It begins with the
jolt of an old, metal barge, as it slams into the Afghan side of the
riverbank. A single shack stands on the beach, lit only by the shimmer
of a waxing moon. Inside, soldiers wearing woolen caps and wrapped in
blankets gather around an oil lantern to check the credentials of journalists
crossing the river from Tajikistan. They take their time, examining
passports, excitedly asking questions and joking with the edgy foreigners.
Only a nod of approval from their commander can open the journey toward
A set of dirt tracks, welded into hard clay by tanks and hardened by
years of drought, meanders from the shack through a dusty plain. Dilapidated
jeeps speed through the carved path, blinding the cars behind them with
a torrent of dust as they zigzag in the direction of Kabul from the
northeastern corridor. The mountain air is cold, the desert climate
dry. Only the light of the moon and the weak headlights of the jeeps
slice through the inky night.
There are many roads that lead to Kabul, snaking from the depths of
the Afghan desert to the peaks of the Hindu Kush. But at the time we
show our passports at the Afghan-Tajik border - one month after the
fateful attack on New York's World Trade Center - only one originates
in territory not controlled by the ruling Taliban. It is the road we
will follow, in fits and starts and finally in one mad dash, to the
This road becomes more than a route of transport for us. As we follow
three decades of invisible footprints thrust forward by war, it becomes
a symbol for Afghanistan itself, of the brutality it has long faced
and may yet endure again. Warriors and war widows, Soviet soldiers and
Mujahideen rebels, invaders and defenders - all have traveled down this
road before. From the dust-covered window of our jeep, and later on
the front lines, we see the road and the war intertwined into a timeless
and symbiotic lock, a sinewy strand of life and death that reflects
the desperation and deprivation of Afghanistan today.
The war that precipitated the latest cycle of bloodletting began on
Christmas Eve, 1979. The Red Army barreled down the road to Kabul in
tanks, teenage soldiers at the helm. But the fighting that ensued was
nothing new. Invasion, war, bribery, liberation and subjugation: they
had been here for centuries. When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan and
installed a puppet government the Mujahideen rose up, as their forefathers
had before them, to repel the invaders. Fighting once again enveloped
this desperately poor nation and with it came all the typical ingredients
of Afghan warfare: brutality, greed, famine, and poverty.
War rolled over Afghan villages, destroying houses, buildings and lives.
The Mujahideen fought back with ingenuity, their knowledge of the mountainous
terrain canceling out the Soviets' technological superiority. When columns
of Soviet tanks made their way down the narrow mountain roads, Afghan
soldiers would take out the first and last tank and kill those stuck
in between. Soviet soldiers never saw where the fire came from. By 1986,
with no hope of victory and spooked by the Afghan ability to sow terror
unseen from the mountains above, the Soviet army went home.
But the war continued. Afghan warlords fought bitterly in the power
vacuum. Shells rained down on the capital, killing thousands. In 1994,
the wounded country was ripe for takeover. The people, battered and
broken by war, were ready to accept anyone who promised peace. A mysterious
group of religious students educated in Pakistan filled the vacuum with
fundamentalist zeal. Led by a young fanatic named Mullah Mohammed Omar,
the Taliban took the southern city of Kandahar, the first of many victories
that forced the remnant of the Afghan government to unite as the Northern
Alliance and retreat.
The Taliban, with their extreme brand of Islam, began turning back the
clock, attempting to bring life in Afghanistan in line with that depicted
in the Koran - seventh-century Arabia at the time of Prophet Mohammed.
The only place completely out of the Taliban's hard-line rule was the
area controlled by Ahmad Shah Massoud and his Northern Alliance army,
some ten percent of Afghanistan in the war-torn mountains of the north.
At the heart of this oyster lay the pearl, the Panshjir Valley, a rebel
sanctuary which Massoud managed to keep out of the hands of the Soviets
and the Taliban. It was for this that he came to be known the Lion of
We join the Northern Alliance in Panshjir to witness the latest in a
long line of victorious marches down the battered road to Kabul. The
United States is bombing Taliban-controlled territory, in response to
the regime's harboring of the Al Qaeda terrorist network held responsible
for the World Trade Center attack. But the little-known opposition army
that welcomes us into their corner of Afghanistan is nervous and uncertain
of the future. "If Massoud was still alive, we would have already
liberated Kabul," a soldier's voice resonates through the colorless
night as we cross the Amu Dar'ya River into Afghanistan.
Carried by an old Soviet military jeep, we steer south into a land seemingly
untouched by time, scarred by war. Zigzagging up steep, rock-strewn
cliffs, and flying down into lush, green valleys littered with discarded
Soviet tanks, we stop only to sip over sweetened tea at guest houses,
or throw our sleeping bags down on a carpet for a few hours of sleep.
Dust storms rage overhead, as we pass villages whose inhabitants live
in mud hovels burrowed into the rocky precipice.
Our jeep breaks down often, before roaring back to life to carry us
over destroyed bridges and gushing white water. War greets us with every
curve of the craggy road. Children play on the twisted bodies of artillery
trucks, which were left behind to rust on dusty planes littered with
land mines. Soldiers, stuffed into the beds of green Kamaz trucks, wave
and shout victoriously as they pass us. Posters of Massoud are taped
to the windshield of every jeep and Datsun truck. We stop just south
of the Panshjir Valley, on the Shomali Plain. The Northern Alliance,
though bitter from years of being snubbed by the West, is desperate
for help to win back Afghanistan. However, weeks after the bombing began,
the opposition army is stalling, opting to observe rather than advance
as American bombers take out vital Taliban buildings: factories, communication
posts, the homes of leaders. When Kabul eventually falls from the hands
of the Taliban, the justification is found deserted in Al Qaeda compounds
- instructions for building bombs, anthrax leaflets and advertisements
for flight schools.
