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Afghanistan Part II : Checkpoints in the Night

October 7, 2009

khandahar003

1) On the road near Khandahar: Steve Routhier is on the far right side of the pic

The first rules of travel in lawless countries read, “Never Leave Home at Night,”  and “Always arrive at your destination with your evaluative faculties intact.”  This  is sound and considered advice but we often followed in the breach.  Being last-minute decision makers, for whom inattention and youthful delusions of invulnerability had turned us into witless idiots, my friends and I figured, what the hell, how bad could night travel be?  On the other hand, we wanted to reach Khandahar during daylight, having heard that the place was a hotbed of fundamentalist glowering Darri Pastuns who did not  welcome foreign kafirs jaunting along in dinged-up vans, and they had a reputation for making their biases clearly understood.

Most of the road from Herat was in decent shape, paved and quite level.  The topography of southern Afghanistan is neither mountainous nor particularly extreme.  We started our trip through the pitch black of a countryside devoid of electric lighting, speeding along the highway with the occasional freight truck passing us in the opposite lane.  The ride was smooth and we listened to a collection of Pink Floyd albums to pass the time.

Somewhere on the highway, several hours from Herat, we noticed an obstruction in the road.  Thick logs had been placed across the tarmac, blocking traffic in both directions.  On either side men stood watch, armed with automatic rifles and sour dispositions.

As our redoubtable English driver approached the roadblock, the Afghanis, dressed in traditional shalwar kameez outfits, jumped up and down and waved at us to stop.  As we had women in the van, as well as a substantial amount of cash, the idea of halting at the roadblock seemed like a really bad idea.  We’d heard that white women sometimes got raped at these waypoints while men were subjected to equally distasteful treatment.

The passenger in the front of the van immediately extracted his 12-gauge starter’s pistol, the only weapon we carried  for self-defense, but to use it would be akin to challenging howitzers with a slingshot.  Still, the pistol made us feel more protected, in the manner that a hiker in the woods might feel more secure with a bear whistle or a Swiss army knife.  Not really effective for mounting a defense to hostile encounters, but perhaps a long-odds method to stop a potentially fatal attack.

The road had passed through flat desert country, devoid of trees or other landmarks to break the monotony of the drive.  This worked to our advantage in the end.  Seeing that the highway had no ditches or fences lining the route, our driver, who had already demonstrated his ability to think fast on his feet – or on his rear end, given that he sat on a wide flat seat, hastily ordered the guy sitting beside him to produce the starter’s pistol.  He grabbed the weapon and let go a couple of shots toward the men at the roadblock.  At the same time, he swerved into the hardpan of the open desert, gunning the engine.  We fishtailed around the logs that blocked the road and drove further off-road.  Our driver fired a few more rounds for effect, mostly for the noise and light that the gun produced.

The bandits, cops, or whatever the profession the roadblock crew adhered to, jumped back immediately with their rifles now raised.  Booting the vehicle’s V-8 engine, our driver floored the accelerator and doused the headlights.

I saw the Afghanis, waving and cursing, now point their weapons in the direction of the van. “Duck!” our driver yelled as he lurched the van back to the highway, not wanting to risk getting bogged down in any soft sand.   Through the rear window I watched the men continue to make threatening motions with their firearms.  The scene was so riveting I ignored the command to crouch behind my seat.

We sped away from the roadblock.  It’s managers had neglected to block the bordering desert and we regained the highway, gaining speed and soon flying away at nearly 100 miles per hour.

Now we had reached safety and adrenaline pumped through all the travelers in the van.  We had a good laugh about incompetent thieves (or cops) and made sure to get well away before again illuminating the road with our headlights.

We relaxed.  Was this the best effort they could throw at us?

I never again risked travel on an Asian road after nightfall on a moonless night.  We’d acted dumb but the cosmic arbiters of kharma had decided to smile at our risky journey.

We arrived in Khandahar in broad daylight.  The city had a reputation as being far from friendly to backpacking hippies.  With taut nerves we spent two days at a cheap hotel, hardly daring to stroll the city’s tawdry streets.

We amended our rulebook to read: “Deal with fundamentalists when you’re not so stressed.  And stay off the road at night.”

2) Young Afghanis were sometimes less reticent than the adults: Photo by Steve Routhier

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