Monday, September 25, 2006

Herat Part Three - Life and Death on the Road to Iran

In late January 2001 the temperature around Herat dropped to minus 25 C, brutal numb chilling cold and more than 150 people effectively froze to death in the "Internally Displaced Persons" Camps outside Herat on the road to Iran. The world politically corrected the term to "Internally Displaced Persons" instead of "refugees you are technically not a refugee till you cross a border. People actually discuss this point in offices around the world, but as we drove out to the Camps about 40 km I knew that we were going to a Refugee Camp.

Afghanistan was in the grip of its worst drought since 1971, the fighting pre Taliban between warring factions had destroyed communities and now with the Taliban's Iron Fisted Rule people from rural areas had nothing left but hope. Almost 10% of the population of Afghanistan's 22 million people displaced desperately seeking help and hope. The lucky ones managed to get out to neighboring Pakistan and Iran and had a life of misery in Refugee Camps far from home.

Through another piece of good luck and poor communications between officials we actually had permission from Taliban Authorities to film out at the camps, the plight had gotten so bad that even they realized the need for the world to see the worsening situation in the camps within and that help was needed. The UN and other aid agencies could simply not cope with the scale of tragedy that was unfolding.

You approach the camp on the only road out to Iran, a five hour drive away. At first you honestly wonder what has happened and as we turned into the only permanent building in the area, guards with long whip like sticks were beating men who surged to get to the gate and hopefully food. It was a scene that was to replay itself time and time again whilst were there. This was not cruelty or punishment for the sadistic minded officials, but the only form of crowd control, to stop the food store being over run by the desperate. A two storey mud brick complex with a couple of large rooms for the bags of aid, most of it USAID wheat being handed out by the UN.

I went to the roof and squeezing past the machine gun nests on the roof looked down into the sea of desperation, Every few minutes the guards would open the gate a small way and allow a lucky few men thru to get food.

The official in charge of the camp was in despair trying to do the impossible with nothing, this camp extended more than 5 km's, tents that offered shelter from sun and rain but not from the cold or heat. It is in the middle of a desert terrain without any trees for shade or more importantly fuel for cooking or heating. Taking us down the road we stopped at a tent and I filmed small children queueing for a pail of gruel. They did not complain at their life, for most they knew nothing better at least there was some food here, it breaks your heart to stand there filming as a four year pushes here two year old sister or brother forward with a bowl to get the only food they would that day and then see them both try to walk back through the maze of canvas together trying not to spill the slop. Only children were allowed to get food from this kitchen Aid tent, as the official said we try to feed the children first they in turn take it back for the sick and elderly with whom they share, adults rarely ate in this camp. Were they starving with distended stomachs, no but the fear was that unless aid came and the world started to care it was a real possibility. It was the sound of the cookers hissing that I remember to this day slowly keeping warm vats of gruel, as if Charles Dickens Oliver Twist Workhouse kitchen was in the middle of this desert.

We were then taken down to the arrival area and the official casually mentioned do not worry if there is nothing there when we arrive because more would surely arrive. I always get worried when we are relying on key pictures to tell a story only to be told before we arrive that nothing was there, in many places we have waited hours for nothing to be constantly reminded that we should of been here yesterday.

Filming the Arrival of IDP's outsside Herat

In this case tragically the official was right, next to the Medical arrival tent where all refugees (IDP's - Internally Displaced Persons) are processed and most importantly immunized against disease, there was nothing there. Within five minutes a truck arrived and then another, within twenty minutes four trucks arrived. battered old Russian models with men riding on the rail around the side providing security for there family who were huddled in the back. It wasn't until the third truck arrived that I climbed up to film the scene and the conditions that these people had endured to reach the sanctuary of hope that the camp provided. Few things prepare you for the despair you sometimes face and looking down into the bed of the truck were about 75 women and children crushed together clinging to the hope that somehow they were safe. From babies barely days old to to the old who had nothing. We were told that they had travelled for four days in these conditions to the camp and hope of a better life.