Back on the Shomali Plain, the mood changes quickly after weeks of relative
quiet. American bombers intensify their attack, but the rag-tag opposition
army doesn't budge. "We don't have enough ammunition." "The
Taliban outnumber us three to one." "We're waiting for America
to bomb the front lines." Then suddenly, the rhetoric has a new
twist. "We are prepared for an offensive." "As soon as
you give the order, we will be ready to die."
The soldiers are ill prepared by Western army standards, but then again,
this is not a Western war. Decked-out in brand new uniforms imported
from China, the opposition army gathers on a dusty plane fifty miles
north of Kabul for a three-day military exercise. The soldiers march
out of line - some sport rubber slippers with their fatigues, others
carry Kalashnikov rifles patched-up with tape. They shout "God
is great!" waving posters of Ahmad Shah Massoud against a backdrop
of mushroom smoke from American bombs dropped on nearby Taliban positions.
After three days of relative quiet, the B-52s have resumed their systematic
attack. An all out offensive, with US air support and Northern Alliance
ground troops, seems imminent.
The Northern Alliance army gathers around a diagram that explains the
exercise - smoking an Osama Bin Laden from his lair. The soldiers run
off, firing fusillades from recoilless rifles into the hillside. Red
ribbons of tracer fire fly through the sky and the boom of artillery
vibrates through our stomachs. They aim at piles of white rocks, meant
to represent the mastermind of terrorism, and they miss. When the dust
storm picks up, the soldiers eagerly disassemble, running en masse toward
America is getting anxious and the holy month of Ramadan begins in a
week - the Northern Alliance can't stall any longer. The security guard
at our house is a soldier. "They've called us to fight," Ahmid
beams as he dances around the courtyard, short-wave radio in one hand,
AK-47 in the other. We set up camp at a first-aid post in the village
of Bagram, not far from the airbase, where the Taliban and the Northern
Alliance are sure to have a standoff. The nurses are kind to give us
shelter, but they warn us that we can't stay for long. They are expecting
to get busy. The next morning, we throw our mats and our backpacks into
the bed of a Datsun pick-up and head for the front. When we arrive at
the airbase, it is empty save for a couple of armed teenagers in fatigues.
We walk up and down the road that runs parallel to the front line, amazed
by the quiet and calm. Just as we consider leaving to check out another
front, jeeps and military trucks drive up in a cloud of dust, and hundreds
of soldiers quickly unload.
Commander Baba Jan tells us, "We are all on alert, but we haven't
received any orders to attack." We follow the activity, as soldiers
and tanks move into position. And then we sit. It is 11:30 in the morning,
preparations tfor an attack are seemingly in full swing, and yet nothing
is happening. Soldiers slowly drift away from the front lines and take
up new positions, hanging from the windows of derelict, clay houses
or lounging in the sun by the side of the road. U.S. B-52s loop overhead,
their vapor trails waving in the blue above the air base, their bombs
dropping on Taliban positions. Freshly discarded apple cores litter
the yards. One young soldier follows the scene with his Sony hand-cam.
"I'm happy. I'm not afraid," says Latif, 22, who like most
Afghans has only one name. His fellow soldiers nod in agreement. "We
are proud to be martyrs. We want to take our land back." We join
Captain Habib on the roof of an abandoned house and watch him as he
carefully coordinates the battle from his radio. Three tanks blast forward
across the deserted airbase. From our position we can't see any soldiers
or trenches - just tanks pushing through plumes of smoke. "We went
past the house! We went past the house!" The field commanders have
already swept past Taliban positions. They radio the Captain and ask
him to move the artillery forward - they are so far ahead that they
risk being hit by the Alliance's shelling.
By 3 p.m., soldiers and local villagers are returning with victory prizes.
A captured Taliban truck rolls in from the front, followed by a jeep
with an anti-aircraft gun. One man carries a recoilless rifle, its stock
still warm from the battle, on the back of his bicycle. He says he took
it off a dead Taliban soldier as he proudly pulls out the turban of
the gun's former owner. "I'm going to wrap my head with it,"
he jokes, before wheeling his spoils home. The Taliban quickly retreats,
the battle does not last longer than an hour and just like that, the
road to Kabul opens before us.
It is difficult to pin down exactly when and where we began our journey
on the road to Kabul. The obvious answer is the night we climbed into
that rundown jeep on the riverbank and headed south through the Afghan
outback. But really, our journey began much earlier, in the days following
September 11, when the name Osama bin Laden flashed across every television
screen in America, when it was difficult to imagine any other country
capable of harboring this terrorist and his intricate network, when
George W. Bush declared he wanted bin Laden, dead or alive.
We followed our
instincts and scrambled to make our way to one of the most remote and
underdeveloped countries in the world. In Afghanistan, we discovered
a world of mystery and contradictory beauty, a culture so closed to
the outside world that instead of delving into its malleable heart,
our efforts merely chipped away at its hard, outer shell. We also discovered
what appeared too good to be true. How quickly it had all come together:
the war, the bombings, the flight school advertisements on a dirty floor
in Kabul. America had cornered the bad guys, the terrorists, but it
was impossible to imagine peace in a country where allies turned to
enemies overnight, where warlords made government bedfellows, where
corruption seeped into every crack of society. War in Afghanistan had
long taken on a life of its own, and it jeered into the sun burnt faces
of American soldiers: "I was here before you and I will stay long
after you're gone."
© Ilana Ozernoy