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Taliban Attack Strands Millions Without Air Travel

FILE: An Afghan Kam Air passenger jet is parked at Kabul International Airport.
FILE: An Afghan Kam Air passenger jet is parked at Kabul International Airport.

FIRUZKOH, Afghanistan -- A Taliban attack on a luxury hotel in the capital, Kabul, killed several foreign crew members of the country’s largest airline, and the ensuing scare prompted dozens more to flee.

This forced Kam Air to drastically reduce domestic flights, which has prevented millions of Afghans from flying. In remote provinces insurgents, avalanches, and floods often make roads dangerous and vulnerable. Even if the roads are safe, long journeys on battered roads and dirt tracks sometimes stretch for two or more days.

Ghor, a rural province in western Afghanistan, is one of the most affected. It is halfway between Kabul and the western city of Herat, but dilapidated rural roads mean that the journey of more than 400 kilometers to either city is a tough choice. Travelers have to endure a bone-jarring 16-hour ride, which is usually split into two days.

Flights from Ghor’s capital, Firuzkoh, previously called Chagcharan, to Kabul and Herat only take one hour.

“This has created a major headache for us,” says Mohammad Wazir Nurani, a local activist. “We really want the government and the airline to address this issue swiftly.”

Mohammad Nazar lives in Ghor’s Firuzkoh region. He says the flight disruption is making life miserable for many people.

“People who have sick relatives at home are at a serious loss,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They don’t know where to take them because roads are not a safe option.”

A swift journey to Kabul or Herat for patients requiring specialist care or complicated surgeries in Ghor often increases their chances of survival.

Mohammad Sherzai runs the UNESCO operations in Ghor. He frequently took one of the three weekly flights to Kabul.

“Our problems have multiplied because I cannot go to Kabul for important meetings and consultations,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Insecurity along the road to Kabul prevents me from taking it.”

At least nine expatriate Kam Air employees, including flight attendants and pilots from Ukraine and Venezuela, were killed in a January 21 attack on Kabul’s luxury Intercontinental Hotel. The Taliban claimed credit for the attack that stretched into January 22 and killed more than 20 people.

In the subsequent days, more than 50 foreign airline employees left Afghanistan, which forced Kam Air to cut 90 percent of its domestic flights. From an average of 37 daily flights, the airline reduced its operations to seven flights. Remote Afghan destinations such as Ghor lost all flights as Kam Air is the only airline flying to such places.

Fazal Ahmad Azizi, in charge of Kam Air’s operations in Ghor, says he regrets being unable to serve the scores of customers who call him or visit his office in the hope of buying tickets.

“I have repeatedly contacted our head office in Kabul to brief them about the problems and dangers the people of Ghor now face because they are forced to rely on road travel,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “I am always told the flights will resume soon.”

Ramin Youresh, the business development director for the airline, says his company needs government assistance in attracting foreign workers to return to Afghanistan.

“We expect the government to support us, cooperate in terms of security and safety,” he told Reuters.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Abdul Qadir Ghafoori’s reporting from Firuzkoh, Afghanistan.