THE CROSSING

Afghanistan's Boys in Blue

With cops like these, who needs robbers? Our diarist meets one of Afghanistan's finest.

SHOLGARA — There have been so many police chiefs in the district of Sholgara in recent years that the people who live in this granitoid bowl of smooth mountains tapering toward the Balkh river valley in a mellow polychrome of fields have forgotten to count them. All that anyone can tell you is that Captain Ghawsuddin Tufal has been chief of Sholgara police for five months.

Who knows how long he will last?

The Taliban is not known to operate in Sholgara, but someone claiming to be a member of the Islamist militia has already called his cell phone twice to threaten to kill him if he doesn't quit. To protect a population of 100,000 he has a police force of 45 men. And three cars. And a sole police station on the edge of downtown Sholgara: a gravel-strewn compound suffocating in the sun where the men, wrapped in impressive bandoliers of 7.62 rounds, stand and squat along low walls all day, swatting at flies, while the chief chain-smokes in his tiny office.

The couches that clutter the room exhale puffs of dust every now and then, as though the captain's lungs and the furniture's upholstery are somehow connected.

Has he mentioned -- he inquires between drags -- that he receives absolutely no money to pay for gas for the police cars? When someone calls the cops, he pays out of his own pocket. Some villages are 30 miles away from the police station. Captain Tufal's monthly paycheck is $400; a gallon of gas costs about $3.60.

The 120 villages in his charge are a dizzying kaleidoscope of ethnicities, political alliances, family and village feuds so old that the sides cannot quite remember how they started. There is a lot of bad blood here; there is a lot of spilled blood. In the last three decades, everyone has fought everyone in Sholgara: The mujaheddin fought the Soviets; the Tajiks fought the Uzbeks; the Hazaras fought the Pashtuns; the Taliban fought the Northern Alliance; various Northern Alliance warlords fought each other.

The fighting continues today: A few months ago, in the riverside village of Siaub, one former anti-Taliban warlord killed another. Provincial police drove down from Mazar-e-Sharif to arrest him; five days later, the prosecutors set him free.

"Let's put it this way: He has powerful supporters," Captain Tufal says, tweezing another cheap Korean cigarette out of the pack. "If I were to arrest him, I wouldn't last a day. This is Afghanistan, not America."

The people of Sholgara don't call the cops very often. Once they called Captain Tufal when they found a cache of rocket-propelled grenades hidden under some crumbs of dry clay by an old T-54 tank that sits upside-down on the unpaved main road, the words "People of Sholgara, Vote for Abdullah!" scrawled in black spray paint across its corroded hull.

Another time, some men called when they stumbled upon four 122-millimeter rounds wired together to form a powerful, remote-controlled roadside bomb, farther south on the same road. The captain doesn't know who put the explosives there: maybe a warlord trying to kill a rival, or a villager seeking revenge for some century-old offense.

Generally, though, people here don't look to police for security. Anyone here will tell you: They don't trust the police. And why should they? En route from Sholgara to Mazar-e-Sharif today I watch a policeman at a checkpoint demand a bribe from a pickup truck with a camel and some burlap sacks tied to the bed with rope.

"Too little," the officer tells a careworn Uzbek driver offering, through a rolled-down cab window, a soiled, sweat-drenched green bank note: 10 Afghanis, or about 22 cents. A line forms. Men stuck behind the camel truck relax the grip of their steering wheels and rummage in their pockets for bills.

At this checkpoint, in the middle of a road that could at any moment be besieged by bandits, by Taliban fighters, by kidnapping gangs, Afghanistan's centralized government doesn't offer protection to these men. Instead, the men require protection from it. No wonder they cling to the traditional feudal semi-anarchy of fortified villages, and erect the thick walls of mud and straw of their family compounds patiently, by hand. They know: In the end, these will be the only walls that will matter.

Less than a mile away from the Sholgara police station, a small, 60-year-old castle presides over 15 acres of farmland that belong to two brothers. The outer walls are painted ocher; at first, I think the two towers and the primitive battlements are a stylization.

