MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures #23 a bit about party politics – Afghan style

By now I had spent nearly two months in Jaghoray and it was almost the end of August. It was almost time to move on, if I was to reach the other clinics before winter. Jon, the project co-ordinator returned to Qolijou and I went to discuss travel plans. The idea was for me to spend some time in each, helping with any admin tasks, stock taking and generally being there to sort any other problems. Jon would return to Pakistan to collect the money and essential supplies the clinics needed before winter closed the road. We would meet at the clinic in Lal-sar-Jangal and return to Pakistan together.

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My room in the clinic


At the hospital, one of the translators greeted me, adding, ‘Have you come to visit your landlord’s mother?’ I was mystified until I found Rosanna setting up the x ray equipment for Gul Agha’s mother who was lying, grey faced, clutching at her stomach.

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The x ray room where they were able to see where the fragments of metal had gone in

Chi shud? – What happened?’ I asked, appalled at her appearance. Her only answer was to groan and grab my hand. The translator explained, ‘Hisb-i-Islami attacked Gul Agha’s house in Sangsuragh. His mother was standing behind the gate when a rocket went through it. She is really lucky to be alive but we think pieces of metal have lodged in her stomach.’


‘What about the rest of the family, Latifa, Gul Agha ….?’

‘Latifa was slightly injured in her leg, nothing serious. Gul Agha is all right but they captured his brother Hazrat.’

Fatima and Sughra (Custom)

Gul Agha’s mother and Sughra

Gul Agha appeared then – a miniature Rambo, weighed down by his bandoliers, Kalashnikov in hand – but when he spoke to his mother, his expression softened until he looked like any other young boy, stricken with fear for his mum.  I expressed my sympathy and concern and asked if I could visit Latifa at home.  ‘Yes, of course, she will be happy to see you. I have to go now.’  The smile slipped and he looked grim again. ‘I have to do something to get Hazrat back.’

The x ray showed the fragments of metal had missed the major intestines and, although she would be in hospital for some time and suffer a great deal of pain, Fatima would make a full recovery.

Jon and I left immediately for the village. In neighbouring village of Kat-i-Sang people tried to dissuade us from continuing, insisting that it was too dangerous. We carried on, wondering if we were being naive in our assumption that reports of any incident were always lavishly embellished. Gul Agha had said it was all right to visit, we reassured ourselves.

Sughra spotted our approach, running to meet us so, before going to visit Latifa, we first had call at Baqul’s house. We answered queries about Fatima’s condition. I also explained I would soon be leaving, although I would be back before winter. I asked her mum for permission to take Sughra to the bazaar for a shopping expedition with me and Jon the next day. We took our leave and headed towards Gul Agha’s house.

About twenty yards from our destination we were taken completely by surprise as a dozen armed mujahideen leapt from the trees and surrounded us, Kalashnikovs pointing menacingly at us. Obediently, we froze.

Another would-be Tarzan jumped from the branches, rushed towards us, and suddenly threw his arms around Jon in a huge bear hug. They indulged in a bit of back slapping and hugging and went through the necessary enquiries about each other’s health then the muj indicated with a grin, that we could proceed. ‘Who was that?’  I asked.

Jon shrugged. ‘No idea, don’t remember ever meeting him before. Seems he knows me, though.’

Latifa was delighted to have visitors and, once assured that her mother was all right, embarked with relish on the story of the attack. She didn’t seem particularly concerned about the fate of her little brother, positive that Gul Agha would soon secure his release. Her own injury, which was nothing more than a slight scratch on her leg, was proudly displayed.

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 Latifa with her sister-in-law, Gul Agha’s wife and their first baby 

I asked about the people hiding in the trees.  ‘Oh,’ Latifa replied, ‘they are guarding the house in case they try to attack us again. They are from Hisb-i-Islami.’

I was confused. ‘I thought it was Hisb-i-Islami who attacked you?  Gul Agha is with Nasre.’

Latifa nodded. ‘Yes, it was people from Hisb-i-Islami who fired on the house but they are strangers. These guards are Hisbi, but they are from our village. They don’t want any more fighting.’

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Gul Agha in proud daddy mode

I was surprised, and heartened, to hear that village loyalties took priority over those of the Party. Much later, on my return to Jaghoray I was astonished to learn that Latifa was engaged to be married to a man from Hisb-i-Islami – the same man who had taken her brother prisoner. Gul Agha (who had succeeded in getting Hazrat freed – I think without blood being shed) was hoping to put an end to Hisbi by joining the two political parties in marriage. Latifa, who had always made clear her views against marriage, was not in favour of her brother’s political manoeuvring and had objected strenuously, but unsuccessfully. Shakespeare, I thought, could have done something with this storyline.

Back at Hussain’s clinic everyone was excitedly embroidering their version of events in Sangsuragh. These now included details of the enemy storming the house and being mowed down mercilessly by Gul Agha, from his stand at the top of the stairs. When Hussain heard of our plan to take Sughra to the bazaar the next day, he immediately informed me that it was impossible, that it was too dangerous for me to go to Sangsuragh to collect Sughra.

