The taxi could hold no more. There were about seven of us, packed tightly with our baggage into a beaten up Japanese car, being driven on a cold September afternoon from downtown Kabul to the distant airfield beyond the city’s outskirts. The route wound past squat housing, shops and hoardings, over a dusty road. Soon we were going past dun-coloured hovels and sparse fields on either side with slender trees that had begun to drop their leaves, pulling aside now and then for army jeeps and trucks that roared past, toward and away from the city.
Arriving at the nondescript airport terminal, guarded by armed Afghan troopers in khaki, we hauled our bags across the bare concourse toward the immigration counter. One of the passenger’s bags burst open, spilling dry fruit and nuts on to the floor, which had the rough young guards gleefully scooping up handfuls of the spillage and stuffing it into their mouths and pockets. It was not a busy airport. Very few foreign cities, and some domestic, were connected to the capital. There were just two flights a week to Amritsar and Delhi operated by Ariana Afghan Airways, the same plane making the journey to and fro.
One by one we passengers, all Indian, had to open our bags on a long table for inspection. A uniformed woman kneaded my pile of dirty clothes with both hands, looking sternly at me until she was satisfied there was nothing worth fishing out. I kept a straight face, hoping the lump of hashish in a sock would pass unnoticed. Shutting the suitcase, she then rummaged through my hand luggage: a 1.5 litre bottle of Stolichnaya, a big packet of almonds and raisins, some used books, and lots of old maps, detritus left behind by hordes of western backpackers who had passed through the city in the years past, before the Soviet invasion in 1979 cut off the overland route to India and Nepal.
The inspection over, I had my passport examined and stamped and was told to wait with the others in an uncomfortable hall with large glass windows looking on to the runways and other airforce buildings and hangars. Lining the airfield were sandbagged machine gunners in shallow pits on the periphery. A few large helicopters stood with their long rotor blades sagging at the ends, like tired beasts of burden. High above, two planes droned lazily following each other in a wide circle, tossing out blue sodium flares every 30 seconds or so. There was something hypnotic about the flares silently falling down the sky, all day, trailing slender plumes of colour that slowly dissipated in the air.
The appointed hour went past without any sign of our plane. Some military aircraft took off and arrived. There were no announcements over the PA system, and the restless passengers huddled together in the cold hall had to shout and inquire of the departure from unfriendly airline staff.
“Hello! What time plane coming? Sir! Hello… hello!”
The Afghans went about their duty, not caring very much, giving monosyllabic answers or just telling us to be quiet. There was no cafeteria or even a water fountain inside where we could refresh ourselves.
Great excitement ensued as a passenger jet landed, and everyone began gathering their belongings, but it turned out to be another flight, not ours.
Finally, more than an hour after the departure time, a staffer walked in to announce that because of bad weather, our plane could not take off from Amritsar. We were asked to go back and return the next day at the same time.
I pushed through the scrum to tell immigration about my visa which would expire at midnight. They looked helpless and shook their heads. After more inquires, I was told offhand to visit some government office in the city, and was ushered out. It was early evening and getting dark. I heaved my luggage into a departing taxi and wedged in with irate passengers to head back and spend another night in Kabul.
After all these years, the recollection brings back a bizarre melange of grainy scenes: a central Asian culture set in a timeframe of armoured vehicles, Kalashnikhovs, and medieval echoes. There was a shortage of many foods and vital medicines.
Getting out downtown, I walked to my little hotel, the Balla Hissar, named after an old fort which stood atop a hill overlooking the city, whence I had checked out earlier that day, and asked for a bed. I didn’t want a room, I said, only a bed somewhere, because I did not have enough money. I had gone shopping the day before for old books and had used up most of my spare cash. The sparse staff nodded in sympathy and held a loya jirga after which it was announced that I would stay the night gratis with no payment expected. I was led to a charpoy in a musty corridor upstairs, and was told to make myself comfortable.
I had spent a week in the occupied city. After all these years, the recollection brings back a bizarre melange of grainy scenes: a central Asian culture set in a timeframe of armoured vehicles, Kalashnikhovs, and medieval echoes. There was a shortage of many foods and vital medicines. Women wore burkhas, as well as tight miniskirts, blowing cigarette smoke out of heavily rouged lips. You could buy hot naans, the staple food, from a myriad of street-side bakeries, and then a bottle of Russian vodka from a pushcart vendor, as I did. Now and then a tank would go rumbling by. The biggest corporate employer was the German Hoechst pharmaceutical company, that doled out rudimentary pills and powders. Indian medicines were much in demand, and a black market flourished, where almost any foreign currency could be exchanged.
