THE CROSSING

Ruins and Reunions

Our correspondent finds her friends, at last.

Mahbuhbullah: then and now.

AI KHANOUM, DASHT-E-QALEH — Above the dung-colored rapids of the Panj River, in the shadow of some stern sedimentary cliffs, sprawls the carefully measured grid of the city Alexander the Great built for his Afghan trophy wife, Roxanne, in 328 B.C.

Little remains of Alexandria Oxiana. Nomad invaders sacked the temples and the main palace in the second century B.C. Front lines washed over the gymnasium and the living quarters during the Soviet invasion. Taliban howitzers pummeled the bathhouse and the citadel. Northern Alliance marksmen used the limestone curlicues of Corinthian columns for target practice.

But you can guess the outlines of a perfectly round theater where wild garlic now sprouts through bits of pottery in a circular field. You can clasp your fingers around a warm shard of red, glazed clay and imagine the pitcher it once completed, full of wine. You can picture, amid the patterned brickwork French archaeologists excavated in the 1960s and then abandoned, girls running down to the river -- the Oxus of antiquity -- to fetch water in ewers they balance on their heads, and shepherds heading to the jade hills at sunup with their flocks. You can see men and women living and dying anonymously in the city the Afghans poetically call Ai Khanoum: Lady Moon.

It is easy to envision all this because on the other side of some abandoned tank berms and trenches lies the silt-rich farmland of Dasht-e-Qaleh, where people still live this way, nameless and abandoned by everyone -- even by time itself.

I haven't been to Dasht-e-Qaleh in eight years. It could have been 800. It could have been eight days.

The road to the village is still made of mud. Jackknifed farmers still hoe the quilts of their wheat and pea fields with wooden, hand-held tools. Boys no older than 10 still holler neighborhood sheep into flocks to take to pasture at dawn. Mahbuhbullah, my friend in whose house of mud and straw I roomed in 2001 and 2002, still spends his days squatting between the furrows of his pumpkin patch.

With the help of some local boys and my half-erased memory I locate his house at the very end of a long, crooked alley barely wide enough for our sedan. I find Mahbuhbullah where I left him eight years ago: in his field, talking with a neighbor. He rises slowly from the ground on the far edge of the field. He has gained weight. The dimple in his forehead is more pronounced. He walks slowly, squinting at me against the sun: His eyesight, like mine, has gotten worse with age.

Then his face crumbles into that wonderful smile that graced many of my days in northern Afghanistan at the beginning of this war, his pace quickens, and I am scooped up into a bear hug and rushed into the house, where his wife Nargiz is kissing me on the cheek, three, six, nine, 12, 18 times. Photos come out. Children, all grown up, come in. Nargiz is laughing; her voice sounds like a river. She has not aged a bit.

Najiba, Mahbuhbullah's first wife, lives in a separate house now, in a different part of the village, with her five children. This seems to please Nargiz, who shares Mahbuhbullah's bed. She has borne him five more children since I saw her last. Her youngest son yawns and smiles in my arms. He has his father's smile.

Mahbuhbullah is not smiling. He worries that war will return here. In recent months, the Taliban has begun to encroach on his village. The Islamist militia has taken over three villages to the northeast -- the nearest less than an hour away on a dirt road. (So time does exist here, after all -- it is needed to determine the proximity of conflict.) Much of Kunduz province, which begins a dozen miles to the west, is under Taliban control. If the Taliban comes to Dasht-e-Qaleh, Mahbuhbullah worries, NATO and Afghan troops will follow. There will be fighting. The D30 field gun that now rusts in a highland pasture overlooking the village may once again pummel his fields with 122-millimeter shells. There may be house-to-house searches that will frighten his 13 children and upset his beautiful wife, Nargiz. Maybe even air raids, which in Afghanistan have a history of discriminating poorly between civilians and combatants.

 

Who will protect the good people of Dasht-e-Qaleh, who trade their vegetables, flour, and rice in the broad market street and bake their own bread each morning; the people who wrap thorn branches around aspen saplings growing near public wells, to keep goats away?

Not the government. The government has done nothing here, Mahbuhbullah spits. Did it bring electricity to the village? No. Paved roads? No. Clean water?

Garbage disposal?

Garbage disposal? Ha!

Mahbuhbullah laughs; the dimple in his fleshy forehead becomes a well.

His bathroom is still a clay cabin in the corner of the yard, with an oblong, putrid hole in the earthen floor over which to squat. He dumps his trash, biodegradable and non-, into a hole a few paces away. He buys electricity for about $15 a month from a local entrepreneur named Gul Agha, who realized that waiting for the government was pointless and put in a generator to serve the village of about 6,000 people. The generator goes on for a few hours at night, on most nights. (When dusk falls, Mahbuhbullah strips two live wires hanging from the ceiling of his living room with a kitchen knife he first wraps in a soiled washcloth, and hard-wires a light bulb.)

