Myanmar Times | A caliph in the midst of hell

Opium lords, Taliban terrorist attacks and automatic rifle fire – all a part of everyday life in Afghanistan, one of the most war-torn and corrupt countries in the world, a former Myanmar Times reporter writes

Translated by Khin Aung (Volume 26, No. 507, Myanmar Times)

(Kyaw Zaw Oo, the author of the orginal article in Myanmar language, is an English teacher and freelance translator. He worked as an assistant editor at Lifestyle magazine and a reporter at The Myanmar Times. He translated some books from English to Myanmar and used to work as an engineer on a construction project in Afghanistan during 2009 and 2010)

I HAVE been living for more than four mouths in the greatest opium- producing country in the world. That country is Afghanistan, where huge drug revenues are used to buttress political powers; where opium barons lavish their ill-gotten incomes on equipping pocket armies that are as lethal as any Western combat troops.

Since last September – except for nearly seven days sojourn in the capital, Kabul, celebrating the end of the Muslim festival of Ramadan – I have been in the second-largest city of Kandahar.

To be exact, I have been in a very large construction site between the airport and the city. There I live in a fully-furnished converted container, or Conex. As I just have to step out of my container to arrive at my workplace, there is no danger of being kidnapped or shot at on the way to work. I am safe and sound – unless, of course, the Taliban overrun the place or launch rocket attacks.

I arrived in Kandahar on the evening of my second day in Afghanistan. Almost immediately I heard the sound of two rounds of gunfire nearby. About half an hour later, Ko Aung Than Htut, my friend and superior officer, told me the guards shot at two Afghan civilians who had approached our site and, despite the guards ordering them to stop, continued their approach. So they shot at them. There is no way of differentiating a Taliban insurgent from ordinary Afghans, so even civilian-looking Afghans are not allowed to approach in case they are suicide bombers. I never found out if they died.

By the way, let me disclose something about myself.

When I arrived at Kabul, I had only US$2 in my pocked. I had come via India, and after two days in New Dehli, when all the hotel bills and car rental fees had been paid and I arrived at Indira Ghandi Airport, I still had $42. Although my visa was authentic there was a thin line scratched on my passport and the Indian immigration officer on duty seemed to have decided that was reason enough to give me trouble. He ordered me to step out of the queue of travellers and to stand and wait. After everyone else had cleared immigration, he started to haggle for a kickback. I explained to him that I had only $40 left. Only after a deal was struck – that left me with just $2 – was I was allowed to board the plane.

Two days after arriving in Kabul, I was at the airport transferring to Kandahar when the police constable checking my baggage made eyes at me and at the same time opened his palm. I was exasperated. What a fellow – even though he cannot speak English, he knows how to ask for money!

Not far from our worksite was the KAF, the commonly used abbreviation for Kandahar Airfield. Taliban insurgents would regularly launch rockets at the KAF and occasionally when I was resting I could hear the dull thud of the rockets and wailing of alarms. But it seemed these were little more than a once-a-week token strikes – those launching the rockets did so haphazardly and more often that not the missiles failed to hit their intended targets. Those with light injuries were sent to the field hospital to get their wounds dressed. The rubble left after the explosion would be cleared and KAF, where many foreign companies and soldiers were based, would return to normal.

If we looked out from the top of the building we were constructing, we could see a very large number of houses far, far away – that was Kandahar. Between Kandahar and our site was open ground, with few houses. Sometimes we could see flocks of sheep with their shepherds.

The KAF was to the east of our construction site. On the road out of the airfield there were an unending number of old, rusty, disintegrating tanks, trucks, airplanes and helicopters. Some of the airplanes were stuck headfirst into the ground, with the tails pointing to the heavens at an odd angle. They were all leftovers of the Soviet invasion in the 1980s.

If you looked to the heavens at night, you could see red spots moving about the sky. “They are ‘drones’; pilotless scouting planes,” Ko Aung Than Htut explained. “They say the drones are controlled via satellite, and they obey orders from California or some other place.” This exchange is indicative of how we discussed many things that happen in Afghanistan. Most of our conclusions were based on flimsy pieces of news we hear from other people.

I’ve never been in a place where fighting is taking place. On the night of October 29, while a Turkish engineer and I were working, a sudden loud explosion rocked our building and we all hastily ran outside. Others ran in the direction of the bunker.

Later, the Turkish engineer explained what had happened. “It really was a bomb but the problem has been solved,” he told us. “The British troops found a bomb and they had difficulty defusing it. So they detonated it in a safe way so that nobody was hurt.”

