Encounter with Terror in Afghanistan
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
a sudden, we heard chanting, shouting and gunfire outside
the gates to our guesthouse.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004