KBI/Tzu Mission to Afghanistan and
With Coordination provided by the AFPC - Asia Pacific Initiative
July 31, 2002
Friendship Bridge, Afghanistan
Yesterday, we started out very early in the morning, with plans to make it from the Panjshir Valley to Tashkent, via the Friendship Bridge. They were good plans, but it did not work - but not for the lack of trying.
July 30, 2002:
We made good time driving from Panjshir Valley to the Border Crossing at the Friendship Bridge. We left our camp around 5:30 and arrived at the Border around 1:00. This was just in time for our "appointment" to cross the bridge at 2:00. We were then to catch a flight to Tashkent, at 5:20 p.m.
Once at the border, we learned that no-one was crossing the bridge until 4:00 p.m. This would make it really tight, but the airport is close to the border, so this was still doable.
When we got to the bridge at 4:00, the Uzbek guards asked Qudus to take our passports to the head border office to get them recorded and come back to escort us across. About a half hour later, the escort that had taken Qudus across came back to us and pretended to know nothing about what was going on. We explained that we just wanted to cross, and that all of our paperwork and visas were in order. They said fine - you can cross - where are your passports. We explained that Qudus had them in the border office. We were told we could not cross without our passports and they were not aware of Qudus being in the office with them. They told us to wait until Qudus came back.
We waited until 6:00 pm. (the plane had left - we had now resigned ourselves to renting a van to drive all night.) They closed the bridge. They told us to go back to the Afghan border office. (later to be known as our home for the evening.)
Back at the Afghan border office, we continued to attempt to contact Qudus, with the help of General Babba Said - in charge of all of the border forces in this area. Finally, we reached Qudus who said that there had been a screw-up - when the list with our names was faxed from the Tashkent KGB office to the bridge office, our three names were not on it. Ed contacted our contact in the US Foreign Relations Committee, and Congress, and the US Embassy in Tashkent. They all agreed to put pressure on Uzbekistan wherever possible. There is now a UN controlled list - and it appears as the UN is attempting to control all NGO's entry into and out of Afghanistan. This is criminal.
We finally had it worked out at about 10:00 p.m. to where we were going to be allowed to cross the bridge this evening. But, the arrangements that we had made to get the passports back to our side of the bridge fell through, and we were told to go to bed and try again in the morning.
After having spent the night in the Afghan border crossing security headquarters of General Babba Said, with the utmost of courtesies, we rose early expecting to get across the bridge first thing, since everything seemed to have been cleared yesterday.
We were ready to go at 6 a.m. figuring we could get on the morning flight to Tashkent.
Babba Said kept checking with the officials on the Uzbek side of the border crossing and kept hearing excuses as to why we had to wait. Ed kept checking with Washington and the US Embassy in Tashkent. No one would give us permission to cross, but no one would give a good answer either, as to why. They still had our passports and we had no recourse but to make noise and wait.
We set up our Internet communications with solar panels and satellite phone outside in the bright sun to try and stay in touch with those who were lending a hand to help us. (This partly led to the mis-sending of this update - the screen is very hard to read in the bright sun - not to mention the 100+ degree heat.)
Finally, at 1:00 p.m., we were told that one of their representative now had the passports, and we would be met on the bridge with them. But there seems to be an unofficial protocol we have seen that, no matter how valid all of your documentation is and what lists you are on, no one crosses until 4:00 or 4:30 p.m.
We finally received to the word to move from the security building to the Afghan side of the bridge (a few hundred meters) around 4:30. So, we loaded all of our luggage and ourselves into a van. After over an hour of milling around with the Uzbek officials, we were allowed to take our luggage out of the van, and move it about 50 feet to where the Uzbek vans were allowed to park. We got our passports, and reloaded our baggage into another van. (naturally it was now too late to catch the latest flight to Tashkent.)
In all of our previous crossings, this was the last step. But this time, when we got past the other side of the bridge, we had to take all of our luggage out of the van, and have it X-rayed by an Uzbek security team. We then loaded it back into the van.
We learned that the vans that move people around the area of the bridge, are not allowed to move around town. So, we had to rent a couple of taxis and transfer the luggage to these taxis.
The taxis we reloaded into were not approved for cross country trips, like the one we were getting ready to embark on to make the 10 or 12 hour trek to Tashkent. So, we had to drive to a cross country taxi stand, arrange for the proper taxis, and unload and reload the luggage again.
Our bags were pretty well worn out by then, not to mention ourselves.
We left Termez around 7:00 pm. the taxis and arrived in Tashkent early in the morning. (Except for Adrian and Qudus who overnighted halfway in Samarkand so Adrian could get some footage for his documentary.)
So, now we have arrived safely in Tashkent, and are planning the next legs of this mission.
It took us 31 hours to cross a border that should have been like any other border crossing. If you have the proper documentation - visas, passport, etc.-you should be able to cross the bridge. Each time here to cross the bridge, we have attempted to learn what might be considered the "proper" means for crossing the bridge hassle free. The only thing we are able to learn from the "official" side is that we have to have our names on a "UN list." There is special paperwork, and waiting times involved with this list, and the only possible use we could see from this is the controlling of the small NGO's and their ability to cross.
This system needs to be fixed if aid from regular NGO's like Knightsbridge is to continue.
From here, we regroup and consider what our options are for the next leg of this trip. At this point, we have no solid information on when the container of medical supplies from Remedy International will clear customs (it has arrived - but it has not yet cleared.) The surgical operation portion of the Medcaps in the Philippines is not to start until September15th. We are still working with Tzu Chi to make arrangements for the 3 containers of blankets and clothing, currently stranded in Iran, to be trans-shipped to Afghanistan and delivered in October.
After we complete our plans for the next legs of the trip, and who the participants will be, we will let you know. We are excited about what has been accomplished in these past two months in the Philippines and in Afghanistan.
All of the goods in the 3 containers, or 9 trucks, or 2,771 cartons have been distributed to their recipients in Aibak, Kabul, Bamiyan, and Panjshir. Knightsbridge / Tzu Chi has made several site grants to schools and orphanages throughout this part of Afghanistan, which in each case could represent the ability of these institutions to continue to operate. A solid bond with a local NGO - FAR has been formed for continuing work in Afghanistan.
We have arranged for millions of dollars worth of medicine to be supplied through a USAID grant to support the Medcaps of the Joint Armed Forces starting next week. Tzu Chi has already been involved in the support of these Medcaps as well, and is considering at what level it will be able to participate on the upcoming surgical support teams. We have supported a variety of programs in the northern portion of Mindanao ranging from orphanages to water projects, to a Buffalo Bank.
Hopefully, this work can be continued and built on.
Thanks for your support throughout this mission.
Walt Ratterman, with Ed Artis and Adrian Belic
July 31, 2002