MarySmith’sPlace – When roads become rivers – back in Afghanistan

I thought I’d provide some random snapshots from my second tour of the clinics in Afghanistan, in particular some of the problems we faced while travelling. We left on May 01, 1990 in two vehicles. I was in the Mobile Team vehicle along with Dr Epco, a doctor from Holland who was going to spend several months in the clinic in Lal, Jon and Jawad, the driver from Hussain’s clinic. In the other vehicle, Moosa from the field hospital in Jaghoray was returning after finding an organisation willing to sponsor the hospital.

We’d only reached the border town of Badani when we had to hire a replacement jeep and driver because without four wheel drive, the journey would be impossible. Delays waiting for a new driver – who came highly recommended because as a former highway robbery he could guarantee our safety – coupled with a series of punctures and a leaking water tank meant it took almost four days to reach the Mazar Bibi clinic. The hole in the water tank was temporarily but effectively fixed by melting a plastic water jug to use as a sealer. When darkness fell the first night we discovered the second driver had no lights on his vehicle. In the bazaar of Shahjoi, there was no room in any of the hotels – the driver went home, Moosa slept in one jeep, Jawad and I in the other and the rest of the group under a tree. Around 2 am I was awakened by a persistent tapping on the window – two armed mujahideen were demanding car park fees. Jawad paid them and we went back to sleep.

Although travelling could be wearisome the constantly changing landscape makes up for it – from flat, scrub covered desert to rugged mountains to white rockscapes wind-carved into fantastic shapes. Large tortoises, recently awakened from hibernation lumbered across the road – ponderous but determined. The weather was glorious making memories of last year’s battles in the snow fade.

The snow, however, hadn’t finished causing problems for us – or, rather snow-melt, which had turned tiny trickling streams into raging torrents. The road to Malestan was closed so we had to go over the high pass on foot, helped by donkeys, one to carry our belongings and one for us to take turns to ride.

On the return journey, as we went through a village, Epco was riding the donkey. It suddenly put on a great burst of speed and galloped directly into a house. Epco is over six feet tall, extremely thin and at that moment, totally without control of his donkey, lacked any trace of the dignity expected from a foreign doctor.

From Mazar Bibi we headed off, north to Lal-sar-Jangal. In Naoor, where we had to spend a night sleeping outside it was still freezing, despite being the middle of May. We heard conflicting reports about the road conditions, with some people feeling we wouldn’t be able to cross the swollen rivers. We decided to try. At the first river, running high and fast, Jon waded through first to check the depth and solidity of the bottom, decided it was doable and we did it.

This checking the depth was something we all had to take turns to do. The water was freezing. One of my flip flops floated away, watched by a gang of kids who did nothing to rescue it. I threw its partner out the window later.

On one occasion, the road seemed to be quite good – until the first river crossing where it was obvious we couldn’t go through. Back in the bazaar Jon negotiated the hire of a truck on which to load our vehicle. This created great entertainment value for the local people but it worked and we were able to carry on.

In Bonshai (not sure of spelling) even the trucks couldn’t ford the river. Everything coming from the south had to be unloaded – wheat, rice, sugar – and carried across a narrow, ramshackle bridge to the waiting trucks on the other side. Jon measured the bridge, decided there were about four inches on either side of the vehicle and charge across before anyone tried to stop him.

It took seven days to reach Lal and just before we arrived at the clinic, we got stuck in mud. Qurban and Ibrahim came charging down on horseback like a miniature cavalry and lots of people turned out to help. They attached ropes to the front of the vehicle and hauled it out of the mud. We still had the river to ford and a line of men formed up in the water to mark the way for Jon to drive through. The final obstacle was a steep climb up the bank on the far side and again, the ropes were attached, the tug-of-war teams took their places and with much revving of the engine and churning mud and pulling on ropes we were safely up the bank.

The last few yards drive had something of a triumphal entry as everyone jammed into the vehicle or hung onto the sides as we drove – very slowly – to the clinic.

MarySmith’sPlace ~ Afghanistan Adventures#60 final journey

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.

