Afghan Stories 2

The tent pole jihad

 I left Faizabad and Badakhshan province after my 30th birthday. I spent few days in villages of Takhar province and then I came to Mazar- i- Sharif,  3rd largest city of Afghanistan, on the 8th of September. One day before Ahmad Shah Massoud anniversary and 2 days before I was meant to meat my friends from an NGO who I was about to stay with for a while in Afghanistan. But before the story moves on let me tell you a bit about the main character in this story,  Ahmad Shah Massoud.

I am a bitterly dejected romantic and for such, Ahmad Shah Massoud means a lot. He’s the Winnetou of my childhood, Aki Kaurismaki of my twenties and Monty Don of my middle age. Dubbed the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud was the head of the Northern Alliance, the Tajik resistance dug deep in the Panjshir valley of the Hindukhush mountains who fought the invading Soviet Red Army and later the Taliban. Pious yet moderate Muslim he was fluent in 5 languages, schooled at a French lycée and graduated in engineering in Kabul’s. Admirer of Persian poetry and works of Mao Zedong and De Gayle, Massoud was charismatic leader, skilful strategist and as much as a mujahedin can be he was a trendsetter, wearing his pakol hat skilfully on one side of his head. Ah, Massoud was cool and so he was loved by all journalists and that became his downfall. The Taliban sent two Al Quida sympathisers pretending to be journalists with Belgian passports who detonated a bomb hidden in one of the cameras while in a room with Massoud. He was assassinated on 9th September 2001. Tellingly just 2 days before the twin towers.  

Mazar- e -Sharif, like the most of northern Afghanistan has always been an anti Taliban stronghold. Ahmed Shah Masoud is having a hero status here. It was 8th of September, one day short of Masouds death anniversary when I arrived in Mazar-e-Sharif.
The Chinese made windowless bus stopped very centrally and I set out to find the most run down hotel around. I found just that in one of the offshoots leading to the main square of Mazar-i-Sharif. The hotel was desolate but as a rule run down hotels are always full of wonderful characters and colourful stories. I spent the evening around the serene and breathtakingly beautiful Blue mosque. I people watched and people watched me. I remember having green tea with a Mazar-i-Sharif - Kandahar bus driver back at the hotel. He had the hotel staff roasting him half a lamb he got from a villager as a bus fare and invited me to dine with him on a carpet. He told me he came here as all people in the hotel for the Ahmad Shah Massoud dead anniversary.  

I felt full and tired when I returned to my shabby room with door secured  by a string. After spending last few nights in mountain villages I was looking forward to a good night sleep and just when I thought I was falling into a dream of Massouds bravery the string tied door slammed open and in the door were two beardy men in a camouflage outfit holding Kalashnikovs. I jumped up from my bed but one pointed his khalasnikov at me and ushered me to stay on bed with my hands out. He asked me for my passport and my bag. He looked at my passport and then at me saying: ‘Hmm, Chechnya’ and I said: ‘Oh no, Czech Republic’ and he nodded and said ‘Chechnya’ .He searched my backpack, barked something at the hotel staff who was already all in my room and left. The hotel staff told me that they were local warlord Mohamed Ata’s men and they heard about a Chechnyan staying in the town so they came to check on me and made sure I wasn’t an Al Quida trying to blow myself up down the street during the Ahmad Shah Massoud anniversary parade. I said that was understandable and tied my door with the string behind them. It was after midnight and just when I was falling asleep again the door was kicked in with a louder bang then before. And here they were in my room..maybe 5 police officers screaming at me to stay on my bed and show them my passport. I did that and they passing the passport round were nodding and saying: ‘Hm, Chechnya’. Then one asked in broken Russian: ‘ Why you here?’ I said: ‘I am a tourist’ and they repeated after me nodding: ‘Hm, Chechnyan terrorist’. I objected and tried to explain that I am not a Chechnyan terrorist but they seemed to have their own version of me already made. Then they started to take stuff out of my backpack. Clothes, green tea, diaries, books and films and then the unfortunate self assembling tent pole came out and self assembled. That seemed to cause unpredictable havoc among the police unit. They jumped, hid and shouted at me pointing at the poor self assembling tent pole now self assembled in the middle of the crowded room. After some explaining and practical tent erecting at 2 am in the middle of a crowded hotel room they reluctantly left talking about self assembling tent poles and I tied the room door with another string  behind them. I was exhausted and just fell asleep with all my posession from the backpack scattered all over my room when the door opened up with a bang for third time. This time it was a sorry looking middle aged man with a shabby beard and broken English. He said he was the hotel owner and his staff told him what was going on and he did not want any Chechnyan terrorists in his hotel and I should pack and get out. I felt tired after the eventful, sleepless night and angry and empowered by the fact that he was just a sorry looking middle aged man without a gun I started shouting that this is not the Afghan hospitality I am used to, where is his honour and that I already paid for my stay. He said back, one foot in door, that if I don’t leave in an hour he phones Mohamed Ata’s militia and that send me packing without too much of further objecting.  I packed and I left my room. In the lobby at the end of a shabby corridor was all the hotel staff waiting for me around a large picture framed with plastic flowers of Ahmed Shah Massoud asking to take a photo with me around Ahmad Shah’s portrait. Just when I agreed to the photo shoot the two Mohamed Ata’s men appeared and asked for the hotel owner. They ordered him not to let me out till the parade outside is over. They said they are not taking any risks with me. They ordered the owner to keep an eye on me at all time. He looked deflated, disgusted and put on a 'Why always me' face on and so did I. He showed me into his little windowless half-room half-office at the back of the hotel. He asked if I play backgammon and I said I do so we sat there eating the yesterday’s lamb leg the Mazar - Kandahar driver left behind and played backgammon in the windowless room. My hero Ahmad Shah Massoud's death anniversary parade taking place right out in the street below. Chewing on a piece of last nights lamb I thought for a moment about the inevitable ways universe puts us through at times.

