Striding across the tarmac in their worn black uniforms with gold trim, the captain and crew of the Ariana Afghan Airlines flight exude a frayed dignity. It is one of the few remaining assets of this dying airline, which has been virtually grounded by international sanctions and domestic hardships.
With its only Boeing 747 stranded in Kuwait on orders of the United Nations, Ariana's active fleet is down to five aging, Soviet-built Antonov 24 propeller planes, which make irregular and often delayed flights between Kabul, the capital, and three other cities in Afghanistan.
To fly Ariana has become an exercise in faith and frustration. At ticket offices, nothing is computerized and seats become available or sold out mysteriously. The Kabul airport is a frozen, lightless hangar filled with milling, anxious passengers heaving bulky parcels and shouting at a counter agent who cannot see to write. Flight information boards, with Russian letters, stopped working long ago.
As one early morning flight prepares to depart for Herat, a city near the border with Iran, the few female passengers, all draped in head-to-toe veils, are herded into a small waiting room. The women huddle together on benches for warmth. One hour becomes two.
Finally, a policewoman enters. She roots carefully through wallets and envelopes and finally extracts a forbidden item: a packet of snapshots that include images of men. As she pores over them, the passenger, a middle-aged teacher who speaks some English, murmurs a protest. "My brother," she explains to a foreigner quietly, shaking her head in resignation. "My husband."
The other women smile at her in sympathy but say nothing. The photos--banned by Afghanistan's Islamic Taliban government with its rigid rules against photographs of living creatures, and against men and women mingling--vanish into the officer's purse.
The U.N. ban on all international flights by Ariana, a measure taken last month as part of an effort to pressure Afghanistan's Taliban regime to turn over alleged Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden for prosecution in the United States, has already taken a technical and emotional toll here.
Ordinary citizens, who already lacked international telephone service, now cannot receive air mail. With roads in Afghanistan damaged by years of shelling and bombing, and some highways blocked by fighting between the Taliban and resistance militias, flying is the only practical way to travel between major cities.
In theory, the U.N. ban permits flights to Saudi Arabia for religious pilgrimages to Mecca and Jeddah, but Ariana officials say they still have not received approval to resume those trips, although the annual season for Muslims to travel for umrah prayers is about to begin.
"There are 5 million Afghan refugees abroad. Our people are divided, mother here, son in Europe. This is only way to send letters, to know about family death or wedding," said one Ariana crew member, who asked not to be identified. "Now all doors are closed. It is not right what America and United Nations does to our people."
U.S. officials, who pressed for the U.N. flight ban, insist it is aimed only at punishing the regime. State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Wednesday that the sanctions, which also have frozen Taliban accounts abroad, were "carefully targeted" to avoid hurting ordinary citizens.
As the sanctions intended, however, the national airline is definitely suffering, with many of its 1,600 employees and dozens of planes grounded. Ariana maintenance used to be performed in the United Arab Emirates; now airline technicians say they must scavenge parts from planes stranded at domestic airports.
"This plane was built 30 years ago, but it still has life to fly, and we can find the parts we need," said a mechanic aboard the flight last week from Kabul to Herat. "Tires? We have enough for another three to four months," he added prying open the broken lavatory door with a screwdriver.
Although no catastrophes have occurred, both flight crews and passengers know that the planes are not in perfect condition. There is a palpable sense of unease at takeoff and landing, and a feeling of suspense as people on the ground watch the landing gear retract and descend.
The mechanic, a father of eight with a ready smile, said he had been trained in Pakistan and the Soviet Union, and had been employed as a civil aviation engineer with Ariana for 30 years. "Now I have nothing left," he said. "I earn about $15 a month, and I have to support my family. But what about the people with no jobs at all?"
Like many Afghans, Ariana employees are ambivalent about whom to blame for the current state of affairs. Some protest that Western superpowers are toying cruelly with a poor Islamic country. Others hint at deep grievances against the Taliban, even though they occupy one of the few remaining professional niches in the country.
Ariana pilots and crew members tend to be trim, graying veterans of the Afghan armed forces or careerists who recall Ariana's heyday as a successful regional airline before the country was torn apart by civil war. They take their responsibilities seriously and carry themselves with the seasoned, semi-military bearing of commercial pilots everywhere.
"We are not fundamentalists," explained one employee, who asked not to be identified. "I believe in democracy. . . . The people of Afghanistan are nothing now," he added, waxing indignant but then realizing he had gone too far.
"I can't say what I want to say," he broke off apologetically. "We are all afraid."
CAPTION: Ariana employees entered the airline's office before imposition of sanctions that have now grounded many workers.
CAPTION: Workers remove seats from an Ariana jet in Kabul the week before sanctions took effect. Ariana maintenance used to be done in the United Arab Emirates; now, mechanics say they must scavenge parts from planes stranded at domestic airports.