It's dusty road to Alliance territory

Montreal Gazette
Monday, October 29, 2001
Page: A1 / FRONT
Section: News
Byline: LEVON SEVUNTS
Column: Levon Sevunts in Afghanistan
Dateline: KHWAJA BAHUDDIN, Afghanistan
Source: The Gazette

There are two ways of getting into northern Afghanistan: you either fly there on a helicopter or plane or take a long ride with a convoy.

Either way, you have to get to Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic to the north of Afghanistan and the only country that has land or air links to the areas controlled by the rebel Northern Alliance.

We – Mike Blanchfield of the Ottawa Citizen, Janet Durrans, a U.S.-based photographer, and I – chose the hard way: the overland convoy from Dushanbe to the border with Afghanistan.

Perhaps we were a little naive, used to the comfort of North American roads or even those of neighbouring Uzbekistan, but that’s a mistake we vowed to repeat only if there is absolutely no other way out.

The convoy starts with an early morning check with the officials of the Tajik Foreign Ministry. Reporters jostle for space around the official to show our newly minted accreditation passes and make sure our names are on the all-powerful “list.”

As soon as all reporters, drivers and their cars are accounted for and a police escort arrives, we hit the road.

Not for long.

Just on the outskirts of Dushanbe, the convoy, which consists of two dozen cars, stops. Our driver, Vosifi, explains that it’s time for police officials take their cut of the lucrative business of ferrying Western reporters to the border.

After they collect $10 from each driver and assign each car a number, we are set to go once again.

Vosifi is happy. He has a family of six people to feed and, even though he works in the presidential administration as a driver, he hasn’t seen his salary in more than two months. The $200 we agreed to pay for a ride in his white Volga, the Russian version of a Ford Taurus, will go a long way in solving his financial problems.

The landscape outside is stunning; even the heavy fall mist that envelops everything can’t hide its ruggedness.

We climb the Chormarzak Pass and stop again. It’s time for another check.

For reporters, it’s a welcome opportunity to get some local colour from the fruit stalls where peasant children sell long necklaces made of a local fruit.

After the Chormarzak Pass, we have to climb another mountain range and get through the Shar-Shar Pass. “This is the most dangerous pass,” Vosifi says as we drive on a narrow, winding road. One mistake and we will plunge into a 1,475-metre-deep precipice.

As we descend on the other side of the Shar-Shar Pass, the landscape changes dramatically. We are driving through a flat, dusty valley. This fine, pale yellow dust is to become a feature of our life in coming weeks as it stretches from all the way from Tajikistan to Afghanistan.

It seems to be everywhere, and even though our windows are shut, we start feeling it in our mouths. The mist only reinforces the impression that the dust is simply floating in the air.

As our convoy passes through Tajik villages, people line up along the narrow streets to greet us. We are the biggest entertainment in town, until the next convoy comes.

About 60 kilometres later, we stop again. The border is guarded by Russian guards, and the head of our convoy has to get permission from them to enter border regions, even though we are still about 50 kilometres from the actual border.

We have to wait another hour and a half alongside a collective farm with a Soviet slogan, “Glory to the Communist Party,” still visible on its walls. Only instead of the portraits of Politburo members, we see the portraits of the authoritarian Tajik president, Emomali Rakhmonov.

The flat landscape is carved with countless ravines and craters with almost no vegetation. Only occasional dust-covered shrubs and dry cotton fields line the roads.

As we approach the border, the asphalt-paved road turns into a crater-filled obstacle course that we overcome in a perpetual cloud of dust. The landscape becomes even more desolate as shrubs disappear and there is only dust.

Vosifi tries desperately to navigate his beloved Volga around craters, some of which are so deep they could serve as anti-tank trenches.

The Volga screeches and whines, begging for mercy, and the car fills with Vosifi’s curses in Russian every time a particularly deep crater scratches the bottom of the car.

We have already lost count of checkpoints, and every time we think the one we just passed must have been the last one, a new checkpoint appears. It’s already pitch-dark, and at the next checkpoint we have to climb a hill to reach a tent perched on the slope, where Tajik border guards check our credentials once again.

Lying on a floor covered by cotton-filled mattresses, they stare at our passports as they struggle to spell our names, their task made more difficult by the flickering light of an oil lamp. We are back on the road half an hour later, and Vosifi starts losing all hope of getting his car back in one piece.

Occasionally we have to get out of the car so the overloaded Volga can negotiate another obstacle. Apart from our personal luggage, laptop computers and cameras, we are taking a one-week supply of nan, the flat, round central Asian bread, pasta, cereals, water and Russian canned meat similar to Spam.

But we are lost. We are the last car in the convoy, and we are going too slow to keep up with the rest. Vosifi drives on pure instinct as the blowing dust occasionally reduces visibility to zero.

We reach the Tajik customs point and still have another 3 kilometres to the border crossing. Vosifi’s gloomy face lights up as we finally reach the river crossing, lit by the headlights of dozens of cars, flashlights and oil lamps.

Despite all the confusion, we somehow board a ferry that is going to take us to the other side – Afghanistan. We are told to keep our lights to the minimum; Taliban positions are just 9 kilometres downriver.

As we are cast off on the Afghan side, there are more checkpoints to go through. In complete darkness, we are herded into a guardhouse where Afghan border guards massacre our names again. By some miracle, mustering all the vocabulary and pantomime skills we can, we manage to hire a car, a Russian-made four-wheel-drive.

For $250 our driver, Ramazan, a Northern Alliance soldier barely 18 years old, agrees to take us to Khwaja Bahuddin, our final destination for the day. But if we thought the Tajik roads are bad, they pale in comparison with even the smoothest Afghan road.

At 1 a.m., after four breakdowns and feats of amazing mechanical ingenuity by Ramazan, we make it to the compound: a hastily set-up Red Cross refugee tent is our first home in this country of refugees.

In the morning, we discover that we were sleeping just across from where the rebel leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was blown to pieces by suicide bombers posing as journalists.

Perched on the top of the dusty hill, Massoud’s compound overlooks a river and a beautiful village. As we set up our satellite phones on the porch of the windowless room where Massoud died, his former guards look at us with curiosity mixed with suspicion.

Reporters are welcome in Afghanistan, but these people lost their innocence with Massoud’s murder Sept. 9.

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