Summary: old memories of a war, with no useful conclusion beyond despair
Afghanistan was in chaos when I worked there towards the end of 1994. The warlords were still squabbling over the spoils following the Soviet withdrawal. So, as usual in war, the civilian population were caught in the middle.
MSF Holland, who I was working for at the time, had a base in Peshawar in Pakistan from which we operated into Jalalabad in Afghanistan.
Peshawar was a strange city. A garrison town under the British it fulfilled a similar function for the Pakistani government. But it had a wonderful book market where I discovered George McDonald Frazer’s Flashman books and bought a fine jackknife, made, the seller told me, from steel scavenged from the battlefields of Afghanistan.
Beyond the city limits lay the North-West Frontier province, that lawless area which the British could never control. Neither could the Pakistani government. So it was declared “self-governing”. That meant no government in reality.
The North-West Frontier province began in the Peshwar suburbs, beyond the official city limits. After this point, marked by an arch across the road, the nature of the roadside shops changed from ones selling food and clothes, to ones selling hand grenades and Kalashnikovs.
As the road twisted up through the foothills of the Hindu Kush towards the Khyber Pass it passed a palace, believed locally to contain the residence and laboratory of one of the wealthiest heroin processors in the world. Efforts by Pakistan to close down this enterprise were, it was said, always frustrated by the armed tribesmen of the North-West Frontier who valued the revenue this man brought into the region, being a ready market for their poppies and those of their counterparts in Afghanistan.
The relative order of the Pakistan side of the Khyber gates, maintained by the club-armed Pakistani police and soldiers, was wholly absent on the Afghan side, where crowds of migrants, desperate to get across the border seethed awaiting for an opening when the occasional authorised vehicle passed. When this happened they would try to surge through only to be beaten back by the Pakistani border guards.
I worked designing a piped water scheme for a camp of people who had fled Kabul as a result of the fighting. In the arid countryside between Jalalabad and the border with Pakistan a new city of tents and mud had grown up for a quarter of a million people, scorching hot in summer, bitterly cold in winter.
It was a land sown with dragons’ teeth. The countryside had been a battlefield for so long that occasionally kids trying to gather the scrap metal that could be recast into fine knives, would have lumps blown off them when they picked up some unexploded ordnance or discarded anti-personnel mine.
In the evening there was little to do in Jalalabad other than play chess. One of the drivers was particularly good. In years gone by he had been good enough to be selected to play the Russian grand master Anatoly Karpov in an exhibition match when he visited Afghanistan.
One night our warehouse in Jalalabad was robbed. We contacted the local authorities and the governor himself showed up to take charge of the investigation. This amounted to him ordering the warehouse guards arrested and beaten until they told the truth of who was responsible. The governor just naturally assumed that these young guards were involved somehow. Still, I don’t think the culprits were ever caught.
Once, in the Jalalabad bazaar to buy some fruit juice, I remember a young Afghan man, sporting bandoliers and carrying an AK 47 slung over his shoulder, screaming at me for reasons that I could not discern. Discretion always being the better part of valour, I tried to make myself scarce. But I noticed his green eyes dilated with drugs as I fled.
There was a shop in the bazaar we called the antique shop. It sold all manner of bric-a-brac. This included buttons cut from the uniforms of British and Soviet soldiers who had died at the hands of Afghan guerrillas during 19th and 20th Century imperial adventures, and whose graves lay still in the mountains around us. I imagined that if you went deep enough into that bazaar there might be a shop where the lamps burned darkness and, for the price of your soul, even a flying carpet could be yours to possess.
Around this time we first heard the stirrings of the Taliban. I don’t know where I first heard the suggestion, whether it was in Afghanistan or Pakistan, that this might be a good thing. At least they were a national movement, it was said, who might finally end the years of factional and ethnic conflict in the country. Certainly uniting in the face of a common enemy would be one way of obtaining national unity. Unfortunately women and girls seemed to be the ones who would obtain that miserable designation of “common enemy”.
Not that it was a feminist halcyon up to that. One Afghan engineer I worked with was nervously hoping that his pregnant wife would give birth to a son. If she didn’t his mother and sisters were already pressuring him to take another wife who would produce a boy.
Years later, on a beach outside the port of Massawa in Eritrea, I fell into a fragmented conversation with a small group of Russian sailors in port for a couple of days. One of them, the one who spoke the most English pointed to the eldest of the group. “He is an Afghanski”, I was told, a veteran of the Afghan war.
“What parts of Afghanistan did he serve in?” I asked.
From the litany he repeated one name stuck out: Jalalabad. “What did you do there?” I asked.
“You know the power plant in Jalalabad?” he asked, via our translator.
“There was no power plant.” I said. “It had been blown up.”
“Yes,” the Afghanski said. “I blew it up.”