DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Friday, September 16, 2011

In Soviet-occupied Kabul

In April 1983 I happened to go to Kabul on a Universal Postal Union (UPU) consultancy with the Postal Administration of Afghanistan. I got a rather short notice as I was told about the assignment only in the third week of March. Although Afghanistan was not really stable with the mujahideen resisting the Soviet occupation, yet there was no way one could say “no”, having been trained by the UPU to function as a consultant. Besides, we all believed in the concept of Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC).

It rained in Delhi in the first week of April 1983 and it was unusually cool when I took the only flight – of Air India – that was available for Kabul. As the aircraft landed around 2.00 PM I could see it had rained in Kabul, too. The sides of the tarmac were slushy. A couple of broken-down out-of-commission Russian MIGs was parked alongside the runway. As we came out, a very cold breeze hit us. The pilot had announced that the ground temperature was 5 degrees Celsius. Looking around I could see the snow-capped Hindu Kush – just like one can see the Peer Panjals from Srinagar. Fortunately, I was well-protected having reluctantly piled on myself a woollen suit – madness in Delhi’s normal April weather.
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As I entered a modest-looking terminal building an Afghani came up to me. He was the UNDP reception officer and promptly wanted to have a look at my visa. Although I told him that I had obtained a valid visa he would have none of it and insisted on seeing it. I handed it over and soon his trained eyes saw it. The visa was only for three days – all written in (for me, undecipherable) Dari. Our departmental official dealing with visas was not told about it. I was aghast, but the officer assured me that no damage had been done. This was the usual practice. For entering Afghanistan one had to acquire an entry visa, for staying a stay visa and before leaving one had to get an exit visa. Obviously, in an emergency none could get out in a hurry. Pocketing the passport, the officer said he would have to submit it to the Ministry of Interior and I was likely to get it back only after a week – a rather unnerving beginning to a two-month assignment.
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The officer took me to the German Club where I was to stay for the two months that the consultancy would last. It seems, the UN Staff House had no spare accommodation, being fully occupied. It didn’t matter to me as long as the accommodation was good. Initially, I got a room and a week later I could move into a suite – a more spacious and comfortable affair. I saw later that a large number of Germans were in residence. Germans have had a long and close relationship with Afghanistan since the early part of the 20th Century. They became closer and more cordial after Mahammed Hashim, the then Prime Minister, brought about a distinct change in the relationship in 1935, moving Afghanistan away from the spheres of influence of Britain and Russia.
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The Postal headquarters were located in the older part of the city across the Kabul River. It was a peculiar outfit with full complement of staff required for running the postal operations in the entire country several parts of which were not in the government’s control. There was a president at the top and as many as four directors general with assorted lower level officers and clerical staff for supervising and running the system which, in fact, served mostly Kabul. Highly disturbed as the place was, I couldn’t quite figure out why the Administration made a request for a UPU consultancy and, that too, on postal statistics.
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My counterpart was one elderly gentleman, Mr. Amini, a retired officer who was well-versed in English. The driver, Daud, who used to ferry me to and from the office, was a very amiable young man. He was fond of my cigarettes and enjoyed them making himself comfortable on the sofa in my office. A fairly decent number of girls were working in the office. I was quite surprised to see them in Western dresses – some would be in denims and others in skirts with short hair and well made-up faces – a far cry from what happened later under the Taliban rule. They were quite outgoing and even came with Amini to meet me. Knowing only Dari, Amini would act as interpreter for them. There was, however, one lady by the name Zermina working in the philatelic branch who was fluent in English. A distant relative of King Zaheer Shah, she later joined him in Italy. She looked us up at New Delhi on her way up.
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Before anything else I had to have some local currency. Amini took me to the currency market despite my protestations. I told him since I was with the UN I had to have my dollars converted by the official central bank. He said that was not necessary; in Kabul everyone bought and sold currency at the local market. At the market the rate of exchange would vary from shop to shop which were mostly owned by Sikhs – residents of Afghanistan for generations. They would speak fluent Dari and were, of course, also fluent in Punjabi. Later, I was told by another UN Consultant that every week the UNDP would be determining the exchange rate for dollars checking the rate at the same market. This system was, however, given up even when I was still in Kabul.
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During the first week when I called on the Resident Representative of the UNDP I was told that one had to be very careful in moving around the town as most of it, including the settlements on the surrounding hills, were out of bounds. One could move around only in a limited area of 5 or 6 square miles. I myself noticed the heavy presence of the Russian Army on the roads with pickets virtually at every hundred metres. I had heard air force jets flying overhead as also the drone of helicopters. Somewhat unnerving was the instruction not to venture out of the town and not to try and take photographs. Disappointed, I put my camera back in the suitcase.

