From San Diego to Afghanistan
Through Frankfurt, Vienna,
Pakistan, and Kashmir
Masjidul noor was the first mosque I ever attended. It was in the ghetto of Fiftieth Street and University Avenue in East San Diego and had formerly been an old house. Black, Asian, and Hispanic gangs roamed at all hours of the day, but the immediate area around the mosque was a bustling Islamic community of Pakistanis, Kurds, Somalis, and Afghans. When I first walked in, I thought that the other Muslims might regard me with suspicion or amusement, but no one gave me a second look. I approached one of the men there when he'd finished praying and asked him for the Imam. He told me that the Imam wasn't there yet, but that I could speak to someone in a little house next to the mosque, which is where I found Khamil.
Khamil, a young and very friendly Pakistani, took an interest in me as a new Muslim. I hung out with him until Salaatul Maghrib, the prayer made just after sunset, and then he introduced me to Ibrahim, a very large man in his forties or fifties with a big, gray beard and an intimidating demeanor. When we spoke, I found him genuinely friendly and kindhearted. The Muslims at this mosque were called Tabliqis and Ibrahim was the emir, or leader. I told him about myself, and he could see that I was sincere about Islam. When I mentioned that I didn't know where I would be living in San Diego, he suggested that I rent a room in Khamil's little house next to the mosque. This pleased me; I would be around other Muslims and have the mosque just next door.
I fell into a comfortable routine with the Tabliqis. Every morning before sunup I would awaken to one of the guys outside making the azan, or call to prayer. After prayer we would get ready to go to work, and after work we would hang out in front of the mosque.
On the weekends the Tabliqis would send out jamats, or groups of the faithful, to mosques in other cities. Sometimes we would drive up to Los Angeles and meet with fellow Muslims, and as I began to learn more about Islam, I adopted traditional Islamic dress. In a while I became a regular feature of the area -- the guy with the big red beard and turban walking down the street.
After about four months I became concerned about the war in Bosnia, where the Serbs were slaughtering Muslims by the tens of thousands. Not only had the United States refused to help the Bosnians, but we had placed an arms embargo on them as well. Perhaps the most disturbing fact was that the more I learned about the situation, the less it seemed the Muslims around me cared about it. No one in the mosques talked about the war, and when I asked questions they seemed unconcerned.
Finally I went to Ibrahim, the emir, and told him that although I was new to Islam, I'd learned a great deal in the past four months and felt that I was ready to defend our religion. To my surprise, he didn't understand what I was saying, so I told him that I wanted to go to Bosnia for jihad. His response was even more surprising. He told me that because the majority of the Muslims in the world weren't practicing the religion properly, there was no jihad at the present time. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. This sounded like a cop-out to me. Jihad is an established principle of Islam, and when Muslims are being attacked and killed, it is the duty of every adult male Muslim to go to their aid. Yet Ibrahim was telling me that since most Muslims didn't practice Islam properly, I shouldn't concern myself with whether they lived or died.
Later I discovered that the Tabliq was basically a pacifist movement that had originated in Pakistan. Many people, myself included, believe that the movement had actually been started by colonial Britain to pacify the Pakistanis. Britain's imperial dreams would have turned to nightmares if the Islamic scholars had declared a jihad, so the British had fostered a movement within Islam that didn't include jihad.
Although I continued to stay around the Tabliqis, I became very disillusioned. One night, while sitting in front of the mosque, I met a man named Abdullah. Originally from Panama, he'd fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Serbs in Bosnia. I was drawn to him immediately, and asked him whether someone could get into Bosnia. He told me that a friend of his had just left for Bosnia, but that he would be back in a month and might be able to help.
I saw Abdullah at the mosque about a month later; he told me that his friend had just returned from Bosnia. The next night a man asked for me at the mosque. His name was Muhammad Zaky, and he was a large older man with a tough-looking face and a long red beard; during our conversation I learned that he'd been born in the United States of Egyptian parents. When he asked if I wanted to go to Bosnia, I leapt at the chance. He said it wouldn't be a problem, although it would take him a couple of weeks to make arrangements.
This was exhilarating: not only would I be able to help the Muslims of Bosnia but I would also complete my own faith. Jihad is the highest act of faith in Islam. The prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said that if a Muslim dies without making jihad, or at least having had the intentions to make it, then he dies with a form of hypocrisy in his heart.
