Corruption: a ‘friend’ you can’t do without in Afghanistan

30 November 2009

Corruption is a part of life in Afghanistan

Travelling in Afghanistan can be a gruesome experience. Decades of conflict have left infrastructure destroyed and travelling by road for western aid workers is dangerous in many parts of the country. That is why flying out to faraway provinces is often seen as the safest option. But catching a plane can also be a challenging experience. 

After a few days in Herat, we are booked on a flight back to Kabul. We were hoping to return last Thursday. This proved to be impossible, as that day the Kabul airport was closed for all flights – except for international guests such as Hillary Clinton attending Karzai’s inauguration as president of Afghanistan.

We are lucky to get seats for the flight the following day. To make sure we board that plane, we arrive at the airport more than two hours before departure time. The Herat airport is small and dusty. When we get there, a young boy offers to carry our luggage in a wheelbarrow for 50 Afghani (US$1). There is already a long queue in front of a small building, but not much is happening. After waiting for 20 minutes people all of a sudden pick up their luggage and run forward, and form a new queue for another door, closer to the airport.  We try to be polite, and avoid pushing other people out of our way. Inevitably, we end up at the back of the queue. Various other people arriving later pass us to jump the queue. At this point we still think everything will be fine. The queue is moving slowly, but at least it is moving.

Meanwhile Walid, who has organised our visit and who is travelling with us, has walked away from us and is speaking on his mobile phone constantly. This situation becomes more unruly, and there is a lot of shouting from people in the queue, mainly directed at the Afghan policemen guarding the door.

“Come quickly!” Walid calls to us and waives us to a shorter queue at the same door that has suddenly sprung up. He has somehow managed to get our boarding passes already, and within 15 minutes we are sitting in the departure lounge, having already passed the security check. When we sit down, a young man in his twenties sitting next to us tells us the flight is overbooked, and 25 people waiting outside will not be able to get on board. “Some of them are very angry. They are going to Mecca for the hajj, but they will now miss their connecting flight to Dubai.” He says the flight is overbooked because the company has sold too many tickets. “When people pay ‘baksheesh’ (bribe) of 1,000 Afghani (US$20) they will issue them a ticket, whether there is place on the plane or not.”

The situation remains tense, and people move forward towards the entrance gate, which is blocked by four policemen and a wooden bench. There is a lot of pushing going on, even though the doors to the planes are still closed. At some point it looks like the crowd will push through the police barrier. An old man with a long beard standing next to me complains that they let him through but did not issue him a boarding pass. He tries to push through the front of the crowd, but fails to do so. Nobody is willing to give in an inch. Experience tells people they are not travelling until they are physically on the plane.

When we finally get through the door and walk to the stairs to board the plane, Walid explains what happened. He called a friend in the police in Herat, who made sure we got on the flight. ”I would prefer to do this honest. But when I saw what was happening there, I realised we would never get on this flight. The other people were not being honest either. Some paid money to the police to get through first, while others also used their connections.” We are relieved to be on the flight, but ask him whether this isn’t just outright corruption. He laughs. “No, this is friendship!”