Travel Stories: Afghanistan

Babel Travel Afghanistan 2011

Kevin Pollard, Babel Travel

On May 1st 2011, we were 14 days into our 16-day trip in Afghanistan. At about 10pm on the night of May 1st, we settled into our beds, which just happened to be located right underneath the flight path of the Bagram Air Base–America’s largest military base outside of the U.S!

To our amazement, at least 50 jet fighters took off and landed at the base over the next 5 hours or so. What I remember most about this was the almighty noise that the jets made–the likes of which I had never heard before. Our Afghani guide (who is from a village close to the air base) remarked that on any given night between 10 and 15 planes would depart and land. He couldn’t quite work out why so many planes were departing from the air base. Was America planning to attack more Taliban strongholds on another overnight raid? Or was something bigger planned?

We hardly slept that night due to the most deafening sounds of planes taking off and landing. We drifted off to sleep sometime after 3am, but woke when the sun rose at 5:30am. Not really the greatest of sleeps! As we didn’t have access to the internet or TV that morning, we were unaware of what had transpired just a few hours earlier.

Upon hearing what had happened, my girlfriend phoned me from Australia (at about 7:30am Afghani time), moments before Barack Obama announced to the world that American forces had killed Osama bin Laden over the border in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Shocked by what I’d been told, I immediately told my group, our guide, and some locals who were eating breakfast with us. All were unaware of what had just happened, and were understandably stunned by the news. But they were also concerned about possible retaliatory attacks on US troops and Afghan civilians.

We travelled back to Kabul that morning, a little bit more nervous than usual. Our guide noticed an increase in both Afghan and U.S. military vehicle traffic en route to Kabul. The normally heavy security checks were now longer and more thorough. Arriving back in Kabul late that morning, we headed straight for our hotel to gauge the impact of bin Laden’s death on the city. After speaking with the head of the security network that had kept us safe for 15 days, we were told that it was safe enough for us to walk the streets of the city -with armed security, of course!.

Our plan was to speak with locals about the death of bin Laden, a name that is synonymous with terror in Afghanistan. I’m guessing that almost all foreigners who were in Afghanistan that day wouldn’t have dared leave the safety of their hotel fearing attacks against ‘anyone that looked American.’ Not us.

Speaking with about 10 locals, we weren’t surprised to hear that all were pleased that bin Laden was dead. In their opinion, he and his followers had brought nothing but despair to the people of Afghanistan. They rightly pointed out that bin Laden was from Saudi Arabia, and that many of his affiliates were not Afghani. We saw at least 5 Afghani TV crews interviewing locals about the same subject. It was certainly big news that day!

We spent a few more days in Kabul, reflecting on the trip and what had just occurred, before returning to Switzerland. Upon our return, we learned that the jets and helicopters that raided bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan had departed from the Bagram Air Base the night we were there! Around 300 foreign tourists visit Afghanistan each year, and very few can say they stayed overnight at the Bagram Air Base the night Osama bin Laden was killed. Something to tell the grandkids!

* More information on Cultural Engagement Trips can be found here.


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