Challenging the perception that one need be a prisoner of one’s own making, SHELLY KITTLESON dodged highway bandits and Taliban

KABUL -- My introduction to Afghanistan came late in the day, at about 8 pm, after being ridden over roughshod by Uzbek customs officers in search of an easy euro or two hundred at the Termez-Hairatan border, following a journey through a country in which the ‘’security’’ of the populace reigns supreme, with hordes of smug, baton-wielding police roaming the streets. I had come alone overland, an American woman stubbornly disregarding advice from the experts to put security first and not even attempt the journey. I was at last getting into Mazar-i-Sherif after nightfall following three hours or so of being hassled, strip-searched, threatened by men in military fatigues, forced to write out a statement apologising for ‘’not having declared the correct amount of money in my pockets’’ and another stating that I was writing this ‘’in my own hand’’ as per the set phrases listed on the letter I was to copy, as well as being relieved of a fair amount of the cash (‘’confiscated,’’ along with a ‘’fine’’) I had planned on using over the next few weeks.


Tipped off by the Uzbeks that he might make a quick buck, a young Mazar-born Afghan living in Tashkent but shuttling between the two cities had waited for me at the border in his car before proceeding south. And so off I went, whisked across the Afghan border (which I almost didn’t notice, with no checks on luggage or anything else) while hurriedly covering my hair, to spend the next hour or two with this, my sole chance of a ride, as he unloaded crates of soft drinks and snacks at small shops near the border before hitting the road to Mazar.


‘’How much they take off you? Two hundred? Man said two hundred,’’ the young Afghan father of one good-naturedly laughed. I mustered up a few words of Dari interspersed with some Arabic. But we settled into Russian and a sense of camaraderie in the traffic-clogged road by night. He helped me get an Afghan SIM card and change money after 10 pm, driving me to hotels until finding one listed in the Lonely Planet not chokingly full of dust and grime and men sitting in the corridor with their heads between their knees, coughing in a disturbing manner (avoid the Amo and Aria hotels if you pass through Mazar). And this without a single complaint, accepting less than originally settled.


The following morning I made a quick dash to the Shrine of Hazrat Ali in all its blue morning splendour, with children gawking and following in hopes of getting their picture, a light-blue burka covering a young woman sauntering along in her white heels on the arm of a strapping, white shalwar-kameez cloaked but backward-baseball-capped young man chattering in Dari. Then I headed for the Ah Deh depot east of Mazar, where shared taxis and mini-vans gather and leave when full, accompanied by a kind adolescent, English-speaking hotel employee who had offered to bargain with the drivers. And so I ended up in a car with a driver who was ‘’crazy, the guy is just absolutely crazy’’ as the teenager enthusiastically put it - at which point I did begin getting a wee bit concerned, before the boy then too grew worried and insisted on taking down the license number, refusing to let me pay his ride back to the hotel and looking much more anxious than even I felt as he walked away, every once in a while casting a glance back. Bright red car, navy blue shalwar kameez, not a word of English but showing me his official identity card as an ‘’Afghan driver,’’ this doughty chauffeur claimed he had driven for the Americans in Kandahar, and evidently he had, from what I gathered.


The car filled almost immediately, with a 21-year-old working as an interpreter for the US army for the past two months and now on leave to visit family in Kabul – hopeful about some lead into getting a visa to the EU or the US - and a large mother with her three children, the youngest an infant with black-rimmed eyes.


Shortly before entering Baghlan Province, notorious for robbery and kidnapping among Afghans, I was politely asked to get into the back seat. ‘’You are a guest in our country, so we won’t tell you what to do. But it’s dangerous,’’ as the boy explained. So, dutifully, I crammed into the back, tried to avoid being too conspicuous, put on my sunglasses and held the baby with the thick charcoal-lined eyes, who was suffering from stomach problems of some sort. No disturbances by robbers or the like ensued, but in the provincial capital Pul-i-Khumri (the Bridge of the Far-Sighted or Eagle-Eyed was the boy’s translation) it was slow going after the heavy rains of the previous days, with roads in horrible condition and trucks stuck in the mud blocking traffic. Ten civilians died in the flooding.


There was a minor near fist-fight over a disagreement between the boy-interpreter and the driver in the Salang Tunnel: the boy explained that the driver had told the woman ‘’to get out. She said the trip was taking too long and he said she was weighing down his car too much and could just get out then. And I got angry with him.’’ Once out of the Russian-built tunnel cutting through the Hindu Kush, the road badly damaged by heavy military traffic over the years and in particularly appalling shape after the recent bad weather, with Afghan and Indian music blasting we made multiple stops along the way to wash off the mud virtually covering the car but all the same made it to Kabul in 11 or so hours instead of the 7 that I had been told it would take. Not bad at all, given the circumstances.


Kabul. On approaching the city, once out of mountainous terrain and streams and onto flatter land, we began getting ever more frequent glimpses of billboards proudly displaying the Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud’s face, the ‘’national’’ hero in this part of the country, and eventually we pulled into Serai Shomali on the northern edge of the capital.


