Afghanistan, December 1989 Jaghoray to Quetta
Suddenly, it was time to leave. The last few days were hectic, full of frantic packing and emotional farewells.
So many people were joining us on the journey to Pakistan that we needed two vehicles. The night before departure the clinic was overflowing with people and, desperate to escape the noise and confusion, for a few minutes, I persuaded Hussain to take a last walk on the mountain with me. Now I was leaving, he was full of remorse for all the times he had acted badly.
‘Really, Mum, I never mean any of the bad things I say when I am angry. I know you are right when you try to teach me how to behave, and I don’t want to fight with you. It just happens. You will find a different Hussain when you come back next year, I promise.’ I didn’t hold out much hope the growing up process would take place within five months – five years, perhaps – but I accepted his promises in the spirit in which they were made. We returned to the clinic to find some floor space on which to sleep for the last few hours left of the night.
We left before light. I travelled with Jawad and Hussain in the clinic jeep as they accompanied us as far as the checkpoint on the far side of Angoori where, if all went according to plan, we would pick up a hired vehicle for the journey to Badani. As the sun rose, chasing the early morning mists from the mountains, the sky changed colour from pearly grey through pink to blue, and Jaghoray had never looked more beautiful. The politics of a small minority of people may cause us more trouble than in any other place we worked, but it was the place in Hazaristan I loved best. Well, I silently amended, maybe second best; after Waras.
We were allowed through the checkpoint with no problems. In the Toyota, which Jon was driving, Rosanna was comfortably ensconced in the front seat. Malim Ashraf, the headmaster of one of the Jaghoray schools, one of his students and Sharif sat in the back.
I shared the hired jeep with Rahimy, Zahir and the driver’s mate. Saying goodbye was painful and for the first few miles I was miserable – but it’s impossible to maintain such a high level of emotional intensity when total concentration has to be given to hanging grimly onto one’s seat. As we bumped and jolted viciously over rocks and holes, I thought my battered body would be hurled through the open roof.
By the time we stopped for a break every muscle in my body was aching and stiff. Jon asked if I wanted to change vehicles but I said I’d carry on until we reached Tang-i-Chaddar, where we planned to stop for lunch. I regretted that decision when our jeep broke down, several times, before we at last limped into Tang-i-Chaddar. Almost too tired to eat, I managed to swallow an egg and some nan before stretching full length on the floor, falling asleep almost before I had time to cover myself with my chaddar. I awoke to find the room full of thick smoke, coming from a fire in the next room. Rahimy was shaking me urgently, yelling in my ear that I should get out. Coughing and spluttering, we ran outside to gulp fresh air into our lungs.
I changed vehicles, to sit in the back of the Toyota with Zahir and Malim Ashraf. As Jon is tall he needs the driving seat pushed back as far as it will go so, sitting immediately behind him I had no room to stretch my legs. Hour after hour we drove while I fidgeted, trying to find a comfortable position. Once, Zahir demanded in a loud voice why I did not change places with Rosanna, who’d claimed the front seat for her own. I shushed him, but if she heard his suggestion she ignored it. Darkness fell and still we drove on, Jon keeping close to the jeep in front. Eventually the driver stopped to admit that he had no idea where we were.
We only knew we were somewhere in the desert. Jon and the driver wandered around with torches, trying to find the track. The others set fire to the shrubs to try to keep warm as it was, by then, bitterly cold. We huddled round each bush as it blazed into life, holding our hands to the heat then, as the fire died down, someone would light another. The road had disappeared. There was nothing for it but to stay put until morning. I persuaded Jon to pull his seat forward to allow me a little leg room, feeling extremely envious of Rosanna’s short legs and ability to ignore the discomfort of others. Surprisingly, I was soon asleep.
