Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part XIV)

As team leader for the convoy, I had to make a decision of whether to move on, to turn back to Yakawlang or to stay put. It would take another 2-3 hours to get back to Yakawlang because of the bad road conditions. I was not going to endure getting stuck on the way back to Yakawlang. I was not going to risk continuing the journey when it was completely pitch dark on the mountains. Any minor mistake could cost us our lives; we could fall straight off the mountain cliff due to the slippery roads.

So, I opted staying in the cars until daybreak. Arif suggested waiting for the rain to stop and move on to Panjao at 9pm. I asked him how long would it take to get to Panjao and he told me about 30 minutes. Damn, so near and yet so far. But I told him that I would not allow him to drive in complete darkness.

By then, I was going to call radio room in Bamyan to report our condition and guess what? Arif did not know how to use the Codan despite telling me he knew. By then, because of the exhaustion, I was too tired to get angry or upset; just incredulous.

I thought, what the hell, nothing mattered anymore. We were stuck and my anger would not change things. But I was worried that Bamyan would be freaking out by now not hearing from us at all since we left at 12pm. Also, Raffaele would probably be freaking out as well in Panjao having expecting us to arrive that evening.

A, the logistics guy, was literally out of control and kept screaming at the drivers. He told me that he used to work in communications in East Timor and I thought, then he should be able to figure out how to use the Codan but it turned out that he didn’t. He was whining and complaining the whole night and I swore I was going to shove him off the cliff myself if he didn’t stop whingeing soon.

I kept trying to fiddle with the Codan and then asked Farid, the other driver to keep trying. Our luck brightened up when we managed to establish contact with Bamyan radio room.

I was so happy to hear Mokhtar's, an Afghan radio operator in Bamyan, voice and we started exchanging sitrep (situation report). By then, I guess we had woken up the whole of UNAMA top guys in Bamyan and Kabul.

Mokhtar bombarded me with tonnes of questions; i.e. what time I left Bamyan, what time I arrived in Yakawlang, why didn’t I stay overnight in Yakawlang, etc. I think they were assessing what went wrong and I thought to myself, that was the end of my career in Afghanistan. I was quite convinced that I would be fired and I wasn’t going to argue with that. It was my fault to jeopardize the whole convoy because of my determination and obsession to get to Panjao. I should have stayed in Yakawlang and enjoyed Band-I-Mir instead.

I told Mokhtar that we would have to stay in the car until daybreak and we could not move at all due to the bad weather. He then said that I would have to contact the radio room every hourly to report our situation. Then in his calm and comforting voice confirmed that I had left Yakawlang at 15:00 hours and the weather got worse at Shatu pass once we arrived there and hence was stuck.

He told me not to worry and reassured me that he would be on stand-by at all times. I smiled and answered, “Affirmative”. You see, I had arrived at Yakawlang at 16:00 hours and it was an hour after we were expected to arrive there. I was told that if I arrived at Yakawlang after 3pm, I should not proceed with my journey. So, Mokhtar knew people were monitoring our conversation and he wanted to make sure that they thought I was not breaking any regulations, which would land me in trouble. He was covering up for me.

The night seemed so long and I was awake counting the hours and I swore it must had been the longest night I ever had. It was very cold, uncomfortable and we were hungry. I could not relieve my bladder because it was dark outside and cold. I did not want to be devoured by mountain wolves or being watched by the boys.

Again, we lost all contact the whole night and I began to get worried about Bamyan wondering why on earth we hadn’t reported as promised. All night, I kept thinking what would Bamyan or Kabul do and I would be damned if they started sending search teams for us.

My assessment of the condition was that we were safe and nothing would harm us. We were in the middle of nowhere; i.e. no human settlements within the radius and we were on top of the mountains. Nobody would be crazy enough to ambush us there. I wasn’t scared or nervous; just worried about others worrying for us.

We had to turn the light off completely for security reasons; not to attract any attention. Every hourly, I would turn on the car engine to start the heater because it was freezing cold. Then I would hear aircraft flying above us and thought Kabul had sent one to search for us. Then, I wasn’t sure whether we should turn on the lights in order to attract their attention or not. What if they were military fighter planes? But why would they be flying at 2am?

Then, I spotted that the planes that had flew above us were different planes from the UN’s, which confirmed to me that it wasn’t looking for us.

At about 5am, it was bright enough for us to proceed. The rain had stopped but the roads were still muddy. We got stuck a couple of times and by 9am, we got stuck again and this time for good.

I was beginning to get angry with Arif because he had been lying to me again and again. He told me that it takes 30 minutes to get to Panjao from there and we had been travelling for more than 3 hours since we left from our overnight spot. It was obvious that he did not know the area and I was angry with everyone else for recruiting and assigning him to me.

The Codan didn’t work. I had no Thuraya to call anyone and I was completely frustrated and exhausted. A 5-hour journey turned out to be more than 20 hours. Arif kept bitching about Farid; about how he had to wait for Farid for driving so slowly and hence we were late, etc. If I could speak Dari, I would have screamed at him to shut up and stop lying.

I just got out from the car, walked in the mud with my Nine West shin-length boots (which sank right into the mud) and stood on a hill fuming. My feet by then weighed a tonne because of the mud on my boots.

I told Arif that he would have to walk to the nearest village and get help from the people. He said he should stay being the “experienced” driver and Farid should go. So, Farid went and then came back 30 minutes later reporting that the next nearest village is 6 hours away on foot. I was like, fucking hell, did the people of Panjao put a curse on me?

Then, we saw this old man riding on a donkey passing by. I was running after him and was completely upset with how the rest of the team just sat in the cars and watched. By then, I really did start screaming at them. I told them that they could have asked the man to lend us his donkey or something, whatever it was, just do something. What were they waiting for?

By then, I was slowly giving up hope on making it to Panjao. I had no idea how far away it was from where I was because I have learnt not to trust Arif. I had my handset radio with me and I was trying to call Panjao base on Channel 6; somehow hoping that someone there would hear us if they were near enough. be continued in Part XV......

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