Continued from “The Sitting Ducks”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 16
Mohsin Khan TV Hill
A few centuries ago someone famous said that, if you travel out from Kabul, in an hour you can reach a place where the snow never melts, and if you travel just a little further you can reach a place where the snow never falls. I am in Kabul, and in two hours from now I too will be travelling, but it will be to a place where the snow never falls and where it also never melts.
Our training took place under the shadow of a dark grey mountain surface. We journeyed west from Kandahar along the Arghandab River and then turned north. After a three-hour drive we arrived at a small valley surrounded by bare mountains. We stepped out of the car and walked for two hours across sparse vegetation before we reached our final destination. Plain hard rock as far as the eye could see. No one could have lived there; there were no signs of human habitation for miles in any direction. But it was in fact quite possible to live here, as long as food supplies were available.
This was not through any engineering by man but as a result of Allah’s will. The eastern side of the mountain was full of large indentations, as if a gigantic drilling machine had excavated the surface. At least a hundred caves perforated a thirty-mile stretch of barren rock. To add to the sense of refuge, as if a heavenly cover had been drawn over, at some places the rock here almost hung over us, obstructing the view from a plane flying overhead or an orbiting satellite.
Most caves had small interiors, but some were spacious enough to allow for a bed, table and chair to fit inside: the size of a small room in one of the hotels in Kandahar. It was in a few of these caverns that Hussein, Abbas and I were accommodated during our stay at the training camp. Each of us had a cave to ourselves. We were woken by the morning sun streaming heat and light into our secret dens.
There were caves much larger than the ones we lived in, and these were used for storage. Stockpiles of weapons and ammunition were guarded by armed men around the clock. Inside one of them I could see light green, bulky-looking clothing. I imagined it be Afghan army uniform that would come in handy to confuse the enemy.
‘Similar to what we’ll be wearing,’ I said to Hussein. ‘It’ll be the police uniform for us, though, won’t it?’
Hussein knew better. ‘That isn’t army clothing, Mohsin. They do have police, army and medical uniforms, but they are all kept inside caves further ahead.’
‘What are these clothes then?’
‘Suicide vests. Some of the trainees here will wear them on their missions. There is nothing much to teach them. How to pull a cord? Make sure that you don’t explode yourself before you are ready to.’
‘Will we wear the vests as well? Underneath our uniforms, I mean.’
‘I doubt it. Let’s wait and see – when the time comes.’
At the end of each week, on Fridays, small amounts of pocket money were distributed. There was nothing to buy here but the money would be useful when the trainees returned to their towns and villages. Regular meals were served in a small open-air mess. You could eat as much as you liked. Flat bolani bread and Indian-style pakoras were prepared for tea-breaks in between our training sessions. Everything was organised like a professional military operation.
The people who came for training fell into three groups. Suicide bombers stayed just for a day or two, and went away to execute their missions. Others like us were being prepared for a special operation. The vast majority there were being trained for regular battles with the enemy. Some were very young, barely in their teens. I wondered what had drawn them to this life. Had something happened to their families? Had they suffered like I had?
* * *
Hussein finally opened up to me. The previous summer his entire family had been slaughtered, including his two-year-old daughter. A large number of people in his village had died.
‘Did they attack you from the safety of the skies?’ I asked him.
‘No, Mohsin jan. They were ground troops who came to our village. Someone fed the Americans false information that there were Taliban hiding inside our quila, the walled enclosure where our family lived in a few small houses. They said a huge quantity of weapons and ammunition was stored inside. So they made an announcement over a loudhailer, asking people inside to surrender. And none of my brothers – our families lived in separate houses inside the boundary wall – understood what was being said, because in my village hardly anyone speaks English.’
‘Didn’t they announce it in Pashto?’
‘In Pashto, yes, but it was garbled. No one understood anything.’
‘And then the soldiers launched an attack. Threw grenades, bombs . . . Some men inside started firing back, thinking that maybe it was the Taliban who were attacking them. In my village there is hardly any support for the Taliban.’ He paused. ‘In fact we were all against the Taliban.’
It was the same in my own village. Meena hated the Taliban with a vengeance. And so did I. Earlier.
Hussein wiped his eyes. ‘A bloody massacre! Not one person in my family survived.’
We had the same story, Hussein and I. What difference did it make whether the attackers were airborne or on the ground? Innocents were murdered. Women, children . . .
And we had something else in common. Although we’d both previously been opposed to the Taliban, now we were working with them. There was no other way for us to regain our pride, our self-esteem. Associating with the Taliban was necessary if we wished to hit back. I didn’t ask Hussein for his views because I didn’t want to reveal my own. Our joint enterprise apart, I was still against the Taliban.
Abbas’s motivations were more difficult for me to understand. His father had died during the war with the Russians. His stepfather ran a small grocery store in Jalalabad and supported two wives and nine children, with difficulty. Beaten by his stepfather since childhood and not close to either his mother or his siblings, he detested his family life. Recently, inspired by a local mullah, he’d left home to work for the Taliban. The mullah had put him in touch with Humayun, one of Pervez’s associates.
