and it is only Nabavi’s firm grip on me that keeps me on my feet. I begin whining, wanting to leave, but Nabavi asks me to be patient, that we’ll be able to meet some residents soon.
I do. I meet Fatema, Zainab, and Sakina, all sisters. They are on their way down, tugging the hated yellow barrels, to fill with water and luge them to their arid homes up in the hills. It is these three orphans that give birth to my enduring love and affection for Afghanistan.
To be continued…