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


NewsJunkie said...

What an adventure! Thanks for sharing more of your experiences with us Mal, it's fascinating to read!!

21st Century Mom said...

Amazing..... those Taliban patrols are so frightening. Most of us read about them in a fictionalized setting in 'The Kite Runner' but clearly the author knew what he was talking about.

Keep it coming! I am riveted.

Plaidypus said...

Mal I love the humors tones in your writting....I has a way of taking the edge off of some of the seriousness and frightening thngs that you write about..

I can't wait for the next instalment...

petra duguid said...

Mal - I've been following your stories for some time now - I've come to you via Phedip - and so often the stories you write about make me cry. your contribution to steve's podcast about a month ago had me weeping while running. what you tell us is so direct and so honest - it's about the only way i can bear to read about some of the terrible stuff going on in the world. life sounds so dangerous in Herat - i know i'm not the only one praying for the safety of you and your team.

Scarlet said...

Man, you wonder why people choose to live with that kind of totalitarism.I guess it's a matter of what you are used to, the difference between East and West.

NewsJunkie said...

What's really sad scarlet is that a lot of people don't have a choice.

PLANET3RRY said...

That is a pretty interesting story... I was intrigued the entire time, just waiting for you to actually film "people"...

Now if you filmed yourself there, would you have to turn yourself in?