My first trip to Afghanistan: induction


By Craig Davis

(This is the first of three columns by Jackson County native Craig Davis. The second will publish Friday on The Tribune Opinion Page.)

Watching the news of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan generates memories of my first trip to Afghanistan in December 1983.

A hundred thousand Soviet troops controlled the cities, but the U.S.-backed mujahedeen guerrillas controlled the countryside. Prior to the trip, I had seen Dan Rather embedded with the mujahedeen on the 60-Minute segement “Inside Afghanistan.”

I wanted experience Afghanistan for myself.

With my hair dyed black and dressed in the traditional salwar kameez clothes; Uzbek doppa or skullcap; and draped in a brown woolen patoo or wrap; I met a kind Afghan photographer who introduced me to Gulbuddin Heckmartar, the leader of Hezbi-Islami Gulbaddin, one of the seven Afghan resistance parties.

Soft spoken and respectful, the future prime minister told me, “You go in tomorrow.”

He gave me an Uzbek name and ordered me not to speak English for my own safety until I reached Afghanistan.

Rather, I was to respond, “Uzbek, Uzbek,” referring to an Afghan ethnic group and language that Pakistani border guards couldn’t understand.

That afternoon I bought a turban, and someone wrapped it around my doppa. The next morning, I donned my doppa-turban headgear and waited in the Greens Hotel lobby until my Afghan mujahed guide appeared.

To remain inconspicuous, we took a backseat on a mini-bus that sped along winding roads of the tribal areas into Kurram District. As we bounced along my turban unwrapped and landed on my lap. My guide deftly grabbed it and rewound it on my head, drawing a smile from the tribesman on my right.

The mini-bus stopped at a small town near the border, and my mujahed and I entered an open-air restaurant. We dipped pieces of large Pakistani naan in the meat sauce and ate with our fingers.

When a second bus dropped us off at a desolate intersection, we ran half a block to catch our next, already-moving bus. I grabbed the ladder affixed to the back and climbed up. The hand of a friendly Afghan man reached down to help me to the top. After my guide and I had settled in with about a dozen other Afghan men on top of the speeding bus, one man opened his patoo bundle to reveal a gallon of popcorn. We all laughed, grabbed a handful and enjoyed the rest of the ride.

By nightfall my guide and I ended our long journey with a seemingly endless walk down a dirt road towards a tiny cluster of mud homes. Inside one, we removed our shoes and joined other Afghan men, sitting in a reception room reserved for male guests. They spoke nonstop about the war. After we ate, I removed my socks and punctured a huge blister to make the following day’s walk less painful. I practiced wrapping my turban two dozen times until I mastered it. A mujahed in his mid-20s was trying unsuccessfully to get a transistor radio to work. I dug into one of my many pockets and offered the exact sized batteries needed. He smiled and became my de facto bodyguard for the remainder of the trip. Immediately, the radio began spitting out Pashtu news from Voice of America or BBC. I covered myself with my patoo and fell asleep.

The next day during a slow ride in a Toyota pickup along a goat path, we saw Soviet attack helicopters hovering in the distance. My heartbeat raced. There was no turning back. But then we lost sight of the military aircraft and came to the end of the goat path. And so began our three-day foot journey.

One mujahed gave me an AK-47 and three clips, but after ten miles or so, I was so exhausted with the weight of my own gear that I returned them. We eventually reached a makeshift mujahedeen outpost. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet helicopters returned and launched an attack. The mujahedeen scrambled into action. My bodyguard raced to the top of the hill and waved at me with his palm down repeatedly. At the time, I didn’t know that most cultures motion for people to come with the palm down instead of palm up used in the U.S. After a few seconds, I understood and ran to the top of the hill, and began snapping photos and filming. He then ordered me to follow him up a second hill. At the top stood a mujahed at anti-aircraft machine-gun turret, firing at a helicopter overhead while it fired back. I felt the sting of something hot on my skin and thought I had been shot, but it was just the discharged shells from the anti-aircraft gun.

Exhausted, I slept well that night. The next day, we walked through an area covered by scorched vegetation. One mujahed told me it was napalm. A few hours later we reached a mujahedeen post, overlooking an Afghan communist fort in a valley. For my benefit, the guerrilla fighters began arming a mortar gun while one mujahed read instructions out loud. They then launched three mortars at the fort, which earned us three retaliatory artillery projectiles. They all missed. “God is with us,” said one mujahed.

A few days later, I was back in Peshawar. And a month later back in Indiana. But the Afghan hospitality, culture and plight stuck with me. I would return three more times.

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