During our mornings in Kandahar, we could hear rifle shots from a nearby shooting range where Aghan police were being trained. We saw US servicemen and women alight from their vehicles and take a break before proceeding in a convoy. We could also see Afghan labourers, who would look at the US servicewomen as if they came from another planet.

I was one of two Myanmar engineers leading this project, which employed Afghan, Russian and Uzbekistani workers. As an expatriate engineer I enjoy a high quality of life, with access to luxury foods and modern domestic appliances. But there was always a nagging worry in the back of my head because I hadn’t worked as an engineer for nearly a decade.

Ah! How beautiful is Kabul encircled by her arid mountains And Rose, of the trails of thorns she envies Her gusts of powdered soil, slightly sting my eyes. But I love her, for knowing and loving are born of this same dust. That is how an ancient Afghan poet, Saib-e-Tabrizi, sang the praises of the city of Kabul. As for me, who was brought up in the midst of leafy green hills, Kabul’s sandy-coloured scenery could hardly be considered beautiful. Any person who could look upon this barren place with such affection must have a very deep love indeed for his native land.

When I was about to depart New Dehli airport, I became a bit worried about Kabul because it would be my first time in the country. But my worries disappeared after a lucky encounter with a Myanmar passenger, who was to work for the same company as me. When Ko Thaung Tun told me that he had been at Kyaukpyu College in Rakhine State, we immediately fell into a long, happy conversation, discussing mutual friends and the places we visited as students.

After we arrived, I was taken to what was known as the “Myanmar House”. That evening, as we were preparing a pot of ohno kaukswe (coconut noodles), we heard the large bang of an explosion that rocked the house subtly. Not long after we received a call informing us a bomb had exploded on the road I had just passed through on our way from Kabul airport. The explosion killed six Italian soldiers and some Afghan civilians.

There are at least 12 Myanmar here in Afghanistan. They are professionals or managers of some sort in the construction project.

“Myanmar who work here have good positions so nobody dares to look down upon them,” said Ko Thaung Tun, who has been here for more than two years. “But when we first arrived nobody had heard of Myanmar or Burma. So I asked them whether they knew Japan, and they said ‘yes’ so I told them, ‘Remember, we are the same as Japan.’”

It sounded ridiculous to me but apparently they began to think highly of us after that. When Cyclone Nargis tore through Ayeyarwady Division in May 2008, Myanmar news began to occupy an important place in media reports on CNN and other news services. When Nargis-related news came on the TV, Afghans would point their fingers towards the screen with a knowing smile and say, “Look! There’s your country…”

Ko Thaung Tun dearly loves the Rakhine composer Ko San Ko, who is our mutual friend. While having long talks about our past it transpires that Ko Thaung Tun sees eye-to-eye with me on most subjects.

During those holidays when I was on my way to the company office in Kabul, a long line of vehicles, including our bus, was stopped for about three hours for no apparent reason. When I made a move to get out of the bus to take some photos, other passengers quickly discouraged me.

“Oh, the great writer, are you intending to search for fresh material? Be careful! You yourself will become the next story. What do you take Afghanistan for?” they said.

When I tried to quietly take some shots from my own seat, those people who were sitting close to me looked on uncomfortably. A stranger taking photographs isn’t looked upon favourably by either the US troops or locals. This is a country at war, after all.

When a problem arises at an intersection in Afghanistan it usually takes a long time for it to be resolved. We had no way of knowing how the traffic blockage was going to be solved so often we would just leave our car in the traffic jam, along with our driver. We would walk some distance and take a taxi and continue our journey.

On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists destroyed the World Trade Centre towers in New York. Exactly two days before that, Osama bin Laden sent two al-Qaeda agents to northern Afghanistan to kill Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces, in a suicide bomb attack.

Massoud’s place was taken by Mohammed Fahim, who is today Afghanistan’s First Vice President. Although Massoud was killed, the Taliban regime was successfully removed from power and Massoud became the esteemed Afghan hero he is today. (In 2001 he was awarded the title “Hero of the Afghan Nation”.)

“When we heard the news of the death of our great leader Massoud, we couldn’t stop crying,” our 40-year-old Afghan assistant, Mr Ahwed Zahar, told me. When Massoud was murdered, Mr Zahar was serving as a non-commissioned officer in the Northern Alliance, previously a Mujahadeen insurgent group that fought the Soviets in the 1980s.

