At Afghan-Pakistani border, it's hard to tell friend from foe. Reporters run into intrigue, corruption frontier-style
Diwana Baba, Pakistan-Afghanistan border
As our vehicle approached the sleeping mountain village of Garam Chashma, the driver anxiously motioned for us to wind up the windows and keep quiet. Our group - a four-man documentary news crew and a Canadian nurse - had spent nearly two days waiting for an Afghan resistance escort to take us from Chitral, past Pakistani police checkpoints, and over the 15,500-foot Diwana Baba Pass into Afghanistan.
We planned to film the spectacular 100-mile view across Central Asia from the top of the snow-covered pass as well as several villages in Badakshan Province. Despite meticulous arrangements, the trip was on one minute, then off, then on again.
Now, we were well on our way. The pickup crept along the main dirt road past shuttered shops in the bazaar, then swerved to avoid several lumbering forms. ``Horses for the mujahideen,'' our driver whispered. He cut the engine, coasting to a stop. The doors were locked from the outside.
Just when the windows had begun to steam up, the doors were unlocked. A mujahed escort beckoned us out.
We stumbled across a wooden suspension bridge that swung wildly above roaring river waters 30 feet below. Once across, we began climbing massive concrete blocks set in the steep hillside. Then, up several rusty rungs of an iron ladder, and we were racing single-file along the narrow edge of an irrigation canal high above the village. Brilliant moonlight bathed the shale slopes of surrounding mountains and filtered through the trees.
Picking our way through cornfields and splashing across streams, we circled round the last checkpoint in Garam Chashma, and returned to the road where our Afghan scout waited.
Arriving at Gabor, a principal guerrilla staging camp, at midnight, we unloaded equipment. We then set off through the camp over boulders and around mounds of sleeping guerrillas, and made camp along the river, a quarter of a mile away.
The next morning we discovered that our escort, Jan Muhammad, a commander of the Jamiat-i-Islami Afghan resistance party, had vanished. Other arrangements were made with Palawan, who was in charge of the 500 pack animals at Gabor. We were told to wait until nightfall as there was one more police checkpoint to contend with. At 2 p.m., under steady rain, a new group of mujahed escorts appeared. Apparently the police checkpoint was not manned, and we would be able to walk by.
We left immediately. An hour later we were met by a man we thought to be a local farmer. He turned out to be a policeman.
Apparently sympathetic, he warned of more police ahead and told us to split into two groups. The mujahideen would go through the village as normal, the Western camera crew would follow the policeman on a detour around the village and rejoin the first group higher up on the trail.
Carrying 80 pounds apiece, we climbed 1,000 feet of crumbling mountainside and thick vegetation in 20 minutes. With whistles and gestures our guide hurried us along to the trail above the village.
There, three barefoot Pakistani policemen in tattered blue uniforms awaited us: We had walked into a trap, a scam set up by Palawan, the frontier constabulary, and as relief representatives later confirmed, with Jan Muhammad's knowledge.
Playing out their role, the police demanded to know why we had skirted the village instead of going through it. A debate ensued. Finally the police ordered us back to Gabor. When one member of our crew was slow to shoulder his pack, a corporal beat him with a thick stick.
Marched back in the rain, we were taken to a tent where we were served sweet milk tea and told to wait while Palawan and the police ostensibly negotiated.
As with other relief workers and journalists arrested in the area, the police demanded a bribe - 25,000 rupees ($1,300). When we refused, they countered with an offer of 10,000 rupees, also refused. At midnight, we demanded to be officially arrested or allowed on our way. We were taken into custody in the police tent.
``Negotiations'' continued. Finally, 6,000 rupees was settled on - lent by a friendly Afghan. Palawan paid off the police, reportedly keeping some for himself.
To salvage the expedition, we split up. Two members and the nurse went back up the pass. Two returned to Chitral. The remaining crew was sent with uninformed ``guerrillas'' along the wrong route to the wrong pass, on a 36-hour journey. But the two-man crew reached the top, where they captured the last hours of sunlight across the Hindu Kush mountains.