Richard's Afghanistan Experience... Chapter 4

4 Fraught and funny - a typical fortnight...
TO show something of our daily drama routine Iíll recount a typical couple of weeks:

Monday May 6th 1996. Clare went to the kitchen, put one dipstick element into the kettle for tea and accidentally plugged a different lead into the mains. The kitchen caught fire. My room being the nearest, I grabbed a blanket, threw it to Ray, who was trying to fill a bucket with water right next to the fire. He beat it out with my blanket just as the cupboards were catching nicely alight. He finished up with singed eyebrows and a smouldering blanket. We all went to the United Nations for a drink to recover...

Tuesday. We bought two baby pet rabbits - eyes still closed. We named them after the two bosses, Chris, a lively white one and Av, a shy black. Chris did a runner but he came back a day later.

Wednesday. Big worries. General Said Karmel, Chief of Security, North Afghanistan gave orders that we were not to leave the premises without permission and armed guard - even to walk the 50 yards to the UN. Anything more than shopping would require direct permission from him. In effect: house arrest. I immediately phoned Chris who phoned Alex (British company owner in Afghanistan who arranged the aircraft purchase and is a friend of the generals). He contacted General Razm (English speaking and our main contact with the hierarchy) who contacted me to modify the orders. He told me that it was for our own protection as Jill (33 year old eternal flamboyant teenager whoís idea of dressing modestly would stand out in Soho) had dragged a servant and guard round the bazaar for three hours causing curiosity, laughter and resentment. Reports had been fed back from the military all over town, hence the clamp down. Ostensibly it was all for our protection. I looked at it as a warning. We spent the day in our newly filled pool and James and lover Carmin took over the kitchen and made shepherds pie with a UN Ďtake awayí apple pie to follow. You wouldnít believe how well such basic English food was received after the daily goat and rice routine.

Thursday. Chief pilot Peter phoned Chris to say he had had enogh and wanted to come home. Chris said it was up to him.

Friday. A quieter day. I received a water filter Iíd ordered and for the first time in a month we were able to get away from endless Fanta, Coke and powdered milk. I phoned John Meadows and took up his offer to bring coffee (four times the price at Mazar), long life milk and anything else he could think of to improve the food. Clare and I had a break from everything and went to the bazaar to look at materials. Just in case life was getting too easy, we didnít receive our promised visas as they wanted $600 each to release them. Increased military presence outside. To round it off I heard that the BBC was coming the next day.

Saturday. BBC correspondent and partner appeared. I said that we would be pleased to give a proper interview on Monday providing it was cleared by General Dostum. Our position was so tenuous that a slanted (or truthful) account of our stay in Mazar could lead to nasty repercussions. Our trip to the 4000 year old city of Balkh was postponed for a day because of complications in security. The Afghans were so apologetic that they laid on 50 troops to guard us to visit the ancient city on Sunday. More fried eggs hit the fan over this.

Sunday. Woke up to find all sorts of mire surrounding me. As Peter was carrying out his decision to leave, he needed the minibus to get to the border. Tom, Jill and Clare assumed that we were not going to Balkh, told the villa manager that the trip was off and walked through the 50 troops with an unarmed soldier to visit a handicraft cooperative! As I had clearly stated that such a visit should be postponed until we had our visas and things had cooled down, one could understand why they didnít wake me. I had to pass on sincere apologies to General Said Karmel with the explanation that our only vehicle was being used for transporting the Chief Pilot. Peter finally got a transit visa at lunchtime which made it too late to catch a flight so he had to stay the night in Termez. At midnight I continued writing this little saga.

"We want pes for our pepal...we hit war"

Monday. Uneventful day. Ray made a joke when we were talking about sex. He appeared to be quite serious when he said, "I had sex when I was eight years old." We all swivelled round in incredulous disbelief and he continued, "I canít remember much about it though - I was too drunk at the time!" The major part we were waiting for was not coming until the Saturday. The APU was only needed because there were no facilities at the airport. It was coming via Malta, then by chartered Russian aircraft to Termez - 70 miles away - and by road to Mazar. We hoped it had a load of food and supplies for us as well.

