It has only just sunk in: I’m in Afghanistan and I’m with the military, going on an embed. It hit me hard whilst sitting on a bunk bed in an air conditioned tent full of US marines, US army and British soldiers and their gear. This is real, and Axel, the photographer, and I are complete rookies in this biz. Glad to have him with me though, may I say.
We touched down at Kabul International at 06:40, landing with the Afghan carrier Safi Air on a misty morning. I hadn’t slept at all since we left Frankfurt at 15:20 with Emirates flying to Dubai and landing there close to midnight – getting hit by 38 degrees Celsius leaving the aircraft.
The malls in the terminal were nicely air conditioned though. We sipped on a café latte from Costa, talking about our plans of what we might be able to cover in the three weeks in Afghanistan. To be honest we didn’t really have a clue what we were in for.
At 3:30 we boarded our Safi Air flight. This part of the journey was quite different from the all inclusive flair of the Emirates. This Airbus A320 was furnished with what very likely was 1970s Lufthansa fake leather upholstery. The nets at the backs of the seats were completely torn. On the ceiling the jet sported retro TV-sets which didn’t work. Strangely enough, because the machine looked okay from the outside – nice paint job – I felt comfortable.
The passengers on the flight were a rag tag bunch of Afghans, European aid workers and what looked like private security personnel, the latter travelling with big hold all rucksacks with karabiners attached – a military air about them, but with the aura of mercenaries. One of them was this beefy type of guy, a bodybuilder in his fifties graying, with upper arms with the diameter of a thigh, growing fat slowly with barbed wire tattooed around his biceps.
We got to Kabul on time. No sleep to be had. The sky at 6:40 in the morning was overcast. You could only just make out the rugged mountain range flanking the capital. After we got off the plane we went through immigration. Stickers on the barriers between the lanes indicated Germany had sponsored them. The officer on duty didn’t seem too welcoming as he stamped the visa.
Once we got to the baggage reclaim, we couldn’t believe it – both our duffle bags got here with content, flak jackets and helmets. We were convinced from the outset that we would have to get along with only the content of our hand luggage for the three weeks – and had packed accordingly.
A guy at the exit directed us to the only kiosk in the pretty minimalistic main terminal building. I rang up the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) handling all ISAF embeds in Kabul, Petty Officer First Class Daniel Gay, from the shop owner’s mobile and paid two dollars for two minutes. I hoped Gay would come from the military part to the civilian part of the airport and pick us up. He insisted we should get a taxi.
We exited the building. Trailing just behind us was a guy, I turned, looked, and his face seemed familiar but I couldn’t place him immediately. He seemed to recognise me too. We quickly figured out he was a fellow student from ten years back, when we studied International Politics in Wales together. We were both so baffled we didn’t quite know what to say.
Axel and I were a bit worried, because of the prospect of having to get a taxi. Thoughts of abduction and ransom money crossed our minds. We went with the guy we just met, who works for a German government development agency, the GIZ, in Northern Afghanistan, where the German army is in command and seemed to know his way around. He had already been working in Afghanistan for a year.
He said we might be able to hitch a ride with him and courtesy of his personal pick-up driver, although he said straight away, that he would be breaking strict rules of his agency not to take any non-employees with them. Since the security situation seems to be deteriorating, everybody is looking into reducing risks.
Walked passed some Afghan National Police (ANP) in their gray bluish uniforms armed with AK-47 assault rifles. We left the airport compound and got to the main parking lot. The guy found his driver. The car was full, he said apologising. They already had to take others with them. So, we somehow had to get to the military main gate ourselves.
We went over to the “taxi stand” – a row of pretty battered looking vehicles – and got into a yellow cab. The driver seemed okay. At least he understood where we wanted to go. Some parts of the taxi were carpeted. On the inside of the wind screen he had a picture of a guy, who looked like the popular Northern warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated just before 9/11 by Al Qaida.
We drove down an alley around a lawless roundabout and then along the perimeter of the airport fence with fortified towers along a potholed street. Heaps of garbage lined the sidewalk, then a herd of goats, children playing in between. Some black plastic bags were fluttering in the concertina wire of the fence.
Long five minutes later we got to our destination unscathed and highly relieved. The promise of a far too high fare of 20 dollars might just have helped keep our driver on track and us out of trouble.
We checked in with a bunch of Belgian paratroopers in full gear manning their sand bagged bunker. Gay came to pick us up. He had our ISAF media badges ready. We had completed the first stage of our mission and were happy to hear that just a few hours later we could catch a military lift to Bagram …