A Short Walk in Afghanistan

Aldo A. Benini

The assignment seemed clear.

The government had lost garrison X. in the upper valley. All the troops had surrendered. The local militia were disarmed and then simply released, the advancing resistance having no means to keep them prisoner. Some had their cattle and even their wives taken away, by marauders who had joined the resistance fighters at the last minute for a share of the spoils. The army fared less well. Most of them were taken to this side of the border, to be detained and interrogated for an uncertain period of time. Here the International Committee of the Red Cross was able to see and register them. This in itself was of little value as some twenty prisoners were retained inside, in a place halfway between the lost garrison and another which was still holding out further downstream at Z. Were these at a special risk? Commonsense and experience dictated an ICRC presence in the very place where they were being detained, to deter executions and ill treatment. This meant a fully equipped visiting team crossing the border passes to trace the detaining commander and his prisoners somewhere in a side vale of K. province, and known by the name Y., which did not mean anything to us.

The delegation had never attempted this before. In the assembling of a military type task force, two Afghan interpreters, an Afghan doctor, a Swiss doctor, and two Swiss delegates were pulled out of different units, with a train of vehicles, medical supplies, sundry other luggage, and support staff to back us up on the Pakistani side.

I was one of those to go inside. In fact, I had been occupied in the border ranges for several days, securing guides, hiring mules and trying to meet a district commissioner whose clearance was thought necessary for the expedition. I missed the DC by 80 km, and the prisoners by 40. When my messengers came back from the commander who had accepted the surrender, the remaining prisoners had been shifted to another place, and we had to enter the black box through another hole far off in the next district. By the time the team met in what expeditioners call their base camp, which was nothing else but the ICRC First Aid Post near the border, we had to start our preparations nearly all over again.

On the way upWe were dumped, with two Mujahedin guides, in a small, unheard-of bazaar at the foot of some mountains. Some of the team were so enthusiastic about what to them looked like a scouts outing that I had a hard time prevailing upon them that we must hire mules for our luggage, or we would break down halfway up the pass. This was no vain precaution, for none of us knew the altitudes, the US Army map makers having glossed over a blank area with an ominous "relief data irreconcilable". One of the guides took us ahead in the brisk pace of a well-trained soldier, the other following with the mules, but as the path was winding through riverbeds and along the edges of farm terraces, the untrained team members soon tired, and the Afghan doctor lay down and had to have water sprinkled over his face. We took frequent short breaks, orchestrated by the cramps in the doctor's legs and by the locations of water sources that seemed pure enough to slake our thirst without jeopardizing our mission through some intestinal disaster.

A simile of paradise

The breaks meant that we would be crossing the border, not at 10.00 a.m. as foreseen but at 2.35 p.m. In fact, we had spent most of the glowing midday heat under a maple tree in full autumn garb, and with a cool source from where the Muslims took ablutions for their prayers. It gave us time to admire the intensely beautiful landscape, shrub-covered mountains undergirded with a rich patchwork of farm terraces, built and maintained by generations of arduous Pathan tribesmen. The terraces were studded with homesteads, built as fortresses to defend family and tribal honour in timeless vendettas. They also held numerous rivulets artfully crafted along the contours to supply water from the mountain streams to farms, houses and mosques. The corn harvest was halfway in, with many roofs carrying crowns of golden heaps, and farmers ploughing the empty fields in preparation for the winter wheat. The air was filled with the cries of cocks and small children.

Nothing spoke the language of war but the Mujahedin who overtook us in bands of five or ten, packed with their standard kalashnikov automatics, with panzerfauesten, small backpacks and occasional flour bags. Plodding our way up behind them, we paused for a moment on the legendary Durand Line, to allow ourselves a last glimpse of a rough land out of which man seemed to have carved a simile of paradise. Romanticism apart, it certainly provided a baseline for what the other side had been before the war. Traditionally, Pashtun society and environment had been fairly similar on both sides of this stretch of the Line.

