A Journey into Afghanistan
Early in the morning we arrived in Teremangal, a border town just inside Pakistan. It had rained the night before and the winding streets were thick with mud churned up by pack animals laden with supplies.
‘Stay here, Abdul, don’t talk to anyone. Wait for a man called Mahmoud.’ So said my guide, who promptly disappeared into the jostling crowds of men. With a sense of unease that was almost pleasurable, I was on my own. Camel trains laden with great beams of rough-cut wood swayed past; small boys in ragged shirts threw stones at dogs that darted between the hooves of horses; chai sellers carrying trays of steaming tea stepped gingerly through the slush and horse droppings; while beside me a couple of Pathans haggled over the price of a saddle. Everywhere there were men wrapped in dun-coloured petous and carrying guns.
I was squatting by the side of the road with the sun on my back and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, but my thoughts were elsewhere: between images of Kipling and memories of charades. Three days before I had been lying on my bed at Green’s Hotel in Peshawar, looking at the fan going round in the ceiling. At the time it had seemed faintly amusing that life could counterfeit cliché so realistically. Now I sensed, fleetingly, how a schoolboy dream could become a nightmare. I took refuge in the everyday: don’t bother trying to understand what’s going on, I told myself. Think of breakfast. Patience.
Two men were walking purposefully towards me. I turned away from them and stared at the hills on the other side of the valley. There was nothing to worry about, absolutely nothing to worry about. The two men were coming closer. Where on earth was Mahmoud? The men stopped in front of me. Damn.
‘Abdul?’ The taller of the men was smiling. ‘My name is Mahmoud.’1
I stood up and we shook hands.
Mahmoud was a broad-shouldered Tajik with a black beard and a bandolier of bullets hanging from his shoulder. He smiled too often and too easily for my liking. His companion was an Uzbeki with deep-set eyes and a sparse, wispy grey beard who seemed to be embarrassed to be in the company of the big, laughing Tajik. His name was Anwar. His clothes were of sun-bleached grey cotton and there was a pistol in his belt.
‘Come, Abdul,’ said Mahmoud. ‘We must meet the others now, and then you can have something to eat. Chai, kebabs, nan – we have plenty of food here.’
I pulled my knapsack onto my back and followed them through the streets, watching the faces of the passers-by to see whether they noticed I was foreign. The few who glanced at me showed no surprise. It was reassuring. Mahmoud had a taste for the melodramatic and warned me repeatedly with stage whispers and extravagantly secretive gestures to be on my guard – ‘Whatever you do, don’t look suspicious’ – until I had begun to feel like someone wearing a false nose and beard.
Eventually, at the end of a little lane, we came into a straw-littered courtyard. Some men were sitting on ammunition boxes, drinking glasses of green tea and laughing; nearby a boy in a gold-embroidered cap plucked a chicken.
Mahmoud called one of the men over and spoke to him in a dialect that I couldn’t understand. I watched the man’s face carefully. It was middle-aged but heavily lined and difficult to interpret. At first his eyes were guarded and several times he looked at me as if to check what Mahmoud was saying. Gradually his face relaxed and at intervals he nodded in agreement. Then he shook my hand and smiled while his companions, who had been silently gazing in our direction, turned to each other and began talking in lowered voices.
‘He says you are mehman, his guest, and you are welcome for as long as you like.’
Mahmoud pointed through a cloud of flies into the shadow of a doorway. ‘Here you will eat and sleep until it is time to go,’ he said. ‘Anwar and I have many things to do before the journey starts. We must buy horses and provisions and check the weapons; and everything costs money, doesn’t it? Wait for us: we will see you later when you meet the others. Don’t go anywhere else, otherwise the Pakistan police may see you and then …’ He clenched his pudgy fists, one on top of the other, as if they were handcuffed. ‘Who knows? Pakistan prison isn’t a good place, Abdul. Be careful.’
I kicked off my muddied shoes and stepped into the room which was to be my home for the next few days. I laid my pack in a corner and sat down beside it. Shortly a boy’s figure appeared in the brightly lit doorway. I unpacked my Persian grammar and studiously ignored him. Nevertheless, I could sense him scrutinizing my appearance: the comparative newness of my clothes; the slight differences of style – the collar and sleeves – between Afghan and Pakistan shirts; my thick woollen socks and the strange disjointed letters of the book I was reading.
His parents had been killed in a raid, he told me, and, after burying them and saying goodbye to his remaining brothers and sisters, he had made the journey to Pakistan with his uncle. That was three years ago, and since then they had lost touch with each other. Yes, one day he would cross the border and find his elder brother, Insha’allah. Until then he had to stay here, cooking for the groups of mujahedin. It was hard work, but the master of the chaikhane was a good man; he had enough to eat and, little by little, he was saving some money. Later he would join the mujahedin, but guns were expensive and almost impossible to buy for someone who was not a member of a group. He told me all this in a matter-of-fact voice without a trace of bitterness.
‘My parents are shahid. One day I will return. Now I must prepare the midday meal. The men will be coming soon and they will be hungry – they have been working since before sunrise.’
They came later that evening in twos and threes. The younger ones had Lee-Enfields slung over their shoulders, and the way they carefully undid them, placing them reverently by their sides, showed that they had only just received them. The others had Kalashnikovs, and they too seemed only half-familiar with their weapons. The oldest couldn’t have been more than twenty-five and when they looked at me they nervously avoided meeting my eyes. Finally, one of them came up to me and offered a boiled sweet.
‘Are you French?’
‘No, I’m English.’
‘Are you a doctor?’
I explained that I wanted to write about the people of Afghanistan. He paused as if my answer were somehow meaningless. Then his features lit with a sudden idea.
‘And are you coming with us to Nahrin?’
‘Insha’allah – if God wills.’
‘Then you are a mujahed.’
The next day I met Sa’id, one of the leaders of the group. He had a fine face with a prominent nose; his flowing black beard and deep-set eyes reminded me of an early Byzantine icon. He had spent some time in England and so, for the first time in several days, it was possible to talk in English.
‘When I was in London I stayed with Mr and Mrs Robinson in Battersea. Do you know them? They were very kind to me; every morning they gave me jams at breakfast. I liked the strawberry jam very much indeed. Sometimes in the evening Mr Robinson tried to persuade me to drink wine, but I refused because it is haram – forbidden by my religion.