This could be any of the dozen other villages I have visited in different parts of northern Afghanistan in the last week and a half: blighted, forsaken, timeless.

We noon on rice with black-eyed peas and the enormous disks of nan Nargiz baked in the morning: a poor man's lunch. Mahbuhbullah used to augment his earnings as a farmer by looting small artifacts from Ai Khanoum and fencing them to smugglers, but business has been slow in recent years because the Afghan government has clamped down on the illegal trade of artifacts. (This is the one way, perhaps, in which Kabul has interfered with the course of life in Dasht-e-Qaleh.) My friend pulls out of his cupboard a few bits of ancient pottery to show Ramesh and Qaqa Satar, the interpreter and driver who came here with me.

He places one vessel, the size and shape of a human heart, in my palm. Its umber glaze is still intact. Twenty-three hundred years ago, it probably held perfumed oil. Some woman dabbed her neck and wrists with myrrh from this bottle.

"This is a hand grenade," Mahbuhbullah explains to me. "An ancient hand grenade." The explosives went inside and the fuse, he says, came through this tiny opening, here, at the top. I do not argue. Here, everything seems to be measured in familiar terms of war.

We head to Ai Khanoum after lunch: Mahbuhbullah, Ramesh, Qaqa Satar, and Mahbuhbullah's neighbor, Asad. It begins to rain. Sparrows alight from the ruins: fragments of columns whiting among overgrown rectangles of the abandoned French excavations, bits of clay pottery glistening amid sheep droppings. Gusty wind carries the dirge of a shepherd's flute. The camel-wool blankets in which the men have wrapped themselves flap like wings.

Suddenly, one of the men spots a snake amid the ruins. It is a rat snake, Ptyas mucosus, a harmless constrictor that feeds on small rodents. The men take turns hunting it down, grabbing it by the tail, twirling it around over their heads, then slamming it against the ground, headfirst. The snake's mouth opens; it tries to writhe out of her captors' grips. The men are grinning at first, but a minute later they no longer smile. They grab the snake, twirl it, smash, repeat, with purpose. There is something primordial about this, a basic kind of hatred.

On a lime-green hilltop, three boys watch some cattle and a dozen recently shorn sheep. They are holding long sticks. The oldest looks 8. I think they have been sitting here for more than 2,000 years.


Anna Badkhen

THE CROSSING

Earthquakes and Other Disturbances

Beginning the second week of her journey, our diarist encounters some shaky territory on the way to Kunduz.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF — Afghanistan's tectonics are active and violent; the country's bellicose history echoes the tremors of its crust. At 1 in the morning, my bed wobbles as though some enormous beast underneath is shifting in its sleep.

Earthquake. How fitting, I think: This is the night before I hit the road that leads southeast to Baghlan province and then north to Kunduz -- the road that has recently seen clashes between NATO and the Taliban, as well as kidnappings, extortions, and robberies by the Taliban, by the anti-government militia of the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and by ordinary -- but just as potentially deadly -- roadside thugs. Last week, five U.N. workers were kidnapped on this road; four German soldiers died in a firefight with the Taliban, along with three Afghan policemen. NATO airstrikes killed 29 insurgents and wounded 52, according to Afghan police officials.

At 5 in the morning, I bid farewell to my hostess, a portly matriarch with a gold stud in her right nostril. She nods back, and as I step off her tiled porch she throws some water in my direction from a red plastic pitcher, for good luck. The fierce-looking Pashtun driver everyone calls Qaqa Satar (qaqa means "uncle" in Dari) is wiping the rearview mirror of a hired sedan with the sleeve of his salwar kameez; Ramesh, my interpreter, and I pile into the car. We drive off into the giant, tangerine sun quivering on the eastern edge of the pink mountain ridge.

I spent several days doing research about the road. A security officer for a Western relief agency in Kabul told me flat-out not to take it. An Afghan colleague in Kunduz told me the road is safe from 8 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon (why 2:30, and not, say, 3, or 2:15?) and that Taliban fighters kidnap at least one person from the road each night. I spoke with a driver who travels from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kunduz every other day -- he dismissed stories of kidnappings, but told me that armed gangs pretending to be Taliban do set up checkpoints and rob travelers at gunpoint after dark.

His friend elbowed him out of the way to promise me that the road is absolutely safe, no trouble whatsoever. He drummed loudly on the hood of my hired car and yelled that he could guarantee my safe arrival in Kunduz "100 percent," for $100.

In the end, I have no idea what to expect. The sun rises and it is hot. We ride past copper mountains touched with a downy patina of tender spring grass, mostly in silence. The northern mesas of the Hindu Kush are lavender in the morning light.

