AFGHAN TREK; Traveling 850 miles on foot with guerrillas and Army deserters amid war
Hindu Kush mountains, Afghanistan — THE glow of a single lantern marked the Pakistani frontier post only a few hundred yards ahead. Letting our packhorses and Afghan drivers proceed without us, we left the main path and edged our way down the mountainside in pitch darkness to the river below.
Slipping and sliding among the rocks, we moved upstream for an hour until we judged ourselves well past the police. Then, with a bitingly cold wind blowing down from the 13,500-foot-high pass that leads into Afghanistan still a several-hours' trek away, we crept back to find the trail and wait for the horses.
Only two weeks earlier, the frontier constabulary of northern Pakistan's Chitral region had arrested us - a two-man British TV crew, our Afghan guide, and me - for trying to cross into Afghanistan clandestinely with a guerrilla caravan. At the police station in the main valley, a bereted officer sporting a swagger stick informed us that it was illegal to go within 15 miles of the border.
''Quite frankly, there is a nasty little war going on over there and we don't want you to get hurt,'' he added with a carefully cultivated air of colonial understatement.
There was more to it than that. While Afghans are more or less free to come and go, increased Soviet pressure appears to have induced authorities to clamp down on Western journalists seeking to report on the conflict.
It was only well after dawn when the animals, heavily loaded with food, camping supplies, and video equipment, finally arrived. The frontier guards, the drivers explained, had detained them at the post and allowed them to continue only after each had paid a ''passage fee'' of 1,000 afghanis, roughly $20. The Afghans, fearing that the Pakistanis would send a patrol to intercept us, urged us to hurry.
It had been a cold, hungry night. Keeping an eye out for the police, we hastily brewed some hot tea and porridge before continuing our laborious climb to the top.
By noon, we had reached the pass, one of more than 320 entry points that punctuate the 1,400-mile-long frontier with Afghanistan. Spread out before us, under an intensely blue sky, lay the Hindu Kush - an expanse as far as the eye could see of 20,000-foot-high, snow-capped peaks cloaked along the horizon in a mantle of clouds.
This was my sixth trip to Afghanistan for the Monitor since the Soviet invasion in December 1979. For nearly six weeks, I trekked some 850 miles by foot through the rugged northeast of this landlocked Central Asian nation.
The journey took me over at least a dozen major passes, all of them well above 10,000 ft., across desolate ice fields and crumbling moraines, through churning torrents and along ridges uncomfortably exposed to the artillery shells of nearby Soviet observation posts.
Were Afghanistan a country at peace, it would certainly rate as one of the world's most exciting and beautiful trekking regions. Yet when the going got rough, I found it hard to believe that some people pay to do this sort of thing.
Initially, TV crew members Peter Jouvenal and Julian Gearing, both experienced trekkers, and I had hoped to make a circuitous tour of resistance areas to the west of Kabul by crossing into Afghanistan from the south and going back into Pakistan from the north.
We also planned to travel with guerrilla groups from different political parties. This would not only enable us to determine how the war had affected conditions in at least seven or eight provinces but also to gauge field coordination among the internal resistance fronts.
But we abandoned this plan when reports began filtering through of Soviet-Afghan Army ambushes and aerial attacks on caravans along the southern route.
An Italian photographer was forced to return to Pakistan after only four days inside when a Soviet MIG jetfighter machine-gunned his horse. Several weeks later, French TV reporter Jacques Abouchar was captured by the Soviets on one of the southern trails. (He was later tried, sentenced, and released.) And as if that were not enough, journalists were also getting caught up in factional clashes among the mujahideen (holy warriors).
We opted for the more difficult, yet safer, northern route.
During the early days of the occupation, touring with the Afghan resistance usually meant strapping a rucksack to your back and relying on villagers or teashops for food and lodging. But Soviet military operations have taken their toll. Many areas have become wastelands.
Much of the local population has fled. Food has become scarce and expensive. The cost of animal transport, too, has more than tripled, and in some areas quadrupled, since 1982. Renting packhorses from Pakistan to the Panjshair Valley now costs nearly $500 compared to less than $200 in 1981.
Generally, we slept and cooked outside, but occasionally we stayed in the dingy wood and stone houses of villages. Chewing gum, flashlight batteries, cigarettes, sweets, and horseshoes were the extent of what could be found in the local shop, if there was one. We also had to watch for government informers and, in some cases, armed bandits, notably in the more remote highland areas.
Mohammed Shuaib, our bright young Panjshairi guide who was learning the ropes of TV technology, had his own amusing manner of throwing off suspicious Afghans.
''They're citizens of Casablanca heading to Mazari-Sharif to visit the mosque ,'' he would solemnly announce, telling them the name of a northern city hundreds of miles out of our way. I often wondered how Soviet intelligence interpreted reports of blond Europeans from Casablan-ca traveling with electronic cameras and solar chargers.
To carry in our supplies, we hired three horses in Pakistan. Once inside we occasionally picked up an extra animal to help us cross the more difficult passes. Besides our food - rice, oats, freeze-dried meals, powdered soups, canned goods, tea, sugar, and dried fruit - we also brought tents, sleeping bags , and bivouac sacks. Later, in the Panjshair Valley, we supplemented our diet with tins of Soviet rations left behind. In addition to our regular-sized backpacks which we painted in green, beige, and black camouflage, we each maintained a small rucksack with essential items in case we had to abandon our equipment and run.
