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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006, 19:07 GMT 20:07 UK
'My hazardous journey to the US'
Bilal Sarwary
In Afghanistan, Bilal was seldom separated from his mobile phones
Former BBC Kabul producer Bilal Sarwary left the BBC earlier this month to complete a university course in the United States.

He found himself travelling across the globe from Afghanistan at a time of heightened security, following a major terror scare in the UK.

As he reveals in this column it was a dangerous time for an Afghan to be in transit westwards...

One of the last things I did before I left Kabul was hand over my phones. I joked that this was my disarmament process. Peaceful disarmament.

Afghanistan's warlords have guns, tanks and rockets. But in my job, my phones were my weapons. I used to carry four, including my Thuraya satellite phone.

For the last five years I have been working for the BBC, they have hardly stopped ringing.

It will be strange not getting those calls every day, no longer talking to my contacts, the tribal chiefs and governors, people in President Karzai's office.

As I started driving towards Kabul airport, it felt like the end of an era.

Unlike the many other journeys I have done around Afghanistan working for the BBC, this one didn't require phone calls to police officials to check security on the roads, to make sure local warlords wouldn't give us any trouble, or keeping a watch out for attacks.


The only thing I needed were the right travel documents... And no liquids.

The cabin crew made that very clear before we left for Dubai. It sparked a verbal clash with one of the passengers. He was an old Afghan trader.

How on the earth can they refuse people water and my medicines, he demanded to know.

But it ended peacefully.

I had to take my shoes off and was interrogated again. Why was I going to the US?

After arriving at Dubai airport, I had to take my shoes and belt off several times.

The immigration officer couldn't read my passport at first. Then he didn't believe I was 23.

I had to convince him it was my passport and that really was my age.

He joked that I looked at least 30. We Afghans get old before we get young, I told him.

I had to spend the night at the airport. They wouldn't give me a visa to enter the country - one of the difficulties of travelling on an Afghan passport.

Every time I heard a mobile ring, I thought it was for me.

I had to make sure my luggage was transferred to the main terminal for the flight to London and then Boston. But yet again I had to face more security checks.

I had to take my shoes off and was interrogated again. Why was I going to the US?

Passport problems

There was more difficulties to come the next day as I was about to board the plane.

British Airways staff took my documents.

Bilal Sarwary (centre) carries out interviews in Bajgah, northern Afghanistan
Bilal's job took him to trouble spots all over Afghanistan

"Sir, can you wait there? We need to check your passport," a woman on the check-in desk said.

I was worried because I have had trouble before when I have travelled to the UK - even though I have always had the correct papers. That Afghan passport again!

I was once deported back to the UK on my way back to Afghanistan, when my flight stopped off in France for just an hour.

This time, like that time, there was nothing I could do. Other passengers were boarding the plane. Perhaps 25 minutes later, they called out on the tannoy.

Passenger Mr Sarwary, can you contact the staff?

The woman asked her colleague: Should I give him his passport back? She nodded. They didn't give any explanation. They just said that I could proceed.

I got to London without any more problems.


On the plane to Boston, I met a very nice American couple. I bombarded him with questions.

There was another officer there, and he was looking at my passport and then staring at me - I thought I was going to be deported

Take the officially registered taxis, he told me. Not the others.

Was there a chance that I would be kidnapped? I inquired.

He laughed. No, it's just the other taxi drivers will charge you much more. There are warlords of a kind everywhere.

At Boston airport, the immigration officer seemed very quiet.

He had a look at my passport. But then without a word, he waved his hand for me to follow him downstairs.

As we walked, I made sure I had my BBC pass and any other identity cards.

"What are you studying?" he asked.

"International relations," I answered, trying to be as polite as possible. I didn't say anything else.

The officer told me to sit down in a room downstairs. "We will call you," he said, without even a smile.

There was another officer there, and he was looking at my passport and then staring at me. I thought I was going to be deported.

About half an hour later, he called me. Mr Sarwary, how are you today?

I started to feel better because at least he was speaking to me. So what did you do for the BBC in Afghanistan? I said that I reported for them and worked as a producer.

I said that some of my work was on the internet. He asked me to wait a few more minutes, and "we will try to get this show on the road".

It was very different to Kabul airport, where hardly anyone asks any questions.

A second officer came and asked if I had a computer. I said no, but I did have a disk drive. He seemed interested, but I said there was nothing on it that would worry them.

"Have a good day, sir," he said. The show was on the road.

'Mobile ringing'

The taxi drivers were from everywhere. My driver was from Ethiopia. He bombarded me with questions about Afghanistan.

Looking out the window I realised all the lights were on in the city - unlike Kabul where it is always dark in the evenings.

As we spoke his mobile rang. It sounded like my ring tone. I said: "Hello, BBC Kabul." The cab driver laughed.

I found my Americans friends and stayed with them for the night. They are very hospitable, just like Afghans. The next morning I took a walk around the area.

All I saw were people getting to work, some driving, some biking and some walking in an effort to lose weight.

One key difference here in the US is that you do not see so many four-wheel drive vehicles with tinted windows.

However the policemen were armed, so not many differences there.

Bilal Sarwary in the US
In the US different skills are required when travelling from A to B

I miss Kabul's kebabs: burgers are not my style. But there are some decent coffee shops and some excellent libraries.

It's easy to believe everyone treats you suspiciously here when the news headlines are constantly dominated by news of more fighting between the Taleban and the Afghan army.

The American people are for the most part very polite and helpful, especially when I get lost: we Afghans are not used to maps.

Then, there is the culture of appointments and not arriving late. I will have to live with my poor record on punctuality - described as "disastrous" by one American friend.

I think that it will take me time to adjust to my new life.

But at least I don't have to worry about a shower in the morning, and there is electricity all the time.

And I don't have to worry about the Taleban. It really is a different world in the US.

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