‘London is a big city. When I first arrived I couldn’t believe the size of the buildings. And so many ladies. I think English ladies are very beautiful because you can see their faces, but the clothes they wear are very strange. Sometimes it was difficult for me not to look too closely.’ His eyes searched mine to see whether I had registered the full significance of what he said.
There was a dull rumble. At first I thought it was thunder, but the sound grew in intensity. There was a sporadic rattle of small-arms fire and then, as the jets swept over us, the sharp rhythmic sound of DSHKR guns echoed from the hills around the town. Sa’id leaped to his feet and ran outside on to the wooden veranda where he stared into the sky, shielding his eyes against the afternoon sun.
‘Shuravi – Russians.’
He was obviously frightened and had difficulty translating his thoughts into English.
‘Kojah? Where are they, Abdul, can you see them?’
By the time I joined him the planes had disappeared. Then, from the other side of the mountains, came the muffled sound of explosions.
‘We are very close to the border, Abdul. The Shuravi know we are here, so they bomb the villages on the other side to make it difficult for us to travel. All the people leave and then there is nothing for us or our animals to eat.’
It was several minutes before Sa’id left the veranda. After we sat down, I noticed that he was still trembling.
‘When the jets come, Abdul, everyone is frightened – and the sound of the bombs is terrible. I have lost the hearing in my right ear. Immediately the people hear the Shuravi approaching they hide among the rocks and under the trees, but the women have nowhere to go because, by our custom, they should not leave the walls around the house. Some of the houses have cellars but, because our families are large and the cellars are small, not everyone can fit inside. Then it is a difficult choice.
‘The mujahedin have their training camps some distance from the town. We can see the jets dropping bombs on the town and each one of us thinks of our families. Since the spring the Shuravi have bombed us often. They come two or three times a week and each time ten or fifteen people are killed, sometimes more. The day before we left a bomb hit a building where many people had sheltered; twenty-three people were shahid – martyred. All this is difficult to believe, but you will see it with your own eyes, Insha’allah.’ For several minutes Sa’id was silent. Then, finishing the remains of his tea, he smiled and left me.
For the rest of the day I was alone and passed the time by writing my diary. Now and again there was the sound of gunfire, but the jets did not return and I assumed it was merely the mujahedin in high spirits, practising with their newly acquired weapons. At some point, I fell asleep.
When I awoke the room was in darkness, and a hurricane lamp was being set down beside me. As the flame grew and cast its light across the room, I saw a small group of men sitting in a semicircle facing the lamp. I recognized Mahmoud and Sa’id, but there were others whose faces were new to me. One man had clothes which seemed of a better quality than the others. He was wearing a brown tweed waistcoat over a white cotton shirt and trousers. On his head was a white, embroidered skullcap.
Mahmoud noticed I was awake and called me over to be introduced. First of all he turned to the man in the white skullcap. He seemed slightly older than the other mujahedin, and unlike them he was clean-shaven except for a neatly trimmed moustache. His eyes were watchful and intelligent, and when he heard himself being described as a very learned man and a university professor, the corners of his eyes wrinkled humorously. He was called Wakil.
‘He speaks English too. Go on, Professor, say something in English.’
The Professor hesitated. I sensed he was reluctant to reveal his ignorance in front of the others, but then he stretched out his hand in greeting. I had momentarily forgotten that my name was Abdul, and introduced myself as ‘Peregrine’.
‘Hallo, Mr Pelican, and how is your health?’
As we solemnly shook hands I knew we would be friends.
Before I could say anything in reply, Mahmoud was introducing me to the next man. ‘And this, Abdul, is a very important man. He is the nephew of Abdul Haq and the leader of the group. His name is Nazim Khan.’
Mahmoud’s face adopted an expression of false gravity and, as he gestured to the man sitting opposite, I thought I detected the flicker of a smile pass between them.
Nazim Khan had a weak face. The eyes were evasive and almost feminine, with unnaturally long eyelashes, the mouth was small with a sensual lower lip and his moustache was the sort that sixteen-year-olds grow to prove their manhood. I had an instant sense of foreboding which increased when he smiled and his upper lip drew back slightly like an animal at bay.
Once the plates and dishes had been cleared away after our evening meal, we talked more about the coming journey to Nahrin. It was going to be difficult. Some of it would be through territory patrolled by the Soviets, and there would be long marches by night of sixteen hours or more. The Professor hoped that I would be able to keep up and advised me to buy supplies of sweets for energy and painkillers in case my legs suffered from cramp.
‘Even if you are very tired you must go on. In some parts the country is very dangerous and no one will be able to wait for you. The food will be very simple – rice, bread and tea – not like the good food you eat here. While you are here you must eat as much as you can because you will need the strength later.’
The next afternoon, we met in a dusty field where last-minute preparations for the journey were being made. Boxes of ammunition, guns, sacks of oats and harnesses were strewn everywhere. The horses and mules were hanging their heads in the heat while, nearby, Nazim Khan and the older members of the group sat and talked in the stifling shade of a tent.
I joined them but it was difficult to follow their conversation. However, it was obvious that Nazim and Mahmoud were being criticized by the others. The Professor beckoned me over and whispered, ‘These words are not good. Guns and money. Very difficult.’
I nodded as sagely as I could and propped myself against a saddle to piece together what was going on, but they were talking too fast and my concentration began to wander. At last the argument resolved itself and Nazim Khan asked me to take a photograph of the men standing beside the piles of ammunition. A dozen men grabbed the nearest gun or anti-tank rocket they could find and posed with suitably grim expressions. Nazim Khan was in the middle, blithely unaware of the barrel of a Kalashnikov cradled comfortably in his neighbour’s arms, pointing directly at his temple. After I had taken a couple of photographs, it was time to make our farewells. Mahmoud embraced me fondly. I should contact him without fail when I returned to Peshawar, when he would be able to offer me a good price for my tape recorder. Only when the quiet Uzbeki shook my hand did I realize that Anwar was remaining in Pakistan. Sa’id embraced me, then looked into my face and said: ‘Do not be afraid, Allah is with us. Khoda hafiz, may God protect you.’
