Richard's Afghanistan Experience... Chapter 2

2 Welcome to Sandy City.
Taxying to the dilapidated airport buildings, we saw television cameras and our welcome committee, shut down the engines, opened the rear door and let the furnace in - it was always in the forties there. We stepped into the burning sunshine and lined up to be introduced to General Razm, one of the many second-in-commands, then boarded a minibus to the city.

The contrast in living standards was staggering. We passed hundreds of lorry containers with families living in them, beggars at the sides of the roads and scores of mud huts. At the other end of the scale there was the occasional new car, more taxis than you see in Piccadilly Circus and new buildings going up in all directions. We turned off the main road into a rutted muddy side street. We came to a halt and found that the promised two villas didn’t exist. We were in a guest house and had to share bedrooms.

It was some days before this was sorted. Our first meal was ‘interesting’. Piles of rice, chunks of goat, pieces of chicken, spinach and almonds - all washed down with Fanta and Coke. Breakfast was unleavened bread, boiled egg, honey and almonds. The first few meals were OK but we soon found that every day was identical. After two nights in the grotty guest house, we moved to a villa. It needed quite a lot of work but the servants appeared with cans of paint, brushes and furniture to smarten the place. Originally it was owned by one of the richest merchants in Mazar and the basic design was good with conservatory, swimming pool and enough bedrooms for everyone. Chris and Av left two days later.

The following evening we were invited to the Turkish Consulate for a buffet party. There was a range of appetising food plus gallons of vodka and ouzo. It got pretty wild. Salih, the host speaks very good English, wears Western clothes and chases women. He was all over Clare at first then, being shut out, danced and chatted Jill. She was flattered to the point of eventually falling in love with him. We drank and danced ‘til late and were taken home in diplomatic cars as it was well past the 10 o’clock curfew.

Next morning we were visited by John Carver, the chief of UN security, who gave us warnings of what not to do and what to do in an emergency. His short talk was unsettling as he told us there were missiles in the mountains, mines beside the runway and that we should always carry a walkie talkie tuned into the UN frequency in case there was a sudden need to get assistance to leave the country. It turned out to be a ‘frightener’ to keep us aware of potential dangers rather than their immediate existence.

That night and the next we drank a lot during impromptu mini parties before John Meadows went back to England. These depleted our stocks and Ray, Tom and Sheila decided to go on a 70 mile day trip to Termez to buy water, vodka and mixers. They were caught out by delays at the border and ‘had’ to stay the night. Unable to ‘phone us, they phoned Chris in England to let us know they were OK and hadn’t done a runner. They got back in time for our invitation to the leader of the country’s residence for the night. We went for miles on sandy, bumpy roads until reaching the decaying palace. After being shown our garish rooms, each with a full size fridge standing out of character in the corner and loaded with Pepsi, we were given a quick cool drink and then it was back to the minibus for a short, bone shattering drive.

We stepped out to another world. A large green forest, cool and shaded picnic area with several tables and half a dozen people relaxing as they waited for us. General Dostum welcomed us warmly. I sat with the official translator, Mr Zia, next to him. He immediately asked whether we would be prepared to go to West Africa on several charters in a joint deal for the UN, British Government and himself. Chris had pre-warned me of the question and emphasised that the crew should not give any indication of their feelings about the country - to get out permanently given half the chance! The General also asked whether I thought it made commercial sense. I told him that a good contract with the UN would give the airline an opportunity to organise ticketing, security etcetera so that we could start a schedule with everything in place. He agreed and said he would leave the details to General Razm. We didn't hear any more of the idea..

Fighting...he lost a great many men

He then sat back expansively and seemed to disappear into his own reverie. After some time I asked Zia to ask him if he would like to share his thoughts. He replied that he was sitting with ten English picnic guests who were helping to set up his country’s first airline. He said that as he looked round to the best preserved and greenest area in Northern Afghanistan, with deer roaming peacefully in the woods, he was reminded of how different it had been thirteen years before. At that time, he was a junior commander crawling through the same irrigation ditches for days at a time in fighting to preserve the last oasis of water. He lost a great many men, he said soberly.

Then he snapped out of his sad past and offered me both a vodka and champagne with a laugh, saying that military men could take a great deal of alcohol. The non-visible aspect of his character was the fact that he had the reputation of being a bloodthirsty Uzbekistan warlord, trained in Russia and climbing to being the most powerful leader in Afghanistan. Although he has used his power to create peace he can only maintain his strong position by the 130,000 troops, tanks and missiles that make him such a formidable opponent.

We continued to absorb the strange scene. For a start there was the large patch of grass and forest as green as England in the middle of thousands of square miles of desert. Next, a General who as leader of the Muslim peopled North Afghanistan shouldn’t have been knocking back vodka like no tomorrow and then there was the sheer incongruity of ten uniformed English aircrew sitting on upright chairs with tables covered in Claridges-quality cloths and laden with kebabs, salad, fruit and enough alcohol to float a seaplane!

After this bizarre affair we piled into the minibuses (save for one stewardess who helped refill an irrigation ditch with a technicolour yawn...). Then it was back to the desert for a rough ride to the palace. After a break for a bath and change we trooped down for drinks and dinner with Dostum. Through Zia he said that the room we were entering was for special guests only. We found out why - it had more drink than Oddbins. Mirrored cabinets were floor to ceiling with black label whisky and every other spirit imaginable. Swaying to the dining room we were somehow more relaxed...Although the food was similar to our daily diet, it was more tender, fresher and with a greater array of vegetables and fruit. A choice of bottles of brandy and scotch was in front of each place setting.

Eventually we were escorted downstairs and the general presented each of us with two million Afghani notes - $200. To the ladies he also gave exotic scents. After mingling with us for a while he said goodnight and left us with a disco - complete with flashing lights, strobes and modern Western sounds. It all became a little hazy after that. I remember leaping about with Carmin on the dance floor as she egged me on in her broad Aberdeen voice, "C’mon Richard, get down and get movin’ man."

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