Odyssey with the Afghan resistance. HOSPITALITY AMID WAR
Khyber Pass, Pakistani-Afghan border — WE leave Peshawar shortly after the morning wail of the muezzin. Hiding in the back of a jeep to bypass police checkpoints, the guerrillas move up the winding Khyber Pass to Landi Kotal, a smugglers' town deep inside Pakistani tribal territory and only a few miles as the crow flies from the Afghan border. At an Afghan supply depot, my two companions, both filmmakers, and I have lunch and then set off with our packhorses through the barren hinterland. Before reaching the frontier, we must walk a day and a half across a sprawl of arid mountains and hot, broad valleys controlled by the Afridis, a border tribe. The guerrillas, most of them ethnic Shinwari Pushtuns from Nangarhar Province, are on good terms with the Afridis and have the right of passage. Furthermore, as the Soviets have conducted air strikes against these villages, the inhabitants are not particularly well disposed toward the Red Army, which invaded their country in 1979.
A group of tented or mud-and-stone chaikhan'e (teahouses), stand along a stream on the other side of the pass leading into Afghanistan. Caravans and mujahideen regularly stop here, so we pause for green tea and bread, sitting on the carpet of a hut whose ceiling is made from ammunition crates. Afghans are a very resourceful people: empty bomb shells for chairs, rocket canisters for sugar, and mine casings for naswah or snuff boxes.
It is good to have left the baking plains and gorges of the Khyber for the relative cool of the mountains. But the guerrillas warn us of mines along the trail ahead. ``Personal, besiaw personal. Many mines,'' one says in Persian, referring to the antipersonnel charges dropped by helicopters or placed at night by Afghan government agents. Sure enough, for several miles the area is littered with scores of shallow craters and plastic remnants of detonated explosives.
The prospect of mines is extremely daunting. The clinics in Pakistan are increasingly filled with victims, many of them children. Twice in the past, I have watched in horror as mines blew the foot off a man. Recently, too, a good mujahed friend was carried back to Peshawar after stepping on a mine. It is all chillingly sobering. Assiduously, we stick to the path.
The packhorses have to stumble and clatter along the riverbed. This is what the Soviets used as a road for tanks when they launched their operations against villages and partisan groups in the mountains. Pieces of scrap, treads, or engine bodies from destroyed vehicles still mar the rocks and boulders. Whenever possible, we take the higher, more pleasant trails along the irrigation ducts lined with sweet-smelling sage and mint.
With its coarse valleys and live oak and pine forests, the Safed Koh (``white mountain'') region is a gripping landscape, much like the mountains of the Provence in southern France or Macedonia in Greece and Yugoslavia.
The abandoned border villages have been ravaged by countless Soviet attacks. The dry fields are overgrown with grass, now wilted, and shrubs. It is eerie to walk through groves of shady walnut and mulberry trees, their trunks burned or laced with shrapnel, around each village. For these trees are symbols of Afghan hospitality, their nuts and fruit a welcome respite for weary travelers. Now you see no one, not even a dog.
We soon find signs of life. Some of the civilians, who fled during the early years of Moscow's so-called migratory genocide tactics aimed at depopulating the frontier zones, have been returning. They live among the ruins with their cows, donkeys, and chickens. Perhaps every second or third field is cultivated with corn and, in some places, marijuana. One also sees the dried stalks of poppies. Many guerrilla commanders are against opium and marijuana growing, considering it un-Islamic. But these are poor people, and the drug dealers, who operate heroin labs on both sides of the border, offer good prices.
By the time we reach the lower valleys stretching into the parched plains southeast of Jalalabad, the villages and farms are bustling. The guerrillas guide us through the thick corn. There are also rice, sorghum, beans, onions and tomatoes. As in centuries past, farmers are plowing with bullocks for the winter crop, while sheep and goats graze the stubble of recently harvested fields.
