U.N. Kabul flight eases entry for Western officials, aid

Service fills need, helps pay for operations

March 15, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - Flying in a 60-passenger jet over the Khyber Pass toward Kabul yesterday, Jason Sangster, a 27-year-old American aid worker, said his family and friends had hoped he would never get on that airplane.

"I must have gotten three or four phone calls a day, saying: `Haven't they canceled the trip yet? Are you still going?'" he said as the plane flew west. "They were skeptical, scared and worried."

He had started his travels in Atlanta, where his girlfriend took him aside at the airport and, to his shock, began to cry. He told her, "I never knew that you felt this way."

As a photographer and editor for the nonprofit organization CARE, Sangster's job is to get pictures of aid projects for its publications. He wants to show Afghans who are trying to rebuild their country instead of fighting. And he wants to inspire other people to help them. "I want to do something with my photography," said Sangster, whose blond hair ends in a pony tail, "to try to make a difference."

So like hundreds of other aid workers, officials and journalists, he bought a ticket for a trip from Islamabad, Pakistan, to Kabul from the only available airline: the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service, UNHAS. Until the fall of the Taliban, no easy ways to enter the country existed.

Westerners might take a night ferry across the Panj River from Tajikistan, within artillery range of the Taliban. Or could sneak across the Pakistan border. Or hitch a ride on a Northern Alliance helicopter.

But at the start of the year, with the major cities apparently secure, the United Nations began regular flights. The planes take off from Islamabad - a capital city with gleaming government buildings and leafy suburbs swarming with blue-uniformed police. They land in the smoky, dusty and shell-pocked Afghan capital, its streets patrolled by foreign peacekeepers and its residents haunted by the sense that the calm could end at any moment.

The United Nations doesn't take reservations. Travelers have to go to the driveway of a house in the Islamabad suburbs and belong to an aid group or have proof that they are journalists. They pay cash (about $600 one way for a 45-minute trip) and wait a day or longer for a seat.

Despite the inconvenience, a lot of people are scrambling to get aboard. The U.N. flights to Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif and Herat are jammed.

"It's way over the top," said a harassed Howard Meredith, UNHAS' air-transport officer, who was processing luggage and tickets in the carport of that house. "Everybody's trying to get into Afghanistan."

About 500 people a week take the flight to Kabul. There are eight flights a week, and UNHAS could probably fill more, Meredith said. But the United States and its Afghan allies limit UNHAS to three takeoffs and three landings a day at Kabul's airport.

The 41 passengers aboard the aircraft yesterday included a German television crew, several women from the International Committee of the Red Cross, officials from the United Nations' World Food Program and an American writer for an Indonesian magazine. Meredith has ticketed everyone from U.N. undersecretaries to Bianca Jagger. "I had her dragged off the bus to the airport, and we took her picture standing next to me," said Meredith, a no-nonsense, 40-ish Brit built like a pipe cleaner. "I sent it to my wife."

He helps direct the work of 13 U.N. aircraft, including a 60-passenger Fokker jet, two C-130 cargo planes, plus several helicopters and smaller aircraft. The cargo planes were originally dispatched to Pakistan to bring in food aid, in case the war and winter snows cut road access to the country. That never happened.

Instead, the cargo planes bring in something else that Afghanistan is thought to need urgently: desks, computers, fax machines and copiers. Almost every aid group setting up shop wants office equipment.

By selling tickets to passengers such as Sangster, the United Nations helps pay for its operations.

Sangster was happy to make the trip to Kabul. He started asking CARE to let him travel here to take photographs in November. "I've been anxious to get there," he said. Finally his boss agreed, he said, when she couldn't find any other free-lance photographer who wanted to go.

The flight over the eastern edge of the mountainous country was brief. Villages came into view, made of the same color dust as the mountains they sat on. Their mud-walled compounds could be distinguished from the earth only by their sharp angles and the shadows cast by the sun.

At the Kabul airport, the plane taxied past the hulks of mangled aircraft of every age, from biplanes to modern jets. In the ruins of the airport lobby, Sangster filled out an application for an Afghan visa.

The passengers waited silently while Afghans looked at them curiously. Sangster acknowledged being nervous. That would change, he said, when he could get out and start doing what he came to do: "As soon as I start hanging out with the people, I'll calm down."

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