We had been travelling for a week, and had reached the territory of the Hesb Nasr: a rival group of mujahedin who were notorious for ambushing travellers, stealing their weapons and skinning their victims. As a precaution Nazim Khan decided to make a long detour across a monotonous plain broken at intervals by gullies, some several hundred feet deep. One moment there was a cavalcade of men and horses in front, the next moment they had disappeared. It was easy to understand the origin of travellers’ tales of powerful wizards and enchanted caravans vanishing without trace.
At noon we rested briefly by a stagnant pool under a grove of poplars where a roguish old Uzbeki with a chai stall did brisk business, selling warm bread and chai at exorbitant prices. From there the landscape changed, becoming less harsh. We entered a range of gently undulating hills and valleys. Whenever possible I walked alone: the blisters from the previous seven days had made me irritable and the strain of being continuously in the company of the mujahedin was beginning to tell. But solitude was hard to come by. One mujahed in particular, a man with a long, stupid face and a hat with drooping canvas ears, made my life a misery. Whenever I thought I had finally escaped him, he would pad noiselessly up behind and abruptly hiss my name. If I slowed down he dawdled, if I accelerated so did he. I stopped and let him overtake me only to find him lurking in wait round the next bend. It began to be surreal, reaching a grotesque climax as he intoned garbled fragments of English: ‘I am a clock. You are my book. This is Friday.’
My head began to spin. He started reciting an obscure version of the alphabet: ‘A-B-D-F-N-G-R-P-S …’ and my patience snapped. I spun round and shouted a string of choice Anglo-Saxon expletives. He gave a fishy smile, and was silent for a few minutes; then the litany of rubbish began again. Barely able to control myself, I told him he had the brains of a sheep and that I preferred my own company. As an afterthought, I added that I was practising zikhr meditation, and found his presence intrusive.
For several hours I journeyed by myself, following the boot marks in the dust, now and then glimpsing the horses and mules which were taking a different route on the other side of the valley. In the late afternoon I reached the brow of a hill overlooking a dusty plain. Several men from the group, including the idiot hanger-on, were sprawled on either side of the path examining each other’s weapons. I perched myself on a rock, and was enjoying the view when I heard a burst of sniggering. Turning round I found the barrel of an anti-tank rocket launcher aimed in my direction by the idiot. One of the men was explaining the firing mechanism. As tactfully as possible I told them that in England pointing an anti-tank rocket at a person’s head was bi’adab and would be seen as a serious breach of etiquette.
They talked about the merits of their weapons, but I had seen and heard enough about their guns, the topic bored me and I took no part in the conversation. Disgruntled, I began to write my diary and later, when they set off, I ungraciously refused their invitation to keep pace with them.
I was the last to arrive at the camp that night and the group was already gathered around Nazim Khan listening to his description of the following day’s itinerary. He beckoned me to sit beside him. The next moment there was an almighty bang and a slap of hot air hit me in the face. Six feet away, an anti-tank rocket had exploded. The launcher was propped on the ground, still pointing in my direction – the rocket had missed me by inches. By the time anyone realized what had happened, the rocket had detonated harmlessly in the hillside a quarter of a mile away.
There was a stunned silence. Then everyone began shouting at a man with a smoke-blackened face – Sediq. The thought that I had almost had my head blown off was curiously finite. I felt nothing and went off to look for some corn plasters. As I was loosening the cords of my pack a mujahed with a disarmingly simian face wandered up to me.
‘Allah fazl,’ he murmured. ‘God is excellent.’
Our accommodation for the night was a long, low building. Before the war it had been a roadhouse; now it was a staging post for groups of mujahedin passing through. Inside, there were posters of Ayatollah Khomeini, flanked by the charred flags of the United States and the Soviet Union. Supper was dull but plentiful, provided by some taciturn men who seemed quite inoffensive, although the Professor described them in a whisper as friends of the unsavoury Hesb Nasr.
I stretched out for the night beside two brothers who had been working in Iran for a year. They were full of praise for Ayatollah Khomeini and the government of Iran. Both brothers had saved a lot of money and were on their way to their wives and families in the north. They were simple, likeable fellows. Their main topic of conversation was the colour of tea. One preferred black tea, Iranian style, chai siah’, the other liked green tea, chai sabz. Throughout the journey, at almost every chaikhane, they would wink at me, raising their different glasses of tea, and shout the respective colours with enthusiasm.
At daybreak we marched out under a silver-blue sky. The road wound up into another range of mountains following the meandering course of a river. Throughout the morning a bearded youth kept pace with me.
He was a tailor’s son from Nahrin and had just spent a year in Peshawar; an experience which had greatly inflated his sense of self-importance. He had a huge pouch of naswar and supplied me with generous pinches of the stuff as we walked along.
‘This is better than cigarettes. Too much smoke in your chest and you can’t climb the mountains. But with this’ – he shovelled another batch of naswar under his tongue – ‘your heart beats strongly and the mountains are easy.’
It was true. The miles seemed to roll by effortlessly and at midday we came to a squat, windowless inn at the foot of a pass. In the distance, between wisps of cloud, were mountain peaks capped with snow.
Through a low doorway, I could just make out Nazim Khan and several mujahedin plunging their hands into a large metal bowl. They called out to me to join them. I was about to step into the meaty-smelling gloom when a battered vehicle rattled to a halt behind me. A vast head poked over the side of the truck: it was Rahim, one of the men in our group.
‘Come on, Abdul, climb aboard. It’ll save you a few miles walking.’
In an instant I had joined him on the roof and we were jolting along between hilly meadows; red-veiled women crouched in small groups, sickles in their hands, harvesting the corn, and little boys splashed in the shallows of a river. The truck drove into a stream running across the road, the engine shuddered spasmodically, and stopped.
Water was sluiced over the bonnet and there was a sinister hiss. Then the engine was switched on again; nothing happened, only a metallic cough and a brief poltergeist knocking. In front of us the road climbed towards the clouds at the top of the pass. The sky darkened and a few spots of rain fell. Anxiously, we hung over the sides of the truck and watched the driver extract unlikely looking bits of rubber and metal from the engine’s interior. It looked as if we would be there for some time. Rahim produced some naswar and together, under a sheet of tarpaulin, we lapsed into a companionable reverie of boredom.