Not many Russians were to be seen, except young lads in battle fatigues and blue-and-white striped singlets underneath, warily eyeing passersby from pavements and shops where they would gaze longingly at cheap goods of Korean or Chinese manufacture. Officers’ families peered at ancient treasures behind glass in the city’s museum, when I visited the place, and all those outside the fortified barracks lived within a ghetto called Mikrorayan.
Life carried on daily, underpinned by ever present danger, everywhere. After eight years of occupation, the populace had got used to it. Lovers sat in parks or sipped cool drinks in cheap cafes, outside one of which a car bomb had gone off some days before, killing sixty. Children flew kites along the banks of the narrow filthy river; those who had been orphaned huddled around windows of the dismal government orphanage, looking out. There were inadequate staff in the hospitals, so the seriously ill and critically injured had to fly out of the country for treatment. And flying was always dangerous, I was told. The Mujahideen had been armed with heat-seeking stinger missiles and were adept at using them. Driving outside the city was also fraught with danger, thanks to landmines and ambushes outside its periphery. So a bus trip to the valley of Bamiyan with the tall Buddha statues, which I longed to visit, was considered very risky and unwise.
All one could do was walk or drive around within Kabul, past old bazaars and ugly buildings with high walls, often adorned with the national flag or large posters of the incumbent president, Mohammad Najibullah, nicknamed “the Ox”. He certainly looked like one. He had been chief of the feared intelligence unit, KhAD, and was held responsible for the torture and death of thousands before being appointed president by the Soviets. His predecessor, it was said, had been sent out to Moscow on “medical grounds” and was presumed dead. Treachery and intrigue were the order of the day, loyalties could be bought, and brothers fought each other on either side of the conflict, that raged and simmered in different pockets of the country. The Soviet troops were suffering heavy casualties at the hands of the Mujahideen, it was whispered. But no one was sure. The news on the lone TV channel showed victorious commanders and smiling natives.
At nightfall, long fingers of light probed the sky menacingly to ward off enemy planes as I dined on delicious dal and rice near the kitchen with the staff for the last time. One of them interpreted the spoken Farsi for me in halting Hindi, picked up from watching Indian films. “It gives us great pleasure to have you seated at our table,” he declared in a voice full of emotion. “We are very honoured.” Their hospitality was touching and sincere. Nothing was expected in return.
The next morning, I awoke with a sense of unease, my week-long visa having expired which made my presence unlawful. There was no time to go looking for official help so I packed up my belongings and, carefully counting a few notes from my diminishing wad of Afghanis into their hands, embraced the staff and set off again at around noon for the airport.
Arriving with plenty of time to spare, I went through the paces again and, baggage examined, sat down in the lounge to await the plane that would carry me away. I had a ticket out, and just enough money to get me to Delhi from Amritsar by train. The place had begun to fill up, and it was difficult reading the book I had begun. I kept looking nervously at the clock and out at the airfield. The fellow passengers were a noisy bunch of Punjabi traders, their bags crammed with goods they would resell back at home. None had any idea or opinion, it appeared, about the political situation. They only discussed their shopping and the prices of everything, endlessly.
The next morning, I awoke with a sense of unease, my week-long visa having expired which made my presence in the country unlawful. There was no time to go looking for official help so I packed up my belongings and set off around noon for the airport.
The hours seemed to drag. But at long last we were told of the impending arrival of the flight, and were told to queue up at the exit. Clutching my passport and my handbag—there was no boarding pass—I stood in line and felt elated to see a blue-and-white painted Ariana jet land at last. There was much shoving and pushing until the door was finally opened and we trotted out into the cold air toward the parked jet on foot.
The checked-in luggage was piled on the tarmac for us to identify. That done, we were again asked to line up for a final look at the ticket and passport by a pair of soldiers. It seemed to take for ever as they thumbed through the booklets and peered at the faces before rudely waving the passengers on to board.
