MarySmith’sPlace ~ AfghanistanAdventures#58 ~ Skulduggery and spies

Jaghoray, December 1989

Nothing to do with Jaghoray – this is Jawad, one time driver, now programme co-ordinator, taken between Lal and Waras on a recent tour

Hussain had sent messages from Jaghoray, warning us against going there, because the translators at Qolijou were making kidnap threats. Mubarak said two of the translators, accompanied by several mujahideen had been to Malestan asking about our expected arrival date and future travel plans. There were rumours the hospital had been handed over to Nasre, who wanted increased funding for the hospital and our Toyota. We spent the morning in endless discussions and pointless conjecture.


Finally, I suggested I go alone to see Hussain, who had a tendency to dramatise any situation, and meet the translators, and Rosanna, in Qolijou. If Rosanna believed the situation to be dangerous she and I would come to Malestan together and leave from there for Pakistan. If it was nothing more than the usual over-reaction I’d send word Jon should come to Jaghoray. Rahimy insisted he come with me. Zahir and Sharif promptly volunteered to accompany us. Mubarak arranged the hire of his brother’s jeep.

As Jon and Mubarak waved us off next morning, I felt like a spy being sent behind enemy lines on an intelligence gathering mission. A glance at my three companions – one fourteen year old youth who looked about twelve, one extremely nervous ex-mujahid, and one very deformed leprosy patient, who at least succeeded in assuming a suitably sinister appearance with his turban tail drawn tightly across his face – and I decided we more resembled actors in a farcical spoof. We hadn’t even a Kalashnikov or pistol, between us.

It was still warm in Jaghoray, the sun shining in a brilliant blue sky with barely a hint of winter’s approach. As we were ushered into the staff room in the Mazar Bibi clinic, only Hussain, with much rolling of the eyes and warning finger to his lips, indicated that anything was amiss. The others welcome me back with warming enthusiasm. Soon, though, Hussain signalled from the doorway I should follow him. He explained the translators knew we were withdrawing financial support and were planning to steal the vehicle and kidnap Jon until we agreed to fund their hospital. He was horrified when I said was going next day to Qolijou to meet Rosanna. 

Jaghoray’s jagged mountain peaks

The bush telegraph worked fast. Before the end of the day I received visits from the renegade translators who had recently opened their clinic in Angoori. They insisted Jon, Rosanna and I were in the greatest danger. Khudadad, my erstwhile travelling companion, still with the Qolijou team, arrived to assure me I was his sister, Jon his brother, and, of course, we were in no danger.

The bridge which terrified me

Next day, an unwilling Hussain took me to Qolijou where Rosanna was bursting to tell me all the news. When the defectors left to open their new clinic, there had been resentment on the part of Moosa and the others, but no open hostility until Dr Pfau’s visit. At a meeting with the remaining translators, she’d been asked about future financial assistance and said we couldn’t finance the hospital. She also told Zaman that the others, in Angoori, liked him and he was welcome to join them there, told Khadeem that he hadn’t enough knowledge for medical work, was too stupid to learn and should go home. To round things off she informed Moosa that he was a thoroughly bad and dishonest person, who did not deserve any help at all. Then she blithely left for Pakistan, leaving Rosanna trying to smooth ruffled feathers. The disgruntled translators had run to the Nasre political party saying we were closing the hospital.

Hussain – taken earlier in the year

Moosa assured me there was no kidnap plan but they did want to talk about the future of the hospital – a reasonable enough request, I felt, so I sent a message with the clinic driver to tell Jon to come to Jaghoray. I didn’t know Hussain had sent a contradictory message. Bewildered by the conflicting advice, Jon decided on a long detour, which would bring him to Mazar Bibi, without having to enter Sangi Masha bazaar.

Usually a two day journey, because of snow on the passes, and having to wait for someone to bring chains for the vehicle, it took four days. During one of his overnight stops, my camera and ten rolls of exposed film were stolen from the Toyota – something over which I still grieve and about which I remind Jon whenever he shows any inclination to play cloak and dagger games or doubt my judgement of a situation.

Out for a walk

While waiting for Jon’s arrival I attempted to calm Hussain’s mounting panic. He’d convinced himself that, if the translators found themselves without financial support, they would with Nasre’s help steal his clinic’s medicines and money. The building work was finished. The new clinic was very well run, and kept immaculately clean by Ismail, who was also responsible for the beautifully kept stock in the storeroom. Around twenty five patients attended clinic each day, and Hussain now had eighty leprosy patients on his case load. If the Qolijou problem could be solved, I would feel reasonably content with the work achieved in Jaghoray.

