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Overland--Death in Afghanistan, 1978

An Afghan boy watches us.

It is amazing how quickly something can turn from the mundane to the lethal . . .

From Amritsar in Northwest India, we took a mini-bus to the border, and I couldn’t believe how quickly we passed through into Pakistan—no problem. We caught a taxi into Lahore and were in time to collect Goldie, our VW bus, from customs, where we’d left her. We drove to American Express and then the Country Club Motel where we checked in and showered. We went to a restaurant for dinner and then walked around the market street where I bought a thermos and a pad to sit on while driving.

Early the next morning, Monday, June 5, 1978, we drove out of Lahore toward Rawalpindi-Islamabad. Goldie was giving us trouble; her oil light was on, and she was hard to start. We bought some oil and topped her off and drove on.

In Islamabad we drove around to the U.S. Embassy where I got pages for my passport and some info on the area. It felt strange to go to the embassy. It’s difficult to explain but I think it reminded Basmo and me of the States and home. This was the embassy that was later attacked and burned in November 1979. We had lunch at “Super Restaurant” and then drove to the campground. It was a freaky place, and we got a strange vibe from it so we decided to look around. Just down the road from the campground we found a very nice hotel where we could camp. We went back to the Super for dinner.

The following day we went to the Iranian Embassy and left our passports there to get visas. It was sort of a hassle. Then we drove to Rawalpindi and wasted time looking for “Modern Motors,” a VW place. We found it, finally, and after they checked Goldie, they said we had an oil leak and needed a new oil pump. “Arrrghhh,” we thought. Leaving Goldie at the mercy of the VW mechanics we got back to Islamabad and found a place to eat.

Up early the next morning we went to the bank, Iranian Embassy, and got to the Afghan consulate to get our visas and apply for the Carnet to allow us to drive Goldie into Afghanistan. We had originally planned to wait in Afghanistan for Paula, my girlfriend (now my wife), who was six or eight weeks behind us, also traveling back to the States from Australia. We had hoped to pick Paula off the Magic Bus tour she was on and have her join us for the rest of the trip in the van. But fate had other plans. This was the time of the revolution/coup in Afghanistan, the government had been overturned, and the country was in upheaval. The Russians hadn’t invaded yet, but it was only a matter of time—of course we had no idea of that then. Thus, we were only issued a 7-day transit visa. Paula would not be able to meet us there. That upset me but also because I’d wanted to spend time in Afghanistan and travel up to the ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan the Taliban would later destroy.

So, we got a ride from some girls we met and after picking up our “transit visas” for Afghanistan, we went over to Modern Motors and were disappointed to learn that Goldie wasn’t ready yet. We came back the next day to get Goldie and left for Peshawar, $120.00 lighter; but, Goldie was running like a clock.

At Peshawar we stayed at Dean’s, an old hotel that was nice. We found a strange looking place to eat, but the food was tasty and filling. In the morning we pulled out of Peshawar and drove to the Khyber Pass. The gates, marking the beginning of the pass had a sign warning: “Foreigners not permitted to leave road without permission.”

Entry Gate to the Kyber Pass in Pakistan

It wasn’t a difficult drive up the pass, but it was scenic and interesting from an historic perspective with Old forts dotting the route. We saw some of the famous busses loaded down with people. The taxis were old 1960’s vintage American cars—"Yank Tanks” as the Aussies call them—with people riding on the top, trunk, and hood. On the pass we went through an interesting village full of men walking around with rifles, pistols, and bandoliers. Crazy. It was the village where they fabricated copies of various weapons. The weapons looked good but were mostly substandard. If you shot one there was always the possibility it would explode.

Fort Looking down on Kyber Pass Road

Locals with Rifles on Kyber Pass . . .

The border crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan was strictly formality on the Pakistan side; but, because of the revolution, on the Afghan side the guys who checked us and the van were dressed in local style street clothes; they looked like thugs and made us declare everything: knives, souvenirs--it was ridiculous. I had a Gurka Kukris (large knife) and I argued for 15 minutes to keep the guards from confiscating it. I finally convinced them to let me keep it. They obviously were new and inexperienced. Finally, they finished and let us load our stuff back into Goldie. We were about to drive through the gates and into Afghan territory when one of the border people in charge stopped us.

“What now,” I thought. We just wanted to get going.

In broken English and sign language the man asked us if we could give the guy standing next to him a a ride to the next village. The man was probably in his forties, but in that part of the world it is difficult to tell. He wore a uniform which made me think he was part of the old police, or old border guard, or something from before the revolution. Perhaps he was helping the new border people, showing them how to do their job.

Basmo was in the driver’s seat and he looked at me. I shrugged and motioned for the man to get in. Since Goldie had a bench seat, I slid into the center and the uniformed man climbed in and sat by the door. He obviously couldn’t speak English but looked at me and smiled. I smiled back. It was strange to see a man in uniform as everyone else at the border so far had been in traditional Afghan civilian clothes.

The gates opened and Basmo drove the van out into an area with some low buildings and a wall. Worse, there was a mob of men in Afghan clothing. When they saw the man in the front seat with us they swarmed our bus. They had us surrounded and Basmo had to stop so we wouldn’t hit any of them. They began hitting the sides and shaking the van.

“Okay,” I thought. “They’re going to kill us.”

