flight from Kabul to Lash
September 4, 2009
Its strange feeling like you’re living inside a 60 Minutes segment or an episode of “Generation Kill.” Kite Runners – check. Guys riding in HiLuxes with gun mounts and turbans – check. Blast walls – check. Visually, being in Afghanistan has been just like being in the TV. All of the visual stereotypes and “memories” of the images we’ve seen on TV concerning this place are confirmed. I’ve felt the “Syriana” bleached dust blow, heard the call to prayer they sample in “The Kingdom” and stared out bullet proof glass at the blank, run down stone walls from “The Hurt Locker.” I feel like I’ve been here before, but I know its just from the movies (although some of this reminds me strongly of poor villages in rural Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan). But it leaves me thinking: is this it? Did 60 Minutes, MGM, CNN and George Clooney get it right? They got everything? There’s nothing else?
But there are things that shake you out of your movie daze. The flight down here is one of those. It is mesmerizing. The Kabul airport is a massive thing rounded by rough gray and brown mountains. Gigantic cargo planes blot the tarmac from all corners of the world. Helo after helo chops in. The small plane we flew down in seats 20 and jokes are made about bringing wide-mouthed bottles since there is no bathroom on board. At least two and probably three of the foreign men on board are armed with handguns or assault weapons. They wear blue jeans and short sleeved dress shirts. They are more down to earth and more likely to joke than the development workers who seem caught in a whirlpool of complaining about local national hires and lazy expats at their offices. Maybe it helps them get by – but it feels like they think its a part of their job. Go back to DC if you think your complaints are exotic.
The small turboprop spirals and spirals up out of the valley that Kabul lies in. With each 15 minute turn more and more of Afghanistan becomes visible. We rise out of a thick, choking, orange and brown haze of dust kicked up by the wind. It lies over the entire country more than a 1,000 ft. thick. Mountains always surprise here – especially when you fly by them and you are level with their peaks. Rough brown and black peaks spike sharply in masses of plateaus and then drop away a thousand feet into arid, light brown bottom land only to rise up again into more mountains.
After an hour and a half we are flying over northern Helmand and TV memory hits again when a Predator Drone becomes clearly visible out the left side window flying slowly and silently about 500 feet below our plane but in a different direction. It is flying towards a narrow green strip of village planted between the sharp hard walls of a mountain valley. Hundreds of these carefully cultivated strips lie in the valleys across Afghanistan. When I see them and the menacing drone, I think not only of the violent pictures from Tyler Hicks of the New York Times (one of my favorites – I want his job someday – http://query.nytimes.com/beta/search/query?more=multimedia&query=Tyler+Hicks&x=0&y=0) during his tour this spring and summer of the valleys of northern and eastern Afghanistan, but also of the similar valleys I’ve been to in Azerbaijan in the Caucasus – careful green strips thoughtfully and naturally wedged in the watery cracks of mountains. Thinking of the violence the Predator Drone represents and could bring to those places makes me feel sick.
Flying southish, we eventually come down out of the mountains. The rippled white of the desert is broken by a broadening green ribbon. As the Helmand river drops out of the mountains and hits the broad plain of central Helmand province it becomes wider and more luxuriant – but it is still bedded in the hard gray boulders of mountain wash. Farms stretch off for dozens of kilometers in either direction. Here the farmland is so fat the houses of each compound are scattered amid the green. In the hardscrabble mountains, the pattern extending away from the river uphill is always distinctly river, farmland, a band of houses then the scrub of the mountain side.
Descending, the wobbly squares and lopsided rectangles of rural, traditional farms comes into sharper focus. Each plot is bordered by smaller and smaller canals until each field is divided into small squares. In late August everything is a lush green. The only truly straight line is a massive canal cut by the Americans more than a half century ago during a previous attempt to electrify and bring modern farming to the Helmand River Valley.
Flying along the canal we suddenly bank right. While boarding the plane in Kabul an American NGO worker asks one of the South African pilots standing on the tarmac if it is safe to land in Lash. Planes have been shot at while trying to land before and I had been warned that we would make a sudden, diving swoop into the airport and be rushed off the plane. But we are told the situation is safe now. In the final approach we thrum over mud walled huts in mud walled compound with few squared-off buildings.
We sweep onto the runway that was only rebuilt a few months ago. There have already been fatalities. At one point a jeep with Afghan National Army soldiers drove onto the runway as an Antonov cargo plane was try to land. The Russian pilots were able to jump the jeep, but went over the end of the runway and were killed when they crashed into surrounding houses.
The road into town is also treacherous since its the only way for foreigners to get into the city. It is frequently targeted with IEDs – which are usually aimed only at either foreign or Afghan military convoys. In the days after I land a rumor goes through the compound that two IED attacks were averted when the military found and detonated the weapons before they could be used.
Getting out of the plane the heat is around 110. Dusty sand blows up and the sun is intense. Another movie reference startles me – since its not in the Syriana genre – I think of Tatooine, the desert planet Luke Skywalker is from – when we land. Dozens of up-armored Toyota LandCruisers in dark blues, greens and maroons are scattered on the edge of the runway to pick us up.
Freckled white men from South Africa and Zimbabwe greet us carrying Kalashnikovs and dusty cargo pants and baseball caps and tell us to get in the car. I’m American, but I think from here on out, no matter how media saturated I am (not very after living in Moscow, Baku and Aktau with a year in NYC thrown in), now on I’ll be out of the movies…?
The Challenge of Helmand – http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1817558,00.html
Afghanistan: Hollow power in Helmand – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/03/afghanistan-gordon-brown-barack-obama
U.N. Sees Afghan Drug Cartels Emerging – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/02/world/asia/02afghan.html
Seven Days That Shook Afghanistan – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/weekinreview/30filkins.html
Terrain forces marines into a walking war – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/weekinreview/30filkins.html