Memories of living in Beirut 1981 - 1985

mogreby

Old-Salt
After three weeks in the UK and I flew to Geneva and caught the train to Lausanne. I had to spend a week there looking at future finance possibilities and reporting to present donors on the work we were doing and the environment we were doing it in. I have always felt that raising the money is the hard part, especially for those who organise charity fundraising events, Christmas card sales and the like.

Anyhow, 1st, September I flew to Dubai and then on to Karachi both with Emirates then PIA to Peshawar where getting your luggage was always a rugby scrum. When I'd been in Lausanne I'd called ICRC in Peshawar to book a flight into Kabul but when I went there the next morning they had no record.. booked myself onto a flight for the following day and went to the bank to get $10k. The bank would always claim not to have enough bills for whatever amount you asked for but would nearly always manage to provide them in the end, if you argued politely with them. Why they did this I don't know but it didn't endear the staff to me.

To the American Club for supper and a beer, there were nearly always Afghan wannabees in the bar, NGO staff who either worked in Peshawar in support of work inside Afghanistan or organisations working locally who had no presence in Afghanistan. It always seemed a bit sad talking to them, they generally had a very good reason why they weren't working in Afghanistan, usually, they said, they had been offered a job there but needed quick access to an airport in case their sick relative needed them in Europe or the USA. Yeah, right.

Up at 0600 the next morning and into a taxi to ICRC where bags were weighed, lists checked, brief arguments had as to the spelling of a name, an organisation or a nationality and then a bus to the airport from where half an hour later we took off for the hop to Jalalabad and on to Bagram. From there the Red Cross bussed yo to their office and let you use a radio to call your organisation to come and get you. During the rest of the day, one by one and in great secrecy the senior office staff popped into my office and told me the awful things everyone else had been doing in my absence. My secretary wrote me a five page letter outlining all the wrongdoing and signing herself as my sister. There was an amazing postscript to her letter.

“You can't trust anyone in this office. Not even me.”

OK then, with plenty to think about and knackered/jet-lagged I went home to supper and bed.

Life went on, most of the wrongdoing was extremely petty and anything else got talked through and changes to procedure agreed. In the coming weeks we had bigger fish to fry. Lausanne sent another female journalist out so she got the tour and saw the work and chatted to the journalists based in Kabul over several evenings at the UN Club. Several of these she described as “Frontschwine” She was Swiss German and tended to lapse into German from time to time despite (or possibly because of) knowing that I couldn't understand. She did explain her comment to me, that several of them were only happy on the front line or a battle or war. She was mostly talking about an inscrutable Australian, Terrance, who smoked Indonesian fags with either bits of clove or clove oil in them that made your tongue go numb. He could sit at the bar discussing tank recognition depending on where a bit appeared on the barrel for hours with and ex military types of which there were usually several. The demining group HALO always had one or two.

9th. September saw a long convoy of military trucks and tanks (T55s and 64s – thanks Terrance) heading east towards Sarobi and Jalalabad where the Taliban were making advances. Our Head Driver, Naim, wants me to buy a VW Beetle. He knows I want a motorcycle and sidecar combo – impossible as they either belong to the military or have been stolen from the military but there would be no way o getting papers for one. Failing that any sort of motorbike except they are all shagged out and you can't use them in winter. So, as lots of hippies came here in the 60's and early 70's in VW beetles and camper vans then ran out of money so had to sell the vehicle to carry on to India for enlightenment or buy more hash or opium locally for enlightenment, there are lots here. Usually you would then expect him to say he has one or brother or cousin has one but, no, he'll have a look for one even though I told him I wasn't interested.

Wednesday 11 September Jalalabad fell to the Taliban yesterday apparently although the army is trying to get it back. Indeed the army retook Jalalabad on the 11th only to lose it definitively on the 12th. This is bad news as the simple way for a road evacuation would be through Jalalabad to the Khyber Pass, not only that but most food comes into Kabul that way and prices are already rising as a result. The Salang Tunnel to the north is open for passengers but not for goods. Staff are sent out to buy supplies for the office and house and, no doubt, for themselves too on their own account.

Monday 16th. The Taliban are advancing to Sarobi where there is a hydro-electric dam. Bizarrely the government who hold Sarobi turned the power on for Kabul so for the first time since my arrival we have light without the noise of generators. Nobody knows whey they didn't do this before. I've started going to circuit training at the UN Club and also running around Swimming Pool hill – clearly there is very little going on here outside work.

A couple of days later and the military situation seems to be easing a little, the Red Cross had temporarily stopped flying people into Kabul (knowing that if there were an evacuation they'd only have to fly them out again) but will restart. Despite this optimism Sarobi fell to the Taliban several days later. The French Embassy is taking the lead on coordinating information and they hold meetings for NGOs several times a day. The Red Cross is compiling a list of those who hope to be evacuated.

