It Rained Bombs in Kabul
Indian Airline flight IA844 to Kabul is bang on time, a miracle of sorts and we troupe to another half hearted security check before we board a bus that takes us to the aircraft. The flight is only about quarter full; due perhaps to increased security concerns of upcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan, so the breakfast service is fast and efficient. This is my eleventh foray into Afghanistan in the last four years and accompanying me this trip is a veteran Mumbai social worker Imran Dharsi; I need him for company and a sounding board for sometimes tense moments in this country CAI serves. Although the flight arrives early, it is made to circle Kabul for forty minutes because the airport is “full”. And so it is, the new Japanese donated terminal is full of local arrivals and we have to queue for about an hour before we clear immigration and customs.
Wasi Mohammadan and Basheer Rajaee, our project engineers, interpreters, guides and everything else that makes what we do possible in Afghanistan are at the airport. After hotel check-in and a quick bite, we are off to Daste Barche for Iftaar distribution to the poor and destitute and to inspect the construction in progress of Imam Hussein (A) Elementary and High School; CAI’s most ambitious and important project ever. This school will, insha’Allah, educate about 4,100 internally displaced refugees who get no education at present.
We begin with the distribution to about 230 families with basic Ramadhan ration of 50lbs atta, 10 litters cooking oil and a box of tea; this mix will be the standard throughout Afghanistan (Kabul, Heraat, Mazaar, Bamiyaan, YawKawlang, Ghazni and Sacheck) to 2,300 destitute and poor families, mainly widows with children. My delight and happiness knows no bounds when we begin the school inspection; why, the first floor is almost complete! And this is no shoddy work by any standards. This is first class quality construction that I have insisted all along. CAI will, insha’Allah, run and manage this school, unlike the five schools in Ghazni which were handed over to the Ministry of Education. We excitedly plan to launch classes three months pre-schedule, just after Nawrooz, 2010. Insha’Allah.
We wake up to a day full of drama, adventure and adrenaline pumping dread next day. We reach the airport driving through a quiet city past the American Embassy early. At a special area of the airport, where the UN administered PACTEC hanger / office is located, Andre, the Swiss pilot who will fly us to Bamiyaan in a four seater chartered Cesna210 informs us the airport is shut down. There has been a missile attack on the airport and there is debris on the runway that needs to be cleared; my blood pressure decides to act funny. Andre, who speaks fluent Dari, speculates a forty five minute delay which keeps on extending every half hour. Then all cell phone lines are cut off, prompting speculation and much disquiet in our camp of four. We later learn there was a suicide attack outside the US Embassy that very same early morning which killed ten innocent civilians and maimed many more so the phone line cut was a precautionary measure. We resort to eating a huge naan sandwich stuffed with spicy fries; a poor man’s Kabuli lunch; it is delicious, we are starved and under much stress!
Four hours after scheduled departure time, we get clearance for takeoff and are away and aloft. I get to sit next to Andre, what a neat treat! I suddenly realize the Cesna210 is single engine and point this out to Andre. This aircraft has been in service for ten years in Afghanistan and I have flown it four years personally, no incidents, he says and smiles reassuringly; has he noticed nervousness in my voice? The air above Afghanistan in summer tends to be unstable, with hot winds streaming from the Gulf in Iran and racing through tunnels formed by mountains so our tiny aircraft is rocked constantly as it drones towards Bamiyaan. Poor Imranbhai, who has never been in such a small aircraft before, is doubled up in his seat, clutching wildly at Wasi every time the aircraft bobs, who regards Imranbhai with increased concern. A free rollercoaster ride, I mouth to Imranbhai; he is clearly not amused.
Predictably, the marriage ceremony in Bamiyaan is over by the time we reach the venue after landing into a spectacular view of the village. We end up distributing gifts to the newly wed couples, followed by Iftaar distribution to 230 poor families and sheep to 25 widows. We then torture drive towards YawKawlang, a distance of about sixty miles that takes us six hours. Let me tell you a bit about mountain dust for it has very special characteristics of a torture element. Unlike dust or sand from the Gulf, Afghan dust is fine powder and easily excitable when stirred. It will find a way to you however tightly you close yourself in and there is tons of it. So it is a constant fight between fresh air and dust all along the drive in the summer heat; I am amazed this very route had melting snow last May when I last came by.
I am planning to stay in a “rest house” up a steep hill in YawKawlang, a rudimentary setup that we roughed out the last time, but our driver Zuhoor will not hear of it, insisting we spend the night at his extended home. I am very reluctant; rural Afghan homes have very few toilets and these are usually located outside the compound, otherwise it is the fields and the sky as your roof, what you step on or worse, what you encounter is what gives me the creeps. Yet Zuhoor insists so I give in. My worry is needless; the guest room in the compound has lush carpets we can sleep on and there is a hole in the ground toilet that smells optimal evil but is covered and lighted and within the compound so I am a happy man. Zohoor’s family is business related so we have a mini feast for dinner, tons of curried beef with rice and naan and fruits and even dessert.