I spent a lot of time with Muhammad Zaky as he made the arrangements for my trip to Bosnia. He was very intelligent and had spent many years fighting jihad. Like Abdullah, he had fought first in Afghanistan against the Soviets and then in Bosnia against the Serbs. Although he never spoke about it, some said that he had testified before the House of Representatives about the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and that his testimony had been instrumental in ensuring that the United States sent Stinger antiaircraft missiles to the mujahideen. Muhammad Zaky had a wife, two teenage daughters, and a son named Umar, a bright kid of about eleven or twelve who wanted to go to jihad like his father. As I became acquainted with Muhammad and his family, I never imagined that I'd end up bringing Muhammad's final words back to his son, after he'd died in a place I'd never heard of, called Chechnya.
Muhammad lived a simple life in San Diego when he wasn't fighting on the battlefields of faraway lands. He had a window-tinting business to pay the bills and ran the Islamic Information Center of the Americas out of an office in downtown La Jolla. I spent most of my time with him there, surrounded by piles of Islamic literature and shelves stacked all the way to the ceiling with videocassettes about the jihad in Afghanistan and Bosnia. We spent hours watching combat footage of the war against the Soviets.
The night before I left, Muhammad and the guys in his weekly jihad class threw a small going-away party for me. We sat together and drank tea and ate Arabic sweets. It was a joyous occasion, and at the end everyone hugged me and wished me well. Then Muhammad Zaky and I returned to his apartment, where we stayed up most of the night going over our plan. I'd fly to Frankfurt, where an Arab would pick me up, give me some papers, and put me on a train to Vienna. Once I reached Vienna, other contacts would transport me to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. I would present myself as a journalist at the United Nations headquarters in Zagreb and obtain an UNPROFOR pass, or official U.N. pass. Until recently, the route into Bosnia had been wide open for mujahideen from all over the world, but conditions had changed, and by the time I was ready to go entrance was nearly impossible. One of the few points of entry was the U.N. flight into Sarajevo, and to get on that flight I would need an UNPROFOR card.
Muhammad Zaky took me to Lindbergh Field to catch my flight to Frankfurt. As I boarded the plane I looked back and saw him smiling at me. But when I arrived in Frankfurt and cleared customs, nobody was waiting for me. I tried calling the Arab man, but I wasn't able to get through. I wasn't able to reach Muhammad Zaky either, so I made my own plan. I traveled to Vienna by train and tried to call my contacts there; again, I couldn't reach anyone. However, I did have an address for my contacts' mosque, so I took a cab there.
Once I found my contacts at the mosque, everything went more smoothly. I stayed with them in Vienna for almost a week. I was supposed to take another train from Vienna to Zagreb, but just before I was to leave one of the guys found three Arabs from a relief organization who were driving to Zagreb, so I caught a ride with them. The customs agents at the Croatian border gave one of the Arabs a hard time, but eventually we were able to get through. We arrived in Zagreb early in the morning, and the Arabs dropped me off at an office, where I met two of Muhammad Zaky's contacts.
Both were from the Sudan. They were running a relief organization for the Bosnians. They had no problems with letting a fighter sleep in their office, but they wouldn't have anything to do with getting me into Bosnia. I rested for a day and then went down to the U.N. headquarters for my unprofor card. One of Muhammad Zaky's friends had given me a forged letter saying that I was a reporter for the "La Jolla Tribune," but when I sat down in front of the U.N. official to get the pass, he nearly laughed at me. I must have made a humorous figure -- some dumb nineteen-year-old kid with a big red beard and a shaved head claiming to be a reporter with nothing more than a forged letter to back him up. The official gave me a list of items I needed to prove I was a reporter, which included three sample articles. Needless to say, I walked out of the office feeling stupid.
I went back to the Sudanese and told them what had happened. They said that another organization in Zagreb needed someone who spoke English. This organization also had one of the last land routes into Sarajevo, and when I went to its office the director offered me a job. But I was naive and looked at everything in terms of black and white. I told him that I'd left America only to fight in Bosnia and asked if the organization would give me a ride on one of its convoys that was scheduled to leave soon. The director told me that this was impossible; they would have nothing to do with helping mujahideen enter Bosnia.
