Visas Part II: Show me what bureaucracy looks like! This is what bureaucracy looks like!

Getting a 3 month Afghan tourist visa in the U.S. was a cinch.  Getting one in Dubai was quite a bit more effort and money for only a 1 month visa.  Since I plan to be in Afghanistan through the end of March that meant I needed to get my visa extended.  So, I ended up spending most mornings for two weeks trying to get my Indian visa and an Afghan visa extension at the end of January.

The plan was to have my Indian visa sorted before my Afghan visa expired.  The first time I went to the Indian Embassy it was closed for a national holiday in India.  When I next went back I brought a copy of my passport and $80, as a friend recently needed only these two things along with his application to get a tourist visa at this embassy.  He gave them the paperwork and they gave him a visa the next day.  Things weren’t so simple for me.  The official said I needed $88, a copy of my Afghan visa, a copy of my driver’s license, and a letter from my employer about what I do in Afghanistan.  I told him I wasn’t employed, but he had already written on my application that I needed it, so I needed it.  He then told me to come back in three days with all the proper documents.  Three days was cutting it close.  That was the day my Afghan visa expired and I hoped that wouldn’t cause me any grief.

In the meantime, I started the process of getting my Afghan visa extended.  An extension can only be made for a month, so I’ll either need to go back to Dubai in March to get a new visa or just overstay my visa.  Extensions can only be made once.

The first stop was…well I’m not sure which Ministry it was because our fixer didn’t tell me.  Judging by its location I think it was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  When we were dropped off we first walked along the market and bought a form from a man sitting on the curb.  Yup, in Afghanistan you buy official government forms from curbside vendors on baby size chairs.

At the Ministry we went right up to a door and went into a fairly nice office where two men were going over some paperwork.  I got the sense that the reason it was so easy for us to just walk in was that our fixer had connections here.  Unfortunately the Minister wasn’t present.  The two fellows in his antechamber said it was good enough that they saw my face and I didn’t need to come back to see the Minister.  Phew, at least one extra step I didn’t need to throw into the dance.

Our fixer went back and picked up the signed forms the next day and then we were off the the Ministry of Culture and Information, whose jurisdiction covers tourism.  Our fixer stayed in the car and had our driver go in with me.  Our fixer is a big dude, so I assumed he stayed with the car because this wasn’t a safe neighborhood to leave the car without some muscle inside.  Otherwise he would have gone in with me for our driver spoke no English.  Based on its lax security and dingy character it was obvious that this Ministry was considered much the lesser of the first Ministry we visited.  They took my papers and told me to return in a two days.  Next stop: back to the Indian Embassy.

The Indian Embassy is heavily fortified and sits on the same street as the busy Ministry of Interior.  The street has two checkpoints at either end.  At the second you have to leave your cell phone.  We held onto our sim cards though.  Our fixer waited outside this checkpoint because the last time around he was harassed for wearing a jacket by an ornery soldier outside the Embassy itself.  I also didn’t wear a scarf this time based on our first trip to the Embassy.  I guess they think a scarf could be used to strangle someone?

The Indian guard promptly turned me back as I didn’t have $88 in exact change.  I lucked out though, for just outside the secure street was a money change vendor (again sitting on the curb in a ridiculously small chair) who had change for a hundred.

Back in the Embassy they asked me some simple questions, but in no time I had paid, received my receipt and been told to return at 6pm to pick up my passport.  Here’s where the drama started.

That night our driver was a half hour late to get me and our fixer was nowhere to be found.  With no time left, for I doubted the Embassy would be open a minute after 6pm, we just had to go.  In my experience, when traveling through Kabul checkpoints at night they always stop foreigners and check passports.  Meanwhile endless streams of Afghan cars pass by without more than a glance.  This trip was no different.  They stopped us and asked for my passport.  When all they got was my receipt and clipped Dari which translated to English was, “Passport Indian Embassy,” they weren’t too happy.

Our driver tried to deal with it but couldn’t, so soon had our fixer on the phone.  I followed none of it as I hardly speak Dari, so I just waited patiently in the car.  Eventually the message got across and a cop got in the car with us and we were driving again.  I got on the phone with people back at SOLA to ask them to call the Indian Embassy, for if we were now heading there to get my passport then we had to pray they were still open now that I was so late.

We did stop outside the cordoned street and our driver said, “Passport,” and pointed at the street.  Oddly enough, nighttime security was very lax.  No one even patted me down.  At the gate to the Indian Embassy I handed over my receipt and watched as the guard went inside.  Another guard told me to go wait on the other side of the street.  I went and stood with a dozen other guys in a neat line.  I have no idea why they were there, perhaps also looking for the passports.  In a minute the guard was back with mine.  I quickly thanked him and went back to the car.

The cop along for the ride took my passport and we went back to the checkpoint.  Two young men dressed in plain clothes who had some basic English hopped in and we were off again…in the opposite direction of SOLA.  It turned out we were going to police headquarters.  The two young men told out driver to wait by the road and took me in.  It seemed they were detectives.

