Not me, but I have a namesake travelling in Afghanistan at the moment
Monday September 17, 2001
As American Airlines flight 11 ploughed into the World Trade Centre, I was
sitting with a group of young Taliban in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan. I
had just arrived on a tourist visa and was thoroughly enjoying myself. It
was 5.30pm and we were watching the local gymnastics club practise beside
the Kabul river. In the light of the setting sun, the boys rehearsed their
flips and rolls, a thin mat their only piece of equipment.
Afterwards the Taliban lads took me to a stall, bought me some chips and
Coke, and bombarded me with questions. Which country was I from? Why was I
in Afghanistan? Could I help them get an English visa? Like most Afghans,
they initially appeared stern and forbidding, but when I greeted them and
held out my hand they melted into smiles.
On Wednesday morning I took a taxi to Kabul, still completely unaware of
events in New York and Washington. We were pulled over at the first
checkpoint outside Jalalabad by a group of black-turbaned Taliban sporting
AK47s and batons. I opened my bum bag but the guard wasn't interested in
seeing my passport or visa. He reached in and pulled out a couple of
"un-Islamic" family photos, examined them carefully, smiled and put them
The driver wasn't so lucky. The Taliban found an illegal music cassette in
the glove box and hauled him out, whacked him around the head and took him
away for questioning. They politely apologised to me for the delay and found
me another taxi. Judging by the streams of tape flying from a lamp-post, it
was business as usual.
It was a dusty and incredibly bumpy journey to Kabul, along roads whose
tarmac had been destroyed by tank treads and missile attacks. We passed
ruined villages, abandoned Soviet tanks and fenced-off areas awaiting the
mine clearance teams. But among the relics of carnage there were moments of
rare beauty. Nomads led camel trains and flocks of goats across the desert.
Unveiled girls in bright pink tunics gathered water from a turquoise river
and balanced bundles on their heads while eagles soared above.
I first heard the news in a Kabul hotel from Gulbudin, a middle-aged Afghan
with a short-wave radio. "Do you know someone has flown an aeroplane into
the World Trade Centre in America?" This was so preposterous that I didn't
take him seriously, so I headed out to explore the city and see if anyone
could confirm his story.
In the handicraft shops of Chicken Street, the desperate shopkeepers were
more interested in selling me jewellery and carpets. But, when pressed, one
told me: "Terrorists have destroyed a big business building in America. We
saw it on the dish. Yes, we have television, it's easy to hide."
I went to a restaurant for dinner and the atmosphere was more sombre. Three
old men were listening intently to the BBC World Service news in Pashto. The
only words I could understand were "Osama bin Laden" and "Taliban", and it
began to dawn on me. I was in the worst country in the world to be a
Back at the hotel, I tried to find Gulbudin but was gently marched upstairs
by a young Talib. My paranoia was working overtime, but he just sat me down,
gave me a cup of tea and tried to convert me to Islam before asking me, with
real bemusement in his voice, why the west hate the Taliban. Once I escaped
his passionate sermons, I found Gulbudin and his radio, and finally heard
the news in full and shocking detail.
"Don't worry," said Gulbudin. "You are safe here. You are a guest in our
country and we Afghans will do nothing to harm you." Nevertheless, on
Thursday morning I went to the Red Cross office, where Mario, the
information officer, told me to get out immediately. All the other aid
workers had already left Kabul and there was a real risk that the border
would close. "In a city centre hotel you are vulnerable to missile attack,
but also the Taliban will know where you are in case they carry out
reprisals," Mario said. In 1998, after the cruise missile raids, a UN worker
was shot. There was no decision to make.
I walked back through a bustling Kabul, sad that I had to leave this ruined
yet vibrant city. The bazaar was thronged with people buying half-rotten
vegetables and cheap imported goods. On a stall selling western castoffs was
a T-shirt advertising McDonald's and another declaring "Nothing ever
"It is time for you to leave," Gulbudin said when I met him at the hotel. He
found me a taxi and told the driver to take me to the border as quickly as
possible. "Don't worry about the Taliban; they are scared of an American
attack and won't bother you. Now I will go to my village, where it will be
quieter." He gave me a hug and I got into the taxi.
Driving through the brown, bombed-out suburbs, I saw a tank belching out
dirty fumes, heading towards the city centre, followed a little later by a
pick-up truck carrying Taliban troops and their shoulder-held grenade
I had a nervous wait at the first checkpoint outside Kabul as my driver went
inside to get permission to continue. I looked past the children selling
cups of water towards a group of Taliban sitting and fiddling with their
Kalashnikovs and wondered if I was about to be taken hostage and used as a
human shield. The driver returned with a few crumpled slips of paper that he
handed to the guard, and we were off.
For five uneventful hours we drove past the results of the last superpower
bombardment, but I didn't relax until we reached the border at Torkham. I
pushed through the crowds of Afghans, holding my passport above my head to
alert the Pakistani border police, who were lashing out at the crowd with
pieces of plastic tubing. They shoved an old woman out of the way, grabbed
me by the arm and pulled me back into the safety of Pakistan.
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