A brush with the Soviets in Panjshir
They emerged furtively from house doorways and behind garden walls. Throwing handfuls of dried nuts and boiled sweets at the passing men, the women and young girls murmured the traditional greeting: ''Mandaresh. May you not be tired.''
We had just spent the afternoon fording the Panjshir River, brown and heavily swollen with rain from the Hindu Kush mountains. The bridge normally used by the guerrillas several miles further upstream was under Soviet control so we had little choice but to cross where the current seemed least treacherous. But it was still strong enough to throw the horses off balance and the men, the water reaching their chests, could only traverse in small groups clutching each other by the wrist in a human chain to prevent being swept away.
With communist helicopter patrols droning over nearby Bagram, the largest Soviet air base in Afghanistan, and rolling dust clouds from tanks rising in the distant plain, it seemed totally absurd if not outright foolish to be doing this in broad daylight. Yet leaving the parched hills of Shomali behind and entering the sudden cool of the irrigated orchards and fields on the other side of the river, the women's gesture evoked such a touching sense of serenity that we momentarily forgot the war and even our drudging weariness. In the soft evening light as we marched beneath a magnificent albeit shrapnel-scarred avenue of mulberry and walnut trees, it suddenly felt extremely good to be alive.
The partisans, rifles slung over their shoulders, seemed uncharacteristically subdued. Only a scattered few were chatting loudly or singing popular resistance songs. For many their families and homes were only another day's march to the besieged Panjshir valley just beyond the mountain ridges. Two weeks earlier, Soviet-backed security forces had entered the region in force and ugly rumors of heavy bombardments and fighting abounded. Practically every man had lost at least one member of the family in the war so far and no doubt wondered what he would find.
Still, the mujahideen (holy warriors) were in high spirits. They were approaching their Panjshir, a valley of which they were extremely proud. Whenever the guerrillas spoke of their mountain homeland it was with an undeniable degree of smugness if not vanity. They were excellent resistance fighters and they knew it. So did many of the Afghans whom we encountered along the way.
We had been trekking for almost a week through mountainous pine forests and barren deserts. Unlike last year, when I had traveled overland to the Panjshir from Pakistan with a resistance caravan via a rugged secret northern route, we had chosen a much easier southern nomad trail.
My fourth trip into Afghanistan with the resistance since the Soviet invasion in December 1979, I was accompanying two volunteer French doctors and one nurse of the Paris-based Aide Medicale Internationale on the way to the valley to relieve two women doctors already there. Also on the trek was another American journalist, William Dowell, on assignment for ABC radio and Time magazine.
As usual, we had to enter Afghanistan clandestinely. Unofficially, the Pakistani government appears to have considerably loosened its restrictions on the movements of foreigners such as doctors and journalists between the two countries. One even senses a certain condonement, although for the sake of appearances the border police still prefer one to remain discreet in slipping across.
But the Afghans, old hands at smuggling, have turned the art of transporting supplies, doctors, and journalists into a sophisticated and highly organized operation. Dressed in requisite tribal garments - woolen hats, pajama suit and blanket - we were whisked through the tribal areas of Pakistan's northwest frontier in an ambulance normally reserved for injured fighters. Every time we approached a police checkpoint, the driver simply flicked on the siren bringing a respectful salute or wave from the armed guards as we shot past.
A newly arrived guerrilla commander who had walked to Pakistan in search of more arms, brought fresh news from the Panjshir ''front.''
''The Shirouvi (Soviets) have entered the valley with their tanks and helicopters,'' he said, ''but the mujahideen are fighting back hard.'' Several weeks earlier I had already received news of the impending communist offensive, the fifth against the Panjshir since the invasion. While still in Paris, a visiting Afghan guerrilla commander touring European capitals and the United States to garner support, told me that resistance sympathizers in Kabul had warned the Panjshiris that the Russians were intending to crush the mujahideen once and for all, and in particular, annihilate the valley's young leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud.
I was at first reluctant to return so soon to the Panjshir. I would have preferred to visit an entirely different part of the country.
Most of the villages through which we passed had been badly bombed and numerous inhabitants had fled to the refugee camps of Pakistan. But wherever you went, you saw signs of that incredible Afghan determination not to be beaten. In many villages small groups of men, women, and children had remained behind to cultivate the fields. Some of the houses were even being rebuilt.
