The first encounter with Ariana – the Afghan national carrier – is not always thrilling. It might be a unique experience from the Afghan land.
In last several months I have been working as a consultant for UN. This, more or less, has changed my preference in traveling. Probably I got spoiled already with those amenities, facilities, and luxuries. Today, the first day of me turning back to be a backpacker again, I feel a sudden shock.
Usually I prefer to take overland trip, but this time, on my way going to Iran for a short holiday to change the routine in Kabul, I chose to fly Ariana. The Kabul – Herat’s 1000 kilometer distance can be reached through three different routes. The northern route, through Mazar-e-Sharif, takes at least four days, killing unpaved road full of dust of the desert Dasht-e-Laila at the end of its leg. I have experienced this in 2006 and am not so keen to try again. The second option is the Central Route, through Bamiyan, Ghour, and Heart provinces. Most of the roads are unpaved, hitchhiking is required, and in my last experience, it took me two weeks. Not an option now, as I have only three days left in my Iranian visa. The last alternative is through the highway at southern Afghanistan, passing through Taliban stronghold regions of Zabul, Ghazni, Kandahar, Helmand, Nimruz, and Farah. It takes only one or two days, but I can’t afford the risk of being kidnapped or robbed in the middle of nowhere.
So, with all of these excuses, I decided to fly. But to my surprise, flying in Afghanistan is not that easy.
I reach Kabul International Airport at 6:15 a.m. My flight is scheduled at 8:00. In 2007, the airport had been site of several suicide bombings and now the security is tight. Passengers with normal cars (not UN or diplomatic) have to walk since the junction from the main road, passing through several checkpoints in the 300 meter distance and receiving various levels of humiliation from the police.
“No! You cannot go in!”
A young police at the crossroad stopped me.
“We were instructed that camera is one hundred percent prohibited in airport area. Unless you leave your camera with me, you are not allowed to go further!”
They say that President Karzai is going to fly today. Therefore, nobody is allowed to bring camera to the airport. But, what nonsense, it was just accidentally that these young policemen find out my camera in my small bag, but they never check the huge luggage of turbaned and big-bearded passengers. I am just a tourist going to Iran, and of course with a camera, so how come these gate policemen limit what I should bring with my luggage.
“If I can’t catch my flight because of you, will you give me back my money for ticket?” I asked after being held at the main road for more than 10 minutes. My scene being held here becomes attraction of other passengers, who just giggle and pass by.
“Na, baba! Where we get the money from?” the young police insisted of not letting me in. Instead, they just want to see my ID card to prove that I am a photographer or journalist. But I left my expired press card at home as I worry to be found as journalist in Iran. I called my journalist friend to help me explaining to this stubborn young police.
“No. We have to follow the rules. Listen, all kinds of cameras are not allowed. He can leave his camera here, no problem, then he can fly. When he comes back from Iran he can pick his camera,” says the police on phone. Not quite promising.
The police says he is going to consult with higher-rank officers to ‘solve’ my problem. But after the phone, he just stays idle and wastes my time.
“What else you can do? Just leave your camera with me here and catch your flight. Unless you can prove that you are journalist,” he smiles, full of winning expression.
Suddenly I remember my working permit. It is written that I was photojournalist there. It is already expired, but who cares. I flash the card in front of his eyes. The police guy actually cannot read. What he was looking for was merely an ID card with photo, and he understands nothing of what is written on the card.
Finally, he lets me pass. But not that easy.
“Money, Sir, money!” the young guy with cap shows gesture of receiving donation. He has delayed me for more than 20 minutes, made me a free attraction of sympathetic Afghan passengers, and now he still has the guts to ask for money?
I shake his hand, kiss his cheek, and whisper, “You are not behaving like a Muslim.”
The young police is dumbfounded. I leave.
After walking for 100 meters, I arrive in the second checkpoint – luggage checks. Everybody is asked to show the luggage to the police. The mustached officer seems happy to see a foreigner, tries his best to practice his English, and asks for the infamous word – money.
I have experienced unpleasant encounter with the airport police just three minutes ago, and now I just want to get rid of all of these as soon as possible. I squeeze 20 Afghani into his hand. He receives the money with nervous expression, trying to hide the bribe. He takes me out of the queue, pretending of giving special treatment to a foreigner to a special luggage-search table. He whispers, “Ten dollars? Ten!”
I say that I don’t have money to share anymore, I am from Indonesia, the biggest ‘Muslim country’ in the world.
“OK. As you are Muslim brother, you can go!”
My bag is untouched. I leave the dark office toward the airport building. I walk another 50 meter through the empty parking lot, then turn right to cafeteria. The main path going to the airport is blocked. Everybody has to go through this little side path.
Another check – the gate police is just interested to see my ticket. Then another check before entering the fence of the airport, just to allow people with morning flight to enter. Finally I arrive in a ground where two dozens people attempt to pass through small gate guarded by several uniformed soldiers. It was a struggle to get close to the small door. But then, the door is completely shut.
“Now! All of you! Step back! Wait in the g round!” The guard says that the President is coming. All people have to wait for 10 minutes until the area is cleared again.
Sun is fierce. I sit on ground, just like other people.
“These people are really stupid,” grumbles Habib, a young Afghan in his twenties, now working as ISAF translator in Herat but previously used to work as an English teacher in Afghan Military Academy in Kabul. “I really gave up working with these brainless bodies. They are stupid but they behave like they know everything. They even don’t know how to read and write, so how can I teach them English effectively?”