An hour later we were moving again, gears grinding at every turn of the road, and after a lurching, swaying climb we reached the top of the pass and another range of mountains stretched out before us in the distance, paling into the horizon like shadowy veins of alabaster. Then the road rattled down into another sunlit valley, through carefully terraced fields of corn and barley, and at last we arrived at another hostelry which had been built into the overhang of a large cliff. The afternoon sun fell across the sloping ground in front of the crumbling adobe building and there were the rusting remains of a jeep and a truck in the corner of the inn yard. It was the end of the road; further on there was only a narrow track along the banks of a swiftly flowing torrent.
Inside the inn, we found several men sprawled out asleep beside the remains of a meal. On the walls were more posters of Khomeini, Rabbani and a large news-sheet displaying the photographs of the fifty or so local commanders of Jamiat Islami, together with their names and brief details of their lives. Many of them were in their early thirties. There was a range of physical types: Pathans, Uzbeks, Tajiks and others I could not identify. Some looked as if they had stepped from the pages of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, while others looked Mongolian. In one corner of the room there was a lurid picture of a mujahed bayonetting a Russian invader off the top of a mountain.
Just as dusk was falling the others arrived, footsore and weary. On the way they had heard the sounds of gunfire in the surrounding hills, presumably a skirmish between Hesb and Harakat factions who were in dispute over the valley’s administration. Rahim and I had been asleep for several hours and heard nothing. Looking at the exhaustion on the group’s faces I was glad I had taken the lift on the truck.
The evening meal included some pieces of meat and vegetables, and the men’s spirits revived. After eating, several people sang and I was called upon to give another rendering of ‘The British Grenadiers’. Next to me a man called Maulawi, who had joined us two days before, was in fine form, smiling and clapping his hands in time with the tune.
Later in the evening he introduced me to a friend of his called Yusuf.
‘And what do you think of Ayatollah Khomeini?’
I described the superficial view of him held by most people in the West and disassociated myself from it.
‘I admire and respect his desire to establish an Islamic society, but as an outsider I find it difficult to understand …’ My voice trailed away; I was on uncertain ground.
‘How could you? How could any Westerner, any non-Muslim understand’ – Yusuf was lost for words – ‘the true meaning of Ayatollah Khomeini’s message to the world? In Europe and America you think of the hostages, the war with Iraq, the political prisoners and executions. You forget your own history. How many people died as a result of the revolution in the Christian religion four hundred years ago?’
I thought hard for several seconds before I realized he was talking about the Reformation. I hadn’t expected this sort of conversation; it was unnerving.
‘Ayatollah Khomeini is a new force in the Third World. He is neither capitalist nor communist. He uses the language of religion to speak to the hearts of men. That is why he is so important. He is raising the consciousness of the Third World, not by political ideology or machines or money, but by the word of God.’
We talked about the war and his hopes for the future. The war was a test of Islam. Many people would die but, in the end, victory was certain. The struggle in Afghanistan was a battle between a dying political system and a living religion. The Russians were mad to think they could conquer a people who were under the protection of God; it was like a fly attacking an elephant.
As we talked I felt as if I had stepped through an invisible barrier into another dimension governed by fundamentally different laws, where the ordinary world that I had previously known and accepted had only marginal significance. Here, a man’s body was a shadow, death was a process of life and the only truth was the mystery of God’s purpose.
I said farewell to Yusuf and went out into the inn yard. The stars stretched across the shadows of the mountains and a horse whinnied softly in the darkness. A bright crescent of light shone in the night sky: the moon of Islam, a recurring symbol of the faith, utterly beyond the power of man to dislodge it from its place in heaven.
We left the inn before dawn, following the course of the river down through narrow gorges, hidden from the sun, with the chill of the night still clinging to the rocks. In places the torrent plunged into deep caverns, smoking with spray, to re-emerge in an explosion of white water. The thunderous drumming of the river reached an intensity that made conversation impossible as the noise snatched our words away, dashing them into the seething volume of water rushing past below us.
At one point, the path crossed a fast-flowing stream. A bridge of saplings with flat stones placed on top of them spanned the current and I watched a mule, laden with ammunition boxes, being led across it. The animal was nervous, and just as its front legs reached the other side, its hind legs missed their footing. It toppled into the swirling waters, almost pulling the driver in as well. Two men leaped to his assistance and grabbed the halter to take the strain, while another, cursing, jumped into the foam and started beating the mule like a madman. For a minute or so, it looked as if the ropes tying the mule’s load would have to be cut, and the ammunition lost, but somehow the creature was whipped and hauled on to the further bank with its burden intact. I crossed over and the driver showed me his hand: across the back of it and between his thumb and forefinger, a runnel of flesh had been torn away.
Further on we came to the steaming surface of a hot spring where several of us stripped to our underclothes and immersed ourselves in warm, rust-coloured water to wash away the grime of the past few days. By now the sun was almost overhead and its rays began to penetrate the cliff walls on either side of us. Thereafter the path left the river, and with the sound of the waterfall still thrumming in our heads we descended into a valley of yellow corn enclosed by fantastically coloured rock formations of deep purple and green. After the cool of the past few hours, it was like entering a furnace, and one of the drivers wove a garland of leaves around his head to protect it from the sun. At midday we arrived at a glade of poplars from where a truck would take us on to the next stage of the journey.
We clambered on and set off. The road followed a river which, as we descended, changed from a powdery blue torrent to a lazy brown meander. We stopped at several villages along the way. On each occasion Maulawi was welcomed with obvious affection by people who embraced him and kissed his hand. In the late afternoon we pulled into the ruins of a small town. It was a tableau of desolation. A month before it had been attacked by helicopter gunships and nearly all the drab, nineteenth-century stone buildings had been damaged or destroyed. A strong wind was sweeping through the street, raising a grey cloud of dust that covered people’s faces and turned them into expressionless masks with darting eyes. One of the townspeople invited me to have tea with him, and I listened to his description of the day when the helicopters came while we shelled pistachio nuts and his brother stroked the head of a tiny bird cupped in his fingers.