It's interesting to note that at this writing, these same organizations, which wouldn't help a single fighter enter Bosnia, are being shut down by the U.S. authorities for supposedly aiding terrorists. Most mujahideen would view these organizations as disgraceful because they refuse to aid the jihad in any way. Despite this, they are being shut down by the FBI.
None of my plans were working out, so I called Muhammad Zaky. He told me to go back to Vienna and wait for him there; he would be arriving in a couple of weeks. Back in Vienna, however, I became more and more frustrated and impatient with the situation. In retrospect, I know that waiting somewhere for a couple of weeks is nothing, but at the time it seemed impossible. A couple of days after I'd retreated to Vienna, an African-American Muslim named Laith came to the mosque. We started to talk, and he told me that if I wanted to make jihad, he could put me in touch with some of his friends in Pakistan, who in turn could get me into Kashmir. My primary goal was to help Bosnia, but I was too impatient to wait, so against Muhammad Zaky's advice I took off for the Pakistani city of Karachi.
The customs officials at Karachi International Airport must have thought I was joking when I asked, "What visa?" It was the first time I'd been outside America, and I'd never heard of a visa. But I was wearing the traditional clothes of the Tabliq and I told them I'd come to Pakistan for carouge, a pilgrimage that Tabliqis make, so they relented and gave me a seventy-two-hour visa. To my surprise, somebody was actually waiting for me when I left the airport. He drove me to the office of Harakat-ul Jihad, a Pakistani jihad group. The next day the group took me to one of the Tabliq schools in Karachi to meet one of the emirs. Although the Tabliqis are opposed to jihad, the emir agreed to give me a letter to take to the Pakistani immigration officials for an extension on my visa, and as a result I was able to stay for three more months.
I was supposed to leave Karachi the next day, but the night before my flight to Islamabad I awoke with incredible pain, fever, and uncontrollable shaking. By morning I was almost delirious with pain, and my head felt as if it was going to explode. Every ten minutes or so I stumbled to the bathroom for an exhausting bout of diarrhea. The Harakat-ul Jihad office didn't know what to do; after much discussion I managed to persuade them to take me to the hospital, where the doctors wouldn't touch me until I'd paid them. Three days and an IV later, the doctors told me that I had a bad case of dysentery and instructed me to return to the States. As soon as I was strong enough to walk, I took the flight to Islamabad.
As usual, no one was waiting for me at the airport. It was late at night and all I had was the address for the Harakat-ul Jihad office, so I hailed a taxi. The driver had to stop three times to ask directions for sector 19-4, and when we finally found sector 19-4, he couldn't find the house. He stopped and asked a passerby, who also didn't seem to know the location of Harakat-ul Jihad. When the man looked into the back of the taxi and saw my big red beard, his eyes lit up.
"Are you a mujahid?" he asked.
At first I didn't know what to tell him, but I thought, What the hell, I'll take the risk. "Yes?" I replied hesitantly.
"O-kay," he said. He pointed to a large three-story house at the end of the street. "That one. That is the house of the mujahideen." Apparently what went on there wasn't a big secret.
The taxi driver rang the bell at the gate of the house, and a bearded man came out. When the driver said something to him in Urdu, the man looked at me. "Abu mujahid," he said. "I am sorry, we didn't have a car to take you from the airport."
The next morning I met with Mufti Shaheed, who was the emir of Harakat-ul Jihad. I told him my story through a translator. When I'd finished he smiled and said they were happy to receive me, and that he would send me to Kashmir right away. That was easy, I thought; at the time I didn't know that Kashmir was also known as the "one-way jihad."
Harakat-ul Jihad was a Pakistani jihad group whose primary goal was to annex Kashmir or form a separate emirate. It also sent its mujahideen to other conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The leadership (and the dozens of other jihad organizations) was supposed to have a sort of loose confederacy with Al Qaeda. At the time I visited -- four years after the Soviets had been pushed out of Afghanistan -- American influence and support for the mujahideen had waned and other anti-Communist and anti-Western influences, such as Dr. Abdullah Azzam and his wealthy protégé Usama Bin Laden, had stepped in. Where they got their funding, what confederacies they had, how their organization was composed, were all things I didn't consider or ask about. In 1993 the mujahideen were still the "freedom fighters" of Reagan administration lore, and nobody outside the circle of active mujahideen knew about Usama Bin Laden.