No, no, the owners assure me, and show me the four-foot-thick walls, and the castellations that provide a 360-degree view of the valley. Our grandfather built this, for fighting. For defending ourselves so that our houses are not looted and our women are not raped. This is real, it can be used very efficiently, you see?

From whom are you defending yourselves? I ask.

The farmers study me for a moment, trying to understand whether I am being deliberately obtuse.

Then, one of the men shrugs, and they say, in unison:

"Everyone."


Read the next dispatch, "Afghanistan's Little Men."

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

THE CROSSING

How Do Afghans Relax?

They go take a hike -- and so does our diarist, spending a day of leisure on hills that were once bloody battlefields.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF — Friday in Afghanistan: a day of leisure, war and poverty permitting. The more pious families dress up for a trip to the mosque. The less pious pack lunches and drive out of the smoggy tumult of the city for roadside picnics.

I sleep in, until 5:30. Half the house is up, mostly the women, who take turns insisting that I eat: bread, tea, the delightful lamb dish the family's matriarch is already stewing outside in a giant aluminum vat over a fire in a cut-up oil drum. I nibble on the meat and take leave. A young man named Hamidullah, a good friend of Ramesh, my translator, has invited me to go hiking in Sholgara.

The last time I was in Sholgara, eight years ago, the city was a front line in the massive turf war between the private armies of two powerful Afghan warlords, Ustad Atta Mohammed (now the Tajik governor of Balkh province) and Abdul Rashid Dostum (the Uzbek general whom human rights organizations accuse of mass murders of war prisoners, and who keeps falling in and out of favor with the Karzai government). Combat has ebbed but never ended, and small, locally based detachments of the two militias still clash here from time to time. A few months ago, the local police chief tells me, there were some kidnappings; a Western relief agency's car was ambushed and burned; a group of road workers were shot at.

Hamidullah pouts when I bring this up.

"You are my guest," he says. "Where I am taking you, it is secure."

Mazar-e-Sharif to Sholgara

Afghanistan's blood-drenched history, ancient and recent, rolls past the car windows.

Here is the turnoff to the city of Balkh, where Alexander the Great took his first wife, Roxanne, whom the record-keepers at the time described as the second-most beautiful woman in the world, after Stateira, the wife of the Persian king Daruis III.

Here are the crenelated bulwarks of Qala-i-Jangi, a 19th-century castle where Dostum, in 2001, stabled his horses and kept his prisoners. Here, in November 2001, a CIA operative was killed during an uprising of Taliban inmates; the U.S. air raid called in to quash the uprising killed almost 400 prisoners. The air raid also killed Dostum's horses; their cadavers were left to decompose long after the human bodies had been removed. The memory of that smell hits me as we drive by.

Twenty minutes west of Mazar-e-Sharif the paved road ends. Our car kicks up pale dust as we drive alongside the turbid, mocha-colored Balkh River, pregnant with the snowmelt and clay it picks up as it meanders from the Hesar mountain range 100 miles to the south. The river gurgles like the names of the landmarks it scythes through: the Alborz range, the Chishmish Afa springs. Hamidullah tells me the springs become warm in the winter.

Past the Alborz range, the temperature drops 10 degrees and the air clears. In the far distance I see snow where the Hindu Kush tapers into the Turkestan Mountains, with peaks propping up the pale sky at 10,000 and 13,000 feet. The mountains are white, then blue, then gray, then green as they swell toward us.

"I love you, Afghanistan!" Hamidullah exclaims. He is 21.

Sholgara

We pull up to a pedestrian rope bridge sagging over the murky Balkh River, leave the car, and cross the bridge on foot. In a month, after the snowmelt that feeds it is gone, the current will slow down, disgorge the mud into the fields and pastures up north and run clear blue, and men and boys will swim in it on hot summer nights, if there is no fighting.

