A Radio Journey Across The Khyber

This article was originally material for a broadcast of “Wavescan” via Adventist World Radio in September 2001, and now forms part of the Radio Heritage Collection ©. All rights reserved to Ragusa Media Group, PO Box 14339, Wellington, New Zealand. This material is licenced on a non-exclusive basis to South Pacific DX Resource hosted on radiodx.com for a period of five years from October 1 2001. Author: Adrian Peterson

Part One

Recent events in the United States, and for that matter, in several other countries as well, have gripped the attention of the news media throughout the world. In view of these dramatic events, we interrupt our regular scheduling here in Wavescan and we begin a new series of topics in which we feature the radio scene in several of these countries.

Just as soon as we can assemble the information, we also plan to present a topic on the radio scene in New York on that eventful day, Tuesday September 11. However, in this edition of Wavescan, we think of western Asia and we present “Radio Backgrounds in Afghanistan”.

The country of Afghanistan with its quarter million square miles is sandwiched in between Pakistan and Iran. The 25 million inhabitants are made up of 20 diverse ethnic groups, each with its own culture & language, though Dari & Pushto are the twin official languages.

Back more than 30 years ago, we as a family were transferred from Perth in Western Australia on a five year assignment to Lahore in Pakistan. During this era, I made many visits into Afghanistan, sometimes by car or bus, and sometimes by plane.

The drive through the famed Khyber Pass is most dramatic, with high barren cliffs, wide colorful vistas, and dramatic deep gorges. In this area, the Kabul (KAH-b’l) River is very steep and the water runs at an amazing 35 miles per hour.

At the top of the Kabul Gorge, the landscape levels out at a mile high and it is here that a high powered mediumwave transmitter was established in 1964 under the supervision of Deutsche Welle in Germany. This unit was located in a country area at Pole-i-Tcharche (POLE-EE-CHARKAY) just a mile off the main highway.

In addition to the 100 kW Siemens transmitter on 1280 kHz at this location, there was a large M.A.N. diesel engine which supplied electric power for the entire facility. Programming was fed from the main studios in the city by two different telephone circuits as well as by a back-up FM link.

Some reports indicate that this showplace radio station was damaged, or perhaps even destroyed, during the uprisings that began in the year 1981. In more recent time, it is reported, a new 100 kW mediumwave transmitter was installed at a new location considerably closer to Kabul, though I have never heard it, even when visiting in nearby areas.

The main two-storeyed studio building at Answari Wat (AHN-SWAREE WOT), located on the edge of the main highway running out to the airport, was also constructed in 1964 under German supervision. For a short period of time, an experimental 10 watt FM transmitter, made by Rhode & Schwartz, was on the air at the studio location on 96.1 MHz. The AWR Historic Collection contains the only QSL card ever issued for this low powered relay unit.

In the entry way of the studio building was a large wall map of the world and on this map were hundreds of marker pins showing the location of listeners who had sent reception reports to the station. Back in this era, one of the studio technicians also served as the official monitor, and at specified times during the day, he would tune an old Telefunken receiver for the broadcasts coming from Deutsche Welle, ORF Austria, and several other international shortwave stations.

It is understood that this studio facility was largely destroyed some twenty years ago during the era of fighting, though apparently it has been restored subsequently and it is again serving as the main studio location.

On one occasion, the Seventh-day Adventist church staged an international temperance convention in the five storey Hotel InterContinental in Kabul. This convention attracted 140 delegates from 40 countries and late one night there was a fire that burned out the entire top floor of the hotel. Fortunately there were no injuries nor fatalities.

It was around this era that small FM transmitters and receivers were introduced into the world market so that people attending large conventions could hear the proceedings in their own language. At this convention in Kabul, translation was available through four of these little transmitters in four languages. Just one QSL card was issued for these limited broadcasts, for the transmitter on 102.8 MHz, and this card is also in the AWR collection in Indianapolis.

Part Two

The rugged Khyber Pass is straddled by the international border between Pakistan & Afghanistan. In some places the pass is quite wide, and in other places it is quite narrow and just sufficiently wide for the highway to pass through.

This famous pass has featured frequently in history, and to this day, you can still see a part of the old stone-paved highway that was constructed in the days of Alexander the Great when he made his ancient conquest as far east as the Punjab in India. At the entrance to the Khyber Pass is a huge notice in Urdu & English, drawing attention to the fact that it is considered dangerous to drive through the Khyber Pass in the afternoon and at night.

Back some 40 years ago, there were two daily flights by small passenger plane from the main Kabul (KAH-b’l) airport into the Bamiyan (BAH-mee-YAHN) Valley. The Afghan pilot took a great delight in inviting passengers to come and sit in the co-pilot’s seat and “help” him to fly the plane. For the return journey in the afternoon, it was necessary to sit and wait in the fully loaded plane until the temperature dropped to a safe level in order to give the plane sufficient lift to take off.

A few months ago, the Taliban ordered the destruction of the two massive statues of Buddha carved into the cliff face on the edge of the Bamiyan Valley. These statues were considered to be the largest in the world and they were pictured on QSL cards issued by Radio Afghanistan some 30 years ago.

There is a well-paved highway running north from Kabul up through the very long Salang Tunnel. The area is so high and the air is so rarified that motor cars will not run properly. On one occasion, insurgents sealed both ends of the tunnel, effectively suffocating and killing several thousand people in their motor vehicles.

