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AFGHANISTAN - Without Warlords, October 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project

Insha Allah Airlines
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As my Ariana Afghan Airlines flight picked up speed down a Dubai runway, the center overhead compartment above me shook violently, as if it would collapse at any moment. A few passengers seated around me stared up in alarm, but I barely blinked.

Family portrait in front of airport

FRONTLINE/World Fellow Roya Aziz's family at the Kabul International airport. The picture was taken after Aziz's grandfather, Muhammed Karim Towfique, left Afghanistan for Ethiopia on a United Nations work assignment, just a few months before the Soviet invasion in 1979.
It was my third trip on Ariana and aside from a real danger of baggage tumbling out during takeoff, I wasn't too worried that parts of the plane would actually fall off. Ariana is a reflection of Afghanistan -- a fragile survivor of two decades of war and decline.

When the state-owned company first began operating in the 1950s, it was affectionately nicknamed Insha Allah Airlines by Afghans, who hoped that, "God willing," the plane would take off on time. Passengers would arrive at the airport with an entourage of relatives, and Ariana became notorious for delays as stragglers hugged and kissed each relative several times in customary Afghan fashion before boarding.

Nowadays, the "God willing" translates to a fervent prayer that the fleet of old planes land safely. The Airbus I flew on is an Air India hand-me-down that seemed to barely meet maintenance standards. Several crashes in recent years attest to the airline's questionable condition.

Our trip was smooth, though, and two and a half hours after takeoff, our plane prepared for descent into the capital Kabul, situated 2,000 feet above sea level. From the window, I caught a bird's-eye view of the Hindu Kush -- a fierce first glimpse of Afghanistan that's captivated travelers and invaders through the centuries.

React!I was born here in 1979, exactly one month before Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul and stayed for a decade-long occupation and war that killed 2 million Afghans and thousands of Red Army soldiers. President Jimmy Carter, who was preoccupied with the U.S. Embassy takeover and hostage crisis in Iran at the time, called the Soviet invasion "the greatest threat to peace since World War II." In response, the U.S. began sending billions of dollars and Stinger missiles to the Afghan Mujahidin, known as freedom fighters, to defeat Communism.

My family's journey out of Afghanistan is similar to that of many Afghans who went into exile and formed large diaspora communities in Europe and the United States. I was 2 months old when my father, a Ministry of Transportation employee then, faced a choice between joining the Moscow-backed government that had just taken power through a bloody coup, or the army, which was trying to suppress a growing rebellion in the countryside. He chose neither, refusing to work for a foreign occupier. In the middle of the night, he left Afghanistan and crossed by foot into Pakistan, eventually seeking asylum in West Germany. More than a year later, my mother and I followed him to Frankfurt, where we lived until 1989, when my family moved to California.

Remnants of that war are still obvious at Kabul International Airport. Wreckage of Soviet fighter jets and burned out tanks litter the airfield, which hides undiscovered land mines like much of Afghanistan's soil.

Boxes stuffed with voter cards

Metal boxes stuffed with voter cards arrive to the Joint Electoral Management Body Secretariat, the organization charged with overseeing the Afghan elections.
My previous trip to Kabul had been in December 2003, when a loya jirga, or grand council of elected representatives, convened to formulate the country's sixth constitution, a new attempt at an old experiment in Afghan democracy. Five months later, in the summer of 2004, I was returning to train journalists at a media development organization.

This time I was also here to witness the run-up to Afghanistan's historic presidential elections -- held nearly three years to the day of a U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, the traditionalist Islamic regime best known for banning women from public life and hosting Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader and veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war.

After my plane landed safely, a customs official stamped my American passport. Using a common Afghan expression that means"dear," he said, "Welcome, Roya jan."

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