At a farmhouse on the other side of the river, Hamidullah's cousin and an 8-year-old nephew join us. We will return to this house for a lunch of creamed spinach, rice, fresh vegetables, lamb, and wheaty nan served on a dastarkhan spread over the carpeted floor, and my driver, Qaqa Satar, as he always does when we eat together, will make little lifting motions with his hands, ordering me to eat, eat, take more, because I am too thin, because I eat too little -- but, really, because I am his guest and because he wants to show me a good time. So what if his homeland is a war zone?

For now, we begin our hike.

 

Up a road strewn with chert, then across a few acres of flat farmland. Sparrows skim cotton fields drowned in stagnant water, to soak the hard soil. Most of the fields are empty: The farmers are taking a day off. A snake slips into a ditch in the shadow of some rowan trees drooping with saccharine blossoms.

We hike up a goat path that bisects a hill into a sloping wheat field and an almost vertical field of cerulean wildflowers I don't recognize. Tortoises -- there are scores of them here -- shy away into their brown panzers at my footsteps. Below, a dazzling crimson and turquoise cloud moves along the unpaved road: a band of Kuchi nomads. The tiny mirrors sewn into the men's skullcaps and the women's enormous, homespun silk scarves sparkle in the sun.

We pass a few houses, where farmers sitting in the sun squint at us without moving their heads and raise their hands only halfway to their faces in the frugal greeting of men who work hard and are rewarded poorly for it: fingers together, the palm facing sideways. Not waving. Waving means more work.

Another hilltop reveals a panorama of Sholgara. To our west, rectangles of jade and glaucous and pea-green roll over knolls and buttes into a valley. I spot a square patch of red: a poppy field. Qaqa Satar wants to have his photo taken with me and insists that I wear his paqul hat for the occasion. Then he points to a clearing between two hills:

"Do you know this place? This is where, after the Soviets left, there was fighting between Jamiat" -- the Tajik militia of Burhanuddin Rabbani, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and Ustad Atta Mohammed -- and "Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's party, Hezb-e-Islami."

"Hekmatyar," he elaborates, pointing to a low hill to the northwest.

"Rabbani," he points to another hill, to the southwest.

And this one, the one we are standing on now, the one cascading toward a zigzagging, pale ocher road in neat furrows of green wheat?

This one, smiles Qaqa Satar, was anyone's for the taking.

Look at this land from far away.

You will see a country blighted by wars that have swept over these hills like the smooth waves of wind that now roll the unripe wheat ears.

Now look closely.

You will see a turtle peering out from its nest between the stalks of blue wildflowers.

You will see an ant dragging a husk of last year's grain, several times its size, to a crevice between lumps of the dry clay soil.

You will see an old one-humped she-camel at pasture. (Two-humped Bactrian camels came from here, but they are very rare.) It is Friday for her, too: She is at leisure. Her lips tremble slightly and she pulls a chamomile flower from the ground and chews. She chews slowly, tucking the plant into her mouth with unhurried motions of her tongue, flower by tiny white-and-yellow flower, until the last blossom disappears inside her cleft lips.

Her hide is shedding. She is unsaddled but still weighed down by years of road dust, of carrying who knows what, from who knows where to who knows where. Her cushioned feet shift little: Like the farmers who barely acknowledge our presence -- not out of unfriendliness but out of economy -- she has learned through a lifetime of labor to move parsimoniously.

Her eyelashes are sparse and hard, like the brush hairs of a wheat ear. The veined bridge of her long nose is velvet-soft and surprisingly hot to the touch, and, if you whisper to her for a few minutes in any language, she will allow you to put your nose to hers, and her slanted nostrils will breathe back at you a grassy history of the land she has traveled.

This land -- ravaged by never-ending wars; enervated by interminable, grueling labor; but, at this very moment, on this Friday afternoon in April, unwinding -- will reflect in her dark, moist, globular eyes.


Read the next dispatch, "Afghanistan's Boys in Blue."

Anna Badkhen