It was Maulawi’s last evening with us, for the next day he was returning to his own village. During the time we had travelled together I had come to like his cheerful good humour and the prospect of bidding him farewell saddened me. After an unappetizing bowl of rice garnished with a gnawed sheep’s vertebra, we talked about Persian poetry. Hafiz was a charming sensualist, Sa’adi was a man of wisdom, but as for Jalaluddin Balkhi Rumi! There was a true poet! One could read his poetry for a thousand years and still not reach the hidden depths of meaning.
Just as we were going to bed a party of Hesb Islami entered the town. Their arrival worried Nazim Khan, who gave me strict instructions not to leave the room where I was staying, and ordered two mujahedin to sleep one on either side of me, each armed with a pistol.
The following morning we loaded a truck with the guns and ammunition and climbed aboard. It was a sad contraption, falling apart with rust, and when the engine started it threatened to push its way through the disintegrating bonnet. The men were in good spirits for the worst of the journey was over. As we rumbled across the plain and into a series of winding gorges a mujahed beside me told me about his family in Nahrin.
Suddenly, a figure stepped into the middle of the road. The driver sounded the horn but, instead of moving aside, the man merely waved his hand motioning us to halt. Beside me Rahim fumbled with his rifle, but it was too late: as he did so a volley of gunshots exploded from the cliffs around us. We had driven into an ambush. I looked round. No one had been hit. Either our attackers were useless marksmen, or they were aiming away from us. After several seconds the firing subsided and the driver switched off the engine. For a moment there was utter silence.
The figure in the middle of the road unhitched a megaphone from his shoulder.
‘Nazim Khan! You are surrounded. If anyone touches a gun my men will fire, only next time they will kill. Do you understand?’
To emphasize the point another scatter of shots rang out.
‘Enough! I wish to speak with Nazim Khan.’
No one on the truck moved. Nazim Khan was sitting in the driver’s cab with Maulawi and the Professor. Cautiously we scanned our surroundings. In front and behind, guns pointed down at us from rocks and crevices in the cliffs. Thirty yards to our right, among a collection of boulders, slight movements were visible. On our left there was a wide sweep of open ground sloping down to a river. A high-pitched whine came from the megaphone.
‘Nazim Khan! I know you are there. Come out!’
The door of the cab remained firmly closed.
‘You refuse to come out, so we will come and get you.’
The figure with the megaphone beckoned two men from behind some rocks who walked slowly towards the truck. Behind me someone hissed: ‘Don’t shoot them. Wait and see what happens.’
One of the men banged on the door of the truck.
‘Nazim Khan! Which one is Nazim Khan?’
The door opened slowly and as Nazim Khan emerged the man pulled at his hair, flinging him to the ground.
The word hung in the air and we all avoided each other’s eyes. Nazim Khan scrambled to his feet and I glimpsed his face; it was as white as paper. The other man kicked him in the small of the back and he stumbled forwards. Half-turning, Nazim Khan shouted back over his shoulder to us: ‘Don’t shoot, for the love of Allah, don’t shoot. Don’t –’ A rifle butt slammed into the back of his head.
One of the men unfastened Nazim Khan’s pistol. Then, gripping his arms, they dragged him away and disappeared behind an outcrop of rocks at the bend in the road.
‘Get out of the lorry,’ said the megaphone.
We clambered down, some of the men with their guns still strapped to their shoulders.
‘Go to the side of the road and don’t move.’
A few of us edged away from the track, discreetly choosing the meagre protection of a low bank that would give us cover against any shooting from our right. The sun grew hotter.
I lit a cigarette. Another shot rang out above us. Our ambushers were nervous. I wondered whether I was looking at the scene before a massacre.
‘Put your guns in the truck.’
Reluctantly the men unshouldered their weapons and placed them in the back of the truck. There was a buzz of flies. Minutes passed and the sweat began to pour down our faces. Some men moved slowly to one side and squatted down to urinate. I did the same, taking the opportunity to check the lie of the land in case the shooting started. Run underneath the cliff, over the road and then across fifty yards of open ground to some rushes by the river’s edge; dive in and hold my breath – it was pretty hopeless. Having my head blown off on a dusty road in Afghanistan seemed a prosaic way to die.
There was no sign of Nazim Khan so the Professor and Maulawi set off towards the bend in the road holding a white length of turban above their heads. There were no warning shots and the men encircling us eased their positions, letting their heads show above the rocks.
Half an hour later Maulawi and the Professor reappeared with Nazim Khan and we smiled with relief. Something had been agreed; at least we would know what was happening.
A large bruise covered one side of Nazim Khan’s face, almost obscuring the eye; his lips were bloody. He spoke with difficulty. We had no choice but to surrender our arms. The leader of the ambush was called Kheir Mahomet, who was mad and wouldn’t listen to reason. The men were to stay behind while he, the Professor and Maulawi were taken with the guns and ammunition to Kheir Mahomet’s village. Nazim Khan turned in my direction: ‘You will come with us, Abdul!’
Several of our ambushers emerged and took charge of the lorry. Nazim Khan and Maulawi got into the driver’s cab while the Professor and I hoisted ourselves into the back. Then a strange thing happened: the five men who had been travelling with Maulawi nodded to our ambushers and they all climbed aboard together and began laughing and joking with our captors, turning over the Kalashnikovs, the rocket launchers and DSHKR guns like children with a collection of new toys. The truck lurched off leaving the rest of the group in a cloud of dust surrounded by men with guns. As we rattled along, I asked the man beside me what was going to be done with us; he said nothing – merely drew his hand across his throat and smiled.
Half an hour later the truck drew up, the arms were swiftly unloaded and our captors spirited them away into some trees at the side of the road. Nazim Khan disappeared in the company of Maulawi and his men and our captors drove off, leaving the Professor and me by the side of the road. My sense of unreality intensified when some old men appeared, greeted us courteously and invited us to accompany them for a glass of tea. We followed them through a field of ripening corn to a courtyard in the shade of a huge mulberry tree. A pot of steaming green tea and two warm nan loaves were placed before us while the elders of the village appeared in twos and threes.