We descended through the oak-covered northern slopes on mule trails that refused to follow the directions indicated on the map. Our physical conditions, too, were reversed in the most inexplicable ways. The doctor, now free of cramps, was chanting tunes of his fatherland. The delegate who had taken him to task for his wailings suddenly found that his own knees refused to bend. My borrowed boots were causing blisters on both my feet, and walking became painful. The mules had long disappeared ahead of us. We had tried to make them wait, but they became restless and rolled over a couple of times, pressing our luggage flat. That augured ill for the medical boxes, and soon in fact a yellow liquid began to drip from one of the sidebags. The doctors took it with welcome humour, observing that "liquid minesweep" was a way to keep us safe.

We were marching into a clearing when we saw the planes. We could not see them as such, but by the vapour trails they left when circling over what we supposed was the main valley, and by the magnesium torches that they had thrown to decoy the heat-seeking missiles which the Mujahedin might fire at them. Seconds later a single heavy, dark bang echoed up the mountain slopes.

We marched further towards a bend, feeling quite tense, and saw towers of smoke and dust overshooting a far-off hill. An estimated seven to ten kilometers separated us from the target. Our comfort melted away when the guide identified it as the place for which we were headed to find the prisoners. We decided to march on as long as no further untoward events should occur.

The question was largely academic. It was already half past four and we would not be able to cross the K. river in daylight. We were forbidden nightmarches because of mine hazards. The guide knew a small base which his party was operating near our route. We would spend the night there. The forest soon tapered out into what once must have been well tended farms, now completely overgrown with weeds and shrubs and, where the stone walls had collapsed, cut by bad erosion gullies. Empty, unroofed houses stared at us. It was my first encounter with the destruction that war brings to homes, and it increased my fears that the planes might return and spot us, the only living beings that were moving across the abandoned farms, except for a stray cow whose owner we could discover nowhere. Shortly before reaching the base, we traversed a cemetery, already plunged into evening's shadows. Its graves were decorated with a kind of prows on both ends, creating a weird atmosphere. It did nothing to improve our mood.

Last bout of naive adventure

The base commander received us with typically good Afghan hospitality, but our mules had gone far ahead, and an argument sprang up between our guide and the local men over who was to fetch them. Finally they were brought back, but the owner refused to rent them for the next day even for extra money. We decided we should leave the luggage in the base, taking with us only the ICRC minimally. A message was radioed to the senior commander.

We were woken up variously, some by the itching of flea bites, the rest of us by the hellish sound of kalashnikovs being fired all over the place. Our hosts were celebrating the surrender of the garrison and provincial capital in Z. The surrender had taken place at midnight, and it was plain that it was going to change a great many of the parameters for our mission very soon. Notably it bade a good risk of massive bombardments by which the government might try to destroy the Mujahedin who were gathering for the spoils - plus any imprudent travellers venturing near the place.

We decided to move fast, see the prisoners and negotiate their transfer to a safe place. The way to the K. river led through more wasted farms and along a stream, the meandering bed of which we had to cross umpteen times. The K. was an impressive river, not by virtue of its width, but by its rapid midstream current, whipped up by big boulders hidden in its waters. We were enthralled by the kind of raft used to cross it: a simple contraption of boards and sticks, carried by inflated cowskins, and controlled by two big oars. It could take fifteen people as well as goats. Already some forty Mujahedin were waiting, all in great haste to get to Z. More were arriving.

Rafting in the Kunar riverWe did not cross until ten o'clock. It was the last bout of naive adventure, dearly remembered for the doctor's wet posterior and for the orgiastic thrills, unleashed in us by the sensation of dancing on the waves. Immediately upon climbing the steep riverbank, we found ourselves in the mine field.

It was part of the defence of the government post that had been captured a month ago. It was overgrown with weeds and corn. It was difficult to conceive how anyone could ever have cut it safely. The Mujahedin were very severely strict about our staying on the narrow footpath that led past destroyed quarters, bunkers, and tank pits. The place was littered with shell cases and ammunition boxes. The army had also lost several tanks, but judging from their rusty looks they may have been in disuse long before. Behind a cluster of ruins, we reached the main road.

