Welcome to the Hotel Tajikistan

The world’s media is battling for ringside seats as war looms in Afghanistan. Stefaans Brmmer reports from Dushanbe, Tajikistan

The uniform in Hotel Tajikistan is the khaki camera jacket, as worn by gung-ho journalists worldwide. Its proliferation of pockets conveniently stores notebooks, pens and lenses, but also the wads of cash and official passes that hacks need when they go to war in this part of the world.

Hotel Tajikistan, whose Soviet bunker architecture contrasts starkly with the gentle, semi-Oriental style of downtown Dushanbe, is humming like it may not have done since the heyday of Russian overlordship.
Each evening brings a new flight of Tajik Air from Moscow, and 90 minutes later a dozen more khaki jackets, sweaty and soiled from the bureaucratic and physical battle to get on to that flight, arrive at the hotel reception desk.

In the daytime there is a multinational blur of khaki as 50, maybe more, jackets shuttle by overpriced ramshackle taxi or on foot between the hotel, the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Islamic State of Afghanistan (in fact, the Afghan opposition) representative office. There they dispense more dollars for more official documents; they queue to get on to “the list” that, in theory, means access to a flight across the border into Afghanistan; or they inquire why the list is still not moving and why they cannot yet join the 300 others who have already made it “in”.

On Wednesday this week the hold-up was a suffocating mist, actually dust, blown in from the desert plains of Afghanistan. No flights, the Afghan representatives say, maybe for a couple of days until the mist settles. Negotiations start to allow the waiting jackets to drive over the closed border en masse a journey easier said than undertaken. The roads are roads only in name and the Russian army still controls the Tajik-Afghan border a decade after this nation of 6,5-million people won its independence.

The purpose of the stampede into Afghanistan is to reach the part of the country controlled by the United Front opposition, better known as the Northern Alliance. The alliance is the United Nations-recognised government even though it controls, by most estimates, less than 10% of Afghan territory. First prize for the jackets is to get into the Northern Alliance stonghold of the Panjshir Valley, perhaps 30km from Taliban-controlled Kabul.

In neighbouring countries the khaki jackets are also converging. Pakistan’s media circus has an estimated 700 extra journalists in Islamabad and border towns, but they have no official way of entering Afghanistan. A few have slipped a few kilometres “in” for a day or two, but discovery may well mean arrest by the Taliban.

In Uzbekistan, like Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic on Afghanistan’s northern border, the government’s announcement on Tuesday that the United States can use its airspace to strike at the Taliban has also drawn khaki queuing for a ringside seat. The Internet publication Eurasianet reports that journalists have flooded to the airbase town of Termez “in anticipation of US-led air strikes against its southern neighbour, and residents of the town talk of little else”.

The report says the same dusty Afghan wind has engulfed Termez and quotes a local student speculating: “Maybe this wind is somehow connected to the US campaign against Afghanistan. Maybe right now the US planes are flying over our heads and bombing Afghanistan.”

Locals in Dushanbe behold the khaki influx with a mixture of bemusement and entrepreneurial gusto. Bureaucrats and the Hotel Tajikistan have done well, as have translators and taxi drivers.

But not everyone is amused. Dr Nilab Mobarez is an Afghan who fled to Paris in 1989. She founded the organisation Bactriane that aims to give medical, social and educational support in Afghanistan. A first clinic with eight staffers and not enough medicine is up and running in the Panjshir Valley.

Mobarez complains that her organisation has been trying for a long time to interest journalists in the humanitarian drama in her country, but that before the September 11 attacks few were interested. “Lots of journalists told me Afghanistan is not worth [a story] anymore ... They said the problem was an internal conflict. Afghans are fighting each other. We told them it is an external problem.”

She speaks of long-standing superpower and regional rivalries in Afghanistan and of horror stories filtering from Taliban territory including the alleged incarceration of 17 000 women who are being held in Kabul, presumably as hostages.

Mobarez has just returned from a visit to the Panjshir Valley where she attended the funeral of Ahmad Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance military leader who was assassinated in a suicide bombing two days before September 11. In the Panjshir, she says, people are spoiling for revenge on the Taliban, whom they blame for the death of their leader. “They say they are in mourning now but after the mourning they will go into action.”

In recent days the US has made increasing noises about aiding the Northern Alliance in their fight with the Taliban, while Russia is probably already helping. Tajikistan and Iran are old supporters. But Mobarez warns against indiscriminate outside interference. In the Panjshir Valley, she says, people say “co-operation yes, but no intervention”. And most importantly, they need humanitarian aid.

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