Journey to Afghanistan
Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan
Pursued by swirling clouds of dust, our crammed jeep roared into the isolated Pakistani mountain village as the first shadows of darkness settled over the snowcapped Hindu Kush.
Throngs of Afghan tribesmen, woolen blankets draped loosely over their shoulders, stood around the guarded entrance of the local guerrilla headquarters. Nearby, shouting men loaded dozens of pack horses with guns, ammunition, and medicines.
Quickly, the Afghans whisked us into the mud-and-stone walled compound. Boxes of ammunition, rifles, and the disassembled parts of a Russian antiaircraft gun littered the ground. Several young guerrillas, Nuristani ''kolas'' perched on the backs of their heads, crouched on the ground sewing supplies into coarse hemp sacks.
''You must remain quiet,'' said Ara Gul, a former Kabul policeman now in charge of organizing relief caravans from Pakistan into Afghanistan for the resistance. ''There are informers and we must be careful of the Pakistani authorities.''
Together with two French doctors and a nurse of the Paris-based Aide Medicale Internationale (AMI), one of three French humanitarian organizations operating clandestine hospitals inside Afghanistan, I had arranged to accompany a 50-horse guerrilla caravan to the strategic Panjshir Valley, 40 miles north of Kabul. Also on the trip were two French filmmakers, Jerome Bony and Christophe de Ponfilly, who, like myself, hoped to report on the struggle of a besieged resistance-held region in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.
This was my third trip with the resistance since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Some 70 Mujahideen (holy warriors) in the caravan were returning to fight the Soviet and Afghan government forces after spending several weeks in Pakistan acquiring supplies. The bulk of the guerrillas were heading to the Panjshir Valley, while the remainder, roughly 20, would stay with the group for several days before branching off to join partisan units in northern Afghanistan along the Soviet border.
Although the Pakistani government tolerates resistance activities inside its territory, it prefers the Afghans to remain discreet. Constantly reprobated by the Soviet-backed Kabul regime for aiding and abetting the guerrillas, the authorities are discomfitted by any actions, particularly by Western journalists , that might draw unnecessary attention to this state of affairs.
Unauthorized foreigners caught in the frontier regions are therefore sent back to Peshawar, Pakistan. In many cases, however, the police are prepared to turn a blind eye in return for a substantial bribe. One journalist was forced to pay $300 at a lonely border post after trying to slip into Afghanistan dressed in traditional garb.
Local Pakistanis are also quick to take advantage of the situation, exploiting both Afghans and foreigners. Our jeep driver charged us almost $50 to travel a distance that normally would have cost less than $10. ''But it is a very dangerous journey,'' he explained when we tried to beat him down in price. With a police station only just down the dirt road, it was quite clear that we had no choice.
The guerrillas brought us tea and nan, the flat Afghan bread, as we waited inside a dark, gloomy building looking out into the courtyard. ''It is not safe to sleep here,'' one of the Afghans said. ''We will bring you to another house when the police have stopped their night patrols.'' For the next three hours, we sat by the flickering light of a pungent-smelling kerosene lamp. Then they led us through the narrow alleyways of the village to a wooden rooftop shelter of a two-storied ''safe house,'' where, amid hordes of scurrying ticks and lice, we spent the night.
Throughout the next day, we whiled away the hours listening to the BBC world service on the radio, chatting among ourselves, or questioning our Afghan guides about the journey. The fierce mountain sun heated our temporary hideout like an oven. The horses were still being loaded and the guerrillas remained vague about our departure time. ''We shall leave soon,'' was the stock response. But as one discovers very quickly with the Afghans, expressions such as ''soon'' can mean anything from one hour to four or five days.
Shortly after dusk, Ara Gul, who looks like a mellow Groucho Marx with a shrugging sense of humor, entered the room. ''Get ready,'' he said. ''We leave now.''
After almost two weeks of delays at various stages in Pakistan, it seemed unbelievable that the caravan was at last ready to leave.
The moon had just risen over the saw-toothed peaks of the mountains as we quietly made our way through the huddled village. Occasional shafts of light from murky lanterns seeped through wooden doorways while the crumpled shapes of inhabitants sleeping on ''charpoys'' (beds) on the rooftops or outside their houses loomed out of the darkness.