I stayed for a few days in Islamabad. Every day, the mujahideen took me out to see the city, where we had a good time. Whenever we got on a bus one of my escorts would announce to everyone who would listen that I was an American mujahid. The whole bus would turn and stare at me, smiling. At first I found this discomforting, but after a while it was just amusing.
When it was time to go, one of the English speakers said he would ride to the Harakat-ul Jihad camp with me. Since we didn't warrant one of the group's vehicles, we left from the central bus station. There we caught a van for the long, exhausting trip to the border. Every time I thought that the van couldn't possibly get any fuller, the driver would stop to pick up another passenger. Finally the guy traveling with me yelled at the driver, saying there wasn't any more room for passengers. Five minutes later, the driver stopped to pick up someone else.
The narrow, snaking road to Kashmir threads its way through the mountains. Occasionally a vehicle would come from the opposite direction, instigating a negotiation between the two drivers about who would back up to a part of the road that was wide enough for one of the vehicles to pass. At sundown the driver stopped, and most of the passengers got out to pray on the side of the road. We arrived in the last city before the border late that night and went to the Harakat-ul Jihad office to spend the night. The camp was up in the mountains, just past the border, and the leader was staying at the office that night. Commander Khalid, an Afghan war veteran, was a serious-looking man with a full dark beard and a hard face. He was missing one of his legs below the knee and had a prosthetic, but he usually moved around with crutches and continued to participate in operations. My traveling companion and I sat down on some pillows with him, and another man brought us chai. For all his seriousness, Commander Khalid greated us genially and wanted to know all about me. I told him about my life and how I had accepted Islam. When I'd finished he told my translator that he had seen many mujahideen come and go over the years. Some were killed quickly; others kept fighting for ages. He said that I had the look of one of those who would die quickly. For many people, this would seem like bad news, but for a mujahid it is a blessing. I made an extra prayer that night and asked for it to be so, but Allah only chooses the best among the mujahideen for such an honor, and I am still waiting.
The next morning I set out for the camp in one of Harakat-ul Jihad's four-wheel-drive Toyotas, along with Commander Khalid and my translator from Islamabad. After about forty-five minutes of zigzagging back and forth up the steep and bumpy mountain passes, we stopped at a ninety-degree bend in the road. There two men in camouflage combat fatigues had AK-47s slung over their shoulders, so at first I thought we'd come to some type of Pakistani military checkpoint. Commander Khalid hopped out of the truck on one leg, grabbed his crutches, and introduced me to the two men. They seemed amused to have an American visiting them. When I tried to put on my backpack, one of the men grabbed it and carried it for me.
We formed a single file and walked along a steep trail that ran up into the mountains. The forest was dense, and within a few minutes we couldn't see the road. I found the trail steep and difficult, and I was amazed at how Commander Khalid was able to manage it with just his crutches.
We had been hiking up the trail for about half an hour when suddenly I noticed a group of armed men perched on rocks all around us. My translator looked at me and said "Don't worry; they are mujahideen." Apparently Commander Khalid had been away from the camp for a while and this was the welcome wagon. As we followed the path between two enormous rocks that loomed over us, one of the men shouted Takbir! and everyone chanted Allah-u-Akbar! -- Allah is great. Then the men perched on the rocks started to fire their weapons into the air. They had AKs and a PKM light machine gun, and one of the guys even had an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade launcher), which he fired off toward the top of the mountain. If I'd been a journalist on a tour of the camp it probably would have scared me shitless, but when Commander Khalid turned around to see my reaction, it was a big smile.
The camp itself was perched on a flat outcropping between two ravines. It consisted of two large tents and a smaller tent. The clearing let daylight into the camp, but the ravines and tree-covered hills around the camp prevented detection, and it would have been extremely difficult to spot the camp from the air. Just above the tents the mujahideen had carved out a flat area for training that was about twenty meters long and ten meters wide. A natural spring supplied water to the camp just below the tents. It was a perfect place for a camp.
The camp had a festive atmosphere. Everyone was happy about the return of the commander, who was obviously well loved by this group, and they also seemed excited to have an American Muslim in the camp. They'd created a lounge area between the tents by laying blankets on the ground inside a circular dirt berm. The mujahideen sat on the blankets and leaned on the berm to chat and drink tea. The camp had about fifteen men, and everyone except those on guard duty sat down in the lounge area. Commander Khalid invited me to sit next to him to relax and chat. One of the soldiers spoke English better than my translator from Islamabad, and he fielded questions from everyone. What part of America was I from? Was I married? How is life in America? Why had I come here?
