Matt Potter has been around the world with smugglers. He chose to fly with Air We Don’t Give A Crap in an Il-76 – a gargantuan Soviet-era plane that attracted its fair share of gunfire. During his lengthy tour, he visited exotic locations with travelling companions who spent their days delivering weapons, drugs, cash, gems and people. Here, he gives us an insight into three of the crazier cities on his illegal itinerary.
Accommodation: The place to stay was the Hyatt Regency Belgrade. Because it was an internationally branded hotel, it had a reputation as the only place where you could reasonably expect not to get a bullet in the back during your stay. Plus, Serb guys would show up and cater to your every need. This was a heavily sanctioned country under lockdown, but heaps of high-end stuff was being brought in illegally. The local mafia would hang out at the Hyatt with masses of coke and bottles of Cristal, dressed in fur coats. I should stress it’s not like that now. In fact, it’s a very respectable hotel.
Attractions: Nikola Tesla Airport. The Head of Customs was also the Head of Secret Police, which meant an interesting conflict of interest in that his job with customs was to know what was coming in and going out but his job with the Secret Police meant smuggling as much as possible without the government finding out. The guards would have their sub-machineguns trained on you – and I mean pointed at your head – as you put your stuff through the X-ray scanner. But right beside you would be the stereotypical people with bulging pockets and dark shades lifting up crates and sending them through without question. Serbia was a huge exporter of ecstasy back then, and coming in would be fresh Deutschmarks. Fresh as in “straight from the printer’s” – they hadn’t even been through the German Exchange.
Cuisine: There were actually people eating shoe leather when I was there – I shit you not! It was a case of Cristal and shoe leather. You could get the luxuries but you couldn’t get basic necessities. If you couldn’t get Cristal, it was the local plum brandy, Slivovitz. At that point, it was all home-distilled because outside of the mafia, the rest of the country was dirt poor. There were blokes standing by the side of the road trying to sell their Slivovitz and shoe soup.
Women: Because it was so bling, the mafia moll look was very much in. That meant make-up of the ballroom dancing variety and skirts that almost came down to the navel.
Geography: If you look on a map, Uganda is bordered by Kenya, Sudan, [Democratic Republic of] Congo and Rwanda. So what you’re looking at is a place that’s officially at peace but whose neighbours are at complete f–king war. Despite having a bloke in charge [President Yoweri Musevini] who is a complete f–king mad dog, the West needs a little base in East Africa because we need to send tanks, armies, guns, peacekeepers – and that’s Uganda. So we put up with this bloke in charge, as long as we’re allowed to use the air base.
Accommodation: If there is a hotel that isn’t also a knock-shop here, I’m unaware of it. I stayed at an internationally branded hotel and there was this guy dressed in a tuxedo walking around with canapés. At 8pm sharp he started clearing the tables around me and I was like, “What the f–k, man? I’m trying o eat my dinner!” He told me to continue eating, which I did. He then proceeded to set up poledancing poles and came back dressed in a Hawaiian shirt.
Trade: It’s the place for illegal furs, bush meat and timber. There’s this bar called The Four Turkeys – that’s where deals get made. Walk in and you’ll see Nigerian fur dealers and Ugandan Viagra dealers. There are guns and drugs absolutely everywhere. Both will be openly offered to you but if they think you’re trying to take advantage, the shooting starts very quickly.
Local delicacy: The local brew is called waragi, which basically means “war gin.” The locals used to make it to get themselves into a f–ked up mood so they could fight without fear. It’s made from banana skins or the shavings of yams. It’s sold in supermarkets and bars but if you Google it, you’ll see that it’s fatal. It’s been responsible for wiping out entire towns. You drink it, go completely insane, then die.
Hospitality industry: It’s the biggest place for pros in Africa because it’s the number-one spot for incoming and outgoing soldiers. Peacekeepers arrive in Kampala and stay two weeks, awaiting their posting. There’s a huge network that caters to these guys. There have been several Viagra fatalities around the airport and military base areas because they can’t say no to all the women.
Economy: It comes and goes in huge f–king bubbles, since the Somali pirates go shopping here. When they luck into a $60 million ransom for one of the ships they’ve nicked, they can’t spend it in Somalia because there’s nothing to buy there, so they come to Uganda. It wouldn’t be unusual to stand in a Ugandan electronics store and see this shifty bloke wearing loads of gold who just last week was pointing an RPG at a supertanker. The price of goods will shoot up literally overnight because a dozen pirates have just injected millions into the economy.
Agriculture: There’s this alley near the airport called Smoke Street, which is lined with palms. The only reason it’s lined with palms is to hide the cannabis fields behind it. It’s like the biggest open secret in the world. We’re talking high-quality ganja specifically grown for export and overseen by government guards.
Getting around: The majority of foreigners in Kabul are with someone, like the UN or an NGO. They live in high-security compounds and get driven around in armoured convoys. That’s not f–king Kabul. We walked around on-foot, unarmed and without any disguise, protection or guide. That’s the only way to see Kabul. Most people are pleasantly surprised that you’re not some gun-toting US contractor barking at them, and any hostile locals don’t expect you. If we rode around in a convoy, there might’ve been trouble, but we were safe just strolling around.
Accommodation: I stayed in a guesthouse called B’s Place, owned by this Aussie guy. It’s common knowledge they have a freezer full of beer and a beer garden. In this fridge packed full of ice-creams was a false bottom, and inside were bottles of VB and Smirnoff. There was a grenade net over the garden area because disgruntled anti-alcohol locals would lob grenades over the wall. Every time it happened, the grenade would roll back down and take their legs off. Oddly enough, while they are devout, many locals are also tipplers. They love their speakeasies in Kabul.
International relations: If you want anything, all you need to do is follow the Russians. They’re the people who can generally suss things out and they’re the guys I was hanging around with – running cargo ops and supplying a large proportion of the black-market shit. There are veteran Russian conscripts still there [from the 1979 Soviet War in Afghanistan] who got addicted to heroin, went AWOL and turned into these mad shaman-type blokes with long beards – freelance motherf–kers who go around dealing or whatever. They are raving maniacs but they know where you can get a pint, a gun, a fix.
Buyer beware: The gun trade is alive and well. You can buy a Kalashnikov for $25 or a Glock for six bucks. They may or may not be real, though. The fakes are made using a foot-powered lathe up in the mountains. There are rural craftsmen who would normally make car wheels but they’ve figured out how to copy Kalashnikovs. This bazaar salesman warned me, “If you use it, sir, make sure it’s only when absolutely necessary. Only when you must kill someone.” I asked, “Why?” He replied, “About half the time it’ll blow up in your hand and take off your arm.”