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.''Skip to next paragraph
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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.