When some of the others went off to do their chores, Commander Khalid told me about the camp and what they were doing there. Some of the soldiers were veterans of the war with the Soviets, and others were just new recruits here for basic training. The camp took part in combat operations against the Indian army, so the basic training was very hands-on. He asked whether I had any military experience and I told him not really but said I was familiar with firearms. He asked me if I wanted to go on any operations and I told him of course. What about the language barrier, he wondered. I told him to just teach me how to say fire and cease-fire in Urdu and I would be okay. After the evening prayer, dinner, and the night prayer, I settled in for my first night in Kashmir.
During the next few days Commander Khalid put me in a loose class, where we learned about the AK-47 and other light arms. After morning prayers everyone sat around reading the Qur'an for about an hour, followed by an hour of exercises and a run up one of the ravines. I particularly enjoyed the runs because the Pakistanis were so comical. None of them were very agile, and they would stumble and trip their way up to the peak of the ravine. The run down was hilarious. Everyone shouted at the top of their lungs as they ran balls-out full speed down the slope that led back down to the other ravine and to the camp. It was supposed to be a sort of war cry, but they sounded like a pack of braying donkeys with a flock of cawing crows.
Since I'd lost one of my bags on the flight from Vienna I had only the shawal kamece outfits that I'd bought in Karachi. These are the traditional knee-length-shirt-and-pants combinations that men wear in that part of the world. But after a day or two Commander Khalid gave me a set of American woodland-pattern BDUs (battle dress uniforms). After I put them on, all the guys cheered. I'm still not sure why they did this, but it had something to do with me looking like an American soldier and fighting on their side.
In a few days I'd familiarized myself with my comrades and the surrounding area, and Commander Khalid asked me to go on one of the daily patrols. He gave me an AK-47 and a utility belt and called someone over to translate something in Urdu: "Have fun," he said.
I set out with a small group of the guys and we started up the mountain. This had to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. For as far as I could see, the green, tree-covered mountains were shaped like nearly perfect steps, and walking up and down them and the valleys and gorges was like walking up and down an endless row of bleachers. Small rivers and waterfalls were everywhere. One of the English speakers explained that this was the westernmost section of the Himalayas, just inside the Pakistani border with Kashmir. I had been here only a few days and was still trying to adjust to the high altitude and thin air.
While on patrol we would hike for several hours without seeing a single soul; then we'd suddenly come across a mud house atop a peak, where an entire family would be sitting out front. Occasionally one of the guys would stop and chat with the people, but every time they did the conversation was almost always about me. I wasn't the first American to ever hike these mountains -- just the first American to do it in a uniform, carrying an AK-47.
At the time I didn't understand what we were looking for on our patrols or what was going on in Kashmir. Later I figured out that we were just playing the routine games that characterize the dispute in Kashmir. The Indian army would occasionally send Sikh commandos across the border to harass and kill the local civilians. Instead of risking a conflict with India, the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) would allow mujahideen to operate freely in this region and defend against any possible Sikh attacks. This was mutually beneficial in that Pakistan could defend its border without risking a major conflict with India, and the mujahideen got valuable experience and training.
One day I was sitting on one of the big boulders at the edge of the camp when one of the guys walked over to me. He motioned that Commander Khalid wanted to see me in his tent. Oh, I thought, this must be important for him to call for me. When I entered the tent, Khalid was sitting against some pillows with his assistant.
"Sit down." The commander spoke seriously, in English. I wondered if I was in some kind of trouble.
"Yes," Khalid said.
Yes what? I thought. Yes. I decided to smile.
He nodded his head and raised the stump of his missing leg. It was sheathed in a black sock with two white eyes drawn on it. It looked just like the head of a sheep. As the commander raised his stump, his assistant started to sing.
"Ba, ba, black sheep, have you any wool?" he sang with a heavy Urdu accent. As the assistant sang, Khalid flexed his stump back and forth as if the sheep's head were singing. "Yes, sir, yes sir, three bags full!"
