The First Time I Saw Afghanistan

NE AfghanistanThe first time I saw Afghanistan I was wearing a borrowed shirt. It wasn’t a particularly attractive shirt, being a faded pale blue with buttons that were beginning to turn yellow. Made of 100 % nylon it was more than somewhat sweaty and sticky even in late November.

It was 1978. Zia-ul-Haq had just become President after declaring martial year in the previous year. He demonstrated his willingness to help the people by inviting foreign experts to visit and give advice. I was there to assist with the teaching of Biochemistry to Medical Students. As with all such advice, Zia-ul-Haq ignored it totally.

I was staying briefly in Peshawar and had made my way in a hired minibus up the winding road to the top of Khyber Pass. The minibus, its aged grey bearded driver and the narrow, potholed, winding road had definitely seen better days. Just over half way up there was, in those days, a small hospital located a short distance off the main road. You would miss it completely if you did not know it was there.

I called in and shared lunch with the attendant who was the sole staff member. Lunch was heated in a rusty wok over a small open wood fire in a courtyard; even wood was in short supply.

The main building was a simple shelter with large open window spaces. It was made of red brick and had a tiled roof and a dirt floor. The sixteen beds were thin old pallets. There were no patients at that time. The locals would bring a relative to the hospital if he or she was sufficiently sick, and if the family could not afford to take the patient down the winding road to Pashawar. Some could not even afford the journey. Most could not afford the medical fees.

The facilities at the hospital were very limited to the extent that the patient’s subsequent course was more a matter of Nature than of the attendant’s limited repertoire.

Lunch and a brief but interesting conversation finished, the minibus continued to leave behind the plains and groan its way towards the spur in the Spin Ghar that was the Khybur Pass, belching dark grey diesel fumes in protest.

Khybur Pass

Spin Ghar is Pashto for White Mountains. The 160 Km long range of mountains is a natural frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The boundary itself runs along the summit of the range which varies from 4,300 m to 4,760 m above sea level. As the name suggest, the craggy top of the mountain range were always covered with snow.

We stopped at the top of the pass, close to the border with Afghanistan. The crossing between the two countries was a simple thing. Two red and white striped wooden bars that could be lowered but seemed to be permanently raised separated by a short stretch of dirt road. There was a pill box at either end of the dirt road. A few officials inspected each vehicle; the intensity of the inspection being inversely linked to the amount of what appeared to be a compulsory bribe.

Near the border was a large, open dusty square surrounded by simple, small dirty creamy orange coloured mud buildings. There were no tourists, other than myself. Brightly painted Bedford trucks moved to and from Afghanistan.

Buy a gun?

“Would you like to buy a gun?”

The speaker was a young man, about my height. He was dressed in the traditional keht partug of the Pashtun. His scraggy beard was pale brown. I was not sure if he was Pashtun, but if so he was but a weedy example of the tall black bearded warrior-like Pashtun I had seen getting off the plane from Quetta to Peshawar.

There were no formalities in Peshawar once you had got off the plane. It was just a short walk over the dusty ground to an open gate in a low perimeter wire fence surrounding the airport that would hardly keep out a determined six year old. That Pashtun was heading directly for the gate and walking a lot faster than the group of white faced Europeans who were sauntering while taking in the sparse view. He walked straight through the group, Europeans bouncing off his shoulders like ping pong balls.

The next year I would wonder what hope the Russians thought they would have in their invasion of Afghanistan. None at all if the Pashtun I had seen was any indicator of the Afgahni total contempt of foreigners.

A charcoal stove on a plane

I paused before answering, remembering that the plane journey had seemed routine, unlike the same flight a week earlier. The women in Quetta cooked the family evening meal over small charcoal burning stoves. The charcoal burned with a thick sooty flame. Quetta’s valleys lay in a hollow surrounded by mountains. Once the night air cooled down, the soot returned to the ground, covering everything with black granules of fine carbon.

A family was on the plane and it was time for the evening meal. The woman of the family had thought to bring with food, the necessary spices and the small stove complete with a supply of charcoal.

She lit the stove and the cabin began to fill with black sooty smoke. Worse the stove fell over in the subsequent confusion setting the main carpet alight. Some modicum of cabin staff training, and a thankfully fully charged fire extinguisher, extinguished the flames and the plane continued on its way.