There we learned that the commander had already left. We might be lucky enough to meet him in the next village downriver, an hour's walk from the minefield. Ours was the choice, between a safe return from a fruitless trip or a chase after a man who evidently valued his presence in the party of winners more highly than a meeting with delegates of some foreign organization trying to impose restraint on the conduct of war. We decided to chase him.

The bridge straddling the river that bounded the post to the west had been half destroyed, and balancing on its remains we could see the bodies of two dead donkeys, rotting in the water. They were the only dead bodies that I have seen in this war, all others having been succinctly removed before they ever should greet my eyes. It occurred to me that this might be a special grace dispensed to keep my nerves in good condition to work for the living. The same idea also kept me from peeping into the open body of a tank that lay destroyed at the next bend in the road ahead. Another tank, perhaps thrown by the force of a mine explosion, thirty meters down the slope, had come to a halt upside down. A shutter in its floor was open, but it was impossible to tell if any of the crew had been able to escape, if they were rotting inside, or had been buried.

The road was dusty and hot, soon very hot. We marched behind long columns of Mujahedin in order to avoid mines. Sheer fatigue rather than observance of the ICRC code made us increase our distance from the combatants. At irregular intervals, circles of stones had been put around undefused mines in the road. Scanning the road for stones which carried the message became a strain on us. There were few trees left to provide shade. We paused, leaning against a big rock which overhung a riverbed and, later, against a destroyed heavy transporter that still held its full load of rockets, each resembling a three meter-long organ pipe. It took us two hours to reach the village. Most of it had been destroyed. We were unable to make out any living being - man, cow or bird. A burnt-out tank was sinking in the sands between the road and the side of the village. A passing Mujahed teased us to check for survivors. I was angry. Even had I been well disposed, the danger of mines in the soft ground forbade any possible approach.

A simple footwear accident

The commander had already left the village, presuming that he had ever waited for us at all. We realized we had been cheated only after reaching the long bend that led out of the village; so we had been absorbed in the distress caused us by the sight of devastation and abandonment. The other delegate abruptly dropped himself on the roadway, shouting an ultimatum at the invisible commander. We all sat down, except the guide whom we sent in search of the commander. He came back after twenty minutes. We mustered our remaining strength.

We found the commander sitting on a culvert wall, surrounded by his group of twenty men. One of them was mending the commander's boots. We owed our meeting, after seven plus six hours of strenuous marching, to a simple footwear accident. If more proof of our irrelevance was needed, it lay with two mine-injured Mujahedin whom he had already sent ahead, knowing that we were coming with two doctors. But I admit that once caught, he played fair with us. He kept the perfunctory remarks about the good treatment that Islam ordains for prisoners to a minimum, pointed to the captured officer held by his group, and allowed us to interview the man in private.

The sound of an aircraft approaching could be heard; we saw two torches falling. The commander asked us down to the culvert. Strangely, I felt no fear this time, and we heard no sound of exploding bombs. The plane disappeared, and the man finished mending the boots. The commander, before setting off, gave a second thought to his wounded men and suggested that we should go and give them first aid. "They do have a doctor with them, but the bleeding continues." After some hippocratic mind-twisting amongst ourselves, we politely declined to go, but sent one of the guides after them with the remnants of the first aid material and some drugs that the mules had failed to destroy. We also turned down invitations to accompany the commander to Z. or, alternatively, to go to the place where he had left another fraction of his prisoners, a side valley in Y., to be reached in five hours' march in opposite direction. We were now only about seven kilometers from Z., but we had no mandate to be there, and we had to cover the mine-infested return journey in full daylight. We parted from a meeting that had lasted 25 minutes, including formalities, hiding in the culvert, and repacking of medical bags, and the fruit of which consisted of an interview with one prisoner and some vague promises to transfer the others so that the ICRC would be able to see them all.