I let one of the servants have a go on our old typewriter. He hadnít used one before and wasnít used to seeing English letters either. Laboriously he typed his first words: 'MY NAME IS HAMID MY FATHR IS NAME IS AZEZ WE WANT PES FOR HAWRE PEPAL WE HIT WAR.' Under the circumstances, they were just about the most moving words Iíve ever seen. I showed him how to spell peace, people and hate and typed for him: 'My name is Richard, we want peace for your people too'. He is a splendid man and appeared to take great pleasure in wandering round the shops with me and suggesting material that would suit. Ten people crammed together, not working, turn emotional mole hills into mountains and I spent a great deal of time in trying to lighten up things amongst them. I quietly had a flowing Afghan suit made. The Country's Official Translator, Zia, had been sympathetic with our problems and I had previously let him into the secret. When he asked me if Iíd collected it yet, he almost laughed himself out of his seat when I said, "Itís not ready yet. The tailorís father has died." Zia said, "What else can go wrong here?" When it finally arrived, I waited until they were all in the lounge waiting for dinner. I strolled in as usual and created huge laughter. Clare said, "God, you look like a bloody monk." Other comments were more favourable. The Generalís aide shook hands and said he was pleased I was honouring his country and the staff grinned and Hamid said "Congratulations".

Laughter over with I note that three others followed the lead and more suits were made. I seemed to be a different person out there. I hadnít realised until Carmin asked whether Iíd thought of having a pub in England. When I told her that I thought I was regarded as a quiet if not shy person at home she said, "Thatís rubbish, you havenít shown it here."

Sounding out the BBC...

Tuesday. Met BBC Radio correspondent Alan and freelance partner Sarah. Six of us got ready with uniforms (me with borrowed Captainís jacket) and went to the airport. The usual hierarchy mess-up meant we werenít allowed to have any pictures taken. Back to the villa, high level palaver and arrangements made for 9.00 am the following day. They stayed for a drink and chat.

Wednesday. Bright, early and uniformed, we took the BBC people to the airport again. The pilots didnít want to be involved or quoted so Tom and I gave them background sounds of take off checks with accompanying switches and alarm tests while the girls made announcements as though we were actually about to fly. After some pictures for a Sunday Express story, we came back to the villa for the BBC sound and newspaper interviews. We had to be very wary of anything political or anti-Afghanistan. From a choice of subjects I opted for the friendliness of the Afghans, told him the typewriter story and gave him the end of his piece by relating about the suit and telling him how, after selecting the cloth the shopkeeper put his hand to his heart, bowed and said he and his family would be honoured if I would have dinner with them that evening. To hammer home the contrast I said, "Can you imagine that happening in Royal Tunbridge Wells?" Alan said, "That was great, Richard, just what I needed to round off the story." He might have been waffling to please me but still gave me a little boost anyway. They stayed on for a swim and a drink and we were joined by two men from UNICEF, one from the UN and various others. They brought a load of cold beer in return for using the pool - weíd become quite an oasis.

Thursday. Alan and Sarahís plane trip back to Kabul was cancelled so they joined us again. They were pleased as Mazar was paradise in comparison. They told me that there was scarcely a building or vehicle without bullet holes and they heard gunfire and mortars all the time. They only had occasional electricity, water was scarce and had to adapt to a life of fear. Back at the villa, nothing much happened. We played cards, a UNICEF chap (nicknamed leprosy John) brought us a video of Braveheart and talked to me about computers. With Peter's departure, things were much calmer.

Friday. Swimming all day followed by an invitation to a garden party in a beautiful setting with swimming pool and fountain. Flowers in all directions spread over more than 100 yards with the countryís ministers and foreign diplomats enjoying tea, walk and talk. We sat under a pagoda type sun shelter with food and drink being served nonstop. The party was a farewell to American John Carver, head of the UN there, who was going to study at Oxford after calling in on Turkey and Greece. We left at 7.30 to return to the villa for a peaceful evening. It had been a very pleasant day with a surprise in store. We found out through a friend of James that Chris and Av were coming out the following day.

Saturday. We were expecting to have the aircraft working within a fortnight and returning to a normal life where any irritations stay that way rather than getting built up out of all proportion. With the 1-11 going, the crew would then be taking breaks on a regular basis with a steady flow of people to and fro England - pipe dreams... In the morning we had an official visit to the LEPCO clinic. We didnít know in advance that it was formal and I was the only one who bothered to go. I think I blushed a little when John and I arrived to find the staff lined up outside ready to be introduced to our "party"! I couldnít help a mental shudder when I shook hands with a leper. It was sad to see staff striving to run a clinic with very little equipment and supplies and a ward with a single window and mattresses on the floor. On returning to the villa, I found Chris and Av had arrived. They were too tired for discussion. Final surprise of the fortnight was that Sheila was going back with Chris and Av.

That was just some of the experiences of a fortnight in sunny Afghanistan! Strangely, the mind has blanked out the traumas. Every day there was some blood boiling problem, row or worry, yet they have all faded into obscurity with time.

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