As we had time to kill before our departure, we ordered more tea. Khudadad was becoming increasingly chatty as his confidence in speaking English grew and he told me how the mujahideen had succeeded in defeating the Russian troops who were positioned on Shar-i-Gholghola. This was the site of the original citadel, overlooking the Bamiyan valley. It had once been besieged and destroyed by the infamous Ghengis Khan.
Bamiyan has always been an important city in Afghanistan’s history and was once a major stopping place on a subsidiary of the old Silk Route. Khudadad was just expounding his views on the equal fiendishness of both Genghis Khan and the Soviets, when a great clattering of feet on the wooden stairs made us look nervously towards the door.
It burst open and a dozen mujahideen, bandoliers of bullets strapped around their chests, AK 47s clutched in their fists poured in. When they stacked their guns against a support pillar in the middle of the room and sat, down my immediate panic abated. We weren’t about to be arrested. They nodded in our direction, and after making the customary greetings Khudadad, suggested we move to another room. Before we could do so, more clattering sounded on the stairs and through the doorway appeared, I guessed from his air of authority, the Commander and his Second-in Command. They were followed by – a Japanese film crew. I stared in disbelief, ignoring Khudadad’s whispered appeals that we leave.
Two of the crew were soon busily engaged in setting up their equipment while the third, clearly the director, surveyed the room, studiously refusing to catch my eye. He suddenly pointed to our baggage, ‘Get this stuff out of here!’
Khudadad instantly leapt to his feet but I caught his sleeve, tugging him back. ‘If he wants our stuff moved he can get the muj to do it. There are enough of them and we were here first,’ I whispered. I glared at the director who caught my eye just long enough to glare back at me. We were both furious, with a totally illogical anger, at finding ourselves, thousands of miles from our respective homes, in a place we each felt the other had no right to be. I suspect we had both been enjoying the ego-boosting excitement that we were the only foreigners doing what we were doing in Afghanistan.
There he was, on what would surely be depicted for his Japanese viewers as a dangerous assignment, filming the battle weary mujahideen, in one of the most remote areas of Afghanistan. And he finds a foreign woman, with heaps of luggage, installed in his chosen location, casually drinking tea. I, of course, had been enjoying the almost certain knowledge no other foreign woman was travelling around as I was, hitching lifts from commanders and mujahideen and truck drivers. We were both put out. It was ridiculous. We might have had so much to talk about, stories to share, but the instinctive hostility was obviously felt on both sides.
The Commander ordered his men to move the bags out of camera shot. I detected a flicker of a smile when he shot me a swift glance. Khudadad was twittering at my side, anxious to move but, for once, I chose to disagree with his advice. I wanted to watch what was going on. He subsided miserably against the wall surveying the scene morosely.
Platters of rice and kebabs were placed before the mujahideen and the cameraman zoomed in to film the heroes of the jihad shovelling rice into their mouths. Khudadad pressed himself further against the wall. ‘I am afraid they will film me,’ he whispered.
I laughed, ‘Don’t worry, no one in Japan knows you. Anyway, they won’t film you – you’re not exactly dressed for the part – no Kalash.’ The Commander grinned, and I realised he understood English, had a sense of humour and seemed more interested in us than in the film making process.
The aroma from the kebabs made my mouth water. I reminded Khudadad we’d have to leave soon and, maybe we should also eat. The cook was apologetic. No kebabs were left. When plates of boring rice were put before us, the watchful Commander obligingly sent over a share of their kebabs.
He then began to address Khudadad in Dari, asking the usual questions about me – who was I, what was I, where was I going and why? When he heard I was working for a leprosy programme he switched to English to include me in the conversation. I shot a triumphant look at the film director with whom he spoke only through a translator – one up to me, I thought. ‘You are most welcome here. We are happy you want to help our people, especially those with leprosy – a terrible disease. Are you going to Lal sar Jangal? I know of the clinic there.’
I was surprised and impressed he knew of the clinic in Lal; that he knew something about and was sympathetic to leprosy patients was astonishing. Most people showed only fear and ignorance of the disease. The Commander, despite interruptions from the film crew who wanted to get back to work, continued to question me about the disease, its treatment and the number of people in Hazara Jat who suffered from it. He also talked about the need for more doctors and health services in the area, especially Yakolang, and asked if we could expand our programme to that area.
I was happy to tell him we were hoping to open a clinic in Yakolang, which is between Bamiyan and Lal, in the near future.
A shout from below made Khudadad leap to his feet, saying, ‘Our truck is leaving, we must go.’ He shouted for the bill but the young Commander interrupted him, ‘You are our guests. We do not allow guests to pay. I hope we shall meet again.’ I gave my thanks and said goodbye, thinking gleefully, if childishly, the Japanese director was going to have to foot the bill for our lunch.