4 Fraught and funny -
a typical fortnight...
something of our daily drama routine Iíll recount a typical couple of
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
To continue to Chapter 5
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