A meeting was called, attended by Commander Irfani of Nasre, Hajji Bostan, one of the party’s leading lights, the Qolijou staff with Jon, Rosanna and me. Moosa provided us with an excellent dinner during which nothing controversial was discussed and, only when the tea arrived, did the real talking began. Jon explained our initial support had been given, on a temporary footing when the French organisation left, on the understanding the translators looked for another organisation which could provide long term assistance. Leprosy work, which the staff at Qolijou did not wish to do, must remain our priority, and we already faced problems in finding sufficient funds for our work.

In reply, Hajji Bostan, ignoring all Jon had said, gave a long rambling speech recounting the history of Qolijou – which everyone already knew – and spent a full twenty minutes on giving flowery thanks for all that we had done. I squirmed at the hypocrisy of the man who, because we insisted on remaining independent, refusing to be under his Party’s control detested our organisation. He asked Jon to give a reply. He, in turn, added the necessary bit of soft soap by referring to the warm relationship which existed between us and the workers of Qolijou, how much they had done to meet the health needs of the people, how he hoped their fine work would continue – with the aid of an organisation better able to support them than we were.

I thought, soft soap and flannel having been lavished on both sides, we could move on to the business of discussing how they were to find such an organisation. Hajji Bostan took the floor and began to repeat all he had already said. As all the speeches were being translated I feared the proceedings would take all night. Noticing that Commander Irfani, who hadn’t said a word, was actually nodding off to sleep, I asked if I might say something.  

Commander Irfani opened his eyes. I said that, although we were aware of the struggles the translators had faced in the past and that our inability to continue funding presented yet another obstacle, this meeting was to discuss the future, not the past. I suggested we use the time to start making proposals to present to aid organisations, and talk about the ways in which we might be able to help the translators secure future funding. As Moosa translated, Commander Irfani straightened up, looking relieved that the tedious speechifying had at last ended.

Hussain and I enjoying dinner

I volunteered to help write up project proposals if the translators would give me the information required on the kind of work they were planning. After further discussions, made lengthier than necessary by Hajji Bostan’s continued interference, the translators agreed they would start a trial tuberculosis control programme. When I was back in Pakistan I would write up the proposal, one of the translators would bring completed budget figures and would be steered in the direction of as many likely organisations as possible. Commander Irfani seemed to accept the points Jon made about our inability to continue to finance the hospital and appeared satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. Only Hajji Bostan was far from pleased – he relished making trouble.

56 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace ~ AfghanistanAdventures#58 ~ Skulduggery and spies

  1. How complicated to have to try and so something positive in such a complex climate, with so many contrasting interests and so little will to compromise. I hope your weekend is good, and I look forward to learning about what happened next. Take lots of care.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The drivers all used to pray as they crossed it while I wished they’d keep their mind on the bridge 🙂 Yes, the photos were all taken before my camera was stolen. I was less concerned about the camera (replaceable, eventually) than I was about the rolls of film. I still sometimes wonder what photos I lost. Sometimes when trying to find pics for these posts I’d be sure I had taken some of a particular place but be unable to find them – then remember.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think all my photos of Arif’s clinic, with the beautiful fretted woodwork in one of the rooms, were stolen. I would surely have taken lots – the building was huge, like a fortress. Anyway, they’ve gone and I’m not going back!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such an interesting adventure, Mary. I know you were heartsick to lose all those photos. I would have been. Is there a story somewhere about how you came to start this adventure in the beginning? I would love to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think in my book Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni, I give a brief account of how I came to be working in Afghanistan. Short, short version – I went to Karachi in Pakistan on holiday with two Pakistani sisters returning to visit families. I visited a leprosy project which received funding from Oxfam (I worked for Oxfam in the UK) and was offered a job setting up a health education department. Signed up for three years. During that time a leprosy control programme was started in central Afghanistan and when my contract ended I signed up to work in Afghanistan.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t get over how brave you were! Going off with a ragtag company! Yet here you are today telling the tale.
    It is the same the world over long speeches and little done! How did you have time to take all these wonderful photos. Really enjoying this Mary! 💜

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Another exciting installment, Mary…I can’t believe how calm you seemed to be whatever obstacles were thrown your way…Like others, I also think meetings are the same the world over lots of hot air and most times little to see for it …

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Its a great story, wonderful job and you were a brave and intelligent person. No one could dare to work there from far away people were nice but Afghanistan had been in war with Russia for long time. I’m from jaghori I was so young hardly remember about Qolijow clinic but I visited many times Mazarbibi Clinic. I think Dr Hussain beheaded by Taliban like too many of jaghori’s people when they traveled through Pashtuns to Pakistan. ( it still the same thou) The bridge remembered my childhood I crossed this everyday to go to school and came back.
    Would it be possible where your camera was stolen?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ali for your comments. I am pleased you enjoyed the post. These were difficult days (not that they any much easier politically today) after the Soviets left and the mujahideen were still fighting to put out the Kabul government and often fighting against each other. I am not sure when Qolijou closed. Mazar Bibi clinic was very good in treating general patients as well as those with leprosy. Also, after I left, Dr Sima opened a hospital in Jaghori. I wonder if the bridge is still the same? I think by now there must be a new one.

