They say there are only good drivers in Afghanistan: all the bad ones are lying at the bottom of mountain gorges.
For lack of choice, road transport was the most popular means of travel among journalists who worked in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, despite all the dangers involved: some of our colleagues were killed on the road, quite a few were robbed. The key to survival was in choosing the right driver, the right vehicle, and the right tactics of travel. As to the latter, I preferred to move from Point A to Point B in an inconspicuous car without accompanying vehicles in the belief large convoys attracted the attention of potential attackers who were after “rich” journalists. It was also important to have special passes, or maktub, that helped alleviate problems when passing through numerous checkpoints. Along with friendly exchanges of greetings and smiles and occasionally purely symbolic bakshish, these passes, signed by “important” officials, impressed war-weary soldiers, many of whom, I suspect, could not even read. The catch was not to show a maktub signed by one warlord when entering the territory controlled by his rival.
The first driver who worked with my colleague and me during our September-October 2001 assignment was called Mullah. His real name was longer, but we shortened it a bit to make it easier to pronounce. The nickname also reflected his religious zeal. A native of the Panjsher Valley, Mullah stopped his clunky twenty-year-old Soviet-made Volga sedan at specified times of the day to pray, which was a nuisance, of course, but we respected his faith. He also was a good family man, giving all the cash we paid for his services to his wife, which appeared to be the usual practice in Afghanistan. I asked Mullah if he ever kept some of the money in his “secret” pocket for his personal needs, which would be normal in most other societies. He understood what I meant, but said “no”. I believed him.
The Volga, still produced in Russia although motorists have since long dismissed it as a pre-historic vehicle, proved to be reliable in Afghanistan’s extreme conditions.
The only road in the Panjsher Valley was very dangerous – not because of robbers, but because it was narrow, just enough for one car, and because of rocks that kept falling from mountain slopes. Occasionally, the rocks hit vehicles; invariably, they blocked traffic for hours.
Once a group of journalists nearly fell into the ravine when their car overturned on the Panjsher road. The group included Alan, a reporter with a leading financial publication, who thus lost all his gear and had to look for a new laptop computer, the most essential tool of his trade, at a local bazaar. He succeeded in finding for a mere fifty dollars a pretty used-up notebook, which happened to contain Al-Qaida’s database, so Alan, being a true patriot, handed the computer over to a proper authority and had to continue to scribble notes on plain paper.
In October 2001, upon completing our tour of duty in Afghanistan, two of my colleagues and myself embarked on the most difficult journey home. The distance between Jabal os-Saraj, Parvan Province, and Feyzabad in Badakhshan was a mere 300 kilometers, but it took us four days to cover it, plus another day of riding from Feyzabad to Dasht-I-Qala on the border with Tajikistan, the final stopover on the way home for most journalists. Our driver was a definitely good one since he had survived Afghan roads for the past twenty years. His name was Fidah, pronounced as Fido, which inspired some hope. He also had a loyal assistant, or klinar, from the English word “cleaner,” who helped him on the road with many chores, like adding water to the ancient Toyota’s leaking radiator from every pond and river on the way, which was one of the reasons the journey was so long. Sometimes we wished we never started the safar, but there was no way back. And no cars back either.
Our Toyota pickup broke down in the first half hour after we struck a deal. Not to worry, Fidah said, “It’s only a cardan shaft.” Crestfallen, we entered a local restaurant to drink tea and ponder on our unenviable fate. Fidah was an entrepreneurial guy: apart from three reporters in the cab, he had several more passengers traveling “second class” with our gear on the loading platform. One of the passengers was an antiques dealer who met in the restaurant a man whom he owned some money and the two started a fight. Our dealer knocked his opponent down, but our spirits dropped even further. With such travel companions and a few thousand dollars in our wallets, we certainly risked our lives, as people were killed in Afghanistan for much, much less.
I was traveling with Sasha the cameraman and Khurshet, a Tajik reporter and translator from Dushanbe. Both had been extremely enthusiastic about the trip, but now their mood changed. I was masochistically pleased with the goings-on. But before we even finished our tea, Fidah came up to say the car was ready. I felt cheated. We didn’t even have time to inspect the shopping strip on the main street – I just managed to click my camera once.
Saying we hit the road would be an exaggeration. There was no road to hit. Sometimes we rode along river beds, crossing dilapidated bridges, and giving way to huge trucks with Northern Alliance soldiers and arms shipments.
Russian-made KAMAZ and Ural trucks were the only heavy-duty vehicles that were able to withstand Afghan roads or lack thereof, for which they justly deserved the superlative “super” that was painted on almost every truck we met on the way.
The worst experience was spending a cold night in what looked like a cow shed at the height of 5,000 meters above sea level. Of course, we had warm sleeping bags, but we had to share a straw-covered mud floor with a dozen of other travelers. That was some company. There was a man who looked like a highway robber; there was a man with two portable satphone handsets – all that in the middle of nowhere. There were others, equally weird and therefore potentially dangerous. There were no women. Fidah stayed with us, but his klinar spent the night in the car to guard our equipment. We hardly slept at all, and when the day finally broke, we were happy to get back into our Toyota.