Dinner party

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.

Jon, Engineer, Malim Ashraf

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.

Friends I still miss

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.

Gul Agha and Ismail in the summer days when first arrived

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.   

Typical road

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.

MarySmith’sPlace ~ AfghanistanAdventures#59 Ghastly things and lovely things

Jaghoray, Afghanistan, December 1989

Mazar Bibi Clinic under construction 1989
Mazar Bibi Clinic as it is today

Hussain had taken Rahimy, Sharif and Zahir, to see something more of the area and I was writing up my tour diary when Habib, one of the translators who had defected from Qolijou, arrived at Mazar Bibi with a jeep full of patients. I explained Hussain would not be back until late afternoon. He asked if I would examine the patients. I pointed out he had more medical training than I but he begged me to at least look at the most seriously sick of the patients, a seven year old boy. 

The child was carried into my room, deathly white, gasping for breath, barely conscious. Handing me a stethoscope Habib explained, ‘First he complained of a sore throat then he started coughing and now he has breathing problems. His father brought him to us this morning but we are not sure what to do for him and hoped Hussain could help.’ The child was seriously ill. When I looked in his mouth, I could see a kind of grey membrane covering in this throat. Diphtheria?

I turned to Habib, ‘You must take him to Rosanna at Qolijou.’ 

He looked at me, miserably, ‘Can you not give him medicine?  I can’t go to Qolijou because Moosa and the others will laugh at us and say we are useless doctors who cannot manage on our own.’   

I was incredulous that his izzat, his pride, would prevent him from doing all he could for the sick child. I knew Moosa and his colleagues might not know what to do either – Rosanna was the one I was counting on. ‘He’s desperately ill. We have to get him to Rosanna.’ Habib suggested I take his jeep and go myself with the boy. We piled into the jeep; the driver, a woman, another man, two more children and the boy’s father, who had wrapped his son in a blanket and was cradling him, as gently as he could, in his arms.  

Before we were halfway to the hospital, the father tugged at my sleeve. He gestured helplessly, wordlessly, towards his son, and I yelled at the driver to stop. The boy had stopped breathing. I wanted to try artificial respiration but as I knelt down beside the boy, his father shook his head. His son had gone; there was nothing more to be done.

Someone spread a patou on the stony ground and laid the child on it. His father gently closed his eyes, weighting them with two small stones, and tied his big toes together. Feeling totally helpless, and angry at the unfairness of it all, I broke down and wept, walking hurriedly away from the little, dry-eyed group gathered now in prayer around the child. I returned to the jeep wanting to continue to Qolijou – desperate for some reassurance from Rosanna that there was nothing I could have done – but the father wanted only to go home to bury his child. We returned silently to Mazar Bibi. 

When I saw Habib, and tried to tell him what happened, I felt the tears overflow and run down my face. I hurried off to hide in my room. A few minutes later Habib entered saying, ‘It is not your fault. No one could have saved him. Now, will you please come and check the other patients, so that these people can go home?’

I checked the two children, who both had high respiratory rates and prescribed antibiotic syrups begging Habib to get them to Qolijou as soon as possible so Rosanna could examine them.

The woman came in and lay down. Grabbing my hand she guided it to where I could feel a large swelling, about the size of my fist, in her abdomen. She told me that, of the six children she’d had, only one, born four months earlier, was alive. Again, I could only urge her to consult Rosanna. Along with my feelings of helplessness, was an overwhelming anger that so many people should suffer so needlessly. The war against the Soviets followed by a civil war had never seemed so utterly pointless.

Fortunately, there were happier times to enjoy back in Jaghoray. Jawad’s brother got married and Jon and I were invited along with Hussain and Rosanna.

The bridegroom (Jawad’s brother)
Rosanna between me and Jon at the wedding. We were all given beautiful embroidered handkerchiefs as remembrances
A young Jawad

One day, Baqul’s wife, Fatima, from Sangsuragh where our temporary clinic had been, came along with other friends to visit me. It was lovely to see them again. I took them to my room, where they insisted on coffee, in preference to tea, before settling to tell me all that had been happening in the village since I left. 

