Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Kandahar ' Worst Place on Earth" ?

Do you ever have one of those conversations?

What is the worst place in the world you have been too?

Now, I have always told anyone who would listen that

"Lets accept that there is a greater being than ourselves, and for the the sake of avoiding an argument lets call him 'God' that way we can include all messiahs and prophets, now this greater being decides that the Planet needs to be re cleansed and in keeping with the fads of the 21st Century naturally it involves the colon and lots of water"

Well the place the pipe goes into on this Planet is Kandahar, Afghanistan.

In the scheme of the world I have been to some shit places, and yet no matter where I travel Kandahar is yet to be topped as without doubt the worst place on Earth, that does not have an excuse of a Natural Disaster to blame for the misery and conditions that exist there.

The origins of the city go back to 330BC and Alexander the Great, for many centuries it was the capital of Afghanistan before Kabul and under the Taliban it was again the seat of power and decision making. led by a one eyed cleric Mullah Omar.

Born in 1959 (good year that, perhaps Omar and I are twins separated at birth) he grew up on a rural village near Kandahar and having attended a Madrassah he had risen to the highest ranks and even in a ceremony received the title of Commander of the faithful , which had not been adopted in nearly a thousand years wrapping himself in a cloak that is believed to have been the Prophet Mohammad, a ranking in the Islamic world that is nearly second to the Prophet himself.

From his humble youth to becoming a Mullah with his own Madrassah outside of Kandahar, Omar was taken back by the vacuum of the lack of law and order following the departure of Russians, local mujadhideen commanders were kidnapping and raping boys and girls and stealing from other Afghans at gunpoint on the roads. Thus the Taliban began, when Mullah Omar and 30 followers "picked up the gun" at first to stop four mujahideen who were raping women in a village close to Omars village, from there the Taliban grew to bring law and order to the entire country.

One of the things that amazed all of us on this trip was that everyone we met (and I do mean everyone) thanked the Taliban for restoring law and order, it never ceased to amaze me to hear farmers talk about the fact that their young sons were safe now from being raped. Boys more often than girls are raped in Afghanistan.

We had a couple of days shooting planned for Kandahar, including key interviews with the Taliban Foreign Minister and the Information Spin doctor Hashimi, who was the International Public Face of the Taliban, he was the street savvy kid with multi languages, American educated and even an accent, who would defend the Taliban till the end. Every now and then he still pops up here and there in interviews, but most of the time he appears to be in hiding.

The first morning i spent lying on the bathroom floor getting over the previous days journey from Herat and letting my body enjoy the magic world of porcelain as it completed the final stages of the bug we had picked up on the road.

The guys hired a mini van , as the Herat drivers had left us before first light no doubt after spending a wild night in the bright lights of Kandahar, not!. Officially we were still without our "Official Minder" as we had had no contact with any official who would take an official stance, but in the coming hours that was to officially change.

We went into the back streets and managed to shoot a few of the dreaded vox pops or MOS's (man on the streets) naturally asking in depth questions like, Do you know where Osama Bin Laden is? (this was still pre 9/11 attacks) the couple of interviews we did manage to get naturally said "We like OBL he is a good Muslim and a guest" . The trick is to keep moving to try and avoid a crowd or getting attention drawn to yourself, but given that not many American Television Crews were on the streets of Kandahar asking people their views on the worlds most wanted terrorist, it was at some stage that inevitably the Vice and Virtue Police were told that we were in town, and thus we became the hunted.

We drove out on the best piece of road in the entire country, which just so happened by chance to go to Mullah Omars residence and in those days reportedly Al Zawahiri (the real brains behind Al Qaida)had a house next door. This was one of those zones where you do not need the " No Photography " signs, it was evident that this was a compound not for the feint hearted we managed to get close to the first gates in a series of gates and squeeze off a few shots on the long end of the digital lens, which is a polite way of saying a couple of crappy pictures.

