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     Volume 4 Issue 18 | October 22, 2004 |

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An Encounter with Terror in Afghanistan

Nigel Moleswoth was working for a private security agency assisting the United Nations in Afghanistan. He had a few weeks left of his posting when things went awry.

Boredom is something we are all often faced with - no matter where you are. But going for a walk or reading a book often relieve it. In Afghanistan, however, the removal of a well established and highly influential warlord who was the, illegitimate, governor of Herat, the second biggest city in Afghanistan, also does the trick.

Ishmael Khan had been the self appointed governor of Herat for years. He was also a warlord and a crook who made most of his money by creaming off customs revenues from the border with Iran and Turkmenistan. He had a private militia, which answered to him and not central government. How this was allowed to go on for so long is anybody's guess but it had and with the up and coming elections it was decided once and for all to remove him from power.

The city had been fairly tense for a week or so and it was widely known that Khan's days were numbered. There were a few reports of explosions in the city and general unrest but on Sunday 12th September this hostility was suddenly redirected against western agencies, the biggest one being the UN. That morning there was a big demonstration against Khan's removal outside the UN compound, which then turned into a riot. The front gates were set on fire and when these burned down, the rioters stormed the building, looting anything of value and destroying everything else, eventually burning the place down. I was about 800 metres away from the UN compound in a UN run guesthouse with instructions not to leave until someone came to get me. It transpired that the rioters had moved onto other western/NGO compounds, looting and destroying everything in their path and that the city was rapidly descending into anarchy. In the meantime, the staff at my guesthouse were packing up and heading home, leaving me, another colleague and a Japanese election observer alone with two unarmed gate staff.

For about three hours, the three of us sat in the walled garden of the guesthouse watching the helicopters fly overhead, listening to gun battles that were taking place between rioters and security forces. At times they were less than 300 metres from our guesthouse and we received the occasional update from our boss as to what was happening and when we were eventually going to be evacuated ourselves. We weren't overly concerned and after a while, the novelty wore off and we started to get bored.

All of a sudden, we heard chanting, shouting and gunfire outside the gates to our guesthouse.

Every UN run building has an underground "bunker" which is, in effect, a panic room, in which you can lock yourself if all else fails. It is equipped with a radio and food and water for several days. The Afghan on the gate came rushing up to us to tell us that now might be a good time to move into the bunker. Still not overly concerned, we ambled past the gate, into the building and downstairs into the bunker. But curiosity got the better of us and we went back upstairs to peer through the curtains in order to see what was going on. The gate-staff were trying to reason with the angry mob, telling them that there was no one here. As if to prove this, and assuming that we were already hidden in the bunker, they then proceeded to open the gates and about 50 very angry rioters poured in and ran straight towards us. We sprinted downstairs to the bunker with the crowd only yards behind us.

There were two doors of the bunker to shut but when we closed the doors and tried to lock them out we found that it was so pitch black that we couldn't see our hands in front of our faces. We could hear the shouts of rioters running downstairs after us and we fumbled desperately in the dark with the bolts and bars. One of the bolts on the door was jammed and we couldn't get the bars to lock properly in place so I found myself pushing the door shut with all my strength, bracing my feet against the wall to help me, while the mob on the other side tried to prise the door open. All this time it was still pitch black, the crowd outside was in a frenzy, thumping on the doors and amidst all the shouting, we could hear the English words "bunker" and "petrol". Not exactly encouraging.

The sounds of plates, windows, doors and furniture being smashed and also an ominous scraping and banging on the ceiling as someone was trying to smash a hole in the floor above to reach us. We were like rats in a trap and with no light or radios (the manager had switched off the power before he left) I have never been so terrified in my life. Fortunately I found that my mobile had a signal and with one hand desperately pushing the door I called for help with my phone in the other hand. I still wasn't sure if the mob knew we were inside because they could have just been trying to find things to steal. I, therefore, had to whisper to the person on the other end of the line that if someone didn't come very soon, the mob would be inside and we would be in serious trouble.

He reassured me that troops were on their way but he couldn't say when exactly. Later on he told me that he had watched helplessly as the US troops loafed around getting ready, oblivious to our plight and that my repeated phone calls begging for help, with the noise of rioters in the background had sent a shiver down his spine as he imagined what would happen to us if the troops didn't get to us in time.

The crowd spent about 30 minutes trying to get into our bunker and all the time my concerns were that they would manage to prise open the door or pour petrol under the door or down a ventilation shaft and 'smoke' us out. I went back to the bunker the next day and found that the floor outside was covered in petrol soaked newspaper. Eventually the noise stopped and the crowd seemed to have disappeared but we kept quiet in case it was a bluff. Outside we could hear gunfire but we didn't know who was shooting and at what.

Finally, after about an hour of being holed up underground, we heard heavy boots on the stairs and the sound of US forces coming to our rescue. We grabbed what kit we had and were hustled out of the compound and into a convoy of battered vehicles escorted by military Humvees. In the space of an hour our guesthouse had been transformed into a battered and burning wreck. As we drove around the rest of the city picking up any westerner we could find we saw burnt out buildings and vehicles, downed telegraph lines, smashed up shop fronts and an angry crowd kept at bay by the Afghan army. The odd rock came flying our way and it was clear that the situation was still extremely volatile. A few Afghans waved nervously but I was certainly in no mood to wave back.

We drove through the gates of the US Army compound and were put straight on a Black Hawk helicopter and flown out of town to the airport, flying over the remains of a smouldering city, the three of us shaking hands and grinning with relief at having escaped, literally, by a hair of a whisker.

I was flown to Kabul as expected but was sent back to Herat, to help the UN to re-establish itself in a show of defiance. Ishmael Khan had been removed from power but was now sitting at home about a mile away from where I was and presumably in a huge sulk, plotting his revenge. The city was calm and a curfew was put in place. We went everywhere with an armed escort and there were only a handful of international staff left. I presumed, and was right, that the elections would be postponed as everything relating to the elections was either stolen or burned and it would take some time to recover the information from the guys out in the field who weren't affected by the rioting.


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