Habib saw me being humiliated by the two police guys on the main road, he helped me to explain about my camera to the stubborn guys. This made his another reason of calling the police as brainless bodies.
Ten minutes, they say we have to wait. But of course, Karzai is not known to come quick. We have been waiting for more than 30 minutes when his heavily-guarded vehicle pass, and another 45-minute-wait until we see the signs of emotive passengers struggle to pass through the fence. But the soldiers there are still unwilling to allow us to pass.
From the other side of the airport, a wave of hurrying passengers flood toward the main building. We are supposed to take the 8-a.m flight, but now are still halted outside the fence.
I find another door to go through, and run away towards the airport. The soldier tries to chase me. He screams to call me back. But then, he really has to give up as passengers from all directions come over in hurry.
Reaching the Kabul International Airport does not guarantee your victory yet. Numerous checks are still to follow. A long queue of passengers moves slowly in front of the main gate. Three soldiers check passengers’ documents and luggage manually, one by one.
Inside the airport, there is another ticket checking and X-ray luggage check before one is allowed to reach the airline counter.
Ariana Afghanistan Airlines counter for domestic flight shows the nature of wild people who can’t even wait for a single second. There is no line at all. Everybody tries to give his ticket to the poor counter staff. There is only one man working behind the table, and he has to do tedious work serving hundreds of passengers flooding in a short time. The result is chaos.
I get my boarding pass, at last. I don’t have any baggage even that I have read somewhere that no electronic chargers are allowed to be taken inside the cabin. Habib says he was ripped off by the airline guys as he brings laptop charger in his hand-carry luggage.
The next stop is boarding pass check – showing passport and the pass to an uniformed airport police.
“Give me ‘help’” says the man with a commanding tone. I pretend not understand.
I don’t give any reaction.
“OK then, five dollars!”
I say no.
“OK. GO!!!” He was helpless after holding my passport for 3 minutes and other Afghan passengers are coming. Corruption is nice, but at least he still knows that it’s shameful.
But for the next officer, it is not.
While my luggage is checked through the X-Ray machine, my body is searched by a police. It seems that he really enjoy rubbing my sexual organ while keeps asking, “What is this? What is this?” Then he finds two sachets of chewing gum in my pocket and confiscates it for the sake of his own stomach.
The waiting hall is comparable to bus terminal. Dirty, hot, messy, and crowded. The flight is delayed. Passengers are still coming, as most people were delayed by Karzai’s departure. The flights today become so messed-up due to tight security. Maybe Karzai should consider having private airport inside his own palace.
To go to the plane, we take a bus. The hurrying passengers, almost all of them are males, really fight to get seat inside the bus. The bus departs after there is no space anymore left, even to stand up.
The bus moves. But not more than 10 seconds.
We have traveled 10 meters distance – by bus. For this short walk, instead of walking, people have to struggle and fight to get a seat in the bus. And now it’s another mess as everybody is fighting to be the first getting off the bus.
“No wonder Afghanistan will never be developed,” comments Habib.
Some soldiers, in very rude tone, ask us to line up. Another body check is held before passengers are allowed to get in the plane. After searching me, the police whispers to Habib, asking whether I was male or female.
I am clean shaved, small built, and wearing Indonesian batik shirt with flower designs. In the eyes of macho Afghans, I might be at the border line between male and female.
“The police here are too stupid even not to be able to recognize male from females. How can you expect them to secure the country?” Again, Habib sighs.
Getting to the plane is another struggle. Everybody wants to sit at their favorite seats without observing the designated seat number. It turns to be an additional work for the flight attendants to regulate the seats.
It’s really hot inside the cabin, reminds me of waiting inside a bus. But somehow I miss that land journeys I have taken before. Even it’s full of struggle, at least it’s not humiliating like this airport experience.
“Are you flying to Herat?” asks the passenger sitting next to me. Well, I guess everybody in this plane is going to the same destination, otherwise we are in the wrong flight.
Some passengers are still involved in quarrels with the flight attendants, feeling upset of being asked to move. “But I came here first. I arrived in the airport before other people. I should get the seat number 1. But why you asked me to move to the 21st row?”
His boarding pass says so.
An Arabic prayer starts our flight. The announcement in Dari, Pashto, and English explains how to handle emergency. Male flight attendants demonstrate it. Nobody seems to be interested to listen.
At last, I leave Kabul, the city where I have been staying in the last 14 months continuously. It’s another city which I can call home. It’s a city with all of those dramas and ironies. The bleak picture of barren hills outside the dirty plane window reminds me how people struggle to gain back their hopes. The Ariana ticket with old photo of Bamiyan Buddha statue before destruction, reminds people of how glorious was the history of those barren hills.
Seven years have passed since the fall of Taliban, but we still can’t be optimistic. Corruption is more rampant, done by them who are supposed to build and protect the country. Security is getting tighter, as threat is increasing. Grumbles and complaints are heard every here and there. Habib told me how idle was his job in ISAF, while he still gets more than 1000 dollars salary. The foreign soldiers earn more than 2000 Euros without really much to do. In every campaign, the Afghan soldiers are always at the front line, then followed by the international (then you know who will die first).
The Pakistan biscuit and Turkish nectar juice were the only things provided by the airlines. It is not filling at all. Luckily, the rice comes after. The scene of Kabul hills, followed by empty hills everywhere, brings me to contemplation. Good bye Kabul. I am enjoying my Ariana flight!