From Tuesday 24th the sound of fighting to the east and south could be heard pretty much constantly. At the office I pass on as much information to staff as possible and organise leaving cash and cheques for several months salary in the safe as it is impossible to say when return will be possible assuming the evacuation can go ahead at all. By 1600 on the 25th, the Taliban are said to be 15km from the centre of Kabul so the evacuation is planned for tomorrow morning if security permits. Apparently I'm assigned to a UN flight and will need to pay for it.

Thursday 26th. I woke at 0200 and couldn't sleep after that so got up and packed what I hoped to take and to try to store what I was leaving in the hope it wouldn't be looted. Fighting started at 0400 to the east of Kabul. At 0800 I was at the UN office when someone started singing on our radio frequency. Taliban said the driver. At 0830 the UN got clearance to go to Bagram so a group of us set off in three UN vehicles. At Bagram we sit outside the gate waiting for the UN flight to land before we are let onto the airfield. Lorry loads of rockets pass us from Kabul to the airfield and we can see them being loaded into pods on Hind helicopters which along with Mig 21s come and go. Even though the flight hasn't arrived we are allowed onto the runway apron and get a great view of the Mujahedin response to Taliban advances. The UN staff then come round trying to extract payment for the flight but we all stick to the fact that we were offered evacuation and nobody pays. Bills will be sent out we are told.

After an hour on the apron the flight lands and we board and quickly take off. An hour after that we land at Peshawar.
 
I went to Beirut a few times in 1975, just before it went really tits up. I worked in KSA three weeks on/one off and the company paid for an air ticket to Beirut (or the cash towards somewhere further). I was scouting out a place for me and Mrs TS1 to live in (but decided to live in Athens instead, which was a wise decision as it turned out).

I have fond memories of the place but could see many signs of what was to come.

A few things which might strike a chord (in no particular order):

Taxis: All of them were black Mercs. I got lost once and asked a copper where Hamra was. He said "quel hotel" and I replied Hotel Pavilion, Hamra. He stopped a taxi, chucked the bloke in the passenger seat into the back (all taxis were shared, more like a minibus service than a personal taxi), told the driver where to take me and said "Only pay him 5 livres no matter what he says". When I got there the driver moaned like a bastard but I told him I didn't speak Arabic, gave him a fiver and walked off.

Police: I was out for a walk and ended up in a dubious area. I walked past a police station and a couple of cops fell in step behind me. Both carried SMGs. I thought WTF but they merely followed me out of the rough bit onto the Corniche where they left me. I realised that for the first (and only) time in my life I had an armed escort.

Wealth/Poverty. I saw four glamourous youngsters in a convertible Rolls Royce whilst by the side of the road a ragged looking woman was breastfeeding a baby. The contrast didn't bode well for the future.

The British: I don't know what it was like when you were there but there was a very thriving British community there in the mid-70s. There were enough "British" pubs to actually have a darts league and cricket teams. I guess they didn't last much into 1976.

I will add a few more observations later.
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
I went to Beirut a few times in 1975, just before it went really tits up. I worked in KSA three weeks on/one off and the company paid for an air ticket to Beirut (or the cash towards somewhere further). I was scouting out a place for me and Mrs TS1 to live in (but decided to live in Athens instead, which was a wise decision as it turned out).

I have fond memories of the place but could see many signs of what was to come.

A few things which might strike a chord (in no particular order):

Taxis: All of them were black Mercs. I got lost once and asked a copper where Hamra was. He said "quel hotel" and I replied Hotel Pavilion, Hamra. He stopped a taxi, chucked the bloke in the passenger seat into the back (all taxis were shared, more like a minibus service than a personal taxi), told the driver where to take me and said "Only pay him 5 livres no matter what he says". When I got there the driver moaned like a bastard but I told him I didn't speak Arabic, gave him a fiver and walked off.

Police: I was out for a walk and ended up in a dubious area. I walked past a police station and a couple of cops fell in step behind me. Both carried SMGs. I thought WTF but they merely followed me out of the rough bit onto the Corniche where they left me. I realised that for the first (and only) time in my life I had an armed escort.

Wealth/Poverty. I saw four glamourous youngsters in a convertible Rolls Royce whilst by the side of the road a ragged looking woman was breastfeeding a baby. The contrast didn't bode well for the future.

The British: I don't know what it was like when you were there but there was a very thriving British community there in the mid-70s. There were enough "British" pubs to actually have a darts league and cricket teams. I guess they didn't last much into 1976.