Latifa was now engaged to be married, her mother had recovered from the injuries received when her house had been hit by rockets, Hazrat had been released, unharmed, after Hisb-i-Islami kidnapped him and several women had had babies. It was a lovely afternoon and I was touched they felt the bond of friendship strongly enough to face a three hour walk – each way – to see me. They complimented me on the progress I’d made in learning Dari and our conversation flowed more smoothly than when we first met. 

Of course they all wanted to consult the doctor while they were at the clinic, but only if I stayed with them and personally supervised any examinations Hussain wanted to do. We trooped over to the consulting room where I was astounded by the change that came over them. In the privacy of my room they had been totally free and at ease, allowing their chaddars to slip off, breast feeding babies without bothering to do up their buttons afterwards. In front of Hussain, they once more shrouded themselves completely, and from conversing and laughing together at an ear splitting decibel level their voices were reduced to a barely audible whisper. Gul Bibi even refused to open her mouth to allow Hussain to examine her teeth yet, whenever he turned away, she would catch my eye, directing seductive looks at Hussain’s turned away back, eyes rolling, lips pouting. At the explosions of mirth from the other women, Hussain would whirl around, by which time Gul Bibi would have once more disappeared into the all-encompassing folds of her chaddar. The more irritated Hussain became, the more the women enjoyed their fun, but I was thankful when at last, consultations over, I could escape before Hussain’s anger erupted.

After my last post a couple of Hazaras left comments, including a YouTube link to a video of Sangi Masha bazaar and the bridge which some years ago replaced the scary one. I was fascinated by how different the bazaar looks and completely amazed at the new bridge so much so I sent the link to Jawad to confirm it was the same place. He replied to let me know the person who made the video, Mehdi Ahmadi, ‘is a cousin of my children’. Worth watching – it’s under twenty minutes, the bridge is about ten minutes in. ‘Meeting’ young Hazaras who are finding and enjoying my Afghanistan Adventures and sharing their own memories in the comments brings me so much joy and makes me feel I am still very much connected to Afghanistan and its people.

Mazar Bibi Clinic in winter – such a glorious blue sky

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.

Mujahidden

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.

MarySmith’sPlace – Falling off a mountain – snow, ice & wolves AfghanistanAdventures#57

Afghanistan, December 1989

As we prepared to leave Arif’s clinic he became unusually quiet until, as he was saying goodbye, I realised how upset he was by his young brother, Sharif’s departure. He was coming with us to Pakistan where Arif had arranged for him to attend school in Karachi. I promised to take care of him, and with tears in his eyes he finally released Sharif from a tight embrace. If Sharif felt similar emotion, he concealed it well, appearing self-possessed about the prospect of not seeing his family for several years.

Leprosy patient, Zahir on the left, Arif’s young brother Sharif preparing to travel to Pakistan

We stopped for lunch at the edge of Naoor where I noticed Sharif patiently helping to tear up Zahir’s nan before requesting a spoon for him, without which it was impossible for him to eat. His right wrist, which had previously flopped about, had now been firmly splinted.  We feared a bone was broken (in fact X rays in Karachi showed the bone had not broken, but had crumbled away, attacked by pus bacteria which had presumably started life in an old, infected wound.) Despite his sorry state, Zahir still retained his high good humour, dissolving into his terrifying asthmatic giggle at the slightest thing. He was also becoming less self-conscious about his appearance, no longer keeping his face hidden behind his turban tail.

As there was only another three hours travelling in front of us to Malestan we decided there was no need to re-fill the thermoses at the chaikhana – more fool us. As the road began to climb steeply, becoming increasingly twisty and treacherous, we found ourselves, once again, in a snowy landscape. There was nothing to be seen, except a few rocks, appearing bald-headed, where wind had swept off their snowy caps.

Piles of snow drifted along the edges of the road, often obscuring dangerous ice patches. The single set of tyre tracks preceding us indicating how rarely this lonely stretch of road was used. We cheered ourselves by thinking of the welcoming tea we would soon be sipping in Malestan.

