MarySmith’sPlace – #AfghanistanAdventures54 Winter travel

Afghanistan, December 1989, Day Mirdad

The delay meant we were a long way from our destination, when darkness fell. At the next check post the mujahid guarding the chain, tried to persuade us not to continue our journey. Jon thanked him, but said we must ensure our patients reached the clinic in Day Mirdad. The mujahid played the beam of his torch into the back of the vehicle. When he spotlighted Zahir, without his turban, he jumped back hastily and waved us on. Poor Zahir, for once, we were grateful for the terrified reaction he provoked.

At the next check post Jon tried the same story. The mujahid peered into the back, saw Zahir and said calmly, ‘Oh, a leprosy patient. Never mind, we can give you a separate room for him.’ Jon requested permission to speak to the Commander who opened the window of his office a grudging few inches. We watched as Jon talked, gesticulating occasionally towards the vehicle. We saw the Commander shake his head and give a brief reply. Jon tried again – the Commander slammed the window shut. We were not going to reach Day Mirdad that night.

We were directed through a gateway into a large, bleak compound. Crunching over the frozen snow, we reached our room, unwilling guests of the Nasre Party for the night. The room was frigid, my head was hurting and we were all cold and cross. A man came in to light the bukhari around which we huddled, morosely sipping tea. We had to ask twice for food before we were eventually served a quantity of greasy, grey liquid with a few pieces of very stringy, dried up meat. Not even Zahir could find anything to laugh about.

When I awoke in the morning I discovered I’d lain on, and broken, my glasses, my head was throbbing worse than ever and, when I learned, despite the fact we’d not exactly been willing guests, we were expected to pay for our board and lodgings I was furious. Determined to tell the Commander exactly what I thought of his shabby treatment of us I headed across the compound towards his office. Rahimy talked me down – otherwise we might still be there. With bad grace I climbed into our vehicle.

At least the day was crisp and sunny, which helped lighten the mood, as we headed towards Day Mirdad. We left the snow behind us, but it would soon catch up with us again, and we would have to complete the work in Arif’s clinic as quickly as possible. For Jon, it meant examining the accounts and handing over the money required for the running of the project through the winter months. For me, it meant interviews with Arif to collect information, statistics and stories about his work, to be included in reports.

Day Mirdad is situated between Pashto and Hazara lands. Arif was Pashto. Before the Soviet invasion had forced him to abandon his studies, he’d completed two years in medical college in Kabul. Arriving in Pakistan as a refugee, he somehow heard about the leprosy centre in Karachi, and was accepted as a candidate in the training programme. Arif and Jon had been class fellows in Karachi but were not close friends. As a Pashto, Arif could never accept coming second to anyone in anything, while Jon, south-of-England-born, had a similar arrogance. Somehow or other at the end of the training, each was able to feel he had done better than the other, and honours were even.  

As we approached the clinic the landscape became more desolate and barren. Grey, naked mountains rose on every side until it seemed there was no level ground anywhere.   Everything was on a slope; the buildings, the fields – tiny handkerchief sized patches of brown – the few trees growing sparsely here and there. Houses were hidden behind very high mud walls in which heavy gates were set. Occasionally we had a glimpse, through an open gateway, of the mud built homes, constructed like fortresses. Pashto women are even more jealously guarded than Hazara women who, by comparison, are allowed tremendous freedom.  

We drove through an imposing entrance into a large compound, on three sides of which was a two storey building. Arif came bounding down the steps to meet us, arms outstretched to embrace Jon in a welcoming hug.

Many are the tales of encounters between the soldiers of the British Raj and the fiery tribes from the Frontier Province, depicting the Pashto as tall, swarthy tribal chiefs, tangled black curls escaping from beneath their turbans, dark eyes flashing in challenge. Arif is nothing like those romantic heroes. Standing at barely five foot four he is stocky, has brown eyes which don’t flash particularly challengingly (well, maybe when angered) and a fair complexion. He is restless, excitable, unable to sit still for more than five minutes, and given to generous arm gestures when talking – which he does at great length and speed.

After embracing Jon he clasped my hand warmly, grinning, ‘Welcome, sister. I have many stories to tell you, but first we will drink tea.’ We followed him upstairs to the guest room which was large and sparsely furnished – a gilim which barely covered the floor and a pile of bedding. A Kalashnikov stood in one corner of the room, and when Arif saw me eyeing it, he rushed to give an explanation, ‘For protection, sister, for protection. When I go on tour Ashraf, you know Ashraf? My field assistant. He carries the Kalash – just in case. There are many thieves about, and maybe they think Arif has a lot of money because he works for a foreign organisation.’