A little later Nazim Khan and Maulawi emerged from a nearby building followed by the village chief who had organized the ambush. He seated himself at one end of a large carpet in the shade. Nazim Khan took his place at the other, sunlit end of the carpet while the rest of us arranged ourselves on either side, facing one another. Kheir Mahomet then spoke, saying how fortunate the village was; now they had guns they were safe and could defend themselves against the Shuravi. The arms were necessary and God had been generous in providing them. Sweat was pouring from his forehead and several times he seemed to lose the thread of what he was saying. I looked around at the faces of the old men. Only a few nodded their heads in agreement; most were grave and solemn. There were murmurings of the bad reputation that would befall the village.
Then Nazim Khan replied. The guns were for the jihad, for the people of Nahrin to defend themselves. He appealed to the elders: surely it was wrong for a Muslim to steal from his brother Muslim? The arms had been bought in Peshawar, then carried for ten days with great difficulty over rivers and mountains. Now all the efforts of the men were lost. For the love of Allah, where was the justice?
At this, the old men looked even graver, and several took Nazim Khan’s part to remonstrate with Kheir Mahomet. He smiled sardonically. The old men could think and say what they liked; the arms were staying with him. He rambled on with a malarial glitter in his eye: a spy had told him that some of the arms were destined for the lord of the neighbouring territory. He had already killed several of his men and if he received any more arms he would pose an even greater danger. Taking the arms was an act of self-defence. Further discussion was pointless; the arms remained with him. Brushing aside any other comments from the assembly, Kheir Mahomet walked away.
Our attention turned to the ambush. How had Kheir Mahomet known about the truck and the load of arms? Was it really just coincidence that Maulawi lived in the neighbouring village? And why had Maulawi’s men been allowed to keep their weapons? They protested their innocence, but the perfunctory way they expressed their regrets implied that they were not unduly troubled by the morning’s events. Had the smiling Maulawi secretly contacted Kheir Mahomet the previous evening? Had he, indeed, planned it all along, all the way from Peshawar? Nobody knew.
That evening Maulawi invited us to have supper at his mosque and then stay the night there. Before the meal he led the prayers for our group and afterwards he was brave or brazen enough to sleep among us. The back-breaking efforts of the past ten days wasted, the men in the group accepted the rice impassively. Their attitude reminded me of a passage in the Odyssey in which, after a swathe of men had been devoured by the Cyclops, the survivors sat down and ate a meal on the seashore. Then, when they had finished eating, they lay down and fell asleep. But the stoicism of their actions could not conceal the lines of exhaustion and disappointment in their faces. I was tired too, as if I’d been swimming against an invisible current all day, and I was glad to find oblivion in the cramped darkness with the rest of them.
It took us several more days to reach Nahrin, and I remember arriving only as a series of disconnected images.
A man with a hideously scarred face and a stump where his right arm should have been greeted us and embraced the Professor tenderly. I noticed what I thought were slices of watermelon placed on the shoulders of a horse, presumably to cool the skin where the ropes had chafed it, but when I looked closer I saw that it was an expanse of raw flesh. What had seemed like the black watermelon seeds were flies, feasting on yellow pus which frothed at the edges of the wound like a sherbet dip.
We came to a field of melons. The Uzbeki who was travelling with us suddenly ran to a brushwood shelter and emerged with a plump, middle-aged woman at his side, who was his mother. He shouted to the members of the group to wait while he gathered armfuls of the round, heavy fruit which he then tumbled at our feet. His mother stood at one side smiling with happiness that her son had returned safely, in such a state of excitement that her chadogh slipped repeatedly from her face.
In the late afternoon we entered one of the outlying villages of Nahrin and after wending our way through leafy, walled streets we arrived in the courtyard of a little mosque. One by one I said farewell to the members of the group. The two brothers who had worked in Iran shouted for the last time ‘Chai siah!’ ‘Chai sabz!’ Sediq gave me a fumbling handshake and looked away; Latif, who had taught me to pronounce the words ‘la illaha illa lahn’, embraced me and commended me to God. The Professor promised to contact me soon and Rahim vowed that he would buy me as many shish kebabs as I could eat when we met each other again. Amin’allah was staying with friends nearby and said that we would easily find each other.
The time I had spent in the men’s company and the distances we had travelled together had led to several deep but unspoken friendships. Now we were saying goodbye to one another. It seemed extraordinary that our lives should part so easily and suddenly. When they had gone I sat down by the side of a still, green pool and watched some children filling vessels of water. I was a stranger, an observer, an unnecessary mouth to feed. The others were returning to the welcome of their family and friends. I was alone.
An old man then emerged from the doorway of the mosque with a glass of chai and some dusty sweets which he placed on the ground beside me. He looked into my eyes, then gazed up at the sky and looked once again into my eyes. After a moment he nodded and smiled. The gentleness of his presence eased the heaviness from my heart, and I became more at peace.
Towards evening a man led me to the home of Abdul Haq, commander-in-chief of Nahrin and the surrounding area. Abdul Haq was away in the mountains and would not be back till the following day, but his second-in-command and a dozen fellow mujahedin were staying at the house. Lamps were lit and we seated ourselves under the portico, where plates of rice and lamb were brought for us. When the meal was over, pillows and cotton quilts were laid out and I lay back to sleep with the sound of cicadas susurrating in the moonlit garden.
I am inside one of the stalls in the bazaar. On the shelves are fist-sized crystals of salt, cubes of evil-looking soap the colour of congealed mutton fat, and boxes of state-manufactured matches and jars of naswar. I am drinking a glass of chai with the owner of the shop, Said Mansour.
‘It is getting harder to earn a living. Many things are two or three times the price they were before the war – that is, when I can get them – and then the people have no money to buy them. A few years ago the town was famous for its pistachio nuts; they were one of the main sources of the town’s income. Now production is less than half, the men are away fighting, and the nuts fall from the trees unharvested. We can do nothing. We cannot buy or sell in the larger towns because the state controls them. Without buying and selling in the towns it is impossible for places like Nahrin to carry on indefinitely. Money has to flow from the towns into the country like water into the fields. The Shuravi are trying to stop the flow so that the country will wither. Men say this is a war of religion, a war of politics, a war of freedom. Maybe so. But I say this is also a war of money. Everyone needs money; to buy flour or rice, medicine or kerosene. The Shuravi know that without money we cannot survive. They bomb us, but that is only to make their real objective happen sooner. What is their real objective? I will tell you: they want to turn us into beggars. Then, when we have nothing to eat, they will offer us a handful of grain and tell the world how kind they are. They will mend the irrigation channels which they destroyed and say how they improved the primitive agriculture of backward peasants. They think they can treat us like dogs, starving us and beating us until we obey them. What fools they are. Our Muslim brothers all over the world know what is being done to us. They will not forget this war.