In the morning, we gazed at the desolate desert, dotted with fire blackened shrubbery. The ground was a maze of tyre tracks, one of which, we hoped, would prove to be the one for Badani. For a while we drove in circles, as we had presumably done the night before, judging from the number of tracks going nowhere, but at last the driver of the hired jeep drove off with a sudden burst of confident speed.
We still had several hours ahead of us before we reached Badani and, after a loo stop, Jon suggested that some of us might like to change places. ‘I don’t think so,’ replied Rosanna. ‘I’m quite comfortable.’
‘I was thinking of the others,’ Jon said, but Rosanna nimbly leapt back into her place in the front passenger seat. Wimps that we were, none of us in the back, dared confront our formidable travelling companion and so condemned ourselves to suffering in silence all the way to Badani.
We said goodbye to the driver, who could not continue any further into Pakistan in his Russian jeep, and looked about finding alternative transport for the rest of the journey to Quetta. Badani was one of those places which, before the Soviet invasion, barely existed, but had expanded rapidly when it became one of the main, unofficial, border crossing points. Now there was a large bazaar, where money changers were trading openly and an International Red Cross Hospital. Trucks, buses and jeeps were travelling in both directions.
After breakfast, we hired a Toyota and Rahimy, Sharif, Zahir and I travelled together. Our driver knew everyone at the checkpoints and I noticed money exchange hands occasionally, once even a mysterious package.
At our lunch stop, Malim Ashraf kindly stopped me from taking a mouthful of meat to which still clung a large tuft of the goat’s hair. After lunch we discovered our driver had been arrested. One of the people we’d driven past hitching a lift had been an out of uniform, off duty police officer returning to his post. He seemed to think the driver should have recognised his authority even dressed in civvies, and was incensed he’d not stopped. Catching a lift in another vehicle, he had arrived at the bazaar, just in time to have him arrested.
Jon rushed off to the police station to secure his release by apologising profusely for any unintentional injury to the policeman’s feelings. The driver, on his own behalf, slipped a little baksheesh into the outstretched palm of the police officer.
At the last checkpoint at Pishin no guards were on duty and our driver didn’t stop but when, sometime later, we checked behind us, there was no sign of Jon’s Toyota. We turned back to look for them. The driver was reluctant to go all the way back to the checkpoint. If they had been stopped there, our arrival would only cause more trouble. It was dark, when we pulled up in a small bazaar to wait, but our presence aroused the interest of the local constabulary and we were told to move on. Further down the road we stopped again. The road behind us remained ominously deserted and, finally, we decided to continue to Quetta to enlist help.
As the driver started the engine we caught the gleam of headlights behind us and, a few moments later, the Toyota pulled up behind us. Rosanna leapt out, eager to tell the story. They had reached the Pishin checkpoint only minutes after us, by which time the duty guards were again at their post. They were waved through without a problem until one of the guards pointed out that Jon had a flat tyre. Realising it would look suspicious if he drove off without checking condition of the tyre Jon stopped and realised he’d have to change the tyre. The guards kindly lent a hand but, just as Jon was thanking them for their help, one of them, peering in the back of the vehicle noticed, for the first time, the Afghans.
Their manner changed from friendly to officious and they started questioning Jon. The policemen insisted they stay the night until the D.C. arrived in the morning to decide what to do with two foreigners driving around with a group of Afghans, all emphatically denying that they had ever set foot on Afghan soil. Jon tried to convince them that they were all working for the Pakistan leprosy programme. Whether his story was believed, or the guards just couldn’t be bothered with the paperwork keeping them until morning would entail, and they were allowed to go.
We were nearly at journey’s end. As we rounded a curve in the road and saw the lights of Quetta twinkling in the valley below us I heard a collective breath drawn by my companions in the back who had never seen anything like it in their lives. Even Sharif who, as a small child had seen Kabul, and thought he had seen the world, was impressed. Zahir truly thought it was magic.
After six months of pressure lamps and torchlight, and dark, dark nights in Afghanistan, I also thought it was a pretty magical sight.