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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 15:19 GMT
Afghan airline battles for the skies
Kabul International Airport
There is little runway left to land on at Kabul
Marcus George

I was sitting in the office of the acting president of Ariana Airlines as the radio squawked away.


The US will hopefully provide two or three planes for us

Mohammad Arun Shafaq
Ariana President
Today was supposed to be a monumental day for Ariana.

Its first flight since the US military campaign against Afghanistan started was to leave for Herat.

This was not exactly a normal flight.

Journalists had managed to charter one of the airline's two remaining aircraft, a Russian-built transport plane.

Powerless

While we all awaited news of its successful departure, I spent the dragging minutes looking at the dusty model aeroplanes that adorn all airline offices and advertising billboards that were decades old.

Old Ariana poster
Ariana was once the pride of Afghanistan
My gaze landed on an award from the International Air Transport Association, or IATA, commending Ariana for 40 years of civil aviation services, ironically awarded just one year before the Taleban flooded into the capital.

Finally word came through that the plane bound for Herat had been delayed.

"What's the problem?" I asked.

"No problem. Just there is no power in the control tower so it cannot take off yet," came the answer and a grin.

"It doesn't matter. They are journalists and they can wait."

Raring to go

In former times Ariana had been the aviation equivalent of Afghanistan's renowned carpet-weaving industry.

A fruitful partnership with the US airline Pan Am ensured up-to-date training for pilots and engineers in the US, and a route to India was a plentiful source of cash.

"We have requested for aviation sanctions to be lifted and the US will hopefully provide two or three planes for us, "said airline president Mohammad Arun Shafaq.

"We also have seven international crews ready to start work."
A destroyed aircraft
Ariana's fleet has suffered badly

But the view on the tarmac at Kabul International Airport was a world away from the positive talk in his office.

The remnants of half a dozen Ariana planes sat in front of the maintenance hangars, as well as one unexploded US bomb.

This was a graveyard which had expanded as chapter after chapter of the city's recent history passed by.

"A lot of these aeroplanes have been destroyed during different times for different reasons," said the airline's chief pilot, Sayed Nabi Hashemi.

"For example the first aircraft was hit when Mojedadi, a Mujahedin commander, was coming from Islamabad to Kabul in 1992.

"It did not crash but the aircraft was never able to fly again.

I'm very happy that we now have one good aircraft

Sayed Nabi Hashemi
Ariana chief pilot

"These small aircraft were destroyed during Mujahedin fighting between themselves, and this Antonov was destroyed during American bombing," he added, pointing to the mangled, burnt remains of what, with a little imagination, could have once been a flying machine.

Hijacked

Ariana lost five planes during the recent US bombing of Afghanistan and all that remains are one old Boeing and the Herat-bound Antonov.

Two old Ariana aircraft
Kabul airport also acts as an aircraft cemetery
As I stood on the cracked tarmac there was a flurry of activity.

Word came that the Boeing was coming to Kabul.

The only obstacle was that, due to US bombs, there was not much of a runway to land on.

Soon enough the plane appeared above the distant mountain peaks and circled the city.

From the tarmac I watched as the plane landed with a thud, throwing up plumes of dust.

The Afghans were anxious and they had reason to be.

But as it slowed they whooped and hollered with glee.

Mr Hashemi and the Boeing captain greeted each other warmly. They were old friends.

This was the same aircraft that had been hijacked and forced to fly to London Stansted in February 2000.

Memories came flooding back to him as he walked around the plane, Mr Hashemi told me.

"Sometimes bad memories come to my mind. We had a very hard time. The hijackers became hysterical and nervous and they wanted to blow up the aircraft and we were very frightened.

"But I'm very happy that we now have one good aircraft."

This was the man caught on camera escaping from a sliding window in the cockpit as days went by without any result in the negotiations.

"I had an opportunity to stay in London and they asked us if we wanted to remain there.

"But I wanted to return to my country and it was impossible to stay because my family is in Kabul," Mr Hashemi said.

And having been a pilot for the so-called "world's bravest airline" throughout 20 years of war in Afghanistan, Mr Hashemi has reason to be optimistic about the future.

But that was enough serious talk for one day.

The airline's staff members were more interested in taking photos of the only Ariana aircraft that has flown to the UK in the last six years and the only Ariana passenger plane to have survived the US bombing.

See also:

04 Dec 01 | South Asia
Afghan airline returns to the skies
08 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan airline grounded
06 Feb 00 | South Asia
Ariana: Flying in the face of adversity
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