‘Help from other countries? There was a time when I thought that Europe and America would help us. Several foreigners have visited the town since the war began. They stay for a week or so, take photographs of planes and smoke, and then they leave. I know that you can earn a lot of money from the pictures you have taken. But what will we receive? Nothing. Each time we ask such people for doctors and medicine, we wait and no doctors come. Only, perhaps, another journalist. Your people come and look at our suffering and sell it for money in their own countries.’
He asks how often there is news of Afghanistan in newspapers and on the television, and when I tell him he is crushed with disbelief. I try to explain how Afghanistan is a distant country and the war is just another item occupying far less than 1 per cent of world news coverage.
Dust Muhammad, the watchmaker, has two shirts. One is khaki-coloured, ex-army issue, given to him by a deserter from the State army; the other is of fine blue cotton embroidered with white silk. Today he is wearing the blue one. It reminds me of ones that used to flutter in multicoloured rows in Portobello Road, or hung from the shoulders of summer holiday holy men with shoulder bags full of mysticism at fifty dollars an ounce.
We are having breakfast together in one of the chaikhane by the bazaar or, to be more accurate, I am eating while Dust Muhammad watches me. He is poor and unwilling to accept hospitality which he cannot repay. There is a wireless playing in the background, the music is oddly familiar and suddenly I recognize the melody – ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles. For a moment, the emaciated young man with a wispy beard sitting in front of me could be the ghost of a traveller on the hippie trail to Kathmandu.
We have talked several times before, but this is the first time Dust Muhammad has mentioned that he was in prison. I ask him whether I may tape the conversation and he invites me back to his room, over the stables of the caravanserai.
It is completely bare except for a cotton quilt and blanket in a corner and a table and chair beside the door. The table is scattered with cogs, hairsprings, screws, bits of wire and shells of transistor radios that are beyond repair. He spreads the blanket on the earth floor and I switch on the tape recorder. To begin with, his voice is taut with nerves and he stumbles over the words.
‘At three o’clock in the morning, in the month of Mizan, I was on my way to the kargat of my brother mujahedin when the Soviet occupational forces surrounded the party of men I was with, and captured us. We were kept in Khanageh for two nights and tortured. Then eleven Russian armoured cars and a Russian jeep took us in chains to the airport at Khunduz. We spent another three months there under Russian torture. Then we were taken to the town of Khunduz where I was for another twenty-one months. I was hung by the ankles and tortured with electricity and put in a cell which was so small that I could barely stand up.
‘For eight months we were taken out of our cells three times a week and beaten and tortured. They questioned us about our weapons, and asked whether we had received them from America, but we answered “We fight you with our faith.” Our interrogators were Khad agents with two or three Russian supervisors. They even pulled the hairs from our beards.
‘In another part of the prison there were Muslim women: we could hear their voices. We had no books, no pens, no paper. I wanted very much to obtain a copy of the Koran. One day I noticed one of the guards: he looked a good man and I said to him, “You are a brother Muslim. Help me. Please bring me a copy of the Koran.” He said nothing but later brought me the book, which I kept hidden from the authorities. I learned it by heart.
‘After twenty-one months I was put to work on a building project inside the gaol. One afternoon, when there was no one looking, some of us tied our turbans together, lowered ourselves over the walls and escaped. From there I made my way to Nahrin and have been living here for a year.’
Dust Muhammad pauses for a moment.
Sure enough, there is a faint clatter in the distance.
‘Do you want to continue?’
Dust Muhammad’s voice is neutral but, even so, the question seems like a challenge and I have to restrain myself from responding like a schoolboy to a dare.
‘I don’t know, what do you want to do?’
‘I have almost finished. I would like to give a message to the people of your country.’
We agree to complete the tape. While he speaks, I feel a growing tension in my chest like waiting in line to buy a ticket at a station when the train is already on the platform. I look round the walls of the room, the low ceiling, the sunlight shafting down through the narrow window and know, with absolute certainty, that if there is a raid I have to be outside, under an open sky.
‘Tamam shod – it is finished.’
I thank him and, as I pack the tape recorder away, the sound of a jet becomes audible. I try not to appear nervous but my hands and fingers fumble disobediently with the straps of my satchel. People are already running towards the hillside at the north of the town. Dust Muhammad is calm.
‘You must go, but I will remain here.’
I try to persuade him to come with me but he is unmoved.
‘Some places are safer than others, but nowhere is completely safe. I don’t mind. I’m used to it.’
I say goodbye and hurry downstairs into the street below, but my relief to be out of the cramped room vanishes with the realization that I have no idea where to go. I make for the garden with the mulberry tree.
The attack begins. The roller-coaster swing between fear and relief leads rapidly to a blankness of mind. An old man sitting next to me gazes expressionlessly at the ground. Each time there is an explosion he hunches his shoulders and, as the planes scream into the distance, he raises his head and his shoulders relax once more. One plane comes in. The old man and I wait: we are both afraid of dying. There is a thunderous bang and the old man dips his head down further. But the sound of the explosion means we are both alive. Our neighbour’s death is not our own.
The sound of the jets grows fainter and I get up to take some photographs; a chorus of voices tells me to wait. I ignore them and set off up the hill to get a view of the town which is partially obscured by thick smudges of rust-coloured smoke. From nowhere there is a sudden, terrifying roar and I run for cover, almost falling on top of someone huddled in a foxhole. I tumble in beside a young man and a few seconds later the bombs start falling again. From where I am I can watch the planes coming in over the ridge on their bombing runs, very low, no more than a couple of hundred feet. The explosions seem to be getting closer, and irrationally I imagine they are working methodically across the town towards where we are. A jet sweeps over the crest of the hill, less than a hundred yards away, and I watch two bombs falling diagonally from it. Then the stunning unreality of what is happening disintegrates in a massive double drumbeat which shakes the ground around us and another cloud of smoke rises above the trees.