One of the mob jerked open the door and then many hands pulled our uniformed passenger from the bus and drug the man over to a wall. For a moment I thought they’d pull us out too but all the men surrounding the bus followed over to the wall. Basmo and I watched in horror as the mob beat the uniformed man to death.

“Drive, Basmo!” I yelled. There was nothing we could do to help the man and, if we had tried to intervene, I was certain the mob would have had no problem beating us to death as well. I’ve thought about that moment a lot over the last forty odd years. Did we do the right thing? My feeling was that we should have done something, but my rational mind told me it would have been fruitless and would have gotten us killed too. This was much like that moment in Sumatra when at that night river crossing the man, who sat next to me on the bus, leaped from our raft into the dark swirling water of the river. For a moment I had considered jumping in to help him, but I knew I would have drowned with him. Yet . . . I still question whether I did the right thing.

Strangely, I left the whole incident of the man getting into the van, and the mob grabbing him and beating him to death, out of my journal. I had described everything up to that moment and everything after, but not the fatal incident. I wonder if it was a vague sense of guilt that kept me from noting down the details of the incident. I even called Basmo, who now lives in the Pacific Northwest, to ask him if he remembered the incident. He did. He verified that it all had happened the way I remember it, 43 years later.

Kabul Gorge Road--Masterpiece of Construction

We drove up through the Kabul Gorge—it was pleasant with nice views. Finally, we got to the high plateau and then Kabul where we found a place to camp at the Peace Hotel, just off Chicken Street. The Manager of the hotel looked western with light brown hair that he wore long to his shoulders. He also wore hip western clothes. We walked down Chicken Street and ate in the Steak House Restaurant.

In the morning we went to the bank and post office. I received letters from friends and my father. In those days you told people where you were headed, and they could write to the Central Post Office of each city—the Poste Restante. This worked for me all through Asia. Getting mail this way made me feel as I felt in the army when we got mail. It was a connection to far-away people and places. No, I did have friends somewhere . . . Later we had dinner with some girls we’d met and walked them back to their hotel. On our way back to our van we bumped into armed soldiers moving down the street as it was just about curfew time. They motioned for us to move quickly to our hotel. We went. There is something unnerving about encountering armed men in combat gear in town. It was weird and a reminder that there had been a coup just a short time before.

After breakfast at the Steak House, we changed some money. The money changer had a bit of a speech impediment and lisped a little, but he was eager to have us change money with him. We walked around Kabul to get a sense of the city. If front of the partially destroyed palace we saw bombed out armored military vehicles . . . crazy bullet holes everywhere from the “bloodless” coup.

Destroyed Military Vehicle -- Damaged Palace Behind

We then went to the bazaar and bought a tow rope. Travelers we’d met along the way had told us to be sure to have a tow rope with us in case we broke down on the road in Afghanistan. Bandits made it dangerous to stay with the vehicle through the night and you didn’t want to leave it. We ate dinner at the Istanbul Restaurant. That night I got very sick—vomiting and diarrhea—a figured I had food poisoning. That on top of the dysentery I’d got in Nepal . . . whew, I was losing weight fast.

We left the next morning and drove to Kandahar. The road was good and there were a lot of old forts and structures to see. It was wild country. We stopped and looked around in one of the old, deserted forts/buildings. Interesting.

Basmo on Old Fort with Goldie in Foreground

Kandahar was small and pleasant. We stayed in the garden of a little hotel that was basically empty. There weren’t many tourists because of the coup/revolution. There was only one other van there—some Germans—and the hotel was empty as were most of the other hotels as well. We drove around a bit and had dinner at a little restaurant, but I only had tea because I was still feeling poorly.

The next morning, Tuesday June 13, 1978, we drove to Herat. The country was mostly high desert with mountains and the air was cool. Herat was strange. The police made everyone (tourists) stay at the Herat Hotel, an expensive place. Luckily, they allowed us to camp there, charging us 30 Afs each (the rate at that time was 40 Afs to the US dollar). We didn’t understand why the authorities did this. The other hotel owners had no business as their places were empty. The shop keepers who dealt in tourist goods were uptight as well for they had no business. There was a feeling of desperation and the black-market rates for U. S. dollars were down. There was a feeling of paranoia. We met one shopkeeper who needed money for medicine. He was desperate to make a sale.

It does not surprise me that all the empires that tried to conquer Afghanistan over the centuries have failed. There is a fierce pride in the people, although they are from an era much earlier than our modern times. Visiting there was a step back into the past. You can’t impose the future on the past—different values which do not mix. I believe that is why The Shah in Iran failed. He tried to impose modern values on a conservative, religious people; they did not accept them and rebelled.

In my next blog post I will relate what happened to us at the border between Afghanistan and Iran, and what followed in Iran. It was an adventure-in-itself. One thing I’ve found interesting in remembering our time in Afghanistan is being able to relate to the place where we’ve waged a war for the last 20 years. This last year an American military man in Japan asked me if he could use some of my photos of the burned-out military vehicles in Kabul in a book he was writing about the history of Afghanistan. I gave him permission to use them if he gave me credit.

Following are more photos from our time in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Little Girl in Field by Road . . .

Kids In Field by Road Outside of Kabul

Guards to Damaged Palace Mugging for Camera

Kabul Market Street

Afghan Mason with Trowel, Repairing Wall

Man Chopping Meat in Kabul . . .

Afghan Village and Fort

Afghan Village with Camels

Truck on Road Carrying Camels

Kabul street with houses on hillside . . .

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