From the trucks they would be processed and immunized for the fear of disease is of paramount in these conditions, like a military operation they would over the next half an hour be shuffled thru the tents and in the whole time we were in Afghanistan this would be the only time that I could openly film women, some in Burqas others with the shroud flung back as they held the children as they cried when the doctors gave injections, what struck me was that in these desolate austere grey and sand was the color of clothing amongst everything I was to film that day this was the only color I saw.

Eventaully our hosts had had enough and not sure of what actual permission we had, they started to get nervous and said we had enough, so true I thought how much misery can you capture thru the lens of a camera. We had more than enough misery and despair for the stories we would file once we left. We drove back to Herat, all of us quiet and I am sure all of praying for a better life for these people.

Was this the worst misery I had ever filmed, no that had happened the previous year in an Afghan Refugee Camp called Jalozai outside Pershawar in Pakistan, and will be the subject of another entry. It was the only time that after a trip on the flight back home that I went into the toilet of the plane and cried myself silly with the nightmare I had seen.

Vaccination Photos by Joe Kainz

Friday, September 22, 2006

Herat Part Two - Taliban Sport

I was to learn that if you wanted to film in Taliban Afghanistan, then it would almost always be done undercover, with a small video camera pointing out the window of a moving car, only a very few times in remote areas could I get my large Betacam out to film with. The bottom line was if Vice and Virtue were around then all work was done on small cameras.

With Imtiaz in the front seat and me in the back we slowly drove around town, trying not to be conspicuous but at the same time trying to get some sense of life in Herat under the Taliban, as one of the features we had slated was a general piece of Life in Afghanistan under the Taliban, so we needed video and more than anything we needed video of women in Burqas, driving around Herat that afternoon we got lucky and managed to get some good video of women filming secretly from the car. However the lure of the football game that afternoon was hard to resist.

Picture : Taken secretly from inside the car , of women in Burqas in Herat

We thought that it would be best to wait till near the end of the game before we tried to get in and film some scenes. To give you a sense of the mob mentality that pervaded under the Taliban, the previous year the Pakistani Football team had come to Herat to play a friendly match against the National Afghan Side, neither teams in an way being a world football force of any distinction and the match was a low key event.

But when the Pakistan team went onto the field the word was that a riot almost ensued, but the mob was getting angry. It had nothing to do whatsoever with the actual game, but to the horror of the crowd, the Pakistanis were wearing normal shorts and showing skin on the legs and to add insult even further several of the Pakistani Players did not have beards. In contrast the Afghan Team had shorts down to the shins and long socks to ensure modesty and beards naturally. The Taliban had issued a decree that all males where to have beards. The game had not gone well for Afghanistan and eventually the mob had had enough so they stormed the field in the name of Allah (apparently they were also losing) and started attacking the Pakistani Team for the lack of respect for religious matters. They shaved the heads of some of the players as a punishment and the team managed to flee the mob with new haircuts, battered and bruised

There were only three countries that ever officially and diplomatically recognized the Taliban as a legitimate Government, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. So the chances of another friendly football match had been agreed to a year later and as we stood outside the ground we could at least hear the hysteria of a crowd watching a match rather than the baying of a frenzied mob. Imtiaz went in and looked around then came out got me to come in, the stadium had perhaps 5,000 men watching the the game all with beards.

Picture : Taliban Foot Soldier at the Football,

I quietly filmed the general scene trying more than anything not to be noticed which in that crowd was not an easy job, but at least the Pakistani team were wearing very long shorts well past their knees and long long socks, plus I did notice they all had beards. This was not football of any high standard but since the only other sport normally held in Football Stadiums were public beheadings , whippings and stoning's at least football was by any standard a far more normal spectator sport. Everytime the ball was kicked there seemed to be more dust in the air than anything else.

