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Seven Steps to Security Serenity in Kabul

April 23, 2014

kabul290You can find humour anyhere. If you look for it. In fact in this place, to which we should ascribe ingrained sadness, there is a vein of light heartedness that everyone is so ready to tap. As friend Ray noted last week, these people are so quick to laugh and smile, unless and until you put a camera in front of them. Then they become as grave and as implacable as a thirteen year old girl with braces that went on only yesterday. There is even an ironic humour contained in the ‘seven steps to security serenity’ to which every departing traveller using the international airport is subject. It goes something like this. Step One. Arrive at the outer perimeter of the airport. It’s on the exit of a major arterial that bleeds through a roundabout. Stop, of course, at a checkpoint just a few metres off the roundabout so the traffic banks up and clogs very quickly. Think about the threat report that crossed your desk yesterday. In it you read, thanks to some yellow highlighting someone had applied, that insurgents (of no particular persuasion) planned to attack this roundabout and checkpoint. As your unarmoured vehicle sits in this chokepoint you watch the dozens of armed police and army milling about. If they are looking for any bad guys they are doing a good job of not giving away their monitoring skills. Five or six of them are focused on buying Pakistani bananas from a mobile fruit vendor. Does that fruit hide three unused Soviet 122mm rounds you wonder. Just off the roundabout I alight and walk up the footpath and through a metal detector. It doesn’t go off and the two guards have their AK-47s slung out of the way as they focus on their phones. One of them looks up, wanders over and gives my armpits a grope, squeezes the passport in my jacket and then looks back at his phone. I assume I can move on. So I do, towards a police dog asleep in his kennel, stupefied no doubt by the sun and the dust. My colleague has driven forward and is waiting for me. He picks me up and we roll down the road another 300 metres or so.

Step Two. Our vehicle turns right and joins a queue of other vehicles rolling through a covered check point. All passengers out again and walk through the shed while the vehicle is given a cursory once over. Arms up ( I want to do the Swan Lake flap) and another pat down but this one is just as cursory and does not go below my waist. By now I have done this enough times to realize the best way to handle these pat downs is to leave everything like phones and ipods in the car! Get it?!

Step Three. The car rolls forward and stops. While my colleague waits with engine idling I take all my luggage and walk into a shed which contains an x ray machine. (Men only in here please. Women have their own shed and x-ray machine. Well I assume there is an x-ray machine in there). The x-ray machine machine rolls and rolls. My gear disappears through the flapping rubber lips and I walk to the other end to catch what it has digested. There are two guards sitting there, AK-47s resting across their knees.

“And then I told my neighbor that if their cat ever crapped on my plastic flowers again I would ring an insurgent I know to wire it up to his next bomb.’

‘Come now Ali, be kind. Send it over to my place. I’ll look after it.’

‘I’ll send the neighbours dogs too. Those things keep me awake at night’.

Or something. They are chatting away in Dari like two old women knitters talking about their grandkids and not looking at the screen at all. I try some Pashto on them – manana (thankyou) as I pick up my bags. They stare at me and say nothing. Did he grip that AK-47 more tightly? What I thought I said might not have been what I actually said and I scamper out as quick as I can.

Step Four. If at this point I am forced to the terminal via Car Park C (via a boom gate that has attracted more guards than a goat carcass attracts flies) there will be another check as I leave the environs of Carpark C, though this is more about making sure only passengers head to the terminal. If you have dragged unticketed family along on this adventure Car Park C, which also boasts a sort of terminal station of its own, not unlike a 1930s bus terminal, is where you drink a can of Pepsi with them, eat some knock off doritos made in Iran and say farewell. On the other hand, if you have a pass to Carpark B, or have a friend in the army who can get you into Carpark B you can save yourself a two minute walk and be driven a little bit closer to the terminal. Access to Carpark B does mean you don’t suffer the possibility of being trapped in that ‘No Country for Old Men’ bus terminal at Carpark C while some official makes up his mind about what time you can go and check in. I unload my baggage at Carpark B and put it through an x-ray that is housed in a modified 20’ shipping container. The operator glances at the screen but is mainly distracted by the woman and her five kids ahead of me, one of whom is trying to get himself a free x-ray by climbing after the bags. I grab mine (bags that is) and head to the gate. I am never sure if there is supposed to be a pat down here or not. I have rejoined my colleagues and they always seem to know the guards on the Carpark B exit and there is always lots of shaking of hands. Maybe the check here is the honesty check – look a man in the eye and he is less likely to try and blow up your plane.

