As you might expect, entering Afghanistan is a bit of a challenge these days. Until recently there had been no direct flights to Kabul through commercial airlines, or at least none that were permissible by the UN. I have heard of an NGO worker who flew on one of these sub-standard airlines and they had no seatbelt, so you can imagine their safety record may be below international norms.
The only way to get to Kabul had been through Islamabad, Pakistan from which a humanitarian air bridge had been set up through UNHAS (United Nations Humanitarian Air Service). This service flies 5 days a week and also stop at other major cities in Afghanistan before returning to Kabul and then Islamabad. So, it’s possible to fly to Islamabad with any major commercial airline and transit through Islamabad to UNHAS – possible but not so easy because you need a Pakistan visa even for transit. Through UNICEF I had been requested to apply for a diplomatic visa for which a note verbal is required along with a specific application form. Processing the visa takes between one and two weeks, and I resubmitted mine on the 16th of October due to an error in the original note verbal. As of the 13th of November, that visa application is still in process and seems to be very much of a hit and miss affair, since I know someone who applied after me and already received their visa.
Booking a flight
The reason I’m able to write this update from UNICEF’s office in Kabul is because while waiting for the visa KAM Air (I never heard of them either) started flying to Kabul once a week from Abu Dhabi. KAM Air is an Afghan airline that predominantly flew internally, but now has taken the opportunity to provide a limited international service. They do have seatbelts and an edible omelette and hash browns, but I wouldn’t go near the sausage! With only one flight a week it was impossible to get a booking but now with two flights a week, I was able to secure a seat – don’t try to book online, you won’t find them and UNICEF had to book the flight for me through a local travel agent.
Visa or no visa?
As KAM Air flies to Kabul direct from Abu Dhabi, no Pakistan visa was required and as a British citizen, no Abu Dhabi visa was necessary. However, flying through Abu Dhabi still seems to be a bit of a hit and miss affair depending on your nationality. KAM Air has no agreements with other airlines to transfer luggage, so when you arrive at Abu Dhabi, your luggage is not automatically loaded onto the KAM Air flight. In the UK I was told by airlines staff to leave the airport by going through immigration to pick up my luggage and then check in for the KAM Air flight. This opens up a great big can of worms because effectively you are entering UAE and so some people will need visas, while everyone has to take a PCR (which is free) before leaving the airport and also complete Abu Dhabi’s passenger locator form (72 hours before arrival). As you can imagine this process takes a while so if you need to do it, you need to make sure you have plenty of time between flights.
What about my luggage?
With just four hours between flights I was dreading the whole process – with just two flights a week it’s not like you can just get on the next flight and even the next flight four days later was already booked. I decided to ask the flight attendants about my situation and they stated that I should go to the transfer desk and ask there upon arrival. The transfer desk told me in the transit area told me to go the transfer desk in terminal one, which is where the KAM Air flight leaves from. The transfer desk in terminal wasn’t sure what to do but after much waiting they were able to get my luggage loaded onto KAM Air (supposedly – I was not convinced I would ever see my toothbrush again) and issue me with a boarding pass.
It pays to be sitting at the front of the plan
Finally, arriving in Kabul, I just had to navigate immigration. UNICEF had sent me the relevant forms to complete and had applied for a visa upon entry. I got in with a few UN types and slipped nonchalantly into the diplomatic line, which was lucky because there was no other line, just a mass of about 200 men waiting to go through immigration. I guess it pays to be sitting at the front of the plan. Immigration took my Afghan MOFA letter, my visa application and asked me to complete a short form with my passport details, which they stamped and returned to me. This is basically a receipt since they kept my passport to get the visa processed. I should get my passport back in a few days and there seems to be no dramas in this regard.
Famous last words!
A number of other options are opening up with UNHAS flights from Dushanbe in Tajikistan and new KAM Air flights supposedly started from Dubai. I imagine before I leave at the end of January that some of the big commercial airlines will have resumed services, which will make my return journey, pleasantly uneventful. Famous last words! In the meantime, I’ll be supporting UNICEF’s emergency WASH programme, which is rapidly expanding due to the current security/economic situation, drought and displacements related to them, and unseasonal outbreaks of AWD/cholera and dengue fever.