Slipping into Afghanistan: turbans help
Peshawar, Pakistan — The policeman at the Pakistani government checkpoint climbed aboard the elaborately decorated bus and scrutinized the passengers. They were mainly tribal Pushtu and Afghan refugees. Then he turned to the conductor, who muttered several words and pointed in my direction.
The policeman nodded and pushed his way toward my seat. As scores of curious eyes watched, I felt his hand fall brusquely on my shoulder and heard a flood of interrogatory Pushtu. I studiously ignored him, pretending to be asleep, and kept my European features hidden beneath my awkwardly tied turban as best I could.
As a foreigner, I was not permitted to enter Pakistan's rugged tribal agencies that border Afghanistan in the mountainous North-West Frontier Province without special permission. But like many other reporters in this part of Central Asia, I was trying to make my way into Afghanistan with the Mujahideen, the Afghan freedom fighters. As the Kabul regime is no longer issuing visas to Western journalists, one's only alternative is to slip across the frontier surreptitiously.
"We know that many of you reporters are crossing over into Afghanistan," a high government official confided to me. "We are just as keen to find out what is happening over there as you are. But quite obviously you can't expect us to roll out the red carpet. Not with 90,000 Russians on the other side of the Khyber Pass. That's the name of the game."
Thus, in preparation for a recent nine-day trip to Ningrahar Province in eastern Afghanistan, I had to play the game. This meant going down to the clothes bazaar in Peshawar and buying a brown pajama suit and a 15-foot turban in order to dress up as an Afghan. I hoped I would look genuine enough at a distance to avoid suspicion at the dozen or so police checkpoints that line the entry routes into most tribal agencies.
Like numerous other journalists, I had been caught on several previous occasions by vigilant policemen and sent back to Peshawar under armed escort. For those apprehended in the evening, it can mean spending the night in jail, as identification papers can be checked only during office hours. All that remains then is to try again.
But disguising oneself as an Afghan is not enough. A suitable guerrilla group must be found to take one across the mountains and, one hopes, back again.
To contact the six or seven major rebel groups headquartered in Peshawar is no problem. Six months ago, reporters were constantly tailed by Pakistani secret police as they discreetly met with rebel leaders. Now, with so many foreign journalists descending on Peshawar in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, any tonga (taxi) driver will take you straight to their guarded compounds.
In principle, the groups are eager to take journalists across. The more publicity, the better. Some have even begun charging journalists exorbitant sums for the honor of a five-day jaunt in "our liberated Afghanistan."
Organization, however, is another matter. Preparatory discussions can last for days if not weeks. Tea is brought, plans are made, and then a date is fixed. But then the dates are refixed and refixed again, adding to the frustration of taking dusty taxi rides to the bazaar on sweltering days to see how one's tour is coming on."
Old Afghan hands have learned to keep three or four groups on the burner. One then departs with the first that produces. But even that is not enough.
After several tantalizing false starts with bags all packed and checked out of the hotel, British photographer Peter Jouvenal and I were finally ready to leave for Parachinar in the Kurram tribal agency with one of the smaller Afghan political groups. From there, we were assured, we would be taken across the 10, 500-foot high Spin Ghar mountains into Afghanistan to visit one of their major Mujahideen bases.
Before leaving, a party official had warned us not to utter a word if questioned by Pakistani police during our journey into the tribal agency. "You are Turkic Afghans and don't speak any Pushtu or Persian," he said.
This was supposed to explain our European features. It did not seem to matter that Turkic Afghans, rarely seen in these parts, look more Mongolian than Anglo-Saxon. We were also told that in the event of our being arrested, the guide would do nothing to help us, as he could face imprisonment or a heavy fine for smuggling us into a tribal agency.
At six in the morning, we were waiting for our guide. He had not turned up by eight, so we took a taxi to the rebel headquarters, wearing our turbans and pajama suits. Our guide, who was sitting in the reception room, had come to fetch us, he said, but the doors of our rooms were shut.
Why hadn't he knocked, we asked. The young Afghan, a high school student from Kabul, stared at us increduously. "Why, because the door was closed," he said. We could only nod in what we assumed was an understanding manner.
In the bus, the rebel official's advice to remain silent appeared to work. In desperation, the policeman stopped trying to question me and pointed to a canvas shoulder bag containing a camera and a tape recorded that I had shoved under my seat. Resigning myself to a night at the local police station and another delay in my trip to Afghanistan, I revealed its contents. The policeman studied the camera closely, nodded gravely, and then to my astonishment, got off the bus.
Equally surprising, considering our unconvincing disguises, was that we managed to pass through the remaining checkpoints, and halted at the bustling Parachinar bus depot only 10 miles from the Afghan border. From there, our guide led us to the crowded compound of a converted hotel that was being used by a dozen rebel groups as their local field headquarters.
Fearing police informers and rivalry from other parties, our Afghan hosts made us lie low until armed partisan escorts arrived from the nearby refugee camps.
For nearly two days, we had to live behind the blanketed windows of the party office. This consisted of a single room with several beds. A filthy bathroom littered with decaying food served as a kitchen.
Through cracks in the wall, we could watch guerrillas from rival groups pile into waiting jeeps and trucks, adorned with fluttering green and white Islamic flags, and leave for the jihad, or holy war, across the mountains in Afghanistan.
Finally, eight rebel tribesmen, armed with Lee-Enfield .303 rifles, appeared and told us to get ready. Again wearing our turbans and pajama suits with our rucksacks hidden inside blankets so as not to attract attention, we were led to a waiting van. Crammed inside the back, we were driven to the last village at the base of the mountains that divide Pakistan and Afghanistan.
For the next nine days we trekked through mountains and deserts inside Afghanistan. Almost every day, sometimes at night, we hiked for more than 12 hours. Only reluctantly were we permitted brief rests.
When we finally slipped back into Pakistan racked with exhaustion and lack of nourishment, we were beyond caring whether we got arrested or not. Either way we would be brought back to Peshawar. Arrest could even be the faster route.
At one of the major tribal agency police checkpoints, a gruff police sergeant sauntered up to our van. "Where are you going?" he asked.
"You have been to Afghanistan?"
"Ah, then have a good trip back."
Unable to stop myself from laughing, I harbored the sneaky suspicion that this entire masquerade had been for nothing. Or perhaps someone still exercises a sense of humor amid the tragedy of the Afghan war and all its misery.