It was a moving sight to walk through a village and find a farmer or young boy manning the local ''bazaar,'' often nothing more than a few packs of tea, cigarettes, chewing gum, batteries, and candy laid out on the ground. But it was also sad to behold these once thriving communities surrounded by beautiful fruit groves and irrigated fields reduced to virtual ghost towns.
The further inland we walked, the more helicopter patrols we encountered. We would hide among the bushes and rocks, but flying at several thousand feet, their patrols seemed a pointless exercise. We would have been almost impossible to detect.
Before reaching the Kabul River we passed three Afghan forts ostensibly protecting a series of power lines leading to the nation's capital. ''They are no problem,'' said a guerrilla. ''They're like mujahideen.'' As with many Afghan garrisons, the soldiers were doing their best to stay out of the conflict as much as possible and had arranged local nonaggression pacts with the resistance. Approaching one of the forts, we met several soldiers drawing water from a well. They smiled somewhat uncomfortably but we all shook hands. Several hundred yards away I could see bored soldiers playing ''kick the can'' in front of their miserable-looking barracks.
Throughout the trek I was repeatedly struck by the almost total lack of communist control. Reaching the Kabul River toward midnight, we had to remain silent because of two Russian outposts guarding the main Kabul-Jalalabad highway which runs alongside much of the river. The guerrillas waited until an all-clear signal was flashed before moving forward.
It was sometimes difficult to remember that this was a country at war.
It was, however, the almost complete lack of concern among many of the guerrillas that tended to unnerve us the most, particularly when they marched at night singing loudly or playing radios blaring popular music from Radio Kabul. They would only laugh when we reminded them that Russians might be nearby. ''The Shirouvi never come here,'' they would simply say.
They also demonstrated a disconcerting lack of precaution when handling weapons and explosives. Loaded assault rifles were carelessly plopped against trees or mines and mortar rounds stacked in the corners of chaikhanas (tea houses). But the most uncomfortable moment came when a guerrilla, to prove that a 500-pound Russian bomb had not exploded, gave it a hefty kick and burst into raucous laughter when he noticed our barely discouraged fright.
When we finally reached the Panjshir Valley we found it to be crawling with Soviet and Afghan troops. The first night we spent in a small side valley only several hundred yards from the nearest Russian position. Every morning, shortly before dawn, we were woken by the throbbing of the first helicopter gunships. But the aircraft were not interested in our village and the sound of heavy bombardments further up the main valley would drift down to us. We could also occasionally hear the whooshes from the highly destructive BM-21 rocket launchers, otherwise known as ''Stalin organs,'' which were positioned only one kilometer away.
The Panjshiris were constantly expecting the Russians to leave at any moment. But when we climbed a nearby mountain overlooking the towns of Khonis and Onawa, it became quite evident that the security forces would be around for some time yet. From a guerrilla observation post hidden among the rocks along the ridge, we had a bird's-eye view of armored columns moving up and down the single dirt road in the valley.
We briefly managed to join up with the two French women doctors who had spent the winter in the valley. But as soon as the first Soviet heliborne troops landed on May 17, they had been forced to move to the safety of a nearby side valley. But even there, they were mercilessly bombed and only narrowly escaped a direct hit. The guerrillas eventually moved them to a small cave hidden high up in the mountains.
The Russians, however, seemed determined to capture the doctors. Panjshiris caught up in the communist sweep were immediately asked about their whereabouts. Tracts dropped by air also refer to them in derogatory terms. When government troops found their belongings, including identity papers left behind during their hurried departure, Western diplomats in Kabul were told that four doctors and two Western journalists (a British photographer and myself) had been captured.
Massoud, fearing for the security of the doctors (it would also have been a tremendous propaganda coup for the government to capture them), ordered them to return at once to Pakistan. Staying on for three more days, Dowell and I tried to reach the young Panjshiri commander who was reportedly esconced on the other side of the main valley and under constant aerial attack. But it was too dangerous to risk the crossing, even at night.
We climbed several more mountains in our bid to find a break in the communist lines but to no avail. We also attempted to reach a side valley where the guerrillas were apparently holding 17 captured Russian troops. Yet when we reached the 16,000-foot high peak overlooking the valley, the partisans guarding the ridge told us that Soviet soldiers had just broken in. Never before had the security forces stayed so long. Unable to see Massoud or even enter the main valley itself, we decided to return to Pakistan. At this time of writing most of the Soviet troops have reportedly withdrawn leaving detachments of Afghan soldiers backed by Russian units behind. According to latest reports, the mujahideen have already launched a series of counter-offensives not only against the valley but also nearby areas.