I will add a few more observations later.
A lot of this does chime with me. I hardly ever went west after dark and never to a bar so don't know about darts leagues. The poverty in the Palestinian camps and the poor Shiite areas around the camps had to be seen to be believed. Beggars abounded at crossroads and they could hire babies for the day in order to tug more heartstrings. They often gave the babies aspirin to keep them quiet though. When I was there there was less conspicuous wealth about, too many armed men with little or no structure to answer to who could take what they wanted when they wanted.
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
Myself and a couple of others from NGOs went for a slap up Chinese meal and then to look for lodgings. First we went to ACBAR – the agency coordinating body for NGOs in Afghanistan, staff there offered us beds and use of telephones. Once showered we all met up at the American Club for supper and a beer. I got home for the night at midnight, I don't remember feeling tense or worried over the last day or two but I must have been and went out like a light.

Next morning the BBC is full of images of Taliban all over Kabul. They had also gone into a UN compound and taken Najibullah (left as President when the Soviets pulled out in 89 and in hiding/asylum since being deposed by the Mujahedin in 1992) out, mutilated him and hanged his body from a police post at a crossroads. They did the same to his brother who was with him. At 1200 Nigel (with whom I'd been evacuated) came over for brunch and we had sausage, bacon and eggs. Producing such goodies in a Muslim country is a mark of the generosity of our hosts who were wonderful. We went back to the American Club for a swim at 1800 and then Liz (my host) and I went to rent a video or two and get pizza. Liz didn't eat cheese so had to give precise instructions to the pizza guy but he was confused. She says she wanted a pizza with no cheese, he didn't understand so she repeated it. He looked baffled and said they had Edam or cheddar but didn't have no cheese. Confusion over we got our pizzas and went to watch a video in a different world from 36 hours previously.

Saturday 28th. Now I have to get back to Kabul. Round to ICRC to see their loggie who is in charge of air ops. It was fair to say that he was stressed and not shy about letting people know this and where they stood in the pecking order of what he needed to achieve. So, no flight is possible for a day or two, there might be a land convoy tomorrow, check back. I went to the bank for $15,000. they offered $7,000 and we closed on $10,000. that evening we watched Heat with Al Pacino and Robert de Niro.

0800 on Sunday at ICRC, still no flights and uncertainty about the convoy. We decided to go to the Khyber Agency for permission to cross the Tribal Territories and see how far we could get. We got permission for the next day. We will have to go and collect a policeman to go with us for our own protection in the Tribal Areas. Come Monday morning and there is no movement as apparently there were public hangings in Jalalabad yesterday. Still, we decide to go. Get our copper and cross into the Tribal Areas. This is where the only measure of Pakistani control is either to cut off the water or electricity or send in overwhelming force. You go past gun factories repairing any sort of gun available and making a fair few from scratch. Police and army checkpoints along the way until you come to the Khyber Pass with crests and motifs from passing armies chiselled into the rock. It is quite narrow but short and opens up to Landi Kotal on the Pakistani Side and Tourkham on the Afghan side. The Khyber Rifles hold sway and they told us the border was closed. We waited. It looked like chaos on the other side and looking up to the crags above I could see a line of people crossing over without going through the border.

A Red Cross convoy turned up with the irate loggie in charge, in a moment of weakness he said we could join his convoy so we did but it was a sideways move as it went nowhere. We retreated to Peshawar at the end of the afternoon. Even if we had been able to cross then it would have meant travelling in the dark which nobody thought was a good idea.

Hope springing eternal I was ICRC at 0600 the next morning. The loggie said that there was no chance of a flight but that if I had been there earlier he could have put me on a land convoy that had just left. It didn't seem the right time to say that I had been there when the convoy left but he hadn't so I kept quiet. He then took me into his office and said that I really knew how to piss him off, I apologised but said that we were all on the same side. Apparently NGO staff and journalists are just boxes to him, and not high priority ones at that. Fair enough. Outside I met the head of the ICRC who put me on the list for the next flight to go later that morning. This news met with a predictable result from the loggie who didn't like having his plans changed for him (and I can sympathise with that). He said my name was definitely not on the list but when I said that it was Eric who had put it there he asked me what my name was. I told him and he was fine after that, he'd thought I was French.

By now there was a crowd of people going or wanting to go. The list was called and I wasn't on it but someone who had gone in yesterday was on the list so I got reinstated. Off to pack and I get the news that the flight for 1200 is cancelled but to check back at 1600. I did some washing and had lunch then at 1500 get a call that there might be a flight today. Round to ICRC and there is a flight but I am not on it. Then another list is produced and I am on it but Nigel isn't. With the warning that Kabul ICRC may decide to cancel the flight we go to the airport and through customs and immigration. We took off and flew low level the whole way landing at Kabul airport at 1645. Kabul now no longer under threat of Taliban rockets had opened the airport a day or two ago.

