To de-stress after completing Arif’s accounts we went shopping in Tezak bazaar, where I’d spent the first night on the road, when travelling north with Khudadad almost six months ago.
The teahouse gossip concerned a recent bombing raid on the bazaar. The Kabul Government suspected mujahideen base camps were close to Tezak. I was puzzled there was so little evidence of bombing raids and was told since the mujahideen had acquired anti-aircraft guns, bombers could no longer fly in so low. The pilots were forced to drop the bombs from a much higher height, sacrificing accuracy for safety.
I wondered how I’d feel if I were ever caught in a bombing raid. Apart from here in Tezak, where the men assured us there would be no bombing for some weeks yet (how could they be sure?), our travels never took us near places of any significance in the war. However, on my second time in Afghanistan the following spring, I found out.
We weren’t supposed to be in Sia Huq the day it was bombed. A broken leaf spring, which refused to be held together any longer with bits of wire and string, forced us to make the detour. Sia Haq, once a tiny village barely two hours from Kabul, had become a major transport depot held by the mujahideen.
The repair job meant an overnight stay, yet another unscheduled delay on our journey from the leprosy clinic in Lal sar Jangal to Jaghoray, en route for Pakistan. We decided to kill time shopping for our evening meal. After weeks in Lal, which has no vegetables, except turnip, nor fruit the sight of mangoes had Jon, Mubarak and I, who’d lived in Pakistan and knew the delights of mangoes, whooping with glee. Juma and Abdul Hamid, neither of whom had ever been out of Lal, were unimpressed.
Our enterprising landlord, whose rooms were full of truck drivers, had erected a tent on his flat roof for our use and there we dined on spring onions, tomatoes, yoghurt and fresh, hot nan washed down with tea.
In the morning, Juma and Abdul Hamid were doing some last-minute shopping, Jon had gone to collect the repaired Toyota and Mubarak and I were chatting idly in our roof-top eyrie. We are talking, strangely enough, about how many airports there had been in Afghanistan before the war, when we heard the first hum of a plane, high overhead. Not used to such sounds I commented, rather obviously, ‘That’s a plane.’
‘Yes,’ replied Mubarak, ‘It’s a jet.’ We sat looking at each other for a few seconds and then heard a whump and a bang.
‘Was that a bomb?’ I asked.
And what did we do? Did we get off that exposed rooftop, run for shelter? No, we moved to the edge of the roof for a better view, seeing people running here and there, yelling, and screaming. A great cloud of dust spiralled skywards, indicating where the bomb had landed. ‘No damage done,’ murmured Mubarak, ‘it only hit the mountain. Still, maybe we should move, in case there’s more.’
We were gathering together bits and pieces, with what I thought of as admirable calm, when Jon’s head appeared on a level with the rooftop. ‘What the fuck are you two doing here? Get down! Now! There’s a shelter behind the hotel. Get going.’ So, we “got going”. The planes came back time and time again, always flying too high to be reached by the anti-aircraft guns, which soon fell silent. Of course, the higher the plane, the less chance there was of the bomb scoring a direct hit on the transport depot full of trucks and fuel supplies: which meant – not a reassuring thought – the bombs could land anywhere.
The shelter, cut into the side of the mountain was full to overflowing. Although the men offered me a place I decided to take my chances out in the open, hugging myself close to the rock. Mubarak on one side of me was murmuring over and over, ‘What a country, what a country’, while Jon on the other, was still nagging me for not running for shelter at the first sound of the jet.
During a lull, we decided to head further up the bazaar towards the depot, with the intention of moving the Toyota to a safer place. The brain must have some kind of pre-programming, because although I’d never been bombed before, as another plane flew over, I was suddenly face down on the ground, practically kissing the dirt. You do it by instinct. Like in war films! I felt strangely embarrassed when I rose to my feet along with everyone else in the street. Fear is so undignified.
We met a man being pulled along on a handcart. Blood poured from a smashed elbow and we could see bits of bone, gleaming white amongst the crimson. Taking him into an empty tea-house, Jon sent me to fetch the first aid kit from the Toyota. As I ran along the almost deserted street, chaddar flying, a man tried to stop me, shouting at me that it was dangerous. When I kept going he, assuming I hadn’t understood him, ran in front of me, arms outstretched, making aeroplane droning noises, going BOOM at intervals, repeating the words khaternak, khaternak – dangerous. With no time to discuss the situation I threw out the words injured and doctor. Satisfied, he nodded and let me go.
Approaching the depot I understood what he meant about dangerous. The place was an inferno. Trucks and barrels of fuel were blazing everywhere; great chunks of metal were flying in all directions. No-one was about. Spotting the Toyota, mercifully not burnt to a cinder, I suddenly pulled up short. I’d forgotten the keys. Stupid, stupid, stupid, I scolded myself as I moved swiftly towards it, wondering if Jon would think smashing a window was justified. Luckily, the blast had neatly taken out the front passenger windscreen and I was able to climb in and grab the first aid kit.
Back at the tea-house Jon was gently cleaning the injured man’s arm. He dressed the wound, gave him painkillers and his friends set off to take him to the clinic on the edge of town. We knew the arm would have to be amputated. The raid was over and people were beginning to return to their shops and businesses.
Jon went off to see about the Toyota and Mubarak and I returned to our tent. Juma was there, wide-eyed and in shock, but of Abdul Hamid, there was no sign. Jon returned saying we could leave in about an hour. We spilt up and searched the bazaar for Hamid.
A Commander came to see us. ‘Five people have been killed. We know four of them but the fifth we can’t identify. It might be your man. Can someone come and look?’
Jon went, returning white-faced. ‘The man they don’t know has no head. Can you remember what colour of shoes Abdul Hamid was wearing?’
‘Brown and white,’ I replied promptly. I’d thought the two-toned brogues were hideous.
‘OK. This man has black shoes. Had.’
It was another two hours before we spotted Abdul Hamid, wandering through the bazaar, totally disorientated. We never learned where he’d been – all he could remember was the first bomb dropping and then running, running, along with everyone else.
We piled into the Toyota to leave Sia Huq, travelling in silence as we each came to terms in our own way with had had happened. After a few miles, Mubarak’s soft voice asked, ‘Did anyone remember to bring the mangoes?’
We stayed overnight near Tezak. None of us slept well. Knowing how frequently Tezak had been bombed in the past, it was not the most reassuring of places to be. When the sound of an aircraft was heard above us, I asked hopefully, ‘That’s a commercial plane, isn’t it?’
‘No,’ I was told tersely, ‘but they don’t usually bomb us at night. It is too dark.’ I decided that under no circumstances was I going to go out to the loo with a torch in my hand. Just to keep us on our toes, after the plane had vanished into the night, two mujahideen from different Parties, posted at the Paygar next door to our hotel, had a disagreement. They attempted to resolve it with a shoot-out, until the Commanders stepped in to reprimand them.
Two days later we heard the Government had bombed Sia Haq again – this time, almost totally destroying the bazaar. It was in retaliation for the mujahideen hanging two Government spied in their midst.
Poor Abdul Hamid, who had never been further than Bamiyan, took a long time to recover and remained nervous until we reached the Pakistan border. He was fated to be an unlucky traveller: his first meal in Pakistan contained a large, well cooked, but decidedly off putting, cockroach. In Quetta, the office cook, house-sitting our house while we were on leave was murdered and being a stranger, Abdul Hamid was arrested and held in jail for two weeks. On his return journey to Lal, the vehicle in which he was travelling was stopped by bandits who stole all his money. He vowed never to leave home again.