Inside I sat in a room full of smartly uniformed police officers and watched my passport make the rounds.  They asked me some questions, but with limited English this couldn’t have helped them much.  I kept my answers short and simply waited patiently.  Soon my driver joined us.  They asked him some questions and when he was again out of his depth he tried to call our fixer.  They wouldn’t let him though and when our fixer tried calling my phone they wouldn’t let me answer it.

After waiting a bit more one of the young detectives took me to another office.  This one housed what I assumed to be the colonel or maybe a captain.  He asked my driver more questions.  Then, all of a sudden, our fixer appeared in the room.  Apparently he became concerned when we didn’t answer our phones and rushed over to the station.  After some more chat and an incoming call to the colonel or captain we were let go.

That phone call happened to be from a friend of our fixer who worked in the Ministry.  I don’t know what Ministry, but my guess is the Ministry of Justice.  The police told our fixer they were holding me for my own safety.  They said no foreigner drives around in a car as crappy as ours so I must have been kidnapped.  Our fixer told him not every American is rich enough to afford nice cars.  The police also reprimanded our fixer for letting his employees travel at night alone and without a passport.  They still didn’t get that my passport was at an Embassy getting a visa affixed to it and I had to go get it that night.

This idea that they thought I was kidnapped was actually a load of crap and one I had heard before.  If they really thought I was kidnapped they wouldn’t have left my driver out on the main road where he could easily drive off unhampered.  They just wanted a payoff from me.  They see white skin and they assume you’ve got money.  They would have been unhappy to find I had about 8 bucks in my pocket and a few afghanis.  This suspicion of kidnapping fallback seems to be a popular one, for I heard the same story I was last held by the police.

Back in the fall I went with my colleagues to our driver’s house for lunch.  I was rushed out the door, so forgot my passport.  When I remembered I tried to tell the driver I didn’t have it, but again, he spoke no English.  Oh well, I’d been to his house before and there were no checkpoints on the way.  One of my colleagues also left hers.  After all, its not illegal to travel without, just unwise.

On the way home from his house our driver suddenly turned off the main road to show off the beautiful Lake Qarga near his home.  When I saw this involved going through a checkpoint I tried to tell him I didn’t have my passport, but, yeah you know by now, no English.  Of course the police asked for my passport and of course they held us.  My colleagues, Afghan and expat alike, fumed saying, “Why can’t we just turn around and leave?  We’ve done nothing wrong!  We didn’t even ask to see the lake in the first place.”

Police got into one of our cars and took us to the local station.  The Afghan nationals among us were brought in first.  While the other four of us waited a beggar woman came tapping at my window.  When I ignored her, for I rarely carry cash, she began shouting, “Mordi! Mordi!”  Basically, “Die! Die!”  Oodles of fun right?

When they brought us in the station chief asked us some questions through our Afghan colleagues.  In the end he took a blank sheet of paper and scribbled in jerky scrawl what amounted to: “I will not travel without my passport.  I will inform the police of my whereabouts and movements at all times.”  Then, he had us all put our fingerprints on it.  No names though, jut fingerprints.  A useless exercise.  We were not required by Afghan law to do any of the things written on that paper and they had no right to hold us in the first place.  He just had to do something after making such a fuss.

Our driver, whose beloved home lay nearby, fumed at the police saying, “Why are you doing this?  Do you think they will want to come back here for tourism.  They’re going to tell their friends not to come here after something like this.”  The chief smiled back saying we would come back because we have seen how much they care about our safety; again they said they thought we were kidnapped.  I haven’t been back.

That little detour was avoidable in a number of ways and not too worrying as I was with a bunch of my colleagues, including ones who could translate.  Spending a few hours in the Kabul night in seedy police offices with just my driver and no interpreter on hand was a much more nerve racking experience.  All I could do was relax and be patient though.  I found that being hungry, for I was late for dinner, was the only thing that really made that difficult.

In the days following my friendly pinball path through Kabul police fixtures I kept working on the visa extension.  By this point my visa had expired.  The Ministry of Culture and Information gave me their signed document after I paid 600 afs (about 10 bucks).  Funny, the fee was supposed to be $20 and those 600 afs just went in the Minister’s pocket…

The next day I went to the passport and visa office with our fixer, wandered around like a headless chicken thanks to new procedures, and finally saw the Minister sign my documents and toss them into the pile of other passports.  I lucked out here too, for I was missing an important document that the Ministry of Culture and Information lost.  Many times I have heard Ministers and other officials have signed applications they shouldn’t have, just because they weren’t paying attention.  Now I was done.  Our fixer went back the next day to pay the visa fee and collect my passport.  I am now covered till the beginning of March!  Then I either have to leave the country to get a new visa or overstay and pay a fine for an exit visa.

Funny I forgot to mention.  I had to do all this bouncing around Kabul in the immediate aftermath of the spat of bombings that began with the attack on the Taverna du Liban.  Most major organizations were in complete lock down during these weeks.  EUPOL couldn’t even let in guests to their compound.

“Show me what democracy looks like!  This is what democracy looks like!” is a popular chant that I have participated in during many rallies and marches in recent years around D.C. and Vermont.  No one ever chants, “Show me what bureaucracy looks like!  This is what bureaucracy looks like!”  If you ever wanted to know what bureaucracy looks like though, well this is it!  With a little corruption thrown in too.


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