After the fall of the Taliban, I went back out to Omar's mansion following the bombings by US Forces and walked around his Mosque that he was building next to his house, the pictures were still crappy, at least he did not succumb to the third world dictator taste of bad architecture.

The next stop was the key interviews which involved driving miles out of town to the ramshackle buildings that were in effect the Government Offices of the Taliban and Afghanistan, for the key interviews, which were fascinating as neither guest blinked or apologized for what had happened in the rise to power or how they were dealing with the issues of women's rights. They had the standard spin answer which in reality is no different to any Western Leader giving an interview, the interviews went longer than expected with tea breaks that are mandatory in this part of the world.

We finally all piled into the van as it was almost dark and set of for the drive to the other side of the city perhaps 30 minutes or so, it is not that Kandahar is this vast urban (mud brick) metropolis, rather the roads are so bad and the drivers manage to set standards so low that only Israel would ever grant them a drivers license internationally.

We were approaching the main mosque in town where Omar had accepted the cloak, it was now dark and the only real street lighting came from the stores lining the roads. When a couple of cars pulled in front us blocking any movement, the Vice & Virtue boys had been looking all afternoon for us and could not figure where we were, not expecting that we were doing interviews with the leadership.

But the commander was agitated and pissed, and Imtiaz and him were involved in a verbal joust that in Pashtun sounds like two japanese game show hosts bidding for tuna. I casually got the Sat Phone out of the back of the van and rang New York Foreign Desk to inform them that we were now guests of Vice and Virtue, that things were alright and we would call them as soon as possible.

By this stage we were starting to draw a crowd so they hustle back into the van and were taken under escort to a building that was either a Police Station or Vice & Virtues Offices, since the only Police we ever saw were the occasional traffic lollypop Intersection variety in was without doubt V&V Headquarters.

In these situations there is nothing you can do as a foreigner, so it is one of those moments to sit back and enjoy the show of the Commander & Imtiaz going between offices and cars whilst contemplating the big issues of the world in the back of a van in Taliban Kandahar, behind the locked gates of the Vice and Virtue Police Offices in the dark.

Within half an hour Imtiaz had managed to placate the Commander and ensure him that we were heading directly to Kabul and our first stop was to be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Section where we would get our minder. We were not pass Go or detour in any way the officials were unhappy with us being sans "Minder".

The only issue now was how to get to Kabul.

The Desert Of Death

Have you ever been so sick from food poisoning that you want to curl up and die, then imagine how you feel three hours into a trip on the road through the Desert of Death.

" The old Soviet constructed road to Kandahar is terrible and travel between the two cities ( Herat / Kandahar) can take up to 18 hours. The UN has applied a travel ban on this road from dawn to late afternoon, (particularly on the stretch through Helmend Province) as a result of Islamic guerilla activity. Check the current situation before travelling on this road."

We had finished shooting in Herat and our next destination was Kandahar the spiritual centre and capital of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Our two taxi drivers were confident that their trusty Toyotas were capable of the drive, which they said they did on a regular basis. But they did warn us that we would need to leave to be on the road before 4am so as to maximise driving in the cool of the morning before the heat of the day. There was no air conditioning in the cars and in fact a colander has less holes in it to stop the dust and heat coming in.

They warned us that the road would be bad in certain areas which turned out to the understatement of the year, within fifteen minutes of leaving the road became a dust bowl of destroyed bituman with more potholes in the dirt than flat road, all going well the drivers estimated 14 hours and that we would arrive before nightfall. This is an area were you do not travel at night for all the obvious reasons.

We split the team up with Greg, Joe and Lara in one car, with myself and our fixer Imtiaz in the second car. The first thing our drivers asked us was do we have any music tapes to listen to on the drive. The Taliban had banned all music with the exception of listening to the Koran, a copy of which our driver proudly held up and told us not to worry he had a Koran on tape for when we would be stopped by the checkpoints.

The Taliban set up checkpoints on the roads all over Afghanistan and would stop all cars to search for music, if they found any tapes they would destroy the cassettes by pulling the entire tape out and drape it over poles in old oil drums so that people could see that they were serious about stopping the scourge of music.