We arrived in Kabul proper after nightfall as well, once again with a would-be protector, as the interpreter insisted on helping me find my way to the house where I had managed to rent a room through contacts in the capital. And so a taxi through the streets unexpectedly lit up with multicoloured fluorescent lights on street front shops, long freshly-baked naan strangely reminiscent of meat hanging in Palermo markets. To then turn into pot-holed, dusty, unlit streets in what is know as the ‘’better’’ part of town, though one never would have said so if not for a few heavily armed Afghan guards sitting outside a few places. Finding the house proved no easy task either, with most streets unmarked in the capital, not to mention NGO offices, legal consultancies and even cafés frequently with no outer signs of what they hold other than an armed guard.


But find it we did - the taxi driver, the boy-interpreter and I, with the boy’s flashlight to seek out the rare street numbers painted on a few doors. The next day I saw the blast walls and checkpoints, the barbed wire on most buildings and walls and the Afghan checkpoints where decidedly little is checked. As well as the gutsy little Kabul girls with their white scarves over their heads, black trousers and loose-fitting tops, bulldozing through a crowd on the sidewalks with their satchels underarm on their way to school in the morning, some streets with nothing but shop after shop of mobile phones and carts piled up with light green watermelons perched at the end of them.


I had been told not to even attempt the Mazar-Kabul overland journey, and if absolutely necessary then only with trusted drivers – an idea to which my limited funds and my itching to see how Afghans would react to me, to get a feel for the country, ran counter, however much I appreciated the concern.


Once in Kabul and mulling a trip to Jalalabad, I was told by an Afghan journalist that - as a foreigner - the only way I would be allowed to take the road to the city on the route to the Pakistani border was with a pricey armed security guard and driver. The Taliban were keeping close tabs on foreigners leaving from the shared taxi stands and I was more or less certain not to reach my destination were I to attempt it. This was a version of the facts disputed by others in town. A taxi company quoted 120 euros for a driver for the day to the city on the road to Pakistan and back – still pricier than a shared taxi (it had cost me 17 dollars to get to Kabul) but less than the gun-toting one, and an option I initially weighed.


A friend working for an NGO boasting experience in African countries and Latin America had been adamant that I should take a flight from the Uzbek border, if absolutely I must come. Meeting him in a Kabul café one afternoon, I could see why -- two plainclothes Afghan guards and a driver, without whom he went nowhere, as is the case with many foreigners working in Kabul. Many need permission even to go to Western-style supermarkets with their armed escort and, not managing to find what they are looking for, are prohibited from going elsewhere for ‘’security reasons,’’ giving Afghans the impression that those said to be working to help their country have little idea of it. Shortly thereafter his Iranian-born girlfriend arrived – working with another NGO, to be found most nights in locales with such names as L’Atmosphere, Table Talk and the like.


I, on the other hand, was intent on seeing the city, and most days put in quite a few miles on my hiker’s sandals and a hefty amount of dust into my lungs in solo treks across the capital, with Afghans eternally telling me to take a taxi and that where I wanted to go ‘’was far, far’’ in concern whenever I tried to ask directions.


I was determined to challenge the perception that one needed to be a prisoner of one’s own making and did not want to contribute to the choking exhaust fumes of the city, which admittedly can get to be a bit much alongside the open sewers. As a sort of antidote, I would cross through and spend a few minutes in the near-oasis of the central Shahr-I-Nau park with roses and trees and young Afghan boys learning cricket who shouted out to me ‘’Hello! How are You? Fine?’’ in quick succession before running back to their games without waiting for a response, or the twenty-something young men who appeared whenever I sat down and tried (sometimes with painfully little success) to speak a bit of English, asking if I had work for them, whether I might not need a translator, a security guard, a cook. As well as the three roving men with slick black trousers and western button-down shirts who one day cornered me and wanted to see ID, showing me theirs as members of the ‘’Afghan Crisis Unit’’ and hurrying off after pointing to themselves and making me understand that if I had any problems I should come to them, though how to find them in case of need was rather unclear.


One of the least worried about security I met evidently was the security chief at the Kabul embassy of a Western European country with a major military presence in southern Afghanistan. Having retired from the army as a major on a roughly 48,000-euro annual salary, a few years back he switched to private security in Iraq and his salary more than quadrupled. As he saw it, most getting kidnapped were Afghans – including one who had come to his embassy asking protection the week before after being held for two weeks. ‘’The man had had part of his ear cut off and sent to his family along with a videotape ransom request for dlrs US 500,000. They paid it to get him back, but he should have been more careful – driving around all the time in shiny new cars. One has to wonder where exactly he got all that money.’’ The next morning he did send a warning not to make the planned trip to Jalalabad. Anti-American protests had flared up following NATO raids in Surkh Rod in which a number of civilians were reported killed. This was an example of warnings when needed – which I heeded – but without the paranoia that seems to have stricken those living in the security bubble.


Some 10 days later I was due to head back north and another shared ride (this time without anyone to bargain for me) saw me journey back up to Mazar with four Afghan men, none of whom spoke any English. Nevertheless, we somehow managed to communicate. One insisted on sharing some of his lunch with me and another, an Afghan habarnigar (‘journalist’), bought me a bottle of water in sign of solidarity despite my protests. All warmly encouraged and seemed to appreciate my feeble attempts at a word or two of Dari … and, I imagine, my lack of ‘’security.’’


"If all one is concerned about is the latter, then no, I wouldn’t suggest going overland, or even near Afghanistan. If, on the other hand, what one is after is a sense of the country then by all means do the same. Just steer clear of the Termez-Hairatan border crossing if you can.