I did rather enjoy watching his expression when I told him I had not only already been there already today, I had visited Gul Agha’s house too.

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Me, Jon and Ismail, Hussain’s field assistant. Jon was tickling Ismail so he wouldn’t stand all solemn and unsmiling.

31 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures #23 a bit about party politics – Afghan style

  1. Complex politics, in a land that sounds so feudal. Having to work all that out must have been frustrating indeed. And constantly wondering where it was ‘safe’ to go too. Well done, Mary. You bring that period and place to life, for those of us who only watched short reports on the BBC News.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Very complex, Pete. I never managed to unravel all the tangled threads of it. At that time – late 1989 – the news reports at home would have been focusing on the fight to oust President Najibullah in Kabul, seen by many as still being a puppet of the Soviets. No one from the BBC came anywhere near the places I was working.

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  2. Pingback: Afghan adventures #23 a bit about party politics – Afghan style ~ Mary Smith | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

    • I don’t know what happened in Latifa’s life. Jawad (who let me drive the jeep) and I keep in regular touch and he follows this blog. When he saw Latifa’s photo the first time I posted it he messaged me to say that she died a few years ago. He didn’t know what the problem was. She must still have been young. I’ve been trying to clear out our loft and found lots of photos from those early days in Afghanistan, several of them of Latifa and that glorious smile she had.

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      • When you wrote how she loved life and didn’t want to marry — and then she was forced to marry the enemy, it made me shudder. Tow words, remembered years ago, sums up the feeling I had when I read about her fate: Murdered possibilities.

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        • I’m hoping she did have some happiness before she became ill. I don’t think she had children so maybe she didn’t actually get married. I’ll check with Jawad.
          Murdered possibilities could be used in many cases, I’m afraid.

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  3. Mary, the personal and political skilfully encompassed within your post, just as it was in the lives of its citizens. I feel for Latifa and her marriage … I wonder how her life turned out and if it had the desired effect of peace. At the moment I’m reading Christine Lamb’s book about her time in Afghanistan. Whilst reading your post I was confused for a moment as I thought I was reading the book … the two would sit perfectly side by side.

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      • Hi Mary, just to say it was me, Annika, who is reading the book. I love her reportage pieces for the newspapers and the book is fascinating. The level of cruely is staggering, yet she is often received with warmth and kindness. What a dichotomy. Arriving as young journalist at 21 she hoped her reports would make all the difference, five years later she was so much wiser but continued undeterred!

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            • Yes, it’s an update of a book published some years ago. I have a photocopy of the original, which was the only way I could get hold of it, and was delighted to see it updated and republished. I never met or mixed with the big important people she knew – my time was spent with the unknown men and women no one knows about. And that is why I don’t think any publisher would be interested in a book about my early experiences in Afghanistan.

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  4. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blogger Daily – Wednesday February 26th 2020 – #Afghanistan Mary Smith, #Legends Andrew Joyce, #Patience Geoff Le Pard | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  5. It’s hard to wrap one’s brain around thinking that doesn’t seem logical. With a completely different culture! It must be hard to see things from the viewpoint of those impacted.

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    • Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Pete. I actually saw your comment earlier today but held off responding as it got me thinking. Yes, I did find myself in a completely different culture, though as I’d spent three years in Pakistan it wasn’t like I went directly from here to Afghanistan. I’m worried I’m giving the wrong impression of Afghan culture. The more time I spent there, the less I saw the differences and the more I became aware of the similarities. I’m not talking here about war, which was a constant backdrop, but about the everyday lives of ordinary people. People who cared about and worried about their children’s future, people who showed tremendous hospitality and friendship, people who loved and laughed and wept over the same things we do. I know we don’t think it right to marry our sister off to try to end feuding – but it’s not that long ago when it would have been normal practice. Things take time to change but changes are taking place in Afghanistan, though more quickly in the cities than the rural areas. Sorry for this rather long, perhaps rambling response. I’m still kind of formulating my thoughts!


      • I appreciate the education, Mary, as I’ve never been to that part of the world. My limited experiences with other cultures have reinforced my belief that we are far more alike than different. While there is nothing wrong with having pride in one’s nation, it bothers me to see so many others who have developed an unreasonable fear of anything foreign. Education is a long process.

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        • You are so right, Pete, both on being bothered about the fear of anything foreign and about education being a long process. And without the latter we’ll never change the former! We just have to keep plugging away 🙂 I was never homesick while I was in Afghanistan but I did wish family and friends could come to visit to share something of my experiences. Since then, I’ve dreamed about taking small groups of three or four people to Afghanistan to stay with families and tour parts of the country. I know it won’t ever happen, but I can dream!

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    • Thanks, Liz. There are lots of books on Afghanistan out there which focus on the politicians and the big commanders and the fighting (proper big fighting, not local skirmishes) but nothing on the ordinary people who just got on with their lives and were never part of the big political processes. Thank you. You’ve made me feel it’s worth continuing these posts.

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