The thrills and sweet memories of a Kabul trip 20 years back

The moment they realized we were from “Hindustan,” there were cheerful smiles and greetings, with traders giving sugar-coated almonds and other dry fruits at discounted prices, and a regular query was whether we knew Amitabh Bachchan

P. Jayaram Jul 19, 2021
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Kabul street

The evacuation of all diplomats and staff from the Indian consulate in Kandahar - war-ravaged Afghanistan's second-largest city - last week may well turn out to be a precursor similar to the developments in 1996 when New Delhi was forced to close its embassy in Kabul in the face of a bloody Mujahideen offensive. The embassy was re-opened five years later following the US military intervention in the ever-at-conflict nation.

This is an account of the developments in Kabul that this writer personally experienced during that period.

The Press Information Bureau had arranged for a few journalists to take a trip to Kabul, just over two months after the US had launched its ill-conceived Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001, to 'punish' the terrorist outfits Taliban and Al Qaeda and the latter’s supreme leader Osama bin Laden, for the brazen attack on the World Trade Centre a month ago (September 11, 2001).

Kabul was far from normal when this writer, then Diplomatic Editor of IANS news agency, and two fellow journalists from PTI and All-India Radio landed by an Indian Air Force flight in freezing cold at the Kabul airport with the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountain range forming the backdrop.

Tarun Basu, then chief editor of IANS, had thoughtfully provided me with a satellite phone (that was a pre-mobile era), obtained through an official contact, to enable me to file stories, as telecommunication in Kabul was still in disarray. It was to be a three-day trip and we were to return on the third day with the contingent accompanying then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, who was scheduled to formally re-open the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

The embassy had been closed since September 26, 1996, after the Mujahideen, who had captured the city in 1994 amid largescale bloodletting -- some estimates put the number of dead in the city in that bout of violence at 25,000 -- and later the Taliban militia, armed and supported by Pakistan, took control of Kabul and most parts of Afghanistan.

A ravaged Kabul

Kabul, which had taken a heavy barrage of artillery fire, was still to recover from the ravages caused by the terrorists, though the streets were already bustling as the Taliban had fled following heavy US aerial bombardment and the arrival of ground troops. Locals blamed both the mujahideen and the Taliban, but their main anger was at Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the terror outfit Hezb-i-Islami and whose brutal shelling of the civilians had earned him the sobriquet “Butcher of Kabul.”

That Hekmatyar returned to Kabul in 2017 and became an ally of the government of President Ashraf Ghani is another story.

We checked into Kabul Hotel, the only hotel still taking in guests in the city. An Afghan government official took us around the city and one two-story building was of particular interest. Based on intelligence input that the building was the hideout of Bin Laden, the Americans had fired a cruise missile from a ship in the Arabian Sea. The missile had pierced through the roof and the first floor of the building and burst into a room on the ground floor. Some half a dozen terrorists, said to be bin Laden’s bodyguards, sleeping in the room were killed, but bin Laden was not among them.

Locals said a couple of US intelligence personnel had arrived at the spot shortly after to verify whether the terrorist leader was among the dead and left quickly, disappointed.

What surprised this writer was the pinpoint accuracy of the US cruise missile strike from hundreds of kilometers away in the sea, though the same could not be said about the quality of intelligence that prompted the strike.

Open display of arms

Life was slowly returning to a semblance of normalcy in Kabul as we went around the city. Men in their traditional attires, some with rifles slung on their shoulder, were moving about, but women, who had been at the receiving end of the Taliban’s puritanical restrictions, were conspicuously absent.

When we discussed with the locals about the danger of people openly carrying firearms, they laughed it off. Anyone can carry arms, they said, and offered to get us one if we so desired. Even an AK-47, we asked. “Anything” was the response.

The next morning, there was a knock on my hotel room door. When I opened the door, two men, one carrying an AK-47 “with a full magazine,” stepped in. They asked if I was interested in buying the weapon.

I asked the price. “3,500 Indian,” came the response. I thanked them and told them that in India one needed a license to possess a firearm. They left disappointed but it provided an insight into how the terrorist infiltrators in Kashmir came to possess such deadly assault rifles.

