Back in Afghanistan
I was in Afghanistan for a month during the 2001 war following 9/11. The Taliban were fleeing, Osama bin Laden was in hiding and the veil was about to go up again. The smell of cordite was still in the air and it was easier to buy a Kalashnikov than a bottle of rum.
The attack on the Indian embassy on October 8 brought back memories of what it was like back then. I remember most vividly a trip to Jalalabad to get up close to the hunt for bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains. We left Kabul early morning.
And drove straight into trouble within an hour or so.
It was a sleepy one-street town, enveloped in a permanent mist of dust. The sun was up overhead beating down on a harsh valley, embanked on either side by rocky hills that swept along the highway in dips and spikes.
The road was an undulating stretch of stones and pebbles fit only for an SUV or a truck. Ours was a good one, a Land Cruiser recently smuggled in from Pakistan. It looked new and drove like it was made for Afghanistan. There were four of us in the vehicle – Naqeebjan, a Kabuli pashtun who was standing in for his AWOL driver, interpreter Khaibar Tabish and a constable from the Kabul police, his Kalashnikov resting across his thighs.
The SUV got a flat just about a kilometer out of Sorabhi the one-street town which had a reputation for highway hold-ups, robbing foreigners and killing journalists – two of them died just week before we happened by. I knew of Sorabhi, of course. And was in a state waiting for Naqueeb to hurry up with the tyre change, looking in the direction of Sorabhi shimmering up ahead in the warming sun. Soon we were on our way.
As our convoy of two SUVs – mine and the other one belonging to a British journalist – got closer to the town, you could feel the tension in the vehicle; eyes peeled out and the Kalashnikov gripped at the ready.
The town wasn’t much of a sight: dusty, dull and mostly comprising huts and bigger huts with high walls. At the mouth of the town was a barricade – a pole lying across on two big drums on either side of the road. And a man was leaning on the pole, his head resting in the crook of his folded arms. A guard we thought, but without weapons. He looked harmless enough for us to relax.
He waved us down and sauntered up with all the time in the world. After checking the first vehicle, it was our turn. And we thought this is easy, he would let us go now. So much for Sorabhi!
He asked the two gunmen to step out and led them away into the town, down one lane that looked no different from any other. They needed to talk, we were told casually. And we were on our own.
Slowly, the town came alive. People came crawling out of every hut and house along the road. They were mostly men and children, attired in their traditional clothes and headgears – some of them had kohl in their eyes. Some of them were armed, carrying anything from a World War I rifle to Kalashnikovs. And without meaning to menace us – perhaps out of plain curiosity – they started closing in on the two vehicles from all sides. Faces pressed against the windows, some of them tried to open the doors from the outside. I wanted to light up a cigarette (every brave smoker’s first line of defence) but didn’t for some reason. I tried to connect with the children.
Not much luck there. I asked Naqueeb if he wanted to have a word with them. “Baithe raho,” he said. His Hindi wasn’t bad, though very Bollywood. He wasn’t going to be brave, not with these men.
I was looking at the faces looking at us. Which of them was a killer? Was there a kind man out there I could appeal to? Who killed those journalists – one of these people? What did they want – money?
Khaibar looked scared. The young Kabul doctor who was trying to make some money on the side working as an interpreter hadn’t bargained for this. He couldn’t utter a word. There was nothing to interpret here.
We were on our way to Tora Bora, the mountains where Osama bin Laden had been holed up for the last few days. The staging town before the mountains was Jalalabad. On the other side lay Pakistan.
And there was no way of reaching Jalalabad from Kabul without going to Sorabhi. That’s how we landed ourselves amidst those sullen, unsmiling faces. And I, of course, was responsible for it completely.
The night before, I had kicked myself a thousand times for signing up for this trip. The British journalist was going and she was putting together a convoy as there is safety in numbers, in those parts.
I immediately volunteered as it had been on my mind for a while now – I had wanted to go to Tora Bora to catch a bit of the hunt for Osama bin Laden by the American Special Forces and the local Mujahideen.
I didn’t have to go there, no one at the newspaper asked me to. But I just felt I had to. Would I be able to look myself in the mirror, if I didn’t? Tora Bora was where the biggest story of the moment was unfolding.
Ajay Shukla of NDTV had been there already and so had Prabal Pratap Singh, then with Aaj Tak. I just couldn’t miss it. It was the stupidest reason for risking your life and I knew that. But, but and, but. And here we were.
The pushing and shoving outside had let up a bit. And I thought some of them were looking a little bored – time to shoot? Before long, the gunmen returned. They were not smiling or cheering, just looked smug.
They had been made to sign some papers, we were told and the fact that they belonged to the Kabul police force may have played a big role in our escape from Sorabhi’s highway killers.
We sped out of the town but were still not safe; the mountains were apparently crawling with bandits. You couldn’t see them. And if they were targeting us, we couldn’t tell. Well, they stayed out of sight.
Jalalabad it was after a few hours. We checked into a hotel that had become home to journalists from all over the world. All four of us in one room – the gunman left to look for more a more comfortable accommodation later.
Early next morning, we took off for Tora Bora. It was a moderately long drive – not because of the distance, but the state of the road: there was no road, just a dirt track with a lot of dust flying around.
And once the climb began, the SUV came into its own – it easily negotiated near 90 degree incline on a gravelly track and took us right into the middle of the staging area, with a huge number of the Mujahideen milling about.
To the left down a deep gorge below was a bunch of Special Forces men, sitting by a brook. It looked like they were picnicking, but were actually giving B52s coordinates for the fleeing Al Qaeda operatives.
Just the day before, Osama had apparently slipped into Pakistan through Parachinar. And his men had followed him, died fighting or landed in the custody of Mujahideen fighters.
I had got my story, talked to the Mujahideen around, and briefly negotiated the purchase of a handwritten bomb manual left behind by the fleeing Al Qaeda men – the asking price was too high for me, so I passed up.
It was time to return now. And I was behind the wheel now – in Afghanistan no one was strict about these things back then. Just a few metres off the top, just as we were settling down for a nice drive, I froze.
There in front of us was a rocket standing in the middle of the road. It looked live from all angles. To my untrained eyes, it looked like a Tomahawk, the kind US sends after unfriendly dictators like Saddam Hussein.
It was a small one, actually. But there was no way of going around it; the dirt track wasn’t wide enough. The gunman eased himself out the car, walked slowly to the bomb, picked it up and swung it deep into the valley below.
We waited for the explosion; there was none.
A few years later, a burly young fellow walked up to me at the Kabul airport and grabbed me in a close hug. It was the gunman. We had together faced down death once.