Five minutes after we crossed the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan, the mountains were rocked by heavy artillery fire, obviously intended for the bus. The driver, not unnaturally, stated his desire to return immediately to Pakistan, leaving us to walk along a road sprinkled with antipersonnel mines. I was still wearing bright red Afghan women's clothing, designed to get me past border checkposts with a group of mujahideen, Afghan resistance fighters.
We were on our way to a mujahideen military base in Jaji, Paktia Province, which had been the scene of heavy fighting. We arrived early last month in the midst of a Soviet offensive aimed at destroying the concealed mujahideen bases and sealing the vital border supply route that feeds strategic areas deep inside Afghanistan.
After about half an hour, the path opened up, offering no cover at all. We sheltered under a tree, waiting for a break in the shelling. A man rode up on a horse. He was holding the reins in one hand, the other was encased in a blood-soaked bandage: He had picked up an antipersonnel device used by Soviet forces to reduce mujahideen mobility. The green plastic mines are almost invisible in the grass, and easily maim the unsuspecting.
Time and training improve mujahideen capability
After more than seven years of opposing the Soviet invasion of December 1979, the Afghan people have come to regard ``jihad'' (holy war) almost as a way of life. The men at mujahideen bases are seldom older than 25; many were high school students when the Soviets invaded. The younger ones - sometimes as young as 14 or 15 - can remember little about life before the war.
Time has gradually improved the mujahideen's organizational ability and levels of weaponry. The command base of the group at Jaji, about two miles from communist positions at the peak of the fighting, is equipped with a Zigoyak antiaircraft machine gun. Now, however, the Zigoyak usually remains encased in its khaki tarpaulin. The mujahideen have a better weapon: a US-supplied Stinger missile launcher.
Two operators, trained in Pakistan to fire the antiaircraft missile, take turns eating, resting, and living beside it. At night they keep awake by calling Allah-ho Akbar (``God is great'') every hour.
The Stinger factor has made Soviet jets and aircraft a new kind of sport for the Afghans. ``Last week we got down a helicopter,'' said Saifullah, at 23 the younger operator. ``Now helicopters don't come to this part of the mountain anymore.'' He looked genuinely sorry, as if he missed them.
Stinger operators have been trained at what targets not to attempt to hit. At one point, Saifullah gazed with tears of anguish at a mountainside near the base that had been set ablaze by jets. But he defended himself when asked why he had not fired the Stinger. ``I wouldn't waste a rocket on a target like that,'' he said.
``The jets are flying too high and fast for the Stinger. It's difficult for us to hit them,'' explained the base commander. ``But [it's] almost impossible for them to bomb with accuracy either,'' he added.
The rest of the mujahideen take little notice of periodic jet attacks. In the evening they block the windows of the hut with blankets lest the light give their position away. But they see no reason to interrupt their nightly game of cards. The hut itself, said the commander, had never been directly hit - a surprising fact on a mountainside where every tree was blackened from attacks.
Half a mile ahead, the mujahideen's forward base is equipped with a BM-12 multiple rocket launcher, effective against tanks and ground artillery. The path to the BM-12 base is heavily mined - proof of the Soviets' determination to reduce mujahideen mobility. Every so often there is a small explosion somewhere near the path, trailing a plume of smoke. These ``butterfly'' mines - so called because of their shape - are equipped with a timer device as well as a contact detonator.
Engineer Jan, the guide who steered me to the forward base, spoke of a village that had fought off a communist tank convoy. As those forces withdrew they dropped cannisters containing butterfly mines. ``We are going now,'' they said, ``but the mountains themselves will fight against you.''
A quiet, gentle, man with fair hair and gray eyes, engineer Jan looked uncharacteristically angry as he walked past an unexploded butterfly mine. Unlike most mujahideen, who sport long beards and khaki clothes, he was clean shaven and wore a dapper blue outfit, as if on a jaunt to the city. He took the precaution of carrying an air rifle, an anomaly in a country where every male teenager seems to have a Soviet-made Kalashnikov.
At the forward base, a Tajik, wearing an enormous turban, emerged from a concealed foxhole. ``Friends!'' he cried in the elegant Persian of the north, ``Hurry! Become entombed! The enemy is about to return fire.''
Crouched in the foxhole, he admitted that he was far from home. ``I am from Kunduz, in the north,'' he said, ``but I am ready to fight for jihad wherever I am needed.''
A walkie-talkie beside him crackled. He pointed to thick wisps of marker smoke that low-flying jets had dropped minutes before. ``We have been forbidden to fire the BM-12 again from this position,'' he said. ``The enemy knows where we are.''
Then he broke into a grin. ``But I have plenty of spare ammunition. I will fire a few volleys for you just the same.''
One offensive ends; another is launched
After I had been a week at the base, the communist troops withdrew to positions about 6 miles away on June 6. The shelling died down. It seemed that the offensive was finally over. I made my way back to Pakistan.
Later I heard that days after I left, communist forces launched a second attack on the area. Dozens of aircraft, presumably acting on intelligence that Stinger supplies in the area were depleted, were supported by more than 2,500 ground troops, including elite spetznaz commando units. One hundred-fifty mujahideen were reported killed or wounded. Communist losses are not known, but 34 spetznaz troops were reported killed on June 13. After a few days, the communist forces again withdrew.
It was a reminder that I was, after all, just a visitor in somebody else's war and could leave whenever I wanted. For the mujahideen, the war drags on.