Step Five. Walk across the open carpark area in front of the terminals. It is no longer a carpark but a sort of DMZ, open killing ground. No private vehicles can get near the terminal. The guard commander selects his most officious junior prat for the next check – the ‘do you have a ticket check’. By now I have learned to have printed off some recipes on A4 paper, folded and highlighted in different places. I wave them in an authoritative way under his nose. He can’t read English in any event. Once you have leapt his little nonsensical hurdle your bags go through another brand new x-ray machine located on the footpath in front of the terminal. I have raced to get head of the family with the now glow-in-the-dark kids, only to get stuck behind Mustapha down from the mountains, his heavily pregnant wife, his mother-in-law, and seven kids who have enough baggage to force a C-130 to use the whole length of the runway to get airborne. At least this time the guard is looking at his machine, but you are so impressed with this that you trip over one of those seven kids as you retrieve your luggage. Run away before you find yourself confronting village elders demanding compensation.

Step Six. Ignore the sign that says Diplomats and get in that queue since there is only one person there. By the time its obvious the only diplomatic connection you have is a tatterered loyalty card to the dodgy one star Diplomat Hotel in Dubai the contracted Filipino has all the stuff out of your pockets and you are doing the Swan Lake arm flap – at last. Gather up everything and reload your pockets. At least this contractor was thorough and every cuff and collar was turned out. Luggage through another x-ray. This time three operators are crowded around the phone belonging to the middle guy. No doubt admiring Pentburqa.com or something. In front of me a large African American with biceps bigger than my thighs nearly says something, refrains and climbs on the machine to retrieve his luggage. Mine spills out after him, I grab it and hurry to the check in desk, shrugging off the two local men who want to help me walk ten metres to the desk by carrying my bags. For a fee of course. The check-in was sweet – gone in sixty seconds.

Step Seven. Take your boarding pass and be processed through immigration. You might count this as a security check point and well you might. I am torn. On the one hand there is the south Asian atmosphere created by a whole lot of official people, wearing official uniforms and flash and shiney badges who all ooze a certain mystified confusion. Actors playing bit parts who have not been told the whole story. You can see it in their eyes. “I signed up to fight in the army, not stand here looking at boarding passes and passports.” On the other hand you see the immigration guys (as distinct from the guards) are using the latest biometric scanners that seem to work, and one man even spends considerable time with his loupe pressed close to a passport. Mind you it was of a woman with five boys all under ten, none of whom had been near water and soap for the last couple of months. Holding them up was not a good plan. I changed lanes. Immediately after immigration another x-ray machine. Hallelujah. All those old sandwiches in my bag needed irradiating anyway. Now this was more thorough – even my plastic watch had to be scanned.  I watch the people ahead in the queue, half turned towards me as they wait for the machine to give up their luggage and I see in their faces the resigned acceptance of the necessary farce we have all just walked through, perhaps consoling themselves by the hope that this attention to detail at the last line of defence might make up for all the inattention that has preceded it.

I wander into the hopelessly overcrowded departure hall (I am convinced it was designed by Indians(it wasn’t)) with shoelaces still undone and backpack half repacked marveling at the fact that, to make up for the inconvenience of having my goods scanned twice the operator had offered to repack my bag herself. That has never happened in the first world. Ever! And then, as I go down the air bridge to the aircraft I glance down at the tarmac and watch an official wearing a high visibility vest and clutching a bunch of paperwork walk towards the plane. He stops near another chap wearing a similar yellow vest and raises his arms. The other pats his arms quickly, slides his hands down his sides and then pays particular attention to hip, groin and trousers, before patting him on the butt and sending him off to the aircraft. I laugh. I am not sure if I have witnessed a thorough security pat down or a slow grope in broad daylight. It’s Afghanistan. Anything is possible. Especially at the airport.

Diary 23 April 2004

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