Richard's Afghanistan Experience... Chapter 5

5 Birthday surprises...
ON May 23rd, it was my birthday. Jill woke me at 0900 to tell me a load of problems. Then Afiz wanted to discuss ticketing for the airline. It was 1100 before I was able to wash and shave. Then Chris, Av and Sheila reappeared - they couldn’t get across the border. The day passed miserably until about 4pm when Clare asked if I’d like to go for a coffee at the UN. I was surprised but agreed. We joined Jill and Tom, sat down quietly and sipped the coffee. I noticed they kept popping out of the room but didn’t realise the truth until they all came in singing Happy Birthday and carrying a huge almond cake with flickering candles. I had to blow out the candles, cut the cake and make a wish while the servants clapped and danced.

They gave me a home made card with a photograph of Clare and Jill on the front and then watched as I undid my present - a pottery and leather Afghan drum actually made a few hundred yards from our villa.. One of the UN servants was hot on drums and we were treated to one of them dancing to the drum beat. It turned out that they had deliberately made sure I had a day of problems so that the surprise and pleasure would be even greater. A birthday to remember...

Chapatti sandwiches

The last day of May and James and Tom were off for their first two week breaks. Clare, Hamid and I went to the border to see them off. It was very straightforward as we had a diplomat with us and they sailed through without delay. As we were finally returning our hospitality by having a pool party that day, we stopped at the border village of Heriton and bought whisky, vodka, beer, Sprite and pasta.

Later we got food and decorations and hired an excellent woman cook who took great pains to produce a wide array of delicacies. It was a surprise after being there so long to find that Afghanistan actually did have its own cuisine. I had a long talk with the new UN head of security, a Fijian called Issy. I told him how protected we were and how it would be nice to get away for the day. He said he’d fix something up for all of us the next day.

We had chicken chapatti sandwiches made by the UN cook at $3 a time, took loads of juice, beer and water and set off in a couple of four wheel drive Toyotas, in the usual blisteringly hot and sunny weather. On our way to the mountains, we passed the largest building in town - a grain silo built by the Russians. Some bare metal joists and a huge crane where expansion had been taking place were just as they’d left them. Issy said, "Jens must know a short cut, this isn’t the way I know." He let him carry on leading.

They carried Kalashnikovs...

We passed a control point with a tank and guards high on the hillside overlooking the track we were taking along a dried up river bed. It turned out that Jens had decided to look at an archway linking the cliffs either side. We had to wait as a truck had broken down and was in the way. A dozen people eventually pushed the old truck clear for us to go by.

We went through the archway, took pictures and Jens moved on 200 yards. Issy strolled towards them and Clare walked a little way from our Toyota. The men from the truck walked towards me, pointed that they’d like their picture taken and smiled at the camera... One of them asked for a cigarette. I moved to sit on the edge of the rear seat as the unsmiling head of the group started looking inside. I showed him that our bottle contained water and not vodka but he still kept peering over my shoulder. I should have mentioned that none of them were soldiers but all of them carried Kalashnikovs.

Clare came back, sat inside and said, "I want to get out of here." I remembered John Carver’s words: "Don’t go into the mountains - it's dangerous." Issy seemed to take forever to amble back. When he did, I said that we should turn round. At that moment, Jens moved off up the creek in the other pickup. We followed, went round a curve and were confronted by a soldier on another border post. He didn’t look happy about letting us past. We drove by a newly built barracks with armed guards and a different portrait from the familiar Dostum moustache. This was an elderly but ferocious looking bearded Afghan. I got Issy to flash and hoot Jens until he stopped. We caught up, Carmin and Jill got out of the pickup with the bag of sandwiches and said, "This is a nice spot, we can have our picnic here". Issy didn’t take control so I said, "No, we are leaving and going to the wheatfield on the edge of the mountains. Come on Issy, let’s go".

With mumbles and grumbles they all piled in the pickups and we turned round. I couldn’t believe people with so much joint experience could be so oblivious of potential danger. This included the UN Head of Security for Afghanistan.
Our little Mazar haven

Once I’d taken the decision out of his hands he said to Clare and I that in that remote spot, the mountain men hardly saw women, let alone brightly dressed Englishwomen. He added that the truck people were probably so uneducated that they wouldn’t recognise their own written language let alone the neutral bright blue magic letters of UN. He, amazingly, agreed that it had been dangerously unsafe there.

Clare was so relieved when we had passed back through the archway to picnic near Dostum’s border post. The reason we hadn’t taken our own guard was that Issy had organised security for us all the way to the original destination! I was quite happy to return to our little Mazar haven.

Clare and I produced lamb casserole with roast potatoes, gravy, vegetables and mint sauce. Just as we served it with a flourish, the power went off! Finding candles by the aid of lighters and matches, the dinner atmosphere was actually improved by the candlelight. Although wine would have been nice, beer and Pepsi worked well enough as it was with an English dish for a change.

In the early evening I joined Mervyn, Jill, an Italian called Janni and Clare for their desert run. I waited at the border post with the guards. None of them had uniforms but they all had AK47s and some had rocket grenades. They offered me tea and took great pleasure in showing how fast they could strip and reassemble the Chinese made AK47. Then I witnessed a strange transformation by these ferocious looking armed men. At random intervals they individually produced small green plastic jugs of water, thoroughly washed themselves and knelt on multicoloured carpet prayer mats to pray. It was in no way self conscious. I guessed they were cleansing their bodies before their souls... As soon as each one had finished he would immediately pick up his gun and carry on being an alert guard.

A horseshoe under her hat!

They lent me their powerful binoculars to catch a first glimpse of the returning runners. It took me some time to work out the direction to look as it was a full circle of flat desert scrubland landscape. They eagerly posed for pictures - one scene would have had them all shot if it were published. Humorously vying for the best profile in front of the camera they all pointed their guns at a portrait of General Dostum!

When the runners returned I was really pleased when Clare gave me a present of a well-worn horseshoe she’d found in the desert. She’d run something like three miles with it under her hat just to bring it to me! The downside of this friendly thought was to dare me to run with them as far as I could the next time...

Then we had more fun and games. While I took pictures, the guards let Jill and Clare fire the guns into the air. The safety catch had been left on when Clare went to fire her round. After the tension of the first try she was wary the second time and yanked the gun almost vertical. The guards had great fun running around with their hands on top of their heads in mock fear of the returning vertical bullet!

We went with the mad Italian on a fast trip to measure the distance they had run. It was 6.3km - about four miles. Not bad in desert heat, however fit you may be. It was a pretty weird feeling sitting in a modern air conditioned four-wheel drive Toyota bouncing along in the middle of nowhere listening to a tape of Chris de Burgh singing Lady in Red!

Feeling pretty good about life, we returned to spaghetti Bolognaise - and the moaners. As soon as we could get away, Jill, Clare and I sat by the pool with vodka, tonic and the stars... As we talked, Carmin walked by on the other side of the pool on the way to her room. She was straining to see if it was just Clare and I as she went off to bed. She couldn’t resist. Ten minutes later she came out and strolled over to check. Almost disappointed that there were three of us, she went off to bed.

As we talked Clare said I reminded her of her close girlfriend, as I had the same doe eyes and careful thought before speaking. I wasn’t really sure how I should view that comparison... Soon, the vodka was having an effect and we went upstairs to carry on talking and invited Hamid up for a drink. He made us laugh by an inspired piece of spontaneous mimicry. He leaned forward, moved with a slow shuffle, sniffed and said, "More toilet rolls, please". We knew instantly that it was Alan! Possibly accentuated through alcohol intake, I laughed until tears ran down my face.

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