MineI was very tired. In the haste of departure, the biscuits had been forgotten, and the seven of us walking back on the hot road had to survive on two packets of chewing gum and fresh water from abundant streams. I found staring for mines very trying, with nebulous rings wandering across my field of vision. We were met by a swelling stream of Mujahedin, most of whom were keen to shake hands with us. During one of those salaam exchanges, I suddenly heard the doctor hollering at me. Distracted by the faces of wayfarers, I had narrowly missed a mine. It was the last and most dangerous near-accident of the mission.

I can remember very little of the rest of the day. Labouring towards the minefield that separated us from the ferry, I noticed a cave in the rock. Its floor was lined with rags, and in a comer lay some broken household items. The guide explained that it was the nighttime shelter of an old couple, who had refused to flee from K., two of the very few civilians who had remained. It looked worse than the slum shacks I had seen in Bangladesh and made the scene of destruction of the whole valley look more dismal than if it had been swept clean of all civilian life. There was not a trace of hope in its immediate appearance, however pathetic the resolve of the old people to stay put.

Waiting for the raft, I bathed my feet in the river. My toes felt like pulp. Reaching the other side, we dropped ourselves in the shade of some trees, resting for a full hour and a half. The ferrymen felt sorry for us and served us tea, which helped us greatly to pull ourselves up the stream. At a small teahouse which a resistance party subsidized for all travellers, we were served fresh, hot flatbread, lentils, and tea. The boys waiting on us spoke of the last shells that had fallen nearby at eleven at night, one hour before the garrison had surrendered. Then they ran to tether two he-goats that were fighting each other. The war was not yet over.

Grown confidence

At least it would give the ICRC delegates a break. We felt safe now and, what is more, restored to full life. At our next break, our eyes rested for a long time on the fires that the sinking sun had lit on the peaks of the Hindukush, far, far in the north, yet high enough to beam down to us in the K. Suddenly, I heard water splashing next to me. A young woman was ladling a drink with her hands from the stream. She was of plain beauty and there was no expression of happiness in her face. On her back, she was carrying a baby in the way African women tie their babies. Her eyes met my gaze and she left, hurrying after her husband. His earth-coloured shalwakamis soon blended with the dusk grey of the streambed; yet we could see her colourful tribal costume shining far away in the distance, like a dark planet with continents and oceans, over which a baby moon was bobbing up and down.

The rest of the mission was too uneventful to warrant a detailed account. Out of 55 hours spent away from the base camp, we marched for 24 hours and had a meeting with a key person for 25 minutes. War psychiatrists will not be surprised to learn that on reaching the roadhead in Pakistan (and devouring the day's first proper meal) I swung into a state of ludicrous exhilaration. I drove home standing erect on the pick-up taxi and waving at everybody passing on the road. My head caught the string of a kite that village boys were flying across the road. It was a thin string, which is why the kite, not my head, became severed, and both the boys and I had a good, though somewhat awkward laugh in the end.

The K. mission was a useful exercise. Only a few weeks later, I led the longest and deepest mission into Afghanistan that has ever been undertaken by ICRC delegates since the beginning of the war nine years ago. It is expected to result in the setting up of an advanced first aid post to receive war wounded from the central provinces. Also in K. province, confidence in the ICRC has grown. My colleagues are about to return there to visit all the prisoners still detained.

The expedition from the North West Frontier Province, Pakistan, into the Kunar valley, Afghanistan, took place in September 1988. I wrote "A Short Walk" probably in December the same year; the "longest and deepest mission" refers to a trip that led us deep into Paktika and Ghazni provinces.

I served with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Pakistan and Afghanistan from December 1987 to December 1989. My main tasks were to negotiate access for, and supervise the operation of, multi-stage evacuation systems for Afghan war-wounded from inside Afghanistan, over the passes of the border ranges, to the ICRC war hospital in Peshawar, as well as visiting prisoners held by the Mujahedin.

The piece appeared first in "Avenue de la Paix", the ICRC staff newsletter, in March 1989. The illustrations were drawn by an Afghan artist, whom I met again in Kabul in April 1998, and whose name, unfortunately, I cannot reconstruct.

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Created August 1998