Your life in their hands, Your country in their heart - by Shekhar Gupta Back   Home  
IT was easy to call it Scariana Airways. Ariana, the Afghan national carrier which resumed operations with a flight to New Delhi this week, had a style entirely its own. So almost everybody who has flown with it in the past has a scare story or two of his own to tell. I am inflicting on you some of mine.

On which other airline would you have seen a flight steward struggling with a kerosene cooking stove — the kind that sometimes sorts out young brides who brought inadequate dowry. It was on a flight from Delhi to Kabul when Najibullah was under siege and rockets sometimes landed on the airfield just when a plane was landing or taking off.

‘‘Now what the hell are you trying to do?’’ I asked.

‘‘The captain wants tea. The hotpoint kaput. No work. Russian plane, you see,’’ said the steward and continued pumping.

‘‘But you will kill us,’’ screamed a German photographer.

‘‘No worry. Inshallah,’’ said the steward.

There were other close things for which you couldn’t even blame an over-enthusiastic flight steward. Another Ariana TV-154 was just approaching the runway when the pilot pulled up abruptly, nose in the air, the three already overworked engines straining to keep the belly from kissing the Paghman ranges. The plane made an emergency climbout to evade the Mujahideen rockets. You held on to the backs of your seats, your feet jammed under the one in front so you wouldn’t topple over backwards. The pilot flew straight back to Delhi.

But nobody let you take your bags and go home to safety. An hour in the transit lounge and you were back on way to Kabul again. The rockets, we were told, had stopped falling. And Ariana wasn’t going to lose revenue just like that.

AVIATION in Afghanistan in the throes of the so-called jehad was more than just the usual Afghan recklessness or Inshallah fatalism. It also underlined the Afghan spirit of adaptation and survival. The roads had already been bombed out. In any case each 10 miles was controlled by a different commander (read thug) and you could spend a lot of time merely paying tolls or organising a ransom. It only made internal flights within Afghanistan even more interesting and adventurous.

On a visit to Herat on a beat-up AN-26 you would have the distinction of using the most unusual mode of transport even for your airport pick-up and drop, a Soviet BMP-I Infantry Fighting Vehicle. Anything lesser would not have been able to negotiate the drive that was no more than mine and grenade holes.

Even the tracked BMP bounced and you held on to the next protrusion or even the next guy’s belt with dear life. And then you flew back after dusk, the horror show of a lifetime.

First of all, the AN-26 was overloaded at least twice over and there was good reason for it. All of Herat had seen a passenger aircraft land so a lot of Herat had lined up at the airbase in the evening hoping to cadge a ride to Kabul. The pilots were first class free-marketeers.

They stood next to the aircraft, collecting their tribute and letting passengers in. No tickets, no boarding pass, no baggage check, no claim checks and, finally, no frisking or security checks. It was a cash-and-carry flight. The cash was being stuffed into two gunny sacks — it was already several hundred Afghanis to a dollar and, with a black market on larger notes, a passenger sometimes paid several kilos of currency to get his family on board. It’s also not as if all their baggage required a security check. Many carried just blankets, some had goats, one had chickens clutched under his armpits.

Because the pilots were loathe to say no to anybody and because the stream of passengers was never-ending, we were not able to take off before sunset. And the airstrip had no lights. ‘‘Don’t worry. We’ve been doing this for years,’’ said the pilot, who couldn’t be more than 20-22. Maybe the Afghans let them fly before they were old enough to get driving licences. We took off packed like, well, Afghans on an internal flight. Goats, chickens, two Afghan generals, three Russian advisors, too many journalists, and all. As the wheels left the ground, one general took out the Koran and started to pray. The Russians pulled out a bottle of vodka and ‘‘killed’’ it amongst the three of them before we were even 10,000 feet in the air.

If there were no lights on the runway for the take-off, there were none allowed inside the plane either. You don’t want to tell some Mr Fast Fingers with a Stinger missile where to fire. In any case, there was no place for anybody to move a muscle. Until an Afghan decided to have a smoke and struck a match. An air force corporal jumped over several passengers, baggage, sent the chickens flying, and grabbed the delinquent passenger kicking and screaming. He sure had public opinion on his side. We turned instantly into a mob and blows rained on the poor smoker from all over though who was to know who actually received them.

The pilots actually had a sense of (very dark) humour. After what looked like the longest hour of your lives, the plane landed at an airfield where lights came on only for a moment for the touchdown and proceeded to a deserted corner of what was a graveyard of aviation — the place where they stored wreckages of planes shot down by the Mujahideen Stingers. The rear hatch opened, most of the Afghan passengers descended and proceeded straight to the corner where the steel frame had been cut. We waited our turn but the hatch closed, the plane began to taxi again and the captain, the same self-styled veteran, announced that this was Jalalabad and we were taking off for Kabul again.

But he obviously wasn’t so sure of our nerve so he didn’t push that cruel joke further. We just taxied to the other end of what was indeed Kabul airport to the real arrival lounge. It is just that he had to first offload his private passengers and the gunny-sacks full of cash in a safer place.

THERE are other stories, some dangerous, some quaint. Landing at Mazar-e-Sharif once with a Newstrack crew that then carried a hundred kilograms of equipment, we found no porters, no transport. I grabbed the first Afghan I found, dishevelled in crumpled khakis, and asked if he would give a hand for 10 dollars. ‘‘Me, peelaut (pilot),’’ he said, ‘‘me no carry baggage.’’ Ajmal Jami and Bharat Raj, famous NDTV cameramen in their own right now, would testify to that story and might even send me ten dollars for carrying their baggage, for I was no ‘‘peelaut’’.

The real surprise, however, was how could a place so backward, so primitive have so much aviation? But that was so true of Afghanistan in so many ways. How could a place as poor, rundown and traditional as Kabul, for example, have so many short-skirted women? Or, how could a society so Islamised, so caught up in a jehad and owing so much to the Pakistanis have so much affection for India?

Don’t buy the usual Kiplingisms on Afghan disloyalty and deceit. If you live on a land which produces so little, is surrounded by giant hostile neighbours, is hundreds of miles from the nearest port, has no oil, no industry, is an unwitting pawn in a centuries-old Great Game and boasts of nothing else than warfare as its main source of employment, you learn to adjust and adapt, take risks, believe in God. They can do nothing about neighbours. But they have learnt, over the decades, to let their imagination leapfrog a bit and look at a more distant neighbour, India, for political and cultural linkages and succour. The Afghan affection for India has a strong emotional side.

But there is more to it than mere emotion. India may be a slightly distant neighbour but it is the only one with no territorial, cultural or political designs over Afghanistan. It also has the strength to balance out the others, particularly Pakistan which has always held Kabul in contempt. Is it any surprise then that when the Afghan national carrier resumes flying after such a long gap, it chooses New Delhi as its first destination. So what if it is still the Scariana Airways and, I, older and wiser, may not be Afghan enough to buy a ticket on it in such a hurry.
Published in IndianExpress with the title "Friends without life-jackets".