Having made it at last, I handed over the documents and waited. The fellow turned the pages, looked at the stamp and then held it up close for a better view. Then, looking at me, he pointed at the date and quizzed me in Farsi. I could see the question marks in his stern eyes. I tried explaining in slow English, which he didn’t understand, about the flight cancellation the day before. He peered at the stamp, cocked his head, unsure what to do, and then asked me to stand aside, pocketing the passport. The others shuffled forward, and had their stamps verified, and limbered up into the aircraft one by one. All the luggage had been loaded into the belly of the plane.
I asked the officer to hand back my passport, pointing at my watch and toward the plane. I grimaced; then smiled, and shifted my weight from one foot to another. Then I began to harangue him, telling him again about the day before. Ignoring me altogether, he asked the armed soldier to guard me, and trotted off to the terminal building about a hundred yards away with my passport.
The sky was slightly overcast and a cold wind had picked up. The two planes circled over the airfield, dropping the flares. My mouth dry, I smiled at the soldier and indicated I wanted to join the others inside and take off. Minutes ticked by. I told him to go explain the situation, gesticulating as best I could. He said nothing but just stood there, holding his big gun and keeping his eyes on me. I looked up at the aircraft and saw passengers' faces pressed to the windows, watching the drama on the tarmac. Moments later, one of the stewardesses peeped out the door and waved at me to come up. I spread my arms helplessly and stood still. Then she disappeared and another face leaned out. Then, to my horror, the plane’s engines roared to life and began warming up.
I was in tenth standard, I understood everything that was happening to us, the dynamics of it. And anyway, when you're growing up in Kashmir, you're politicised, you're aware of your identity as the religious minority, so I was completely aware of what was happening.
I began perspiring, despite the cold. Visions of immigration officers grilling me about my motives began to fill my head, followed by the clang of a metal door shutting me inside. What sort of a prison would they lock me in, I wondered. I had lied all the way from the Afghan Consulate in Bombay to everyone in Kabul about my identity and motives. To some I was a trader; others believed I worked in advertising; yet others thought I was some sort of medical representative. No one knew I was a freelance journalist looking for a story to tell. And freelancers in the Third World are not worth a rat’s arse. Who would pay the fine and bribes if I got taken in? I couldn’t think of anyone.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I saw a soldier step out of the building and come running back with my passport. I felt like embracing the fellow when he handed it over and waved me off. I was up the stairs and in that plane like a squirrel.
Stashing my precious booze and books overhead, I flopped down in a seat by the window and fastened myself in with the belt, determined not to be dragged out, in case they came again for me. The door had been shut behind. But I was still tense. At last the aircraft eased forward and began turning round to head for the runway, and I began breathing normally again. A man across the aisle wanted to know what the problem had been. I told him nothing and turned away.
There still lay about three minutes before we gained enough altitude after takeoff to get out of range of the missiles. I looked up to see if the decoy flares were being dropped. They were. Juddering slightly, the plane taxied down the runway, gaining speed, tilted upward and was aloft. Climbing steeply it flew swift and straight for the line of mountains, leaving the danger zone within minutes. I couldn’t help turning to look back through the window to see if any stinger was on our tail. There had been instances of passenger planes blown out of the sky.
One of the Sikh passengers raised a cheer“Jai Khalistan!” and was answered by some, but not all. A burly hostess then asked them to be quiet and continued to do so throughout the flight, shouting in Hindi at the unruly lot.
I wanted to celebrate, but they served no alcohol on board. So I pulled out a bar of chocolate I’d bought, and unwrapping it, hungrily bit into what felt like a wooden bar. I licked and tried again, and again, with both jaws, but could not break even a jot off the accursed dark chocolate. Then I asked for hot coffee and dipped it in the cup for a minute to melt it. That would do the trick. But it did not, that wonder bar of Yugoslavian manufacture. It now bore the imprint of my molars and grinders upon it. Luckily, none of my teeth had come loose.
Throwing it away, I leaned back limply and looked out at a cobalt sky and beneath, a prehistoric carapace of mountains lightly dusted with snow, that stretched as far as I could see, forming the mighty Hindu Kush range. It was a fantastic spectacle. Gradually, we were over them, then across the dusty plains and farmlands of Pakistan, and about three hours after Kabul, began the descent into Indian airspace.