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

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