I just sat there staring at the two strange men sitting in front of me. When the assistant finished singing their eyes lit with merriment and they howled with laughter. They were enjoying themselves immensely and had obviously done this to other visitors before.
Although I was having fun and learning a lot, sitting around the camp became boring. Once, I almost had an opportunity to enter Kashmir with a group of mujahideen. The commander promised that I could go, and I got ready for the trip with about thirty other fighters. As we prepared, one of the young mujahideen started to cry. It was an emotional, conflicted moment for all of us; no one wants to die, but for the mujahideen it is an honor. The young mujahid's crying started what can only be described as a chain reaction, and others started crying. Soon the entire group of thirty was quietly sobbing. When it was time to go I wiped my cheeks and followed the others but was held back by the commander. He did this because the Pakistani ISI didn't want the Indian army to see any foreign mujahideen among the dead, and on that mission there were to be many dead. It turned out that there was a traitor among us. A few days after the group took off, Sikh commandos surrounded them. An enormous firefight erupted, and my young comrades fought until they ran out of ammunition. All but one or two were killed.
But I'd been left behind, and it was starting to irritate me. As time passed, I complained endlessly to Commander Khalid's assistant, because Khalid had gone elsewhere. When the assistant finally got tired of listening to my constant bitching he told me to get my bags and go down the mountain to the office.
The next morning the guys in the office called Harakat-ul Jihad in Islamabad and I spoke with the man who had traveled with me originally and had acted as my translator. He told me that he had brought my problem up with Mufti Shaheed and that I should come down to talk, so I caught a van to Islamabad the next day.
I expected to see the mufti right away, but instead I was made to wait for three days. On the third day I walked into his office unbidden. Although he was busy speaking to some other people, I asked him what the hell was going on. He looked surprised at my rude entrance, but instead of getting angry he asked me what was wrong, in broken English. One of his other visitors spoke English and translated for us. When I told him that the guy on the phone had told me to come back to Islamabad to speak with him, the look on his face changed. He immediately called for the guy.
When he came into the office the mufti started speaking to him in a harsh tone. It turned out that he had never spoken to the mufti about my problem and had just made up the stuff about me coming down to Islamabad. After a long conversation, Mufti Shaheed said that if I wanted to fight I could go to Tajikistan, but first I should do more training at one of Harakat-ul Jihad's camps in Afghanistan. This suited me, so I agreed to go to Afghanistan.
A couple of days later a driver showed up. Outside of Islamabad, we stopped at a house, where I met a couple of big, middle-aged African-American Muslims. They were Vietnam vets and were going to go to the camp to teach military techniques like rappelling. The driver from the Harakat-ul Jihad office left, and I waited with the two Americans for their driver. After a couple of hours a white older-model Suburban showed up, and we left.
The drive was boring but much more comfortable in the spacious Suburban than in the cramped Pakistani van to Kashmir. When we got to the border of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), we were greeted with a big sign in English that said NO FOREIGNERS BEYOND THIS POINT! In the NWFP, a portion of Pakistan governed mainly by Pashtun tribal elders, daily life is marked with tribal rivalries, blood feuds, and constantly changing alliances. Despite the ominous greeting at the border, our driver appeared to have good contacts, and we were able to pass through the checkpoint without any problems. From there we drove to the outskirts of a town called Miram Shah, where we stopped at a compound. Two large crossed AK-47s were painted on the compound's front brick wall, along with the words harakat-ul jihad. We stayed the night at the compound and left for the Afghan border the next morning, following a dry riverbed that ran between two mountains.
When we reached the border crossing -- nothing more than a mud building with guards loitering around -- our driver got out and chatted with the authorities. Harakat-ul Jihad was supposed to have some sort of arrangement with the border guards, but as our driver was speaking to them, one of them saw me. This was two or three years before the Taliban came to power, and any traveler in the NWFP could expect to be robbed, beaten, sodomized, or murdered. The local warlords would sell border crossings and checkpoints to their bandit buddies as a sort of concession, and the bandits would then harass anyone who came along the road. The sodomy had become so prevalent that the locals jokingly referred to it as "teasing." The Taliban eventually came to power in large part because the people of Afghanistan were tired of the constant harassment. The Taliban movement started when some students from a madrasah, or religious school, ambushed a particularly heinous checkpoint and hanged the culprits from the barrel of a tank that was parked nearby. But that was still in Afghanistan's future.
