At Kabul airport, tentative signs of life amid desolation

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The international terminal is a cavern of desolation, guarded by a little man with a big gun. The air traffic control center, antique even by Afghan standards, is useless without the powerful radio that someone spirited away during the U.S. bombardment.

And the control tower -- two consoles, some broken windows and a bed with a wrinkled pillow -- looks out upon still more misery: a cratered runway and grass-lined perimeter, all studded with land mines from violent yesterdays.

This is the face of Kabul Airport. Yet amid what most visitors would call ruin, the men charged with resurrecting Afghanistan's civilian aviation industry can spot hints of a brighter future.

Exhibit A: the first commercial domestic flight under the new government, offered by the national airline Ariana -- twice-weekly service from Kabul to the western city of Herat and back. One departed Monday morning, right on schedule.

"We are starting from zero. But we are starting," airport general manager Ghulam Ali Timar said Monday, standing on the cracked tarmac and stroking his white beard.

Rendered useless

For years before the Taliban militia rolled into Kabul in 1996, roughly 150 domestic and 15 international flights from such places as Iran, India, and the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia would arrive or depart each week.

But the Taliban didn't consider commercial aviation a priority, and when the United States began bombing military facilities in October, the mountain-ringed Kabul airport became a prime target.

By the time the Taliban abandoned Kabul in mid-November, the two-mile runway had been rendered useless by six craters from U.S. bombs. The hangar was reduced to a skeleton, and military aircraft were left twisted along the taxiway. The Ariana office was ruined too: It remains a jumble of rubble and charred chairs that whistle when the wind whips through.

Then there are the land mines -- more than 12,000 on the airport property, according to Abdul Latif Matin, regional manager of the United Nations' mine-clearing efforts in Kabul. Only 1,000 to 2,000 have been found.

On Monday, Matin led Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan, on a tour of demining operations at the airport, where Afghan and Danish crews are scouring the runway and surrounding fields -- about 170 dangerous acres.

Many mines date from the Soviet era, deminers believe, though they don't know for certain. On Sunday, a security guard had to have a leg amputated after stepping on one, airport officials said.

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