We had stipulated weapons should not be kept on clinic premises by staff, a rule we suspected was frequently broken, although usually they had the sense to hide the thing before we appeared. I knew Hassan kept a Kalashnikov in Sheikh Ali, despite having made a big drama once about returning it to the local Commander. Now, he ensured we didn’t see it, but occasionally forgot, as when telling a story of being attacked by a wolf, which ran away when he fired his gun. He’d suddenly stopped talking as he realised he’d given himself away – then made matters worse by trying to say that he was just taking the gun home for a friend.  

If Arif felt he needed the protection of a Kalashnikov while on tour, often on foot, I felt there was little we could say against it but I could never really see the justification in having one in the clinic itself. If thieves broke in to steal the medicines, they would surely be well armed.  There would be a bloody shoot out which would most likely result in our staff being seriously injured, or killed – and the medicines would still be stolen. In this part of the world, however, men, from when they were still young boys, carried guns. It was expected. Only it used to be an old Lee Enfield which somehow seemed less of a killing machine than an AK-47 assault rifle.

43 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – #AfghanistanAdventures54 Winter travel

    • Not until I arrived back in Pakistan. It was the bridge across the nose so it my glasses were held together with Elastoplast. Fortunately, the lenses were undamaged. Sorry you are still locked out of Twitter and hope you are able to get your phone sorted soon. Hope you are well and that Julie has recovered.

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  1. Another wonderful episode Mary… I saw your note about your glasses, thank goodness the lens were okay. I am paranoid and carry around spares now having had a similar incident once. It does look bleak and quite uncomfortable I am sure in many respects being ‘guests’ of the militia and just as well you were dissuaded. As always looking forward to the next chapter…will share on Monday…♥

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  2. Love these reflections of your adventures, and I had to laugh a bit at a job description where “We had stipulated weapons should not be kept on clinic premises by staff, a rule we suspected was frequently broken, although usually they had the sense to hide the thing before we appeared…” This alone would stop all conversations happening around you with eyes turning on you 🙂

    The description of the cold and bleak travel and delay had me feeling cold & weary here ~ never fun times, and even when looking back on them it is tough to find the bright side 🙂 As you said, even Zahir would not find anything to laugh about. You’ve lived a dream in Afghanistan, with such memories. Have you ever read Caravans, by James Michener?

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    • Thank you. I’m delighted you are enjoying these posts. I read Caravans many years ago, long before I went to Afghanistan – long before going to Afghanistan was even a possibility. You’ve put me in mind to re-read it now to see if it is as I remember.

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  3. Fascinating… Somehow I can just picture you in the middle of it all–can’t help but smile at your antics, Mary. I’m sure you were not smiling, but a woman well able to hold her own in a man’s world, even in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hope you had extra glasses hidden in a safe spot.

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  4. Do i detect a touch of Caledonian prejudice here. Jon from the south of England had the same arrogance!! Erm, have you tried visiting Glasgow as an Englishman!! But no I won’t stoop to such petty stereotyping. I know I’m better than that. After all I was born in Surrey!! Sadly, what stands out is the last paragraph about the ubiquity of guns. It’s a wonder any society can be stable if all arguments are arbitrated against the background of firearms.

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    • I think the prejudice may be northern rather than strictly Caledonian – but you are right, let’s not stoop to stereotyping 🙂 As for the guns – there was a civil war going on since the Soviets left so I suppose the various political parties guarding parts of the countryside saw themselves as militia forces who had to be armed to do their job. I think what was unsettling was how quickly I became accustomed to the sight of armed men everywhere.

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  5. Oye Mary. Every time I read I’m still astounded. Besides the desert life and poverty, I’d have a harder time keeping it zipped about subservient women 😦 This line was also scary: “Rahimy talked me down – otherwise we might still be there.”
    Stay safe ❤

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  6. Seems you got a fantastic knowledge about weapons too, Mary! 😉 This episode shows me, there is a lot of compassion, even between enemies. Isnt it? Accepting money for a very bad accomodation shows, they have a good behaviour in earning money too. LOl Thank you for another interesting story, Mary! Be well and stay save! Best wishes, Michael

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    • Well, almost everyone carried a Kalashnikov so I was very used to seeing them. I never fired one, though. I was very cross when they charged us for staying overnight, especially when we had been prepared to drive on to our destination but they would not allow it. Anyway, we survived the experience. Glad you enjoyed the instalment. Stay well, Michael.

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