AK-74 and M16

“Well, I would like to have a look.”

The young man led me to a small mud building a little distance from the main square. The door was open, there were no windows. Standing to one side on the dirt floor was a pale wood table that ran the whole length of the single 3 x 3 metre room. The table appeared to be sturdier than the hut. It certainly needed to be because it was covered by guns of all shapes and sizes. They varied from simple hand weapons with a revolving chamber, to automatic hand guns, shot guns, rifles and modern fully automated assault rifles. There was even a brand new Kalashnikov AK-74 next to its US rival the M16.

I picked up one or two and inspected them closely. Each was clean and lightly oiled.

“If you can’t find one you like, I can easily make up a gun to your specifications, Sir.”

I had no doubt at all that was true.

“Oh, I can see the one I would like,” I replied, “but unfortunately there is no way I could get it through customs back home.”

“What country is that, sir?” Neither of us had the slightest doubt that it would a simple matter to take the gun out of the country; just another small bribe.

“Australia.”

“Ah, I see. No, you would not be able to get the gun into Australia.”

I looked at a few more, thanked the young man, and stepped back into the bright sunlight.

A lost suitcase

A few days later I was back in Karachi. I received a message that my suitcase had been found.

In reality it was never lost. I had flown to via Calcutta on the main Qantas flight from Perth to London. Other suitcases trundled around and were retrieved by passengers with all the normal relief that followed the discovery that the suitcase and they were in the same city. Mine did not appear.

I went to the lost luggage area and explained that I was sure the suitcase was still on the plane. They suggested I complete the necessary paperwork and assured me that if the suitcase were indeed on the plane it would be returned from Heathrow by the next available flight.

Unfortunately for that plan, I was not staying in Calcutta any longer then it took to catch a connecting Air Pakistan flight from India to Pakistan.

Raman, who had organised the Pakistan part of my trip, took me to the Karachi airport. He explained to the guard that he would go in with me to reclaim my case. The guard had other ideas which he emphasised by tapping Raman none too gently in his ample belly with the pointy end of his weapon. Only I could enter.

A stroll across Karachi airport

The attendant at the lost luggage counter explained that I needed to go and find my case in the lost luggage store.

“You go though that door and across to the hanger. Once you’ve found your case please bring it back to me before leaving the airport.”

That door opened onto the airport grounds. I could only see one building that just might be a hanger. It was on the opposite side of the airport. I headed off in that direction.

My crossing the road training had not included what to do when crossing an airport taxi way or main runway. Look right, look left, look right again and if all clear go straight across did not seem to be quite adequate. I searched the sky; the few buzzards that constantly circle in Karachi’s ever present thermals did not seem an immediate threat. I continued towards the hanger.

As I got closer I could see that the hanger was a classical plane hanger. Its two large doors were shut but there was a small person sized door to the right that was open. Just inside the door there was a small desk at which sat the hanger attendant on a simple uncomfortable looking wooden chair. He was a wizened, older man with, it seemed, more gaps in his teeth then teeth themselves.

“I’ve come to pick up my suitcase.”

“You need to find it and bring it to me so that I can confirm that it belongs to you,” was his reply.

It was only then, as my eyes became more accustomed to the hanger’s gloom, that I saw it was full of suitcases. Hundreds, perhaps thousands were piled on top of each other reaching almost to the roof. The air was dusty and dank, despite the heat.

There were three passageways between the suitcases. I paused to think. Anyone bringing my suitcase to the hanger would have used some type of trolley; it was too far and too hot to carry a suitcase across the whole airport. Only one of the corridors was wide enough for even the simplest type of trolley.

Second, it was stinking hot inside the hanger; the person would have wanted to get rid of the suitcase as soon as possible and get back outside again.

Third, there was no way anyone would try to put the suitcase at the top of a pile.

I took three steps down the corridor, looking at about chest height. There was my suitcase.

I took it back to the attendant.

Carefully I showed him the label number and compared it with my ticket stub. Then I opened it and showed him that the labels inside had my name on them.

He took this in and reached for a stamp and stamp pad. He stamped the letter I had brought with saying the suitcase had been found and said I could take it back to Lost Luggage.

Shortly after that I returned to Australia, wearing a decent shirt, but without an Afghanistan made gun.

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