After a breakfast of more naan and sweetened black tea, we go to an all men hammam for a bath; for about thirty US cents, I get a warm water bath and see clear water run off brown off me as the dust from yesterday exit my body. I wonder what women do to cleanse themselves… We spend the morning distributing Iftaar packages to about 320 families and run short; there are about twenty widows who have not made the official list and have firmly planted themselves at the entrance of the mosque wanting to speak with me. Each of them have a story to tell but I do not have time to listen to all. I request the mosque elders to verify they are indeed eligible and arrange for them to be given Iftaar packages; I will worry about the money later. Insha’Allah.
Another two hours drive and we are in Sacheck for fifty marriages and sheep distribution program tomorrow. Zuhoor’s vehicle is surrounded by curious kids who do not get to meet visitors often and it is in this crowd of children I spot Ali Yaar, a boy of twelve, obviously in pain. Ali has broken an arm falling off a donkey but there are no medical facilities to set his broken arm or put it in a cast. Ali’s arm is wrapped around a cardboard in the hope the bone will heal itself; it might, but at a broken angle. Sacheck is so remote, it has no doctors, no shops, no place to buy a coke or order a cup of tea, not even cell phone service. Its nine thousand inhabitants live a primal existent, devoid of all modern facility. They live off the land, animals and their religion, for it does have a mosque and a Husseniya. I arrange to have Ali transported to a nearest clinic where he will, insha’Allah, have his arm set and plastered. But that will happen tomorrow, there are no donkeys to take him to the clinic today and it late in the day anyway.
We visit preparations for tomorrow’s marriages and feast; a nervous cow waits for me to bless before it will be slaughtered. I say a prayer and the animal is history, the blood of it drained off at a nearby river. Imranbhai and I are offered a cool glass of water from this very river a few minutes later. When I hesitate and then refuse, Aaghae Amini, the local religious chief assures me the river water is safe and pure. Hello? Didn’t you just drain every last bit of blood from the cow and are the caterers not cleaning the carcass in the very river this very second? I politely refuse and stick to bottled water we brought from YawKawlang. I get introduced to two very young girls, both about seven. One with a cleft lip and the other with a serious and mature case of Spina Bifida; what I can do or say but arrange for them to be sent to Kabul for possible treatment and worry about the money later.
We will spend the night at Aaghae Amini’s house, a modest mud home with a simple room allocated to us. We experience real Afghan poverty that night and the next morning at dinner and breakfast, both meals modest and simple; naan, yogurt and spinach for dinner and the same naan, few stale raisins and sweetened black tea for breakfast. The naan is so hard, I abandon attempts to break it in pieces after a while.
The marriages, Iftaar and sheep distribution are uneventful successes and we depart for YawKawlang in the hot afternoon after waleemo lunch. After another bathing ritual at the ancient hammam, we wait for tomorrow and our flight back to Kabul with Andre. We leave for the “airstrip” immediately after salaat as Andre has warned us he would be early to avoid the hot air bumps from two days ago. I am convinced Zuhoor is erring when we get to the “airstrip”, a deserted patch of grass in between four mountains on all sides. “Are you sure, Zuhoor? is our continues refrain question. After a few more such questions, Zuhoor begins to look uncertain as well and I start to feel uncomfortably nervous; if we miss this flight, it is a minimum eighteen hour drive through some very rough and dangerous terrain. We wait nervously and all of us make a bee line to the bushes for relief.
After about ten minutes, I hear the drone first and sure enough, the Cesna210 appears over the horizon and makes a wide turn to make a very bumpy and dusty landing with Andre at the controls. Andre hands me a set of headphones so we could communicate in-flight and we take off a few minutes later; I am delirious with excitement at this special treat. This return flight is a lot smoother, plus Andre is a very nice person; he treats us to a low fly past Bande Amir, a breathtaking beautiful turquoise lake. Legend has it Imam Ali (A) had visited this very lake and blessed it so hundreds of local Afghan residents descend on it every year seeking relief from various ailments. As we approach Kabul, Andre makes contact with Air Control and I listen in to the chatter of aircraft pilots in the air and ground.
Security in and around Kabul takes a turn for worse as bombs explode earnestly on the last day we are here; there are at least three that day, one deadly killing ten NATO troops south of the city. Kabul seems subdued and eerie, the usual bustle and traffic curtailed by a virtual blockade and checkpoints every few miles. We want to lie low but I must visit Rishkore, an improvised area outside Kabul where CAI is constructing a mosque and where we have installed water pumps and containers; alhamd’Allah, all goes well although Al Qaeda attacks a bank at Chandawaal, close to where we drive by.
Tomorrow, election day, insha’Allah, we return to Mumbai via Delhi but news reports tell us the city will be shut down; no city taxis allowed on roads and no vehicles from outside Kabul allowed in. I call up Sayyedna Muhammed Mussawi of WABIL in London and request an official security cleared vehicle from his friend Aagha Saalehi, a junior cabinet minister to take us to the airport. Sayyedna Mussawi comes through immediately and we are whisked to the airport the next morning by Saalehi’s son, Jawaad, without incident. With sounds of gunfire in the background, we eagerly enter the airport terminal and depart Afghanistan in an almost empty aircraft; I am home by six PM. Alhamd’Allah.