The boy pulls at my shirt and shouts something: he is shuddering and gasping with fear and his words are unintelligible. I hear the word ‘Allah’ several times. Asking him something is like talking to a man pulled from a frozen lake. He jabs at the sky with his hand and buries his face in the earth again. Then, on the hillside above us, there is a burst of heavy gunfire; I curse at the invisible fool whose pointless heroics are almost certain to draw more bombing or rocket attacks in our direction. The gunfire goes on in bursts for several minutes, then finishes as abruptly as it began. From the edge of the foxhole I see a helicopter wheeling away. There is no sign of anyone else on the hillside and it takes several seconds for me to grasp that I have been cursing a helicopter gunship attack.
People begin to stir. The first to move are shouted back by those who are still under cover, but others follow them and emerge into the streets. A young man runs up to me.
‘Come, come, there are shahid.’
I follow him without enthusiasm. We hurry through a maze of mud-walled streets and come to a mound of rubble across our path. Coming in the opposite direction a group of men is carrying a bed on which there is the inert form of a twelve-year-old boy. The blast has caught him below the waist; he is covered with dust and one of his feet is missing. My camera is ready. I check the light meter, adjust the focus and press the button. I am surprised by the methodical way I react, as if the mechanics of recording the reality were more important than the subject matter. Perhaps by taking a photograph I diminish the horror, hiding my eyes behind the camera. But only a moment is captured. The boy’s suffering is not confined to the photograph. I have only one roll of film, and as the boy rocks and sways on the shoulders of the men and is borne out of sight, I take two photographs.
‘Come this way,’ says my guide and, forcing myself not to think, I plod after him, my mind still juddering from the compression of time into seconds. What do the Soviet pilots think as they ‘press the fire control button’? Is there the same absence of emotion which I seek as I press the button of the camera? Do we both, for an instant, lose our humanity in machines?
There is a sound of crying, of a woman in high-pitched grief. The next moment a boy of five, wearing a turquoise-blue shirt that comes down to his bare knees, races out of a doorway in tears. He might just have been bullied by a friend, or smacked by his father. Two old men are standing in the middle of the street and one of them calls out to the tearful boy: ‘Child, is your mother lost?’
The little boy stops running in mid-stride and stands there with his mouth open in a wordless cry. The nearest old man turns to his companion. ‘His mother is lost.’
The words have no visible effect on the man’s lined face: he gazes into space. The little boy has disappeared.
‘Follow me over here,’ calls my guide and we step across a carpet of leaves and torn-off branches into the garden of a house. A small crowd has gathered round four bodies stretched out in the blasted remains of a melon patch, the heads and torsos covered with blankets. The feet are splayed slightly, like those of someone napping on the lawn under a newspaper on a hot Sunday afternoon. The legs are dusty and streaked with blood.
Some men are carefully placing the bodies on charpoys. I take two photographs: one of the men covering the bodies with blankets, another of someone’s grieving face. I always wondered what sort of people took such photographs. My guide is waiting for me and we set off again. Just then there is the sound of helicopters and people begin running for open spaces, away from the houses. Someone shouts, ‘Don’t all go to the same place. Spread out,’ and the young man and I lie down in a dry irrigation channel. But the helicopters only circle for a few minutes and then swerve away into the distance. Perhaps they are also taking photographs of the damage.
We walk across a field of baked earth and my guide tells me that he is the sole survivor of a family of seven, all killed in previous raids. He is not yet twenty.
In the sparse shade of a bush, there is a man lying on a charpoy. Half his leg has been blown off. Under a film of yellow dust and sweat his face is very pale. An old woman sits beside him and makes ineffectual efforts to cover her face with her chadogh as we approach. The man greets me courteously.
‘Jan e jour, khoub hasti, kheir amadi. How are you, are you well, welcome.’
I ask him whether I may take his photograph. His face is open and smiling.
‘Of course, I don’t mind. Please, take as many as you wish.’
Once again I am surprised by my attention to focus, foreshortening and shutter speed. I take two photographs. I thank him and he says something in reply, but he is unnaturally talkative and I cannot understand. I guess that at the moment he is in shock and not in too much pain. I manage to find a few crumbling Norvegin tablets at the bottom of my satchel which I tell him to take when the pain begins. Norvegin is about the same strength as aspirin. I reach out to say goodbye and the blood on his hand and arm has dried in patches on his skin like an obscure map. ‘Khoda hafiz’, we say to one another, ‘Khoda hafiz’. As I walk away the old woman bends forward and helps him to drink from a glass of green tea in her hand.
Later I met Abdul Haq at last, and a handful of mujahedin. They asked me how many people had been killed in the bombing. I told them of the dead and wounded that I had seen. They asked me to describe the location of the damaged house, and even as I answered I realized the gulf that lay between us: the corpses I had seen were mere forms, covered in dust and blood, but they had been friends and neighbours of the men in front of me.
We waited in the shade of a tree for the sun to set behind the mountains. A mujahed with a sandy beard and humorous grey-green eyes, who introduced himself as a geography teacher, told me of his attitude towards death.
‘For me it is not important. It is qismet – my portion of destiny – or taqdir. I do not fear death, for it is already decided. I do not know the place or time, but God knows. That is why I am not afraid, because it is God’s will.’
I told him that the people of Europe and America admired the bravery of the mujahedin.
‘Wouldn’t they fight like us if the Shuravi invaded?’
‘Perhaps it would be a different kind of war.’
While we were talking Abdul Haq’s eyes were continually scanning the hills on the other side of the river. But he missed nothing of the conversation and explained that when people were killed their relatives were strengthened by the belief that the souls of the shahid would, without a shadow of doubt, enter Paradise.
As the sun disappeared into the mountains, Abdul Haq judged it safe to re-enter the town.
Later we sat together by the light of a kerosene lamp. Three golden lights came swaying towards us along the road and some shepherds, two men and a boy, appeared like refugees from another time to ask for payment for supplying meat to the mujahedin. A meteorite grazed the darkness like a stone cast across the frozen surface of a deep lake. It was time to say my final farewells, for the next morning it had been arranged for me to start the return journey through the Panjshir and Nuristan to Pakistan.
1 Peregrine Hodson’s companions found his name difficult to pronounce; he was therefore given the name ‘Abdul’.