Near the top of the pass Jon had difficulty negotiating a tight corner. Reversing, to make another attempt, one back wheel slipped off the edge of the road. Further attempts resulted in all the wheels going off. Tyres spinning in the snow, the vehicle slid a few yards down the mountain. For the next two hours we struggled to get the vehicle back on the road.  

We unloaded everything and tried pushing, to no avail. We attempted to build a “road” with suitably flat stones, laying them in front of the Toyota like offerings to propitiate some angry god – which is how it felt by then. Nothing worked. By the time the sun began to sink, resulting in a dramatic drop in temperature, we had to admit we were well and truly stuck and we knew no other vehicles would come this way before morning. Jon decided to walk back to the bazaar, hoping to find someone with a truck and a tow cable. Realising we may have to spend the night on the mountain, Rahimy, Sharif, Zahir and I made ourselves comfortable in the Toyota.

We had plenty to eat – dried fruit, toffees and busrock (a deep fried biscuit) but no hot water for tea or coffee. Very soon the inside of the windscreen iced over, and we were all becoming shivery. I switched on the engine, turning the heater up full. This alarmed Zahir, huddled in a blanket beside Sharif in the back seat. ‘Turn it off! The jeep will run down the mountain.’ I tried to assure him this was extremely unlikely but he was not convinced, afraid I would fall asleep in the warmth, nudge the gear lever and send us crashing to our doom. I switched off the engine, suggesting Zahir try to sleep but he refused. Sharif sat quietly, as always, seemingly unruffled by events, calmly chewing toffees.  

When we could no longer see out of the windscreen because of the layer of ice, I’d turn on the heater, just long enough to melt the ice, and stop us all from freezing to death before the rescue party turned up. Rahimy became quite chatty, using the opportunity to practise his English. I asked if he would miss his family very much and he began to talk about his two wives and children.

I was interested in the way Rahimy spoke with evident fondness for both two wives. His first marriage had been arranged when he was young, and seemed to have been happy enough.  Then Rahimy had met and fallen in love with the woman who became his second wife. He was worried about how his second wife would manage without him. Her family had disowned her when she married Rahimy, and she lived far away from his first wife and the rest of Rahimy’s family. Before I had a chance to ask how and where he’d met his second wife, Zahir made us all jump by suddenly crying out, ‘Gurk! – Wolf!’

I peered excitedly out of the window at the expanse of snow gleaming in the moonlight, ‘Where?’ I demanded. Zahir explained he hadn’t actually spotted one but they were everywhere around here. He was now worrying Jon would be eaten before he reached the bazaar. I reassured him that, as winter had only just begun the wolves should not yet be hungry enough to tackle Jon. 

Jon, the previous winter.

After about four hours, when I was thinking we really ought to try to sleep, we caught the sound of an approaching truck. We listened intently to the faint but unmistakable sound which, though still a long way off, surely signified help was on the way. Zahir, however, now started to worry about robbers and we looked helplessly at our piles of baggage heaped at the edge of the road. At last, an ancient truck rumbled into view, stopping a few yards in front of us. Jon leapt out of the cab. 

The first tow rope snapped as soon as the truck took the weight of the Toyota but, finally, after a great deal of shouting and yelling between all parties, the vehicle inched slowly forward, until it was standing safely back on the road.  

Jon paid our rescuers and I urged Zahir to stay in the jeep while we re-loaded our baggage.  He was turning blue in the bitterly cold night air, coughing and wheezing in a terrifying way, as he struggled to help lift heavy bags with one hand. At last, we set off, everyone sitting in silence until Jon negotiated the last of the corkscrew bends and then, feeling the worst was over, we relaxed a little. Rahimy, Sharif and Zahir soon fell asleep, so they missed the next pass which was even more hair-raising. The summit was 3,600 metres and the bright moonlight illuminated the frozen snow, the hairpin bends and the sheer drops in a way which was both awesomely beautiful and terrifying. 

