This is my 17th trip to Afghanistan in 5 years. Much has changed (for the better) in Kabul but so much has remained the same or regressed in remote areas. The airport is brand new, paid for by the Japanese but the attitudes of personnel remain ancient as perhaps the city itself. All 5 immigration counters have a sign that says “Open” but only one is manned, causing a serpentine line of irritated arrivals. Those with connections with higher-ups in line behind me send their passport through officers lounging around and my wait is prolonged even more they are stamped before mine; I seethe.
Aliakberbhai Ratansi of Al Imaan Charitable Trust is accompanying me this trip and we are early to the airport next morning for our flight to Heraat where CAI is sponsoring the construction of 36 additional houses for the victims of Talibaan massacres. Aliakberbhai, apart from being genial company, is wise in many years of school construction and administration, CAI task at hand in Sar Pol later in the trip. The housing project is on time, on budget and surprisingly, so is our flight back to Kabul a day later.
We encounter a pretty scary incident on return to our hotel from the housing complex that day. I have my laptop bag containing our passports and some cash by my side, covered up by a keffiyeh, just as a precautionary measure against theft and the ever omnipotent dust of Afghanistan. We are stopped by a 5 man security team who order Wasi to pull up. The country is tense due to parliamentary election on Saturday, with frequent security stops and checks of vehicles everywhere. A bulky solider approaches our vehicle and spots the wrapped bag between me and Basheer and freezes. He frantically gestures a signal and barks something as all 5 soldiers train their automatic M-16 rifles in our direction; it is time for us to freeze.
The scariest part of being in Afghanistan is the apparent flood of arms; countless Afghan men carelessly tote a machine gun; my paranoia is for one going off by accident and somebody (me?) innocent falling prey. Using his machine gun, the officer gestures for us to get out of the car; the thing is ugly looking and very scary, making me so nervous, my tongue feels as dry as the arid terrain outside. He orders me to bring out my bag which he roughly throws on the roof of Wasi’s car. He then orders me to open it; I do with trembling, nervous fingers as all the rest of them now have their weapons pointed at me with fingers on the trigger. Satisfied I am not wired or carrying a bomb, the officer relaxes, takes his finger off the trigger and apologizes, orders us to leave; we do so with extraordinary haste, did not realize we could move so fast.
That night, September 17, as we sleep on the floor of our engineers Wasi and Basheer’s dilapidated office, Kabul hotels much too dangerous as targets of attacks, the ground beneath us shakes. The first jolt is quite severe as I actually feel the cement ripple under my spine followed by a less intense jolt and then tremors and shaking of the structure. Both Aliakber and I rush outside and join the others from the other room. I am surprised the office is still standing; it is a pretty old building in need of major repairs. Our engineers have got the use of it for free so are happy with the status quo and don’t spend any money on it. Wasi, Basheer, Aliakberbhai and Khaleeqdad, the servant, are off and asleep soon afterwards. I spend some time out in the cold alone, contemplating, before it gets too chilly and I head back into the blankets.
The next day is spent doing absolutely nothing as the city is virtually shut down due to the elections; we spend time surfing the internet that loads so slow, I can see and feel my fingernails grow. We do, however, have an excellent open air barbecue; I marinated some lamb chops yesterday and it turns out very tender and yummy. Have that with fresh hot Afghan nan and you are in lamb chop heaven.
We have been asked to report at the airport by 7AM next day to catch the PACTEK chartered flight to Sar Pol but nothing happens until 9AM when we are finally airborne, piloted by Andre the Swiss. I always pray to God to never make me despondent, even if He chooses not to enrich me, for despondency is a terribly horrid feeling to have. And despondency is exactly what I find in Sar Pol among the 2,000 or so internally displaced refugees that Iran has expelled back to Afghanistan. They live in flimsy UNHCR handout tents that I cannot even imagine what will be like this coming winter. This community in Sar Pol has many, many problems, from food to housing to education. CAI has chosen to address the education problem. About 400 students, from grade 1 – 10 study out on the open, literally under the mercy of elements. So schooling is possible only for about 5 months of summer, if not raining, the rest of time is too cold and windy for classes. CAI will begin construction on a modest elementary school that will take care of children not having to fight the elements and study in relative comfort. I leave Sar Pole with a very heavy heart; for the misery of these hapless people is gut wrenching. After presentation of 5 sheep each to 14 widows in CAI sponsored Widows Economic Empowerment at a village 1 hour drive away, we retire at a local home and fly back to Kabul the next day and onwards to Mumbai the day after.
There is apprehension in the air after we land in Mumbai; it is the last day of Ghanpaty festival with loud firecrackers and throngs of people with multicolored streaks in their hair and bodies everywhere. There is also the Ayodhya Masjid verdict on Friday with schools closed and the country bracing for violence. The drive from airport to home is an adventure in itself as we get bogged down in the Ganesh processions that snarl traffic. Our vehicle, a brand new VW Polo that Aliakberbhai’s son Abbas is driving ever so carefully is scratched by an errant rickshaw driver in the melee we find ourselves in. A large group of pulsating teenagers are jerking about, as if possessed by the devil, to very loud throbbing music. Amidst this fracas of teeming people, the dancing and loud music, huge firecrackers are set off, setting off palpitations in tender hearts. For a moment I think I am still in Afghanistan and perhaps have finally made rendezvous with an explosive. But the mass of humanity, grime and filth outside, relentless sewer stink, hopelessly snarled cars centimeters away from each other fenders and noise pollution reassures me I am in Mumbai, India indeed. I will be all right, Insha’Allah.
You may be interested in watching these photographs.