Several hundred yards safely outside the village, we stopped to wait for the caravan. Eerily silhouetted against the trees and rocks in the diffused moonlight, the first men and horses began to emerge from the long shadows.
A cool, moist breeze drifted up from the thundering torrent in the gorge below as the caravan crawled up the steep mountain track toward the Afghan border. The guerrillas carried recently procured Russian World War II vintage rifles. They had tied their Spartan provisions for the 10-day trek in blankets across their backs like rucksacks. Walking at a stiff, determined pace, they urged on the heavily laden horses with low muffled cries and whistles.
For several hours we trudged through silent Pakistani mountain villages and terraced wheat fields. Occasionally, a chorus of barking dogs would echo from the distant fruit orchards as the snorting horses, their hooves rhythmically crunching against the graveled earth, passed in the night.
Sometimes, the long, straggling caravan would grind to a brief halt and the men would drop to their haunches along the wayside to rest with their backs against the earthen walls of the gurgling irrigation canals. Then the unit leaders would say ''boro, boro'' (Let's go, let's go), the men would rise, and the caravan would push on through the moonlit desert landscape.
At 2 AM, we stopped to sleep. The Afghans unloaded the horses and then simply wrapped themselves in their ''patous'' (woolen blankets) and curled up on the ground. The French doctors, the journalists, and I climbed into our sleeping bags, feeling somewhat guilty with our more sophisticated equipment, and sought shelter among the rocks from the now biting cold.
As the first rays of light gently stroked the jagged mountain peaks, the Afghans were already clustered around numerous fires boiling water for tea in soot-blackened kettles. For the next 10 days until we reached the Panjshir Valley, heavily sugared black or green tea and nan remained our staple diet.
Occasionally however, herdsmen tending cows, sheep, and goats in the highland pastures would offer us fresh milk or a stone-hard but tasty cheese. We sometimes bought an entire goat which the guerrillas would slaughter, roast over a roaring fire, and share among the caravan.
While the horses were being loaded, we washed in a nearby stream and then set off along the rocky mountain track toward the frontier. We walked for several hours before coming to the last Pakistani frontier post, a shabby group of tents nestled in a copse of stunted willow trees at the end of the valley. The Afghan commanders went over to talk with the guards, while the main body of the caravan continued to move forward as inconspicuously as possible. Although the guerrillas would not say so directly, they made it clear that several items of considerable value had to change hands before the Pakistanis would permit the guns and ammunition to pass.
The French and I were dispersed among the horses and men and told not to speak. Many Tadjik and Nuristani Afghans bear strong Mediterranean features, even blond hair and blue eyes, but our feeble tribal disguises -- blankets, pajama suits, and caps -- would not have held up to a physical search, particularly the women. Nor could any of us speak more than a smattering of Persian or Pushtu. But the guards simply glanced in our direction and within minutes we were through.
We were still a good 20-hour trek from the pass leading into Afghanistan. The trail began to climb steeply and the sun beat down with growing intensity as the day wore on. The men, beads of perspiration streaming down their bronzed faces, shouted and whistled at the horses as they gingerly stepped across precipitous rocky slopes. A horse slipped and tumbled several hundred yards. Miraculously, it suffered no injuries but was unable to get back on its feet until two men had climbed down to take its pack off. ''We cannot afford to lose any animals,'' muttered one of the caravan chiefs. ''They are also Mujahideen because they carry our supplies.''
With dusk fast approaching, we camped alongside a silent fast-moving stream that cut through a highland pasture at the base of the 15,000-foot-high pass. Formidable outcrops of rock loomed menacingly overhead. The horses, their packs lying in huge piles with protruding rifles on the ground, calmly chewed their oats from canvas feed bags hanging from their necks. Muffled in our sleeping bags, we listened to the wail of ''Allah akbar'' (God is great) echo across the valley as the Mujahideen bowed in prayer. The 20th century of the West no longer existed.