When arrived Afghanistan was down one nil, but managed to score an equalizer in the last few minutes, now not being a cynic but lets say diplomatically it was better for the home team fans to be happy and celebrating a draw rather than taking out the anger in a riot. It was better to be equals, with a late minute goal than to go home with shaven heads.

I got a few decent shots of the crowd as I thought it might be one of the few chances of large groups of men together. Even the officials seemed happy for a few minutes and allowed me to film a few of the local leaders who were on the sideline. However there reached a point when I was getting more hands on the lens than anything else,

Picture - The hand on the lens " No More Pictures"

Imtiaz and i both agreed that that rather push our luck filming the crowds it was time to leave and get back to the hotel before it got dark and the curfew was enforced by the Vice and Virtue Patrols.

Night Picture of the Taliban Vice & Virtue Patrol during curfew in Herat.

There is not much to do at night in Herat and the next morning we wanted to head out to Refugee Camps close to the Iranian border, the main reason for coming to Herat was to get to the camps and try and see what misery existed in the deserts of no hope.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Herat Part One - Judge Jury and executioners


In the small International Red Cross Plane that left Islamabad was Fox News Correspondent Greg Palkot, Star News Correspondent Joe Kainz, Producer Lara Hartzenbusc and our local fixer/translator Imtiaz Gul.

Yes Lara is female and apart form the fact that she is a great Producer she is also a woman and flying into a Taliban world she was going to face a tough trip, we had planned 15 days in country allowing time to shoot 5 features for Fox which in turn became ten pieces and three extended feature length pieces for the Star Network Prime Time Current Affair Program.

in the day's before we left Islamabad Pakistan, we had been around to the Taliban Embassy to get the official visas and letters that we would need to work in Afghanistan. When I casually asked one of the Taliban in the Embassy if there were any restrictions on filming, with a dead pan expression on his face he simply said

"It is forbidden to film people"

Now I just about choked on my tea at this point, how in the hell am I going to be able to film for for 15 days and under the law "Not be able to film people". I would of liked to have thought that he was joking but decided not to say anything. Filming was going to be tough enough without creating a diplomatic incident before even setting foot in the country.

Naturally they explained that we would have an official minder from the Taliban with us at all times, who would meet us at the Foreign Ministry in Kabul.

So we decided that the best thing we could do would be to token land in Kabul enroute to Herat and thus claim that we had tried to meet the minder, without actually having a minder assigned to us.

Communication between Islamabad and Kabul was at the best sketchy and an old fax machine that had seen better days seemed to be the only form of written dialogue between the Embassy and the Foreign Ministry.

We touched down in Kabul and being a Red Cross Flight no one in authority seemed to take notice of our gear in the plane or the fact that we did not get out. Kabul Airport was just one long runway littered with the destroyed hulks of planes and helicopters each one of them blown up into various states of destruction. We just hoped that the Taliban Authorities would not have a welcome committee in Herat when we landed.

Touching down in Herat was like landing at a country airport in the Outback at the start of summer, there was nothing there but a non descript brown brick building with a hallway and empty rooms, the runway was long enough for military operations but we were the only plane there and the Red Cross Pilot was glad to get rid of us before heading into the safety of the Red Cross Compound in town.

There was no Taliban waiting for us as we unloaded into an old truck that somehow Imtiaz had managed to find whilst an official took our passports and stamped the visa before handing them back to us with a complete lack of interest that seems to be the trademark of airport workers worldwide. In the office where we waited there was nothing but dead flies on the window, not a phone or any piece of machinery was on the officials desk, the record of arrival was recorded in an old notebook.