Abbas had no personal reason for hating the Americans to such an extent that he was willing to risk his life. But he had become an enthusiastic follower of the Taliban, and also believed in a supremely blessed afterlife if you gave up your life for jihad. A light shone in his eyes whenever anyone spoke of the delights of Jannat.
He engaged Hussein in discussions about the variety of pleasures that would be available there. He craved it with all his heart. It was a quick promotion for someone in his position, the fastest possible transition from a life of squalid poverty to one of infinite riches. I stayed away from such talks, for I certainly had my doubts about the wonderful afterlife.
* * *
We spent two weeks in all at the training camp. The main part of the training – the interesting bit – took only five days. There were half a dozen instructors in the camp and close to fifty men being trained. A handful of them were not yet men, just boys in their early teens. Some were receiving general physical fitness training, others were being trained in using machine guns and yet others were being instructed on how to prepare explosives and suicide vests. A few, very few, were being taught how to operate rocket launchers. Rockets landed in Kabul – our enemy’s capital – regularly, but most of the time they missed their target. But launchers with new aiming technology had arrived from somewhere, possibly Iran, and there was talk of how we would be better able to target our enemies.
Unlike those at the training camp who were taking part in longer courses, we were to be there for only two weeks. The precise date of our attack on the Kabul guesthouse was yet to be decided but it needed to be before the parliamentary elections, which were only three weeks ahead, so we were running against a kind of deadline.
For this reason perhaps we had an instructor who was dedicated to training just the three of us. He was the only non-Afghan and the only Arab among the group of five trainers, a man called Rashid from North Africa.
‘Brother al-Qaida,’ said Abbas as he embraced the older man.
We all laughed.
Rashid showed us different kinds of grenades, the ones with chara or small pellets inside and the ones without, and explained safety precautions to be taken and how best to use them. He taught us how to assemble and take apart Chinese-made machine guns. And he gave us lessons in how to load quickly and to aim, shoot and move the nozzle with a view to causing maximum carnage.
We had long conversations, Rashid and I. After target practice, Hussein and Abbas would go off to the mess to eat snacks – they laid out a spread during the evenings – but neither Rashid nor I was keen to go and eat then. It was better to wait for dinner, which wasn’t long after.
‘Why have you left your own country to come and help us?’ I asked him one evening.
‘I can be of more use here,’ Rashid said.
‘Doesn’t your country have problems like ours?’
‘Of course it does, but tell me, Mohsin, what is more important, Islam or loyalty to one’s country?’
I was silent, not knowing how to answer. On the one hand I had grown to like Rashid and trusted him, but I’m not really so religious.
‘We are brothers,’ Rashid said, while I was still thinking of a suitable response. ‘You and I. We are part of the Islamic brotherhood. If my brothers are in trouble in Afghanistan, why should I not go to help them, no matter which country I myself may belong to? And the same should be true for you. Tomorrow if the problems here lessen, you, an Afghan, can travel to some other Muslim country to help your brothers there. Should this not be the case?’
My own fight was personal and local, but what Rashid said moved me greatly.
I was impressed by Rashid’s sense of Muslim brotherhood.
‘You have come all the way to help us,’ I said. ‘This is great. I don’t know how many Afghans would go to help in other countries. You Arabs are more aware.’
‘I wish this were true, but it isn’t. We have Arabs suffering in Palestine. Our brothers. We are the same people, you know. But Arab governments work with the Americans and the Israelis against our own people. I think that you Afghans are more united.’
I shook my head. ‘The truth is, Rashid biradar,’ I said, ‘that even in Pakistan we Afghans were divided among ourselves, although we should have united because we were all refugees in a foreign land.’
‘Really? In what way? Give me an example.’
‘All right. A big event took place at the university I studied at – a large Islamic university in Islamabad – when students from each country were given a stall where they had an opportunity to showcase their culture in the form of dress, handicrafts, whatever. A similar stall was provided for the Afghans, because we formed a large body of students at the university. The question for us was what flag we were going to put up outside the stall. We just couldn’t come to an agreement.’
‘What did you finally decide?’
‘We couldn’t. That’s what I’m saying. There were a number of jihadi parties in Pakistan at the time, and each of them wanted to place their own flag in front of the stall.’
‘It all blew up into a full-scale fight, with two or three students being rushed to hospital. The authorities eventually decided there would be no flag at all outside our stall that day, so ours was the only stall in the university without a flag. Can you imagine? The only stall in the university without a flag.’
The humour of the situation struck me then and I started to laugh.
Rashid watched me laugh, not comprehending, but then his face cracked open into a smile.
In between bouts of giggles, I said: ‘I don’t know whether to laugh or cry but that’s how we are.’
Rashid nodded his head melancholically.
‘Let us hope, brother,’ he said, ‘that we will learn to work together and help each other.’
I wasn’t sorry when our training came to an end for I was eager to confront the enemy.
Continued to “Journey to Kabul”