Mr Zahar has been working as a supervisor for nearly five years at the same American company I am presently working for. He speaks English fluently, as well as the Afghan languages of Dari, Pashto and Farsi. Although he is a company employee, don’t take him as an ordinary run-of-the-mill Afghan; he owns and operates a couple of medium-sized private enterprises of his own.

I later learned that just before my arrival in Afghanistan, and prior to the presidential election in August, Mr Zahar had taken a leave of absence. In fact, he disappeared from work for nearly four weeks. He had been campaigning on behalf of presidential candidate Dr Abdullah Abdullah. After the election, he reappeared at work as if nothing had happened! Presently there is no way to know which side Mr Zahar is on. While collaborating with the Americans on the one hand, some people suspect he wouldn’t hesitate to curry favour with the Taliban. He has participated in election politics and spent many years in the Mujahadeen movement. Currently he is sandwiched between those who hate long beards and those who place a high value on keeping long beards.

“Previously my beard was much longer than now. To make things easier for me when I attend meetings I was compelled to cut it a little bit short,” said Mr Zahar.

I asked him about rumours Ahmed Karzai, the younger brother of the president, was involved in opium trafficking and was also on the CIA’s payroll.

“Caliph Kyaw Zaw Oo,” Mr Zahar began, addressing me with a local term of respect, “the two things you mentioned now are not just possibilities – they’re facts. Many of Hamid Karzai’s brothers are in America. They have been involved with Americans for a long, long time. There are very few people here who not have anything to do with opium trafficking or, at least, money from opium trafficking.”

I also asked him about the ugly past of Hamid Karzai’s running mate, Mr Mohammed Fahim.

“First, you have to amass the hard cash, a great amount of hard cash. If you succeed in that – probably through opium trafficking – you will be able to buy an equally huge amount of arms, then you can pay your subordinates good salaries. In the process, your political power becomes great, making it hard to dispose of you. That is the kind of person Mr Fahim is,” he replied.

I’m sure after hearing these stories about Mr Zahar, you will probably think he is a shrewd, calculating guy. But, practically speaking, he is a man his colleagues can depend upon and a warm and loving husband to his wife and a dutiful father to his children, not to mention well respected in his community.

I will probably write a book on Afghanistan when I return to Myanmar, so I asked him whether he has photographs of himself and family members, just in case I need them.

The young Mujahadeen in the photos is intelligent and youthful. Recognising this, his superiors sent him to Kabul University, where he attained a degree in English literature. After graduation, he worked as a liaison officer, which required him to make many trips to Tajikistan, India and Europe. When back home he also had many combat experiences.

Afterwards, he got married and tried to secure a place in Afghan society, particularly through politics. While he is not ordinary – money, arms and power play an important part in his life – Mr Zahar is only a trifling player on the political stage of Afghanistan.

This is the country where any citizen has a right to bear arms wherever he happens to be. In this country if you have the means you can hire a hundred personal security guards. Once you are incap-able of paying their salary, you will quickly become their next victim. In this country, the people who built up money, arms and power slowly and steadily are now powerful political figures.

Yesterday staff from the contractor company inspected the site and accepted the completed project, except for a few small jobs. The only thing left for us to do is to pack up our things and be ready to move out to where there is more work that needs to be done.

The Turkish engineer from the contracting company has not been on speaking terms with me. However, with the project finished, he has immediately become friendly again. The stress of duty is no longer with us, so that’s why he has decided to be friends again.

After lunch I do a final inspection of the site. Although the project had been handed over the punch list remains. The painter had made a mistake in choosing the colour to be painted on the manhole covers.

I had to call together the two painters and an interpreter and explain things to them. I told them that when a fire breaks out, the colour of the fire is red, so the underground electricity lines’ manhole cover should be marked with a huge red “E”. In the sea, the water is blue. Therefore the manhole cover of the underground water pipeline should be marked with a huge blue “W”. The faeces of man is yellow in colour. Therefore, the manhole cover for the human waste pipeline should be marked with a huge yellow “S” sign.

After I had finished with my explanation they all laughed out happily in unison. In the course of my explanation, I was compelled to make the interpreter understand the words “sea” and “ocean” because he had never seen either in his life, what with Afghanistan being a comp-letely landlocked nation.

In this land where few young people are literate, I, the once-in-a while school teacher, the once-in-a while writer and the once-in-a while engineer, Caliph Kyaw Zaw Oo, could explain things so vividly – a one-eyed leader among the blind!

– Translated by Khin Aung

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This article was written in Burmese language by Kyaw Zaw Oo and translated into English by Khin Aung of the Myanmar Times.

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