It is hard to explain to people that often we turn up with not a clue or idea as to where we would be staying, we had hoped to be able to stay with the Red Cross but that door was just closed in our faces and that left us with the only option of trying to find a hotel in town. Now do not think that Herat has a Four Seasons, Hilton or Marriott. In fact the best we could find was a two storey building near the centre of town aptly named the "Mowafaq" quickly renamed the Ma Fuck Palace. Sure it had somewhere to lay flat and a bathroom with live electric wires hanging down near the hot water heater which occasionally sparked when water drops hit them. The restaurant had a separate dining room so we could eat (well get food poisoning together). The swimming pool well now that was a sight to be hold perhaps forty or so young Taliban boys dressed in black pants (turbans and tops removed) spent the afternoon jumping in the murky water trying to avoid drowning themselves.

The first days of a road trip are often frustrating and long, as you try to get a feel for what you can and cannot get away with. Since we had no official minder, we wanted to keep it that way. The one thing we noticed was that the streets were almost totally empty apart form the occasional patrol of the dreaded "Ministry of Vice and Virtue" in the trademark pick up trucks they cruised the streets day and night looking for anyone transgressing the Sharia Law. For hours I hid on the balcony of the hotel lying on the narrow verandah or hiding behind curtains getting shots of them cruising for bruising as we called their patrols. Two or three of them in the cab guns and sticks hanging out with another four or more in the back. They were judge, jury and executioneer in a Toyota Pick Up.

Imtiaz managed to find a couple of dodgy looking taxis that we could use for the next day or so, you ever wondered where Japanese cars of the seventies came to die then Afghanistan is a good starting place to find them.

And if you wanted rubber on the tires then that was extra , After less than six hours in country we at least had no minder and a couple of dodgy taxis.

Imtiaz asked if I wanted to go and film a football game between Pakistan and Afghanistan that afternoon, but Lara could not come in fact it was best if just him and I went out on the streets, the others well they could soakup the comforts of the Ma Fuck Palace.

And thus we quietly went out onto the streets

Thursday, September 14, 2006

What is Afghanistan Really Like

I suppose like most people I read travel books that took you to exciting and romatic faraway lands where authors use more adjectives than verbs in a sentance. Lands where everything is wonderful, the people are the most kind friendly and hospitable people you are ever likely to meet on the whole entire planet and everyday is an adventure with romantic soft light filtering thru the cloudless skies.

No how in the hell did these adventurers ever come up with this concept for Afghanistan, let me state from the begining before I ever get into travels with the Taliban and land post 9/11. That Afghanistan will only ever exceed in the Olympics in three sports : the first being sitting on your hunches in a pile of rocks doing nothing, the second throwing aimlessly rocks from the position they are sitting in and finally total oppression of women.

If they did not have opium poppies to grow in abundance then the only other thing they could farm would be rocks, the potential for farming rocks is limitless, no matter what size rocks they have them in ambundance.

I had like so many others preconceived ideas of noble warriors, a nation that had never been beaten from the days of Alexander the Great thru the rule of the British and Russias Vietnam of the 1980s. This notion was not what I came to see to experience, It is a land of self induced tragedy where life has minimal value and without doubt some of the most corrupt people I was ever to meet, where moral values came from two sources, US dollars and the barrel of the Kalishnakov.

Some facts and figures about Afghanistan can make you see the reality of the country. It's number one Agricultral Product is Opium, the number one export from Afghanistan is Opium, 80-90% of the heroin consumed in Europe originates in Afghanistan. However under the Taliban Opium production dropped to close to zero, they decreed it immoral and hence thru sheer force of terror they did eradicate the production, more on this later.

For a nation that can trace it's history back 5,000 years, the average person is lucky to live for more than 43 years, 70% of the population is malnourished, more than 15,000 womed die in a pregnancy related illness every year that is one death every 30 minutes.

For a country that is listed as being slightly smaller than Texas, they have big problems and as the International Red Cross Plane took of from Islamabad with us on board in May 2001 headed for Herat on the Western border with Iran, nearly 20% of the population of Afghanistan were Refugees living in camps in Pakistan and on the Iran border, fleeing not only the Taliban but also drought of biblical proportion.