I would like to add a personal note that given the standard of music in Afghanistan that the Taliban were actually doing a favour to everyone by ridding the nation of bad music taste.

In these pre ipod days I always travelled with a compile of music tapes, which after listening to a hundred times became just as torturous as an Afghan Top 40 compile. But at least it was better than listen to the exhaust and engine straining thru the dust.

During the drive we went through about three of these Taliban Music checkpoints, and sure enough there was cassette tapes hung up proudly for all transgessors to see. In a fit of laughter we started to call these " Taliban Christmas Trees" and still to day we laugh about them.

The first few hours passed and eventually the drivers pulled into a couple of mud brick houses by the side of the road and proclaimed that this was the breakfast and prayer stop. You get used to drivers pulling over and stopping for prayers by the side of the road, if anything it gives you a chance to stretch your legs and ten minutes of peace.

The mud huts it turned out, were the Afghan equivalent of a Truck Stop, and as we sat in the dark room illuminated by a couple of of lamps, our hosts bought out traditional afghan tea made with milk and very sweet, then came the bread and two fried eggs.

For such little that went in, the mathematical equation did not add up because within an hour back on the road cramps and the uncontrollable urge to expel everfy body organ, not only hit me, but Greg and Joe also had an Alien growing in their guts.

Now the Desert of Death is not called that name lightly, it is the most barren inhospitable land I have ever been through, there is not a living thing for hundreds of kilometers, what passes for a road is elevated to avoid flash floods that happen on the two days a year that it considers to rain, the only saving grace is that this meant that there were culverts under the road and in our state it offered us the only place of privacy, and thus when ever we saw a culvert the taxis would come to a rapid stop and the three of us would fly out trying to hold our stomachs in for the dash off the road. And the sanctuary of the culvert, when we relayed this story to some people over the next few days they told us that we were the luckiest bastards alive.

As it turns out this entire stretch of road is one of the most intensively land mined stretches of road in the world, when the Russians were in Afghanistan they had a massive airbase at Shindead and as a result landmined the complete region. What happened is that the average Russian conscript did not give a damm about laying mines and would often just sweep aq cursory handful of dust over the top of the landmine. Then over the years when it rained the landmines would be caught in the stormwaters and be washed to .... yes you guessed it the culverts under the road, so the sanctuary of our inpromptu latrine was in fact infested with landmines.

To be honest we were by this stage so ill that it is one of those moments that you wish you could die, in more than one way we almost had our dreams come true. we all forget how many drugs we tried to get into our bodies to stop the lose of fluids because we still had over eight hours of misery to endure.

I remember virtually lying in these culverts amongst the remnants of others who had suffered the same fate and wishing the world would end, it was just a chance to get out of the heat of the sun that was by now really hitting bad.

The amazing thing is that Lara did not get the bug, perhaps it was that she had the good common sense not to eat when we did. However whenever we stopped we had to cover the car windows with whatever we had so that men could not look in, we even named the car she was in with Joe and greg and the Burqa Car. We had the luxury of stretching our legs and poor lara had to just sit and endure the sun in the Burqa Car.

Hour after hour we continued , my tapes had been played countless times to the point even I was bored with them and still the potholes rattled every bone in my body the heat started to diminish and we started to see signs of life. We were approaching Kandahar the heartland of the Taliban. Naturally we had no hotel or even any idea as to where we could stay. We decided to turn up at the UN house and see what they could offer and against all odds they had a guest house which was vacant and they offered us a room with air con, the only time we would ever have it in Afghanistan so after an incredible day of travel that amazes people to this day. We had driven from Herat across the Desert of Death and Lars from the UN even offered us a home brew beer, bathtub beer tasted good that night.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Lost in the Computer

First up apologies for those who read these ramblings and background to life on the road, somehow my computer has eaten the three next installments on the Taliban in Afghanistan
Not to be discouraged the search on the hard disc continues