The border guard who confronted me was nothing more than a pimply-faced kid with an AK-47. He walked over to the rear passenger door and said something I didn't understand. When I didn't answer, he opened my door and motioned for me to get out. The driver of the Suburban tried to intervene, but the other guard said something to him and he shut up. The pimply kid then motioned for me to walk with him to the mud building.
My eyes adjusted to the light inside the small building. A man who was sleeping on a cot sat up. He was obviously some kind of senior officer, napping on his post. The officer had an exchange with the pimply kid, and, thinking I was an Arab, the officer tried talking to me in Arabic. My cover for the border crossing was that I was from a province in the north of Pakistan where the people spoke what sounded to me like gibberish, so I played dumb. After Arabic, the officer switched to English. He must have sensed a subtle change as he asked questions, because he was more persistent with the English. Once again I played dumb, but this only seemed to annoy him. After a few minutes he hissed something to one of his men, who in turn motioned for me to follow him back to the Suburban. I got in the back seat, the kid got in next to me, and the older guy got into the front and said something to the driver, who turned the vehicle around. Then we headed back toward Miram Shah.
When we reached Miram Shah the two guards escorted us to what was obviously some kind of police station. There were about ten old men with big beards and turbans standing around outside. They all had the traditional shawl wrapped around their shoulders, and I could see AK-47s poking out from underneath. As I passed by I noticed that one of them was eyeballing the two guards. The expression on his face reminded me of an experience I had had back in East San Diego when a cop was roughing up someone on the street.
A man in uniform sat at a desk in the next room. The two other Americans and I sat in chairs opposite him. One of the guards from the border was considerate enough to lean his AK-47 up against the wall next to me, and I started to form a contingency plan in case things went sour.
Without wasting any time, the cop started speaking to us in English. The two black guys played it cool and sat there staring at the ceiling. They didn't appear to be worried about a thing, but I wasn't feeling as confident. I must have been born under an unlucky star, because I've had problems with officials at borders from that day forward. The cop started to direct his attention toward me.
"So," he said, "it is all right if you speak to me in English."
I felt him scanning my face for any kind of reaction, but I just stared at the far wall as though I didn't know he was talking to me.
"It's not as if we are going to torture you or anything if you speak to us in English," which I found peculiar. If the situation hadn't been so grave I would have thought he was trying to imitate a Hollywood villain. I still gave no indication that I understood a word that he was saying.
I was starting to wonder how this would end when the cop's threats became less subtle. I couldn't speak for my two traveling companions, but I wasn't game for not being tortured or anything if I spoke to him in English. As I was debating whether or not to grab the AK-47 leaning against the wall, the door opened and the old man from outside strolled in. He looked at me as though we were in his living room and smiled, then looked over at the cop behind the desk. Until now the cop had been chilly, almost arrogant toward us, but when the old man looked at him his expression began a fascinating transformation. First he became visibly nervous. The old man sat down in an empty chair without saying a word.
The cop summoned another officer, who brought us tea a few minutes later, and we went from torture candidates to tea-party chums. No one said anything. The old man sat there and casually drank his tea. When he was finished he simply got up and walked out. As he passed by me he rested his hand on my shoulder briefly. I took the gesture to signify that we were under his protection.
There wasn't much else for the cop to do with us. To save some kind of face he tried to regain his composure by speaking to us in an official tone. "I am werry busy today," he said. "You are free to go, but you must go back to Pakistan." And that was that.
The two border guards stayed behind as we got into the Suburban, drove away from the police station, and headed back toward Pakistan. After crossing through the checkpoint with the no foreigners sign, we stopped at a small town. The two other guys had a friend who was the head of a madrasah inside the town. We ate dinner with them and then discussed our options. We decided to try a different crossing in the morning, but after our talk the two African-American Muslims went off to use a phone, and when they came back they said their boss had called them back to Islamabad. They added something about being sent to Africa, and after saying a quick good-bye they left in the Suburban with the driver. The madrasah's headmaster didn't speak English, and I had no idea how I would get into Afghanistan. Figuring that fate would sort things out in the morning, I went to sleep.