Recalling lakes and rivers teeming with trout, we had bought a rod and tackle in Peshawar, Pakistan. Shuaib, who constantly tinkered with gadgets - taking the radio apart and reassembling it to see how it worked - enthusiastically adopted the rod. He would lope ahead of the guerrillas, always ready to fling a few casts into a stream. Despite his efforts, he never caught a fish.
Ironically, during the first five or six days, there was little to indicate that this was a country at war. Passing through Nooristan, a wild highland region forcibly converted to Islam less than a century ago, we saw only limited damage. Although numerous settlements were badly bombarded during the early stages of communist rule, much has been rebuilt. From the Soviet military point of view, the area seems to have been put on the back burner.
The Nooristanis have gone so far as to establish their own ''Islamic state of Afghanistan.'' With its influence barely extending beyond several valleys, the ''state'' appears to be little more than an excuse to create an elaborate, self-serving bureaucracy. It is proving to be far more of an irritant to the Afghan resistance than to the Soviets.
Guerrillas from others parts of the country are required to purchase green Islamic ''passports'' from the ''foreign ministry'' in Chitral before being allowed to traverse the region, which they must do in order to supply the northern provinces. The Nooristanis regularly confiscate weapons as a form of taxation from returning mujahideen not affiliated with the ''state.''
Western journalists, too, have run into problems. Shortly after we went through last summer, a visiting French TV team was charged $2,000 for the right of passage. They were held for 10 days and obliged to leave their passports behind as collateral.
Although Nooristan is no longer ravaged by war, the region serves as a major caravan route for refugees and guerrilla supply convoys alike. The northern routes are often clogged with human traffic for hours on end, causing some observers to wonder how long it will take before the Soviets again start turning their attention to this area.
Hardly a day went by without our seeing scattered groups of refugees, some with as many as 500 people. Their meager belongings crammed on the backs of horses, donkeys, and camels, most were fleeing Soviet bombardments and severe food shortages in the provinces bordering Soviet Central Asia. Some were even driving large herds of sheep and goats, taking as long as three months to graze and lead them over the mountains to the border.
We encountered other types of caravans, too. Long trains of horses headed for Pakistan loaded with emeralds and lapis lazuli from resistance-operated mines to the north. Once in Pakistan, the stone merchants would sell their produce, handing over a 15 percent tax to the guerrillas, and the horses would then return packed with guns, ammunition, medication, food, and other supplies.
The deeper we penetrated into Afghanistan, the more apparent the war became. Filming as we went, we tried to record some of the hardships of its people. All too often, I encountered old friends whose warm hospitality I had once enjoyed when they still had homes. Now all they could offer was tea, bread, and perhaps a plate of sugar or sweets spread out on a blanket.
''It saddens me to receive you like this,'' said Adbyl Ghafor Jaqobi, a poet and former Radio Kabul announcer from Parian in the upper Panjshair whose house I last visited in 1981. He was leading a group of 11 families to safety in Pakistan. ''When I have done this,'' he added, ''I shall return to continue fighting.''
Although the trek was arduous - we sometimes walked well into the night, occasionally until dawn - it was hardest on the animals. The passes were strewn with the corpses of fallen, or simply exhausted, horses and camels. The drivers would have to push and pull their animals to the summits, then hold onto their tails to guide them down the precipitous trails overlooking thousand-foot drops on the other side. When the dromedaries, totally out of place in these high mountain landscapes, faltered, they became a source of fresh meat.
Ordinarily, we tried to pitch camp before nightfall. This was the only way to ensure a hot meal and a reasonable night's sleep. Wherever we could, we bought fresh milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese from farmers grazing cows and goats high on the alp. But the sight of our tents always drew a crowd of mujahideen or local farmers who would contemplate our sleeping bags, cameras, and cooking methods as if we were Martians.
Approaching the Panjshair, we saw our first Soviet MIGs and Antonov reconnaissance planes. Whenever they approached, we would leave the main path and crouch down, a precaution few Afghans take. It was at this stage that Soviet MIG-27 ground attack fighters bombed a caravan of refugees near the Chamar Pass in August, killing at least 40 men, women, and children.
But there were other dangers, too: plastic ''butterfly'' mines. Dropped by helicopter in large metal canisters that explode on impact, scattering their contents, butterfly mines are designed to maim rather than kill.
One night, having lost our way, we tried to descend into a narrow valley to seek shelter in a shepherd's hovel or guerrilla base we expected to find at the bottom. The only light came from the stars and the occasional flare thrown up from a nearby Soviet observation post. Next morning we discovered that the entire region was littered with mines. Only a day later, an Afghan's foot was blown off when he stepped on a mine a few yards from where we were having lunch.
We remained near the Panjshair, two-thirds of which was occupied by Soviet and Afghan Army troops, for about 10 days. During this period, we toured guerrilla bases and villages among the numerous side valleys and mountains where thousands of people had sought refuge. Much of the Panjshair itself had been devastated by Soviet bombs and ground operations.
Leaving Peter, Julian, and Shuaib behind to continue filming, I decided to return to Pakistan as a safety precaution with already-shot film. The southern route was still considered too dangerous, so I took another trail leading to the Kunar Valley. As travel companions, I had a young man on his way to Saudi Arabia to work in order to support his family, and five Afghan Army deserters hoping to return home.
The trail proved too difficult for our horses - I had hired fresh ones in the Panjshair - so we had to leave them behind after several days.
Not that it mattered, because the Afghans were a good-humored bunch and the route was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. As the deserters had no money, I ended up taking care of them right up to Peshawar by buying them flour to make bread and an occasional sheep for fresh meat. In return, they helped carry my equipment.
But it was also a sad trip. For until this ugly conflict is ended, these people will have no future.