Al Qaeda's mule trail to Pakistan

Upper Pachir is unlike most Afghan villages. Several of the males are plump, and the children look healthy - in contrast to the people just up the road, toward Jalalabad.

Until about a week ago, many of the villagers in Upper Pachir say they were on Al Qaeda's payroll. Some of them worked with sophisticated rock-cutting equipment to carve out caves and tunnels. More recently, some of them say they were instrumental in aiding several hundred Al Qaeda members escape the nightly barrage of US bombing. They helped them slip down on mule back into the Afghan lowlands and move into Pakistan.

A village headman arranged for four mules to ferry our party up the mountain, retracing the smuggling route used by Al Qaeda fighters and their families. Villagers and Al Qaeda operatives say some 600 Al Qaeda members have been smuggled through this mountain trail over the past four weeks.

Our trek began in Upper Pachir - the same village where, at a mud-brick "safe house," a Saudi financier explained last week to the Monitor how Osama bin Laden had, himself, chosen a slightly more difficult, but maybe less treacherous, exit out of Pakistan over the White Mountains and into the Parachinar area of Pakistan. The Saudi had been only one of dozens to pass through the home of a village leader, Makmud, a former Al Qaeda machinegunner, who was not available yesterday, but who other villagers say has helped many Al Qaeda members escape. But another village headman helped arrange our trek.

Marmine Khan, a young man, saddled up the four mules, which were adorned in bright bangles and colorful blankets.

With about 20 villagers running alongside, we crossed a small plain that fed into the parched hills that, while scarred and pitted by Russian and US bombs over the past 20 years, still held their timeless, undulating form.

The first village that we entered moving toward Tora Bora was Garikhil, which had been a stopping-off spot for the fleeing Al Qaeda fighters. It is also the same path that nearly 2,000 Al Qaeda members used to flee to Tora Bora from Jalalabad shortly before it fell. Mr. bin Laden, according to the Saudi financier, had arranged a meeting that night with members of the Ghilzi tribe, whose own villages straddle the Pakistani border.

Hundreds of abandoned trucks left behind by the Arabs in Garikhil have now been stripped by Afghan warlords. At the top of the village, a wooden home had been shattered by an airstrike. Small children played in the rubble as we passed.

'Underground railway'

As we dipped into another valley and climbed higher into the White Mountains, our guide, Marmine, explained that it was in the next village, Nasar, that Arabs hoping to escape the inferno of Tora Bora most often spent their first night in the "underground railway" out of Afghanistan.

"Of the 600 Arabs who escaped, most of them were men, though there were also 15 complete families, including their children," he said.

Marmine said he was fairly sure of the rough number of 600, because he and his fellow villagers regularly traveled into Tora Bora to get wood for their fires.

Nasar is only a mile or two from the hill that hosted the tents from where BBC, CNN, and other networks filmed the two-week siege of Tora Bora. The battle ended two days ago on a sour note with the discovery that bin Laden had already slipped away, along with hundreds of his Al Qaeda fighters.

After leaving Nasar, we entered the Tora Bora mountain redoubt, the preferred residence of bin Laden until about two weeks ago, according to the Saudi financier.

As we entered a narrow stream bed that cut into a vast gorge, we could see fighters loyal to Afghan warlord Hazrat Ali.

Our entourage of former Al Qaeda sympathizers hesitated to move forward, fearing the warlord's men. "They arrested 11 villagers yesterday and are still holding them hostage," said one of our escorts.

We left the mules and continued up the gorge on foot. Above us in the clear, blue sky was a white American reconnaissance aircraft. It buzzed, hovered, and then zipped off.

When our bodyguard spotted Ali's men coming toward us, he turned and ran down the mountain, only to explain later that he was afraid he would have been disarmed.

Within 30 minutes, we came out of the gorge and saw the first sign of the vast network of caves and bunkers that is known as Tora Bora. On a hillside, 12-year-old boys lifted 30-pound boxes of anti-aircraft shells and tossed them down the hill onto another pile of ammunition. There were tens of thousands of the boxes in two caves.

The caves had been the redoubt of a Sudanese Al Qaeda chief, who a month earlier had written us a note in Arabic welcoming us for an interview inside Tora Bora "at a place and time of our choosing." It was an invitation we had declined by explaining our own security concerns.

A few days after his last communication with us, the jovial Sudanese commander was killed by a US airstrike.

Today, a new "security chief," a young Afghan called Commander Nozubilla, reluctantly agreed to provide a "tour of the caves." He said we were the first journalists allowed to tour this site. But just across the ravine, we saw two trucks being used by US Special Forces, who have been combing the caves for evidence of Al Qaeda activities and the possible whereabouts of bin Laden.

Both of the caves we entered closely resembled the entrances to Pharaonic tombs in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Large entrances are carved into the hillside that lead into longer corridors, which in turn feed into smaller, rounded entrances.

Inside the caves

The booty inside was not nearly as interesting; only boxes upon boxes of Chinese anti-aircraft shells and Russian rockets. Discarded boxes of fruit juice and crackers were scattered among the ammunition.

"This was once a great base for Osama and Al Qaeda," said Mr. Nozubilla, who was apparently in charge of cleaning out the caves for Commander Ali.

"I'm afraid this is all I can show you, as bin Laden and his people burned most of their paperwork before they left," he added, a little disappointed.

We left to return down the slope that had served so well as an Al Qaeda escape route. One villager in our party was overheard asking another if they should "kidnap the infidel [me] and take his money."

"No," the other replied. "He might not have much and, besides, there is no Al Qaeda anymore to pay us for his scalp."

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