The Taliban recognised my old regime visa and even had rudimentary customs checks asking about a CD player and Swiss army knife. They missed my bum bag slung over my shoulder which had two cameras, radio batteries and $12,000 in it. Kabul is chaotic but in a quiet way. Not many people on the streets and nobody at the office . My keys were there along with a note from Shamim saying he'd waited until 1630. went to a couple of other NGO houses to see who was about and what they were doing and to cadge a supper then home feeling slightly subdued. I unpacked, nothing was missing, and went to bed wondering what the future would hold.
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
Back in the office the next day the staff were pleased that the takeover had been pretty well bloodless and that security was perceived as being better now. They thought that the Taliban couldn't treat Kabul in the same repressive way as they had other cities they had taken....

We expanded the midwives programme by hiring more female staff in the same week that UNICEF sacked all their female staff. Girls education in schools was banned but through the street children programme we still had girls in education and expanded that. To do so quickly I went with the local NGO director to UNICEF to ask for ten classrooms in a box. These were large cardboard boxes with chalk, black paint to make a simple blackboard and enough pencils and notebooks to allow simple education to go on. The UNICEF director saw us and said that he had just promised his stock of 25,000 boxes to another country. I countered that the difference between 25,000 and 24,990 was nothing but that ten boxes could make a difference in Kabul and give UNICEF credible claim to be supporting girls education. He wouldn't budge. He was terrified of the Taliban.

Three weeks after the Taliban took over we were evacuated again as Massoud threatened Kabul but it came to nothing. The Taliban took over my neighbours house and stopped the torture of people there at night which was great but their parking skills left a lot to be desired. They would just abandon vehicles in the middle of the road and go in for tea. Every couple of weeks I had to go and squat beside the road with them and chat about how easy it would be to avoid the inevitable arguments with other drivers when they blocked the road. They always though this was a great idea and for a day or two would abandon their vehicles at the roadside but as new ones came along the abandonment moved into the road again.

The religious police set up office opposite our office which meant more tea consumption but gave me the opportunity the run ideas by them and if they didn't intervene we got on with it, they allowed us to bring women into the office so long as there was segregation. We were still moving women around by taxi and one day one of the taxis was stopped by a Talib in the street who asked the driver what his relationship to the burqa'd women in the back was. Slightly taken aback the driver explained the concept of a taxi but this cut no ice and we were told to install curtains between the driver and the passengers in our taxis so that the driver couldn't see the women in the back even though they were in burqas. Fair enough, we got it done. The next thing was that people outside the taxis could see that there were women in the car so we had to curtain off the side windows and back windscreen. Shortly after completing that we were stopped again, the Taliban couldn't see who was in the back so we had to remove the curtains.

We had a couple of journalists come out from Geneva, they were stopped at Kabul customs and a bottle of whiskey was taken from them. That day the Taliban removed all alcohol from the cellar of the Intercontinental Hotel and drove a tank over it in the street smashing the bottles then set fire to the river of alcohol running down the street. The same evening a Talib came to our door and returned the journalist's whiskey to them in a plastic bag. There were no paper bags – they had been banned in case they were made from pages of the Holy Quran. The Taliban wanted to institute identity cards with photographs of the bearers. Not a problem for the men but photographing women did pose issues for them so they decided that women should be photographed in the burqas. It took them several days to work out that as identity documents these were unhelpful and the idea was dropped.

Driving into town one day I was flagged down by a guard from the next door house, could he have a lift. Wanting to maintain good relations I said he could. He asked if the antenna on our house roof was for a television and seemed disappointed when I told him it was for VHF radio. He next asked if i had any cassettes of music in the car, I did but thought it was better to deny it in case he was an agent provocateur. On another occasion after an evening meal that the Intercon. and with curfew approaching I was stopped by two armed Taliban asking for a lift. I said I couldn't take weapons in the car so one handed his AK to the other, got in and told his mate to walk.

Taliban driving often left much to be desired, driving to the UN club down a straight road in Wazir I saw a crappy old Russian jeep come out of a side road onto my side of the road I was on and hit me head on. His brakes had failed and I was the first stopping possibility he had come across. I wanted compensation for the damage to our vehicle so we set to work to try to identify the guy and where he was based. After three days I was able to go and meet his commander and ask for compensation. Naturally nobody had any money but I was offered the opportunity to exact sharia law on the jeep by shooting it. I declined for several reasons but mainly so as not to set a precedent of accepting sharia law and therefore possibly placing myself and all foreigners under it.
 

mogreby

Old-Salt
Below are three pages of rules issued by the Taliban to NGOs and the general population in January 1997.
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