The Resident Representative, after the preliminaries, handed to me a project report and asked me to flesh it out as I went along with my consultancy work. When I happened to look at it later, I found the UPU, always short of money, was planning to sink another $100,000 in the country on another postal project. When I happened to visit the UNDP office next I told the Programme Director that as virtually the entire country was out of bounds there was no point in throwing good money into another project. I was, however, told the UN couldn’t be sitting around in Kabul twiddling its thumbs. No wonder, the UN Staff House with its scores of rooms and suites was brimming over with consultants of all hues. There were experts on agriculture when no one could venture out into the country and there were experts on even high-hill agriculture when the hills were in occupation of the mujahids.
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On the first weekend, a Thursday (the weekly off being on Jumma, i.e. Friday), I happened to meet another Indian, an agricultural scientist, in the German Club restaurant. After tea he suggested a walk. Having been to Kabul several times during his ongoing consultancy he was more familiar with the place. We took a branch road which was not the artery that I was familiar with. Soon I saw at some distance numerous Afghan Army personnel hanging around. As we went closer, I realised that it was one of their major establishments. Most of them gave us a hard stare, perhaps wondering what we were up to. As we took the next turn after a few steps we saw some of the same personnel checking what looked like IDs of the locals and even of some foreigners in a rather rough manner. I was alarmed as I had no ID, my passport having been sent to the Ministry of Interior and the UN ID had not arrived till then. Were they to put me in the coup there wouldn’t be any relief at least until the next Saturday. My wife was to arrive the next day. If I were to be detained who would receive her? I almost got a panic attack. Resolving to bravely look straight at them, I (and my companion) slowly walked past. We were both in Western suits and perhaps that did the trick. They didn’t make any move to accost us. Later, my companion said that though he too did not have his passport but he had the UN ID and, hence, wasn’t overly perturbed. For me it was a hell of a close shave.
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Another Indian FAO consultant, a veterinary scientist, Dr. RR Shukla, was in residence in Kabul for quite some time. Since he had initially stayed at German Club he used to get to know about the comings and goings there. That is how he came to know about us and promptly came over to meet us and invited us over to his place. He used to reside in the plushest of localities in Kabul. If, I recall, it was the Wazir Akbar Khan area where all the one-time elite of Zahir Shah’s time had built their palatial houses. They all fled away to the West as things got hot for them leaving their double-storied massive houses on rental, mostly to the UN staff. Their numerous servants were still in residence in several quarters at the rear. The houses were lavishly furnished and were reflective of the life and times of earlier years. Everything was on the house, from furniture to Persian carpets to expensive crystal ware. Fond of good living, Dr. Shukla, a “Saryu-pari” Brahmin from UP, used to live a high life and was a very pleasant company. During those disturbed times the companionship of Dr. and Mrs Shukla was a great relief. Often we would walk down from his house to reach the German Club just before 9.00 in the evening when the town would go under a curfew every night.
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The days would seem normal but nights would be somewhat frightening. Leave alone occasional shrieks from the neighbourhood in the dead of the night, firing could be heard from surrounding hills. In a trough as Kabul is situated, the sounds would reverberate at night. Occasionally firing could be heard closer home. After one such episode we learnt next morning that some Russians were shot down during the night near their living quarters. Normally the mujahideens would be active during the night and we could hear the rut-tut-tut of gunfire almost every night. Invariably on the subsequent mornings two Russian helicopters with rocket-launchers mounted on two sides fly around on firing sorties and would raze the suspect villages to the ground. The drone of these helicopters kept us constant company. While the helicopters took care of the surroundings of Kabul, two jets would fly out every morning on sorties to strafe distant mujahideen concentrations.
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The lights went out after a huge explosion one night and never came back for three weeks. For days we did not know what exactly had happened until one day somebody in the German Club told us the power plant had been knocked out by the mujahideens. It was quite a serious setback for the Russians. There wasn’t much of an inconvenience for us, though, as in winter-like conditions one didn’t need fans and the Club authorities would provide gas lamps at night. But the townsfolk must have had a terrible time.
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Mohammed Akram, a junior level officer, was very fluent in English as well as Hindi – in fact he used to call it Urdu. He had been trained in the Postal Training Centre at Saharanpur. He would be a regular in my room and would have a smoke with me. One day he came in wearing a worried look and promptly sat down and lighting up a cigarette started frantically puffing at it. After quieting down a bit he told me he was deeply disturbed as he had been asked to fly with the mail to Kandahar. He said, barring the airport the Russians had no control over the town and even on the last occasion when a plane-load of mail was taken there it had come under mujahedeen fire. It was a dangerous assignment fraught with risks. Anything could happen; either the plane could be brought down or they could be captured on landing. In either event, he did not know whether he would ever be back. His trouble, however, was over the next morning. He came and told me the flight had been postponed.
