A journey to Afghanistan

With such dire warnings from a Pakistani diplomat, in addition to the well-known dangers of travelling in Afghanistan, with a very heavy heart I almost decided against going. It would have been my second failed attempt to visit that country, barely three hundred kilometres from Islamabad, where I lived and worked for many years.

(published in Dawn, 10 May 2017)

https://www.dawn.com/authors/6729/razi-azmi

Go to the above link for some photos from the trip. However, as the comments section in the Dawn blog is now closed, please post your comments on this blog.

Our paths crossed at the arrivals hall of the Islamabad International Airport, next to a baggage conveyor belt. No, we were not arriving passengers, but outgoing passengers whose PIA flight to Kabul had been cancelled virtually at the last minute – barely 30 minutes before the scheduled departure. The reason given was bad weather, but something else seemed to be in the air.

Relations between these two closest of neighbours were at an all-time low. Land borders had just been reopened after an abrupt weeks-long closure. It seemed that bad blood rather than bad weather was responsible for the misery of the dozen or so passengers.

Having got the “exit” stamps on our passports cancelled, as well as the appropriate “flight cancellation” papers from the PIA office, we were directed to collect our returned checked-in luggage from the arrivals belt. It was here that a fellow-traveler asked me why I was going to Afghanistan. Was it business? No, I said, I was going there as a tourist.

Visibly shocked, he advised me against going in the strongest possible terms. He almost begged me not to go. When I retorted that he was heading in that direction himself, he let it be known that he was a senior official in the Pakistan embassy there. Unfortunately, he said, as part of his job, all too often he was called upon to rescue stranded and kidnapped Pakistanis. No, please don’t go to that god-damned country, he pleaded.

With such dire warnings from a Pakistani diplomat, in addition to the well-known dangers of travelling in Afghanistan, with a very heavy heart I almost decided against going. It would have been my second failed attempt to visit that country, barely three hundred kilometres from Islamabad, where I lived and worked for many years. For someone who loves travelling more than anything else, this seemed an unacceptable, a rather embarrassing omission on my record.

A few years ago, I was in Iran, and Afghanistan was my intended next stop before ending a long overland trip through Russia, the Baltics, Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I had applied for a visa at the Afghan consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

The diplomat who interviewed me warned me against going because of the inherent dangers. I had told him that he should be the last person to say so. It was the job of journalists to say how dangerous a country was and for diplomats of that country to refute such “false” reports.

The Afghan diplomat looked embarrassed but cautioned me nonetheless. On my persistence, however, he granted me a visa. As fate would have it, I was taken sick in Tehran, which forced me to cut short my trip. Mission aborted, however reluctantly!

The first time I had looked at Afghanistan was from the Torkham border, in 1979, shortly after the April 1978 Communist “Saur” Revolution. Afghanistan was under lock-down and there was no question of anyone going in. Then came the Russian invasion and occupation, followed by civil war between various Mujahideen factions, and then Taliban rule. US intervention followed but peace and security eluded Afghanistan.

Again in 2007, I had stood at the Torkham border, watching tribal Pushtun people come and go as they had always done, including in 1979. Now, a decade later, I was ready to board a plane for Kabul, but the flight had been cancelled. Our stars, I mean mine and Kabul’s, were apparently not in alignment. To go or not to go, that was the question now.

Heedless to these multiple explicit, unequivocal warnings, I decided to go. So, with a Kam Air ticket in hand for later the same day, I was headed for Afghanistan, no matter what.

When my half-empty flight landed at a rather deserted Kabul airport, it was dark. Walking through three eerily empty car park areas, all closed off to traffic, I was able to locate my driver, Muhammad Nabi, sheepishly grinning. He led me to his rather rundown private taxi and drove me to my hotel.

There was no way of knowing if it was a hotel, for there were no signboards. By the looks of it, it could have been a high-security jail. Passing through three iron-clad security doors, I finally arrived in my room. It was a mid-range hotel arranged by a Pakistani Pushtun who was staying in the same hotel for a 10-day workshop. He had put me in touch with his Afghan Pushtun coordinator, who arranged for my room as well as my transport.

Unusually for any hotel that I have ever known, the room rate included dinner, besides breakfast. And for good reason, too.  I was advised not to venture outdoors without an Afghan escort, and certainly not after dark. The dozen or so Pakistanis from Peshawar were under the same restriction. Like it or not, I had no choice.

For the first two days, I went around Kabul in Muhammad Nabi’s private taxi. I seated myself on the front passenger seat for better views, no matter that the windshield in front of me was partly shattered and there was no seat belt protection either.

