Goodbye Jalalabad

May 23, 2011   //   by peretz   //   long, photos  //  2 Comments

The wind picked up on our final morn­ing in Jalal­abad. It was soon strong enough that we locked our win­dows and yet it howled through the cracks. By the early evening the gusts were so strong that they broke win­dows on the upper deck, broke our deck fur­ni­ture and knocked over many plants.

Destructive Wind

We were about to leave Jalal­abad, our adopted home, where I spent 1% of my life. Before head­ing back to San Fran­cisco, we decided to do some in coun­try tourism. The fol­low­ing day was Novruz, the Per­sian New Year, and we planned to spend it along with 200,000 other pil­grims in the epi­cen­ter of the cel­e­bra­tion in Mazar-i-Sharif, the cap­i­tal of the north­ern Afghan province Balkh which bor­ders Uzbek­istan, at the Rowze-e-Sharif Mosque hous­ing the pur­ported Tomb of Hazrat Ali.

Novruz is defined by the Ver­nal Equinox, which hap­pens when the sun crests across the true celes­tial equa­tor. Ter­res­tri­ally we expe­ri­enc­ing major shifts as well.

After Lou and I fin­ished pack­ing we hud­dled together with our cowork­ers to drink wine and watch the telly (for per­haps the first time.) Bombs were falling in Libiya. Egypt had expe­ri­enced a coup. Other North African and Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries were under­go­ing or on the verge of revolutions.

 

Road to Kabul

I eagerly antic­i­pated a cer­tain photo oppor­tu­nity on the way out of Jalal­abad. Just a few miles west of our com­pound, near the Darunta dam, I had pre­vi­ously spot­ted (but failed to pho­to­graph) an amus­ing bill­board with a car­toon depic­tion of a gag­gle of bearded Afghan vil­lagers hap­pily hand­ing over a Stinger mis­sile to ISAF forces in exchange for money. No ques­tions were asked. Every­one was smiling.

It was an adver­tise­ment for the Stinger buy back pro­gram. Dur­ing the 1980s, the CIA “donated” ~2,000 shoul­der fired Stinger mis­siles to Muja­hed­din “friend­lies”. These mis­siles which could be used to shoot down Soviet heli­copters and tanks, had a sig­nif­i­cant impact in the out­come of the war. The Pak­istani intel­li­gence agency ISI had dis­trib­uted them with­out much account­ing. Con­se­quently, no one knows how many are still float­ing around. Now the US has bud­geted mil­lions to buy back stray mis­siles for upwards of $100k a piece. It’s cheaper than the con­se­quences. And this cre­ates an inter­est­ing eco­nomic val­u­a­tion cli­mate for weapons. How much is your enemy will­ing to pay you not to shoot at them? The “ran­som price”.

On the way out of town, we noticed that many of the bill­boards had been knocked down by the wind. Just yes­ter­day, they were still cov­ered with elec­tion posters six months past their due. I had won­dered just when they’d be taken down and by whom. The bill­boards that hadn’t col­lapsed entirely stood warped and bare, picked clean by the sand blasts of wind.

Herding Sheep on Kabul Jalalabad Hwy

The road to Kabul fol­lows the course of the Kabul river, wind­ing its way along the south­ern bank through hills, past three par­tially func­tion­ing and eter­nally under-repair dams, and finally up a nar­row, dan­ger­ous, ser­pen­tine gorge locally known as Mohi Par (fish’s tail).

Road side peddlers on Kabul-Jalalabad Hwy

The road is dot­ted with makeshift shacks sell­ing the avail­able bounty of the land. Today men waved reams of river fish and kids shook bunches of moun­tain veg­eta­bles at oncom­ing traffic.

Road side peddlers on Kabul-Jalalabad Hwy

We passed a cou­ple fuel tankers, a favorite tar­get for IEDs, Their rusty tanks were leak­ing fuel right on the road.

Next we encoun­tered an oncom­ing Afghan National Army sup­ply con­voy. Unlike ISAF con­voys that drive slow and flock together, ANA seems engaged in a race with each behe­moth for itself swerv­ing around the curves.

Selling Fish on Kabul Jalalabad Hwy

Remark­ably, right before our eyes a large con­tainer flew off the back of one of the trucks, bounced on the road, and spilled its booty of ANA uni­forms onto the road.

    “Stop,” I yell to our dri­ver Najib. I sense a really epic sou­venir pickup. Gotta get this one quick. He skids to a halt, but so does the car behind us. Other peo­ple have the same idea. I run towards the uni­forms and so does the grey bearded Afghan from the sec­ond car. 

     

    But before we’re able to snag the uni­forms, the next truck in the con­voy rounds the cor­ner, stops in the mid­dle of the road. Sol­diers hop out with their rifles and stare us down.

    “Alright, you win. You can have your uni­forms.” I go back to the car with my heart pound­ing. Damn, it was close.

 

Dam on Kabul River

 

Face to Face

The motto “every car for itself” applies to every vehi­cle on the road. They swerve onto oncom­ing traf­fic try­ing to eek out ever more lanes out of two. If it wasn’t so dan­ger­ous their opti­mism would almost be laudable.

