Cocooned in my black nylon, slithery, stifling burqa I retreated into a review – it was certainly not planning – of what had brought me here. Adult life had begun in a dull, but safe job as a junior bank clerk in South West Scotland. Numerically dyslexic, it was highly improbable that I would have ever fulfilled my mother’s ambition to have a daughter become one of the first women bank managers and after a boring year I left to hitch hike around France and Italy with a boyfriend.
Back in Britain we settled in Blackburn, Lancashire where I tried a succession of jobs from being a nanny to making car components before landing a job with Oxfam. It was a job I loved and would probably never have left had not the mini-bus driver taking our pool team to a match in Blackpool not been going to Pakistan. Somehow during the course of the evening it was decided I should accompany the wife and sister of a friend of the mini-bus driver when they returned to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, to see their family.
While there, I visited the Marie Adelaide Leprosy centre and was deeply impressed by the work I saw being done there. In conversation with Dr Pfau, the dynamic German sister who had worked for over 25 years on the leprosy programme she suggested I stay on for three years to set up a health education department. ‘But,’ I pointed out, ‘I don’t have any medical qualifications.’
‘We can teach you what you need to know about leprosy. If you are not a doctor, that’s all to the good. You won’t use incomprehensible jargon when you tell people leprosy is curable.’
‘I have a job in England,’ I ventured. Dr Pfau shrugged. She’d made the offer and saw no reason to discuss things further. I came home but couldn’t settle back into my previously much-enjoyed life and a few months later returned to Karachi, armed with a three-year contract, wondering what I’d let myself in for.
While I was working to establish the health education department Dr Pfau, galvanised by the number of leprosy patients coming from Afghanistan seeking treatment, was encouraging young Afghans, mainly from the central region of Hazara Jat to train as leprosy paramedics with the aim of setting up a sister organisation across the border. A number of the students, such as my ‘son’ Hussain, came to me for help with their English. Our lessons continued outside the classroom as we, all foreigners in Pakistan, explored the city, took camel rides on the beach at weekends, ate Baloch ice creams at Clifton, rode the bumper cars at the fairground and haggled for bargains in the bazaar.
When my three-year contract came to an end I signed on again, this time to work for the new project in Afghanistan. Hussain, newly qualified as a leprosy/tuberculosis technician had already returned to his district to start the process of opening a clinic. I’d been delighted to learn he was to meet me in Quetta to accompany me across the border. I hadn’t bargained on Moh’dullah being a second escort.
A slight, wiry little man, whose sharp-faced features reminded me of a weasel, he worked as a driver for a small field hospital close to the site of Hussain’s clinic. When the French doctors, and people who funded them, pulled out because of security issues the men who had worked as translators decided to continue and, through Dr Pfau, had received some interim funding. Moh’dullah had come to Pakistan with a list of medical supplies the hospital needed.
In the meantime, I kept meeting other foreigners who wanted to talk about cross border travel and work in Afghanistan. This was a big mistake. All expatriates in Quetta – regardless of how remotely connected with Afghanistan some of them were – had a compulsion to dwell on dangers and disasters. Talk, conducted in conspiratorial whispers, was of arrests at the border, robbers on the road, kidnappings, spy charges, inter-Party fighting and bombing raids. Discussion of departure dates, routes and destinations was taboo, which made me wonder just how anyone could ever organise a trip. Keeping the upper lip suitably stiff was not helped by Moh’dullah’s attitude. ‘Hussain,’ he informed me, ‘is too young for this work. He does not understand the dangers.’ He handed me the burqa. ‘You will need to wear this for the journey. It is better if no one knows you are a foreigner.’
‘But,’ I protested, ‘Hussain says the same driver took Jon and Dr Pfau to the border earlier this year. Why do I have to pretend to be an Afghan woman? He knew Dr Pfau was a foreigner.’
‘The situation is different now,’ he replied. ’It’s more dangerous.’
Why had I been so feeble, not protested more strongly? The simple truth was that after listening to so many horror stories from other foreigners I was scared of what might be ahead. Once we left Quetta I would have to rely on this man I barely knew to escort me safely to my destination inside Afghanistan. Deciding it was better not to antagonise him I’d sulkily donned the odious garment. Instead of swirling to my ankles it stopped short mid-calf, the headpiece was too tight, constantly sliding round so that the net visor was inevitably around my ear. I did not look remotely like an Afghan woman.
We had left Quetta at four o’clock in the morning. Moh’dullah, as befitted his self-determined status, sitting in the front passenger seat of a Toyota pick-up while Hussain and I bounced around like rag dolls in the back. We were soon coated in thick, greyish white dust, which clung everywhere. ‘Are the roads in Afghanistan like this?’ I asked.
‘Oh, no, they are much worse,’ he replied, rolling his eyes expressively as his head collided with the roof. By the time the driver stopped to allow me to emerge for a much needed trip behind a bush I was able to play the part of Hussain’s old mother to perfection – cramped limbs refusing to straighten, forced me to adopt a shuffling gait.
The view had been mostly of desert and scrub, bleached colourless by the fierce sun. Climbing mountain passes we had gazed down corkscrew bends to dusty valleys where herds of sheep and goats grazed on goodness knows what. Apart from the small boys who herded the flocks we’d seen no other signs of life, except at the occasional police checkpoints. Each stop was a nightmare. I had no passport, no papers, and no permission to be roaming around so close to the Afghan border. Only once did the officials give more than a cursory glance into the back of the Toyota. I felt my heart stop as he indicated that Hussain and I should get out. In a flash Moh’dullah had leapt out of the passenger door, beckoning the policeman to one side. I had no idea what was being said but moments later I heard the door slam and the welcome sound of the engine start up. Hussain had shrugged. ‘Probably just wanted some money,’ he explained. ‘Don’t worry, that was the last checkpoint before Chirman.’
It was already dark when we reached the border. I was too exhausted to care our hotel room was a vegetable store and flopped thankfully onto a thin mattress on the mud floor amongst the sacks of potatoes. ‘Tomorrow night,’ Hussain assured me, ‘you will sleep comfortably in Jaghoray.’ If I had not been so tired I might have reminded him he’d forgotten to add the essential Insha’Allah – God willing – to his statement.