Although exhausted, I was reluctant to sleep in case Jon, who must have been even more tired, did the same. It was a great relief to reach the valley and know that we were almost “home” in Malestan. At the clinic, Khala and Baba, unperturbed by our arrival at three o’clock in the morning, hastened to provide tea. Then we collapsed into bed. 

Baba and Khala outside the Malestan clinic.

MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanAdventures#56 – caught in a bombing raid

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. 

Mubarak and I in our rooftop tent

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.

‘Yes.’

Looking towards the transport depot

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.’

Where the first bomb dropped

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. 

Emerging from the bomb shelter as the sound of the planes died away
Heading back into the shelter as the jets returned

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.

On the way to the transport depot

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. 

At the depot

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.

Jon looking a bit bloodied – but not his blood.

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.

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.

MarySmith’sPlace – #AfghanistanAdventures53 Foreign(Non)Diplomacy

Afghanistan, December 1989: Bamiyan, Sheikh Ali & onwards to Wardak Province

We’d enjoyed our day of playing tourists with very hospitable and friendly mujahideen

We returned to the French clinic to find Ghulam Ali, huddled under his patou, looking more miserable than usual. The room we’d been allocated was like a fridge, the promised stove had not materialised. Ghulam Ali was bored and cold and thoroughly fed up. Jon went off in search of someone to help, and soon a bukhari was installed and we huddled in a circle around it drinking tea, waiting for the temperature to rise. 

Shortly after seven o’clock the cook appeared to inform us dinner was ready and, indicating Jon and me, told us to go to the house. I pointed to our fellow travellers and asked, ‘What about them?’ The cook explained food would be brought to the room for the Rahimy, Zahir and Ghulam Ali, but Jon and I were expected to eat with the kharijee – foreigners.

He trotted out. Minutes later he returned and said, this time, in English, ‘Dinner is ready. You go to house.’

I shook my head, ‘No, we all eat together, here.’

The great Buddha of Bamiyan

Looking ruffled, he departed and we sat in an uncomfortable silence. I didn’t know what the other three were thinking about their exclusion from the invitation. Rahimy broke the silence to say, ‘If you want to eat in the house, it’s all right. We don’t mind.’ His hurt expression belied his words.

Before I could reply, the cook shuffled in bearing a tray with three plates of food. Setting it down, he was about to leave, when I remarked, ‘We are five people – there are only three dishes here.’

‘Your dinner is in the house with the foreigners. They have meat.’ He was sounding agitated by our steadfast refusal to go to the house, unsure if we simply did not understand his English, or were being deliberately obstructive. I sat down and began to eat from one of the dishes and the cook went out, slamming the door. He soon returned, with another two dishes, which he dumped unceremoniously on the floor before, shaking his head at the crazy behaviour of foreigners, he departed. We had no meat on our plates.

No Afghan host would invite people to stay the night, and then expect to eat with only a chosen few. I tried to apologise, explaining that in some organisations the expatriates and the local people tended to live separately, but Rahimy’s only comment was, ‘Foreigners are not all the same then, are they?’ I agreed this was true.

By this time Zahir was gasping and wheezing. At first, we were afraid he was having an asthma attack but he shook his head at our concern. Finding the ridiculous situation quite farcical he was giggling helplessly. Once reassured the dreadful sound was laughter, the tension in the room eased instantly and soon we were all laughing together.

Later, the foreign doctor appeared. ‘We wondered if you would like to join us for a drink?’ His eyes slid over the Afghans, coming to rest on Jon. The invitation was, once again, only for us. I indicated our friends.

The doctor shrugged, ‘You can leave them on their own for an hour, can’t you?  We don’t let our Afghans use the house.’ We explained we travelled together as a team, sharing everything, and, even before the doctor had left the room, Zahir, deciding the peculiar hospitality of foreigners was too funny for words, dissolved once more into giggles.

Next morning, Rahimy went to beg, buy or steal fodder for the sheep and leaving Ghulam Ali with the doctors, who were happy to operate on his toe, if not to allow him in their home we departed for Sheikh Ali. We made it in three hours.

