TALOQAN, Afghanistan – Mercenaries posing as English teachers need not apply. Neither should globe-pedaling bicyclists. The Afghan consul in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, is adamant: No visas for foreign adventurers.
Exceptions are made, however, for venturesome foreign journalists.
Within minutes the consul returns my passport, stamped so that I can enter the embattled corner of Afghanistan still resisting the radical Islamist Taliban that controls the rest of the country. “We’ll call you in your hotel when the helicopter is ready,” the consul says cheerfully. “You understand, sir, that there is no schedule.”
And, he neglects to say, just one helicopter.
The single chopper provides the only transportation into the mountain stronghold of Ahmad Shah Masood, the legendary mujahideen commander who helped drive out the invading Soviet Red Army in the 1980s and is now leading the last resistance to the Taliban militia.
Four days later, photojournalist Alan Chin and I lift off from a grassy field at the Dushanbe airport in a Soviet-made Mi-17 that the Afghans claim to have captured during the war against Moscow. It looks more like a reassembled relic from a provincial Russian aviation museum.
Just one seat away sits Commander Masood himself. As I prepare to introduce myself, I hesitate, noticing his lips are moving in silent prayer. I wonder if I shouldn’t be doing the same.
We finally land, not in the Panjshir Valley, Masood’s main base, but in the scorching provincial town of Taloqan. Alan and I visit the nearby front line, report on a girls’ school – a rarity here – and interview the local bigwigs. After two days, we have exhausted the meager pickings the town has to offer. The medieval charm of the dusty streets, paved with manure and lined by crooked shanties, is limited. We need the helicopter to reach the Panjshir Valley, where the action is.
Driving is not an option. Twenty years of continuous war have disintegrated Afghanistan’s roads into dirt tracks or rivulets. Top speeds rarely exceed 10 m.p.h. The rusting wreckage of ambushed Soviet tanks and armored cars litters the roadsides. As with Masood’s helicopter, the difference between junked vehicles and those that run is difficult to gauge with the naked eye. To get around town we take two-wheeled buggies drawn by scrawny horses.
Every morning the authorities promise us deliverance. And every evening they apologize that we still haven’t departed. “You understand that there is no schedule,” we hear again and again. “Tomorrow there will be a flight.”
In a place where there is no power grid, amenities such as electric lights, radio, television, and refrigeration are rare. I can only dream about simple pleasures like an ice-cold drink or a hot shower. Crackling over my (battery-powered) shortwave radio, the BBC news becomes a tenuous link to the outside world. There are few other diversions.
Alan and I play chess or quiz each other on African geography. I start teaching him French. We begin assigning names to Taloqan’s nameless streets. In mock colonial spirit, we nickname the town Ochen’ plokho, Russian for “very bad.”
Often a chopper clatters low over the town, only to swoop off toward the distant mountains. Our frantic queries always meet the same answers: “That one is carrying ammunition to the front.” Or simply: “No, it’s not going to Panjshir.”
One day two Kurdish aid workers from Iraq, Fars and Nasser, appear at the official guest house where we are staying. Having just completed a six-month tour in an Afghan hospital, they await a ride out of the country. The Kurds complain about the lack of electricity and running water. They berate the burqa, the full-body shroud worn by women here, and fuss about the food.
In many ways, the Kurds are more openly Western than Alan and I. Neither has bothered to grow a beard, as is local custom. One day, Fars greets us wearing cutoffs he has fashioned by lopping off the legs of his jeans. Nobody, not even small children, wears shorts in Afghanistan, where exposed skin is frowned upon under a conservative interpretation of Islam.
We are joined in the helicopter vigil by an elderly man who introduces himself as the minister of industry and mines. It is obviously a symbolic position. In an agrarian country plunged into a preindustrial state by two decades of fighting, he might as well have called himself director of the Afghan space agency.
“If he really is a minister, he should have some power,” Fars observes acidly. “So why is he asking us when there will be a helicopter?”
One afternoon, Mr. Asim, an urbane official at the Foreign Ministry office, tries to lift our spirits. He flips on his generator-powered computer and opens a sophisticated mapping program. He tries to load a simulation of a flight over the Hindu Kush Mountains, but the software keeps crashing. Even in virtual reality, Alan and I cannot leave Taloqan.
After four days of waiting, we are approaching the limit. Having discovered that one Commander Fahim is directly responsible for flights, we stake out his office. Like the other officials, he promises a flight and sends us back to the guest house.
Toward evening, Alan and I take a walk to the soccer field that also serves as a helicopter landing pad. Suddenly a four-wheel-drive pulls up and Fahim jumps out. “Where are your bags?” he asks. Alan and I rush to grab our things. When we get back to the soccer field, the rotors of the chopper are already turning. We never thought we would be so happy to see that helicopter again.
Whether our departure from Taloqan was by coincidence or design, we will never know. It’s the kind of question you cannot answer in Afghanistan. And frankly, one you’d better not ask.