Up well before dawn, we reached the Durand line (the Pakistan-Afghanistan boundary drawn up by Briton Sir Mortimer Durand in 1893) by midmorning. There before us lay the Hindu Kush: a sprawling sea of rugged 20,000-foot snow-capped peaks. Huge ravens called from fortress-like rocks, while a dark eagle gracefully rode the air currents overhead. Somehow it was impossible to imagine that this incredibly beautiful country was at war. ''Afghanistan,'' a partisan proudly announced when he noticed my obvious awe at this wondrous spectacle. ''My country. Welcome to my country.''
Two hours later however, any semblance of peace and tranquility was shattered by the brutal reminder of the turmoil that has ravaged Afghanistan since the communists took power in April 1978. Shah Mansur, a young guerrilla accompanying the caravan, stepped on a booby-trapped watch or compass (it could not be determined which), and lost his right foot. Tens of thousands of such booby-traps or so-called plastic ''butterfly'' mines have been dropped by the communists from helicopters along the main caravan routes and frontier areas in an attempt to terrorize inhabitants and discourage resistance activities.
The doctors had to perform an emergency operation and the partisans then carried him by stretcher to a guerrilla camp in the valley below. The next day, Mansur was transported by horse back to Pakistan.
A month later, I visited him at the International Red Cross hospital for war victims in Peshawar where he was looking well and smiling. Doctors there told me they expected him to walk again once fitted with an artificial limb. Health care is perilous here. There are no more than 50 doctors, including 20 Frenchmen, for the up to 10 million Afghans in resistance-held areas.
The mine incident sobered us. Despite the idyllic beauty of the landscape, we had to constantly remind ourselves that this was no picnic. The trails, however, had been cleared of any mines and it was only dangerous to wander around the pastures and rocks in the surrounding areas.
Every day we passed travelers coming from the Panjshir Valley. Some were Mujahideen on their way to Pakistan to procure weapons and other supplies, but many were ordinary merchants with strings of horses or mules laden with precious stones, firewood, and leather products on their way to the bazaars of Peshawar or Chitral. They would then return with goods such as tea and sugar not easily available in guerrilla-held regions.
At times the going was painfully rough. All in all, we had to struggle across three major mountain passes. As the crow flies, it did not look far. But it took days. The trail meandered around the contours of the mountains or across hot, barren valleys. Sometimes there was no trail to speak of, only boulder-strewn landslides interspersed with ice fields or thundering torrents.
It seemed incredible that horses rather than mules could traverse such desolate terrain at all. The men had to hold on to the tails of their animals to prevent them from slipping into the chasms below. In some places, scores of horse corpses littered the ground from previous caravans, the victims of broken legs or mines. The stench was unbearable. Occasionally, too, there would be the rocky grave of a guerrilla with a lone green flag fluttering from a wind-bent pole.
At night we huddled at the bottom of bleak moraines or behind the sparse stone shelters of nomad camps. During the day we trudged through beautiful but rugged landscapes that make the Grand Canyon pale in comparison, or forded crystal-clear rivers and streams by wading with our boots held high or catching rides on the backs of horses.
Although the Afghans requested that I not reveal the exact location of this major caravan route, it seemed doubtful that so much traffic could not go unnoticed by the Russians. Yet we saw virtually no sign of the communists until we had reached the Panjshir.
Some villages within two or three days of the border had been totally destroyed by bombardments during the early days of the war. Hardly a wall remained standing and the once-green irrigated fields were nothing but sandy patches of parched stubble. The ruptured canals now served as the well-trampled footpaths of the caravans.
But the farther inland we walked, the more life there was. Many villages had been damaged, but the inhabitants had repaired their shattered homes. The fields lay golden with ripened wheat, barley, and oats. Sometimes we halted at the invitation of local farmers for tea and nan. Time and again, we were struck by the overwhelming hospitality of the Afghans which helped raise our spirits, quench our thirst, and ease our fatigue. Men and children, the women hanging back, crowded around us to shake our hands and nod approvingly.
Many Afghans believe the world has forgotten their plight. The sudden appearance of Western doctors and journalists obviously served as a great morale booster. Sitting down on magnificent woolen carpets, sipping thickly sugared tea poured from ornate china teapots, village leaders would solemnly question us about American and European attitudes toward the war in Afghanistan.
''You have come a long way,'' they would say. ''That is good. You must tell the world what you see. We need outside help, but even if we don't receive it, we will never give up. Never.''