For the next 15 days we were to be guests of the Taliban.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

New Design Look

The time has come when I feel that I must have links to others on my page and for the life of "ludite" no matter how many times I tried various HTML codes I could not put links on my old layout. So the new look is a result of that and I hope you like the template. Links to start coming to all that read and link to me
So thanks to everyone and I hope to build an even better relationship with other via the links, apologies for not doing it sooner

Five Years On

Looking back at my diaries, the date Sept 9th always brings back memories of how a singular event can change not only the world but also how it has impacted on my life in so many ways.
We all remember where we were when the planes hit the WTC, but it was the events that followed in the twenty fours that probably shaped more of my life. Within hours of the attack I was given the simple message of "Go Pakistan Now" that was all the message I got and the next afternoon I found myself standing on the roof of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad and outside the gates of the Taliban Embassy down the street from the hotel.
I had been in Afghanistan in May 2001, four months before the attacks and had travelled around Afghanistan and seen the Taliban in action for nearly three weeks. It was a nation under the control true fundamentalism where time was going backwards .
I have been thinking about what to write about in the times between current assignments and wars, and the five year anniversary of the attacks has given me the impetus to start a series looking back to those times, so thanks to everyone for still reading and in the coming days and weeks I will be going back thru my diaries and writing a series on those days, when nobody had used the words "War and Terror" in the same sentance

Thursday, September 07, 2006

You know the War is Finally Over

Like any event they do end and we as a rule after a big event like a war, have a post event dinner. Whilst the war ended by my standards a long time ago with the kidnapping of Olaf & Steve there was no way we could in any way contemplate a dinner.
The release of the guys and a week later we finally all got together last night and had dinner, all the team from up North came down and joined us which was fantastic to see them again.
The highlight of the night was believe it or not all sitting down together in a circle and playing drums, now before you think this was some male bonding circle in the wilderness in a smoky tee pee, fact one girls were there so no we did not all strip down naked and dance around a fire getting back to our primevil roots.
We just banged away as a group celebrating that no one was killed or injured and as a team we could celebrate what has been a long hard summer

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Shooting without getting shot at

Ollie Norths first words when greeting me last week were

"A Shoot without getting shot at for a change"

Ollie was in town to shoot a special for his show War Stories Investigates on "Inside Jihad" mainly it was the show hostings and links that we worked on for four days working in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Ollie and I normally team up when we go into Iraq or Afghanistan to be embedded with US troops and spend a few weeks running around in places that sane and normal people would never consider venturing, inevitably it involves living in body armor for the entire time, and as cool as some new people in the business consider the look of flak jackets and kevlar helmets after a while they are just bloody heavy and hot.

I was looking back at photos from the last couple of years on the road and was amazed by the sheer number of them that have me wearing armor in various countries, in fact on almost all trips we do now we take the armor with us.

So it was great to be working in the Old City with Ollie, you forget when you live here, just how incredible the Old City of Jerusalem is and the history that you walk on every time you enter. On the roof of a Yeshiva (where Jewish men come to study the Torah), we could see in one picture the root symbols of what is the driving force behind the current crisis in the Middle East, there with the sun setting were worshippers bobbing and preying at the Wailing Wall whilst above the worshippers was the Golden Dome of the Rock, the third most holy site in the world for Muslims and around the scene were places of devotion and significance for Christians.

The good thing is that no one, in their right mind will attack Jerusalem at the moment for fear of damaging their own worship site, it is sort of like the whole walled city of Old Jerusalem has a "sanctuary" status, the only people with guns are Israeli soldiers guarding entrances which makes a nice change, as opposed to working in Gaza where every idiot is "packing heat" to use a ba expression.

Filming in the Old City at Dawn gives the eternal city a magical light and for a couple of hours, time stood still.

It was good to catch up with Ollie North again and he has plans for us to go back to Iraq later this year, no doubt to Ramadi the most lawless place in the whole of Iraq.

Anyway it was nice for a few days to feel safe and enjoy sharing stories with Ollie and as he promised " Not get shot at "