Friendship Bridge gets a second life
Afghan-Uzbek supply route reopens
San Francisco Chronicle (Dec 10, 2001)
Hairaton, Afghanistan -- Its name smacked of a previous regime, as did the banners pinned to the lone locomotive that trundled across the bridge.
"Uzbekistan and Afghanistan are brothers," read one, in the Uzbek language. "Thank you, America, the main friend of Afghanistan. Thank you, our neighbor, Uzbekistan," read another banner, in the local Dari language, pinned to the customs house just over the Friendship Bridge in Hairaton. "Humanitarian aid of the United Nations is a salve for our wounds."
But these were more than empty slogans recyled from a bygone era: They marked the first shipment of humanitarian aid -- 1,000 tons of grain and flour -- to be transported across the Uzbekistan border, via the Soviet-named Friendship Bridge, the quickest supply route into a country that needs all the flour, grain and other humanitarian aid it can get.
It was also the first time since 1997 that the Soviet-named bridge separating the two countries had reopened, another sign of a blossoming, if still delicate, peace after years of devastating war.
The aid delivered here yesterday was to be loaded onto trucks and taken to Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan's second-largest city, arriving after weeks of negotiations between Uzbekistan, the United States and the United Nations.
Uzbekistan officials said security concerns had delayed the reopening of the bridge, which had hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid stranded in Termez, on the Uzbek side of the border, along with angry aid officials. Some observers believed the Uzbek government was using the growing humanitarian crisis -- up to 3 million Afghans face the prospect of severe hunger this winter -- as leverage to secure $100 million in U.S. assistance.
But yesterday, the logjam that prevented relief organizations from distributing food, clothes and medicine across the vital river border between between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan was finally removed.
"It's very important -- it definitely will save a lot of hassles," said Ruppa Joshi, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Children's Fund in Tashkent.
To mark the occasion, Gen. Rashid Dostum -- the Northern Alliance warlord whose forces had liberated Mazar-e-Sharif from the Taliban -- was there, surrounded by some 200 troops, Kalashnikov automatic rifles slung across their shoulders and bundles of grenade launchers dangling from their backs. Two U.S. special forces commandos quietly surveyed the site, machine guns in hand.
A worker slapped a new coat of paint on a clay fence outside the customs house in Hairaton. A brown sheep stood in the back of a pickup truck, waiting to be slaughtered in celebration of the important event. Dozens of children clapped as Dostum and two other local Northern Alliance commanders, Ata Mohammed and Usted Mohaqiq, arrived at the Friendship Bridge.
BUILT BY SOVIETS
The Soviet army built the half-mile concrete span in 1986 to transport ammunition and weapons for its decade-long occupation of Afghanistan -- an invasion Moscow called a "friendly effort" to boost the communist regime of President Najibullah. When U.S.-backed Afghan fighters defeated the Soviet Union in 1989, Moscow used the bridge to march its troops out of the country.
Now, a single Soviet tank stands on a sand dune on the 40-mile road from the Friendship Bridge to Mazar-e-Sharif, which sits atop a major supply route connecting the country's western and northern provinces and the capital, Kabul.
Past this dune, and over the mounds of sand that have crept onto the road, lies the route of trucks loaded with humanitarian aid and goods that the Afghan government hopes will soon start pouring into the war-stricken country.
"When there is trade, import and export, prices will fall, and life will be better for people of Afghanistan," said Sayeed Nurullah of the Afghan foreign ministry. "We also hope that a lot of U.N. aid will come from Uzbekistan."
The United Nations left Mazar-e-Sharif while the city was still under Taliban control, but did not return immediately when the extremist Islamic militia was chased out last month. Two U.N. security officers who had been in northern Afghanistan for the past few days walked across the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan yesterday to discuss the uncertain security situation in the region with other U.N. officials in Termez.
In an improvised press conference on the bridge, Gen. Dostum gave assurances that relief agencies could henceforth safely operate in northern Afghanistan.
""On behalf of the Afghan government, I assure you that there are no more Taliban fighters hiding in northern Afghanistan,'' Dostum said. ""This part of the country is safe. Welcome to Afghanistan.''
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