I called my friends from the NGO who were meant to pick me up at midday and apologised that I am being kept hostage in a local hotel. They said it was ok and to let them know when I am freed. Then they added that it was probably for the best to stay in during the parade. They said rumour has it there is a Chechnyan terrorist somewhere in the town. 

The butchers shop

Afghan Stories

11 days to birthday

It was 11 days to my 30 birthday when I entered Afghanistan.
I came to Afghanistan from Tajikistan through the Iskhoshim border crossing. The border crossing is situated on the banks of Wakhan river which is the natural border line dividing Afghanistan from Tajikistan and the Pamirs mountain ridge from the Hindukusch. The remote, mountainous location at the mouth of the Wakhan Corridor makes this border crossing the least frequented in whole Afghanistan. I was searched for pornography and alcohol and told I was only 13th non Afghani passing through that year. I was proud of the news. 

The walk from the border to the nearest village Iskhoshim took an hour on a dusty dirt track road. It was a good walk on which I was negotiating with stray dogs, irrigation canals, remains of tanks and rocket launchers and wild children while admiring the snow capped peaks of Hindukush in the background. Once in Iskhoshim I asked where I spend a night and was showed a little shabby looking house at the road side. It was a simple, one room eatery which turned into a sleeping place (sleeping on the floor) at night. There wasn’t any toilet or bathroom but a small basin and an old jug with water in the corner and the only food served was pilaff. I thought it was a very good deal and stayed for couple of days. The surrounding vistas and nature were breathtaking but what I found the most impressive was the locals and the fellow occupants of the eatery.

Especially one eyed Khan Zada who sported an appearance of a dangerous pimp or a kind of a mad oriental looking Glasgow viagra back street dealer on a holiday. Anyway, I liked him and he showed me around and introduced me to couple of locals who could speak some english or Russian and tell me all about the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan I couldn’t find on Wikipedia or books. It turned out that Knan Zada, in spite of his dubious looks, was a well respected visitor to this mountain village but still a real dealer. He wasn’t into drugs though, he was dealing in precious stones, Lapis Lazuri and Ruby in particular which the whole area is well known for. 

It was 7 days to my 30th birthday when I left Iskhoshim with Khan Zada.
I fell in love with this place and longed to stay longer but I was explained that this was the first day of Ramadan and there might be barely any traffic in this God’s forgotten corner of Afghanistan for the whole month. 

Now, the trouble wasn’t only Khan Zada’s wild west appearance but mine too. On the evening of our departure I went to the local bazaar and bought shalwar kameez (long tunic and baggy trousers) .I like black, so I bought it black. I then got black waist coat and black turban to complete my new look. I attracted a lot of attention on the first days in Iskhoshim with my western clothes and I thought I will distinguish my origins in my new outfit but I was wrong. I got in the car with Khan Zada, ready to depart when his driver became very agitated after seeing me. He said, pointing at me, he ain’t be driving no Al-Qaeda fighter and left the car in a dramatic fashion.

On the way back to the bazaar Khan Zada explained to me that locals as well as anti Taliban mujahideen wear pakol hat (a pancake shaped hat as worn by the charismatic leader of the Soviet and Taliban resistance Ahmad Shah Masood). Taliban usually wear black shalwar kameez and white turban. ‘But your outfit, he says, looking at me, sizing me up.. you look like some sort of Al-Qeada funeral attendant. I bought brown waistcoat and pakol hat at the bazaar and we set off.