We finally reached the Panjshir shortly after sundown. For days we had heard about this unyielding bastion of the Afghan resistance. To date, the 80,000 primarily Tadjik inhabitants of the valley have managed to fend off four major communist offensives since the Soviet invasion. As we descended from the mountains, our clothes gray with dust and our bodies heavy with fatigue, it seemed unbelievable that we had actually arrived.
As we walked through the darkness, we could hear the sounds of voices and radios. We could also make out the shapes of houses and even shops. Our Afghan guides brought us to the home of the local finance director of the resistance, who provided us with a superb feast of rice, meat, fresh grapes, apples, milk, and tea. We had not eaten like this since leaving Pakistan.
But our biggest treat came a day later, when we were brought by jeep to the house which had been set aside for the French doctors, who would run the nearby clandestine hospital for the next 2 1/2 months before a new team was scheduled to take over. Sidig, the owner and cook of the house, had in more peaceful days worked with French diplomats and technicians. Upon arrival, he proudly led us into the guest room where, minutes later, we were served pepper steaks and French fries.
For the next 10 days we visited various parts of the valley. A guerrilla-run prison for Afghan communists, the hospital, village bazaars, farms, schools, a training camp and private homes. We also spent two days at the ''front,'' where Soviet and Afghan government troops were at that time (in late August) trying to break into the valley. One could not help admiring this people who were determined to retain their freedom despite the sophisticated weaponry of the Soviets and the prospect of a war that could drag on for years.
Almost everywhere we traveled we were welcomed with touching warmth by the local people. Despite my previous trips to Afghanistan, this was the first time that I had experienced the feeling of genuine acceptance. My affection for the Afghans, in particular the Tadjiks, grew when I realized that Ahmad Shah Massoud , the valley's resistance commander, and his people had granted us a trust I had not encountered before.
Shortly after we left the valley, the Soviets succeeded in breaking through. But they remained less than two weeks before being forced out again. Frederique Hincelin, one of the French doctors, sent me a letter which was smuggled through to Pakistan describing what happened during the offensive:
''The MIG 27s (Soviet jet fighters) began (the offensive) with a series of intimidation measures,'' she wrote. ''They arrived without a sound just above the village and then at 100 meters suddenly revved their engines. The sound of their thunder was appalling. This lasted for four days. The inhabitants began to go into hiding. And then . . . they dropped tracts saying they would bomb the Panjshir on the morrow. . . . Between 4 and 5 a.m. we evacuated the sick and wounded from the hospital to the village mosques. We had received news that the hospital was one of the targets. . . . Then the bombings began at 6 a.m.
''We took refuge in the mountains about an hour's trek from the village in a hole so small we could neither sit nor lie. The whole day long helicopters and jets bombarded the area. The hospital was almost hit, but the bomb landed in a nearby field.
''For eight days . . . we left at 5 a.m. for the mountains with all the villagers and then returned at 5 p.m. when the bombings began to subside. Hour upon hour we waited and asked ourselves how long it would last. We were also scared. At night we visited the wounded because during the day it was too dangerous. . . . Then the Russians entered Gulbahar and Ruka with their tanks. It then became too dangerous for us to stay in the valley and Massoud sent us to another valley seven hours' walk away. We left at night with many villagers. . . .
''We could not even visit the sick any more. All the medicines had been buried for safety reasons. And then Friday [Sept. 18], they told us it was all over. The Russians had been pushed back. We then returned, dug up the medicines, re-established the hospital, and life began to return to normal . . . the village of Barzarak resembled a battlefield and three-quarters of Shotal was destroyed. . . .
''As of this writing the Russians have not succeeded in breaking into the valley again, but have stepped-up their bombing raids. In early November, shortly before Frederique Hincelin and the other doctor and nurse were replaced by another medical team, the hospital was destroyed by Russian MIGs. They managed to evacuate the hospital, which cared for mostly women and children, half an hour before the attack. Since then the hospital has been set up elsewhere.
Upon my return to Pakistan in early September with Ara Gul, who had stuck with us throughout the month-long 700-mile journey, he said: ''I only wish I could show you Afghanistan when peace has returned to my country.''