LANDING at Kabul Airport is an unforgettable experience. The Soviet IL-76, a converted military transport on its way from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, dives rapidly, then banks sharply so only a wall of earth is visible through the solitary window. Twisting toward the ground, the plane spits out flares to confuse any surface-to-air missiles fired in its direction. Finally the jet touches down, taxis quickly off the runway, and stops next to the bomb-damaged terminal: The Afghan experience has begun.
The thing immediately noticeable after stepping off the plane is the incredible natural beauty of the land. Kabul is nestled among bare, brown hills; snow-capped mountains form a backdrop. It doesn't take long, however, before the effects of the civil war are felt.
The airport is a frequent target of missile attacks and is heavily guarded. The road into the city, like all roads in the country, has suffered bomb damage and years of neglect, meaning a slow, bumpy ride. A fuel shortage has greatly reduced the number of vehicles on the roads, and nearly every public bus in Kabul is so packed it cannot close its doors. In Kabul, soldiers holding assault rifles with fixed bayonets stand guard outside government buildings.
At night the hills surrounding the city can come alive with short bursts of automatic gunfire. Until recently the mujahed resistance fighters launched regular rocket attacks against the capital, but it has been mostly quiet for the last few months, say Kabul residents, who seem to take the death and destruction in stride.
Nonetheless, the number of people going around on crutches is jarring. The country is full of land mines. Outside Kabul people constantly remind visitors not to wander off well-worn paths and to avoid stepping in puddles.
Nevertheless, it is possible to enjoy the good life in Afghanistan. If an Afghan has the money, he can buy almost anything. Many of the cars that roam the streets are Mercedes, which are sold at several auto dealerships in the city. The problem is the vast majority of people complain they have trouble affording even bread.
Most Kabul residents are left in the dark when the sun goes down, as electricity is a precious commodity. Wealthy merchants have their own portable generators outside their shops. Places that do have electricity are frequently hit by blackouts. Government officials go right on giving interviews when the lights flicker out, while reporters struggle to take notes in the dark.
A more surprising discovery is that the near-worthless Soviet ruble fetches more of the even less valuable local currency, the afghani, in Kabul than does the US dollar. Money changers who wander the Kabul bazaar were giving up to 1,300 afghanis to the dollar. Meanwhile, 100 rubles, which is approximately equal to a dollar in value, was fetching up to 1,800 afghanis.
No trip to Afghanistan would be complete without an audience with Najibullah, the Soviet-installed Afghan president. A former secret police chief, Najib, as he is known, possesses a warm, comforting smile as well as an icy stare. Though he casts himself as a democratizer, his totalitarian tendencies show through when he speaks. At a news conference he spoke at length about the liberties enjoyed by Afghans, including press freedom. Then later he threatened to put a British Broadcasting Corporation corresp ondent on trial for spreading "lies" and "misinformation."