It was 6 days to my 30th birthday when I parted with Khan Zada and arrived in Baharak.
I had chosen Baharak as my next destination because I had been told not to go there. Baharak was notorious as a home to different warlords of north Afghanistan, place of frequent unrest between local tribes and safe heaven to smugglers of whatever can be smuggled. I thought that was a perfect fit for me. I had to persuade Khan Zada first to drop me off in there, which he did reluctantly, shaking his head, claiming I am dead man. He told his driver to stop the Toyota car at a local eatery in the middle of the village by a dirt track road. He took me in, shouted something in Pashto to the slow looking local eatery worker and told me to wait before leaving somewhere with his driver. He reappeared after an hour, shouting Pashto at the slow eatery worker, then came to me, gave me a deep one eyed look, kissed me goodbye on the cheek and handed me a white rose. My one eyed dealer friend left and I suddenly felt alone and realised the unbearable heaviness of the situation.. standing in the middle of a warlords village, dressed like an Al-Qeada and holding a white rose.

The next 5 days were one of the most interesting days in my life. Ramadan was on full mode so I was fasting from dusk to down in support of the local warlords. During the day I was exploring the little winding streets of this mountain village, the slopped fields, and hill sides oasis’s. I came back to the eatery which filled in with the whole village at sundown for Maghrib, the fifth prayer of the day which marks the end of the day’s fast. The atmosphere after everybody ate was exhilarating and joyous and in spite of the fact that I didn’t speak much of Farsi, Dari, Tajik, Pashto or whatever tongue the locals spoke, I felt part of it.

It was 2 days to my 30th birthday when the Fairy man arrived.

He came after Maghrib, after everyone’s eaten and prayed. He called me out and showed me to sit down in the corner of the eatery, away from the merry warlords. He had very clean almost white Shalwar Kameez, beige turban and long white beard. He looked very old. He asked me if I speak Russian and I said I do. He then said in perfect Russian: ‘Your are our dear guest in the village and we have been happy you enjoining your time in our village. The Village elders sat down with the warlords and the taliban and agreed to give you protection for 5 days. We are Pathans and our ethical code the Pashtunwale tells us to treat a guest like a brother. This is the last night of our protection and we won’t be able to guarantee you safety anymore from tomorrow morning. I advise you to leave by 8am tomorrow morning.’ He paid the bill I had made in the eatery for last 4 days and left.

It was 8pm so I had 10 hours to leave, I thought. I went to the slow eatery worker and asked if he thinks I can get a lift tonight and he said he will keep an eye on any car passing and would stop the car and make the driver take me. I said ‘Tashakur’/thank you and hoped for a miracle. Then somebody called me out and indicated to go outside. Outside was another fairy old man with white long beard, this time shorter, shabbier and even older version of the first one. This one was also accompanied by a little and sorry looking donkey. After asking about my family and health he explained: ‘I am very sorry to hear about your regrettable situation. I have come to offer you my donkey for $100. It’s a good donkey, who will take you to Faizabad in 3 days.’ It seemed a genuine offer but I questioned the state and age of the donkey and voiced my doubts to the old man. He reassured me: ‘This donkey here is an old donkey now but only a couple of years ago he was able to carry 2 rocket launchers over those mountains whenever needed, he’s still a strong donkey and will take you to Faizabad in 3 days.’

Just when I was about to began the price negotiations, the slow eatery worker came out of the eatery building and said there will be a car leaving for Faizabad in about an hour time. In next 30 min I sat in a 30 years old sellotaped Toyota pick up with a miserable man called Allaludin. In next couple of minutes we were deep in the mountains of Hindukush and I fell asleep.

It was 1 day to my 30th birthday when I woke up in the middle of the night in a sellotaped Toyota pick up. I looked at my wrist watch and it was 3am in the morning. We were parked on the bank of a stream in a deep cut gorge. The mountains around us were lit by milky light of the nearly round moon. It was very still and dream like and Allaludin was heavily vomiting into the pristine water of the mountain stream. I fished out some stomach bug medication from my backpack and gave it to him and fell asleep again. 

The sun was rising from behind the mountains and the sound of Fajr (first prayer of the day) was still lingering in the dusty air when I was woken by Allaludin. We were in a small village on a mountain side, parked in front of a muddy house. Allaludin appeared in a changed mood. He wasn’t miserable anymore he seemed calm, self-assured almost gracious when he showed me to follow him to his house. Here, if I carry on writing about what happened on the last day before my birthday, in this small village, in the mud house, I may regret that. There are things in our lives which are meant to stay with us forever. Things which could open gates to demons and, hand on heart, once I am telling a short story it should stay short. So I decided to keep the proceedings of the last night before my 30th birthday to myself, untold.

It was my 30th birthday when I arrived on a back of a Toyota pick up truck to Faizabad and had this photograph taken.

Photo backs

Some of the back sides of the found photographs I places in the Soviet Album. These photographs used to be send across the vast expanses of the former Soviet Union. The short texts are greetings to family members, friends or lovers.

Soviet children’s books

These are some of the old illustrated children books I found in old bookshops in Ukraine. The books used to tell stories of far away places like the taiga in Siberia or the steppes of Central Asia and the books were favorite reads among children and young people from mostly urban areas of the Soviet Union. 

Using Format