Tracking Down Shady Passport Trade in Afghanistan
It was eight in the evening when my mobile phone started ringing. It was a friend, Nazer Hussein, who had just returned to Afghanistan after two years away working in Iran. Now he wanted to go back there again, but although he had a permit for Iran, it was proving near-impossible to get a new Afghan passport.
Passport officials said that a pre-existing shortage had been made worse by high demand from Afghans travelling to Saudi Arabia to perform the annual hajj pilgrimage, so no new passports were to be issued for a few months. They asked people to be patient until new passports were printed.
Passports for Sale in Afghanistan
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However, some passport officers made it clear one could still obtain new documents – at a price. Officials had squirrelled away blank passports and were issuing them for money.
That was my friend Nazer’s experience. Despite visiting the passport office every day for three weeks, standing in line from early morning in the bitter winter cold, he never made it past the first security gate. In the end, he managed to obtain a passport by paying 400 US dollars to an intermediary.
When he told me about his experience, I shared it with the IWPR office in Kabul and they told me to go ahead and write the story.
I wasn’t quite sure where to start. I knew I would face many problems along the way. It would not be easy to trace people who had paid bribes to get passports, or to find the brokers who were in touch with department officials. Then there was the likely reaction of the passport department to the very sensitive story I was investigating. What if officials realised I was a reporter during the course of my investigations and decided to have me arrested?
It did prove hard to find an intermediary who was prepared to cooperate, even when I finally tracked some of them down through friends. Eventually, I found a go-between who was willing to talks. He called me late one winter night.
“Hurry up,” he told me. “The passport officer is waiting.”
Sleepily, I picked up my mobile phone and slipped out of my house without any of my family noticing.
Outside in the alley, all the houses lay in darkness. In the car, I asked my contact where we were heading, but he said nothing. We drove on, and after a while I realised we were in a part of town that was all but deserted at night, with just a few houses on the hills alongside the road and almost no traffic. Then I noticed there was a pistol underneath the driver’s seat. Fear began slowly creeping up on me. I thought it might be some kind of trap.
When we arrived at the location where the deal was to take place, the passport officer was shocked to find a journalist present and at first refused to conclude the transfer in my presence or even talk to me. I promised to protect his identity, and he laughed as he handed over a consignment of passports to the broker.
“I really feel sorry for you reporters,” he said. “You work hard, but no one listens. This trade is like a chain – everyone has a share in it, just like links in a chain. Go home and sleep.”
When I found some people who had paid money for passports, most were too scared to talk to me. From those who were willing to speak, I learned that the going rate was as high as 800 dollars a passport, although if you had a good relationship with an official, you might be able to buy one for as little as 300 dollars.
It was time to go to the passport office itself. There I found dozens of people waiting in line at the gate. I reached the policeman at the gate with difficulty and introduced myself.
“Get out of here,” he said. “Don’t talk too much. Dozens of journalists come here every day. The director isn’t here.”
I said I would interview the deputy director, but the policeman said he too was not there. I then said I would talk to any official who was available.
“You’re a tough cookie,” he conceded. “Go in, but you won’t get anything.”
When I entered the department, I found that the director, General Ayub, was in fact in his office, even though I had previously tried to call him on his numerous phone numbers without success.
He welcomed me warmly, but as soon as I asked a question about alleged corrupt practices, he became angry.
“These are rumours spread by brokers who manufacture fake passports and visas,” he told me. “They want to defame officials in this department. I vehemently deny this charge.”
My report was duly published, including comments from the passport agency head.
Shortly afterwards, I called an official at the interior ministry about a different matter. Before I could even speak, he said angrily, “The report on passports that you published is not true at all. It was irresponsible, and you have defamed the country’s police.”
He demanded that I present myself at the ministry immediately. I calmly replied that he could refer me to the commission which addresses media offences, and that if it believed that officials had a case against IWPR, we would cooperate with any investigation.
This only made him angrier. “Do you have a permit to work as a reporter?” he continued. “Does your office have a license and permit? Where’s your office? Who is your boss? Give me his telephone number.”
I answered that we had all these details, but then he put the phone down.
Although the principles of democracy and freedom of speech have supposedly been applied in Afghanistan for the last ten years, it seems that some of those appointed to safeguard these values are actually against them – and that different forms of pressure are exerted to stop publication of the truth.
Abdul Wahed Faramarz is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.