Autumn 1989. Thanks to comments from new visitors to the blog not everyone knows when my first trip to Afghanistan took place. I’ll try to remember to put a date at the start of each post.
I was immersed in the clinic statistics one day when Hassan burst in. ‘I have found transport, but the people are leaving immediately. Are you ready?’
I was ready. Khudadad was ready and grabbed my bags as we hurried down the steep mountain path behind Hassan to where an open-topped jeep was parked. It was bursting at the seams with mujahideen, all, naturally, clutching their AK-47s like so many security blankets. Hassan introduced the large, black bearded man behind the wheel, ‘This is my very good friend, Commander Husseini.’ The Commander looked remarkably like Sayed, only bigger – and fiercer. He gave us a brief nod, and we were on our way.
Small hamlets of flat roofed, mud built houses hugged the steep slopes of the mountains and orchards of apricot, almond and mulberry trees dotted the valley. The open topped jeep afforded a wonderful view as we snaked up the pass. At least, it did for the first ten minutes. Dark clouds loomed overhead and a stiff breeze made me pull my chaddar more snugly around me. The higher we climbed the less able I was to hide my shivering. Khudadad asked where my jacket was. I glanced round at the stony-faced mujahideen perched on top of our luggage.
‘It’s in my bag. Don’t bother about it; once we are over the pass I’ll be fine.’ I did not relish having to ask the mujahideen, the surliest group so far encountered, to move. Khudadad had no such reservations. After telling the Commander to stop he evicted the muj., before ferreting amongst the baggage and bits of what looked like bomb making equipment, but were probably spare parts for the jeep, until he unearthed my jacket. I wriggled around trying to get it on without allowing my chaddar to slip immodestly, the mujahideen scrambled back into their places, expressions, if possible, even more surly.
At the summit of the pass a heavy downpour of sleet-laden rain, viciously stinging our faces, drenched us within moments. Wishing I wore contact lenses, I attempted to wipe my rain spattered glasses for the hundredth time on a chaddar which had become a sodden rag. ‘Where are the blankets?’ demanded Khudadad. I nodded towards the back of the jeep.
‘You can’t ask them to get out again,’ I protested. He could. This time his ferreting produced a large blanket which he proceeded to wrap solicitously around my shoulders, reserving part of it for his own use. I suggested he offer the end of it to the soaking wet muj at his side; he stoically refused Khudadad’s offer. Despite my shivers, I could not help but smile at the sight we must have presented. Khudadad and I huddled together soaking wet, blue with cold, wrapped in a big, fluffy yellow blanket, across which strutted a handsome blue peacock, while around us a dozen grim faced freedom fighters steadfastly ignored both the rain and their unorthodox travelling companions.
Shahr-i-Zuhuk, the sandstone mountain stronghold, looked menacing under its mantle of black cloud as we passed, branching off onto the Bamiyan road. After about an hour, Husseini pulled up beside a small stream and everyone climbed out. I was hopeful it might be a tea stop but Khudadad explained with a heavy sigh, ‘They want to pray. I have to pray too.’ He left the jeep reluctantly. It was the first time I had known him pray on our journey, and to do so in such appalling weather conditions indicated just how much a man of influence and importance was our Commander Husseini.
As the men washed in freezing water before spreading their patous as prayer mats on the cold, wet ground I was thankful no such pious devotion was required of me. The rain had stopped but, with the approach of evening, the temperature was falling, the leaden sky remained threatening, and I was chilled to the bone. It was the first time I had been cold in months, an unpleasant warning that winter was on the way.
Commander Husseini assured me that we would soon be in Bamiyan and the sun suddenly broke through the clouds for a few, brief minutes as though to encourage us. In the deepening dusk the commander pointed out the many, many graves whose fluttering flags indicated that here lay some of Afghanistan’s martyred heroes. I remembered the reverent hush which had descended on our jeep one day in Jaghoray when Gul Agha had shown me the site of one martyr’s grave. Here, there were countless and I realised the men with whom I was travelling had really fought against the Soviet troops, who’d held Bamiyan until shortly before their withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Before darkness fell I was able to catch a glimpse of one of the giant Buddha statues in the cliff and a series of caves. The journey had taken five, rather than the anticipated three hours, and my excitement at seeing the Buddha was tempered with thoughts of finding somewhere warm and dry. Khudadad directed Commander Husseini to stop outside what, he assured me, was the best hotel in town.
I followed him up a flight of steep, narrow, stairs, asking, ‘Is this the hotel I’ve heard about from Jon? The one with kebabs and a toilet with a door?’
Khudadad laughed, ‘Very good kebabs.’ He stood aside to let me enter a large, empty room. A boy hurried in with a gas lamp which he was about to suspend from a hook in the ceiling until I indicated that I preferred the only source of heat on the floor beside me. I was shivering violently. The boy immediately handed me his patou and I pulled it round my shoulders. The heavy woollen shawl soon helped to overcome my shivers and I was grateful for the boy’s concern.
Khudadad and I cupped glasses of tea in our numb fingers, sipping thankfully at the reviving brew. By the time I had drunk my second glass I was warm enough to start thinking of other matters. ‘This IS the hotel with the toilet isn’t it?’ Smothering a sigh, he picked up a torch, pulled his patou more firmly round his shoulders and led the way back down the stairs. At the far end of a very muddy yard the dark shape of a small outbuilding was just discernible. Taking the torch, I picked my way carefully through the mud, skirting puddles. The building had not one, but three loos – a five star establishment, indeed.
I pulled open the first door and recoiled at the sight of copious mounds of excreta deposited around the hole. Hastily shutting the door, I tried the second, then the third, which had clearly, and quite recently, been occupied by someone with severe diarrhoea. Returning to the second toilet I attempted to find two turd free spots for my feet while concentrating on hanging on to the torch and my hand bag, unfastening the string of my shalwar, ensuring they did not drop too fast into the shit and keeping my chaddar above ankle height. Finally, torch clenched between my teeth, hand bag slung around my neck, I completed the task – resolving never to utter a word of complaint at Khudadad’s marathon hikes in the great outdoors ever again.
The kebabs were, indeed, very good and well fed and warm again I unrolled my sleeping bag. As we settled for the night Khudadad told me not to worry if I heard things – gunfire, soldiers marching – as it would be the mujahideen carrying out night exercises. ‘Just practising,’ he assured me.
I was glad of the warning when, lying awake long after Khudadad began snoring gently I heard the menacing ring of the night patrol marching through the town. However, it was not that which kept me awake – but a flea in my sleeping bag. As it feasted, I scratched until finally, I had to drag myself out of my warm cocoon to grope in the dark for the Stingeze. This revolting substance, whose main ingredient is ammonia, had been a real find in Sangi Masha bazaar, the only thing to bring instant relief. It did mean, though, by the time I was finally able to sleep, I smelt strongly of wet nappy.