My war photographer, cousin Robin, and I had traveled in a series of hallucinatory leaps and bounds from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, through the Tribal Area and the smuggling town of Terri Mangal, and then an endless trudge up a steep, steep mountainside, passing hordes of refugees driven from their homes by Soviet bombing and shelling.
I had spent three months in the refugee camps in Pakistan, interviewing people, and along with the stories of women thrown out of helicopters, mosques packed with villagers and then burned, orchards cluster-bombed and sewn with butterfly mines, shepherd children mown down along with their flocks by helicopter gunships, one single chilling fact had summed up the whole catastrophe for me.
Ninety-nine percent of the Afghans I spoke to knew only one word of English: bombard.
Near the summit we passed a shell-pocked, gutted concrete building. Robin and were dressed as Afghans, and our guerrilla companions whispered to us to pull our scarves over our faces and hurry past the Pakistani Frontier Corps stationed there; though it made no sense, the Pakistanis were arresting foreign journalists trying to go into Afghanistan and cover the war.
At the top of the ridge the mujahedin exulted: “Now we are in Afghanistan, thank God!”
They turned to us: “Taste the air here, how sweet it is!” They turned toward Pakistan and spat contemptuously. An old man raised his finger and spoke solemnly: “If you meet a
Pakistani and a snake on the trail, kill the Pakistani and spare the snake!”
Then he and everyone else laughed.
We were passing through a forest of tall pine trees, then a meadow; an abandoned zigzag trench, a burned out tank, then the graves of Afghans with green and white prayer flags flapping in the wind. To the north were the snowy mountains of the Safed Koh; I had no idea then that a few months later I would be crossing those same peaks in a blinding blizzard, escaping a Soviet offensive, and the only thing that saved my life and those of my two Afghan companions was our chance discovery of a shepherd’s bothy, with a lantern outside and a herdsman and his family inside, sitting around a roaring fire.
It was about then that we heard thunder, and a moment later the blue sky turned grey and chill mountain rain came battering down, soaking us to the skin; ten minutes later the sun was out again, drying and warming us in a few minutes.
We spent that night in one of the last villages in the Safed Koh that hadn’t already been destroyed by the Russians; we stood on a rooftop and watched a firefight in the far distance, red and green tracers arcing and the occasional bloom of a mortar round exploding, all taking place in perfect silence….
Things were so intense, so electric with meaning, back then; I would have laid down my life unhesitatingly for the Afghans and their lonely, impossible cause back then.
Now the thunder on the Wilsons brought it all back, and I realized I would need to rediscover that old fearlessness, lost for too many years now, to have even the ghost of a chance to survive, not for myself but for the battles still raging, the vengeance still not taken, the promises still unkept…