      It was dreadful what happened to Hussain. He had come to Pakistan and telephoned me to let me know he and his wife were safe. But, he wanted to go one more time to Jaghori to deliver the budget to the clinic. He promised he’d call me when he came back to Pakistan – but I never heard from him again. For a long time we didn’t know what had happened. I hoped maybe he was in the jail somewhere but the Red Cross checked and he wasn’t in any jail. Heart breaking story.

      My camera was stolen somewhere between Malestan and Jaghori but I don’t know exactly where as I was not there. Thanks again for reading my post. Are you still in Afghanistan?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can remember how they were fighting with each other. Too many irresponsible political parties were fighting each other until Taliban occupied the district and then almost all the country. It needed a very skilled and strong person to deal with them wasn’t an easy Task so complicated

        As long as I know 5 male including Hussain and a female from the area left Pakistan to Return Jaghori but they disappeared in middle of the way. At the time people from Jaghori investigated about them but never Found anything.

        I left Afghanistan 2005 but visited Jaghori 8 year ago.
        That bridge was called poole barat (Barat’s Bridge) it has now been rebuilt.

        I couldn’t find any picture from the bridge but there is a video about that bridge you could watch it from minutes 10.
        I read your recent post I hope you get better soon.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you for commenting on my blog. And thank you for the link to the video. I watched it all, not only the bridge. It is hard to believe the bridge is the same as the one when I was in Jaghori. So much better. Sang-i-Masha bazaar is very different from when I was there. Now it is looking very busy with so many cars. When I was there only a few jeeps were there.

          Where did you go when you left Afghanistan?

          Thank you for your good wishes for my health.


    • Oh, Sally, I’m really not very diplomatic most of the time. Just ask any of the nursing staff who were on the wards when Dad was a patient! You are right, at the heart of it people were desperately in need of medical help – though people like Haji Bostan really didn’t care about that – he wanted to show he was powerful. Rather like a number – a large number – of politicians we have here. Thanks for reblogging.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reading this post a couple times, it is right out of a political thriller – and there is a level of diplomacy much like a high-stakes poker game with the work you were doing. While reading this it seems most people would have not gone anywhere, you trusted your gut feelings of the situation and, in essence, called translators and everyone’s bluff. I think that alone made people respect you even that much more ~ because this is a pretty risky situation 🙂 An experience most could never imagine and you seem to have a pretty good collection of them from your time there, and clearly must have opened a whole new way of thinking and understanding about people & culture. Again, your writing is truly brilliant and your Afghanistan experiences… simply WOW 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Randall. Sometimes going with our gut feelings is the only way. I feel really privileged to have had the experience of living and working in Afghanistan over several years and every day brought something new into my life – usually in a good way 🙂 Afghanistan is huge and my work was mainly with the Hazara people – had I lived in a different part of the country with different people, my experiences would have been very different so I would never say “Afghans are this or they are that” because there is no one way of being.


  7. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – AfghanistanAdventures#58 – Skulduggery and spies by Mary Smith | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  8. My respect for you mounts with each installment, Mary. Those photos of the scenery are magnificent but the gun-toting Mujahideen posing in some of them terrify me- and that’s from the safety of rural Wales in the bland present. If someone had used the words kidnap or hostages I’d have crawled away to hide. This really does read like a thriller and the fact that it’s genuine makes it all the scarier for that. As always, your descriptions are vivid and laced with humour. As for the bridge, it’s not one I’d even trust to use on foot… Also, Ali’s comment here makes for grim reading and an indication of the danger you were all running.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The bridge always scare me, especially if the driver was praying – they take their hands off the wheel! It does sound a bit like a thriller but mostly life was much less risky (fortunately).

      I wondered if anyone would notice Ali’s comment. Someone else who knew Hussain’s story also commented once but it was on an old post so no one saw it. I didn’t want to mention his death while I was writing about being at his clinic though I did wonder about writing a later post. It was Taliban, who hate the Hazara people, who killed Hussain and everyone else travelling in the same vehicle.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I lived in Quetta for 2 years then moved to Iran with my family and since then I live here.
    Yes, as you said Sang-i- Masha is now so much different than those days when a few Jeeps (including the one you put the picture here :)) were there.
    I wish that bridge still was there I have so much memories from there.
    Have a wonderful weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Mary Smith: AfghanistanAdventures#58 ~ Skulduggery and spies | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

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