The Way Back

Finally, the full V.I.P. treatment on our way back through Sharana (Photo: Loesche)

Meanwhile, Axel and I are back in Kabul. We arrived here yesterday at the military part of the airport. We are scheduled to fly on tomorrow in the morning to Dubai. The further we get from our embed, the more we wind down. Now, that we have some time to gather our thoughts, we slowly realise how exhausting this journey really was.

Three weeks were plenty.

We left the COP Sar Howza late on Saturday after we had the encounter with the mullah and mujahedeen Tuti. We were driven to the 172nd’s headquarters by MRAP convoy to Sharana and got there at around 22.00. The brigade’s PAO Major Buccino was waiting for us. He showed us our rooms. I was lucky to get room V.I.P. 2 this time. (About time. Buccino had been promising us the whole V.I.P. treatment since we first got here!).

In the news

I wrote a news piece for the agency about the mujahedeen getting involved in the peace process. Axel prepared three photos to go with it. We were both really knackered and slept in the next morning. Buccino had us signed up for a C-130 flight on Sunday afternoon.

We rode in his SUV to the terminal building, which in Sharana looks like a wooden saloon and stopped by at Green Beans Coffee, a franchise business that specialises on military bases. Once we got to the air field there were plenty of contractors and soldiers put down their names down for the flight. The roll call was at 16.55, we wouldn’t leave until 19.30. I suspected we wouldn’t make it because of the many passengers with higher priority.

The Game

Before the lights were turned off. The floor of the C-130 taking us from Sharana to Bagram (Photo: Loesche)

The most interesting thing about military air travel is that it’s so different from civilian air travel. First you don’t pay. The downside is that you – especially as a journalist – can get kicked off at any time, or the whole flight is just canceled or delayed. It’s a nerve racking game. There’s only one rule that counts: You know you made the flight when you are well in the air – even then you can just hope the plane won’t turn round.

Well, we made the flight … after standing lined up in two lines on the airfield for half an hour while the C-130 was being relived of it’s cargo it had flown in from wherever it had come from. The specialty about this flight was that we flew in complete darkness. The lights were switched off before the start and didn’t come on until after touch down in Bagram. (Axel was actually signaled to switch off his iPod because of the light from the display).

The glow of lightening

The only light source were the back ends of the night vision goggles of the two crewmen standing at the rear doors looking out the tiny round windows, probably on the look out for enemy on the ground. You could also see the faint glow of the emergency exits on the roof and the glowing of clock’s hands on our fellow passengers wrists.

It was the bumpiest flight so far. I was singing songs I learned when I was with the German paras doing my national service ten years back. At some point the few round windows in the hull lit up. Not to far away there must have been a thunderstorm. The noise of the aircraft was so loud that you surely couldn’t make out any thunder.

25 Minutes later we landed safely in Bagram. Axel an I shoved our luggage into the 24-hour holding area and made our way to the DEFAC. We had only had breakfast late in the morning. We were relieved to have made the first part of our air travel.

Hotel California

Bagram airfield before we left for Kabul. The white plane is unmarked. It wasn't a UN plane (Photo: Loesche)

Whilst we were eating chocolate ice cream sitting outside the DEFAC I told Axel that I wasn’t in favour of sleeping at “Warrior” again. On our first visit I saw a sign for a hotel on Disney Boulevard, the main road in Bagram. And, if I remembered correctly I had heard Major Buccino say something along the lines of: “Don’t all journalists stay at Hotel Such-and-Such in Bagram?” – after we had told him the story about our adventurous stay at “Camp Warrior” on our way out.

We walked for twenty minutes and were about to give up, after we had passed the Polish compound and the Egyptian field hospital, then finally we read the sign “Media Support Centre” and under it: “Hotel California”. We knocked on the door of a smallish wooden hut. We stepped inside and were greeted by a sergeant who said he had been expecting us.

At first, I though he was playing the “I’lI-pretend-I-now-what’s-going-on-even-if-I-don’t”-game. Then he showed us our names written on a white board and told us our flight for tomorrow had been booked. We were astonished. Another incident of following some instinct that leads you straight to your goal. We hadn’t known the media were so well catered for here.

Afghanistan from above

The pilot of the two propeller STOL flight took a sharp right turn and steep dive into Kabul airport. STOL stands for Short Take-Off and Landing - nuff said! (Photo: Loesche)

We slept in our own room with a bunk bed – a major improvement to the huge and crowded tent in “Camp Warrior”. It seemed befitting that the sergeant drove us all the way to the terminal the next morning. Where we were listed for a so called STOL flight (a regular scheduled flight) to Kabul.

At 13.30 we boarded a small two propeller air force plane with regular passenger seats and plenty of foot room. We clung to the windows for all of the 15 minute flight to Kabul, made some photos. It was the first flight that we could actually see where we were flying. We got billeted and put into a tent at KAIA. One step closer to home!