We climbed up the steep path to the house, the sheep bounding ahead, none the worse for its journey. Hassan and Zohra were in the midst of preparations to go on leave; their first holiday for three years. The sheep, while a welcome gift, had to be rehomed until their return. Zohra and I had little time to talk but I asked about baby Sadiq, whose life had still hung so much in the balance when I last saw him. ‘Oh, he grew. He’s at home now, and his twin brother also survived. Even the grandmother finally began to accept my strange ways were sometimes right.’

We said our goodbyes in the evening as the family were leaving at four am. My cold which had started in Bamiyan was much worse so I was grateful our departure would be at the more civilized time of eight. I crawled into my sleeping bag feeling utterly wretched, awaking in the night, feverish, my head and face gripped in a band of excruciating pain. Jon dosed me with painkillers which allowed me to doze again but I slept fitfully and in the morning was no better. Jon, diagnosing a sinus infection, gave me antibiotics and postponed our departure. I spent the day swaddled in my sleeping bag, obediently swallowing medicines and innumerable cups of tea, feeling much too ill to enjoy the luxury of a day in bed. 

Next morning, although my sinuses were still painful and my teeth and jaws ached – even my hair hurt – I decided I was fit to travel. After breakfast we set off for Arif’s clinic in Day Mirdad in Wardak Province, expecting to arrive by late afternoon.

The sky was grey and heavy with snow as we began climbing the pass leading out of the valley. We were soon driving through a snowy landscape, and progress became ever slower as we carefully followed in the tracks of the trucks, which had preceded us. Near the summit, we caught up with the tail of the convoy, inching its way upwards on the treacherous road.

The snow had come sooner than expected, catching the drivers unprepared. They had not yet fitted the huge, heavy chains which allow them to grip the road in snow and ice and several trucks had already stuck fast in the snow and mud. 

Jon and Rahimy went to provide some extra muscle power to dig out the trucks. I persuaded Zahir to stay with me in the jeep, afraid the bitterly cold air might start off his asthma, and thankful women were not expected to shovel snow.

We gazed out at a forlorn and mournful landscape in which, apart from ourselves, there was no sign of life.

MarySmith’sPlace – Reading tea leaves, first snow &chocolate eating mice. AfghanistanAdventures#50

Lal-sar-Jangal, December 1989

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One of the few friends I’d made amongst the women was Aziz’s elderly mother who visited me sometimes to chat over a glass or two of tea. Unlike most of the women, she did not hound me for blood pressure checks and injections – contenting herself with the occasional plea for aspirin.

Aziz’s mother – I never knew her first name and adopted the local custom of referring to her as Mudder-i-Aziz – Mother of Aziz – thought rather highly of her powers of prediction. In an effort to provide consolation over Jon’s delayed arrival, she would sit tracing swirling patterns in the dust with a forefinger. These she would study with the utmost concentration until able to pronounce, decisively, the date of his arrival.

The fact her predictions had, on each occasion, proved wrong, never daunted her in the slightest  She would simply try some other method of divination, including peering hopefully into her (not my) tea leaves. These were not read in the cup but would be dumped on to the staff room floor.

On the first day of December I awoke to find everything white with snow. After shivering my way to the latrine, I headed swiftly to the warmth of the staffroom where the breakfast conversation was about the weather. This snow I was told was ten days early and everyone was most indignant about it. Haboly said, ‘The snow doesn’t start in Lal until almost the middle of December. It never snows at this time.’

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‘What,’ I asked, ‘is the white stuff all around the compound?’

‘Oh, this is not real snow,’ he replied firmly. It certainly felt real enough to me.  However, by early afternoon, Haboly had been proved correct. The snow, real or imaginary, had all melted except for in those few corners of the compound the sun never reached. Haboly again assured me it was a false alarm.