The one way I can explain it is that they are mak­ing a ratio­nal cal­cu­la­tion where the vari­able that is dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent from my own val­u­a­tion is the value of one’s own life.

Kabul River Gorge

This didn’t hap­pen dur­ing the time of the Tal­iban,” said Najib. “Every­one knew their lane and what would hap­pen if you veered out­side of it.” (Of course, there were also fewer cars.)

Where Traffice Meets Face to Face

Now what you get is a lot of avoid­able grid­lock. They call it glibly “face to face”. It sounds nice. Sorry we were 5 hours late, “we had some face to face on the road.” And every­one under­stands that what is meant by this is that cars piled up for miles on a two lane road face to face with­out any room to maneu­ver. It takes a lot of coor­di­na­tion to clear such a mess. Even­tu­ally, some­how, with guns waiv­ing in the air, we drove out of it.

 

Kabul

There was one errand left to run in Kabul.  We needed to pur­chase a few point to point anten­nas so we headed to the com­puter shop­ping dis­trict.  A man with a rif­fle walked into the store and pointed it at the shop­keeper.  After a few sec­onds it became clear it was a joke.  Ha, ha, Afghanistan.

Hands up shop keep

We dropped our stuff at Una’s (the newest mem­ber of SSF but quite a vet­eran for an expat in Kabul) and headed out for din­ner with a cou­ple of her jour­nal­ist friends.

One of the jour­nal­ists, Omar Mal­ick had just com­pleted a doc­u­men­tary in Pak­istan and come out to work for Basetrack.org a Knight Foun­da­tion Grantee that used Face­book to report on 1/8 Marines deploy­ment in Kan­da­har. He was now straded since the mil­i­tary chose to ter­mi­nate this exper­i­ment. Omar had instead thrown him­self into iPhone hip­sta­matic pho­tog­ra­phy and shared some amaz­ing shots over Thai food.

Together we roved to a Novruz party at a com­pound of an Afghan “con­sult­ing” firm where the spread resem­bled that of an Amer­i­can col­lege dorm party. Beers were stacked in a pyra­mid. Chips, salsa and munchies for appe­tizer. “Pizza is on the way.”

The hosts asked us to “not be too loud and dis­turb the fun­da­men­tal­ist fam­ily that lives next door” as “they might do some­thing about it.”

The atten­dees were Afghan staff of NGOs, the UN, or var­i­ous gov­ern­ment min­istries. Think of it like an Afghan belt­way crowd.

The guests and employ­ees alike were mostly edu­cated at lib­eral arts col­leges in the West and unan­i­mously felt like Amer­i­can money was being thrown at them to try to solve the “Afghan prob­lem”. Jokes around the camp fire revolved around writ­ing impact reports and USAID pro­pos­als for fire­wood, which was run­ning low.

Afghanistan is where the money is at. For edu­cated Afghans and for secu­rity con­trac­tors, that’s the best wind­fall. Where else can twenty year old boys and girls con­sult gov­ern­ments [by the seat of their pants, some­times by just being the eyes that read on behalf of the illiterate]?”

There was a rumor about the pos­si­bil­ity of fire­works for Novruz so we ascended to the roof. After the count­down to mid­night, noth­ing but the scent of Hindu Kush and gen­tle gig­gles was heard.

 

Air­port

An early morn­ing “Hope Taxi” gots us to the Air­port. Six cham­bers of secu­rity, each with a male and female line, nei­ther more secure that the last, and we’re in the main hall.

Gender Division

We have a Pamir Air­ways e-ticket to Mazar-i-Sharif for three peo­ple. We’re happy to have Najib along. We’ve become so close and these are our last four days together. Because of the hol­i­day the air­port is crowded more than usual.

We check in at the only counter that says Mazar, even though it actu­ally seems like a dif­fer­ent air­line. Bags are checked, paper tick­ets issued, no hitch.

Welcome to Kabul Airport

Through another tier of secu­rity we find our­selves rest­ing in the wait­ing lounge.

Out of the cor­ner of my eye, I spot the air­line employee who checked us in with a look of con­ster­na­tion. He’s clearly look­ing for some­body. He’s head­ing straight for us!

Evi­dently the Pamir fleet was grounded as part of a gen­eral Kabul Bank lend­ing prac­tice shake down and the airline’s inabil­ity to repay a shady $98 mil­lion loan. The air­line was shut down two days before our flight. We saw Pamir planes parked at the air­port. Iron­i­cally, their online ticket sales web­site is still run­ning, while we are still out $900+ for our flights.

He explains to us that we had pur­chased tick­ets for an air­line that ceased to exist by the time we got to the air­port. He had mis­tak­enly issued us tick­ets and now insists we actu­ally pay for them to get on the flight.

Nat­u­rally we protest, but as absurd as it is, it was also clear that he was speak­ing the truth. No, he didn’t know how we would go about get­ting a refund from Pamir, but then again, nei­ther did the many other peo­ple who were in the same sit­u­a­tion that we were.

We paid and boarded.

Kabul Airport Tarmac

 

To be continued …

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