It appears that the people of Kabul have a penchant for portraits. You see them in all sizes and colours — on roadsides and on buildings, in streets and outside shops, around parks and pavilions. When you come out of the airport in Kabul, the first thing that strikes you is a huge portrait of Ahmed Shah Masood, that legendary warrior who fought from the Panjshir valley in the 1980s against the communist soldiers from his own land and from the Soviet Union.
It is not only the roads around the airport but also the highways and inland avenues that have portraits lined up from Masood to Rabbani and from Ashraf Ghani to Abdullah Abdullah.
Thirty five years of infighting and foreign interventions have devastated Afghanistan and its people; and that is evident when you travel across the country — hundreds of miles of land where every now and then you encounter an abandoned military truck or a destroyed battle tank.
Despite all this, the desire to rebuild their country radiates from the faces of the Afghan people — be it Pakhtun or Tajik, Uzbek or Hazara, all are sick and tired of the war which they think is being perpetuated by outsiders.
The Afghan people are generally helpful and hospitable. Even the taxi drivers at the airport, rather than trying to fleece you, help you locate your hosts and offer you their cell phone to make calls and then refuse to accept payment knowing fully well that their taxi would not be used.
Once you reach your hotel in Kabul, you have to go through a much more strenuous security regimen than those in Pakistan. Repeated body searches and luggage scanning; armed guards at every other step, fully loaded with modern weaponry and almost in a position to jump on you even if you wave the hotel key. Filling out different registers each time you return to the hotel after as short a period as just five minutes, one feels for those who have to stay in hotels for a longer duration.
Luckily, you step out of the hotel and roam around the streets in Kabul and notice a city full of hustle and bustle. On pavements you find books in Dari, English, Farsi, Pushto, and even in Urdu being sold at throwaway prices. Where else would you find Persian poets such as Rudaki and Shabistari resting on footpath with philosophers such as Marx and Russell, Iqbal Lahori scratching the head of Bedil, and Farogh Farrukhzad embracing Nelson Mandela?
This is in Kabul, but when you enter Parwan, a province north of Kabul, you see almost the same scene on the sidewalks in the city centre of Charikar — the capital of Parwan. People drink Dogh (Afghan lassi) and browse through the quartets of Omar Khayyam who loved barrels of wine and bevy of women. But in today’s Afghanistan, Khayyam would have starved to death for want of his staples. Not that they are not available; it’s the hassle that simply hunts you down.
Apparently, the best bookshop in Kabul — and perhaps in Afghanistan — is Shah Books on Charahi Sadarat. Here, on the ground floor, you find the usual bestsellers, but if you climb onto the second floor you are up for a treat. Centuries-old manuscripts and Persian delights from Iran and Tajikistan of yore welcome you. One feels like buying them all and hiring a truck in which one could recline on top of one’s newly-bought heap of books and read while the truck trundles across the border.
When you move north from Kabul and cross Parwan, you enter one of the marvels of 20th century engineering accomplished by the Soviets in 1960s. Much before the Karakoram Highway (KKH) welcomed motorists, the Salang Tunnel at the altitude of 3400 metres became the world’ highest tunnel. It is 2.6 kilometres long and serves as the main connection between the north and south of Afghanistan across the mighty Hindu Kush Mountains. Its breathtaking views rival any other panorama at that height in the world. While the 800-kilometre-long Hindu Kush Mountain Range has seen armies from Darius to Alexander, the Salang Tunnel has witnessed the Soviet forces cross into Afghanistan in 1979, fifteen years after it was inaugurated in 1964.
When the Soviets built the tunnel, the Afghans were happy as it had reduced the travel time between north and south of Afghanistan from 72 hours to just 10 hours. Little did they realise that, ultimately, the same tunnel would herald the beginning of a foreign occupation that consumed generations of the Afghan people for decades to come.
Once you embark on that journey, knowing that the highway to and from the Salang Tunnel is an avalanche-prone area, you remember your own KKH and brush aside any sense of awe with a smug smile. That boastful pride soon vanishes when you find yourself not surrounded by the barren mountains of the KKH, but at the feet of enormous ice shields that stretch up into the sky and gape at you with a wide maw. That white hell soon hands you over to a narrow orifice in a huge body leading into a dark passage. This is the famous Salang Tunnel — an intestinal penetration into the Hindu Kush Mountains.
The present dilapidated condition of the tunnel is a result of the repeated tragedies it has endured during the past 35 years. The most devastating was the Salang Tunnel Fire of 1982 caused by an attack of the so-called Mujahedeen on the Soviet convoy crossing the tunnel. A tanker truck blew up in the tunnel and engulfed the entire convey within this inferno. Hundreds of Soviet and Afghan soldiers were burned to death and scores of vehicles became molten lava that ultimately froze on the tunnel floor leaving it almost like a serrated blade.
Despite repairs, the tunnel never got its original sheen and then, in the late 1990s, the battles between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban once again destroyed all its lighting and ventilation systems.
So, the time you spend in the tunnel — with hardly any other vehicle in sight — is the duration of your purgation. One comes out of the tunnel with bated breath without knowing what awaits a few miles later.
An unpleasant ending
The 4×4 we were travelling in was rushing toward Baghlan, and it was almost the last leg of the Hindu Kush. The road was slightly foggy but not very dark. I saw only one passenger van almost one kilometre ahead of us. There was no other moving object or breathing soul in this vast wilderness. Suddenly we heard a big bang and saw the van ahead being hit by a speeding truck coming from the other side; both overturned and a pall of smog built up around the accident site.
Our driver stopped around a 100 metres away from the screaming victims. Some of them had been thrown out of the van by the impact and most were still trapped in the van profusely bleeding. There was no other vehicle in sight; just the two smashed vehicles and the one we were in. After around five minutes of deafening shrieks, the three of us looked at each other, as if asking what to do now.
To cut a long story short, we ended up pulling out the six dead bodies — two women, three children, and a man — from the van. There were three bodies already on the road; another ten or so wounded still trapped in the van before another vehicle came by. It was a car with a family in it. The lone man came out of the car and started crying. He told us that the nearest town was at least one hour away. We took two injured people with us leaving the rest behind as more vehicles gathered at the site.
Finally, we reached Puli Khumri in Baghlan and handed over the wounded to the local hospital.
This was the scene that I can never forget. We had meetings planned for the next two days in Baghlan, but the emotional wreck that we had become was too much to endure. We accomplished whatever business we could and headed back to Kabul after two days.
The rest of the journey was a like a mourning procession rather than a happy tour.