The second false alarm of the day came when he rushed in to my room, shouting, ‘Jon is here. His jeep is coming up the hill.’ I rushed outside to stand with the others, in a huddle at the entrance to the compound. But when the jeep appeared over the crest of the hill it was not Jon’s. As everyone dispersed back to their various tasks I stamped off for a walk, holding back my tears. I thought over the situation and gave myself a good talking to about being such a wimp. Staying in Lal over the winter would give me the chance to do so much more than I’d been able to achieve. I would have companions whose company I enjoyed. I’d be safe. I told Ibrahim I’d decided if Jon didn’t arrive, I would stay.

Two hours later I heard the faint sound of a vehicle, still a long way off, but as this time no one came shouting excitedly into the room I ignored it. It was only when, on hearing a commotion outside, curiosity led me to peek out and discover Jon had arrived.

He had loo rolls and a big bar of Cadbury’s chocolate – not the ghastly stuff made for the overseas market, but the real deal. Next morning, I discovered the mice thought it was the most delicious thing they’d ever eaten.

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Jon was anxious to leave Lal as soon as possible because he’d heard snow was already making driving difficult. It was easy to pack my boxes, though saying goodbye to Ibrahim and Aziz and my students and Qurban was more difficult. It was a bitterly cold morning, still dark, when we loaded the Toyota and made our farewells. Qurban, looking utterly miserable, took me on one side to say he was sorry for his behaviour.   ‘Really, I do and say things sometimes before my brain has understood what will happen.  Try to think of some good things about me.’ I assured him I would. There was no time to say anything more. I wanted to go but hated to go.

Ibrahim, bless him, had the perfect antidote to the emotion-charged situation. He appeared with a gift he wanted us to deliver to Zohra in Sheikh Ali – a large sheep. By the time we had stowed the struggling bundle of wool into the back of the already overloaded Toyota, slamming the doors firmly on it, we were laughing again.

Rahimy, Zahir and our third passenger Ghulam Ali made themselves comfortable in the back seat, excited to be on their way. Actually, Ghulam Ali showed no emotion whatsoever. He was a leprosy patient who required some minor surgery to remove part of a bone from his big toe. On first meeting him I thought him rather a miserable character. Later, I learned his permanent expression of stony faced disapproval in no way reflected his feelings – damage to his facial muscles had left them paralysed. Even with this knowledge, talking to him was disconcerting, since his expression never altered.

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As Jon pulled away, it was with mixed emotions I waved to the little knot of people at the gate. Zahir who had never been away from home before, sat, almost quivering with excitement, gazing out at the slowly lightening sky. Although we had explained to him, and to his tearful mother, it would be at least two years before the necessary surgical procedures would be completed in Karachi he seemed undaunted by the prospect. He was the first to break the silence by asking questions about our journey – when would we reach Pakistan, which places would we visit on the way, would it be hot or cold in Pakistan?

Once everyone started talking, my own spirits rose. It was good to be on the road again – especially travelling in the luxury of a Toyota (no wonder Hussain had held out as long as possible for one) with a whole seat to myself. We agreed until we reached Sheikh Ali in two days, we would relax, and enjoy playing at tourists. Best of all, from my point of view, was the knowledge I could tell Jon to stop the car at once whenever I had to pee.

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MarySmith’sPlace – Winter approaches AfghanistanAdventures#49

Lal-sar-Jangal, November 1989

Lal scenery

Scenery at Lal-sar-Jangal

The first week of November was almost over. It had become extremely cold. The sun, though still shining brightly in a deep blue sky, barely thawed the iced puddles in the compound, before they again froze hard. My daily activities were interspersed by increasingly frequent trips to the latrine – some hundred metres from the compound – as I tried to combat the cold with copious quantities of hot tea.  Once I heard Qurban call to me through the dividing wall between the two loos, ‘Would you like your desk and chair brought out here? It would save you an awful lot of walking.’

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Escorting the bride to her new home.

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The bride is stopped at a barrier until a ‘toll’ is paid.

I’d finished the stock taking and was now spending most mornings working on reports, and in the afternoons I taught English to Qurban’s young brother, Bashir, and Khadeem, the cook’s assistant. Khadeem had leprosy, fortunately discovered in the early stages so he would have no deformities and would soon finish his treatment. His family were poor; his father a landless labourer. Qurban, rather than provide hand-outs from the social budget, had employed Khadeem to work part time in the kitchen. His salary, though small, helped his family survive and Qurban had also enrolled him in the local school.