My main historical attraction was an important landmark of Kabul, Darul Aman, conceived and partially constructed by King Amanullah Khan in the 1920s. Its shattered façade has been publicized for decades to show the damage done to Kabul by Mujahideen infighting after the Russians left. Unfortunately for me, it was draped in cloth, possibly undergoing some restoration.

The new parliament building with its large bronze dome, a US$ 90 million gift from India, was completely out of sight due to the high security fence. It was the target of a Taliban attack in 2015

To add to my disappointments, the central district, where the presidential palace (“Arg”), defence ministry and the historical old bazar are situated, was also barricaded totally beyond view.

Every morning, from my window, I could see helicopters flying, apparently on combat missions. Also suspended in air over Kabul (and, as I later discovered, over Jalalabad) was a large reconnaissance balloon, sending aerial photos of any emerging threat.

Despite the obvious dangers, I visited Paghman, about 30 km from the city, and the Bagh-e-Babur (Babur Gardens) in Kabul.

Paghman is a picturesque place where the mountain meets land, with water gushing from the melting ice around, and a great picnic spot for Kabul’s residents. It is also the site of a mini arc de triomphe, an imitation of the original in Paris, conceived and built by King Amanullah Khan after his European tour in 1927-28.

Amanullah was a great westernizer, whose bold steps antagonized the conservatives and led to his forced abdication in 1929. Paghman is now the abode of the rich and famous of Afghanistan.

The Bagh-e-Babur was originally conceived by India’s first Mogul emperor himself, who is known for his love of Afghanistan and disdain for everything Indian. Quite fittingly he is buried in his favourite city. Himself from the Ferghana valley in neighbouring Uzbekistan, he had captured Kabul in 1504.

The park is in a picturesque setting and, on the weekend I was there, it was full of holiday-makers strolling and having picnic lunches on the grass. Young men, walking around holding hands, probably no more than an exhibition of friendship, is a common sight in those parts.

Having been dropped off by Muhammad Nabi at the gates, I followed the crowd towards the entrance. When stopped by security, who seemed to be checking entry tickets, I murmured something. Upon which it was loudly announced that I was a “kharijee” (meaning foreigner) and asked to buy my ticket and enter through another gate. Needless to say, the ticket for “kharjees” was far costlier than for locals. While my looks and my shalwar kameez had allowed me to pass for a local, my tongue had betrayed my identity.

I had a good time inside the park, walking around, taking photos and asking strangers to take my photo as well. When I emerged from the park, my driver was nowhere to be found, apparently he had been whisked off by the police from where he was parked. I located him only after a desperate search lasting about half an hour.

That was the only inconvenience of my visit to the park. And a very minor one compared to what my Pakistani acquaintance had experienced in the same park on the same day.  He had gone there in the company of his two colleagues, all Pakistani Pushtuns, as well as an Afghan escort.

While he was taking pictures with his phone-camera, a man in civilian clothes approached them, claiming to be an Afghan intelligence officer. He accused them of taking pictures in a prohibited area and seized the phone after returning the sim card.

The three “kharijee” gentlemen were totally intimidated, complying without a murmur, and their Afghan escort also remained a silent spectator. The impersonator walked away with the phone. In retrospect, I was very lucky, for things easily could have gone horribly wrong.

But nothing could deter me from a road trip to Mazar-e-Sharif, a city in the north, not far from the Uzbekistan border. Famous for the Blue Mosque, claimed by locals to be the burial place of Hazrat Ali, Mazar Sharif has been in the news for the last three decades for all the wrong reasons.

A military base during the Russian occupation (1979-88), it was a stronghold of the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum for about five years until 1997, when a rebellion by one of his generals, namely, Abdul Malik Pahlawan, forced him to flee. Mazar was under Taliban rule from 1998 to 2002 and has been the scene of many massacres and brutalities committed by one and all.

Most infamously, when Dostum took control of the city after the Americans drove out the Taliban in 2002, he locked up hundreds of his prisoners in metal shipping containers on the flat plains south of the city, leaving them to slowly bake to death in the searing summer heat. This story of Dostum’s cruelty is captured in a TV documentary called “Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death (previously called Massacre at Mazar)”.

On the eve of the American military intervention, Pakistan’s ISI reportedly airlifted scores of its operatives from Mazar in a covert night operation, carried out with the connivance of Washington.

Even more than Mazar’s infamy, I was drawn to the road that connects it to Kabul, over four hundred kilometres away. It is dotted with numerous places associated with events from recent Afghan history: Charikar, Bagram, Shomali plains, Panjsher valley, Pol-e-Khomri and many more.