The normality is difficult to believe. The last time I visited this region, nearly eight years ago, the Soviets were shelling or bombing, and the people were fleeing en masse. Now, there are no planes. And though almost every house is damaged, men, women, and children are determinedly pursuing new lives. There are shops in the small bazaars, and several trucks daily ply the bumpy 15-mile journey into Soviet-occupied Jalalabad to bring back goods such as sugar, tea, and kerosene.
The mujahideen, maintains Abdul Kadir, the main partisan commander for these parts, are able to protect the civilians because of better fighting capabilities. But it seems a fragile existence.
We stay in a different compound every night, sometimes changing locations twice a day. There is always the danger of informers. The Soviets are keen on capturing, or killing, foreign journalists and relief workers.
When not traveling, I rest or read on my charpoy, an Indian-style string bed, while little boys, toying with their ubiquitous slingshots, stare curiously.
For a change, the food is good. On previous trips, notably to the northern provinces, we had to bring our own. There was simply none to spare. The crops had been destroyed and one was reluctant to take from the villagers. But here we are Haji Kadir's guests, and he insists that we have chicken, a luxury, with rice or naan (unleavened bread) every day.
At night, sipping tea, I lie under the brilliantly starred skies, listening to the Afghans talking or praying, or catching the BBC as it crackles over the shortwave. With time on my hands, I find myself listening to everything from agricultural news to the shipping broadcasts.
More often than not, the dull explosions of distant guerrilla rockets and government artillery rumble and flash from the direction of Jalalabad. One can also hear aircraft taking off and landing. The Soviets now do much of their transport flying under cover of darkness.
The guerrillas take us on attack against a nearby government fort. We travel down by truck and then wait among the mulberry trees of a farmstead in the foothills. My companions and I split up. Peter, a British cameraman, goes in with the mortar and mobile groups; I go with Chris, an Australian, to observe a rocket crew positioned on a ridge overlooking the garrison.
Artillery shells from the fort fly over our heads to smash into the hills behind. Sometimes they explode just below the ridge, and the earth and rocks shudder. The mujahideen fire round after round; the rockets whoosh over the desert and explode anywhere but the fort.
As dusk sets in, it seems absurdly beautiful to watch this display of fireworks as rockets, tracers, and rocket-propelled grenades streak across the sky. The teams in the plain below score several mortar hits against the garrison. We return to the villages for a late supper.
The guerrillas take us up to a markaz, or base, high in the mountains. It is a long trek through deep ravines and up a steep, winding path to the upper forests. Earlier this year, Soviet airborne troops took the base after bitter fighting and the loss of nearly 70 men, and several planes and helicopters. The mujahideen withdrew when they could hold out no longer and the Soviets destroyed the position, blowing up the heavy machine guns, antiaircraft batteries, and ammunition, as well as a trench network designed by two Soviet Army deserters.
The mujahideen reoccupied the markaz when the Soviets left several days later. New guns are back in action amid the wreckage. I gingerly pick my way across the blackened bunkers, exploded and unexploded cartridges, and shells. It is a sharp contrast to the beauty of the setting sun and the soft evening haze.
My two companions stay on, as I head back to Pakistan with my Afghan guide, a young, sharp-witted mujahed. We ride by horse across the stony foothills that skirt the plain.
We then trek through the mountains. I prefer walking rather than spending another excruciating minute on my wooden Afghan saddle. My guide is upset that I do not ride, so I use the excuse to lend my horse to an old mullah on his way back to Pakistan.
We walk all night apart from a two-hour kip in a bombed mosque. As we approach the frontier, a vicious thunder- and hailstorm erupts. The riverbed trail is suddenly inundated by a roaring torrent of mud, rocks, and branches. I worry that mines will get washed down and hidden under the debris.
But we reach Afridi country safely. My guide insists that I ride through the craggy gorges of the Khyber back into Landi Kotal.
Next month, the eighth anniversary of the Soviet invasion, the Monitor will feature a five-part series on Afghanistan by Mr. Girardet.