Two-thirds into our safar, we met quite a few foreign reporters traveling in the opposite direction. They complained there were no more helicopter trips from Tajikistan, so a road journey was the only remaining option to get into Afghanistan. One of our colleagues, who bragged about the awful roads they had conquered, condescendingly tapped me on the shoulder, saying the worst was still to come. I knew he was wrong: he and his colleagues were about to begin the worst part of the trip. Later, in Moscow, he admitted his mistake.
Later that some day we arrived in Feyzabad. After spending the night in a foreign office hotel, which was another misnomer, we rode to Dasht-i-Qala, a small town close to the long-awaited ferry crossing into Tajikistan. Russian border guards refused to allow us to cross the border in darkness for security reasons, so we had to spend another night in Afghanistan.
Nothing doing, we ate the traditional lamb and liver kebab cooked over the coals by a friendly chef and went to sleep on a wooden boarding in what passed for a hotel in Dasht-i-Qala. But we were happy: tomorrow we will be out.
I returned to Afghanistan the following month.
In November 2001, an Afghan helicopter took us across the Tajik-Afghan border into Khoj. A bustling hub of international journalists just a month ago, Khoj was almost deserted. Satellite dishes and live positions were all gone as the focus of interest shifted to other areas.
We hired a car to go to Taloqan, Takhar Province, to cover the siege of the Taliban-held city of Kunduz, Kunduz Province, by the Northern Alliance army.
The landscape was different, with fewer and lower mountains. Slushy roads reminded of Chechnya, notorious for its sticky mud that turned even women’s tiny shoes into elephant-size boots.
Most towns in Takhar and Kunduz provinces were ravaged by incessant fighting. Translator Abdul Bashir, whose knowledge of Russian was rather limited so it was hard to guess what he meant, said the ruins in one of the towns that we passed by every time we went to the front line near Kunduz (in the photograph above) were once houses of the “bad people.” The town was apparently destroyed by the Soviet army in revenge for attacks by local residents, hence the reference to the “bad people” on the part of Abdul Bashir, a Soviet and Russian sympathizer.
During my third trip to Afghanistan in February 2002, the only major travel I undertook was from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul, which was about ten hours long.
As much as Afghans hated the Soviet army, they praised what the Shuravi did for the economy. That included the famous three-kilometer Salang tunnel, cut through a mountain at 3,300 meters above sea level in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the tunnel was heavily used as a supply route for the Soviet occupation army. In 1997, the tunnel was blown up on orders of Ahmad Shah Massoud to prevent the Taliban from entering the Panjsher Valley. The Russians restored the tunnel in early 2002.
The restoration of the tunnel made travel between Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul via the Salang Pass quite simple.
Apart from a few stops caused by traffic jams on the slippery road outside, we passed the Salang tunnel without problems, unlike our colleagues who undertook the trip a week before and got stuck inside the tunnel for many hours as heavy snowfall blocked the entrances.
During one of the stops, I walked out to see what caused the jam. It was a heavily loaded truck, its right-side wheels completely off the road. Engineer Imran and I had a bet on whether the truck would fall into the ravine. I lost ten dollars – guess what I was betting on – and we continued our uneventful trip to Kabul.
In the Salang Pass area, there is a small stone memorial to the unknown klinar. The driver’s assistant sacrificed his life to prevent a car with passengers from sliding down into the gorge. The courageous man jumped under the wheels and stopped the vehicle.
When the Americans and their allies cleared mines and restored tarmac at airfields in Kabul and other big cities, journalists started looking for opportunities to take free rides on military transport planes from the anti-terrorist coalition’s new bases in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. If you were lucky, you were able to fly where you wanted in the relative comfort and safety of military planes, as opposed to the risky business of flying in dilapidated Afghan helicopters or riding in equally dilapidated cars. But there was never any guarantee planes will fly where you needed within the period of time you needed.
The military didn’t have these problems, of course. In Kabul, the civilian airport accepted heavy transports from France, Turkey, the United States, and other countries which took part in the fight against the Taliban. The Soviet-built airbase of Bagram was another popular destination for international military contingents.
Non-Taliban Afghans appear to subscribe to a light edition of Islam, nonetheless, they consider it a must to visit Mecca and Medina at least once in a lifetime, despite the high cost of travel to the holy places. It was not that easy to meet this need for the cash-strapped country whose airborne fleet consisted at that time of just a few operational planes. Government officials, of course, didn’t have problems with flying for business or personal needs. In late February 2002, angry Hajj pilgrims killed Afghanistan’s minister of civil aviation and tourism as he was boarding a plane to take him to his wife in India, while they had to wait for days to fly to the holy land. The method they used was rather brutal – the minister was pulled down from the plane and strangled – but it worked: the interim Afghan government and its new Western allies immediately provided free charter flights to take the faithful to Saudi Arabia. Some people who took part in the violent act were arrested, but most of the attackers flew freely to Mecca where they undoubtedly sought forgiveness for the slaying of their fellow Muslim. Allah is indeed merciful and forgiving.