Above all, there is the famous Salang Tunnel, built by the Russians in 1964, enabling the only direct link between northern and southern Afghanistan. At 3,400 metres high, it was the highest road tunnel until 1979, when it was overtaken by a margin of just one meter by the Eisenhower Tunnel on the I-70 in the US.

It was not without some trepidation, though, that I decided to take the Salang route, rather than fly to Mazar. Some 2.67 km long, the Salang tunnel was the scene of a catastrophic inferno in 1982, caused by an accident involving two Soviet military convoys. It resulted in the death of over 2,000 people, reportedly including 700 Soviet troops. More recently, in 2010, a series of avalanches at both ends of the tunnel resulted in the deaths of 172 persons.

With such statistics at the back of my mind, I was a bit anxious, to say the least. On entering the tunnel, however, I found it terrifying, for it wasn’t even a road, just a rocky surface, wet and slippery from melting ice, and choked with convoys of large fuel trucks. A mechanical breakdown or a minor accident could lead to very catastrophic results.

Then there were the hairpin bends and perhaps two dozen small and big semi-tunnels on either side of the main tunnel. Broken down trucks and trucks with flat tires littered the road. Needless to say, traffic moved at a snail’s pace, prolonging the terror.

The landscape changed throughout the journey, starting with the Shomali plains, then rising, snow-clad mountains, followed by lush green valleys with bare mountains on either side, finally culminating in the flat plains on the approaches to Mazar Sharif. From beginning to end, however, the scenery was just stunning.

When we passed Pol-i-Khomri, about two hundered kilometres south of Mazar, my driver, Ismail Agha, a Pushun from Kunduz, warned me that the next 100 kilometres or so was a dangerous area, with a looming Taliban threat.  In the event, the journey to Mazar was eventless, although the sight of numerous Humvees and army or police check-points were evidence of potential dangers.

On the way back the next day, however, the situation had changed.  When Ismail called up his local contacts to check up on the security situation on the road ahead, I sensed trouble from his side of the conversation. Ismail’s demeanour changed completely. A father of nine, he looked visibly worried. Without saying a word, he made a sharp u-turn and parked the car at the nearest police checkpost, about a kilometer away. I needed no explaining but Ismail explained to me nevertheless that there was danger ahead and we needed to wait.

Fortunately, less than an hour and a few phone calls later, he felt confident enough to resume the journey. Barely had we covered a kilometer than I saw Humvees on the move and heard the sound of firing. In trying to drive away fast, our car got sandwiched in a column of three Humvees, with their guns scanning the area.  I asked Ismail to break out and get ahead of the column.

But our attempt to escape from a dangerous situation landed us in an even more perilous location – we now got sandwiched between two large oil tankers! Any hit on a tanker could result in an explosion and an inferno. I again advised Ismail to overtake the tankers, which he did. The firing died down and we made it to Pol-i-Khomri in good shape. And thence to Kabul.

The following day, I made a day-trip to Jalalabad, not far from the Torkham border with Pakistan and the main Pushtun city of Afghanistan, besides Kandahar further south. It is where both King Amanullah Khan and Red Shirt leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (“Bacha Khan”), also known as the “Frontier Gandhi”, are buried. Jalalabad is also the home town of a large portion of the Afghan cricket team.

Along the road is the Sarobi Gorge, where the road rises, twists and turns, providing some very spectacular views. Sarobi I knew as the place where the Taliban inflicted a crushing defeat on Hekmatyar’s forces in the final phase of their near-total victory over the former Mujahideen. When they were over and done with, only Ahmad Shah Masood held out in a small enclave in the north.

Visible from the road, on the outskirts of Kabul, is situated the infamous Pul-e-Charkhi prison.  It is a massive, high security jail extending a few kilometers along the Kabul-Jalalabad highway, known for extreme brutality inflicted on its inmates ever since it was constructed in the early 1980s.

Sadly, I was unable to go to Herat and Bamyan, for my Afghan visa only allowed me a maximum stay of ten days.

I avoided talking politics with my two drivers, with whom I spent many hours and was tempted to get their views on recent events in Afghanistan. But to my straightforward question as to who, in their opinion, had been the best ruler of their country – and I named every one starting from King Zahir Shah, through Sardar Daoud, Nur Mohammad Taraki, Hafizullah Amin, Babrak Karmal, Najibullah, Ahmad Karzai, down to the incumbent Ashraf Ghani – I got the same answer from both, one a Tajik and the other a Pushtun.

Their favourite leader was Dr Mohammad Najibullah, who was President from 1987 to 1992, following the departure of Russian troops.  Najibullah was a strongman from the Pushtun Ahmadzai tribe who ruled independently of any foreign influence or control.

