Ice-cold isolation in Bamiyan

ICE COLD: Nelson police inspector Brian McGurk.
ICE COLD: Nelson police inspector Brian McGurk.

Nelson police inspector Brian McGurk, in Afghanistan on secondment with a European Union mission, reports on the extreme winter conditions and stark isolation in the Islamic central Asian nation.

This week is Nawroz, a holiday for the first day of the Persian New Year, which usually falls on the vernal equinox and marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring in Bamiyan and across all of Afghanistan.

The locals in the Hazarajet have been describing this winter as the coldest for about 15 years and in the news have been reports of people freezing to death. The harshness of the winter and the physical isolation of Bamiyan from the rest of Afghanistan has been a vastly different experience from a Nelson winter.

The first winter snowfall arrived in Bamiyan at the end of November. There has been snow on the ground constantly since the end of December and it is only in the last week or so that the snow has began to recede. The heavy snowfalls in recent days are just a reminder that winter has not quite finished.

The temperature really didn't rise above freezing any time during January or February, traditionally the coldest months. The temperature in Bamiyan hover around -10 degrees Celsius to -15C in the bright winter sunshine and often plunges down to -25C to -30C in the shade or when the sun gets low in the sky. It got even colder with temperatures of -33C recorded a few times during February.

It is a very dry cold and surprisingly it often doesn't feel as cold as it really is.

The New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and Bamiyan town lie in a valley that is roughly about 2600 metres above sea level. To our north are the high mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush and to the south are the Koh-i-Baba mountains, both with peaks well over 4200 metres.

While the Himalayas further to the east are often called "the roof of the world", the snow-covered peaks of Hindu Kush could be described as the eaves. The name Hindu Kush literally means "Kills the Hindu", and comes from the time when Hindu slaves died in the harsh climate of the mountains of central Afghanistan, when they were taken from the Indian subcontinent to the Muslim courts of Central Asia.

The harsh climate still takes a toll. So far this winter 36 people are known to have died in Bamiyan province in the extreme cold and being caught in avalanches. Just the other day two young men out hunting from a village near the top of the Foladi Valley, not far from the PRT were caught in an avalanche. Their bodies have yet to be found.

Further west in the Yakawlang, five people travelling in a car became trapped in a snowdrift. When rescuers reached the vehicle there were only two survivors.

Bamiyan is on the main east-west route from Iran and the western provinces of Afghanistan to Kabul.

The roads to the north, south, east and west of Bamiyan all go over high mountain passes. The road to Nayak in western Yakawlang district and the Shatu Pass that goes to the more populous districts of Panjab and Waras in the south are all above 3400 metres.

Those roads were closed for weeks at a time due to heavy snowfalls and snow drifts well over three metres deep blocked the way. At this time of year the route over the Shibar Pass is the only route between Bamiyan and Kabul.

The top of the Shibar Pass is about 2960 metres above sea level and while it is only about 40 kilometres east of Bamiyan it takes about two hours to cover the distance.

The top of the pass marks the boundary between Bamiyan and Parwan provinces and the continental divide between the Indian sub-continent and central Asia. East of the Shibar Pass the rivers flow towards the Indus River in Pakistan and the Indian Ocean and west, the rivers flow towards Amu Darya and the Aral Sea.

Near the top of the pass is a lonely isolated checkpoint staffed by about five or six Afghan National Police soldiers and an old Russian tank. The pass is often blocked by heavy snow and the supply trucks are often stranded and have to wait for the road to clear.

It is not uncommon for the supply trucks to be stopped at illegal checkpoints on the other side of the pass in Parwan province.

The drivers and crew are frequently robbed, the trucks shot up with AK47 rounds and arrive at the PRT riddled with bullet holes and sometimes the trucks are destroyed.

A few weeks ago the truck bringing fresh fruit and vegetables to the PRT was stopped at an illegal checkpoint in Ghorband district on the other side of the Shibar Pass and set on fire.

During the Taliban regime in 1997 and 1998 in a bid to force the capitulation of the Hazara population in Bamiyan the Taliban were able to close off all routes from the south, east and west and blockade any supplies entering the Bamiyan valley. People were starving and international aid attempts were refused access.

While Bamiyan relies on roads over high mountain passes remaining open it is the airfield here that allows the province to remain connected to the rest of Afghanistan.

Flying into Bamiyan can be an exhilarating experience. The aircraft clears the mountains and the Bamiyan valley opens up. The aircraft flies past Shahr-e-Gholghola, the niches of the Buddhas can be clearly seen out to one side and steep sides of the Foladi Valley come into view.

There are no instruments and no navigational aids. The pilots fly the aircraft the length of the runway about 20 or 30 metres above the ground – both to carry out a visual check of the runway and to warn any locals that have wandered onto the runway.

A high wire fence built about 18 months ago surrounds the airfield. There are 19 gates and many more holes cut in the fence that the locals use to cross the runway, sometimes as the aircraft is coming in to land or take off.

The aircraft climbs steeply to bank around the mountains at the western end of the valley before lining up to come to land on the 2.4 kilometre gravel runway, that has a curious kink about two thirds of the way down.

Flying in and out of Bamiyan has its challenges, both for passengers and pilots, not only with the airfield incursions but also the winter weather plays havoc with schedules and plans.

The STOL (meaning short take off and landing) flight that normally brings the mail to Bamiyan from Bagram didn't fly for almost two months. The PRT had only two mail drops between the beginning of January and end of February, both brought in by big Chinook helicopters.

As spring arrives it marks the end of the long cold winter and the isolation. The mail has come through and there's fresh fruit and vegetables. And, we now look forward to our third winter in a row, but it won't be quite like the one we've had in Bamiyan.

The Nelson Mail