Both boys were enthusiastic students but Bashir was brighter and quicker to learn. Khadeem, although he tried very hard, could never quite catch up, and sometimes Bashir teased him over his mistakes. After a while a third student surreptitiously joined us, sitting hidden in a corner, listening intently.

Zahir, a leprosy patient, not yet sixteen years old, had many deformities.  Not only had he lost his eyebrows, his nose was completely destroyed; only two holes appeared in the middle of his face. His mouth was contorted, and a hole in his palate created a speech defect which made understanding what he said difficult. He always wore a turban, its end pulled tightly across his face to hide his nose and mouth. When eating, he sat as far away from others as possible and, if strangers were present, he didn’t eat at all. His hands and feet were also deformed, the fingers and toes foreshortened. He was staying in the clinic until Jon arrived then we would him with us to Pakistan for reconstructive surgery.

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Zahir, keeping his face covered, en route for Pakistan and reconstructive surgery

Finally he plucked up the courage to ask if I would give him lessons. After Bashir and Khadeem’s class was over I spent another half hour with Zahir, who proved to be a willing pupil and quick learner. He had already absorbed words and phrases through listening to the boys, and before long had almost caught up with Khadeem.

In the evenings, after dinner and lessons were over, we often played cards. This helped to round out my vocabulary, which still leaned heavily towards things medical, though not my card playing skills. I frequently felt moved to apologise profusely to whoever had been unlucky enough to partner me. The problem was caused only partly by my ineptitude.  The biggest problem lay in my inability to cheat. The others, Aziz and Ibrahim in particular, gave the most obvious signals to each other, indicating which suit to play, or that they had just played their last trump card.  Even when I had learned the various signals – the slamming down with force of a card, the eyebrow scratching and ear tugging – I was quite unable to put them into practise myself, to the utter despair of my partner.

As the weather became ever colder, a heater was installed in my tiny room, reducing even further what little space there had been. The mice, I am sure were as grateful as I, for the warmth. The stove was a frightening contraption with a metal box, divided into two compartments. A tap opened to allow kerosene to drip from the tank to the second box and, to get it going I had to throw a lit match inside to ignite the fuel. Often the match fizzled out before anything happened and the temptation to peer inside before trying again was strong, until Ibrahim warned me people had been severely burned doing the same thing when the kerosene suddenly ignited with a whoosh of flames. By bedtime the room was beautifully warm but, apart from removing my socks I slept fully clothed, thermal underwear included, because within minutes of turning off the heater, a bitter chill invaded the room.

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General scenery

I began to worry about the snow arriving before Jon did, leaving me stranded in Lal for the winter. I didn’t think I could cope for long with the temperatures. Besides, I was running out of toilet paper, a commodity not stocked in the bazaar. Jon was already several days late and once the snow came I would be well and truly stuck. Ibrahim, Rahimy and the others were quite pleased with this thought, planning all kinds of teaching programmes, convinced they would be speaking fluent English by spring time. They seemed hurt by my lack of enthusiasm about the prospect of five, snowbound months in the clinic.

Every night, I’d retire to my room with only the mice for company trying to feel positive and hopeful. Maybe tomorrow, Jon would arrive? Hope isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when it isn’t realised and I’d be disappointed all over again at Jon’s non-arrival by the following afternoon.

I calculated by which date I must leave if I was to reach Bamiyan and find transport south to Jaghoray. If I did not meet Jon en route at least Hussain in Jaghoray would be able to find a way for me to get back to Pakistan. Rahimy was to go to Karachi for a training course so he could accompany me – Ibrahim also offered to come as a guide, as did Aziz.  Qurban was horrified to discover half his team was preparing to leave in a week or so, especially as he knew they would be unlikely to return before late spring. I promised I would only take Rahimy.

 

 

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Blue skies and mountains – landscape to fall in love with