Thursday, March 30, 2006


Afghanistan's hair-rising highway - the road connecting the capital, Kabul, with the southern city of Kandahar is one of Afghanistan's key highways. The BBC's Bilal Sarwary took a taxi ride down the 250-mile (400km) highway, rebuilt by the Americans, and found the journey perilous in more ways than one. I had to travel back to Kabul from Kandahar so I went to the main taxi stand in Kandahar to find a ride.
Taxi driver Abdul Bari was playing loud Pashto music and joking with his friends as I approached the group and politely asked them if there was somebody who could take me to Kabul. He was quick to get up. "I will take you and I will get you there before any one else. But I want 3,500 Afghanis ($70)," he said. It seemed a fair bargain so I agreed. Like all taxi drivers around the world, Afghan cabbies are also very keen to engage you in conversation - whether you like it or not. As it turned out my driver had a particularly colourful past.


As a young man, he had fought the Soviets. Many of his family members were jailed, some even killed. But he became disillusioned with the anti-communist mujahideen when they began abusing their power following the defeat of the Soviet troops. He fled to Pakistan and began supporting the Taleban "because they were the good guys". Soon after, he returned to Kandahar and bought himself a taxi. "I've been driving on this road for the past 10 years," says Abdul Bari. As we started driving towards Kabul the complaints began. Apparently driving down this highway was particularly hazardous. "You know the police take money from me, the Taleban come out and start breaking my music cassettes," he said. I inquired why the police asked him for money. "Just wait and see for yourself," he said.
As we tried to get out of Kandahar we were stopped at the first police checkpoint in Daman district. A uniformed policeman approached us and asked Abdul for 100 Afghanis ($2), claiming he had not been paid his salary. But once paid the policeman was very polite and thanked the driver. I had never driven at such a high speed in my life... Afghanistan's roads were never good enough "Our government has robbers and thieves to guard us," Abdul told me angrily. As we drove past Zabul the topic changed to the Taleban. According to Abdul Bari, they come out at different times "mostly early morning and late afternoon". The driver was quick to emphasise they did not ask for money or take belongings.
"They will break the cassettes... Start beating the passengers. We intervene and beg the Taleban not to harm them," he said. Sometimes robbers wearing police uniforms come out on to the road, he says. "The first thing they ask for are mobile phones. They don't take mine but they once told me if I ever had a foreigner I should call them," he said. By now we were hurtling down the highway at 140kph. I had never driven at such a high speed in my life. I always wanted to, but Afghanistan's roads were never good enough. The Kandahar to Kabul highway is not a place for the faint-hearted.I asked Abdul why he had not put on his seat belt. His answer was quite shocking. "I will die whenever God decides - nothing will keep me alive if my number is up. "Only the stupid foreigners put their seat belts on all the time, they are so scared," he added, sniggering. I just could not convince him to put his seat belt on.
We hardly saw any traffic police on the way. The only place you would see them was at the site of an accident. There are a few every day. The drivers try to drive really fast and race each other. Most accident victims die because they cannot make it to the hospitals in time and there are none on the road. As we talked about problems and security fears. I suddenly noticed a group of four cars had been stopped along with our taxi by police from a nearby checkpoint. Apparently an attack had been launched on the police post from the mountains which surrounded the road. The police returned fire using a heavy machine gun.
Goats and sheep far outnumber people along the road.In a few minutes they told everyone they could leave. I was shocked but it appeared very normal to everyone else. As we passed Zabul we reached Shah Joy, an area where the Taleban is strong and their members can often be seen driving on motorcycles. We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. As I went inside, I saw a group of men on motorcycles driving around the car holding walkie-talkies. Security still a problem "Taleban," Abdul said quietly, "They come and check the cars and passengers and then they radio their friends. They are looking for foreigners and anyone working for the Afghan government."
During the five-hour drive to Kabul I did not see a single house or village along the road. I could see goats and sheep, but hardly any people. Burned and destroyed buildings could be seen - it was clear security in the south was still a big problem. As we said goodbye in Kabul Abdul Bari told me he dreamed of driving along this road without being asked for bribes. "I voted for [President Hamid] Karzai to make things right. I will not vote for him again unless he notices the problems of the poor like me," he warned.


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