This highway runs up to the border with Uzbekistan and in those days the Russian guards were quite friendly and they would invite visitors to walk across the wooden bridge to visit with them. In these northern provinces of Afghanistan, it was impossible to hear Radio Afghanistan Kabul on mediumwave because of the high mountain range in between. The local people listened instead on mediumwave to the relay service from Radio Moscow in their own languages.

There have been several attempts on the part of the Afghan government to install a network of local mediumwave stations thoughout their country. Back in the year 1925, two Russian made transmitters were imported into Afghanistan; one was installed in the palace of the king and the other was intended for installation in the regional city Kandahar (KUN-da-HAHR), south of Kabul and close to the Pakistan border. However, because of unrest in the area, this station was never constructed.

Back in the 1970’s, tenders were called for the installation of a network of mediumwave stations in the major cities throughout Afghanistan, but again, these were never constructed. Another project was to import several mobile radio stations and establish them in regional cities, but again, this project was never fully implemented

Because of the difficulties encountered in establishing a network of local mediumwave stations thoughout Afghanistan, instead a regional service in local languages was on the air for several years using two transmitters in the tropical shortwave bands. At one stage, these two transmitters carried a health program from Adventist World Radio translated into the two official languages, Dari and Pushto.

However, Bengt Ericson in Sweden observes that there are now four mediumwave stations on the air in Afghanistan. These stations can be heard on 657 kHz, 864,1107 and 1584, and they are located in Kabul, Kandahar and Mizar-i-Sharif.

Part Three

The main highway running from the Khyber Pass into the city of Kabul (KAH-b’l) runs through the suburban area of Yakatut (YUCK-a-TOOT). Stretched across the highway on the outer edge of Yakatut were the antennas for the shortwave service of Radio Afghanistan.

It was back in the year 1925 that a small longwave transmitter was imported from Russia and installed in the palace of the king on the edge of Kabul. In addition, a consignment of crystal wireless sets, ultimately 1,000 in number, was also imported and these were distributed throughout the city. However, in the year 1929, this transmitter was destroyed during civil disturbances in the city.

Four years later, in 1933, a German made Siemens transmitter was installed in a new building at Yakatut, an outer suburb of Kabul. This huge mediumwave unit, variously described as 100 kW, 50 kW and 25 kW, was installed inside a series of cages on the top floor of this new building.

Seven years later, this huge old unit was replaced by another 20 kW unit on the ground floor of the same building, and in 1970, this one was replaced by yet another unit, made by BBC in Switzerland. However, all throughout these eras, the original old unit in the cages was kept alive with test transmissions each Tuesday evening.

A second building was erected at Yakatut back in the middle of last century to house a series of transmitters for use in communication traffic, both within Afghanistan and with countries in Asia and Europe. Half a dozen medium-powered transmitters have been housed in this building, some of which were also used at times for program broadcasting.

Back in the year 1948, a series of program broadcasts from two different locations in Afghanistan were heard in Australia. One station was located in Herat (hay-RAHT), and the other was probably a utility transmitter located at Yakatut near Kabul. These hour long broadcasts were on the air two days a week in local languages. It is probable that these test broadcasts were intended as a prelude for the establishment of a new shortwave service for local and international coverage.

A little over a year later, the Director General of Broadcasting in Afghanistan went to Berlin seeking German assistance in establishing the projected new shortwave service. Ultimately, a third new transmitter building was constructed at Yakatut with three shortwave transmitters from West Germany, rated at 20 kW, 50 kW and 100 kW. The antenna system for this new shortwave service under the callisgn YAK was constructed on both sides of the highway, with several aerials stretched over the highway itself.

The showplace radio station at Pole-i-Charke wa constructed in 1964, along with the two storey studio building at Answari Wat. However, in the ensuing fighting after the Russian invasion in 1979, most of the radio facilities at all of the various locations were damaged and destroyed.

Meanwhile, in an unexpected move around mid year 1979, the radio world suddenly discovered that Radio Afghanistan was on the air via relay stations in Russia. At least four different locations were on the air over a period of 12 years.

The program feed for this relay service was at first direct off-air from Kabul, though later it was by satellite. This relay service closed on December 31, 1991. Many QSL cards were issued from Kabul for this Russian relay service.

As time and turmoil went by, the shortwave transmitter base at Yakatut was again damaged and destroyed, and two new units at 100 kW were imported from Russia. Again, these were badly damaged in subsequent fighting. It would appear that one of these units was refurbished by the Taliban, and this is the unit that has been on the air as “The Voice of Shariah” (SHAH-ree-ah).

In a dispatch from Jose Jacob in India, he states that the newspaper, “Times of India”, reported that the “Voice of Shariah” was on the air now from another location. Next day, Jose reports hearing ‘The Voice of Shariah” at a lower level.

However, CNN news states that the radio stations near Kabul were destroyed in subsequent bombing raids, and both Victor Goontelilleke in Colombo as well as Jose Jacob in India note that the “Voice of Shariah” is no longer heard on shortwave.

In the latest episode of events in the radio scene in Afghanistan, as heard on CNN, it is probable that by now the American “Blue Eagle” aeroplanes are on the air to Afghanistan. Mediumwave coverage from ground-based stations is also planned.

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