News of the outrageous queues people have been forced to endure at passport control at London’s Heathrow airport recently reminded me of the worst airport I ever flew into.
Because, national disgrace though the UK Border Agency is, immigration at Heathrow still doesn’t come close to arriving at Tajikistan’s Dushanbe airport, where a customs official once asked me for $5,000 in cash to be allowed into the country.
It was 2001, after 9/11, and The Independent sent me to Afghanistan to cover the US-led attack on the Taliban. The only way in was through Tajikistan to the small area of Afghanistan held by the Northern Alliance.
I am a nervous flyer, and at the time I was more worried about the flight to Tajikistan on an ageing Russian-made Tupolev, and the flight into Afghanistan by Northern Alliance military helicopter, than the fact I was heading into a war zone.
When we touched down in Dushanbe, there was none of the usual rush for the exit when the seatbelt signs went out. We were ordered to stay in our seats. An official in a Soviet-style high-peaked cap came on board and collected everyone’s passports, and took them away.
After some time we were allowed off the aircraft, and into a tiny waiting room — the airport was getting far more than its usual passenger numbers, with the hordes of journalists and aid workers heading for Afghanistan.
We were each handed an immigration form to fill in. It was written only in Tajik. There was only one passenger on our flight who spoke Tajik, so it took some time for the translation to get around. There was nowhere to sit in the tiny room, and nowhere to lean the forms to write on them.
There was a solitary passport desk, behind that a customs desk, and then a door, which presumably led to the baggage hall. By now, it was well past midnight, and, tired from a long journey, many of us looked longingly at that door.
Meanwhile an offiical had started going through the passports, and calling out names. The idea was when he called your name you went to the passport desk and completed the formalities. Only this official had little experience of non-Tajik names, and many people couldn’t understand the way he pronounced theirs, which caused delays and confusion. Just as well, because many of us hadn’t completed the immigration form yet, and were still trying to find out what it said.
One of the things we had to fill out was a declaration of how much foreign currency we were carrying. A whisper started going through the crowd, lie about how much you have, because they’re making everyone hand over half of what they’ve got.
Most of us were heading into Afghanistan, where there were no banks, and no way of getting cash. I was carrying $10,000 of The Independent‘s money, which was supposed to keep me going for months if necessary.
There were no spare forms, so people started crossing out the figures they’d written and writing lower ones, which seemed a little obvious. A counter-murmur started up: don’t lie, because they’re searching people and, if you lie, they make you hand over all your money.
With one passport counter, progress was slow, and you couldn’t relax because you had to listen out for your name all the time. I had been in the tiny room more than an hour when I heard what sounded like my name.
I still hadn’t filled in the figure for the cash on the form. I’d been debating what to do. I made a spur of the moment decision and left the space blank.
The passport formalities went smoothly. Ahead of me, I could see a man who had claimed a low figure for the amount of cash he was carrying. Two customs officials had made him empty his pockets, and were counting hundred dollar bills with gleaming eyes. Eventually they seemed to decide on a reasonable amount to “confiscate”, and handed the man the rest. He shuffled towards the exit, looking morose.
It was my turn. The customs officer looked over my form and saw the figure was blank.
“How much money do you have on you?” he asked. I decided not to lie.
“About $10,000,” I said.
I pulled out a thick wad of cash. He nodded slowly.
“Okay. You give me half,” he said. I thought of trying to explain to The Independent that I had handed over $5,000 of their money to a corrupt customs official. They’d never believe me. They’d think I was trying to embezzle the money myself.
“Sorry?” I said politely, as if I hadn’t heard properly, playing for time.
“You give me half this,” he said, indicating the money. I took a deep breath.
“No,” I said.
“No?” He looked incredulous.
He gave me a threatening stare. There was a long pause. I could sense the queue building behind me.
“Okay,” he said, gesturing me to the door. “You can go.”
It was as easy as that. I just said no. Stunned by my success, I pushed my way to the door we’d all been longing to reach, and pushed through it, expecting to find myself in the baggage hall.
Only I didn’t. I found myself outside, in the car park. Thinking I’d made a mistake, I tried to go back, but an official stopped me.
“My bag?” I protested. “What about my bag?” The official pointed me across the car park to what looked like a warehouse. There was a scrum outside the entrance, of people trying to get in and others trying to drag heavy bags out. Inside there were no conveyor belts, just piles of bags dumped on the floor, and people climbing over the to try to get to theirs. I found mine and struggled out with it, glad to get out of the airport at last.
In a couple of days, I’d have to come back and get on that Northern Alliance helicopter.
To be fair to Tajikistan, I haven’t been back in the 11 years since, and for all I know things have improved. But Dushanbe Airport in 2001 remains by a long way the worst airport I have ever seen.