On our third day in the city, the Indian foreign minister arrived with a contingent of about 20 officials and journalists. He had landed at Bagram airbase, some 70 km north of Kabul, and landed in the city by helicopter.

After a short speech, in which he spoke about the “palpable goodwill for India (in Afghanistan) and that it was” heartwarming,” the minister and his team headed for the helipad for the return flight. The time was well past noon.

Officials told those of us who had arrived in Kabul ahead of the visit – by then our number had gone up to five as two more had arrived, courtesy PIB -- to reach Bagram airbase by road as the helicopter could not accommodate us. As we had all checked out of the hotel, bag, and baggage, that morning, we quickly hailed a cab and left for Bagram.

Stranded in Kabul

The Bagram Air Base looked desolate as we arrived about two hours later. There were no civilians outside and the gate was shut. An armed US soldier in fatigues signaled us from behind the gate to stop. We explained that we were Indian journalists, and we were to join the external affairs minister’s team for the flight home.

“Oh, the Indian minister,” he said and disappeared into the green, tin-roofed sentry post. After making a few calls, he came. “Sorry guys. The minister’s plane has already taken off.”

While we were deliberating our next move, the taxi driver said it was not safe to hang around there because, after dark, the Taliban controlled the areas outside the airbase.

We drove back to Kabul and reached the city well after dusk and went straight to Kabul Hotel to reclaim our rooms.

But the receptionist said all rooms had been booked for delegates who had started arriving for a Loya Jirga, a mass gathering of representatives of various ethnic, religious, and tribal communities, convened to discuss the unfolding situation in the country.

After pondering about where to spend the night, we called Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who had taken charge as Charge d’Affaires of the embassy. The diplomat told us to go straight to the embassy and he would leave instructions with the security staff.

By the time we reached the embassy, the basement of the mission had been turned into a dormitory with five cots and mattresses. Thus, we became the Indian government’s uninvited guests as we turned the embassy into our home for the next more than a fortnight. With India and Pakistan banning overflights by each other’s airlines, we were stuck in Kabul before an IAF relief flight that brought the prosthetic 'Jaipur legs’ for the war wounded in Afghanistan flew us back days before New Year Day 2002.

The long interval between the missed flight and the one that flew us back home allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the city's topography and its people. And one realized that there was truth in what the Indian external affairs minister said about “the palpable goodwill for India” among the Afghans.

Love for India and Bollywood

On early visits to the markets, we were often mistaken for Pakistanis and looked at with suspicion, if not hostility. But the moment they realized we were from “Hindustan,” there were cheerful smiles and greetings, with traders giving sugar-coated almonds and other dry fruits at discounted prices, and a regular query was whether we knew Amitabh Bachchan. Locals would tell us often and how much they loved Hindi films.

With the Taliban, which had forced the closure of all the 15 cinemas in the city, retreating, two cinema halls had started screening Hindi films and were playing to full houses. People, even from distant villages, were trekking to the city to see the Ajay Devgan-starrer ‘Vijaypath’, paying a steep 5,000 Afghani (Rs. 24 at then prevailing rates), despite the grainy quality of the pictures and poor sound systems.

This, despite a United Nations warning that “thousands and thousands” of missiles and bombs were littered in Kabul and the countryside and that they could explode if they were touched or moved

As he emerged from the dilapidated Park Cinema on Shehr-e-Naw Street, a youngster, jeans-clad Jamshed, told this writer that he had already seen the picture five times.“The Afghan people love Indian films and Hindi film music. Even during the Taliban period, we managed to secretly listen to Hindi music cassettes,” Jamshed said in Hindi, a language he learned from Bollywood movies.

While Bollywood films are popular in many countries, it is seldom that one comes across such spontaneous goodwill for Indians as we witnessed during those days in Afghanistan.

All these were interesting news stories to report from a country, about which little was known in India, and the satellite phone helped me file the stories regularly. There was but one problem. The sub-editors at the news desk in New Delhi often complained that the line was breaking. I did not tell them that it was my voice that was breaking, as I stood shivering on the cold windswept terrace of the embassy and dictated my pieces.

(The writer, formerly diplomatic editor with IANS, is visiting professor at Amrita School of Communication, Amrita University, Coimbatore. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at jayaramp_@hotmail.com)

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