Lost Connection

Dubai airport at night

Dubai International Airport - October 7, 2001.
I step out of the plane and look at my watch. 10 pm. Two hours to shop in the Dubai Tax Free before boarding my connecting flight to Islamabad, Pakistan.
I follow the stream of arriving passengers moving along on the first floor of the airport, overlooking the shopping area. I look at the vast crowd below. A dense mix of every possible Dubai Duty free shopping arenationality, religion and ethnicity in the world, expressed through a myriad of dress codes. From formal western suites, the traditional Arab dishdashahs, women in mini skirts mixed with those fully veiled. Rough Afghani chupans, expensive Indian silk sari’s, Berber djellabas, Australian safari shorts, Sudanese turbans, American baseball caps and Arab hijabs. This crowd seems to represent the world within one space. But the crowd is not strolling along from one shop to another in its usual way. The people are talking in groups, some with raised voices and expressive hand gestures, and others whisper. There is no laughing, nor joy but a nervousness makes the tension in the air so thick one could cut it with a knife. You do not have to be a clairvoyant to feel something is wrong.

Hundreds of people are lining up at the transit counters, below large displays listing numerous cancelled and delayed flights. The atmosphere is grim. Utter grim. I grab hold of someone in an Emirates Airlines uniform and ask her what is going on. She answers: “Have you not heard? The US started bombing Afghanistan a few hours ago. They closed the airspace above Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and all Gulf countries. No civil plane will be flying anymore for a while!”.
For a moment, I feel like the ground is pulled away from beneath my feet. “The US started bombing Afghanistan… This, we have feared since 9/11, a month ago. Retaliation. The beginning of the turmoil in the region, which will last for years. What will happen with Pakistan? How will the government react, how will the people react?”, thoughts flash through my mind as the lady explains the airline has booked hotel rooms, and buses are waiting outside.

I act like a robot: I walk through immigration, pick up my bags, and walk outside. The heat, humidity and mere mass of people crowded at the airport exit cuts off my breath. I get onto the bus and let myself fall into a free seat. I look at the crowd, the stuck traffic,…
- “Not flying tonight, are you?”, a voice says. I wake up from my reverie and look at the guy next to me. American accent.
- “No, apparently not!”, I mumble.
- “Harry”, he says as he holds out his hand.
- “Peter”, I answer, “where were you supposed to fly to?”
- “Oh, I was supposed to fly to Uganda”, he says, “my wife works there.”
- “Oh, really”, I answer, “I worked there too, left two years ago”. I try to make conversation, killing the time waiting for the bus to leave..
- “Really? You work for the UN?”
- “Yes, I do, for WFP”.
- “Oh, my wife works in the same building.. Cathy Ashcroft, maybe you know her!”. It turns out Harry is the husband of Cathy I know since years, the same Cathy I helped setting up the OCHA office in Kampala. We engage into a vivid conversation of Kampala, life in Africa, relief work and of course come back to the subject of the US bombing campaign.

After checking into the hotel, Harry and I walk to the night club, the only place we can still get a drink. In the mean time, it is already 1 am. A few men and a couple form the meagre audience, spread over a dozen tables. A small live band is playing without much enthusiasm. We take a seat in the back, and order a drink. I really really need a drink.
US bombing campaignI tell Harry about how we feared for the retaliation, how we feared how the whole region was going to react. No matter how much everyone hated the Taliban, it was still an attack on a sovereign country. A Muslim country. Would countries in the region now choose sides? Be forced to choose sides? Above all, it would mean that masses of people would be killed. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands would start moving within the country, trying to find refuge. It could possibly cause an exodus into all countries around Afghanistan: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran,... Working for a front-line humanitarian organisation, I know what this would mean for us: we would go and provide aid, close to the line of fire. I think of all our national staff who is still in Afghanistan.
All of a sudden the band changes beat and a belly dancer starts her act. There is something wrong with this picture… A war has started tonight. A big one. And here we are in a dark bar, watching a belly dancer…

Tomahawk missile launched from a war shipI find no joy, pay for the drinks, say good-bye to Harry, and walk outside. Sitting on a bench near the hotel entrance, I lit a cigarette. I close my eyes, and imagine the infernos of fire, explosions, shrapnel in the black night around Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar. All places I have visited in Afghanistan. I can see families trying to seek refuge in their homes. I can see their fear not knowing what is going on, how long it would last, and what this would mean for them, and their livelihood. I can smell their fear even where I was sitting.
I look up. The night sky is clear. I imagine the Tomahawks launched from war ships close by. I imagine war planes rushing overhead, ten miles up in the sky. The pilots looking down at Dubai, this city of light and splendour, as they bank left and turn the direction of Afghanistan.

I was blocked in Dubai for three days. Spent the whole time in my hotel room, on email and telephone, coordinating with my team in Islamabad and with my counter parts in Rome. After three days, the air space was re-opened. I got onto the first plane that flew from Dubai to Islamabad. People were so anxious to get back home, they started a fight while boarding.
One month later, I landed in Kabul. As the Taliban retreated, they suffered quite some losses. People took the turbans from the bodies and threw them up in the trees. The turbans unruffled and for months long strips of shiny turban cloth were weaved in between the branches, floating in the wind.

It made me think of the start of the war and the belly dancer. The same contrast I found in dead bodies and their turbans floating in the wind, dangling from a tree. There is nothing poetic about the horrors of war. I understood what Marlon Brando meant in “Apocalypse Now”.

Pictures courtesy theme.cc (bombing), CNN (Tomahawk), umami.co.nz (Duty free zone)

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