I was napping after the morning prayer when the headmaster motioned for me to follow him to a Toyota pickup in the schoolyard. It had a canvas shell over the bed, and it was full of smiling teenage students, all boys. The headmaster indicated that I should sit all the way in the front of the bed, next to the cab. When I squeezed between the students and sat down, one of them handed me an Afghan shawl to drape over my head. The students giggled and joked with one another as though they were on a field trip to a local museum, but we were headed toward the NWFP checkpoint again. My fellow Americans must have made arrangements for the head of the school to smuggle me back into Miram Shah using the religious students and their teacher as cover. Again we crossed the first checkpoint with no problems, and we were headed to the Harakat-ul Jihad office past Miram Shah. The truck stopped at the compound and let me off. The students smiled as they waved good-bye, and the truck drove off. That left the issue of crossing the Afghan border, but I figured that somebody had that planned out as well.
I'd been sitting in the compound for about an hour when an older Afghan man told me to come with him to an uncovered white Toyota pickup, where he introduced me to his son and his son's friend. Someone from the Harakat-ul Jihad office who spoke a bit of English explained that this man would sneak me across the border. I got in the back with the Afghan and we set off for the dry, dusty riverbed that led to the border. I wondered what I was doing riding in the back of an open pickup, which was even worse than being in the Suburban, but the driver stopped the truck as we came to a bend in the riverbed just before the border post. The older man jumped out and motioned for me to follow him.
A side channel of the riverbed was separated from the main channel by a small bank. I followed the older man as he scrambled over the bank and down the other side. The pickup left shortly after that, and I understood that we were going to try to sneak past the border post using the riverbank for cover. I remembered from the day before that the border guards were less than a hundred meters away. The dry channel was full of large, smooth stones that made lots of noise as we walked over them, and I wondered how in the hell were we going to pull this off. The older man was running hunched over in front of me when all of a sudden he stopped and looked at me as if he'd just had a brilliant idea. He pulled off his shawl and motioned for me to drape it over my head. That's clever, I thought; instead of letting the border guards think that a foreigner is sneaking over the border, we'll let them think it's two Afghans sneaking over the border. But after about a hundred meters my crafty Afghan guide decided that he looked better with the shawl and took it back from me. He alternated between walking and jogging slowly, but he couldn't make up his mind about whether he wanted me to follow next to him or behind him. He would motion for me to move up next to him, then he would motion for me to get behind. Then he decided that I should wear the shawl after all.
When we reached the point where the border post was directly across from us, I noticed that we would have to crawl if we wanted to stay completely out of sight of the guards, but Afghans would rather get shot than crawl on their bellies. My fearless guide just kept jogging along in front of me, then beside me. When I looked over to the border post, I saw that one of the guards was looking in our direction, but he either didn't see us or didn't care. We continued this way for another half a mile; then all of a sudden the older Afghan man ran out into the middle of the main riverbed and started flapping his arms up and down. I just stared in amazement. The border post back down the riverbed was clearly visible. I hoped that his arm flapping was some kind of signal for his son, who must have been watching from a discreet location, but when I looked up and down the riverbed I didn't see anyone coming. The older guy also looked back and forth, and he didn't seem surprised when the border guards started to jump up and down, pointing in our direction and shouting. Within a minute or so they were in a pickup truck and coming toward us, so he started to walk in the opposite direction.
Just beautiful, I thought. The old tribal leader from the day before had better be hanging out in front of the police station again today.
When the border guards were within a couple hundred meters, the Afghan's son came flying around a bend in the riverbed, and we jumped into the white Toyota and took off.
The truck kicked up a giant plume of dust as the driver raced down the riverbed. The border guards were very close now, and I couldn't help but chuckle to myself. It was like the TV show Cops, but set in Afghanistan. I expected them to start shooting at us, but they just kept trying to catch up. A couple of miles later our driver veered off the riverbed onto a dirt road that ran up the bank, and when I glanced back the border guards had stopped in their tracks. Their sudden reluctance to follow us puzzled me until I looked around and saw a set of mud structures farther up the road. The border guards were afraid to follow us into the training camp of the mujahideen.
Some people called the camp Jihadwal, others called it Khalid Bin Whalid. It was situated in a valley and was actually three separate camps -- one camp for the Pakistanis, one for the Afghans, and one for the Arabs. I never imagined at the time that American cruise missiles would strike this valley one day or that I would be invited back by Usama Bin Laden while I was working with the CIA.
Copyright © 2002 by Aukai Collins