  

Mazar-e-Sharif to Samangan

The Afghan countryside has barely changed since my first visit here in 2001. The same tired donkeys with their noses in the blood-red wild poppies. The same shepherds squatting beside outcroppings of ancient rock. The only visible change to the rural landscape are cell-phone towers and the repaved two-lane tarmac, which in 2001 and 2002 was so scooped out by decades of aerial bombardment it was barely navigable. The smooth road delights Qaqa Satar, who goes 80 miles per hour, swerving in and out of traffic to pass a slow-moving convoy of heavy Afghan army trucks. Oncoming Mercedes 18-wheelers painted turquoise and fuchsia blink their lights, then honk. If we die on this road, I think, it will be in a head-on collision.

I once drove on this road during a locust invasion. It was in 2002. The pavement was slick with crushed grasshoppers, and their delicate shells shattered against the windshield with a crunch, like potato chips.

Samangan to Pul-e-Khumri

At a roadside market in Samangan we buy two loaves of nan for a dollar.

The bread is warm, crusty in the middle where the baker pressed it into a flower pattern and sprinkled it with thyme and salt. Fog licks at the velvet hills and the gutted hulls of old Soviet tanks. Were they abandoned by the retreating Soviet Army in 1989? Were they the tanks of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary mujahideen leader, the Taliban had blown up in 1997? Were they Taliban tanks, destroyed in 2001 by U.S. warplanes? Their rusting metal is silent, their tracks are gone, and grass peeks through their turrets.

 

Pul-e-Khumri to Baghlani Jadid

Somewhere around here, the U.N. workers were kidnapped, the German soldiers and Afghan policemen perished, and NATO planes killed and wounded scores of militants.

But Pul-e-Khumri is used to war. In December 2001, one warlord tricked U.S. forces into believing al Qaeda fighters were hiding in the city so that America launched airstrikes against fighters of a rival militia. Nearly 50 people were killed. Last month, Taliban forces battled with Hekmatyar's men here; 60 people died in the fighting. Pul-e-Khumri betrays no emotion, not grief or elation, as we drive through streets drowning in muck churned up by a recent rain.

Two dozen day laborers in orange vests stab at the mud on a side street with shovels, and about as many Afghan soldiers stand guard around them. The Taliban has threatened to kill anyone who works for the government. The workers are risking their lives for a stretch of paved road, and so are the soldiers.

Some German military trucks pass by, heading south. I cannot see the men inside, but I imagine that they are very young.

Baghlani Jadid to Kunduz

Near an auto body shop (RAFI'S BROTHER'S WORK SHOP, the hand-painted sign proclaims), two men in plainclothes with Kalashnikov rifles are standing in the shade of a poplar tree. Taliban? I ask Qaqa Satar. No, he responds: These are local vigilantes the government has hired to fight the Taliban, to help the overpowered police and army soldiers.

But they are worse than the Taliban, Qaqa Satar opines. During the day they work for the government; at night, they set up impromptu checkpoints and rob travelers. I make a mental note not to travel here at night.

My cell phone vibrates; it is a message from the security section of an international relief agency in Kabul.

"Ops Room security alert! There is an ANSF-AOG clash in Baghlan province, pul khumri district (150 meters south of Pul Khumri, Kunduz-Mazar junction) please avoid the area."

The German convoy, I think.

"Passed pul-e-khumri an hour ago," I type back. "In kunduz province.

Road clear so far. Saw no clash."

"Thanks a lot for informing us, have a safe trip and take care."

On a hillock, a square concrete building of an Afghan Army checkpoint. Four or five sentries stand on top of a sandbagged roof, facing every direction. This is a sign of an army surrounded, a fighting force trapped.

Kunduz

"In kunduz city," I text the security guys in Kabul. Ramesh and I high-five. Qaqa Satar smiles for the first time during the trip. We drive slowly through alleyways shaded with poplars and wild black cherries, the familiar busy market street, the kebab shops, and a palatial doctor's office promising WEMENS HELTH.

I am looking for someone: a former Northern Alliance fighter, Hanon, with whom I shared many front-line cigarettes and rivers of weak, murky tea in 2001 in Takhar province, where he was fighting the Taliban.

Hanon is from Kunduz, but I don't remember the address of his father's house, which I visited more than eight years ago. Nor do I know if he is still around, or alive. I scan the faces of Kunduz men: hard, careworn faces. I have a picture of Hanon, which I whip out at the checkpoint in front of the provincial governor's headquarters; at an unnamed local dive where we stopped for a $3-lunch of fresh lamb, vegetables, and tea; at the office of a local human rights organization. I show Hanon's photo to street vendors, to policemen, to soldiers. Some shake their heads. Others vaguely say they seem to recognize the face, but they are not sure from where or when. With his bushy black beard, his soiled salwar kameez, his brown paqul hat, he is more an ideogram than a real man. There are millions of Hanons in this country -- bearded, illiterate men in paqul hats, thrust into war by Afghanistan's ever-moving tectonics.


Read the next dispatch, "Ruins and Reunions."

Anna Badkhen