Contrary to widespread expectation of the imminent collapse of his regime after the Russian withdrawal in 1988, Najib kept the ship of state afloat and the Mujahideen at bay, until he was betrayed by his ally, none other than Abdul Rashid Dostum, in 1992, when he sought refuge in a UN compound.

A brave man he was, for when Ahmad Shah Massoud, fearing an imminent Taliban take-over of the city, decided to withdraw his forces from Kabul to his stronghold in the north, he offered to take Najibullah with him, but the latter refused to go. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, they seized and killed him with great brutality.

by Razi Azmi

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12 Responses to A journey to Afghanistan

  1. Raana Shah says:

    A journey full of dangers and sensations , written by you like it’s a normal story. Throughout feels like a pleasure trip , doesn’t look like a danger zone. Your deep knowledge and your adventurous nature is quite obvious in the story. Each and every place that you visited , you described with its back ground and the pictures so well that one feels like visiting with you . I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and I’m sharing it with friends too. But I’m glad this is over and done and you’re back home safe.

  2. Azhar Nomani says:

    Great work, full of adventures and smitten with courage. You deserve monumental accolades for venturing and planning such a wonderful trip. You have seen first hand the mis adventures of of so called superpowers and aftermath in the form of human misery. Perhaps you might have changed your views about lefties. To me both are two sides of same coin.
    On a different note we missed you at Aslam sb’s son,s walima where I came to know that you are on such a mission.
    Did you visit Baikal lake in Khazakistan? That had been biggest environmental disaster of modern time!
    Keep writing your memoirs. This was interesting and well written

    • Razi Azmi says:

      You mean Aral Sea, or what remains of it. Aral Sea is (or was) shared between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. I went very close to it, to Khiva in Uzbekistan, but no further. The remnants of the Aral Sea are a bit to the west of Khiva, near Nukus. The only interest in visiting the desolation there would be to see a monumental man-made disaster. Lake Baikal is in Siberia (Russia), near the town of Irkutsk. I have been there and I recommend it highly. It is a place of pristine, breathtaking beauty, nature at its finest.

  3. Sami Syed says:

    Razi Bhai, I read with great interest your travelogue to the most beautiful (and now most dangerous) place on earth. Only a braveheart can venture in these regions. Historical significance of each place and the looming dangers, made your travel account an informative thriller. Very few writers can accomplish this feat. Congrats. Looking forward to reading more such travel adventures.
    We missed you at AMU Alumni BBQ.
    SAMI

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Thanks, Mr Syed, for your kind words. If you liked this piece, there are many more on my past travels on this blog. Just go to the home page and click on the “Here and There” tab for the rest of my travelogues.

  4. Razi Azmi says:

    The following comment has been emailed to me by Mr Nadeem Siddiqi (for some reason, his comment is not getting through despite his two attempts to post on this blog):
    “Excellent writeup by Dr Razi Azmi felt like I was with him on the tour and the photographs were of very high quality. But all the time a single question kept coming to mind ‘WHY’ in his own words -‘With such dire warnings from a Pakistani diplomat, in addition to the well-known dangers of travelling in Afghanistan’.
    The only part missing was his interactions with the locals. No locals or foreigners were in the photographs except in Bagh-e-Babar. The Blue Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif was deserted. Bloody Taliban, but a lot of our brothers blame America.”

    My reply: If there were any other tourists in Afghanistan, I did not see them. I doubt there were many. No locals in most photographs? Because I was very discreet in the use of my camera, for fear of attracting attention as a tourist. The Blue Mosque wasn’t very crowded because I visited it in the morning. However, I do have photographs that feature locals. I will post them on this blog soon.

  5. Pradeep Kalra says:

    Your steely resolve and the courage to visit all these places is a matter of envy for a majority of people like me. As usual I enjoyed going through your article. Without question it deserves a lot of appreciation. I found it very informative and read it with the kind of attention it commanded. Couldn’t see any photos.

  6. Satish says:

    Your article is riveting – and hair-raising in places.

    Although Afghanistan is regularly in the news – mostly for the wrong reasons (the recent one being IS takeover of Tora bora), I have not known anybody who actually has been to Afghanistan.

    While your account is in keeping with the general narrative, it nevertheless is quite interesting.

  7. Marcia Young says:

    Once again, Razi, you have been on a journey that many of us would be far too timid to undertake. I look forward to hearing a lot more about this next time I see you.
    Best wishes and Happy travels.

  8. Daniel Townsend says:

    Why on earth would anyone want to visit such a godforsaken country in his or her right mind? I mean, come on man; there are hundreds of other countries. Having said that, only a true traveler would do what you have done. I am just curious, though, why did you take such risk?

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