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Another afternoon he wearily walked in with a harried face. He almost fell onto the sofa, pulled the pack of cigarettes and the box of matches out of his pocket. He had gone to the main square and waited there for a couple of hours for a bus that came there every Thursday to disgorge 15-16 years old children who had been picked up earlier by the agents of the Russians for mobilisation against the mujahideens. His child was not there. He had been going and waiting at the square for several Thursdays in the hope of getting back his son who had disappeared about a couple of years ago. His mother had sent him on an errand and he never came back. Several months later, Akram came to know through his sources in the Interior Ministry that the boy was in the local jail. He could meet the child only once and was told that he was taken somewhere in the Soviet Union and was trained there in warfare. They also tried to brainwash him but the child, it seems, was made of sterner stuff. He, sort of, refused to sign on the dotted line and, therefore, was sent back to Kabul, but into a jail. With tears in his eyes, Akram narrated the entire agonising story. He and his wife had been living for those months with this excruciating pain and, what was worse they did not know how long it would continue.
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The roads in Kabul were not as crowded as, I understand, they are now. But they used to have varied kind of traffic. Cars, bicycles, the occasional donkey carts, and hand-pushed carts selling a variety of stuff, all used to share the road-space. In the midst of this confusion there used to be the huge Russian Army, maybe, three or four tonners which would thunder down the roads unconcerned about the civilians using the roads. They would scatter everyone to the fringes and zoom past. Once they almost ran over my wife and me as we were trying to cross the street. Like any occupying army, the Russian soldiers would seem to view everything around them with contempt, standing at their pickets with Kalashnikovs in hand.
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Street-life was indeed remarkable. On some pavements one would find European ceramic items and glassware. There was a profusion of very cheap French moulded crystal ware – till then unavailable even in Delhi. Pushcarts would be selling almonds, walnuts, pistachios, etc. like they used to sell roasted peanuts and grams earlier in India. Pistachios, I was told, grew wild on mountain sides and on an announcement over the radio anybody could go and pick them. Delectable Pakistani tangerines and green Afghani apricots would be available in roadside groceries.
One would also find people carrying numerous very large-sized naans slung from their shoulders. It seems, none baked naans at home although it is for Afghanis a dietary must. A community oven was perhaps cheaper and a hassle-free proposition. Amini used to tell me how they would have tea in the morning with naan and cheddar cheese. Having fallen on bad days, they could later have only a piece of naan and an apology for tea.
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The bland food of German Club would often drive us to the Indian restaurants where we could get generally the Punjabi fare. There were numerous Afghani joints near about from where the aroma of barbecued meat would float around. I had tried it once but later gave up as it upset my stomach. A particular restaurant that we used to patronise because of its very decent Indian preparations was bombed one evening. I wonder even till today whether the bombing was aimed at Indians. Afghanis, then, were not anti-Indians at all. Nevertheless, that put paid to our excursions to Indian restaurants.
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One of the directors general, Bismillah, was a very friendly sort though communicating with him was difficult. He did not know English or Urdu. Belonging to the high-altitude Panjsher Valley, the land of the famous Afghani fair and delicate beauties, he was a very fair-looking middle-aged man, appeared more like an Italian. He was a great friend and admirer of India, perhaps more so because he successfully went through a complicated surgical procedure at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. He was a political appointee and belonged to the ruling Parcham party. He would give me a bear-hug every time I met him and every time I would find his holster in place. Amini told me Bismillah and his ilk lived from day to day – afraid of being attacked by the Opposition anytime. Despite being terribly short of funds Bismillah hosted a farewell dinner for me with Amini, the interpreter, as the only other invitee. He delivered a farewell speech for me – all in Dari.
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On the last morning of our stay my wife and I called on the President of the Afghan Posts & Telegraphs. When he heard that we had not been to Emperor Babar’s tomb he promptly organised a vehicle and sent us away with the advisory that we should leave the place before 3.30 PM. The run-down, crumbling grave of the first Mogul Emperor amid overgrown bushes was very saddening. It had become a haunt of mujahids who generally collected there in the evening. By early afternoon the desolate place gave us an eerie feeling and we left much before the given deadline of 3.30 PM. It was good to know that with the aid of the Aga Khan Trust the tomb has been renovated and has since become a picnic spot for the war-ravaged and harrassed Kabulis.
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